Sunday, November 29, 2009

Playing Musical Instruments on Shabbat

This posting will be just be one of many controversial ones regarding Jewish law.  Most of my Orthodox friends won't like it because it defies their concept of "normative Jewish practice," and what makes it more menacing will be my usage of halacha to counter it.

I'm a clarinetist at heart.  I've played the clarinet since the fifth grade, and I'd be lying if I say I didn't truly enjoy playing clarinet.  As a matter of fact, I enjoy it so much where I'd personally say that one of the most meaningful acts in Judaism for me is klezmer clarinet, which, ironically enough is not religious in origin.  That being said, I cannot help but wonder why denying such a joy on Shabbos could possibly enhance anything.  The prohibition, I have been told, can be divided into three reasons:

1: Concern out of repairing the instrument if it breaks, as it violates the concept of doing work on Shabbos (Beitzah 36b). 

2: Producing sound is prohibited (Eruvin 104a).

3: The Talmud states that we are mourning for the destruction of the Second Temple (Gittin 7a), and as such, music is not allowed to be played in a state of mourning.

Given what we have, I find this traditionalist prohibition to be poorly based for a few reasons.

Repairing an instrument: Back in the days of yore, instruments were highly simplistic creations.  Modern instruments don't merit such a description.  For argument's sake, let's take the example of the clarinet, which was invented early eighteenth century. Has anybody seen how complex a clarinet is?!  There are so many keys, pads, and screws where if something, G-d forbid, would happen to my clarinet, I wouldn't have the foggiest idea of how to repair it; I'd have to take it to a repairman.  This leads me to the question of "how can I be tempted to do something I am quite literally unable to do?"  Since most clarinetists such as myself do not know how to repair our instruments, due to the complexity, the law becomes moot.  I'm just glad that Tosafot agrees with me on this one (Beitza 30a)!  As for smaller "repairs," such as a broken reed, there already is a precedent set for the permissibility of replacing a broken string (Tosefta Eruvin 8:19).  Not even the tuning of an instrument is mentioned in Jewish law, thereby making it permissible.

Tehillim 92 and 150: Psalm 92 is known as the Psalm for the Sabbath. The following caught my eye:

לְהַגִּיד בַּבֹּקֶר חַסְדֶּךָ; וֶאֱמוּנָתְךָ, בַּלֵּילוֹת.עֲלֵי-עָשׂוֹר, וַעֲלֵי-נָבֶל; עֲלֵי הִגָּיוֹן בְּכִנּוֹר.
"To declare Thy lovingkindness in the morning, and Thy faithfulness in the night seasons, with an instrument of ten strings, and with the psaltery; with a solemn sound upon the harp." -Psalm 92:3:4

"Declaring Thy lovingkindness with a lute and harp." I read this verse every Shabbos, and I ask myself, "If David HaMelech brought in Shabbos with musical instruments, why can't I?" This verse means one of two things: either he was a blatant violator of Shabbos and should have been stoned to death, or the more likely answer is that playing a musical instrument doesn't violate any melacha of Shabbos.  If you need any more convincing of musical instruments being used for praising HaShem, read Psalm 150.

Now, I'm sure my Orthodox friends would retort by saying this analysis is all well and good, but this was before the destruction of the Temple, and this brings me to my next point...

Reverence for Beit Mikdash: Prior to the falling of the Second Temple, musical instruments were an integral part of temple services. (This also means that prohibiting it on the basis of "imitating the Gentile" is also refuted)  Afterwards, the Jewish people [supposedly] went in a state of mourning by putting up this prohibition (Gittin 7a), which is codified and expanded upon by Rambam (Hilchot Ta’aniyot 5:14) and Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayim 560:3).  There are two basic flaws within this prohibition.  The first is that it applies to every day of the week, not just Shabbos.  It doesn't matter if it's Sunday, Wednesday, or Friday evening, you cannot play.  Second, and more importantly, this applies to ALL music!  Just to re-iterate, it doesn't matter if it's vocal or instrumental, ALL music production is prohibited. (NOTE: the prohibition of vocal music has been ignored from the get-go).  This implication is profound, particularly for Chassids who sing niggunim at the Shabbos dinner table.  Either they're incosistent for not allowing instrumental music on Shabbos or they're hypocritical for singing their songs of joy.  You can't have it both ways, even though you'd like to!  It's safe to say that this prohibition is not widely followed, if at all.  If you make a concession with vocal music, you have to make it with instrumental music as well.

Producing noise: This Talmudic prohibition (Eruvin 104a) is beyond ridiculous, mostly because nobody practices it.  Jews sing and bang the table on Shabbos.  Our voices, by definition, produce noise.  If we weren't able to produce noise, Shabbos wouldn't be much of a joyous occassion, now would it?  Even if you go with the Rishonim that believe that producing noise is limited to music, like Rambam does (Hilchot Shabbat 23:4), then you still have to deal with the aforementioned inconsistencies.

Bringing Joy to the Sabbath: Numbers 10:10 states that "[O]n your joyous occasions, your fixed festivals and your new moon days, you shall sound the trumpets over your burnt offerings and your sacrifices of well being.” The Sabbath, by definition, is a fixed festival, not to mention a joyous occassion.  I would like to point out that the supposed prohibition of musical instruments is in junction with the prohibition of clapping and dancing on Shabbos (Beitzah 36b), something which Chassids are infamous for doing. If the purpose of clapping and dancing are to bring joy to Shabbos, then, in the name of consistency, the same should be done for musical instruments.  It's also worth pointing out that HaMeiri already noted the fact that Nachmanides' students played instruments during Shabbat (Meiri, Sefer Magen Avot 10).  Hearing Shalom Aleichem on the violin or Eishes Chayil on the clarinet would not only preserve the spirit of the holiday (particularly since there's no real basis for the prohibition), but also enhance its celebration.

Friday, November 27, 2009

11/27 Hodgepodge

It's the day after Thanksgiving, and surprisingly enough, there's sufficient news to pull off a hodgepodge:

-The Jerusalem Post puts out a great editorial outlining why this Israeli-Palestinian conflict has never had anything to do with land claims, but about the Arabs not recognizing Israeli as a legitimate state.

-I don't agree with a troop surge in Afghanistan because this is the most inefficient war we have seen in a long while.  It will end up being "Obama's quagmire."  However, I do think it's hilarious that liberals are "vowing to 'spank' Obama if he approves a troop surge."  

