Album Review: 'Project Relax 3' (With Simcha Leiner & Baruch Levine)

Everyone’s favorite up-and-coming Jewish singer, Simcha Leiner, just released his latest project. Well, it’s not exactly his project, but he did sing on it. It’s a new CD called Project Relax 3, and features both Baruch Levine and Simcha Leiner. (It’s produced by Yochi Briskman — you know, the same guy that produces Shwekey, Baruch Levine, Simcha Leiner, and so on — as a third installment in a rather old series.) I’ll buy anything with Simcha Leiner’s name on it, and that is what I did. So, here are my thoughts about the album…

For starters, the song selection on the album is great. There are no new tunes, but the CD is rather meant to be a sort of “best hits” of the last few years. It’s broken up into 25 different, rather short tracks, every few tracks making up a different, continuous medley. So, each individual song is only played for, usually, one loop, but it then blends right into the next song, and so on. And, like I said, the selection of songs on the album is quite good. A bunch of the best hits from the last little while, as well as some slightly lesser-known tracks — it all makes up for an incredibly melodious album. You hear some new takes on songs you surely already know and love, and you’ll probably learn a few new songs as well. All that being said, I have no idea why it is called Project Relax; the songs are not particularly slow or anything…

Anyway, in terms of the vocals they are, as is to be expected, nothing short of stellar. I say that, though, in regards to Simcha Leiner in particular. His voice is absolutely incredible — like one in a million. The guy is really, really talented. I’ve heard him live a few times, and his voice just fills a room like nobody else’s. He’s just the best. Rich, with a truly unbelievable range. You really just cannot get better. I can listen to him all day. (You can tell I’m a fan…) As to Baruch Levine — I always found his voice to be too shrill for my tastes. He’s obviously a talented guy — and if you like his sound, you’ll like him on this album — but to me, he’s sort of neutral. Now, if Shwekey was the other voice on this album, then we’d be talking. Alas, such is not the case. Levine and Leiner it is — which is really none too shabby a collaboration at all.

Finally, we come to the arrangements. Here, I have to say, I’m a little disappointed. As a whole, it’s pretty bland. Some songs have kids singing, others have a backup choir, and a few tracks have a great harmony between Leiner and Levine. But other than that, there’s really nothing much else going on here. You have two great voices (okay, one stellar voice, and one great voice) on this album, and most tracks go bye with nary a harmony to be heard! It’s nuts. The track Pischi Li has not one harmony. How can that be? Why were vocal ranges and talent not taken advantage of here? There are some tracks you listen to that just beg for a fuller arrangement, but you never get it. It’s a little disappointing.

This being the case, there are some tracks that stand out. I really like Melech Malchei, as well as Besheim Hashem, Lecha Dodi and, of course, Ve’yiyu Rachamecho. And, honestly, I like all of the songs on the album. Those were just a few of the ones that stand out to me right now. I should also say that, although they are mixed at too low a volume, Leiner’s harmonies towards the end of (the interestingly sped-up version of) Kol Berama are nothing short of exceptional. His range is just nuts.

In short, it’s a good CD. A solid buy, and a nice addition to any collection. A great thing to be able to play in the background. But nothing exceptional — which it really could have been, if they had taken advantage of all that they could have. So, good, not great. I’d say a B+.

Anyway, it’s nice to see Simcha popping up in more and more places. (If you haven’t seen some of the wedding videos he’s in, you’re seriously missing out.) And this is certainly a great album to hold you over until Simcha Leiner’s next studio album is coming out — which apparently is going to be pretty soon.

How Much Of Tanach Is Actually In The Talmud?

