~*~ Rose-Colored Glosses ~*~

hovering between the quest for absolute truth and the pursuit of utter nonsense
gloss, n.
  1. A brief explanatory note usually inserted in the margin or between lines of a text.
  2. An extensive commentary, often accompanying a text or publication.
  3. A purposefully misleading interpretation or explanation.
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* Quotes *
"The limits of my language means the limits of my world."
-Ludwig Wittgenstein
"An error does not become truth by reason of multiplied propagation, nor does truth become error because nobody sees it."
-Mahatma Gandhi
Segal's Law:
A man with a watch knows what time it is. A man with two watches is never sure.
"Well, art is art, isn't it? Still, on the other hand, water is water! And East is East and West is West and if you take cranberries and stew them like applesauce they taste more like prunes than a rhubarb does. Now, uh... Now you tell me what you know."
-Groucho Marx

~ Wednesday, February 08, 2012 ~

Biological Injustice
It's Tu b'Shevat on the Jewish calendar, one of my favorite holidays because it's all outdoorsy and all about nature and cycles and trees and seasons and the coming of Spring. It's a good time to fall in love with the earth and the life cycle, and I usually do just that around this time of year. But it never fails: every time I start to fall in love with nature again, I remember how it screwed with the sexes, and I get angry. This time, I found myself thinking that nature just doesn't respect males very much, and they deserve better, and problems arise as a result.

Think about the genetic nudges we get from our bodies when we're at the breeding age. Men can sniff out the women who are at the fertile point of their menstrual cycle, and apparently there's a tendency for males to feel motivated to sleep with as many fertile women as possible--a feeling of reward for more notches on the bedpost. Along with that goes the motivation to be attached to each one of those gals only up until the point she starts talking about babies and settling down; then suddenly she's gone all psycho in his eyes and the siren song of the wide world calls him and he can't resist and he's got to go, and the cycle starts over for him. Meanwhile, a woman who's not pregnant can sniff out the men who have the genetic immunities she lacks, so that she'll like best the smell of the guy who could father the child with the strongest immune system. Once our bodies shift into pregnancy mode, we prefer the smells of our blood relations. We're motivated to leave the man who fathered our baby-to-be, if necessary, so that we can go home to our siblings and parents.

What kind of monstrous system is this, in which men and women seem instinctively inclined to conspire together to make sure men don't get to raise their own children? Of course there's other competing instincts, such as pair-bonding between the couple and nurturing instincts between the father and his children, to compete with the tryst-and-split model I described above, and those are well and good, but I'm not going to cheer for a system that has a huge gaping flaw in it just because that flaw got covered up later by some other nice things. We rest on a cracked foundation.

The more I thought about this flaw, the worse it seemed to get. Women get the brunt of the biological responsibility for ensuring the continuation of the species. They carry the developing fetus, they labor to give birth, and they produce food and feed the infants. Men? They fertilize the women. Of course there are other things required for the continuation of the species, such as teaching the little ones, supplying and preparing food, making living quarters livable, and inventing better ways of doing the other three things, but those jobs can and are done by both sexes. Without the help of medical science, only women can incubate, give birth to, and feed the little ones, and a good portion of a woman's fertile years might be spent doing those three things. Males can be finished with their contribution to the reproductive process in a few minutes, and if they're trying to be useful, they spend the rest of their working time doing the gender-neutral jobs.

Why such asymmetry, Nature?? Why not arrange things so that we can all carry, give birth to, and feed children, and we can all impregnate someone else? Why this rigid sexual dimorphism nonsense? If I were a male, I'd be angry that I'm locked into this sex-determined role of never being able to do what looks to me like the most amazing work for the continuation of the species, besides being dependent upon someone else's decisions if I want children.

Which brings me to my main point: if, at the dawn of human society on earth, there were no patriarchy, I suspect that a patriarchal system would have developed out of the resentment and confusion many males must have felt about women doing all the special work and controlling all things baby (who has them, how many, etc). I imagine a young boy noticing all the attention someone gets each time her belly starts swelling, and then seeing her with a new baby, and envying her new-mother status, and I imagine him craving that attention. He'd hear his sisters told that someday they can be mothers, but then he'd be told that he never can be because he's a boy and not a girl. If I were that boy, I'd be crushed, and I'd be angry at women.

It's not fair that they can get all the attention and I can't. I hate my body for its limitations, and I hate them for making me hate my body. If there is a god, she must be female, because only a woman would make me so that I don't matter. Well, I matter, but only as long as I support the women. No! It's only fair for the world to be designed according to male needs, for a change. Isn't it our turn? I deserve the love and attention of my community just as much as any woman does, and maybe I deserve it more for all the pain I've endured. It's only fair.

I need to feel needed or else I shall die. Show me that I'm needed! Make me feel important! If you can't find food or build a house, if you need me to be by your side when you take a walk, then I will want to stay with you, because you soothe my fears of being irrelevant. Your helplessness makes me sure that I have a reason to live. If you need me, if there are things that you tell me only I can do, and if I am exhorted to throw all my energy into the pursuit of those things, if they challenge me and test my body's strength as much as pregnancy and labor and birth test yours, then maybe it will be ok that your body does things that mine can't. Then maybe there will be balance in the world, and then maybe I will have a reason to live, and I will know that my creator loves me, too.

But listen. You have to let all the other tasks be my job. You mustn't do them. You mustn't even be able to do them. Do you understand? I will have to stop you somehow if you try, and if you keep trying, I will have to leave, because I won't be able to bear it. You will be alone and I will look for someone else who needs me. Do you see? I need to be needed even more than I need to be with you.

You will do this for me? Oh, thank you! You are good to me. Well, I mean, of course you are. You need me. Where would you be without me, after all? Look at you. You're helpless. Maybe you should be thanking me.

Yes, I will provide you with your dinner, but I expect you to thank me for it, to show me the gratitude which is my due. Remember that. If you don't show gratitude willingly, I might just take what I deserve anyway.

If I'm right, then our gender-related dynamics (and the oppression of most women and some men that is so common around the world) stem from a human need to be needed and attempts by males to compensate for their biological inability to bear children. If patriarchy-related oppression hadn't always existed, men would have had a strong motivation to establish it, for the sake of clumsily trying to balance the injustice they perceived. So,

1. What can we do to break the link between the injustice of our biology and the injustice of patriarchy-related oppression?

2. If you attribute human body design to divine intelligence, do you think the uneven division of the burden of reproductive work is
a. an unfortunate by-product of some larger plan? If so, how do you account for such a serious flaw in divine creation?
b. a good in itself? If so, what's so good about it?
c. explainable in some other way? If so, how do you explain it?

3. I've heard the opinion expressed that a pregnant woman shouldn't be able to abort without the permission of the person who inseminated her. As abominable as that opinion is to me, I sympathize with the attempt to balance out the biological injustice that gives women the deciding vote on whose children they bear, and when, and how many.
a. Women, if your access to motherhood were dependent upon someone else's biological health and good will towards you, and all you could do to have children was inseminate your partner and try to take care of the person's needs, would it change how you feel about the circumstances under which abortion is acceptable?
b. Men, if you could be inseminated and could bear children as women can, with all the difficulties that go with pregnancy and childbirth, would you feel different about abortion?

~ prattled by Miriam at 4:22 a.m. [+] ~ 5 comment

* * *
~ Sunday, March 15, 2009 ~
[I wrote this piece for my synagogue's occasional publication and thought I'd post it here too. The topic was prayer; other than that we had free reign. I didn't include this in the piece because I figured everyone at the synagogue would know it, but some of you might find it useful to know that in Hebrew the verb "to pray" is "l'hitpallel", which translates more literally as something like "to self-judge", so the Jewish sense of prayer is less of the petition and more of the self-examination through reminding oneself of Jewish ideals and obligations.]

During the reception after I became a Bat Mitzvah, amid the more generic greetings and congratulations, I received several versions of the following compliment: "You're so sincere when you pray!" This came primarily from members of the congregation who were around my parents' age. I didn't know how to respond.

The first thing that almost flew out of my mouth was, "Aren't you?" Fortunately I'd learned enough by then about social interaction rules to swallow my words. Still, I was disillusioned. I always tried to concentrate on what I was saying when I prayed, but if I had inadvertently shown myself to be more sincere than other people who'd presumably been developing their praying skills far longer than I, did that mean I'd hit the ceiling early? That whatever prayer-sincerity I'd developed was as much as I could ever hope to have? Had I beat the game? Was all the challenge gone from Judaism, just when it was supposed to be beginning?

The next thing I wanted to say was, "That's what you think." I was a bit of a perfectionist about my part of the Bat Mitzvah ceremony, and had devoted a good deal of time learning to chant the prayers and the parsha fluently and clearly with no mistakes. I loved doing it, but there was a big difference between polished presentation and actually meaning what I said. I had studied the meanings of the prayers, sure, but they weren't mine; I wasn't exactly pouring out the deepest yearnings of my heart as I progressed through the Shabbat morning liturgy. I didn't want to deceive people into thinking I was more sincere than I really was, but how should I have prayed so as not to deceive them? Should I have stood awkwardly with my head down, mumbling the words into my chest?

