Friday, December 24, 2010

Parsha Shemot: How Do We Explain Evil Commited by Man?

Theodicy, or the defense of G-d’s goodness and omnipotence in the face of evil, is unquestionably one of the biggest challenges to religion. If G-d is all-loving and all-powerful, how can He permit man to commit evil acts? Although that question is disturbing for anyone who has been raised in Western society, this question is all the more perturbing for a Jew, especially when one considers the existence of anti-Semitism. A vast majority of Jews believe in a personal G-d. In addition to a personal G-d, many Jews believe that they are “G-d’s chosen people” and were given the Torah as a gift. If the people Israel were to be considered G-d’s first born son (Exodus 4:22), why would G-d not protect the Jewish people from the persecution and violence caused by Jew hatred?

During the first incidence of anti-Semitism, which was the Egyptian enslavement of the Hebrew slaves, Moses asked the very same question (Exodus 5:22):

 וַיָּשָׁב מֹשֶׁה אֶל-יְהוָה, וַיֹּאמַר:  אֲדֹנָי, לָמָה הֲרֵעֹתָה לָעָם הַזֶּה--לָמָּה זֶּה, שְׁלַחְתָּנִי.

Moses is not only establishing the Jewish imperative to struggle with G-d, and thus question G-d. As Rabbenu Hananel ben Hushiel points out in his commentary of Exodus 5:22, Moses was also asking why the innocent (i.e., the Israelites) were suffering while the wicked (i.e., the Egyptians) were prospering. A more modern-day example of this question would undeniably have to be the Holocaust. Mothers thrown into ovens, babies used for target practice, and human beings treated worse than cattle.  It shocks the human psyche as to how man can be so depraved and cruel.

It doesn’t matter whether we analyze the suffering of a Jew or non-Jew. Since we are all created in His Image, we are all sentient beings, and thus all capable of suffering. However, I do choose Jewish examples for two reasons. The first is that we are analyzing Torah, and the second is that anti-Semitism is the deepest, longest-lasting, most universal hatred out there. If any group of people knows about suffering evil at the hands of man, it would be the Jews.

How do we deal with this internal angst? The Book of Job best illustrates this issue, and thus gives us the framework for dealing with theodicy:

A) G-d is all-loving

B) G-d is all-knowing and all-powerful

C) Job, or whomever is in question, is blameless

Since man causes others to suffer, these assumptions have to be questioned. Here are some possibilities as to explain the incongruity:

1) “The L-rd works in mysterious ways.” This is the conclusion that is reached at the end of the Book of Job, as well as Pirke Avot 4:19. I have two main issues with this line of thinking. The first is that it is a cop-out. When this answer is typically given by theists, you can see how uncomfortable the question makes them, and how they don’t want to question G-d. My second issue, and the much more disturbing one, is that the Torah is supposed be a blueprint as to how one should live their life. It teaches about love, righteousness, justice, and proper behavior. Abraham held G-d to this standard when questioning why G-d was going to destroy Sodom.  Moses questions G-d in this week’s Torah portion, as well as many other places.  If G-d is using a different standard, then G-d is not properly teaching us truth when presenting lessons in the Torah.  If G-d is not truly teaching us about love and righteousness, there would be no point to religion or proper behavior.  We would not have the ability to assert anything about religion, which would make religion a pointless theoretical exercise.

2) G-d is evil. That certainly is a theoretical possibility. It certainly is inconsistent with Jewish thought. But what is evil? Evil is depriving an individual of something. Whether it is taking money, self-esteem, or a life, one commits evil because of a personal deficiency. Since G-d’s infinite nature makes him One [and complete], thereby being perfect, G-d has no reason to take anything from anybody. Therefore, G-d is not evil.

3) G-d is not all-knowing or all-powerful. Again, we have to address the nature of G-d. G-d is infinite. Since G-d is infinite, He created space and time. Since G-d does not exist in either realm, He is also omnipresent. Omnipresence means cognizance of what’s going on, which leads to omniscience. As for omnipotence, I have a slightly different view on that which has no bearing on this conversation. However, if one is to claim that G-d is powerless to help, then why bother asking the question in the first place?  It G-d is not all knowing or all-powerful, then there would be no expectations [of G-d], and the question would thus be superfluous.  Evil wouldn’t exist—only the relativistic view of “one man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist.”

4) G-d’s justice is in full gear. This view is best summarized in “They got what they deserved.” Rav Huna (Talmud, Berachot 5a) certainly thought that if an individual were suffering, they would need to examine their conduct to explain their suffering. With the infanticide that happened during the Book of Exodus and the Holocaust, that is certainly a difficult view to maintain with a straight face.

5) "No pain, no gain." This is comes from the theocentric viewpoint that if G-d gave us life, which is supposed to have meaning, then pain and suffering should also have meaning.  As David Baum points out in the previously hyperlinked article, G-d provides you with everything you need, and there is no suffering that you cannot handle.  This means that G-d is the direct cause of that which happens in your life, something that one would classify as "tough love."  This argument has its flaws, and it would naturally depend on to what extent you think G-d involves Himself.  If you think that G-d is the direct cause of everything, He then becomes the direct cause of evil.  If you think that G-d involves Himself sometimes, an observer would have to conclude that He is capricious since the execution of justice and love are inconsistently applied.  Why would He help you with your math quiz, but not help the terminally ill cancer patient who has been an overall force of good in this world? 

6) The free will argument.  Considering the predominant viewpoint of a personal G-d in Judaism, this argument is only brought up by Jewish arch-rationalists such as Maimonides, Spinoza, and Abraham ben Izra.  In Jewish thought, free will has always been at odds with a personal G-d.  If I had to choose between a personal G-d and G-d giving us the ever-important gift of free will, I would take free will any day.  Here's why free will is so important to Judaism.  If we have no free will (i.e., everything is pre-determined by G-d or we acted merely out of instinct and compulsion), it would be, as Rabbi Telushkin puts it, as non-sensible for G-d to give us the Torah and tell us how to behave as it would be to have a law commanding people to run a four-minute mile, which would be unfair for [just about] everybody.  Unlike Christianity, Judaism puts so much emphasis on man's actions, and believes that we can overcome our tendencies to commit evil (Genesis 4:7).  Without free will, there would be no point to Torah.  There would be no reason to repent.  In short, there would be no reason to Judaism.

In terms of explaining why man can commit so much evil, the free will argument is the best argument out there.  In order for free will to exist in its true form, that means allowing man to do whatever he wants.  That means if we have the right to choose the ultimate good, then we also have the right to choose the ultimate evil.  Without evil, we cannot know what good is.  Freedom is a double-edged sword.  In order for the ultimate good to exist, the ultimate evil would need the ability to exist, as well.

Let's take the Cain and Abel story, an example of where an individual's free will wiped out a fourth of humanity.  Cain ultimately killed Abel.  If G-d were to intervene [and had indeed intervened], He would a lot of explaining to do since He had explained to Cain earlier that he had free will to overcome his desire to kill Abel (ibid).

If G-d does indeed value giving mankind with free will, which R. Sforno explains is what it means to be "created in His image," more so than He does by sheltering humans from pain, then we have to accept the real possibility that G-d is indeed impersonal.  This doesn't necessarily mean that G-d is indifferent to our pain.  Like a parent, G-d is disappointed when His children make the wrong choice.  But like a good parent, G-d would rather have the child learn "the hard way" so that the child can ultimately stand on their two feet.  For a parent, watching a child grow up to be a self-sufficient, morally sound individual is what the parent wants.  Coddling the child for his entire life won't help the child grow.

Free will and the ability to grow and progress.  These are the ultimate gifts that G-d endowed human beings with at humanity's inception.  The potential that the gift has can go either way.  May we use the gift of free will to actualize the ultimate good!

שבת שלום!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Do I Like Christmas? Nope!

One of the reasons why I love this country so much is because of its religious plurality. Christians, Jews, Muslims, and Atheists can work side by side and, for the most part, get along quite well, even in spite of their differences. A lot of that amicability is due to the high levels of religious freedom that this nation offers. I can practice my religion without government interference, and my non-Jewish neighbors can do the same.

Just becuase I have great respect for the religious freedoms afforded by the First Amendment doesn't mean that I think that Christmas is “the most wonderful time of the year.” I actually find it to be one of the most fastidious times of the year. Some would probably think that it’s because I’m a miserly Scrooge who doesn’t want to “get into the holiday cheer.”

It’s not that I’m miserly or that I’m a fictional character. It’s because I truly don’t want to get into the holiday cheer. I am a practicing Jew! I cannot emphasize that point enough. I grew up as a Catholic and had the holiday cheer. Since my conversion to Judaism, those days have long since past.

