Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Pentagon Finally Figures Out Don't Ask, Don't Tell

The Pentagon came out with their year-long study on Don't Ask, Don't Tell.  Based on their findings, repealing Don't Ask, Don't Tell would have minimal, if not neglible, risks.  I'm glad to hear the findings, but not so much that the Pentagon needed a year-long study to confirm common sense. 

Gay people don't destabalize military cohesion.  If there were any country in the world that could afford not to jeopardize the stability of its national security, it would be Israel.  After all, a small nation surrounded by belligerent, hostile enemies that want nothing more than Israel's total annihilation surely cannot afford to err.  But amazingly enough, Israel allows openly gay people to serve in the military, and guess what?  Israel still exists without it affecting military cohesion.

If a man wants to join the military, regardless of sexual orientation, he should be able to serve his country.  It is inconsistent, if not downright hypocritical, to have an increasingly invasive foreign policy in the name of freedom, democracy, and progress while depriving a willing demographic to proudly serve in its military.  I hope that the Senate can pass a repeal of such a ridiculously arcane law before the Democrats lose their clout in Congress, but at this point, we'll have to wait and see if this comes before the Senate before the year is out.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

A Thanksgiving Lesson: How Does Judaism Define Gratitude?

In Hebrew, the compound phrase of הכרת הטוב is normally translated as gratitude.  This translation, however, is an inadequate one.  The more literal translation of this phrase is "recognizing the good."

In theory, when we think of recognition, we think "acknowledgment."  One of the lessons that Judaism is trying to convey is that at a minimum, one has to acknowledge the fact that even if life is rife with suffering, good exists.  Does this mean that Judaism teaches us to ignore suffering that goes around us?  Of course not!  As a realist and Deist, I would never advocate one to ignore reality.  That would be a denial of truth.  But it is just as much of a denial of truth to say that there is not an iota of goodness in one's life.  To quote Alan Morinis from his book Everyday Holiness (p. 64):

"If you've lost your job but you still have your family and health, you have something to be grateful for.  If you can't move around except in a wheelchair, but your mind is as sharp as ever, you have something to be grateful for.  If your house burns down but you still have your memories, you have something to be grateful for.  If you've broken a string on your violin, and you still have three strings, you have something to be grateful for."

Even in something such as this character trait, I find that Judaism is once again being pragmatic about dealing with life.  We are not asked to evade familial disputes or financial troubles.  At least when it comes to Judaism, Karl Marx was incorrect to say that religion is an opiate for the masses.  But Judaism also teaches that in spite of our troubles, we are not only to recognize the good, but also emphasize it.  Rather than absconding from the scene or disregarding that which is going on around you, Judaism provides a mentality that makes us stronger and gives us a more positive outlook on life when dealing with what many cynics define as a cruel, heartless world.  That is why Ben Zoma (Pirke Avot 4:1) recognizes that a rich man is not one who has a lot of material wealth, but rather rejoices (i.e., is thankful) for his lot.

Although one could use mere recognition as a secular form of positive psychology, if you are to truly emphasize the goodness in your life, you have to express that recognition into gratitude, which is why Judaism takes that recognition to the next level by actually giving thanks.  That is also why Judaism gives us so many opportunities to bless and give thanks.

That is why I will take the time this Thanksgiving to reflect the good given to me.  First, I thank G-d for creating the universe.  Why?  Because I know that creating the universe was not necessary of Him.  He could have just existed by Himself since His infinitude makes Him truly self-sufficient and independent, something a human being can technically ever acquire.  Without the creation of the universe, I would not be here to ponder the meaning of life and become an ethically sound individual.  I am thankful that my friends and family care about me and provide a support system that only gets stronger with each passing day.  I am thankful for the divine-like intellect G-d has given me so I can further study and further develop it as time continues.  I am thankful to be employed so I can pay the bills, put a roof over my head, provide food to put on the table, and not have to worry about financial woes.

I realize that I can kvetch and moan about all the evil and indifference in the world.  And for those who know me well enough, I manage to do so.  However, in spite of all the problems in the world, I can remember the wonders and joys I have in life.  At the least, it helps me get through the day, and in an increasing number of cases, it helps me to enjoy the life I have.

Happy Thanksgiving to all!

