Saturday, February 28, 2009

Kol Isha Apologetics

[And Barzilai said to the King]: I am eighty years old this day, can I discern between good and bad? or can your servant taste what I eat and drink? or can I still listen to the voice of singers and songstresses? - 2 Samuel 19:36

Judaica Press commentary:
songstresses - While hearing a female singing voice is considered an impropriety (Talmud Berachot 24a), Targum Jonathan Ben Uziel seems to indicate that these female entertainers did not actually sing but only played musical instruments. See Talmud Succah 51a where it is indicated that the term "mishorer" applies not only to one who sings but also to one who plays a musical instrument. D. Cohen, in his "Notes on II Samuel" (Hadorom, Nisan 5732), suggests that perhaps these songstresses were pre-menstruate, when their voices were not yet considered sexually stimulating. See also Responsa of Seridei Eish, v. II. [I believe that R. Weinberg's responsa permitted mixed singing due to the inability of distinguishing male & female voices, and felt that leniencies should be made as a response to inroads made by the Reform movement. - FH]
For additional biblical references to women singing in the presence of men see here. Not surprisingly, exegetes universally rely on extreme stretch & kvetch apologetics rather than admit to the obvious - that the prohibition of kol isha was a much later rabbinic decree rather than a precept based on biblical sources.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

A Shabbes Klopper Schmendrick Nudnik??

Pearls Before Swine

Rat has learned that Yiddish is the best language in the world for hurling insults. Pastis' ideas usually don't last for many strips, but it starts here.

(Unfortunately, the image is embedded and may come out truncated with the blogger template I use. Click on the image or the link to the page.)

Monday, February 23, 2009

Don't Bug Me, Man

I just received an email blurb touting PestCatch, a small pest detection kit apparently designed for the kosher consumer who wants to reduce their insect consumption.

I'm somewhat puzzled by the marketing of this product. On their benefits page (which looks like it was composed by someone with a poor command of English), they suggest that PestCatch is suitable for large agricultural operations ("check large quantities of produce", "spot-monitor crops to save money on unnecessary pesticide treatments"), but it is obvious that it is a modest product that is really designed for small-scale, home use.

Here's what you get for your 45 smackeroos:
  • One metal colander
  • One pot
  • Two filters
  • One 10x magnifying glass
Personally, I'm waiting for a higher end model to be made available. One that comes with a 1000x microscope. One can never be too careful with those little critters!

Heaven forfend that I be seen as belittling the need for the kosher consumer to check for insects. Although the average person consumes one to two pounds of flies, maggots and mites per year, most of it is presumably bits and pieces, which is much less of a concern from a kashrut perspective than eating a complete bug or insect. The OK veggie checking guide states that eating an insect violates seven Torah prohibitions (they neglect to mention that this is only for a whole, winged insect). But let's be reasonable, folks! If you are afraid that your broccoli may be infested, give it a good washing in a bowl, then pour the water through a paper towel or coffee filter. If you can't see bugs on the paper using the naked eye, enjoy your veggies! (And feel free to send me some of money that you saved by not buying PestCatch or a Star-K approved light table.)

One of the biggest scams related to this is the certification of bagged salad greens. It's amazing how many kosher consumers feel that they have to buy bagged salad with a hechsher! I have NEVER found a bug in non-certified bagged greens. This stuff is really washed well, and I challenge anyone to find a significant difference between certified and uncertified greens. Companies are always watching the bottom line, and they can't risk the consumer uproar that would result if they were to sell infested bags of salad. Besides, the kashrut agencies operate largely by chazakah with bagged salad, inspecting only samples. Ask yourself - what added benefit do these agencies provide (other than to their bottom line)?

On the other hand, I almost always find bugs on romaine, and therefore check it carefully. (As an aside, the most infested batch of romaine that I ever had was ironically from Alei Katif; supposedly it is insect free, having been grown in hermetically sealed greenhouses. I mistakenly thought that I'd be saving a ton of time inspecting the maror for the seder. The upside is that I now save money buying generic romaine.) Other fresh fruits & veggies that the OK says to check, but for which I have never, ever seen a bug (at least after a light rinsing) include celery, mushrooms (except when I gather them wild), blueberries, strawberries, sprouts, and most others.

