Tuesday, August 29, 2006


I counted the seeds of a pomegranate (and then ate them). There were 509. (roughly)

It was a smallish pomegranate too. A big one might indeed have close to 613 seeds.


I try to avoid making political posts, but I couldn't get out of the way of this one.

One main Israeli goal of the recent Lebanon war was to restore its deterrent power. It has been claimed that since many Arabs think that Hizbullah won, thus Israel's deterrence has actually decreased. But of course, Israel does not need to deter the average Arab - the Syrian goat-herder or the taxi driver from Qatar - because no matter how much they hate Israel, they can't do much to effect it. Only governments, militaries, and major terrorist groups need to be deterred from fighting. Specifically, without the support of either Lebanon or Iran, Hizbullah could not continue its activities. It is not a country or people after all, it is just a militia which needs funding and territory from which to operate.

I'm sure few Lebanese, no matter how much they hate Israel, would choose to see the destruction of the last month repeated. Iran, on the other hand, has lost nothing over the past month. And Iran has more influence over Hizbullah than the Lebanese government or society do. Lebanon has probably been deterred, but some other method will have to be found to deter Iran.

Right now Israel is faced with Hizbullah and Hamas on its borders, and the US is fighting an insurgency in Iraq. The common denominator in these destabilizing situations (possibly including Hamas) is Iranian funding. Take away the funding, and the terrorists will not be able to afford bombs or rockets or salaries. And Iran's wealth would seem to be easily attackable.

Since Ahmadinejad came to power and began making blood-curdling threats, nearly all foreign investment has left Iran in a hurry. The economy as a whole has been pretty weak since the Islamic Revolution, but this was the last straw. Apparently the Tehran stock market has all but ceased to exist. Of course, Iran survives because of oil revenue. But take away the oil, and Iran would not be able to fund Hizbullah or Hamas. In fact, the Islamic government - not especially popular in its own country - might even fall altogether. And oil is easily targeted.

If the US or Israel ends up at war with Iran, their first strike should eliminate every source of oil in Iran. This would cripple the country very quickly. Instead of being like Saudi Arabia's, Iran's economy would become more like Afghanistan's. Oil infrastructure could be rebuilt afterwards if the US allowed it, but probably not before then - no funds would be available, and who would be willing to invest? Of course, such a strike would only be possible as part of a major war; if undertaken in peacetime it would almost certainly cause war to begin.

Assuming we do not immediately want to wage war with Iran, there is another possibility. Iranian proxies have effectively used asymmetric warfare and terrorism. To fight Iran, the US or Israel must also begin to use "asymmetric warfare and terrorism". Of course, because we are moral, this does not mean targeting civilians. It does mean targeting oil pipelines and refineries. There should be bands of special agents infiltrating Iran and sabotaging oil infrastructure. If Iranian agents do this in Iraq, we can do it in Iran. To the extent Iran sows trouble in its neighbors, we would sow trouble in Iran.

If Iran tries to blame us, we can simply deny it, or else present conclusive evidence that they do the same and much worse. Even better, we could blame the sabotage on Iranian pro-democracy activists or whomever we choose. Thus, violence against a government would provide publicity and legitimacy for the violent party. Terrorists learned the value of this approach long ago, Yasser Arafat being the first and best example. It's time for the civilized world to apply it in one of the rare circumstances in which it is moral.

Though not as overpowering as a full military strike, organized sabotage can severely constrict a country's oil production capacity, as recent Iraqi experience has shown. For oil-dependant Iran this could quickly become a major strategic problem. Hundreds of millions of dollars would no longer be available to terror organizations around the world, or even to fund Iran's own army. As the country's economy went downhill, the leadership would lose domestic popularity and international prestige and might even be overthrown and replaced by a secular government. At the very least, faced with violence on its own soil, Iran could be intimidated into a following more restrained foreign policy. All this, at virtually no risk, except to a handful of special agents carrying out the attacks. (World oil prices would go up significantly, but that is the inevitable cost of any approach which hopes to change Iranian policy.)

