Sunday, May 29, 2011

Revisiting Isaiah 53

About a year ago, I had done an analysis on the Suffering Servant passage of Isaiah 53 since this passage that Christians use to "prove" that Jesus was the Messiah.  It should go without saying that their claim is without merit.  It's nothing more than an example of Christians using eisegesis, i.e., they read their preconceived notions into the verse to misinterpret the verse and read what they want to read. 

Although my analysis was more than adequate, I had found another one recently published by Aish HaTorah, written by Marshall Roth, that was even more thorough than mine.  Let me say that this analysis is spot on!  Roth first goes through the context of the verse, including how the Jewish people have been referred to as a single entity on more than one occasion.  He then takes each verse and shows how the Suffering Servant refers to the Jewish people and not Jesus.  Roth then concludes with how early Christian figures read the verse with the same interpretation that Judaism uses. 

Understanding this verse properly is of importance.  This passage was not meant to guilt trip people into believing in Jesus.  It is meant to outline that upon the coming of the Messiah, the other nations will realize how they have erred in persecuting the Jewish people.  May we see the coming of the Messiah sooner rather than later!

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Gay Marriage Is a Fundamental Right

I know I've talked about this issue before, but listening to certain Cato Institute podcasts just reminds me that certain issues merit re-visiting.  Ted Olson is a great spokesperson for advocating for gay marriage because not only did he used to work for Bush 43, but he was the one who won Bush v. Gore, the Supreme Court case that favored Bush in the 2004 general election.  Why would I, as well as Olson, go as far as saying that gay marriage is a right?
  • As I have explained in the past, we need to differentiate between a false and actual fundamental right.  If natural rights are fundamental, then my fundamental rights cannot conflict with those of Joe Schmo.  Marriage, in its simplest form, is a contract between consenting individuals stating that they commit themselves to one another.  This contract, i.e. marriage, does not conflict with anybody else's right to life, liberty, or pursuit of happiness.  Therefore, from a natural rights perspective, gay marriage is a natural right.  
  • The case of Loving v. Virginia (1967) already proved that under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, marriage is a fundamental right.  Forty years later, Mildred Loving, one of the plaintiffs in the case, stated that the religious beliefs of some individuals should not impede on one's civil rights.  And yes, she said that includes gay people!  Has the Supreme Court ruled specifically on gay marriage?  Not at this time.  But when it does, I am willing to predict when it rules in the favor of civil rights, Loving v. Virginia will be cited.  
  • Many individuals who are anti-gay marriage because "we're not taking religion or Jesus into account" forget that if we did, we would be violating the anti-establishment clause of religion that is in the First Amendment of the Constitution.
  • Procreation cannot be a reason to ban gay marriage.  Can you imagine trying to regulate marriage based on the prerequisite of procreation?  Infertile couples, elderly couples, or couples simply with no intent on having children would have to be barred from marriage.  Something tells me that public policy wouldn't be enacted on that level.  
  • "Marriage between one man and one woman--it's the way we've always been doing it."  I'm going to forget for two seconds that in the history of marriage in Western civilization, a man has been able to marry a twelve-year old girl, one could not marry outside his religion, socio-economic class, or race, or the fact that marriages used to be arranged.  Yes, marriage used to be very different!  Using an argumentum ad anitquitatem is a logical fallacy.  Just because something has always been done a certain way does not make it correct.  
If the notion of two men or two women being together seems disgusting for certain individuals in society, that's just too bad for them.  Gay marriage is a natural right.  It is a civil right.  To deny homosexuals this right is tantamount to saying that blacks are not equal to whites or that women are not equal to men.  Even with the progress made in the past few years (i.e., a majority of Americans for the first time are in support of gay marriage), it's still going to be a fight for homosexuals to have their natural rights ensured by the government.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Magen Tzedek: Dealing with Food Politics in Judaism

In recent past weeks, the Magen Tzedek initiative started by the Conservative movement has been getting a bit of heat.  What the Magen Tzedek entails is creating an "ethical hechsher" that is meant to go along side of already-established hechshers.  According to the Magen Tzedek website, the purpose of the Magen Tzedek is as follows:

Founded on the principle that we are what we eat, Magen Tzedek is an ethical seal signifying that kosher food has been prepared with care and integrity. Products carrying the Magen Tzedek seal reflect the highest standard on a variety of important issues: employee wages and benefits, health and safety, animal welfare, corporate transparency and environmental impact.  A concept that grows more relevant with every passing day, Magen Tzedek demonstrates that ritual and ethical commandments have an equal place at our tables.