The folks at The Sefaria Blog figured out just how much of the Tanach is actually quoted in the Gemara. The results:

Genesis: 513/1533 (33.46%)
Exodus: 511/1210 (42.23%)
Leviticus: 644/859 (74.97%)
Numbers: 461/1288 (35.79%)
Deuteronomy: 564/956 (59.0%)
Joshua: 99/658 (15.05%)
Judges: 98/618 (15.86%)
I Samuel: 151/811 (18.62%)
II Samuel: 141/695 (20.29%)
I Kings: 191/817 (23.38%)
II Kings: 119/719 (16.55%)
Isaiah: 422/1291 (32.69%)
Joel: 14/73 (19.18%)
Jeremiah: 207/1364 (15.18%)
Ezekiel: 196/1273 (15.4%)
Hosea: 73/197 (37.06%)
Amos: 44/146 (30.14%)
Obadiah: 6/21 (28.57%)
Jonah: 10/48 (20.83%)
Micah: 28/105 (26.67%)
Nahum: 8/47 (17.02%)
Habakkuk: 19/56 (33.93%)
Zephaniah: 17/53 (32.08%)
Haggai: 9/38 (23.68%)
Zechariah: 63/211 (29.86%)
Malachi: 29/55 (52.73%)
Psalms: 635/2527 (25.13%)
Proverbs: 313/915 (34.21%)
Job: 220/1070 (20.56%)
Song of Songs: 57/117 (48.72%)
Ruth: 26/85 (30.59%)
Lamentations: 52/154 (33.77%)
Ecclesiastes: 94/222 (42.34%)
Esther: 95/167 (56.89%)
Daniel: 77/357 (21.57%)
Ezra: 46/280 (16.43%)
Nehemiah: 39/405 (9.63%)
I Chronicles: 78/943 (8.27%)
II Chronicles: 79/822 (9.61%)

The most surprising figure is the total percentage of all of Tanach that is referenced in the Gemara:

All of Tanach: 6448/23206 (27.79%)

Really not that much at all, when you think about it. I thought that number would be a lot higher. So much for that old high school shtick, “We only learn Gemara because all of Tanach is quoted in the Gemara, so by learning only Gemara, we are actually also learning Tanach.”

Not even close.

Belief In Spiderman

Looks like this might become something of a series here, but this is another really bad atheist one-liner argument that I see a lot:

First of all, no serious theologian believes that there is a God because it says so in a book. That is not how anyone comes to belief in God. If you think that, you are a fool. People believe in God, most usually, because that is how they were raised. Why people continue to believe in God is a discussion for another time (although I touched on it a bit here).

But all of this is besides the point. The main issue here is in the comparison to Spiderman. People, if Spiderman existed, we would have seen him by now. Thus, from the fact that we have never encountered any evidence to suggest that Spiderman does exist, this is evidence enough to conclude that  he does not, in fact, exist. The same cannot be said about an Infinite Creator, though. Who says we would expect to see evidence? Who says that such a Creator would interact with the world? Simply saying that we haven't ever heard from such a Creator (although many would beg to differ — and that is where the whole book/Bible thing comes in) is no reason to say that there is none. That is not a proper logical deduction.

The book/Bible does not attest to God's existence. I hope no one thinks that. It attests to God's interaction with our world. Now, whether we should trust this book is a discussion for another time. But a discussion about whether an Infinite Being ever chose to interact with this world is a very different discussion than whether an Infinite Being exists. 

So to all you Twitter Atheists, enough with this argument. Come up with something good for me, please.

"Israel Is..."

By Natalie Portman:

Where I was born. Where I ate my first Popsicle and used a proper toilet for the first time. Where some of my 18-year-old friends spend their nights in bunkers sleeping with their helmets on. Where security guards are the only jobs in surplus. Where deserts bloom and pioneer stories are sentimentalized. Where a thorny, sweet cactus is the symbol of the ideal Israeli. Where immigrating to Israel is called “ascending” and emigrating from Israel is called “descending.” Where my grandparents were not born, but where they were saved.

Where the year passes with the season of olives, of almonds, of dates. Where the transgressive pig or shrimp dish speaks defiantly from a Jerusalem menu. Where, despite substantial exception, secularism is the rule. Where wine is religiously sweet. Where “Arabic homes” is a positive real estate term with no sense of irony. Where there is endless material for dark humor. Where there are countless words for “to bother,” but no single one yet for “to pleasure.” Where laughter is the currency; jokes the religion. Where political parties multiply more quickly than do people. Where to become religious is described as “returning to an answer” and becoming secular “returning to a question.”