The third thing I didn't say was, "What difference does it make to you whether I'm sincere or not?" In Hebrew School we'd been taught to read and chant and understand the prayers, and had been encouraged in (and praised for) nothing but mastery of the text. Ours was a small Reform congregation in the San Francisco Bay Area, about as liberal as they come. No one ever told me I had to mean what I said, so it was strange to receive praise for a quality that had never before been presented to me as worthy of pursuing. Besides, when I led the prayers that morning, I was doing it for the sake of guiding the rest of the congregation through the service. I had always thought they would bring to it as much or as little sincerity as they felt. I wasn't doing it to inspire them by my example to new heights of sincerity. That wasn't my job, was it? Or was that what I should have been learning to do all along? It had never occurred to me before that the service leader is not only a bouncing ball on a Karaoke screen, but also the one who, like it or not, sets the tone for everyone else. Gosh, had all those people, professionals and grandparents and founding members, been influenced in their prayer-experience by an unintentionally faux-sincere 13-year-old kid? What was wrong with the world?

I eventually realized that I had probably misinterpreted my elders' compliments, and that they had likely meant something more like, "It's unusual for someone of your age to care enough about the liturgy to bother enunciating." Still, the unsettling realization stayed with me. My praying was polished, but insincere. I was a Bad Jew.

Ten years later I moved to New York to attend Drisha's Beit Midrash program, intending to land myself in rabbinical school the following year. Good rabbinical school candidates pray regularly, I figured, so once there I did my best to learn to pray with the Jews of Manhattan's Upper West Side. I followed my classmates to Ramath Orah, B'nai Jeshurun, and Hadar. I was a disaster. Gates of Prayer, the only siddur I had ever used, was nowhere to be found. Everyone here either davvened from Sim Shalom, which had paragraphs and paragraphs of liturgy I'd never seen before (but which everyone else seemed to know), or they used the Art Scroll siddur, which left me utterly lost. And the worst part was all that silence! I didn't understand the point of so much silent prayer. I wanted to sing the tunes I knew with the people around me. Why throw out all those pretty melodies and replace them with hurried whispering? At least when we sang or chanted together, I could put my voice behind the prayer and feel sincere. If I was singing along, that was proof enough that I must mean what I'm saying; I didn't have to examine more closely whether the words were actually coming from me rather than merely sliding through me. When the melodies went away, only my thoughts were left, and usually those thoughts were comprised of things like, "How is it we never learned this one?" or "What page are we on?" or "Am I doing it quickly enough?" I hated how the silent prayers exposed me to myself, called me out for the fake that I was, a creampuff who mostly liked to pray for the sake of the pretty music. I got more comfortable with the new liturgy over the course of the year and learned how to pace myself, but I still didn't feel as if all the prayers were mine. Some, like Yotzer, Ma'ariv Aravim, and the Nisim b'Chol Yom, I could totally get behind, because I already generally felt grateful for many aspects of my life, and I was comfortable thinking of God as the power that keeps the laws of physics working the way they do. There were other prayers, however, that remained inaccessible to me. The Kaddishes, for example, left me cold, as did the Kedusha and several other parts of the Amida. I just didn't know what to do with all that talk about God's greatness when it wasn't illustrated with some specific experience that I had had or could at least imagine having. It seemed sterile and remote.

When we prayed aloud, I could justify my actions to myself by saying I was doing it for the sake of bonding with the community or reinforcing a sense of shared identity, both of which I considered worthwhile. When we prayed silently, though, it was just me and the words, and if I didn't have a good sense of what the words themselves meant (I had learned not to trust the English translations, which always seemed to opt for poetry and inoffensiveness at the cost of accuracy), or if I understood them and disagreed, then I was just lying to myself, and what was the point of that?

Around this time I was dating a Christian. When I learned about how he prayed, I could hardly believe it. Kneel down and talk directly to God? Make up your own words? And God talks back?? It's not as if I'd never heard of the practice, but I didn't expect to ever meet anyone who actually did it, who actually believed in it. It was incomprehensible to me. If God exists at all, then surely God is the power behind the workings of the universe! How conceited to think that God is going to pay attention directly to me every time I decide to pray! But then the fellow challenged me to ask God whether or not I should go to rabbinical school, and to listen for an answer, and I have too much pride to turn down a challenge like that. So one afternoon I went out to find a secluded area where I would attempt to speak directly with God.

I walked until I found a likely spot on drying grass among some trees, but it was too out in the open. I went to where the trees were clustered more thickly, but there I couldn't see enough of the sky. I moved to another spot where I could see more sky, but there the buildings were visible, and I didn't think I could do this with visual reminders of civilization. I walked around for a while longer, but finally gave up and stood in an imperfect spot and closed my eyes. Then I tried to speak.

It was terrifying. Where could I begin? Anything I thought to say seemed, in light of the nature of my Interlocutor, not good enough. The question I had set out to ask suddenly appeared insignificant, and what's more, the very idea that I should try to engage God in conversation was, I felt sure, so unacceptable to God that God would refuse to answer just on principle, if there even was a God at all. What was I thinking, trying to do this without the help of other Jews around me, the Torah in its ark in front of me, and the book of approved words in my hands? I waited a moment more, hoping something miraculous would happen to take the pressure off. Nothing did, of course. In the stillness, feeling simultaneously shocked at my own audacity and foolish for halfway believing, I haltingly articulated a question. It wasn't polished, but it was certainly sincere.

After saying all I could think of to say (not that God wouldn't already have known all my thoughts before they were voiced, if there even was a God) I held still and concentrated hard, waiting to see if any non-Miriam-like ideas were going to enter my head. There was nothing. There was only the overwhelming sense that the universe really had no interest whatsoever in whether I go to rabbinical school or not, and that it was really just up to me. If I wanted to do it (and I definitely wanted to do it), I should go ahead and do it. I was convinced it was the right thing for me to do, but that had nothing to do with God's wishes. As far as I could tell, God didn't care. I was a little disappointed, but that disappointment was sweetened by the rush of post-fear relief I felt. Better yet, God, if there is one, had the chance to stop me and didn't, so at least I wasn't acting against some sort of Eminent Cosmic Disapproval.

Since this experience, I've tried the direct-prayer method only a few times more, all of which when I was so anguished that even gripping fear seemed like an improvement. I've never received anything more answer-like than the same old silence. It's cathartic, certainly, to have done something terrifying, and I have enjoyed the post-prayer relief as I would enjoy a post-exercise glow, but I don't think it's a good way for me to make the important decisions in my life. I've joked to my boyfriend that this proves God doesn't talk to me. He says I must be doing it wrong. But every time I work up the nerve to try again, it's just as terrifying and as silence-producing as it was the first time, so I don't do it often. Still, the experience has given me a glimpse of how I can transform my regular prayers into something more powerful and sincere. That sense of confronting God-if-there-is-one was never part of my prayer before, but when I work up the nerve to invoke it, it instantly puts everything else into sharp relief. I'm so gripped by the idea of God listening that God barely needs to listen at all; I can imagine how God would react if God existed and were listening, and so I can do the work myself that God would have done. It's somewhat like having an extra-strength version of my own conscience looming over me, reminding me of what really matters and what doesn't, what I ought to do and who I want to be. It's very effective. And even though I haven't received any recent remarks about how sincerely I pray, if someone did remark on it now, I think I could smile and accept the compliment.

~ prattled by Miriam at 9:28 p.m. [+] ~ 11 comment

* * *
~ Thursday, February 05, 2009 ~
So I recently learned about a lifestyle called Christian Domestic Discipline. The basic idea is that a married couple agrees to live according to a system in which the husband makes and enforces the household rules, and if the wife disobeys, the husband beats the wife. This is intended to mirror the leadership/submission relationship between deity and church, a mirroring that Paul suggests in the NT, and so it is thought to be pleasing to God. It's also said to generate closeness between wife and husband, to emphasize their gender roles (her submissiveness and his assertiveness), to give the husband confidence and the wife security, and to strengthen the marriage. Regardless of all that, I think I should apologize to the Christians reading this for using the name of your religion in association with the practice. I don't think it's got the mark of divine approval on it, and I don't imagine anyone else reading this thinks so either.

I'm writing about it because, honestly, it scares me and I'm trying to overcome that fear by taking it apart, by working through it. Why does it scare me? First of all, it rocks my worldview. I would have thought that no one would choose such a life--that every human would prefer to answer to his or her own chosen system of rules rather than to someone else's, especially if enforced via beatings--but apparently there are women out there who encourage their husbands to adopt the lifestyle, not for the desire for pain, but rather, they say, for the results. Secondly, and more significantly, it scares me because I think I can understand the attraction. I know there are times when I've wanted to let go of the responsibility of steering my own life and instead allow myself to be carried. I can imagine the sense of being loved that would come from knowing my spouse pays attention to and cares about everything I do, even if only because he's policing me. Most compellingly for me, it might be nice to know that the world is a predictable machine and I'm entirely in charge of whether or not a bad thing happens to me--all I need do is follow a set of clearly defined rules, and if I follow them, all will go well for me (about which more later). I would gain clear direction, attention, and a sense that the world is just. I might even feel really good about myself if I think God is pleased by my lifestyle.

On the other hand, I'd be giving up some freedoms that are, I believe, dead wrong to give up. First of all I'd be failing to chart my own course in life and take responsibility for my decisions. I'm letting someone else--a human, not God--make the rules about what's right and wrong for me to do, and how I ought to be punished for disobedience. On a certain level, I'm agreeing not to challenge his leadership before having even heard what his rules are. Secondly, I'm trading in my right to be treated as an equal and in exchange receiving attention which I am probably confusing for love. Thirdly, rather than facing the injustice that exists in the world and trying to do something to remedy it, I am asking someone else to create for me the illusion of justice by setting him up as my master and having him diligently punish me whenever I disobey. It seems equivalent to choosing to remain a permanent child, and under the circumstances, I find this choice as morally problematic as the choice to remain a slave. Most adult humans have the capacity to improve the world by pursuing justice in whatever sphere they inhabit; if I never use my own capacity to right wrongs (agreeing instead to be led by my husband in all things), then I'm not contributing to the work of improving the world.