Either my experience is anomalous or the kashrut organizations search out infested crops for their scare tactics - and the more folks they scare, the more demand there is for their hech$her.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Technical Interlude - Arguing from Ignorance

Recently I had a discussion with a Chabadnik who parroted the Lubavitcher "young earth creationist" viewpoint (a literal 6000-year-old age of the universe). This concept is almost universally held by Chabad because it was the viewpoint of the last rebbe, M.M. Schneerson, and God forbid (or "Rebbe Forbid" for some of their more extreme adherents) that he was wrong in his views! This individual raised issues concerning the validity of Carbon-14 (aka C-14 or radiocarbon) dating, reflecting basic misunderstandings that are quite common among folks that have not only a meager scientific background but a propagandized one at that. A somewhat recent post on Lubabnomore featuring a video by Ronen Segal made similar claims. As I mentioned in my comment there, the video contains nothing new in the meager arsenal that OrthoFundies wield when they argue against scientific theories such as evolution or the age of the universe.

Although I find it quite irksome when assertions are made that reflect a gross misunderstanding of scientific principles, this post should be considered more of a public service announcement for those who are guilty of one of the more egregious errors, so that they won't embarrass themselves in the future. After all, in Jewish thought embarrassing someone is a very serious matter and is often said to be equivalent to murder. Therefore saving someone from embarrassing oneself is analogous to preventing someone from committing suicide!

I want to make a few points concerning the C-14 radiometric dating technique. The technical nitty-gritty is beyond the scope of this post, so refer to the Wiki article if you are so inclined.

Radiocarbon dating is only one of a number of dating techniques, each of which is useful for specific materials and/or environments. Most importantly, C-14 can only be used on organic materials (only living organisms take up C-14) which are younger than approximately 10 half-lives. Since the half-life of C-14 is about 5700 years (coincidentally very close to the age of the universe, heh heh), it can be used to date objects - at most - up to approximately 60,000 years old. The upper-age limits usually require special enrichment techniques and are therefore less accurate because problems such as sample contamination (always a concern) become increasingly problematic at such low levels of remaining C-14.

Somewhat unintuitively, very young samples are also not usually suitable for dating simply because so much fossil fuel carbon has been released into the atmosphere by humans over the last couple hundred years. Such carbon is very old and thus has negligible C-14, so the initial C-14/C-12 ratio (the critical factor in dating) taken up by organisms is too low to provide meaningful decay data.

Finally, note that radiometric dates are always given as "plus or minus" dates, reflecting the level of certainty of the measurement (unless otherwise stated, usually a 68% confidence level is given, i.e., one standard deviation.)

So, Chabadniks, Dovid Gottlieb-ists, and other young earth creationists, to avoid peoples' BS meters from going off the scale, please do not:
  • use the terms "age-of-the-earth" and C-14 in the same sentence or talk about using C-14 to date "rocks"
  • assert that C-14 dating of dinosaur bones proves that dinosaurs and man were contemporaneous (refer to The Great Dinosaur Mystery) - scientists simply do not use C-14 for determining the age of dinosaurs.
  • point out anomalous dating determinations for very young specimens in an attempt to discredit the validity of C-14 dating
  • suggest that dating uncertainties demonstrates a flaw in the technique itself
Somewhat more sophisticated fundies (that is, they have memorized more sophisticated sounding talking points) may point to other types of anomalous readings or discarded data, or claim circular reasoning in the dating of samples, or assert that C-14 calibrations (adjusting the original C14/C12 ratio) are nothing more than "fudge factors" to arrive at a desired date. Suffice it to say that scientists are well aware of when it is appropriate to use radiocarbon dating and the statistical models are well-established. Nor are calibrations "fudge factors"; on the contrary, they strengthen the model by using independent dating methods "such as examination of tree growth rings (dendrochronology), deep ocean sediment cores, lake sediment varves, coral samples, and speleothems (cave deposits)."

