Monday, December 28, 2009

Israeli Hodgepodge for December 28

Apparently, there are some newsworthy items coming from Israel, so here they are:

First of all, the Israeli Defense Forces predict that Iran can build a nuclear bomb by 2011.  I truly wish that Obama would show some resolve on this issue rather than focusing on something as futile as Afghanistan

Second, Israel is continuing its settlement expansion by building 700 apartments.  Israelis love it, but as if it were a surprise, the Obama administration is not happy with it.  It makes no sense to chide a longtime ally while you are not dealing with the antagonism coming from east of Jerusalem. Again, the Obama administration lacks a sense of priority in foreign policy.

On a lighter note,  Israel is seeing a rising percentage of those making aliyah the first time this decade.  This particularly positive bit of news, particularly during a global recession, is a more positive note, something which will, G-d willing, hearld the Messiah soon. 

Saturday, December 26, 2009

A Jew Reflecting on Jesus' Birth and the Oneness of G-d

[DISCLAIMER: I began writing this on Christmas Day and was unable to finish until after Shabbos due to the complex nature of this topic.]

Some people are reading this right now and are saying to themselves: "Steve has gone absolutely daft.  Why would he reflect about Christmas?"  As my faithful Christians friends remind me, it's not about the presents or Santa Claus.  How the overt materialism of this time of year annoys me to no avail is immaterial.  What is being discussed is what my Evangelical Christians friends say Christmas is about--the birth of Jesus. 

Birth of Jesus.  The notion of it all makes one stop and pause.  Ultimately, it makes me come up with the following question: Can a deity, particularly an infinite one, be born?  Taking a look into Christian theology, the Christians believe in what is called a triune deity, or what is known as a "three-in-one." The concept of a triune deity leads one to another question: Having a triune nature, is Jesus an infinite or finite being?  This question plays an important role in the debate because monotheism, by definition, is the belief in one g-d. Although my Christian friends remind me constantly that Catholicism is not Protestantism, I am nevertheless going to quote the Catholic Church's catechism for the answer:

We firmly believe and confess without reservation that there is only one true G-d, eternal infinite (immensus) and unchangeable, incomprehensible, almighty and ineffable, the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit; three persons indeed, but one essence, substance or nature entirely simple.

This is not only a view of the Catholics; it's also taken on by Lutherans, PresbyteriansSouthern Baptists, and the Greek Orthodox.  I clearly protest their concept of infinity, so what we need at this stage is a working definition of infinite.  After consulting the American Heritage and Webster dictionaries, infinite means "having no boundaries or end, limitless."  Infinity is beyond things (i.e., does not exist within such things) such as space, time, form, matter, physical boundaries, you get the idea.  The antonym, finite, comes from the Latin finire, which means to limit

G-d, which essentially is a name that denotes "the Infinite One," cannot be described.  But you might point out that G-d can be described as infinite, independent, and unlimited.  What one has to keep in mind here is the Maimonidean concept of negative theology, which states that we humans, as finite beings, can only describe G-d in negative attributes.  That is to say that because of G-d's nature (i.e., infinite, boundless, unlimited), we can only describe what G-d is not, not what He is.  To rephrase this concept, G-d is not limited, not finite, and whose existence is not dependent on any other being.  You might tell me that G-d is "omniscient or omnipresent," thereby being positive descriptions.  What needs to be realized is that any seemingly positive description that you have come up with is merely the extension of the definition of infinity.

Infinity is, in short, unimaginable, and consequently indescribable. Thus, if we can describe Jesus, we have an intellectual quandary of gargantuan proportions. So let's try it, shall we? Jesus was a man.  Jesus was a Jew.  Jesus had a beard.  Jesus has been portrayed by many as fair-skinned. What we just did was apply attributes to Jesus, thereby limiting him.  Even the fact I use the past tense to describe Jesus, i.e., Jesus was born, proves that Jesus existed within time rather than beyond it.  Christians will retort that Jesus was simultaneously man and g-d.  This response is problematic because an entity cannot, by definition, be finite and infinite at the same time.  Having your cake and eating it, too, does not work in this argument.  That set aside, what we have done is establish that Jesus had limitations, which means that Jesus cannot be considered an infinite being.

For those of you who are not convinced by this logic, we'll delve further into Christian theology, but before we do that, we need a better understanding of the [Christian] notion of a "triune deity," that being the unity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (as three persons) in one g-dhead.  Essentially, a triune deity is based on the mathematics of 1+1+1=1. Although an outsider perceives this as faulty math [and rightly so], Christians still attempt to make sense of it.  Going back to the definition provided to us by the Catholic Church's catechism, the Christians definition of G-d is three persons in one essence.  This is not to say that these are three separate names for G-d, but rather they are three separate entities (own emphasis added), which I will illustrate right now.  The best analogy I have heard of this concept was given to me by a Catholic friend when she told me that Jesus is like H2O.  You can have water in three forms: water, ice, and steam.  In essence, it's all H2O, but the forms are different.  The problem with the analogy is that ice has different (and, by extension, limited) uses than water or steam.  I wouldn't use ice for a functioning sauna or steam for a hockey rink.  The same goes for the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit, which brings us to the question of whether "three persons" can all be called infinite.  Since the Christians already state that there are three distinct entities, we need to take on that view, as well.  This following is an insight that I came across on an online course analyzing the Ramchal's  דרך הי:

Let's call these entities G-d #1 (the Father), G-d #2 (the Son), and G-d #3 (the Holy Spirit).  For two seconds, I would like to entertain the thought of having three infinite beings, meaning they are defined as "infinite, unlimited, formless, independent, and perfect."  If all three are perfect, it seems self-evident that G-d #1 can't have anything that G-d #2 or #3 have, or else #2 and #3 would be lacking and therefore not perfect and unlimited.  So that begs the following question: what makes the trinity three?  I like the tennis ball analogy because it works so well.  Let's say that you have three tennis balls that are "identical."  The truth of the matter is that they are fundamentally not identical at all.  Tennis ball #1 might look identical to the other two tennis balls, but not only are they composed of completely different molecules, but they occupy two separate areas of space, thereby making them distinguishable. 

Let's apply this to the concept of a triune deity.  If you are like many Christians and opine that the Holy Spirit is distinguishable from the Son or the Father, you have a problem.  As soon as you say something distinguishes #1 from #2 and #3, and so on, you are forced to admit that each one cannot be infinitely perfect. You cannot have more than one completely infinite, boundless, limitless, completely independent being that co-exists with the other two.  If the three parts of the triune deity can limit each other, each entity is finite because of the limits imposed by the other.  If they are not able to limit one another, they are already limited because they cannot limit the other two. 

