Saturday, May 29, 2010

Stop Blaming Bush

It was annoying enough to hear the "Blame Bush First" crowd when he was in office.  They would blame either Bush or Halliburton for why life was so miserable.  They even went so far as to blame Bush for causing Hurricane Katrina.  For a man who was "so hopelessly stupid," I don't know how he managed to acquire the ability to control nature, but for these liberals, intelligent argumentation was never their strong suit.  I remember the whole Hurricane Katrina situation when people blamed Bush for "lack of adequate response time" although he had declared a state of emergency two days prior to the hurricane.  The flack that the "Blame Bush First" people gave him, as well as FEMA, was, as always, horrendous.  In spite of whatever imperfections that Bush had during his presidency, and believe me, I can name a few, that mentality should have died with the Obama presidency.

I bring in that background information with regards to the recent oil spill that happened on the Gulf Coast on April 20th.  I'm no mathematical genius, but that is approximately 40 days without a resolution.  Here's my question: where's the Left-wing outrage?  Why is nobody depicting Obama as the most idiotic president on G-d's green earth because of his environmental neglect?  All the Left has shown throughout this ordeal is that it is the master of double standards.  I really wish the Left would use its ridiculous standards across the board, but I think intellectual consistency would be too much to ask from the Left. 

But wait, it gets better!  Not only is the Left not blaming Obama for this oil, but lo and behold, this oil spill somehow is Bush's fault.  In case anybody missed it, Bush has been out of office for about the past year and a half.  The man has no power in neither Congress, the White House, nor the Supreme Court.  Even with that reality in mind, Chis Dodd (D-CT) somehow can still blame Bush for Obama's inability to respond:

I have news for those who instinctively blame Bush.  He has no affluence in American politics anymore.  You need to give criticism where criticism is due (i.e., to Obama) instead of displaying intellectual ineptness.  If anybody has doubts about the propensity of the Left to blame Bush, read this satirical article about blaming Bush.  It's written by Chuck Green, who incidentally, is a Left-leaning Democrat.  I found it to be quite amusing.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Food Stamps: A Symptom of Big Government

I was reading a Fox News article this morning regarding how so many are receiving food stamps.  Regardless of how one feels about Fox News, let's just start off with the fact that Obama recently expanded the food stamp program, and that now, 40 million people in this country are receiving food stamps.  To make matters worse, according to a Cato study, food stamps make up two-thirds (p. 2 of budget report) of the USDA's budget, a budget that, as of 2010, is $134 billion.

The reason I am calling this trend disturbing is that back in 2000, only 22 million were on food stamps.  Some might counter the  with the fact that with population growth, one would expect that the number of recipients would grow.  Interesting argument, but when the numbers are calculated, they tell a different story.  When you divide 2010's estimated population (307,006,550) by that of 2000 (282,171,936), you tabulate that America's population has increased 8% in the past decade.  On the other hand, the rate of food stamps recipients has increased 81%.  Therefore, the population of food stamps recipients has grown at a rate of ten times higher than that of the normal population this past decade!

The case study of food stamps is important because it is a microcosmic symptom of the disease of Big Government. Food stamps are but one example of how Americans have become increasingly dependent on government to provide them a livelihood. As a result, we are able to distinguish between the haves and have-nots. I used to view America as exceptional in the fact that socio-economic class did not matter in terms of societal interaction with various individuals and institutions. The rate of governmental aggrandizement is diminishing that “American exceptionalism” to the point at which stratification of socio-economic classes and class warfare are all but inevitable.

Going back to the specific problem of hunger in America, I’m sure that one could counter with “how would you fight hunger if you didn’t have the government helping out?” First of all, government is not helping out—it merely perpetuates one’s poverty because the dependency that an individual has on government creates a disincentive to do things such as find a job and break free from the shackles of government.

The second issue I have is that institution of food stamps is nothing short of legalized theft.  As George Bernard Shaw so eloquently put it, "A government that robs Peter to pay Paul can always count on Paul's vote." If an individual were to rob you at gunpoint to use that money to feed his family, would we consider that a morally righteous act?  Of course not!  If it were, we can infringe on peoples' rights all the time. When you are taking money from a working man's pocket to feed another man, I don't care what your intentions are.  At that point, you have crossed the line between charity and thievery.    

The final issue is that from a historical perspective, America has had a relatively short history of government-based entitlement programs. This “welfare mentality” of the government began with FDR’s installation of Social Security during the Great Depression, continued with the War on Poverty and the creation of Medicare and Medicaid with LBJ, and expands all the way to our current president. There was a time where we had these institutions called private charities. When private charities existed, they were able to adequately provide with the needs of the poor without having an increase in taxation or governmental interference. And to no shock to me, they had more success. The reason why this is so hard to believe is that we are so accustomed to government being the answer. Does anybody forget that the Founding Fathers thought of government as a necessary evil, and did so for a good reason? As Barry Goldwater put it, “Government should only do what it has to do.” The reason for this insight is that the markets (e.g., the invisible hand) sort everything else out. And because of this nanny state mentality, people have given less to charity. In all sincerity, why would people need to give if the government has it taken care of? Although the percentage of one’s income spent on food has dropped from 20% to 10% in the last half-century (you have to love technology for that advancement), it is amazing to see that the need for these government “services” is higher than ever. Man has dealt with poverty issues long before food stamps came into being, and based on the increase of providing these stamps, poverty clearly hasn’t gone away. The “War on Poverty” is continuing, poverty is kicking our you-know-what, and until we stop these entitlement programs that create government dependency and strife between the haves and have-nots, poverty will remain victorious.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

If You're Not Evil, Does That Automatically Make You Good?

סוּר מֵרָע, וַעֲשֵׂה-טוֹב; בַּקֵּשׁ שָׁלוֹם וְרָדְפֵהוּ.

Depart from evil, and do good; seek peace, and pursue it. -Psalm 34:15

Based on this Psalm, you can get a general idea of where I am going with this question, but let’s delve into it a bit further, and I particularly want to focus on the first part (i.e., "depart evil and do good").

