Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Resolving Rationalism with the Superstition Behind Tashlich

During the first day of Rosh Hashana, there is a well-established practice known as תשליך.  The word itself comes from Micah 7:19, where "you will cast all their sins into the depths of the sea."  What the practice entails is finding a body of running water and throwing pieces of bread into that body of water as a symbolic casting of one's sins.

What many do not realize is that this ceremony has its origins in superstitions.  Rabbi Israel Drazin, in his intellectually stimulating book entitled "Maimonides: The Exceptional Mind," outlines the history of this ritual in depth.  Essentially, we are dealing with a practice that emanated from ancient notions, one of them being that G-d and demons can be found near water.  If you believe in G-d's omnipresence, this notion should make you stop and think for a moment.  But many biblical figures thought so, whether it was Abraham who made a covenant before a well in Be'er Sheva (Genesis 21:31-32), King David's son, Adonijah, who thinks he can offer a sacrifice in front of a river and help him succeed his father as king (1 Kings 1:9), or the Psalmist (29:3, 139).  Even the Talmud tells of stories such as feeding spirits to appease them (Chullin 105b) and drinking water from a river at night is bad because of the shabiri, the demons that cause blindness (Pesachim 112a). 

By the time this practice was created in the Middle Ages, it makes sense why the primary theme of this practice was to bribe Satan.  The Kabbalists added the practice of shaking of the ends of one's clothing to shake off the klippah, as if the act itself absolved them of any sins.  This was problematic because taking the non-rationalist approach meant believing that the ceremony literally absolved one from their sins.  Since superstitions such as these make people small-minded, this mentality had the potential from steering people from doing actual repentance, which is why so many rabbis opposed the practice.

This brings me to the important question of "do superstitious origins negate the ceremony's validity?"  If your intention is to bribe Satan with pieces of bread, as if bits of stale bread is going to distract G-d's servant from doing his job, then I would have to say that this practice is absolutely ridiculous.  Even saying מנהג אבותינ תורה הוא ("the customs of our ancestors is law [for us]") would be insufficient because customs can be overturned in Jewish law.

In spite of these non-rational origins, there can be reconciliation between the practice's history and how we perceive the practice today.  Even though I believe that "tradition for tradition's sake" is as dangerous and menacing of an argument as "change for change's sake," I nevertheless enjoy Judaism for its traditions.  Judaism is uniquely beautiful for the continuity it has kept over the centuries, hence its allure for me.  I can perform the same practice as my Jewish ancestors did back in the Middle Ages, but I can derive a different purpose and meaning from it.

To paraphrase R. Aryeh Kaplan in his book Jewish Meditation, a mitzvah can be an action-based meditation.  This insight has changed how I view mitzvot.  The mitzvah is supposed to get your mind engaged and focused on G-dliness.  Let's apply that concept to תשליך.  When you are casting the bread into the water, what should be on your mind?  That these crumbs are a metaphorical representation of my sins, and that by throwing them away, you are starting anew.  There's that Jewish theme of renewal again.   How about the water?  In Judaism, water symbolizes life and renewal.  Much like Daniel (10:4) did, we can experience G-d's revelation in front of water and contemplate the vast wonders that life has to offer.  Let's try an insight with the fish, since one is supposed to find a body of water with fish.  As Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz points out, just as fish have no eyelids and always have their eyes open, we should always "keep our eyes open" by constantly being attentive to G-d and His will.  Even the act of being in front of a body of water can be an opportunity to realize G-d's wonder through His creations. 

As you go to symbolically cast your sins in the ceremony of תשליך this year, take just one of those insights and keep it in the back of your mind throughout the experience.  I guarantee it will enhance your appreciation for תשליך.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

The BBC is Pro-Israel for Once?!

This one took me by surprise.  Not only are we talking about a European media outlet, but we are talking about one in Britain that has been accused on more than one occassion of leaning Left, which translates into major anti-Israel sentiment.  The anti-Zionist/anti-Semitic (anti-Zionist, anti-Semitic, same difference!) groups are on the warpath in Europe as they actually found the BBC's coverage on the flotilla scenario to be pro-Israel.  I guess there's a first time for everything.  I hope this is a new trend in European media reporting, but I think it might be more realistic to just take this small victory and go from there.  In any event, per a link from Aish HaTorah, here is the actual BBC coverage:

Friday, August 20, 2010

Parsha Ki Tetze: Can We Avert Out Fate?