- Dubai's debt issues caused a bit of a drop in the stock market.  Experts are perplexed as to how it could affect the economy so much.  Here's a clue--oil money!  If America could become more energy independent, such as, I don't know, try drilling on our own shores, or better yet, nuclear power.  If only our politicians had a brain amongst them....

-Finally, my prayers go out to Tiger Woods.  May he have a speedy recovery!

Thursday, November 26, 2009

One Year After Mumbai

On November 26, 2008, Islamic terrorists attacked Mumbai, killing over one hundred.  Yesterday, one day before the first-year anniversary of the terrorist attack, seven men of the Lashkar-e-Taiba, an Islamic extremist party, had been charged with the attacks.  I remember the carnage I saw on television, hearing the horrible stories, the grief, the anguish, the anger.  What was most perturbing about these attacks was that of all places in Mumbai, these monsters happened to attack a Chabad Lubatavich house.  Considering the fact that Jews in India are not "even a blip on the screen," why go after the Chabad House? 

I have two theories about this, both of which may have a degree of overlap.  The first is that these Islamic terrorists, like all other Islamic terrorists, hate Jews.  That would make sense, given the fact that there are more than a sufficient number of Qu'ranic verses supporting that notion.  The other theory is that these people hate goodness in the world.  I think the actions of the Islamic world speak for themselves.  There are a small percentage of Muslims (i.e., 10%) who actually commit these heinous acts, but even a smaller amount actively do something to counter that.  It might be hyperbolic to say I can count them on one hand, but the lack of outrage from the Muslim community as a whole has to make me wonder if the silent majority results from fear or accord with what such terrorists do.  The threat of Radical Islam is one about which I have spoken before, and this anniversary all the more reminds me of how egregious such disregard for life can be.

How does one fight such evil?  By doing good.  It's the reason why these terrorists went after the Chabad House.  They hated what Rabbi Gavriel and Rivkah Holtzberg stood for: being a light unto nations, a beacon of hope and goodness for the world to see.  That is why mitzvot are now more imperative in this world than ever before.  Every Jew needs to do mitzvot and acts of gemilut chasidim to counter such terror.  This evil won't be vanquished solely with military power, although it will help.  We have to show these terrorists that goodness prevails, that kindness and joy are the way to G-d, not blowing up people in the name of Allah.  On Thanksgiving Day, I am thankful to G-d that He gives me a purpose--to be a good Jew.  What does that purpose entail?  Making people aware of His oneness, but more importantly, show the world that the way to "walk in His ways" is to emulate His goodness: feed the hungry, bury the dead, give tzedakah, show hospitality, in short, treat all human beings as if they were created in His image.  Not only would that mentality defeat this innately evil ideology, but will also merit the coming of HaMoshiach, and may Moshiach come soon!

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

"Public Option": The Obstacle Towards Passing the Bugger

Last weekend, the Senate overcame the filibuster needed to stifle debate on the health care issue.  The debate has begun on the issue, and the process to pass health care reform through Congress continues.  However, the provision for a public option is a bit of an issue because Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-VT) is being a thorn in the Democratic bloc's side.  Unfortunately for the Democratic Party, Lieberman cannot be ignored simply because they need his vote in order to have the bill passed. Although he has a great desire to see health care reform pass in America, his vehement opposition to the public option supercedes that wish. Why would Lieberman be staunchly against a government option?  As Cato Institute scholar Michael Cannon points out, the government is inept when it comes to eliminating wasteful spending (since they are culpable of that every waking moment of every day), and that doesn't count the fact government doesn't know the first thing about controlling costs.  Although Lieberman's view isn't that overtly critical of bureaucratic inefficiencies, he does realize that the free markets are the best way at relieving the issues at hand.

Prediction at this point: If the public option stays in the bill, the bill won't pass.  Lieberman's not the only that is flustered by the provision.  Harry Reid is even having trouble selling his pitch to a few other moderate Democrats.  If Reid wants the bill to pass, he'll lose the public option.  Presuming that he does chuck it out the window, odds are that the bill won't get passed before Christmas time.  And when they're back in session, the moderate Democrats have to worry about pleasing their constituents (for once!) as the 2010 elections will be in plain sight for the American people.  Although it still is possible that the bill could pass, I think a populist outrage for certain congressional districts will most likely block its passage.

Can a Jew Celebrate Thanksgiving?

Thanksgiving--one of those quintessentially American moments.  Having a huge meal featuring a turkey, having family over for a day, and being thankful for what you have.  It sounds magical and all, but can a Jew partake in this celebration?  Like any other halachic discussion, many factors need to be analyzed before coming to a final conclusion.  In this case, the three most important factors are the following: is Thanksgiving idolatry, is it an example of imitating Gentiles, and finally, where do we get the chuptzah to add holidays on the Jewish calendar?

Idolatry: It is the Second Commandment of the Decalogue (Exodus 20:3, Deut. 5:7).  Approximately ten percent of the 613 mitzvot have to do with idolatry!  Worshiping false deities is no small laughing matter in Judaism.  Not committing idolatry is so grave that in Jewish tradition, it is one of the three situations in which a Jew must give up his life (Sanhedrin 74a).  Needless to say, one has to be cautious with being idolatrous, and inquiring about Thanksgiving is no exception. The most objective way of coming up with an answer to this objection is to look at the history of Thanksgiving. Is it pagan or religious in its origin?  If yes, then it's forbidden.  If no, then it's permitted.  The origin of this holiday is when the Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth in 1621.  The Pilgrims were thanking the Almighty for having the local Native Americans bring them a sufficient amount of food in a time of resource scarcity and poor weather conditions. Plus, if it were a strictly religious affair, the Pilgrims would have never invited "those heathen [fill in the blank with an obscenity]" to break bread. President George Washington made the first Thanksgiving Proclamation in 1789, albeit with Deist undertones.  Abraham Lincoln declared that the fourth Thursday of every November would be for Thanksgiving, although it was under the FDR administration that it was established as a federal holiday in 1941.  Since the Constitution has an amendment for the federal government not to establish religion, followed by the Fourtheenth Amendment extending that to state government, a declaration such as this cannot, by definition, be considered religious in nature.  That is bolstered by the fact that neither the Thanksgiving meal nor the American football games watched on that day can be considered religious in nature or origin.  Even R. Moshe Feinstein, z"tl, admits in his 1980 teshuva that Thanksgiving has no religious origins. In Igrot Moshe, YD 4:11, he states that even if some people throw in some religious ritual (i.e., a Grace before Meals with the word "Jesus" in it), it does not become prohibited.  Therefore, Thanksgiving cannot be considered an idolatrous practice.