If you take Judaism or being Jewish seriously, there is no way you can celebrate Christmas. As my Christian friends remind me, there is a reason why they call it Christmas, and why we need to “put the ‘Christ’ back in Christmas.” Although the holiday has become secularized in this country, a point upon which I will elaborate momentarily, the primary reason for Christmas is to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. The notion of rejoicing in the alleged Immaculate Conception is highly problematic for a practicing Jew such as myself because the very notion of G-d being born is pagan in nature. The Jesus story is based on a combination of other myths from surrounding pagan cultures.  For instance, Attis was a Roman g-d born of the virgin Cybele on December 25thBoth Osiris and Dionysus were born from mortal virgins and both were claimed to be the son of G-d.  Even Krishna, the Hindu deity, was part of a trinity, was adopted by a human carpenter, and was considered to be a g-d-man. There are too many pre-Chrisian mythologies that have elements of the story of Jesus.  The amount of "coincidences" here just add up to the point where one can hardly consider it a coincidence.  Why is this problematic?  One of the cornerstones of Judaism is a belief in pure monotheism. To accept the Jesus story is 100% idolatry, which is a grave offense in Jewish law.

In spite of the holiday’s pagan origins, many Americans view the holiday as a secular celebration, as this poll from Lifeway, a Christian organization, suggests. Even if one could separate the religious aspects from it, which would be a difficult task unto itself, that doesn’t make Christmas any less annoying. The most popular secular part of Christmas is gift-giving. It also happens to be something I find exceptionally nauseating because it epitomizes the rampant materialism that is so prevalent in this country. Material wealth doesn’t buy happiness. More material goods do not translate into happiness. That is why short of those exceptionally poor people who cannot provide themselves with the most basic needs, there is no noticeable difference in happiness between the rich, middle-class, and the poor. And because of that, the euphoria of the one-day gift-giving frenzy peters off very quickly, most Americans return to their Prozac-popping, rat-racing, pedantic, mundane lives. If the “greatest joy of the year” is predicated on accruing material goods, then it’s no wonder that so many Americans are spiritually stymied and are incapable of understanding religion.

Also, can someone explain the concept of Secret Santa to me? It’s nothing more than a pathetic attempt at acquiring a feeling of altruism. If the gifts in Secret Santa are approximately the same amount for each person, then it’s really no different than buying the gift yourself. After all, the same amount of money came from your wallet. Secret Santa is merely a loophole in the appropriation of goods that makes somebody feel like they have a giving nature. If you truly have a giving nature, that would show in your actions year-round.

And who can forget the Christmas meal? All it illustrates is that Christmas is just another day for Americans to eat a ton of unhealthy food, watch a lot of TV (e.g., It’s a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street), and to continue with the sedentary lifestyle that perpetuates the ever-rising costs in our healthcare system.

Christmas does, however, have one nice element. Many celebrate Christmas as time with family. Going back to the previously mentioned poll, that is what 81% of celebrators emphasize: family. And if your family lives on the other side of the country, that’s great. It gives a family a reason to meet up at least once a year. But it becomes very sad when that’s not the case. Many families either live within the same household or within driving distance. When this is the only time of year a family spends together, which does happen more often than a “head-in-the-clouds optimist” would ever like to admit, Christmas points out the decay of one of society’s most important institutions.

My final reason for why I cannot stand this time of year is when people think that Chanukah is the “Jewish Christmas.” It is nothing like Christmas. The fact that the 25th of Kislev, which is the first night of Chanukah, falls in proximity of December 25th does not make them identical. It is a minor holiday on the Jewish calendar. It’s one of the few holidays during which a Jew can work. And the gift-giving aspect really kicked into gear so that secular Jews didn’t feel so left out during the holiday season.

What is Chanukah? Chanukah is primarily the celebration of a military victory a little over two millennia ago. One of the main lessons we derive from what led up to the militaristic upheaval is the fact that the traditionalist Jews beat out the Hellenistic Jews [that were trying to assimilate]. Because the Hellenistic Jews were hell-bent on making Judaism more like the surrounding culture, the Maccabees were set on making sure that Jewish tradition was not lost for good. The fact that Jews are taught to maintain their Jewish identity, rather than give into cultural assimilation, makes the analogy between the two holidays all the more based on ignorance.

Do I miss Christmas? Goodness, no! I don’t miss the heyday of having to go to packed stores to buy people presents. I don’t miss singing carols by the Christmas tree. I don’t even really miss getting presents.  And I definitely don't miss putting ornaments on the Christmas tree.  Do I need Christmas? Most certainly not! I have much more than Chanukah. I have Rosh Hashanah, Sukkot, Simchat Torah, Tu B’Shevat, Purim, Peasch, Shavuot, the list goes on. Not only do I have all of those holidays, I also get a holiday every week: Shabbat. For whatever joy I gave up for Christmas, which is nothing more than a blur of nostalgia at this stage in life, I have not only gained more holidays quantitatively, but the quality of the holidays is much more profound than anything I ever found celebrating Christmas.

Ethanol and the Law of Unintended Consequences

Using ethanol as an alternative, renewable fuel has been an intruiging part of the energy debate for quite a few years.  When looking at a lot of pieces of legislation, it is just one side that feels all happy and justified with their decision while agitating the other side.  Ethanol is peculiar because it is one of those rare instances that not only do we have bipartisan efforts, but both sides have that "feel good" attitude towards the legislation.  For the Left, they like ethanol because it's good for the environment.  For the Right, they can better sleep at night because they can tell themselves that ethanol usage will decrease our dependency on foreign oil and help with national security.  Both sides will use the protectionist argument that jobs will stay in America.

Enter the law of unintended consequences.  Like with just about anything else in life, things don't go as planned.  However, if you are to have an unintended consequence, you would rather have it be positive, much like Adam Smith's concept of the Invisible Hand.  Unintended consequences are bound to be a part of government programs, and they are rarely a positive factor.  The case of ethanol legislature is of appeal because it is not just one side that doesn't get the concept of unintended consequences--it is both sides. 

Let's start with the notion that ethanol is good for the environment.  You know something is wrong [with ethanol] when the Far Left environmentalists, such as the Friends of the Earth, agree with a free-market libertarian, albeit for different reasons. As they point out, biofuels, particularly ethanol, cause air pollution and biofuel spillages can do massive damage.  Friends of the Earth even goes as far to claim that "[B]iofuels can also do more to cause global warming than conventional gasoline."

What about energy independence?  At least if the Left wasn't correct, surely the Right would be correct about not supporting Arab oil anymore.  Wrong!  That's wrong.  In spite of increase in ethanol usage, oil imports have not decreased.  Why hasn't oil consumption increased?  Because we just love our oil too much.  I'm not opposed to finding alternative forms of energy.  It would cut back on using more resources, which would be a better allocation of limited resources.  I just don't want Big Government getting involved.  And until we either find alternative energy, or at least start drilling in ANWR, we will still be using foreign oil since most of oil is used for transportation, not to mention that about 40% of our energy comes from oil.  Even if we used all the corn in America to produce ethanol fuel, it would only displace 16% of the current fuel usage. 

I could go on, but at this time, it sufficeth to say that ethanol fuel is hardly the wave of the future.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Why Obama's "Tax Cuts" Aren't Going to Be Effective

In what came off as a surprising move, Obama is attempting to help get legislation through Congress that would temproarily extend the Bush tax cuts.  Although you would think that I would be happy with Obama supporting tax cuts, the current situation is not quite what you would think.

The first issue is that he excluded Democrats in the drafting process as much as he did with the Republicans when passing Obamacare.  This has angered Democrats enough to the point where the bill might not even pass. 

Even if the bill does pass, there is an issue with the fact that the tax cuts are only going to be for two years.  One of the more basic economic concepts is that businesses respond to incentives.  Businesses don't intend to be in business for only a couple of years.  They look to be in business in the long-run.  Therefore, any incentive you give business must be long-term.  It will be true that some businesses will respond to the tax cut extension and expand employment a bit, but for the most part, if a business is uncertain whether the extension of the tax cuts will be permanent, the incentive has become minimalist at best.

It is disingenuous to call this a tax cut bill.  The tax cuts had already been in place during the Bush II era.  The decision is whether to extend these cuts.  Congress is merely maintaining the status quo.  Yes, it is true that passing these cuts will help America avoid a second recession.  But it is as equally as true that this extension will not help speed up the economic recovery.

Another issue is that we are not learning from the Bush 43.  Bush was correct in cutting back on taxes.  However, in order for tax cuts to be effective, government spending also has to be cut.  Bush never cut back on government, and neither will Obama.  Obama has already proved this by making an extension of unemployment benefits a contingency of extending the tax cuts.  The government needs to cut back on spending, whether it is with unemployment benefits or anything else.  If Congress is not taking a serious look at deleveraging, economic growth will be stagnant for quite some time.
Plus, the expiration date of the bill makes me suspicious of Obama.  The expiration date is slated for two years, which is exactly during election time.  I would not be surprised if Obama pointed at the ineffacicy of this "compromise" and used it during the 2012 election to rail against Reupblicans and genuine tax cuts in general.

