Monday, September 27, 2010

Parsha Bereshit: The Entitlement Mentality and the Meaning of "Being Created in His Image"

People whose religious leanings are more inclined to the Left, whether they be Jewish or Christian, love to invoke the phrase "man is created in His image" about as often as they do "love your neighbor as your love yourself."  For the religiously liberal individual, being created "in His image" is a nice, feel-good way of telling a certain individual that he is innately good.

Allow me to express my skepticism that being "created in His image" simply means "being a Homo Sapien."  For starters, what do we do with all of the Hannibal Lecters, Hitlers, and the myriad of morally indefensible individuals that have existed throughout time?  I hope to touch upon this thought in a moment. 

But let us take a look at the two major religions that use this verse: Christianity and Judaism.  Christianity does not believe that man is innately good.  Au contraire!  Christians believe that Original Sin renders an individual innately evil, and that the only salvation for man is through Jesus Christ.  To best summarize Jewish thought on this topic, Judaism is skeptical about man's nature, but nevertheless that man possesses the potential to do good.

If neither Judaism nor Christianity advocates the innate goodness of man, then where is its origin?  Although many philosophers and theologians have debated the nature of man, the individual responsible for shaping this modern view is secular philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau.  Rousseau believed that man's nature was innately good, and that it was society that corrupted the individual.  This philosophical belief has been so piquant that it became a foundation of the modern-day Left.  And voilà, another example of how secular liberalism has become the religion for many on the Left.

But if "being created in His image" is not the equivalent of a spiritual welfare check, then what does it mean?  I am truly happy that I read Rabbi Marc Angel's D'var Torah this morning because it helped provide me an important insight to this weighty question.  As Rabbi Angel succinctly puts it:

Perhaps the Torah is teaching us an ideal concept about human potential. G-d created the first human beings, Adam and Eve, in "His image", as a lesson to subsequent human beings that they, too, can find this "image" within themselves. If they fully develop their human capacities, they will discover the "image of G-d" within themselves. But this "image" is not an automatic birthright: it has to be earned. It exists in potential, and it is our task to realize that potential (own emphasis added). Human beings who do not nourish the "image of G-d" within themselves thereby dehumanize themselves, and deprive themselves of their spiritual potential.

This adds a level of spiritual meaning to what I had already perceived of what it meant to be "created in His image."  To summarize my thoughts back in May on the topic, I had found that "being created in His image" either meant the endowment of free will in moral issues or the divinely given intellectual capacities that humans possess.  Rabbi Angel's commentary links these two Jewish interpretations together: both involve the potential that the human has.

The idea of potential addresses the more nefarious individual.  As Rabbi Angels states, "murderers and terrorists and hate-mongers are examples of people who have, in a profound sense, forfeited their 'image of G-d.' When the Torah teaches that humans were created in G-d's 'image,' this should be seen as a challenge and opportunity, not as an automatic gift that requires no further action on our part."  What Angel is saying is that there are certain individuals that are so spiritually off the deep end that they have stinted any potential for truly "being in His image."

I will conclude with these thoughts.  If I can't stand when a certain individual receives a handout from the government, do you honestly think I would advocate such a view in the spiritual realm?  Being good is not derived from passivity.  It is the culmination of actively pursuing good deeds.  G-d created us with faults, but He also created us with the ability to improve upon ourselves.  That is the purpose of life: to climb the ladder of spirituality to raise ourselves closer and closer to G-dliness.  It is a lifetime goal that needs constant pursuit.  By working on our own "image of G-d," we can refine ourselves intellectually, morally, and spiritually, which will ultimately translate into the prevailing refinement of society.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Yom Tov Sheni, Orthodoxy, and the Path to Authoritarianism

Sometimes, when you initially argue certain points, you like to go back and see if anything has either changed or needs to be refined.  Back on the second day of Passover 5770, I had made an argument that having a second day for holidays, called a yom tov sheini, was a superfluous practice.  Looking at the blog entry retrospectively, I think this is an instance that calls for a refinement rather than pulling a complete one-eighty, and I found it appropriate to do so on a yom tov sheini.

