Sunday, October 31, 2010

Settlements Are Not the Issue, Abbas!

I am glad that Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin is able to see the settlements argument for what it is: a red herring.  Last month, Mahmoud Abbas stated that Israel must choose between peace or the settlements, as if the settlements were the obstacle to peace between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

Let's start with the amount of land that the settlements take up: 1.7% of the West Bank.  The West Bank is 5,860 square kilometers, meaning that 1.7% of that is about 59 square miles.  That would make the amount of disputed land the size of Shelburne, Vermont, a small town of less than 7,000.

The second is that the Palestine Mandate is still in full effect since no sovereign state has ever legally replaced this former territory.  The international community never recognized Jordan's annexation of this territory, which thereby still makes the West Bank disputed territory.  As is stated in Article V of the Oslo Peace Treaty, until internationally recognized borders are established through peace treaties, there is nothing illegal about settlement development.

Aside from the legalities or the size of the settlements, as Mitchell Bard puts it, "The impediment to peace is not the existence of Jewish communities in the disputed territories, it is the Palestinians’ unwillingness to accept a state next to Israel instead of one replacing Israel."  The fact that 1.3 million Israeli Arabs live safely in Israel tells us that not only Jews can live alongside with Arabs, but that hatred is not innate.  The fact that the Palestinians teach their children from Day One how to hate Jews and that blowing them up is an idealization of Palestinian raison d'être is the real issue.  The moment we can accept that as the problem, rather than this dreck about settlements, the sooner we can figure out how to create education reform in that part of the world, thereby ushering peace between the two parties.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Is There a "Right to Die" In Judaism?

Euthanasia has always been one of those tricky situations in biomedical ethics. The Religious Right purports that permitting euthanasia would cause a slippery slope from voluntary euthanasia to involuntary euthanasia that would erode the intrinsic value of life. Whether it is rationing health care to the elderly or worries of kin using it as a means to acquire an inheritance, the Religious Right does have some valid worries. On the other hand, what do you do when someone is in such excruciating pain and nothing can be done? What do you do when someone is so debilitated that they will never recover from what they have and can never function without the usage of machinery and feeding tubes?

This question becomes all the more important for me when questioning the notion of being “created in G-d’s image.” If being “created in His image” denotes potential to be actualized, whether that would be in terms of intellectual cultivation or doing good deeds, and you are bedridden with something such as persistent vegetative state (PVS), does that mean you no longer are “created in His image?” The question of whether a human being can be [or become] nothing more than an animal in a human body can be applied to other issues of life, including abortion and the death penalty. Although going into further detail on this would be beyond the scope of ascertaining whether euthanasia is permissible in Judaism, I still think it holds bearing on how we define the meaning of life and whether life is intrinsically valuable or not.

In Judaism, there are some traditional values that would make euthanasia prohibited. That would first be pikuach nefesh, the preservation of life. With few exceptions, saving another life surpasses all other mitzvot.  As the Mishnah teaches, "Whoever saves a single life, it is as if he has saved an entire world (Sanhedrin 4:5)." The second is that many in Jewish thought view life with infinite, as opposed to relative value. The third is that we are not in control of our bodies; G-d is (Ezekiel 18:4). This would negate unlimited personal autonomy. This notion keeps in mind that ethics is not about what one can do, but rather what one should do. The fourth value is that Judaism recognizes that technology and scientific advancement are gifts of divine revelation, thus rejecting the notion that “we are not supposed to play G-d.”

This would come off as an open-and-shut case, except like most things in life, it’s not. We forget the “other side’s” concern of unimaginable pain, which would bring in the mitzvah of alleviating pain and suffering. Now would be a good time to distinguish between active and passive euthanasia.

Active euthanasia is the accelerated causation of death, which usually entails the use of lethal substances or forces to kill. In many cases, this is done by a physician. Active euthanasia is the most controversial, and thus the most heavily debated form. Passive euthanasia, on the other hand, is the withholding of common treatments to prolong one’s life. Examples of passive euthanasia would be refusal of chemotherapy or not carrying out a life-extending operation.

Although other ethicists might debate the merits of the “mercy” involved behind active euthanasia, Judaism is unequivocally against it. Judaism’s stance against active euthanasia is rooted in the belief that the body is G-d’s possession because He created and thus owns everything in the universe. There are so many laws on the books that teach us the importance of preserving health and life. Short of the three exceptions of martyrdom, those being murder, idolatry, or sexual immorality, one should prolong one’s life as possible.  In short, active euthanasia would be either considered suicide [if performed by the patient] or murder [if performed by the doctor].  The Talmud (Shabbat 151b) states that it is forbidden to close the eyes of a dying person.  It is akin to "touching the dying flame of a candle, and thereby extinguishing it," and "one who does so is regarded as a 'shedder of blood.'"

For further description on the matter, please consult R. Elliot Dorff’s teshuva on the topic of assisted suicide in the form of active euthanasia. Not only does he adequately explain the mainstream Jewish stance, but he also discusses the importance of developing community and the mitzvah of bikkur cholim, visiting the sick.

As for passive euthanasia, we’ll have to save that for another time…………

Monday, October 25, 2010

G-d Is One, Not Three

I've been reading The Limits of Orthodox Theology by Rabbi Marc Shapiro, which has given me the opportunity to re-evaluate Maimonides' Thirteen Principles.  My main reason for skipping the First Principle, which is that G-d exists, is because I already tackled that topic a few months ago

Maimonides' Second Principle is the following:

We believe that this Primal Cause [G-d] is One. [His is] not like the oneness of a pair, nor like the oneness of a species, nor like man, whose complex oneness may be divided into many units, nor like the oneness of a simple body, which is one in number but may be divided and separated without end. Rather, He is One with a Oneness that knows no parallel in any manner. This is the Second Principle, as affirmed by the verse (Deut. 6:4): "Hear O Israel, G-d is our Lord, G-d is One."