In case that description that I just gave was really, really confusing, I will give you the much shorter version:

  1. An infinite being is one that is not limited, whether that be by time, space, matter, energy, shape, or form.  The reason why the Infinite One is infinite is because He is boundless, making Him beyond such things.
  2. Jesus was limited because he was a Jewish man (limited by form) who was born and ultimately died (bound by time).  An infinite being would not be subject to such limitations, but Jesus was.  This makes Jesus a finite being. 
  3. The notion of a triune deity is incongruous with monotheism.  Christianity believes that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three distinct entities within one essence.  These three entities cannot simultaneously exist and be infinite because their ability (or even inability) to limit one another makes them limited, thereby making each of them finite.
Conclusion: Two things have been proven today.  The first is that Jesus is not infinite, and the second is that the expression of the Trinity as Infinite Oneness is intellectually unsound.  The best part about this is that I didn't have to even use Scripture--just good 'ole fashion intuition.  For me, this was an intellectual exercise in theological discourse.  For you, the reader, I hope that we developed an accord on this topic, and if even if you don't want to, I hope that at the very least, this entry has been intellectually stimulating.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Addendum on December 21st Post

Looks like I was right!  The merger is going to be a bit of a challenge, and the fact that people commented on the merger issue shortly after the Senate version of the bill passed further proves it.  All I can say is look at these posts by Associated Press and U.S. News & World Report and then tell me it will be a piece of cake.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Carter Apologizes to the Jews?!

This bit of news caught my eyes--Carter apologizes to the Jewish community for his unfair critique of Israel, most notably in his book Peace Not ApartheidAbraham Foxman, president of the ADL, stated that "If it turns out that President Carter's love for his grandson brought about an epiphany in his relationship with the Jewish people, that's fine."  Foxman's opinion comes in light of the possibility that Carter is doing this to help his grandson, Jason Carter, win the Senate seat in 2010. 

Whether ex-president Carter is doing this to help his grandson court the evangelical vote in Georgia or not will remain to be seen.  All I can say is that if we are to "give him the benefit of the doubt," in spite of all of the horribles things the man has said about Israel, he needs to put his money where his mouth is.  A mere declaration dubbed as an "Al Chet" doesn't cut it.  He should start by publicly repudiating his aforementioned book.  He should continue by advocating for Israel with the fervor he bad-mouthed it all these years.  In Judaism, sincere repentance comes from vowing never to commit the transgression and reversing the damage [if applicable].  This very well could be the beginning of a new Jimmy Carter, which would be nice, but in the same breath, I won't be at all surprised if it is merely a charade to land his grandson in office.

Monday, December 21, 2009

It Ain't Over 'Til the Fat Lady Sings

Sen. Bob Nelson didn't exactly make my day when he threw in his support for the health care bill. He became the sixtieth Senator in support for this, thereby preventing a filibuster. Although I wonder how he sleeps at night, I'm not really as worried as you'd think. Even if the bill passes, there is still one HUGE hurdle remaining--the merging of the House and Senate bills. The Democratic Senates are already warning the House not to meddle with the compromise reached in the Senate.

I don't think that Nancy Pelosi is going to take too kindly to that. Her version of the bill passed with a public option, whereas that was one of the many provisions stripped out of the Senate version. The discrepencies will undoubetdly cause delay, if not a downright scrapping of the bill. It is true that when it comes to politics, Americans have exceptionally short attention spans. However, the 2010 election is coming up very quickly. If this drags out much further, the Democratic Congressmen will have to contend with the freshness of screwing over the American people, which will still be within voters' attention spans. And believe me when I say that Republicans vying for Democratic incumbents' seats will use that to their advantage. Although conservative pundits are giving us "the sky is falling" spiel, we still have to wait for the fat lady to sing.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Maimonidean Approach on Ethical Kashrut

In the last blog, I was discussing how kashrut was created to cultivate man. I ended with the beginning of a "discussion" between Nachmanides and Maimonides. I didn't let Rambam get his say in on the matter, so I will do so now:

"For in general the eggs which the bird has sat and the young that need their mother are not fit to be eaten. If then the mother is let go, she will not be pained by seeing that the young are taken away. In most cases, this will lead people to leave everything alone, for what may be taken in most cases is not fit to be eaten. If the law takes into consideration these pains [in the case of beasts and birds], what will be the case in regard to the individuals of the human species." -Guide for the Perplexed, ch. III, part xlviii

Rambam also mentions that when we perform shechita, we should make sure that the knife is as sharp as possible so as to minimize the pain to the animal (ibid, part xxvi). The Rambam's view on treatment of animals can be summarized with the following (ibid, part xlviii):

"For in these cases, animals feel very great pain, there being no difference regarding this pain between man and other animals. For the love and the tenderness of a mother for her child is not consequent upon reason, but upon the activity of the imaginative faculty which is found in most animals just as it is found in man."

To summarize Rambam's argument in a nice, little sound byte: Animals are sentient beings!

Because of this realization, we are faced with a an ethical quandry. If animals are sentient beings, and Proverbs (12:10) is indeed correct in asserting that a righteous man regards the life of an animal, how do we comprehend the notion of meat-eating in Judaism? If we are to "abhor" bloodshed and show compassion, even towards animals, how does Judaism come to terms with eating meat? An even better question: with all of this in mind, can Judaism come to terms with being omnivorous?

My final entry in this kashrut series will deal with Judaism and vegetarianism.

Kashrut as a Moral Cultivator

"The Torah's commandments were not given to humankind for any purpose other than to refine people." -Genesis Rabbah 44:1

According to the Midrash, the mitzvot were created to make us into better human beings. If that's true, then kashrut has to bring us some sort of insight, realization, or mechanism that elevates our overall relationship with HaShem.  Just a few that come to mind......

1) Self-discipline.  This in inherent in any ritual, whether it be Buddhist meditation, the quotidian Kantian walk, or the seven sacraments of Catholicism. Self-discipline teaches you not to automatically give into your impulses. It gives you free will. It gives you awareness. And ultimately, it gives you a sense of self-control.  It should be no surprise that Judaism enables such self-control, even with something as seemingly mundane as eating.  The existential angst in Judaism, at least from a Kabbalistic perspective, is the inner struggle between the animal and G-dly souls.  Your animal soul just wants to eat.  You have a full stomach, it needs to be filled, so eat!  That's what animals do, after all.  But in Judaism, you go beyond that.  You think before you eat.  You are aware of what you eat. You channel those impulses and that awareness to serve HaShem.

2) Less prone to violence.  Dennis Prager makes a good point about the prohibition of consuming blood.  "It [the prohibition] produced an extraordinary antipathy to blood among Jews.  One example, in addition to the uniquely low incidence of violence among Jews, has been the vitrual nonexistence of hunting among Jews."  Judaism is an exceptionally life-affirming religion, and because of that, Jewish law abhors violence and supports the usage of it only when absoultely necessary.  The prohibition of blood consumption reinforces our commitment to eliminate violence, as well as violent tendencies from our daily lives.

