Friday, May 31, 2013

Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics

People often use meaningless statistics to try and strengthen a (weak) argument.

At university, I remember a tutor using the following example of a statistic:

90% of patients who took this medication fully recovered.

The tutor pointed out that this statistic has zero meaning without additional information, such as:
  • What percentage of people who did not take the medication fully recovered?
  • What happened to the 10% that did not fully recover (for example did they die unexpected horrible deaths?)

Yated Neman has a column by By Rabbi Moshe Boylan which is a wonderful example of how to cherry-pick quotes and to quote meaningless statistics. Rabbi Slifikin of Rational Judaism has some good examples of how the column selectively quotes the Emek Davar and the Netziv to mis-represent their opinions, and if you look at the comments on Rational Judaism you'll see some great examples of how Rabbi Boylan mis-represented the Status-Quo agreement on which he basis a lot of the column.

But one of the best mis-uses of statistics is this gem:
In a recent article, Yonason Rosenblum quoted Rabbi Melamed, a religious leader in the Dati Leumi community, as saying that 25% of the Dati Leumi people who enter the Israeli army ultimately become chilonim.
I have no idea whether the quote is accurate or the statistic is realistic (it is also hearsay - I heard someone say that someone else said that he heard that...) , but even if it is true that "25% of the Dati Leumi people who enter the Israeli army ultimately become chilonim", this tells me NOTHING AT ALL about the Israeli army.

For the statistic to become meaningful, we would need additional information such as:
  • What percent of Dati Leumi people who do not enter the army become chilonim? (For example what percentage of Modern Orthodox youth in the US become less observant at the age of 18-25).
  • What percentage of Chredim become non-observant, either with or without army service?
  • Of the 75% of Dati leumi solders who do not "ultimately become chiloni", what percentage have their religious observance strengthened by their army service?
  • What percentage of non-religious soldiers become observant as a result of their exposure to Mitzvot like Kashrut and Shabbat in the army (not to mention their interaction with religious solders)?
  • What does "ultimately become chilonim" mean? If a man in his 30s gives up religion 15 years after leaving the army, is this connected to his army service?
  • In what framework do the soldiers who become less observant serve? Are they with religious units such as Hesder or Nachal HaCharedi, are there differnet statistics for those units?
  • How observant were these 25% of soldiers before they went into the army? The term "Dati leumi" encompasses a  large spectrum of religious observance - from Charedi Leumi (such as Merkaz) through to people who are nominally religious, but are lax in the observance of many halachot. There are also many teenagers from religious families who become less observant well before they are drafted into the army, although it may be more visible when they are in the army as this is often the first time that they are outside their parent's house and are free to express themselves.
The question of why/how Dati leumi people give up their religious observance is an important discussion, and if there is an indication that it is connected to army service, that is certainly an issue that should be addressed. Although based on my limited time served in the army I would think that army service often strengthens peoples religious observance - but that could be a topic for a different post.

There may be good reasons for Cheredim not to serve in the army, unfortunately putting a series of mis-quotes and meaningless statistics together as Rabbi Boylan does in Yated has done does not strengthen their argument, it just gives the Chredi camp the appearance of having no legitimate sources for their argument and makes rational discussion that much more difficult.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

This Sefer Torah is How Old‽

I have always found old Jewish stuff fascinating, physically praying in a building or holding a book or religious item that was used by earlier generations is a tangible connection to our past and a reminder that Judaism didn't start with the invention of the Fedora, just over a century ago.

I remember the first time I visited the Abuhav Synagogue in Tzfat which claims to house a Sefer Torah written by Rabbi Abuhav himself, which would make the Sefer more than 500 years old (and still Kosher and in use, although only used 3 times a year).
That Sefer ignites  the imagination - it saw the end of Mamaluk rule in Eretz Yisrael and the rise of the Ottoman empire. Rav Yosef Kairo, the Ari, and Rav Shlomo Alkabetz (who composed Lecha Dodi) all probably read from that Sefer. The Sefer saw Talmedei Ha Gra and the Besht make Aliya followed by the Rise of Zionism, the War of Independence, and the return of Jewish Rule to Eretz Yisrael.

If that Sefer could talk, I'm sure that it would have some amazing stories.

Well the BBC is reporting that the University of Bologna in Italy has identified a Sefer Torah in its possession as more than 850 years old.

If you look carefully at the picture on the BBC site, (additional picture at  IBT) you can see that the lettering looks more Sfardi than Ashkenazi (although I don't know what is used in Italy today - the Italian minhagim have elements of both Sfardi and Ashkenaz communities).