Just so we have the Hebrew text for Deuteronomy 6:4 so there are no doubts:

שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ יְהוָה אֶחָד

Although I have had some Christians explain that the word אחד means "unique" because it describes Jesus' unique trait of being triune, that is simply not true because Hebrew has another word for "unique": יחיד.  Since that doesn't work too well, Christians then will cite two examples of אחד accompanying a compound unity:

וַיִּקְרָא אֱלֹהִים לָאוֹר יוֹם, וְלַחֹשֶׁךְ קָרָא לָיְלָה; וַיְהִי-עֶרֶב וַיְהִי-בֹקֶר, יוֹם אֶחָד.

And God called the light day, and the darkness He called night. And there was evening and there was morning, one day. -Genesis 1:5

וַיִּכְרְתוּ מִשָּׁם זְמוֹרָה וְאֶשְׁכּוֹל עֲנָבִים אֶחָד....

"....and cut down from thence a branch with one cluster of grapes." -Numbers 13:23

If you took these two examples alone, you would think that the word אחד always refers to a compound unity.  Upon closer examination, there's another story to tell.  Let's first keep in mind that out of the other 960 usages of the word אחד in Hebrew Scriptures, which constitute as over 99% of the word's usage, אחד is unambiguously used as a numeric adjective referring to the number "one."

We should take a look at these two "anomalies" and see if we can get past the confusion.  Let's take an example in English, simply because the concept carries over in Hebrew.  When you're talking about a dozen eggs, are you referring to the twelve eggs or the specific grouping thereof?  Although the word "dozen" implies that there are twelve eggs, you are still referring to the single entity: a dozen.  It is the same principle within these verses.  אחד is modifying the word אשכול (cluster), not ענבים (grapes).  Even in these two instances, you are referring to the grouped entity, not the components within the entity.  No matter how you look at it, one is still one.

So let's take another look at the phrase יהוה אחד in Deuteronomy 6:4, which means "G-d is one."  In the present tense in Hebrew, there is no conjugation for the verb "to be."  The meaning of "to be" in the present tense is always implied by context: the absence of a verb.  Since we know that this verse is in the present tense, the word אחד is a de facto stative verb, meaning that אחד in this passage unambiguously translates to "is one."  Although you had the word ענבים in Numbers 13:23 in order to attempt to create some doubt, there is nothing in this declaration to suggest a compound entity. Finally, anytime the word יְהוָה, the personal name to denote G-d, is used approximately 6,800 in Hebrew Scriptures, there is never, ever a plural verb or adjective used to describe G-d; it is always in the singular.

G-d is not a triune deity.  As the grammatical rules of Hebrew dictate, יהוה אחד unquestionably means "G-d is one."  Any Christian who purports otherwise does not believe in monotheistic notion of G-d that is clearly laid out in Hebrew Scriptures.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Parshat Vayera: W.W.A.D? A Lesson on Hospitality

As I had demonstrated my drash last year for Parshat Vayera, the destruction of Sodom did not come through homosexuality, but rather through a complete lack of inhospitality and the inability to respond to the plight of others. It is not merely that the Sodomites were indifferent towards the poor and downtrodden. They were downright hostile to them, as well as anyone who had attempted to lend a helping hand.

If Sodom is a clear of example of how not to deal with hospitality, there should also be an exemplar of the antithesis thereof. This is the point where I have to ask myself the question of "What Would Abraham Do?" Below is Genesis 18:1-8, 16:

"And the L-rd appeared unto him by the terebinths of Mamre, as he sat in the tent door in the heat of the day, and he lifted up his eyes and looked, and, lo, three men stood over against him; and when he saw them, he ran to meet them from the tent door, and bowed down to the earth, and said: 'My lord, if now I have found favor in thy sight, pass not away, I pray thee, from thy servant. Let now a little water be fetched, and wash your feet, and recline yourselves under the tree. And I will fetch a morsel of bread, and stay ye your heart; after that ye shall pass on; forasmuch as ye are come to your servant.' And they said: 'So do, as thou hast said.' And Abraham hastened into the tent unto Sarah, and said: 'Make ready quickly three measures of fine meal, knead it, and make cakes.' And Abraham ran unto the herd, and fetched a calf tender and good, and gave it unto the servant; and he hastened to dress it. And he took curd, and milk, and the calf which he had dressed, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree, and they did eat..........And the men rose up from thence, and looked out toward Sodom; and Abraham went with them to bring them on the way."

Within this homily, we find many lessons to be learned about hachnasat orchim (הכנסת אורחים):

1) At the beginning of this passage, Abraham was in the process of receiving divine revelation. When the men came to Abraham's tent, Abraham found it to be such an imperative to be hospitable that he interrupted divine revelation. Based on this, the Talmudic rabbis concluded that "hospitality is even greater than receiving the Divine Presence (Shabbat 127a)."

2) Three men approached Abraham's tent (Genesis 18:2). What was their religious affiliation? Given that Abraham and Sarah were the only two Jews at this time, it's safe to assume these three men were not Jewish. More importantly, since this took place during ancient times, it's reasonable to assume that these men were pagans. It does not matter if the guest is Jewish or not. It does not even matter if they are pagan. The text shows us that Jews are supposed to show the utmost respect to a guest in one's home, regardless of religious affiliation.

3) As indicated by וַיָּרָץ in Genesis 18:3, Abraham ran to his guests. We learn from this that we are to receive our guests enthusiastically, which makes the guests feel more wanted.

