Blog: June 2016

Most of these posts were originally posted somewhere else and link to the originals. While this blog is not set up for comments, the original locations generally are, and I welcome comments there. Sorry for the inconvenience.

Ballot access

Tonight outside the grocery store a man holding a clipboard approached me.

Him: Are you registered to vote?
Me: Yes.
Him: Would you be willing to sign a petition to get a third-party candidate onto the ballot?
Me: Quite likely -- which party?
Him: Libertarian.
Me: Oh good; I've been hoping a petition for Gary Johnson would cross my path. Gimme that.
Him: Sounds like you're politically active.
Me: If I were active I'd have my own petition.
Him: Sounds like you're politically informed.
Me: Yeah, that's closer.

Ballot access is rigged by the two major parties to, as much as possible, keep everybody else out. Other parties need to gather a disproportionate number of signatures, for each race, to get a candidate onto the ballot. And it's pretty much a given that the major parties will challenge the petitions for other candidates, so in practice you need to collect three or four times as many signatures as you officially "need", just to be safe. This is why I was very likely to sign the petition even before knowing who it was for (though if it had been someone repugnant I'd've said no).

Smaller parties are better served trying to gain local and state offices; the White House and probably Congress are out of reach. But there's more publicity to be had for national races, and this year especially I think it's worth giving serious consideration to alternatives. Gary Johnson is a pragmatist, not a hard-line idealist, and he has experience with the realities of the political world (he was governor of New Mexico). I hope we get more of a chance to passively hear what he has to say.

Added in a comment:

We need some form of preference ballot, yes, and since that's against the interests of those in power, it's not likely to happen. This is why other parties need to concentrate on smaller elections -- in a local election I think it's easier to campaign (a) at all and (b) on the merits of the individual candidate -- it's not just a party vote, but your neighbor Bob. (No, I don't have data; it seems reasonable but I could of course be wrong.)

The value of participating in larger elections isn't to get elected; that won't happen. The value is to be (potentially) able to influence the discourse. Isn't that why Sanders stayed in way past the point where he had to know that Clinton would be the nominee? He cares about getting certain issues front and center and used the primary to do that. If a candidate from another party can actually get into the debates (requires 15% in certain opinion polls; spread the word), can get some media attention, or can get people talking some other way, that helps even though he's not going to win. Most such candidates don't have, and can't raise, the enormous budgets needed for national races, though, and those with the massive budgets of course aren't inclined to let others in.

This year people are disgruntled enough that it feels like there could be an opening to get into the discourse. The odds are well against it, but it'd be nice to see it happen.

Cultural relativism and the "offensive" flag

On the Stack Exchange network, posts can be flagged as "offensive" and validated flags carry extra penalties. Users who are active on one site can flag posts on other sites, including ones they're not especially familiar with, and, in fact, the network has a crew of people who do just that, monitoring the whole network.

One of those users asked: "offensive" in whose eyes? This person was personally offended by something on the Islam site about rules for women's dress, considering such rules to be misogyny. But the asker also acknowledged that it's in line with that religion's teachings. Are you supposed to just look away, or is it ok to go into other communities and flag things you personally find offensive?

I wrote:

Liability for damages (Bava Kama 16)

The talmud describes two categories of damages, mu'ad and tam. The first, mu'ad, means cases where an outcome could reasonably be expected -- an animal will eat anything palatable and available, animals don't walk gently so if they step on something delicate you expect damage, and the ox that gores is known to gore. The other, tam, means cases where there is no such expectation.

If damages are done through mu'ad -- for example, a man doesn't restrict his goats and they go eat somebody else's crops -- then the responsible person owes full payment out of the best of his estate. If damages are done through tam, on the other hand, the responsible person and the victim share the damages (which are further limited) -- this is a case of "accidents happen". (The torah covers full versus half payments explicitly in Exodus 21 in talking about the ox that gores.)

The mishna says that a wolf, lion, bear, leopard, panther, and snake are all mu'ad. R' Eleazer says they are not mu'ad if they have been tamed, except that the snake is always mu'ad. (15b-16b)

In Jewish law, mu'ad applies to the custodian, not to the victim. "You should have known that would happen" is something we say to the owner of an animal as an explanation for why he must make full restitution -- not something we say to the victim to absolve the other of any responsibility. Your animals (or children or own behaviors) are your obligation to manage, not others' to dodge. (I suspect this doesn't apply to provocation or trespass, though; the talmud talks about things like not keeping your animals in, not about people climbing your fences and getting themselves hurt by your animals. There is probably also halacha on attractive nuisances, but I don't know what it is.)

Oven of Achnai

Shavuot night I went to an interesting class at our community-wide tikkun leil shavuot, the late-night torah study that is traditional for this festival. The class was taught by Rabbi Danny Schiff on "the real context of the oven of Achnai".

