Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Early Jerusalem

David took the head of the Philistine [Goliath], and brought it to Jerusalem. ... And as David returned from the slaughter of the Philistines, Avner took him, and brought him before Shaul with the head of the Philistine in his hand. (Shmuel Alef 17:54-17:57)

After killing Goliath, David took the dead giant's head to Jerusalem, to show off to the king Shaul.

In Shmuel Bet chapter 5 we learn that Jerusalem was a Jebusite city, which was only conquered and made the capital of Israel after David became king! So what is David doing, years beforehand, bringing Goliath's head to a non-Israelite city? Would a Mossad agent have brought Imad Mugniyah's head to show off to Ehud Olmert in, say, Beirut or Cairo?

To understand this, I think we have to look at the context of David's conquest of Jerusalem. In chapters 2 to 4 there is a bloody civil war between David and Shaul's son Ish-Boshet, each of whom intends to be king over all Israel. At the beginning of chapter five, the Ish-Boshet side finally capitulates and all of Israel recognizes David as king. The very next story is David's conquest of Jerusalem.

I think it's no coincidence that Shaul happened to visit the same city, which David conquered right after subjugating Shaul's tribe and dynasty. Jerusalem is located right on the border between the tribes of Binyamin and Yehudah. In the rivalry and conflict between these tribes, represented by the conflicts between Shaul/Ish-Boshet and David, it is hard to imagine that Jerusalem remained impartial. Presumably, at an early date Jerusalem declared itself a close ally of Binyamin and Shaul's dynasty. Thus Shaul could be expected to frequently visit Jerusalem (and showing them Goliath's head is a good way of emphasizing Israelite strength, and how it's worth it to stay allied with Shaul). And when open warfare broke out between Binyamin and Yehudah, Jerusalem allied with the former, and remained opposed to David until he finally conquered it.

David then declared Jerusalem to be the national capital, in which the Temple would later be built. From a practical perspective, this meant putting the past threats to his power right under his nose, where he could ensure they did not threaten him again. At the same time, choosing a capital on the border between Yehudah and Binyamin symbolized the reconciliation between those tribes, and the peace which he hoped would prevail throughout the entire nation.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Me too!!!

As if an undergrad strike wasn't enough. And a faculty strike wasn't enough. Now the grad students are planning to strike, starting this Thursday. That means me! However, since I am not being a TA right now, this won't affect me until after Pesach, when I'm scheduled to start TAing again. (But I hope this nonsense is finished long before then.)

Friday, February 15, 2008


Did you know that for every person in the world, there are roughly a million ants?

Tuesday, February 12, 2008


The few hundred Jews living in Hebron have a rather well-deserved reputation for hostility towards the Arabs of Hebron. Their track record of harassing and physically abusing their neighbors goes well beyond that of any other Jewish community in the world. Much of this has been publicized, and the Hebron Jews are therefore probably the most-hated group of settlers among the Israeli left wing and international organizations.

Based on that history, what do the Arabs of Hebron think of these Jews? Surely the violence and intimidation they have suffered makes them hate and resent the Jewish presence more than Arabs anywhere else in Israel? Let us hear what they have to say.

"We don't see you as settlers but as residents", their Arab neighbors now say. "Hebron is ours just as it is yours."

Wow. When have any Arabs, anywhere, ever said that Jews in the West Bank are "residents, not settlers", that the West Bank legitimately belongs to them too? As far as I know this degree of respect for them is unprecedented. Could there be any better proof that "Arabs only understand force"?

Now, I know that an "effective" policy is not synonymous with a "moral" policy. And so I cannot support everything the Hebron settlers have done, even if it has earned them legitimacy in their neighbors' eyes. But in terms of obtaining a clearheaded perspective on the Israel/Palestinian conflict, and learning to eliminate policy options which will inevitably be counterproductive, wouldn't this story be a good place to start?

Saturday, February 09, 2008

And I thought I was doing MY job badly

A taxi driver asked me for directions earlier tonight. What's up with that?