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Pirke Avot 1:2 & 1:18: Three Pillars

Simeon the Righteous (Pirke Avot 1:2) said that the world was based on three things:

 על התורה, ועל העבודה, ועל גמילות החסדים.

The first is תורה (Torah). The Tosfos Yom Tov said that when Simeon the Righteous said Torah, he meant the active pursuit thereof. Some would confine Torah to the first five books of Moses. Others would open it up a bit more to both Written and Oral Law. I would be as inclusive as to say that Torah includes the entirety of Jewish texts, from the Tanach to modern-day responsa, and everything in between. The reason for this inclusiveness of texts is because Judaism embodies a nationality in addition to a religion. And like a people, Judaism has evolved over time. We have kept a general sense of Jewish values while being able to adapt over time. This is why the entire breadth of Jewish texts matters in terms of Jewish study.

The second is עבודה (service). This initially referred to the sacrificial services (Rambam, Rashi). However, since we don’t have a Temple anymore, service now refers to prayer.

The third is גמילות החסדים (acts of loving-kindness), which would be another way of saying imitatio Dei. I find this third pillar to be important for two reasons. The first is that the study of Torah becomes translated into action. The second is that it emphasizes that we are more than consumers and producers. We are being with a purpose to develop interpersonal relations and transcend the self by helping others.

We have a bit of a quandary because Shimon ben Gamliel opined in Pirke Avot 1:18 that the three principles upon which the world is sustained are truth, justice, and peace. According to Rambam, truth referred to intellectual truth, justice was a righteous government that properly and fairly ruled, and peace was a perfection of ethical conduct. Bertinoro actually thought that peace referred to the modern-day notion of world peace.

But that minor textual quarrel set aside, we have to ask ourselves which Sage is correct: Simeon the Righteous or Shimon ben Gamliel? They both sound like good answers, which means that at least one of them has to be correct. But I will contend that both are correct, but on different levels. Simeon the Righteous was correct in the sense that his grouping of three was meant for the actions that the individual had to pursue in order to lead a productive life. Shimon ben Gamilel is correct in the sense that these are the virtues that a government has to pursue in order to maintain stability, order, and an ethically sound nation-state. What I hope is that the Jewish people pursue both so we can hasten the coming of the Messiah……huzzah!

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Parsha Vayetze: Sometimes It's OK to Be Angry

Anger manifests itself in many forms. In the international realm, we see it in the form of wars, terrorism, and acts of genocide. On a domestic level, we see such examples as road rage and a political discourse that has become so polarized and uncouth that a civil discussion on politics is all but non-existent. Even in American homes, spouses argue with on another and domestic abuse is a much more common occurrence than we would like. Anger, whether we like it or not, is a human emotion that is very much a part of human nature.

This does not mean, however, we should have the hedonistic response of "it's natural to be angry, therefore I'm just going to accept it." Judaism doesn't have anything positive to say about anger. Anger is what caused Cain to kill Abel. Anger is what drove Simeon and Levi to kill all the males in the town of Shechem (Genesis 34:25-26) after their townsmen raped their sister Dinah. Nedarim 22b says that G-d is of no consequence to a man who is angry. The Talmud (Shabbat 105b) even goes as far to say that anger is a form of idol worship. Why would that be? Idolatry, in its simplest form, is the worship of anything that is not G-d. It is not limited to statues. Money for its own sake is a form of idolatry.

But for the purpose of this discussion, we will focus on the attribute of arrogance as a source of anger. Alan Morinis had a great way of defining arrogance. Arrogance is nothing more than a twisted manifestation of a lack of self-esteem. One who is arrogant craves attention and approval for others. Without their praise, they are worthless. Anger not only reveals dependency, but an instance of lashing out becomes a defense mechanism. It drives you into a deeper self-obsession which ultimately blinds you from the ramifications of your actions. In anger, everything is about you. There is no one else. This is why Judaism has an overall negative attitude towards it, and this is why the Talmud (Nedarim 22a) says that the angry person is overcome by all forms of hell.

Anger is a powerful emotion, and it clearly can have adverse effects. But are we supposed to go as far as say that we are never to be angry or that we never have the right to be angry?

