Thursday, January 30, 2003

Dinner at Mendy's

I had dinner tonight at Mendy's on 34th and Park. I had soup and sushi. The company was good though. I was there with "M" and "M" and "Y" and "L" and "D". It was fun. The food left a bit to be desired.

Wednesday, January 29, 2003

A problem with not being democratic

When one thinks of the Israel-Palestinian issue there is a long overlooked caveat that I thought is worth pointing out. It seems obvious that when Israelis vote for a man like Sharon who they pretty much believe is a war criminal, then it signifies a definite lack of interest in a peace process. Of course, any Israeli will tell you that a vote for Sharon by the country is really the country's way of saying that it is sick of Arab terror, and does not right now see the peace process as a viable option. As soon as it looks like the Arabs are willing to talk, the next Rabin or Barak-type leader will be in office.

This reasoning is elementary to any lay or sophisticated thinker about Israeli politics.

Unfortunately there is an apparent problem with this line of thought. It appears to say that the Israelis are the good guys, just waiting for the dust to clear and they will come out with open arms and greet their Palestinians in a open show of affection and friendship. But since Sharon is in power, it must mean that the fault lies with the Palestinians.

But what is the problem? I happen to agree with my original analysis of Israeli society. It is true. It is also pretty obvious.

Now if you are a Palestinian, you may not like this. Why not? because it says that the reverse is not the case. It says that when the Palestinian people want to make some sort of deal then Israel is not waiting for them. Rather Israel decided unilaterally when to make peace and when not to. How do they do this? They do this by voting in either a Sharon or a Barak. If Israelis are in a generous mood then they vote in a Barak to test the peace waters. If they are in the mood to continue brutalizing the Palestinians then they will vote in a Sharon to keep the Palestinians oppressed.

The reason that this line of thinking is wrong is because there is a hidden assumption that is made in the above argument. What is it? The assumption is that both sides are equally capable of making the decision to initiate peace talks and make the political adjustments accordingly. This however is not the case. (In game theoretic terms, we would say that both sides are capable of being punishing and forgiving, both necessary for any real cooperation.) The reason this is not the case is because there is a disparity in the respective political infrastructures of the Palestinians and the Israelis.

Israel has changed governments many times since her inception. Sometimes the government is a right-wing government, and sometimes it is a left-wing government. Israel can change. Moreover Israel is a fairly free and democratic society, amenable to all sorts of political adjustments and upheavals. Israel is also capable of changing her long-term goals and outlooks. The Palestinians on the other hand are not. Arafat has been in charge of the Palestinians issues since the late 1950's. He founded the PLO in 1964. When it was founded there was pretty much one goal in mind. The goal was to destroy Israel. He bet the lives and culture of the whole Palestinian people on the fact that that could happen. He was prepared to sacrifice Jordan and Lebanon to do it.

While Arafat may appear to have given up his initial goals, and while he hardly fights for them, it is hard to believe that he has actually changed them. I do not say this because I think that any Arab thinks that Israel will be wiped out in their lifetime. I say this because there is no evidence whatsoever that the Arabs, and the Palestinians in particular, are capable of a serious reevaluation of their goals, objectives, and methods.

The same person has been in charge since the beginning - namely Arafat. He has managed to stay in power, and barely alter his ideology, strategy, or overall goal. Moreover he continues to have the full backing of the Palestinians. He has the backing not because he is the most popular, but rather because he is playing a classic Arab political game. He is attacking Israel. Fighting with Israel is the key to Arab power. This should be obvious from the way Saadam reacted to the American invasion in 1991 - by attacking Israel, as well as the reaction of Lebanese citizens to their leaders, and on and on throughout much of the Arab world. If the Arabs are unable to alter strategy to adjust for changing Israeli views then there is going to be a problem - namely that even if Israel thought it should be conceding a bit, it will know that Arafat has no ability to negotiate in good faith. At this point it is really hard to give evidence of a Palestinian shift in policy.

