Monday, January 31, 2011

Take That, Obamacare!

I'm so glad that Judge Vinson ruled Obamacare unconstitutional today.  Forcing an individual to buy something against its will, mainly health insurance, is an unprecedented interpretation of the Commerce Clause.  If we told Americans they had to buy health insurance, then why stop there?  Let's tell Americans to not buy certain foods because they're unhealthy.  Then we can tell Americans when to work and when to exercise.  This scenario isn't science fiction.  It's certainly how the Chinese lived their lives during the heydays of Chairman Mao.  Forcing private, commercial transactions is not only against the concept of limited government that the Founders had in mind, but is a major hindrance to individual freedom. 

It's great to see that more than half of the states in this Union not only filed suit, but actually won.  Judge Vinson made a good ruling (see his opinion here).  Is this the slam dunk that libertarians and fiscal conservatives have been looking for?  Not quite.  Until the Senate brings the repeal on the floor and actually passes it or this reaches the Supreme Court with a victory there, we're not going to see the destruction of this heinous bill.  But Rome wasn't built in a day, which is why we shouldn't expect an immediate victory here.  It is, however, nice to see that the legalistic trend is favoring individual and fiscal freedom.     

Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Complexity of Jewish Speech Ethics

The notion of speech ethics seems to be a counter-cultural concept in this country.  In secular law, the only types of speech that are not tolerated are slander, libel, and harassment.  Short of that, the freedom of speech afforded by the First Amendment protects just about everything else.  In Christianity, the only questions that are asked are is it true and is it pure (e.g., is it vulgar, are you being "nice".....whatever that may entail).  Ironically enough, the only other religion I found, aside from Judaism of course, that deals with some of the quandaries in speech ethics is Buddhism (note the Eightfold Path).

For a man such as the Chofetz Chaim, whose works on Jewish speech ethics is well-known in the Jewish community, he pointed to the fact that לשון הרע destroyed the Second Temple and strongly believed that the Messiah's coming would be hastened by working on our speech ethics.  It's true, in a sense, especially if you think of a world without gossip and what that could bring.  Plus, you have to keep in mind that by reading Genesis 1, G-d created the universe with speech.  If the premise behind Judaism is imitatio Dei, we have to realize that although our words don't create universes, they certainly have a power to build or destroy. 

Judaism teaches us to speak the truth.  To give but one example, Proverbs 12:22 states that "lying lips are an abomination to G-d."  Judaism teaches us to distance ourselves from falsehood.  This seems to be a constant across the Jewish spectrum.  As such, Judaism makes such things as libel and slander forbidden.  The reason to forbid false speech should be self-evident.  But what about speech, even if it's true?  This is where things get complicated because in Jewish law, just because something is true, that does not give us the right to say it.  As we shall see below, speaking the truth is not an absolute in Judaism.

