Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Purim Kiddush 2007 (edited)

It wouldn't be Purim without the annual changes to the Purim kiddush. This year, there have been only minor changes to the text, and a number of changes to the document formatting. Mostly, these are attempts to make a closer parody of the evil empire of siddurim, emphasizing some of the bad typography choices they made (can someone explain to me why English is in italics?).

Here's the 2007 version in PDF (for viewing and printing) and OpenDocument format (for editing).

Beyond the more-or-less standard and interchangeable Roman fonts, the fonts used are: Ezra SIL for serif-Hebrew, and FreeSerif for the biohazard symbol dingbat used as a substitute for the 90-degree rotated fleur-de-lis.

If you're interested in liturgical development, the previous versions are: 2006, 2005, 2004.

Note that the copyright terms and permission notice for these two files are different from the rest of my blog. Here goes the legalese:
Copyright © 2004-2007 Elf's DH.

Permission is granted to make and distribute copies of this work, with or without modifications, under the conditions (1) that the above copyright notice and this permission notice are preserved on all copies and (2) that if the work is modified, distribution of the modified work is under the terms of an identical permission notice.

Chag Sameach!

[Edited to correct bad links to the 2007 edition. Sorry, forgot the http:// prefix]

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Monday, February 26, 2007

Be happy... it'll be Tishrei?

All prepped for Purim? It's not too early to start planning next year's Yom Kippur Party.

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Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Jew It Yourself DDOS-s itself

If you haven't been living in a cave for the past few days, you've probably encountered either a blog, a LiveJournal community, a mailing list, or a mainstream press article that referred to ShulShopper, a new website that launched whose goal is for congregations and independent minyanim of all (or no) denominations to self-list based on style and affiliation. Users can then search the site based on location and certain aspects of the minyanim that they're looking, and be matched to those that suit their preferences.

The basic idea is very good. It's still in public beta, so there are a number of kinks to be worked out in the backend and the interface, both of which are to be expected.

One of those kinks is the probably unexpected business of the site. The server is constantly choking under its load, and HTTP error 503 (service unavailable) is not an uncommon occurrence. In fact, it's been so busy in the first two days since its launch and has received so many links from so many sources that they've been affected by the blogosphere equivalent of the Slashdot effect. That is, an unintentional distributed denial of service attack caused by too many people trying to access the same site at the same time.

The moral: too much publicity can be a bad thing. I would expect that the DDOS will settle over the next few days as the site loses its brand-newness and becomes just another niche Internet service — or obtains more bandwidth. That, and, the blogosphere's attention span only goes so far (it's no more than 5 days).

UPDATE: What was it I said a week ago? Incidentally, the site is no longer DDOS-ed to the point of being nearly unusable, supporting my point about the blogosphere's attention span.

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Sunday, February 11, 2007

Homosexuality in halacha V: Human Dignity

For the purposes of this post, I will assume that we can accept the Dorff, Nevins, Reisner teshuva's conclusion that among all homosexual activity, only male-on-male anal intercourse is forbidden from the Torah, and the remainder is forbidden rabbinically.*

Please note that we are discussing here a legal, not a colloquial, definition of “dignity.” An answer that says that the principle does not apply to the case of homosexuality is not equivalent to saying that homosexuals are somehow undignified or not due the honor that is due to any human being.

Dorff et al begin their argument on the concept of “feasibility” — that the halacha does not demand what it knows to be impossible. Upon first reading this argument, I equated it in my mind with Rabbi Simchah Roth's final argument in his teshuva that homosexuals are אנוסים (compelled in their actions). The Dorff teshuva never makes the equation to that legal language. It uses more fuzzy broad-based logic to argue that the Torah does not demand the impossible (pp13-14). Both arguments are similar in that both documents use this particular argument towards the end of increased permissiveness, which looks to me like the wrong conclusion. A more authentic use might be to use these types of arguments to absolve homosexuals of the positive obligations of heterosexual marriage. Another potential use would be to absolve them of legal culpability for wrongdoing. Because the halacha is not a civil code, removal of such culpability has no practical effect. It also may be counterproductive to the final intent of the argument. It appears to me that Dorff et al intend to make halacha accepting of homosexuals in an ideal way (לכתכילה), not merely as compelled sinners. It does not appear to me that these arguments help overturn negative commandments in anything more than a single-instance and/or non-ideal case (בדיעבד).

