Friday, January 28, 2011

One Nation Indivisible

If you're American and reading this, and did not attend a "black" yeshiva, you certainly know the Pledge of Allegiance. We all recited it every day in school, standing and looking at the flag. We didn't really understand it. What is "allegiance?" What's a republic? During Watergate, some kids said "and to the republic for Richard Stans," Richard Stans being one of the convicted cabinet officers, Secretary of Commerce if I remember right. Later on, we became aware that we didn't have "liberty and justice for all," if you happened to be black, or Catholic, or gay, or identifiably Jewish, etc. We worked our butts off correcting much of what was wrong about this country. And then there's "one nation, under God, indivisible. . ." What the heck was "indivisible"? For a while, I thought that it was really "invisible" and that it applied to God, not the nation. Then again, I used to think that baby girls got made when the mohel (circumciser) slipped with his knife. . . .

Much later, I learned that the original Pledge did not include "under God." It was added during the 1950s to set us apart from the Soviets, who were officially atheist. "One nation indivisible" had awesome significance no matter what your religious affiliation or lack thereof. Whatever your opinion of the insertion, it does terrible violence to the intent of the original author. The Pledge was written after the Civil War by a Union Army veteran. He wanted to stress that the war settled something about our national character that previously was open to debate. We are one country, not fifty (if I'm not mistaken, there were 35 states at the time of the Civil War). The states are subordinate to the federal government and must comply with federal law, right? Of course right.

Well, not quite. Out of frustration with President Obama's successful health care legislation, several Republican politicians in several states are trying to resurrect the concept of "nullification." This doctrine, bandied about before the Civil War, holds that the federal government is a creature of and subordinate to the states, any of which may "nullify" federal law, i.e. simply ignore it within the borders of that state. The logical outgrowth of this is secession, the right of states to quit the Union. One Supreme Court decision after another shot the doctrine down, and for good reason. It is a pernicious concept that would balkanize the country and render it unable to be a leader in the world. It is an abomination, whether any particular result is good or bad. Minnesota tried to nullify the Fugitive Slave Law, which mandated that runaway slaves be returned to their masters, even if they escaped to a free state like Minnesota. By contrast, the Jewish Fugitive Slave Law can be found in Deut. 23:16,17). The Supreme Court did not allow Minnesota to nullify that Act of Congress. We fought a bloody war, after which we amended the Constitution to do away with slavery forever.

During the Civil Rights struggle, several southern states tried to invoke nullification against federal mandates to desegregate schools, intercity buses and the like. Thank God they did not succeed. The Supreme Court, pursuant to Article Six of the Constitution, made clear that federal law supersedes states' rights, like it or not. And lest we think that fears about the Union falling apart again are far fetched, the reference I linked to above tells how a rally in Texas called for not only nullification but secession.

Were these rumblings merely the ravings of a madman they might be safely dismissed. But they are coming from elected officials who certainly should know better. There is a lot not to like about Obamacare, and Congressmen from both parties fought the good fight, but it is now the law of the land. It can only be changed by Congress or the Courts. Everybody on every side of every other issue needs to make it crystal clear that nullification is dead and buried at Appomattox. Just as a private citizen cannot pick and choose which laws to obey, no state can pick and choose which federal legislation will apply in the state. As a Constitutional scholar told the Texas legislature, "If you believe in nullification, you don't believe in the Constitution." To which I might add that you don't believe in America's mission in the world either.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Tu B'Shvat

Time to go buy some dates and figs and say Sheheheyanu. It's spring in Israel. Remember the ditty we learned in school (my translation):

The almond tree is blooming

A golden sun is shining

Birds on every rooftop

Announce the holiday

Tu B'Shavat is here

The holiday of trees

An Israeli in one of my yeshivah classes taught me this version that they don't teach in yeshivah; if you understand Hebrew you'll see why:

השקדי-ה פורחת

לנאצר יש קורחת

הוא עלה על העצים

ושבר את הביצים

טו בשבט הגיע

החמור הכריע

טו בשבט עבר

החמור גמר

I came across this cartoon today:

In two months it will be spring here. Hang in there.

Hat tip: Yedidye Hirtenfeld from Young Israel of Midwood

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Wednesday, January 05, 2011


In last Sunday's New York Times magazine there is an article about two babies who were produced in a most unusual way, even in today's age of assisted reproduction. A woman married late in life, wanted children, and could not become pregnant naturally or after several rounds of in vitro fertilization (IVF). She then developed a medical condition that compromised her ability to carry a child safely, so carrying a child conceived with a donor egg was not an option. She and her husband decided to hire two surrogates to carry two embryos with eggs from the same donor (not one of the surrogates) fertilized in vitro with the husband's sperm.

IVF itself is old hat, having been available since the 1970s. It is not unheard-of for a woman with good eggs but unable to sustain a pregnancy to hire a surrogate to carry a child conceived from the woman's egg and her husband's sperm. It is quite common, as such things go, for a woman without good eggs but capable of carrying a child to carry one conceived from a donor egg and her husband's sperm. That is how women in their 50s and even 60s carry to term and give birth. But combining the two is quite unheard-of, at least according to the article's author. Genetically the two children, a boy and a girl born five days apart, are full siblings, but siblings are supposed to be born at least nine months apart unless they are twins. Twins are supposed to share a womb, but these babies did not. Hence - twiblings.

The article did not indicate if the couple was Jewish, so I assume it was not. But if it was, and sooner or later a Jewish women is going to have a child that way, I could imagine some halakhic problems arising. The birth certificate listed the man's wife as the legal mother, as is usual in such assisted reproduction cases. But halakhically, who is the child's mother? The gestational carrier (0ne for each baby)? The egg donor ("genetic mother")? Or the man's wife, who is actually raising the children? If the gestational carrier and/or the egg donor is not Jewish, does the child need to convert, as is the case for an adopted child? If there were two different biological fathers, would the children be allowed to marry each other? If the baby is the first carried by its gestational carrier, does it need pidyon haben? What if it's the first child of the father's wife, or of the egg donor? I could probably think of a few others, but these seem daunting enough. Resolving these quandaries will require poskim well-versed in human reproductive biology and not so put off by the newfangled technology that emotion will interfere with their thinking. Given the current anti-intellectual climate in our community, and the anti-secular trends in Jewish education, such people will be increasingly hard to come by.

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Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Point - Counterpoint

In a post written on the occasion of R. Meir Kahane's yahrzeit, I referred to an essay written by an American student in an Israeli yeshiva describing his physical breakdown while supposedly growing in Torah scholarship. I just became aware of another student, a recent graduate of my alma mater Yeshivah of Flatbush, who is studying in an Israeli yeshiva and at the same time training for the first full 42-kilometer marathon to be held in Jerusalem this coming spring. Not only is he training, he is spreading the gospel (deep breath, all it means is "good news") of fitness to his buddies and getting them to train. And they are not sacrificing their learning either.

Click here.

Kol Hakavod to all of them. They are real authentic Jews learning - and living - the real Torah. R. Kahane would be proud. And for a shot of fluid and carbs when they are drenched with holy Jewish sweat, they should try this:

It's the real thing!

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