Where six citizens have won Nobel prizes in 50 years. Where the first one earned an Olympic gold in 2004 for sailing (an Israeli also won the bronze for judo). Where there is snow two hours north and hamsin (desert wind) two hours south. Where Moses never was allowed to walk, but whose streets we litter. Where the language in which Abraham spoke to Isaac before he was to sacrifice him has been resuscitated to include the words for “sweatshirt” and “schadenfreude” and “chemical warfare” and “press conference.” Where the muezzin chants, and the church bells sound and the shofars cry freely at the Wall. Where the shopkeepers bargain. Where the politicians bargain. Where there will one day be peace but never quiet.

Where I was born; where my insides refuse to abandon.

Not the sort of thing you would expect to see coming out of Hollywood. Nice.

So You Don't Believe In "Kabbalah"?

Saw this post on Facebook a few moments ago:

So, what you're saying is that you are in a dispute with the Vilna Gaon, Ramban, Ramchal, Ibn Ezra, Rashi, and basically every single other great scholar in our history... You'll pardon me for siding with them.

The article linked to is this one — and while I 100% agree that there are frauds, liars, scam artists, and just generally terrible people that abuse buzzwords like "kabbalah" to take advantage of people, that doesn't mean that the true received history of the study of the metaphysical is any less valid. There is a special place in hell for people that deceive others with God's Torah, I would imagine, but the cure for "bad kabbalah" is not "no kabbalah".

We could argue the validity of the metaphysical tradition, by the way. That's fine. But, and I see this fairly often, showing examples of idiots misusing a term is not a valid argument here.

Oh, and I think if we stopped throwing around meaningless buzzwords in general, we'd have far fewer problems in this area.

God Of The Gaps

I find it unfortunate that many atheists today are so smug. It’s really unbecoming, and makes any intelligent conversation almost impossible. This is, of course, not to say that there are not religious people that are smug — there certainly are. But no one should be smug. Conversations between atheists and religious people could be so helpful — a way to really keep us honest about the weakest parts of what we do and how we do it. Unfortunately, however, much of atheism today has turned into one-liners on sites like Reddit and Twitter. Most of these one-liners are unfair and childish at best, and downright idiotic and dishonest at worst. 

It is one of these atheist one-liners that prompted me to write this piece. It’s a one-liner I’ve seen so many times, it just finally crossed the line to the point that I’d like to attempt to set things straight. 

The one-liner goes something like this: “We don’t know how X or Y thing within the universe works… therefore God exists”. Atheists use this line to point out how ridiculous an argument for God this sort of logic really is. And they’re right. It’s quite a terrible argument for God’s existence. The king of this argument is, of course, Bill O’Reilly, who feels that he has proven God’s existence because “the tide comes in, the tide goes out”. Seriously. That is really something he has said. More than once, too.

Just a bit more exposition, here: The basic idea here is that there are certain things in this life that we cannot possibly explain, and thus, because of their utter complexity and perplexing nature, one could conclude that there must be an Intelligent Designer. This is an old argument called “The God of the Gaps”, namely that people fill in the gaps of human knowledge and capability with God. Basically: “We couldn’t possibly explain X or Y, and so therefore it must be God”. Or, there is no possible explanation for X or Y other than God. 

Many years ago, perhaps, this might have been a valid argument for God. Probably still not a great argument, but at least valid. Today, though, this argument holds no water whatsoever. And that is for the simple reason that science has gotten to the point that we really have explained a tremendous amount. We have a pretty darned good working system for how to explain the visible universe. True, we have not explained everything — not even close. But that is exactly the point. Just because we haven’t explained it yet doesn’t mean that we will never explain it. Thus, if you’re banking your belief in a deity on the fact that we cannot explain “X”, what happens the day that we do explain “X”? Would you just move on to the next thing that we cannot yet explain? To what end?

You see the logical flaws here…

Oh, and things get really crazy when you pull a Bill O’Reilly and bank your belief in a deity on a “God of the Gaps” argument that we already have explained. Bill, my friend, we already know how and why the tides go in and out. It ain’t God (FOOTNOTE at least not directly. More on this another time.).

In short, we’ve already explained many, if not most, of the things that the “God of the Gaps” argument has been based on through the centuries. And the other things, well, we may well explain any day now. Thus, not a great argument.