The primary halachic argument that Dorff et al advance, and the one from which they derived the title of their work is that כבוד הבריות (human dignity, dignity due to all creations) overrides the Rabbinic negative commandments, and would thus allow homosexuals full participation in the community.

The principle, as stated in the Talmud (see footnote 56 for multiple references), is גדול כבוד הבריות שדוחה לא תעשה שבתורה, “[so] great is human dignity that it sets aside a negative commandment in the Torah.” All agree that the Talmud limits its own statement to Rabbinic commandments. That is why one must agree with this teshuva's interpretation of the the distinction between Biblical and Rabbinic prohibitions that was summarized earlier in order for this particular argument to hold.

The analysis then turns to practical cases where the principle is used:
  1. BT Berachot 19b: A sage must strip off a garment that he learns contains a prohibited combination (shatnez), even if he is in public. In this case, Divine dignity, which is determined by observance of the commandments, overrides human dignity and the dignity due to the sage.
  2. A kohen may accompany a mourner through a field that was rendered impure through the possible presence of human remains. Had the field been an actual cemetery, this act would be Biblically forbidden. The prohibition of a kohen's passage through the uncertain field is Rabbinic, and is overridden by the dignity due to the mourner.
  3. Similarly, the rabbis, including kohanim would go over actual coffins in order to greet a king of Israel. The dignity due to the king overrides what turns out to be a rabbinic commandment (because the coffins themselves were constructed to limit the spread of impure cooties).
  4. Because leading an animal would be beneath his dignity, a Torah scholar does not have to return a lost animal he found, in contravention to a positive Biblical commandment.
  5. A person may carry smooth stones (an equivalent to toilet paper) up to a roof -based bathroom on Shabbat in order to clean himself, in deference to human dignity. Such carrying would violate a negative Rabbinic commandment.
  6. A dead body may be removed from a house to an intermediate area on Shabbat. Such carrying would violate a negative Rabbinic commandment.
  7. One should bury an abandoned body in preference to reading the Megilah at the proper time, because of the dignity due to the body (this is indeed referred to in B.T. Megilah 3b as כבוד הבריות, the dignity due to creations, and not the more common כבוד המת, the dignity due to the dead).

The opposing arguments are (Roth 2006 p21-26):
  1. Person A may violate a negative rabbinic commandment on behalf of the dignity of person B, but not on behalf of his own dignity.
  2. In order to qualify as indignity, the undignified state must occur in public.
  3. The dignity exception only applies to violations that occur in single-instances, and is an emergency measure.

In fact, most of the cited cases do follow one of these patterns, and Dorff et al acknowledge that fact (p23). R. Louis Ginzberg's modern definition that they cite of כבוד הבריות, in fact, comes somewhere between Roth's and their own:

שכבוד הבריות משמעו דבר שאדם מונע עצמו ממנו כדי שלא יתבזה בין בני אדם

The meaning of [the exception due to] human dignity is that a man withholds himself from something so that he will not be humiliated among people. (Dorff translation, p23)

This definition seems to allow for someone to make an exception on his own behalf, but also indicates that the indignity must occur in public.

It appears to me that the only case of those provided where an individual is clearly violating a negative Rabbinic commandment on behalf of his own dignity is that of the carrying of cleaning stones on Shabbat. Roth's first and second counterarguments are applied to this case by asserting that the prevented indignity is the smell of feces among others. The dignity of the others is being protected, and the indignity occurs in public. This line of thought can be negated by pointing out that there is no mention of others in the private domain. One could easily imagine that the man be advised not to violate Shabbat and not to appear in public, or that the exception be limited to a multi-occupant house! Unfortunately, Dorff et al seemingly contradict themselves on the bottom of p23: “Dignity is a social phenomenon... for a person to smell filthy in isolation is uncomfortable, but it becomes humiliating only when others smell him.” Roth's third counterargument that it is only a single-instance emergency measure is negated by the fact that this exception is codified in the Shulchan Aruch as a permanent exception.**

In defense of the argument that this ruling applies to homosexuals, Dorff et al assert that homosexuals' “social status is one of humiliation” (p22). One thing in common between all the precedent proof-cases provided both by Dorff et al and by Roth (who includes additional cases in his refutation) is that it is perfectly clear that a specific commandment is being violated by one person on behalf of the dignity of a specific person. The major legal issue with the exception proposed by Dorff et al is that the permission is highly nonspecific. It is never clear who's dignity is being protected in the particular violation of any rabbinic commandment. The “hard” legal principle from which they tried to derive a hard legal argument devolved into a “soft” principle, to use their own terminology (p17).