The Magen Tzedek garnered attention from many Orthodox Jews, particularly from the organization of Agudath Israel.  Agudath Israel accused those heading the Magen Tzedek initative of "redefining kashrut," that "the Conservative movement has no respect for halacha," and concluded by calling Magen Tzedek "a falsification of Jewish heritage."

You would think that you couldn't politicize something like food, particularly in a religious context, but that's exactly what is happening here.  Up until approximately the 1950s, the differences between the Conservative and Orthodox movements were subtle.  That changed with the creation of suburbia.  The American dream to live in a nice, big home with a lawn and white picket fences was too alluring.  As such, Conservative communities lived further and further apart, which caused strains on the Conservative movement in terms of being able to maintain "the traditional lifestyle."  Nowadays, the Conservative movement looks much more like the Reform movement than it does the Orthodox.  The Magen Tzedek initative is nothing less than the Conservative movement trying to re-gain validity as a movement.  Since the Orthodox have became the "gatekeepers of Judaism" and have monopolistically declared that they are "halachic Judaism," they don't want to relinquish any of that validity or power to non-Orthodox movements.

The Orthodox are correct that kashrut strictly has to do with dietary restrictions.  However, the Conservative movement is also correct to say that the Magen Tzedek is not to replace the traditional concept of kashrut.  I agree with that statement.  We should not give up the traditional sense of kashrut because it is an institution that helps define Jews and Judaism.   However, to dismiss the concerns brought up by the Conservative movement (see this responsum for more details) is to dismiss other Jewish values.  Treating animals with kindness, workers with dignity, and considerations for the environment are just as much Jewish values as kashrut.

This is more than a threat on the Orthodox monopoly of the definition of halacha.  What one has to keep in mind is that Orthodoxy, like any form of fundamentalism, predicates itself upon bifurcation.  It's either a simplistic "yes or no" and "black or white" type of answer.  There is no grey in the middle.  How does this relate to kashrut?  In the traditional sense of kashrut, either a certain food is kosher or it is not kosher.  You can't ask if a pig is kosher and answer with "maybe."  We know that pig is treif.  If the Orthodox got past their cognitive dissonance and accepted these values as part of their consumption decisions, it would complicate matters greatly.  Which values take precedence?  For instance, let's say that there is a product that has the Orthodox Union hechsher, but we all know that the workers that produced the product are treated very poorly by their employer.  Do we buy it because it is prepared according the laws of kashrut or do we decide to not buy it because it violates the mitzvah of לא תלין?  Ethics are more difficult to control than ritual, which is why the Orthodox would prefer to keep the matter a ritualistic one. 

I do, however have a couple of issues with Magen Tzedek.  One is the practical issue of enforceability.  Without being Big Brother, how are you going to be certain that a given business is following those standards?  Also, how do we determine what those standards are in the first place?  Furthermore, I take issue with the fact that most Jews who consume kosher products are Orthodox.  They're not going to want what they perceive as a heresy next to the current hechshers.  It would be bad business for hechshers as Orthodox Union and Star-K.  Finally, I don't think this is going to encourage kosher consumption, which is one of the primary reasons for this initiative to begin with.  Although it's a bold endeavor, I nevertheless that it doesn't get at the root causes that have made most Jews non-observant. 

I would hope that we can set aside food politics to our utmost to have Jews embrace Jewish values in all facets of their life.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Obama Calls for "Pre-1967 Borders"