Yes, that last sentence was a direct wiki quote, and no, that is not the limit of my knowledge in the area. Although it has admittedly been many years, I have grad-school level experience in the field.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

RIP Baron Lister

For three transgressions do women die in childbirth: because they were not careful to observe the laws of family purity, [separating] challah, and of lighting the [Shabbat] lamp. (Mishnah Shabbat 2:6)

Because the claims of this mishnah are outlandish to the modern thinker/heretic, contemporary commentators often feel the need to see it as a metaphor (see here for one example.) However it is clear from the Gemara (Shabbat 31b-32a) and classical commentators that this mishnah was meant literally. The ArtScroll siddur summarizes the reason: "These three mitzvot are assigned to women, therefore they bear great responsibility for neglecting them" and that "punishments are most likely in time of danger."

Wikipedia states that "The historical level of maternal deaths is probably around 1 in 100 births. Mortality rates reached horrible proportions in maternity institutions in the 1800s, sometimes climbing to 40 percent of birthgiving women. At the beginning of the 1900s, maternal death rates were around 1 in 100 for live births. The number today in the United States is 11 in 100,000, a decline by orders of magnitude."

Although we don't have reliable records prior to the mid-1800s, the death rate for women giving birth plummeted worldwide in the late 1930s. It is reasonable to presume that this also includes the death rate among Jewish women. We can also state with certainty there was no concomitant radical increase in the observance of taharat hamishpacha (laws of family purity) during this time; indeed, the great increase in numbers of secular and non-Orthodox Jews resulted in a corresponding decrease in such observance.

Today, February 10th, is the yahrzeit of Joseph Lister, the First Baron Lister (d. 1912), an English surgeon who promoted the idea of sterile surgery, using carbolic acid to sterilize surgical instruments, dressings and to clean wounds. He required that all surgeons wear clean gloves and insisted that they wash their hands before and after operations. Some consider Lister "the father of modern antisepsis." Although Ignaz Semmelweis is sometimes credited as having introduced handwashing in obstetrics, and indeed by this technique drastically reduced puerperal fever some 20 years earlier than Lister, his attempts to publicize his well-documented findings fell on deaf ears within the medical community.

OrthoFundies can always fall back on "nishtaneh hateva", that nature has changed and we are no longer "privileged" to be on the spiritual level where our physical health is directly connected to our alacrity in performing mitzvot (this party line is almost universally claimed as the reason why we no longer have "tzaraas", the mystery malady often translated as leprosy). The rest of us can give thanks to folks like Joseph Lister and Ignaz Semmelweis.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Modern Biblical Scholarship - Two Warnings

"Does Exodus VI, 3, Support the Higher Critical Theory?" So asks Rabbi J.H. Hertz in the Hertz Pentatuech (Additional Notes section of Exodus), written in 1936. Of course, the question is rhetorical, for his purpose is to debunk such a notion, but note how he starts off the essay: "This query, as well as the answer to it, may have little meaning and no interest to the general reader. In that case, he will be well advised to skip the appropriate sections."

Translation: If you study the Higher Critical Theory in depth, you may find my answers unsatisfactory.

Fast forward 70 years to James Kugel, who writes in his introduction to How to Read the Bible (p. xiv): "WARNING: ... there is one group of readers who must be cautioned against its contents. Precisely because this book deals with modern biblical scholarship, many of the things it discusses contradict the accepted teachings of Judaism and Christianity and may thus be disturbing to people of traditional faith... It is up to them to decide whether or not to continue."

Translation: If you study modern biblical scholarship, you'll end up (like me) rejecting fundamental tenets of your faith.

In both cases:
I don't want to be responsible for your kefirah.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

A Disproportionate Response

Exodus 7:21: And the fish that were in the river died; and the river became foul, and the Egyptians could not drink water from the river; and the blood was throughout ALL the land of Egypt.