Now back to the thing about the world as a predictable machine. This is a common theme for me, so my apologies if you've heard this one already. I remember believing, when I was quite young, that my parents knew about everything bad that I did. If I lied to them or if I read a book while I was supposed to be going to sleep or if I ate in the living room instead of in the kitchen, or if I jumped up and down on their bed, I believed, they would know. This belief was partly because they *were* extremely watchful and usually did find out, and partly because for a long time, I overestimated my sneakiness. I was a kid. What did I know? But eventually I found that I *could* get away with things. This was disturbing, not because I didn't want to, e.g., jump on the bed (I most certainly did), but rather because my understanding of the world changed. If my parents weren't going to stop me, the borders of the world expanded beyond the horizon, frighteningly far. If they didn't always know to chastise me when I wasn't behaving well, who would? How far would I be allowed to drift before someone would save me from own childish lack of self-control? And if no one was going to stop *me* from behaving badly, who would stop everyone else from behaving badly? Was the world full of people who were out of control, running around like crazy, and eating in the living room? What would keep the universe from falling apart?

At some point I decided that it was ok that my parents couldn't see what I did, because God could, and did, and indeed was watching me at every moment, and would punish me for my misdeeds. I don't think this anymore (I tried, but God wasn't very consistent in punishing me either), but I still think that everything I do is recorded on the scroll of reality--that is, my deeds don't cease to have existed just because they aren't in the present anymore--and that it matters, somehow, in the grand scheme of things, what choices I make. Whether or not it's true, it seems self-evident to me, which is enough, at least for now.

Anyway, the point of all that backstory is to connect my disappointment (in discovering that I could get away with stuff) with the married lifestyle that establishes consistent, direct, and painful consequences for rule-breaking. I understand the sense of security it would offer, but I don't think it's a good thing to seek. Far better, I would say, is to participate in the work of buildling a world in which justice is fair, consistent, and ever-present. This is divine work, the role of a mature adult, a challenge to develop one's moral sense to the highest degree possible, which is, I believe, the sort of work we all ought to be doing. It's also the role given to the husband in the CDD system. It's as if the wife gives into the temptation to never have to face the ugly injustice of the world, while assigning her husband the job of maintaining the illusion for her, in exchange for which, she gives him power over her. It's not a temptation to which I am immune, but I consider the results to be morally problematic, and I think that's why it disturbs me so deeply.

~ prattled by Miriam at 8:58 p.m. [+] ~ 16 comment

* * *
~ Saturday, November 15, 2008 ~
Election Night
[This is really old, and I've been sitting on it for a while intending to dress it up a bit, but now I have another post in mind, so I'm putting this one up in its unfinished state to make room for the next one.]

The Advocate hosted a party here in our own little apartment, and so the greenhouse was well-stuffed with eager guests chatting tensely while we sat around the TV, glued to CNN. We cheered when Ohio went blue, and Florida, and Virginia, because at that point it seemed like we could finally stand on the ice with both feet, sort of--and then PA was announced, to more cheers. I was still deluded enough to be worried about CA, but everyone else knew that that was it, that Obama would win. We nodded along, favorably impressed, as we watched McCain's concession speech, and then everyone in the room cried quietly as Obama gave his acceptance speech, except for me, because I was still too caught up with the prop 8 business to allow myself to fully be in the moment and enjoy it.

After a while we walked down (in pieces) to 5th ave near 6th st, ending up on the sidewalk outside Bar Reis, where there were already lots of other small groups of people standing around on the sidewalk cheering at anything that moved. I could already hear the cheering, coming through as ghostly wails, as well as plenty of car horns honking, even from my apartment door 5 blocks away, which was lucky because I was the last to leave and I wasn't sure at first which way to go to find the outdoor party. I found it easily by following the noise.

When I reached The Advocate and the others, they were standing in a little group facing the street, cheering at every vehicle that drove past, as were all the other little clumps of people (that were quickly morphing into one big clump of people, friends and strangers together). It was as if 5th ave had become an impromptu parade, with the cars and trucks (mostly taxis, black car-service cars, police cars, and garbage trucks at that hour--around 12:30 or 1 am) serving as floats and parade personalities. We'd scream at them as they went by, and they'd honk and wave out their windows and shout their joy. Someone dressed up his car specially, with Obama '08 written on it with some bright pink stuff I couldn't identify, but it reminded me of cake frosting. People in the back of this car stuck their heads out the windows and screamed as the car drove slowly by us. I might have been the only person there who hadn't been drinking (not that it made me any more inhibited in my expression of excitement than they were).

We sang This Land Is Your Land and If I Had a Hammer and then we couldn't think of anything else to sing, but we watched other Park Slope folks waving American flags (unprecedented) and singing patriotic songs of their own. I saw two of my neighbors there, one from next door and one an old schoolmate from Stanford who lives in the neighborhood now. We didn't converse, but we hugged and cheered. A stranger from inside Bar Reis came out and hugged us all. Some guys high-fived us as they went by. Others, more shy, just threw up their arms at us from a more comfortable distance and cheered "WHOOO!" We did the same back. I wished I'd brought my morris bells with me just so that I could make noise using something other than my voice. I was hoarse by the end of the night.

After a while the excitement level died a little where we were. I'd heard there was more of a gathering down at 5th and Union, and I wanted to see. So after we all walked back to the apartment, I got the bells and tied them on to my legs for the first time in what must be years and I ran back down to 5th and Union. I got nods and smiles and WHOOO!!s and high fives from everyone (truly, everyone) I passed, though this may have been because of the bells and may have been because of the politically-themed t-shirt I was wearing, and it may have been because I was a human. People were pretty willing to cheer regardless. I ran nearly all the way down to Union, just enjoying the feeling of exerting joyful energy and the ja-jinga ja-jinga sound of the bells as my heels hit the sidewalk.

~ prattled by Miriam at 6:53 p.m. [+] ~ 2 comment

* * *
~ Monday, September 22, 2008 ~
Words from Rabbi Nachman, and an open invitation to you
I heard this piece for the first time on Saturday night when the rabbi read it at our selichot service. If you can imagine a room full of Jews who've been spending the past several weeks reflecting on their shortcomings, on all the ways in which they've wronged others, all the irreversibly hurtful deeds they've done, all the harm they've spread around, and how on earth they are ever going to fix it all, while at the same time wondering how they're going to really truly forgive all those who have hurt them, how to process through and put behind them all the injuries they've suffered, then perhaps you can have an idea of why these words were so gratefully received.


You have to judge every person generously. Even if you have reason to think that person is completely wicked, it's your job to look hard and seek out some bit of goodness, someplace in that person where he is not evil. When you find that bit of goodness and judge the person that way, you may really raise her up to goodness. Treating people this way allows them to be restored, to come to teshuvah.

This is why the psalmist says: "Just a little bit more and there will be no wicked one; you will look at his place and he will not be there" (Ps 37:10). He tells us to judge one and all so generously, so much on the good side, even if we think they're as sinful as can be. By looking for that "little bit," the place, however small, within them where there is no sin (and everyone, after all, has such a place) and by telling them, showing them, that that is who they are, we can help them change their lives.

Even the person you think (and he agrees!) is completely rotten—how is it possible that at some time in his life he has not done some good deed, some mitzvah? Your job is just to help him look for it, to seek it out, and then to judge him that way. Then indeed you will "look at his place" and find that the wicked one is no longer there—not because she has died or disappeared—but because, with your help, she will no longer be in the place where you first saw her. By seeking out that bit of goodness you allowed her to change; you helped teshuvah to take its course.

So now, my clever friend, now that you know how to treat the wicked and find some bit of good in them—now go do it for yourself as well! You know what I have taught you: "Take great care: be happy always! Stay far, far away from sadness and depression." I've said it to you more than once. I know what happens when you start examining yourself. "No goodness at all," you find. "Just full of sin." Watch out for Old Man Gloom, my friend, The one who wants to push you down. This is one of his best tricks. That's why I said:
"Now go do it for yourself as well." You too must have done some good for someone, sometime. Now go look for it! But you find it and discover that it too is full of holes. You know yourself too well to be fooled: "Even the good things I did," you say, "were all for the wrong reasons. Impure motives! Lousy deeds!" Then keep digging, I tell you, keep digging, because somewhere inside that now tarnished-looking mitzvah, somewhere within it there was indeed a little bit of good. That's all you need to find: just the smallest bit: a dot of goodness. That should be enough to give you back your life, to bring you back to joy. By seeking out that little bit even in yourself and judging yourself that way, you show yourself that that is who you are. You can change your whole life this way and bring yourself to teshuvah.

It's that first little dot of goodness that's the hardest one to find (or the hardest to admit you find!). The next ones will come a little easier, each one following another.