Karl Marx believed that history was nothing more than a cyclical clash of the bourgeoisie against the proletariat. Greek mythology advanced the idea that you cannot avoid your fate, an idea best illustrated by the story of Oedipus. The Twinkie Defense exemplifies the notion of genetic determinism. Calvinist predestination states that G-d “freely and unchangeably ordained whatsoever comes to pass,” even when it comes to G-d predetermining whether you receive salvation or eternal damnation.

What these four very different paradigms are echoing is what many have thought throughout history: our circumstances are beyond our control, and there is nothing we can do to choose, let alone change, our outcome. We call this point of view pre-determinism.

Are we really stuck with the cards we have been dealt, and we’re just going along for the ride? Or do we have enough control of the outcome that we are able to dodge “fate” and actually prolong our lives?

When it comes to making a choice between right and wrong, Judaism unequivocally advocates free will. Otherwise, G-d giving us a bunch of laws that we cannot follow would be a superfluous, farcical act. However, we have to realize that ethics (i.e., right vs. wrong) are merely reactionary choices to a given situation. How we respond to situations beyond our control (i.e., exerting self-control) is important because it doesn’t let external forces get the better of you. It has a degree of self-empowerment, and I’m not here to diminish that.

Instead of analyzing reactive self-empowerment, I would like to analyze the possibility of the proactive measure of prolonging one’s life. Going back to Calvinist predestination, we have no say in the matter. It’s all up to G-d, and we have to accept that everything is all G-d’s doing. This mentality leaves no leeway for free will in this area.

This week’s Parsha, on the other hand, has a different story to tell:

כִּי תִבְנֶה בַּיִת חָדָשׁ, וְעָשִׂיתָ מַעֲקֶה לְגַגֶּךָ; וְלא-תָשִׂים דָּמִים בְּבֵיתֶךָ, כִּי-יִפּל הַנּפֵל מִמֶּנּוּ.

When you build a new house, then you shall make a parapet for your roof, that you do not bring blood upon your house, if any man fall from it. -Deuteronomy 22:8 

In this instance, the Torah is commanding us to build a fence around our roof [if we have one]. Why? In order to protect those who are on the roof from falling off. The verse teaches us the importance of taking preventative measures to avoid dangerous situations (Talmud, Ketubot, 41b; Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpta 427:7). If we take the Calvinist’s viewpoint that one’s longevity is predetermined and no human action could deter his inevitable surmise (i.e., it’s all in G-d’s hands), building such a fence would be a pointless endeavor. If the person’s date of death has not arrived, then the person would not need to be protected for the fence. We can use the same line of reasoning with the cities of refuge (Numbers 35:11-12) and exempting a soldier who just betrothed a wife from going into battles [lest he die in warfare and another man takes her to be his wife] (Deuteronomy 20:7).

G-d did not want us to only have the choice of whether to act ethically. He also gave us the choice between life and death, and commanded us to choose life so we may live (Deuteronomy 30). G-d is not some micro-managing interferer that treats us like infantile munchkins. G-d is much more like a parent who wants to see His children grow and learn how to stand on their own two feet. That is why He gives us the ability to prolong our lives. By realizing the power that G-d has given us as human beings, we can better appreciate the gift of life that He has given us.

שבת שלום!

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Isaiah 53: May the Real Servant Please Stand Up?

When reading Isaiah 53 upon first glance, you could attribute this passage to the suffering of Jesus, presuming that you read the Christian New Testament first and then read this passage retrospectively. I can understand that from a Christian perspective, this passage is the slam dunk for Christian apologetics. Not only that, but reading the verse in such a manner has a lot at stake. It is the only verse in Tanach that remotely sounds Christian, which sticks a craw in a Jew’s theological backside. For Christendom, this chapter unquestionably talks about Jesus. For Jewry, however, we have to step back, pause, and analyze the text simply because the Christian interpretation of this passage is out of place within the greater context of the Tanach.

This begs the question: who is the suffering servant? Is the servant Jesus, as the Christians purport, or is it somebody else? Do we have any textual or contextual analysis that can be done in order to shed some light on who this servant is? If there is not, then a Christian interpretation is just as good as the Jewish one—both unsubstantiated. Fortunately, we don’t have to take that path since we have ample evidence to give us the answer to this question.