The teshuva also suffers from a philosophical flaw that is inherent to other permissive Conservative teshuvot as well. Namely, it speaks the language of permission, but not of obligation.*** In this case, the teshuva concludes that all rabbinic prohibitions relating to homosexuality are annulled because of the principle of “so great is human dignity...”. It also emphasizes Jewish values such as fidelity/monogamy, (p27) but it does not translate these values into part of the proposed solution. It intentionally leaves out discussion of the nature of “commitment ceremonies”, allowing them, but effectively making them optional (p25). It appears that the teshuva leaves fewer obligations with regards to a homosexual relationship than a heterosexual one!

Unlike R. Gordon Tucker's teshuva (for example), the work of Rabbis Dorff, Nevins, and Reisner is intended to be a paper for an audience willing to accept classical halachic reasoning. Because it relies on essentially weak or incomplete argumentation, it would tend to fail to convince that kind of audience. As far as I have read, though, it is the most plausible attempt to create a permissive regime for homosexuality within the context of halacha. An unfortunate side-effect of its acceptance by the CJLS may be that it will be considered the final word on the subject, and a more halachically honest approach will never even be proposed. As a side note, the Masorti movement, the Israeli equivalent of the Conservative movement, which retains its own decision-making apparatus, has stated that it will not be bound by the American decision. It is possible, therefore, that these issues will be ironed out in the Israeli/overseas process.

* In my previous post, I decided not to discuss the issue of lesbianism. Briefly, Roth (1992,pp5-6;2006,pp18-19) claims that it's Biblically prohibited, quoting from Sifra, which derives the prohibition from the general introductory statement of Lev. 18:3. Both Roth and Dorff et al agree that any punishment for lesbianism is rabbinic. Should we accept Dorff's argument about the Biblical prohibitions with regard to men, then, it would only seem logical to accept their arguments with respect to women. Otherwise, lesbianism, which does not involve any intercourse and is not mentioned specifically in the Torah, would be under a more stringent ruling than male homosexuality, which involves intercourse that is forbidden by the Torah. It is not clear from the Sifra's text itself whether it actually intended to derive a new Biblical prohibition or make a midrashic comment, or, for that matter, what acts precisely would be considered Biblically prohibited.

** Dorff et al attempt to provide a grammatical argument from the Talmudic text of the case of the Israelite king to prove that the human dignity exception is continuous, and not an emergency measure. The argument is not that convincing.

*** We may contrast this teshuva to those that permitted egalitarianism, which based their conclusions on two theories. According to one theory (Roth), women must accept upon themselves obligations before they could fulfil them for others. According to the other theory (Golinkin, eg), women are already, in fact, equally obligated.

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Tuesday, February 06, 2007

The minyanim of Studentville UAQ

Now that:

I feel an obligation to post this.

The catch-phrase of the Ig Nobel Prizes is that they "first make people laugh, and then make them think." I would hope that post did it.

Pseudonymous commenter Locke (not the political philosopher) wrote:

I like to think of the two major groups of people that inhabit Studentville as crowd 1: which takes itself very seriously and won't laugh at anything. and crowd 2: who have a tendency to laugh much too loudly, and at inappropriate times.

You can think of this post as being written by crowd 2 with an audience of crowd 1.

And now, to the UAQ:

Oh no! My minyan was misrepresented!

Of course it was! It's a parody. Certain elements were exaggerated for effect and humor value.

But my minyan was misrepresented even more than all the others!

No, it wasn't. And, I would find it hard to believe that you did not recognize at least some elements of the (short) characterization that rang true.

Why would you write something inflammatory like this? The community is fine.

Read the comments to the original post. See if you still believe that.

Was it all a ploy to get people to go to a specific minyan?


Was it directed as a jab any specific minyan?

Not really. The impetus for the post was a specific minyan. But, the point is valid for the entire community.