  • "But it's true."  Just because something is true, we should not say it.  The laws of לשון הרע teach us that even if it's true, we are forbidden to say it if it harms, embarrasses, causes financial damage to, or lowers the status of the person being discussed.  As previously discussed, our words have the potential to cause damage.  Furthermore, an individual's concept of truth can be obscured by ego or lack of information that would render their "truth" more subjective than initially anticipated.  Judaism teaches us to be able to not only have the foresight to not be destructive with speech, but to not to use such speech.  Although there are 31 mitzvahs related to speech ethics in the Torah, the big one here is not being a talebearer (Leviticus 19:16).  In Hebrew, the word for talebearer, רכיל, has the same root as peddler, רוכל.  Both of these words have the same root.  Why is this?  Just as a peddler goes from house to house, a gossiper also goes from one person to another "peddling" intimate details to boost their own ego and self-worth.  The notion that gossip is forbidden is foreign to a culture in which gossip is a not only an everyday norm, but is sadly something for which enough people in this country strive.  
  • "The dusts of לשון הרע."  This refers to verbal and non-verbal stratagems that lower one's reputation of an individual.  For example, someone asks you about such an individual.  If your response is "I don't want to talk about him because if I do, I'll speak לשון הרע."  Why is even this forbidden?  Because by saying such, you have lowered the status of that individual.  Even if you sigh and roll your eyes at the mere mentioning of a given individual, you have touched upon the "dusts of forbidden speech."  This would also include praising a friend in front of someone in the event that the listener that would probably take advantage of the praised individual's benevolence.  Even more notably, this would include sarcasm. 
  • Listening to לשון הרע.  This is where it gets complicated.  The Chofetz Chaim sets such high standards in speech ethics that it is even forbidden to listen to לשון הרע.  
  • Speaking לשון הרע about yourself.  You would think that ethics deals with interpersonal relations, you think that you could speak badly about yourself.  Wrong!  Because if you did, you'd violate "Love your neighbor as yourself (Leviticus 19:18)."  How are you supposed to love others if you cannot even love yourself?
  • Exceptions to speaking לשון הרע.  The main exception to speaking badly about someone is when not doing so would cause undue harm.  Two examples of this extenuating circumstance are entering a business venture with a dishonest, fraudulent man and marrying a deceitful spouse.  In order to speak לשון הרע, of course, one would need the proof to back it up.  Baseless accusations are falsehoods. 
  • White lies and omitting the truth.  In other religions, lying is lying, no matter what.  Judaism, on the other hand, is surprisingly permissible of white lies.  This is evident with Hillel and Shammai's debate on complementing the bride.  We also see an example of this in Genesis 18.  Sarah is talking with G-d.  G-d tells her that she will bear a child.  Her response?  She laughs and says "After I have withered, shall I again have delicate skin?  And my husband is old (18:12)!"  When Abraham asks G-d what Sarah was laughing about, G-d says "Shall I in truth bear a child, though I have aged (18:14)?"  Notice that when G-d relayed the message, he did not mention Sarah's comment on Abraham's age.  From this, the rabbis concluded that even the Holy One, Blessed be He, modified the truth for the sake of peace (Talmud Yevamot 65b).  Although we do have a precedent for telling a white lie, we have to make sure our motives for doing so are pure.  For instance, you cannot tell a white lie to protect your honor [because ego is in the way] or make a lie about not giving charity simply because miserliness is kicking in that day.  As long as it is done with a good motive, Judaism permits white lies. 
Do you see how complicated this is?  I haven't even scratched the surface of the minutiae involved with Jewish speech ethics.  To learn more, I would recommend anything written by Chofetz Chaim on the topic since he is considered to be the most prolific legalist on speech ethics.  Also, try Positive Word Power or R. Yosef Telushkin's book on Jewish Ethics.   

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Is Islam a Religion of Peace?

With all religious texts, one can find verses that are pleasant and others that insult our modern sensibilities. Islam is no exception. One can find loving verses in the Koran (2:256, 49:13), as well as verses of intolerance, violence, and bigotry, although the latter is significantly more prominent.

The question for us in the twenty-first century is whether we are able to condemn the religion of Islam itself based on the reprehensible actions of terrorists who motivated by a fundamentalist view of religion. After all, every religion has had practitioners, whether done on an intrapersonal level or by a governmental entity, that have committed morally egregious behavior in the name of religion. It could very well be that in this instance, the media is inaccurately condemning a religion based on a few bad apples.

Since I am part of a religion that has been the most misunderstood in human history, I really want to be able to give Islam the benefit of a doubt. Therefore, in order to adequately answer such a question, we need to do our best to take emotion out of the analysis in order to come to as objective of an answer as possible. Emotions that typically get in the way of discussion of this topic are bigotry of Muslims, a stalwart post-9-11 patriotism, and the über-tolerance stemming from political correctness that allows an individual to tolerate the intolerable. The advantage of being libertarian is that I do not succumb to any of the aforementioned forms of emotionalism that are commonly associated with the Right or the Left in regards to this topic. With that in mind, let us take the factors in consideration that will help us arrive at an answer to the question of whether Islam is really a religion of peace.

1) The Nature of the Koran. To analogize the Koran with the Torah or the Christian Bible is, at the very least, inaccurate. According to Islamic theology, the Koran is the inerrant, literal, eternal word of Allah passed from the angel Gabriel to Mohammed. How is this different from the other Abrahamic religions? Judaism has an interpretive tradition that does not merely explain its text in a literal sense, but also has figurative, mystical, and philosophical interpretations that have evolved over the centuries. Even Christians remind me that Jesus spoke in parables, thereby admitting that figurative language exists even in Christian Scripture. The Koran, however, is a literal and fundamentalist text, applying to all Muslims for all times.

2) Abrogation. The only exception to the "the mandate doesn't change" is with the exegetical concept of نسخ (abrogation). In Sura 2:106, it states that if a more recent revelation comes in the Koran, it nullifies the previous one. Although the notion that an infinite being would literally change their minds can come off as unusual, we nevertheless have to keep this in mind with the overall context of the Koran.

