Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Royally pissed

I was born in a nation which had thrown off the shackles of His Britannic Majesty 201 years before, and as an adult, I moved to a country which had done so 51 years prior. I'm not a fan of the British monarchy, but I have nothing against them either. I am mystified by the obsession with the heir to the heir to the heir of the throne and how brilliant, I am sure, his poops must be. After all, they're just figureheads, right?

Except they're not. Queen Elizabeth II is head of state, which means she has the authority to do what she did today, granting a pardon to Alan Turing:
Source: The Telegraph
Who was Alan Turing, and why should you care? Well, imagine if Albert Einstein was capable of doing math. If you're reading this, you owe Alan Turing, without whom the modern computer would never have existed. Also, the Nazis would probably have won without his code-breaking machine. And then there was the Turing test, which may help us prevent the RIse of the Machines by figuring out when they achieve true artificial intelligence. But if you're OK with killer robots, typewriters and the Third Reich, you could have done without Alan Turing.

That is, after all, what Her Majesty Elizabeth II's government decided. The Crown prosecuted Turing for "gross indecency," i.e. having sex with a consenting man, in 1952. The case was Regina v. Turing and Murray. Guess who that Regina was? Yup, Lizzie Deux, long may she wave.

Turing was given the choice of chemical castration or prison, and he chose the former. Two years later, at age 41, he committed suicide with cyanide; a half-eaten apple was found next to his corpse. It seems that Professor Turing had an obsession with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, especially the part with the Wicked Queen, disguised as a Witch, who uses a poisoned apple. I guess that was just a coincidence.
So Alan Turing gets a pardon on Christmas Eve, by Her Royal Mercy (not Justice, mind you). But he was not the only revolutionary scholar-teacher to catch a legal break this holiday season: our old friend Moti Elon (whom I've written about before here and here) got quite a gift from the Magistrate's Court in snowy Jerusalem. Though he has been convicted of two counts of indecent acts against a minor, he won't serve any jail time: he gets off with 6 months of community service.
After the sentencing, Elon said that he “happily accepted” the community service, wryly noting that has already been serving the community for years and “will be happy to engage in public service until I’m 120 years old.”
So, his community service will be preaching. Maybe the Knesset will pass a bill preventing him from teaching minors. Maybe the Rabbinate will strip him of his title. Or maybe he'll be pardoned. Who knows?

It's certainly not encouraging what Rabbi Haim Druckman, one of religious Zionism's most prestigious figures, has done. He has given him a job teaching at his own yeshiva, Or Etzion, where Elon will be in exactly the same position he was at Yeshivat HaKotel when he molested two 17-year-olds (indicted for both, convicted for one): teaching recent high-school graduates. Druckman states:
I don’t believe there is anything in his Torah lessons that is not kosher, there is no reason not to learn from him or listen to Torah lessons from him.
At the end of the day, we’re talking about an incident in which two people were in the room, Rabbi Elon and the complainant. There was no one in the room apart from them. This person claims one thing, which the other denies. There’s no other testimony [on this incident]. Who says the claim is true? No one knows what happened in the room and no one can know. This is why I saw the ruling as a mistake.
Got that, everyone? The ruling is wrong because there are no witnesses. Druckman's message: rape away, rabbis, as long as no one's watching. No arrest, indictment, conviction or sentence can ever make us doubt you.
Pure as the driven snow
Pure as the driven snow
For the sake of full disclosure, I will note that I studied at Yeshivat Or Etzion and taught at Yeshivat HaKotel. Technically, Elon was the rosh yeshiva while I was there, but he was under the bizarre semi-excommunication dictated by the Takanah organization, headed by Rabbi Dr. Aharon Lichtenstein, rosh yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Etzion. (I studied there for the better part of a decade.) Needless to say, this whole affair has seriously affected the way I think of all three, albeit to varying degrees.

Now, people often ask me why I, an Orthodox rabbi, write in defense of homosexuals (or they just tell me that since I do so, I can't really be an Orthodox rabbi). The answer is right in front of you. What happened to Alan Turing is vile and disgusting, and it is not that distant from our experience. The queen who just pardoned him is the same queen who prosecuted him. The fact that he was a once-in-a-generation genius, the fact that he was a war hero, the fact that he had consensual sex with a 19-year-old--none of it mattered, because GAAAA-AAAY! That's why I get up in arms about bearded rednecks who use their limited understanding of the Bible to condemn gays as the source of all immorality and sin (without letting those uppity black folk off the hook); that's why I enlist to fight the supposedly enlightened rabbi-doctors who are calling us to "continue to wage the war" against the gays and those "who might accept them, and treat them with respect and understanding."