4) Abraham did not even need to ask his guests what they needed. He understood that his guests were wandering in the desert, their feet hurt, and they were extremely thirsty. As a result, he offered them water and a nice, shady tree, both of which were rarities in that topography. As the Talmud states, "Who is wise? He who foresees that which is about to happen (Tamed 32a)." Foresight even in hospitality is something to be imitated.

5) The Sages said that "a distinguishing characteristic of a righteous man is that they say little but do a lot (Bava Metzia 87a)." Abraham said he would have brought a morsel, but he told Sarah to make three cakes, not to mention that he brought curd, milk, and cow meat.

6) Abraham had servants of his own (Genesis 14:14), but nevertheless decided to serve the guests himself. What can be derived is that even if you have servants, you should attend to the guests and do some of the work so that there is a personal touch to the visit.

7) As verse 7 states, Abraham chose a fine and tender calf.  What we learn from here is that we don't give our guests leftovers or second-rate food; we give them the best that we have to offer.

8) Even during the departure of the guests, Abraham was good to his guests as he walks alongside them and saw them off (Genesis 18:16).

Reading this portion this week, I had to ask myself something. G-d teaches us act in loving-kindness, and there are many ways to show that. Seldom does G-d go into great detail about mitzvot, whether that would be Shabbat or putting on tefillin. Why does G-d choose to detail Abraham's mitzvah? What is so special about this particular mitzvah that the Sages said it was greater than receiving the Divine Presence?

I came up with this answer: G-d created the universe, and thus has domain over it. If one of the primary purposes of life is imitatio Dei, we must have dominion over something comparable to G-d's dominion over the universe. That dominion is the household. In contrast to politics or the economy, the individual can, in a temporal sense, exert the best amount of control within their home, which means that one has the best control of whether the given environment is one of cruelty or kindness. If charity begins at home, then kindness also must begin at home so that outside the home, kindness can beget more kindness.

שבת שלום!
Much of the inspiration of this entry has emanated from the teachings of R. Joseph Telushkin.

Looking Back and Looking Forward: Assessing the Great Recession

A couple of days ago, Professor Merton Finkler gave a colloquium at my alma mater doing some comparative economics along with economic forecasting regarding the Great Recession. Since the American economy, as well as the overall global economy were analyzed, Finkler's analysis, much like this blog entry, attempts to cover much ground in a small frame.

The Great Depression and Great Recession are similar in the sense that both were triggered by financial crises in which both situations, the American government tried to resolve the issue with unsustainable borrowing and large amounts of bank regulation. There are actually more differences in comparing the two. In the Great Depression, there was a higher rate of declining GDP (13% vs. 4%) from trough to peak and the rate of unemployment was much higher (25% vs. 10%). However, the Great Recession received a greater drop in stock markets and trade, as well as the job deficit in the Great Recession (8 million and counting) was much greater.

Aside from giving the comparative economic history, Finkler mentioned a particularly interesting economic indicator, which I didn't know of until he mentioned it, which was the Baltic Dry Index (BDI). The BDI measures the demand for shipping capacity versus the supply of dry bulk carriers. The reason why this index is so telling is because the supply of such goods changes slowly, thus making it a strong indicator for the demand of these goods. If you look at the BDI over the past couple of years, it plummeted right around the end of 2008, indicating that the trade sector took a heavy hit.

Finkler also mentioned such global economic factors such as the debt-ridden PIIGS (Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece, Spain) in the European Union, thereby forecasting potential destabilization of the European Union. He also mentioned that in the global market, China is here to stay.

What I found most captivating about the event, however, was his bottom line. Financial panics reflect deteriorating balance sheet and potential insolvency. Insolvency is not equivalent to a lack of cash flow, and thus cannot be solved by printing more money. Although debt unto itself is not a bad thing [because debt can potentially be paid off in the long-run], we currently have an unsustainable debt service that cannot be corrected by more borrowing. Since the only thing the Federal Reserve can really do is borrow money, they cannot be the solution to the problem, although many would like to think so. Since the credit to GDP ratio is at 357%, we have no choice but to focus on reducing the burden of the debt. Households make up 92% of that 357%, which means that Americans would need a higher marginal propensity to save and have a sense of fiscal responsibility. Interestingly enough, the private and public sectors have racked up roughly the same amount of debt as of date. What is perturbing, however, is the rate at which the government is borrowing and the rate at which business have cut back. This negative trend can only mean that in a matter of time, the percentage of debt that the government will rack up will be considerably higher than it is now.

This is anything but the deleveraging that Finkler had prescribed, especially in light of the unfunded liabilities indicated by the Debt Clock. What do unfunded liabilities exactly mean? It entails programs such as Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. Finkler pointed out that the problems with these unfunded liabilities are exacerbated by the fact that the worker to dependant ratio is below two and continuing to drop. Once it reaches below one, which will happen based on the inevitability of age-based demographics, there will be three policy options for Congress: tax more, cut benefits, or extend benefits to fewer people.

Since financial panics cause longer recessions, Finkler used economic indicators to predict that it could very well take until 2015 to get out of this mess. Regardless of the gloomy prediction, the fact that we are not considering long-term implications of our fiscal policies will guarantee that America is going to be in economic upheaval for the long haul.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Why People Hate Big Business and Shouldn't

When you hear about Big Business, it's amazing how so many people group it along with the likes of skinheads or terrorists. If you watch enough television or movies, more often than not, the bad guy ends up being some crooked, avaricious businessman from Wall Street. Although the scandals behind Enron or Bernie Madoff are morally reprehensible, they make up a considerable minority of what goes on in the business world.