This bill will be the epitome of bi-partisan compromise.  Why?  Because when you have such compromise, nobody gets what they want.  Republicans don't get further tax cuts, and Democrats don't get to raise taxes.  And when neither side gets what they want, the bill fails miserably.  In short, this bill will be yet another failure of Congress under the Obama Administration.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Am I Realistic or Downright Pessimistic About a Two-State Solution?

Whenever I hear people talk about the Middle East and utter the phrase "two-state solution," it's almost as if I get some sort of gag reflex. It's not that I don't want Israel to have a peaceful co-existence with its neighbors. After all, peace is one of the essential Jewish ideals. Religious Jews yearn for a day where the Messiah can usher in an era of world peace.

It's that the main obstacle for peace between the two parties is the Palestinians themselves. They have been taught hatred for Israel for so long that they cannot accept the existence of a Jewish state. This would normally be the point where the peaceniks either call me ethnocentric, racist, or excessively pessimistic. I prefer to call it realism. Although I have made comments here and there regarding the Palestinian obstacle, I read an article by Benny Morris called Bleak Home that hits the nail on the head.

Morris first points out the problem with the Palestinian mentality:

The first, the one that American and European officials never express and—if impolitely mentioned in their presence—turn away from in distaste, is that Palestinian political elites, of both the so-called “secular” and Islamist varieties, are dead set against partitioning the Land of Israel/Palestine with the Jews. They regard all of Palestine as their patrimony and believe that it will eventually be theirs. History, because of demography and the steady empowerment of the Arab and Islamic worlds and the West’s growing alienation from Israel, and because of Allah’s wishes, is, they believe, on their side. They do not want a permanent two-state solution, with a Palestinian Arab state co-existing alongside a (larger) Jewish state; they will not compromise on this core belief and do not believe, on moral or practical grounds, that they should.

This basic Palestinian rejectionism, amounting to a Weltanschauung, is routinely ignored or denied by most Western commentators and officials. To grant it means to admit that the Israeli-Arab conflict has no resolution apart from the complete victory of one side or the other (with the corollary of expulsion, or annihilation, by one side of the other)—which leaves leaders like President Barack Obama with nowhere realistic to go with regard to the conflict.

Yitzhak Rabin was incorrect was when he said that "you make peace with your enemies." It would be more accurate to say that you make peace with your former enemy. Peace cannot occur until the Jew-hatred dissipates. 

Morris then continues to point out that the Palestinians reject a two-state solution:

Another problem for Westerners is that the Palestinians, by design or no, speak to them in several voices. Hamas, which may represent the majority of the Palestinian people and certainly has the unflinching support of some 40 percent of them, speaks clearly. It openly repudiates a two-state solution. Hamas leaders, to bamboozle naïve (or wicked) Westerners like Henry Siegman, occasionally express a tactical readiness for a long-term truce under terms that they know are unacceptable to any Jewish Israelis (complete Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 borders and acceptance of the refugees’ “Right of Return”), but their strategic message is clear, echoing the Roman statesman Cato the Elder: “Israel must be destroyed.”

Morris then concludes with the following:

What remains, in the absence of a basic change of Palestinian mindset, is a bleak picture. No viable peace agreement is remotely in prospect. Neither is the emergence of a full-fledged Palestinian state. A unilateral Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank is so problematic as to be virtually unimplementable. Yet continued Israeli rule over the territory and its people, obnoxious to most Israelis and to the rest of the world, raises the prospect of a bi-national state or an apartheid state, both of which most Jews regard as anathema. That, unfortunately, is where we’re at.

Without the Palestinians wanting the annahilation of the Jewish state, the options look grim.  A stalemate won't last forever, especially if Abbas goes to the UN to try to unilateraly declare a Palestinian state. That would make relations more acerbic between the two nations. A bi-national state with the Israeli government ruling over the lands would agitate more than a fair share of people. The Israelis can take over the occupied territories and kick out all the Arabs.  Something would tell me that the international media would have a field day with this one.  If Hamas somehow managing to succeed in its goal of the anihilation of Israel, G-d forbid, the world would be a much worse place because of it.  Therefore, the future of any "peace process" working will be contingent upon the Palestinians changing. Since I fear that they are going to be stubborn in their ways, I'm afraid that this isn't going to end well for either side.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Pirke Avot 1:1- Dealing with "Building a Fence Around Torah" in the 21st Century

In many world religions, the monastic lifestyle so prevalent in the paradigm of aestheticism is perceived as optimal for acquiring a spiritual life. Judaism, on the other hand, finds itself somewhere between aestheticism and hedonism. Judaism believes in taking the mundanity of physical life and elevating it to holiness, thereby infusing the spiritual with the physical.

Since Judaism is in the middle of the two aforementioned extremes, one can correctly infer that Judaism has a degree of abstinence involved. G-d gave the Jewish people commandments to follow, and a majority of those commandments are negative. If a Jew is wanting to follow the "will of G-d," that Jew cannot treat their actions with a laissez-faire, "anything goes" mentality. There would have to be a degree of self-restraint.

To help further assure that the commandments, the Rabbis, in their wisdom, "built a fence around Torah (Pirke Avot 1:1)." These rabbinic enactments, called gezeirot, were considered to be of greater piety than simply follow the commandment itself because it shows that the individual wants to take the utmost care to avoid even the slightest potential danger of violating a mitzvah (Rabbeinu Yonah's commentary on ibid). I can certainly understand the benefits of such a maxim. It helps distinguish between what one wants and what one truly needs. The fences can help avoid the violations of commandments, which can help foster a closer relationship with G-d. The discipline in being able to self-restrain, and thus abstain, give people a better grasp exercising free will.

In short, these rabbinic fences can help make one a well-balanced individual who is a productive member of society. As the adage goes, "there's always too much of a good thing." In the Talmud (Baba Kama 79B), it states that a restriction should not be imposed on a given community unless the majority is able to abide by it. Considering that about ninety percent of the Jewish community is considered non-observant (i.e., not Orthodox), I cannot help but discern that "a fence around the Torah" has backfired somewhere along the way.

The Orthodox are obsessed with the concept of "stringency for stringency's sake." [I would also like to add that when I comment on the Orthodox community, I always feel I need to invoke the principle of "the further to the Right you go, the more it is true] I have met some Orthodox Jews that get some sort of masochistic pleasure of enjoying strictures. For such an individual, strictures "bring them closer to G-d," and anybody who does not share their euphoric state are deemed to be lax and lack any sense of G-dliness in their life.

I find this mentality to be troubling. What should have remained a fence has become a fence, a moat, a slew of Rottweilers, security towers armed with automatic weapons at various points, lasers, land mines, and a glass dome surrounding the area to make sure that no one can enter.

As Abraham Joshua Heschel points out in his book "Between G-d and Man" (p. 161):

"In their zeal to carry out the ancient injunction, "make a hedge about the Torah," many rabbis failed to heed the warning, 'Do not consider the hedge more important than the vineyard (Genesis Rabbah 19:3).' Excessive regard for the hedge may spell ruin for the vineyard [the Torah]. The vineyard is being trodden down. It is all but laid waste. Is this the time to insist upon the sanctity of the hedges?"

What good are the hedges if most Jews are not appreciating the vineyard? These stringencies (hedges) have become so numerous and nuanced that many Jews are unaware that there is a vineyard, let alone appreciate the beauty of Torah.

As Rabbi Barry Gelman illustrates, there is a value to lenient rulings. "Lenient" does not translate to indifference, disdain, or laxness. If the current state of the Jewish people and Jewishness denotes anything, it is that the stringencies have caused such sentiment.

It is not too late to change the trend of non-observance. If there is any hope of bringing more Jews to observing Judaism, as opposed to the disheartening status quo, nothing short of a re-examination and re-vamping of Jewish law will be required. This is a daunting task since a large majority of Jewish practice has become "d'rabbanan." But on the positive side, we can change anything "d'rabbanan" without a Sanhedrin if the reasons for the fence have become moot. It will be difficult to achieve, in light of Orthodoxy's trend towards reactionary tendencies, but my hope is that such realization will come, and enough even-keeled people within Modern and Centrist Orthodoxy will do something about it before the Haredim take a monopolistic grasp at claiming itself to being the sole, valid way to practice Judaism, thereby eroding the diversity and adaptability in Judaism as we know it.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Paradox of the Dreidel

Jewish tradition gives some insights as to why we play a dreidel on Chanukah.  The four letters on the dreidel, for instance, spell out "נס גדול היה שם," which means "A great miracle happened there."   The dreidel was a facade that Jews in that era would use to cover up the fact that they were studying Torah [since Torah study was illegal during this period].  The gematria, or Jewish numerology, adds the numeric values of the four letters, which comes out to 358.  358 also happens to be the numeric value of the word משיח‎‎ (Messiah), meaning that when the Messiah comes, we will not have to look at one facet, but will be able to look at all four at the same time.