Before going into greater textual analysis, we need to know where in Isaiah we are. At this point, we are in the midst of the “Messages of Consolation," which tells how the people Israel will be restored to its previous status of prominence and will ultimately be vindicated as G-d’s people. The fourth [of four] Suffering Servant passages, i.e. the one in question, actually starts at Isaiah 52:13, not at the beginning of Isaiah 53 because the Tanach initially did not have the modern-day chapter divisions.

Now that we know where in the story we are, we can begin. At 52:13, Isaiah says, “Behold, My servant shall prosper.” Who is the servant? Good question. Are we able to use the text to figure out who the servant is? Fortunately, yes. This is the part that lacks ambiguity. In previous Suffering Servant songs, the servant is already identified as the people Israel (Isaiah 41:8-9, 44:1-2, 44:21, 45:4, 48:20, 49:3). Just to reiterate this very, very important point: Tanach does not refer to the suffering servant as Jesus, much less the Messiah.  The Suffering Servant is unquestionably the people Israel personified!

In case, for whatever strange reason, the explicit and unambiguous statement that the Suffering Servant as the people Israel is insufficient, let’s dive a bit further into the text:
  • The narrator of this Suffering Servant passage is the gentile nations and their kings, who are speaking through Isaiah’s prophecies. We can confirm this with Isaiah 53:1 that states “who would have believed what we have heard?”
  • Isaiah 53:3 states that the servant would be “despised and isolated from men.” Hatred of the Jew and living in ghettos are predominant motifs of Jewish history. The same cannot be said of Jesus, since he was supposedly a “man loved by all (Luke 4:14-15),” and followed by the multitudes (Matthew 4:25).
  • If there were ever an axe for a Christians to grind in this passage, it would be Isaiah 53:5, where Christendom translates it is “but he was wounded for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities.” With that translation, it sounds a lot like Jesus. But let’s look at what the actual Hebrew says:
וְהוּא מְחלָל מִפְּשָׁעֵנוּ, מְדֻכָּא מֵעֲו‍נתֵינוּ
Prepositions are tiny words, especially in Hebrew when they are denoted by a single letter, but they are nevertheless important in deriving meaning of the text. The Hebrew preposition “for” is indicated by ל, whereas “from” is indicated with מ.  The words "transgressions" and "iniquities" both have מ proceeding them in this verse, thereby making the translation "from," not "for." Now that we have looked at the actual meaning of the prepositions, we can get an accurate reading of the verse: “But he was wounded from our transgressions, he was crushed from our iniquities.” The nations are now realizing that the suffering of the Jewish people was brought upon by them. This theme is further elaborated upon by Jeremiah (10:25, 50:7).
  • Isaiah 53:9 states “and with the rich in his deaths.” Jesus only had one death. The people Israel, on the other hand, have had many. The fact that the word for “deaths,” מתיו, is in the plural reinforces the fact that we are dealing with a collective entity.
  • Isaiah 53:10 says that “he [the servant] shall see his seed.” The Hebrew word for “seed,” which is זֶרַע, always refers to physical descendants. Seeing how Jesus never had children, this verse cannot be referring to Jesus.
  • Isaiah 53:10 also says that “he shall prolong his days.” These words cannot be applied to a divine, infinite being who is the “uncaused cause” whose existence, by definition of being infinite, is eternal. This is yet another facet of the text that cannot be attributed to Jesus.
Postscript: We have explicit statements throughout Isaiah stating that the Suffering Servant is the people Israel personified. We have text proofs showing how these verses could not be applied to Jesus, as well as prooftext reinforcing what Isaiah has told us all along: the people of Israel, as a unit, will suffer, but will ultimately be redeemed when the other nations realize the err of their anti-Semitic ways.  May we see the actualization of this passage sooner rather than later so we can truly know what it means when Isaiah said "nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more."

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Shul Crisis: A Need to Renovate Jewish Prayer Services

The synagogue.  It's the Jewish house of worship.  This sanctuary of holiness is meant to be a place in which Jews are supposed to go and realize G-d's wonders.  Instead, it's a place where Jews frequently and begrudgingly go to fulfill some seemingly antiquated traditions in order to make their parents or grandparents happy.  Let's face it.  Most Jews would rather be somewhere else than go to synagogue.  If a Jew decides to even go to synagogue at all, it will be during the High Holy Days Services.  What has caused such disdain for the Jewish house of worship?  