3) Chronology. Most fiction and historical non-fiction is chronological. We think to ourselves, "Since the Bible is chronological, the Koran must be, too." Not the case here! Although there is some debate as to the exact chronology of the Koran, it comes as a virtual consensus that the suras (chapters) from Mecca came before the verses in Medina (see here, here, and here).

4) History of Mohammed. Chronology and abrogation are key when we consider the history of Mohammed. The peaceful verses that moderate Muslims love to cite are in the verses of Mecca, which come in the earlier part of Mohammed's history when he had no power, riches, or any way to coerce people into his way of thinking. Around the time where he heads to Medina, which also marks the time in which Mohammed ascends to power, is when we see the violent verses arise. Chronologically speaking, the last two suras in Koranic revelation are Suras 5 and 9. This context gives us insight to what have to be considered the real intentions of Islam, since these last two suras encompass the last and most recent revelation given to Mohammed. What is troubling is that Suras 5 (see verse 51) and 9 are by far the most bigoted and violent chapters of the entire text. Sura 9 is worth mentioning, since many believe it to be one of the last Suras. Unlike the other suras, Sura 9 does not begin with the preamble of بِسْمِ ٱللَّهِ ٱلرَّحْمَٰنِ ٱلرَّحِيمِ (In the Name of Allah, Most Gracious, Most Merciful), which is as troubling as it is telling. This is also the sura in which we see the call for a militaristic jihad (9:5, 25, 29, 73, 123), as opposed to the self-struggle that apologists discuss. In short, the principle of abrogation has rendered the peaceful verses nullified by the violent ones.

[Before I continue with my fifth point, I would like to make a point. Dennis Prager always said that he would not judge the religion itself, but only its practitioners. I cannot be as dismissive of what the Koran has to say since the Koran is the primary impetus for influencing Islamic culture, not to mention current international affairs. However, I will now focus on the practitioners themselves since they are interconnected with what we see in Islamic theology and jurisprudence.]

5) Islam Practiced Throughout History. I will admit that if I were a Jew living in the Medieval Ages and I had to choose between living in a Christian society and an Islamic one, it would be an Islamic one. That is not because it is such a utopia of tolerance, but because it was the lesser of two evils. Christendom gave Jews the choice of "convert or die." Islam at least provided Jews with the option of living in a subordinate, second class status called أهل الذمة. And in some instances, Jews were even able to climb somewhat up the social ladder. This, of course, was contingent upon the surrounding political climate, which is what drove the overall extent of oppression of the non-Muslim. I will direct you towards my previous blog entry on the topic, but it should go without saying that living in a pre-modern Islamic society was anything but a democratic, free society that was tolerant of people of all religions.

6) Islam Practiced Today. This is not a question of whether there are moderate Muslims. Of course there are! There's a reason is why a lot of the Muslims that moved to the West, and that was either because they wanted to get away from the authoritarian grip of theocracy or wanted to be able to practice a more moderate, Westernized version of their religion that better co-exists with its non-Muslim neighbors in peace and harmony.  It's not the microcosm of certain, honest Muslim individuals that worries me since individuals can live how they choose here in America.  It's about the global macrocosm, which is why I find it to be more intriguing to see how practice of Islam is in countries in which Muslims are the majority because then there cannot be any griping of any Islamaphobia, alleged or otherwise. This topic merits further detail, much further than I will be able to give here today, which is why I can foresee further elaboration in future blog entries. The point I want to drive home is that in these nations, the Shar'ia law that Mohammed instated is the same one that is practiced today. That means enacting such laws as that a woman's testimony is half of that of a man's (2:282), domestic abuse is acceptable (4:34), polygamy with up to four wives (4:3), punishing homosexuals (4:15-16), and amputation for theft (5:33). The fact that Muslim nations partake in actions commonly associated with ancient times should not shock us.  Going back to Point #1, the words in the Koran have no historical context because they are eternal and should be applied as such.  Therefore, the penalty for cutting off one's hand for theft is as applicable back in 622 C.E. as it is now.   

But what about Muslims in the West that want to co-exist? Taking a look at Europe right now, Islam cannot remain its status quo and expect to cultivate such a climate. Can Islam have a Reformation much like the Christians had a few hundred years back? It's possible. But to have a peaceful Islam would be such a radical departure from the orthodox Islam that has been practiced for centuries. Why? Because as hard as it is for certain Westerners to believe, fundamental Islam is mainstream Islam. Mohammed is considered to be the human being par excellence, at least from an Islamic viewpoint, and as such, is the human being to imitate. If one wants to be "a good Muslim," that entails imitating his violent and uncouth ways. Making Islam peaceful would violate the First Pillar of Islam, which is لا إله إلا الله محمد رسول الله ("there is none but Allah and Mohammed is his prophet") because based on the exegesis of abrogation, peace was superseded by violence.

