Saturday, August 7, 2010

The Kiwi, The Mosque, and the Shaliachat Tzibbur

Sometimes, there are lines of questioning and debate that turn out to be futile at resolving anything, and an entirely different type of question turns out to be more useful.

For example, the kiwi (the small flightless bird from New Zealand, not the fruit) lays by far the largest egg in proportion to its body size of any bird. The astonishing photo shown here is an x-ray of a kiwi 15 hours prior to laying its egg. For a few days prior to laying, the kiwi doesn't even have room in its body to be able to eat any food!





Why are kiwi eggs so big? The late Stephen Jay Gould, in his superb essay "Of Kiwi Eggs and the Liberty Bell," shows that this is really not a productive line of questioning. One can come up with all kinds of theories, but none are really satisfactory. It turns out that it's better not to ask "Why are kiwi eggs so big relative to the bird," in the first place, but rather to ask a completely different question: Why are kiwis so small relative to the size of their eggs? And that's a question that can be productively answered: Because kiwis evolved from much larger birds, and as the adults decreased in size, the eggs decreased at a smaller rate. (The full explanation is a quite complex, but that will do for now.)

That is what came to my mind as I contemplated two hot topics in recent weeks: The controversy over the mosque at Ground Zero in Manhattan, and the controversy over the woman leading Kabbalat Shabbat at HIR in Riverdale. Let me first admit from the outset that I know precious little about either topic, and I don't consider myself qualified to have a meaningful opinion. But it did occur to me that the endless debates, which don't appear to ever convince other people, might be avoided if an entirely different question is proposed.

Should the mosque be permitted in order to defend the tolerant values that make America so great? Or is it a disgrace in light of the events of 9/11? Debates rage endlessly, without anyone winning over their opponents to the merits of their position. But there is another question to which virtually everyone can agree on the answer: Will it cause immense distress to the families and friends of the victims? Yes, of course it will. (As I understand it, it was this latter consideration that led the ADL to withdraw its support for the mosque.)

Is it permissible to have a woman leading Kabbalat Shabbat, since it's not a proper part of the davening? Or is it completely against Jewish tradition, halachah and values? Debates rage endlessly, without anyone winning over their opponents to the merits of their position. But there is another question to which virtually everyone can agree on the answer: Will this lead to a greater role for women within Orthodoxy, or will it lead to HIR being ostracized from the rest of the community and undoing any headway that they have made in introducing innovations? It seems obvious that the latter is the case - in which case even those who supported it should ask themselves if they're really helping their cause.

(P.S. Apologies to all those who are still waiting for replies to their emails - I have been really busy.)

20 comments:

  1. Shmah Minah...

    You believe in evolution.

    You oppose the mosque.

    You look favorably on the headway HIR is making in introducing their innovations.

    How Conservative.

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  2. Wrong.

    My point was that instead of trying to convince people with arguments that don't stand a chance of convincing them, one should try a different tack.

    But I guess I should have anticipated that people would use this post to incorrectly assess my stances.

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  3. "Will this lead to a greater role for women within Orthodoxy, or will it lead to HIR being ostracized from the rest of the community and undoing any headway that they have made in introducing innovations? It seems obvious that the latter is the case"

    It will lead to a greater role for women who would like to lead Kabalat Shabat at HIR. Is that not worthwhile in itself?

    Regarding the future of women in Orthodoxy? Who knows? Que sera, sera. Let us do the right thing in the present, in our own community. How other's perceive it is not a concern.

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  4. I like your creative approach. I know that some might say that a "conservative" line of thinking lies behind it, but as they like to say here in Israel,

    לפעמים לא צריכים להיות צודק אלא חכם

    It's not an ideologically pure way of doing things, but that's the nature of people. Like the famous saying from Hitchhiker's guide to the Galaxy, when referring to the fact that we should never allow the type of person who presents himself as a candidate for high office to actually hold office: "In summary, people are a problem".

    Nonetheless, it shouldn't stop us from striving for change and improvement.

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  5. It seems obvious
    ===================
    In math we call that "hand waving" :-) - only time will tell (as I posted in a previous gilgul when the Besht started out :-))
    KT
    Joel Rich

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  6. It seems to me that one of these things is not like the others. If I read it right, the value of your approach is that it tries to cut to the heart of the issue.