Dennis Prager outlines this phenomenon in his article Siddur Baseball.  He attributes the main reason to being to the length of the services.  Most Christian services I know of don't exceed an hour, and the same goes for the Muslims.  In the Reform movement, Shabbat Services are usually an hour.  Conservative Shabbat services usually go two plus hours, and I have never been to an Orthodox service that was ever shorter than three hours.  This is not merely an issue that can be done away with the society that likes everything to be instantaneous and in thirty-second sound bytes.  A three-hour block of time is too long for most people, Americanized or not.  The situation is exacerbated when Orthodox Jews try to do speed-davening within that time period.  How can any individual who wants to pray with kavanah get anything out of a service that is going 200 mph?  It's spiritually hostile for a soul yearning for G-dliness.

Prager brings up another good point.  The speed stymies religious inspiration, but so does a lack of music.  Even in spite of the prohibition of music on the Sabbath and chagim, something I have talked about in length before, I, along with many others, find musical instruments to be something that elevates a spritual practice.  That is why it is no accident that Psalm 150 emphasizes the fact that musical instruments enhance their religious experience.  Although you will have the "religious establishment" be the naysayers on this, I think that synagogues should give it a go.

An even important place to make change would be to shorten the services.  Nothing exemplifies this better than the Amidah.  As Prager puts it, why are there two Amidah services during Shabbat morning?  Every time I get to the second Amidah in the Mussaf service, the only thing running through my mind is, "Are we really going to do this again?  Didn't we just do this about an hour ago?"  Although the idea to condense services is not original, it might nevertheless be warranted.  Redundancies and repetition wear on people.  So does praying so fast that you cannot even digest that which has just been put before you.  Instead of tefilah being invigorating and stimulating, these trends make an age-long tradition insipid and antiquated.  In order for the synagogue to be a place of spiritual vitality, this Jewish institution needs to change its approach on services lest tefilah ends up merely as an ancient practice found in religious textbooks.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Obama and Bibi: It's Like Looking at Night and Day

Lately, it has been nice to read articles by George Will. The article he wrote last Thursday, entitled Netanyahu, the anti-Obama....absolutely loved it! The way Will illustrates the stark contrasts between the two leaders has well worth the read.

As Will points out, “two photographs adorn the office of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.” The first is of Theodor Herzl, and the second is of Winston Churchill. Both role models were fervently Zionist, and both were able to amply grasp the reality around them. Obama, on the other hand, has one role model: himself.

Extent of one’s narcissism and hubris is not the only thing that separates these two. These two men have a completely different worldview on international relations. This goes beyond Netanyahu’s nationalistic zeal and Obama’s deranged notion of post-nationalism. Netanyahu recognizes reality. He realizes that he is surrounded by enemies that want Israel annihilated. He realizes that Iran is in the process of creating a sizable that, in all probability, will be used to create a nuclear bomb intent on blowing up Israel. Even more importantly, much like Churchill, he wants to prevent calamity and disaster before it strikes.

Enter Netanyahu’s opposite: Obama. Obama wants world order. As stated in his Berlin speech, he’s a “citizen of the world.” Funny how I missed the fact that there is actually a political entity that governs the human race on a global level. This leftist utopia has not come to pass. If anything, it could very well be in the midst of failure. With possible exception of its intervention in Kosovo, the United Nations is ineffective as a security force. Maintaining security, in effect, maintains peace, which means the United Nations is an overall failure. The same post-national failure goes for the European Union. Its economy has been relatively stagnant. With certain countries, i.e., Spain, Portugal, Greece, in financial crisis, we’re finally seeing the ugly side of “post-nationalism.” The European Union even tried to pass a constitution that would create a centralized utopia. Alas, it’s not working quite as planned. Basing your reality on an unrealized utopia is foolish at best, but since you’re running the country, Mr. Obama, it’s detrimental to the "peace process."

Does Obama honestly think that Netanyahu is going to back down? It’s not only because Netanyahu has a solidified right-winged coalition in the Knesset. It’s because he’s Israeli. If Obama thinks he can mold Netanyahu into a “little dreidel that he madewww.googl out of clay,” he’s got another thing coming. Clearly, Obama has never met Israelis. If he did, he’d know that Israelis don’t back down from a fight and they will stand their ground. Either Obama will realize the incompetency of his foreign policy, which will most likely be delivered in an electoral coup de grâce this November, or his legacy will ultimately marred with ineptness and failure in the Middle East.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Are Illegal Immigrants Moochers?