What about Sufism? Sufism has been around since the last millennium.  It is considered by some to not be truly Islamic. And with being around for that length of time, you think that it would have mustered more influence if peace, tranquility, and tolerance were truly goals in Islam. But being a minority within the Muslim community, this seems dubious, especially since Sufism is the only sect teaching love and tolerance.

Conclusion: If Islam were currently a religion of peace, shouldn't it be self-evident?  Why do Muslims have to keep reminding us? Maybe it has to do something with the Koran.  Within its chronological context, it illustrates that it is not a peaceful text.  It might be its treatment of non-Muslims throughout history.  Or maybe the skepticism is based on the fact that out of 47 countries with a Muslim majority, with Indonesia as an exception, none of them are considered free.

Now, if Islam were to become tolerant and loving, it would need a serious re-vamping of Shar'ia law.  This would have to be done while ignoring centuries of Islamic practice and jurisprudence, which is tantamount to violating one of the Five Pillars of Islam.  If such reform were to happen, however, the extent of reform and standing up to the establishment would have to take place on a historically unprecedented level. Short of that, it would be safe to assume that Islam will continue with its overall status of being a religion that greatly encourages violence and intolerance.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Sino-American Relations After Hu's Visit

After Hu Jintao's visit to the United States, I had a few friends ask me what I thought about the visit.  After all, one of my majors in my undergraduate studies was East Asian Studies, with emphasis on China.  In short, I don't think our relations with China have really changed.  The only accomplishment of this visit is to clearly outline for the American people the realities of China's aggrandizement that has been going on for years. 

China's GDP expanded nearly 10% this past quarter, which reflects an overall strong economic growth since the Open Door Policy between Nixon and Mao.  Their economic prowess is only going to continue, thereby increasing their chances of not just being a regional hegemon, but a global one. 

Although I can write at book's length regarding this topic, it sufficeth to say that American foreign policy with China will have to be a combination of mutual agreement via economic interdependence and making sure that America still has their cojones when dealing with such issues as human rights, China violating UN sanctions against Iran, and that little stunt that the Chinese fishing boat pulled off last autumn.  This balance is all the more delicate when one realizes that the Chinese armed forces continue to build themselves up, much like they have over the years.

I'm sure that with military and economic growth in consideration, some of you are looking for a prediction from me on "What's it going to be like between the United States and China in five or ten years?"  However, I'm not going to give you one.  Why?  Because if my professors taught me anything about China watching, it's that it is highly unpredictable and China watchers, also known as Pekingologists, in the past have had a terrible time accurately predicting what would happen with China.  China, after all, is a nation-state of almost 1.5 billion people.  Its lack of infrastructure, its societal disparities, its disregard from human rights, its One Child Policy, and its incapability to respond to environmental issues, amongst a myriad of problems that plauge China, make Beijing's reactions to its domestic [and foreign] policies all the more erratic.  Whether China becomes the next world power or ends up imploding, there is one thing I can say with certainty, and that is that at least for the next decade, if not longer, China will be a major influence in the dictates of American foreign policy.  As for how Washington responds to the emergence of Beijing, well, that will be the intrigue of China watchers everywhere.       

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Tu B'Shevat: A Case Study for the Evolution of Jewish Practice

תורה מסיני.  This Orthodox belief, literally translated as "Torah from Sinai," states that the Torah is Divine Revelation given from G-d to the Jewish people at Mount Sinai.  I am not here to dispute its divinity.  I am here to point out that the Orthodox take the belief one step further and believe that not only all of the mitzvot were given there, but all the interpretations (see page 2, passage from Intro to Mishne Torah).  From there, the Orthodox assert that "this is how it has always been," and as such, will not change traditions.

There are other beliefs that bolster their religious conservatism that creates sentiments of not wanting to change, whether that is to add new Rabbinic decrees, take away the old decrees, or re-examine how we approach a certain Jewish practice.  The one concept is the Talmudic view of the deterioration of intelligence.  This is of importance because the claim here is that the further away we are from Sinai, the less we know the Torah.  There are only appromximately a dozen passages dealing with the notion and come with ambiguities.  In his book, Menachem Kellner describes the Maimonidean view of how such declination does not exist.  I have issue with the belief not simply because intelligence has increased over time or that the Information Age has given us more access to Jewish texts than ever before, but also because the beginning of Pirke Avot (1:1) illustrates the perfect transmission of the Torah.