The first part, "depart from evil," is telling us to desist from evil. Rabbi Hillel (Shabbat 31a) points out that age-old adage of “do not do unto others as you would have done unto you. This is the entire Torah. The rest is commentary.” This Talmudic verse, which is heavy with libertarian overtone, is also echoed by Thomas Jefferson when stated that he only cared if you “picked his pocket or broke his leg.” The Sages [in Pirke Avot 1:7] even went as far as saying that you shall not associate with an evil person or live in a neighborhood with evil people. The number of negative commandments from the Torah is 365 [out of the 613].

It should be obvious that negative mitzvot have an important role. If we lived in an “anything goes,” anarchic society, it would ultimately end up being tyranny because “might would be right,” and the strong would rule over the weak. It would be such a moral/social regression if we ignored such simple rules as “don’t steal” or “don’t murder.” For a civilized society to function properly, certain boundaries need to be drawn. That works either for a secular, libertarian society or a Jewish society.

As far as a functioning society goes, are prohibitions sufficient for a well-maintained society? Libertarians would answer “yes.” Libertarians enjoy limited government because the government doesn’t have the right to dictate moral behaviors, or any behavior beyond harming another individual and infringing on his right to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. From a libertarian perspective, which religion you practice does not matter, as long as you abide by the aforementioned description. Although I do believe that the role of government should be severely limited, I find that basing a society solely on prohibitions is insufficient, to say the least simply because the morals in a libertarian world would only be minimalistic.  This is where Judaism parts from libertarianism. 

That being said, we arrive at the second part of analysis, which is to do good. I have come across people who thought they were good simply because they didn’t commit evil. Most people in society would fall under this category of the moralistic spectrum of good and evil. This majority in society is lethargic about political issues unless it affects them personally. The hyper-individualism embraced by most since the counter-culture revolution of the late 1960s has caused many to ignore the plight of their neighbor because they’re too busy making themselves feel better with their self-righteousness caused by an abstract, “feel-good” sentiment of “loving humanity,” which in fact does nothing more than augment one’s sense of smugness and alleged goodness. Ironically enough, those who think they’re good simply because they don’t commit bad acts are ususually highly self-absorbed individuals, and G-d forbid if they actually care about anybody beyond themselves. For those who haven’t quite caught on, this little, tangential diatribe is a societal criticism of what happens when we totally do away with the concept of community and instead, over-emphasize the individual.

To further compound the issue, this complacency is what truly causes conflict in this world. To quote Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, “The opposite of good is not evil. It is indifference. In a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.” One cannot but help to see that this lethargy is what caused Nazi Germany to murder so many innocent people. It was not only Hitler that carried out the Final Solution. It was also millions of indifferent German citizens who did not lift a finger to stop the atrocities that were carried out by their government and merely perpetuated the evils committed.

To summarize thus far, here are a couple of equations to illustrate what I am saying:
Not bad ≠ good

Only Doing Good = Being Good

To bring the issue back to scriptural analysis, sitting back, minding your own business, and only caring about yourself doesn’t make you a good person. In order to live a good life, you have to partake in the second half of the equation, which, as David HaMelech points out, is to actively do good deeds and bring justice to this world. If the purpose of spiritual life was merely to desist from evil, there would be no positive commandments. That is why it is not merely incidental that G-d tells us to pursue justice or to walk in His ways. These imperatives exist because they enhance and refine the individual, as well as society.  Goodness is not a state of being. It’s a life-long culmination of good deeds.  The sooner we realize the importance of actively pursuing good through our deeds, the sooner the world can truly become a better place.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Where Will the Euro Go From Here?

My two cents......seems to be worth more than the Euro these days.  For those of you who don't check the Dow Jones at the end of business like I do, I can tell you that the stock market has taken some serious hits in the past couple of weeks.  Although the news of an increase in unemployment last month was partially to blame, in reality, we are seeing the results of what happens in an interdependent, global economy when one part of the world has an economic crisis.  The potential collapse of the eurozone is such a scenario.  Greece, amongst other countries, have been dealing with high levels of debt, which has caused strikes in their country, as well as major worries about the stability of the European Union.  In turn, this affects the economy on this side of the ocean.  Our stock market went from hovering around 11,000 to 10,000, all in less than of a couple of weeks. 

Just for those who keep score, this has been the growth of the countries in the eurozone since the 1970s [chart courtesy of CATO].  This is for those of you who think the Euro is the best thing since sliced bread:

That is nothing short of a downward trend.  There are two reasons why Europe's GDP has been able to hold on to the welfare state as long as it has.  For one, capitalism had helped Europe accrue lots of money in the 1950s and 1960s, although I'm sure the Marshall Plan helped a bit, in spite of increase of government spending it caused on our end.  The other factor is that Europe really hasn't had to worry about defense spending.  It has had the protection of NATO all these years.  Just as a side note, NATO might as well be a euphemism for "extension of the United States army because most in European armies can't do squat....except maybe for waiving a white flag."  Semi-jokes set aside, Europe has been able to put off facing its economic reality for quite some time.  But with what's going in Greece, Spain, Portugal, and Ireland, and I'm sure many more nations to come, we will see many Europeans questioning whether the Euro will remain a solidifying, economic force on the continent.  I'm not going to predict whether the euro is going to collapse at this time.  However, I will say if the bailout method that so prevalent in the Obama mindset is what the European Union is going to opt for in regards to solving economic disparities between the varying nations within the EU, I can safely reassure you that uphill battles will be aplenty as the EU moves forward.  Oh, and if you're thinking about investing in stocks at all, I'd wait a bit because this isn't over yet...........Dow is presently at 9,974.45.........and shrinking............

Friday, May 21, 2010

Parsha Naso: Dealing with Aestheticism in Judaism

In this week’s Torah portion, we deal with the institution of the vow of the Nazarite. Essentially, the vow of the Nazarite takes on three specific abstentions: wine (which, in essence, is a de facto abstention on alcohol), cutting one’s hair, and coming in contact of a dead body, even to bury your immediate relatives. As the passage describes, those who do so separate themselves for G-d (Numbers 6:2), and as such, are considered holy during all the days of their abstinence (ibid 8).