Normally, I enjoy studies from the Cato Institute because their libertarian analysis is right on the mark.  However, I have come across an exception today.  In its Immigration Reform Bulletin, Stuart Anderson writes a piece entitled "Evidence Shows Immigrants Come to Work, Not to Collect Welfare." 

My first issue with this is that the data used was primarily from the former half of the decade, which can be problematic in analysis because America has gone through a recession since then.  But let's presume the numbers are accurate.  The study points out that 92% of illegal immigrants participate in the labor force, whereas natives only participate 83%.  Most illegal immigrants who come to this country are looking for a better life.  And in light of the narco-terrorism that has been going on in 2006, who can blame them?  Mexicans can make a whole lot more in the States compared to what they were making in Mexico.  Making a higher wage and sending it back to your family in a poorer nation increases your purchasing power parity immensely.  Of course it's about the money!  But getting welfare benefits on the side isn't necessarily mutually exclusive in this case.  Within the first page of his bulletin, Anderson states that "eligibility for programs usually requires immigrants to have been in the United States for 5 years or more in a lawful immigration status."  If that is true, he really would need to explain one of the tables he uses [see below]:

So here's my question to Anderson: why is it that the percentage of individual citizens (not households, like you were kvetching about earlier, but individuals) that are on entitlement programs comparable to that of the native citizenry??  I'm sure the typical Mexican is not thinking, "oh, I want America to give me benefits."  They're thinking "I want a better way of life for my family."  But just because they want a better life for their family does not negate the fact that the benefits they are receiving from the United States government is costing the taxpayer money.

I firmly believe that a stable nation needs to be one of enforceable laws that make sense (obviously, the smaller the government and the lesser the laws, the better, but there still need to be some laws to maintain society).  If someone breaks a law, they should be punished in proportion to their crime. Although I do not agree with the method in which illegal immigrants arrive in this country, it is not prudent to blame the Mexicans.  After all, Uncle Sam is the one cutting the check for non-citizens to have Medicaid and food stamps.  Big Government is the one perpetuating the problem.  This is something that Anderson does not touch upon.

In spite of their legal status, do illegal immigrants work hard?  On the whole, yes.  Are they the real source of the problem?  Absolutely not!  If the government cut back on its entitlement programs as a whole, there would be no "mooching."  If this happened, I would guarantee that many more Americans would view immigrants, legal or illegal, in a positive light.  That way, illegal immigrants would be less inclined to insulate themselves in barrios and can actually integrate into society.  By drastically cutting back on these programs, or even better, getting rid of them, we can benefit immigration reform, as well as the economy.  Wouldn't that be something?

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Elul and Renewal

The Jewish month of Elul has just commenced, and it’s one month until the start of the High Holy Days. Jewish tradition teaches that the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are used to repent for one’s sins in order to make sure that one has a clean slate for the upcoming year. However, for the more pious, the entire month of Elul is used to do so. I tried using the ten-day interim period to reflect and repent once, but it was an insufficiently long enough period of time to profoundly contemplate. This is why I try take Elue to strive for a higher level of spirituality—to take the time to adequately look back at the previous year, figure out what I did correctly and where I erred, as well as how I can improve upon what I already have established.

In Jewish life, the High Holy Day period is the most well-known form of renewal. After all, most Jews who don’t show up to synagogue for the rest of the year come for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. However, people forget that Jewish practice offers many opportunities to rejuvenate and renew the soul. Every month, we observe Rosh Chodesh to realize that just like the moon, our spiritual invigoration goes through moments of waning and waxing.  Shabbat is used to take a break from the hectic work world, rest our souls, reflect, and be reenergized for the following week. We even come across it in daily Jewish life. When you wake up, you wake up, open your eyes, and say Modeh Ani, you are thanking G-d for giving you another day. As the adage goes, “Today is a new day.” Even during the prayer service we cross this theme. Thrice a day, a practicing Jew recites the Amidah. In the fifth prayer of the Amidah, we ask G-d to help us to return to the Torah so we can start anew. Any Jewish purification process, whether that would be washing the hands or going to the mikveh, cleanses us from spiritual impurities in order to give it another go. Forms of reflection, whether that would be prayer or meditation, give us the ability to look back and figure out how we can start fresh and energized for that which lies ahead of us. The same with writing in a Cheshbon HaNefesh. Finally, and more interestingly, we can find this in the great macrocosm of eschatology. Many may not know about this, but there are certain Jewish sects, mostly those of a Kabalistic bent, that believe in reincarnation. I was skeptical of the concept, but after reading this article from Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, I’m less skeptical about reincarnation than I was beforehand. However, I will still take my eschatological stance of “I objectively do not know if there is an afterlife that awaits us.”