But if that's the case, why do so many Americans love vilifying them? Because a seemingly inefficient amount of money leads to something else green filling in the void--envy. People who are not satisfied with their material wealth and have lower self-esteem are bound to resent those who are more successful, intelligent, or financially well-off.

A huge majority of millionaires in this country did not come from "old money." They are self-made and had to work hard to earn it. If you don't like it, you can either improve your education, learn new skills to make yourself more marketable so you can climb up the corporate ladder, or you can invent something really useful like Bill Gates did and make a huge amount of cash. But if you prefer receiving a handout rather than develop a hard work ethic motivated by the desire to succeed, shut up and stop whining because it's not going to come to you on a silver platter!

Not only should Americans not be resentful towards Big Business, they should be thankful. Why? Because Big Business translates into a whole lot of employment. According to the Small Business Administration, a small business is defined as a firm with fewer than five hundred employees. Let's just say that the definition hardly lines up with the notion of a mom-and-pop shop. This definition renders 99.7% as small businesses. But let's work with the definition for a moment. That remaining "evil" 0.3% that we like to call Big Business accounts for roughly a half of the country's employment.

Here's some basic economics: rich people have capital, which means that rich people can expand business. Expanding business translates into more employment. More employment translates into economic growth. As former Texas senator Phil Gramm put it, "No one ever got a job from a poor man."

For anyone who has picked up an economics textbook, this would be considered sound economics, but it's something you'll never hear from Obama, Pelosi, the Democrats, or just about anybody on the Left for that matter. The Left likes throwing lavishing welfare programs at the poor to make the poor feel loved and helped. But it really doesn't help the poor. It becomes very difficult to come out of poverty when a dependency on welfare or any other government-based entitlement program is in play. You know what kind of "support" is best for financial stability as well as one's self-worth? It's not a government check--it's a job. More jobs means less unemployment, which means less poverty. Therefore, if we truly want to help alleviate poverty, let's stop punishing the largest provider of employment in America.  It shouldn't take a genius to figure out that economic freedom leads to economic growth and diminution in poverty.  So rather than come out with bloated, highly inefficient stimulus packages or rather than punishing Big Business by not extending the Bush-era tax breaks, it might behoove Obama and the Democrats to just stay out of the way for once.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Will Obama Cause American Jews to Vote Republican?

Since the days of FDR, Jews in America have disproportionately voted Democrat in a secularly traditional matter.  The question that is on a lot of Jewish pundit's minds is whether Obama is going to break that voting streak.  I will briefly state why "Mr. Hope and Change" could very well bring about an extended period in which Jews overwhelmingly voting Democrat will no longer be a given. 

This analysis wouldn't be complete without talking about Israel.  As a recent survey from the American Jewish survey points out, an increasing amount of Jews are disappointed with Obama's handling of American foreign policy in the Middle East.  This does not only apply to the "peace process in Israel," but also to how Obama needs to grow a pair when it comes to Iran.  72% believe there is “little” or “no” chance that a combination of diplomacy and sanctions can stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons, which translates to most people think Obama's approach to foreign policy is a big failure.  As I have implied before, however, Obama's mishandling on the Israeli situation will not suffice to cause a loyalty shift because sadly enough, Israel is not a high priority for many American Jews, even with programs such as Birthright making more American Jews aware of the wonders of Israel.

Ultimately, I think the DNC will hit American Jews where it will hurt, much like it is for all Americans: the wallet.  Obama has not kept his promises to keep unemployment under 8%.  Since there are many Jews who own small businesses, I can only see the upcoming tax hikes to further impede any business owner, whether Jewish or not, and thus cause further resentment to the current administration.  The same will go for doctors, many of which are disproportionately Jewish, when Obamacare is in full effect.  Further obstacles to practicing medicine will leave doctors discouraged and dismayed. 

Although I think the current economic situation will ensure that the Democrats won't get 78% of the Jewish vote that they had back in 2008, I can see a couple of factors that can make this, at best, a short-term disapproval.  The first is the Tea Party and the fact that a lot of Jews are hardly Tea Party material.  Since all the Tea Party candidates are running as Republicans, this can turn away certain Jewish voters from voting Republican.  The other issue is the Christian Right.  Although Jews might be more fiscally conservative than one would give credit, there has always been a chill up the typical American Jew's spine when it comes to allying with the Fundamentalist Christians.  The reason I bring this up is because the Republican Party is further pandering to its base which makes up a large plurality of the Republican Party: social conservatives.  The final point I will bring up which can potentially counter this in the long-run is demographic.  If there is an increase of Orthodox Jews in America due to the birthrate that is comparably higher than non-Orthodox Jews, we can potentially see a Jewish voting base that is significantly more Orthodox than the current ten percent.  As for whether all of this translates into a solid voting bloc for the Republicans or whether the Democrats can keep their hold on the Jewish constituency, we will just have to wait and see.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

What to Do About Obesity

I had recently posted an entry about obesity and how it is attributing to the decline of American society. In the matter of hours, one of my friends reads it, and before I know it, I am engaging in an hour-long conversation regarding the issue. My friend had expressed disappointment in the fact that I just went on a diatribe, rather than discuss ways to solve the issue of obesity. Although my sole intention was to be in rant mode, there was nevertheless truth in that criticism. With that in mind, I give you my analysis on how to solve the problem of obesity.  Like with any other issue, we need to identify root causes before discussing potential solutions. Naturally, this is the most sound way of approaching problem-solving from a public policy standpoint.