So, why did you say that my minyan had no reason to come into existence?

Because its founding duplicated an institution that's already in existence, rather than adding something new to communal life.

What do you mean by adding something new?

Creating a group with differences in practice and/or religious ideology sufficient to differentiate your group from the pre-existing ones.

Do you really think that Metropolis should only have three shuls -- one Reform, one Conservative, and one Orthodox?

That's two separate questions! The answer to the first is: No. If the active community is large enough to support duplicate institutions, or if geographical constraints make duplication necessary, it's not problematic at all. One can argue that the challenge in some communities is to make the religious groupings smaller. To the second question: Differences in practice and religious ideology are not limited to, and are more confused by than enlightened by, denominational lines.

But my minyan has social action, learning programs, etc.

That's great! Kol hakavod! Why do you need a minyan?

Are you on drugs?


Do you hate independent minyanim?

No. I think independent minyanim have an important place in the greater Jewish community, and have done a lot to bring uninvolved Jews into the fold, and keep Jews involved. There's a time and place for everything, says Kohelet. Also, if you read the post, you'll note that independent minyanim are not the only targets of barbs.

Did the Republicans put you up to this?


Why didn't you list my minyan?

Is it really in Studentville? If so, it means I didn't know about it. If you have to ask this question, though, you should probably be asking yourself where your minyan fits in to the "taxonomy."

What's a UAQ, anyway?

A FAQ is a frequently asked questions list. A UAQ is an unasked questions list. My telepathy software told me you were thinking them. :-)

Are you just writing this post to get back on everyone's RSS aggregators?


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Say what?

This is a real error message I got from Windows XP Professional when I tried to delete a file (file name removed):

You have to wonder what the programmer was smoking when he wrote it.

If you're using a text-based browser, it says:
Title bar: Error deleting file or folder

Cannot delete [filename]: There is not enough free disk space.

Delete one or more files to free disk space, and then try again.

To free space on this drive by deleting old or unnecessary files, click Disk Cleanup.

Button options: "Disk cleanup..." and "OK"

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Sunday, February 04, 2007

From the fact-is-just-a-few-months-behind-parody department

One of these links is to a satire.
The other is to a real news story.
Which is which?

Link 1.
Link 2.

(Note: There's somewhat contradictory information on the 'net about the resolution of the real issue. The main point here is that 55" or larger televisions will soon be common in normal households. And, that's where the satire becomes more plausible.)

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Friday, February 02, 2007

The minyanim of Studentville, MA...

... or, can't we all just daven together?

Important: If you lack a sense of humor, read this first.

Town stats:

Population: Approximately 100,000 (source: Wikipedia)
Number of kosher restaurants: 0
Number of kosher stores: 0
Number of mikvaot: 0
Jewish population: Unable to obtain statistics. I'd estimate somewhere in thousands. Like many places, most Jews do not go to shul. I would estimate the active Jewish population to be under 1000.
Number of minyanim: At least 14

Names changed to protect the guilty.

Hillel I* Orthodox Minyan I.

Practice: Modern Orthodox
Reasons for existence: Orthodox undergraduate and graduate students from School I, Orthodox non-students who live in the area; Previously, only regularly-meeting Orthodox prayer group in town.
Served an unserved need when it started: Yes

Hillel I* Orthodox Minyan II.

Practice: Modern Orthodox
Original reasons for existence: Orthodox undergraduate students who didn't want to daven with the non-students in Hillel I Orthodox Minyan I. (The original intent of the minyan was to meet on Shabbat. It never took off.)
Would have served an unserved need when it started: No
Current reason for existence: Weekday morning minyan an hour later.
Served an unserved need when it started: Yes

Hillel I* Conservative Minyan I

Practice: Shortened-service, discussion session, Conservative/egalitarian
Original reasons for existence: Conservative students from School I; Conservative non-students
Current reasons for existence: Conservative non-students
Served an unserved need when it started: Yes

Hillel I* Conservative Minyan II

Practice: Traditional-liturgy Conservative/egalitarian
Reasons for existence: Egalitarian-leaning Conservative students (mostly undergraduates) who didn't want to daven with Hillel I Orthodox Minyan I (yes, that's right. Conservative Minyan II was more a breakaway from Orthodox I than Conservative I!)
Served an unserved need when it started: Yes

Hillel I* Reform Minyan

Practice: Guitar Reform
Reasons for existence: Only Reform prayer group in town.
Served an unserved need when it started: Yes

Hillel II** Orthodox Minyan.