3) Greater sense of compassion.  I would opine that this point is the apex of how kashrut cultivates man. R. Abraham Heschel explained that "these laws were designed to ennoble his feelings and make him sensitive to the plight of every creature. Disregard for the suffering of non-human creatures may result in insensitivity to the agony of human beings. The boy who, in crude joy, finds delight in the convulsions of an injured beetle or the anxiety of suffering animals will soon be dumb toward human pain." For Heschel, the spillover effect would not only affect treatement of animals--it would contiminate intrapersonal relations with fellow human beings, as well. Considering that Jewish people are supposed to possess the character trait of compassion (Yevamot 79a), it wouldn't bode well if we forgot the moralistic lessons of kashrut.

The agrument for compassion is best laid out in the debate of what the mitzvah of shooing the mother bird from her nest (Deuteronomy 22:6-7). Nachmanides argues that one should think of cultivating man's middot when keeping this mitzvah in mind. "The reason for the prohibition of slaying the mother and the young on the same day as well as the ordinance of sending the mother is to eriadicate cruelty and pitilessness from man's heart...not that G-d had pity on the mother bird or the mother of the young. Were that the case, G-d would have completely forbidden shechita. But the real reason is to cultivate in us the quality of mercy...since cruelty is a contagious, as is well known from the example of professional animal killers who become hardened to human suffering. These precepts regarding bird and beast are not motivated by pity for the beast but are decrees of the Almighty to cultivate good moral qualities in man."

Maimonides disagrees with Nachmanides, and believes it's about caring about the bird itself, but that is a discussion I leave for my next blog.  

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Nationalistic Side of Kashrut

Proponents of kashrut state that one of the reasons for kashrut is because it maintains Jewish particularism. Guess what? I agree! Having practices to separate Jew from non-Jew is important. The Torah commands us to "not walk in their customs (Lev. 20:23)" or "not to walk in their ways (Lev. 18:3)." I'm not disputing the Torah here, but here's where it gets tricky: exactly what does it mean to "walk in their ways?" It was something with which I grappled in regards to defining the permissibility of celebrating Thanksgiving as a Jew. Just as a review, Tosafot (Avodah Zara 11a) states that imitating the gentile consists of one of two things: idolatrous customs and foolish customs from the Gentile world, regardless of their origins.

In the Guide for the Perplexed, Maimonides points to two prohibitions within kashrut that illustrate this point:

1) Meat boiled in the milk. Boiling meat in its kid's milk was part of a fertility rite practiced amongst pagans. As such, it is forbidden. (III, xlviii)

2) Not eating the fruit until the third year. Taking the first fruit of the tree was a Babylonian practice to honor the goddess Asherah. As such, one has to wait until the third year. (III, xxxvii)

These practices clearly fit Tosafot's definition, and as such should be forbidden. Judaism has a zero-tolerance for idolatry. But does this mean that we sever all connections with greater society?

This brings me to my next point, which is the very point of the separation between Jew and non-Jew. I was talking with a Chassidic rabbi once, and there was a group of us trying to ascertain the meaning of holiness. It's a lofty word, but the rabbi told us that the word kadosh can be translated as distinct. There's a fine line between being separate and being distinct. Separate means severed from, cut off. In the context of the Jewish people, it means isolated from the rest of the world. Distinct, on the other hand, has a different connotation. It means different, distinguishable. The distinction here is analogous to the "isolation vs. integration" argument that exists within the Orthodox world. The Haredim prefer isolation from the secular world to avoid the "inherent spiritual contamination" supposedly brought on by non-Jews. Then you have the Modern Orthodox. They realize the importance of maintaining their Jewish identity while simultaneously interacting with the greater world. Their identity is distinctively Jewish, but partake in general society.

Ironically enough, I am going to cite the Lubvaticher Rebbe here: "The one and only common factor which has been present with Jews throughout the ages, in all lands, and under all circumstances, is the Torah....Our 'otherness' and indepedence of thought and conduct are not our weakness but our strength. Only in this way can we fulfill our function imposed on us by our Creator, to be unto G-d 'a kingdom of priests and a holy nation' thereby also being a treasure for all of humanity (L'Chayim Newsletter for All Jews, 9/12/1992)." The Rebbe here is illustrating an important point--our "otherness" and our mission to be a treasure for all of humanity. The priests during the days of animal sacrifices did not cut themselves off from the rest of Israel, and neither should today's Jews cut themselves off from the rest of the world. There is a balance being struck here between the particular and the universal, even if the Rebbe didn't intend for it to come off that way.

Typically, I would focus on the universalist portion of the Mensch-Yisrael dynamic, but today I want to focus on the particularistic facet. Kashrut is an integral part of Jewish identity. Every time I tell people I keep kosher, I unquestionably distinguish myself as a Jew. It usually ends up being a conversation starter, which makes people aware of why I keep kosher and what it means to be Jewish. Just an example of how the balance works--I just came back from visiting my family in Orlando, who has no clue of what kashrut is. But I explained them what the Jewish dietary laws are, how to prepare things, what to buy, the significance behind it, and part of my vacation became a teaching experience. Heck, it went over so well that we even got glatt kosher food at DisneyWorld! My vacation taught me an important lesson: I can retain my Jewishness (by keeping kosher) while interacting with the outside world. In short, I keep kosher because not only does it remind me of my mission of Tikkun Olam (repairing the world), but I also get to say "I'm a Jew and I'm proud!"

Next entry in this series: Does kashrut refine man?

Is Kosher Food "Soul Food?"

Last time, I disproved the notion of HaShem implementing kashrut because it's good for the body. This time, I look into whether kashurt was implemented for a "healthy soul." This is a notion that was described by Abarbanel (Sidrah Mishpatim, sec. 73). Describing the prohibition of eating insects, he says "[f]or this reason the Almighty used the phrase, 'Do not revolt your souls with all the vermin...' rather than terming them poisonous or harmful. They were rather unclean and abominating, indicating the spiritual rather than the physical source of their prohibition." This viewpoint was [and still is] predominantly taken on by Kabbalists, and more recently, the Chassidic movement.

From this standpoint, "the digestive system extracts the nutrients while the neshama, the soul, extracts the G-dly spark in nature...The Divine energy in every molecule of food is what actually gives us life. Kosher food has a powerful energy that imparts spiritual, intellectual, and emotional strength to the Jewish neshama. The 'sparks in non-kosher food, on the other hand, are rooted in an unholy spiritual source. That is why non-kosher food has such an insidious effect [own emphasis added]." These are the words of Tzivia Emmer, writing on behalf of the Lubavitch Women's Organization. This mindset is typical amongst Jewish mystics, most notably the Chassids.