I recall having an online argument with one of my Orthodox friends soon after.  It was somewhat dismaying, especially since I was partially acting as an agent provacateur and like all Orthodox Jews, the fervor in everything is just over the top, hence why they're Orthodox.

One of the arguments that he had made was against my third point in my initial argument, which is that yom tov sheini does not enhance the holiday.  He brought up points, some which I actually thought that were good, such as another day to actively study Torah, another day to get away from mundane life, and more time to spend with family.  I would fire back with such arguments as being able to do the mitzvah of putting on tefillin, being able to have more time to sit shiva if that is your current situation, or being able to better follow the commandment of "six days you shall do work" (Exodus 34:21), but when push comes to shove, arguing enhancement of the holiday ends up being an "eye of the beholder" argument because one man's enhancer is another man's hindrance.  Ultimately, this means that it has no bearing on the actual legality of the practice itself.

Where I had felt that lost the argument that day was that I was not willing to assert whether this was a rabbinic enactment (either gezeirah or takkanah) or if it were a minhag.  My Orthodox friend was arguing it was a minhag.  And why shouldn't I be surprised?  I have made the argument before that Orthodox Jews like making the "tradition for tradition's sake" argument to preserve practices that could very well be antiquated, even though legalistic history has a slightly different story to tell in terms of getting rid of needless customs.

Now, allow me to disagree with my friend.  Although rabbis argued whether this was a rabbinic enactment or a custom, I find very little historic basis for this practice being a minhag.  This practice was conceived as a rabbinic enactment to compensate for what was an inefficient calendrical system and to make sure we did not miss the holiday.  The widespread dissemination of the Jewish calendar makes this worry moot, which, by extension, makes the practice moot.  It does not matter if it enhances the "holiday spirit" or if we are in exile.  What matters is the following: here we have a rabbinic enactment that had a specific reasoning behind it, that reasoning no longer exists, and as I had pointed out in my previous blog entry on this topic, we do not need a Sanhedrin to reverse it.  That is the crux of the argument.  Considering anything else would be of a secondary or tertiary nature. 

Why does this form of argumentation make my Orthodox compatriots nervous?  For one, this is a practice that many would consider a "universal minhag," even though the law was not conceived as such.  If you can knock down something that is deemed universal, the slippery slope of halachic laxness ensues.  But more importantly is my assertion of making myself the ultimate arbitrator of my halachic decisions.  Orthodoxy, by definition, is authoritarian in nature.  Anything that attempts to erode the stability of such a nature is toxic and potentially harmful to the structure in place. 

Since the Enlightentment period, Orthodoxy has had to become more rigid to respond to the Reform movement.  Due to the increasing amount of secularism, Orthodoxy has had to step it up a notch from what it did in the late eighteenth/early nineteenth century.  In our day, Orthodoxy has reached a juncture, something which Rabbi Nathan Cardozo is astute enough to realize.  The Orthodox community will need to decide if there will be room for autonomy or if Orthodoxy will become irredeemably authoritarian.  Based on observations of Orthodoxy, I cannot help but feel that it is heading towards the latter.  A rich, diverse tradition that has prided itself on "eilu v'eilu" will be reduced to a narrow, streamlined despotism.

Abraham had to be his own halachic decisor when he was sacrificing Isaac.  The Talmud has much discourse, and ultimately leads to more questions than answers.  Judaism has a tradition of argumentation, response, and diverse opinions.  I humbly submit I am doing what my Jewish forefathers have been doing for centuries, which is questioning, arguing, and trying to better figure out our place in the world.

With that in mind, I leave you with a quote from a fellow congregant that is reflective of my thoughts here today:

"When facing the winds of adversity and change, a reed that decides that it will not bend will ultimately break." 

