Thursday, January 28, 2010

Torture, Mountain Climbing and Shidduchim

okay, for the first time in writing, my "separation makes the heart grow fonder" idea!:

I've always been a fan of the saying that "separation makes the heart grow fonder". In other words in any relationship, being available too often, being ever-present, is not beneficial but is in fact detrimental to a relationship. For with anything comes boredom. Even the object of your romantic desire can quickly become "boring" to you. But if you're forced to be away from them for a while, upon their return comes a rejuvenated closeness and intimacy that was not possible before. Which is the rationalization given for the Purity Laws as they apply to menstruation.

This principle doesn't only apply to a relationships though. It's applicable to many other aspects of life. In all things: if someone experiences a continuous orgy of pleasure, after a while it is not within his ability to experience pleasure. Whether it be in food, sexuality, sleep, sport, honor; anything which Man finds pleasing. Simply put: whatever you 'have', you don't 'want' anymore. You want what you don't have. It's obvious really. The glutton does not enjoy a good meal as much as the pauper. A licentious man does not enjoy sexuality as much as the celibate man. The absence of a thing, in a sense, is the only way to really have it! Absence IS presence. Abstinence IS sexuality. Hunger IS food. Pain IS pleasure! They are points of contrast and comparison. This idea has a central role in thought-processes, and I apply it to many aspects of life.

I once happened upon a blog that criticized Rabbi Avigdor Miller's asceticism. For example, after his death it was revealed that Rav Miller slept on a board, not a bed, he would constantly stop eating while he ate, and many other such practices. This blog called Rav Miller's chamber a torture chamber. I objected. I saw he was an atheist so I told him that not only did causing yourself privation make sense in Judaic terms, but it made sense in general as well. I told him about a television program I once saw, which told the story of a group of German adventure seekers who climbed parts of the alps that are usually traversed by no one. At the end of it they were starving and half dead. When one of them was asked by reporters why he did it, he said that when he goes back to Berlin now and has a beer, it'll be the best beer he ever had! He understood that pleasure does not come without privation.

Another aspect of life I've been associating this principle with recently is the senses of entitlement v.s. appreciation. Here in the my hometown of Brooklyn, more than anywhere else I've seen, and especially in the realm of dating (as is no wonder), I've come across people who have always had far more than I, and yet grew up in an absent-minded sense of great entitlement. Especially the daughters of "our community", as they're provided for more than the boys. Especially the fairer ones. They date as if they're trying on clothes. And they'll only take what they feel entitled to, which is probably part of the "shidduch crisis". I think that had these picky girls known loneliness, in it's severer forms, they would be less picky. Again, it is privation that humbles the soul, and brings it from haughtiness to humility, and therefore, to happiness.

Monday, January 25, 2010

The Tongue of G-d: I

I've been chatting with a few folks over at Chana's blog recently (at times it can be a great place for random discussions, since she's not very engaged in comment moderation). I made a quick comment about how I disapproved of Chana using the Ashkenazi pronunciation in writing (since she's part Sefaradi), and it spurred some reader interaction (actually kind of proud about that). I do still want to write a post glorifying speaking ("Modern") Hebrew as a language, but it might be wise to say a few words about proper Hebrew pronunciation first anyway. The historical aspect of this subject has actually recently had exhaustive coverage in the blog of my newfound online friend, Joel Davidi. The only problem is that his blog offers no opinion, only a record of the opinions of others.

It should be remembered, first of all, that it makes a great difference how Hebrew is pronounced, for we use Hebrew in our prayers to G-d, and certainly we wouldn't want to be speaking to him blasphemously in some non-language jargon, but rather in a clear precise Hebrew, as He intended. Also, in Israel today, the way one pronounces the language has strong socio-political connotations, and in some places the way you pronounce the consonants is definitive of who you are and what you stand for.

My opinion has always been pretty straightforward on this matter: while there are Ashkenazim who'll tell you that there is a certain antiquity to their pronunciation, and that there have always been different Hebrew pronunciations, especially with regards to the different schools of nikkud that flourished in Israel a millenia ago, I still feel their words are misleading. The "authenticity" in this pronunciation is the dried skeleton of authenticity. Hebrew, friends, is a Middle Eastern, Semitic language, and it cannot be separated from those roots. Most of what constitutes the Ashkenazi pronunciation is purely a European and even a Germanic influence on this Middle Eastern language (which, linguistically, can lend itself to absurdities). Forget the pronunciation; the very way children of the lands of the uncircumcised move their mouths and lips is alien to any Semitic tongue. The most beneficial thing for them would be to study the native usages of other Semitic languages so they themselves can see what a perversion their speech was.

