Sunday, August 28, 2011

Parsha Re'eh: What Being Part of the "Chosen People" Really Means

There are few concepts in Judaism that are more misunderstood by Jew and non-Jew alike than the notion of the Jews being a chosen people (עם נבחר).  It is a concept we see in this week's Torah portion (Deuteronomy 14:2).  Many Jews shy away from the title "Chosen People" because it makes them feel uncomfortable in an increasingly globalized world.  Some non-Jews have unfortunately used the concept to advance their anti-Semitism and accuse Jews of racism.  Needless to say, it's a controversial topic that most certainly needs clarification.

First, we should go over what being chosen is not.  It is not a form of ethnocentrism.

I find it important to add this side note before continuing.  The Chinese name for China is 中国, which literally means "Middle Kingdom."  A sizable amount of Americans refer to America as the "greatest nation on Earth."  Christians who believe in supersessionism opine that Judaism was replaced by Christianity, thereby making Christians the "new chosen people."  If you have a culture, you will undoubtedly have ethnocentrism.  It exists throughout the entirety of human history.  Why are the Jews singled out with this accusation when every other group of people has been guilty of some form of ethnocentrism?  I can guess the answer to the question, but it is a double standard regardless.

The notion of the Jewish people cannot be considered racist for the simple fact that Judaism is not a race.  There are all sorts of Jews.  There are American Jews, French Jews, Mexican Jews, Ethiopian Jews, Indian Jews, Japanese Jews, the list goes on and on.  With such a racial diversity, Jews cannot be classified as a race.  Furthermore, the Jewish people are non-exclusionary in the sense that anybody can convert to Judaism.  

Being part of the "chosen people" does not even mean that Jews are better than non-Jews.  Just like everybody else, Jews have made mistakes.  The Hebrew Bible is a constant reminder of that fact.  As soon as the Jews left Egypt, there was the Golden Calf incident.  Jews have been exiled twice from Israel.  Even on the individual level, Jews are imperfect.  We're human, just like everybody else, which is why Judaism has a strong belief in the dignity of man.  

So if being chosen does not have anything to do with racism or superiority, what does it mean?  For what reason were the Jews chosen?  

G-d chose the Jews as a spiritual vocation, to be "a holy nation (Exodus 19:6)," as it were.  What that means is that Jews were not chosen for privileges; they were chosen to undertake more responsibilities.  Non-Jews are not required to observe the Sabbath, the dietary laws (kashrut), or make sure that your wool and linen is not mixed.  The Torah and mitzvoth are responsibilities solely given to the Jews.  In addition to these obligations, Jews have obligations to humankind by changing the world for the better.  Jews are meant to be a "light unto nations (Isaiah 42:6)."  In this respect, Jews are to be a role model for the rest of the world in order that together, we can actualize Messianic prophecy and create a more just, compassionate society.          

This post-Shabbat blog was inspired by a sermon I heard on August 26, 2011.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Does Judaism Really Have a Blessing Thanking G-d For Not Being a Woman?: A Case Study for Modifying Liturgy

I would like to preface this entry with the fact that this is not the first time I have opened up a traditional prayer and suddenly become aware of this blessing.  I have known about it for quite some time; it's just that this is the first time I am giving it any in-depth thought.

For those who are not traditional Jews (e.g., feminists, most 21st-century Americans), I would not be the least bit surprised that you would be offended at the notion of there being a blessing that says "Blessed are You, Our L-rd, Our G-d, who has not made me a woman." With a blessing like this, one cannot help but think that this blessing perpetuates the fallacious idea that Judaism is a misogynistic, patriarchal religion.

[There are also two other "'who has not made me' blessings" that are contentious, thanking G-d for not making me a slave (initially "ignoramus") and not making me a Gentile.  Although I would like to primarily focus on "shelo asani isha," I will occasionally mention the other two since the ruling on the one blessing is going to have bearing on the (in)ability to modify the other two blessings.]

At this time, we should ask ourselves two questions.  Should we change the blessing, and are we legally capable of doing so?

