Friday, July 23, 2010

Why The Left Should Support Israel, But Doesn't

I normally don't read the Huffington Post, mostly because I've actually met Ariana Huffington in person and I can safely say that sound political analysis is not her forte.  Needless to say, I came across an article on the website by Alan Krinsky entitled Eight Reasons Leftists Should Support Israel.  He goes into reasons, such as human rights, the respect for human dignity, anti-authoritarianism, and peace, to support Israel.  These should be reasons that all humans should support Israel, but that's a semi-tangent. 

Support for Israel just makes sense, at least if you know your history, can get past the pro-Palestinian media, and still have a moral compass.  However, as I have explained before, Israel is a symbol that many on the Left ignore.  Israel is a geo-political embodiment of everything the Left despises, whether that would be capitalism, nationalism, or the right to self-defense.  The "Arabi-Israeli conflict" is a need for those on the Left to partake in wealth and land redistribution on an international level.  For them, it's not enough to do it here at home and exacerbate this economy.  They have to go about and demonize the only democratic nation-state in the Middle East that actually protects freedoms.  I hope that many on the Left, like Pilar Rahola, realize the importance of being on the Left and supporting Israel.  Support of Israel is something that should transcend being on a certain side of the political spectrum.  It's sad when you have a statistical probability of predicting somebody's support for Israel solely on knowing whether they fall to the Left or the Right on the political spectrum.  May the Left follow the example of Rahola and Krinsky so there can be the proper unity to bring freedom and democracy to nations everywhere.   

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Complexities of Immigration Reform

My last blog entry on the costs of illegal immigration sparked a nice, lively debate with one of my friends.  After going back and forth for a while, he finally said something that struck me "I can't think of an ideal immigration policy."  As someone who defines himself as more of a realist, I'll sidestep unadulterated idealism for a moment.  But what I think my friend was trying to say was that the issue is not that cut and dry.  And I agree with him.  This is not a simple matter of "keep them all out (deportation)" or "let them all in (amnesty)."  Both of those extremes are, at the very least, foolish.  Finding this "ideal" is difficult because there are many factors in play here.  To name a few:
  • We are in a country that is not enforcing its own immigration laws.  At best, it is a highly inconsistent process.  When we cannot even enforce our own immigration laws, it sends a pretty clear message for those who want to cross illegally--it's not illegal if you don't get caught, and it's easier than ever.  Although the circumstances that led to their illegal entry were rough (see next point below), this sort of behavior can easily seep into all facets of life.  That is why crime is a legitimate concern brought up by opponents of amnesty.  We need to send the message that we are a nation of laws, which is why enforcement of these immigration laws would be a good place to start.  If those crossing the borders know we actually do something about it, they will more likely be deterred from crossing the border. 
  • We are in a country whose prioritization in national security is out of whack.  We care more about what is going on thousands of miles away in Afghanistan than we care about the narco-terrorism that has been going on in Mexico for the past four years.....right next door!  If you don't think this is affecting the quality of life in Mexico, think again!  If you were living in poverty and had to deal with drug dealers consistently wreaking havoc on your family, I am sure that you would want to find a better life for your family, even if that means sneaking into the United States illegally.  At the very least, we should better enforce the U.S.-Mexican border, and at most, go into Mexico and clean up their mess.  If America has to feel the need to police the world, at least it should start with its neighbors.  At least that way, Mexico would be a better place to live, which would cut out a lot of the incentive for them to move to America. 
  • We are in a country where there is a bunch of red tape.  Our immigration policy is no exception.  Do you realize that, on average, it takes four years to get a green card?  It's tough to become a legal immigrant.  Cutting out red tape would not only cut costs for budgets, but also help our nation become more vibrant with immigration.   
  • We are in a country with an entitlement mentality and a wasteful government.  A large portion of the American budget goes to entitlement programs such as welfare, Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.  Let's also throw in the costs that come with education simply because the amount of money thrown at public education is inefficiently spent.  Focusing on more limited government seems like a challenge since we're dependent on the "nanny state."  But if we actually focused on lowering government spending, those on the Right would have a lot less to gripe about with respects to the costs of illegal immigration and the burden they cause by increased level of taxation. 
  • We are in a country in which we like to pay as little as possible to get as much as possible.  This is especially true for businesses.  Businesses like cheap labor.  Why pay a guy the minimum wage when you can pay an illegal half of that?  Not only does it distort the supply and demand of labor, but it also makes businesses lazy.  If you cut corners in this area, then it would make sense to do it in all areas--equipment, overall quality of the work area, proper safety measures.  Profit: the only thing that matters to business owners.  Anything else is of secondary importance.  Although the cynicism might be a bit of an extreme, you have to remember that businesses respond to incentives, mainly that of how to make the most amount of profit.  In short, most businesses will cut corners in one way or the other because ethically sound businesses are a rarity in a nation whose citizenry overall believes that money buys you happiness.  Enforcing business laws, and maybe taking the typical American's focus off of money and avarice, could go a long way in the long-run.  
  • We are in a country in which you can go from rags to riches.  Illegal immigration substantially affects the job market.......if you're poor and uneducated.  If you don't like it, then you should be willing to work hard enough to get a decent education so they can't get your job.  If you're not willing to do that, I don't want to hear you whine about how "they took your job."   
  • We are in a country in which our politicians don't know what they're doing.  Congressional approval rating has been below 20% for quite some time, and the presidential approval rating is below 50%, and Arizona gives Obama a 28% approval rating.  I love this country because the great freedoms it provides are something to truly be proud of.  However, the ineptness of politicians is staggering, and even the average American can realize the poor performance level of our politicans, especially when it comes to this issue.  The difference between a Democrat and a Republican seems to be name in only because all they can bring is disappointment.  Hope and change is what I would like to see in November, but like with the rest of these suggestions, I think I'm asking for too much. 

