Wednesday, April 28, 2010

No Protestant on the Supreme Court Is OK

Our Supreme Court can be without a Protestant justice for the first time ever. And guess what? Most Americans don’t care. According to a Fox News poll, 70% couldn’t care less if the next nominee is a Protestant.

I find this to be a step in the right direction. Up until very recently in American history, Catholics and Jews were barred from noticable ascents to power and access to many societal institutions. Not only have we gotten past the “the only true American is a WASP” mentality, but we have also voiced that religious affiliation doesn’t matter for a Supreme Court nomination. Kudos to America for showing progress!

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Israel's Tal Law and a Sense of Self-Entitlement

I didn’t know until yesterday that this existed in Israeli law, but after reading the Jerusalem Post, I found out that there was such a law called the Tal Law. The article gives a good explanation of what it entails:

"The centerpiece recommendation, later ratified by the Knesset as part of the Tal Law, was to give yeshiva students aged 22 the option to take a one-year leave of absence, without facing immediate conscription, during which they could learn a trade or work. After that year was over, they could either return to the yeshiva, or perform a minimal military stint (four months with reserve duty) or national service (one full year) before being free to embark on a career."

As the article states, there are some issues regarding this law. The first is that only 3.5% of Haredim serve in the army. Although one might think that the Haredim are as sparse in American Jewish society as they are in Israel might want to re-examine. Again, referring to the article, “Currently, 48% of elementary school students are either haredi or Arab and, as highlighted in these columns before, that is set to rise to 78% by 2040.” Demographically speaking, that causes a slight problem because all this becomes is a legislatively licit form of draft-dodging. With a country surrounded by antagonistic enemies that want to see nothing more than the demise of Israel, that’s just a poor approach to long-term national security.

This goes beyond military service. The Israeli government also does this with regards to them working in general. About 70,000 married men receive annual state-funded stipends of NIS 10,000, and 33,000 unmarried young men receive about NIS 5,700 a year. The total annual yeshiva budget is about NIS 1 billion, which is nearly $270M.

How the Israel gives preferential treatment to yeshiva students is an outrage. Israel, you are willingly perpetuating the welfare system within your own borders. Because of this pandering to the Haredi community, it directly results in your high poverty (23.6%) and moderately high unemployment (7.4%...not as high as the States, but still!). As the Haredi population increases and the secular population decreases, the welfare state in Israel will only grow. If suicide bombers don’t blow up Israel, Israel will certainly commit national suicide by maintaining upholding this toches-kissing.

It’s not enough that it hinders Israel from its fullest economic potential. What really sets me off about the whole arrangement is why. For Haredim, Torah study supersedes military service, as well as having a job. Not only does their level of presumptuousness reek of holier-than-thou self-righteousness, but it is decidedly un-Jewish.

What exactly do I mean when I say it’s un-Jewish? What I mean by that is we were meant to work. Regarding work, the Torah says this: “Six days you shall labor, and the seventh you shall rest (Ex. 34:21).” How do I know that this goes beyond productivity, whether economic or erudite? Because all the Talmudic rabbis still had jobs to maintain the livelihood. Because Rabbi Gamiliel (Pirke Avot 2:2) [as well as subsequent commentary on this verse] says that study of Torah with a worldly occupation is a great thing.  Because King David realized the value of work when he said (Psalm 128:2) "When you eat the labor of your hands, happy you shall be and it shall be well with you."  Because King Solomon realized the perils of dependency when he said in Proverbs 15:27, "He that is greedy of gain troubles his own house; but he that hates gifts shall live."

The fashion in which Israeli Haredim behave is even more despicable than the welfare queens of America because they mooch off the government in the name of religion.  For the sake of Israel, I hope that the Israeli government does the fair, democratic thing not only by making everybody serve, but even more importantly, eradicate the welfare system to stop the mentality of self-entitlement.  That way, the Jewish people can raise their heads up high knowing their livelihood is not dependent on the gifts of others.     

Monday, April 26, 2010

Ralph Nader: Tying In Civic Ethics with Jewish Ethics

I wasn’t expecting Ralph Nader's secular speech on civic duty to inadvertantly turn into a lesson on Jewish ethics. One of the things that struck me was his approach as to why most people don’t participate in civic life. He says that for many, people feel powerless in terms of the say they have of how their government works. Even if they didn’t feel powerless, they’d fall back on the excuse of “I don’t know how to even get started.” And even if they can get past that, there’s the excuse of “what if I get attacked.” And if backlash isn’t of concern, you still have to deal with “well, what I would do anyways wouldn’t make a difference.” As I am listening to this description, it sounded like something that was all too familiar—the יצר הרע‎ (evil inclination). Nader was giving the secularized message that we constantly give ourselves excuses not to be actively involved in life. If we let the evil inclination get the better of us, we waste our lives. What separates us from the animals is that were more than creatures of instincts and mass consumption. Even when you look at Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (diagram below), self-actualization (and an example of that would be engaging in civic life) and being driven by purpose are at the top.

Embellishing on his point of civics was another point he brought up—responsibility for others. The Hebrew word for responsibility, which is אחריות. Etymologically speaking, אחריות has the same root as the word for other, אחר.  Even our Sages (Pirke Avot 1:14) asked the question of "if I am only for myself, what kind of person am I?"  The reason why Jewish tradition emphasized responsibility as such an important aspect of life is because it takes ego out of the equation.  The ego is only obsessed with pleasing the self, something which can never be actualized.  Even when looking at the Hierarchy of Needs, one cannot reach their full potential without developing a sense of responsibility.  Plus, when you read the Torah, you realize that it is not a monastic practice.  Much of it has to do with one's interactions with man and developing a sense of communal responsibility.      