As insightful as this all might be, the dreidel itself is a paradoxical symbol.  One of the important lessons of Chanukah is to not give into cultural assimilation.  Yet the tradition teaches us that the Jews of that time played it as to not arouse suspicion of studying Torah.  One has to keep in mind that Jewish practices as a whole were banned in this society.  If playing the dreidel game were a particularistically Jewish thing to do, they would have been arrested on sight.  The fact that they used the dreidel in a Greek-ruled society to cover up Torah study means that playing with a four-sided top was something that the Greeks did.  As Rabbi Golinkin points out, "in order to celebrate the holiday of Hanukkah, which celebrates our victory over cultural assimilation, we play the dreidel game, which is an excellent example of cultural assimilation."

Rather than dismissing this as a hypocrisy in Jewish practice, we can derive an important lesson here.  Rather than teach us a conflicting message of dichotomy, we can take the lesson that the dreidel represents the importance of cultural integration.  Back in Biblical times, the Israelites were influenced by the sacrificial system, a system which existed prior to the Exodus out of Egypt.  It was a universal mode of worship, and the Israelites used it until there was no more Temple.  Maimonides was the greatest post-Biblical influence on Jewish thought.  Maimonides' most influential teacher was Aristotle, who was a Greek who happened to not be Jewish.  The notion of marriage was even influenced by their respective rulers.  Under Christian rule, the Ashkenazi Jews adopted marriage between "one man and one woman," whereas under Islamic rule, the Sephardic Jews permitted polygamy because that is what the surrounding culture did. The fact that there is a difference between Sephardic and Ashkenazic cuisine implies the influences of the surrounding cultures on Jewish gastronomy.  The melody for the most popular Chanukah song, Maoz Tzur, is based off a 14th-century German folksong.  Klezmer music was an adaptation of secular, Eastern European music, most notably that of the Romanians.  The Yiddish language is another example of how the Jews have taken from other cultures and adapted to it.  After all, Yiddish is a fusion of Hebrew, German, Aramaic, and a bit of some Slavic languages.

Although I can come up with more examples, it suffices to say that Judaism does not live in a bubble.  One of Judaism's redeeming qualities is its ability to adapt, and that includes on a cultural level.  Adaptability, and thus integration, have contributed to Jewish survival.  Not only has it kept the Jewish people alive, but the capaibility to take good ideas from other cultures is what has made Judaism stronger.

חג שמח! 

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Pentagon Finally Figures Out Don't Ask, Don't Tell

The Pentagon came out with their year-long study on Don't Ask, Don't Tell.  Based on their findings, repealing Don't Ask, Don't Tell would have minimal, if not neglible, risks.  I'm glad to hear the findings, but not so much that the Pentagon needed a year-long study to confirm common sense. 

Gay people don't destabalize military cohesion.  If there were any country in the world that could afford not to jeopardize the stability of its national security, it would be Israel.  After all, a small nation surrounded by belligerent, hostile enemies that want nothing more than Israel's total annihilation surely cannot afford to err.  But amazingly enough, Israel allows openly gay people to serve in the military, and guess what?  Israel still exists without it affecting military cohesion.

If a man wants to join the military, regardless of sexual orientation, he should be able to serve his country.  It is inconsistent, if not downright hypocritical, to have an increasingly invasive foreign policy in the name of freedom, democracy, and progress while depriving a willing demographic to proudly serve in its military.  I hope that the Senate can pass a repeal of such a ridiculously arcane law before the Democrats lose their clout in Congress, but at this point, we'll have to wait and see if this comes before the Senate before the year is out.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

A Thanksgiving Lesson: How Does Judaism Define Gratitude?

In Hebrew, the compound phrase of הכרת הטוב is normally translated as gratitude.  This translation, however, is an inadequate one.  The more literal translation of this phrase is "recognizing the good."

In theory, when we think of recognition, we think "acknowledgment."  One of the lessons that Judaism is trying to convey is that at a minimum, one has to acknowledge the fact that even if life is rife with suffering, good exists.  Does this mean that Judaism teaches us to ignore suffering that goes around us?  Of course not!  As a realist and Deist, I would never advocate one to ignore reality.  That would be a denial of truth.  But it is just as much of a denial of truth to say that there is not an iota of goodness in one's life.  To quote Alan Morinis from his book Everyday Holiness (p. 64):

"If you've lost your job but you still have your family and health, you have something to be grateful for.  If you can't move around except in a wheelchair, but your mind is as sharp as ever, you have something to be grateful for.  If your house burns down but you still have your memories, you have something to be grateful for.  If you've broken a string on your violin, and you still have three strings, you have something to be grateful for."

Even in something such as this character trait, I find that Judaism is once again being pragmatic about dealing with life.  We are not asked to evade familial disputes or financial troubles.  At least when it comes to Judaism, Karl Marx was incorrect to say that religion is an opiate for the masses.  But Judaism also teaches that in spite of our troubles, we are not only to recognize the good, but also emphasize it.  Rather than absconding from the scene or disregarding that which is going on around you, Judaism provides a mentality that makes us stronger and gives us a more positive outlook on life when dealing with what many cynics define as a cruel, heartless world.  That is why Ben Zoma (Pirke Avot 4:1) recognizes that a rich man is not one who has a lot of material wealth, but rather rejoices (i.e., is thankful) for his lot.

Although one could use mere recognition as a secular form of positive psychology, if you are to truly emphasize the goodness in your life, you have to express that recognition into gratitude, which is why Judaism takes that recognition to the next level by actually giving thanks.  That is also why Judaism gives us so many opportunities to bless and give thanks.

That is why I will take the time this Thanksgiving to reflect the good given to me.  First, I thank G-d for creating the universe.  Why?  Because I know that creating the universe was not necessary of Him.  He could have just existed by Himself since His infinitude makes Him truly self-sufficient and independent, something a human being can technically ever acquire.  Without the creation of the universe, I would not be here to ponder the meaning of life and become an ethically sound individual.  I am thankful that my friends and family care about me and provide a support system that only gets stronger with each passing day.  I am thankful for the divine-like intellect G-d has given me so I can further study and further develop it as time continues.  I am thankful to be employed so I can pay the bills, put a roof over my head, provide food to put on the table, and not have to worry about financial woes.

I realize that I can kvetch and moan about all the evil and indifference in the world.  And for those who know me well enough, I manage to do so.  However, in spite of all the problems in the world, I can remember the wonders and joys I have in life.  At the least, it helps me get through the day, and in an increasing number of cases, it helps me to enjoy the life I have.

Happy Thanksgiving to all!

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Pirke Avot 1:2 & 1:18: Three Pillars

Simeon the Righteous (Pirke Avot 1:2) said that the world was based on three things:

 על התורה, ועל העבודה, ועל גמילות החסדים.

The first is תורה (Torah). The Tosfos Yom Tov said that when Simeon the Righteous said Torah, he meant the active pursuit thereof. Some would confine Torah to the first five books of Moses. Others would open it up a bit more to both Written and Oral Law. I would be as inclusive as to say that Torah includes the entirety of Jewish texts, from the Tanach to modern-day responsa, and everything in between. The reason for this inclusiveness of texts is because Judaism embodies a nationality in addition to a religion. And like a people, Judaism has evolved over time. We have kept a general sense of Jewish values while being able to adapt over time. This is why the entire breadth of Jewish texts matters in terms of Jewish study.

The second is עבודה (service). This initially referred to the sacrificial services (Rambam, Rashi). However, since we don’t have a Temple anymore, service now refers to prayer.

The third is גמילות החסדים (acts of loving-kindness), which would be another way of saying imitatio Dei. I find this third pillar to be important for two reasons. The first is that the study of Torah becomes translated into action. The second is that it emphasizes that we are more than consumers and producers. We are being with a purpose to develop interpersonal relations and transcend the self by helping others.

We have a bit of a quandary because Shimon ben Gamliel opined in Pirke Avot 1:18 that the three principles upon which the world is sustained are truth, justice, and peace. According to Rambam, truth referred to intellectual truth, justice was a righteous government that properly and fairly ruled, and peace was a perfection of ethical conduct. Bertinoro actually thought that peace referred to the modern-day notion of world peace.

But that minor textual quarrel set aside, we have to ask ourselves which Sage is correct: Simeon the Righteous or Shimon ben Gamliel? They both sound like good answers, which means that at least one of them has to be correct. But I will contend that both are correct, but on different levels. Simeon the Righteous was correct in the sense that his grouping of three was meant for the actions that the individual had to pursue in order to lead a productive life. Shimon ben Gamilel is correct in the sense that these are the virtues that a government has to pursue in order to maintain stability, order, and an ethically sound nation-state. What I hope is that the Jewish people pursue both so we can hasten the coming of the Messiah……huzzah!

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Parsha Vayetze: Sometimes It's OK to Be Angry

Anger manifests itself in many forms. In the international realm, we see it in the form of wars, terrorism, and acts of genocide. On a domestic level, we see such examples as road rage and a political discourse that has become so polarized and uncouth that a civil discussion on politics is all but non-existent. Even in American homes, spouses argue with on another and domestic abuse is a much more common occurrence than we would like. Anger, whether we like it or not, is a human emotion that is very much a part of human nature.

