Blog: August 2017

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.

What do you call someone who speaks two languages? Bilingual. One? American.

I get email sometimes that is presumably the result of somebody using my email address (erroneously or intentionally) to sign up for services like Facebook, Twitter, dating sites, etc. (Also the occasional hotel booking confirmation.)

Today I got email from Twitter with a subject line of something like "please confirm your account (account name that is not mine here)". I figured anti-confirming might be helpful (at least to me; don't know about the other guy), so I looked. The body of the message was in Portuguese.

The text that looked most like "not my account" passed muster with Google Translate, so I clicked -- and worried that I'd have to navigate a Portuguese confirmation page. But no! The page was in English. Yay; with luck that email stream will stop now.

So I guess when they sent the mail they thought I was that other person, and that account has a default language or a language setting, so they used it. But they weren't sure enough to also use Portuguese in the subject line. (Correct call: I wouldn't have opened it if it weren't in English.) And then when I indicated "nope" they either chose a language based on my IP address or just used English on the assumption that everybody on the web is used to that. I wonder which it was.

Making decisions about this stuff is probably harder than it first appears. I think they made all the right calls here (except they might have repeated the "nope, not me" link in English), and they didn't just pick one language and go with it.

Witnesses in capital cases (Sanhedrin 37)

The mishna discusses how witnesses are addressed (before testifying). Witnesses in capital cases were brought in and intimidated thus: perhaps what you say is based on conjecture or hearsay, or is something you were told to say by somebody else. Perhaps you are unaware that we are going to scrutinize your evidence by cross-examination and inquiry.

Know that capital cases are not like monetary ones; you can make monetary restitution (if you're lying) and effect atonement, but in a capital case you are liable for the blood of the accused and all the descendants he now won't have. We learn this from Kayin, where it says "the bloods of your brother cry out to Me" -- bloods, not blood, so it includes potential descendants. For this reason man was created alone, to teach that whoever destroys a single soul is guilty as if he destroyed an entire world, and whoever preserves a single soul has merit as if he preserved an entire world because all mankind originated from one man.

Man was created alone for the sake of peace among men, so that none can say "my father was greater than yours". And further, he was created alone to show the power of the Holy One blessed be He, for if a man strikes many coins from one mold they all resemble each other, but God fashioned every man in the stamp of the first man and yet they all look different. Therefore every person is obligated to say: the world was created for my sake. (37a)

(Today's daf is 39, but I wanted to cover this mishna because parts of this are famous but we don't always hear them in the original context.)

At the end of the day

A short story in three acts.

Image without description

Matt sat in the back row of his freshman anthropology class, browsing Twitter on his phone. Kevin, sitting next to him, whispered, “careful, he’s looking this way.”

Professor Ramirez paused, then nodded toward the student sitting two rows in front of them. “Yes, Leonard?”

“Are you saying these primitive people actually believed that the sun was being swallowed by a dragon? I mean, haven’t we known about eclipses for thousands of years? It’s not rocket science.”

“Be careful what you dismiss,” the professor responded. “There are people alive even today in remote places who don’t have the benefits of science that we take for granted.” His eyes fell on Matt and Kevin. “Science isn’t just for surfing the Internet during class. It also…” Matt looked up, blushing, but the professor had moved on. Matt tapped a few times on his phone.

“Ah bummer,” he whispered to Kevin. “We don’t get a total eclipse here for another seven years. I wish we were seeing today’s show instead of sitting here.”

The shaman’s frenzied dance did nothing to deter the darkness overhead. Frightened villagers gathered around. Infants wailed, drowning out the erratic sounds of confused wildlife.

The village elder pushed his way through the crowd and stood in front of the shaman. The shaman stilled his skyward exhortations. The elder met his gaze. “Why?”

The shaman shook in fright. “I do not know, master. We have been diligent in making our offerings to the gods. We fed the dragon just last full-moon!”

The elder’s gaze fell on a man, now childless. Tears streamed down the man’s face. Had his daughter’s sacrifice been for nothing?