Should We Change the Blessing?
Hillel taught (Pirke Avot 2:4) not to judge your fellow until you are in their place.  Although that is literally impossible to be in someone else's identical scenario, the lesson that Hillel was trying to communicate is when judging, imagine how it is to be in someone else's position and make your judgement call from there.  Although I am not a woman, I nevertheless imagine how I would react to this blessing if I were hypothetically a woman.  I would be miffed, to say the least.  When you say "Thank G-d for not making me a woman," it is a statement that institutionally speaking, women are inferior to men.  Insulting 51 percent of your congregation is not the smartest move, especially since the Talmud (Bava Mezia 58b) teaches that "whoever shames his neighbor in public (e.g., a synagogue), it is as if he sheds blood."

It could very well be that a simple, literal reading of the blessing might be taken out of its overall context.  One of the apologetic reasons given is that men have more responsibilities than women, thus the blessing.  The certainly lines up with the Talmud's (Tosefta Berachot 6:18, Menachot 44a) reasoning that it has to do with an individual's ability to serve G-d.  If it's a matter of having more burdens, you would think that the blessing would be "thank G-d I'm not a man," not the other way around, but maybe I'm over-analyzing this.   Rashi opined that the reason for the blessing is because men, much like freemen, had a superior social status.  If the Talmudic creation had these three blessings (that of the ignoramus, Gentile, and woman) linked in their creation, we run into a problem since Jews have historically been oppressed.

On a side note, I recall hearing a drash that women are actually spiritually stronger than men because man was created from dust (Genesis 2:7), whereas women was created from bone (ibid, 2:21), which is a stronger substance.

I would argue that re-framing the blessing in a positive statement, as opposed to the current negative statements, is better.  When you say these blessings in the negative, it implies that it is unfortunate to be a woman or a non-Jew.  It comes off as a disdainful claim of superiority. Since the Talmud (Yevamot 65b) says that the Torah was created for the sake of peace, traditionalists really should consider changing the blessing.  The Conservative movement has been innovative in this respect.  They changed this blessing into "Thank you G-d for making me in Your image."  They also changed "who did not make me into a Gentile" into "who has made me a Jew."  Such positive statements also exist in secular culture.  When one says "I'm proud to be an American," they are affirming their identity with pride while not denigrating others in the process.  The same principle applies here.  Even better, such positive thinking helps with one's well-being.  If I maintain the essence of the blessing while preserving the dignity of others, why shouldn't I be able to do so?

Can We Actually Change the Blessing?
The question we now have to answer is whether the halachic system gives us the leeway to modify, add, or subtract blessings.  In order to answer that question, however, one has to discern whether the liturgy has remained fixed and monolithic throughout Jewish history.  We need to first realize that liturgy developed over the ages, a lot of which was developed prior to Guttenberg's invention of the printing press.  The probability that a people can maintain a consistently monolithic liturgy while spread across the world in exile is highly improbable because so many cultural, societal, and political factors need to be taken into consideration.   As such, R. Josef Tabory and R. Daniel Sperber illustrate that the short answer to this question is an unequivocal "no."

In the two responsa by Rabbis Tabory and Sperber, they give multiple examples in respects to variations of liturgy.  The fact that R. Jacob ben Asher created the "for having created me according to His will" for women in the fourteenth century already shows us we can add liturgy. If we need another non-related example of new creation liturgy, just think of Lecha Dodi, which was added to the prayerbooks in the Middle Ages.

In fourteenth and fifteenth century Provence, the blessing was modified to "who has made me a woman."  Abraham Farisol, a fifteenth-century Italian scribe, even went as far as to put in "who has made me a woman and not a man."  R. Josef b. Moshe, a 15th-century German rabbi, modified it to "who has not made me a brute."  During R. Moshe's time period, it was practice in Austria to say "who has not made me an animal."  Keep in mind that these are not modern-day examples, but examples from the Middle Ages.

Sperber is of the opinion that one should not change the general framework of the blessing, although the formulations were not immutable.  His responsum ultimately concludes that because this is a practice that has occurred throughout the ages by prominent rabbis, there is plenty of precedence, not to mention permissibility for modifications, additions, and subtractions in liturgy.  The Conservative movement ruled on this matter over twenty years ago when they decided to add the names of the Matriarchs in the Amidah.

