Rare Footage of the First Convention of Agudas Yisrael

26 02 2015

This beautiful and incredible footage has been doing the rounds lately, and is well worth watching. The reason for its sudden popularity is no doubt the segment showing the Chafetz Chayim, R’ Yisrael Meir haKohen, at 0:57, flanked by both his son on his left and his grandson on his right. Rabbi Yitzhak Adlerstein has provided an excellent service in relating the names of various other personalities in this video. They are:

R’ Avraham Tzvi Perlmuter, the “Dameshek Eliezer” (0:27);

R’ Yisrael Friedman, the second rebbe of Chortkov (0:47);

R’ Yitzhak Zelig Morgensztern of Sokolov, the fourth Kotzker Rebbe (1:47);

R’ Dr. Asher Mikhael (“Arthur”) haKohen of Basel (1:57);

R’ Yehuda Leyb Tsirelson, chief rabbi of Bessarabia (2:05);

R’ Elchanan Wasserman (2:22);

R’ Asher Mendelson (2:28);

R’ Dr. Pinchas Kahn (2:56);

R’ Tuvia Horowitz (3:02);

R’ Yaakov Rosenheim, president of the Agudah (3:16);

R’ Dr. Meir Hildesheim (3:16);

R’ Dr. Eliyahu (“Leo”) Jung (3:55);

R’ Shpitzer (3:58);

R’ Yehezkel Sarna, later head of the Hebron Yeshiva in Jerusalem (4:13);

R’ Moshe Blau (4:28);

R’ Dr. Tuvia Levenstein (4:34).

And while I’m sharing videos, here are three of my favourites. The first is a famous one, since it commences with footage of the Munkaczer Rebbe at his daughter’s wedding in 1933. Unlike that video, the second and third ones are silent, but while the second is in black-and-white (and is shot in pre-war Ukraine) the third is in colour. It was filmed by Dr. Benjamin Gasul in Warsaw, 1939.

Seder Qodshim: Some Preliminary Reflections

18 02 2015

It has taken me a good few years, but I have finally finished the first four sedarim of the Mishna and am now halfway through the forty-first tractate: Masekhet Zevachim.

These remarks of mine are premature, since I am only at the very beginning of Seder Qodshim, but I cannot help but note a qualitative difference between this tractate and every one of the other forty tractates that I have already covered.

As a general rule, the Mishna’s presentation of rabbinic law is haphazard. In Shabbat, for example, it is not until the second mishna of the seventh chapter that we are informed as to what are the primary prohibitions on the seventh day; in Beitza, it is not until the fifth chapter that learn what may not be done on a yontef. For the most part, the Mishna presents us with case law, and it is up to the student to construct around that legislation a system that can reveal its inner mechanics.

There are some notable exceptions to this rule, perhaps the finest being Bava Qama, which commences with theoretical observations about the nature of different torts. But even that tractate quickly devolves into a series of cases. Not so with Zevachim.

With Masekhet Zevachim one finds a tractate that is thoroughly organised around a methodological exposition of its subject matter. It is procedural, systematic and technical, and appears designed as a manual for students seeking to understand the sacrifices. Every other tractate that I have encountered appears geared towards a student who has already studied the Mishna. So far, Masekhet Zevachim is sui generis in regards to its organisational structure, and to the fact that it can be approached in isolation.

And so I wonder (and prematurely): is this due to the sacrificial procedure having been already entirely theoretical at the time of the Mishna’s composition? While in other areas of legislation one might be able to presuppose a certain familiarity with cultural and ritual norms, and therefore utilise an abundance of cases in a presentation of the relevant law, perhaps this area is one in which a general ignorance is to be expected, and in which cases are rare if they are remembered at all.

I look forward to seeing whether or not this observation holds true throughout the rest of this seder, and throughout the following as well (which, in dealing with purity law, is of a similarly esoteric nature). But if I am correct, it would seem that it is specifically in relation to the arcane that the rabbis felt most at home in developing a system from the ground up and in presenting that system methodically.

In my opinion, it’s a welcome change; the careful delineation of theoretical principles is always so much more interesting than the arbitration of individual cases – even if the latter is more rewarding to the cultural historian.

“Beyond Narrative”

16 02 2015

Here, recently reprinted, is Roger Ebert’s 1978 article, “Beyond Narrative: The Future of the Feature Film”.

It is rather lengthy, but thoroughly engrossing, and comprises in part a highly informative review of the history of arthouse cinema. Within this it features a profound analysis of Robert Altman’s Three Women, Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, and the nature of films that eschew conventional narrative. Much that the author has to say (about the relationship between cinema and television, for example) needs to be taken with a grain of salt – the article having been authored, after all, in 1978. That said, several of his predictions concerning the “future” of mainstream cinema have been vindicated, and to a great extent they remain true today.