With this example in mind, the question we have to ask ourselves is whether Judaism places aestheticism as the ideal. As with just about any other Jewish question, the answer invariably is “depends who you ask.” From a historic perspective, I can definitely see how self-denial of material pleasure could have seeped into Judaism. After all, the Gnostics, Manicheans, Christians, and Muslims all have interacted with Jews, and it should not be a surprise if such a common denominator amongst other religious practices could have influenced Jewish thought. As such, many Jews, including many Ashkenazi Jews, Sephardic Jews influenced by Sufi thought, and the Essenes, all brought heavy doses of aestheticism in their daily lives. Maimonides, for instance, writes in Mishneh Torah (Hilchot Nezirut 10:14) writes that “whoever vows to G-d [to become a Nazarite] by way of holiness, does well and is praiseworthy…” It seems Judaism has followed other religions by embracing aestheticism as the spiritual ideal.

The advantage of things merely seeming to be one way is that a perfectly sound counter-argument can be given, which is what I will do right about now.

The first place I will go to is what caused a man to become a nazir in the first place. In order to do so, one has to refer back to scenario in the previous chapter with the sotah (woman suspected of adultery). The reason why the nazir became a nazir in the first place is because he was so traumatized by the sheer embarrassment of the adulteress that he sought a spiritual remedy. As Rashi comments on Numbers 6:2, the reason why one became a nazir was because “whoever sees an adulteress in her disgrace should vow to abstain from wine, for it leads to adultery.” From a contextual perspective, the nazir temporarily goes to one extreme in order to avoid the other extreme, the latter of which Judaism deems as worse.

The next place to head is after the nazir’s vow. The conclusion of the vow is most interesting because the nazir has to make a sin-offering (Numbers 6:13-14). Nachmanides is of the opinion that the sin-offering was made because the nazir ceased his vow. Let’s start with the fact that other rabbis disagree….big surprise there! Rabbi Elizer Hakappar, a Mishnaic teacher, taught that the nazir made the sin-offering for the exact opposite reasoning. As he stated, “[Because G-d declared the world good in Genesis 1], we may infer that if one who denies himself the enjoyment of wine is called a sinner, all the more so one who denies himself the enjoyment of other pleasures of life (Taanit 11a, Nedarim 10a).”

What is more shocking is what Maimonides has to say in Mishneh Torah (Hilchot Deot 3:1), which is that a nazarite is called a sinner because one should only withdraw from that which Torah explicitly forbids. For those of you who caught it, I pointed out earlier that in the very same book, Maimonides called the nazir a holy man. So is a nazir holy or a sinner? Sir Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks opines that this “contradiction” is two well-accepted ways of being Jewish, i.e., the path of the pious chasid and the “golden mean.” Although this is a cute way of trying to reconcile the two, I will have to respectfully disagree with the rabbi, not something I do with R. Sacks, just because like Maimonides, he usually hits the nail on the head.

I have two responses to this contradiction. The first is to recognize the style of Maimonides. Maimonides was writing to two audiences: the “uneducated masses” and the elite who understood such things philosophy and science. Many have opined that the latter is what Maimonides really wanted to say because he was an intellectual elitist, which is one of the main reasons why I admire him so. The fact that most people cannot understand what Maimonides put forth as “the true meaning of Torah” is the reason for the two audiences. Hence, I would argue that the “nazir being holy” is for the masses, whereas “the nazir being a sinner” is an explanation for the more educated, which leads to my second response. The nazir is simultaneously being holy and sinful, which seems peculiar. However, I can clarify my statement. The nazarite is holy in the sense that he took such conviction, even to that extreme, to avoid adultery. On the other hand, Maimonides called him a sinner because the nazir could not be adult enough to truly understand the purpose of physical pleasure within the greater picture.  The Maimonidean concept of the "golden mean," it seems, is not being upheld by the nazir.

When you look at the context of the entire system of mitzvahs, what you see is a balance between two extremes. On the one hand, you have the hedonism that was so prevalent amongst pagans. On the other hand, you have the aestheticism of the Christians that talks about the “sins of flesh.” As if it were a surprise, Judaism takes the middle ground. On the one hand, there are certain things that a Jew is prohibited from doing, such as eating pork, putting a stumbling block before the blind, and murder. Even with a certain degree of self-denial in Judaism, you have many positive commandments, i.e., what action(s) should you take.

Upon analyzing Leviticus 19:2, which states that “Be holy, for I, Hashem am holy,” Rabbi Mordechai Gifter realized that just as G-d is intimately involved in every aspect of the physical world, so too must we be involved in that respect. Although many in the traditional Jewish circles translate kadosh as “holy [in the sense of separateness],” one can also translate kadosh as distinct. In short, as a Jew, one is supposed to be able to distinguish between the mundane and the holy. With R. Gifter’s insight in mind, the way to bring spirituality into one’s live is to elevate the physical from the mundane to the spiritual.

Let us take the wine as an example, since it is so pertinent to the Torah portion. Upon drinking wine, you can take three paths. One can be to just fulfill a physical desire, which is mundane. The second is to abuse the wine and have your belligerently intoxicated self do crazy things like commit adultery, which goes back to Rashi’s interpretation. We do, however, have a third option. We can take something as seemingly mundane as an alcohol-based grape juice, say a blessing over it with kavannah (e.g., intent, spiritual direction) and elevate it to something higher. Ideally, this is what the Jew seeks to do in his daily life, whether that be with what he eats, wears, how he gives money to charitable causes, talks to people, or even how he “loves his neighbor.” Rather than life being some mundane boredom to drudge through, Judaism makes us ask “how can I elevate this to holiness?” “How can I interact with the physical world to fuse it together with G-dliness?”

Therefore, rather than seeing the nazir as some Jewish spiritual ideal, the nazir is a temporary, concessionary vow that keeps one from going off the deep end. However, the sin-offering was instituted to remind the nazir that his immaturity of not being able to distinguish between hedonism and serving the higher, ideal purpose of bringing G-dliness to this world by interacting with the physical.

Shabbat Shalom!

Hamas vs. Fatah

Last night, I was fortunate enough to hear Jonathan Schanzer speak about Middle Eastern politics.  Having brought him to speak at my alma mater back in October 2007, I knew I was going to get a serious, veracious analysis of what is going on in that part of the world, something I know I can never expect from the Obama administration. 