Jewish liturgy has historically been anything but fixed and unwavering.  Since time immemorial, Jews have added, removed, and modified when needed.  The practice is well-established in Jewish legal history.  From what I have presented, this capability has already been realized and actualized in the more liberal Jewish communities.  The issue at hand is the more traditional/halachic communities since they are, by nature, more resistant to change.  This resistance is brought upon by the logical fallacy of the slippery slope.  For a large majority in the Orthodox community, if we change one thing, then everything will change and it will all fall apart, even if it's something as simple as a few words in a blessing.  It might be more difficult to maintain the dichotomy between tradition and change in one's daily life, but I can tell you it's worth the effort.

Once again, I have come across yet another case study that proves that Jewish practice is not stagnant, but rather an evolving corpus that takes both traditions and the current scenario into consideration.  When we change the blessing of "shelo asani isha" into something more positive like "Thank You G-d for creating me in Your image," it keeps our traditions intact while considering modern sensibilities within the parameters set by Jewish law.  It is this sort of adaptation that has kept Judaism alive all the centuries, and will keep it alive for centuries to come.

12-31-2017 Addendum: I came across this wonderful piece from Orthodox Rabbi Avi Weiss on the topic. I am glad to see at least some of the Orthodox community is willing to honestly tackle issues in a modern-day world.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Give Us Spending Cuts or Give Us Death!

The economy is not getting better and the people want results.  A recent CNN poll shows that a majority of Americans would like for the rich to "put in their fair share,"even though the income tax is a highly progressive tax in which the top ten percent of wage earners pay two-thirds of the taxes (see IRS data).  Many probably think that because the rich have so much money, it would only be a matter of taking even more of their money because "they can spare it."  Would tax increases [on the rich] really solve the nation's economic problems?

According to the video by Bill Whittle [above], even if we took all of the 2010 profits from all of the Fortune 500 companies, all the money from those making $250K, all the money we would have spent on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as foreign aid, and if those making under $250K each put in $40, we would barely be able to scrape together the $2.6 trillion needed for this year.  But we would need to keep in mind a couple things.  First of all, if we went after all the rich in this hypothetical scenario, we have destroyed the ability to turn capital into revenue, which would mean "no jobs!"  In layman's terms, we would have destroyed our economy in the process.  The second issue is that Obama is looking to increase the budget, quelle surprise! As such, there is not as much money to go around as we thought.

For some of you, an entertaining video might not suffice.  What do economists have to say?  According to CNBC, a survey conducted by the National Association for Business Economics shows that 56% of economists believe that spending cuts is the way to go, along with the 37% that believe that spending cuts should be combined with tax hikes.

And even if that were not enough, how about a study from two economics professors from Harvard?  Back in 2009, Harvard Professors Alberto Alesina and Silvia Ardagna looked at 107 attempts from 21 OECD nations to reduce the debt.  The results?  Per the chart below, the overwhelming data show that spending cuts objectively work better than increasing government spending.  Take that, Keynes!


Studies from the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) also follow suit in terms of the effectiveness of spending cuts.

To conclude, tax cuts are only going to exacerbate the problem, whereas spending cuts are just thing this country needs, especially considering how much we inefficiently spend on defense spending, Social Security, and other forms of entitlement spending.  If the French are willing to implement austerity measures, shouldn't America at least be able to do better than the recently drafted, shoddy debt "deal?"

Sunday, August 21, 2011

The Morality Behind Capitalism

Capitalism is blamed for a myriad of societal issues, whether it is the destruction of the environment, economic exploitation, or even this recession.  You have a problem, I can guarantee that an overwhelming majority of those on the Left will attribute those woes to capitalism.  With such events as the Bernie Madoff scandal or the fiasco with Enron, morality and capitalism seem more like a big dichotomy than anything else.  Many free-market advocates can talk about the efficiencies and the improvement of quality of life that can objectively be attributed to capitalism, but they usually shy away when it comes to talking about "capitalism and morality."  It's about time that anybody who is a proponent of free markets breaks the silence, especially since it is clear that the Keynesian/social welfare approach is putting the world's financial health at long-term risk.

