Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Health Care Is Not A Right

It's amazing how the Left defines everything they advocate for in terms of rights. In the past, they have griped about the right to a living wage and welfare. Recently, it has been about the "right" of collective bargaining. After one year since Obamacare had been passed by Congress, now the Left, as always, is whining about how health care is a right. Much of the Left's complaints are rooted in their self-entitlement mentality. Ideally, the state would provide the people's needs, a trend which we are regrettably seeing in the European Union. I'll leave the ideological discord at that for the time being.

Much like I did with collective bargaining a few weeks back, I would like to differentiate between a real right and a false right. This time, I want to view it in terms of the government's role in respect to those rights. The government is either the guarantor or the protector of rights. If the government is the guarantor, you can guarantee that the government has the ability to take away those rights just as easily as they granted them. That has been the story of many citizen's rights throughout history. When the government is the guarantor, it would be significantly more accurate to state that they are not so much rights as they are privileges.

If, on the other hand, the government were the protector of rights, that brings us in the realm of natural rights. If natural rights are fundamental, then you cannot have a conflict between one's fundamental rights and another's fundamental rights. If you did, then you would be dealing with a case of misinterpretation of those rights.

What does this mean in terms of health care? You have the right to choose to exercise. You have the right to smoke two packs a day if you want. You have the right drink as much alcohol as you want and participate in other high-risk activities, provided that you are not harming others in the process. You have the right to have a diet that consists of Big Macs, Twinkies, and other processed foods, thereby becoming obese in the process.  I would deem it really, really moronic to damage your body in such ways.  However, I find the great thing about America, or at least the nostalgic version that many Americans have, is that we have freedom.  We have the freedom to choose success and happiness.  We have the freedom to choose self-destructive, idiotic behavior.  We have the freedom to choose something in the middle.  It is the American Dream to make that choice for ourselves.

The moment when stupid choices have spillover effects on others is when I have a problem with an American's stupidity. Joe Schmo, you can smoke two packs a day for all I care.  But don't expect me and every other American to pay taxes via Obamacare to cover your treatment because you didn't care that smoking increases your chances of lung cancer.  If I do end up having to pay for it, then you violate the life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness of me and every taxpayer in this country.

The sad part of this whole debate is much of our health care problems could be prevented.  According to the CDC, one in five deaths is caused by smoking.  Much of the cardiovascular diseases, which is at a shocking statistic of 81 million Americans, could be easily prevented with good diet and healthy exercise.  Diabetes II, which is the prevalent type of diabetes, is also preventable with good diet

Although I can list more diseases, I wanted to amply prove that most health care issues are preventable.  This is important when considering the fact that increase in demand drives up the cost of a good; it's simple economics.  Therefore, your stupidity should have tangible costs (i.e., consequences).  That is all the more reason why health care should be treated as a good, not as a right.  If it were treated as a right, everyone would think that there is an unlimited supply, which would drive up the costs even more.  The result would be in a rationing of health care since there would not be enough doctors to see all the patients with their stupid and/or preventable maladies.  It would bring financial ruin to this country.  I'll let Harvard Economics Professor Jeffrey Miron explain why Obamacare, or any nationalized health care, is a bad idea:

Monday, March 21, 2011

Pirke Avot 1:8- Rabbi Yehudah Loses His Sense of Judgment

After gaining a Jewish sense of judgmentalism and when one should give another a benefit of a doubt when judging others, you come across a verse like the one below (Pirke Avot 1:8) and begin to wonder what R. Yehudah ben Tabai was thinking:
יהודה בן טבאי ושמעון בן שטח קיבלו מהם. יהודה בן טבאי אומר, אל תעש עצמך כעורכי הדיינים. וכשיהיו בעלי הדין עומדין לפניך, יהיו בעיניך כרשעים; וכשנפטרים מלפניך, יהיו בעיניך כזכאים, שקיבלו עליהן את הדין.

Yehudah ben Tabai says: [When serving as a judge] do not act as a lawyer. And when the litigants stand before you consider them [both] as guilty, but when they are dismissed from you consider them [both] as innocent, provided they have accepted the verdict."

I'm not disputing the first half, the part where it says that both are equally guilty.  In order to be a good judge, one has to be objective.  Biases, bribes, preconceived notions, personal experiences, and assumptions can all get in the way.  To judge both sides on even ground is optimal. 