So much for the background…

Many atheists will take a pretty weak “God of the Gaps” argument and, say, post it on Twitter to show just how stupid religious people are. This is disingenuous, smug, and rather bothersome, as a thinking theist. It is not conducive to intelligent discussion, and I will thus just leave those as they are. 

But then there is this one: “We don’t understand how the universe came into existence… therefore it must be God”. And people will post this to show just how stupid, again, religious people are. Really? Just because we don’t understand something like the universe’s inception it must be God? How foolish. Or so their argument goes. 

And at first glance, perhaps, one might think that this is a classic “God of the Gaps” argument, and would fall prey to all of the usual pitfalls of such an argument. 

But this is not correct.

You see, we believe in proportionate cause and effect. That is called “logic”. If I flick something it is not going to shoot away at hundreds of miles an hour and travel across the world. No, it will only travel a flick’s-worth distance. Again, proportionate cause and effect. There is an extremely scientific, logical relation between cause and effect. These are scientific, logical principles. Something does not come from nothing. A small explosion does not result in an infinitely expanding universe. Neither of those things are proportional. Neither of those things are natural. Neither of those things are logical. 

And yet, they happened. 

You want to call it a miracle? Okay. Supernatural? Okay. Transcendent? Divine? A whacky coincidence? God? I really don’t care what you call it. But you cannot call it logical. You cannot call it natural. You cannot call it normal. These are just the facts.

“Does this prove God?” Um… No. A rather unintelligent question, actually. We’ll address that one some other time. My goal here is not to prove God. I am not interested in that at the moment. My goal here is, however, to point out that saying “we don’t know how the universe began… therefore God” is not a “God of the Gaps” argument. 

Some elaboration…

As explained at length above, “God of the Gaps” would be an argument that states that since scientific knowledge cannot yet explain a phenomena, it must be God. But by the instance of the inception of the universe, it’s sort of the opposite scenario. It’s not that science cannot yet explain it — rather, science already dictates that it is impossible. It’s not that we just don’t know how the universe was created — it’s that all of scientific knowledge states that it is impossible. Something from nothing is unscientific. The start of the universe defies science. It’s not just that science cannot yet explain it. 

Science never dictated that tides coming in and out was impossible. But science does dictate proportionate cause. So, while you can say “one day we will understand how the tides come in and out” that is not at all the same thing as saying “one day we will understand how the universe was started”. Because if you say the latter, what you are essentially saying is “one day we will completely change everything we know about the universe, and everything within in. One day we might discover that everything we know is a lie, and the entirety of the scientific enterprise will be flipped upside down and take back the fundamental tenants of scientific theory that we now today.” Now, if you’re comfortable saying that… well… 

Is it possible that one day that will happen? Yes. But we send people to the moon assuming that such a day will never come. We live assuming the laws we know will remain constant. If we didn’t, we never would have left the caves. We work with what we have. We live with current scientific data. And current scientific data states that the creation of the universe defies all explanation — not eludes it. That is logic.

(And the same thing would apply, by the way, to the beginning of life. Inanimate matter does not produce animate matter. Fact. I don’t need to go through this whole thing again. Proportionate cause, and so on. The creation of life defies scientific explanation.) 

So taking these statements as being “God of the Gaps” arguments is actually quite incorrect. Because it is really not ridiculous at all to look at the creation of the universe — something that all of our accumulated knowledge dictates as an impossibility — and say that, perhaps or probably, there is something that exists beyond our ability to measure. That, perhaps or probably, something did not, in fact, come from nothing, but rather that this universe flows from some sort of infinite force. This is not at all an illogical stance to take — and, as I think I have explained at length here, is actually perfectly logical.

So, in summary, the next time you see some tweet to the effect of “Look how stupid religious people are. They think that since we cannot explain how the universe was started there must be a God”, just roll your eyes and move on. Because what they are actually saying is something to the effect of “Look at those religious folk. They believe that since all of science and logic dictates that the creation of the universe was supernatural, that the creation of the universe was probably supernatural.”

How foolish we are, indeed.

Logic, my friends.

The Way Things Were

I just saw this picture on Reddit and was moved to write this post. It used to be that I was the first one to love these sorts of clever things. Cartoons like this, and indeed in general, are a great way to boil down all sorts of problems into something that can be summed up in just a few short words and pictures.