Imitating the Gentile: Leviticus 18:3 states the prohibition of imitating Gentile customs.  What that means is up for debate, and I thank HaShem for Talmudic commentary because it helps define some of these questions.  According to Tosafot (Avodah Zara 11a), "imitating the Gentile" consists of two things:  idolatrous customs and foolish customs from the Gentile world, regardless of their origins. I previously discussed how Thanksgiving is not an idolatrous practice, so that eliminates the first category.  The second category is not so clear. The Vilna Gaon (YD 178:7) was ultra-stringent in his ruling when he stated that any custom without a Jewish basis should be avoided.  Rabbeinu Nissim's commentary, on the other hand, states that only the idolatrous customs are under consideration for Leviticus 18:3.  Even if they're apparently foolish, as long as they have a reasonable explanation, they are permissible.  The Rama (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De'ah 178:1) even agrees, and uses the example of a physician who wears a special garment to define himself as such.    The more lenient ruling, which has more pragmatism in light of the Rama's insight, would allow the celebration of Thanksgiving to be permissible.

A little more prodding into the customs themselves.  The first is the one of eating turkey.  It is believed that turkey being served at the first Thanksgiving meal is a myth.  If you take the middle ground approach of "stupid customs are out," then turkey has to go.  I'm vegetarian, so that facet is a moot point for me personally.  Family gatherings aren't pagan or religious in nature--it's what humans do.  And as for giving thanks, I'll elaborate on that in my final paragraph.

A Jewish Holiday?: Adding a holiday to the calendar is controversial enough when one considers a fully Jewish holiday such as Yom Ha'atzmaut. If Israeli Independence Day can cause this much tension, just think what kind of heated debate you can get into with adding a holiday with secular origins.  Thanksgiving status and origin bar it from ever becoming a religiously Jewish holiday.  The only exception, of course, would be if it became a [universal] minhag, and I don't see that happening anytime soon.  Therefore, it cannot be considered a religious obligation to celebrate it or put it on the Jewish calendar.  Since Thanksgiving has the status of permissibility, rather than obligation, Rabbi Yehuda Kerzl Henkin suggests that Thanksgiving be occasionally skipped (Benai Banim 2:30), just to reinforce that notion.  This accomodates Feinstein's middle-ground view, as well, since he prohibited the establishment of Thanksgiving as an obligation, while at the same time permitted its voluntary celebration.

What's a Jew to Do?:  Since it's not a religious obligation, not celebrating Thanksgiving wouldn't damper one's Yiddishkeit.  This affirmation makes it all the easier to say "Do what's within your comfort zone."  If you're not comfortable with it because you're worried about the slippery slope, then don't do it.  On the other hand, there is more than ample halachic permissibility to do so, as long as your mentality isn't "I'm doing it to keep up with the Joneses" or "It's a mitzvah to have turkey on the fourth Thursday of every November." (There's so much wrong with that latter statement, but I won't go into it)

As a Jew who tends towards inclusiveness, I would encourage that American Jews spend at least a few of these Thanksgiving Days celebrating.  I've heard the clever one-liner of "In Judaism, every day is a Thanksgiving Day."  I won't dispute that--observant Jews pray thrice daily to give thanks to HaShem, not to mention the myriad of other daily blessings in a Jew's life.  It seems pointless to have a day solely dedicated to giving thanks.  After all, shouldn't we have repentance on our minds daily?  Yet we have Yom Kippur built into our calendars.  Same goes with freedom and Pesach, as well as the joy of Torah and Simchat Torah.  Thanksgiving is a stop along the crazy road called life.  It's not merely a day off of work, although that is an added benefit.  The reason I voluntarily, rather than obligatorily, enjoy Thanksgiving is because I get to focus on an important middah--hakarat ha'tov, or gratitude.  I would love to go on and on about how wonderful Mussar is, especially in this context, but I just want to comment on the essence of gratitude in a Jewish context.  It is a cornerstone of Jewish thought and practice, so much so that a Jew is supposed to say one hundred blessings a day!  (That would be one blessing every 14.4 minutes)  Judaism is predicated on what HaShem provides for us, and that each day we should be thankful for all that He provides us.  It's no accident that if you forget to say a bracha (blessing) before eating food, it's as if you have stolen from the Almighty (Brachot 34a).  Without a sense of gratitude, one ultimately turns to idolatry and self-indulgence. 

One more point I would like to make: If there is any beautiful teaching I have learned from Chasidism, it is that things that are neither inherently evil nor holy, but are considered kelipat nogah (neutral non-holiness), have the potential to be used in the service of HaShem and elevated to level of holiness.  In its state of permisibility, I inherently view Thanksgiving Day, as celebrated in America, as kelipat nogah.  Here we have a secular celebration of giving thanks [to a "higher power"].  Rather than have scorn upon such a lenient ruling and dismiss Thanksgiving as pointless, I view it not only as an opportunity to fuse together secularism with Judaism, a concept that R. Samson Hirsch called 'Mensch-Yisrael,' but also to raise a religiously neutral moment and turn it into something holy.  Granted, I won't have a kosher turkey on my table, but I'll be sure that meatless slab of hickory-flavored ribs will be in accordance with Jewish dietary laws. As a follower of Mussar studies, I will focus on the middah of hakarat ha'tov and find ways in which I can be more thankful in the future.  I will take time out my day off to study the Talmud tractate of Brachot, or even pull out my siddur and analyze a few prayers.  Even from the viewpoint of being an American citizen, I will also be thankful that America is a great country simply because its Constitution has granted unprecedented freedom that has not been seen in the Diaspora.  In the past, circumcision and kosher slaughtering, just to name a couple of Jewish practices, have been outlawed.  But I thank HaShem that I live in a country that allows me to freely practice Judaism.

Overall, Thanksgiving Day for a Jew should be focus on how to make blessings and prayers a more intricate part of one's daily life.  It should be a day to realize all the blessings that are in one's life come from HaShem, and that we should be thankful for each and every one. 