The other belief, in conjunction with intelligence deterioration, is that Jewish practice does not change because the law does not permit any flexibility.  This [theoretical] flexibility was something I had explored while examining the laws of Yom Tov Sheni.  Not only does Jewish law allow for changes, but it also always has been a part of the history of Jewish practice, as I am about to illustrate with Tu B'Shevat.

The earliest reference to Tu B'Shevat was in the Mishnah (Rosh Hashana 1:1).  When there was still a Temple, a tenth of one's income was tithed to go the functioning of the Temple and to the poor.  This tithing system also included a one-tenth tax on fruit.  Essentially, Tu B'Shevat started out as a midwinter fiscal new year for fruit trees.  With the falling of the Second Temple, there was no tithing to the Temple, and thus no Tu B'Shevat.

If that were the end of Tu B'Shevat, this wouldn't be a very fun case study to use.  However, the mystics in fifteenth-century Safed (צפת) changed all of that.  An anonymous student of the Ari, better known as R. Issac Luria, created a fifty-page pamphlet with a Tu B'Shevat Seder, mimicking some of the aspects of the Passover Seder and celebrating various fruits.  As the previously cited Chabad article states, one of the main premises of this seder is to realize that "the flow of G-d's beneficence is called the 'Tree of Life' - the roots, above in G-d's essence," and that "by eating fruit on this day we rectify and increase this flow."  As intriguing as this practice can be for some, we have to recall that this practice was only done in mystic circles, which have historically never been mainstream.

Therefore, most Jews didn't celebrate Tu B'Shevat until the late nineteenth century.  During this time period, Zionism was manifesting itself.  One of the ways that the Zionists of this time expressed their love for the land of Israel was to plant trees, which was important since Israel had essentially been a barren wasteland for centuries.  The practice to donate funds towards organizations to plant trees, most notable the Jewish National Fund, is still observed today by many Jews as the "Israeli Arbor Day."

However, a fourth type of Tu B'Shevat emerged in the latter half of the twentieth century.  The beginning of the environmentalist movement in the 1970's caused Jews to examine how they could make their environmentalist views more Jewish.  They did so by redefining Tu B'Shevat as "the Jewish Earth Day" and extend the definition of the Zionist version into a more global one.  Jewish environmentalist organizations such as COEJL, a more liberal organization, and Canfei Nesharim, an Orthodox group, both provide great resources on making the best out of the Jewish Earth Day.

Conclusion: If Judaism were some stagnant, unchanging, inflexible framework, Tu B'Shevat would be nothing more than a vague memory from antiquity.  Rather than be a relic from the past, Judaism prefers to give us the ability to change and innovate when the opportunity arises.  The fact that three types of Tu B'Shevat are still practiced today are an attestment to all of this.  And who knows, we might see another type of Tu B'Shevat emerge in the future.  So for whichever version of Tu B'Shevat you celebrate, may you do so with כוונה.

חג שמח!           

Monday, January 10, 2011

Pirke Avot 1:3- Do We Ultimately Serve G-d Out of Love or Fear?

This question is one of those intriguing dichotomies that Jews have attempted to resolve for centuries. Those to the Left of me emphasize G-d's love, whereas those to the Right of me emphasize having fear of G-d. What makes this issue so complex is that the love of G-d (Deuteronomy 6:5) and the fear of G-d (Deuteronomy 6:13) are both commandments straight from the Torah. This seems all the more irresolvable since these are considered two of the six constant commandments.

How are we simultaneously to feel love and fear for the same G-d? If we view "fear" as a debilitating force that makes us crumble by the mere thought of Him, then yes, this will remain a dichotomy. But, as one of my rabbis pointed out, the word  יראת, the word that is commonly translated as "fear," is better translated as "awe" or "reverence." If we view this "fear" not as a force that overwhelms us so badly that we cannot get out of bed in the morning, but rather as an awareness that makes us aware of His greatness, it becomes much easier to emotionally love and have reverence for G-d than it would be to love and fear at the same time.

There is, however, one issue that remains to be resolved, and that is the Jewish concept of reward and punishment. Whether we think this occurrence will take place in this life, the next, or we get reincarnated to make up for past lives, we cannot ignore this fundamental Jewish belief.