With that in mind, let's go into further detail as to why capitalism is a morally superior choice to socialism.

  • Competition. Socialists will opine that one of the reasons that capitalism is evil is because the competition it promotes is so cut-throat that it leaves people behind.  One of the things that socialists need to realize is that no matter which style of governance you choose, there will always be competition.  Competition is omnipresent in human nature.  Humans compete not just for jobs, but also for things such as love and honor.  The difference between capitalism and other economic systems is the way capitalism channels that competitive drive more constructively.  Property is obtained by peaceful means.  This leads to mutual cooperation between the consumer and the producer.  Since property rights are a hallmark of capitalism, the Golden Rule becomes a given in a capitalist society.  Socialism, on the other hand, does not have such peaceful methods because it is zero-sum.  There are those who win and those who lose. Socialism forces that the consumer's will to be that of the government.  In the extreme situation, you go to the gulags if you don't comply. In most situations, you have to wait in line to get your goodies from the government, and it usually involves getting elbowed out of the queue and having to go to the back of the line.
  • Profits.  There go those socialists again, talking about the evil of profit-making.  "If only we could go back to a simpler time, we would not have all these problems."  The problem with socialists is that they are in a pre-capitalist mentality.  Prior to the advent of capitalism, the world was one big pre-Industrial hellhole.  People during those times worked longer hours under worse conditions just to survive.  Unless you were that less than one percent who happened to be an aristocrat, being able to thrive or "live the good life" was not an option.  This is evident in modern-day Third World countries.  If you meet a rich person in a Third World country, odds are that he came about his wealth through crime and true exploitation.  In a capitalist society, you know that a rich person became rich because they made a positive contribution to society, not because they took from others.  Such innovators as Andrew Carnegie, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg come to mind.  That is why contrary to popular belief, most millionaires in America are self-made, first generation millionaires.  The other joy of capitalism is that when a rich person has a luxury item, you know that it will become commonplace in a matter of a few years because the rich subsidize it.  This was true of cell phones, air conditioning, the Internet, indoor plumbing, and many other inventions.  Everyone benefits from innovative people, not just the rich.  That is why the creation of one's wealth does not decrease the well-being of another individual.  The Invisible Hand guides the economy where the individual good is also the common good (i.e., positive-sum game).    
  • Equality vs. Freedom.  To continue from my previous point, socialists will complain that people do not receive the same amount, which means socio-economic disparity.  Although I am sure that certain socialists mean well, it's amazing how in socialist societies, people become equal......equally poor!  The reason that a socialist society becomes equally poor in the long-run is that if you take the notion of economic distribution seriously and have it permeate enough in societal institutions, everyone will have the same salary.  This will greatly disincentivize specialized labor to pursue certain fields (e.g., doctors, research and development, larger business).  If you're going to get the same amount regardless of what you do, why strive for greatness?  In capitalism, you unquestionably have freedom.  With that freedom, you have the option between making a right choice and a wrong choice, which people like to call free will.  In a socialist society, you don't have the leeway to make such choices.  The advantage of capitalism is that it provides us the ability to actualize our own morality.  Coercion is no gift.  True charity and virtue come through exercising it freely, thereby making it more satisfactory of a moral achievement.     
  • Self-interest.  Self-interest is another one of those facets of human nature that we cannot evade.  The Invisible Hand guides that selfishness into a constructive output both for the individual and society. That is why in capitalism, economic freedoms give individuals the right to exchange and transact freely. You can choose to live where you want, pursue whatever career you would like, explore pastimes, and spend money on luxury and travel. In capitalism, it's not about blind greed.  It's about an enlightened self-interest that provides you with freedom and rights. In socialism, your "rights" are the ill-defined wishes of governmental officials, and those officials are only responsible for the wishes of the powerful. To quote George Orwell's Animal Farm, "All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others."
  • Tolerance and Rule of Law.  Capitalism also promotes tolerance.  In socialist societies, you're just another number on a bureaucratic form.  In a capitalist society, people of different cultures, races, ethnicities, values, and world views can live together without rancor.  Why?  The Golden Rule! If you damage someone's property, you are responsible to compensate for that damage.  Since a capitalist society holds people accountable and to act more responsibly, the quality of property is more pristine than that in a socialist society.        
Postscript: Socialism is about dwindling an individual's freedoms to nothing out of some audacious presumption that "they know best."  It results in slavery of the individual.  It stymies economic growth and innovation, which greatly diminishes the quality of living for all.  Capitalism brings about freedom and makes the consumer sovereign.  Capitalism also protects the quality of property, or as Frédéric Bastiat put it in his essay, "Ce qu'on voit et ce qu'on ne voit pas."  As a result of this freedom, we become even wealthier and quality of living increases dramatically.  This improvement on quality of life probably has something to do with the division of labor.  Read "I, Pencil" for further detail.  Even in this country, the poor are even more well-off than the media would like to have us think.  In addition, the freedom gives us the exercise our free will in accordance with our religious beliefs, or lack thereof, as long as it doesn't violate the Golden Rule and the axiom of non-aggression.  Having non-aggression within the context of "rule of the law" brings about tolerance.  That tolerance means that anybody, black or white, straight or gay, short or tall, Christian or Jewish or atheist, has the ability to become rich, but is most certainly guaranteed the independence and freedom to pursue their own lives as they deem fit.  In summation, socialism puts us in chains.  Capitalism enhances morality.