יְבָרֶכְךָ יְהוָה, וְיִשְׁמְרֶךָ
יָאֵר יְהוָה פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ, וִיחֻנֶּךָּ
יִשָּׂא יְהוָה פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ, וְיָשֵׂם לְךָ שָׁלוֹם

"May HaShem bless you and watch over you.
May He shine His face toward you and show you favor.
May He be favorably disposed toward you, and may He grant you peace."

A Happy and Meaningful Thanksgiving to All!

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Is Hunting Kosher?

It's that time of year in Wisconsin--hunting season.  Aside from the Green Bay Packers, cheese, and beer, I can't think of anything that would excite a Wisconsinite more than hunting season.  It almost seems as if going hunting were a rite of passage of Wisconsin citizenship.  That set aside, I've had people up here ask me why I don't go hunting.  There's always that feeling of discomfort when I give them the answer that it's not morally justifiable.  Naturally, a degree of righteous indignation comes about, but at the same time, a more detailed answer is merited.

יוֹדֵעַ צַדִּיק, נֶפֶשׁ בְּהֶמְתּוֹ.
                           "The righteous man considers the life of his animal." -Proverbs 12:10 

This brings up a dimension of Jewish ethics which is called tza'ar ba'lei chayim, or not being cruel to animals (Talmud, Baba Metzia 32b), comes into play.  Although there is the argument that man was to have dominion over the natural world (Genesis 1:26), it is also amazing how stewardship and compassion also play a(n) [even bigger] role in Jewish thought.  Just as a little tidbit, there are more statutes in Torah regarding treatment of animals than there are for something as holy as Shabbos.  But in any event, here's a short, but certainly not exhausted and inclusive, list of examples in Jewish law where compassion is shown to animals:

1) One cannot slaughter an animal and its young on the same day (Leviticus 22:28).  Rambam states that "[t]here is no differnce between the pain of humans and the pain of animals in this case, for the love of a mother and her compassion upon a child does not depend on the intellect, but rather upon the power of emotion, which is found with most animals, just as it is found in man" (The Guide for the Perplexed 3:48).  Rambam was not only an exceptionally learned man, but a rationalist à l'extrême.  To have such a man realize the importance of tza'ar baylei chayim in this case is phenomenal.

2) There are three occassions where the Bible forbids the cooking of an animals in its mother's milk (Exodus 23:19, 34:26, and Deut. 14:21).  Nachmanides, commenting on Deut. 14:21, realized that if Jews lowered themselves by doing so, they would become a cruel nation. 

3) Even if you dislike someone, you are forbidden to take it out on their animals, which is is why when you see your enemy's donkey with a burden, you should help it out (Exodus 23:5).  There's a scenario in the Talmud (Baba Metzia 32b) which states that if your friend needs help loading up a donkey or your enemy needs help unloading his donkey, you help out the enemy simply to alleviate the suffering of the donkey.

4) In more modern law, R. Moshe Feinstein, z"tl, believed that raising veal calves in such a cruel environment is not kosher (Igrot Moshe, Even HaEzer, Vol. 4, responsa 92).

The point I try to bring here is considering the suffering of the animal and showing compassion towards an animal is one of the cornerstones of Judaism.  It's even one of the seven Noachide laws!  The question at hand is whether or not I, as a Jew, could go out for hunting season with my non-Jewish friends.  One has to keep in mind the context of the hunt--it's for sport.  Although Rambam gives an emphatically negative answer, I'll quote Sefer HaChinnuch: "To kill them [the animals] without any benefit involves wanton destruction and is called bloodshed.  And even though it is not like the bloodshed of a person, due to the superiority of a human and the inferiority of an animal, it is still called bloodshed (commandment 186)." 

A "bottom-line" ruling: I don't need a rabbinic ordination to figure this one out.  The only time in the world where hunting would be considered kosher would be for pikuah nefesh, or preservation of life, which, by the way, trumps almost every other Jewish value.  So, let's say you're in a plane and, G-d forbid, it crashes in the middle of a forest.  You're not going to get out for at least a few days.  The only way to survive is to hunt a deer or rabbit.  In this extreme life-or-death scenario, going hunting would be perfectly acceptable, given the circumstances.  Short of the necessity to live another day, hunting is forbidden under Jewish law, and any animal hunted in such a manner is deemed treif.  I have no problem saying this because it's true: When hunting is done for sport, which in most cases it is, it is an act that de-humanizes a man because, as Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Kaidanover puts it, "it is certain that those who shoot arrows after birds and beasts for no purpose at all other than to learn archery, and kill animals for no reason, are destined to stand in judgement for it; for it is not the way of the compassionate to commit evil to any creature for no reason."  The Talmud (Yevamot 79a) states that the Jewish people possess three characteristics: [that they are] merciful, modest, and perform deeds of kindness.  With this in mind, it's safe to say that I'm not going hunting this weekend with my friends.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Palestine, A State? Good One!

This past weekend, Palestine declared that it's going to try to pressure the UN to recognize Palestinian statehood.  This chutzpah made me think of something significant.  Here I thought that we were already dealing with a [nation-]state.  I then had to think of what qualified one to be considered a state or nation-state.  Whether there is a homogenous people within the given borders is immaterial in this discussion.  (Side note: The Kurds are a nation, but have no state).  In terms of being considered a modern state in the 21st century, aside from having borders, one needs two things: international recognition and sovereingty.  By the Palestinians declaring that they're going to force the UN to recognize them, this already implies that their statehood is not recognized.  As for sovereignty, Yaakov Katz highlighted this very well in his recent Jerusalem Post article entitled "PA Cannot Cope as an Independent State."  Palestine does not have the infrastructure to function as a state--it wouldn't even last a day!  It doesn't have a capital, currency, heck, it doesn't even have a centralized government because it's divided between Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip and Fatah-controlled West Bank.  They can try to claim East Jerusalem as its capital, but that claim is so fallacious because there is no historical backing for that.  Essentially, they're dependent on Israel, as Katz outlines.  Furthermore, if Palestine does indeed go this route, Israel will have no choice but to act.  And do you think they're going to remove the barriers between Gaza and West Bank at that point?!  I don't think so!  They're essential for Israeli security because it blocks out terrorists from blowing up innocent Jews.  It's election time in the PA, so I can understand why they feel the need to blow off some steam.  In all probability, this won't go anywhere.  But if they do, it will blow in their faces because they will end up with less land.  Historically speaking, that's an accurate statement.  They had quite a bit of land in the Peel Commission of 1937, and still had a sizable amount in the UN Resolution 181 back in 1947.  [I just want to point out that the UN internationally recognized Israel and its right to exist back in 1947, not to mention other moments where it has been internationally declared that it has the right to exist.  I guess no international body wants recognize Palestine.  C'est la vie!]  But again, Palestinians are frustrated because they still haven't made any progress on their ultimate goal of exterminating the Zionist entity, so I can see why the elections aren't helping with any of that angst.

