Wednesday, June 28, 2006


There are two kinds of tolerance. You can tolerate because you see value in many things, or at least value the creativity and effort that went into making those things. Or you can tolerate because you see value in nothing.

Unfortunately, too many of the people who talk about tolerance these days are in the latter category.

Cf. R' Kook (Ein Aya Brachot 58, Letter 384)


Where were the biblical Sedom and Amora located? South of the Dead Sea? Or north of it? I'll try to present arguments for both sides and to find a resolution. Keep in mind that I know nothing of archaeological finds or other such information which would affect the conclusions. In fact, my only resources are Tanach, a single journal article, and my geographic knowledge. But even within those sources, there's plenty to work with.

Arguments for the North

1. The initial description of Sedom (13:10) indicates very strongly that it is in the north. At this point, Abraham seems to be in the Beit El region. When he has to split up from Lot, Lot scans the horizon, notices Sedom, and decides to go east to there instead of north or south as Abraham suggested. From Beit El, the north end of the Dead Sea is easily visible and is directly to the east. In contrast, the south end of the sea is much further away to the southeast, and probably impossible to see from Beit El. Thus, the northern end seems a much better fit.

2. Even more convincingly, Lot's vision of the area can only correspond to the north end. The phrases "kulo mashkeh" and "kegan Hashem keeretz mitzrayim" bring up images of a lush forested area. Scientifically, it's hard to believe that the Dead Sea area ever looked nice and forested, or that a single rain-down of fire could permanently change the climate. Of course, if you read the verse carefully, you realize that that's not what it says. Egypt would be an uninhabitable desert if not for the river which flows through it. The Dead Sea area is also uninhabitable desert, but it too has a river flowing through it - the Jordan. The north end of the Dead Sea is "keeretz mitzrayim" - a desert with a life-sustaining river flowing through it, and "kulo mashkeh" - entirely irrigated from this river. This fits Lot's description perfectly, while the south end has no river, could never have been fertile, and thus is very hard to imagine as a setting for the story.

3. Not only that, but Lot specifically sets out for "kikar hayarden" - the plain of the Jordan river, which of course is in the north. Later on, "the kikar" is mentioned repeatedly as the site of Sedom, and presumably we are still talking about "kikar hayarden" in the north.

4. Biblical cross-references are ambiguous, with one exception. Breishit 19:22 tells us that Tzoar is a city close to Sedom. Devarim 34:3 seems to indicate that Tzoar is close to Jericho. If so, Tzoar and Sedom would be at the north end.

Arguments for the South

While the modern-day Sedom is south of the Dead Sea and most people assume that the ancient Sedom was there too, I'll ignore this widespread perception and try to focus on textual and geographic clues. Some are more conclusive, some less so.

1. The war between Chedarlaomer and Sedom was preceded (14:5-7) with a military campaign which took Chedarlaomer to a series of places. Several of these - Seir, Paran, Kadesh - seem to be south of the Dead Sea, while others are hard to locate. Nevertheless, if Sedom and its neighbors are north of the Dead Sea, this campaign seems rather out of the way and unrelated. If Sedom and company are to the south, then Sedom was located right in the middle of the campaign. The Sedom war and the previous campaign would then seem to fit together as parts of one larger conflict, which would explain why the Torah bothers to mention the campaign.

2. When Chedarlaomer finally battles Sedom, the king of Sedom is forced to flee, soon encountering the "be'erot chemar". Based on likely meanings of "chemar" and the geography of the Dead Sea area, it seems clear that the king of Sedom ran across and fell into a sinkhole created where the Dead Sea retreated and left behind salty terrain, unstable and prone to collapse. Many such sinkholes are common now at the south end of the Dead Sea, where due to human water use, the whole bottom third of the sea has dried up. Presumably such was also the case in Abraham's time (later on I'll present strong evidence for this). It thus makes sense to say the king of Sedom was fleeing near the southern end of the sea, when he fell into a sinkhole, and was later rescued.

3. Lot's wife was turned into a pillar of salt, and nowadays pillars and whole mountains of salt can be found south of the sea. This seems to indicate that she was "pilloried" in the south; though miracles by definition don't have to conform to nature.

4. The strongest argument for a southern Sedom may come from an article published in the Al Atar periodical, issue 12 (2003). The authors (Yoel Elitzur and Amos Frumkin) used geological data to calculate what the water level of the Dead Sea has been at each point over the last 4000 or so years. It turns out that there have been extensive variations in the water level. Most interestingly, in roughly 1200 B.C.E. the sea was at an unusual high peak of about 385 meters below sea level, while in 1600 B.C.E. the water level was much lower - perhaps 400 meters below, or comparable to the level today. As noted above, in the last century a similar change in water level has caused the bottom third of the sea to dry up entirely. Since the terrain was the same then as now, it's very probably that between 1600 and 1200 the southern third of the sea re-flooded as the water level rose.