    "Why are the birds so small?" and "Will this result in expanded roles for women in the Orthodox world?" are at the heart of their respective issues.

    "Will the victims of an atrocity that happened a few blocks away be distressed?" is not at the heart of the issue there. In general, we don't make zoning decisions based on who will be offended, and if Islam were not involved here, I'm sure it wouldn't even be a consideration. The basic question, which precedes any questions of policy, is "Would it be consistent with American or NYC law to discriminate against a particular religion in zoning decisions?"

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  7. Whether HIR has now ostracized itself or others will remain largely indifferent-the jury is still out on this question from what I can see.You may be right, however.

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  8. If I read it right, the value of your approach is that it tries to cut to the heart of the issue.

    No, that's davka not my approach! The point of my approach is to avoid cutting to the heart of the issue (in cases where nobody is convincing anyone else) and instead to take a pragmatic approach.

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  9. I don't like the assumption that if people are "irrationally" sensitive the public should cave to their pettiness...

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  10. (a) I don't think it's irrational.

    (b) It's not just a question about what the public should do - it's also about what the people behind the mosque should do. If they are truly interested in promoting good relations, then why do something that is having precisely the opposite effect?

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  11. I disagree with the blog owner's premise both with regards to the HIR incident and the proposed Islamic center building in lower Manhattan. While the opposition to both has been vocal, it need not override the intended purpose of these projects or incidents. I note that uproar has died down or at least been much decreased over the last week. If not rocking the boat or arousing the dragon is to be considered the best or most pragmatic approach, then why did the blog owner publish those books which he knew, or should have known, would be considered offensive by the Hareidi world?

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  12. 1. I didn't realize how controversial my books would turn out to be. But there is indeed a strong argument for saying that I pushed things too far and completely undermined my goal of rendering these views more acceptable.

    2. In the Mosque case, the claim is that the mosque promotes healing. It is being justified on the grounds of an alleged effect which it demonstrably isn't having.

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  13. Rabbi Slifkin wrote:

    Will it cause immense distress to the families and friends of the victims? Yes, of course it will.

    I agree with what Isaac wrote:

    The basic question, which precedes any questions of policy, is "Would it be consistent with American or NYC law to discriminate against a particular religion in zoning decisions?"

    Additionally, if you are concerned about who is being offended or immensely distressed, there is no end, and using that rule to determine when to uphold the laws of the country/state/city will not work. And if it does work, then it will certainly not work in favor of the Jews.

    Everyone seems to be offended by Israel, and by extension, the Jews. The entire Muslim and Arab world is immensely distressed by the Jewish presence in what they see as Arab land. And from the Arab perspective, we lay claim to, built up, and took ownership of what for many centuries was, and still is, their neighborhood. We built the Jewish State smack dab in the middle of the Middle East – an Arab neighborhood. And they are “immensely distressed”. But we’re not apologizing, and we’re not moving, because according to International Law the State of Israel is a legal entity. And if the Arabs are offended, they need to deal with the laws of the world, whose most powerful countries have been trying to run on democratic principals, and not the emotions of those who cry the loudest.

    If the sermons being given at the mosque include statements calling for the destruction of America or hurting Americans, then that is another story, and by law would need to be investigated and prosecuted as “incitement” or as illegal terror-related activity.

    During the next prolonged war/battle in which Israel is involved, when the Arab media will project their staged horror films of actions allegedly committed by Israeli soldiers, and manipulate pictures and video clips and broadcast them to the world, the world will be “immensely distressed” by Israel and the Jews. If we, as Jews, get on the side of giving weight to discrimination based on “being immensely distressed”, then during (and after) the time that Israel is at war, whenever an American or European sees a Jew trying to build a synagogue, or sitting down on a bus, the cry of “being greatly distressed” will come back to bite us.

    Being emotionally pained is subjective, cannot be measured, and can only be claimed. If we allow “immensely distressed” to be used as a reason for illegal discrimination, or promote it’s validity and give it significant weight in the instance of the mosque, then we better think about how it can come back to hurt us in another circumstance. Especially since Jew-hatred is one of the oldest and irrational biases in Western and Near Eastern history.

    In the end, the endless debates and even the questions asked do not matter. What matters is the law of the land, and if that law will be followed in this case.