In Pirke Avot 1:3, Antignos of Socho told us to "be not like servants who serve the master on the condition of receiving reward. Rather, be as servants who serve the master without the condition of receiving reward; and let the fear of heaven be upon you."

Antignos turns the "fear versus love" debate and turns it into a dichotomy. We cannot simply lose the "fear of G-d" not simply because it's a commandment, but if we lose reverence for G-d, we de facto lose awareness of Him, which renders Judaism moot.

As the Maharal points out in his commentary on this verse (Derech Chaim), the highest form of service is that which is motivated by the love of G-d. What both Antignos and the Maharal are pointing out is the high standard in Deuteronomy 6:5, which is we love G-d with all our hearts, might, and soul, i.e., we love Him 24-7.

Although this ideal might sound lovely and utopian, it neglects human nature. Humans have weak moments and are bound to err at multiple points in life. There are very, very few people that are able to maintain that G-d-directed energy, or what the Chasidim would call דבקות, all the time.

Upon having this discussion with a dear Orthodox friend of mine, he pointed out that this is the point where the notion of obligation plays its important role in Judaism. When we're too tired to go to the homeless shelter to volunteer or when we are having a bad day and don't feel like giving tzedakah, that is where reverence of G-d and obligation serve their function. If you based your relationship with G-d solely on love, you will most assuredly get sick of it all and drop it like a thousand-pound anvil in your hands when a bad day comes your way. This is why it's nice to have the reverence of G-d to accompany your love. When you are not "feelin' the love," obligation stemming from reverence of G-d becomes your safety net.  It will catch you and make sure you do the right thing, even if you don't feel like it that particular day.

In summation, love of G-d is our ideal and the ultimate goal for which we should aim. However, we are fallible creatures and thus need that reverence of G-d when external, or sometimes internal, circumstances cause our love to not be up to par. This view is both realist and idealist, which is why I love Jewish wisdom.  As we can see, Judaism can incorporate the reality of the human condition within its ethos while still keeping its ideals very much intact.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Jews Should Learn Hebrew

You would think that the title of this blog is a no-brainer, that all Jews should already know Hebrew, or at the very least, have picked it up in Hebrew School.  Sadly enough, there are more than enough Jews out there that are lucky if they even know the letter א.  Just a few reasons to explain the phenomenon:
  • Learning a foreign language is difficult.  Although some people might sincerely not have the time to do it, most people are just too lazy to see the commitment through to the end.  This lethargy has gotten so bad that, as Yehuda Mirsky points out, that it has had even Orthodox Jews depend on translations from Ultra-Orthodox publisher ArtScroll.
  • A lot of Jews grow up in secular households.  Unless that secular household is in Israel, the secular parents are surely not going to be teaching their children about the "holy language" of Hebrew.
  • Even in a place such as 21st-century America, there are many Jews that do not want to broadcast the fact that they are Jews.  If anybody found out that they knew Hebrew, it would send up a red flag.  This is all the more true in other countries in the Diaspora where Jewish rights receive little to no protection.
  • Globalism is at work.  Most American Jews are secular and on the Left.  Because they are on the Left, they would rather view themselves just as members of the greater global community than self-associate as Jews.  For these Jews, Judaism is too nationalistic, too bound in tradition, and thus needs to dissapear from their lives.  And along with the particularlism of Judaism goes the Hebrew language.
I have found the Jewish people to be a particular case study when it comes to anthropology.  Up until 1948, Jews have not had a homeland for nearly two millennia, and 60% of Jews currently live outside of Israel.  Many Jews don't affiliate with Judaism.  There are different cultural strains in Judaism, such as the Ashkenazi, Sephardic, Yemenites, etc.  And to "put the cherry on top," we don't even have a common language!  With nothing to bind the Jewish people together, it's not only difficult to see how they can been perceived as a people, but also I can see that their continued survival can come off as a miracle.

With this in mind, we should look at, more than ever, why Jews should learn Hebrew.  First and foremost, it is the language of our forefathers and has been the predominant language of the Jewish people, languages such as Yiddish and Ladino notwithstanding.  I am not worried about the Jewish people becoming extinct, per se.  After all, we've made it this long, and I don't see the Jewish people perishing.  But I am worried about the continuity and relevance of Judaism [and the Jewish people] in the 21st-century, which is why a common language would be a good place for all Jews to start.  