Vowels: They'll also say that they differentiate between the kamatz and the patah', and long vowels and short vowels more than Sefaradim. The truth is that it's mostly Israeli and a small group of Sefaradim who did not make any distinction at all between these vowels, especially considering that Arabic does differentiate between them. From Morocco to Iran different forms of the kamatz were in use, that were present in words, but were very discreet about their presence, unlike the clumsy European kamatz.

Syllables: Then of course is the מלרע/מלעיל (mil'el/mil'ra) issue. For anyone who doesn't know; in words with more than one sylable, mil'el is stressing the first syllable and mil'ra is stressing the last. German Yiddish and English obviously are mil'el languages. Hebrew is a mil'ra language. Anglicizing Hebrew words to be mil'ra is obviously just laziness and a corruption of our language. Nothing else to say about that.

Consonants: In the aforementioned blog comment, I said I got the impression that Chana wasn't the biggest scholar of biblical Hebrew in the world because "when someone is "still" using "suf"s instead of "tav"s you get the impression it would be impossible for them to grasp the beauty in the tongue of G-d". The consonants have always been a point of contention among us, the "ת רפויה" especially. But I'm concerned only with what seems most correct, not bickering. I see the words of the outspoken Meir Mazuz (today's leading Sefaradi grammarian) on this subject as being correct: theoretically it should be similar to the Arabic ث ("th") sound (which, unlike popular belief, is not much like the English "th", but is more like an "airy" hard t sound), but if you have a hard time pronouncing that all the time, you're better off saying "t" instead of "s" since it's much closer to the "t" sound.

Other than that, it's obviously right and correct to differentiate the א's from ע's, ח's from כ's, ט's from ת's, ק's from כ's and ס's from צ's (as in the other Semitic languages).

Friday, January 22, 2010


Continuing in my never-ending exposition of Naturalism v.s. the technological lifestyle, I've been thinking a bit about our consumption of the flesh of creatures less intelligent than ourselves. "Meat". Meat is something which never gets old and never will get old. While there are individuals today who will consume no flesh, there were people like that in the distant past as well. Such a thing can never catch on. It's funny that, two thousand years ago people enjoyed eating meat, ...ten thousand years ago people enjoyed eating meat. As long as there were humans and as long as there were animals people and all creatures enjoyed eating meat. And even ourselves, as we engage our high-tech computers and fly around in our planes and space shuttles even, we still find no satisfaction like the satisfaction of sinking our teeth into the flesh of another animal, the same as any hyena would. All other foods simply don't compare. I mean, who "makes shabbos" out of beans?

Thursday, January 21, 2010

הייליגע ניגונים

You know, I've never posted my opinions about music here before. Especially the music of my ancestors, "the Exiled of Jerusalem in Spain and Morocco". There are obviously two main components to music, the tune and the words (that is, if the song has lyrics):

The tune: I once commented in passing on Chana's blog that, unlike the opinion of one of the commentors there, it is not just words, but music as well, that can have a soul-corrupting influence over a person. Aristotle and Plato say so themselves. Even then there was proper, noble music, and "youth-corrupting" music. The Talmud reports that one of the reasons Yehushua' Cohen Gadol strayed from the just path in the end of his life was because he listened to Greek music. The corrupting type of Geek music. So it cannot be said that there is no such thing as harmful music.

Now, while there is what to be said about the development of music from that time until our time, the most important phenomenon that's pertinent to this context is the Advent of Rock music. Half a century ago, for the first time in a long time, religious and social leaders were complaining that the new style of music that was being produced was "corrupting the youth". Although today their opinions are looked upon as anachronisms, I agree with a lot of their essential arguments about Rock music. Their main argument was that it developed from the "drum music" of the descendants of the Africans in the South, and that it had an unwholesome beat and African flavor to it. Until then the West had known no such sensual music. Rock music (and the music that is has influenced) is unrelentingly popularistic and intrinsically different from the traditional music of every country.