It's the other part that bothers me.  "When they are dismissed from you, consider them both as innocent."  Really?  I mean, really??  This first and foremost makes no logical sense.  The purpose of having a hearing is to prove one's guilt.  If they're both innocent, why take the time, money, and effort in such litigation?  It'd be a superfluous act.  I can understand where R. Yehudah is coming from in the sense that Judaism judges action, not intent.  Rabbeinu Yonah comments and assumes that he [the guilty party] has repented.  However, it does not [nor cannot] take modern neurology and criminal statistics into consideration.  There is no current treatment for the child molester.  Criminals have a propensity to be repeat offenders.  Some people are just beyond saving.

Judaism does believe in repentance, forgiveness, and a second chance to return to G-dliness.  However, whether it is a civil or criminal matter, someone has to be guilty.  There's just no way around it.  I'm hoping that R. Yehudah was trying to make sure we don't become jaded or have our experiences bias us in future judgments.  However, looking at Rashi's commentary [on the verse] that states that you should presume that both the litigants were not intentionally lying, this seems like a "bleeding heart" verse based in naïveté.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Where I Part From The Right

I'm a Right-leaning libertarian.  I would assume that labeling myself as such would adequately differentiate me from a conservative.  After having a recent conservation with someone close to me who called me a "Rightie," I had to think about this topic.  Normally, it wouldn't have bothered me.  However, I chose to self-identify as a libertarian two years ago precisely because I didn't want to be seen as a conservative. 

Before continuing, I know I am going to have some detail with defining the Right because there are many types of conservatism.  Portraying conservatives as a monolith is not something I like to do just because I am aware of the variations of conservatism, but nevertheless will have to do so in order to illustrate why I am in the camp of libertarianism, as opposed to conservatism.

I certainly see how many people don't see the difference between a Right-leaning libertarian and a conservative.  The biggest similarity is advocacy of the free-market.  This will cover a wide range of issues upon which I will agree with conservatives, from the growing entitlements to taxation to wasteful government spending to health care.  Economic issues is what brought the libertarians and conservatives together during the Reagan era, and considering this recession, could reunite the two if the Republican Party truly puts its focus on the fiscal issues.  I also grew up with certain values, such as frugality and prudence, personal responsibility, respect for tradition, and a strong work ethic, that many in modern-day America would consider antiquated.  There are also issues like gun rights and affirmative action that I truly believe that the government should have very little to no business in.  I even believe that the amount of evidence for climate change is insufficient to merit the amount of government intervention that the Left is attempting to use.

You would think that based on the previous paragraph, I would be a bona fide conservative.  Alas, that is not the case.  Here is list of political topics in which I would disagree with your "typical conservative" as of date:

  • Religious freedom: There is no "separation of church and state" clause.  The clause in the Constitution is to not establish religion.  In spite of that distinction, I surprisingly agree with the secular Left, albeit for different reasons, on these issues.  I find that trying to bring prayer back in public schools would be a violation of the First Amendment.  Based on a technicality, displaying the Ten Commandments would be unconstitutional.  I would not have a problem with children learning Intelligent Design in school.  I find that a "higher power" that created the universe is a plausible explanation.  However, my issue is that many in schools in this country would attribute the title "Intelligent Designer" to Jesus, which would be a violation of the First Amendment.  
  • Marriage: Marriage is nothing more than a contract.  As long as the individuals are consenting and doing this of their own volition, I do not care what you do behind your bedroom doors, whether you are gay or straight.  Gay marriage would simply be a contract between two consenting individuals of the same sex saying they want to commit their lives to one another.  To deprive consenting individuals from entering such a contract is a deprivation of contract rights, to say the least.  The conservative's aversion towards gay marriage, whether brought on by religion or ignorance, gets in the way of a typical conservative viewing the issue clearly.  With that in mind, I will go as far as saying that with that argument, I would also be pro-polygamy, providing that the individuals within the polygamous marriage are all consenting individuals.  I know that this is a widely unpopular view in America because "marriage is between one man and woman."  It has even been codified in American law under Reynolds v. United States.  Aside from arguing contract rights, I will say that Jacob, King David, and King Solomon all had more than one wife in the Bible.  From a Jewish standpoint, I will say that until very recently, polygamy was acceptable and practiced within the Sephardic world.  
  • Marijuana: On a personal level, I am anti-marijuana.  I don't want to smoke the stuff, and I don't plan on doing so anytime soon.  Any individual I have met who has admitted more than one-time usage seems debilitated and stymied to grow as an individual.  In spite of personal opposition, I think that states' rights should fight it out, which is why I was disappointed at Proposition 19 last year.  If some states try it out and it turns out poorly, other states would have the empirical data to prove that marijuana reform might not be the best idea.  
  • Defense spending and National Security: I'm with Doug Bandow and other Cato Institute experts.  We're spending too much on defense spending.  Written by Benjamin H. Friedman and Christopher Preble in 2010, Cato Institute put out a superb policy analysis about how we can cut the defense budget and still be just as effective.  I can see how a conservative can see this as unpatriotic or viewing this as not being pro-defense or have a sense of national security.  Nothing could be further from the truth!  I have had immediate family service in the Armed Forces and have great respect for those who serve.  However, much like with any other facet of the budget, I am an stalwart advocate of cutting out unnecessary spending to help avoid fiscal ruin in the long-run.  Since the Department of Defense has the third largest budget (#1 and #2 are Health And Human Services and Social Security respectively), it's not exactly a minute part of our budget.  Since America does a majority of the global military spending, it might not be the worst idea to have other nations share some of the burden while we figure out how to spend more effectively.  Although I believe in preventing further terrorist attacks, I find the Patriot Act to be a blatant violation of the Fourth and Fifth Amendments.  Just because the government hasn't used the Patriot Act to do search and seizure without a warrant on "everyday Americans" or search databases for private information doesn't mean the government can't.  After all, they have the carte blanche to do so with the Patriot Act.  On a side note, what are we doing in Afghanistan?  I'm no peacenik, but there is no valid reason that America should be using its limited resources on a lost cause.
  • Life Issues: I'm not 100% in accord with conservatives on life issues.  I know that the one place where we would essentially agree is abortion: I'm anti-abortion, and yes, a libertarian can still be anti-abortion and maintain their libertarianism.  I have become more sympathetic to the pro-euthanasia side, particularly since our medical technology can better gauge an individual's probability of "making it."  Let's just say that I am for passive euthanasia, but still have an issue with active euthanasia.  As for the death penalty, that's more ambiguous.  Nothing says 100% deterrent like capital punishment, especially when we are living in a time with such lax criminal laws.  However, my ambivalence primarily comes in when you give the state that much power, especially if there's a prolonged issue of executing innocent people.
  • Immigration: I figured that I would save this one for last.  Although my views on this topic used to line up perfectly with Right-winged mouthpieces, I have come to [appreciate] a more nuanced view on the topic.  I agree with conservatives that we should enforce our immigration laws in the name of national security.  I also find that the root of the problem is not the immigrants themselves, but the animosity is based off the entitlement programs that Big Government provides.  If we attacked welfare programs at its most base core, anti-immigration sentiment would subside, which is something we need considering that about 30% of immigrants have a Bachelor's degree or higher
Although these topics merit further detail, it should be safe to say that I have proven that my political views line up with libertarian thought.  I place a strong emphasis on individual freedom and the axiom of non-aggression.  It's a relatively simple political philosophy, but it's also a sound one.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Parsha Tzav: Adapting and Moving Beyond Sacrifices

Upon hearing the phrase "sacrificial system" in the modern world, many of our minds automatically think of barbarism and primitivism.  Some in the Jewish world impatiently await a Messianic era with the restoration of the sacrificial system (note the seventeenth blessing of the Amidah).  Others would go as far as saying that a return to the sacrificial system would be a regression in Jewish spiritual development.

I don't feel bad questioning this practice, not simply because questioning is a part of Jewish thought, but because this debate has been going on for centuries.  Maimonides thought that the Israelites were eventually supposed to wean themselves off the sacrificial system (Guide for the Perplexed, III, xxxii), and on the other side, Nachmanides opined that G-d desired our sacrifices.  Even in the ancient times, the prophets had this debate.  Samuel (I Samuel 15:12) asked if G-d delighted in burnt offerings.  Isaiah (1:2) also questions it.  In response to how to go about repentance, Hosea (6:6) said that G-d desires loving-kindness, not sacrifices.  Jeremiah (7:22-23) made as radical statement as G-d never commanded the sacrificial system in the first place.