And you know what? These little dots of goodness in yourself—after a while you will find that you can sing them! Join them to one another and they become your niggun, your wordless melody. You fashion that niggun by rescuing your own good spirit from all that darkness and depression. The niggun brings you back to life, and then you can start to pray…


...which leads me to this next thing. I've never done this before, but I think this year I really should. Is there anyone reading this who wants to talk about something that's unresolved between us, some way that I've wronged you, whether actively or (more likely) passively? Because if you, my dear reader, can think of something, then I can just about guarantee that it's on my mind already. I want to talk about it with you. I know it's more honorable to initiate it myself, only there are certain cases in which it would be helpful to have some indication of, I don't know, permission, I guess. It's not generally socially acceptable to reopen old pain, so there are many cases where I'm hesitant. But while I'm over here trying to screw up my courage, I hope you'll let me know.

~ prattled by Miriam at 9:57 p.m. [+] ~ 4 comment

* * *
~ Sunday, August 03, 2008 ~
As the previous thing suggests, I've been reading a bunch of Discworld novels lately. When he's setting the scene or adding flavor, Pratchett will often borrow elements from our own current culture and translate them so that they fit in a society that is powered mostly by magic, but which has only the most rudimentary technology. It's not the most important ingredient of the novels, but it happens often and it's entertaining.

So it's been in the back of my mind, too, that hunt for elements of our daily lives that can be twisted neatly into a magical-but-low-tech setting, and today, while I was riding home on the train, I started giggling because I'd suddenly imagined travellers on horseback approaching the entrance to a bridge and reading a sign saying, "Stop! Pay troll." It makes me wonder what Pratchett would do with EZ Pass.

~ prattled by Miriam at 9:06 p.m. [+] ~ 0 comment

* * *
~ Wednesday, July 30, 2008 ~
Caught Reading
Garth Wolkoff has an interesting idea for a blogging project, and I was in the right place at the right time. Neat. :)

~ prattled by Miriam at 2:39 p.m. [+] ~ 0 comment

* * *
~ Friday, July 18, 2008 ~
Grammatical Hang-Up

College Education. No Child Left.

Last Sunday I saw this ad for Thomas Edison State College as I rode the NJ Transit back from meeting with a new student. There were some high school kids occupying the spot where I needed to stand to get a good shot of the ad, so I did a fine job of embarrassing myself while I craned my body into their personal spaces trying to get all the text into the little screen on my camera phone. It took me several tries, and by the third attempt one of them (who clearly thought I was nuts to be so excited about photographing the thing) asked disgustedly if I just wanted him to take it for me. "Thanks, I got it this time," I said, and returned to my own seat. The silver-haired lady sitting next to me looked at me quizzically, and to her I felt obligated to explain why I was so keen to photograph the thing. I'd sorta hoped she would have spotted the error too (have we all forgotten the grammar we learned in school?), but she turned out to be German, just travelling in the US, so I forgave her and explained how the lack of a possessive apostrophe changes the meaning of the copy.

~ prattled by Miriam at 11:55 p.m. [+] ~ 4 comment

* * *
~ Saturday, May 17, 2008 ~
To whom do Jews bow?
Lately I've been spending what some might call too much time reading LDS blogs. I find something validating about seeing people who grew up in the culture struggling openly and intelligently with the same issues that The Saint and I butt heads over--issues like who or what has final authority and how that authority is conferred, the social and moral implications tied to a person's gender, which laws are eternal and which have expiration dates, the nature of God, how a religion ought to be run, and the like. It gives me hope to know that not everyone in The Church defends those aspects that I find troubling; rather, that some are more likely to say, "Yeah, that's a problem, and I'm trying to figure out what to do about it, and here's something I've come up with."

Anyway, Mr. Nielson at Mormon Matters has a post about what Bruce R. McConkie believed regarding whether Mormons worship Jesus, and in it he refers to a verse in 1 Chronicles that (he suggests) can be used wrongly to conclude that King David's subjects worshiped their king rather than worshiping God alone. He calls this improper interpretation an example of word-offense, and he wants to be sure that it's avoided in interpreting McConkie's words too:

Now through word-offense, it might be easier and more fun to attack McConkie and simplify his full nuanced beliefs into something he never taught, but let’s keep in mind that, thanks to the Bible, this can be done to any Old Testament-believing religion:

1 Chr 29:20 states: "And David said to all the congregation, Now bless the Lord your God. And all the congregation blessed the Lord God of their fathers, and bowed down their heads, and worshiped the Lord, and the king."

Through word-offense, I can now make the claim that all Bible-believing Christians and all Jews believe that King David was a god and that he is to be worshiped. And thanks to the single use of the word “worship” for both King David and God, I can wreak some real havoc against any counter arguments about how they are worshiped in different senses of the word.

That raised my eyebrows. David's subjects, worshiping a person? So much is made, at least in Jewish Sunday schools around March, of how Jews should emulate Mordechai by bowing down to no one but God, that I thought surely there must be some mistake. So armed with my own triple combination of Lambdin, Jastrow, and Shilo, I went to check the Hebrew version of 1 Chron. 29:20.

There are two verbs that describe what the people are doing in 1 Chron. 29:20. First it says “vayikdu”, and then “vayishtakhavu”. In the KJV rendering of this verse, as we saw, these words are translated as “bowed down their heads” (a near-exact translation) and “worshiped” (not so much) respectively. Vayikdu comes from the root kuf-dalet-dalet, meaning “to bow”, and vayishtakhavu comes from the root shin-khet-hey, meaning “to bow low. So first the people are bowing a little bit, and then they’re bowing lower. Or perhaps some are bowing a little and others are bowing a lot depending on whether they are there just to show their support or whether they are crazy Solomon fans. Anyway, there's a mix.

Compare KJV with MAV
They...bowed down their heads, and worshiped the Lord, and the king.
MAV: They bowed and prostrated themselves before God and before the king.

Not too different, but the word "worshiped" in the KJV can be more exactly rendered as "prostrated themselves". Its a form of worship, sure, but in this case the distinction matters.

The other thing I found is that in this passage, David seems to be passing the kingship from himself to his son Solomon, so if any human is receiving worship here, it’s likely Solomon, and not David. Two verses later, we read,

…they again king-ified Solomon-ben-David, and they anointed him before God… (MAV)

So now we've got a better picture of why the Jews are apparently falling down and worshiping another person. David and Solomon seem to have been worried about whether the people would take kindly to the transfer of rulership, David having been so successful and Solomon being as young and inexperienced as he was (see 1 Chron. 29:1), but not only was this potential period of conflict avoided; the people went and overcompensated, as if to reassure father and son that everything was cool with them. So maybe we can forgive them for prostrating themselves before Solomon, if it was all a big social display done for the sake of banishing the king's fears of civil unrest? But still, it makes me kinda uncomfortable to see the people express their devotion to a person through bowing. Couldn't they have jumped about or shouted a three-syllable chant instead?

I checked for where else in Tanakh we hear about Jews bowing down, expecting it to be something only done before God, and maybe this is a sign of my not knowing Tanakh very well, but it turns out that Jews in Tanakh bow down to one another pretty often. Apparently, neither one of these bowing verbs implies an action that is only done in front of God. It’s God to whom Jews bow the most, but bowing is also used as a sign of love and reverence between people.

All the appearances in Tanakh of the first verb, the less extreme type of bowing: kuf-dalet-dalet
All the appearances of the second verb, the deeper bow: shin-khet-hey
(I really like online concordances.)

So while there are plenty of places where the bower is bowing to God, there are also many places where the bower is bowing to another person. Some of the most telling examples:

Gen 23:7, 12 Abraham bows to the descendants of Khet when they give him permission to bury Sarah in a prime location on their land.

Gen 33:3 Jacob bows down seven times to Esau during their reconciliation scene. Jacob’s household follows suit. Esau asks why, and Jacob explains that he is trying to find favor in Esau’s eyes.

Gen 48:12 In Egypt, after his big reveal, Joseph bows to his father Jacob in response to Jacob saying he never expected to see Joseph alive, much less with sons of his own.

Ex 18:7 Moses greets Jethro, his father-in-law, with a low bow.

1 Samuel 20:41, David, who has been in hiding from Saul, greets his beloved Jonathan with three low bows and many more tears.

So whatever this bowing means, it doesn’t seem to necessarily indicate the sort of worship that is reserved for God. It can be used as a way of worshiping God, but it isn’t always.

What, then, do we make of Mordechai's refusal to bow to Haman in Esther 3:2-5? He seems to be saying it's against his religion to bow to anyone but God, and while it's true that it's against his religion to worship any other god, e.g. Ba'al or Asherah, assuming he wasn't ignorant of his own history, he knew there was a precedent for Jews bowing to other people. Was he just fudging the truth to piss Haman off? It sure looks like it, but I don't think we're forced into that interpretation. Perhaps the social language had changed by then, and bowing to people had fallen out of fashion to such an extent that it had taken on an implication that the object of obeisance was divine. Or perhaps Mordechai just meant it was against his religion to bow down insincerely, and he'd be darned if he was going to make a show of reverence and love to a self-absorbed peacock like Haman.

I have to say, I'm sort of charmed by the idea of bowing way down to express love and devotion, especially between people who are social equals but who've been away from each other too long. Maybe we can start a trend, you and me.

~ prattled by Miriam at 6:38 p.m. [+] ~ 5 comment

* * *
~ Sunday, April 06, 2008 ~
I've Found a New Band Crush
and its name is Baby Soda.

First of all, the name. Baby. Soda. Were they begotten of preexisting soda-related bands? Is there a band out there called Papa Pop? Did he mate with Ms. Fizz? On their myspace they say they sound like Prohibition, a tent revival, pots and pans, and Felix T. Cat's orchestra, and it's true, all of it.