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Decidedly Anti-Jewish Jewish Practice of Chicken Flinging

There is a practice in which you fling a rooster around your head three times, utter the phrase "This is my exchange, this is my substitute, this is my atonement. This rooster will go to its death while I will enter and proceed to a good long life and to peace," sacrifice the rooster, and give it to the poor. It sounds like some ancient, pagan practice that is either made up or no longer practiced.

I can tell you that this practice is not made up and is still practiced. It gets even better. It is a practice of Jewish origin called kapparot, which is interestingly neither mentioned in the Bible nor the Talmud. When I first heard of this ritual, I surely thought that someone was pulling my leg. It truly seems like one of those practices that was a part of the past, but much to my amazement, it is still practiced by Orthodox Jews, most of whom are Haredi.

There are multiple reasons to oppose such a practice:

1) Just think about what you are uttering in this practice. "This is my exchange, this is my substitute, this is my atonement." This is a clear-cut example of vicarious atonement. Vicarious atonement is a Christian belief, not a Jewish one. Jesus did not die for our sins and the death of a chicken does not negate one's misdeeds, even if you try to argue that the Hebrew word גבר means both "man" and "rooster." To believe as such would be a violation of some of Judaism's most basic tenets, mainly that prayer and sincere repentance, i.e. teshuva, bring about forgiveness.

2) This practice violates the Jewish value of tza'ar baylei chayim, or the prohibition of being cruel to animals. During Yom Kippur Services, we read G-d's Thirteen Attributes of Mercy. If G-d's mercy is what we emphasize during this time of year, and if being "created in His Image" is done through imitating G-d, doesn't it seem a bit hypocritical to treat chickens in a cruel manner? Normally, I am not one to show PETA propaganda, mainly because I know they have such an axe to grind. However, this footage below best illustrates the practice. Viewer discretion advised.

3) Much like tashlich, the purpose of this practice is to bribe Satan (Machzor Vitri). The Lurian notion that the rooster is Satan himself, and the slaughtering of the roost weakend the demon, does not help. Even if you substitute the chicken with coins wrapped by a handkerchief, which many Orthodox Jews thoughtfully do in order to not violate tza'ar baylei chayim, you still have not removed the superstition from the ritual. Many rabbis, such Rabbi Solomon ben Adret, also known as Rashba, recognized the practice as such, and opposed it for this very reason.

4) Unfortunately, those who hold superstitious beliefs most likely have a low level of education. The reason why I bring up this correlation is because the people who practice this rite will most likely take the practice literally. If one sees this practice as an actual form of vicarious atonement, then one will think that they are cleansed from their sins. This would lead them to believe that they get off scot-free, which means that they think they do not have to do any actual teshuva. This vulgar mentality will detract people from introspection and sincere repentance. That means no personal growth and no progress, which is a true violation of the spirit of Yom Kippur.

Conclusion: Rabbi Yosef Karo, the author of acclaimed halachic text Shulchan Aruch, called this practice a minhag shtut, which is a "foolish or stupid custom that should be thrown out." Maimonides realized that this rite was such a minhag shtut that he never added it in any of his legalistic texts. Customs (minhagim) such as these should be examined with scrutiny. If the practice fits the definition a minhag shtut, such as the practice of kapparot, we not only should take it off the books, but we are halachically able to do so (Tosafot on Talmud Pesachim 51a; Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Issurei Biah; Be'er Heitev, Orach Chaim 182 in Hilchot Birkat Ha'mazon, Orach Chaim 653 in Hilchot Lulav, Orach Chaim 551:4 in Hilchot Tisha B'av).

If I wanted to take an alternative view to make the rite at the point where I would practice it, I would ask for the following modifications: a) make sure that the kapparot is done with money, b) take out any idolatrous elements, and c) make sure the utterance focused on the actual themes of Yom Kippur rather than vicarious atonement or the bribery of Satan.

Since I don't see the "traditional establishment" taking on innovation such as this, I will leave with the following thought. Rather than rely on a chicken to atone for your sins, I ask that all Jews to do the Jewish thing this Yom Kippur by sincerely repenting for what one has done in the past in order to improve on oneself for the upcoming year.