Although he started his talk with discussion on Iran and the nuclear threat, I was more interested to hear what he had to say on the "Arab-Israeli" conflict.  I found his approach to the conflict fresh because it struck at the root of the problem.  He didn't blame the lack of "peace progress" on settlements, pre-1967 borders, or even the fact that the Palestinians are hate-mongering anti-Semites who bring up their children to perpetuate the animosity towards Israel.  He brought up an essential question, which is "What is Palestine?  Who exactly represents Palestine?"  Shockingly enough, there is not "one, unified Palestine," a fact that the media would sooner rather ignore.  In his book, Hamas vs. Fatah, which I highly recommend you read because it's a well-written piece of non-fiction, Schanzer illustrates in great detail (much further than I will touch upon here, which is why you should read the book) the historical development of two separate entities: Gaza and West Bank.

Although this separation was not that well pronounced until after the Six Day War, the divisions became quite clear after Hamas became a political movement in 1987.  Since then, there has been civil strife between Hamas [in Gaza] and Fatah [in the West Bank].  I'm not just talking about a polite disagreement while social elitists are drinking tea with phony British accents.  We are talking about straight-up civil war and action against one's own "countrymen." 

The way the media inaccurately portrays it, you'd think that Palestine is a single, unified force that is angry at Israel where they throw rocks at IDF soldiers and strap bombs to themselves while walking in a pizza parlor and letting it detonate.  If Palestine is not a single entity, it begs an important question.  Aside from a piece of land thirty kilometers wide, also known as Israel, separating the two on a geographical level, what else distinguishes the two?  Their approach to Israel, for one.  Don't be mistaken--both would love nothing more than to see Israel wiped off the map.  The difference is how they negotiate with Israel.  Hamas doesn't negotiate with Israel, whereas Fatah does it when it's expedient.  Hamas has a religious bent to it, whereas Fatah has a secular, nationalistic bent.  Even their languages are different.  Gazans speak with an Egyptian dialect, whereas the West Bankers speak with a Jordanian dialect.  Even their economies have been influenced by their Arab neighbors.  Jordan heavily invested in the West Bank, and as a result, their economy is better, not to mention the fact that there was more economic interaction between Israel and West Bank than there ever has been between Israel and Gaza.  Egypt, on the other hand, never really cared all that much for Gaza.  Consequently, Gaza has a lousier economy. 

The fact that the world treats "Palestine" as one entity is a denial of reality.  There are two quasi-autonomous entities: Hamas and Fatah.  Accepting the reality of the political atmosphere is of utmost importance because with awareness of the current situation, you at least know how far you have until the endpoint.  But until that time, peace in the Middle East is nothing more than a pipe dream.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

A Humble Attempt to Deal with G-d and Omnipotence

When I was visiting my Christian friend, who happens to be a Fundamentalist Baptist, out in Denver a couple weeks ago, we were engaging in religious polemics, which is not a surprise at all to me. I was trying to explain to him the Jewish concept of G-d, how G-d is infinite, and consequently, incorporeal. Obviously, this descriptive was incongruent to his theology. When I gave him the description of apophatic theology, he threw a question at me, and it’s been bugging me since.  He asked me, “Are you saying that G-d can't do anything, that He's limited in some way?” For those of you who understand G-d from a Jewish perspective, you can understand how this question brought me to a pause.

Fortunately for me, I am not the first one to be troubled by this question. I say “fortunate” because it means that I can refer to men much wiser than myself while grappling with this inquiry. This dilemma has been thought of so often that it comes with its own name—it’s called the omnipotence paradox. Essentially, the omnipotence paradox addresses what an all-powerful being can do, including whether an all-powerful being can render himself powerless. The most cliché example of this paradox is this: Can an omnipotent being create a stone so heavy that it cannot lift it? In more general terms, one asks whether an infinite being can self-limit.

This is difficult to understand, considering that I have taken on the Jewish concept of G-d, which is a perfect, incorporeal, eternal, Infinite Oneness. Based on this definition, G-d couldn’t become a human because that would make G-d imperfect, not to mention finite. As such, omnipotence seems to put a damper into the Jewish notion of G-d. What I offer are three responses to this paradox. I want to point out that the latter two responses have significant overlap with one another.

1) Being finite beings ourselves, we are unable to grasp the nature of an infinite being. His awesomeness is just too much for us to fathom, even with something as paradoxical as this. To paraphrase Job, “If I were G-d, I’d be G-d.” However, I’m a Jew with a rationalist bent, and that answer doesn’t satisfy my intellectual curiosity. Although I am a man who does his utmost to humble himself before G-d, I also realize that life isn’t worth living if you don’t use the intellect that G-d gave you.

2) If G-d can be all of these other things (i.e., incorporeal, eternal, infinite, unity, perfection), and if omnipotence is what is causing the conflict, throw omnipotence out of the equation. Why isn’t it sufficient to say that G-d is exceptionally powerful, more powerful than any finite being could be? Can you not still be in awe of G-d because He created the universe and keeps sustaining the laws necessary to keep us going? 

And if G-d could “do anything,” I would find that even more perturbing. If "G-d could do anything," that means G-d could do things like be prone to harm, become spiteful and take it out on others, fall down and scrape His knee, contract cancer, sin, murder others, kill Himself, die, or even turn Himself into a cockroach (all of this, of course, being followed with a whole-hearted "G-d forbid").  It's safe to say that G-d having the hypothetical possibility to become imperfect and finite is much more troubling to me than saying that the one thing G-d cannot do is become finite.

Side note for those who are Jewish: If you look at Maimonides' Thirteen Principles of Belief, which is the closest thing one gets to dogma in Judaism (and I only say that because there were some "principles" with which Maimonides himself didn't even agree), omnipotence is not listed on there.