This allows us to nicely explain a phrase which otherwise seems redundant and problematic. The battle takes place (14:3) in "the valley of Shidim, which is the salt sea". Why give both names? It seems that in Abraham's time (~1600 B.C.E.), the sea level was low and the area was a dry valley - "the valley of Shidim". By the time the Torah was given (~1200), the area had flooded. What was once a valley now became part of the Dead Sea. After giving the valley's original name, the Torah provides the "modern" name of the now flooded area, "the salt sea", so that readers in Moshe's time would know what is being referred to.

(Bible critics should note that the valley was once again dry from roughly 1000 to 100 B.C.E. :) )

In order for this re-flooding explanation to work, we must assume that the entire valley in question will flood and dry up again based on normal changes in the Dead Sea's level. This phenomenon has, of course, been observed in recent times at the southern area of the Dead Sea. But on the north, east, and west sides of the Dead Sea, the marine slopes are much steeper and only a sliver of land has been exposed as the water level has dropped. It's hard to imagine an entire valley with cities and agriculture fitting into this sliver. Thus, according to this theory, "emek hashidim" must be located at the southern end of the Dead Sea.

Possible Reconciliation

1. Most of the reasons I gave for placing Sedom (or at least the battle) in the south - the salty terrain, sinkholes, and the repeated flooding and drying of large areas of land - imply a southern location because similar phenomena are observed today only in the south. Nevertheless, if in ancient times a similar process had occurred at the northern end of the sea, then a northern location would be just as plausible. In fact, according to the Al Atar article previously quoted, if the Dead Sea were to rise to 380 meters below see level (an elevation not seen in modern times), then a substantial sliver of the Jordan river valley - roughly 6 by 3 kilometers - would become flooded. Were the water level to drop again, presumably the sliver would become salty and develop sinkholes. This area would then become an reasonable setting for the battle. Then it would be logical to say that both the city and the battle were located in the north.

2. All the reasons favoring the north relate to the city of Sedom, while all the reasons favoring the south (except one) relate to the battle with Chedarlaomer. If we assume that the battle took place some distance away from the city, then nearly all the of the arguments would be reconciled perfectly. I can think of no reason why the battle would have to be next to the city; the military action both immediately before and after our battle took place over a quite wide area and there is no reason to assume this battle must have been an exception. Thus, the city of Sedom would be at the north end of the Dead Sea, and the battle with Chedarlaomer would have taken place at the south end. Overall this seems like the best solution. Lot's wife, the only dissenting piece of evidence, can be explained by the obvious argument that miracles take place in whatever manner God desires.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

The Draft

There has been much discussion in Israel about modifying the draft. The main problem is a surplus in manpower. With the country's population approaching seven million, there simply are more young people than the army needs to carry out all its responsibilities cost-effectively. Unofficially, you can already avoid military service rather easily. In a sense, nobody should protest the charedi refusal to serve, because the army doesn't need them. What motivates anti-charedi protest, as well as the broad opposition to switching to a volunteer army, is the justified feeling that the army must include everyone for fairness and for socialization.

An obvious suggestion is to decrease the length of service. But for every problem this would solve, another would be created. Soldiers who serve a shorter period spend more of their service in training and thus are more expensive. And while there are too many soldiers overall, there is still a shortage in combat and professional positions. These training-intensive positions, as well as leadership positions, would still require an extended period of service. Shortening the basic period of service would further discourage people from choosing positions which the army really needs.

If the draft cannot be made voluntary and service cannot be shortened, the only option is to categorically exclude certain groups. There are two main concerns in such exclusion: fairness and efficacy. A lottery system would be fair, but not efficacious, because many of the best candidates would not be selected. Excluding the charedim is unfair, but efficacious - due to the political and social difficulty of including them, and because they might not make good soldiers anyway. Perhaps any system which preferences certain groups for practical reasons will necessarily be unfair. What is left is to aim for a system which maximizes gain and minimizes unfairness.

I think the best selection method is to draft all men for a full three years, but to excuse women from the draft. This implies discrimination on an individual level. But unlike all other possible selection methods, on a broad level it is perfectly equitable. Since every family on average contains an equal number of men and women, all social, economic, and ethnic groups would be treated equally. Furthermore, because families normally share resources among their members, the time and money burden would in fact be spread among every member of society. Men already serve longer than women and dominate combat units, so the areas of current shortage would not lose out. But the overall pool of manpower would be much smaller, and the army would no longer have to find work for many soldiers it does not need.