I take two issues with this mindset. The first is the state of non-kosher food.  The Zohar takes the position that some animals inherently come from the side of holiness and others from the side of contamination [of the soul], which would mean that kosher food is bad for everyone's soul, Jewish and non-Jewish alike. But that is not the conclusion of most Chassids.  As a matter of fact, this only applies to Jewish souls (Tanya, Ch. 1).  To put Jewish souls on a different plane than a non-Jewish soul is nothing short of spiritual elitism, which is patently un-Jewish. The Talmud (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5) states that the world began with Adam so nobody could say "my ancestor is better than yours." In addition, HaShem breathed life [i.e., a neshama] into the nostrils of Adam (Genesis 2:7), who, incidentally, was not Jewish.  Plus, both the Jew and the non-Jew have a share in the World to Come (Tosefta Sanhedrin 13:2).   Both the Torah and Talmud mention humanity's common ancestry to remind us of our commonalities. This is not to say that Jewishness or the particularities of Jewish nationality and identity are not important. I will actually discuss that in my next blog.

Even if, for whatever reason, they were right about non-kosher food contaminating the Jewish soul, is that really the case? Does eating kosher food make a "more kosher human being?" I know non-observant Jews who I would properly categorize as "mensch," and have come across observant Jews who are anything but compassionate or understanding. Saying that eating kosher food inherently makes you a better human being is patently false, and R. Samuel Hirsch confirms that notion: "The observance of the dietary laws does not make a man holy; however it makes him more receptive to the ennobling influences of the spirit. One has not achieved holiness simply by observing the dietary laws, but one can then achieve it more easily."

While following HaShem's precepts are of utmost importance in Traditional Judaism, eating kosher does not "guarantee a spot in Heaven." Keeping kosher is only but a portion of Judaism. Ritual is important in Judaism, but it ignores ethics, the very gift the Jewish people gave to the rest of the world. It's not coincidence that the first question that HaShem will ask upon arriving to the gates of Heaven is not "Did you keep kosher?" but rather "Were you fair in your business dealings?" (Shabbat 31a)

From a Jewish perspective, kashrut is indeed important, but we still have yet determined why. I would like to analyze kashrut from a moralistic (i.e., does kashrut refine human beings?) standpoint, but first, it is prudent to do some analytical work from a nationalistic perspective.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Chanukah and the Gift of Gradualism

In the Gemara (Shabbat 21b), there is a debate between Hillel and Shammai as how to light the menorah.  Shammai believed that all eight should be lit on the first night, and that a candle should be subtracted on the second night, and so on until the eight night.  Hillel believed the exact opposite: you start with one candle the first night, and you reach eight by the eight night.  Shammai based his thinking on how offerrings were giving during Sukkot.  Hillel based his thinking on Ma'alin Ba'Kodesh ve'ayn Moridin, or the principle that "one increases [not decreases] their matters of holiness."  Both have halachic basis, but the Jewish community ended up siding with Hillel's ruling.  I don't find this to be a mere "go with the majority" moment.  There has to be meaning in accepting Hillel's interpretation. 

On the first night, you light just one candle.  On the second, two, and so forth until you reach the eighth night where the menorah is fully lit.  Why start from the bottom and increase it bit-by-bit?  The beauty behind this practice is that it is supposed to be a metaphor for our spiritual lives.  Most people are not going to be at such a purified, high level.  As a matter of fact, the Talmud (Sanhedrin 97b) says there are only thirty-six tzaddikim (righteous men) who are amongst us at any given time.  Thirty-six out of 6+ billion!  And to be sure, there are a slightly larger handful who have such righteousness but have to work their toches off to maintain it.  Most of us start from a low point and have to spiritually work our way up.  In terms of Jewish observance or ethics, some of us are on higher rungs than others, to be sure.  But you can't start from a given rung and just miraculously make it to the top.  Aesop was the one that came up the saying that said slow and steady wins the race, and he was right.  This was a concept I learned very well while taking a course on Tanya with some Chasids.  The analogy used to describe our spiritual growth was with the analogy of the rubber band.  One end was our actual spiritual level and the other was the level at which we push ourselves.  Knowing the nature of rubber bands, if you pull them too far, they will eventually snap and break.  The same goes for humans.  If you are trying to elevate yourself to too high of a level at this point and hold yourself to those standards, you'll end up losing it, break down, and bring yourself to a new low, and nobody (especially HaShem) wants that.  Rather than take on too much at a given moment, do what you can. 

This is a particularly important message, considering the real victory of Chanukah was not a military victory, but rather a spiritual victory where the Maccabes resisted assimilation and retained their Jewishness.  Considering the amount of Jews I know, who are either irreligious or areligious, this lesson goes out to you.  Be like the Maccabees and internalize your Jewishness!  Bringing the joy of Judaism in your life is certainly a worthwhile endeavor, but also realize that Rome wasn't built in a day.  This is where your personal and spiritual growth has to be like the menorah--one step at a time.  Try lighting Shabbat candles for a month or try going to synagogue services once a week for a month.  If you don't take off more than you can chew, you will pleasantly find it within your grasp.  This was a lesson I learned during my first Chanukah as an observant Jew, and it is one I have internalized since.  It certainly takes effort, but at the same time, what worthwhile endeavor doesn't take effort?  Rather than rushing and taking on too much at once, you can reflect one facet at a time, grasp its meaning, internalize it, and add it to your repretoire.  Before you know it, this mentality will have you shining with your fullest potential.  Chag sameach, everyone!   

Why Kosher?

Why Kosher?  It is the title of a book that I started reading today.  It is also a question I have been asking myself lately.  Between the list of forbidden animals, the prohibition against mixing meat and dairy, the waiting time between eating milk and dairy, the need for kosher utensils, not it's enough to make your head spin, but on some level, it explains why a vast majority of Jews don't keep it.  Coming from a Traditionalist mindset, difficulty of a practice isn't an automatic deterrent for me.  One way I overcame it was to simply become vegetarian.  Trust me, it makes keeping kosher infinitely easier!  But even if I didn't, it makes one wonder: why kosher?  Why did HaShem enact these dietary laws?

Some are of the impression that kashrut, or Jewish dietary laws, are a chuk, a law without reason, which usually comes along with the statement "We do it because HaShem told us."  Although that is all well and good, why did HaShem tell us?  Adhering to to a strong degree of rationalism in my life, I can hardly believe that HaShem, the Ultimate One whose divine wisdom is quite literally beyond imagination, would create us with divine intellect (see the fourth prayer of the Amidah), but keep the reasoning for His laws out of reach.  Maimonides didn't buy that argument, either.  As a matter of fact, he went as far to say that a chuk cannot exist, and implicity opines in the Guide for the Peplexed (III, xxvii-xxviii) that anyone who does is intellectually challenged.  Being an influence of Maimonidean rationalism, dismissing it as a "leap of faith" is irrational, which is why I have to question the reasoning for these laws.  Jews have come up with explanations for these laws, which is what I would like to explore.