Obesity, by definition, is the accumulation of excess body fat that is deemed to be unhealthy. It is brought about by eating voluminous amounts of caloric intake (i.e., obese people eat a whole lot of food). This high intake causes health complications and reduced life expectancy. Food consumption is not a new phenomenon; dealing with an excessively large percent of overweight citizens is new.

There are multiple causes that have brought about the "epidemic" of obesity. One is our sedentary lifestyle. Many Americans have worked in a cubicle. However, with the advent of inventions such as the television and the Internet, we are more prone to sitting idly in front of a screen for longer periods of time, thereby giving our bodies more time to accumulate fat. Food prices themselves are causing issues. Big Government has been subsidizing Big Agriculture (e.g., processed foods, meat). Subsidies, by definition, distort the market. Foods such as Twinkies and Big Macs are artificially cheaper, whereas produce and organic products come off as more expensive. This would explain why America is one of the only countries in the world that has poor people who are fat, rather than skin and bones. The third primary cause is ignorance. People don't know what a good diet consists of--they'll just eat whatever is either cheap and/or tasty. People also don't know that a mere thirty minutes of daily, physical activity would further prevent obesity.  In terms of solutions, there are two ways of approaching the problem: macrocosmic or microcosmic.

What I mean when I say macrocosmic is the government's role in health care. If people were cognizant of a healthy diet, odds are that they would be practicing it, and health care costs would be at a minimum. Unfortunately, people are so self-indulgent that that short-term result of a good-tasting meal outweighs the longer-term effects. That leaves two options here:

The first option is governmental control of the health care system. Just think about it. You won't have to worry about health care bills. Heck, you won't even have to worry about what's for dinner because the government will have taken care of that for you. If you think that the government telling you what to eat, when to eat, and how much to eat is only in the realm of fiction, think again! The Maoist regime practiced food rationing for Communist China. You know how that ended up? It adversely attributed to the 30+ million that died during the Great Leap Forward. When you have a command economy, lots of people end up dead....I always found that to be an interesting correlation.

The second option would be a trend towards personal responsibility and less government, either of which would begin with the repeal of Obamacare. Two main obstacles towards this goal exist. The first is that since FDR and the New Deal, we have seen a mentality towards dependency on Big Government, something that has not been abated since then. The second is the growing sentiment that the individual feels self-entitled towards everything, which negates any sense of personal responsibility.

I particularly go after Obamacare because if we pool Americans into a one-size-fits-all insurance program, people will say "damn the consequences because Obamacare is my safety net." This decreases disincentive to partake in self-destructive behaviors that diminish longevity. A dismantling of Medicare and Medicaid would also do the trick, since that would decrease government dependency and cut back on about 19% of the federal budget. A huge voting bloc of seniors would prevent that necessity from happening. After all, AARP is the largest interest group in America. In short, a whole lot of political activism and a renewed sense of personal responsibility would be the best way to remedy the macrocosmic ramifications.

Since I don't foresee this happening anytime soon, the microcosmic, i.e., the individual level, is a better place to go, which would require two things: personal responsibility and the willpower to lose weight. Short of fully abstaining from eating, since that would be a ridiculous suggestion, you can apply the Twelve-Step program here. If you are overweight, you accept that you have a problem. You gather the resolve to overcome eating unhealthy foods and create a healthy, balanced diet. You make the time to exercise at least thirty minutes a day. You have to remove any obstacles, such as TV watching or going down the dessert aisle at the supermarket, to accomplish your goal. Not only do you decide to be healthy, you have to do it consistently. Eating a stalk of celery once a month or going to the gym once a week for ten minutes won't cut it. Like someone on the Twelve-Step Program, you need personal commitment to see it through.

Concluding thoughts: Any sincere attempt to change for the better, whether it's losing weight, cutting back on alcohol, or abstaining from gossip, require awareness, measurable goals, commitment to hard work, and consistency. If you can remain steadfast to these foundations, personal change in any facet of life is always an acquirable goal.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

The Orthodox Community's Perturbing Response to Rubashkin

In Judaism, business ethics are of paramount importance.  They are so important that the Talmud (Shabbat 31a) states the following: "In the hour when an individual is brought before the heavenly court for judgment, the person is asked: 'Did you conduct your business affairs honestly?'"  Note how the question isn't "Did you keep kosher or Shabbos all the time," but is related with to honest business dealings.  The Torah even predicates national survival in Israel based on this foundation of Judaism (Deuteronomy 25:15).  It should be safe to say that business ethics play a vital role in Judaism

Let's keep the notion of Jewish business ethics with the following story in mind.  Enter Sholom Rubashkin, a Chasidic Jew who was the former CEO of Agriprocessors, the largest distributor of kosher meat in America.  PETA had accused the company of mistreatment of cattle.  The company had the largest immigration raid in American history, and 297 the workers were found guilty of fraud, most notably identity theft.  Rubashkin was acquitted from the 67 charges of child labor violations.  What ultimately put Rubashkin in prison for 27 years, however, was the 86 charges of financial fraud (e.g., bank fraud, money laundering).  You can read U.S. Attorney Stephanie Rose's statement regading Agriprocessors and the sentencing here.

Knowing the role of honest business dealings in Jewish ethics, you think the Orthodox community would have given Rubashkin an explicit admonishment as commanded by Leviticus 19:17, right?  Not so much.  It's more like complaining about the excessiveness about the sentence, even though Vos Iz Neias, an Orthodox news site, even conceded that 27 years is on the lower end of the sentencing status in the American jurisprudence system.  If anti-Semitism played a role in Rubashkin's trial, they would have given him the maximum of 33 years and 9 months.  But again, he was charged on the lower end. 