The sky continued to darken. A rock flew through the crowd, smashing into the father of the most recent offering. Someone shouted “unfit! what have you done to us?” Others shouted back. Fists met faces, and some reached for clubs. The village elder’s cries for order went unheard in the eruption surrounding him. The glow of just-lit torches spread through the crowd. The shaman stood still, gazing up with pleading eyes.

Darkness covered the land. The light did not return.

“I see you’ve finally tired of playing with your food.”

N’zok belched and moved closer to his mate, placing his vast left wing over her back in a partial embrace. “This system was getting boring. Thank you for indulging me.”

“Where to next?”

N’zok rotated in space, turning his mate with him. With a claw he gestured toward a bright light. “You can’t see it from here, but there are two stars in that system, one for each of us. We should be happy there for a long time.”

“Is there any chance you’ll consider eating slowly this time instead of wolfing it down? That’s so barbaric.”

N’zok belched again. “Barbaric, but oh so tasty!”

Both dragons unfurled their wings — unnecessary in the vacuum of space, but N’zok appreciated the aesthetics. They began their slow movement toward the binary star.

Policing the Internet

Yesterday Cloudflare, a service that increases reliability (and speed?) of web sites, shut down the Daily Stormer web site. Daily Stormer, if you haven't heard, is the site for the a hate group with broad impact in the US, most recently in the violence and murder in Charlottsville.

Their CEO's blog post announcing the termination isn't just a "they're evil and they're gone" announcement like you sometimes see. It's a thoughtful post that explains the dilemmas faced by the organizations that, by and large, make the Internet work, and what dangers this decision opens up.

Our team has been thorough and have had thoughtful discussions for years about what the right policy was on censoring. Like a lot of people, we’ve felt angry at these hateful people for a long time but we have followed the law and remained content neutral as a network. We could not remain neutral after these claims of secret support by Cloudflare.

Now, having made that decision, let me explain why it's so dangerous.

[...] Someone on our team asked after I announced we were going to terminate the Daily Stormer: "Is this the day the Internet dies?" He was half joking, but only half. He's no fan of the Daily Stormer or sites like it. But he does realize the risks of a company like Cloudflare getting into content policing.

I also found this tidbit interesting:

In fact, in the case of the Daily Stormer, the initial requests we received to terminate their service came from hackers who literally said: "Get out of the way so we can DDoS this site off the Internet."

After finding that post I found this post on Gizmodo that, among things, quotes from internal email he sent.

This was my decision. Our terms of service reserve the right for us to terminate users of our network at our sole discretion. My rationale for making this decision was simple: the people behind the Daily Stormer are assholes and I’d had enough.

Let me be clear: this was an arbitrary decision. It was different than what I’d talked talked with our senior team about yesterday. I woke up this morning in a bad mood and decided to kick them off the Internet. I called our legal team and told them what we were going to do. I called our Trust & Safety team and had them stop the service. It was a decision I could make because I’m the CEO of a major Internet infrastructure company. [...] No one should have that power.

I don't have a coherent opinion yet. On the one hand, policing content is a dangerous game and why I support net neutrality. On the other hand, private companies (and individuals) should be free to act (legally) in their own interests; companies have been refusing service to unacceptable customers on a case-by-case basis for years. On the third hand, there are differences between competitive markets and monopoly markets. (Within monopolies there are government-sponsored ones and we're-big-and-drove-everybody-out ones too.) Balancing all of that is hard.

In the comments someone brought up pharmacies selectively declining to fill prescriptions for birth control. I wrote:

Pharmacies came to mind for me, too. On the one hand there are lots of pharmacies. On the other hand it's easy to imagine every single pharmacy in Conservative-Churchville, USA refusing to fill prescriptions for Plan B, birth control, some psychological conditions, anything having to do with gender reassignment, and more. And further, pharmacy (like marriage-license administration) has had cases where people who know what they're getting into take a job, then refuse to do it, then mount a "freedom of (my, but not your) religion" argument for why they should be allowed to not do their jobs while retaining them, and because of the political climate in the US, they get away with it. One's personal religious observance ends at the boundaries with other people. Jews have been dealing with this for ages, sometimes losing (or not taking) jobs that preclude observance of Shabbat or other halacha, and that's just part of the cost of living in a world where we don't all have the same beliefs. You shouldn't get to be the dog in the manger.