This does not mean, however, we should have the hedonistic response of "it's natural to be angry, therefore I'm just going to accept it." Judaism doesn't have anything positive to say about anger. Anger is what caused Cain to kill Abel. Anger is what drove Simeon and Levi to kill all the males in the town of Shechem (Genesis 34:25-26) after their townsmen raped their sister Dinah. Nedarim 22b says that G-d is of no consequence to a man who is angry. The Talmud (Shabbat 105b) even goes as far to say that anger is a form of idol worship. Why would that be? Idolatry, in its simplest form, is the worship of anything that is not G-d. It is not limited to statues. Money for its own sake is a form of idolatry.

But for the purpose of this discussion, we will focus on the attribute of arrogance as a source of anger. Alan Morinis had a great way of defining arrogance. Arrogance is nothing more than a twisted manifestation of a lack of self-esteem. One who is arrogant craves attention and approval for others. Without their praise, they are worthless. Anger not only reveals dependency, but an instance of lashing out becomes a defense mechanism. It drives you into a deeper self-obsession which ultimately blinds you from the ramifications of your actions. In anger, everything is about you. There is no one else. This is why Judaism has an overall negative attitude towards it, and this is why the Talmud (Nedarim 22a) says that the angry person is overcome by all forms of hell.

Anger is a powerful emotion, and it clearly can have adverse effects. But are we supposed to go as far as say that we are never to be angry or that we never have the right to be angry?

Let's take a look at Jacob in this week's Torah portion. Jacob takes a liking to Rachel. Laban, Rachel's father, promises him Rachel's hand in marriage after working for him for seven years (Genesis 29:18). Seven years later, Laban tricks Jacob into marrying Leah, Rachel's older and much less redeeming sister (ibid 25-26). In order to marry Rachel, Jacob was forced to work yet another seven years for Laban (ibid 27). On top of it, Jacob works for another six years after that (31:41), even though Laban lowered his wages ten times (ibid 42).

So let's put ourselves into Jacob's shoes for a moment. Your employer, who happens to be your [future] father-in-law, makes you work seven years to marry the woman you love. He pulls off history's first bait-and-switch by giving you an uglier, less redeeming wife, and tells you that you have to work yet another seven years just to get what he had initially promised in the first place. After that, you miraculously have the patience to work for the man for another six years after all of that. He keeps on lowering your wages, and if that weren't enough, he never thanks you for the work you have done. If you were Jacob at the point where he is admonishing Laban, do you honestly think you would be as calm and serene?

What I find most amazing about the passage is Jacob's reaction to his situation. Did Jacob have the right to be angry? You bet he did! Notice how he didn't go out of control. He didn't kill or assault Laban. He didn't even steal his goods. He just addresses his grievances in a rebuking manner.

What we can learn here is the difference between moral outrage (i.e., controlled anger) and unadulterated rage (i.e., uncontrolled anger). Jacob had every justification to be agitated and miffed. He presented his frustration in a controlled, thought-out manner. By keeping an inner calm with the tumultuous exterior, he didn't let his emotions get the better of him. And in spite of his justification, Jacob did everything he could to rectify the animosity between himself and Laban (ibid 44). Rabbi Ilai was correct to say (Eruvin 65b) that the ability to control one's anger says a lot about a man. Jacob's ability to control his anger is a clear example of why he is worthy of being one of the Patriarchs.

This blog entry was based on the lay-sermon I gave on Saturday, November 12, 2010.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

What Body? G-d Doesn't Have One of Those!

The Third Maimonidean Principle is that G-d does not have a body. G-d's corporeality, or lack thereof, has been a debate between Christians and Jews for centuries. The fact that Jesus, the man, is also divine is an essential tenet of Pauline Christianity. The belief of G-d's incorporeality has been a part of Jewish belief for quite some time. But the Jewish belief in G-d's incorporeality does not come without any issues. Just to name three:

1) The primary issue is that Hebrew Scriptures (Tanach) are replete with describing G-d in anthropomorphic terms. To assert G-d's incorporeality is to defy the simplistic, literal meaning (פְּשָׁט) of the text.

2) G-d's incorporeality is not explicitly stated in the Tanach. There are two verses that Maimonides uses as text proofs to this concept.

"'To whom will you liken Me? To what am I equal?' says the Holy One." -Isaiah 40:25

"You have not seen any image." -Deuteronomy 4:15

The issue is that both of these verse have ambiguities. Isaiah 40:18 can allude to a corporeal being that has unique attributes, and Deuteronomy 4:15 does not presumably negate the possibility of there being a corporeal G-d.

3) Earlier rabbis had a corporeal concept of G-d. In Brachos 6a of the Talmud, there is a passage of G-d having His own pair of tefillin He puts on. In Vayikra Rabah, Hillel says that going to the bathhouse is a mitzvah. Why? Because he needs to be clean and proper because he needs to maintain the status of being "in His image."

I have two main counter-arguments to the issues:

A) Many like to presume that the only way to read Scripture is to do so with its plain and literal meaning. It comes with the nice gift-wrapping that because it's "the Divine Word," it should be neatly presented without ambiguity. But a narrow literalism comes with its own issues.  Here are but two examples of how problematic literalism can be. Do we literally follow the imperative to stone the disobedient, rebellious child in Deuteronomy 21? Of course not! If we did, there would be no future generations because every child will be disobedient at some point. What do you do about the notion of an eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth (Exodus 21:23-25)? Forget the argument about whether the whole world would end up blind and toothless. What do you do if a blind man takes out your eye or a toothless man takes out your tooth?   The verse was meant to teach us about proportionate justice, not a literal "take out his eye, take out his tooth." Plus, what if someone cuts off your ear?  The Tanach mentions nothing about someone cutting off your ear. Are you not going to punish the culprit for mutilation?  That is why the verse has always been interpreted as monetary compensation.

I can find many more examples of the shortcomings of literalism, but I hope my point has been made.

Simply because we are finite creatures and G-d is infinite, there will always be a gap between the two. That is why the Talmud recognizes that the Torah was written in the language of man (Brachot 31b). Since being finite means that we are limited, an interpretation of a text, even a divine one, is inevitable. That is why we need to use our brains, as well as our tools of observation and [literary] analysis to figure out which interpretations work and which don't.

B) This leads me to my second point, which is we need to use what we already know about G-d. The First Principle states that an infinite being, which we call G-d, must have, by logical necessity, created the universe. Being infinite, G-d, by definition, translates into His Oneness since G-d cannot be defined--G-d just is. G-d's incorporeality is merely a logical extension of Maimonides' first two principles. Corporeality means existing within time and space. Since G-d exists within neither, we know that any language that is used to describe G-d's characters or actions must be figurative.

Plus, it's nice when Joshua said that G-d "is within the heavens and the earth below" (Joshua 2:11), which is a nice way to reaffirm G-d's incorporeality since a corporeal being cannot simultaneously occupy two spaces within a given moment.

If G-d truly is not corporeal, then why have these anthropomorphisms? Because it's much simpler to view G-d as corporeal and to read a text with a narrow literalism. Corporeality is tangible. Corporeality brings G-d closer to us, which means if He resembles us, we can better relate to Him. Since infinity does not exist in time or space, we cannot understand what G-d is, only what He is not. It makes it harder to relate to something that does not exist within time or space. However, recognizing the true nature of Infinite Oneness is a step in the right direction.

You'd think it'd be easier for G-d to automatically create us with this sophisticated understanding of Him, but the gift of intellectual pursuit was a much better gift than a spiritual hand-out.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Am I Really a Deist?

During the past few months, one of the things that has been bothering me the most about Judaism is the prevailing belief of G-d's interaction in the world, meaning that Judaism advocates a personal G-d.  It's all over the siddur, the Jewish prayer book.  "G-d will be your protecting shield," "Thank you, G-d, for providing me with everything," or "May G-d heal my friend from such and such an affliction."  Reading a Jewish prayer book makes me feel as if G-d is a micro-managing interferer.  He stubs your toe to teach you a lesson.  He allows you to get accepted into a good university or a good career path to reward you.

If G-d does get involved in the world at this extent, then I am bothered by a plethora of things.  For instance, He brings you on the sidewalk at the exact moment to find a $50 bill, but He won't help the terminally ill cancer patient who has performed many mitzvahs and who could perform more if you heal that person?  Why would G-d cause one plane to crash and not another?  Odds are that the people on one plane are not any more guilty than the other, and odds are that both planes had small children on it.  It seems a bit haphazard to me.  The point I am trying to make here is if G-d does interfere as such, then this makes me question the nature of G-d.  I question such a G-d because I am an observer of politics and the world at large.  Justice, peace, and love are not consistently applied across the board.  Why would 6 million Jews and 5.5 million non-Jews be brutally murdered in the Holocaust and Hitler gets away with a nice, easy suicide?  Short of a postulation of an afterlife and/or reincarnation, G-d comes off as unjust.  But even with that set aside, after observing the ongoings of the real world, a personal G-d comes off as capricious, which leads to believing in an absent-minded, inconsistent, intellectually deficient deity.  If G-d is indeed a personal G-d, He certainly does a terrible job at being either all-just or all-loving.  Not only that, but such a meddling personality would negate free will, which just so happens to be a cornerstone of Jewish ethics.