It's not only the lack of rebuke that bothers me about the reaction from the Orthodox community.  It's the fact that a music video singing about the "plight" of Rubashkin was created.  When I initially saw this, I thought it was satirical, but this was done with sincerity. 

A man blatantly commits multiple counts of fraud, and Orthodox Jews get together in a "We Are the World" fashion to stick up for Rubashkin.  My favorite verse of the song has to be "Treat your fellow friends like they were you, and then we all find some peace of mind and unity."  For those who participated in this project, here is my question to you: shouldn't treating your fellow friends like they were you apply in the cases of business-related fraud, or does "love thy neighbor" only apply to your fellow Jew?  I wish prominent figures within the Orthodox community wouldn't portray a fraudster as a tzaddik.  It makes it all the more difficult for the rest of the world to seriously view the Jewish people as the "light unto the nations."

Obesity and the Decline of America

I had recently read an article from the centrist think-tank Brookings Institute entitled "The Economic Impact of Obesity."  Right when I read the abstract that said that two-thirds of Americans are overweight and one-third are downright obese, it got me thinking about how obesity affects American life.

Before continuing, I would like to clarify a few things.  First and foremost is that this is not an attempt for me to say that being overweight makes you inherently immoral.  That much should be self-evident, but I needed to re-iterate in the event that anyone misconstrues my intentions.  The second is that if we are going to have a serious conversation about this topic, we need to throw out the misconceived notion that obesity is primarily or solely caused by genetics.  The fact that the rate of obesity has doubled since the 1970s negates this myth.  The primary reason that so many people have become overweight is because of an ignorance of a healthy, balanced diet.  Less and less people know what a good diet consists of, and their children learn that from their parents.  If you found an actual case of genetically-caused obesity, this would be called an exception, not the norm.  Finally, I am not the biggest fan of the Body Mass Index (BMI).  It measures your weightiness based on a height to weight ratio.  There are some people who are truly big-boned, and there are some exceptionally muscular people that would not be considered fat (FYI, muscle weighs more than fat).  However, these exceptions do not cover the prevailing norm, which is that most people are fat because they don't know the first thing about good eating and exercise.  That is why I still give the aggregate BMI measurements validity.

 I was floored to see some of the economic impacts that obesity has had on America.  Just to name a few:

  • Those who are obese (i.e., with a BMI of 30 or higher) have 50% higher health care costs than the healthy-weight group, and the overweight (i.e., with a BMI between 25 and 30) have costs 20% higher. 
  • If we got rid of obesity, we would be able to cut Medicare spending by 8.5% an Medicaid by 11.8%.
  • Obese workers were 194% more likely to use time off due to weight-related issues.  This total lost productive time is estimated to be at $11.7 billion a year.
  • Because we have to make seats bigger in transportation and have to use more gasoline to transport heavier people, it is estimated that the cost in this sector is an extra $2.7 billion a year.
  • It was also found that obesity can even impact factors such as self-esteem, intelligence, GPA, and probability of getting married.  In short, it cuts off the growth of human capital.
Some of you are probably wondering why I am so disputatious about this.  It might have to do something with the increasing level of nationalizing the health care in this country.  Essentially, what Obamacare, or any other socialist health care plan, does is pool all the Americans together and tries to find a "one size fits all" health care program.  This means they have to cover just about everything, which translates into an increased premium costs.  Think about it.  All the Americans are pooled together, and most of them are overweight.  Insurance companies will inevitably have to raise premiums in order to cover their losses. 

That is why someone like me who, as of date, has a BMI that is under 25 and never has needed to go to the hospital for any overweight-induced conditions, is coming off as belligerent.  What is the price of me living a healthy lifestyle and trying to make that lifestyle even healthier? Skyrocketing health care prices!  I have to pay for the shmuck who thinks that eating Twinkies and Big Macs everyday is a wonderful thing because "you only live once."  If you want to commit self-destructive behavior, that's fine, but please, don't drag me into your mess.  But you won't see that happen because Americans have increasingly become dependent on government.  Americans have the rising expectation that somebody else will take care of the problem, which throws any notion of personal responsibility out the window. 

Let me elaborate on why this problem of obesity will not go away, and that it will probably get worse.  Since we live in a shame culture, as opposed to a guilt culture, we have to render ourselves blameless and without fault in order to get through the day.  This means that no one will ever take personal responsibility for things that are actually their fault, as it is the case with poor diet and lack of exercise.  If Americans go with the view of "I'm fine just the way I am, and I don't need to change the fact that I eat 3,000 calories a day because that would hurt my precious, little self-esteem," then there will never ever be a call for personal change.  And why should there be?  The government is going to cover the bill anyways.  And we all know that the money for that grows on trees, and not from hard-working taxpayers who generate revenue in a market-based economy.  If things are going to get better with respects to the economic impact of obesity, each American individual needs to take personal responsibility both for their health and any health-related costs they accrue.  But why bother with such a dream?  Most Americans are so lethargic and self-indulged that this will be as likely to happen as Obama ceasing from being a socialist that continues to ruin our country on a daily basis. 

But again, I would love to see a change where the individual has self-respect, self-reliance, and a sense of personal responsibility.  For those who believe that the only realist is an idealist, if you want change, you had best realize the gap between the current situation and the idealized one.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Parsha Noach: Enter Omnivore, Stage Left

In last week's Torah portion, G-d gives us the ideal of the vegetarian diet in commandment form: "Behold, I have given you every herb yielding seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed--to you it shall be for food (Genesis 1:29)."  Famous rabbis such as Nachmanides, Maimonides, Abraham Ibn Ezra, and Joseph Albo all agree with this reading of Genesis 1:29.  Genesis 2:16 and 3:18 continue to support this ideal.  It is only when we reach the pre-Flood era when we run into problems. 

