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Thursday, March 31, 2005

Non-Orthodox Conversions

The Israeli High Court of Justice gave a ruling today which might have far-reaching implications for the future of Israel and Judaism.

The court ordered the state to recognise the so-called "leaping conversions", in which the study itself is conducted in Israel but the actual conversion ceremony is performed overseas. People have used this mechanism to bypass Israeli law, which recognizes only Orthodox conversions when performed in Israel but also non-Orthodox conversions when performed overseas. Therefore, converts who studied in a non-Orthodox institute in Israel would go abroad for a few days to perform the actual conversion in a Jewish community there, and then return to Israel and apply for citizenship under the Law of Return.

I am not familiar with the details of the new ruling and therefore cannot guess the full impact it will have on the Law of Return, but if I understand correctly then the practical meaning is that any person producing a conversion document from any community in the world will be automatically accepted as an Israeli citizen. I shudder at the ramifications of such a reality.

When I lived in Israel, this was a non-issue to me. But having lived in Japan for a few years and having witnessed several "conversions" performed by the local community's rabbi here, I now realise the consequences of such blanket approvals of conversions. Suffice it to say that the gap between these conversions and "mail order" conversions is not that big. On two separate occasions I heard Japanese women undergoing studies for conversion here complaining that they are not learning much about Judaism and that many of their questions go unanswered. If this is indicative of the status in other communities - and there is no reason to believe it isn't so, as there no central supervising body - I don't see how anyone can take a conversion diploma from some anonymous community seriously. Certainly it shouldn't be the basis for accepting someone under the Law of Return and granting Isareli citizenship.

Time will tell what will happen as a result of this ruling, but I'm not very optimistic.

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Samba in a Kimono

Can an actor known for his role as a Samurai warrior become a king of samba? In Japan, the answer is yes.

Ken Matsudaira, one of Japan's most famous actors, best known for his role as shogun in a long-running TV series, is currently a huge music phenomenon here with his "Matsuken Samba II" hit (Matsuken is his nickname, a combination of his last and first name).

Last week he filled Tokyo Dome with 20,000 fans who danced and shook their backsides in sync with Matsuken. The king himself appeared clad in a golden kimono outfit, complete with the samurai hairstyle and white-painted face, surrounded by dozens of male and female dancers in similar outfits.

So "hit the bongo, sound the samba" as the lyrics go, and join Matsuken in the new samba craze sweeping over Japan. Here's an audio sample: Windows Media Player.

Sunday, March 27, 2005

Occidentalism, by Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit

The attacks of September 11th have spawned a plethora of books about Islam and the Middle East, all trying to explain to the bewildered Westerner how those planes came crashing out of the skies on that bright and fateful autumn day. Occidentalism is one of these books, the authors taking the opportunity of the hightened attention to write a book that, although not officially positioned as such, is an attempt to form a response to the late Palestinian intellectual Edward Said's famous 1978 work: Orientalism.

I read this book largely because I enjoyed another book by Ian Buruma about the history of Japan. Unfortunately, Occidentalism is a far cry from the eloquent and gracious Inventing Japan. Buruma and Margalit succeed in combining their knowledge into one book that does not read as if it was written by two authors, but fail in making a clear and coherent argument to explain Occidentalism (i.e. the way the East views the West). Although they try to bring together the many cultures and nations of the Occident, including Asian history, their analysis is most meaningful only when they write about Islam, which I suspect was what they set out to explain in the first place.

Buruma and Margalit begin by listing the main differences between the West and East, as these are perceived in the eyes of the East: the West is urban - the East is rural; the West is capitalist (see the picture on the book cover) - the East values social values; the West is materialistic - the East is spiritual; and, of course, the West is always evil, out to destroy or at least conquer and subdue the East. Then they set out to show that most of the (mis)conceptions of the East about the West - i.e. Occidentalism - is nothing but a product of the West's (or, more precisely, European) influence and ideas. So basically the East is using Western thought and philosophy and adapt it to its needs, turning against those they perceive as evil, the West.