Then we come to the sad subject of Chassidic Music, of "Jewish Music". Of what, friends, constitutes the "Jewishness" of Jewish music? The singing of Torah words or "Nigunnim" to Rock music tunes, or music inspired by that style. That is all anyone will ever mean by "Jewish" music. Could it be friends, that after a musical tradition spanning 3,300 years we have been reduced to a couple of low-life yeshiva dropouts singing well known verses to the tunes of Rock songs being the only thing that constitutes "Jewish" music?! What a loss.

I myself prefer to indulge in the glorious musical tradition of my ancestors in Morocco. The music of the Moroccan Jews consists mainly of sacred poems sung to what's known as Andalusian music. A pure and beautiful form of the orderly Arab Maqamat that derives it's name from the part of Spain where Jewish, Christian and Muslim thought developed in an atmosphere of mutual good will, Andalusia. The birthplace of the Rambam and countless other sages.

Yet, as today's leading expert in Moroccan Piyutim points out, there is more to Andalusian music than it's sobriety and it's ascetic beauty. You see, the music was brought to Morocco from the original Muslims who emigrated directly from Iraq to the Maghreb. What kind of people resided in Babylonia, friends, when this music was being developed in the seventh century if not a great multitude of Jews? Jews who had been exiled from their Land and their Temple, and no doubt brought their music with them, and which certainly had a great part in influencing this sacred music before it was taken to the Maghreb. What emerges then, is that Andalusian music is directly influenced by the very music our ancestors sang in the Beit Hamikdash!

The words: Again, the words in today's "Jewish music" is only simplistic and popular verses from our Torah, yet soiled by the impure garments that these crowd pleasing singers tie onto them. The lyrics of our liturgical poems, or "piyutim", and Moroccan piyutim especially, are much more complex, and much more beautiful.

As a general introduction to piyutim, I should say that they are poems in biblical Hebrew, based directly on the poems of the Tanach itself. Piyutim like these have been written since at least the Talmudic era, by Rabbi Eliezer Hakalir, and from then till today, in the never ending Rabbi-student Judaic tradition. There are Ashkenazi piyutim as well that are chanted weekly at that Shabbat tables. Yet there were a few particular places and times where the piyut thrived. The first is 11th-12th century Spain, where lived such greats as Rabbi Yehudah Halevi and Shlomo Ibn Gevirol. The second great era is that of the Kabalistic piyut, written mostly in and around Tzfat in the 16th century, under the influence of the Arizal. From there there are two main traditions, the Syrian piyut and the Moroccan piyut, the Rabbis of both countries having produced masterful works from the 18th century to the 20th. In both countries the pious would rise after midnight on the Sabbath 'eve and sing the sacred songs of their rabbis and sages until morning, and were then joined by the community in an inspiring Sabbath morning prayer. This international weekly piyut-singing vigil is called "Bakashot" (requests), since many of the songs are forms of prayer.

There is much to be said about the literary, metrical and contextual style and development of Moroccan piyuim, but one aspect I wish to concentrate on is that the Moroccan piyut, more than others, has a particular affinity towards the husband/wife relationship being a metaphor to the Israel/G-d relationship, as is portayed in Shir Hashirim. The style of Shir Hashirim, which was called the holiest of holies by our rabbis for that reason, is the style which beatifies and sanctifies these piyutim above the others. The song which embodies this the most being "דודי ירד לגנו", written by the holy Rabbi Chaim Hacohen (who lived in the time and place of the Ari, died at the age of 20, and wrote a Kabalistic commentary to the Shulchan Aruch). This song begins the Moroccan Bakashot, the rest of the songs change weekly, and are sung to a different Maqam (but that's for another time).

To me, that is the main joy in singing the piyutim and bakashot, the thought that these are the songs and transferred religious wisdom that endless generations of rabbis have imparted to us. They are vessels for us to grasp their religious feelings and fervor. Lippa Shmeltzer is a fine man, but he is surely no Yehudah Halevi, no Yisrael Nagara, no Chaim Hacohen and no Yisrael Abuchatzera (Baba Sali), nor is he even slightly up to par with any other of the piyut authors.

Another spiritual advantage of the piyut is that is itself is the highest form of prayer, prayer through song. Which is a fulfillment of Jewish reformers from John the Baptist to the Baal Shem Tov (להבדיל), who all said that the established prayer is not enough, and that one must pray to G-d at all times, especially through song.