Pharmacies are complicated because they're not a monopoly but they're government-regulated (a random person can't just hang out a shingle). I don't know for which parts of the Internet service industry that's true, but some for sure. So while I don't like government compelling private businesses in much of anything, if the government is acting as your enforcer then you're not completely private either, and it feels like that should make a difference even while teetering at the top of this slippery slope. These cases are different from, say, a bakery, which should be free to say "we won't write that on a cake" or even "we won't bake that cake" to anybody they choose -- and take the consequences if it's controversial.

Civil vs. capital cases (Sanhedrin 32)

The mishna begins chapter 4 of Sanhedrin with an overview of how civil and capital cases are conducted:

  • Both civil and capital cases require inquiry and examination of witnesses. (This is done by the judges; there are no lawyers.)

  • Civil cases are tried by a court of three; capital cases are tried by a court of 23.

  • When the judges deliberate on civil cases, they may begin with arguments for either acquittal or condemnation. When they deliberate on capital cases, they must begin with arguments for acquittal.

  • Civil cases may be decided by a majority of one; capital cases may be decided by a majority of one for acquittal, but require a majority of at least two for condemnation.

  • In civil cases the decision may be reversed in either direction (for example upon the discovery of an error). In capital cases the decision may be reversed from condemnation to acquittal but not the other way around.

  • In civil cases, all present (including the pupils who are observing) may argue for or against the defendant. In capital cases, anybody may argue for acquittal but only the judges may argue for condemnation.

  • In civil cases, one who has previously argued for either acquittal or condemnation may then argue for the other side (for example because he realized his argument was faulty). In capital cases, one who has argued for condemnation may then argue for acquittal but not the other way around.

  • Civil cases are tried by day and concluded by night if necessary. Capital cases are tried by day and must be concluded by day. Civil cases can be concluded on the same day (either way); capital cases can be concluded on the same day for acquittal but not until the following day for condemnation. Therefore trials are not held on the eve of Shabbat or a festival.

  • In civil cases we begin with the opinion of the most eminent of the judges; in capital cases we begin with the opinion of the least ("those on the side benches").

  • All types of Jews (presumably they mean men) are eligible to try civil cases, but converts and bastards cannot judge capital cases.

Eikev: rewards for torah?

The torah portion begins with Moshe describing to the people the rewards they'll receive for following in God's ways -- people and flocks will be fruitful, crops will be bountiful, none will be barren, there'll be no sickness or plagues, and they'll be victorious over the other nations. This is one of several places where the torah describes rewards for doing mitzvot. This is hard to understand, though, because the world doesn't work this way -- we do have people who want children and are barren, we do have sickness, crops aren't always bountiful, and so on. The good sometimes suffer and the wicked sometimes flourish. So how are we supposed to understand this?

(Spoiler warning: I don't have deep answers to this age-old problem. I have some thoughts.)

One approach we could take is to place it in context. Moshe is speaking to the Israelites at the end of their 40-year trek to the promised land. They're standing on the shore of the Yarden, about to cross over and conquer the land after this speech. Perhaps Moshe is speaking to these people in this time. There's even an ambiguously-placed "in the land that He will give you" (in 7:13), so maybe this promise isn't for everybody forever.

That's not very satisfying, though. The torah is supposed to be eternal, for us and not just for them.

Another approach was taken by the rabbis at least as early as the mishna (in Pirke Avot): Olam HaBa, the world to come. If we aren't rewarded in this world, Olam HaZeh, then we will be later. There are even mitzvot for which we get rewarded in both; we list some of them in eilu d'varim in the morning service. We should still focus on this world, not obsess about an afterlife like some other religions do, but an afterlife gives another opportunity for reward. I'm not sure how satisfying this is to most people, either.