Halachic change

Here's a response I wrote to a comment on somebody's blog. It still needs work, but the rewards of that work are less than the cost in time and effort, so I have no incentive to improve it further. But I think it contains enough good ideas that I don't want it lost forever to history, so I'll quote it here for my own future reference.


On the other hand, there's something I've been paying more and more attention to that is somewhat troubling. I never realized how many concepts in the Torah we've basically written off as not relevant. Shmitat ksafim (and the debate about shmitat karka), the prohibition on interest, even the need for two witnesses and warnings for capital punishment (see Drashot HaRan on Shoftim). I completely understand the need to adapt - and I do identify more with chazal's takanot. But on the other hand, if the social and legal structures in the Torah aren't relevant, and couldn't predict the life we live in now - than why should the ritual ones have such power?

Change of custom in itself is not a theological problem. Custom naturally develops over time; were that not the case different customs regarding a single issue would never exist.

One real value of customs (and ritual mitzvot) is that that they provide a sense of continuity. Ideological movements (romanticism, communism, the Enlightenment) rarely remain popular for more than about a century, whereas religions routinely last for thousand of years. That's the case regardless of the truth of the ideology/religion. The emotional resonance of customs and rituals is one big reason why. By lighting shabbat candles, we help ensure that our great-grandchildren will follow our ideals of morality. For that purpose, it does not matter if the manner of candle lighting changes a bit over time, nor that we recognize that such changes can and do take place.

Obviously, though, any explicit mitzvah which has come to be neglected should be observed according to halacha. Halachically speaking, a "minhag" which contradicts halacha is not a valid minhag. Practically speaking, in cases where custom contradicts halacha, that custom is objectively acting against and not preserving that aspect of halacha.

When God commanded us to use edim, hatraah, and so on, He knew that this would not be sufficient for conviction in many cases. If the best solution available is to use secular power to punish as well, then that is how God would have wanted us to act. God presumably intended for us to punish criminal by any possible legitimate means, so the secular judgment expresses His will as the beit din's judgment would have.

Concern about the "relevance" of a mitzvah is a theological difficulty which follows from a more fundamental theological difficulty: doubting God's omniscience and/or the truth of the Torah. While most of us have had these doubts, they are an issue to be recognized as problematic and worked on. Of course it immensely helps to realize that not all Divine will is expressed in legal statements (as one example "gadol shimush talmidei chachamim yoter melimud torah"), and that God doesn't hold it against us if we try our hardest, yet the Torah's vision of society is not achieved.

An instructive parallel is the issue of haaramah, where we mostly say that is OK to "trick" God (i.e. mechirat chametz), because after all God knew about the halachic loopholes when he gave the Torah, and implicitly allowed us to use them. Here too, a correct perception of God's powers and role nullifies concerns we might have about halacha's implementation.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Thoughts on Mishpatim

If a man gives his neighbor money or vessels to keep... [Laws of "shomer hinam"] (22:6-8)
If a man gives his neighbor a donkey, ox, sheep, or any beast to keep... [Laws of "shomer sachar"] (22:9-12)

These passages are the source for the halachic concepts of "shomer hinam" and "shomer sachar" - the consequences for unpaid and paid guardians of property when the property is lost, stolen, or destroyed. The consequences are, of course, more serious when you are being paid to be the guardian and nevertheless something goes wrong.

It's interesting that the verses themselves never mention whether or not the guardian is getting paid. In fact, there seems to be a clear, different distinction between the cases: the second case deals with live animals, the first with all other property. What then is the basis for deriving the concepts of "shomer hinam" and "shomer sachar" from these verses?

To answer this, we must first remember that parshat Mishpatim consists of "case law", in which specific applications of the law are used as examples from which the law in other cases can be derived by comparison. For example, if my animal kills your animal, I'm halachically required to pay you certain amount of damages. This is true no matter which species of animal does the killing. But parshat Mishpatim doesn't say "If an animal kills another animal", but rather "If an ox gores another ox". The reason is that oxen were the most dangerous domestic animals in the ancient Middle East. If one animal killed another, it was most likely a case of one ox goring another ox. Only this most common case is specified, and we are expected to determine the law for all other cases by analogy.