גמר חתימה טובה!

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Guilt versus Shame: Why I Love Yom Kippur

When I tell people that Yom Kippur is my favorite holiday on the Jewish calendar, I get the strangest looks. Between the fasting for twenty-five hours, being in synagogue all day, thumping your chest repeatedly, and the Jewish guilt, it comes off more as the ultimate form of Jewish masochism than anything else.

And if that were not weird enough, I tell people that I actually like the guilt. I can hear you screaming "Masochist!" from the top of your lungs.  However, after reading an article from Sir Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, he made a very important distinction between guilt and shame, something which has bearing on why this holiday actually means "like Purim," the most festive day on the Jewish calendar.

First, Sacks' comments on guilt:

"Guilt enters the world hand in hand with the spirit of forgiveness. G-d forgives: that is the message emblazoned all over Yom Kippur........a guilt culture separates agent from act, the person from the deed. What I did may be wrong, but I am still intact, still loved by G-d, still His child. In a guilt culture, acknowledging our mistakes is doable, and that makes all the difference."

He then contrasts the notion with a shame culture:

"Today's environment is a shame culture.....When shame is involved, it's us, not just our actions, that are found wanting.....The only way to survive in a shame culture is to be shameless. Some people manage this quite well, but deep down, we know that there's something rotten in a system where no one is willing to accept responsibility."

That is why I like the Jewish notion of "repentance." The word teshuva comes from the word "return." To what are we returning? Our essence, which is goodness. Unlike in Christianity, when we screw up, it's not because of "Original Sin." When we sin, the Bible calls it a "chet," a mistake.  It is analogous to an archer missing the mark. He might have not hit the bulls eye, but he always has another opportunity to be spot on.

Let's face it: none of us are perfect. Ecclesiastes 7:20 makes that crystal clear. If we view our sentiment as guilt, as opposed to shame, we can take responsibility for the fact that we can and have erred. It makes us stronger. It helps us grow and progress. That is the reason for the fasting. It is not that fasting is necessarily good unto itself. It is because I can take a day where I don't have to focus on the physical. I can focus on self-improvement. I can focus on growth. In short, I can actualize the potential that G-d has instilled within me.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Is the Bible "Black and White": A New Look at the Sacrifice of Isaac

Most people in this world are not religious fundamentalists.  For a large majority of people, excessive stringencies and walking a very narrow path is too overwhelming.  However, many people underestimate what it has to offer.  What comes off as constraints for non-fundamentalists are, ironically enough, a form of liberation for fundamentalists.  How so?  If you look at Orthodox Judaism, for example, every facet of your life is codified in various legal texts.  There is no ambiguity whatsoever.  You do it because "that is the way it is," no questions asked.  For those who accept Orthodoxy blindly, or any religious fundamentalism, there is a sense of security and certitude that comes along with it all.  In what one can label a cruel, uncertain world, we need to feel safe and certain of what is ultimately to come.  For a religious fundamentalist, it's simple: if you indubitably go along with the program, G-d will reward you.  If you don't, G-d will punish you for your misdeeds.  There is no gray, only black and white.  The gift-wrapping of fundamentalism is alluring because it's simplistic, and it brings about reassurance.

The real question we have to ask ourselves is whether life comes with the clarity and unambiguity that fundamentalists claim.  What my fundamentalist friends forget really quickly is not only is there a gray area, but there is also an entire spectrum of colors.  Life comes with nuances and complexities.  The problem with the "all or nothing" mentality is that it is not reflective of reality. 

Abraham had to deal with this when sacrificing his son, Isaac.  I'm not even going to discuss the conflict between obeying G-d and giving up his beloved son.  We come across something much more fundamental to the argument than that.  Within this story, Abraham was commanded by G-d to sacrifice Isaac (Genesis 22:2).  Let us fast-forward to the sacrifice itself.  As Abraham has the knife in mid-air and ready to sacrifice his son, an angel comes down and tells Abraham not to sacrifice Isaac (Genesis 22:12). 