3) We don’t understand the true meaning of power. You can say to me: “If G-d can’t drive a car, then that’s something G-d can’t do.” But then I will ask you, in kind, what driving a car is. Driving a car is getting from point A to point B. The fact that you have to be dependent on a hunk of metal to transport you is a weakness, mainly because you are limited spatially. Even extorting people for money is a form of weakness. The reason I say that is because if you have to do that, you either have self-esteem issues or you need the money. No matter what your excuse for extortion is, you cannot maintain independence in the truest sense. Whatever we consider “true power” is in fact a concession to weakness. Even any form of “power” which is construed as an imitation of G-d (such as an act of loving-kindness) is a diluted, limited form of power. We can never know the true meaning of power. To reiterate, if I knew G-d, I’d be G-d.

I’m glad to finally feel [a degree of] resolution on this paradox because it’s nice not to lose shuteye over this anymore.  I have a feeling that many will have a problem with this blog entry because they feel that if G-d were not omnipotent, it would diminish Him in some way.  As I have stated, it's the other way around.  By declaring him not omnipotent, you actually make G-d greater because of it.  Omnipotence is overrated, and I have no problem whatsoever saying so because if G-d were omnipotent, the house of cards that is known as G-dliness would be-a-tumblin’.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Accepting Israel as the Jewish State

I like Daniel Pipes.  His latest op-ed piece, Accepting Israel as the Jewish State, reminds me why.  Particularly after Yom Yerushalayim, you think about the cause of the "Middle Eastern conflict."  It has nothing to do with settlements or nothing to do with pre-1967 borders.  If they want land so badly, there are other surrounding Arabic countries that can give them more than plenty.  It is the hatred that Palestinians feel for the existence of a Jewish state.  If your feelings are so strong about that, then a concession can clearly never be made for its existence.  What I was surprised about was that 20% of Palestinians support a Jewish state, a number I thought was a bit high myself.  But even if it is that high, the challenge is getting that 20% mobilized enough where they can make 20% grow to 60%, as Pipes points out.  Short of troop invasion, which would surely backfire, it's difficult to say how one could stop the Palestinian PR machine that constantly portrays Israel as the most demonic entity in history.  If anybody has any constructive thoughts or solutions on the matter, I'd love to hear it because quite frankly, this conflict has been going on long enough.....and that's even in spite of my previous posting.     

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Jews & Muslims: When and How Did They Go Their Separate Ways?

This was the title of an Adult Education course that my rabbi held yesterday.  Although I do commend my rabbi for explaining the history of how Jewish people have lived in Muslim society, i.e., dhimmi status and Judeo-Muslim relations from the Spanish Golden age up to the creation of the modern state of Israel, it still begs the question of what initially caused the friction between the two.  To better acquire an answer, I will look in two places: Jewish texts and Muslim texts.

Jewish Tradition

It was interesting because one time, I was having a conversation with my חַזָּן‎ about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  He told me, "You want to know when it [the conflict] began?  It wasn't with the creation of the state of Israel.  It goes back to Yishmael and Yitzchak (Isaac)."  When I was initially told that, it took me aback to think that such a conflict goes all the way back to the book of Genesis.  But after looking at the Jewish texts, it makes sense.  What one has to keep in mind is that Muslims can trace their ancestry back to Yishmael, just as the Jewish people trace theirs back to Yitzchak. 

A few important things that can be said about Yishmael.  In Genesis 21:20, we read that Yishmael was an accomplished archer.  There is a Midrash (Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer, ch. 30) that expounds upon that by telling us that Yishmael was born with a bow, meaning that bloodshed does not merely come from training, but is something innate.  Other texts illustrate this by saying that he got this from his mother, Hagar, who wanted to be free from the restraints of civilization (Bereishit Rabbah 45:9, Sforno on Bereishit Rabbah 16:6,8). 

When reading about the covenant with Ishmael in the book of Genesis, we see that G-d promises a few things: that his descendants will be one great (not necessarily good) nation (17:20), but more importantly, that he will be antagonistic to everyone, including his brothers (16:12).  It is worth noting that the phrase used to describe Yishmael is פֶּרֶא אָדָם, which is best translated as an uncivilized man.  R. Samson Hirsch explains that פֶּרֶא אָדָם denotes a man liberated from the confines of social order. “His hand against everyone” means that Ishmael removes himself from the laws of society. As he sets about fulfilling his wishes at any cost, chaos ensues (ibid).  Even the Chofetz Chayim (Peninim MiShulchan Gavoha on Berishit, p. 78) had the following to say about Yishmael, the פֶּרֶא אָדָם:

The Torah is eternal.  When the Torah tells us that Yishmael is a פֶּרֶא אָדָם, it means that he will remain that way forever.  Therefore, any attempt by the "cultured" nations of the world to civilize him will be unsuccessful because Yishmael is uncivilized.  Woe, who knows what this פֶּרֶא אָדָם is yet likely to do to the Jewish nation at the end of days.

Looking at the Jewish texts, it seems to be stating that any pre-Messianic attempt to "give peace a chance" is futile, not to mention that it has thus far predicted the overall friction between the two religions. 

Islamic Tradition

Although the conflict between Yishmael and Yitzchak goes back way before the creation of the religion of Islam, it definitely gives some context of what ensues within the life of Mohammed.  To make a long story short, Mohammed was a merchant, but one day, he allegedly was given divine revelation in a cave by the Angel Gabriel.  He then felt the need to deliver his version of monotheism to the world.  During his travels, he had come across many Christians and Jews, but he had particularly been inspired by the Jews.  That is why prayer was in the direction of Jerusalem and he kept kashrut, amongst other Jewish rituals.  His admiration for Judaism, however, dissipated when the great majority of Jews rejected his "Arab version of Judaism," and rightly so.  The result--Mohammed's animosity.  He changed the direction of prayer to be towards Mecca rather than Jeruslaem.  Short of the prohibition on the consumption of blood and pork, he did away with kashrut.  And he also did away with the Sabbath being the holiest day of the week and moved it to Friday.  His animosity was coupled with the fact that he had eventually gained enough momentum by 622 CE to acquire a military force. 