I'd like to propose two additional dimensions to what the torah says about rewards, two additional axes to consider.

The first is communal versus individual actions and rewards. Sometimes the torah addresses us in the singular and sometimes in the plural. Some rewards, like bountiful crops, are clearly communal -- it's pretty hard for me to have a good harvest with rain in its proper season and so on while my immediate neighbor has the opposite. Some rewards could be individual, like health. Obligations, too, come in individual and communal varieties; we all have individual obligations in the mitzvot, but the whole community together has some too, like setting up courts, bringing communal offerings, and conducting wars in particular ways. And sometimes individual obligations can bring communal rewards -- there's a rabbinic tradition that if every Jew in the world were to keep (the same) Shabbat once, we'd get the moshiach. Quite aside from the individual rewards for keeping Shabbat -- you get Shabbat, a day of rest -- there can be a big communal reward.

When looking for rewards for our actions, therefore, we should look to both our individual and our communal benefits. Even if you're not feeling personally rewarded for following torah, maybe you're helping your whole community live in safety, health, and comfort. That counts, too.

The second dimension is the question of whom we do mitzvot for.

The Reform movement is not a halachic movement. Ok, technically our movement does say that the ethical mitzvot are binding and it's only the ritual ones that are optional, but those ethical mitzvot align pretty well with values we already have anyway like not stealing, being honest in business, caring for the poor, and many others. Among the others, Reform Jews choose -- sometimes as a community and sometimes individually -- which mitzvot have meaning to us and we do those. Many of us find meaning in Shabbat, in communal worship like our morning minyan, in study, in many social-justice pursuits, and more.

If our progressive values and halacha conflict, however, we tend to reinterpret (occasionally) or set aside (usually) halacha. By and large, we do the mitzvot that we do for ourselves, for the good feelings they produce and the values they align with.

When we do mitzvot for ourselves, maybe that good feeling that we get is the reward for doing the mitzvah. That's fair -- we're rewarded here and now, in Olam HaZeh, for doing mitzvot. Isn't that what we wanted?

So we tend to do mitzvot for ourselves, but there's an alternative. If we believe that torah is mi Sinai, from God (as I do), then we should do mitzvot not for ourselves but for God. Even the goofy ones, the ones we don't understand and don't find personal meaning in. (I struggle with this, to be clear.) I don't know too many people who find spiritual fulfillment in sha'atnez, the law against combining linen and wool, but it's something God cares about. Last week a friend and I were talking about kitniyot, the additional foods that Ashkenazim don't eat during Pesach even though they're not chametz, forbidden grains. (A bunch of other foods got implicated by association.) My friend is a thoughtful, intelligent person who wrestles with torah and seeks to understand; he's not one to just say "tell me what to do and I'll do it". He told me that some of these decisions about kitniyot are clearly wrong -- but nonetheless the halachic system that God gave us produced this result, so he follows it. For God, not for himself.

The name of our portion, Eikev, comes from the same root as Ya'akov, heel-grabber. I don't remember where I heard this idea, but perhaps this word is meant to remind us not to trample on mitzvot just because we think they're minor or goofy. Who's to say which ones God most cares about?

What's the reward for doing mitzvot for God and not for us? Is there a reward for putting up with ridiculous-seeming food restrictions for Pesach, for waving greenery around on Sukkot, for checking fiber contents on our clothing, for separating meat and milk dishes, and many other things? When we're not doing mitzvot for our own benefit the rewards can be less clear, but if we have faith that God gave us the torah at all, why shouldn't we also have faith that God will deliver on His promises in some way at some time?

When looking at rewards for torah, either individual or communal, perhaps we should have less focus on specific rewards for specific deeds. Instead, let us do right and trust God to respond.

A few notes:

  • I said "we" when talking about Reform, but I'm not convinced it's correct. I'm a Jew who belongs to (and cares a lot about) a particular Reform congregation. We'll just have to leave it at that for now.