Thursday, July 15, 2010

שנאת חינם: The Power of Baseless Hatred

Tisha B'Av, which is coming up in less than a week, commemorates a plethora of cataclysmic events that have befallen the Jewish people on the 9th of Av.  The two most important ones are the destructions of the First and Second Temples.  The Bablyonian Talmud, and more specifically Yoma 9b, goes into why each Temple was destroyed:

The First Temple was destroyed because murder, idolatry, and giluy arayot (commonly translated as licentiousness or sexual immorality) were rampant.  The Second Temple, however, was brought down by שנאת חנם, or baseless hatred.     

First, I would like to propose whether the hatred of individuals can provoke the destruction of a Temple.  It can, and it did, especially when that hatred permeated to the highest levels of society and touched the institutional levels.  Right before the destruction of the Second Temple, there was such fragmentation amongst the Jewish people.  Sectarian quarrelling could not even allow one Jew listen and understand their fellow Jew.  Yoma 9b states that the Second Temple should not have fallen because Jews were occupying themselves with Torah, observing the mitzvot, and practicing charity."  However, the hatred was so strong and so prevalent that both from theological and historical perspectives, they brought the demise of the Second Temple. 

I would like to point something out.  First of all, the destruction of the First Temple took three sins.  And these aren't any three sins: these are the three for which, traditionally speaking, one would martyr himself rather than commit it (Sanhedrin 74a).  The Second Temple, on the other hand, took just one sin: שנאת חנם.  Again, the Jews of this time were immersed in Torah and mitzvot (Yoma 9a), but that didn't save them from the ugly fate that came with שנאת חנם. The fact that שנאת חנם is just as powerful as murder, idolatry, and sexual immorality combined shows the immense power of שנאת חנם.

Let's take that a step even further.  Not only do we feel the intensity in the fact that שנאת חנם is as powerful as three grave sins.  The length of the exile caused by each destruction is even more telling.  After the destruction of the First Temple, the Jews were without a Temple for 71 years.  But how about after the destruction of the Second Temple?  Wait a minute......I don't ever recall there being a Third Temple in our time.  As a matter of fact, we have been without a Temple for 1,960 years, and we are still counting.  As of date, the second exile has been going on nearly 28 times longer than the first!
Whether you take this Talmudic passage at face value or not, one thing should be clear--שנאת חנם can have tremendous effects on the world.  We have been in exile 28 times longer than our ancestors who experienced the first exile, and we still can't get it right.  This level of needless, baseless animosity is not healthy for the individual, and it's not healthy for the Jewish people.  We can take this lesson in many ways.  Love your neighbor (Leviticus 19:18). You shall not hate your brother in your heart (ibid 19:17). 