For more on the morality of capitalism, please read The Morality of Capitalism, which is courtesy of the Foundation for Economic Education.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Why Jews Should Still Lament and Fast on Tisha B'Av

I have always had a difficult time with Tisha B'Av.  For me, Judaism has been a forward-looking, optimistic worldview.  To have a day in which one would self-induce sadness seems counter-intuitive, to say the least.  I have found it even more difficult to observe Tisha B'Av since much like Maimonides (Guide for the Perplexed, III, xxxii), I have viewed the sacrificial system as a temporary concession to man's nature of clinging to that which one is accustomed.  I have no reason to mourn the loss of what I, as well as a majority of Jews, view as an ancient, insipid relic of the past.

For nearly two millennia, Judaism has survived without the sacrificial system because it has found ways to adapt to the loss of the Second Temple.  I dare say that Judaism has fared better without the sacrificial system in place. 

What's more is that for the first time in Jewish history, Jews not only have a nation-state, but also have a united Jerusalem.  This holiday has seemed to lose its edge at least since the unification of Jerusalem in 1967, if not during the creation of the state of Israel in 1948.  Even the Jews in the Diaspora have overall been emancipated and granted equal rights.  Have we reached a point where Judaism has lost the need for Tisha B'Av?  Can we discard it as an antiquated custom and confine it to the history books?

Although it appears as if there would be no reason to actually observe Tisha B'Av, I have to acquiesce that there might be reason to still observe, even if I have to do so reluctantly.  King Solomon said (Ecclesiastes 3:4) that there is a time to weep and a time to laugh.  But why weep?  Even though Jews have made considerable progress since the pre-Enlightenment days, Tisha B'Av is not a time to rejoice over progress made, but rather to lament over progress that has yet to be made.

We still live in a world with rampant anti-Semitism.  Although America offers unprecedented amounts of religious freedom in the Diaspora, anti-Semitism has not been this high on a worldwide level since pre-WWII.  What makes it worse is that it is coming from all walks of life, whether that would be the academic Left, the Islamic fundamentalists, or certain sects of right-winged Christianity. 

We still live in a world with abject poverty.  In Israel, nearly one in five lives below the poverty line.  The welfare system in Israel is immense.  The current protests in Israel demanding "social justice" are indicative of that fact.  Maybe we fast on Tisha B'Av is a reminder that there are hunger issues to be resolved in the Jewish community, let alone the entire world.

We still live in a world in which Israel is constantly threatened.  Teaching hatred of Jews is still an essential part of the curriculum in Palestinian public schools.  Iran is building nuclear arms, which would most likely be used to annihilate Israel.  Even the cold peace with Egypt has been beginning to thaw.  The Jewish people might have a nation-state, but national security is anything but set in stone.  As such, we still need to fast.