Finally, a message I had gathered from Nader's talk, was the important concept of self-empowerment. It’s safe to say that I don’t agree with the man’s politics. His call to aggrandize the government is abhorrent, as far as I am concerned.  However, I do respect him because he has an exceptionally strong work ethic and is a self-made man, both traits I admire greatly. Self-empowerment has its Jewish roots, after all. We were brought here to exert our free will, yet another characteristic to separate us from the animals.  If it weren't for free will, our moral choices would be meaningless, which is why Judaism doesn’t believe in the doctrine of predestination.  I had recently blogged about how Jewish rituals play a role to ultimately help us realize our roles to do acts of loving-kindness.  "And what does the L-rd require of you?  To do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with G-d (Michah 6:8)."  This cannot be done without developing a sense of helping the other.  Even by acting justly in a secular arena such as civic life, we have the potential to hasten the coming of the Messiah.  May Moshiach come soon!

Ralph Nader Speech: Crony Capitalism and What To Do About It

Last night, I was able to see Ralph Nader give a speech at my alma mater. He talked about a great deal of issues, including how corporate America has gained such a hold of our political system and our daily lives that we really don’t have freedom anymore. In terms of his list of grievances, they were largely spot on. Where I have to part ways with Nader is his overall critique of capitalism.

The issue with American politics and economy is not with capitalism per se, but with a certain kind of capitalism, mainly crony capitalism (or corporatism). Think of capitalism as a nice car, such as a Rolls Royce.  Now, put a belligerently drunken idiot (i.e. cronyism) behind the wheel of that car. How long do you think the car will stay in one piece?  This is where Nader and I would disagree.  He'd say the problem is with the car, whereas I'd accurately say it's the driver. 

I don’t subscribe to Nader alluding that Obama is a puppet of Wall Street. However, I will give him credence in that corporations do have a disproportionately large amount of representation in American politics, although that's a far cry from pulling politicians' strings. Nevertheless, a considerable amount of campaign donations come from Big Business. It would explain why Congress was more willing to give Wall Street the biggest bailout in American history.  [Disclaimer: I'm not saying that Nader is ultimately right.  I'm just showing that Nader doesn't base himself solely on crackpot theories about how wonderful government regulation is.  There is actually some truth in what he has to say about corporate influence.]

Does this mean I advocate for Nader’s approach of further regulations? Goodness, no! As a general rule of thumb, government regulation is a terrible idea. A great majority of business owners are small business owners.  An organization such as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which was actually conceived "thanks" to Nader's activism, is a regulation nightmare.  Half of their violations come from the "horrors" of not filling out proper paperwork.  One study shows that these regulations actually increase occupational death rate.  Regulations are a cost-increasing nightmare.  It's funny to read this article from the Mises Institute from 2000 because they predict that we can have up to a $3T defecit in 2010.  I guess if they knew Obama was going to be in office, they might have increased their projected prediction a bit.  I can go on about regulatory egregiousness, but I'm sure that books have been written about this, probably by such geniuses as Hayek and Friedman.    

Rather than usher in an era of even bigger government than FDR or LBJ had envisioned, I would like the economy to arrive at free-market economics, where Big Business can’t sway Big Government to insulate them from competition. I would like to see a government that serves the people rather than pander to special interests. Just to give you the condensed version what I had said about the Tea Party: I want my country back!

Notwithstanding Keynesian economics or Nader’s ranting about the corporations controlling American politics, we need to focus on bringing free-market capitalism back to the minds of the American people. And that begins with an individual’s consumer awareness. Know what you’re buying. Know how much you need, and don’t give into frivolous spending. Even more important, know the basics of economics. Open up an Economics 101 textbook or watch something like Milton Friedman’s Freedom to Choose television series. Having better informed consumers means more effective participation in the civics, which ultimately means politicians can stop pulling the wool over our eyes.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Re-Evaluating Jewish Ritual: A Reading of Hosea 6:6

I had an interesting comment posted on one of my previous blog postings, Jesus Didn't Die For My Sins.  An anonymous Christian had posted how they had troubles believing that a blood sacrifice by Jesus was necessary for atonement.  Their prooftext for this was Hosea 6:6, and the verse reads as such:

כִּי חֶסֶד חָפַצְתִּי, וְלֹא-זָבַח; וְדַעַת אֱלֹהִים, מֵעֹלוֹת.

For I desire loving-kindness, not sacrifices; knowledge of G-d rather than burnt offerings.

For that Christian, they thought that the purpose was not supposed to be obsessed with sacrifice, but with developing a closer relationship to G-d.  I thank him/her for that insight because it helped me think about how that verse had and still does apply to Jews. 

Before I continue with that thought, however, I would like to tell you an anecdote of when I was in Israel back in 2008.  I was praying at the Kotel with my tefillin on.  After I was done davening, I went to return the tefillin that the Chabad rabbis had so generously lent me.  They asked me what I was doing in Israel, and I told them that I was on the Birthright trip.  After asking a bit more about my background, the following conversation ensued:

Chabad Rabbi: Do you keep kosher?

Me: Glatt kosher?  No.

Chabad Rabbi: Do you keep Shabbos?

Me: Shomer Shabbos?  No.

Chabad Rabbi: Well, stay with us for a few days after your Birthright trip, and we'll teach you how to be a real Jew.

The only thing that could run through my mind was "Excuse me?!"  Apparently, for these rabbis, the two indicators of what made a "real Jew" was keeping kosher and Shabbos.  It's safe to say that this is but one scenario where I came to learn of Orthodoxy's overt emphasis on the ritualistic aspect of Judaism.  I started asking myself why that is the case.  In his book A Code of Jewish Ethics: You Shall Be Holy, which, by the way, is an excellent read, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin (p. 22) does a good job at providing two reasons for this phenomenon:

1) Preventing assimilation.  Jewish ethics, for instance, have more of a universalist bent to them. Although still important for a large majority of Orthodox Jews, ethics are still deemed as secondary in order to make sure that Jews don't go "off the derech." As such, the Orthodox community primarily emphasizes the particularistic, i.e., the rituals of Judaism.

2) Easier to perform ritualistic acts.  Is it easy to keep kosher or Shabbos?  No.  But when you're in a strictly Jewish community, things such as a kosher supermarket or an eruv around your community ease the difficulties of ritualistic practice considerably.  Ethical commandments, on the other hand, are difficult to perform, no matter how insulated your community is from the secular world.