Let's take a look at Jacob in this week's Torah portion. Jacob takes a liking to Rachel. Laban, Rachel's father, promises him Rachel's hand in marriage after working for him for seven years (Genesis 29:18). Seven years later, Laban tricks Jacob into marrying Leah, Rachel's older and much less redeeming sister (ibid 25-26). In order to marry Rachel, Jacob was forced to work yet another seven years for Laban (ibid 27). On top of it, Jacob works for another six years after that (31:41), even though Laban lowered his wages ten times (ibid 42).

So let's put ourselves into Jacob's shoes for a moment. Your employer, who happens to be your [future] father-in-law, makes you work seven years to marry the woman you love. He pulls off history's first bait-and-switch by giving you an uglier, less redeeming wife, and tells you that you have to work yet another seven years just to get what he had initially promised in the first place. After that, you miraculously have the patience to work for the man for another six years after all of that. He keeps on lowering your wages, and if that weren't enough, he never thanks you for the work you have done. If you were Jacob at the point where he is admonishing Laban, do you honestly think you would be as calm and serene?

What I find most amazing about the passage is Jacob's reaction to his situation. Did Jacob have the right to be angry? You bet he did! Notice how he didn't go out of control. He didn't kill or assault Laban. He didn't even steal his goods. He just addresses his grievances in a rebuking manner.

What we can learn here is the difference between moral outrage (i.e., controlled anger) and unadulterated rage (i.e., uncontrolled anger). Jacob had every justification to be agitated and miffed. He presented his frustration in a controlled, thought-out manner. By keeping an inner calm with the tumultuous exterior, he didn't let his emotions get the better of him. And in spite of his justification, Jacob did everything he could to rectify the animosity between himself and Laban (ibid 44). Rabbi Ilai was correct to say (Eruvin 65b) that the ability to control one's anger says a lot about a man. Jacob's ability to control his anger is a clear example of why he is worthy of being one of the Patriarchs.

This blog entry was based on the lay-sermon I gave on Saturday, November 12, 2010.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

What Body? G-d Doesn't Have One of Those!

The Third Maimonidean Principle is that G-d does not have a body. G-d's corporeality, or lack thereof, has been a debate between Christians and Jews for centuries. The fact that Jesus, the man, is also divine is an essential tenet of Pauline Christianity. The belief of G-d's incorporeality has been a part of Jewish belief for quite some time. But the Jewish belief in G-d's incorporeality does not come without any issues. Just to name three:

1) The primary issue is that Hebrew Scriptures (Tanach) are replete with describing G-d in anthropomorphic terms. To assert G-d's incorporeality is to defy the simplistic, literal meaning (פְּשָׁט) of the text.

2) G-d's incorporeality is not explicitly stated in the Tanach. There are two verses that Maimonides uses as text proofs to this concept.

"'To whom will you liken Me? To what am I equal?' says the Holy One." -Isaiah 40:25

"You have not seen any image." -Deuteronomy 4:15

The issue is that both of these verse have ambiguities. Isaiah 40:18 can allude to a corporeal being that has unique attributes, and Deuteronomy 4:15 does not presumably negate the possibility of there being a corporeal G-d.

3) Earlier rabbis had a corporeal concept of G-d. In Brachos 6a of the Talmud, there is a passage of G-d having His own pair of tefillin He puts on. In Vayikra Rabah, Hillel says that going to the bathhouse is a mitzvah. Why? Because he needs to be clean and proper because he needs to maintain the status of being "in His image."

I have two main counter-arguments to the issues:

A) Many like to presume that the only way to read Scripture is to do so with its plain and literal meaning. It comes with the nice gift-wrapping that because it's "the Divine Word," it should be neatly presented without ambiguity. But a narrow literalism comes with its own issues.  Here are but two examples of how problematic literalism can be. Do we literally follow the imperative to stone the disobedient, rebellious child in Deuteronomy 21? Of course not! If we did, there would be no future generations because every child will be disobedient at some point. What do you do about the notion of an eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth (Exodus 21:23-25)? Forget the argument about whether the whole world would end up blind and toothless. What do you do if a blind man takes out your eye or a toothless man takes out your tooth?   The verse was meant to teach us about proportionate justice, not a literal "take out his eye, take out his tooth." Plus, what if someone cuts off your ear?  The Tanach mentions nothing about someone cutting off your ear. Are you not going to punish the culprit for mutilation?  That is why the verse has always been interpreted as monetary compensation.

