The Wonder of Artscroll

There are a range of Jewish publishing houses in American and around the world, each one of them doing remarkable things. It has been my intention to link to them for years, and I intend to in the coming weeks.

One cannot mention Jewish publishing in America without first talking about Mesorah Publications, Ltd., best known by the name of its primary imprint of religious texts, Artscroll.

Artscroll has since its founding in 1975 done something profound and extraordinary: among many other works, it has created siddurim, a chumash, translations of major Torah commentaries, biographies of Tzaddikim, and translations of both the Babylonian and Palestinian Talmuds that have only served the core Orthodox community, but that have provided non-observant Jews a textual pathway to teshuvah.

Whenever I travel I carry at least one Artscroll Siddur and an Artscroll Stone Edition Chumash, sized to fit my briefcase. These are my touchstones, and when I cannot carry my 72 volumes of the Talmud Bavli with me wherever I go, I know they are waiting for me at home.

If you have not already, bookmark their site. I try to buy from them directly: it costs a bit more, but this little publishing house in Brooklyn has become s0 important to American (and world) Jewry that I figure a few extra dimes out of my pocket are well worth the hope that they will be around for my grandchildren.

Philosophy, Science, and Big Questions

Philosopher and scientist Massimo Pigliucci of Scientia Salon takes Neil DeGrasse Tyson to task for deriding the value of modern philosophy to science, and for suggesting that philosophy has contributed nothing to natural science since the 1920s.

I disagree with Tyson on many things, but I must agree with him here: the academic direction philosophy today does not meaningfully answer questions about the natural world. Yet perhaps unlike Tyson, I continue to believe that philosophy – of which faith could be considered a subset – remains relevant in the scientific world, and the philosophical questions posed by advances in science are ill-addressed by science itself.

The scientific method is a magnificent tool for describing what, how, where and when, for example, but it comes up short as a source for ethics, morality, or the meaning of life. Science can show us how we can clone a human, but it ill-equipped to tell us whether we should or not; science can build a bomb, but it cannot tell us where and whether to use it; and science can explain the nutritional value of a calf, but it cannot help us decide whether or not it is right to eat veal.

It disappoints me that someone as intelligent as Tyson – or Stephen Hawking, for that matter – cannot see that science and philosophy are complimentary pursuits that each address their own realms. There are questions that science cannot answer, and there are questions that philosophy cannot answer. That modern philosophy has become dominated by intellectual auto-eroticists does not lessen the value of philosophy as a human pursuit: it merely suggests that philosophy took a wrong turn at some point, and needs to back up a bit and start again.

The Macklemore Test

Will Macklemore’s ‘hella good Jewish homies’ weigh in on his ‘anti-Semitic’ getup?”

May 19, 2014

Rapper Macklemore has earned himself much ire for not only going onstage to sing “Thrift Shop” made up as a over-the-top caricature of a Jewish man (let’s call it “Jewface,” at least as offensive and over-the-top to us as Amos and Andy were to African-Americans), but then having the temerity to deny the caricature. As the online uproar built, he tweeted:

“A fake witches nose, wig, and beard = random costume.  Not my idea of a stereotype of anybody.”

Even a cursory review of the photos and the circumstances suggests that anyone believing that is endowed with a superhuman level of credulity.

America now faces a test. If this event marks the apogee of Macklemore’s career, it will demonstrate that America will not tolerate racism directed against Jews. If, however, he retains his popularity or becomes more popular, it will demonstrate that Americans are prepared to lionize a man who is at the very least an insensitive lout, and is possibly a rabid anti-Semite.

I can only hope that Mr. Macklemore is merely a callous boor rather than an uncloseted neo-Nazi, and that he did not do this to try to earn more credibility with that section of the rap community that seems to enjoy Jew-bashing. An apology that would allow us all to move on would be nice. The next best thing, though, would be to see Mr. Macklemore reduced to playing third-billings at KKK conventions.

UCLA and the Anti-Israel Pledge

UCLA Responds to Shocking Anti-Israel Pledge for Student Gov’t Candidates
Sharona Schwartz
May 14, 2014

A pro-Palestinian student organization at UCLA tried to push through two measures designed to disqualify from voting in student government students who had taken trips to Israel sponsored by the HADL, the Hasbara Fellowships, and AIPAC.

Student votes largely defeated the measures, which was good. What discouraged me was that the school administration did not see fit to even make a statement, choosing instead to remain silent and leave the issue for the students to resolve.

I agree that the administration should not waste its time involving itself in the trivia of student government: they have a university to run, and student government on principle is an educational exercise wherein students absorb the rights – and the responsibilities – of life in a pluralistic society.

Yet when student government wanders into the field of intolerance and activities that undermine the principle of fair and equal treatment, the university is bound to make a statement.

It is easy to say “hey, the administration was right. They held back, let the students take care of things, and it all died down.” Fair enough.

Yet had the outcome gone a different way, had students in fact squeezed candidates out because of their viewpoints or their possible viewpoints, the university’s post-facto intervention would have looked unprincipled. Professor Jacobsen at Cornell framed it correctly: the university administration, as the highest authority, should have established the principle of fair and equal treatment, and made clear that it reserved the right to step in if those principles were violated. That would have made clear that student government operates within limits set by the university, and that failing to observe those limits would have consequences.

The administration at UCLA is cowed by political correctness, and as such weakens its role as the ultimate arbiter of the rules of the university playing field. It is the opposite mistake of the one made by UCLA and other institutions in the 1960s, which was to be too paternalistic. The correct course lies somewhere twixt “the heavy hand” and “the absent hand.”

A Single Innocent

US death row study: 4% of defendants sentenced to die are innocent”
Ed Pilkington

The Guardian is hardly my favorite paper, but this is an article worth contemplating.

We must come to grips with the fact that the modern standard of proof for capital crimes is far lower than what Torah intended. That being the case, can any Jew in good conscience support the death penalty as it stands?

The idea of a just punishment for a crime is spot on, and the idea of suffering a killer to live sends a knife in my guts. But if Torah teaches that to save a single life is to safe the world entire, how do we address the possibility of even one innocent person being put to death?

These are not rhetorical questions: I am genuinely interested in hearing your thoughts, particularly those based in Halachah.

Speaking Truth

The Middle East will only set itself on the path to peace when both sides acknowledge a simple fact: with a few remarkable exceptions that only prove the rule, the end goal of most Palestinians, of the Palestinian Authority, of Hamas, and of Islamic Jihad is to put an end to Israel and push the Jews into the sea. So it has always been, and so it is today.

The failure to recognize Israel’s fundamental right to exist is not just window-dressing. It is a subtle reminder that the Palestinians want the Jews out and gone forever.

This stance leaves the world with a binary choice: either you acknowledge Israel’s right to exist, or you side with the Palestinians and acknowledge their end goal. Either way, it is time everyone on both sides stood up to be counted.

If you are in favor of pushing us into the sea, at least have the moral courage to stand up and say so. I don’t agree with anyone supporting BDS, nor would I want to spend any more time in the same room with them than necessary. Nonetheless, I give them credit for eschewing hypocrisy, for having the cojones to speak up.

Better we should all look our enemies in the eye.

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