On a day of national mourning, one that is supposed to bring us in touch of national consciousness, we need to realize that this lesson applies to all Jews. When Jews, as a collective whole, can strip away the שנאת חנם, whether it would be with family quarrels, inter-denominational bickering, or even how some Jews feel about non-Jews, when we strip away baseless hatred from ourselves, we can become the "light unto nations," and when we do that, we can hasten the construction of the Third Temple and help bring about the Messianic redemption that we Jews have been desiring for so long.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

A Paradox Within Jewish Blessings, A Paradox Within Myself

I'm sure that I'm not the first person to have this existential angst, you know, the one where you feel that prayer isn't working.  As of late, prayer has become nothing more than a rote exercise in practicing my Hebrew while simultaneously questioning the efficacy of prayer.  I stare at the Hebrew letters in hopes that a spark of divinity will jump out of the pages and cause some miraculous, inner transformation, but all I get are blotches of ink that incidentally make up certain religious thoughts written in Hebrew. 

If prayer cannot even perform a simple task such as permeate my essence, it begs an incredibly important question: is there something essentially wrong with Jewish prayer as a practice, or am I doing something wrong?  Trust me when I say that it's easier to lean towards the former possibility, and I have.  Has the modern form of Jewish prayer become a robotic, insipid act?  Is there something in Jewish prayer that is inherently wrong, or has modernity snipped my spiritual antennas?  I'd be lying if I said that this sort of questioning wasn't adversely affecting my other areas of Jewish life, because it is.  It's inevitable if you're questioning the practice itself.  And I have my fair share to say about the Jewish approach to prayer.  My foremost comment (and the only one that I will express at this time) is that there is a fixed text.  Saying the same prayers three times a day, three-hundred and sixty-five times a year can easily turn into a boring, meaningless act.

I brought this to the attention of my rabbi a couple of days ago because I could sense the grave potential for a slippery slope towards secularism coming from a mile away if I didn't get these issues resolved, or at the very least, addressed. 

So I told him: "Rabbi, I'm sort of going through a crisis. Prayer doesn't speak to me anymore.  As a matter of fact, I don't know if it ever spoke to me in the first place.  There's no kavvanah in my praying because all I am doing is uttering words on a page, and it's all meaningless.  I'm questioning why I'm doing any of this in the first place. What do I do?"

So he sat down with me, grabbed a prayerbook, opened up to a page, and there was the blessing that one says over bread.  He started out with the obvious, which is just about every single Jewish blessing starts off with the following:

ברוך אתה ה' אלוהינו מלך העולם
"Blessed are You Lord, our G-d, King of the Universe......."

"I knew that already!  Tell me something I don't know," I exclaimed to my rabbi.

 "Well," said my rabbi, "I bet you didn't know that this preamble is one big paradox." 

"Really?!" I said.  "Do tell."

His explanation was this.  G-d cannot be defined, because in His infinite Oneness, if He could be defined, He would be limited.  Even in our attempts to describe Him (and yes, even calling G-d Him is a limitation) using language is limiting because language itself is finite.  But within that finitude, we attempt to get closer to understanding Him, to connecting with His transcendence.  Where does the paradox come in?  In the way this preamble, as one could call it, goes about how we Jews have perceived G-d over time. 

On the one hand, G-d is אלוהינו, our G-d.  The intimacy of that name gives us the feeling that G-d is there to console us, to guide us, to protect us.  He cares about us and is accessible 24/7.  However, we don't just have the personability of G-d.  We have yet another, more philosophical description of G-d, which is מלך העולם, or King of the Universe.  G-d created the universe and continues to sustains the laws of nature that He put into place.  G-d, due to His infinitude, is completely other.  We cannot connect with G-d, but only come to a sense of awe of that which He has created and that which He sustains. Thus, the paradox is a deity that plays an intimate, personal role in our lives while simultaneously being impersonal and beyond any finite creature.

As always, I enjoy the insight of my rabbi, but this just brings up another question: which one is it?!  Is G-d a micro-manager or an inaccessible, transcendent, perfect Oneness?  Like any other Jewish answer, it happens to be both.  Obviously, G-d cannot be personal and impersonal at the same time.  However, the beauty of Jewish tradition is that advocates both.  I can find many mainstream rabbis advocating for the personal G-d, and at the same time, I can find arch-rationalists such as Maimonides advocating for the latter.