Monday, November 16, 2009

11/16 Hodgepodge

- Contrary to popular belief, it turns out that less than 40% of American energy comes from oil.  Although it wins in terms of plurality, we should focus our efforts on other places, such as nuclear power, or stop putting limits on off-shore drilling for oil or extraction of natural gas.

- Libertarian commentator Steve Chapman wrote an article entitled "Gay Marriage Lost, But It's Not Losing."  Chapman highlights the increasingly majority-based support for civil unions, most notably using the recent victory for the gay rights movement in Washington state as proof.  Chapman concludes his article with "Many gay-rights advocates reject anything short of full access to marriage as a disgraceful revival of the old "separate but equal" policy -- which was anything but equal for African-Americans. But you don't get across a broad river in a single leap. You get there by building a bridge that allows you to travel across one step at a time.  As a destination, civil unions leave a lot to be desired. But as an avenue, they're hard to beat."  Funny how I blogged on this issue and came to the same conclusion regarding civil unions.

-How low can can a man go?  That's what I had to ask with regards to Obama and his latest trip to Japan.  Apparently, the way he bowed to the Japanese emperor caused a bit of a ruckus.  Not only did the emperor not reciprocate, but if you look at American dignitaries in the past, they haven't treated the emperor as such.  A hearty handshake has worked in the past.  This line of criticism is similar to when Obama bowed to the king of Saudi Arabia.  Obama is head of the most powerful nation in the world.  If anything, people should be bowing to him!  Of course, this is a man with no respect for American exceptionalism, and goes around the world apologizing for America's past mistakes without having a spine with his body.  The fact that he was able to bow tells me there's still some curvature left, so I personally hope that he grows a pair, but again, I'm not exactly going to hold my breath.


Obama, just having left from Japan, is now continuing his nine-day Asian trip by visiting China.  Because China is becoming an increasingly important force in the realm of international politics, Obama needs to realize that setting a bilateral agenda with China is of much more importance than doing so with Japan.  This visit will, without a doubt, help set the stage to see the direction of Obama's foreign policy.  It might be shaky just because Obama started off his term by having his Secretary of Treasury, Timothy Geithner, accuse China of currency manipulation, not to mention the tariff on tires that Obama imposed on China a couple of months back.  These antagonistic acts set aside, Obama needs to keep a couple things in mind during his visit in China:

1) Don't bring up climate change!  China is not going to curtail its economy for some ficticious environmental problem, and I don't think you charismatic personality can convince them otherwise.  The Chinese know about charismatic leaders--Mao Zedong, remember?  Ever since this 1980s, the People's Republic of China has had an economy whose GDP has grown at least 7%, minus a couple of "bad years."  (By the way, "bad year" constitutes as 3% growth, which was American GDP growth pre-recession)  Historically speaking, China has been one to preserve internal stability.  And as of now, the only way they are able to do so is with economic growth.  It would be against their national interests to give into the global warming hype in order to see their economy crash.

2) Establish an American agenda.  Yes, I'm sure there will be a degree of kowtowing during your trip, I don't doubt that for a second, and it will most likely occur on the topic of human rights issues.  On some level, in order to have bilateral relations, you need to have some give and take.  But at the same time, Obama needs to develop a firm grasp on the sitauation.  For instance, if China brings up the Taiwan situation, Obama needs to remind Hu Jintao that Taiwan has been a sovereign nation-state for sixty years, and it is part of American foreign policy to protect Taiwan, much as it has been in the past.  Obama does also have to realize the symbiotic nature of the economic interdependence that has occurred between America and China since the Open Door Policy between Mao and Nixon.  Both have to find mutual ways to alleviate economic woes.  China has serious economic disparity, while America has serious issues with leaning towards socialism.  If anything, Obama should learn a thing or two from China after Mao's passing--free markets help market growth.  When Deng Xiaoping realized that releasing the Chinese economy from shackles of command economy translated into a higher GDP, he continued to increase the rate of privatization. China needs to raise its currency rate closer to that of the USA, while Obama has to stop hitting China with tariffs and have the Department of Commerce focus its investigations on China, whether its in garments or the PRC's dumping of steel wire garment hangers.  (The latter is no joke--you'd think our government would have something better to do than worry about steel wire garment hangers) By working together in a bilateral fashion to free up the markets, the two nations can clean house while maintaining economic interdependence and a sound alliance.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

How About a REAL Right to Choose?

The latest spiel I found with regards to the abortion issue in health care was about an anti-abortion amendment that was added last minute.  Apparently, this agitated the pro-abortion constituency to no avail.  "[This amendment makes] it virtually impossible for private insurance companies that participate in the new system to offer abortion coverage to women," states the NARAL.  I never understood the pro-abortion movement.  Even after Roe v. Wade, they kvetch incessantly about how there's not enough access to abortion.  NOW even says that Congress is delivering the biggest blow to abortion rights since the 1970s.  I just need to check one more time, just to make sure that I get this right.  These people are disheartened that their right to terminate another human being's life is in jeopardy.  What bothers me first and foremost is that in libertarianism, a right to abortion is not a real right at all because it deprives another individual of life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. 