But, of course, that isn’t really true. And the more I see things like this, the more I reaffirm that reality to myself. 

Because cartoons like the one above lose all nuance in the arguments and conversations that it tries to capture. At first glance I thought to myself how great the cartoon was, and how well of a job it did at simply advancing the idea that we should not have such a large group of people learning all day (or, at the very least, that it is an aberration from our history, which it is). That’s clearly the agenda of the image, and that’s fine. I would tend to agree with that agenda. 

But I would be remiss if I did not point out some of the flaws in the cartoon, and perhaps play something of “devil’s advocate” here. 

For starters, for every TannaAmmoraRishon, or so on that you could find that held a regular job, I could find many, many more that did not. I am aware that many of our greatest scholars had a normal job, but many, also, did not. That should be noted. So that’s point one.

Point two: The Rambam, whom everyone loves using as a case study here, was not always a doctor. He was, for many years, supported by his brother. It was only after the passing of his brother that he took up a profession. And while, yes, the Rambam is clearly and strongly of the opinion that we all must be self-sufficient, as seen most obviously in his Mishnah Torah (Hilchos Talmud Torah 3:10), he also states in those same Hilchos Talmud Torah (1:12) that one should work for 3 hours, and learn for about 9 every day. So, there’s that.

I agree that one needs to be self-sufficient. That is the law. That is what is paskened in the Shulchan Aruch, and that is what I firmly believes God wants of us as human beings (but more on that all at another time). And again, I do not believe we should have even close to the amount of people learning all day that we do now. But — and this is a big “but” — if you’re going to use the Rambam as a case study, which is something people seem to love to do, just be aware of what exactly you are preaching.

And, finally, point three: Times have changed. So to say that something worked 500 years ago, says nothing to how well it will, or won’t, work today. Post-Holocaust it was seen as an imperative to keep Torah scholarship alive. Round up the wagons, insulate, the whole deal. It was determined that people could learn without working simply because it was such a dire situation. Indeed, that time has ended, but there are still great Torah scholars alive today that feel that, for whatever reason, they need to perpetuate that system a little longer. Or maybe a lot longer. Do I agree? Do I disagree? That is neither here nor there. The point is that the situation has changed from how things were 500 years ago, and thus, many people feel our response should change as well.

(I should point out here two more key things: One, it also vital to understand exactly what their perspective is. So often there are misquotes and misrepresentation of what people did, and did not, say. Two, the situation in America is quite different than it is in Israel. Due to issues of the army, the situation in Israel, in terms of Chareidim, is far, far more insular than it is in America — but more on this a different time.)

To conclude, I am, personally, more sympathetic to the cartoon’s argument that I am to the counter-argument I have laid out here. But I think it crucial to be aware of the counter-argument as well. Things are never so black and white. And while I don’t expect a cartoon to ever be able to capture everything with intellectual honesty, I do expect people to be able to recognize that fact.

Seder Highlights 2015

  • Time we finished: Between 12 and 1 both nights.
  • Divrei Torah: Many of the usual short stuff from the kids, which is always nice as we moved along. My pieces this year were mostly academic (so as to avoid any heated confrontations with one or two specific relatives). Focused on discrepancies between the Babylonian Haggadah and the Palestinian Haggadah first night, and the Seder in Bnei Brak mentioned in the Haggadah the second night. Also had a nice discussion about why Moshe's name is not mentioned in the Haggadah and, unrelatedly, if factionalization is a bigger problem for Judaism today or back in the early few centuries CE.
  • Most heated discussion: When I mentioned that the tenants of Orthodox belief are: 1. There is an infinite Creator of the universe. 2. Said Creator gave us a set of laws that include both what is written in the Torah, as well as an oral component. 
  • Best food: Meat roast.
  • Haggadah's I used this year: My Rosh Yeshivah wrote a Haggadah that I helped out with a bit. It's not in stores until next year, but I got an advanced copy. Look for it next year, though. It's called "From Despair to Destiny", with a cool white cover. I also used Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks's Haggadah again this year, as I didn't quite finish it last year. I should mentioned I also read a collection of essays by Rabbi J.H. Hertz, and I also started the new Headlines book by Dovid Lichtenstein. 
  • Most unexpected occurrence: My littlest cousin was not shy at all when it came to the 4 questions. She couldn't wait to ask them, actually. 