Now, am I calling for a dismantling of all Jewish rituals?  Of course not!  Rituals such as tefillin, tzitzit, and kashrut all bring one closer to G-d, and I can vouch for that based on personal experience.  But let's go back to Hosea 6:6 so we can bring some context into what I'm trying to get at.  By the time of the later prophets, many thought that the motion of going through the sacrificial process replaced an actual relationship with G-d.  As Maimonides points out in the Guide for the Perplexed (III, xxxii), the sacrifices were supposed to be the means rather than the ends.  This then begs the question of what the ends are.  Look at the verse: the ends are loving-kindness and knowledge of G-d.

Hosea's criticism of Jewish practice rings as true today as it did back then.  It is not just about "going through the motions" or reciting the magic formula (i.e., the bracha).  Rather, the rituals are supposed to be transformative acts.  Rituals make us aware of His presence and that He sustains us.  Rituals remind us that we are to be performing acts of kindness as a form of imitatio Dei.  When we realize the role that ritual plays within the greater Jewish context, we can greater enhance what it means to develop a true relationship with G-d.    

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Where's the Jewish Support for Israel?

I was reading a very interesting article by Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg.  In spite of his accord with Obama on domestic issues, he wrote about how he nevertheless did not vote for Obama because of Obama's stance on Israel.  Rabbi Wohlberg points out that the Obama administration is accusing Israel as the hinderance of peace, something which is unprecedented in American-Israeli relations.  I highly suggest reading the article as it points out some of the finer points that makes Obama adversarial to Israel's interests, yet another phenomenon that is unprecented in American-Israeli relations. 

After reading the article, I had to ask myself what the American Jewish community thinks of all of this.  Reading a CNN article, it comes out that about two-thirds of Jews disapprove of the way Obama is handling Israel.  Yet it's "funny" how every poll I see regarding American Jews and Obama shows that support for him is well over half.  Although there has been some decline in Obama's approval rating since the election (which was nearly 80%), I find it disheartening that the secular minhag of being ardently Democrat is getting in the way of support for Israel. 

Although Israel is not the sole issue one should take into consideration when a Jew analyzes the job a give president is doing, it should most certainly be at the top of the list.  I hope that the recent celebration of Yom Ha'atzmaut, along with the realization that Obama is putting all of the burden on Israel while expecting nothing from Palestine in return, will help push Israel up on the list of priorities and have the Jewish community put pressure on Obama to do the right thing.

Friday, April 23, 2010

The Muslims Stifle Free Speech....Again!

Earlier this week, an Islamist extremist group sent a death threat to the creators of South Park for depicting Mohammed in a bear costume. Although the actual image of the Islamic prophet was supposed to be revealed in this week’s episode, Comedy Central decided to censor the episode to the point of incomprehension.

This censorship goes beyond issues of the First Amendment. In the past, South Park has made fun of Jews, blacks, Hispanics, homosexuals, [fundamentalist] Christians, atheists, Scientologists, Democrats, the pro-lifers from the Terri Schiavo case, rednecks, the list goes on.  Although South Park’s satire can be crude at times, it is safe to say that when it comes to criticizing others, South Park is unquestionably equal opportunity. The question I now pose is the following: have we come across the uncriticizable? Even with a death threat, why should a dozen Muslims located in a bourough in New York City dictate to the rest of America what is appropriate material?! I know that showing an image of Mohammed is a psychological boo-boo for a Muslim, but if you don’t want to see the image of Mohammed portrayed on South Park, here’s what you do: you turn off your television set! You don’t send death threats, especially if you’re a part of the supposed “religion of peace.”

I know that Muslim culture isn’t used to such things as freedom of speech, freedom of religion, or human rights. We don’t live in the Middle East or Northern Africa. This is America, and in this country, we have a government that protects our rights enumerated in the Constitution. This acquiescence to Muslim complaints is a symptom of the political correctness which is already strangling Europe, and is starting to make its way over to the States.

Theo van Gogh produced a film titled Submission, which criticized the treatment of women in the Islamic world. How did the “practitioners of peace” react? They murdered him. When the Danish cartoons depicting Mohammed came out, the Muslim world violently protested. Two Danish embassies were burned and over a hundred people died in the process.  Death by cartoon, what can one say?

Why should we be scared of Muslim backlash? Where is the civility in lashing out simply because one becomes offended? We live in such a hyper-sensitive society that people are offended by the simplest thing. For instance, let’s say someone is being rude. You can’t criticize them because you should “just accept them for who they are.” But in this country, if you end up criticizing them, you’re the one labeled as the intolerant boob. Not only is the "American perception" of what is proper is out of whack, but we let Muslims manipulate our sense of tolerance and diversity to get away with it.

If you don’t like a form of media, don’t use it. If it really offends you, get a bunch of friends together to boycott it to put a crimp on their finances. But death threats? Really?  Talking about uncouth! As soon as we cave into one group because something is offensive, then we have to start stifling everybody’s free speech, and that is totalitarianism.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Green Is The New Red

Whether you consider the fact that Earth Day coincides with Vladimir Lenin’s birthday is a coincidence, I will leave that conjecturing up to you. What I can tell you is that Earth Day is the same Big Government bullocks under a different guise.

Silent Spring is the new Bible, Al Gore is the new papal authority, recycling and carbon taxes are a form of sacrifice, consumption of resources is a sin, and we are the stewards of Mother Earth fighting against the satanic corporations (i.e., the “bourgeois establishment”). It seems to have all the elements that a religion does, now doesn’t it?

Mao’s Red Book has been replaced by An Inconvenient Truth. The fight for the proletariat has been replaced by the fight for Mother Earth. Capitalism is just as evil as it was in Stalin’s heyday.