Yesterday, I had postulated that the Flood had been brought about by people's proclivity towards theft.  I would now like to offer a different insight:

 וַיַּרְא אֱלֹהִים אֶת-הָאָרֶץ, וְהִנֵּה נִשְׁחָתָה:  כִּי-הִשְׁחִית כָּל-בָּשָׂר אֶת-דַּרְכּוֹ, עַל-הָאָרֶץ.

And God saw the earth, and, behold, it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted their way upon the earth. -Genesis 6:12

This time, I am going to put the emphasis on בָּשָׂר (flesh).  The word בָּשָׂר literally refers to meat.  During this period, man was so uncivilized that he would tear the limb of a live animal, which is why one of the Seven Noachide laws, laws which both Jews and non-Jews are supposed to obey, is a prohibition thereof (Genesis 9:4, Sanhedrin 58a). 

As a seemingly concessionary measure, G-d grants us the permission to consume meat: "Every moving thing that lives shall be for food for you; as the green herb have I given you all (Genesis 9:3)."  Although this seems like a slam dunk for meat-eaters, it might be prudent to take a look at the surrounding verses before celebrating. 

 וּמוֹרַאֲכֶם וְחִתְּכֶם, יִהְיֶה, עַל כָּל-חַיַּת הָאָרֶץ, וְעַל כָּל-עוֹף הַשָּׁמָיִם; בְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר תִּרְמֹשׂ הָאֲדָמָה וּבְכָל-דְּגֵי הַיָּם, בְּיֶדְכֶם נִתָּנוּ.

"And the fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth, and upon every fowl of the air, and upon all wherewith the ground teems, and upon all the fishes of the sea: into your hand are they delivered. " -Genesis 9:2

Yes, we are given the license to eat meat, but as Rabbi Samson Hirsch points out in his commentary on this verse, the dynamic between animal and man has changed where a rift was caused in the previously benign relationship between the two.  The verse immediately after is also telling because in Genesis 9:4, there already is a limitation on whatwe can do with meat consumption: no eating of the animal's blood. 

As we ponder this week's Torah portion and having this insight in mind, let me present two questions to you:

1) As you read Torah and read the Jewish dietary laws throughout history, why is it that just about every single dietary law has to do with meat consumption?  Is it possible that G-d, in His infinite wisdom, gave us these nuanced laws so that we would be detered from eating meat?

2) If eating meat is such a mitzvah, like many of my traditional-minded Jewish friends opine, where is the special blessing for meat?  In terms of the hierarchy, meat falls under "Shehakol," which is the lowest blessing on the proverbial totem pole.  Only grains, fruits, and vegetables have special blessings, whereas everything else is covered by Shehakol. 

Some food for thought this weekend.......

שבת שלום! 

Stimulus Checks Sent to the Dead.....That's Special

If you need another look at the stupidity of Obama's stimulus, look no further than the Social Security Administration.  89,000 stimulus checks of $250 sent by the SSA were sent to dead people!  This won't "stimulate" the dead towards coming back to life, and it certainly won't stimulate the economy.  Approximately $22.3 million in mistaken payments.  The SSA can't handle stimulus checks, and we are supposed to trust them with our retirement funds?  Better yet, we're trusting a government with this level of ineptness to run our health care.  Our lives are literally in there hands.  Feel reassured yet?  I know I don't.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Parsha Noach: It's Not Just a Hotel Towel

The following scenario has become typical of travel in America.  You stay in a hotel during your vacation.  Vacation time is just about over, you're packing, and you can't help but take a hotel towel or a bar of soap.  "After all, it's just a measly little towel.  Nobody is going to miss it, right?  After all, those hotel owners make a ridiculous profit.  Between the mini-bar and the pay-per-view TV, they rip us working folk off all too much.  Honestly, is that missing towel really going to put a dent in the hotel chain's revenue?"

This sort of rationalization has become so commonplace that many view the act in an innocuous manner.  Is taking a hotel towel really stealing?  And what does this have to do with this week's Torah portion?

 וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים לְנֹחַ, קֵץ כָּל-בָּשָׂר בָּא לְפָנַי--כִּי-מָלְאָה הָאָרֶץ חָמָס, מִפְּנֵיהֶם; וְהִנְנִי מַשְׁחִיתָם, אֶת-הָאָרֶץ.

"And G-d said to Noah, 'The end of all flesh has come before me, for the earth is filled with corruption." -Genesis 6:13

It sounds intriguing, but the connection between hotel towels and Noah is not quite there.  What sort of corruption are we talking about here?  The text is vague as to exactly what sealed humanity's fate.  In the Talmud (Sanhedrin 108a), Rabbi Yochanan said that Noah's generation did themselves in when they were guilty of stealing.

There is also an interesting Midrash (Braishit Rabbah 30) regarding one of the words used, חָמָס.  In the Midrash, חָמָס is defined as stealing less than a פרוטה, which was not punishable back in those times.  This would be analogous to somebody stealing a penny.  A small, insignificant amount, right?  Even if it is infintensantly small, the Midrash has something to say about this.  During Noah's generation, there would be a man who had a box of beans to sell.  When someone came along, they stole less than the worth of a פרוטה.  However, when enough people walked by, the man was left without any beans, and he couldn't prosecute anybody because the monetary worth of the theft was so minute that he couldn't recuperate from his loss.

There is truth to the phrase "character is what a man does when no one is looking [except G-d]."  This seemingly harmless behavior led to a slippery slope of that behavior seeping into the public.  It is no coincidence that G-d points out in Genesis 6:11 that this corruption was לִפְנֵי הָאֱלֹהִים (before Him), meaning that it was out in public.