What is even more hypocritical, especially on the issue, is their mantra of "my body, my choice."  Let's think about that for a second.  "My body, my choice."  How about my choice to the best doctor my money can buy, or my choice to pay for a life-saving surgery?  Health care choices are the epitome of "my body, my choice," oh, yeah, and they're also life-affirming, non-aggressive choices. Here's the problem with those on the Left: they only care about choice when it comes to sex, drugs, and killing babies.  Short of that, they don't care about choice!  Choice is a buzzword that most feminists use to escape any sense of personal responsibility and make relativism the norm.  If they really cared about choice, they would be raising their voices in unison to stop employer-based insurance or give people the ability to create their own HSA's. But alas, all we have seen from the pro-abortion movement is another example of Leftist double standards that ultimately lead to the inconsistencies and hypocricies of the liberties that they claim to champion.  At least with an organization like PETA, I abhor their viewpoint on the value of human life, but at least you can't dock them for their consistency for animal rights.  Although I don't expect the obstinance of the pro-abortion movement to wane anytime soon, I would, at the very least, like to see them be consistent in advocay of their principles and support free-market ideas in the health care reform debate.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Reflecting on the Fall of the Berlin Wall and Health Care

Today commemorates the 20th anniversary of the falling of the Berlin Wall.  Although Obama is too busy to take the time to reflect on this historic event, I will take some time to do so. 

As an American during the Cold War period, I couldn't imagine how frightening it would be to wonder if the Kremlin is going to bomb America today.  It would have been even worse as someone actually living in the Eastern Bloc--deprived of economic choices and freedom to live one's life as one chooses.  I would not be able to tolerate living under the oppression of a totalitarian state.  Without going into a historical diatribe as to why Communism is inferior and inherently deprives man of life, I think it is better to see how the lessons of Communism can be applied to this century.

After the Berlin Wall fell, it became evident that classical liberalism prevailed.  A command economy combined with the deprivation of human rights leads to disaster.  Anybody who encroaches on life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness, whether that be a domestic or foreign entity, is no friend of freedom.  These might sound like buzz-words that those on the Right use to invoke some sense of patriotism or some vague notion of freedom (and some do use them for incitement), but matter of fact is that a true notion of freedom is one of the essential cornerstones of libertarianism. 

On my way to work today, I was reading one of John Stossel's books, Myths, Lies, and Downright Stupidity. Stossel, being a libertarian himself, points out how Big Business is the bad guy, and how the government has to play a messianic role in mitigating the situation.  Yes, there are a few situations that shock us all--Enron and the Bernie Madoff scandal are but two of these examples of "Big Business gone bad."  But, as Stossel points out, these situations are few and far in between, not to mention that they don't get away with it for long.  That's the joy of the Invisible Hand.  Consumers find out unscrupulous business practices, they let other consumers know, and the business goes under.  There's such an empowerment with a free-market system, which is quite the contrary of what you got with the command economy of the former Soviet Union.  The domestic enemy, in this case, are those in the government who like to control the markets. 

John Stossel brings up the blatantly obvious fact of how price controls harm the economy. This is true, whether it's in rent control, where there's an artificial price ceiling that stunts the landlord's incentive to create better living quarters. It's also true for minimum wage, which creates a disincentive for employers to hire the poorer citizens of America, the very people that those left-winged statists claim they're helping.
The most recent, not to mention controversial, form of this price control is in the process of occurring to a sixth of our economy, i.e. the health care industry. Instead of having doctors making decisions for patients, you'll have bureaucrats, who happen to receive privatized health care plans, forcing you to take the public option. Although it might seem innocuous, this is how erosion of rights occurs. It's under the guise of "health care access to all," or "helping out those in need." Those one-liners are used to creep up on our inherent rights to do what we want with our own money and choose whatever health care plan we would like. Power over health care is literally power over life and death. I already previously discussed this when discussing the inevitability of rationing health care and how the elderly will receive inadequate health care, and that would be if they'd be lucky enough to receive any health care at all. What has the government done to merit this level of power? If the government cannot handle something as simple as the Post Office, Amtrak, or Cash for Clunkers, why should I trust them with my personal longevity? Talking about "my body, my choice!" You'd think the liberals would be with me on this one, but I guess that would be asking too much, like being consistent with one's principles. What needs to be done right now is to put significant amounts of pressure on the Senate to not pass this outrageous invasion of health care rights. Anything short of that will have our health care system ending up like that of Canada, if not something worse.   

Parsha Vayera: What's a Sodomite?

It's a bit late to comment, but I figured that it'd still be prudent to comment on last week's parsha of Vayera.

"ויאמר יהוה, זעקת סדם ועמרה כי-רבה; וחטאתם--כי כבדה, מאד."

"And HaShem said: 'Verily, the cry of Sodom and Gomorrah is great, and, verily, their sin is exceeding grievous." -Genesis 18:20

This verse made me wonder: What did the Sodomites do to incur G-d's wrath? If they were ultimately destroyed, they must have done something to merit it, right? If you listen to a right-winged, Fundamentalist Christian, he'll opine that it was homosexuality that brought the demise of Sodom and Gommarah. I have a problem with that conclusion for two reasons. One, in order to perpetuate a given population, you need to reproduce at a birth rate of 2.1. If everybody in Sodom and Gommorah were homosexual, they wouldn't be able to survive because natural selection would have wiped them out long before G-d got to them. Plus, historically speaking, it is a constant that the percent of homosexuals in a given population is 5-6%. So, it is theoretically possible you had a case of "Bisexuals Gone Wild," but the issue with using that argument is that there is only one scant Talmudic reference to Sodom and homosexuality, and it is within the context of rape, an inherently malicious and coercive act that is done against the other person's will:

"R. Menhama in the name of R. Bibi: This is what the Sodomites had stipulated among themselves. They said, 'as to any wayfarer who comes here, we shall have sexual relations with him and take away his money.'" -Genesis Rabbah, Parshah 50:7

If the citizens of Sodom were really pining for homosexual acts, Lot was right there. But it wasn't about homosexuality; it was about humiliation and dominance over wayfarers because the citizens of Sodom didn't want anybody helping the unfortunate, as I'll show later. Plus, it cannot be possible that the sin was homosexuality because Abraham interceded an entire chapter beforehand and asked if there were at least ten people who were "righteous," that Sodom could be saved. Therefore, whatever what was so sinful had to have occurred prior to the scene in Genesis 19. With this in mind, it still begs the question of what caused the fall of Sodom and Gommorah. The first place I would look into is Biblical exegesis, i.e., an explicit verse that corroborates a given point.  I found the only Biblical verse, and it's not quite what I thought it would be:

הִנֵּה-זֶה הָיָה, עֲו‍ֹן סְדֹם אֲחוֹתֵךְ: גָּאוֹן שִׂבְעַת-לֶחֶם וְשַׁלְוַת הַשְׁקֵט, הָיָה לָהּ וְלִבְנוֹתֶיהָ, וְיַד-עָנִי וְאֶבְיוֹן, לֹא הֶחֱזִיקָה.