It seems that there are two conclusions we can draw from this. First, that while the Israelis may not be perfect, the desire to make peace is not lacking on their behalf, while it is obvious that it is quite lacking, and possibly impossible for the Palestinians. The second conclusion is that there cannot be real peace between the two sides until there is a serious change in the way Palestinians do business. Either they need a new flexible leader, or they need a concept of democracy that allows their leaders to change to reflect reality.

frightening moment

On Saturday night I was walking toward the place I was staying on the Lower East Side and I walked by this mailbox. It was around 5AM. On the mailbox there was a poster. It was one of those reward posters that was offering a reward of $2,000 for information leading to the arrest of someone who shot someone else. The victim seemed like a rather nice guy from his photograph. I felt bad. But I read the poster and it was quite clear that he was shot earlier in the week in front of 67 Orchard Street at around 4AM. I looked up only to discover I was standing in front of 67 Orchard Street. It was creepy.

Thursday, January 23, 2003

Review of Ziman's Public Knowledge

John Ziman wrote a book called Public Knowledge: The Social Dimension of Science in the late 60's. I just read it. It is quite dated, and I am not sure what motivated me to actually read it, but hey. . .I did. Anyway, it was an interesting take on what the nature of scientific communities are. What is science, in essence. His answer is that science is a search for a consensus. The enterprise of science is all about the community of scientists looking to hit agreement on specific issues. He spends time defending this thesis with reference to the educational institutions of science, the communication institutions, and the scientific authorities.

The book is quite dated, and really only makes a lot of sense if seen in the context of the early days of the sociology of science, when people were trying to figure out how to look at the institutions of science in a formal way. The debates really have not gotten all that much more sophisticated since Ziman, but if you are interested in that sort of stuff there are still a few chapters in there worth reading.

Freezing in New York

New York is just so damned freezing. This is quite awful. I wish I was back in Miami. I am spending my time in Brooklyn and Manhattan these days. I am mostly spending time with my writing and reading. It is nice quiet time for me.

Monday, January 20, 2003

Too much food

I have done way too much eating since I got here. The lines are awful. In every restaraunt you go to (at least the kosher ones) it feels like what it must have felt like in communist Russia where everyone was waiting on line for bread and stuff. It is not civilized. The weather turned on me too. It is now cold.

Wednesday, January 15, 2003


We have sun! I even have got a touch of sunburn.

Review of Michel Houellebecq's The Elementary Particles

Interspersed with hypergeneralized bits of pseudo intellectual social commentary, Michel Houellebecq's The Elementary Particles is worthless tripe. Hailed as the best writing since Camus this novel managed to fool all those reviewers who were conned in to writing nice things about it. It is mostly the story about a pathetic man who grows up to middle age and masturbates a lot while fantasizing about (and hitting on) 15 year old girls.

I find it difficult to understand why the french are so obsessed with the idea of not having sex. It seems like anyone in France who can blabber on at length about sexual frustration is seen as a brilliant philosopher. It is like the country is trapped in a big Eric Roemer film festival. Ultimately the book concludes with its big finale that asexuality is the most profound human discovery possible. What a pathetic culture it must be to find this book worthwhile.

The end of the book is full of confused French-sounding fake philosophical mumbo jumbo, which really does sound a lot like what passes for contemporary French "thought" on just about any given topic.

While the book has a few good lines and one or two insights here and there about things like loneliness and family, at its very core the book is just plain stupid.

Tuesday, January 14, 2003

Miami neighborhoods

I am in Miami Beach in Miami, and I really do not understand how things get done here. There are not enough restaurants, supermarkets, and groceries to feed all the people who are here. Of course this is false, because they all eat. But you have to go for miles before you will find a normal store for food and stuff. My only conclusion therefore is that there are simply not all that many people living here. The people who spend time here do not live here and do things like stock up on groceries. They come for weekends or holidays and stay in hotels or their apartments and eat in hotels and the like. It is very weird. There is a whole economy that must live of people who come around every month for three days. It is pretty odd that whole neighborhoods can do that.

Jewish Einstein

Einstein has this famous line attributed to him that goes something like "If my theories are correct then to the Germans I am a German and to the French I am a citizen of the world. If my theories are wrong then to the French I am a German and to the Germans I am a Jew." The line is famous and of course very accurate where everyone wants to make sure to cover their backs and reap the most rewards with the least risk. But there is a third clause that Einstein, ever the diplomat, omitted. That line is: "Wether I am right or wrong, to the Jews I am always Jewish." Regardless if the history of science judges him to be the author of the great theory of relativity, or the author of the mistaken theory of relativity, he has earned himself an eternal place in any encyclopedia of great Jews.

Monday, January 13, 2003

where is my sun?