On an individual level, I very much enjoy the rationalist side of Judaism.  Grasping the concept that an infinite Oneness exists, He created the universe, and He sustains us through His laws continuously is more than enough to have awe.  But there's that other side......that non-rationalist side that yearns to develop intimacy with that transcendence, even if I know my finitude limits me from doing so.  Here lies my own personal paradox.  I have a non-rationalist side, and because I have the need to view things in a rationalist frame of mind, I try to stifle the non-rational part of me.  But in spite of attempts to consistently keep rational, the reality is that there is a non-rational, emotive side to me, and it very much wants to self-express. What makes it more complicated is that prayer, at least how a good majority of prayer in Judaism has evolved over time, involves the active participation of the non-rational.

How this will ultimately play out, well, your guess is as good as mine.  But one thing's for sure: the journey towards the answer will be anything but dull.         

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Electricity on Shabbat: Some Shocking Realizations

Amongst observant Jews, it is common practice to prohibit the practice of turning on and off electrical objects during Shabbat.  I had a friend once ask me half-jokingly if the purpose of this was to become a seventh Amish.  I told him that this prohibition had been in place since the invention of electricity, and was based on various laws extrapolated from the Talmudic era.  I don't take this topic lightly, especially in consideration of all the items in our modern day life that require the usage of electricity.  The impact of such a ruling needs closer inspection to make sure that Jews are keeping the spirit of Shabbat while simultaneously making halachic rulings that line up with the reality of the given situation.  What I will do is the following:

1a: Give the legalistic explanations for such a prohibition
1b: Give the abridged response of Shlomo Auerbach, z"tl along with the explanations of 1a
2: Give my concluding thoughts on 1a and 1b, as well as what this means for the greater halachic corpus

Why This Prohibition?

The modern-day poskim have given six reasons for ruling that one cannot turn on or off an object that requires electric power.  They go as follows:

1) מוליד.  According to Rashi, "creating anything new" was a rabbinic prohibition.  Many rabbis have tried to apply this concept to electricity, but as Chacham Tzvi (responsum #92) points out, you cannot extrapolate this principle beyond the explicit situation of applying fragrances to clothing.  Furthermore, as Rabbi Michael Broyde points out, "any creative act which is routinely done and undone throughout the day cannot be included in the rabbinic prohibition of creating something new."

2) בונה.  The prohibition of building is the most common reason given for this prohibition.  Turning a useless wire into a functioning one is seen as analogous to completing a wall.  But Auerbach has a significantly better analogy: opening and shutting a door.  Doors are constantly open and shut, much like electric items are constantly turned on and off.  In halacha, the notion of building has a sense a permanence, something which is lacking in turning on and off an electric object.

3) Turning on an appliance, or ma'keh bepatish (literally "final blow of the hammer"), completes the item (Chazon Ish Orach Chaim 50:9).  As Auerbach points out, ma'keh bepatish involves permanence or great effort.  Since turning on or off electrical items require neither, this is not the reason for the prohibition.

4) Generation of sparks (Chazon Ish Orach Chaim 50:9).  When the ruling was made, a generation of sparks was an issue.  First, the sparks are created unintentionally (davar she'eino mitkaven), but more importantly, this argument is technologically moot.

5) Increased fuel consumption (Chashmal Leor Halacha 2:6).  Supposedly, the use of electrical appliances leads to an increase in fuel consumption at the power station.  Auerbach (Shmirat Shabbat Kehilchata 1:23 n. 137) disagrees for two reasons.  One, turning on an electric object would only indirectly cause the increase, which is not forbidden. Two, this is a statistical improbability.  Odds are that as you are turning on an item, somebody else is turning off another item, making it immaterial.

6) Heating of metal (Chazon Ish, Orach Chaim 50:9).  Turning on an electric item "cooks" the wire, which is prohibited on Shabbat.  This is yet another argument that has reached obsolescence because of the advancement in technology. 