-Behold, this was the iniquity of thy sister Sodom: pride, fulness of bread, and careless ease was in her and in her daughters; neither did she strengthen the hand of the poor and needy. (Ezekiel 16:49)

After Biblical exegisis, the next place for a Jew to look is Rabbinic commentary. Third verse I found was from Pirke Avot (5:13): "There are four types of people. [The first is] the one who says, 'what's mine is mine, and what's yours is yours.' This is the average type, but some say that this is the Sodom type." Sounds a lot more like a chiding of pure, unadultured selfishness than homosexuality.

The best Talmudic evidence is Sanhedrin 109, where Chazal lists the sins of Sodom, which range from heterosexually-based sexual assault and ignoring the wayfarer all the way to inhospitality and downright avarice. The most egregious of these accounts was of one Sodomite woman who gave bread to a poor person.  She had to sneak the bread into a pitcher, and was caught.  She was subsequently punished by publicly being tied to a wall, covered with honey, and devoured by bees.  Hmmmm, I guess it wasn't that man-on-man action that got this woman into trouble.
Conclusion: It's great to clear up that societal misconception that Sodom was about sexual illicitness.  What all of these accounts, Biblical and Talmudic, have in common is that Sodom was the epitome of man's self-indulgence.  Here you had a city with all the material wealth and provisions that one could ask for.  Not only did Sodomites not help out others, but they also set up a legal system where people were punished for helping out the less fortunate and those who provided others with hospitality.  The important lesson taught here is to care for others.  Be like Avraham Avinu, not only in terms of being hospitable, but to do so in a positive demeanor.  As the Talmud says, "Hospitality is greater than receiving the Divine presence (Shabbat 127a)." When Abraham was receiving the Divine Presence (Genesis 18:1), he stopped receiving the Divine Revelation to help out those in need. By emulating Abraham's generosity and hospitality, we avoid both the spiritual and physical fate that Sodom had endured.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Unemployment Reaches Double Digits

When I read this headline, I thought I was in Europe because this type of news is the norm for Europe, but I confirmed it--unemployment reached 10.2%.What makes that number more shocking is when you throw in underemployment, it comes to a whopping 17.5%!  As of date, the the government claims to have saved/created 640,329 jobs.  My first issue with that is that a HUGE amount of those jobs are coming from the Census Bureau, all of which are temporary jobs.  When CNN starts questioning the nature of stimulus jobs, it even has to make me wonder of Obama's effectiveness.  The whole hype behind Obama's need to capriciously pass the stimulus package earlier was so that unemployment wouldn't rise beyond 8%.  Instead, we're seeing a rate of unemployment we haven't seen since the early eighties, not to mention an incompetent man leading the most powerful country in the world who doesn't know the first thing about job creation.  A government stimulus package cannot create more jobs than the free market; it always creates less.  This was something I learned when I took Macroeconomics back in high school.  In the most ideal situation, the government would create a multiplier effect of one, but since the government has to maintain a huge bureaucracy to manage everything, the multiplier effect becomes less. Let the markets be free!  We should have learned this from the days of James Earl Carter, but I guess George Satanaya was right when he said that history is doomed to repeat itself from those who don't learn from it.   

Thursday, November 5, 2009

A Lesson From Maine's Gay Marriage Vote

On Tuesday, Virginia and New Jersey gubernatorial races were won by Republican candidates. That shouldn't be a surprise, simply because people are already sick of Obama, and his political clout no longer is what it was during the euphoria of the 2008 election. Another important election was in place this Tuesday, as well. Maine tried to pass gay marriage by a popular referendum, and it got defeated 53%-47%.
Although many were surprised to see the bill fail because Maine is a "blue state," I'm not shocked at all. Even though it's the 21st century, most people still do not like the term "gay marriage." Many in this country are sticklers for tradition, and as such, see marriage as a religious institution as a contract between one man and one woman. However, it's interesting to find, as has been proven in this latest document from the Pew Research Center, that more people are open to the idea of permitting civil unions between same-sex couples. And you can't have any more proof than Washington state voting to make civil unions legal.  They didn't call it marriage, and they actually won 53.2%-46.8%.

From a legalistic perspective, there is no difference between a civil union and a "gay marriage." The fact that it's merely a game of semantics is perplexing. Both contracts come with the same rights and priveleges. The only difference is the name.
If it were only a matter of rights, then the gay rights movement would just advance civil unions, rather than tamper with the word "marriage." This, however, is not the case. It's the sad truth that they just want to "stick it to the Religious Right" rather than advance equal rights. If they do want to take this path by re-defining marriage, they should take a lesson from Vermont: start with civil unions, wait about a decade, and then pass the re-defined definition of marriage through the legal system.

I don't approve of that option for the sole reason that marriage is a religious institution, whereas a civil union is, well, not to be tautological, a civil institution. Those institutions should have such a distance between the two, in order to remain the respect of both religious and civil institutions. If a church or synagogue wants to accept the institution, that is within their rights, and vice versa. However, a same-sex couple who wants to enter a legally binding contract of a civil union should not be deprived since it doesn't violate the libertarian axiom of non-agression. If the gay rights movement had any sincerity about advancing gay rights with the minimum amount of obstacles, they should advance it under the flag of civil unions, not marriage. A respect for the realm of religion would go a long way for the gay rights movement.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Pirkei Avot 1:6--Becoming Your Own Rabbi

In Pirkei Avot 1:6, one of the pieces of advice that Yehoshua ben Perachya gave is to עשה לך רב, or commonly translated as "providing yourself with a teacher." Although I don't know a lot of Hebrew at this point, I noticed the reflexive particle לך, which pointed me to an alternative rabbinic interpretation from Rav Avraham Galanti (Z'chus Avos): Make yourself into a great rabbi.

What does it mean to make yourself into a great rabbi? R. Galanti stated that it meant to become a great Torah scholar and a great tzaddik. Obviously, the world cannot be filled with religious leaders; some need to follow while others lead. However, we have to ask ourselves: what function does a rav perform? In the simplest Hebrew, rav means "teacher."