Abraham has encountered a major issue.  At the beginning of Genesis 22, Abraham was told to do one thing, and ten verses later, he is told to do the exact opposite of what he was told beforehand.  Abraham has two received two conflicting orders from G-d.  What is Abraham supposed to do?  If he does not sacrifice his son, he will have disobeyed a divine command.  If he goes through with it, not only has he disobeyed a divine command, but he has also violated his very own conscience.  After being given the second command, a ram comes along, Abraham grabs it, and sacrifices it instead of his son (Genesis 22:13).

G-d did not tell Abraham to sacrifice the ram in Isaac's place.  That was a judgement call that Abraham himself made when he saw the ram.  After doing so, an angel comes down and tells Abraham he made the right choice (Genesis 22:15-17).  Note how Abraham did not consult G-d to clear up the ambiguity.  And also note that G-d did not clear it up for Abraham.  Abraham set a precedence here: when you are not sure, you ultimately have to weigh your options and make the choice for yourself.  That is why G-d gave us free will.  He is not going to make the decision for you.

Let us use another example of biblical ambiguity.  The Fifth Commandment is "Honor your mother and father (Exodus 20:12)."  Sounds clear-cut, right?  But what does it mean "to honor your parents" if your father is smoking three packs a day?  Do you do nothing because you have to respect his decision, even though it is a self-destructive one?  Do you flush his cigarettes down the toilet?  Do you [or somebody with more influence and sway] get him over to Nicotine Anonymous to stop?  In this case, you have two values in the balance: respecting one's elders and saving a human life.  Although it should seem self-explanatory that saving a life precedes almost everything else in Judaism, we nevertheless have to realize that there can be certain situations in which actively helping your father cut back is not feasible because respecting one's elders might have that level of prioritization in your family. 

I feel as if I could write at book's length providing examples of how even something as essential as values and morals can be multi-faceted and need scrutiny.  This, of course, is not to belittle the notion of values, but rather to show that it is not as simple and neat as fundamentalists present it.  And what is more is that although G-d has given us the basics for morality, it is nevertheless our task to discern and determine what exactly is the morally acceptable choice within a given situation. 

This blog entry is based on the Second Day Rosh Hashana sermon given by my illustrious rabbi.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

J'en ai assez avec les jérémiades!

This was enough to make me scream «Suffit!»  The French are "up in arms" because they raised the age for retirement benefits from 60 to 62.  I kid you not!  They are putting the estimate of the number of Frenchmen that protested at 2.5 million.  This is the part where I don't know whether I should laugh or cry.  Now don't get me wrong.  I'm a Francophone who loves the French language, I read French literature, and I even enjoy French culture.  However, when you whine like this, it's no wonder that many Americans think of Frenchmen as connards who can't help but be feeble and sniveling. What was once a powerful colonizer with mass amounts of cultural influence has reduced itself to a bunch of socialist weaklings.  The perpetuation of this negative stereotype is so nauseating that I felt obligated to comment on such ludicrousness.

You know what? Americans cannot collect their Social Security until 62, albeit at a reduced rate, but you don't see us protesting en masse.  If the French went from a thirty-five hour work week to a forty hour work week or had their eight weeks of mandated vacation reduced in any way, shape, or form, they might riot like they did back in 2005

It's not the first time that the French have protested in such an unreasonable manner.  Back in 2006, there was an extremely controversial bill that caused a lot of protesting.  Guess what it was for?  It was a bill that stated that an employer could fire an employee that was under 26 and was within the first two years of their employee contract.  And would you believe it, the proposition got turned down due to mass protest.  Imagine giving a proprietor control over his business.  What audacity!

As strange as it is for the typical American, this mentalité française is the norm.  Let's think about why they have to raise the age in the first place.  Might it be because the welfare state is not as solvent as those on the Left would believe?  Maybe it's because the economic disparities between the countries within the European nation are causing economic upheaval and stagnation.  I'm going to go with both on that one.  If you think that this is bad now, wait until your precious entitlement programs go deep in the red because at that point, you'll most certainly be in for a rude awakening.