The only subtle difference between the environmentalists and the Communists is their gradualism. Rather than rebel against the system, they would rather use the system to bring about their main goal—control of man’s consumption. The “altruistic” endeavor of cutting back on carbon emissions is not only inefficient, but it stifles at the very essence of economic freedom, which is exactly what irks me about mainstream environmentalism.

Instead of wearing hemp clothing, eating tofu, and working in a sustainable garden for just one day of the year pretending that you actually care about the environment in a self-righteous, holier-than-thou manner, how about actually being a part of the solution rather than the problem? Ronald Regan is infamous for saying that government is part of the problem rather than the solution. More government regulation will only exacerbate our problems.

We can fallaciously blame capitalism, or we can use the very modus operandi that has helped the environment. In the “good ‘ole days’” of Soviet power, air quality was poor [still is, if I recall] and rivers had so many toxins that if you threw a lit match in a river, it’d light up like a Christmas tree. The joy of capitalism is that it actually has better safeguards for protecting the environment. There is no incentive for a businessman to consume as much as possible. As a matter of fact, the less resources that he consumes, the more revenue he makes. Plus, the other joy of capitalism is the advancement of technology it brings. Having better products means better usage of resources. It’s not rocket science, but it apparently goes over the head of Al Gore and his ilk.

Does this mean there are not any environmental problems? Of course not! I’ve commented on this before, but the real issue here is not anthropogenic global warming. It’s our consumption patterns! Very few on either side understand the concept of a balance. The “either-or” mentality is highly fastidious. There is no way for man to exist without consuming resources. If the environmentalists took their hype about emitting carbon seriously, they would put a bullet in their brains because every time they exhale, they emit carbon (i.e., they’re part of the problem, not the solution). I, of course, do not advocate such nihilist behavior since it is immoral as well as foolish. However, the aforementioned logical step means that on some basic level, not even the environmentalists believe their own credo. On the other hand, this does not give us license to abuse and pillage what we do have. This is where most sound-minded people would agree. It’s just that the environmentalists take it too far with their anti-consumerist mentality.

If consumption is our issue, then recycling won’t suffice. There is a reason why reduction in consumption comes first in the “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” motto. It’s difficult to get people to reduce consumption. We live in a materialistic world where consumption of goods is the end all. While I find that highly disappointing from a religious standpoint, something still needs to be done about American consumption patterns, which have dramatically risen since the 1950s.  The trend is worse in the sense that we are responsible for a bulk of the world's consumption:

I don’t condone the government coercing people to reducing consumption. Rather, the external pressure used should be societal pressures to be more environmentally sound. We, as individuals and consumers, need to make decisions that are good both for our wallets and the environment. The sooner business can use technologies to produce such goods, the sooner we can truly ameliorate and salvage what has been lost.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Can We Recite Hallel on Yom Ha'atzmaut?

I was surprised to see the extent to which this seemingly innocuous question is actually a hot-button issue. After all, we come across essential points such as whether we should have waited for the Messiah to bring us to Israel or how we should view the celebration of a secular state. Hallel, which is Psalms 113-118, is not something we can just recite capriciously. Even the Gemara speaks harshly of those who recite it everyday (Shabbat 118b). Hallel is only reserved for special occasions. As such, we need to be prudent in approaching such a halachic question.

As to whether we should even have a Yom Ha’atzmaut, I’ll be brief. Most of those who don’t give any credence to Yom Ha’atzmaut are certain members of Haredi Orthodoxy. Short of that, it is universally accepted as a modern holiday. Even the Chief Rabbinate has declared it a holiday, as well as helped in creating new liturgy expressing Zionist sentiments on this day. Sufficeth to say, with its overreaching acceptance, we can, at the very least, treat it as a minhag.

Now we come to the question of whether we can recite Hallel for Yom Ha’atzmaut. We only recite Hallel under certain conditions. The first one is that an open miracle took place. There are rabbis who argue against reciting Hallel because they believe that a blatant miracle did not occur. I beg to differ. Israel is surrounded by the antagonistic nations of Syria, Egypt, Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen, and Saudi Arabia, all of which are ready to pounce on Israel and eradicate the Jews from the land. The Jews were outnumbered, had inferior weaponry, and a comparably small amount of assets [compared to those nations surrounding them]. Geographically speaking, Israel’s location makes it highly vulnerable to invasion. If one calculated the odds, there was no way that Israel could win, but lo and behold, it happened. It is such a blatant miracle that when West Point was asked why they don’t teach this war in their military school, their response was “we don’t teach miracles.” Since there is no geo-political or militaristic reason for Israel's victory, the only explanation is Divine Providence.

R. Azulai opines that an event that represents a step in the rebuilding of the Beit HaMikdash (i.e., the creation of the modern state of Israel) warrants reciting Hallel [with a blessing]. Complaints against this notion are that Israel’s shortcomings negate the recitation of Hallel because Yom Ha'atzmaut is not fully redemptive.  Rav Ovadia Hadaya, for instance, rules that Hallel cannot be recited because of Israel’s unstable security. Even Chazon Ish (Letters of the Chazon Ish, #97) stated that Israel’s spiritual shortcomings, i.e., the insufficient amount of Torah observance, doesn’t allow us to institute a new practice such as this. However, many rabbis with notoriety, such as R. Aharon Soloveitchik and R. Meshulem Roth, disagree. When one looks at Pesach or Chanukah, both the Exodus and the militaristic gains were both the beginning of redemption, yet we say Hallel for both. Even according to R. Ya'akov of Lisa, one can establish a holiday for the entire Jewish People to commemorate an event that is considered an act of redemption.

Another issue is whether the miracle happened to the entirety of the Jewish people. With Pesach or Chanukah, the miracles occurred to all Jews. In this instance, we see that the War of Independence did not affect all Jews. Normally, one would think that this would disqualify us from reading Hallel. However, the caveat here is expressed by Meiri’s ruling, based on Pesachim 117a (the Talmudic source of reciting Hallel), which states that if a miracle happens to an individual or a portion of the Jewish people, Hallel can be recited without a bracha.