If anything confirmed my suspicions about Obama's anti-Israel stance, his foreign policy speech today did the trick.  Obama explicitly called for "pre-1967 borders" when he said that "we believe the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states."  Why is this declaration problematic?
  • The pre-1967 borders to which the media refers frequently were not borders at all.  They were armistice lines.  Armistice lines are ceasefire lines that serve as an interim agreement while more permanent agreements are being established.  Armistice lines are never considered to have any geopolitical value, which means they have no bearing in establishing nation-states.
  • Last time I checked, to the victor goes the spoils.  If you win a war, you are entitled to the land acquired.  This is how warfare has been fought throughout history.  This is one of the only times we have expected a victor to give up any land.  Even so, Israel gave up the Sinai Peninsula, which was a considerable amount of land that Israel won in the 1967 war.  Israel even tried giving the Gaza Strip to Egypt, but Egypt didn't want it!
  • UN Resolution 242 does not call for Israel to relinquish all the acquired land from the Six-Day War.  The controversial part of this UN Resolution is the call for "withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict."  Anti-Zionists take this to mean that Israel should give up everything it gained.  This was actually a huge debate amongst those drafting up the resolution.  The Russians, as well as the Arabs, wanted the Israelis to withdraw from all the land acquired.  However, the word was taken out of the resolution, thus creating the ambiguity.  Those who drafted the resolution, including Lord Caradon, said that it was not meant to refer to all of the territories. 
  • Palestinian nationalism didn't even come into fruition until after the Six Day War.  As such, these armistice lines have no bearing on "Palestine," only for Egypt, Jordan, and Syria.
  • As I have stated before, the obstacle to peace has nothing to do with land.  If the Palestinians wanted land for themselves, their Arab brothers could have given them plenty of land, especially since Israel is less than one percent of the Middle East.  This does, however, have plenty to do with hatred of the Jews.
  • From an Israeli perspective, this would be disaster for Israel, particularly if they had to give up the Golan Heights.  Not only did that acquisition provide much water resources (which Israel desperately needs to begin with), but the Golan Heights provides Israel with a militaristic advantage.  Asking Israel to give that up would be tantamount to nationalistic suicide.
  • Between the recent alliance of Hamas and Fatah and the attempt by Abbas to get UN recognition this upcoming September, it makes it perfectly clear where Obama stands: with the Palestinians.  Today's speech is nothing more than another example of how one-sided Obama is on the Israeli-Palestinian issue.  He is always going to castigate Israel while expecting nothing from the Palestinians.  That is the Middle East policy of Obama.  It is the most anti-Israel of all policies ever espoused by any American president, and will most certainly not bring any peace to the region.  Let's hope that Netanyahu is able to stand up to Obama.     

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Should Social Security Be Untouchable? No!

Social Security has become a third rail in American politics.  Why?  Because old people droves!  The American Association for Retired Persons, better known as AARP, is the largest interest group in America and claims more than forty million members.  If you are the political party that messes with Social Security, or Medicaid for that matter, it will most probably end in political suicide. 

After reading a Brookings Institute analysis on the question, Isabel Sawhill said that Social Security should be "untouchable."  One of the reasons Sawhill gives is that because it's paid for by the payroll tax.  This plays into her third reason, which is that the seniors should be owed their money that they put into the system.  I would first like to point out that Social Security is a "pay-as-you-go" system.  This Social Security Administration (SSA) even admits it.  The way the "pay-as-you-go" system works is that the money made by today's workers goes to today's beneficiaries.  You do not have your own personal Social Security account where your payroll taxes go.  This is bolstered by the fact you don't have a right to Social Security.  I can't emphasize this point enough.  Back in 1960, the Supreme Court ruled in the case of Flemming v. Nestor that American citizens do not have the contractual right or guarantee to receive Social Security.  This court ruling has not been overruled since then.  Although it would theoretically be political suicide, Congress can, at any time, eradicate Social Security and there would be nothing the American people could do about it.

Sawhill's other argument for making Social Security untouchable is that seniors are a vulnerable group that cannot afford to have their incomes further curtailed.  She says that the richer seniors who make an average of $75K should chip in more.  Obviously, with the "progressive" tax system we have in place (e.g., income tax is a progressive tax), the rich aren't putting in their fair share and they need to be milked dry.  Although Brookings Institute is a centrist think-tank, I'm surprised at the Left-leaning slant on this one, not to mention highly annoyed.  The Left loves to talk about equality with their income redistribution, but what history teaches us is that when we implement such policies, people do turn out equal........equally miserable! 

The problem with Social Security is much like having a small crack in your kitchen ceiling and there are some drops of water dripping.  Although it's not going to hurt today, it's going to cost a lot more if you wait until your entire kitchen is flooded.  As Sawhill points out, this is the second year that Social Security is collecting less in revenue than it pays in benefits (i.e., it has caused a deficit).  With the retirement of the Baby Boomers, it is going to cause the elderly support ratio to decrease to the point where there will be less workers than beneficiaries to the program.  If we don't want Social Security to cause financial ruin for America, something will need to be done because the status quo is insolvent.