As the French would say, La vie est dure, pas de veine!                      

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Can We Modify the Definition of Kashrut?

We are what we eat.  The more I study Jewish dietary laws and the reasoning behind them, I find that dietary choices reflect one's personality.  The piggishness of many Americans brings new meaning to "you eat like a pig."  In contrast, people who make conscientious decisions regarding their diet, whether it is in keeping with the traditional notion of kashrut or keeping vegetarian out of a sanctity of [animal] life, are, by and large, more refined individuals.

Back in December 2009, I had done a series of blogs on what it means to keep kosher.  I had analyzed the reasoning from spiritual, ethical, nationalistic, and health-based reasons given from Jewish tradition.  Even after posting those blogs, I had always came back to the questions of "Why Kosher?" and "What Does It Mean to Keep Kosher?"  I ask these questions for two reasons.  The first reason is that I am a strong proponent in the Maimonidean concept that the Torah is human-oriented, which means that the purposes of Torah are to refine the individual and to refine humanity.  The second reason is because so much has changed in recent history that different questions are being asked than they were fifty or a hundred years ago.

Some people might be shocked to find that the motivation for writing this blog entry is an article from the Reform Movement that touches upon this very topic.  Although I generally disagree with the Reform Movement for a myriad of reasons, I still believe that a broken clock can at least be right twice a day.  And so it goes with this article.  It got me pondering whether we can modify the definition of kashrut.  For the more traditionally-minded, I'm not going to tackle the myth of "nothing ever changes in Judaism" because it should be self-evident that plenty has changed since Moses came down from Mount Sinai.  But I hope that you also realize that I chose the word "modify" over "change," which has the implication that I am not looking to automatically throw out every dietary law on the books.  I am, however, looking for a way to make sure that by either rendering new meanings or re-discovering traditional meanings to our dietary practices, kashrut becomes neither trivial nor vapid.

I am glad to see that the Reform Movement brought up questions of whether it has a hechsher or if is in accordance with Jewish law.  These are important questions to bring up in mind since it we are talking about what it means to eat Jewishly.  Ultimately, when I refer to modification, I am talking about the possibility of taking other factors into consideration when determining whether something is fit to eat.  I think asking this is of importance because the word "kosher" literally means "fit" or "proper," and is not limited to food consumption.  Therefore, it gives us license to bring in other factors. 

For instance, the article brings up whether in our food consumption, we violate the mitzvah of b'al tashchit (not wantonly wasting or destroying).  If Jewish tradition teaches us that we are supposed to be so meticulous that we are not supposed to even destroy a mustard seed, then we should bring this environmental consciousness within our Jewish practice.  By considering b'al taschit, we can turn something as seemingly mundane as recycling or not buying more food than we need into a spiritual act.

Shemirat Haguf, protection of the body, is another Jewish value I think many forget.  Is the consistent eating of fatty meats and sugar-packed desserts kosher, even though they have kosher certification on it?  Nope!  Deuteronomy 4:9, 15 teaches us to protect our bodies because our bodies are the vessels in which we do mitzvot.  We are also taught to choose life, and that means prolonging our lives.  It doesn't matter if the unhealthy food stocked in your kitchen has the proper certification.  If you are making poor dietary decisions that deteriorate the overall health of your body, that is not kosher.

Tza'ar baylei chayim, the mandate not to treat animals cruelly, is yet another Jewish value to consider.  We have to keep in mind that modern agriculture is very different from that of our ancestors.  It has essentially become a greed-motivated, assembly line process where animals are cramped into cages (i.e., it's anything but free range) and treated miserably.  Do we go about considering the treatment of our animals when we purchase them?  Shechita, kosher slaughter, is the most compassionate way to kill an animal.  But if we are going to be concerned with the suffering of an animal at Point Z, shouldn't we be equally concerned with the animal's well-being from points A to Y?