With my conversations with non-observant Jews, I have asked them why they don't keep kosher on any level. The answer I almost always get is that medical technology brings the health risks to a negligble level. To bolster their argument, they bring this presumption into the playing field by saying since our government has high standards of regulation, the laws are made moot.  Another example of the dismissal of kashrut is citing the prohibition of pork, using the Bubonic Plauge and the 1918 Influenza Pandemic as proof, since both were transmitted by pig.  The recent H1N1 is also transmitted by pig, but that evidently doesn't stop them from pork consumption, but again, pointing out one's inconsistencies seems to be a digression at this point, so back to the topic at hand.  Since so many Jews are under the impression that HaShem provided the Jewish people with kashrut for health reasons, I figured that this would be a good place to start.

Rabbi Zalman Packouz came up with the following hygenic explanation: 

"There are many laws that promote health. Judaism forbids eating animals that died without proper slaughter and the draining of the blood (which is a medium for the growth of bacteria). Judaism also forbids eating animals that have abscesses in their lungs or other health problems.  Shellfish, mollusks, lobsters (and yes, stone crabs) which have spread typhoid and are a source for urticara (a neurotic skin affliction) are not on the diet. Milk and meat digest at an unequal rate and are difficult for the body; they are forbidden to be eaten together.  Birds of prey are not kosher -- tension and hormones produced might make the meat unhealthy."

 There are some valid points to be made.  Jews were a lot less likely to catch the Bubonic Plauge because they abstained from pork.  Shellfish, being bottom-feeders, cause certain illnesses.  Even a combination of milk and meat cause indigestion issues.  Although Rabbi Packouz illustrates some excellent examples of the connection between kashrut and health, I have a few issues with the "the Torah is a health guide" argument. 

First of all, keeping kashrut doesn't necessarily translate into healthier eating.  There's kosher fast food and there is kosher microwavable food, neither of which can be good for you.  If you consume an excess amount of beef, you will inevitably develop cardio-vascular issues later down the road.  Plus, non-kosher meats, such as rabbit or even ostrich, are actually healthier for you than some kosher meats, such as cow or goat.  And in terms of feeling better from a cold, a bowl of non-kosher soup would work just as well as a kosher one.

Second, if the Torah were considered as such, it would have ramifications, such as the following that are mentioned by Isaac Arami: "We would do well to bear in mind that the dietary laws are not as some have asserted motivated by therapeutic considerations.  G-d forbid!  Were that so, the Torah would be denigreated to the status of a minor medical treatise [own emphasis added]."  And even if it were a medical guide, why is it an incomplete one?  Many observant Jews take the text of the Torah to be complete, with plenty of commentary, to be sure.  So where's the cure for cancer or the common cold?

Although there are some health benefits to eating kosher, at the end of the day, kashrut is not meant to be a guide to healthier eating, much to the dismay of my non-observant Jewish friends.  In my next blog on this topic, I will explore the possibility of kashrut being practiced for nationalistic reasons.

Bibi, What Are You Thinking?

Normally, I consider the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, to be an educated, well-spoken, level-headed leader.  But his latest stunt floored me.  Apparently, he has decided to halt the settlement construction in Judea and Samaria because he thinks it will re-ignite the peace process.  This is chuptzah on Bibi's part.  I did not think he would be a man acquiese to Palestinian bullocks.  I have stated this enough times, but apparently, it is in need of re-iteration--peace for land does not work!  You cannot give something tangible and exepct your enemy to give you something as intangible as peace.   We have played this game since the Balfour Declaration.  If the Palestinians wanted land, they had their opportunity to have more than an adequate amount back in 1937!  The resolve Bibi showed against the Palestinians to get elected has turned him into putty.  Let me be the first to predict two things: 1) if Bibi goes down this path, he will not get re-elected, and 2) this concession will not lead to peace.  As Golda Meir said, "they [the Palestinians] need to love their children more than they hate us [the Jews]" before there can be peace in the Middle East. 

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Obama's Quick Stop to Oslo

While Obama was in the area, he came by to Oslo to pick up his Nobel Peace Prize.  And I thought that his trip to Copenhagen was hypocritical enough!  Here we have a man who campaigned on an anti-war platform and ends up approving more troops for the war in Afghanistan. Obama stated that "[a] nonviolent movement could not have halted Hitler's armies. Negotiations cannot convince al-Qaida's leaders to lay down their arms.  To say that force is sometimes necessary is not a call to cynicism, it is a recognition of history."  It sounds like the same argument Bush used to justify his war in Iraq.  I guess the reasoning only works if Obama uses it.  I'm not disputing that there are times for war and times for peace.  Nor will I dispute the fact that war is sometimes necessary to usher in peace.  However, I wish that he would be consistent in his thinking.  Rather than be in Afghanistan, we should occupy a country that is developing nukes and is threatening to throw off the balance of power, let's say, a country like Iran.  That sounds like a good blog post, but I guess I'll have to do that when my Hanukah vacation is over...  

A Couple of Polls

This will be short and to the point.  I'm not the biggest fan of polls.  They come with their inherent flaws, which is why there is always a three percent margain of error.  Nevertheless, I have a couple of polls that are amusing:

44% of Americans would prefer to have Bush as president compared to what we have right now.

Obama's approval rating amongst the Jewish community has reached a new low of 52%.

Again, polls are certainly not perfect, but at the very least, they can give us a good chuckle.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Who Are We to Judge: A Jewish Take on Judgmentalism

משפט.  Judgement.  It's a concept that many in today's society would rather just ignore or avoid.  It comes with such flak because it is seen as such a stern, callous entity within one's interpersonal relations. 

Today's world is one of extremes, and judgement is no exception.  Judgement, particularly in the religious realm, is portrayed to have two extremes.  The first is one that is associated with those on the right of the religious spectrum.  For those people who take this approach, many who can be labeled as religious fundamentalists, all judgements are black and white.  If you don't fall within the very narrow path of what is expected, you're not only wrong, but you have been forsaken by G-d and your rebellious behavior will harshly be dealt with either in this life or the next.  Then you have the other side, the more religiously liberal side, to the point where some are so open-minded that their brains fall out.  Many on this extreme have either abandoned G-d or try to fit their notion of G-d into their worship of liberal secularism, like so many of my fellow Jews in the Reform movement have sadly done.  This side of the extreme are hesitant to make judgements on others.  Their sense of religious pluralism is so strong that they will even believing in other religions' tenets or even partake in certain aspects of their religious practices. They are the ones who will tell you "Who are you to judge?  You've made mistakes before.  Get off your high-horse, you holier-than-thou hypocrite."  This sort of attitude à l'extrême, of course, is dangerous because without any sense of judgement, you can't even say that theft or murder are morally wrong.