Aside from its occasional mentioning in the siddur and codification in the Mishne Torah, the sacrificial system plays no practical role in our daily lives.  Why?  Because, as Maimonides points out, there is no Temple.  No Beit Mikdash means no sacrifices.  That is why when the Second Temple fell in 70 CE, the Jews faced a spiritual, existential question: Can Judaism survive without the sacrificial system?

When looking at this topic, we are mislead in one of our most essential premises in this discussion, that being the very notion of sacrifice.  The word sacrifice is of Greek origin (thusia). Sacrifices were meant to give something up in order to placate the pagan deities.  What we see in contradistinction is that in Judaism, the word that is commonly mistranslated as "sacrifice," קרבן, comes from the root קרב, which means "to draw close." Rather than appeasing to the Infinite One, like Nachmanides thought, the sacrificial system was a way to draw closer to G-d.  During the time of Leviticus, the universal form of worship was making sacrifices.  In order to evade idolatry, the idolatrous elements, such as human sacrifice or praying towards the east to teach others about sun worship.  Much to the dismay of right-winged Christians and certain Orthodox Jews, sacrifices were a means, not an ends to spiritual practice.  To quote the late prophet Micah (6:8), "What does Hashem require of you?  To do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with Him."

To go to the previous question, what happened to Judaism when the Temple was destroyed?  If the sacrificial system was the only way to get closer to G-d, then the Jews should have been extinct a little after the Temple's destruction, rather than still surviving today.  As Sir Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks so eloquently stated, the Jews had to innovate in the midst of their spiritual angst.  Rather than cling to their past by obsessing themselves with the non-existent sacrificial system, the Jews came up with other practices that brought the individual Jew the same closeness to G-d that one felt during the times when either the First or Second Temple was standing.

As Rabbi Sacks tells us, the Jews of yore had to perish or adapt.  They opted for the latter.  They chose to partake in acts of loving-kindness (gemilut chasadim) to "know G-d in His ways."  Jews chose Torah study so we could have an idea of what it is like to have G-d speak to us.  Our prayers take the place of sacrifice because we quite literally let our words do the talking of how we feel.  Our hospitality (i.e., our table) substituted the altar that once atoned for the people Israel.

Sacrifices are no longer practiced.  However, by reading Leviticus and how they came closer to G-d, we connect to the past through Torah study and understanding what their modus operandi was.  We also connect to the present in the sense that no matter what time period it is, the individual will have the yearning to become closer to G-d, and that our innovative practices are just as good at doing the job, and I would certainly argue more so, as the Levitical sacrifices.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Judaism Is Capitalist But....

One can try to debate whether or not Judaism advocates capitalism or communism.  You can argue that Jews were disproportionately responsible for starting off Communist Russia, but you can also counter with the fact that such capitalist greats as Ludwig von Mises, Milton Friedman, and Ann Rynd were all Jewish.  Jews have been passionately active on both sides of the discussion, and that is how it goes for much of Jewish political history.  For the religion itself, Jewish business ethics presupposes open markets in which commerce is relatively free.  Take a look at the talmudic tractate Bava Batra.  The tractate deals primarily with property rights.  You also have to figure that the commandments of "you shall not steal" or "you shall not covet your neighbor's house" would be superfluous if the notion of property rights did not exist in Judaism.

However, Judaism does not believe in the stereotypical negative [and the overall inaccurate] portrayal of capitalism being inherently avaricious.  As stated in this Chabad article, Yossi Goldman says "I would describe it [Judaism's economic system] as 'capitalism with a conscience.' In promoting free enterprise, the Torah is clearly capitalistic. But it is a conditional capitalism, and certainly a compassionate capitalism."

A conditional, compassionate capitalism.  I can certainly buy that.  Secular culture views money differently than in Judaism.  In secular culture, it is considered the ends, whereas in Judaism, money is considered the means, the means to do good deeds and live a meaningful life.  Here are a few examples in Jewish practice that curtail the accruement of money and property as an absolute in life:

Shabbat.  "You shall work on six days, and rest on the seventh (Exodus 34:21)."  People throughout history have thought the Jews were crazy to take a day off of work.  After all, you are losing a seventh of your potential to make revenue.  This is particularly true when you are living in a predominantly Christian society in which most do not work on Saturday (i.e., they shop instead) and "take their 'Sabbath'" on Sunday.  To celebrate the Sabbath is to rest one's bodies and souls, not to mention taking one's mind off of commerce and workaholism for a day.