Auerbach's Concluding Thought

We have gone through each argument that the mainstream traditionalist community uses to justify this prohibition, and as it turns out, none of them muster legitimacy.  What I find very telling is Auerbach's conclusion of his own analysis:

"In my opinion there is no prohibition [to use electricity] on Shabbat or Yom Tov... There is no prohibition of ma'keh bepatish or molid... (However, I [Rabbi Auerbach] am afraid that the masses will err and turn on incandescent lights on Shabbat, and thus I do not permit electricity absent great need...) ... This matter requires further analysis. However, the key point in my opinion is that there is no prohibition to use electricity on Shabbat unless the electricity causes a prohibited act like cooking or starting a flame."

We need to keep something in mind.  Auerbach was not some liberal, hippie "rabbi" without any credentials.  He was a Haredi heavyweight who knew his Torah.  What is even better about this statement is that technology has caught up with his main concern: turning on incandescent lights on Shabbat.  Now, we have Shabbat switch protectors to prevent Auerbach's primary concern from happening.

Where to Go From Here

As previously stated, from a theoretical standpoint, there is no prohibition of turning on or off electricity.  However, there are two obstacles from bringing this from theory to practice.  The first is tradition.  It doesn't matter that the ruling was made when electricity was merely a luxury item.  And in spite of the fact that a hasty halachic ruling was made without looking at the science, they will still preserve it "for the sake of tradition."  At least from what my Orthodox friends tell me, the laws can theoretically be changed, especially since this law was created during the Acharonim period [thereby making even easier to nullify], but they will lean on the excuse of "it's a minhag (custom) that has been in our community since the inception of electricity, therefore we'll keep it."  To make the point more clear, using the excuse of "it's a minhag" makes it impossible to change anything, thereby making modern Orthodox practice increasingly insipid over time.

But if the ruling is based on a falsity, why keep it?  At this point in time, it's safe to say that this is a symptom of the problem in the Orthodox world's overt obsession of codification.  Being OCD on codification leads to an overall embrace of "stringency for stringency's sake," and it should go without saying that this trend leads to an increasing intolerance for dissent.  If the Orthodox rabbinate is going to continue with its authoritarian, vice-like grip on the lives of Jews, then there is no sense of having a discussion with them in regards to preserving both the letter and the spirit of Shabbat law.

Based on both the science and the halachic analysis of Auerbach, there is no reason to prohibit turning on or off electrical items.  This realization, however, does not automatically mean we can use any electric object that we want.  We still need to ask ourselves whether a) the usage of this particular electric object will violate other מלאכות, and b) the usage will violate שבות (shvut), which is loosely translated as the "spirit of Shabbat."  By doing this, we maintain the integrity of the halachic system, as well as the spirit of Shabbat.

3-3-2017 Addendum: I thought I should put the Conservative movement's take on electricity and Shabbat here. I would argue that it's one of the best teshuvot coming from the Conservative movement.

Friday, July 9, 2010

DOMA Ruled Unconstitutional

The Defense of Marriage Act (H.R. 3396), or DOMA for short, was a law written up by Congressman Bob Barr (R-GA) that was passed overwhelmingly by Congress back in 1996.  The bill stated that no state needs to treat a same sex marriage as a marriage, and that the federal government defines marriage exclusively as a union between one man and one woman.  This piece of federal legislation has defined the legal definition of marriage in our modern time.  However, a federal judge, Joseph Tauro, in Massachusetts has undone that by ruling that the legislation is a violation of the Tenth Amendment.

For the sake of the Constitution of the United States of America, this judge deserves kudos for standing up for the Tenth know, the amendment that states that anything not explicitly delegated to the federal government goes to the States or the people.  Many of those on the Religious Right just love using the Tenth Amendment to argue against Roe v. Wade, which they rightfully should.  But when that argument comes right back at them with regards to same-sex unions, they go ballistic.

I think what many people [like to] forget is that the purpose of the judicial system is judicial review, a practice in this country that is extracted from Article III of the Constitution and dates back all the way to Marbury v. Madison.  Judicial review, which is not to be confused with judicial activism, is one of the primary balances that the judicial branch has on the legislative branch.  It gives the courts the power to rule whether an enacted law is constitutional or not. 

That is what Tauro did--he did his job by ruling that DOMA is unconstitutional.  Whether it was Tauro's intention to bring balance of power between the state and federal government is moot at this point.  This case brings the Tenth Amendment back to the arena, thereby discontinuing the centralization of power at the federal level.  The judge also ruled that it violates the Due Process clause of the Fifth Amendment, which essentially is the equivalent of an equal protection clause, which is an interesting argument that is expounded upon here, along with more descriptive about how it violates the Tenth Amendment. 