All of this has led me to conclude that G-d is not a personal G-d.  I believe that G-d created the universe in a certain manner and left it for man as a gift to figure out everything on mankind's own time.  For this belief, I have been called a deist on more than one occassion.  But does that automatically make me one?  Not necessarily, as I will illustrate shortly.  And this frame of thought does not exist within mainstream Judaism, so would this be considered heresy?  I really don't think so, but I wouldn't be surprised if somebody thought it were.  And if it were deemed as such, at least I can be in good company.  In the Guide for the Perplexed, particularly in Part II, Chapter 48, Maimonides explains that due to the nature of G-d, mainly that aspect of his infinity, anything describing Him, whether it would be His actions or His character (e.g., He is angry or He regrets doing something) must be taken figuratively.  A point that Maimonides brought up that I did not previously consider is that if G-d created a world that, as Genesis 1 states, is "very good," a world in which everything considered as such has been implemented, there would be no need for G-d to interfere.  To suggest as such would be tantamount that G-d lacks the intellectual capabilities to act and create correctly, which defies any notion of an omniscient, omnipotent G-d.  For instance, when we read that G-d stretched His hand against Egypt, Maimonides opines that we are meant to read that as "the Egyptians were defeated with strength."  G-d did not cause the sun to stand still for Joshua, according to Maimonides.  It was a natural occurrence in which Joshua thought that the day lasted longer than usual. 

This also lines up with the Maimonidean notion that when G-d created us in "His image," that means that He gave us the gift of divine-like intelligence to figure out and solve life's problems.  This anthropocentric view of religion does not scare me.  Knowing what G-d has instilled within me gives me the strength to not only deal with the randomness that is so observable in life, but to deal with life's uncertainties.  Does this mean that I throw G-d out of the picture?  Absolutely not!  Every time I say a blessing over my food, it's an awareness moment for me, that G-d created nature in such a way to grow food to nourish us, that G-d created the laws of economics that allows mass amounts of food to reach such distances in such a short time, and that He made such knowledge accessible for farmers so that they are able to harvest food.  I thank G-d for giving me the intellectual capacities and faculties to figure out life.  I realize and recognize the gift of life G-d has given me, and that it should be used to its maximum potential.  I don't deny G-d.  I thank G-d for everything He has given me.  But I also know He expects me to figure it out on my own, to spiritually stand on my two feet, and to put in my fair share in the covenantal relationship.  I'm not a deist--I'm a metaphysical libertarian who has had a major theological paradigm shift.  Not only does this ennoble me to perform as many mitzvahs as possible, but it also eliminates a lot of theological headache.

11-15-2010 Addendum: After some further contemplation, it turns out that believing in an impersonal G-d makes me a deist after all.  A part of me subconsciously was in denial for the fact that somehow labeling myself as a deist would have somehow made me less of a [practicing] Jew.  It doesn't.  I still keep a kosher kitchen, observe the holidays, give tzedakah, and do my utmost to maintain a Jewish lifestyle.  What all this means now is that I have to view my religion and my relationship with G-d in a different way than I did in the past.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Food Stamp Usage Goes Up

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has reported a 17% rise in Americans using food stamps.  This brings the grand total to 14% of all Americans, or over 42 million Americans.  I had commented on this a few months ago, and I stand by my opinion.  The last thing we need is more people on food stamps.  It's no way to solve poverty or the recession.  All it does it makes people more and more dependent on Big Government.  And since we are talking about something as simple and necessary as food, shouldn't that dependency worry any citizen that lives in the "land of the free?"

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

My Two Cents on Yesterday's Electoral Politics

My comments on the election will be short and sweet, particularly in light of the fact that I had enough antipathy not to vote this election cycle for the first time since I have legally been able to do so.

A swing of sixty-five Congressmen in favor of the GOP is historically impressive. Since the GOP did not take the Senate along with the House, it sends mixed messages as to the success of the Tea Party. Since the bicameral system is split between the GOP and Democrats, it is difficult to determine whether anything will get done. The only possibility of that happening would be if any Democratic Senators who have their seats up for reelection in 2012 think twice before toting with party lines. Even if this does happen, I am still skeptical about the GOP's sincerity. The only reason the GOP grabbed so many seats in the House is because of the failure of Obama's economic policies. The GOP overall kept the campaigns focused on financial issues. Now, the constituents (e.g., the Tea Party) have to hold these new candidates' feet to the fire in order for free-market, financial and economic reforms to pass. Otherwise, the GOP will continue with more of the same vanity.

On another side note, I was surprised that Proposition 19 didn't pass, especially knowing the demographics of California. I heard from both sides on the issue of legalizing marijuana. Proponents said it would boost tax revenue and eliminate black markets, thus eliminating crime. The opponents said it would increase crime and ruin society. Regardless of how I personally feel about cannabis, it would have been interesting to see the measure in practice, just to see which side was really right.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Settlements Are Not the Issue, Abbas!

I am glad that Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin is able to see the settlements argument for what it is: a red herring.  Last month, Mahmoud Abbas stated that Israel must choose between peace or the settlements, as if the settlements were the obstacle to peace between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

Let's start with the amount of land that the settlements take up: 1.7% of the West Bank.  The West Bank is 5,860 square kilometers, meaning that 1.7% of that is about 59 square miles.  That would make the amount of disputed land the size of Shelburne, Vermont, a small town of less than 7,000.

The second is that the Palestine Mandate is still in full effect since no sovereign state has ever legally replaced this former territory.  The international community never recognized Jordan's annexation of this territory, which thereby still makes the West Bank disputed territory.  As is stated in Article V of the Oslo Peace Treaty, until internationally recognized borders are established through peace treaties, there is nothing illegal about settlement development.

Aside from the legalities or the size of the settlements, as Mitchell Bard puts it, "The impediment to peace is not the existence of Jewish communities in the disputed territories, it is the Palestinians’ unwillingness to accept a state next to Israel instead of one replacing Israel."  The fact that 1.3 million Israeli Arabs live safely in Israel tells us that not only Jews can live alongside with Arabs, but that hatred is not innate.  The fact that the Palestinians teach their children from Day One how to hate Jews and that blowing them up is an idealization of Palestinian raison d'être is the real issue.  The moment we can accept that as the problem, rather than this dreck about settlements, the sooner we can figure out how to create education reform in that part of the world, thereby ushering peace between the two parties.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Is There a "Right to Die" In Judaism?

Euthanasia has always been one of those tricky situations in biomedical ethics. The Religious Right purports that permitting euthanasia would cause a slippery slope from voluntary euthanasia to involuntary euthanasia that would erode the intrinsic value of life. Whether it is rationing health care to the elderly or worries of kin using it as a means to acquire an inheritance, the Religious Right does have some valid worries. On the other hand, what do you do when someone is in such excruciating pain and nothing can be done? What do you do when someone is so debilitated that they will never recover from what they have and can never function without the usage of machinery and feeding tubes?

This question becomes all the more important for me when questioning the notion of being “created in G-d’s image.” If being “created in His image” denotes potential to be actualized, whether that would be in terms of intellectual cultivation or doing good deeds, and you are bedridden with something such as persistent vegetative state (PVS), does that mean you no longer are “created in His image?” The question of whether a human being can be [or become] nothing more than an animal in a human body can be applied to other issues of life, including abortion and the death penalty. Although going into further detail on this would be beyond the scope of ascertaining whether euthanasia is permissible in Judaism, I still think it holds bearing on how we define the meaning of life and whether life is intrinsically valuable or not.

In Judaism, there are some traditional values that would make euthanasia prohibited. That would first be pikuach nefesh, the preservation of life. With few exceptions, saving another life surpasses all other mitzvot.  As the Mishnah teaches, "Whoever saves a single life, it is as if he has saved an entire world (Sanhedrin 4:5)." The second is that many in Jewish thought view life with infinite, as opposed to relative value. The third is that we are not in control of our bodies; G-d is (Ezekiel 18:4). This would negate unlimited personal autonomy. This notion keeps in mind that ethics is not about what one can do, but rather what one should do. The fourth value is that Judaism recognizes that technology and scientific advancement are gifts of divine revelation, thus rejecting the notion that “we are not supposed to play G-d.”

This would come off as an open-and-shut case, except like most things in life, it’s not. We forget the “other side’s” concern of unimaginable pain, which would bring in the mitzvah of alleviating pain and suffering. Now would be a good time to distinguish between active and passive euthanasia.