Shmita.  The Torah was given to a predominantly agrarian society.  This agrarian society had a seven-year agriculture cycle.  On the seventh year, they would give the land a rest (Exodus 23:10-11, Leviticus 25:1-7, 20-22) in order to not cause land erosion.

Tzedakah.  Tzedakah is a practice of giving money to help alleviate poverty.  With it comes the implication of societal responsibility.  As R. Joseph Telushkin points out in his second volume of Jewish Ethics (p. 206), there technically is no explicit command to tithe ten percent.  According to the Shulchan Aruch, the technical minimum is a third of a shekel (i.e., about $8).  Nevertheless, tradition teaches that a certain part of our income was never ours to begin with. Maimonides teaches that anyone who gives less than ten percent of their income is considered stingy, and giving twenty percent is praiseworthy.   

Tikkun Olam and Volunteerism.  Although tikkun olam really took off when it was an esoteric, Lurianic concept in Kabbalah, it has come to mean "repairing the world" in terms of Messianic hastening, or in more secular parlance, to "make the world a better place."  Judaism teaches that we can give money, but comparably as important, we also give our time.  That is why such mitzvahs as visiting the sick, burying the dead, and hospitality are important to emphasize because you are giving to someone else.  As the adage goes, time is money.  It is not about a rigid selfishness where you ask what's in it for you.  It's about the imperative to help others in need.  Communal responsibility, and arguably global responsibility, are Jewish in nature.

Capitalism is a great modus operandi.  It creates the ability to create wealth and a better standard of living for all.  What Judaism teaches is that it is not enough to make a lot of money and buy a lot of material goods.  Judaism teaches about purpose that can be found in the art of giving.  Judaism teaches that money isn't everything, even though it can help out others.  Judaism teaches us to use money to find higher purpose by using time and money to pursue holiness in one's life.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Is The Universe Fine-Tuned?

When making a case for G-d's existence, theists invoke the Design Argument.  The essence of the Design Argument is that design implies a designer.  The existence of a suit implies a tailor.  The existence of a building implies an architect and construction workers.  The argument is short and easy to comprehend.

I want to study the merit of the Design Argument itself in a later entry, but I wanted to study a variation of this argument because theists take the argument to a different level in what is called the Fined-Tuned Universe Argument.  The basis of the argument is, as renowned theist and scientist Gerald Schroeder states, that "the laws and constants of nature are so 'finely-tuned,' and so many 'coincidences' have occurred to allow for the possibility of life, the universe must have come into existence through intentional planning and intelligence."

The essential argument is that if any one of these constants were different, such as the electromagnetic force or gravity, life on Earth would not exist.  Atheists retort this with the Multiple Universes Argument, which states that with all the universes out there, that it is statistically possible to have more than one planet with life on it.  The theistic argument of the Fine-Tuned Universe assumes that the variables that caused Earth to come into being are the only possible ones for creating life (e.g., life does not automatically have to be carbon-based).  If there is more than one way for a universe come into being, then the statistical improbability of random inception would be underminded.  Theists will retort this theory with the fact that it hasn't been proven yet.  An atheist can just as easily respond to that by saying that it hasn't been disproven. 

The universe seems to be fine-tuned.  Although being fine-tuned implies a designer, that does not automatically mean that there was a Designer that created the universe.  Just because there could be multiple universes out there does not disprove G-d's existence.  Why are none of these arguments proof or disproof of G-d's existence?  Because none of the arguments address primum movens, which is just a fancy way of asking the question of how the universe began.  I'll save that one for a future date when discussing the Designer Argument itself, but would like to end with this. 

The precise conditions under which the universe was created are amazing.  If anything were slightly off, we would not be here.  Although we have not proven the existence of extraterrestrial life, that does not mean that it does not exist.  Some other planet may exist with different conditions that brought about life.  Regardless, the fine tuning of the universe makes me much more prone towards theism than atheism.  This can be convincing argument when considering everything else, but unto itself, it is not a proof.

Will Demographics Be the End of China?