The press release described the Safer as follows:
The antiquity of “Scroll 2″ had not been recognized by Leonello Modona, a Jew, native of Cento, who worked for years as a librarian at BUB, and who was the first to catalog the BUB-Hebrew-manuscript-collections, in 1889. Modona did in fact date the scroll back to the 17th century and described its Hebrew letters as “an Italian script, rather clumsy-looking, in which certain letters, as well as the usual crowns and strokes show uncommon and strange appendices.” Professor Perani, on the contrary, examining the scroll for the new catalog, noticed that its early square, oriental script of Babylonian tradition was very elegant and finely written and the graphical and textual structure were totally atypical and had to be much older than 17th -century. The text of the scroll does in fact not take into account and respect the rules, fixed by Maimonides (dead in 1204), who established in a definitive way the whole rabbinic regulation about copying the Pentateuch. The BUB-Torah-scroll actually shows many graphical features and scribal devices, absolutely forbidden to copyists after the Maimonidean codification.

It would be interesting to see differences between this Sefer Torah and the standardized text in use today. We know that in the middle ages there were slight variations in some words (such as extra vavs or yuds), for example, there are several places where Rashi comments on letters that seem to be present in his Torah and are not in ours.
As the BBC article points our, this Sefer pre-dates Rambam's standardization of the text and the script of Sifrei Torah all over the world. The Sefer also pre-dates the first printed Hebrew texts which also had an enormous impact on the standardization of the text of the Torah.

It seems that the history of the Sefer Torah is still unknown, not even clear how it came to be in the possession of the University of Bologna (Although possibly dating back to Napoleon), although I'm sure researches are looking into it now.

But if only this Sefer could talk - I'm sue it would have some interesting stories to say....

 Hat Tip: Mostly Kosher

Thursday, May 23, 2013

What is keeping Moshiach away?

Can someone help me - I'm not sure which of the following is a Chillul Hashem and/or keeping Moshiach away:

A. Inviting and Orthodox Rabbi to speak as Scholar in Residence at an Orthodox Shul in North America.

- or - 

B. Publicly expressing outrage over the choice of speaker in an Orthodox Shul in a different city, refusing to refer to the speaker as "Rabbi", and describing him (without any effort to back up the claim) as "someone who has publicly stated his disdain for the leaders of our generation and for those who toil in Torah".

Background - one of the biggest shuls in North America, BAYT has invited Rabbi Dov Lipman to come as Scholar in Residence for a Shabbat.
For people not familiar with Rabbi Lipman, he is an Orthodox (Haredi) Rabbi who has been active for many years against religious extremism, particularly in Beit Shemesh, and he recently was elected to the Knesset as a part of Yair Lapid "Yesh Atid Party"

As someone who has rallied against religious extremism, and actively encourages Haredim to get at least a minimal secular education so that they can become part of the work force (something which is standard practice in most Haredi communities outside of Israel) he has received a lot of criticism from people in the Haredi camp.

But when BAYT invited him to speak, T Fink of Matzav felt obligated to publicly express "outrage" and fill a column with pure hatred and Loshan Hara.and then finishes his column with the following gem:
My prayer is that this plague of recognizing those who publicly defame and put down our gedolei Yisroel will come to an end, and together may we all merit to greet Moshiach soon bekedushah v’taharah.
I don't pretend to know how we can bring Moshiach sooner, but I'm reasonably sure that an Internet column full of Sinach Chinam is not a step in the right direction.

My prayer is that this plague of publicly encouraging hatred and putting down our fellow Jews in the name of gedolei Yisroel will come to an end, and together may we all merit to greet Moshiach soon bekedushah v’taharah.

In the mean time, if you are in Thornhill or Toronto on Parshat Pinchas, may I recommend an interesting speaker at BAYT.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Shavuot in Modi'in with Rabbi Lau

The Modi'in Dati list just published Rabbi Lau's Shavuot Schedule.

שיעורי הרב דוד לאו, רב העיר, בליל שבועות:
בין מנחה לערבית – בית הכנסת ברעות
22:15 – יקיר אפרים (נחל צין)
23:15 – מנורת אבנר (אולפנא, נחל צלמון)
00:15 – אדיר במרום (דן/שמעון)
01:15 – חושן מודיעין (אבני חושן/בדולח)
02:00 – תפארת חן (אבני חושן)
02:30 – השמשוני (דוד אלעזר)
03:30 – הצופים הדתיים (עמק יזרעאל)
04:00 – בני עקיבא (נחל צלמון)
04:20 – אודיה (נחל זוהר)
18:00: - מוריה (אסתר המלכה)
19:15 – לב אחים/שבטי ישראל (ראובן)

Every year it is amazing how he manages to get to so many places in the city within a 24 hour period.

For those trying to follow his path - here is is on a map:
(Click here to view most of the shuls in Google Maps)

Wow - just "wow"