Conclusion: Although you can easily find a rabbi on either side of the argument, a disinterested look at it provides ample evidence to show that Hallel can be recited. However, since this miracle did not occur to the Jewish people as a whole, a bracha technically cannot be recited. After much contemplation, I have decided to go with reciting Hallel without the bracha. Whatever your approach to this modern holiday is, I hope that you can find a way to use Yom Ha’atzmaut to enhance your connection to the state of Israel, as well as G-d.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Another Academic Who Can't Get Israel Right

And I thought that Noam Chomsky was annoying enough!  I came across an op-ed letter from in the Post Crescent, my local newspaper, from Professor Martin Gruberg, an emeritus professor from UW-Oshkosh.  When I initially read the article, the tone of the writing made it appear as if it were written either by an anti-Semite or a self-loathing Jew.  Even after reading the article and finding out who the author was, I can't but help to still think the author is either one. In any event, the basis of his article is that there are six policies that Israel can implement to bring peace to the Middle East and lessen the need for American involvement in that part of the world.  I'll list them and briefly comment on each one:

1. Creation of a functioning Palestinian state.  The problem with this "solution" is that there are two entities in question, mainly that of Hamas and Fatah, that would need to be granted statehood.  They are both separated by Israel.  Since they are two separate entites without sovereignty, they clearly cannot function on their own

2. Dismantling illegal Israeli settlements and outpostsThese are not an obstacle to peace.  Get over it!

3. Exchange land for peace.  This has been Israel's approach to the "peace process" since before the inception of the modern state.  The fact that Israel has withdrawn from 93% of disputed territory doesn't seem to make the Palestinians happy.   

4. Share Jerusalem as the capitol of two respective states.  The Palestinians don't want to share.  They want it all to themselves.  Just take a look at some pictures from Palestinian textbooks.  Even Hillary Clinton thought Palestinian textbooks were a form of child abuse, that is before she worked for the Obama administration.

5. Relax the economic embargo on the Gaza Strip.  Yea, just another way for Israel to compromise its national security for a bunch of terrorists.

6. Create a machinery for compensating Palestinians for property lost with Israel's creation.  Bolstering and aiding your enemy makes a lot of sense...only if you're a proponent of national suicide!

Professor Gruberg, you might as well work for the Obama administration because your "blame Israel while giving the Palestinians a pat on the back" mentality lines up perfectly.  I noticed that you never decided once to list what the Palestinians need to do to bring peace.  How about not teaching their children how to blow up innocent Jews?  How about recognizing Israel's right to exist?  How about not indoctrinating children with hatred towards the Jewish people?  It takes two to tango, Professor!  Israel has been doing the "land for peace" bit for decades, and all the Palestinians do is continue to hate Jews.  Rather than be part of the "blame Israel first" group, maybe you should chastize who is really to blame--the Palestinians.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Tea Party 2010: A Look at the Future of America's Economy

Tea Parties are fun to go to, and that’s not just because you get to hang around like-minded people who wonder where their country went. It’s because when you talk with those at the rally, you get a better idea of what the American people want. No, these people were not political activists prior to this. About 99% of them are normal, everyday Americans who are feeling the repercussions of the erosion of their economic freedoms [the other 1% are political pundits such as myself]. This movement has nothing to do with racism or even social issues, for that matter. If you need proof of this, just look at this New York Times/CBS News poll that shows interesting findings, such as 57% of those in the Tea Party support legal recognition of same-sex unions [that breakdown being 16% for gay marriage and 41% for civil unions], about 65% agree on a degree of access to abortions, or that only 2% think that “moral values” are an important issue facing the country. If you are wondering what made the Top Four of the list of prioritization for Tea Party supporters, it was the economy (23%), jobs (22%), politicians/government (13%), and the budget deficit (11%).

Economic failure and governmental intrusion are very much on the forefront of the Tea Party Movement’s mind. One of the speakers at the rally last night was a doctor who was discussing, in detail, how ObamaCare’s price controls on insurance are going to greatly hinder doctors’ ability to treat their patients. A not-so-amusing anecdote he brought up was when Nancy Pelosi was being interviewed after the passing of the health care bill. A reporter asked her about the constitutionality of the bill. You want to know what her response was? It was “Are you serious?” I think that has to be my response to her idiotic response. The head of Congress has no respect for the Constitution, which means she has no respect for American jurisprudence. And she still holds a seat of such affluence?! And you wonder why Congress’ job approval rating is so low.

Idiocies from Congress set aside, people at the Tea Party Rally were just fed up with government intrusion.  If you think that economic freedoms aren’t important, think again! In more ways than one, your economic freedoms are your freedoms. If we continue going down this path of giving the government more regulatory powers over the economy, which, by the way, are not granted by the Constitution, you wouldn’t be able to buy property, buy the kind of car you like, eat whatever you want, have the thermostat set the way you like it, or to pursue the career of your choice.

The Founding Fathers were highly intuitive men, especially after experiencing governmental stifling of the American colonies. They knew that the best government was a limited one. At best, government was a necessary evil, and at worst, an intolerable one. As James Madison said best, “If people were angels, we would have no need for government.” Because of their intuition, the Founding Fathers gave the federal government a minimalist amount of power. I think just the actions of the Obama administration alone would cause the Founding Fathers to roll in their graves. Bailouts of the banks, a stimulus package which has been nothing but treif, a failed Cash-for-Clunkers program, and the recent overhaul of a sixth of our economy. What have the American people received in return? Increased unemployment, an economy showing no signs of recovery, and an ever-rising debt. That sounds like a fair trade-off. I guess that’s what Obama meant by hope and change!

And if you thought that wasn’t enough, guess what the federal government has in the works? A cap-and-tax bill along with a plan to add a value-added tax to the government's continuously burdensome taxation.