In recent years, you hear the media and politicians tell us about how China is going to rise as the next world power.  We see China's military spending increase by double digits.  China's GDP has, on average, grown well over five percent each year since the Open Door Policy of 1978.  Many products that we buy here in America say "Made in China."  The Chinese have 2.78 trillion dollars in foreign exchange reserves.  China's soft power in international relations has been more prominent as we observe their influence in such organizations as the World Trade Organization and the United Nations

There is no question about it.  China's overall clout in international politics is augmenting, which will change the way the United States approaches foreign policy in the future.  However, it might be a bit premature for us to declare China as a world hemogony.  Pekingologists, or individuals who watch the ever-changing political scene of China, have historically had a difficult time predicting the direction of China.  This is not because they are incompetent.  It's quite the reverse.  They are well-educated individuals with high education.  Their knowledge of China is immense.  Rather, it is the volatile state of Chinese politics, much of which can be attributed to the size of China itself.  Although I would hesitate to make a prediction myself, I can nevertheless state apprehensions I have about China's ascent to power.  The fact of the matter is that China's overall growth is not something we can view with rose-colored glasses.  There are legitimate concerns about China internally collapsing, much of which have to do with demographic trends.  Although Nicholas Eberstadt from AEI touches upon some of them in his latest article, I would like to explore the demographics of China, as well.

China has approximately 1.3 billion people, making it the number one country in terms of population.  In the mid-1990s, Pekingologists concluded that the ideal population for China would be 500 million, and that it should not exceed one billion.  This means that according to these estimates, China has already exceeded its maximum by 300 million people, which is slightly short of the American population.  Overpopulation has ramifications is resource depletion.  Supporting 22% of the world's population, China only has 7% of the world's arable farmland.  The Chinese are depleting this land fast.  The amount of arable land in China decreased by half from 1949 to 2000.

Land is not the only resource at stake.  China is dealing with a severe water shortage.  Back in 1997, the world average of water per capita per annum was 10,900 cubic meters.  For China, it was only 2,200 cubic meters!  Urbanization, industrialization, irrigation, all of which are exacerbated by population increase, deplete the water all the quicker.  Water is one of those necessities to survive, so if China runs out of water soon, you can bet that there will be some internal instability.

Aside from overpopulation, there is a public policy of China's that is starting to show its long-term effects: the One Child Policy.  The Chinese government calls this policy "family planning," which is what the Left calls its pro-abortion stance.  That is no coincidence since the premise behind the One Child Policy is to make abortions mandatory to make sure Chinese families have only one family.  It seemed like a wonderful way to deal with the aforementioned population issues at the time.  300 million abortions is a sure-fire way to prevent further population growth.

The reason why the One Child Policy is going to backfire in the long-run is because of China's aging population is going to greatly alter public policy.  China is facing the "4-2-1" problem.  Although Chinese families traditionally have taken care of elders, this will no longer be the case since a single youth would now be obliged to take care of two parents and four grandparents, hence why they call it the "4-2-1 problem."  Increased pressure will be put on the government to provide for the elderly.  This will be further exacerbated by the elderly support ratio.  We are experiencing a similar problem here in America with Social Security.  When Social Security started, there were about 16 workers for every retiree.  Now we're at a point where it's approximately two, and will only get lower with the Baby Boomers retiring.  A similar scenario is playing out in China.  The elderly support ratio will go from the current nine down to 2.5 by 2050.

Conclusion: Resource depletion in a nation in which the population will hit its peak population in 2029 is a real possibility.  China's fertility rate is at 1.5, which is about 30% below the 2.1 that you need to sustain a population.  A declining population with a decreased work force will augment the problems of the already-burdened state of China.  If people are unable to get a necessary amount of water, let alone a decent standard of living, China will be seeing an increased amount of discontent within its borders.  The unpredictables here will be a) if the Chinese government can find adequate solutions before the problems hit catastrophic levels, b) if the people will cause mass uprising against its own government, and c) how the government will react to all of this.  Although China has the potential to avert disaster, one can certainly say that a solid future is anything but set in stone. 

Monday, March 7, 2011

How Tzedakah Functions in Jewish Law

Every time I hear the word צדקה‎ translated as "charity," I want to shake my head, mainly because we have run into yet another instance where translation is inadequate.  In English, the word "charity" comes from the Latin word caritas, which means "from the bottom of the heart."  The etymology of the word "charity" is undoubtedly influenced by Christian thought.  For Christianity, you give because your love for Jesus is so overwhelming that your default is to give.  From a Christian perspective, the love you feel towards Jesus and the fellow human being to whom you give is the ultimate arbitrator in terms of how well you gave, whether you give a dollar or your entire savings.  However, Christianity views such things as large amounts of altruistic giving and vows of poverty in a positive light because money is an earthly attachment, which for Christians, is inherently a vice.