Secondly, the people. Two of them I recognize from separate ensembles. One is the souped-up-washboard/drum-kit player who plays with Stephane Wrembel at Barbes, and wears thimbles on his fingers and is the highlight of every show I've seen him play. I spurn the lead guitarist guy and gaze at him all night. The other is the earth bow bass player from River Alexander & His Mad Jazz Hatters, who would be the show-stealer of that band if it weren't for how much I also like watching River on his guitarmonica and the fiddler on his fiddle. Both the bassist and the percussionist are great, is my point.

Thirdly, my mode of discovery. The name was tossed about at Frim Fram and similar events I've attended, and once you become aware of a new word or a new concept or a new band, you suddenly start recognizing it when people talk about it and it seems like everyone else discovered it at the same time you did, which is what happened in this case, and so I wondered, who are these people whom everyone is suddenly talking about? But I didn't go dance at their shows those weekends. I was too busy or too lazy or too tired or too stupid or something. Then I saw a video of them depicting some people I know dancing to them while they busked in Union Square's subway station. There were the Zig Zag Mini ad campaign posters behind them and there were the dancers I see at fram and there were the guys playing, and they were great, and they had an accordion, and they sang, but really most importantly, they were busking, and anyone who is that good and still goes out and busks has my affection. It's a public service, really. Besides, and more importantly, there's something totally romantic about busking, something like being a wandering minstrel, which everyone should really admit is the most romantic lifestyle anyone could pick, and one I'm sure I'll be living in my next life, if I haven't already lived it in a past one, and maybe regardless of whether or not I have already. So anyway, I saw them on YouTube busking, and then I forgot about them, but today I was on my way uptown, and I usually transfer from the R to the 4/5 at Atlantic/Pacific when I have to go to Grand Central on Sundays, because it reduces the number of transfers, because transfers and MTA and Sundays and being in bit of a hurry do not mix, but as it happened, I got off the R at Atlantic/Pacific and there was the N waiting right across the platform, so I figured what the heck, I'll transfer to the 4/5/6 at Union Square; it'll be at least as fast if not faster to go over the Manhattan Bridge on the N, provided we don't stall over the water, as we sometimes do. So I took the N, and I got out at Union Square, and the doors slid open, and suddenly there was this GREAT music, taking me right back to the Sacramento Dixieland Festival my parents used to take us to hear, only more down and gritty. I couldn't believe my luck, or the absurdity of my being on a schedule and needing to go and not being free to stay and listen. I climbed the stairs and got a good look at them--earth bow bass, no way, I thought that only existed in River Alexander's band (and come to think of it the bassist looks a little familiar), and banjo, and trumpet, and a bunch of other instruments I don't remember (I was in a hurry) and who ARE these people, they're great! Usually the already-established musicians hang vinyl-esque posters behind them proclaiming their names so that we can all hurry home and google them afterward, but there was no name here. Dangit. I kept walking past them to get to the uptown 4/5/6 platform. I went about 100 feet when I actually stopped dead in my tracks and thought to myself, this is ridiculous. You're letting this amazing band you clearly love go out of your life forever. This is New York! When do you suppose you're ever going to see them again? Chance like this doesn't happen twice, you idiot! Keep walking past them now and mourn their loss for the rest of your days!!

Well, I'm getting shockingly regret-averse in my --- age, so I went back and looked harder for a name or something. There was nothing except for the CDs they were selling. Brown lunch bags folded over with a single staple, with a CD inside. Cute. I walked up to them and knelt down in front of their stage area (feeling strangely worshipful, like being at an altar or something) to drop my $10 in and pick up a CD-in-a-bag, and dashed back to the 4/5/6 platform, and as I walked I examined the bag.

It took me a minute to find, but there it was, stamped faintly on the brown paper: "babysoda@gmail.com" I laughed. I guess sometimes coincidences do happen, even here. Now I know why everyone else was talking about them, anyway. And now I am listening to a great CD that claims it Cures Everything But the Blues, and I can't say for sure, but I think it might even cure them.

Oh yeah, and they are playing in four days at Barbes. Man I love this place.

~ prattled by Miriam at 11:29 p.m. [+] ~ 0 comment

* * *
~ Saturday, February 23, 2008 ~
Corresponding Like a Ninja

Suddenly tonight I discovered Gmail chat's invisibility feature.  Very clever, Gmail.  Being all slick and quiet about it.  How long has this been there without my noticing?

~ prattled by Miriam at 2:23 a.m. [+] ~ 2 comment

* * *
~ Friday, February 22, 2008 ~
A Line-Storm Song
Nearly ten years ago a friend of mine passed this poem along to me.  I've been thinking of it lately.  I'm not sure I want to add any commentary to it; I just want to pass it along and let you appreciate it on your own terms.

29. A Line-storm Song
THE LINE-STORM clouds fly tattered and swift,
  The road is forlorn all day,
Where a myriad snowy quartz stones lift,
  And the hoof-prints vanish away.
The roadside flowers, too wet for the bee,        5
  Expend their bloom in vain.
Come over the hills and far with me,
  And be my love in the rain.
The birds have less to say for themselves
  In the wood-world’s torn despair        10
Than now these numberless years the elves,
  Although they are no less there:
All song of the woods is crushed like some
  Wild, easily shattered rose.
Come, be my love in the wet woods; come,        15
  Where the boughs rain when it blows.
There is the gale to urge behind
  And bruit our singing down,
And the shallow waters aflutter with wind
  From which to gather your gown.        20
What matter if we go clear to the west,
  And come not through dry-shod?
For wilding brooch shall wet your breast
  The rain-fresh goldenrod.
Oh, never this whelming east wind swells        25
  But it seems like the sea’s return
To the ancient lands where it left the shells
  Before the age of the fern;
And it seems like the time when after doubt
  Our love came back amain.        30
Oh, come forth into the storm and rout
  And be my love in the rain.

~ prattled by Miriam at 3:56 p.m. [+] ~ 1 comment

* * *
~ Monday, February 18, 2008 ~
And If You Believe That...

~ prattled by Miriam at 4:19 p.m. [+] ~ 0 comment

* * *
~ Tuesday, February 05, 2008 ~
Darnit, New York
Why'd you have to like Clinton so much?

Looks like it's going to be a late night. I haven't felt this much patriotic tension since I watched the results come in for the '04 election back in Philly.

~ prattled by Miriam at 11:42 p.m. [+] ~ 1 comment

* * *
~ Sunday, February 03, 2008 ~
Sure, it's Park Slope, but it's still Brooklyn.
My bedroom window overlooks a quiet street in a subdued, moms-and-strollers-ish neighborhood, and I can still hear the people screaming their post-game exultation.

Yet another thing on God will be showing up here at some point.

~ prattled by Miriam at 10:38 p.m. [+] ~ 1 comment

* * *
~ Wednesday, January 30, 2008 ~
Traveling to most of my students' houses requires between one and three hours on trains (that's one way, not round trip--yeah, I do a lot of reading), but a week ago I started working with a student who is within walking distance of my apartment. First time in over a year I've had a student right here in Brooklyn.

If there's any quality that's common to all my students' parents, it's that they are all exceedingly wealthy, and they all care deeply about their child's education. So I meet a lot of people who have both good values and the means to act in accordance with those values. It's a nice business.

The students themselves are more varied, but most of them are taking their SATs, which means they are somewhere between 10th and 12th grade. In general, the girls seem to know who they are by this point, or at least they seem to have reached a stable state, while the boys seem to be on the brink of figuring it out. It's a sweet age. They all have an earnestness and an energy which is lovely to be around--they're privileged kids who've nevertheless been raised to work hard, and they do, and having never yet been burned by unassailable defeat, they are confident in their beliefs that they will one day conquer the world, if they can only master the skill of taking standardized tests.

On Sunday evening I called up a new student about whom my (fantastic, brilliant, awesome) manager had just written to me, and his mother answered. She started out by grilling me about my qualifications and success rate, which put me on my guard (I never know what to say to questions like that...how effective is my tutoring? Well, how hard is your child going to work?) but I answered her with a less flippant version of that and we moved on to logistics like day and time and place and duration of lesson. Then she told me something about why her son is so busy--he's on his high school's fencing team--and I mentioned that I'd taken some fencing classes in college, and from there the conversation leapt and bounded from fencing to California's schools to New York's CUNY system to bioethics to Jewish day schools to Californian vs. New York Judaism to interfaith marriages, and nearly an hour later, she told me she'd like to introduce me to a widowed (widowered?) friend of hers if only he weren't too old for me (twice my age, in fact), so I was saved from having to respond to that potentially awkward invitation, but at any rate, she seems to have decided I'll do, and I'll be meeting the fencer in a few days.

But I brought the Brooklyn student up for a reason. Today was my second meeting with him. Last week when we were talking about how to write an effective 25-minute essay, I assigned him the same prompt he'd already used to write his first essay, only this time I told him to argue the opposite viewpoint. The prompt was "Are things always what they seem?" and his first essay had taken the easy view, saying that things often aren't at all what they seem to be. This one, then, was harder, and he struggled with trying to find examples to support the idea that things are always what they seem, but he ended up finding some interesting examples and writing quite a sophisticated essay.