Even if secular Jews are not going to become observant Jews overnight, we need a commonality to bind us together.  That means meeting someone and saying "I'm Jewish.  You're Jewish??  Awesome!" is not going to suffice.

Second, this is about being able to tap into a rich heritage.  A majority of the main religious texts, as well as secular Israeli texts, have been written in Hebrew.  Just speaking from experience, but much gets lost in translation.  No matter the sources available to the translator, there are certain words in one language that just won't translate over to the other.  To read a translation without the original text in plain view is to put your faith in the translator.  In order to be able to enjoy the full extent of the profundity and richness of the Jewish experience, there's no way around this one, but you will need to learn Hebrew. 

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Jesus Was Not the Messiah! Can We Lay This One to Rest?

This was an argument I recently got into with a fellow alumnus from Lawrence University, who happened to be Christian: Was Jesus the Messiah?  I was trying to figure out why this became such a contentious debate.  It had something to do with the thesis that Christianity presents, which is Jesus fulfilled the Messianic prophecies according to Hebrew Scriptures (תַּנַ"ךְ).  I cannot emphasize the "according to Hebrew Scriptures" part enough.  Just about any other theological claim they make, such as Jesus dying for my sins, Immaculate Conception, the Resurrection, etc., are primarily based in the Christian New Testament.  This claim has a different nature to it because the Christian will lecture me on how I should read my own religious text.  This claim comes with a lot of chutzpah because when I am analyzing the text, I am actually reading it in the original Hebrew.  The Christian, on the other hand, is reading an English translation of the Sepuginant.  For those of you who don't know, the Sepuginant is the Greek translation of the תַּנַ"ךְ‎.  Just so we have that one cleared up, virtually every Christian is reading a translation of a translation.  I can think of no other major religion that discourages, whether intentionally or otherwise, to read what they consider their most sacred of scriptures in its original language.  Just from being multi-lingual myself, I know that meanings get lost in one translation.  Imagine what happens in two!  I never understood how a Christian could not only put so much faith in a translation of a translation, but then have the audacity to tell me that they have a better understanding of the text when I do.

The other reason why this dispute is so confrontational is because the Christian affirmation that Jesus was the Messiah is a negation of Judaism, whereas Judaism's assertion that the Messiah has not arrived is a negation of Christianity. 

With that in consideration, let's get back to the actual fulfillment of the prophecies.  I want to make the argument simpler, and thus make the question simpler: "Were the Messianic prophecies fulfilled?"  I don't want to get into who allegedly fulfilled the prophecies, simply if they were fulfilled. I will, however, add comments specific to Jesus since they have bearing on the conversation.  Therefore, if the claim is that the prophecies in תַּנַ"ךְ‎ were fulfilled, that means the criteria have to be in the תַּנַ"ךְ‎.  That means that you cannot add any new criteria to the list or make up any. Otherwise, you would negate your own thesis.  After listing the criteria, you need to acquire the answer to fulfillment by consulting history.  Let us take a look at the authentic Messianic prophecies:

1) Genealogical. The Messiah must be descended from the House of David (Jeremiah 33:17-20, 1 Chronicles 17:11-12).  Under Jewish law, lineage is traced through the biological father (Numbers 1:18-44, 34:14, Leviticus 24:10). According to the Christian New Testament, Jesus was born of Immaculate Conception (Matthew 1:18), which means Jesus had no biological father.  Having no biological father means that you cannot be considered as a candidate for the Messiah. You can’t use Joseph as Jesus’ father because he was adopted, and the genealogy thus cannot be passed through adoption. But for argument’s sake, let's give Christians yet another benefit of a doubt and use Joseph for a moment. The Christian New Testament has two genealogies for Jesus, one from Matthew (chapter 1) and one from Luke (chapter 3). Not only can these two not agree on who Jesus’ [adopted] grandfather was, but more glaringly, there are an additional fifteen generations in Luke’s version that are not in Matthew’s!  Plus, these two genealogies conflict with the account of David's actual genealogy given in Chronicles 1:3.  If the Christian New Testament were a divine text, I would question its veracity based on this discrepancy. This is particularly ironic since Paul says that we should avoid foolish genealogies (Titus 3:3, 1 Timothy 1:4).  Furthermore, this is very problematic for Christendom because this is the only authentic messianic criterion that Christianity claims that Jesus actually fulfilled.