In Judaism, it is slightly different.  The primary purpose of giving money to the poor is not out of love, which is made clear by the word צדקה .צדקה comes from the root צדק, which means "justice."  We don't give because are hearts are inclined to do so.  We give because it's the right thing to do.  According to Deuteronomy 15:7-11, the ultimate purpose of giving is to help alleviate poverty.  That is why it is no accident that the highest level of giving, according to Maimonides' Eight Levels of Tzedakah, is to give a loan substantial enough where the recipient because self-reliant enough where he no longer has to depend on צדקה. 

Based on this, it would seem that צדקה functions as a means of poverty relief.  If that were solely the case, we would need to be able to explain why even someone dependent on צדקה has to give (Mishneh Torah, Mattenot Ani'im 7:5).  Having poor people give other poor people צדקה seems to be an inefficient way of dealing with the plight of poverty.  That is why צדקה functions in other ways.  As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks states, giving is an essential to human dignity.  If happiness is correlated with not what we take, but with what we give, the privelege of whatever wealth we have gives us the opportunity to do for others. 

This brings me to my second point.  In the Midrash (Shemot Rabbah 31:5), there is a dialogue based on Psalm 61:8.  David is talking to G-d and essentially demanding that He equalize the world [in terms of economic disparities].  G-d replied, "If I make all men economically equal, who will practice kindness and charity?"  Without poverty, people would be self-reliant.  There would be no need to practice compassion.  There would not even be a need to have intrapersonal relations if everyone's needs were provided for.  That is why many of the levels on Maimonides' hierarchy of giving have to do with the dignity of the recipient.  We are to develop giving souls, considerate souls, and bond with our fellow human being that needs our help.  צדקה is an act that simultaneously gives the giver and the recipient the dignity of being human.  

To conclude with a quote commonly attributed to Rabbi Israel Salanter, the founder of the modern-day Mussar movement, "Spiritual life is superior to physical life, but do realize that the physical needs of another is an obligation of your spiritual life."

Friday, March 4, 2011

The UN's Distorted View of Human Rights

Although the United Nations suspended Libya from being on the Human Rights Council (HRC) this past Tuesday because of the violence going on in Libya, the HRC nevertheless managed to give the Libyan government a sterling review by offering Libya praise.  This is spite of the fact that the State Department points out that Libyans do not have the right to change their government, have freedom of religion, denial of a fair public trial, constantly seizing private property, amongst a myriad of other heinous practices.  Freedom House, a well-known, non-partisan think tank, points out Libya's poor record on human rights, and gives them a 7 (1 being very free and 7 being not free at all).

This cockeyed view of who is a valid protector and guarantor of human rights is not a surprise.  I don't simply say that because human rights violators as Cuba and China currently sit on the council.  It's also because they demonize Israel like no other.  The United Nations constantly goes after Israel with anti-Israel resolutions.  When looking through the list of UN Resolutions, you will be surpised at how many of them not only have to do with Israel, but also look at Israel in a condemning manner.

Israel is the only democratic nation in the Middle East.  It offers freedom of press, religion, assembly, and association.  It is the only nation in the Middle East to have any concept of gay rights (e.g., gays openly serve in the military and Israel recognizes any gay marriage done abroad).  Israel also protects women's rights, something you won't see in surrounding nations within that nation.  Although they could use some improvement on economic freedoms, it still offers a decently good amount of property rights.  Israeli Arabs can vote and even serve in the Knesset.  The amount of human rights in Israel is incomparable to the rest of the Middle East. 

Is Israel perfect?  No nation-state is.  However, to disproportionately demonize Israel with anti-Semitic undertones while ignoring real human rights issues (e.g., Libya) is a mockery of the principles for which they stand.  I would personally love to see nothing more than the United States pull funding from the United Nations, especially since the United States provides 22% of the UN's budget.  However, I would be satisfied if people realized that the United Nations has a topsy-turvy view of who protects human rights and who tramples them.  That at least would be a start in the right direction.