Before continuing, I have to make a note of how certain things are abrogated (abrogation is based on the Qu'ran 2:106) in the Qu'ran.  When reading the Qu'ran, one has to realize that the book is not in chronological order.  Although there is some dispute as to the exact chronological order, one thing I have found is that Sura 5 and Sura 9, the chapters describing Jews and Christians in a negative fashion, as well as the infamous verse, 9:29, describing an external, global jihad with unbelievers, are chronologically at the end of Mohammed's "revelation."  This means that any peaceful verses one would find from Mohammed's earlier days would have been abrogated by his violent ones.  Even if one rejects the Qu'ran as divine, the progression of his hatred towards the unbeliever makes sense.  As more Jews [and Christians] reject his version of monotheism, he becomes more embittered by their denial of Mohammed.  As his army grows, he is able to better exhibit his anger because he doesn't have to play nice anymore. 

Mohammed's view of the kafir, the unbeliever, has to make us pause.  In the Qu'ran, it is said that a kafir is an antagonist (3:28), ignorant (6:111), untrustworthy (5:54), arrogant (35:42-43, 40:76), a liar (51:9-10), disgraced (37:18), meriting of punishment (2:88, 68:44), a partner of Satan (2:168-169, 25:55), unclean (9:28), and as a result, will burn in hell (98:6).  Because the kafir is "so despised in the 'eyes of Allah'," the kafir can be hated (40:35), enslaved (Bukhari 5,58,148), raped (Ishaq 759), mocked (83:34), punished (25:77), beheaded (47:4), plotted against (86:15), terrorized (8:12), killed (4:91, 6:45), crucified (5:33), faught in jihad (9:29), and humiliated, most notably via a jizya, which is a burdensome poll tax (ibid).  When going through the Qu'ran, approximately 94% of all references of "going to Hell" say that you merit it because you disagree with Mohammed, which means that being Jewish doesn't make you "O.K. with Allah."  Talk about reassuring....

Even if you decide to ignore that these verses exist or that they have been taken out of context, it cannot be denied that these verses have been used to treat the non-believer horribly throughout history.  When the Muslims conquered a given land, they gave the "People of the Book" three options: die, convert, or be given status of dhimmi. For those who don't know what dhimmi status is, it is a subservient pact that allows a non-believer to live in a Muslim world as a non-believer.  This pact, however, came with many humiliating provisions.  For instance, one had to pay the jizya.  Distinctive clothing, most notably a yellow badge, had to be worn.  A Jew was not permitted to have a synagogue could ever be higher than a mosque, not to mention that they could ever build new synagogues.  A Jew could never give evidence in a Muslim court.  A Jew could not inherit from a Muslim.  A Jew did not have a right to bear arms.  These are just some restrictions placed on the Jew, as well as the Christian.  Although all prohibitions were not applied equally or universally, it is safe to say that the typical Muslim believed that the Jew [and the Christian] was inferior to the Muslim.  Even though this view should have died along with the Middle Ages, it still unfortunately permeates in the minds of many Muslims.

Conclusion:  This treatise was written to better understand the origin of Judeo-Muslim tension.  As for any attempt to ameliorate the conflict between the two religions, I guess we'll have to save that discussion for another time.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Genesis 1:27-"Created in His Image" and What It Means to Develop a Relationship with G-d

וַיִּבְרָא אֱלֹהִים אֶת-הָאָדָם בְּצַלְמוֹ, בְּצֶלֶם אֱלֹהִים בָּרָא אֹתוֹ

And G-d created man in His own image, in the image of G-d created He him. -Genesis 1:27

Created in His image. I had always perceived that to be awkward phraseology. What exactly does it mean to be created in His image? Off hand, I can tell you what it doesn’t mean. It certainly doesn’t refer to the Christian concept that G-d is man (or vice versa, sometimes you just can’t tell which one it is). But you might say to me, “what else can image possibly mean? It’s what the Bible says.”

First, let me just say that is not what the Bible says. The best translation for the word is not image, but form. As Maimonides brings up in Guide for the Perplexed (1:2), there are two words in the biblical Hebrew that signify form. The first word, תאר, refers to a physical form. תאר is used in such verses as Genesis 39:6, 1 Samuel 28:14, and Judges 8:18, are all references to a form in a physical sense.

On the other hand, the word צלם means form in a more abstract sense. The word צלם denotes non-physical similarity. Let's look back at the top of the blog entry and look at the word which is used in the text, which, by the way is צלם.  If G-d wanted to state that He had a physical form and that we were "molded" in that fashion, He would have used the word תאר.  But since He used the word צלם, it cleary references something else.

So, if “in His image” does not refer to a physical similarity, to what does it refer? In Jewish tradition, most enounced in the Kabbalistic world, humans have two souls: an animal soul and a G-dly (or divine) soul. Whether you see it as two distinct entities or the soul merely as one entity with two facets is irrelevant. The point that Jewish tradition accurately points out is that we are part animal and part divine. Since we know that this cannot be referring to a physical image, this begs the question of what separates us from the animals, i.e., what does it mean to be G-dly or G-d-like.

Rabbi Obadiah Sforno comments that being “in His image” means that we are endowed with free will. Animals are creatures that solely act on impulse and instinct. Animals lack the self-restraint that humans have. We are able to make choices. Of course, this is not the choice between chocolate and vanilla ice cream. True free will is the ability to choose between right and wrong. Each action we take is of utmost importance because it either brings us closer or distances us from G-d. That is why Judaism strongly believes that what we do "in the here and now" matters greatly.

As stated above, Maimonides certainly didn’t believe in the corporeality of G-d. For him, “created in His image” meant something else. Unlike animals, we humans are creatures capable of rationality, logic, profound thought, and common sense. From a Maimonidean perspective, “His image” refers to humans not only having divine-like intelligence, but also the duty to use it. With this ultra-rationalism in mind, it is no accident that Maimonides believed that what most people in religious circles call “divine providence” is the usage of the intelligence that G-d gave humans.

Concluding thoughts: Do R. Sforno’s thoughts contradict Maimonides’ thoughts? Absolutely not! What we see are two different, but nevertheless equally Jewish manifestations of what it means to “be created in His image.” Since Judaism strongly stresses the incorporeality, and thus the infinitude, of G-d, there is no way to directly connect to G-d. Stating that one can directly connect with G-d is nothing short of heresy.