This approach also has several incidental but significant benefits for Israeli society. With women marrying and entering the workforce two years earlier, the country would gain economically, women would come closer to professional equality with men, and the birthrate in population groups loyal to the state would rise. Removing women from the army is desirable from a religious perspective (or from the perspective of appeasing the religious), both intrinsically and due to the freedom of behavior common in the current, mixed army. Such a removal could be paired with a large-scale induction of charedi men, resulting in perhaps an acceptable trade-off from the charedi perspective, along with the equal sharing of the defense burden among the entire Jewish population.

Weaknesses of the plan include the large gap in time commitment between men and women, and the loss by women of the socialization obtained in the army. These concerns could be addressed by requiring a year of national service from women, which might conceivably be extended to Arabs as well. Also, while women would presumably still be able to volunteer for military service, those few who do would probably have a harder time than at present. But this seems a small price to pay, when all other women would be entirely released from their current obligations.

There are currently demands in Israel to reduce the army's size, to privatize non-essential army services, to draft all populations on an equal basis, to crack down on draft and miluim evaders, to make the army environment more friendly to the religious, to increase enlistment in elite units, to decrease the economic burden caused by extended service, and so on. Unfortunately, many of these demands work at cross-purposes and might seem to be mutually exclusive. But almost all of them could be be reconciled by drafting all Jewish men, but only men. No other plan would come close to helping the areas we would like the army to improve in. Such a plan would indeed have novel side effects, but the probably scope of gain certainly makes them worth bearing.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Perspectives on Shavuot

R' Yehuda Amital:
The Magen Avraham questions why we celebrate Shavuot on the fiftieth day of the Omer, while in fact the Torah was given on Shabbat – which was the 51st day. The Maharal answers that what we are in fact celebrating is God's desire to give us the Torah, and to obligate us to receive it, even though perhaps Bnei Yisrael may have hesitated and faltered a little when they saw the great fire. When Bnei Yisrael were exposed to the great power of the Torah, it frightened them and caused them to have second thoughts about their commitment. Yet God nevertheless desired to give them the Torah, and even to force it upon them. It is God's readiness to give, and not Bnei Yisrael's readiness to receive, that we celebrate on Shavuot.

R' Aharon Lichtenstein:
What this teaches us is that after the sin [of the Golden Calf], the significance of matan Torah was greatly and seriously diminished. The nation had taken a step backwards, in a negative direction. We may compare the situation to that of a bride who was unfaithful under the very chuppa - it would have been better had she never entered the chuppa at all.
We originally posed the question of why the Torah hides the festival of matan Torah from us. Now the significance of the textual 'gap' is clear. Even Chazal refer to Shavuot as "zeman matan torateinu" (the time of the giving of the Torah) rather than as "zeman kabalat torateinu" (the time of the receiving of the Torah), because there was a giving of the Torah at the time, but not a proper receiving.

In summary: The Torah was given on what would have been the 50th day of the Omer, i.e. our holiday of Shavuot. It was only received by the Jewish people the next day, the day after Shavuot. This receiving was nullified (at least in our memories) by the sin of the Golden Calf. In its place, we try anew to receive and accept the Torah on each anniversary of the giving, which is to say each year on Shavuot.

Stupid Name Department

I saw a charedi yeshiva advertising for a "Yom Shekulo Torah" with shiurim from various rabbis. Is that meant to imply that every other day in that yeshiva is NOT full of torah? I mean, even at Gush we learn torah all day long. When we want to study one subject in-depth on an exceptional basis, we call it a "Yom Iyun". As it should be called. Not "A day which is all Torah just like every other day in this yeshiva." Of course, we ask for a "yom shekulo shabbat" on a day which is itself completely Shabbat. I guess I never was sure how to read that one literally either.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

A Quick Shiur Komah

Thoughts after reading Scholem's "Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism".

The basic chakira (set of possible conceptual frameworks) for (Jewish) mysticism is as follows:
The point of mysticism is to experience God's presence. There are two philosophies which allow this presence to be approached.
1) You can believe that God is already present in the world
2) You can believe God is about to enter the world, through the coming of the Messiah

The problem with #1 is that it is almost inherently pantheistic, and very quickly brings you close to heresy. Perhaps the Zohar itself has already crossed the line in this regard.

The problem with #2 is that messianic movements very easily get out of control in both the social and religious senses. Thus the Ari's messianic philosophy became the basis for that of Shabbetai Tzvi.

The restrictions on learning kabbalah (be over age 40, be married, etc.) are attempts to avoid these inherent problems. Often, it seems, these restrictions haven't been enough.