Whether it’s anthropogenic global warming, increasing regulatory oversight of the Federal Reserve, or the government telling citizens that they have to buy health insurance, our government is clearly forgetting about the concept of “we, the people.” Quite a few at the rally were putting emphasis on “working within the system” in order to bring constitutional integrity back, which means finding accountable people to run for office within the two-party system. Whether or not you agree with the Electoral College, or the status quo of the two-party system, one thing is for certain—the November elections will be a good indicator of the future of our political climate. We will be able to see if Tea Party politicians can keep their word to the people. We will see if “we, the people” truly are fed up with the government and their increasingly invasive laws and regulations. In short, we will see if America wants to maintain its exceptionalism or become a crippling, European-style welfare state.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Obama’s Nuclear Dream is Going to Go “BOOM!”

A world without nuclear arms sounds lofty. We can all happily live in peace in a care-free world knowing that there is no strife or conflict. But the main problem with Obama’s dream is that that day has yet to arrive. In order for a true, utopian world peace to occur, amicable relations need to precede any disarmament, not the other way around.

This is yet another example of Obama’s backwards view on the world. The world is not filled with liberal democracies. Totalitarianism still exists. America still has enemies. Much of foreign policy is still dictated by Realpolitik, which still implements such axioms as self-interest, balance of power, and national security. Until we can all “get along,” no country is going to [totally] relinquish their nuclear capabilities. In terms of national self-interest, there would be too much at stake if disarmament took place.

Look at this chart below:

First of all, if nobody has to been able to confirm Israel’s nuclear arsenal, I'd like to know how the heck the BBC even knows that Israel has eighty nuclear warheads?! This tangent is beyond me, although if I had to guess, it's probably shotty journalist work where they embellish on numbers just to make themselves look smart. But let us assume, for argument’s sake, that Israel has these warheads. Why would they give them up?? Israel is surrounded by a bunch of Arab nations that have tried to annihilate Israel in the past. You have a despotic Iran run by an absolute loon who has called for Israel’s destruction on multiple occasions. Only a masochist in the Israeli government who has a death wish for the Jewish state would hand over their weapons.

Israel wouldn’t be the only nation with something substantial to lose. After losing the Cold War, Russia has been trying to gain clout in the international field. Why would the Russian government surrender the only asset that gives them an edge? China is building up to be a world power, so it certainly won’t give up a single warhead. Pakistan and Indian have been at each other’s throat about the Kashmiri territorial dispute since 1947, and that is not about to wane anytime soon. And unless North Korea has nuclear arms, no one will pay attention to that authoritarian regime.  Even if there isn't a specific context to the reasoning, the fine point of all of this is that it is nobody's self-interest, not even America's, to totally disarm.  Even if we pretend to in the public sphere, it's very likely that we have another stash in a secret location because as military strategist, you have to think to yourself, "hope for the best, prepare for the worst."

Any attempt at disarmament will turn out to be even more pathetic than the Copenhagen Conference this past December. And it's not that I don't want to live in a world free of nuclear worries.  It's that I know the gap between reality and what we strive for [i.e., world peace], is too wide.  Until such a gap is minimized, we cannot risk our national security based on Leftist, whimsical notions of world peace. 

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Remembering the Holocaust and Going Beyond “Never Again”

Never again. It was a popular saying amongst the Jews after World War Two. What happened during השואה (the Holocaust) was one of the most, if not the most, repugnant and immoral acts that man has ever performed. Hitler’s perverted sense of racial purity to get rid of the Jews, along with the mentally disabled, homosexuals, Gypsies, and others who were deemed racially inferior, is most assuredly engrained in the Jewish psyche.

It is something that the Jewish people have remembered ever since. Remembering is part of the Jewish experience. It is no accident that לזכור (to remember), or some derivative of the word, is mentioned in the Tanach no less than 169 times. It’s a daily mitzvah to remember the Exodus of Egypt (Exodus 13:3). We are even to remember what Amalek did to us (Deut. 25:17). The experience of השואה has also come under the Jewish tradition of זכור. Recently, a day on the Jewish calendar was set aside to remember the Holocaust, which is celebrated on this day, the 27th of Nissan. There have been multiple Holocaust museums erected to tell the stories embedded within this dark period of man’s history.

Even though remembering such events is a part of being Jewish, is remembering sufficient? Rabbi Emil Fackenheim is famous for coming up with the “614th commandment,” which was “thou shall not give Hitler a posthumous victory.” Let’s leave the controversy of whether it should literally be added to the list of 613 commandments for a moment. Knowing what the anguish that Nazi Germany has caused, Fackenheim is certainly correct in securing Jewish survival. After the Six-Day War, Israel certainly proved itself to the world that she can hold her own. And considering that 40% of Jews are located in America, and that America has the best track record [out of all non-Jewish states] of protecting Jews’ rights, it’s safe to say that a bulk of Jewry has a fair amount of security. As for remembering, I’ve already illustrated that point. Fackenheim’s point of denying G-d is of interest, one which I will have to discuss at later time.

What I do want to hit home is how Judaism traditionally copes with loss of life. In Judaism, we don’t mourn the death of somebody so much as we remember their life and how that person lives on through us. That message is all the more important when applied to those lost in the Holocaust. There is certain space for grieving, and Judaism leaves ample space to grieve. But ultimately, we are meant to live our lives and carry that person’s memory on with us. That way, the person lives on, even beyond the physical life—it’s much more enduring when we remember them, thus the Jewish tradition of placing a pebble on a tombstone, as opposed to flowers.

With that in mind, I will take Fachenheim’s “commandment” one step further. Rather than merely not granting Hitler a posthumous victory, how about granting the Jewish people the victory? Let’s go beyond remembering. Every time we, the Jewish people, observe the Sabbath, study the Torah, say a blessing before eating kosher food, or give tzedakah, we embolden ourselves. Every time we do a mitzvah, we don’t just say “never again”; we posthumously deliver a striking coup to Hitler. Every Jewish deed we perform, we bring the light of goodliness in this world.  If you want to partake in the ultimate form of remembrance, honor the memory of those who died by living more and more Jewishly. That way, the evils in this world can finally be vanquished by the good we do in this world.

כן יהי רצון!