I encourage all of you, whether you’re Jewish or not, to take a look at life and find moments of renewal. They are certainly ample in quantity. When each us take this notion seriously, “Today is a new day” will become more than just a cliché used by motivational speakers….it can become a way of being.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Money, Money, Money: A Reflection on Parshat Re'eh

What is money?  A good economy textbook definition would be "a medium that we use to exchange for goods and services."  How does that medium function in secular, American life?  Sadly enough, we are taught the money buys us happiness.  The ultimate, ideal goal with money is to either accrue mass amounts of it in order to acquire power and affluence, or if you cannot aim for that goal, at least you can buy happiness by "buying a lot of stuff."  According to this axiom, the amount of material goods you owe translates into happiness.  The more television sets you have, the more cars you have, the happier you are, or at least that's what has been instilled in many Americans. 

This makes money the ends to happiness.  Even from a secular standpoint, we inevitably run into the issues of selfishness and avarice that this mentality causes.  At the very least, we will ignore [interacting with] others in order to pursue our selfish goals, and at the most, we will do whatever we have to do to others, even if that comes down to murder, G-d forbid, to acquire it.  This leads to a problem from a religious standpoint: idolatry.  Although we think of idolatry as bowing down to statues and images, that really is a narrow definition.  In its broadest terms, idolatry is not viewing G-d, but rather something else, as the ends.  In this case, the "Almighty Dollar" has become the center of worship.  Constantly bombarded with advertisements that tell us we are not good enough human beings unless we buy such-and-such a product, the rampant materialism in this country turns the average American from being a human being to merely becoming a soulless consumer in the rat-race we call life.

A clarification I would like to make at this time is this: please do not confuse my societal criticism of America's misguided obsession with materials along with a call for deprivation of any sort of materialism.  Although some Jewish sects have had aesthetic practices, Judaism, by large, is against aestheticism.  Other world religions, mainly Christianity, Buddhism, and Hinduism, all have vows of poverty (i.e., not owning money) as a spiritual ideal.

I am glad that Judaism doesn't follow neither American secular culture nor that of other world religions when it comes to money.  Judaism is teaches that money is a means in which elevate ourselves unto which we can behave as creatures "created in His image."  Upon looking at Parsha Re'eh, mainly the passage in Deuteronomy 15:7-11 (Artscroll translation), we can see that religious imperative spelled out:

"If there shall be a destitute person among you, any of your brethren in any of your cities, in your Land that Hashem, your G-d, gives you, you shall not harden your heart or close your hand against your destitute brother.  Rather, you shall open you hand to him: you shall lend him his requirement, whatever is lacking to him.  Beware lest there be a lawless thought in your heart, saying, "The seventh year approaches, the remission year," and you will look malevolently upon your destitute brother and refuse to give to him--then he man appeal against you to Hashem, and it will be a sin upon you.  You shall surely give him, and let your heart not feel bad when you give him, for in return for this matter, Hashem, your G-d, will bless you in all your deeds and in your every undertaking.  For destitute people will not cease to exist within the Land, therefore I command you, saying, "You shall surely open your hand to your brother, your poor, and to your destitute in your Land." 

Although the rabbis throughout time have had plenty to say on the topic, I will touch upon a couple of points that merit emphasis.  The first point is that you actually have to care about your destitute brother, and this based on the repetition of the possessive adjective in the second person (i.e., "your"/ךָ-) we see in verse 11.  Although you might find some individuals in the secular who have genuine altruism not caused by religion, this sort of behavior is rather exceptional since the secular world provides no incentive to actually care about the plight of another person, let alone a poor person.  This repeition is supposed to teach us that the plight of the poor is indeed our problem, and that we are supposed to display empathy towards the poor.