I felt a bit gyped in Florida today. There is not enough sun. It was cloudy and I went to the beach and am still tanless.

What will history show?

Reflecting on Topol's book, got me thinking about some of the great Jewish memoirists, and their contribution to our understanding of their social milieu. For example, consider Glikl of Hamelin, or Solomon Maimon: interspersed throughout their wonderful and charming memoirs are stories of beatings, persecution, rape, robbery, and repeated humiliation that they endured at the hands of the Russians, Poles, Germans, etc. Topol's story is fiction, but the attitude that he records and the pain of his Jewish characters are not at all dissimilar to the way life was there in the Soviet Union. In all these cases the reports are pretty much matter-of-fact. They are all spoken of as part of life in Europe, it was part of their every day routine to be beaten and called "kike" or "zhid" or whatever the local equivalent was. Yes, es is schver to zein a Yid.

Now, history has forgotten all of this. It is a detail. One hardly encountered in history books, and not all that interesting. The life of an Eastern European peasant, however much it is studied by trendy historians is not all that important to the way things are. When we teach history to our students or our children, that is not the stuff that is remembered. It is not remembered by the perpetrators because it is an inconvenient fact that needn't be spoken, and it is not spoken by Jews because it is humiliating and there is greater power in forgetting then living with old pain. (There is of course the cursory yearly bechol dor vador omdim alenu lehaloteinu. . ..)

I hope I am not leaning too far to the left when I express the following concern. But, it seems to me that however much history ignores these events, and however true they are, and however exaggerated or understated they might be, and however many more we do not know about it, it is not something I would like said about me. As Jews, since the days of the Macabees over 2000 years ago, there have been few reports of Jews, as Jews beating anyone else up. It is simply not something Jews do. That is not to say that we could not have used some more violence and aggression in our history. It would have served us well. But I think I would have to agree with what must have been the general fear in every town with a large Jewish population: a real Jewish reprisal would have been used as an excuse to destroy all the Jews in any given town. It would have made things much worse.

Now, if the Palestinians ever develop a literary culture, it is sure to include the same type of story that you find in the stuff I just mentioned. That is not to say that it will be true or justified. That is not to say that any Israeli ever did anything wrong (wish is not the case anyway), and that is not to say that Israelis have any choice. But it is not how I want anyone remembering Jews. When I think about how I want people to look at the first 50 or 100 years of Israel, what I want is what is reflected in the Rambowitz literature. I want to see a literature of proud and strong people. I want to see a literature of people who did what they needed to do to survive - and survived brilliantly. I want to see a literature that reflects the great accomplishments and triumphs of the Jewish state. I want the world to realize that while every race of people were evolving as larger and bigger people who had to be big and strong to survive in their barbaric little world, Jews were learning how to use tools to get by. Jews got smarter and took the task of country-building as a way to improve the lot of a people who had had enough of the rest of the world. The Rambowitz literature of the 1970s reflects the triumphs of the strong and cunning Jews who pulled off genuine Rambowitz feats in the Six Day War and in the raid on Entebee Airport.

I do not want to see a literature of people who had nothing better to do then to make the lives of Palestinians more miserable than their leaders are already doing. Their literature will never record that. Their literature (like the new French novel Memories of Palestine) will know only that it was Israelis who made their lives difficult. It will be the part of history we ignore because we will have the excuse that it was their own leaders as the leaders of the whole Arab world who caused their misery. And the excuse will be valid, but the literature will not accept it. The literature will be about the day to day life of the people, and it is the day to day life of the people that gets remembered.

I am not suggesting that there is much that can be done about this. The Palestinians will be under Israeli control until a solution is found. The Palestinians will be the pawn and sacrificial lamb in every twisted Arab political power play for as long as Arab leaders can get away with it. But, nonetheless Israel must divest itself of its Palestinian problem as soon as it can. It is not the way her early history should be remembered.

Review of Topol's The Jewish Lover

The Jewish Lover is a novel by the popular Russian novelist Edward Topol. It is the story of one Iosef Rubinchik and the events that led to his leaving the Soviet Union. The story takes place in the late 1970's when the Cold War was at its zenith and some of the biggest exports of the soviet union was news about the refusniks, the dissidents like Anatoly Scharansky and others. Rubinchik is a Journalist who has a habit of seducing young Russian virgins and having them fall in love with him. Eventually this gets him in to trouble and leads to the complicated tale of sex, blackmail, and emigration.