His handwriting, though, is rather chicken-scratchy, and I had to squint a bit to make out his words sometimes. One of the examples he chose was a chair: he argued that something that looks like a chair really is a chair (he's gonna love Plato), and if we're not sure we can trust our eyesight, we can certainly trust our sense of touch that will tell us it's a chair once we're sitting upon it. He then pointed out that this would not be the case if the chair had a trick seat, the kind that makes you fall through as soon as you put your weight on the seat. What he actually wrote, as best I can remember, was,

"An exception to this would be a gag chair, whose bottom would open up as soon as you sit down on it."

Only there's that handwriting of his, and in this case it made the second g of 'gag' look like a y.

It's a good thing he's got a sense of humor, because I was so seized by the visual that I just about lost it, forehead on the table and tears and everything.

~ prattled by Miriam at 12:00 a.m. [+] ~ 1 comment

* * *
~ Tuesday, January 15, 2008 ~
Dueling Exegetes
The Saint proposes that my interpretation of vs. 64-65 stems from a reading that is wrong on two counts.

1. Keyholders are always male.

His first point is that the word "key" is a technical term, and that only men hold keys, so every time the text refers to someone who holds keys of any power whatever, it must necessarily mean a man and not a woman holding those keys. Thus, when v. 64 says, "If any man have a wife, who holds the keys of this power..." the "who" refers not to the wife but to the man.

Go ahead and reread it that way with the new meaning in mind.

"If any man have a wife, who holds the keys of this power..."

Can't do it, can you? Neither can I. The "who" so forcibly makes me want to refer to the wife that it seems impossible that it could refer to the husband. It's like saying, "When he visited his girlfriend, who lives on Cherry Tree Lane..." and expecting the reader to understand that it's he and not his girlfriend who lives on Cherry Tree Lane. If they wanted to refer back to the guy, they could easily have used "and he" instead of "who".

Besides, even though the keyholders are male every other time the term "key" is used, we can still imagine that this instance is an exception to that rule. Remember that v. 61 tells us that wife #1 holds the power of granting or withholding consent, so it's she who can open or close the door separating her husband from his prospective additional wives.

2. Administration to one's husband means fidelity, not consent to polygamy.

The Saint's other correction is the more interesting one. He proposes that in v. 64, where it says that the wife should administer unto her husband, the emphasis goes on "unto her husband" rather than on "administer"; that is, instead of meaning that she's going and getting additional wives for him, it really means she's refraining from sleeping with other men. She administers unto him, and not unto others. This would make her commandment to believe/administer unto him refer not to the part in v. 61 where it says "and the first give her consent" but rather to the part in v. 63 where it teaches that her being with another man automatically constitutes adultery. Her transgression would become infidelity rather than rejection of polygamy, and the punishment for her infidelity, if not utter destruction, would be that her husband becomes free to take another wife.

Now, I agree that it's generally more plausible for one verse to refer to something in a previous verse than to refer to something that was mentioned briefly three verses ago, so the Saint does have proximity on his side, but on the other hand, "administration" should, because of the nature of the word, refer to action instead of inaction. No one would call standing still and doing nothing an act of administration, regardless of whether or not my very refraining has a positive effect upon you.

Besides, at the end of v. 65, we are virtually told how 'administration' is being used in this sense: "Sarah...administered unto Abraham according to the law when I commanded Abraham to take Hagar to wife." What does it mean to administer? It means to do what Sarah did when Abraham was commanded to take Hagar to wife. What was it Sarah did? She sent Hagar to Abraham.

But could it possibly mean, instead, that at the moment when Abraham was taking Hagar, Sarah happened to not be sleeping with anyone else? I don't see how. Sarah administered unto Abraham not only at the moment when Abraham took Hagar as a wife, but also because of God's commandment that he do so. That's the sense of the verse. Abraham couldn't have taken Hagar unless Sarah had given Hagar to him, and realizing this, and not wanting to get in the way of his obedience, Sarah administered to her husband by doing exactly that. (Although I should note that in Genesis's account, Abraham's sleeping with Hagar is Sarah's idea, not God's, and afterward she's pretty sorry she did it.)

And on top of that, there just isn't any other man present in the story to tempt Sarah away from Abraham, so it doesn't make any sense to be making such a big deal about her fidelity. She does have a little infidelity issue with the Pharaoh in Genesis 12, four chapters earlier, at Abraham's misguided (though understandable) behest, but I'm not sure that's significant, except that it makes her look even less like the sort of person you'd want to hold up as a paragon of fidelity.

Anyway, it seems clear to me that it was precisely by facilitating Abraham's acquisition of Hagar that Sarah was administering unto him; had she not facilitated it, he wouldn't have been able to impregnate Hagar, because it was up to Sarah to permit or prohibit it.

So those are his two points. If he were right, then the meaning of the text would indeed change dramatically--it would go from "she refused to assent to polygamy, so she loses her right to control whether he takes another wife" to something like "she was unfaithful to him, so he was no longer bound to be faithful to her" which actually would have been something I could have stomached.

Curiously, The Saint doesn't dispute my interpretation of the "Law of Sarah" as being a law that requires the husbands to obtain their additional wives as freely-given gifts from their first wives; I would have thought that'd be the weakest point in my interpretation, because the text is so vague regarding it, but I guess that point was obvious enough to him.

Incidentally, since asking him about it and hearing his answer, I've gone to visit Mormon.org (on Science Ninja's recommendation), where you can now sit down and have a real live chat with a real live missionary. I was passed around to a total of three different missionaries (as one person's shift ended, he or she passed me to the next) which meant I had to go through and explain the problem to each one of them (none of them had ever noticed the significance of this passage before...what gives??) and while their answers were as different as they were unsatisfying, none of them challenged my interpretation the way The Saint's did. Actually, none of them challenged it at all.

The first one, who really seemed to know what she was talking about, pointed out that if I did indeed know that the law came from God, I'd have an interesting decision before me about whether to follow it. I was just about to tell her that the source doesn't always matter, because I have my own standards regarding what sort of laws I'd be willing to obey (e.g. if God commanded me to torture puppies, I would not be into it), when she had to go.

The next one took the "No human can understand everything, but I know the Church is true" approach, which doesn't really help me, because I don't know that it's true, and even if I were absolutely sure about the rest, this issue would still strike me as Definitely Not From God, or at least not from the kind of god I'd want to worship.

The third insisted that the harder the commandment is to keep, the greater the blessing for keeping it, but honestly, I can't imagine any blessing so great that it would balance out the pain of sharing my husband with sister-wives. I told her that, and she said she wasn't really sure how to help me, but she recommended I pray to God for the answer. Oh well.

Kol hakavod, The Saint. Of all the answers I've heard, yours is the only one I'd find acceptable. If only it worked.

~ prattled by Miriam at 1:59 a.m. [+] ~ 0 comment

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~ Friday, January 04, 2008 ~
The Latest Stoker of My Wrath
It is probably not healthy for me to be getting so angry over this, but nothing infuriates me like a bad law.

61 And again, as pertaining to the law of the priesthood—if any man espouse a virgin, and desire to espouse aanother, and the first give her consent, and if he espouse the second, and they are virgins, and have vowed to no other man, then is he justified; he cannot commit adultery for they are given unto him; for he cannot commit adultery with that that belongeth unto him and to no one else.
62 And if he have aten virgins given unto him by this law, he cannot commit adultery, for they belong to him, and they are given unto him; therefore is he justified.
63 But if one or either of the ten virgins, after she is espoused, shall be with another man, she has committed adultery, and shall be destroyed; for they are given unto him to amultiply and replenish the earth, according to my commandment, and to fulfil the promise which was given by my Father before the foundation of the world, and for their exaltation in the eternal worlds, that they may bear the souls of men; for herein is the work of my Father continued, that he may be bglorified.
64 And again, verily, verily, I say unto you, if any man have a wife, who holds the keys of this power, and he teaches unto her the law of my priesthood, as pertaining to these things, then shall she believe and administer unto him, or she shall be destroyed, saith the Lord your God; for I will destroy her; for I will magnify my name upon all those who receive and abide in my law.
65 Therefore, it shall be lawful in me, if she receive not this law, for him to receive all things whatsoever I, the Lord his God, will give unto him, because she did not believe and administer unto him according to my word; and she then becomes the transgressor; and he is exempt from the law of Sarah, who administered unto Abraham according to the law when I commanded Abraham to take aHagar to wife.

So first of all, he can have multiple wives as long as he hasn't vowed otherwise, but she may not have multiple husbands under any circumstances. And worse, once having heard about the "law of my priesthood as pertaining to these things" the first wife, the one who "holds the keys of this power" (i.e. who has final say over who else, if anyone, her husband marries), has the delectable choice of either willingly receiving this law, in which case she must be the designer of her own misery, or refusing it, in which case she is labeled a trangressor, and her husband is freed to design her misery himself.

It's been said that some women in polygynous marriages were quite content with their situation, but I'd feign contentment too if I thought the only alternative were to lose all negotiating power, period. First of all, if your partner's told you he or she wants someone else, and your primary goal is to hold onto that partner's love, the last thing you'll do is stand in the way. And secondly, if something bad is bound to happen to you, it's slightly less bad if you can decide to do it to yourself, thereby protecting your own sense of being in control. That's preferable to fighting it all the way and finding out, when you are utterly defeated, how truly powerless you are. It's not too different from quitting your job because you heard they're going to fire you, or from killing yourself because you know you're going to die anyway. It's a very human response, and justified, I think, but what a pity these women had no other options than to either accept it willingly or have it done to them unwillingly.