Postscript: Much of the questions that the Reform Movement presented in their article are still in the exploratory phase for me and my attempt to properly define what it means to eat in a kosher manner.  Even so, I can state that in my life, keeping kosher will go beyond the certification process.  As I continue to ponder these questions, I hope to come up with more answers and more insight not only as to what keeping kosher means, but also why and how these new factors resonate with a twenty-first century Jew who is looking to preserve tradition while still bringing in innovation and change in his Jewish practice.   

The Unemployment Rate, a Sign of Dismay

Another month of disappointing employment statistics comes in as this country dealt with yet another month of net job loss: 54,000 to be exact.  President Obama, a.k.a. Sir Hope 'n Change, has once again shown us that change is not necessarily a good thing, and to rely on something like hope doesn't change the fact that unemployment went back up to 9.6%.  What makes the numbers more disturbing is, as AEI scholar Henry Olsen points out, is the percentage of Americans who have jobs, which, of date, has almost approached that of the early 1980s:

Olson rightfully states his worries:

The import of the employment rate is clearer when one compares it and the unemployment rate to data from last August. America's adult population has risen by 2 million people since then, but the number of adults with jobs has dropped by 180,000. The unemployment rate declined slightly despite these numbers, from 9.7 percent to 9.6 percent, because over 2.3 million people have left the labor force entirely, so discouraged they are no longer even looking for work. The employment rate more accurately reflects that despair, sliding down from 59.1 percent to 58.5 percent.

What is bothersome is that these worries go beyond the short-term.  As the Brooking Institute illustrates, this is going to affect the long-term, as well, particularly for young adults.  Statistically speaking, young adults (i.e., age 18-24) are have been hit approximately twice as hard as everybody else.  Even setting aside young adults for a moment and looking at the bigger picture, it is going to take anywhere from five to twelve years for this country to return to pre-recession levels, and this presumes that we will have a consistently sizeable job growth.

I understand why many are starting to label this economic upheavel "the Great Recession."  Unless an economic miracle comes along, we are looking at a long road to recovery.  It's hard not to be a pessimist during these times, especially with an incompetent present.  But I am going to make a prediction here.  Unless Obama does something to prevent the tax hikes that are scheduled to take place on January 1, 2011, he is only prolonging the recession.  If he does not step in and make the taxation system less burdensome for [small] businesses, I can guarantee that he will be a one-term president.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

The Double-Edged Sword of Facebook

Technology has brought on many advances in the past fifty years alone.  We are able to live longer, healthier lives.  The Internet has given mankind unprecedented access to information.  Mass communications have given us the ability to communicate with somebody halfway across the world within mere seconds.  Being able to travel to foreign countries has never been easier.  I am truly amazed at man's technological progress in recent years. 

As astonishing as it all can be, I think that technology has come with unanticipated backlash that has stunted the individual and his potential to grow.  Let's take social networking programs such as Facebook an example.  Facebook has helped me connect with people that are hundreds of miles away, even though I wished they were right here.  In that respect, these programs are great.  I also use Facebook to connect with friends that I haven't heard from since grade school.  That sounds touching and nostalgic, until you realize that if they were really your friends, you would have never lost touch with them in the first place.  Even if they moved away, you would have still made the effort to be in communication.

What I am trying to drive at is that for many individuals, Facebook has become a replacement of social interaction rather than an enhancer of interacting with other individuals.  People find Facebook to be nice because they don't have to interact with others.  It's another result of the extreme individualism we see, which leads to extreme isolationism since the individual is self-involved. 

The issue goes beyond being self-absorbed.  It shortens one's attention span.  We communicate ourselves in Facebook wall postings that are so short that the notion of a fifteen-second sound byte seems to drag on forever.  Even talking in abbreviations such as OMG and LOL has seeped over into daily conversation.  Lack of attention span results in a lack of discipline.  Lack of discipline leads to lack of self growth.  Lack of self growth leads to pedantically and pathetically shallow people.  Sound character and a good head on one's shoulder becomes a rarity, and common sense isn't so common anymore.