We started by reviewing the famous story in the talmud (Bava Metzia 59b): Rabbi Eliezer and the rest of the sages are having an argument about the ritual status of a particular type of oven. After failing to win them over by logic, R' Eliezer resorted to other means: If I am right, he said, let this carob tree prove it -- and the carob tree got up and walked 100 cubits (some say 400). The sages responded: we do not learn halacha from carob trees. He then appealed to a stream, which ran backwards -- but we do not learn halacha from streams either. Nor from the walls of the study hall, his next appeal. Finally he appealed to heaven and a bat kol (heavenly voice) rang out: in all matters of halacha Rabbi Eliezer is right. But the sages responded: lo bashamayim hi, it (the torah) is not in heaven. That is, God gave us the torah and entrusted it to the sages, following a process of deduction given at Sinai, and that torah says that after the majority one must incline (in matters of torah). So, heavenly voices aren't part of the process. (It is then reported that God's reaction to this response is to laugh and say "my children have defeated me".)

That much of the story is fairly widely known, and I've also heard a joke version that ends with "so nu? Now it's 70 to 2!". The g'mara goes on from there, though, and it takes a darker turn. After this episode they brought everything that R' Eliezer had ever declared to be ritually pure and destroyed it, and, not satisfied with that, they excommunicated him. Rabbi Akiva agrees to be the one to tell him, and the g'mara describes a fairly roundabout conversation in which it's clear that R' Akiva is trying to let his colleague down gently. But even so, R' Eliezer is devastated and, the g'mara reports, on that day the world was smitten: a third of the olive crop, a third of the wheat crop, and a third of the barley crop were destroyed.

But wait; we're not done. Rabbi Eliezer's wife, Ima Shalom (literally "mother of peace"), was the sister of Rabban Gamliel, the head of the Sanhedrin that had ruled against R' Eliezer. Ima Shalom was careful to keep her husband from praying the petitionary prayers at the end of the Amidah, for fear that he would pour out his heart to God and God would punish her brother. But one day something went wrong, she found him praying these prayers, and she cried out "you have slain my brother!" (And yes, he had died.) How did she know this, he asked? Because tradition says that all (heavenly) gates are locked except the gates of wounded feelings.

And that's the second level of the story, which I also knew before this class. The real "aha" moment for me came when, instead of reading on, we backed up.

Why is the g'mara talking about this now? Sometimes we do get things that just seem to pop up out of nowhere, but usually there's context. In this case, that context is the previous mishna (the g'mara expounds the mishna). (Rabbi Schiff: "ok, everybody turn back four pages in the handout now".) That mishna says: Just as there is overreaching in buying and selling, so is there wrong done by words. One must not ask another "what is the price of this item?" if he has no intention of buying. If a man was a repentant sinner, one must not say to him "remember your former deeds". And if he was the son of proselytes one must not say to him "remember the deeds of your ancestors".

We talked about each of these cases. On the repentant sinner, he said, every married person knows this one: you do something wrong, you make amends and beg for forgiveness, your spouse forgives you... and then, five years later, in the midst of an argument, it comes out again. It feels terrible, right? The other cases can be just as bad. (You ask the price knowing you're not going to buy, then don't buy, and the seller tries to figure out what he did wrong. And for the proselyte, you're reminding him of things that somehow taint him that he didn't even do!)

Right after this mishna the g'mara begins discussing verbal wrongs, saying they're worse than monetary wrongs and that one who slanders another is as if he shed blood. The rabbis discuss all this for a while, and then we get to the oven of Achnai.

The episode with Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Schiff says, is not about rules of derivation, or proofs from miracles, or divine will versus human will. That's all just back-story. The main point is the hurt that the sages caused after the dispute. Disputes are fine; we get that all the time. But they over-reacted, hurtfully, and that is the point the g'mara is trying to make by putting this episode here.

Interesting class, and well-presented. (This writeup doesn't really do it justice, but it's the best I can offer.)


Giovanni lying at top of stairs

I adopted Giovanni from Animal Friends in 2012 (along with Orlando). He wasn't shy in our first meeting; he was immediately comfortable with me and purred non-stop. The folks at the shelter thought he was around 6 or 7.

A week ago I didn't know what FIP was. Giovanni had been losing weight for a little while, but about a month ago his appetite dropped and we started looking in earnest for the cause. The ultrasound suggested possible lymphoma, and a week ago yesterday he went in for surgery to get samples for a biopsy. That's only diagnostic, not corrective, so I didn't expect his appetite to pick up when I brought him home, but he became even more disinterested, no matter what I offered him (or forced into him). Wednesday night he was very lethargic, and Thursday morning he was jaundiced. Back to the vet we went.

The biopsy results had just come back -- no lymphoma, but the lab suggested testing the sample for FIP because that was consistent with all the symptoms we were seeing. We admitted him to the hospital so they could give IV fluids and nutrients. I began reading veterinary articles online about FIP.

FIP is progressive, incurable, and fatal. We thought we might have weeks or perhaps a couple months left, but he continued to decline and today Giovanni decided he was done fighting. He was a sweet kitty with a non-stop purr who was content to sleep in my lap for hours at a time on Shabbat afternoons. I miss him.

We don't know how old he was, but the consensus of the vets who've seen him recently is that there's no way he was only ten. I gave him a good home for his last years; I was just expecting more of them.

Giovanni on top of cat condo