Regardless of your opinion on the matter, I think one thing that everybody can agree on is that the resultant of this federal court decision is going to play a huge role in how laws regarding the definition of marriage will play out in future legislation.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Obama is Going to Tax Us to Death

President Obama, being confronted with an already suffering economy exacerbated by his Keynesian policies, is giving into his socialist knee-jerk reaction of the continuation of taxation.  Tax and spend heavily; it's the only economics that the Left knows.  If you think that taxation is not ridiculous already, think again!  Last Thursday, the "tan tax" took into effect.  For those of you who didn't know, this 10% tax on tanning salons was part of the "genius'" health care reform in attempts to generate $2.7 billion in tax revenues.  From the standpoint of proponents who innacurately touted that Obamacare was going to actually save us money, I don't see why this tax would be necessary, but again, it's all that the Left is capable of when it comes to economics--tax and spend. 

If you think this taxation is limited to your beautification process, you would sorely be mistaken.  The debate about the soda tax continues, and it doesn't look like it's going away.  The tax already passed in DC a couple of months ago.  The federal government is also jumping on this bandwagon of Big Government by publishing a report [by the USDA] about the need for a soda tax in order to cut obesity.  The Cato Institute, of course, does an excellent job of not only pointing out that this won't work from an economic standpoint (as a matter of fact, it will backfire), but it will do nothing to cut back on obesity in this country. 

We have yet another problem.  The Bush tax cuts from early last decade, one of the things I can say that Bush actually did right, will expire on January 1, 2011.  We will be looking at an exceptionally huge hike in taxes.  On top of the taxes that expire, Obamacare comes along with over twenty new taxes.  So much for being cheaper!  And as if that weren't enough, we are looking at the real potential for the revival of the death tax, something which can be deemed as nothing but burdensome.  Not only does Obama want to tax us to death, but he wants to tax us even when we're in our graves.                

Sunday, July 4, 2010

American Jew: The Search for a Double Identity

This was my essay topic for when I took Intro to American Studies.  Based on Frederick Douglass' search for dual identity, I also searched for a dual identity, e.g., what it meant to be both American and Jewish.  I couldn't think of a better topic for the Fourth of July, a time of year in which the dual identity comes into tension. 

In order to discover whether the tension can be mitigated or eliminated, one has to ask what it means to be an American.  From the most narrow of definitions, an American is one who was either a) born in the United States, or b) you endure a lot of bureaucratic red tape, take the citizenship test, and become just as American as everybody else.  What makes a good American, or rather, made a good American, was being a WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant).  Up until about fifty to sixty years ago, Catholics, blacks, Hisapnics, and Jews were looked at as "less American" than their WASP counterparts.  The way in which America has evolved makes the question "what makes a good American" obsolete simply because there are multiple Americas.  I say that because the amount of sub-cultural groups in this country, whether they be based on gender, race, ethnicity, religion, or even sexual orientation, force us to look at America in a way that is not homogeneous.  This means that the seemingly minimalist requirement of American citizenship is actually the definition of what an American is.

The implications this has for Jews is amazing because it means that you don't have to give up an iota of your Jewishness to be American.  Not only that, Jews should be proud of the fact that they have American citizenship.  I'm sure my Orthodox friends would like to remind me that we, as Jews, are still בגלות (in exile), that we are not in Israel.  Although I am not disputing the yearning to return to Israel, I will, however, say this.  You should still be thankful for all the religious freedom we have.  Think of Jews living in other nations throughout history.  If you chose any other given moment in Jewish history outside of Israel, I'm sure that you find that it was illegal to practice kashrut, circumcise your son, study Torah, or observe Shabbat.  Essentially, one who practiced Judaism was castigated in one way or the other, in a great deal of instances, with death.  America is the historical exception to that rule, and the fact that we have the ability to practice Judaism freely in America is truly something to be thankful for.  Not only should we be thankful for it, but all Jews should exercise that freedom to each individual's full potential.  May this be a day to realize how luck we Jews are to live in the land of the free and practice Judaism.

Happy Fourth of July and G-d Bless America!