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Parsha Shemini: What I Learned From a Stork (Leviticus 11:19)

Studying the dietary laws is always of intrigue. Since it’s Parsha Shemini this week, we, of course, study these laws in Chapter 11 of Leviticus. When coming up to list of forbidden birds, I had to stop for a moment because I had always been under the impression that a bird that was non-kosher had that status because it was a bird of prey (Ramban). Because of their nature, we did not want to emulate that behavior. I’ve also read that land animals that have their cloven hooves and that chew their own cud tend towards kindness, which is something we should emulate.

I’ve always heard that as an explanation of why certain birds are not kosher, and I was surprised to see that the stork made the list. A stork isn’t a bird of prey. Quite the contrary! The word that is used for stork is חסידה, which is actually a homophone meaning “righteous [female] person.” I certainly was not the first person to realize the linguistic commonality. The Sages realized this centuries ago (Chulin 63a). They realize that it is called a חסידה because it acts with חסד (kindness) towards other members of its species.

If we “are what we eat,” and the חסידה is such a bird of compassion, why would G-d deem it to not be kosher? The Rizhiner Rebbe saw the Talmudic passage and pointed out that it was kind only to its own kind.  It’s easy to feel a special connection with family because they are kin. It’s easy to be kind to a Jew because he’s “another member of the tribe,” as it were. This is what the חסידה did, and for the חסידה, it was more instinctual for it to act in such way. The same goes for us.

Before we continue, I need to point out that the חסד of the חסידה was not some bubbly, flighty emotion. It was done through acts of giving. Through doing benevolent acts for others was the bird able to show kindness, at least to his own species. The action is important. When you perform an act of kindness for another person, you invest a part of yourself in that person. As Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler puts it,

“Giving may bring about love for the same reason that a person loves what he himself has created or nurtured: he recognizes in it a part of himself. Whether it is a child he has brought into the world [or] an animal he has raised…a person is bound in love to the work of his hands, for in it he finds himself. If one were only to reflect that a person comes to love the one to whom he gives, he would realize that the only reason that the other person seems a stranger to him is because he has not yet given to him. If I give to someone, I feel closer to him; I have a share in his being. It follows that if I were to start bestowing good upon everyone I come in contact with, I would soon feel that they are all my loved ones.”

What does this all mean for us? In a multicultural, twenty-first century America, where the types of people are as diverse as species in the animal kingdom, many around us are “not like us.” What the Rizhiner Rebbe points out in analyzing this verse that acting with חסד to your kind only was not חסד at all. In order to have a life filled with חסד, you need to do so with all.

There is much to distinguish Jew from the Gentile. Jews have specific dietary rules, keep the Sabbath, keep their heads covered, don't mix wool and linen, I could go on for hours. And you know what?  Jews should and need to be proud of their heritage, traditions, and connection to G-d. But if we solely obsess over our distinctiveness incessantly, we forget about everybody else and isolate ourselves from everybody else (i.e., Gentiles) because they are “the other.” This is the very type of behavior that the Rizhiner Rebbe advised us against, and precisely why the חסידה is not deemed kosher. All human beings, whether Jewish or not, are created in His image. If it were just Jews that were “created in His image,” G-d would have declared that to Abraham, not Adam. Since He had declared that to Adam, Jewish tradition teaches that we are all G-d’s children. We all have hopes, dreams, worries, questions, ambitions, and a yearning to connect to a transcendent being (i.e., G-d). Although we have much to contrast ourselves from one another, we have much more in common. In order to express true kindness in the world, we need to remember the innate g-dliness in every human being.

To conclude, I have a video clip from the movie El Tren de la Vida. Aside from being the best musical duel I have ever seen in my entire life, it teaches an important lesson. Even though Jews and Gypsies are two very different groups of people, they get past their differences and we see them enjoying and rejoicing in what brings them together: their humanity.  ואמרו אמן!

Sunday, April 4, 2010

The Easter Story: The Greatest Myth Ever Told

We’ve all heard the story. Jesus is resurrected from the dead three days after his crucifixion. His “miraculous recovery” is supposed to prove that his death that he died to save mankind, or at least Christendom, from their sins.

I call the Easter story the greatest myth ever told, well, because it is. The story is great because of the impact it has had on this world, for better or worse. I call it a myth because, as I detail below, this story is inconceivable.

I am certain that this blog entry will not be palatable to any Christian who reads it. To be perfectly frank, that is not my issue, even if you happen to be one of my many Christian friends. Ascertaining truth in this world is of utmost importance to me [and I hope you understand that], which is why such stories need to be classified and recognized for the untruths they are.

Although Christian apologists would claim that there is ample historical evidence proving Jesus’ resurrection, historicity has another tale to tell. When performing historical analysis, we look for the historical evidence to corroborate or negate its veracity. Unlike other historical events, we have no evidence whatsoever of a resurrection, not even a single eyewitness testimony!  The only sources we have around that time period documenting this event are sacred scriptures of a pro-Christian bent.  So, in terms of historical veracity, the evidence we have is of the least objective kind—nothing more than the word of a bunch of biased, unscholarly devotees of Jesus who would have said anything because their devotion to Jesus had been set in stone long before his death. Even if we were to believe Paul when he said that there were over five hundred witnesses to the resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:6), we run into a problem. Why didn’t Paul tell us who these witnesses were or where they lived? Why is there no eyewitness testimony from them?  Hypothetically, I can claim that five hundred people saw me make a five-story building disappear. Aside from the initial ridiculousness of the claim, wouldn’t it be all the more embarrassing if I couldn’t produce any eyewitness testimony to my supposed miracle?

If I were an objective historian, I would not use Christian scriptures as my sole basis for proving anything since one can hardly consider such a text to be unbiased. Since Christian scriptures are the only “evidence” for such an event, one would also have to consider that other scenarios were just as plausible. This is precisely what Yisroel Blumenthal does--create reasonable doubt.  One scenario is that Jesus’ followers were in a hurry to bury Jesus [since it was almost the Sabbath], and because they were in a rush, they could have forgotten the location of the burial site. Another possibility is that the disciples, in their zealousness, removed the body themselves and lied to the masses in order to perpetuate the worship of Jesus the man. A third possibility is that Jesus’ body was indeed exhumed by the governing authorities to be put on display to prove that Jesus was never resurrected, but what makes you think that such evidence would have survived centuries of the Catholic Church’s censorship?

