Monday, December 28, 2009

Comments - Haloscan Out, Blogger In

We have been using Haloscan's comment system since the blog started. Haloscan is now upgrading to a system called Echo and charging for the service. I don't mind paying, but I don't really like the Echo system, and I don't like the mandatory change.

I have gone back to blogger comments. This has had the effect of deleting all the comments. However, I have saved them all, and I will be adding them collectively to each post. (I probably could have written a Perl script to do a bunch of this, but I just cut and pasted them by hand.) I also added in the homepage links for those of us who used that.

If anyone is interested in the technical details, I downloaded the XML file from Haloscan of all the comment. I then copied the Haloscan comments from each post into a big file. I went through the XML file, took each person with a homepage, and searched for

Name | Homepage

and replaced it with

Name |Homepage (where Name and Website are the name and website of the person). I then deleted the Haloscan references from the blog template. A simple set of instructions on how to do that is here:

I will now cut and paste the comments by hand into each post. It's a bit of a pain, but I think its the best solution.


Thursday, December 17, 2009

Why Hanukkah Has Nothing To Do With Christmas

Guess which Jewish holiday is most like Christmas?

That's right -- Shavuot! Surprised? Don't know what Shavuot is? Read on....

Several years ago, when I was a part of the Museum Minyan of Houston's Beth Yeshurun Congregation (the largest Conservative congregation in Houston, a city of mega-churches and mega-gogues), it fell to me to give a drash on the Shabbat nearest to Christmas. Rabbi Mordecai Finley, of Los Angeles' Ohr Ha Torah, where I had belonged before moving to Houston, had given many interesting talks about Christmas in his synagogue at this time of year, and I was influenced by him to, as it were, "take Christmas on" in its own terms. Though I admit, it was with a somewhat strange feeling that I walked into my minyan on a Shabbos morning with a King James Version of the Christian Bible in my hand, and opened it up to read John 1:1, not necessarily a text with which my hearers were familiar.

Here is that very famous opening line of the 4th Gospel, the non-synoptic Gospel, the one that isn't "like the others." "In the Beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God."

How might we understand this Jewishly? That's easy. Think about the traditional as well as Jewish mystical understanding of the relationship between God and the Torah (which, by the way, is a much more natural interpretation of "the Word" than thinking of a person, even a Divine person, as "the Word"). It would not be badly summarized by that line. The idea of the Torah as existing before Creation is found, for example, in the Zohar: "God looked into the Torah and created the world" (Zohar 2:161b). At, an Orthodox site, one finds the sentence, "Before the universe was made, the Torah was God's companion." If we think of the story told by the Torah, we might be a little startled to realize that the founders of Judaism did not have the Torah. Adam, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, even Moses, came to adulthood as Jews without the Torah. How could that be? For the later rabbis, the Torah must always already have been in existence. A classic example: Rashi interprets Genesis 25:27, that Jacob 'dwelled in tents,' as meaning that Jacob engaged in Torah study. Before the Torah had been given to the Jews! Because, you see, "In the beginning was the Word...."

But back to Christmas...

For Christians, the all-important next part of this story is that "the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us" (John 1:14). This is the phenomenon known as the Incarnation, and the holiday that celebrates it is Christmas.

For Jews, the next part of this story is that the Torah was given to the Jews at Sinai. And the holiday that celebrates this is...Shavuot.

For Jews, the world-historical entry of the Word into human history, into a tangible form we can see, is the Torah given to Moses at Sinai. This is Revelation, not Incarnation. Famously, at Deut. 30:12, we learn,"It is not in Heaven, that thou shouldest say, Who shall go up for us to heaven, and bring it unto us, that we may hear it and do it?." We might say, it is not in Heaven any more: it is here, dwelling with us. We might even say that for Jews, "Christmas came early."

Don't let the Hanukkah/Christmas coincidence of candles and mid-winter schedule fool you. The Jewish holiday whose theological meaning is the closest parallel to Christmas is that mid-summer festival most contemporary Jews ignore: Shavuot.

(And by the way, the Christians actually 'get' this. The Christian holiday called "Pentecost" follows fifty days after Easter. Pentecost is the holiday celebrating the founding of the Church through the Holy Spirit, the third of the Divine persons of the Trinity. The Last Supper was a Passover Seder, and 49 days after the two-day Passover holiday comes...Shavuot. Check here in the spring for a posting on the relationship between Passover and Easter....)


Thursday, December 3, 2009

David Friedman on Jewish Law and Constitutional Interpretation

David Friedman has an interesting set of posts on Jewish Law and Constitutional Interpretation and And For the Real Enthusiasts in Jewish Law, A Story. He discusses some of the broad "interpretive" techniques of the Talmud and compares them to American constitutional interpretation.

There are some interesting differences between the structures of Jewish Law and Anglo-American Common law.

1. For the past 2000 years, Jewish law has lacked a hierarchical court system. There is no "Supreme Court" that has the final say in what the law is. In Talmudic times, the Sanhedrin functioned that way but it has long been abandoned. As a result, it is difficult in Jewish law to reach a final conclusive decision on what halacha is, command widespread obedience or adherence, and then move on.

2. In American law, the most recent opinions are the most authoritative. Other than a few "classics" (Marbury v. Madison, Brown v. Board of Education), we lawyers want to cite the most recent cases. But in Jewish law, the oldest authorities are most authoritative. The rabbis of the mishna (~200 CE) are more authoritative than the rabbis of the gemara (~400 - 500 CE), and these are more authoritative than the medieval Rishonim (~1000 - 1500 CE), etc.

As a result, in Jewish law, a contemporary authority, no matter how great, cannot "overrule" precedent in any clear way, since the contemporary authority is necessarily less authoritative than the earlier ones. Thus, Jewish law cannot evolve by slow drift the way that American common law can.

These problems have been partially remedied in Orthodox circles by a widespread deference to certain authorities and later codifiers (e.g., Maimonides, the Shulchan Aruch). But the system -- for better or worse -- is still inherently conservative and inflexible.

Conservative Judaism has addressed this by being more flexible in both halachic interpretation and in halachic diversity (that is, by permitting multiple approaches to particular questions).

And Reform Judaism has addressed this by labeling itself, perhaps incorrectly, as a non-halachic movement.

* * *

All of this raises interesting analogies between common law systems and economic markets. Both are decentralized decision-making institutions. But the fact that Jewish law and Anglo-American common law function so differently shows the importance of structures and institutions in this sort of system. The shape and functions of a legal system depends critically on the nature and structure of courts, legal rules, lawyers, etc. And the shape and functioning of an economic system depends critically on exchange rules, property rights, banking and currency systems, etc.

Ronald Coase had made this argument -- institutions matter -- with respect to economics, and the same is true of legal systems.