27 10 2014

While I’ve yet to hear back from my examiners, and truly know not what to possibly expect, I consider the composition and completion of my 75,000-word thesis a minor triumph of sorts. With its submission, as of September 2nd this year, the project that has dominated the last eight years of my life begins to slowly crawl towards its long-anticipated conclusion.

While I have wanted to move on, to write something new and to embark upon a new endeavour – and while my ideas for new projects have been both manifold and exciting – I have found the composition of even a short blog post to that effect to be of insurmountable difficulty. It took me a full week before I was even able to read again, and almost two weeks before I was able to return to my study of the Mishna. Even now, I am not yet entirely ready to render my observations into coherent prose.

It was Winston Churchill who once remarked that, if you find yourself going through hell: keep going. The advice is easier given than followed, and there were very many times when I considered aborting my candidature and putting off indefinitely that which until December last year I’d not yet even begun to write. The task of writing a thesis within the space of a year is not one that I can recommend. The final two weeks were nightmarish; for almost a month after I had finished, my occupation during that time comprised the substance of my anxious dreams.

Now that it is, for the time being, “over”, I have been pleased to rediscover the joys of reading. I hope soon to likewise rediscover the joys of writing. At such a time, I look forward to sharing some of the more interesting and unusual pieces of casuistry that have delighted me over these past several weeks – and hopefully some good news too, once word gets back to me from the university. In the meantime, dear anonymous and faceless friends, I bid you a temporary adieu.

Pale Blue Dot

23 10 2013

Courtesy of a student of mine comes this beautiful and thought-inspiring video, narrated by Carl Sagan: a man with a truly golden voice.


20 10 2013

It is the evening of the third of Shevat, the yahrtseit of the Rav’s father, Rav Moshe, zt”l, and we are in Lamport Auditorium at Yeshiva University awaiting the arrival of the Rav to deliver his annual Yahrtseit Shiur. Some of us have been sitting for a few hours, having come early to obtain seats as close as possible to the Rav. The auditorium is now packed and overflowing. Suddenly, as if an electric current has run through the room, the entire audience, as one, rises: the Rav has arrived!

Sitting in front, we do not immediately see the Rav, for he enters from the rear, and must traverse the entire length of the auditorium to reach us. Everyone is standing, blocking our view; yet the feeling of his presence pervades the room. Finally, the Rav emerges from the crowd, walking briskly, manuscript in hand, steps onto the stage and sits down behind an empty table to begin the shiur.

Then the journey starts. The Rav, usually focusing on one or more halakhot of the Rambam, ticks off one question after another that reflect obvious difficulties in the halakha – at least they are obvious after the Rav sets them out in his clear, lucid and inimitable manner of exposition. Then, after developing each of his questions – superlative pedagogue that he is – he reviews in summary form all of them, to assure that we understand what the problems are that will now be clarified.

That phase of the shiur concluded, the Rav goes on to develop a concept – the hiddush of the shiur – traversing a plethora of passages in the Talmud, commentaries (mostly Rishonim), Midrashim, and others. We watch, listen, and many of us avidly write notes, trying to keep up with the Rav’s rapid-fire delivery as he lays out the hiddush, brick by brick by brick, reconciling all the varied and seemingly contradictory texts.

Now that the foundation has been set and the text reconciliation completed, the Rav returns to the original series of questions. Each is repeated, and then almost summarily disposed of through application of the hiddush, one after the other, after the other. It is more than two hours later and the circuit has been completed; the first portion of the shiur is concluded.

– excerpted from “Dedication”, by Julius Berman. Pages vii-ix of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik: Man of Halakha, Man of Faith (ed. Menachem D. Genack; Ktav Publishing House, 1998).


16 05 2013

In what might be the most hilarious editing fail of the year, it turns out that the algorithm employed by Inagist (a website that “curates tweets based on popularity in real-time”) is unable to differentiate between the London Declaration on Combating Antisemitism and the London Declaration on Neglected Tropical Diseases. That seems like a pretty easy mistake to make. If you’re a computer.

The upshot of this is that they feature a nice big photo of Australian Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott, with the proud declaration that he has just signed the London Declaration on Combating Antisemitism, and almost directly underneath it a tweet from @LSHTMPress, to the effect that “we need to understand parasites a lot better to treat them properly”.

At least, I’m assuming that this was an error…

Editing Fail