Active euthanasia is the accelerated causation of death, which usually entails the use of lethal substances or forces to kill. In many cases, this is done by a physician. Active euthanasia is the most controversial, and thus the most heavily debated form. Passive euthanasia, on the other hand, is the withholding of common treatments to prolong one’s life. Examples of passive euthanasia would be refusal of chemotherapy or not carrying out a life-extending operation.

Although other ethicists might debate the merits of the “mercy” involved behind active euthanasia, Judaism is unequivocally against it. Judaism’s stance against active euthanasia is rooted in the belief that the body is G-d’s possession because He created and thus owns everything in the universe. There are so many laws on the books that teach us the importance of preserving health and life. Short of the three exceptions of martyrdom, those being murder, idolatry, or sexual immorality, one should prolong one’s life as possible.  In short, active euthanasia would be either considered suicide [if performed by the patient] or murder [if performed by the doctor].  The Talmud (Shabbat 151b) states that it is forbidden to close the eyes of a dying person.  It is akin to "touching the dying flame of a candle, and thereby extinguishing it," and "one who does so is regarded as a 'shedder of blood.'"

For further description on the matter, please consult R. Elliot Dorff’s teshuva on the topic of assisted suicide in the form of active euthanasia. Not only does he adequately explain the mainstream Jewish stance, but he also discusses the importance of developing community and the mitzvah of bikkur cholim, visiting the sick.

As for passive euthanasia, we’ll have to save that for another time…………

Monday, October 25, 2010

G-d Is One, Not Three

I've been reading The Limits of Orthodox Theology by Rabbi Marc Shapiro, which has given me the opportunity to re-evaluate Maimonides' Thirteen Principles.  My main reason for skipping the First Principle, which is that G-d exists, is because I already tackled that topic a few months ago

Maimonides' Second Principle is the following:

We believe that this Primal Cause [G-d] is One. [His is] not like the oneness of a pair, nor like the oneness of a species, nor like man, whose complex oneness may be divided into many units, nor like the oneness of a simple body, which is one in number but may be divided and separated without end. Rather, He is One with a Oneness that knows no parallel in any manner. This is the Second Principle, as affirmed by the verse (Deut. 6:4): "Hear O Israel, G-d is our Lord, G-d is One."

Just so we have the Hebrew text for Deuteronomy 6:4 so there are no doubts:

שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ יְהוָה אֶחָד

Although I have had some Christians explain that the word אחד means "unique" because it describes Jesus' unique trait of being triune, that is simply not true because Hebrew has another word for "unique": יחיד.  Since that doesn't work too well, Christians then will cite two examples of אחד accompanying a compound unity:

וַיִּקְרָא אֱלֹהִים לָאוֹר יוֹם, וְלַחֹשֶׁךְ קָרָא לָיְלָה; וַיְהִי-עֶרֶב וַיְהִי-בֹקֶר, יוֹם אֶחָד.

And God called the light day, and the darkness He called night. And there was evening and there was morning, one day. -Genesis 1:5

וַיִּכְרְתוּ מִשָּׁם זְמוֹרָה וְאֶשְׁכּוֹל עֲנָבִים אֶחָד....

"....and cut down from thence a branch with one cluster of grapes." -Numbers 13:23

If you took these two examples alone, you would think that the word אחד always refers to a compound unity.  Upon closer examination, there's another story to tell.  Let's first keep in mind that out of the other 960 usages of the word אחד in Hebrew Scriptures, which constitute as over 99% of the word's usage, אחד is unambiguously used as a numeric adjective referring to the number "one."

We should take a look at these two "anomalies" and see if we can get past the confusion.  Let's take an example in English, simply because the concept carries over in Hebrew.  When you're talking about a dozen eggs, are you referring to the twelve eggs or the specific grouping thereof?  Although the word "dozen" implies that there are twelve eggs, you are still referring to the single entity: a dozen.  It is the same principle within these verses.  אחד is modifying the word אשכול (cluster), not ענבים (grapes).  Even in these two instances, you are referring to the grouped entity, not the components within the entity.  No matter how you look at it, one is still one.

So let's take another look at the phrase יהוה אחד in Deuteronomy 6:4, which means "G-d is one."  In the present tense in Hebrew, there is no conjugation for the verb "to be."  The meaning of "to be" in the present tense is always implied by context: the absence of a verb.  Since we know that this verse is in the present tense, the word אחד is a de facto stative verb, meaning that אחד in this passage unambiguously translates to "is one."  Although you had the word ענבים in Numbers 13:23 in order to attempt to create some doubt, there is nothing in this declaration to suggest a compound entity. Finally, anytime the word יְהוָה, the personal name to denote G-d, is used approximately 6,800 in Hebrew Scriptures, there is never, ever a plural verb or adjective used to describe G-d; it is always in the singular.

G-d is not a triune deity.  As the grammatical rules of Hebrew dictate, יהוה אחד unquestionably means "G-d is one."  Any Christian who purports otherwise does not believe in monotheistic notion of G-d that is clearly laid out in Hebrew Scriptures.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Parshat Vayera: W.W.A.D? A Lesson on Hospitality

As I had demonstrated my drash last year for Parshat Vayera, the destruction of Sodom did not come through homosexuality, but rather through a complete lack of inhospitality and the inability to respond to the plight of others. It is not merely that the Sodomites were indifferent towards the poor and downtrodden. They were downright hostile to them, as well as anyone who had attempted to lend a helping hand.

If Sodom is a clear of example of how not to deal with hospitality, there should also be an exemplar of the antithesis thereof. This is the point where I have to ask myself the question of "What Would Abraham Do?" Below is Genesis 18:1-8, 16:

"And the L-rd appeared unto him by the terebinths of Mamre, as he sat in the tent door in the heat of the day, and he lifted up his eyes and looked, and, lo, three men stood over against him; and when he saw them, he ran to meet them from the tent door, and bowed down to the earth, and said: 'My lord, if now I have found favor in thy sight, pass not away, I pray thee, from thy servant. Let now a little water be fetched, and wash your feet, and recline yourselves under the tree. And I will fetch a morsel of bread, and stay ye your heart; after that ye shall pass on; forasmuch as ye are come to your servant.' And they said: 'So do, as thou hast said.' And Abraham hastened into the tent unto Sarah, and said: 'Make ready quickly three measures of fine meal, knead it, and make cakes.' And Abraham ran unto the herd, and fetched a calf tender and good, and gave it unto the servant; and he hastened to dress it. And he took curd, and milk, and the calf which he had dressed, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree, and they did eat..........And the men rose up from thence, and looked out toward Sodom; and Abraham went with them to bring them on the way."

Within this homily, we find many lessons to be learned about hachnasat orchim (הכנסת אורחים):

1) At the beginning of this passage, Abraham was in the process of receiving divine revelation. When the men came to Abraham's tent, Abraham found it to be such an imperative to be hospitable that he interrupted divine revelation. Based on this, the Talmudic rabbis concluded that "hospitality is even greater than receiving the Divine Presence (Shabbat 127a)."

2) Three men approached Abraham's tent (Genesis 18:2). What was their religious affiliation? Given that Abraham and Sarah were the only two Jews at this time, it's safe to assume these three men were not Jewish. More importantly, since this took place during ancient times, it's reasonable to assume that these men were pagans. It does not matter if the guest is Jewish or not. It does not even matter if they are pagan. The text shows us that Jews are supposed to show the utmost respect to a guest in one's home, regardless of religious affiliation.

3) As indicated by וַיָּרָץ in Genesis 18:3, Abraham ran to his guests. We learn from this that we are to receive our guests enthusiastically, which makes the guests feel more wanted.

4) Abraham did not even need to ask his guests what they needed. He understood that his guests were wandering in the desert, their feet hurt, and they were extremely thirsty. As a result, he offered them water and a nice, shady tree, both of which were rarities in that topography. As the Talmud states, "Who is wise? He who foresees that which is about to happen (Tamed 32a)." Foresight even in hospitality is something to be imitated.

5) The Sages said that "a distinguishing characteristic of a righteous man is that they say little but do a lot (Bava Metzia 87a)." Abraham said he would have brought a morsel, but he told Sarah to make three cakes, not to mention that he brought curd, milk, and cow meat.

6) Abraham had servants of his own (Genesis 14:14), but nevertheless decided to serve the guests himself. What can be derived is that even if you have servants, you should attend to the guests and do some of the work so that there is a personal touch to the visit.

7) As verse 7 states, Abraham chose a fine and tender calf.  What we learn from here is that we don't give our guests leftovers or second-rate food; we give them the best that we have to offer.

8) Even during the departure of the guests, Abraham was good to his guests as he walks alongside them and saw them off (Genesis 18:16).

Reading this portion this week, I had to ask myself something. G-d teaches us act in loving-kindness, and there are many ways to show that. Seldom does G-d go into great detail about mitzvot, whether that would be Shabbat or putting on tefillin. Why does G-d choose to detail Abraham's mitzvah? What is so special about this particular mitzvah that the Sages said it was greater than receiving the Divine Presence?