We still live in a world with a disunited Jewry.  What brought about the destruction of the Second Temple?  Baseless hatred between one's fellow Jew.  We see this tension in the State of Israel between the Religious Right and the Secular Left.  The Diaspora, most notably in America, has a similar tension between Orthodox and non-Orthodox.  The politicization of Judaism and Jewry continues to perpetuate the disunification of the Jewish people that has existed since the falling of the Second Temple. 

In short, do not feel sadness for some nostalgia that most likely never fully occurred with regards to the Second Temple in the first place.  Be sad because the Jewish world is still in a state of tension and strife, or to put it in more religious parlance, messianic prophecies have yet to be fulfilled.   There are still those who hate Jews.  There are still enemies that threaten the nation-state that took so much work to build.  Even internally, both in the land of Israel and amongst Jewry, Jews constantly deal with internal conflicts. 

However, this should not bring us to meekness or a sense of futility.  It should be a time of the year to look at our more communal issues and bring awareness to this "harsh reality."  King Solomon was correct that there is a time to weep.  But we should be so moved by the fact that this is our current reality that we should be inspired to change it.

Tisha B'Av is a time of awareness for Jews.  Jews need to be aware of how tragedies have befallen upon them in the past.  But also, there needs to be a directive towards learning from those downfalls and figuring out how we can apply them to the current situation.  With that level of awareness, we can confidently head in a better direction. 

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Why Jews Need to Take It Easy with Tikkun Olam

For many in the American Jewish community, tikkun olam (literally meaning "repairing the world") has become synonymous with social action.  Ask a majority of Jews the most important facet of their Jewish identity, and you'll find that is embodied in the modern-day concept of tikkun olam.   Wanting to repair the world certainly has a loftiness to it. 

Why should I want to criticize people who make the world a better place?  

My first issue is with the history of the concept.  Jews tend to think that tikkun olam as we know it is a centuries-old tradition that we are just continuing in the modern age.  That is actually false.  When first mentioned in the Mishnah, it was in the context of halachic regulation, usually with property rights or other legal disputes.  The next time it appears is in the Aleinu prayer, but in the sense that G-d, not man, will ultimately fix the world.  The third time it shows up in a Jewish context is in Lurianic Kabbalah.  However, the mystical concept of repairing the shattering of the ten sefirot by diligently performing mitzvot.  In short, the tikkun olam that we know is a movement largely manifesting itself from the Civil Rights movement and the anti-war movement during the Vietnam War.

Jews have not only adapted to surrounding cultures, but have created innovations as a result.  I would attribute this feature as one of the major factors in Jewish survival.  Therefore, innovation should not be a reason to negate tikkun olam.  However, when you dress up "progressive" "social" "justice" in the guise of it being the ultimate expression of Judaism, I have a problem with it.  And if you're wondering the need for all those quotation marks in the previous sentence, it would have to do something with the misnomer about progressivism actually being progressive.  There is nothing progressive about stymieing economic growth and perpetuating poverty.

This "social" "justice" is not exactly as Jewish as one would think.  The issue is that the tikkun olam makes the fallacious assumption that "progressivism" is Judaism, when in fact it is not.  Judaism has an appreciation for free markets and property rights.  Judaism condones owning firearms in the name of self-defense.    Although I recognize that Judaism does have a sense of communal responsibility, the way that many Jews present tikkun olam is that it is either the "progressive" way or the highway.

When Leftist Jews chide conservative Christians for mixing religion with politics, they really should look in the mirror and realize how much they are calling the kettle black.  

In spite of the politicization of tikkun olam, my main issue with the tikkun olam movement is they have bitten off more they can chew, and in the process, have left Yiddishkeit in disarray.   The thought behind the inception of the tikkun olam movement that this would be the form of Judaism that would transcend the particularism and tribalism of Judaism. "Who needs rituals like kashrut or Shabbos," they thought.  To quote the Beatles, "All you need is love."  

Needless to say, tikkun olam backfired in terms of making Jews more Jewish.  Approximately 90% of American Jews do not consider themselves Orthodox.  Most don't keep kosher or Shabbat on any level (some would be better than none!).  You're lucky if many Jews attend High Holiday services, let alone Shabbos services.  Not only that, you think the tikkun olam would make for more "Jewish volunteerism."  Wrong!  Looking at a recent study done by Brandeis University, most Jews do not care if they volunteer for a Jewish organization or not, and you can tell from the results of the study that Judaism is not real high on the priority list.    