Make yourself into a teacher....the implications of that are phenomenal. First, it means that you need to know your Torah. Not necessarily a Torah scholar like R. Galanti suggests, but definitely enough knowledge of what is expected so one can make halachikally well-informed decisions.

The second idea is much more liberating, and that is the one of personal autonomy in one's halachic decisions. Do your own research, look at the opinions of all rabbis in a multi-faceted manner. This is in contrast to the Haredi world where your rabbi's ruling is sofit (final). This is a conversation I had at length with a good Orthodox friend of mine, about the weight of a rabbi's ruling. His way around that--only ask the rabbi in hypothetical, theoretical situations. Although calling it a loophole gives it a seemingly malicious intent, it actually is benign because it helps one think for themselves.

We're known as "The People of the Book" because we are supposed to know our halacha! At the beginning of the Diaspora, the Jewish approach to halacha was erudite, lengthy discussions, also known as the Talmud. Ever since Rambam had to codify laws in the Mishneh Torah, this line of thinking, i.e., "This is the way it is because I said so," stifles any intellectual thought whatsoever. This prevailing attitude is most modernly expressed in the Haredi movement, where all they do is cite something like the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch as justification. This ignores the fact that in Judaism, there is more than one correct answer, and that not everything is a simple "yes or no." Even Deuteronomy (30:12-13) says that the Torah is "neither in the heavens nor in the sea." It's not stashed in some rabbi's office or in a yeshiva. Especially with the boom of the Internet, halachic texts are more accessible to us than ever. We need to keep the advice of Hillel when he said that "he who does not increase his knowledge decreases it (Pirke Avot 1:13)." Intellectual honesty, an accurate, objective perception of reality, and a knowledge of halacha, the trifecta for an astute Jew who became so by making himself into his own rav. If you don't believe me, you can always study it and become a rav yourself.

In Case You Didn't Believe Me Yesterday...

Just for those of you who need a little more reassurance that government-run health care would be a lot more expensive than the government is already predicting, here's an article from Senior CATO fellow Daniel Mitchell about how government is way over their head when it comes to bringing down costs, especially for something like health care.  Hopefully, the American people will wake up and prevent this disastrous bill from passing before our health care lowers itself to the inferiority of Canada.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Health Care Bill Went Up to $1.2T....What a Shocker!

As if I were surprised with Congress, it looks like Congress is now estimating their oh-so wonderful health care plan is going to cost $1.2 trillion.  Everyone should have known that Nancy Peloisi was full of it when she said that this health care overhaul would cost less than $900 billion.  This is Big Government at work, folks!  They say that it's going to be cheap, but at the same time, how do you expect something like this to get cheaper when more and more programs are being added, and when government is inherently inept to begin with?  And this is considering the fact that the bill isn't even being taken into effect until 2013.  Consider inflation and government's inability to estimate anything (just take a look at the current state of Social Security), and it should be self-evident that if this does pass, it will be a financial fiasco for our nation.  There are always free-market alternatives to deal with the issue, but since Obama is so enamored with inherently flawed socialism, can we expect him to listen?

Monday, November 2, 2009

Ultrasound Helps Planned Parenthood Director See the Error of Her Ways

It's about time!  Abby Johnson, a director of Planned Parenthood in Texas, finally saw the light when she observed the ultrasound of an abortion.  Upon realizing this, she quit her job and became involved in the pro-life movement. Apparently, the fetus is a human life.  Really? I didn't know that (NOT!).  Fetus just happens to be derived from the Latin word for "child."  Not only that, but fetal development, you know, toes, a head, brain, a beating heart, are all present relatively early within the pregnancy.  It doesn't matter how tiny it is.  It doesn't matter if it's located in the domain of the mother's womb, and is thus dependent on the mother.  Because if that were the case, I have a sizable number of friends still living with their parents because of this lousy recession, but that shouldn't mean we should off them because they're "feeding off their parents like a parasite." A fetus is a human being!! Abby Johnson realized this through empirical observation of fetal development and the abortion process.  The fact that the fetus is a living, breathing human being negates every pro-abortion-based argument out there.

As a libertarian, I believe in natural rights for every human being, the right to "life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness," whether you're black or white, Christian or Jew, gay or straight, born or unborn.  If a biologically proven human being, such as a fetus, can have its personhood yanked from it, let's move this arbitrary line to infanticide because there's a point where I don't want to have to change the baby's diaper, thus making it unwanted.  If it's based on developmental progress, how about teenagers?  They get hormonal during puberty, and make their fathers tear out so much hair from their head that they end up going bald.  Let's not limit the denial of personhood to developmental stages.  Let's bring back the ruling of Dredd Scott and the "three-fifths" clause in the Constitution, or we can even import the Nuremberg laws from Nazi Germany.

Libertarianism does not mean hedonism, libertinisim, or a 100% free-for-all, do what you want without rules (i.e., anarchy).  There are axioms, such as non-agression and the appreciation for human life.  As Doris Gordon, founder of Libertarians for Life (who happens to be an atheist Jew), states that libertarianism does not, in any way, shape, or form, give one the license to take another life in the name of convenience.  Right to choose doesn't apply to taking another human life, and Big Government surely shouldn't permit such an action that erodes the very essence of libertarianism.

Palestine Points Finger at U.S.

In the latest lack of progress with peace talks in the Middle East, Palestine points the finger at the U.S. for delaying the "peace process."  It's nice to see that it took Obama long enough to realize that natural settlement growth will only be curtailed, not halted.  But in the same breath, why blame the U.S.?  You'd think that Palestinians had enough fun blaming Jews for all their problems, but seeing that elections are coming up in Palestine, it's actually more amusing for them to chastize "Big Satan."  It's the same reason why Netanyahu constructed the settlements in the first place--to appease voters.  Both actions are to gain votes during elections, which makes it all look like nothing more than a cynical ploy.  But again, if the Palestinians were actually interested in peace, they wouldn't be stonewalling like they have been.  They would actually take the initiative to foster peace in that region of the world, but truth be told, why make peace with those money-grubbing, scheming, malicious, hook-nosed S.O.B's?

*DISCLAMER* For those of you who cannot read between the lines, that last bit was me being sardonic towards the "Palestinian" government that perpetuates anti-Semitism by teaching their children to hate Jews, thereby impeding on any hope for peace in the Middle East.