Such an approach would not solve the Iranian nuclear problem. Nuclear weapons are so incredible valuable to a rogue state that their development could continue even as much of the country starves to death. That's what happened in North Korea, and Iran's mindset may be no different. Thus, some sort of formal military action would be necessary even as sabotage to oil infrastructure continues. The good news is that the two strategies are complementary. An attack on nuclear facilities would add to the economic pressure caused by sabotage. And damage to oil would make it harder to continue nuclear production, and much harder to rebuild nuclear facilities after an American attack. If the attack manages to destroy only part of the nuclear program, as many experts predict, then the delay in rebuilding would be even more valuable.

In fact, it seems to me that any vaguely sensible policy regarding Iran - sanctions, limited military action, or all-out war in the future, could be made more effective by surreptitious attacks on the country's oil production, even if carried out by a third party.

Right now no Western country seems to have a good idea of how to deal with Iran and its influence in the Middle East. Each of the available options seems to have significant drawbacks, to the point that Europe, for example, seems to have given up on the situation entirely. A program of sabotage, however, could make each of the options into a much more defensible option. Then a coherent and coordinated policy would be much more likely to emerge. The Iranian threat could be dealt with, and the biggest threat to peace in today's world could be neutralized.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Dear Abby Shebashamayim

Want proof that Shir Hashirim really is a metaphor for the God/Jewish people relationship, not "just" a love song? Here's what convinced me. (credit to R' Yoni Grossman)

השבעתי אתכם בנות ירושלם, בצבאות, או באילות השדה, אם-תעירו ואם-תעוררו את האהבה עד שתחפץ
(verse 2:7)
Crudely translated: "I make you swear, daughters of Jerusalem, by gazelles, or by the deer of the field, lest you awaken or arouse the love until is desired."

Now, people usually swear by God, their life, their soul, their honor, Satan - there is a short list of entities whom it is worth swearing to. Needless to say, gazelles and the deer of the field are not on that list. The phrasing is thus utterly incomprehensible...

Until you notice the pun. Gazelles - "tzevaot" - sounds a lot like "Hashem Tzevaot". And deer of the field - "ayalot hasadeh" - sounds a lot like "El Shadai". The verse is none other than a disguised oath in God's name, which would make perfect sense, and not in the name of a wild animal. If you didn't get it the first time, the pun is repeated with a different name of God. The choice of gazelles and deer to make the pun is in line with Shir Hashirim's general tendency to use metaphors from nature.

If two references to God in Shir Hashirim are in fact disguised through natural metaphors (and there is no other way to understand the verse), then perhaps there are others. Perhaps the entire book is such a disguised reference?

Kivud Av Ve'em

You might assume that honoring your parents is the kind of natural good deed which should apply equally to Jews and non-Jews, like not committing adultery or establishing a fair court system. But interestingly, there are sources which seem to indicate otherwise. The mitzvah of kivud av ve'em appears in the first half of the Ten Commandments. The normal division of five and five would thus place this command among the mitzvot bein adam lemakom, not those bein adam lechavero. And out of the Ten Commandments, only kivud av ve'em and Shabbat do not find parallels in the seven commandments to non-Jews, which are often identified with natural morality. Why?

Perhaps one important aspect of kivud av ve'em is the preservation the covenant. A main function of the Jewish parent/child relationship would be to transmit religious beliefs and behavior to the next generation, and respecting your parents would facilitate this. Since non-Jews do not need to transmit Judaism to their kids, a lesser degree of parental respect would be required of them.

Certainly one of the major roles of a Jewish parent is to provide the children with religious knowledge and consciousness. In several places (shema, sipur yetziat mitzrayim), we find the parent specifically is commanded to teach Torah to his children. Many Biblical verses testify that this is not an occasional obligation, but rather the parent should be the primary source of religious knowledge. "Ask your father and he will tell you, your elders and they will say to you" (Devarim 32:7). "Hear, my son, the guidance of your father; do not dismiss your mother's Torah" (Mishlei 1:8). God is often referred to as "the God of your fathers" - without revelation to the fathers (parents) and transmission to their offspring we would not have a relationship with God. Religious people (Melachim 2 2:12) and even kings (Melachim 2 6:21) refer to prophets as "father" - this particular term of respect being chosen in reference to the prophet's role as a religious teacher.