But don't worry......Sawhill has some ideas.  She proposes to raise the retirement age.  That's fine.  The GOP has already proposed that.  With the increase of longevity in America, it's not an unreasonable idea.  However, it's only a short-term solution.  Increasing the retirement might delay the problem, but it won't solve it.  How about raising payroll taxes?  Wait, did she just really offer that as a solution during the worst economic recession we have seen post-Great Depression?  Payroll taxes hurt both the employee and the employer.  If the employee is struggling financially as it is, why make it more burdensome?  It sounds fun to stick it to employers.  After all, those rich fat cats have more than they need.  Here's a reality check about economics that the bleeding-heart liberals forget.  Rich people have capital.  Capital is what is required to either start or expand business.  By increasing the payroll tax, you are essentially causing further unemployment.  And you guessed it.  Unemployment is hurting the poor more than anyone.

Instead of gradually increasing the retirement age or the percentage the average American pays in the payroll tax, how about we gradually chip away at the Social Security Administration to the point where it's non-existent?  The program itself is the problem because it perpetuates the entitlement mentality brought on by the Nanny State.  Cato Institute expert Jagadeesh Gokhale says the following:

Entitlements and the taxes to fund them both alter key economic decisions that individuals and households make — and these "distortions" result in costs which add up. More generous and early entitlement benefits induce earlier retirement by the most experienced workers. Larger entitlement benefits and higher payroll taxes also induce workers to work and save less. Retirees also consume their wealth faster leading to lower national saving. With shorter working life spans, younger generations choose to acquire less education and skills, opting instead to enter the work force early at lower wage levels. So, adopting more generous entitlements with higher taxes leads to economic choices that are socially and economically undesirable — choices that favor getting less education, working less, saving less, and retiring earlier. This is the case even when those choices may be the right ones for individuals and households given the incentives from government policies that they face.

His solution?  It'd be the same as mine.  Scaling back on Social Security and other entitlement programs would give incentive for people to pursue further education.  Also, it would incentivize people to save more money and put it into private accounts.  If you put into Social Security, you will, at best (and that'd be a miracle unto itself), break even.  If you put into a private retirement account (PRA), you would actually end up making money by investing in low-interest bonds because the investment has a low risk, meaning that even if economic hardship came along, you'd still come out ahead in the long-run.

In summation, if we don't want the kitchen to be flooded, we need to consider serious Social Security reform.  And you what that means, Sawhill?  Social Security cannot be untouchable.    

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Can You Take a Life to Save a Life? An Ethical Dilemma in Jewish Law

It's great to see that my alma mater is finally creating a Jewish Studies department. Yesterday, I got to hear Ilan Fuchs, a potential candidate for Lawrence University's Jewish Studies department, discuss Jewish medical ethics, in specific context of whether one can take another's life in order to save another individual, or even many individuals for that matter. I hope that by exploring what was discussed in yesterday's lecture, we can transcend a simple "yes or no" ruling and discover the complexities inherent within the discussion.

We see a case of this in Scripture, more specifically, in Samuel II 20:15-22. The city of Beth-maacah is besieged, and the soldiers say (verse 21) that if Sheba ben Bichri is killed, then the city will be spared. He was delivered and the city was subsequently spared. Can we derive law from this scenario or are we merely dealing with narrative?

Since Judaism cannot be reduced to Scripture (i.e., Tanach), we need to look at the rabbinic tradition and how the situation evolved over time. We will now approach this from citing sources that answer the question both in the affirmative and the negative. We will start with the negative.

From a traditionalist Jewish standpoint, life has infinite value. It doesn't matter if you are talking about one person or a million. When you multiply any number by infinity, it always ends up equaling infinity. As such, murder is highly immoral in Judaism. It is one of the three sins in Jewish law where you would give up your life so you don't transgress it.

In the Talmud (Pesachim 25b), someone comes before the Raba and says to him: "The governor of my town has ordered me, 'Go kill so-and-so, and if not, I will kill you.'" The Raba replies with "Let him kill you rather than you commit murder. Why do you think your blood is redder? Maybe his blood is redder."

It would seem as if Judaism never condones taking a life to save another. First and foremost, Judaism permits self-defense (Exodus 22:1, 2). Yoma 85b states that if "one comes to kill you, kill them first."  Self-defense clearly deals with cases of imminent threat in which there is a pursuer, or a רודף. This example comes up in Jewish law and abortion. In Mishnah Ohalot 7:6, a woman is able to "cut a woman up in the womb" because her life comes before that of the child's. The exception to this rule is if the majority of the fetus has emerged from the womb, thereby having the full status of a human being. This exception has an exception: A minor who is in pursuit may be slain to save the pursued (Sanhedrin 72b). Confused yet?