It's the only way to fathom the shocking cruelty shown towards Turing all those years ago; I would argue that it also goes a long way to explaining the shocking leniency shown towards Elon now. Once you classify homosexuality as sickness, it's easy to say that Elon had a bout of it, but now he's all better. Only through the lens of homophobia can you discount both the consensual, mutual romantic relationship between Turing and his adult paramour in 1952 and the coercive, vindictive rape committed by Elon against his underage victim fifty years late. I do not want to be in that bigoted camp under any circumstances. It's not about mercy, Ma'am; it's about justice, God save you.

Personally, at the end of the day, I pray for my portion to be with the God of Alan Turing, not the God of Moti Elon.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Bullish on Hanukka

A guest post by Y. Bloch

Tonight, the two Tannaitic views of superlative Hanukka lights pass like ships in the night. On 28 Kislev, Beit Hillel says to light four and Beit Shammai says to light five; on 29 Kislev, it's the reverse. What is the reason for their dispute? The Talmud (Shabbat 21b) records:

Ulla said: In the West, two Amoraim, R. Jose b. Abin and R. Jose b. Zebida, differ therein: one maintains, The reason of Beit Shammai is that it shall correspond to the days still to come, and that of Beit Hillel is that it shall correspond to the days that are gone; but another maintains: Beit Shammai's reason is that it shall correspond to the bullocks of the Festival; whilst Beit Hillel's reason is that we increase in holiness but do not reduce.

Rabbah b. Bar Hana said: There were two elders of Sidon, one did as Beit Shammai and the other as Beit Hillel: the former gave the reason of his action that it should correspond to the bullocks of the Festival, while the latter stated his reason because we increase in holiness but do not reduce.
 Interestingly, the scholion of Megillat Taanit lists only this latter pair of reasons. Even in the (Babylonian) Talmud, we go out of our way to find this set, not only to the West (Israel), but Sidon as well. Counting days, up or down, is easy enough to grasp, but why should we care about "the bullocks of the Festival"?

II Maccabees, of course, tells us that Hanukka was made eight days to correspond to the Festival of Sukkot. Still, Sukkot has many aspects, so it's not clear why the bullocks are the focus. Furthermore, if we're using those eight days as the source and counting Shemini Atzeret, the bullocks actually go 13, 12, 11, 10, 9, 8, 7, 1. Even Beit Shammai doesn't light that way.

Ah, but we're not worried about Beit Shammai because we follow Beit Hillel; "we increase in holiness but do not reduce." But we're applying this to quantity, while that is a rule of quality: the Showbread are placed on a marble table on the way in to the Sanctum, and on a gold table on the way out (Shekalim 6:4); an acting High Priest cannot go back to being a common priest (Yoma 12b). Are five lights holier than four? I seem to remember hearing somewhere that "All eight days of Hanukka, these lights are holy."

Perhaps we need to put this dispute of the Hillel and Shammai schools in the context of their founders. Though Shammai is forever known as Hillel's opposite number, he had a predecessor:

Hillel and Menahem did not argue; then Menahem went forth and Shammai entered.
                                                                        (Mishna, Hagiga 2:2)
Whither did he go forth? Abbayei said: He went forth into evil courses. Rava said: He went forth to the King's service. Thus it is also taught: Menahem went forth to the King's service, and there went forth with him eighty pairs of disciples dressed in silk.
                                                                         (Talmud, ibid. 16b)

In other words, Hillel and Shammai only came together because Menahem "went forth," taking 160 prominent students with him. This was at the lowest point of the monarchy in Judea during Second Temple times, as the Hasmonean dynasty gave way to the Herodian. It was a time to doubt, 200 years after the miracle, if Hanukka was still worth observing.

Both Shammai and Hillel believe in maintaining Hanukka, but the lights have now become symbolic. The bullocks of Sukkot, according to Sukka 55b, which add up to seventy, represent the seventy nations of the world. As Rashi explains (Num. 29), just as these bullocks decrease, the great empires will always decline and fall. It happened to the Greeks, and it would happen to Rome.

Hillel takes the positive view: the Temple may be at the lowest level, the Jewish state may be feeble, the monarchy may be far from its ideals, but "we increase in holiness." As long as the nation survives, there is hope to build and grow.

Search for more information about Hanukka at4torah.com