I wont give away the plot here, but there is a lot that one can learn about the plight of the soviet Jews in that era. It is a tale that is not well known by the west, but one that every Russian immigrant must be familiar with. Treatment of soviet Jews of that period, suppression of religion, persecution, state-sponsored pogroms, and the constant threat of the KGB occupy the entire subtext of the novel, and resemble very much the stories we heard from Jews who did manage to get out, back in the 1980s, before the Berlin Wall fell.

Growing up, I remember a guy from the synagogue I prayed in who made a few trips to the Soviet Union in the 1980s. The stories he brought back were similar to the ones Topol tells in this novel.

At bottom it is a popular trashy novel, but with lots of interesting stuff in it that makes it a worthwhile read anyway. It is marred by a few really annoying things that sometimes made the suspension of disbelief a bit hard. There was a line of Yiddish mistranslated here, and Hebrew word screwed up there, there were Jewish blessings screwed up, and there was someone insisting that Iosef put on tefilin on the Sabbath, something no Jew would do. In addition there was a rather anachronistic mention of Silicon Valley which was not the high tech capitol it is now in the 1978. The book is translated from Russian and the translator did a descent job, I suppose, of conveying the story Topol penned.

Saturday, January 11, 2003

Academic dupes

The moderate intellectuals who spend way too much of their time fighting for Palestinians and their cause are simply dupes of Islamic fundamentalists.

With the exception of a handful of us leftist do-gooders, no one really wants to see the Palestinians succeed. This is of course true of the Lebanese as I mentioned time and time before, but moreover this is even more true of the Iraqis and the bin Ladens of the world.

Why would I say that given the obvious fact that so much is being done supposedly on their behalf, from garnering international support to blowing up school busses?

The answer is simple. (It was clarified for me by a Foreign Affairs article by Michael Scott Doran, though I have no clue if he would endorse what I say here.) If the Palestinians succeed in getting a peace deal the only ones who win are the Palestinians. The people in charge of things loose. The Arab leaders loose. The disenfranchised Saudis, Lebanese, Syrians, Iranians, Iraqis, and Egyptians (etc) all loose. They then have to Justify their terrorism and anti-western feeling independent of a pro-Arab cause. They have to say why they really hate the west. The big problem there is that there is no reason why they really hate the west. They really hate their leaders. Of course saying that is tantamount to suicide, so it is aimed at the west.

Now why would some disenfranchised Saudi (like 15 of the 9/11 hijackers) want to hurt the west? The answer lies in the fact that they see their leaders kissing up and selling out to the west. What they really want is a much more Islamic middle east. If the middle east had no oil and the leaders wouldn't have to kiss up to the west and the political situation was the way it was now, the same Saudis would be attacking Saudi targets. But Saudis see the west as the cause of the westernization of their leaders and their countries, so the west is a legitimate target for Islamic fundamentalists.

So lets get back to the Palestinians. How has the average American intellectual been duped in to supporting Islamic fundamentalism? Simply by not realizing that since the Palestinians are the only pan-Arab/pan-Islamic cause. This cause is then co-opted by every terrorist and suicide bomber from the average run of the miss Hezbolla person to bin Laden himself. They, who have a stake in the Palestinians staying oppressed know that they can get away with doing anything in the name of the Palestinians, so they kill 3000 people and invoke the poor Palestinians and suddenly everyone in the Arab world is forced to stand up and defend them. No one in the Arab world (or very few and only recently) has had the guts to come out publically and say that terrorism is bad because being anti-terrorism meant being anti-Palestinian. That is bad because being anti-Palestinian is dangerous to everyone. Without them dictators cannot oppress with impunity, and fundamentalist have little justification in the eyes of the liberals of the world to blow things up. Dictators are given power by their people simply because they have set themselves up as the champions of the Palestinian cause. Opposing them is opposing the Palestinians - and you cant do that. You can't even do that in Lebanon where Palestinians are clearly second-class humans. They are not allowed citizenship or even work permits.

So any sane human being with half a heart wants a peace settlement and political sovereignty for the Palestinians. But all those who petition so much while actually doing so little are supporting and playing right in to the hands of Islamic militants who really just care about overthrowing their oppressive dictators and replacing him with a more Islamically-acceptable oppressive dictator.