Exodus 8:13: ...and Aaron stretched out his hand with his rod, and smote the dust of the earth, and there were gnats upon man, and upon beast; all the dust of the earth became gnats throughout ALL the land of Egypt.

Exodus 8:20: ...and in ALL the land of Egypt the land was ruined by reason of the swarms of flies.

Exodus 9:6: And the LORD did that thing on the morrow, and ALL the cattle of Egypt died; but of the cattle of the children of Israel died not one.

Exodus 9:6: And it shall become small dust over all the land of Egypt, and shall be a boil breaking forth with blains upon man and upon beast, throughout ALL the land of Egypt.

Exodus 9:25: And the hail smote throughout ALL the land of Egypt all that was in the field, both man and beast; and the hail smote every herb of the field, and broke every tree of the field.

Exodus 10:14: And the locusts went up over ALL the land of Egypt, and rested in ALL the borders of Egypt

Exodus 10:22: And Moses stretched forth his hand toward heaven; and there was a thick darkness in ALL the land of Egypt three days

Exodus 12:29: And it came to pass at midnight, that the LORD smote ALL the firstborn in the land of Egypt

Let's consider the geography of Egypt. Goshen is in the the northeast section of Egypt. All of the Jews are concentrated there. The central government of the 19th Dynasty (roughly contemporaneous with the Exodus story) is in Avaris & Pi-Ramesse just to the east of Goshen. Close by is another major population center, Tanis, and a bit farther are the cities of Heliopolis and Giza (site of the Great Pyramid & the Sphinx.) As one travels south into Upper Egypt, major population centers include Memphis (home to Elvis), Amarna, Abydos, and Elephantine, and finally Abu Simbel, located more than 600 km from Pi-Ramesse (upstream) via the Nile, or about 500 km as the crow flies. Some maximum traveling comparison times estimated by Eerdman's Dictionary of the Bible: armies 24 km/day; foot journey - 32 km/day; horseback 40-50 km/day; chariot 72 km/day; couriers 95 km/day.

Now it is easy to justify a massive conflagration against the people in Lower Egypt, since the oppression of the Jewish people would have required the cooperation of a multitude of Egyptians there. But does anyone really believe that the population centers of the more southern cities had any clue as to what was going on in the north? They likely had no clue as to the situation with the Jews in Goshen, and certainly had no part in their subjugation. It was a long and arduous journey to the north and they probably had only sporadic news reports about the construction of various government projects. Of course it was taken for granted that a slave labor force would be employed, that was typical in the Ancient Near East . (Myth quashing digression: the great pyramids were built 1000 years earlier in the 4th Dynasty, approximately 2500 BCE, and slave labor was NOT used.) Let's face it, most of the population consisted of poor farmers eking out a living. There is no way that they could have been complicit in the brutality towards the Jews of Goshen, yet God punishes them as harshly as the northerners!

Note in particular the "advanced warning" that Moses gives the Egyptians in the plague of hail. Exodus 9:18 ff: "Behold, tomorrow about this time I will cause it to rain a very grievous hail, such as hath not been in Egypt since the day it was founded even until now. Now therefore send, hasten in thy cattle and all that thou hast in the field; for every man and beast that shall be found in the field, and shall not be brought home, the hail shall come down upon them, and they shall die.' He that feared the word of the LORD among the servants of Pharaoh made his servants and his cattle flee into the houses; and he that regarded not the word of the LORD left his servants and his cattle in the field." It's obvious that only those able to take heed of the warning were so forewarned (the servants of Pharaoh). There is no suggestion that all of the people of Egypt were warned, and yet the hail devastated ALL of Egypt!

Of course, this would not be first nor last time that God was the architect of a disproportionate response according to a literal reading of the Torah. But, just as the annihilation of the Canaanite people never really occurred, I would like to think that these plagues were very localized and did not affect the entire land of Egypt as the Torah states. (Even a naturalistic explanation of the plagues - which I am quite fond of - would suggest this.) What we have here is hyperbole, folks, and the Torah is chock full of this literary technique. Get used to it.