These sorts of extremes don't fit within the Jewish framework.  To be sure, Judaism doesn't advocate the two previously mentioned approaches.  Although there are many Jewish approaches to life, one that I like to personally take is the Maimonidean concept of the golden mean, which I'm sure he took from Aristotle.  The principle states that in terms of acheiving an ends, the means you take are within a desirable middle between two extremes. [SIDE NOTE: Read Ecclesiastes 3!  Not only will you get a good idea of what I'm talking about when it comes to the middle road, but you'll also realize that The Byrds were not being original when they wrote the song Turn, Turn, Turn]  The issue of judgement also follows suit.  In order to do so, we need a look at Jewish sources on judgementalism. 

We first and foremost have to deal with the fact that the Torah commands us to make judgements:

לֹא-תַעֲשׂוּ עָוֶל, בַּמִּשְׁפָּט--לֹא-תִשָּׂא פְנֵי-דָל, וְלֹא תֶהְדַּר פְּנֵי גָדוֹל: בְּצֶדֶק, תִּשְׁפֹּט עֲמִיתֶךָ.
"You shall not do any unrighteousness in judgment; you shall not respect the person of the poor, nor favor the person of the mighty; but in righteousness you shall judge your neighbour." -Leviticus 19:15

Judgements are an essential component of Judaism.  A G-d-fearing Jew believes that the Almighty created us in His image, and as such, gave us the free will to follow what He dictates an absolute, objective sense of right and wrong.  It's why the beit din, rabbinic court, has been around for generations, and why Judaism has such an extensive legal corpus.  It's why Rabbi Jonathan Sacks says that "[it] is no coincidence that in the Hebrew Bible, G-d reveals Himself primarily in the form of laws, for Judaism is concerned not just with salvation (society as a vehicle for its relationship with G-d), but also with redemption (society as a vehicle for the Divine Presence).  A law-governed society is a place of mishpat."  

To paraphrase Rabbi Sacks: Without judgements, there would be no Judaism! 

The Torah is a blueprint of how best to live one's life.  It is a guide that lays out His laws, and yes, that does entail judging others.  At this point, it doesn't seem like I have laid out the slightest inkling of a golden mean .  But that's because I haven't arrived at the best part: When it comes to Judaism, it is not a matter of if we should judge others, but rather how we should judge others.  Judgments should be made fairly, as well as in perspective.  What exactly do I mean by that?  A few verses to help us better grasp the idea:

והוי דן את כל האדם לכף זכות. "And judge all men meritoriously ." (Pirke Avot 1:6) Alternate translation: "Judge the whole of a person favorably." 

כִּי אָדָם, אֵין צַדִּיק בָּאָרֶץ--אֲשֶׁר יַעֲשֶׂה-טּוֹב, וְלֹא יֶחֱטָא. - "There is no man on earth that is so righteous that he doesn't sin." (Ecclesiastes 7:20)

ואל תדין את חברך עד שתגיע למקומו.  - "Do not judge a fellow man until you have been in his place." (Pirke Avot 2:4)

"A fault that you have, don't go pointing it out in others." -Bava Metzia 59b

"May I see the good traits of others and not their defects." -Elimelch of Lizhensk, 18th-century Chasidic rabbi

והוי שפל רוח בפני כל אדם. "Be humble of spirit before all." (Pirke Avot 4:10)

Concluding thoughts: The Infinite One, blessed be He, has given us an objective sense of right and wrong in the Torah, and subsequently elaborated upon in a myriad of other Jewish texts, both halachic and aggadic.  There is a mitzvah to make judgements, and that is an inescapable part of being a Jew.  However, when making judgments, a few things have to be realized.  One, we are all human and we all make mistakes.  The righteous, who lead an overall wholesome, blameless life, will even make mistakes once in a while.  That is why when judging anybody, you need to do your utmost to judge the whole of a person, rather than just a blip in time.  Maybe that "idiot" who cut you off was rushing to the hospital because his wife is in labor.  Maybe that "moronic cashier" just broke off his engagement and is disgruntled.  There is a reason why the Sages tell us to judge deliberately (Pirke Avot 1:1) rather than capriciously.  If you were in a particular situation that you are judging, ask yourself "How would it feel to be in such and such a situation?"  "Would I handle myself as well as this person if faced with this?"  Asking yourself these questions and bringing a degree a fairness to your judgments will humble your soul as well as keep you on an even keel.          

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Health Care, a Civil Rights Issue?!

Health care is not a civil rights issue, but apparently, Sen. Harry Reid has a different take on that. 

"You think you've heard these same excuses before? You're right," he said. "In this country there were those who dug in their heels and said, 'Slow down, it's too early. Let's wait. Things aren't bad enough' -- about slavery. When women wanted to vote, [they said] 'Slow down, there will be a better day to do that -- the day isn't quite right. . . .'"  He wrapped up his remarks as follows: "When this body was on the verge of guaranteeing equal civil rights to everyone regardless of the color of their skin, some senators resorted to the same filibuster threats that we hear today."

Please tell me you're joking!  The debate on health care is similar to the civil rights movement.  And Nevada actually elected this guy?!  I would like to point out that a higher percentage of Democrats that voted against the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and that they were the ones filibustering this act.  Not only does the Democratic Party have a history for "dragging their feet via filibuster in the name of progress," but what about the Democratic Party of today that is dragging their feet on gay rights?  That neither being here nor there, all this hypocritical, malevolent viper wants to do is use emotionalism to advance his highly flawed health care bill. 

If you want to talk discrimination, let's talk discrimination.  You discriminate against those who choose to stay healthy.  All this health care bill will be is a carte blanche for people to continue in self-destructive habits of smoking, excessive drinking, lack of exercise, and obesity.  Personally, I don't like the fact that I will have to pay for other people's idiocies.  Obesity is becoming a serious problem in America,  and the fact that obesity cost $147 billion (yes, that's billion!) in health care costs during 2008 should be a wake-up call to America.  With the insurance mandate in mind, the Democrats are also discriminating against young adults by forcing them to buy health insurance and force young adults to disproportionately pay for seniors' health care.  You even discriminate against small business by making them either pay the government-mandated premiums or pay a penalty.   And finally, you even manage to discriminate against the elderly via rationing and limiting their health care.  Rather than used trumped-up charges, maybe it might be better for Sen. Reid to try the truth for once, but since he's a politician, I know that can be a bit of a challenge.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Globalization Prioritization: A Lesson for the Schmucks in Copenhagen

Let's face it humanity, we're not G-d.  We're not supermen that can ameliorate all the world's problems.  We are not only inherently limited by our human faculties, but the reason why economics exists as a study in the first place is because this planet has a fixed amount of resources, and we need to best figure out how to properly distribute that scarcity.  So, in short, we are limited by what we can fix.  That means we have to prioritize which global problems are more important.  Rather than give into the Leftist tendency of determining everything on an emotional whim, it's much better to calculate the social good produced by focusing on each problem, thereby creating a proper list.  The good news is the Copenhagen Consensus Center, a Danish-based think-tank, already has taken on such an endeavor.