Groups and their contrast classes

I think that part of the key to understanding a group of people is to understand exactly who it is that they contrast themselves to. The obvious differences are too trivial to mention but the more subtle ones are vital to understanding a groups collective identity.

If you were to ask a Hassidic Jew in Boro Park how he perceives himself, and with whom does he contrast himself, there is a good chance you will hear that he sees himself as a Hassidic Jew as opposed to either, a misnagid (a non-hassidic ultra-orthodox Jew), or perhaps his modern orthodox cousins in Flatbush. Chances are he will not say that he sees himself as a Hassidic Jew as opposed to, say a black guy. You have the same situation with a Syrian who perceives himself as an Arab, but not like those Saudi Arabs. Or the immigrant from Ecuador who sees himself more like everyone else but different from the Cuban or Puerto Rican.

The tendency on the part of outsiders to make generalizations about groups that are too broad is the biggest giveaway that the outsider is indeed way outside.

There are Russian immigrants and there are immigrants from Moscow, Carpathia, the Ukraine, and Kiev. Failure to perceive the differences will result in a complete misunderstanding of the motives of some individuals or communities. Sunni, Shi'a, and Alawites will just never get along, despite the fact that to the outsider they are all Muslims.

To presume that Christians are anti-abortion because Catholics are, is to not understand Christianity. The insider will listen to someone talk and then have a flash of insight wash across his face when he discovers that the Italian he is conversing with is really Sicilian.

Why it is easier, in some communities, to find a wife than a husband

So the word on the streets of religious Jewish New York is that for the past whole bunch of years it has been much easier for a boy to find a wife than it has been for a girl to find a husband. Husbands are in way more in demand than wives. I was never quite sure why. I would guess though that it has a lot to do with the fact that men are more likely to marry out of their exact social niche. Woman are less likely.

So assuming that there are an equal number of births across all demographic lines then if all the women of type X were looking for all the men of type X (where X specified some very specific socio-economic-religious group. Remember, that in the religious community there are enormous numbers of distinct "types" and everyone knows what "type" they are looking for, eg, will be kovea itim, goes to movies. . .) and all the men of type X were looking for the corresponding women, then there would be no problem. However what I suspect happens is that women of type X look for men of type X and men of type X feel free to look for women of type W, X, or Y. So men have a dating pool that is three times larger.

This can go on because the men at the edges of the religious community feel free to marry people much more and much less religious. So at the edges (which can be a large demographic, given the small Jewish population in general) the women are in tune with the general population and so are the men. But in the middle the men are capable of mobility and the women are less. So the women find that they all compete for the men in the same social circles and the men do not compete for the women, they just move to other social circles, leaving the women with fewer choices, and thus making it harder for them to get married.

In short, the problem lies in the religion's strong ability to control womens' precisely defined roles more than they can control the men. Conversely you can say that it is the women's apparent belief in the ability of the status quo to take care of them that does this. It may be genetic of a product of culture. The women have more to loose if they leave their culture, and have "an outsider's" child, and by some misfortune find themselves husbandless. They shoulder the whole burden of caring for the child. (Many suspect that this is one of the origins of Jewish matrilineal descent.)

I am not sure this is unique to religious Judaism. I suspect that many immigrant communities deal with similar issues. Women are generally expected to marry one of the fold, whereas men are freer to marry a local. ("My Big Fat Greek Wedding" comes to mind here.) Many communities have other special demographic issues which would make for an interesting comparison. Imagine countries (like China) that practiced infanticide largely disproportionately against female children. That would make the women who did make it more in demand come marriage time; no? Imagine a country like Lebanon where there were 100,000 killed in a civil war, most of the dead being men. That should make men more valuable come marriage time. What about countries where there is a large number of people who emigrate, again men tend to do this more. And on and on. . . .

My shagedellic apartment

I am staying in this apartment in Miami Beach that is about to be remodeled. It is a real shame though. The apartment looks like it was designed by a slightly domesticated version of Austin Powers. It is (was) totally shagedellic. There are all these mood-lighting psychedelic stuff, with that smooth round furniture so distinctively 70s. It was probably futuristic in its heyday.

Friday, January 10, 2003

Goin' to Miami

It has been a busy few days lately. I have been trying to finish all my work so I can go on vacation. I leave in about 2 hours for the great state of Florida. I will be in Miami for a whopping eleven days, trying to get some real thinking done. Let's see if that happens. If there is anything interesting to report, rest assured, I will.

Sunday, January 05, 2003

Rabbi Stabbed in Paris

Rabbi stabbed in Paris by Arab. Who would have thought?

Gangs of New York (the movie)

Last night I saw the movie "Gangs of New York" with "S" and "S" and "C". It was pretty good, I really liked it. There were a few gory fight scenes which were kinda cool, but most importantly it made me aware of how New York came to be. Sure the story is fiction, and only very loosely based on real people and real events, but there was a long period of time in New York history where there was a law vacuum and there was racial strife and everything was a mess. This movie is about a small part of that. It is worth seeing, if only to see New York in a different light, and to be thankful for what it managed to turn in to despite the way it was.

Review of Dershowitz's The Vanishing American Jew: In Search of Jewish Identity for the Next Century

I just finished Alan Dershowitz's book The Vanishing American Jew: In Search of Jewish Identity for the Next Century. It was an interesting read. I really did not learn all that much, but his main thesis is this: Judaism, whatever that may be, in all its diverse manifestations ought to be preserved. He first talks about why, and I think his reasons are a little weird and shaky, but I am sure that that does not matter. If you have to ask why, then I think that you would not be all that interested in the book. His audience is for those who already think the answser is yes, Judaism ought to be preserved, and what to think about the issue more.

There is a long discussion on the lack of external threats motivating Jews to stay Jewish, and then goes on to talk about the proposed solutions to the "new Jewish question". There is little mainstream antisemitism, and little discrimination in places where there are many Jews. The New Jewish Quesiton is how will Jews stay Jewish without external threats to keep them cohesive and to perpetuate their culture. Various solutions are discussed from Ultra-Orthodox insularity to aliah, to ethical Judaism. All those answers are rejected as impracitical.

Fianlly Dershowitz offers a call to arms, so to speak to the Jewish community, encouraging it to educate itself about Judaism, and to make Jewish education a worthwhile and integral part of Jewish life. He also demands more acceptance of plurality, but more conviction in Jewish life.

He is careful throught to stress that there are a myriad of voices in Jewish culture, and he does not have a predilection for the preservation of any of them in particular. He wants them all. He tells us that, as a community we do not have to stand for anything second-rate, least of all education about Jewish stuff.

This is a very "in" book. It is for Jews. It is about Judaism. It is often personal, and it has a lot of jokes, name-dropping and personal anecdotes. Perhaps discussion about his son is what mativated the book in the first place.

The problem is not very well motivated and perhaps only appeals to those who already believe that there is a problem. The solution is also not really great. Something about a conference and a call for better education, as if that wasn't already happening. I have to say, I am very in sympathy with Dershowitz, but I think I realize that his problem and solution only hold true for those who are already taking it seriously (like me).

Saturday, January 04, 2003

UNRWA, terrorism, and poverty

I was looking at UNRWA's website today. It was mentioned in the times. They have a whole page defending themselves against the allegations that they are really supporters of terrorism. They never really deny the allegations, they merely deflect the criticism saying things like they do not know of any . . , and they have not been officially accused of . . . .. Anyway, According to their site, over 60% of the population is malnourished, and dying, and they are providing all sorts of assistance. It is alwo a well known fact that the birthrates in the areas under UNRWA's control (ie, the Palestinians) have skyrocketed. Theories about this abound, but essentially the reason is obvious. UNRWA is keeping everyone alive just enough to reporoduce. The rates of malnutrition, poverty, and disease would greatly be reduced if the birthrate was lowered. But the UN has little interest in providing birth control to the populace. At least they do not mention it on their website. UNRWA ought to distribute condoms. This will do much more for the long term health of the Palestinians than providing millions in susitance-level aid to each individual.

This is actually just as true for other impovrished countries. Mother Theresa would have done much more good giving out condoms than food. She made sure that everyone can live enough to produce numerous children who would also be supported long enough to give birth to numerous children.

In India the problem is a little weirder. In places like Calcutta, historically a family needed to have 10 children so that two of them would live to adulthjood and provide for the family. At this rate the population was kept stable and poor. Now with the interference of "do-gooders" like the late Mother Theresa, the population skyrockets and everyone is way below poor, they are impoverished and malnourished. They are kept impovrished because they have not learned to solve the problems. They provide more and more money, and so more and more people are alive. Now eight of ten children live to adulthood and they all have eight children who live to adulthood. so while the world has learned to help, the local populations have not done their share by adjusting their birthrates accordingly. This is the nourishment and population and enviornmental problem of the 21st century.

Friday, January 03, 2003

On Judaism's decentralization

I am thinking about this book that I am reading (more about it when I finish reading it) and it made me think about a few things. One of the most unfortunate things about the current Jewish geographic dynamic, and the nature of global communication and travel is that Judaism risks loosing one of it's most important features - decentralization.

One of the greatest features of Jewish civilization from late biblical times to the present is that, of necessity, there has been no one central authority. Each town did what was was best in its own eyes. Each town had its own economic, demographic, historical, social, and religious situation. Each town had its own customs and practices that were motivated by said situation. They were aware of the religious law in the next town or country, and each knew that they both were following the law, but it never dissuaded them from keeping their own practices.

Often Rabbis from other towns were consulted and deferred to but that was always the town Rabbi's choice.

Judaism today is not like that at all. Today there is Lubavitch. They are Judaism in half the towns that there are Jews. Israel has two chief rabbis. They are elected and their word carries the weight of a central rabbinic authority. The chief rabbi still controls marriage, divorce, Kashrut, and Jewish education. The ultra-Orthodox in Israel have a handful (minus a couple of fingers) of people who male decisions, and it is on the radio or in any case word quickly travels. If a ruling is issued in Bnei Berak (Near Tel Aviv) it instantly becomes "law" in Jerusalem. If some central Lebavitch authority (whatever that might mean these days) says something in New York, it is suddenly "law" in Buenos Aries. The chasm between Israel and the rest of the world is growing smaller too.

Ever since the passing of Moshe Feinstein of New York some 15 years ago, the Unites States has ceased to have one person who was respected as a religious leader by all religious (and some non-religious) Jews. Many Jews therefore began turning to Israel for advice. Moreover because of the general decline of the level of Jewish scholarship, people turn more and more to books for instruction (see the famous article by Soloveitchik some 10 years ago in Tradition, "Rupture and Reconstruction" about this). These books, in order to be published by a mainstream "kosher" publisher, say Artscroll or Feldheimm, must essentially repeat what is standard and acceptable. Moreover we generally find the most strict interpretations which everyone will agree to given in these publications. The inability of any Jewish community to be independent is truly destroying the dynamic that produced all the literature and creative religious thought.

(When we look at the Conservative or Reform movements we are in even a worse position. They started out as centralized movements.)

The fear that all religious communities have of innovation is destroying the need to be able to think in any original way. It has rigidified the law such that it has lost flexibility and adaptability. The conservative movement argued (prior to this occurring) that this is what they are fighting. The Orthodox assumed that they went too far in "adapting". This is one of the biggest dangers of living in the kind of small world we live in for religious Jewry. Community leaders no longer have to be good at solving problems, nor do they need to be able to even figure out how to make a halachic decision. Why learn how to make a decision when you can fob the problem off to the Agudah, or the CCAR, or the Chief Rabbi of Israel.

I wonder how Yeshiva students today learn to make halachic decisions. Of course there is the standard stuff about looking to the sources. But what about new situations? What about new technologies? There are now a handful of people who make those decisions. Once there were thousands. Do yeshiva students learn to think creatively or are they just given the phone number of someone higher up on the halachic chain? the latter would mean a very sad state of affairs for today's Jewry.

Long Island

I had dinner with the family somewhere out on Long Island. It was nice. It kind of reminded me of being upstate minus a lot of the inconveniences. How do people live there?

Wednesday, January 01, 2003

The upcoming year

The new year is starting out raining. New York is now that depressing gray color that it gets during an annoying rain. I didn't do much last night. I saw "Adaptation". It is a movie with Nicholas Cage. I am not sure if the movie was interesting or just stupid. It was actually somewhere in between, or a little bit of both. I got home minutes after midnight and spent New Year's eve with Dick Clark (the man who never ages) then I watched five hours of the "Sex in the City" marathon. Sad.

I now have to look forward to a year of attempting to keep resolutions and hard work. It promises to be a tumultous year, but with any luck,a good one.
Happy New Year everyone!!!!