Well, they had children, maybe, and probably no source of independent income, but I hope that had I been in that situation, I'd have had the fortitude to get up and leave.

The Saint is diligently seeking an alternative interpretation of this passage. I don't see how there can be one, but I hope he finds it anyway.

~ prattled by Miriam at 1:19 p.m. [+] ~ 0 comment

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~ Tuesday, December 18, 2007 ~
Not in Miracles
The story of the oven of Akhnai is one of Judaism's all-time greatest hits, so I figured it'd be a good one to present to my students in Monday School. While I was preparing the lesson, though, I found something that I'd never noticed before.

The story, found in Bava Metzia 59, tells of a dispute among a group of sages over whether a certain type of oven can transmit impurity. The question comes up because the oven is an innovation for its time. Most ovens are just simple one-piece deals, and it's clear from the law that because they fall into the Container category, they can transmit impurity. If a normal oven becomes impure, it has to be carefully cleaned before it can be used again. This is annoying for people who are trying to cook. But there's a loophole: if a container shatters, the resulting pieces are said to neither acquire nor transmit impurity, because they are not containers. So some fellow named Akhnai apparently thought up an oven that can't transmit impurity because it's not, technically, a container. He took a bunch of ceramic pieces, assembled them into an oven shape, filled the spaces with sand, and coated the whole thing with glaze. Each individual container-piece can't transmit impurity, and the oven was made of all the individual pieces, so the oven itself can't transmit impurity either. Voila! An everpure oven. Clever, huh?

But according to the rabbis, not clever enough. They ruled that the oven, although made of pieces that were by themselves always clean, was a thing different from its component parts. When put together, the pieces become a whole container, and this new container becomes susceptible to the dirtiness of whatever should happen to creep in and die.

But there was one sage who disagreed. Rabbi Eliezer said the oven is indeed everpure, just as Akhnai had intended. He tries to prove to three other rabbis that he's right, but instead of explaining his reasoning and citing proof-texts to support his claim, as he should have, he calls on the powers of heaven to convince his opponents. Apparently Rabbi Eliezer has a way with the laws of nature.

First he points to a carob tree. "If I'm right," he tells the guys, "let that carob tree show it." This is the equivalent of "If I'm wrong, may God strike me down right here," only more impressive, because the carob tree instantly uproots and launches itself one hundred cubits into the air. The other rabbis aren't impressed, though.

"The law is not in a carob tree," they tell him drily.

"Well then, if I'm right, let that river show it," says Rabbi Eliezer, and suddenly the river starts flowing backward, but the other rabbis just shake their heads.

"A river flowing backward is not a valid argument," they point out.

"Well if I'm right," says Rabbi Eliezer, who is apparently too frenzied at this point to notice that his method isn't working, "let the walls of the Beit Midrash show it!" One of the walls of the house of study immediately starts falling over.

"You stay out of this," Rabbi Joshua snaps, and the wall stops falling, but out of respect for Rabbi Eliezer, it doesn't go back upright either. ""Anyway," Rabbi Joshua says to Rabbi Eliezer, "the answer is not in a wall."

At his wits' end, Rabbi Eliezer cries out, "If I'm right, let heaven show it!"

And a voice calls down from heaven, "Why are you still arguing with Rabbi Eliezer? Don't you know he's always right?"

And Rabbi Joshua says to the heavenly voice, "Go to hell." Just kidding. He says, "Lo bashamayim hee," which means, "It is not in heaven." This is where everyone who knows their Tanakh starts laughing or groaning, because Rabbi Joshua is quoting a piece of Deuteronomy out of context. (I imagine it must have been, for them, like it would be for you or me to hear the punchline to that joke about the king sending his pages to sneak through the yellow fingers: it'd be the same experience of hearing a familiar, oft-repeated phrase reinterpreted in a new context, leading to a surprising answer that was not the original intention of the phrase. Remember, these guys had quotes from the Tanakh filling their collective consciousness; some of them had the whole thing committed to memory. For our part, we have corporate slogans filling our collective consciousness. How far we've come.)

The thing he's referring to in Deuteronomy is a bit where Moses is reminding the people that obeying the law is not so hard that they can't do it. "It is not in heaven," he tells them, "but rather, it's right here in front of you, well within your reach." The implication is that God wouldn't be asking us to do the impossible, so we should stop complaining about how hard it is to obey his law, and just start doing it. It's not so far from "Hard work never killed anyone," so I can imagine lots of school boys having a less-than-fond association with that quote.

"Rebbe, how am I ever going to learn all this? It's impossible!"

"Joshy, stop complaining. Lo bashamayim hee."

"Yeah, but maybe I'm still not tall enough to reach it."

So imagine how satisfying it must have been for those school boys to grow up and transform the quote from something that might have been used to say, "Get back to work," to something that means, "Now we're in charge."

And that's exactly how it's interpreted. In this story, the quote is used to prove that it's through the discussion and reasoning process, not through miraculous revelation, that we arrive at The Truth. We're in charge now. That doesn't mean we can go around changing (or casting away) the laws, willy-nilly, but it does mean the final decision rests in our hands. Liberal Jews are just crazy in love with this story, as you can imagine, because it lends official weight to the outlook they were going to adopt regardless. If the Talmud says we're justified, we really must be right!

I'm not sure the story is meant as a sincere suggestion that we ought to crown ourselves the New Lawmakers, though. After this exchange, Rabbi Jeremiah explains and defends Rabbi Joshua's position by quoting another passage, and I discovered today while I was preparing the lesson that this second quote isn't just taken out of context, as the first quote is; it's used to support a view that is the exact opposite of the view expressed in the original text. The result is not only a twisting of the passage's meaning but also a shocking departure from what I would have thought was a basic Jewish value.

Here's how it goes. After the Bat Kol, the heavenly voice, comes and speaks in defense of Rabbi Eliezer, and Rabbi Joshua responds with "lo bashamayim hee," the narrator of the story asks, "What did he mean by this?" and then quotes Rabbi Jeremiah for the answer: "We pay no attention to a Heavenly Voice, because [God Himself had] long since written in the Torah at Mount Sinai, 'acharei rabim l'hatot [after the majority must one incline].'" This is a quote from Exodus 23:2, which, when I read it on Monday, I discovered to be saying exactly the opposite--after the majority opinion you must NOT incline, even when you really think you should. The beginning of Exodus 23 is talking about the obligations of a witness who's testifying in court about a dispute, and it's listing reasons why the witness might be tempted to present a biased report of what happened. He might adjust it to agree with the majority opinion, for example, or perhaps to favor the poor and downtrodden. The text is reminding the witness not to do either one. Why? Because even more important than favoring the poor or agreeing with the majority is preserving the integrity of the court investigation process. Obviously! The piece that Rabbi Jeremiah quotes from Exodus, "acharei rabim l'hatot," isn't about bowing to the majority at all; it's about refusing to do so, for the sake of uncovering the truth. Doesn't the second view sound more like Judaism? And yet, Rabbi Joshua brazenly asserts that God has always told us to follow the majority. Ridiculous.

The thing is, I think he knew just how ridiculous he was being. I suspect the whole story is intended as a big joke. A joke with a lesson, but still a joke. And it's got the character of a joke, hasn't it? "There were four rabbis sitting and arguing" might as well be "Three guys walk into a bar." One is against the other three, and the proofs he brings are exaggerated and irrelevant, just the way they should be, if we're trying to tell a silly story. I suspect the schoolhouse wall's falling was added later to explain how the real-life-wall in question got that way, because not only is it the odd one out (all the other examples are outdoor, natural things; this one is indoor and man-made) but also because it interrupts the story; it flows better without it. Anyway, without the schoolhouse wall incident, we have three events, which is also what you'd expect in a joke. And at the end of the story, we get two punchlines. First is the subversive reinterpretation of lo bashamayim hee, and second is the just-plain-ridiculous reinterpretation of acharei rabim l'hatot. The second quote seems, to me, like a big wink, a way of indicating just how facetiously they meant the first quote. I might have taken lo bashamayim hee seriously if it hadn't been for acharei rabim l'hatot.

But what becomes of this we're-in-charge outlook that we liberal Jews have treasured for so long? Do we admit it has no basis in the ancient texts? Do we acknowledge that what we're doing today isn't anything like what the rabbis were doing long ago? Do we still get to call ourselves Jews?

Let's go back for a minute to the story itself. The argument over the purity of the oven is not really about whether authority lies with us or with God; it's about whether the oven was or wasn't capable of transmitting impurity. It's true that it was made of broken pieces, but to argue that if each piece can't transmit impurity, then the resulting whole can't transmit impurity either is like arguing that if a single piece of trash can never be a heap by itself, then many pieces of trash will never comprise a heap either. When you put the broken pieces together and assemble them in an oven shape, you have a container, and so of course it can transmit impurity as well as any other container. (Rabbi Eliezer was wrong to argue that it can't, and he was even more wrong to think that he could prove it with miracles. The first is forgivable; the second is grounds for dismissal, and indeed, Rabbi Eliezer gets excommunicated for it.) The real struggle isn't between God and humans over who establishes the law; it's between miracles and reason over what establishes the truth. When reason wins, God isn't being dethroned at all. He's being strengthened. The Jewish idea of God is more reason than miracle, anyway.