Practice: Orthodox
Reasons for existence: Orthodox students from School II.
Served an unserved need when it started: Yes

Hillel II** Conservative Minyan.

Practice: Traditional-liturgy egalitarian/Conservative
Reasons for existence: Conservative/egalitarian students from School II.
Served an unserved need when it started: Yes

Orthodox Pseudo-Egalitarian Minyan I

Practice: Mechitza; Wait for 10 men/10 women for a "minyan"; Women lead parts of the service that aren't important.
Reasons for existence: Orthodox 20- and 30-somethings who wanted to maximize women's participation; Egalitarians who didn't want to daven at Shul Egalitarian Minyan or Hillel I Conservative Minyan II.
Served an unserved need before it started: Maybe. The real pseudo-egalitarian crowd was unserved. The (majority?) egalitarian crowd was served.

Orthodox Pseudo-Egalitarian Minyan II

Note: The latest addition to the fray.
Practice: Mechitza; Wait for 10 men/10 women for a "minyan"; Women lead parts of the service that aren't important. (Sound familiar?)
Reasons for existence: Undergraduate students who didn't want to daven with Orthodox Pseudo-Egalitarian Minyan I or Hillel I Orthodox Minyan I.
Served an unserved need before it started: No. Practice exactly mirrors Orthodox Pseudo-Egalitarian Minyan I.

Shul I Egalitarian Minyan

Practice: Traditional liturgy egalitarian/Conservative
Reasons for existence: Egalitarian-leaning Shul-I-goers who didn't want to daven with Shul I Traditional Minyan; Conservative area residents.
Served an unserved need before it started: Yes

Shul I Traditional Minyan

Original Practice: Orthodox, then non-egalitarian Conservative without a mechitza.
Original reasons for existence: It was the shul minyan.
Served an unserved need before it started: Yes
Current Practice: Modern Orthodox
Current reasons for existence: Members of Shul I who became "too frum" for Shul I Egalitarian Minyan; Orthodox area residents.
Served an unserved need before it started: Maybe

Postdenominational Egalitarian Minyan

Practice: Traditional-liturgy egalitarian/not Conservative
Reasons for existence: A place for 20- and 30-something egalitarians who go to Orthodox Pseudo-Egalitarian Minyan I to go when they don't meet; they won't go to Shul I Egalitarian Minyan or Hillel I Conservative Minyan II.
Served an unserved need before it started: No

Shul Nobody Goes To

Practice: Friday night egalitarian/"non-denominational" minyan
Original reasons for existence: Area residents who grew up in Hillel I forming a community.
Served an unserved need before it started: I dunno.
Current reasons for existence: Providing rental space for Postdenominational egalitarian minyan and Orthodox Pseudo-Egalitarian Minyan I. Getting Torah scrolls declared pasul (unfit) by said minyanim.

Big Orthodox Outreach Organization

Practice: Big Orthodox Outreach Organization
Reasons for existence: Feeding hungry students and non-students, especially of the bu$ine$$ and law varieties; Starting an hour later on Shabbat morning, thus avoiding any suspicion that Big Orthodox Outreach Organization rabbi is davening b'zman at Hillel I Orthodox Minyan I.
Served an unserved need before it started: Food, yes. Minyan, no.

* It may come as a surprise to some who don't live in Studentville that I'm considering Hillel I as supporting minyanim for non-students. This is something of a historical accident. Hillel I is roughly centrally located in Studentville and functioned as something akin to a Jewish Community Center. At one point, it associated with local K-8 day school (now independent). With recent policy shifts added to the advent or ascendence of so many other minyanim, Hillel I is in the process of losing its connection to non-undergraduate students and non-students alike. When these changes begin to hit them significantly in the donation department has yet to be seen.

** Geographical Note: School II is located far enough way from School I that they could not reasonably be expected to join each others' Hillels on a regular basis. Historical note: Both Hillel organizations were founded with a year of each other.

Updated: Added footnote *, corrected a few typos.
Update 2: Corrected characterization of one of the minyan's practices to reflect it "better." Added link to second post.

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