There are a few problems with this argument. First, the Orient cannot all be lumped into one basket. Arguing that Japanese nationalism, German nazism and Muslim fundamentalism all come from the same roots and share the same view of the West is stretching it a bit. Second, the Occident itself is not homogeneous. For example, the authours bring Jewish Zionism as an example of the "evil West", providing a very simplistic view of Zionism as "Jews buying land with money from Arabs". Third, the authors seem to ignore the widespread ties between West and East - e.g. the US-Japan relationship, or the backing of the Gulf states by the US - as these ties would blow holes into the neat Occident-Orient divide they try to picture.

Despite its flaws, Occidentalism is a good read (and it's a short book), as long as one approaches it as one would approach an essay or a commentary column in the newspaper, not a book that purports to explain the problem of "the West in the eyes of its enemies".

Thursday, March 24, 2005

"Thanks" Tails

Drivers all over the world rely on the good will of fellow drivers, be it when they need to switch lanes or exit from a parking space. There are different ways to say "thank you" for an expression of good will on the road. One may lift up a hand in a gesture of appreciation or honk the horn briefly. In Japan, the custom is to turn on the emergency lights (all lights blinking) for a couple of seconds, to let the driver behind you know that you appreciate his good manners.

But now there is no need for all that. There is the "Thanks Tail", another brilliant invention from Japan. I suppose the inventor got the idea from watching dogs wag their tails when they're happy or when they want to say "thank you" for a particularly juicy bone. So why not do the same with cars? Why not have the car wag its tail in appreciation?

Enter the "Thanks Tail":

To see the tail in action, press here and wait for the video to start. You won't regret it.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Daf Yomi - We Run, They Run

There is a special prayer one says at the end of each massechet. In it, one mentions several differences between those who study Torah and those who don't: we get up, they get up; we work, they work; we run, they run - each party for a different purpose obviously.

In the wake of last week's siyum hashas (the ending of the Daf Yomi cycle) I received by email the following picture, with the caption: "we run, they run".

Friday, March 04, 2005

YaYakhel - When Too Much is Enough

והמלאכה היתה דים לכל המלאכה לעשות אותה, והותר

(שמות ל"ו, ז')

After a break of one week's parasha (and what a parasha it was!), the Torah goes back to the story of the building of the mishkan, the tabernacle that was the focus of worship during the years in the desert. All men and women of all tribes contributed to the mishkan, bringing gold, copper, textiles, wood - all that was necessary for the construction of God's tabernacle. The outpouring of giving was so large that Moshe needed to put a halt to it, asking the people to stop bringing their offerings. The Torah then says:

For the stuff they had was sufficient for all the work to make it, and too much.

(Shemot, 36, 7; KJV)

This pasuk is confusing. Either the stuff was "sufficient" or it was "too much". What is the Torah telling us? That only by there being too many offerings the condition of enough offerings was fulfilled?

One of the explanations for this strange wording is that the Torah wanted to teach Bnei Israel a lesson in humility. The situation can be explained by the following example. In a close race in a political electio both candidates are running neck-to-neck and the polls give no clear indication as to who would win. When the votes are all counted (and recounted), it turns out that the winner won by one vote only, no more no less. The winner is obviously delighted, but his jubilation is quickly overcast by the hundreds of voters who approach him in the days following his victory, saying: "You see! It was my vote that got you elected!".

This is the situation Moshe wanted to avoid. The accomplishment of completing the mishkan was remarkable. The joy of the people, who succeeded to build this temple to God from their donations, was enourmous. But imagine what could have happened had there been just enough contributions to complete the construction. This could have easily turned into a false send of pride, into a feeling of "kochi ve'etsem yadi": It was I who made the whole thing possible. If it weren't for my piece of gold, there would be no mishkan.

Therefore, it was only by having more than was necessary that Moshe could have avoided this turn of events and at the same time taught Bnei Israel an important lesson in humility. It is not our offering which turns the tide, it is God's will. The "too much" was necessary in order for it to be "sufficient".

The idea for this week's Parasha Thought is from R. Mordechai Kamenetzky.