The other point I would like to bring up and with which I would like to conclude, is in Verse 7, where we are not supposed to neither harden our hearts nor close our hands.  This dictum is actually aimed towards two sorts of givers.  According to Rashi, the former is the kind of person who thinks about giving and convinces himself not to give, whereas the latter is one who is callous about the whole process.

Although we live in a world with rampant materialism, I ask everyone, both Jew and non-Jew, to challenge themselves to neither harden our hearts nor close our hands to the poor.  May we refine ourselves to help alleviate the plight of the poor whenever we have the opportunity.

שבוע טוב!

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Proposition 8 Overturned: About Time!

It took long enough, but I guess it's true when they say "better late than never."  Back in 2008, a slight majority of Californians voted on Proposition 8, which stated that only a marriage between a man and a woman will be recognized.  Federal Judge Vaughn Walker overturned that proposition today.  The judge ruled that it violated the Fourteenth Amendment, and he was right.  I'm sure that my friends on the Religious Right are lamenting over the fact that the votes of seven million Californians were "silenced" by one "activist judge." But honestly, I don't care.  If I let my rights as a Jew be dictated by the Christian majority, I wouldn't be able to keep kosher or observe Shabbat.  In a frightening, hypothetical situation of this country became increasingly reactionary, not only would I not be able to practice, but I could have a conversion forced upon me or even be put to death for refusing to accept Jesus.  The point I'm trying to make here is that if minority rights were contingent upon a majority vote, the Constitution would be superfluous.  If you're still crying over the "sanctity of marriage," here's a refresher from James Madison on the importance of minority rights.  Keep an eye on the line that says "If a majority be united by a common interest, the rights of the minority will be insecure."

Regardless of one's views on minority rights, the Religious Right shouldn't be so lamentable.  Theodore Olson, the attorney who was famous for winning Bush v. Gore, actually presents a nice, solid case for why conservatives should support gay marriage.  To summarize his article:
  • Marriage, that being a "stable bond between two individuals who work to create a loving household and a social and economic partnership," should be accessible to gays because it promotes so many of the values that conservatives cherish.
  • Equal rights is a basic American principle embedded in the Declaration of Independence.  "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."
  • The very idea of marriage is basic to recognition as equals in our society; any status short of that is inferior, unjust, and unconstitutional.
  • Tradition is the most common reason given to keep it as "one man, one woman."  It's even the reason that ProtectMarriage, the primary organization in support of Proposition 8, states on its website.  But as Olson states, just because we do something simply because "that's the way it has always has been done" is not an argument to keep it as such.  "Otherwise we would still have segregated schools and debtors' prisons."
  • Another common reason for "traditional marriage" is for the sake of procreation.  "Preventing lesbians and gays from marrying does not cause more heterosexuals to marry and conceive more children. Likewise, allowing gays and lesbians to marry someone of the same sex will not discourage heterosexuals from marrying a person of the opposite sex."  Furthermore, if procreation became a requirement for marriage, not only would we have Big Government in the bedroom, but any couple that does not procreate would ultimately have to have their marriage nullified.  Sounds a bit extreme, doesn't it? 
  • The final main reason, and a ridiculous one at that, is that homosexual marriage will affect heterosexual marriage.  People for "traditional marriage" fail to realize that heterosexuals have already done a "fine job" killing of such a "sacred institution."  Gay marriage doesn't affect the stability of heterosexual marriage--straight people do. 
  • As such, there is no good reason to deny gay people the right to marry.
  • We need to uphold such values as "families, lasting domestic relationships, and communities populated by persons with recognized and sanctioned bonds to one another," and we should give gay people those same rights to uphold such conservative values.
It comes down to the "marriage is between one man, one woman" crowd not liking this ruling for one of two reasons.  One is that they interpret the Bible in such a manner not only to try to force their reading of it on others, but to deny other Americans the ability to act on their own free will, even when that comes to sexual morality.  The second is "you fear that which you don't understand," which is a nice way of saying "you're an ignorant troglodyte." 

Marriage, by definition, is nothing more than a contract between consenting parties stating that they want to have a social, emotional, and economic relationship together.  Judaism has this contractual concept--it's called a כתובה.  Whether an individual church, mosque, or synagogue accepts such a marriage is their prerogative.  And on a personal [or religious] level, I don't care how you feel about same-sex couples.  How you deal with that sentiment is your issue, but do realize that if you support Prop 8, it erodes the very notions of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, which, at least the last time I checked, was un-American.