Many rabbis have interpreted the fall of humanity during this time period to be attributed to theft, and it should be self-evident as to why.  In reality, it's much more than a hotel towel.  It's a statement about character.  Whether it's a towel or a $100 bill, you are the taking of the property of another without the owner's consent.  Stealing is still stealing.  Justifying the theft of the towel has the grave potential of being able to justify the theft of stealing that $100 bill with the same ease. 

G-d made it clear with the covenant in the form of a rainbow (Genesis 9:13) that He will never flood the Earth again in such a matter.  However, we need to be mindful to conduct ourselves in such a matter so we can avoid the spiritual decline that humanity experienced pre-Flood.

שבת שלום!

Sunday, October 3, 2010

High-Skill vs. Low-Skill Labor: Would a Utopian Immigration Policy Work?

Like with many political issues in America, they rarely, if ever, are clear-cut and unambiguous. Our immigration policy is no exception to this rule. Most Americans can clearly realize that our immigration process is a broken one, but I think we don’t have a clue as to how to mitigate it.

The Hamilton Project, which is part of the Brookings Institution, recently drew up a study entitled “Ten Economic Facts About Immigration,” which attempted to “lay out the facts” for a constructive debate on the issue. I found a few flaws with the study, first and foremost being that immigrants are not a financial drain on the American government. I already touched upon this myth a few months back. The attempt to show that American living standards have improved is weak since the increase is negligible compared to the billions lost every year to immigration. Finally, I took issue with the attempt to make a causative relation between increase in immigration enforcement funding and number of unauthorized immigrants. The increase are not in any way related to one another. America has had anything but a superior immigration enforcement policy, so using wasteful spending as an indicator of ineffectiveness is misleading. Plus, the decline in unauthorized immigrants has more to do with a failing American economy than anything.

In spite of these methodological flaws, the study makes one extremely valid point which merits further explanation, which is that there are two types of immigrants: low-skilled and high-skilled. Looking at the impacts of each sector independently helps sharpen our focus of our immigration issues.

The Hamilton Project gives a breakdown of the level of education between U.S. born and foreign born. Thirty percent who are foreign born have less than a high school degree, which is approximately four times the amount of those who are U.S. born. When you take high school education foreign born Americans into account, it totals to fifty-five percent of foreign born Americans with a high school education or less. What I would like to dub as “Tier One” is what most Americans focus on when discussing the immigration debate.

However, there is a more infrequently discussed “Tier Two,” which consists of highly-skilled immigrants. Approximately eighteen percent of those who are foreign born have Bachelor’s degrees, and about nine percent have Master’s Degrees. What is most intriguing is that the rate which foreign born citizens have PhD’s versus their U.S. born counterparts is almost double.

Being cognizant of these two tiers is exceptionally important because in general terms, level of education is a primary indicator of intelligence and potential contributions that an individual can make to society. You won’t catch me saying this too often, especially in light of their single-payer healthcare, but I think in this instance, we should emulate Canada’s policies. The skill composition of Canada’s immigrants is much more desirable because they are more selective in their immigration policies.

There are certain exigent circumstances, such as with refugee cases, in which Americans should open its doors to the “poor and the hungry.” However, I think in terms of to whom we grant citizenship, America should raise its standards of qualifications. An immigrant coming to this country should either have a good education or a skill (e.g., computer science) that would be productive for society. We technically cannot eliminate unskilled labor because there is still a demand for such labor. However, it certainly should be kept to a minimum. As the study shows, immigrants are thirty percent more likely to start businesses and four times more likely to be granted patents. Unskilled labor workers neither have the competency to start a business nor have the intellect to create a patent that will contribute to American ingenuity, which means that a disproportionately high amount of American progress comes from highly-skilled, foreign born citizens.

Therefore, what I propose is two-fold. One is to minimize our acceptance of unskilled labor because L-rd only knows we have enough of that in this country! Most of the costs related to immigrants are either tied up in welfare, entitlement programs, health care, incarceration, and education, costs that the poorer immigrants primarily, if not solely, trigger. By drafting up a more selective immigration process, we can cut back costs in these respective sectors of the government. The second is to provide incentives not only for highly-skilled foreign labor to come to the country to acquire an American education, but also to stay in this country to continue being productive members of society.

In case you couldn't tell from the tone of this article, I am not a big fan of stupid people.  As a matter of fact, I cannot stand stupidity.  Education is one of the primary factors that determines success.  An educated society with individuals that have good heads on their shoulders would eliminate a lot of the world's problems since the world's problems either stem from ignorance or stupidity.

The main issue with trying to implement this on a sincere level is that it is too utopian.  I can make anything sound theory.  Communism, for example, sounds very nice in theory.  When you put it in practice, however, it has become a very different beast.  The reason why it has never worked is because in order to use any property whatsoever, you need the permission of the entire commune (i.e., the nation).  Because this is not feasible, communism has always led to a one-party nation that attempts to control everything and commits more egregious acts than it had ever intended.

This immigration policy would be no different.  Again, I would love a world filled with competency.  The issue is that our country is rampant with incompetency.  Look no further than Congress.  These inept people would be the ones to actually try to implement these new laws.  Much like Communism, this utopian notion would backfire into some systematic, government-based form of active eugenics.  It would end up to be something like Nazi Germany.  This is because when you have a utopian ideal, it never takes the imperfections of man into consideration, which is why utopias have historically never worked.  I would still suggest that America better emulates Canada's immigration policy, but hope that if it actually took educated immigrants into consideration when drafting immigration policy, that America does not lose its sense of morality in the process.