I can find many more examples of the shortcomings of literalism, but I hope my point has been made.

Simply because we are finite creatures and G-d is infinite, there will always be a gap between the two. That is why the Talmud recognizes that the Torah was written in the language of man (Brachot 31b). Since being finite means that we are limited, an interpretation of a text, even a divine one, is inevitable. That is why we need to use our brains, as well as our tools of observation and [literary] analysis to figure out which interpretations work and which don't.

B) This leads me to my second point, which is we need to use what we already know about G-d. The First Principle states that an infinite being, which we call G-d, must have, by logical necessity, created the universe. Being infinite, G-d, by definition, translates into His Oneness since G-d cannot be defined--G-d just is. G-d's incorporeality is merely a logical extension of Maimonides' first two principles. Corporeality means existing within time and space. Since G-d exists within neither, we know that any language that is used to describe G-d's characters or actions must be figurative.

Plus, it's nice when Joshua said that G-d "is within the heavens and the earth below" (Joshua 2:11), which is a nice way to reaffirm G-d's incorporeality since a corporeal being cannot simultaneously occupy two spaces within a given moment.

If G-d truly is not corporeal, then why have these anthropomorphisms? Because it's much simpler to view G-d as corporeal and to read a text with a narrow literalism. Corporeality is tangible. Corporeality brings G-d closer to us, which means if He resembles us, we can better relate to Him. Since infinity does not exist in time or space, we cannot understand what G-d is, only what He is not. It makes it harder to relate to something that does not exist within time or space. However, recognizing the true nature of Infinite Oneness is a step in the right direction.

You'd think it'd be easier for G-d to automatically create us with this sophisticated understanding of Him, but the gift of intellectual pursuit was a much better gift than a spiritual hand-out.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Am I Really a Deist?

During the past few months, one of the things that has been bothering me the most about Judaism is the prevailing belief of G-d's interaction in the world, meaning that Judaism advocates a personal G-d.  It's all over the siddur, the Jewish prayer book.  "G-d will be your protecting shield," "Thank you, G-d, for providing me with everything," or "May G-d heal my friend from such and such an affliction."  Reading a Jewish prayer book makes me feel as if G-d is a micro-managing interferer.  He stubs your toe to teach you a lesson.  He allows you to get accepted into a good university or a good career path to reward you.

If G-d does get involved in the world at this extent, then I am bothered by a plethora of things.  For instance, He brings you on the sidewalk at the exact moment to find a $50 bill, but He won't help the terminally ill cancer patient who has performed many mitzvahs and who could perform more if you heal that person?  Why would G-d cause one plane to crash and not another?  Odds are that the people on one plane are not any more guilty than the other, and odds are that both planes had small children on it.  It seems a bit haphazard to me.  The point I am trying to make here is if G-d does interfere as such, then this makes me question the nature of G-d.  I question such a G-d because I am an observer of politics and the world at large.  Justice, peace, and love are not consistently applied across the board.  Why would 6 million Jews and 5.5 million non-Jews be brutally murdered in the Holocaust and Hitler gets away with a nice, easy suicide?  Short of a postulation of an afterlife and/or reincarnation, G-d comes off as unjust.  But even with that set aside, after observing the ongoings of the real world, a personal G-d comes off as capricious, which leads to believing in an absent-minded, inconsistent, intellectually deficient deity.  If G-d is indeed a personal G-d, He certainly does a terrible job at being either all-just or all-loving.  Not only that, but such a meddling personality would negate free will, which just so happens to be a cornerstone of Jewish ethics.