We must therefore ask about each law in parshat Mishpatim: is it intended to be self-contained, or is it just one example of a more universal principle? This determination should be made using common sense. For example, I see no justification for a special law for when my ox gores your ox, which doesn't apply when my sheep butts your sheep or my dog bites your ox. It's more reasonable that a single principle should apply to all cases of animal damage. Since that understanding makes the most sense, and since special laws for the sheep and dog cases are noticeably absent, I can tentatively conclude that the ox case was intended to cover all animal damage cases.

Let me try the same analysis with the two guardian cases. I, at least, can't think of any logical reason why a guardian should have to pay for an animal stolen from him, but not for other stolen property. One possible parallel is the convicted thief, who pays fourfold or fivefold if he sold or killed a stolen animal, but only pays double in all other cases of theft. But this seems intended to deter killing the animal (which would make the crime harder to reverse), and would be less relevant in the guardian case.

Perhaps a better distinction follows from the fact that guarding animals is unlike guarding other types of property. Non-living property can simply be placed in a vault and forgotten about until the owner wants it back. In contrast, keeping an animal requires constant effort. The animal must be fed, cleaned up after, taken for walks, watched for diseases, and so on. This is an extra commitment beyond a person's normal workload, and in the case of food it represents a significant expense.

Therefore, my guess is that while a person would willingly guard a nonliving object, it would take a substantial payment to get someone to guard an animal for any substantial length of time. Perhaps it can be presumed that animal guardianships were generally paid, while other guardianships generally were not.

With that assumption, the halachic difference between the cases is trivial to understand. Extra payment implies an extra level of responsibility. If the guarded object is stolen or destroyed, only the paid guardian is held responsible.

Now, this may not be the only reasonable understanding of the verses, but it's at least as defendable as any other I can think of. There is inherently a level of ambiguity in the "case law" method. When the principles are not stated, it's always possible that someone might disagree with me and assume the existence of a different principle than I do. This can be a disadvantage in that the laws are more ambiguous. But it can also be an advantage, in that there is more flexibility to sensibly solve complicated cases, without being anchored to an explicitly stated principle even when it leads to contradictions or unfairness.

Practically speaking, though, parshat Mishpatim is not detailed enough to give a conclusive ruling in many cases. That is why we had a single Sanhedrin to decide all cases for the Jewish people, and why we now have an "oral" tradition which records how these laws are in fact to be applied.

Whether the "correct" interpretation recorded in the oral tradition was specified at Sinai, or whether God intentionally left to us to interpret and apply parshat Mishpatim as we thought best, is a very interesting question to which I do not know the answer.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Cheaters sometimes win

(I can't mention cheating without thinking of the New England Patriots, who just had their perfect season ended by a surprise loss in the Super Bowl. Woohoo! It's pretty awesome that in one game, their legacy went from best-ever to most-embarrassing-and-painful-loss-ever. There, got that that out of my system, now on to the actual post.)

As part of my graduate school work, I grade homework assignments for an undergrad class. It so happens that the homework problems for this class are exactly this year as last year. It also happens that, for one week's homework, the official answer sheet (for last year and this year) includes a mistake.

Would it surprise you to learn that roughly two-thirds of the class wrote down not the right answer, but the exact same incorrect answer which was on the answer sheet?

It's clear to me that all these students possess copies of the answer sheet from last year, and they are copying from it instead of doing the problems themselves. I even saw one student's homework, on which he wrote down the correct answer, but then apparently modified it in each of the last four steps to make it look like he honestly got the official (wrong) answer.

The problem is, since I have no proof than any of these students didn't just make a stupid mistake, there is nothing I can do about this apparent cheating.

I guess it's unrealistic to expect that cheating is any less pervasive here than in the US... but still.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Happy charedi guy