But let us put aside notions about eyewitness testimony, reasonable doubt, and corroborating evidence for a moment. After all, Christians tell us we should believe because the Bible tells us so. Just for the record, they’ll also have you believe that the Bible is true because the Bible is true—you have to love that circular argumentation! For argument’s sake, what I will do is temporarily suspend my disbelief by taking Christian scriptures at face value and presume that they were written by well-intentioned men whose goal was to genially “bring the [true] word of Christ to the world.”

When looking at what Christian scriptures has to say about the alleged event, even an unbiased reader has to question the veracity of such a source due to multiple textual issues and inconsistencies. Just to name a few:

1) On which day was Jesus crucified? Some sources say the day before Passover (John 13:1, 29, 18:28, 19:14), whereas others say the first day of Passover (Mark 14:17-25, Luke 22:14-23, Matthew 26:20-30). This causes an even more complicated discrepancy since right before Jesus’ death, he had a Passover seder. There is no way that the seder would have occurred before Passover began, which means that his death could not have either.

2) What were Jesus’ last words? Luke 23:46 says they were “Father, into Your hands I commit my spirit.” John 19:30 says “It is finished.” Mark 15:34 and Matthew 27:46 both say that they were “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani, which is translated ‘My G-d, My G-d, why have you forsaken me?’” The latter is perturbing since those last words sound more like a man who questions why G-d has abandoned him more than anything else.

3) How many days was Jesus in his tomb? Jesus prophesized (Matthew 12:40) that it would be three days and three nights, the same time that Jonah was in the belly of the whale. John 20:1 said it was two days and two nights, whereas Mark 16:2, Luke 24:1, and Matthew 28:1 say it was three days and two nights. Aside from the contradictions between the Gospels, what is even more glaring is that in either case, his stay in the earth did not last for three days and three nights, thereby making him a false prophet.

4) On the Sunday morning, how many people initially approached the empty tomb? This is another one of those “depends on who you ask” questions. John (20:1) says one, Mark (16:1) says three, and Luke (24:10) says four.

5) After seeing the angels, whom did Mary meet first? According to Luke (24:4-10), it was the disciples. John (20:14), Mark (16:9), and Matthew (28:9) all say that she first met Jesus.

6) Did those who were allegedly there doubt that it was Jesus? Answer: Yes! Mary thought it was the gardener (John: 20:14-15). Even some of Jesus’ disciples were unsure that it was actually Jesus (Matthew 28:17).

7) Where did Jesus' post-resurrection appearances take place?  Luke (24:13-53) said they were near Jerusalem, whereas Matthew (28:7-20) said they were near the Galilee, which is in the northern part of Israel.

8) When did the apostles receive the "holy spirit?"  According to John (20:22), it was on Easter Sunday, whereas Luke (Acts 1:5, 8, 2:1-4) insists that it was on Pentecost, which was fifty days later!

I can come up with about twenty other inconsistencies in no time flat, but I'll leave the rest to Rabbi Tovia Singer, who has done what any unbiased reader of the text would do. He has lined up the four versions of the resurrection story here and shows that none of the details in the four accounts are consistent with each other. In case anybody is doubting me, I did verify the citations' veracity, which means that the existence of the inconsistencies is not up for debate. If any other text, religious or secular, had such glaring inconsistencies, I wouldn’t expect Christians to ardently defend it with the [theological] acrobatics that they defend their scriptures.

To say the least, this causes many problems for Christian apologists. In the words of Asher Norman, author of 26 Reasons Why Jews Don’t Believe in Jesus, he ever so eloquently states, on page 274 of his book, the blatant issues with the conflicting eyewitness testimonies:

Missionaries explain these conflicts to be like differences in eyewitness testimony of an event. They assert that conflicts are expected and actually prove the veracity of the witnesses because false witnesses would rehearse their stories. There are three problems with the missionary answer. First, the Gospel writers were not eyewitnesses. None of them are reported to have witnessed the events described above. Second, many of the differences concern times, dates, and places, which cannot be explained away by differences in perspective. Third, the testimony of the authors is supposedly “the inspired word of G-d (2 Timothy 3:16).” Would G-d transmit a garbled version of the story that is the foundation of Christian faith? Since the “resurrection” of a dead body is not scientifically possible, one needs to believe in a miracle to accept the story as true. Since the contradictions prove that G-d did not inspire the text, there is no rational reason to believe in the “resurrection.” It is therefore simply a self-serving explanation to explain the death of a failed messiah.

Conclusion: I find that the inaccuracies this story epitomize my theological frustrations with Christianity, and calling them "frustrations" would be me putting it mildly. After all, this story is unquestionably the cornerstone of Christianity. Without it, there would be no Christianity. This is why an honest, thorough analysis of the text is essential.

I hope I'm not asking for too much here, but I’ll give it a go. What I ask of Christians is that the minimalist standards that you use to prove veracity are those that you would use in any other decision or analysis you make in your daily lives. The very fact that a significantly lower burden of proof is used in Christianity is regrettable, especially from my conservative Christian friends who constantly complain, and accurately so, about the political Left and their usage of double standards.

I’d also like to make another essential point. Even if this “resurrection” ever happened, I would still find it to be a moot point because, as I blogged a couple of months ago, Jesus could not have possibly died for our sins.

This is not to say that I don't think Christians have a right to practice their religion in America.  If Christianity makes you feel happy and it helps you to be a contributing member of society, go for it!  As long as your faith does not interfere with anybody else's right to practice their religion, I will respect your right to practice Christianity. However, I hope that for any Christian who takes their faith seriously, I hope you take my legitimate concerns just as seriously and think about these inconsistencies.