Back in 2004, this center asked world-renowned economists (many of them Nobel prize winners), as well as politicians and even college students from third-world countries which issues should take priority.  Guess what?  They essentially came up with the same list.  Looking at the analysis of this survey that Bjorn Lomborg compiled in his book Cool It, AIDS/HIV treatment came out on top, figuring that for every dollar spent would create $40 of social good simply because fewer sick and dead people means less social disruption. Malnutrition came in second, coming out with $32 of social good.  You want to know where carbon taxes ended up?  Dead last!  And for 2008, guess where global warming ended up?  Dead last!  For every dollar put into fighting global warming with a carbon tax, you do about two cents of social good.  I guess that must be Big Government hard at work.

For argument's sake, let's just say there's a possibility, albeit a small one, that my skepticism in global warming theology is misplaced.  Let's say there is indeed a global warming issue, in spite of the aforementioned prioritizing, and if we don't stop the growth in temperature increase, it will doom us all.  The Copenhagen Center already has given into the alarmism, and has thus done its analysis on the issue of global warming, much like it did with global prioritization.  I'm not a fan of their suggestion of using a modest carbon tax to fund R & D for developing climate-altering technology.  I do want to play a round of Devil's Advocate--always a fun game to play, but I digress.  I'm not a fan of heavy taxation.  Much like Thomas Paine, I opine that government is, at best, a necessary evil.  It is possible that a miniscule carbon tax might have to be done to fund this research simply because we are approaching the Tragedy of the Commons.  Public goods are not excludable, and as a result, are more prone to abuse.  Although climate is not a good, per se, it does become an issue because one does not bear any costs to emitting carbon.  Because of that, it wouldn't be in one's self-interest to invest in global warming the way one would invest in health care, i.e., in their pure self-interest.  This way, at least there are tangible costs to your actions.  However, I would respond in kind that China and India will become two huge emitters, and unless those two nations improve their lack of economic freedom, I don't see much of this getting better over time.  The counter-argument to that is if we can develop cheap alternatives, they will have the incentive to buy the new technology without comprimising their economic development.  Of course, I will ultimately opine if people actually took responsibility for their own actions rather than let the problem compound, we probably wouldn't be having this discussion.  Rights without any sense of responsibility is just one big mess. 

That set aside, all of this, of course, is a longshot.  It would be nice to see this level of realization at Copenhagen this week.  However, all they can see is major reductions in carbon emissions acting in concert with major carbon taxes.  In all likelihood, it will end up being the same Keynsian dreck we have seen over the years, just a different application.    

The Copenhagen Crock

Remember 1975?  I don't--a little hard to reminisce about a moment in time in which you're not even alive.  But apparently, during this year, the United States government was predicting ready for this, but they were telling us to prepare for the next Ice Age.  If you feel confused, don't.  For the past century, scientists and media haven't been able to make up their minds as to whether the Earth is warming or cooling (see pages 8-10).   Obviously, this indecisiveness is not anything new, but at the same time, this is what happens when you need an ideology to fill the secular vacuum of the Leftist world.  Green is the new red, what can I say?

That's why it's so annoying that people are paying heed to this new religion.  Does anybody else find it hypocritical that people who are oh-so worried about carbon emmissions are going to end up emitting 40,000 tons of the stuff just to gather in Copenhagen?  I guess it's OK when they do it, versus the rest of us mere mortals.  

The overall purpose of this conference is to try to agree on emission reductions that are similar to those of Kyoto.  Let's see--effectiveness of Kyoto.....hmmmmm....European nations on average increased their emmissions by 0.1%, while ironically enough, the United States, who didn't even sign on, saw a 3% reduction.  Why are Western efforts made moot? Because developing nations like China and India, whose combined populations exceed two billion, won't halt their economic growth for anything, whether real or imaginary.  I exepct Copenhagen to be a stroking of the Left's ego while simultaneously, surprise surprise, getting nothing productive accomplished.           

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Chasidism and Innovation in Happiness: A Tribute to 19 Kislev

The date on the Hebrew calendar is י"ט כסלו‎. For most Jews, it's just another day on the calendar, but for the Chassidic movement, it's considered the Chassidic New Year, in honor of commemorating the liberation of Rabbi Shneur of Liadi from being imprisioned on trumped-up charges. The day is usually celebrated with a farbrengen. I'm going to celebrate it slighty differently. Although I'm not Chassidic by any means, I'm nevertheless going to dedicate the day with some Chassidus study. Aside from that, I will take a moment here to reflect on the Chassidic movement itself. If I were to solely base my view of Chassidism on my interactions with Chassids, I would define it as a fundamentalist status quo which requires you to walk an exceptionally narrow path. However, historic context tells a slightly different story.

Back in early 18th-century Eastern Europe, Jews had to deal with famine, pogroms, and maggidim, who were public preachers who would travel from town to town preaching Heaven and Hell. It's scary to know that at one point in Jewish history, Jewish practice actually mirrored modern-day Fundamentalist Christians! Needless to say, Jews felt highly disgruntled, and were abandoning observance. Then along came a man named the Baal Shem Tov, whose innovation made a permenant indentation on Judaism. Knowing that current Chassidic practice can come across as "authoritative," it becomes ironic that during its inception, such Mitnagdim as the Vilna Gaon put the Chasidic movement under cherem, a strong ecclesiastical censure, a Jewish version of ex-communication, if you will.  In spite of these harsh measures, Chasidism ultimately became the predominant form of Judaism in Eastern Europe. The question then becomes: "What was so innovating about Chassidism that it warranted such reactionary measures?" Although there were some new practices, which I will outline, the genius of Chasidism was the shifting and re-prioritization of Jewish values and mechanisms.

Before going into the perspicacity of the Baal Shem Tov, I would like to touch upon three practices originating from Chasidism, two of them of which I am not a particular fan, and one that I absolutely love.

Rebbe.  I don't object to the notion of a spiritual leader.  Being able to turn to someone of such Jewish knowledge and wisdom when you can't ascertain the answer for yourself is most helpful.  That is the purpose of a rav--to teach and help you grow.  But the way that the Chasids stress the importance of their rebbe is of concern.  Apparently, decisions cannot be made without notifying the rebbe, which creates a huge degree of dependence on a man (i.e., not HaShem).  Supposedly, only the rebbe can obtain a constant state of devekut.  As I outline below, is not the goal of every Chasid to obtain that state as well?  Also, to have the Rebbe intercede on your behalf when he's in Heaven is very similar to Jesus-worship, also known as Christianity.  The fact that there was even a controversy about whether Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, z"tl, was HaMoshiach doesn't sit well with me.  A Rebbe, although endowed with a lot of Jewish wisdom and knowledge, doesn't make him worthy of worship to the extent where that zealous reverence can be, and has been, easily mistaken for idol worship. 