Responding To Tragedy — An Elaboration On DovBear

DovBear recently published a post addressing a particular response to the tragic death of 7 children by fire. If you haven't already, you should go and read the whole thing now (it's very short). He ends the post as follows:

You can use the fire to strengthen your shabbos observance if you wish - that's fine - but don't allow yourself to become convinced, as Wallenstein has become convinced, that God murdered seven children for the sake of delivering this message to you. God's ways are inscrutable. 

I would like to elaborate just a bit.

The key idea here, really, is that God's ways truly are unknown to us. They are entirely unknown. And throughout any ordeal, this is a key, fundamental point that one must remember. At a core level, our entire religious lives are based on this premise. We don't know why the universe was created. We don't know where it's headed. And we don't know why it's headed there. All we can do, at any moment, is what God wants from us. And that's really it. (More on these points at another time.)

When tragedy strikes, it is impossible for us to know the reasons. But that does not mean that suddenly we can start making things up. As it says:

The hidden things belong to the Lord, our God, but the revealed things apply to us and to our children forever: that we must fulfill all the words of this Torah. (Devarim 29:28)

That sums this entire matter up quite nicely. In short, we simply do not know. Prophecy has been removed from us. There was once a time when we were able to consult people that were able to actually instruct us as to why things happened, and what God wanted from us as a response. That time is long gone. There are no prophets anymore. There is no prophecy anymore. And that means there is no understanding the actions of God anymore. Anyone claiming otherwise is simply a charlatan, or worse. 

Did God have 7 children die to teach the rest of the world some message? All our response can be is: I don't know. Maybe he did. Probably not. But it's possible. But we simply do not know. 

We do believe in learning and growing from tragedy. We do believe that God either causes, or lets, bad things happen when people do bad things. This is all spelled out in the opening halachos to Taanis in the Mishnah Torah of the Rambam. But what we categorically do not believe in, is ascribing any sort of specifics to these things. 

We simply do not know.

Some Random Pesach Trivia

A friend sent me these questions. See how many you can get:

  1. When (in terms of Rabbinic time periods — tannaim, ammoraim, geonim, rihsonim, acharonim) was the first mention of Kos Shel Eliyahu?
  2. Why is there an egg at the Pesach seder?
  3. Who wrote the haggadah?
  4. How does the Torah refer to Pesach and how does Chazal refer to pesach? And why the difference?
  5. Who played Moses in "The Ten Commandments"? 
  6. What book/novel/boat is/was named for the English word used to describe the Jews's leaving of Egypt?
  7. Which early-mid twentieth century Jerusalem-based rabbi had the middle name "Pesach"?
  8. Which 20th Century American Rosh Yeshiva died on the Eighteenth of Nissan, 1993?

OU's List Of Top Kashrus Questions For Pesach 2015

A nice list, with responses such as:

Q: May I use frozen Kirkland Salmon for Passover?
A: Due to the frequent application of glazes to raw fish, it should be purchased only with reliable kosher for Passover certification. However, Kirkland Frozen Wild Salmon is acceptable without special Passover certification after washing it off, while the Kirkland Atlantic (farm raised) Salmon is acceptable as is without special certification for Passover.

Starbucks Via is Kosher for Pesach This Year

There was a bit of a hullabaloo amongst the coffee addicts just a few days ago when CRC announced on their Twitter page (a great resource, by the way — they do a great job responding to questions) that Starbucks Via is kosher for Pesach this year:

I did some following-up with them to clarify a few things, and I thought I would share it here so that there is no confusion.

First of all, not all Starbucks Via is kosher for Pesach. Only unflavored (the Columbian Roast, for instance) is okay. It also has to be decaf. And, finally, it must bear an OU (although it doesn't need an OU P, as is the chiddush here). 

Now, again, all of this is only the CRC. But that's not much of an "only". They're a pretty reliable and trusted Kashrus organization. So to all you coffee addicts out there (and I do mean addicts): go crazy.