The only problem is that the lower elements and the masses will always prefer Mordechai ben David-type stuff, since he sings only one or two Hebrew words, and these piyutim are masterworks of biblical Hebrew poetry, something which is far too lofty for the average man to grasp, and so it will remain, the prize of the initiated.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010


I generally try to veer away from speaking about myself on this blog, since, quite simply, my existence is pointless and uneventful (at the moment), but there are a few recent changes in me that I wished to take note of here.

First off, one new phenomenon of concern to me is that I seem to have become far more boring than I once was. I used to be more of a waxing wellspring of thoughts and ideas, and now...everything seems a lot more self-evident to me, and better off not said. In fact I have been away from the companionship of friends for so long that I've forgotten what my personality was like. If I do come in contact with friends, it's more of an effort to recreate my old personality than spontaneity. Ah, the curse of age! if one does not ensure that they do not get swollowed up by the mundane...

Not that that's what preventing me from writing here more frequently. I have endless things I wish to write about. The only factor preventing that is lethargy, my great foe.

Another disturbing change in me is that these days I find myself in a constant state of jealousy. Of everyone. I find it particularly disturbing because I, in fact, always had trouble understanding the sin of jealousy. I would always be the one to bless my brother in my heart, and I never even understood what purpose there was in beating yourself up over something someone else has and you don't; it doesn't get you any closer to attaining it. It seemed to me to be bringing grief on oneself for no good reason. Yet now, I am perpetually consumed by it and find it unimaginable not to feel the way I do.

And lastly I'm also questioning my interest in parenting children in the near future. While I do, of course, want to raise up a new generation on the purity of proper idealism and continue my dynasty, on the other hand caring for children seems to be an unspeakably great burden from which one can never escape, and which in effect stops a person from living their own life. Even the near future would seem too early for me to give up my life. Every time I thinking of having children I think of these men I used to see in Bene Brak, bearded, dressed in suits and black hats, sweating and pushing a baby carriage through the sweltering streets of Bene Brak in the summer. What man wishes such a thing upon himself? What man does not wish to take some time to explore the world and its knowledge? And such things cannot be done with a child.

Friday, January 15, 2010

On Criticism

Criticism, friends, is perhaps 'the' paramount contributor to interpersonal strife, and more importantly, marrital strife. Besides for the obvious "being worthy of criticism" or not, the two main components to this phenomenon are how criticism is given and how criticism is taken.

I would suppose the main reason why individuals feel the need to give criticism in marriage is a certain infallible image they had about their spouse which there has been reason for them to become disillusioned with, which obviously makes them feel deeply and emotionally disappointed.

This is a topic that interests me not only because I hope to have a romantic relationship with someone in the future, and know that it usually ends in criticism battles, "wars of justification" if you will, but more importantly, going back to the "criticism worthy" point, because I myself am generally more worthy of criticism than most people, yet I can rarely remember attempting to reveal to someone the injustice of their ways unless I had first been criticized by them. Only at that point would I try to show them that they themselves are not free of blame.

Personally, I don't think it's healthy or possible not to criticize, and I certainly don't hope to avoid it. But within the "תורת הביקורת", I feel there are some very simplistic guidelines which would help:

In regards to giving criticism: to try not to criticize your spouse when possible, and to overlook all injustices done towards you, and not take to heart all unmet expectations disillusionments about them. And when criticism is necessary, to do it in a cordial, friendly and not overly serious manner. Rather then "Why are you never home and having relations with someone else?!", perhaps "You know (name), I think it would be nice if you were home once in a while and didn't have sexual relationships with other people", etc.

In regards to getting criticism: once having had your attention brought to a negative aspect of yourself, to try to refrain from such actions in the future, and not to instead question the very legitimacy of the criticism, considering the critic is no less worthy of criticism.

It should be kept in mind though, that many times even people who marry and are in love have deep and intrinsic differences, and at times cannot possibly hope to meet each others needs and desires on all levels. The love itself is just the illusion of unity. But it is just such an illusion which brought them together, and just such an illusion which must exist if any man and woman are going to be living in any amount of harmony with each other. Unless they concentrate on child-rearing and act as divorcees under their own roof. ...which is also an option. Well, that or divorce, which is sometimes called for...