I came up with this answer: G-d created the universe, and thus has domain over it. If one of the primary purposes of life is imitatio Dei, we must have dominion over something comparable to G-d's dominion over the universe. That dominion is the household. In contrast to politics or the economy, the individual can, in a temporal sense, exert the best amount of control within their home, which means that one has the best control of whether the given environment is one of cruelty or kindness. If charity begins at home, then kindness also must begin at home so that outside the home, kindness can beget more kindness.

שבת שלום!
Much of the inspiration of this entry has emanated from the teachings of R. Joseph Telushkin.

Looking Back and Looking Forward: Assessing the Great Recession

A couple of days ago, Professor Merton Finkler gave a colloquium at my alma mater doing some comparative economics along with economic forecasting regarding the Great Recession. Since the American economy, as well as the overall global economy were analyzed, Finkler's analysis, much like this blog entry, attempts to cover much ground in a small frame.

The Great Depression and Great Recession are similar in the sense that both were triggered by financial crises in which both situations, the American government tried to resolve the issue with unsustainable borrowing and large amounts of bank regulation. There are actually more differences in comparing the two. In the Great Depression, there was a higher rate of declining GDP (13% vs. 4%) from trough to peak and the rate of unemployment was much higher (25% vs. 10%). However, the Great Recession received a greater drop in stock markets and trade, as well as the job deficit in the Great Recession (8 million and counting) was much greater.

Aside from giving the comparative economic history, Finkler mentioned a particularly interesting economic indicator, which I didn't know of until he mentioned it, which was the Baltic Dry Index (BDI). The BDI measures the demand for shipping capacity versus the supply of dry bulk carriers. The reason why this index is so telling is because the supply of such goods changes slowly, thus making it a strong indicator for the demand of these goods. If you look at the BDI over the past couple of years, it plummeted right around the end of 2008, indicating that the trade sector took a heavy hit.

Finkler also mentioned such global economic factors such as the debt-ridden PIIGS (Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece, Spain) in the European Union, thereby forecasting potential destabilization of the European Union. He also mentioned that in the global market, China is here to stay.

What I found most captivating about the event, however, was his bottom line. Financial panics reflect deteriorating balance sheet and potential insolvency. Insolvency is not equivalent to a lack of cash flow, and thus cannot be solved by printing more money. Although debt unto itself is not a bad thing [because debt can potentially be paid off in the long-run], we currently have an unsustainable debt service that cannot be corrected by more borrowing. Since the only thing the Federal Reserve can really do is borrow money, they cannot be the solution to the problem, although many would like to think so. Since the credit to GDP ratio is at 357%, we have no choice but to focus on reducing the burden of the debt. Households make up 92% of that 357%, which means that Americans would need a higher marginal propensity to save and have a sense of fiscal responsibility. Interestingly enough, the private and public sectors have racked up roughly the same amount of debt as of date. What is perturbing, however, is the rate at which the government is borrowing and the rate at which business have cut back. This negative trend can only mean that in a matter of time, the percentage of debt that the government will rack up will be considerably higher than it is now.

This is anything but the deleveraging that Finkler had prescribed, especially in light of the unfunded liabilities indicated by the Debt Clock. What do unfunded liabilities exactly mean? It entails programs such as Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. Finkler pointed out that the problems with these unfunded liabilities are exacerbated by the fact that the worker to dependant ratio is below two and continuing to drop. Once it reaches below one, which will happen based on the inevitability of age-based demographics, there will be three policy options for Congress: tax more, cut benefits, or extend benefits to fewer people.

Since financial panics cause longer recessions, Finkler used economic indicators to predict that it could very well take until 2015 to get out of this mess. Regardless of the gloomy prediction, the fact that we are not considering long-term implications of our fiscal policies will guarantee that America is going to be in economic upheaval for the long haul.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Why People Hate Big Business and Shouldn't

When you hear about Big Business, it's amazing how so many people group it along with the likes of skinheads or terrorists. If you watch enough television or movies, more often than not, the bad guy ends up being some crooked, avaricious businessman from Wall Street. Although the scandals behind Enron or Bernie Madoff are morally reprehensible, they make up a considerable minority of what goes on in the business world.

But if that's the case, why do so many Americans love vilifying them? Because a seemingly inefficient amount of money leads to something else green filling in the void--envy. People who are not satisfied with their material wealth and have lower self-esteem are bound to resent those who are more successful, intelligent, or financially well-off.

A huge majority of millionaires in this country did not come from "old money." They are self-made and had to work hard to earn it. If you don't like it, you can either improve your education, learn new skills to make yourself more marketable so you can climb up the corporate ladder, or you can invent something really useful like Bill Gates did and make a huge amount of cash. But if you prefer receiving a handout rather than develop a hard work ethic motivated by the desire to succeed, shut up and stop whining because it's not going to come to you on a silver platter!

Not only should Americans not be resentful towards Big Business, they should be thankful. Why? Because Big Business translates into a whole lot of employment. According to the Small Business Administration, a small business is defined as a firm with fewer than five hundred employees. Let's just say that the definition hardly lines up with the notion of a mom-and-pop shop. This definition renders 99.7% as small businesses. But let's work with the definition for a moment. That remaining "evil" 0.3% that we like to call Big Business accounts for roughly a half of the country's employment.

Here's some basic economics: rich people have capital, which means that rich people can expand business. Expanding business translates into more employment. More employment translates into economic growth. As former Texas senator Phil Gramm put it, "No one ever got a job from a poor man."

For anyone who has picked up an economics textbook, this would be considered sound economics, but it's something you'll never hear from Obama, Pelosi, the Democrats, or just about anybody on the Left for that matter. The Left likes throwing lavishing welfare programs at the poor to make the poor feel loved and helped. But it really doesn't help the poor. It becomes very difficult to come out of poverty when a dependency on welfare or any other government-based entitlement program is in play. You know what kind of "support" is best for financial stability as well as one's self-worth? It's not a government check--it's a job. More jobs means less unemployment, which means less poverty. Therefore, if we truly want to help alleviate poverty, let's stop punishing the largest provider of employment in America.  It shouldn't take a genius to figure out that economic freedom leads to economic growth and diminution in poverty.  So rather than come out with bloated, highly inefficient stimulus packages or rather than punishing Big Business by not extending the Bush-era tax breaks, it might behoove Obama and the Democrats to just stay out of the way for once.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Will Obama Cause American Jews to Vote Republican?

Since the days of FDR, Jews in America have disproportionately voted Democrat in a secularly traditional matter.  The question that is on a lot of Jewish pundit's minds is whether Obama is going to break that voting streak.  I will briefly state why "Mr. Hope and Change" could very well bring about an extended period in which Jews overwhelmingly voting Democrat will no longer be a given. 

This analysis wouldn't be complete without talking about Israel.  As a recent survey from the American Jewish survey points out, an increasing amount of Jews are disappointed with Obama's handling of American foreign policy in the Middle East.  This does not only apply to the "peace process in Israel," but also to how Obama needs to grow a pair when it comes to Iran.  72% believe there is “little” or “no” chance that a combination of diplomacy and sanctions can stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons, which translates to most people think Obama's approach to foreign policy is a big failure.  As I have implied before, however, Obama's mishandling on the Israeli situation will not suffice to cause a loyalty shift because sadly enough, Israel is not a high priority for many American Jews, even with programs such as Birthright making more American Jews aware of the wonders of Israel.

Ultimately, I think the DNC will hit American Jews where it will hurt, much like it is for all Americans: the wallet.  Obama has not kept his promises to keep unemployment under 8%.  Since there are many Jews who own small businesses, I can only see the upcoming tax hikes to further impede any business owner, whether Jewish or not, and thus cause further resentment to the current administration.  The same will go for doctors, many of which are disproportionately Jewish, when Obamacare is in full effect.  Further obstacles to practicing medicine will leave doctors discouraged and dismayed. 

Although I think the current economic situation will ensure that the Democrats won't get 78% of the Jewish vote that they had back in 2008, I can see a couple of factors that can make this, at best, a short-term disapproval.  The first is the Tea Party and the fact that a lot of Jews are hardly Tea Party material.  Since all the Tea Party candidates are running as Republicans, this can turn away certain Jewish voters from voting Republican.  The other issue is the Christian Right.  Although Jews might be more fiscally conservative than one would give credit, there has always been a chill up the typical American Jew's spine when it comes to allying with the Fundamentalist Christians.  The reason I bring this up is because the Republican Party is further pandering to its base which makes up a large plurality of the Republican Party: social conservatives.  The final point I will bring up which can potentially counter this in the long-run is demographic.  If there is an increase of Orthodox Jews in America due to the birthrate that is comparably higher than non-Orthodox Jews, we can potentially see a Jewish voting base that is significantly more Orthodox than the current ten percent.  As for whether all of this translates into a solid voting bloc for the Republicans or whether the Democrats can keep their hold on the Jewish constituency, we will just have to wait and see.