[Just as a side note, some of you might find my usage of the term heresy as harsh. The definition of heresy is the rejection of an already accepted belief. Although Judaism is more action oriented than other religions, it nevertheless holds certain beliefs, the two most notable ones being G-d’s existence and G-d’s infinitude. Historically, there is much debate and discussion amongst other Jewish beliefs, such as the belief in resurrection, but these two concepts are decidedly Jewish, and any deviation from them are, by definition, heresy.]

This, however, does not mean we cannot have a meaningful relationship with G-d. It just means that any connection made with G-d has to be done indirectly.

R. Sforno and Maimonides actually provide us with the two methods of indirectly developing a strong relationship with G-d. R. Sforno shows us that the way to develop G-d is via imitatio Dei. By partaking in the mitzvot, not only do we elevate our mundane actions to a divine level, but we grasp a sense of divinity by “walking in His ways.” Let us add a Maimonidean twist to this concept. Maimonides did not view the mitzvot as either G-d-oriented or man-oriented. To say that G-d needs us to perform a mitzvah, or anything for that matter, is tantamount to saying G-d is lacking something, which, of course, is heretical. That is why Maimonides divides the mitzvot into two categories: that which refines the individual, and that which refines society as a whole. The former is what most Jews would call “divinely oriented commandments.” Maimonides obtained this idea through the Midrash that the purpose of Torah is to refine man, which I agree with. This idea aggravated, and to a large extent, still aggravates many. Aside from the fact that so many people want to have an unfeasibly direct connection to G-d, this also breaks the Jewish concept of a chuk, i.e., a Jewish law that was “created without reason.”

Aside from knowing G-d through His commandments, we can also develop an indirect relationship with G-d another way. Maimonides would call that “knowing G-d” through His works via divine intellect. Rather than science being an impediment to religiosity, I have always found it to be an enhancement to understanding the divine. Just looking at the complexity of a cell or that of an eyeball alone can show us the wonder and splendor of the divine. Understanding cosmology, physics, and other sciences help us understand His creations. We do have to keep in mind that Maimonides was a scientist, and thought the study of science was the way to study Torah. For him, if there seems to be a conflict between the two, you either don’t understand science or don’t understand the Torah. Although I agree with Maimonides when he says that understanding science is a way of understanding Torah, I also opine that the use of divine intellect goes beyond natural sciences. It has to permeate in every study, whether that would be history, politics, economics, or the usage of common sense and wisdom in our daily lives because even in those areas, one can see divinity.

By imitating G-d and by using the divine intellect that G-d gave us, we can indirectly develop a relationship with G-d by truly understanding what it means to be created in His image.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Studying Foreign Theologies: Is It Idolatry?

For those of you who know me, I'm not exactly the world's biggest Chabad fan.  I find certain methodological issues with their approaches (which I'm not going to get into here because that would involve a separate blog entry), and many times after talking to them about Judaism, I usually feel like banging my head against the wall.  That set aside, I figured that I'd give their Daily Mitzvah study a try.  The one for Friday, May 7th, was on Rambam's 10th negative commandment, which is whether it is acceptable to study foreign theologies.  Chabad's answer was an emphatic "no," as if that would have been a surprise to me.

From a historical perspective, I find Chabad's conclusion to be highly fallacious.  Maimonides, after all, did a degree of such studying.  He was a Jew in an Islamic caliphate.  He even wrote on his two cents about Christianity and Christendom, which is hard to do if you are supposed to be forbidden from studying foreign theologies.  It either means that Maimonides broke one of the very laws that he laid down for the general population, or *surprise surprise,* Chabad is once again incorrect.  I'm willing to go with the latter on this one.

This goes beyond the Haredi community's authoritarian attempt to keep their congregants on their "narrow path" to make sure they don't leave the community.  This mentality goes against the first commandment on the Decalogue, which is also the first of the Six Constant Mitzvot: Know there is a G-d (Exodus 20:2).  As R. Noah Weinberg, z"tl points out:

We should not believe in God "on faith" alone. Investigate the evidence. Get knowledge. Research. Study. Analyze. It is a fundamental principle of Judaism: You have to know, not just believe.

Guess what this entails?  Studying foreign theologies.  Being in a world in which dissemination of information is unprecedented, we are faced with conflicting ideologies and religions.  You can't just say "I have the truth" without listening to others.  On the other hand, this doesn't mean we give equal credence to each ideology.  For instance, I can eliminate Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism, Daoism, and Shintoism from the list because there is not a shred of positive evidence confirming anything they have to say.  Even in the secular world, such crock pot theories as Communism can be dismissed because every time it has been implemented has been proven to be a total failure.

Part of knowing the truth is knowing that others don't know what the truth is.  For me, it's not a matter of subjective "oh, I wish it were true, but I'm going to ignore everything in front of me."  That level of irrationality is a denial of truth, and subsequently, a denial of G-d.

Some people in Chabad might realize that, as Jack Nicholson put it, people can't handle the truth, which can potentially be the reason why Chabad adds such stringency.  Their approach ultimately becomes a double-edged sword.  Yes, Jews might wander off to other religions because "it feels good," or they cannot stand whatever burdens an ultra-Orthodox lifestyle might thrust upon them, and abandoning Judaism is bad.  However, by taking the mentality that studying other theologies is idolatry is, ironically enough, an idolatry in itself because knowing, not just whimsically believing on some flighty notion of faith, that G-d exists is the foundation of Judaism.

So yes, other theologies need to be studied so they can be disproved.  The search for truth is what Judaism is all about.  That is why it takes a certain level of intellect to pursue it.  Since most people don't have it (trust me, Maimonides would agree with me regarding people's intelligence), it is best to find someone who has the intellectual capacity to help you walk through the complexities and nuances that reality throw out.  May you objectively seek truth in all your endeavors!

Friday, May 7, 2010

Wearing American Flags on Cinco de Mayo Causes Trouble

This past Cinco de Mayo, five students at Live Oaks High School, a predominantly Hispanic high school, decided to wear shirts with American flags.  Initially, the vice principal, who happened to be Hispanic, told he boys, one of them who happened to have Hispanic heritage, to turn their shirts inside out because they were "incendiary." The boys refused.  So what did the school officials decide to do? Send them home!