2) Bringing the people Israel out of exile and back to the land of Israel (Isaiah 11:12, 27:12-13, Jeremiah 33:7). Jesus could not have possibly have fulfilled this prophecy since the people Israel were still living in Israel during his life. What’s more is that the people of Israel were expelled from the land shortly after Jesus’ death.  It is difficult for an alleged Messianic candidate to have brought people back from exile when they were not even in exile in the first place.  Even today, approximately 60% of Jews are still in exile, so to say that this prophecy has ever been fulfilled is inaccurate.

3) Building of the Third Temple (Ezekiel 37:26-28, Micah 4:1, Isaiah 2:2-3). During Jesus’ lifetime, the Second Temple was still standing, and shortly after Jesus’ death, the Second Temple was destroyed. To this very day, there still is no Third Temple, and we are thus awaiting its construction.

4) Universal peace (Isaiah 2:4, Micah 4:3, Ezekiel 37:26). Jesus himself did not embody this prophecy when he said that “he didn’t come to send peace but the sword (Matthew 10:34).” Even if you were to contend that the verse is taken out of context, it doesn’t matter because all you have to do is open a history textbook and a newspaper to know that universal peace has not come to mankind during any point since the prophecy has been made.

5) Universal knowledge and recognition of G-d (Isaiah 11:9, 40:5, Zephaniah 3:9, Jeremiah 31:33).  Christians will claim that over two billion people are Christians.  This ignores the fact that the other five billion people in the world are not Christian.  They also have forgotten that they are claiming that they are fulfilling תַּנַ"ךְ‎, which means that the divinity in reference is Infinite Oneness, not some triune deity (please see Zechariah 14:9).  Since not everybody in the world is a pure monotheist, this is yet another prophecy has yet to be fulfilled.

Christian apologetics will contend that the "peace" is in our hearts and that Israel is not an earthly kingdom, but a heavenly kingdom.  We have to remember that if Christians are claiming to have fulfilled a certain text, the criteria have to come from that particular text, or they are actually fulfilling something else.  Much to a Christian's dismay, both the universal peace and the prophecies referring to Israel are very much in reference to this world, not some otherworldly realm.

A similar argument can be made for Jesus supposedly fulfilling these during a Second Coming, which comes with its own problems.  For one, there is no mentioning of a Second Coming in the תַּנַ"ךְ‎.  Second, this notion is strictly a Christian one, one that seems to be derived from, as Rabbi David Wolpe puts it, a Christian disappointment in Jesus' death and a theological compensation for Jesus' failure to redeem the world [as Messiah].  Third, we are technically dealing with Jesus' third coming.  The first coming covers the period prior to Jesus' death and the second coming spans the period from his alleged resurrection to his alleged ascension.  Fourth, this would subsequently discredit Jesus' first coming.  Anybody can round up religious disciples, and upon death, claim that they are going to be resurrected in the Second Coming.  In all sincerity, either you or I could make that claim!  Finally, the Christian New Testament reports that Jesus' return would be imminent (Matthew 16:28, 24:34, Luke 21:31-32, Mark 13:30), i.e. within the lifetime of Jesus' contemporaries.  The passing of nearly two millennia without Jesus' return further enfeebles the Christian argument that Jesus was the Messiah. 

Postscript: Christians claim the Jesus has fulfilled the Messianic prophecies according to תַּנַ"ךְ‎, which means that they are de facto claiming that they have fulfilled Judaism.  In order to do that, they need to prove that these prophecies have been fulfilled according to תַּנַ"ךְ, and subsequently according to Judaism.  As illustrated, we have yet arrived at the point in time in which we can say that the Messianic prophecies have been fulfilled.  Any Christian attempt to explain this glaring reality away has to concoct responses that are separate from the authentic Messianic prophecies, meaning that they are fulfilling something else rather than תַּנַ"ךְ‎.  By using such responses as the Second Coming or that "Israel is in reference to an otherworldly realm," Christians are not responding with evidence.  As Rabbi Mordechai Becher puts it, "They are answers because the evidence go against the thesis [that Jesus was the Messiah]. You can't bring me 'proof' from an answer you are making up (i.e., it is not one of the criterion laid out in the Hebrew Scriptures) in order to deal with contrary evidence."  In summation, Christians have underminded the very thesis they hold dear and have come up with these theological acrobatics to attempt to justify their belief in a failed messiah.  The fact of the matter is that an ample look at Scriptures proves indubitably that we are still waiting for the day that these prophecies are actually fulfilled, and let's hope that they are fulfilled sooner rather than later.

For further information on the topic, please consult the following sources: