President Rivlin’s Tragic Misunderstanding of Jewish History (Or, Will the Original Judaism Please Stand Up?)

June 25, 2014 1 comment

The current president of Israel rejects Judaism as practiced by most of the world’s Jews.

Already, that is an unfortunate state of affairs. But what makes it worse in my opinion is that the president’s narrow-minded beliefs are based in misunderstanding and are the result of (probably inadvertent) brainwashing.

According to the JTA, President Reuven Rivlin told the Knesset in 2006 that “the status of Judaism according to halachah [Jewish law] is what has kept us going for 3,800 years. Besides it there is nothing.”

He is factually incorrect in many ways.

PullQuote1To start, halachah was born after the Jewish exile in the year 70, so it is, at most, 1,944 years old, not 3,800. Judaism did just fine without it for about a millennium, when Jewish service to God took the form of animal sacrifice. The enactment of halachah was a reformation of Judaism, or, as we call it more colloquially, part of a reform movement.

In fact, most of modern Judaism’s public symbols — thrice daily prayer services, Sabbath candles, current dietary laws (“keeping kosher”), the familiar matzah, etc. — didn’t exist 2,000 years ago. They were all reforms.

President Rivlin’s gross misunderstanding of the history of the country that just elected him might be forgiven — after all, he’s a politician, not an historian — except that he chose to present his revisionism before the Knesset, and continues to promulgate it in his official capacity.

President Rivlin, like many people, is suffering from a double misunderstanding. He thinks that Judaism has never changed. And he thinks that Orthodoxy is more authentic than its alternatives. In other words, President Rivlin wrongly thinks of Judaism as a straight line from antiquity to modern Orthodoxy, with deviations shooting off from time to time in the wrong directions.

PullQuote3A more accurate view sees Judaism as a continuous series of branches, with, in fact, four particularly rich periods of innovation.

Two examples demonstrate. The first concerns travel on the Sabbath, the second, the ceremonial skullcap commonly called a yarmulke or kippah.

Jewish law used to forbid travel on the Sabbath. Then transatlantic ships were invented, and Jews had a choice: they could refuse to travel from continent to continent (because the lengthy journey necessarily included the Sabbath). Or they could update their laws. They chose the latter, retaining only a nod to tradition in the form of not embarking or disembarking on the Sabbath.

A detail is equally to the point: The Shulchan Aruch — the 16th-century authoritative compendium of Jewish law — prohibits setting out to sea within three days of the Sabbath (Orech Chaim 248). The reasoning there was that the Sabbath shouldn’t be marred by the discomfort and confusion that accompany the start of an ocean voyage. But even modern Jews who follow halachah break this aspect of Jewish law.

The second example is the kippah or yarmulke. Common perception is that Jews are always supposed to wear a kippah in public. But, in fact, it wasn’t until the 16th century (in the same Shulchan Aruch) that the wearing of a kippah was codified. Before that, the 12th-century Maimonides ruled that a Jew’s head should be covered only during prayer. For most of Jewish history, Jews did not wear a kippah in public.

PullQuote4These two examples show that modern Orthodoxy sometimes ignores old laws and sometimes invents new ones. That’s fine, of course, and my point here is not to belittle Orthodox practice. But, equally, let us not believe that only progressive Judaism purposely changes the past, or that Orthodoxy most closely resembles what used to be. In this case (by chance), the progressive practice of donning a kippah for worship services is older than the revisionist Orthodox pattern of wearing one all the time.

But the details are only important here because of the larger pattern they demonstrate: Judaism has constantly evolved. The president of Israel does a disservice to everyone when he confuses his personal biases and preferences with objective superiority.

As it happens, Judaism has seen four particularly productive periods of innovation (as I point out in one of my most popular presentations, “Four Exiles and Four Spiritual Revolutions”). The prophets revised Judaism, broadening Jewish attention beyond the Jewish community. The Rabbis invented halachah. And the Kabbalists created a unique form of Jewish mysticism, to say nothing of the bulk of the Friday evening worship service.

PullQuote2We are witnessing the fourth major period of Jewish innovation in 3,000 years. Contributing to it are formal movements like Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist; philosophical approaches like Modern Orthodoxy; organizations like Chabad; populist movements that define many mainstream Israelis; and more. I am convinced that historians someday will look back at the 21st century with the same awe and reverence with which we now view the eras of the biblical prophets and the Rabbis.

It is a privilege to live through this incredibly exciting time.

And the president of Israel is being left behind. But it’s not too late. President Rivlin can still choose to participate constructively in the millennial Jewish dialog. Or, at the very least, he can stop trying to impede it.

Categories: current events, Judaism

The Heartbleed Bug Explained in Non-Technical Language

April 11, 2014 Leave a comment

Heartbleed Bug ExplainedI’ve been asked by a lot of people to explain the “heartbleed” bug in non-technical terms. It’s really not complicated.

There are two parts to understanding what’s going on.

The first part is how computer memory works.

Computer memory is like a book of pages made from magic slates or mini whiteboards. Anything can be written on any page, and every page can be erased and overwritten with something new. The pages go in order, but the information doesn’t have to, which is why the computer constantly updates a changing table of contents to keep things straight.

For example, when you connect to, say, one of your bank’s computers to pay your bills online, that computer has to keep track of your name, your account number, your password, etc. So it puts all of that on whichever page is convenient — call it page 99 — and also makes a note in the table of contents so it knows where your information is.

The second part of understanding the heartbleed bug is knowing about an obscure part of the way computer connections work.

When your computer (or phone, or whatever) connects to your bank’s computer, you want to make sure that no one except you and your bank have access to the information you’re sending back and forth, like your password or your account balance. To make this possible, your computer and the bank’s computer work out what is essentially a brand new secret code, and use that to create what’s called a “secure connection.”

This process of negotiating a code is slow, so if you’re sending a lot of information back and forth (which you almost always are), you want a way of indicating that whatever you’re sending is part of an ongoing conversation. In other words, instead of creating a new code each time you type something or click on something on your bank’s website, you want some way of indicating that you want to keep using the code you have.

The mechanism for keeping a code active is called a “heartbeat,” and it’s pretty simple. You send an encoded message, and the other side decodes it and sends it back. It’s like you keep saying, “prove that you understand our secret code.” Because this is a code that you and your bank just created, no one else has it, so this is a pretty reliable system.

Of course, your bank’s computer has to write down your message on one of its pages. Let’s say it picks page 101. It writes down the message, then sends you page 101.

To make things even more secure, you get to choose how long your heartbeat message is. It might be one page. Or it might be 64 pages. If it’s 64 pages, the bank’s computer writes the whole thing down and sends back all 64 pages.

And here we come to the heartbleed bug: The way they programmed this thing, the computer at the other end doesn’t check if you sent as much as you said you did.

So if you say you’re sending 64 pages and only send one page, the computer will write down your message on page 101, but send you back pages 101-164. This means that you’ll get 63 pages of other people’s stuff!

And this could be anything. It could be someone else’s account balance. It could be someone else’s password. It could be someone else’s PIN number for their ATM.

But none of those are the worst case scenario. The secret codes that make secure communication possible all depend on keeping special keys (as they’re called) secret. Here the details really are complicated, but the bottom line is that the security of the Internet depends on the secrecy of these keys

Your bank — and only your bank — has one of the keys, which is why you can trust your on-line banking. But if that key just happens to be on page 102-164, which you just stole, you can pretend to be your bank!

This means that even once the bug is fixed on your bank’s computer, you can’t know for sure if you’re sending your information to your bank, or to a guy in Africa who’s robbing you blind.

In short, because the heartbleed bug reveals random pages in otherwise-secure computers, it’s not hard for malicious computer users to grab your private information and to grab the secret keys that will let them masquerade as a site you trust.

Categories: current events, other

What’s the Deal with the Camels in the Bible?

February 12, 2014 2 comments

Camels-GenesisSo far this week, the New York Times and Time Magazine, among many other usually respectable news outlets, have reported on scientific evidence that camels weren’t domesticated until about the 10th century BCE. That’s true.

They add that this is a problem for the Bible because Abraham and the other patriarchs, who owned camels, lived much earlier. This part is wrong. And it demonstrates a pretty surprising naivete on the part of these and other mainstream news organizations.

First of all, let’s be clear. According to Genesis, Abraham lived to be 175 years old, so it’s not the camels that are hard to explain.

But the real misunderstanding is demonstrated by this line from the New York Times: “Abraham, Jacob and Joseph [...] lived in the first half of the second millennium B.C.” No they didn’t.

As I’ve explained in detail in And God Said — and summarized on-line for the Huffington Post (“The Bible Isn’t The History You Think It Is“) — the Old Testament is divided into three sections: the creation of the world (Adam up to Abraham’s father Terah), the creation of the Israelites (Abraham to Moses) and life in Jerusalem (after Moses). Only the third part was meant as history. The first two parts — Adam, Noah, Abraham, Joseph, and all the rest — serve other purposes.

So Abraham didn’t live in the first half of the second millennium, just like the heroine in Song of Solomon didn’t have birds for eyes, in spite of the poetic line in verse 4:1 that her “eyes are doves.”

Though I’m regularly surprised that so much misinformation surrounds the Bible, this kind of widespread mistake does help explain why many scientists don’t appreciate the Bible’s value, and why many religionists increasingly have no use for science.

The Surprising Value of Downtime at Work

February 10, 2014 2 comments

To many outside observers, it’s a waste to have employees sitting around and doing nothing more than chat. But the outside observers are wrong, we learn from MIT’s renowned Dr. Alex Pentland, who has studied how to increase productivity and creativity at work.

Among his conclusions are that interaction among workers is one of the best predictors of overall work productivity.1

For example, he studied a call center at Bank of America. Call centers are interesting because they have exact data on productivity. They know how much each person gets done per hour. Call centers are also interesting because, at first glance, it seems that any time an employee is not working is time wasted.

But it turns out to be just the opposite. By increasing the time employees spent together on coffee breaks, Dr. Pentland increased each worker’s productivity.

To be clear, in this case he didn’t give the workers more downtime. He rescheduled their downtime so that they would have breaks together.

I think the lesson for organizations that value productivity is to make sure their employees get to spend unstructured time together at work.

Dr. Pentland didn’t just study call centers, and he didn’t just study productivity. For instance, he also looked at an IT support department, one which — like the call center — has clear records on productivity. He found the same thing: he could predict the employees’ productivity by looking at how much they talked to each other.

Dr. Pentland investigated creativity, as well, and found, again, that interaction was crucial: “the difference between low-creative groups and high-creative groups is their pattern of face-to-face exploration outside the group.”

All of this (massive) research points in a single direction: Giving people time at work to talk to each other is good policy all around.

1. Social Physics: How Good Ideas Spread — The Lessons from a New Science by Alex Pentland. Penguin Press HC, 2014. Pp 93-97.

Categories: other

Remembering Ariel Sharon: A Real-Life Hero

January 11, 2014 8 comments

Ariel Sharon died today.

It was eight years ago that a stroke left the prominent Israeli leader in a coma, and about two weeks ago, while I was in Israel, that news reports circulated that Sharon’s condition had “worsened.”

In a sense, it was ludicrous. How much worse could the comatose 85-year-old’s health get?

In another sense, it didn’t even seem like news. Except to those who knew him personally, what did it matter, really, whether the man was in a permanent vegetative state or whether his kidneys and liver gave up, too? But it wasn’t just news. It was the lead story across Israel.

Ariel Sharon lived a life of controversy. Born in 1928 in the pre-Israel British Mandate of Palestine E.I., he joined the Israeli army as a paratrooper, achieved officer status, and distinguished himself militarily by, for instance, forming the elite Unit 101 of the IDF and by mounting successful if contentious operations during the 1956 and 1973 wars. For these the public dubbed him the “King of Israel” and the “Lion of God,” launching his political career.

Sharon’s military boldness was matched by his bullheaded personality, at attribute for which he was called “the Bulldozer.” Reports of military insubordination had already surfaced in the 1950s. Later, for his actions as Defense Minister during the 1982 Israeli military campaign in Lebanon, he was charged with personal responsibility for Muslim deaths at the hands of Lebanese Christians. Unlike most such accusations, this one came not from Israel’s critics but from the Israeli government itself.

Repeating his pattern of provocation, Sharon led a contingent of 1,000 Israeli Jewish police offers to the Temple Mount in September of 2000, all but ensuring a violent response from the local Muslims who considered the site the 3rd holiest place in Islam.

In 2001, Sharon became Israel’s Prime Minister, thus giving his argumentative personality a larger pulpit, such as when he enraged all of France by declaring that French Jews should leave immediately because of the rampant and unchecked antisemitism in that country.

In 2004, he made an everlasting contribution to a 3,000 year-old struggle when he led his government to a unilateral disengagement from the occupied Gaza Strip (biblical Philistia, where David slew Goliath). Sharon’s move was met with widespread disapproval. Many Palestinians accused him of refusing to negotiate, while many of the Israelis living there refused to leave peaceably.

Yet Sharon’s autobiographer David Chanoff also reports that the leader said of his own life that “I begin with the basic conviction that Jews and Arabs can live together” and that even though Israel should remain Jewish, “Arabs should … be full citizens in every sense of the word.”

By 2005, this side of Sharon had become more widely recognized. He resigned as head of the Likud party, which he himself had founded, and established a new party, which he called “Kadima” — a Hebrew word that means “forward,” and also, more colloquially, “let’s go already.” It was in this context that he was widely seen as Israel’s greatest hope for permanent peace.

And then he suffered a series of debilitating strokes that left him in a coma, that left his party without a strong leader, and that devastated the spirits of many newly-made optimists.

Flawed though he was — as real-life heros always are — Sharon was larger then life, and he wrote a chapter of a book that began 150 generations ago. Yet alongside monikers like “King of Israel,” he was also known by his humble nickname: Arik.

Perhaps this Jew born to Russian immigrants can remind us that our own lives, too — in ways we often cannot fathom — are part of the unfolding story of the Jewish people. Now there’s a new chapter waiting to be written. And each of us has been invited to contribute.

Categories: current events

Why Hanukkah and Thanksgiving will Never Again Coincide

November 20, 2013 23 comments

[You can also read a version of this on the Huffington Post.]

Hanukkah-5774-Thanksgiving-2013Try to keep up with me on this.

I know that’s an ominous way to start, but it’s worth it.

This month, Hanukkah and Thanksgiving will overlap for a joint celebration that will never happen again. Here’s why.

Thanksgiving is the 4th Thursday in November. Hanukkah is the 25th day of the Jewish month of Kislev.

The 4th Thursday in November can range from the 22nd to the 28th. If the 29th is a Thursday, then so is the 1st, so the 29th would be the fifth Thursday, not the fourth. And if the 21st is a Thursday, then it’s only the third Thursday. On average, then, Thanksgiving falls on the 28th about every seven years. It will fall on the 28th this year, then again in 2019, 2024, 2030, and 2041, or four times in the next 28 years. (It’s not exactly every seven years because leap days throw things off a little.)

The Jewish month of Kislev can currently start as early as November 3 or as late as December 2, which means that the first day of Hanukkah can come as early as November 28 or as late as December 27.

The reason for the broad range of possible dates is that the Jewish calendar is lunar-solar. The months are based on the cycles of the moon. But the calendar changes the lengths of those months, and even how many months are in a year, to make sure that Passover always falls in the spring. This complex system — put in place by Rav Shmuel in the first half of the first millennium CE — ensures that the Jewish date and the secular date match up every 19 years. (By contrast, the Muslim calendar is purely lunar, which is why Ramadan can fall during any time of the solar year. The Christian religious calendar is almost entirely solar, but Easter falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox [around March 21], a calculation that involves the moon as well as the sun.)

Because of this Jewish 19-year cycle, 19 years from now, in the year 2032, Hanukkah will again fall on November 28. But Thanksgiving in that year falls three days earlier, on the 25th.

On average, we would expect the 19-year Jewish cycle and the 7-year Thanksgiving-on-November-28 cycle to coincide about every 19×7 years, which is to say, approximately every 133 years. And they sort of do.

One-hundred and fifty-two years ago, in 1861, the first day of Hanukkah and the 4th Thursday in November were both on November 28th. But there was no Thanksgiving back then.

In 152 years from now, in 2165, Thanksgiving falls on the 28th, and you’d expect Hanukkah also to fall on the 28th, but it doesn’t.

If you you’ve been paying attention (and if you haven’t given up yet), you may have noticed that I said “currently” when I explained when Kislev can begin. Remember Shmuel, who fixed the details of our current Jewish calendar in the first place? He, like everyone else back then, though that the year was 365.25 days long. This is why we have a usual year of 365 days, but every 4th year we add a leap day in February to make 366.

But Shmuel — again, like everyone else — was off by a little more than 11 minutes. The year is not quite 365.25 days long, but, rather, closer to only 365.2425 days, or about 11 minutes shorter than 365.25 days. For a long time no one noticed those 11 minutes. For a longer time no one cared. But by the time of Pope Gregory XIII in 1582, those 11 minutes per year — or about 3 days per 400 years — had added up to about ten days.

This meant that March 21, which had once been the approximate date of the spring equinox, was now 10 days later than the spring equinox. Or, conversely, the spring equinox fell on March 11. This was a problem for the Church, because the springtime holiday of Easter was shifting further and further away from spring.

Pope Gregory fixed the problem in two ways. First, he lopped off 10 days from the calendar. For Catholics, the day after Thursday, October 4, 1582 was Friday, October 15, 1582. Secondly, he eliminated 3 leap days every four hundred years. He decreed that years divisible by 4 would still be leap years, unless they were also divisible by 100 but not by 400. So 1600 would be a leap year (divisible by 100 and by 400), but 1700 would not (divisible by 100 and not by 400). This became known as the Gregorian calendar, and it gradually spread through the Christian world.

In 1752, the British empire adopted the Gregorian calendar, making the day after Wednesday, September 2, 1752 not the 3rd but rather the 14th. (An 11th day was necessary because 1700 was not a leap year in the Gregorian calendar.)

The Jews, of course, didn’t give a damn what Pope Gregory said. They kept using the Shmuelian calendar for their calculations. The Shmuelian calendar and the Gregorian calendar have been diverging at the rate of about 11 minutes a year, or 3 days every 400 years. Furthermore, the year 2100 will be a leap year in the Shmuelian calendar (because it’s divisible by 4) but not in the Gregorian calendar (because it’s divisible by 100 but not 400). So not long after the year 2100, the Jewish calendar and the secular calendar will diverge by an additional 1 day — though the details are even a little more nuanced, because Shmuel used a simplification of the final Jewish calendar.

This is why (remember the question from several paragraphs ago?) in the year 2165, when we’d expect Thanksgiving and Hanukkah to coincide again, Hanukkah will actually be one day later.

And that is why Thanksgiving and Hanukkah will never again coincide.

Well, almost never. If the Jews don’t ever abandon the calculations based on the Shmuelian calendar, Hanukkah will keep getting later and later — moving through winter, then into spring, summer, and finally back into fall — so that tens of thousands of years from now they will again coincide. But long before then the springtime holiday of Passover will have moved deep into summer, so be on the lookout for a memo with a calendar update in the next several thousand years.

And in the meantime, don’t miss this opportunity to enjoy an exceedingly rare confluence of celebrations.

Happy Hanukkah. And Happy Thanksgiving.

A Short Torah Story

October 28, 2013 Leave a comment

Torah DrowningIt was raining, so we started by talking about that. As it happens, one of the kids had just come back from Colorado, recently ravaged by floods, so the conversation naturally turned to flooding. That segued into flood damage, followed by what one might save in a flood, and, from there, saving a Torah in a flood.

It was Sunday morning, and I was teaching 7th graders.

“Would you save a Torah from drowning?” I asked the class.

“Yes,” all of the students agreed.

“Why?” I asked.

“Because,” one of the students replied, “it would do the same for me.” Tee hee.

The funny thing is that it would.

I explained why.

The Torah is one of the three parts of the Bible, the other two being the “prophets” and the “writings.” The students’ haftarah portions come from the prophets. The writings include well-known works like the Book of Esther (more commonly known as the “Megilah” and read or chanted on Purim), Psalms (such as the famous Psalm 23 that begins “The Lord is my Shepherd”), and so on.

The great Rabbis gave us two major kinds of commentary on the Bible, the first in the form of the Midrash, and the second in the form of the Talmud. It’s that second compendium that offers advice on all manner of things: when to light Shabbat candles and how to read the Torah, why some kinds of damages are like oxen but others like pits, what kind of damage an ox owner is responsible for and why only dead elephants can be used as a wall for sukkah, etc.

One passage in the Talmud section known as kiddushin addresses the obligations a parent has toward a child, including the stipulation that the parents are supposed to teach their children to swim.

Without the Torah, we wouldn’t have the Bible. Without the Bible, there’d be no Talmud. And it’s the Talmud that records the importance of knowing how to swim.

It’s a round-about result, but the Torah did save us from drowning. The student had it exactly right.

This is how a conversation about the weather and our weekend plans turned into a lesson about the centrality of Torah in our lives.

[First published in the Vassar Temple November 2013 bulletin.]


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