  • Going in, I wasn't sure if this would be too mi-Sinai for this community. I'm still not sure, actually.

  • I wrote (approximately) this at Pennsic (yes, on actual paper), came home Friday, and gave this d'var Saturday morning. I didn't hear about the events in Charlottsville until that night. I probably would have spoken about something else instead had I known.

Pennsic 46

I'm home from Pennsic. Brief notes in the form of bullet points:

  • My good friend Yaakov HaMizrachi was elevated to the Order of the Laurel! Yay! The Laurel is the SCA's highest award (peerage) for arts and sciences. He's also now known (additionally) as Yaakov HaMagid, Yaakov the Storyteller. The ceremony felt like a reunion of old friends, and it was a nice touch that they had his son chant the scroll (in Hebrew).

  • The part of Atlantian court that I attended (because of the previous) was very well-done and engaging. I don't live there, I don't know most of those people, and yet I was not bored. They moved things along without it feeling rushed, and everybody speaking from the stage could be heard clearly. They also mixed it up, instead of doing all recipients of one award and then moving on to the next. Sprinkling the peerages throughout the court works well and, really, it's not a big deal for order members to get up more than once in an evening. (Also, if peerage ceremonies are burdensomely long -- theirs weren't; ours sometimes are -- it's nice to be able to sit down between them.)

  • I don't think I've ever heard "we're ahead of schedule; let's take a 10-minute break" in the middle of court before, though. I wonder if someone on the stage had an urgent need?

  • They elevated another bard to the Laurel, and that one sang his oath of fealty. While he was doing so I wondered if the king would respond in song -- and he did. That he used the same melody suggests some advance coordination (beyond "we're singing"), I wonder which of them wrote the king's words.

  • I had long, enjoyable conversations with both Yaakov and Baron Steffan. I miss the deep email conversations I used to have with both of them, before the great fragmenting of the digital-communication world (some to email, some to blogs/LJ/DW, some to Facebook, some to Google+, some to Twitter, some to places I don't even know about). It's harder to track and stay in touch with people than it used to be.

  • No I am still not going to start using Facebook. It's frustrating that by declining to do so I miss more and more stuff, but I'm not ready to let yet another thing compete to be the center of my online life. Also, Facebook in particular is icky in some important ways.

  • SCA local group, that means you too. Plans for a baronial party at Pennsic were, as far as I can tell, announced only on Facebook. (I've checked my email back to the beginning of April, so no I didn't just forget.) And thus I did not bring a contribution for your pot-luck. I do not feel guilty about that.

  • The Debatable Choir performance went very well. I conducted a quartet singing Sicut Cervus (by Palestrina), which I think went well. Two of the four singers had not previously done a "one voice to a part" song with the choir, and I'm proud of them for stepping up and doing a great job. I hope we got a recording.

  • I went to a fascinating class on medieval Jewish astrology (taught by Yaakov in persona). I've seen zodiacs in ancient (and modern) Jewish art and in synagogues, and a part of me always wondered how this isn't forbidden. It turns out that astrology is more of an "inclination", a yetzer, than a hard-and-fast truth -- there are stories in the talmud where astrology predicted something bad but the person, through good deeds, avoided the bad outcome. Also, in case you're wondering (like I did, so I asked), the zodiac signs get some solar smoothing, so if there's a leap-month (Adar Bet) there's not a 13th sign in those years.

  • Our camp has two wooden buildings (besides the house on the trailer, I mean), which we wanted to sell this year because we're making a new kitchen trailer that will replace both of them. We succeeded in selling the larger one (yay!). Maybe we'll be able to sell the other next year. (We'll set it up and use it for something else, because potential buyers would want to see it set up.)

  • Overall the weather was good. There were big storms on the first Friday ("quick, grab snacks and alcohol and head for the house!" is our camp's rallying cry), but only occasional rain after that and it wasn't sweltering-hot, which makes a huge difference.

  • The last headcount I saw was around 10,500.