What do I find wrong with this whole scenario?  A violation of First Amendment rights, for starters.  If students of Mexican origin want to show Mexican pride, that's your prerogative.  But to force your pride onto somebody else like that is nothing short of the double standards that we see in affirmative action (better known as reverse discrimination) and any other politically correct, societal discourse in racism.

Second, I am willing to bet that most, if not all, of the students who were "offended" by these T-shirts were American citizens themselves.  Aside from the fact that they cannot distinguish between nationality and ethnicity, what it does is help divisiveness permeate throughout.  What do I mean by that?  By being "offended" and having their elders affirm their "right to be offended" (for the record, no such "right" exists in the Constitution), they inculcate into them that they're somehow not "American enough" or that being American is so tertiary to them that their being American is of no importance. Capriciously throwing the race card around and letting these students get away ultimately perpetuates the very "racial wars" about which they bemoan in the first place because what the Left (or Chicano groups) imply is that they are too emotionally fragile to maturely handle such issues, which is nothing more than a politically correct form of racism.

Finally, if a sizable ethnic minority were to pull this stunt in any other country, they would, at the least, be dismissed as unpatriotic ignoramuses, and at most, would be shot for treasonous behavior.  Obviously, this is akin to having the Hispanic population force Spanish on the rest of American society with bilingualism.  Even though I'm fluent in Spanish, I still get annoyed when I hear "Oprima número dos para español." But why would I be annoyed?  For one, although I recognize that America doesn't have an official language, I also recognize that the language that has been used throughout the American history for public interactions has overwhelmingly been English.  It is also annoying because it's a slap in the face of the host country.  Think of the example of the "boorish American tourist."  One of the main reasons that the American tourist is stereotypically considered boorish is because he never took the time to learn the language of the host country.  If 100,000 Americans moved to Argentina and demanded to the Argentinian government that everything be changed into English to better fit their needs, you can imagine the reaction.

When I taught ESL back in high school, I did meet Hispanics who genuinely wanted to learn the English language because they wanted to be able to interact in their host country.  Even though I recognize that there are many Hispanics that want to learn English because it will give them a socio-economic boost, I also recognize that a large minority (or even a slight majority) of Hispanics in this country expect to be linguistically coddled.  If you want to speak Spanish in your own home, watch Telemundo, and maintain your heritage, I am all for that!  Ethnic pride is great, and one of the great things about America is that we live in a nation in which we can respect other peoples' differences.  I can tell you that no nation in Europe has been able to foster such an open policy when it comes to diversity.  However, don't let that interfere with interacting with others in a civil manner.  So if you're Hispanic, and if having respect for America and those who decide to be patriotic is too difficult for you to handle, you can always take your Mexican pride and hightail it south of the border.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Arizona's Immigration Law: My Two Cents on the Whole Matter

One of the brouhahas in the news lately has been about a recent bill passed in Arizona (SB 1070), that states that Arizona police can question somebody about their immigration status upon “reasonable suspicion.” I would first like to state that the federal government already has such laws on the books. What Arizona has done is made it a crime on a state level, and what’s more, is that because Arizonians are fed up with illegal immigration, they’ll actually enforce the law. Second of all, Arizona is able to do so within the scope of Ninth and Tenth Amendments (i.e., since it’s not explicitly stated within the Article of the Constitution for the federal government to handle the matter, it goes to the states).  Plus, the law was supported by 70% of Arizonians.  For some reason, I would imagine that living on the border and having to deal with it day-by-day gives a little more credence than some putz on the Left by grossly offending people by erroneous analogizing this law with Nazi Germany, thereby diminishing the horrors that those in the Holocaust went through.  But I only digress.....slightly.....     

Personally, I am glad that somebody is saying ¡ya basta! to the fact there are millions of people who are here illegally. Yes, we’re still a nation of laws, and if you break a law, you are a criminal. Is it really any different if you’re pulled over by the police and you don’t have your driver’s license? I don’t think so!

I find a few issues with the approach of the whole immigration issue, and it has nothing to do with the state of Arizona actually deciding to actually confronting the issue rather than pretending as if one didn’t exist.

The biggest issue I have is with a lack of border enforcement. We’re worried about some non-existent enemy in Afghanistan while in the same breath, we cannot even defend ourselves when an even bigger problem sits right on our Southern border, especially in light of the narco-terrorism that is plaguing Mexico. Put up a huge fence and make sure that nobody crosses. If the defender in a soccer game is doing his job, there theoretically is no need for a goalie.  Or here's another way of saying this: if we had a fence up in the first place, none of this would have become an issue.

This, of course, is only a short-term solution.

Securing the border needs to be coupled with a temporary worker program. Why do I say that? Because the United States has had this issue in its recent memory—during the 1950s. During the mid-1950s, there was rampant illegal immigration. When border security was combined with a temporary worker program, illegal immigration dropped 95%. If we did this, we’d see a shrinking underground economy. Furthermore, by making the Mexicans citizens, it would force them to pay taxes, at least in theory.

The reason why these two initiatives wouldn’t work in practice is because of how our already-burdensome tax system is set up. The lower half of Americans does not pay any taxes. If we absorb newly arrived Mexicans into our economy, they will expand upon the lower half because just about everybody who crosses the border to begin with is unskilled labor. At least with the immigrants that came into Ellis Island in the 19th and early 20th centuries, they were actually skilled labor, i.e., they were able to make positive contributions to the advancement of America. The reason why I make a distinction between skilled and unskilled labor is that skilled labor is more likely to advance upward [i.e., they won’t be stuck in poverty anymore].

Although a temporary worker program with secure borders sounds nice, it has to contend with one huge obstacle that they didn’t have back in the 1950s—dependency on government. Thanks to schmucks like LBJ, and more recently, Obama, we have created a society which is dependent on such “services,” if you can call them that, as Medicare, Social Security, welfare, free public education, the list goes on. Since these hypothetically absorbed workers would be lower-class because they are unskilled, the only thing they would do is expand the Nanny State’s already pervasive role, thereby causing further debt for America.

A temporary worker program with the status quo will only exacerbate the situation. Until more Americans get furious at a much higher furor about dependency on government, expanding deficits, and increasing invasiveness of the government, most Americans will view the Mexicans coming over to the United States as a socio-economic burden rather than people who just want a decent life for their families.