Because of this, Maimonides (Laws of Murder and Preservation of Life, 1:9) states that until a majority of the child emerges from the birth canal, it is not regarded as a fully autonomous human being, and that an abortion would be obligatory because "one life should not be sacrificed for another."

Yerushalami 8,10 brings about another example.  If a group of men comes along and says "give us one of your own [so we may kill him] or you all be killed," you normally let all of them be killed. However, as with the case of Sheba ben Bichri (refer back to second paragraph), if you can find an equivalent, you can, according to Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish, sacrifice him for the "greater good" because he will already be charged and executed. According to Rabbi Yochanan, you can sacrifice the individual, even if he isn't subject to execution. Why? Because his presence puts everyone else in danger. However, Maimonides ends up agreeing with Shion ben Lakish (Laws of Basic Principles of Torah, 5:5), even though the majority ruling is normally with the opinion of Rabbi Yochanan.

I am going to throw in one more case (Bava Metzia 62a) before concluding. Two men are traveling together in the desert, and there is only one pitcher of water with enough for one. If they either share or no one uses the water, they both die. The majority ruling is interesting: Rabbi Akiva rules that if unless both can survive, the individual with the pitcher survives because "your life should never take precedence over his." It's not simply a victory for property rights.  It's also common sense. For one, if you are obligated to give the water to the other, you'd keep passing the water back and forth until you both die. Second, Akiva's explanation is intuitive. If you were to give the water to your neighbor, you would be essentially stating that your responsibility to your neighbor is greater than to himself.  Self-sacrifice is not a Jewish value.

Postscript: If you're even more confused as to what the correct course of action is from a Jewish perspective, that's good because that's the idea. Talmudic thought, as well as Jewish thought as a whole, is supposed to be dialectical. The rabbis have debated these sources throughout time because they wanted to make sure that every factor possible was taken into consideration before rendering a decision. New considerations, thoughts, factors, or refutation of previously accepted facts can change a halachic decision.

R. Moshe Feinstein ran into a similar problem back in the 1970s. There was a case with Siamese twins. If the twins were separated, Twin A would die and Twin B would live. If the surgery were not performed, both twins would die. What's a Jew to do? R. Feinstein said that the surgery should be performed because since Twin A was going to die anyways, his presence was a de facto רודף scenario. Was that an easy decision to make? No. Could one have made a sound counter-argument? Most probably. But R. Feinstein had to make a decision.

This is the beauty of Jewish law.  One can make arguments for diametrically opposed ideas, and they can both be equally Jewish! So, what's the answer to the initial question of "Can you take a life to save a life?" It depends on the scenario.  Certain mitigating circumstances make the argument much stronger than other scenarios.  Even in that situation, we can argue either way. When push comes to shove, you still have to make a decision. Whatever halachic decisions we make in life, may they be made in the goodness of His ways.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Supply of Physicians Is Just as Important as Supply of Health Care

I haven't blogged in a while, so I figured that writing a brief entry would be better than nothing.  Here it is.  I was reading an article from Michael Tanner of the Cato Institute, a think-tank which I respect highly for its insightful analysis.  This article was entitled Doc Holiday.  It illustrates how our already-problematic doctor shortage will be exacerbated by Obamacare.  It is a topic which I wrote about a year and a half ago, but it merits revisiting.

We face a basic issue of supply and demand.  Obama has essentially promised health care for an extra 32 million who have previously been uninsured.  This sounds noble and well-intended, but it ignores a fundamental problem: the amount of doctors entering the field really hasn't gone up much for years.  Demand for health care, on the other hand, has exploded.  If demand for labor skyrockets and supply stays stagnant, there will inevitably be a shortage of that good (i.e., health care). 

A non-rising supply of doctors is coupled with anathema of Obamacare in the medical field.  As Tanner points out, the average student coming out of medical school has nearly $300K in debt, which is a disincentive unto itself.  Even a sizable amount of current doctors would leave the profession, according to a 2010 poll, if Obamacare actually becomes a reality.  Why?  Because Big Government and red tape deter doctors from practicing by increasing insurance premiums. 

If the supply of physicians is severely lower than the demand of health care, and thus a demand for physicians to provide that health care, there is no point of talking about the topic.  Rationing health care will be inevitable because the supply of the good will be ever so limited.  As Tanner concludes in his article, "Promising universal health coverage is easy. But what does universal coverage mean if you can't actually see a doctor?"  Based on the laws of economics, the unsubstantiated promise of universal coverage doesn't mean squat.