    The mosque will be built, if not in that location, then at another location. But Jews promoting illegal discrimination based on the emotions of the day does not seem to me to be a very wise move.

    The law in the USA that prevents discrimination against the building of a mosque, protects us as Jews. Let us hope that law continues to be upheld.

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  14. PS - That x-ray picture of the kiwi and her egg is incredible.

    Female kiwis should go on strike. Having to carry eggs that size in proportion to her body is certainly discriminatory and unjustifiable cruelty to animals and to females!

    Seriously, one would imagine that at this point, evolution would push the female kiwi to grow in size!

    (Btw - isn't it good a k'beitza wasn't measured by the kiwi egg?!)

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  15. I apologize for attempting to make debater's points by alluding to some of R' Natan's literary efforts and the tumult they inspired. Of course, he was justified in formulating his general approach to issues of conflict between science and traditional teachings. The vocal opponents, in contrast, were both unreasonable and unjust. While the personal consequences for the author were not always pleasant, to put it mildly, it certainly helped clarify the extent of irrationality, me-too-ism, and vindictiveness among Hareidi leaders and askanim. It also revealed that some issues and actions will provoke hostility regardless of the purity of motive of the initiator. Why, then, should such actions be subject to a veto by the excitable hoi polloi? In the current atmosphere, there are many agitators who will seek to gain influence by inciting the ignorant. Let the well-intentioned works be undertaken, and let the future judge whether the works were wise or unwise.

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  16. R' Slifkin,

    Respectfully, I do not understand your approach to either the mosque or HIR issues. Regarding the mosque, as Isaac and others have noted, encouraging a culture of victimhood doesn't seem like a pragmatic way of approaching thorny social or legal issues. Additionally, I'd point out two other problems:
    1) the argument is easily flipped - "there is another question to which virtually everyone can agree on the answer: Will it cause immense distress to the hundreds of thousands of loyal, patriotic Muslims who are now being told they cannot worship where they wish because their entire religion is now irrevocably associated with the horrific massacre perpetuated by a group of extremists who they despise and condemn? Yes, of course it will."

    2) Pragmatism should play no role in protecting the constitutional rights of the minority, or they would have no protection at all! Surely desegregation, women's equality, etc. were all extremely unpragmatic at various points in history - that's not an excuse for denying them basic rights.

    Re HIR, the situation is even more straightforward. If (and it's a very big if), there is no halachic problem with women davening kabbalat shabbat from the bimah, then they have not yet done so for external reasons (e.g., no demand, Rabbis with socio/political agendas, or Rabbis who are just plain afraid to make waves). If this is the case, then, be definition, the ONLY "way forward" would be for a Rabbi who is not afraid, without that agenda, in a community with the demand, to take the first step. What alternative is there? Social change doesn't just happen organically - there needs to be an impetus.

    KT,
    Hillel

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  17. PS: That picture is incredibly cool - and it made my wife feel (slightly) better about her own 36-hour delivery experience.

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  18. Sorry about taking so long to post on this, but I cannot allow this one to pass:

    But there is another question to which virtually everyone can agree on the answer: Will it cause immense distress to the families and friends of the victims? Yes, of course it will.

    Really? I was working in the Wall Street area on 9/11. I felt the ground shake each time a building collapse (and I was in a 25th floor office at the time). I walked half the length of Manhattan covered in ash and smelling like smoke. Both my wife and I lost friends in that horrible attack, and two of my company's clients had offices in the WTC.

    I am not distressed in the least by the Cordoba house. We have a process for investigating hate groups and their funding, and so long as those investigations have not provided a legal basis for stopping this group, I see no reason to agitate over this. Government intervention in religious expression should be extremely limited, and I am much more distressed over the willingness of alleged "conservatives" to completely abandon their principles for a meaningless and counter-productive gesture.

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  19. This comment comes a bit late, but two points about the mosque/community center:

    1) You can't legislate against bad taste/insensitivity. (Unless of course there's an immediate threat to public safety, which ironically was exactly what happened re: publishing the cartoons of Muhammad.)

    2) If in fact this center will be a place of bridging and moderation (i.e. if you've got reform/conservative/MO Muslims running the place), then adaraba we need to bolster such efforts in the Muslim world. If it's all apologetics, essentially "spraying perfume on manure," then of course the joke's on us. But as a Jew, I like to cling to hope, even if it's admittedly meager.

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