There is a lot to worry about in terms of Jewish survival.  It's not just the birth rate being below replacement [outside of the Orthodox world] that worries me.  The creation of Birthright also worries me.  The reason Birthright exists in the first place is because so many Jews my age have such a disconnect with Judaism.       

Before you try to fix problems in communities far away, you should first make sure that your own house is in order.  Judaism faces a serious PR issue, which is why so many Jews cling to tikkun olam.  Many see Judaism as insipid, antiquated, and irrelevant, none of which are true.   Rabbis aren't inspiring congregants like they used to, congregants aren't putting enough subtle pressure on fellow congregants to partake in a more Jewish life, parents aren't instilling Judaism into their children, and Jewish institutions aren't exactly helping with this decay of Jewish life.  Trust me, there's plenty of blame to go around.  

That is why I make a call for Jews to come back to keeping kosher, learning Hebrew, studying Torah, or observing Shabbos.  We should certainly keep up the dialogue as to what is considered "good observance."  Even if you do it on your own terms, something is better than nothing.  In essence, we not only need to be human beings, but need to also be Jews in the same process.  

Finally, this is not a call to abandon Jewish values such as justice or loving-kindness.  I'm not even going to do something like tell you to stop do such acts of loving-kindness as giving tzedakah or showing hospitality because these are also practices deeply rooted in Judaism.  I'm asking that Jews don't take on so much that they spiritually feel burnt out.  I'm asking that Jews think globally and act locally.  

I'd like to close with an anecdote about the Chofetz Chaim.  It was said that he wanted to try to help the entire world, but realized he couldn't.  He wanted to help out all of the people Israel and realized he couldn't.  He wanted to even help out his own community and realized that he couldn't.  Even with his own family, he came to the same realization.  However, he started by helping himself, and from there he made a huge impact on Jewry and Judaism.   If we repair the world in smaller, more manageable, more tangible doses than the tikkun olam movement does, then we will one day see the world truly repaired.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Let's Make a "Deal"

The Wall Street Journal declared victory with the debt deal upon which Congress agreed.  You would think that having spending cuts and not having an increase in taxes sounds like a win for those who advocate for smaller government.  And I'm happy that taxes didn't go up, especially since as recent as last Monday, Obama was calling for tax increases.  However, when you a closer look at what Congress came up with, it's not all that great.

First, the initial step consists of cutting $900 billion over ten years, which would be an average of $90 billion a year.  $90 billion is less than what America borrows in a month!  Second, there is a second phase of the deal in which a super-committee will be created in hopes to cut back on the deficit by $1.2-1.7 trillion.  Not only is this second phase is very vague and theoretical, but even if it does pass, the spending cuts wouldn't even take into effect until 2013.  Even if all of the proposals go through, the debt will go up to $20 trillion by 2020.

Why is the debt "deal" so ineffective?  Because it does not get at the root problem of out-of-control government spending.  Defense spending is about 20% of the United States federal budget.  When talking about making cuts to government spending, conservatives are pretty good about it, except when it comes to defense spending.  If we are to be serious about government spending, the Department of Defense should not be immune, especially if the threats are only perceived and not actual.

Although 20% of nearly $3.5T is no small number, if we are serious about cutting government spending, we really, really need to focus on entitlement spending.  When looking at Social Security (20%), Medicare and Medicaid (21%), and other welfare spending (14%), we are talking a grand total of 55% of government spending.

Between defense spending and entitlement spending, we are talking about three quarters of the budget.  If we are sincere about avoiding the exacerbation of the budget issue, we unquestionably need to focus on spending cuts.  We cannot be spending money we do not have.  Although debt is not inherently a bad thing, when we are not making any discernible effort to pay back on the debt, then we are going to be six feet under before we know it.  That is why ideas such as deleveraging or a Balanced Budget Amendment are good ones.  They take the problem by the horns rather than sweeping it under the rug.