So Rabbi Eliezer, for all the credibility his perfect record had given him, seems to have slipped up for once. And because he tried to prove his point with miracles instead of trying to explain it one step at a time, he never noticed his mistake. How, then, was he able to wreak miracles, to call upon the Bat Kol, for the sake of proving a spurious argument? Shouldn't his miracles only have worked if he was correct in his position? Apparently, being able to do miracles is not the same as being right. And we saw this elsewhere, too--Pharaoh's sorcerers achieve miracles right alongside Aaron and Moses, and we know how that turns out. We get warned elsewhere against being swayed by miracle-workers, too--it's understood that other people could have actual power to work miracles whether they were using those powers to convince people of the truth or to deceive them. We're taught to keep a good hold on the teachings we've been given, no matter how marvelous the idol-worshipers' miracles are. The point is, miracles don't prove anything. Judaism has its share of miracles, but it's really not a miracle-based religion. Miracles don't prove God's nature and they don't prove the nature of the law; that kind of thing is either self-evident or it isn't, but whether Akhnai's oven transmits impurity is a question whose answer can only be revealed through careful thought and discussion. A tree flying into the air, a river running backward, and a wall tilting are all impressive, but they have nothing to do with the nature of the oven, and even a Bat Kol doesn't trump logic. What's the lesson? Don't trust miracle-workers and heavenly voices. That's cheating. Figure it out for yourself. The answer is not so hard to find that it requires a prophet to find it. It is not in heaven. It is very near to you, in your own head, on your own bookshelf, and in your discussions with your peers, and you can figure it out.

So what about that earlier question, "Are we still Jews?" Well, I think it's clear from this that to say, "from now on I'm going to decide what the law is according to my own wishes" does not fall under a traditional definition of Judaism, but as long as we keep genuinely trying to seek the truth through reasonable methods, then yes, we're still doing what the sages before us did. As it happens, we're also doing what God wants, as the epilogue to the story shows. Sometime later, Rabbi Nathan asks Elijah the prophet what God was doing while Rabbi Eliezer and the other sages were arguing, and Elijah says, "He was laughing with joy and saying, "My children have defeated me, my children have defeated me!" Apparently, God doesn't want us to be swayed in our opinions by flying trees or heavenly voices or anything else but sparkling clear reasoning, and he was just pleased as could be to see that we'd finally reached the point where he no longer needed to reveal his teachings through miracles, the point where we were so wise and so learned that we could finally work together to figure out for ourselves what the law is, what we ought to do.* Either that or God could tell it was all a big joke, and it was just killing him.

*If that isn't what it means to become like elohim, knowing good from evil, I don't know what is.

~ prattled by Miriam at 2:17 p.m. [+] ~ 1 comment

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~ Monday, December 10, 2007 ~
Inside Out
I stopped posting a year or so ago because my love life turned inside out, and it consumed my thoughts to the point that I didn't feel like anything else mattered enough to write about, but for the sake of other people's privacy, and my own, I didn't want to make any of it public. I gather from little snippets I've been reading that it's public now, at least in the circles that matter, and I think I'm ready to write about it, too. Besides, I've missed blogging.

The incompletes are still incomplete, and thesis continues to limp along, though sometimes it feels like one foot is moving forward and the other one is nailed to the floor. I have sudden inspirations and grand ideas that contradict one another, or realisations that I'm sure I can expound upon until I sit down and try, and after an hour of typing I realise I've wandered into the Wilderness of Digression because I don't really know how to talk about what I'm trying to talk about. I start worrying that I've lost my ability to write philosophy, if I ever had any to begin with, and to assuage my fears, I go and write long emails to people in which I argue in favor of or against some idea. It doesn't work, but it's led to some awfully interesting discussions.

I have two library books that are several months overdue. I've been holding onto them because I intend to use them for the papers, and I'm afraid that if I return them to the library, the librarians will unfold all the corners of pages I've got folded down as markers, but I've had them for so long that I'm not allowed to renew them anymore. I figure I should just buy them by now, but I haven't yet.

My room fluctuates from pin-neat to comfortably messy to uncomfortably messy. We are currently at the nadir of the cycle. I need to do laundry.

In addition to the tutoring job, which I still have and which I love more than any other job I've ever held, I took a job teaching at a nearby synagogue's Monday School, where I teach 4th- and 5th-graders about prayers and the Hebrew language and other Jew stuff. I took the job during the end of summer, when there was a lull in demand for my tutoring services at the same time as there was an increase in my expenditures, and the educational director wooed me with promises of gaining new tutees through my work as a classroom teacher (this has not come to pass). I'm not exactly sorry I took the job, as every experience is educational, but honestly, the primary lesson I take from this may well be that I should learn to stay out of classrooms, because classrooms have students, and students have parents, and parents have issues. I like most of the students, and I think they're into the stuff we learn, for the most part, but I like tutoring so much better that I'm pretty sure I won't be coming back.

The funny thing about that is that I wasn't planning to even be here in New York beyond the end of 2007. I was supposed to be done with the masters degree by now and off to California for the next chapter of my life, and I feel sort of vastly inadequate that I'm not, but on the other hand, my income is not negative for the first time in my life, and I have remarkable freedom here, and I've made some good friends, and on top of all that, it's New York, and I really do love this city, in spite of the little things that I don't love.

Today, while I was on my way to Monday School, I passed a young Chassidic boy who looked like he was the age of my students. He had posted himself on the corner, like they do, and he called out "Excuse me..." as I walked by. Figuring I knew what was coming, I turned around. "Are you Jewish?" he asked. Bingo.

Now, my hair was down, and I was wearing my black hat (vaguely newsboy-ish), and I'm half-Russian and currently pasty-white (it's Winter here), so it would have been harder for me to look any more Jewish than I did. I laughed. "Of course I am."

"Ok, well, do you have a menoyroh?"

"A what? Oh, a menorah! Yeah, I've got one." This is funny, because I made my own little cheapy menorah out of a cereal box and foil when I realised it was Chanukah and I didn't have one. I was proud of my creation, but when my mother heard I'd been reduced to such Dire Straits, she mailed me a real one overnight, which was awfully thoughtful of her, but what she didn't realise is that there's a value to having things in the apartment that are unimportant and disposable. The Advocate understands this, and was lamenting to me only yesterday about how she wants more space, but can't bear to get rid of anything. In her case, it's mostly furniture, but for me, even the possession of a Nice Menorah is a liability. Even now, as I type this, it's staring at me with all its guilt-infliction-power on. "You're not treating me with proper respect," it glowers. "I should be dusted and polished and displayed in the window, not set carelessly on the edge of this coffee table you picked up off the sidewalk without even washing. You are a Bad Housekeeper!" Soon, I tell it, and glance in the mirror at the cereal box menorah, whose candles are burning low in the window. Anyway, my menorah-tally is greater than 0, and I told the fellow on the corner as much.

"Well, we're giving out menoyros, but if you've got one...." He showed me his supply. They looked pretty high-quality for street-corner donations. "You lit already, right?"

"What, tonight??" It was a little before 3 in the afternoon, and the sun sets early these days, but not that early.

"No, no, the past six nights."

"Oh, sure, yeah."

"Good!" He looked pleased, but a little awkward. I'd taken away his usefulness, I guess.

"Well, thanks anyway," I told him. "Happy Chanukah."

It surprised me, how it stuck with me, how happy the encounter left me. I guess most 11-year-old boys I see aren't so eager to talk to strangers, much less to find out whether they can use a menoyroh, but it's more than that. Usually, the people peddling religion on the street corners have a message for me that is about as far from "Good for you, you're doing it right!" as it can possibly be, and, well, I guess I have a delicate ego, because I like approval, even when it comes from people who don't know anything about me except that I've been lighting my menorah. There's also a little bit of feeling like I'm finally part of the club, instead of one of the outsiders. It's validation. Brooklyn is a comfortable place to be Jewish.

Compare this to the little mini-experience I had yesterday afternoon, when I was foolish enough to venture into the wilds of Connecticut to meet a new student. As her father drove us from the train station to their house, we were doing the requisite small talk, and he asked me where I went to school. I gave him the whole list, starting with CUNY, then Stanford, and then Drisha and RRC. "I was going to be a rabbi for a while," I said, to explain the latter two.

"Now that's interesting," he said. "We're Catholic, but I've always been interested in the different sort of...philosophy...of Judaism, and the history, and why the Jews rejected Christ."

I didn't burst out laughing, but I sure wanted to. Instead, I carefully told him that there's lots of information addressing that question online, if he's interested in reading about it. Granted, I'm a little touchy about that topic these days, but still, the guy's in his 50s if he's a day, and if he's so interested, why has he not done any of his own reading about this? Rejected Christ, my carefully concealed horns.

Which brings me to the main thing I haven't talked about on here yet, and the reason I sort of stopped blogging almost a year ago. I'm romantically involved with someone who would never marry a Jew. His name is The Saint, and he sparkles and shines, but the religion thing is the cause of much angst for both of us, especially him, since he'd like to be married and raising children already. Still, we soldier on, I because I'm just that crazy about him, and he because I guess he hasn't met anyone else yet. Indigo remarked to me last week, quite accurately, that if she'd told me a year ago that a year from then I'd be completely wrapped up in studying the LDS religion, I'd have never believed her. And yet, I find it a little thrilling to think that I can't predict things after all, that I don't have my future all figured out, that life still has some surprises in store for me, that it can still turn my world inside out. It's almost like I'm four years old again, and there are still wonderful new things to discover. This time, of course, my heart is going along for the ride, and a lot of the time it's painful, but on the other hand, what a ride it is.

~ prattled by Miriam at 8:43 p.m. [+] ~ 1 comment

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