Is this diatribe going to cause me to cancel my Facebook account?  Surprisingly not.  I cannot stand the fact that a majority of Facebook subscribers use Facebook as a crutch for their inadequacies to deal with actual social interaction and developing real-life relations with people around them.  My disgust, however, does not negate my usage of the service, as I view it as a utile medium to connect with others without having it consume my entire being.  Use Facebook to plan social events with others.  Use it as a gradual means to have a more meaningful, face-to-face interaction.  But don't treat it as a substitute for the essential human need of live, social interaction because it will ultimately hollow out that which makes you a human being.      

The Koran: The Real Root of the Arab-Israeli Conflict

When discussing the “Arab-Israeli conflict,” many, including Obama, are sadly under the disillusion that the heart of the issue is territorial disputes.  The idea has some impressive gift wrapping not only because it sounds so simple, because it makes this alleged solution tangible.  “Oh, if we give the Palestinians ‘their land’ back, they’ll be content and the hostility towards Israel will dissipate.”  And so goes the mentality of the ignorant.  Unfortunately, reality unravels it cold, bitter self in a way that would make one cynical.  Israel has tried "land for peace" since its inception!  The fact that Israel has given away 93% of the disputed territories from the Six Day War does not seem to abate a thing.     

In response to the ineffectiveness of the "land for peace" theory, I must say the following. Whether or not it is politically correct to say this is immaterial and is of no concern to me, mostly because I view political correctness as another way for feeble-minded people to stifle any attempt at intellectual growth and prosperity. So here it goes: the root of Palestinian hatred, and thus the root of the Arab-Israeli conflict, is not territorial; it is religious.  In case that was not clear enough, let me rephrase: tension in the Middle East is caused by Jew hatred stemming from the Koran. As Hagai Mazus, a PhD that teaches Islamic Studies at Hudson University, points out in his article The Root of the Arab-Israeli Conflict: The Classic Islamic View of the Jews, this fight goes all the way back to the days of Mohammed.  As soon as the Jews of Medina rejected Mohammed in the seventh century, Judeo-Islamic relations have never been the same, which is something Mazus outlines in his second part to his recently-written article where he analyzes Koranic teaches and subsequent application thereof. 

This is why the dhimmi status was created, which is a second-class, subservient status given to non-Muslim monotheists that I wrote about a few months back.  The status of a dhimmi was never set in stone because it was always contingent upon the success of the ruling caliphate at the time.  If all was well, Jews [and Christians] could hold high-ranking positions, although the “stain” of being a dhimmi still existed.  If the political scene went sour, you had best look out!  In spite of apologists saying that conditions for a Jew were better under Muslim rule than during Christian rule, a fact which, for the most part, I wouldn’t dispute, we seem to forget that this medieval view of the non-believer has consistently been applied throughout Muslim history.  

People do not realize, or rather, choose not to realize because of some form of cognitive dissonance, that Islam is inherently fundamentalist, and that anybody who steps out of that mold is a radical within the Islamic world.  It is not solely the fundamentalism or the literalism that bothers me here.  It is the fact that the Koran shows high levels of acrimony towards non-believers.  The enmity is amplified by the Muslims constantly viewing the Jew and any other non-believer with disgust, and not just any disgust, but so much disgust that they even codified the second-class status into its legal corpus.  It is sad as it is true, but anti-Semitism is built into the Muslim psyche.  If a Muslim decided to abandon anti-Semitism, they would, in effect, be abandoning mainstream Islam.  The Muslim who wanted to live peacefully with Jews and other non-believers would either have to abandon Islam as a whole or join Sufism or the Ba'hai faith, neither of which are technically considered to be Islam, even though they have some basis in Islam.       

Whether you think that Islamic reformation is possible, that we need to eradicate the [Islamic] enemy, or some solution in between, it all seems irrelevant to discuss at this time.  In order to adequately and accurately discuss Middle Eastern politics, we have to first realize the very root of the Arab-Israel conflict is Koranic in nature.  Only then can we create measures in which to mitigate the problem.