All of this has led me to conclude that G-d is not a personal G-d.  I believe that G-d created the universe in a certain manner and left it for man as a gift to figure out everything on mankind's own time.  For this belief, I have been called a deist on more than one occassion.  But does that automatically make me one?  Not necessarily, as I will illustrate shortly.  And this frame of thought does not exist within mainstream Judaism, so would this be considered heresy?  I really don't think so, but I wouldn't be surprised if somebody thought it were.  And if it were deemed as such, at least I can be in good company.  In the Guide for the Perplexed, particularly in Part II, Chapter 48, Maimonides explains that due to the nature of G-d, mainly that aspect of his infinity, anything describing Him, whether it would be His actions or His character (e.g., He is angry or He regrets doing something) must be taken figuratively.  A point that Maimonides brought up that I did not previously consider is that if G-d created a world that, as Genesis 1 states, is "very good," a world in which everything considered as such has been implemented, there would be no need for G-d to interfere.  To suggest as such would be tantamount that G-d lacks the intellectual capabilities to act and create correctly, which defies any notion of an omniscient, omnipotent G-d.  For instance, when we read that G-d stretched His hand against Egypt, Maimonides opines that we are meant to read that as "the Egyptians were defeated with strength."  G-d did not cause the sun to stand still for Joshua, according to Maimonides.  It was a natural occurrence in which Joshua thought that the day lasted longer than usual. 

This also lines up with the Maimonidean notion that when G-d created us in "His image," that means that He gave us the gift of divine-like intelligence to figure out and solve life's problems.  This anthropocentric view of religion does not scare me.  Knowing what G-d has instilled within me gives me the strength to not only deal with the randomness that is so observable in life, but to deal with life's uncertainties.  Does this mean that I throw G-d out of the picture?  Absolutely not!  Every time I say a blessing over my food, it's an awareness moment for me, that G-d created nature in such a way to grow food to nourish us, that G-d created the laws of economics that allows mass amounts of food to reach such distances in such a short time, and that He made such knowledge accessible for farmers so that they are able to harvest food.  I thank G-d for giving me the intellectual capacities and faculties to figure out life.  I realize and recognize the gift of life G-d has given me, and that it should be used to its maximum potential.  I don't deny G-d.  I thank G-d for everything He has given me.  But I also know He expects me to figure it out on my own, to spiritually stand on my two feet, and to put in my fair share in the covenantal relationship.  I'm not a deist--I'm a metaphysical libertarian who has had a major theological paradigm shift.  Not only does this ennoble me to perform as many mitzvahs as possible, but it also eliminates a lot of theological headache.

11-15-2010 Addendum: After some further contemplation, it turns out that believing in an impersonal G-d makes me a deist after all.  A part of me subconsciously was in denial for the fact that somehow labeling myself as a deist would have somehow made me less of a [practicing] Jew.  It doesn't.  I still keep a kosher kitchen, observe the holidays, give tzedakah, and do my utmost to maintain a Jewish lifestyle.  What all this means now is that I have to view my religion and my relationship with G-d in a different way than I did in the past.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Food Stamp Usage Goes Up

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has reported a 17% rise in Americans using food stamps.  This brings the grand total to 14% of all Americans, or over 42 million Americans.  I had commented on this a few months ago, and I stand by my opinion.  The last thing we need is more people on food stamps.  It's no way to solve poverty or the recession.  All it does it makes people more and more dependent on Big Government.  And since we are talking about something as simple and necessary as food, shouldn't that dependency worry any citizen that lives in the "land of the free?"

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

My Two Cents on Yesterday's Electoral Politics

My comments on the election will be short and sweet, particularly in light of the fact that I had enough antipathy not to vote this election cycle for the first time since I have legally been able to do so.

A swing of sixty-five Congressmen in favor of the GOP is historically impressive. Since the GOP did not take the Senate along with the House, it sends mixed messages as to the success of the Tea Party. Since the bicameral system is split between the GOP and Democrats, it is difficult to determine whether anything will get done. The only possibility of that happening would be if any Democratic Senators who have their seats up for reelection in 2012 think twice before toting with party lines. Even if this does happen, I am still skeptical about the GOP's sincerity. The only reason the GOP grabbed so many seats in the House is because of the failure of Obama's economic policies. The GOP overall kept the campaigns focused on financial issues. Now, the constituents (e.g., the Tea Party) have to hold these new candidates' feet to the fire in order for free-market, financial and economic reforms to pass. Otherwise, the GOP will continue with more of the same vanity.

On another side note, I was surprised that Proposition 19 didn't pass, especially knowing the demographics of California. I heard from both sides on the issue of legalizing marijuana. Proponents said it would boost tax revenue and eliminate black markets, thus eliminating crime. The opponents said it would increase crime and ruin society. Regardless of how I personally feel about cannabis, it would have been interesting to see the measure in practice, just to see which side was really right.