Upsherin.  My problem with this minhag is not that you transition a three-year old into the beginning of his Jewish education.  What I have a problem with is growing out his hair until he reaches the age of three.  I don't care if you make some Kabbalistic analogy of humans being like trees, it ends up being a form of categorical confusion.  From a traditionalist perspective, men have short hair and women have longer hair.  Gender-bending is prohibited (Deut. 22:5): "A woman may not dress in a man's apparel, nor shall a man wear women's clothing; for doing these things is abhorrent to HaShem." Even if you are fully aware that the two-year old with the really is your son, that doesn't mean that worrying about others' perceptions, especially those outside of the community, doesn't matter.  On the contrary, if Judaism is against gender-bending, we need to show that we are on all levels, even to other nations.  If it weren't an issue, how else do you think Moshe Rabbeinu was able to persuade HaShem from destroying the Jewish nation after the Golden Calf incident (Ex. 32:12) because other nations might get the wrong message?  In short, Upsherin is, at the very least, a violation in spirit of the law.

Niggunim.  These wordless songs have undoubtedly been a wonderful addition to Jewish tradition and culture.  They lift up the spirit, bring joy into one's life, and raise the holy sparks within music.  Because of that, they deserve two thumbs up!  If you don't believe me, take a listen for yourself.  (Here's another one for good measure)

Now that we got that out of the way, on to the larger, more impacting contributions of the Baal Shem Tov.  The biggest accomplishment of the Besht, better known as the Baal Shem Tov, was accessibility to Judaism.  Prior to the rise Chasidism, the ideal avenue towards living a Jewish life was scholarship.  This clearly made Judaism limited and constrained for many, thereby causing a feeling of detachment.  The Baal Shem Tov realized what was going on, and as a result, came up with Chasidism.  In order to accomplish this overhaul, a few mechanisms were utilized.  One of them was story-telling, which simplified many Jewish values in a way they can be easily exemplified.

The second was the concept of simcha, or happiness.  This is not to say that prior to Chasidism, Jews were never happy.  However, the overt emphasis of simcha was [and still is] important because by believing that HaShem is with you always, it not only spares one of grief and melancholy, but it doesn't detract one from serving HaShem with joy.  In addition, denying happiness means that you are, in essence, denying HaShem.  The reason for this is that all comes from HaShem, as is stated in Isaiah 45:7 states: "I form the light, and create darkness; I make peace, and create evil; I, the L-rd, do all these things."  That is why in Chasidism, happiness should be a constant in one's life.  Even Rabbi Akiva (Berachos 60b) was known to have regularly said, “Everything that G-d does is for the good.”   Another excellent commentary on simcha is AriZal's commentary on Deut. 28:47 that states "punishments will befall the Jewish people because they did not serve HaShem with pleasentness and joy."  From this standpoint, happiness is not just a nice suggestion--it becomes an imperative!

The means of obtaining simcha was through devekut, or cleaving to HaShem.  Although the concept is biblical in nature (Deut. 4:4), it was something that the Baal Shem Tov drove home, and this undoubtedly has to be one of my favorite features of Chasidism.  The Baal Shem Tov believed so strongly in devekut that his view on devekut is that rather than practicing Judaism monastically, it should be practiced in everyday life, which clearly rejected asceticism.  Every mundane activity has the potential to be lifted in holiness to serve HaShem, whether that may be cleaning your house or eating dinner.  The goal of Chasidism is to find a way to make every act and every object serve a higher spiritual purpose.

Although the Baal Shem Tov made great strides in reviving what was becoming highly insipid and irrelevant, we cannot thank him enough for showing everyone, not just the Chasids, the happier side of Judaism.  I'm not a fan of everything that the Chasidic movement does or purports, to be sure.  What I can respect, however, is that they have a much better grasp on happiness than I do, and I hope in the future, I can learn important lessons from them regarding simcha.

Friday, December 4, 2009

12/4 Hodgepodge

-If you thought that Obama's approval rating wasn't low enough, here's Matt Towery's take on why it's going to take another nosedive in 2010.

-Apparently, Obama's scientists are sticking for Obama in the fight against global warming.  Here's my mystery question of the day: if the book is closed on the global warming argument, why do you need scientists to do research on it?  I guess lining your wallets at the expense of the taxpayer is preferable to the scientific method.

-Iran has declared once again that it will not be cooperating with the UN.  The psychoticness of Iran doesn't seem to bother Obama.  He'd rather head off to Copenhagen next week to fight a fictitious enemy rather than deal with a definable, realistic one.

-Finally, who cares about Tiger Woods' alleged affair?!  People need to stop obsessing over this just because it's a celebrity. Adultery is unfortuantely an everyday, common occurrence.  Either try to make a positive difference in reducing incidence rates or move on.   

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Obama Needs a Clue on Afghanistan

Obama just finished giving his speech to West point cadets about why he approved a troop surge of 30,000.  After having watched the speech live, I don't know whether to laugh, cry, or be infuriated with Obama's hypocrisy, particularly in light of the fact he promised during his campaign that he wouldn't do anything of the kind. 

The President was already off to a terrible start when he invoked 9-11 as the primary reason as to why we should be supportive.  For one, at the beginning of the decade, Al Qaeda did indeed have a stronghold in Afghanistan.  But since American troops came into Afghanistan, Al Qaeda has retreated into Pakistan and has enjoyed the protection of a relatively stable nation with over 176 million people and nuclear arms.  More important, a great majority of 9-11 was not planned in Afghanistan.  Most of the planning either happened in Germany and the United States, where they obtained a Western education and learned how to use our technology against us.  Using 9-11 to score political points is just dishonest.

My second main issue with his speech was the actual proposal--a 30,000 troop surge that will solve Afghanistan's problems within 18 months.  I can understand that setting a deadline will put pressure on the military to get goals done rather than putzing around, but at the same time, this is worse than Herbert Hoover trying to fix the stock market after Black Tuesday, i.e., "too little, too late."  30,000 troops isn't going to cut it!  You need way more than that.      

Third, Obama's prioritizations are less than reassuring.  First of all, if you're really set on eradicating Al Qaeda, why not go after Pakistan?  Why are we worrying about nation-building in Afghanistan when have to worry about building up our own nation, that's dealing with double-digit unemployment and the worst recession since the Great Depression?  If Obama were truly worried about national security, why doesn't he go after Iran with such zeal?  Rather than spend time and effort on a fool's errand, as Rep. David Obey (D-Wisc.) put it, we should just prepare for troop withdrawal and intelligently focus our efforts elsewhere.