Halachically, the verse "Mipnei seivah takum" is interpreted as not just the older generation in general, but specifically Torah scholars, those who transmit the covenant. Many of the laws of honoring your rabbi are similar to those honoring your parents, hinting to a common reason for the respect. And perhaps, the punishment for cursing your parents is death, because it means cursing the source of your religion, and thus is tantamount to blasphemy. In each case, the parent's special position in the commandment comes about in connection to the teaching of Torah and transmission of Judaism.

More speculatively, we might go a step further and suggest that something is fundamentally lacking in parenthood which does not involve the teaching of Judaism. Halachically, the laws of inheritance do not apply to converts to Judaism. Is this because, as usually explained, converts are "born anew" and thus are in some sense not related to their biological families? Or more radically, perhaps the Torah does not fully recognize non-Jewish parenthood at all (since it cannot contribute to transmission of Judaism) and thus non-Jews fundamentally have no inheritance whatsoever? (Admittedly, there are major problems with this hypothesis.)

In any case, even if kivud av ve'em is counted one of the mitzvot bein adam lemakom in the Ten Commandments, it is also the very last one of them, immediately adjoining the mitzvot bein adam lechavero and apparently serving as a bridge between the two groups. Whatever the ritual dimensions of the commandment may be, you may not neglect the natural moral sensibility which should go into your relationship with your parents.

Friday, August 18, 2006


The Mishkan was located in Shiloh for hundreds of years. According to the Gemara (Megillah 9b, Zevachim 112b), Shiloh had almost the status that Jerusalem would later have: the mishkan was given stone walls; pilgrimage from the entire country came to Shiloh; sacrifices in other places were prohibited. But early in the life of Shmuel haNavi, Shiloh was sacked by Philistines and the mishkan destroyed. This was a momentous event, perhaps similar to the destructions of the two Temples. Israel's first request for a king came shortly after the destruction, presumably due to the terrible military weakness which they thought was caused by disunity and lack of a strong leader.

Sefer Shmuel Alef, chapter 4, describes how Philistines captured the Ark of the Covenant which had been taken into battle, and how high priest Eli's family was almost wiped out. But for some reason, the destruction of Shiloh is omitted. Later in Tanach (for example Yirmiyahu 26:6) we find passing references to the great destruction which took place. It is from these sources and archaeology that we know that there in fact was a destruction. But there is no mention whatsoever in Shmuel Alef. Chapter 4 spends a lot of time saying how each of Eli's children died, and how contemporary events are reflected in the name of his grandson ("I-chavod"), while omitting the most important of those events. Why?

To answer this, I think we have to look at the overall focus of Sefer Shmuel. I would argue that the book deals not with the history of Israel per se, but particularly with several of Israel's leaders. Most of the book focuses on Shaul and David. We hear how Shaul was selected, his potential as king, and how he then blew his chance and had the royalty taken from him. After that the book focuses solely on David: how he became king and how he was a better, though perhaps flawed, king than Shaul had been. It would not be farfetched to say that the entire purpose of Sefer Shmuel is to justify the choice of David's dynasty and confirm that the Mashiach will eventually come from his offspring, not Shaul's.

In the first few chapters of Sefer Shmuel, Shaul and David and their rivalry have not yet been presented. But a very similar dispute over authority does appear. Eli, the established priest in Shiloh, loses his position as spiritual leader to the charismatic Shmuel. Just as the bulk of the book focuses on justifying David's political authority in place of Shaul, I think these first chapters focus on justifying Shmuel's place as spiritual leader in place of Eli.

Thus, since the purpose of the book is to present personalities and not national history, events which do not directly relate to the personalities can be omitted. It is necessary to tell about the battle in which the Ark is captured, not only because it shows how low Israel has sunk under Eli's tenure, but also because it directly leads the death of Eli and his children. Their death, of course, must be mentioned for the same reasons.

But once we know the fate of Eli's family, there is no need to recount events which took place afterwards. We already know that Eli led the nation to defeat. If the destruction of Shiloh were to be mentioned once the focus of the book had shifted from Eli to Shmuel, we might mistakenly think that Shmuel was responsible for that misfortune. In order to avoid such an impression, the destruction of Shiloh is left out entirely. There is no danger of over-justifying Eli (apparently a nice guy, but a terrible leader), because enough negative events have already been mentioned that we know he was a failure.

Sunday, August 06, 2006