Saturday, December 31, 2011

Top Twenty Blog Entries for 2011

As we approach the end of 2011, I look back on the blog entries that I have wrote throughout the year.  It was so hard to narrow the list to a "Top 10" that I had to expand it to a "Top 20" list.  Looking at factors such as most page views, comments posted on the entries, as well as what I thought was best-written, did not make the endeavor any easier.  Since I was unable to devise a rating system, the entries are rated based on the chronology that they were written.  Enjoy!  May you have a Happy 2012!

1) I used to find myself in numerous arguments with Christians, whether they be friends or acquaintances, where they were asserting that Jesus was the Messiah. Looking at the text from a Jewish perspective, I knew that Jesus was anything but the Messiah. The existence of two perspectives does not mean they are both valid. In order to break the argument of intellectual relativism, I wrote a concise, but nevertheless convincing and well-cited argument as to why Jesus was not the Messiah according to criteria in Hebrew Scriptures.

2) My religious criticism is not limited to Christianity. A few weeks later, I wrote a piece putting the claim of "Islam is a religion of peace" into question. After looking at multiple factors, including the nature of Koran, the history of Muhammed, the history of how Islam has been practiced, and how Islam is currently practiced, the conclusion was that if Islam has any hope of being considered a peaceful religion, it has to overcome significant hurdles, much greater than those of the Protestant Reformation.

3) Orthodox Jews look forward to a day where the Third Temple is reinstated and that sacrifices can be re-instated. Many Christians like to inaccurately analogize the sacrificial system with Jesus' crucifixion. Both tend to forget that sacrifices were a means, not an ends, to getting closer to G-d, upon which this blog entry focuses.

4) The Left has the mentality that anything and everything is a right. The self-entitlement mentality extends to health care. Looking at the health care issue from the perspective of natural rights upon this country was founded, it turns out that health care is not a right.

5) Without question, this was the blog that received the most page views. Leviticus 18:22 has been used throughout history to condemn homosexual behavior, but after a considerably profound analysis of the verse in its context, the verse leads to many interpretations, none of which that line up with what the Religious Right has to say on the issue.

6) Obama hasn't exactly catered to the Jewish population as well as American Jews were expecting, hence the decrease of Jewish support for Obama. One of the biggest gaffes that Obama made this past year was calling for a "return to the 'pre-1967' borders."

7) Those "progressives" in San Francisco were at it again! This time, it was with an attempt to ban circumcision. For the sake of the freedom to parent in accordance with one's religious views, I'm so glad the measure did not pass.

8) Global warming, now referred to as climate change because it was easier to stick with one name rather than switch back and forth between global warming and global cooling, has reached a status of being an unquestionable fact of life. Knowing that the scientific establishment has never been wrong (think of claims that the earth was flat or that the earth was the center of the universe), I gave skepticism of climate change a go this past June. Although I don't consider this entry a Top 20 entry, I nevertheless became skeptical of my skepticism later this year since I find it to be healthy for one's intellect.

9) This blog entry received the second largest amount of page views. A libertarian actually made an argument against gay marriage from a libertarian perspective, but ultimately fell short.

10) I have written blog entries about why we should get out of Afghanistan, but this entry covers the reasoning from an economic perspective.

11) I think we still live in a country in which dissent is patriotism, which is why I spent part of my Fourth of July questioning whether America is the greatest nation on earth. Let's just say that there were multiple factors to consider, and that there was no easy answer to the question.

12) As if questioning Christianity or Islam were not fun enough, I decided to do so with my own religion. I took a look at the practice of tzedakah and tried to see if there were a way to get out of the practice. After looking at all attempts to excuse myself from giving tzedakah, I found that although I could not completely eliminate the mitzvah, I could limit the extent to which I give tzedakah.

13) This had to be one of my personal favorites for 2011: Why Biblical Literalism is Folly.  The title speaks for itself.

14) So many Jews, especially those that religiously lean to the Left, equate Judaism with social action. Although there are certain values that might line up with tikkun olam, the attempt to reduce Judaism to social action led me to tell Jews to take it easy with tikkun olam.

15) Many capitalists can talk about the economic efficiencies of the free market, but rarely do we hear about the morality behind capitalism. Rather than lack morality, capitalism actually ends up being morally superior to socialism.

16) Throughout history, many individuals have used the concept of "the Chosen People" to advance their anti-Semitism. Aside from the fact that every group of people has been guilty of ethnocentrism at some point, the notion of the "chosen people" is not what you would think.

17) Rick Perry made a supposed faux pas when he said that Social Security is a Ponzi scheme. I took his assertion one step further: I opined that Social Security is actually worse than a Ponzi scheme.

18) With the increased media attention of the Occupy Wall Street movement, I asked myself about income inequality and whether it is morally problematic. After giving it some thought, I am not bothered by the existence of income inequality, especially to the extent which those on the Left are.

19) Especially with the class welfare rhetoric that has existed in the news lately, it emboldens one's resolve to think that the rich have it so easy. Looking at this from a Jewish perspective, Abraham had many riches. You would think that he were living without challenges, but his richness actually created additional burden.

20) This past November, Mississippi tried to pass a bill defining personhood at the moment of conception. Too bad the pro-lifers advocating for the passage of the bill did not realize that implementing the policy would cause unintended consequences.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Wealthy and Taxation: What is "Their Fair Share?"

The Pew Research Center put out recent survey data as to what the American people think about the tax system.  When asked about "what bothers you most about the tax system," the number one answer was "the wealthy people don't pay their fair share."  Not surprisingly, there is a partisan divide on this one.  73% of Democrats agree, whereas 38% of Republicans agree.  Interestingly enough, 57% of Independents agree.  For those who feel this way, here's my question to you: what constitutes as one's "fair share?"

Before figuring out whether the rich are paying their fair share, it would behoove us to see how much everyone is paying in taxes.  Looking at the percentage that individuals pay in taxes (both federal and state/local) comparison the shares of comprehensive household market income, the top forty percent pay more in proportion (see Tables 21 and 22).  If they pay more in proportion, then the dollar amount they pay is surely higher than what the poor pay.

Let's consider the notion of redistributive justice, which allocates property and wealth in a "socially just" manner.  The poor don't have enough, and it's up to the government to redistribute wealth so that they can have a decent living.  That would be typical rhetoric from the Left.  For the Left, desired outcome would be a smaller Gini coefficient, which is a measurement of income inequality.  That could very well sound fair.  We're all equal in the sense that we receive the same amount, which would eliminate any income inequality.  But it was Winston Churchill who said that "socialism is a philosophy of failure, the creed of ignorance, and the gospel of envy.  Its inherent virtue is the equal sharing of misery."  The notion of equality of income has never boded well for mankind.

The Pilgrims tried income distribution and nearly died because of it.  The Former Soviet Union gave it a go, and life couldn't be more miserable.  Chairman Mao Zedong redistributed food in the Great Leap Forward, which killed well over twenty million.  Over history, the United States government has implemented certain programs (e.g., Medicare, welfare, Social Security), and debt has now reached 100% of GDP.  Amazing how any attempts at equality of income minimize equality and opportunity.

This country was built on the idea that all men are created equal.  If that were the case, then everyone would pay the same percentage in taxes.  A progressive income tax does not do that.  You know what does?  A flat tax.

Two more alternative views before I conclude.  The first is that life is not fair.  There has always been income inequality, and no government programs can adequately mitigate the issue.  The second is there is nothing wrong with income inequality, something which I have discussed before.

Do I think the rich pay their fair share?  Yes, I do.  Since rich people pay more in absolute dollars and percentage-wise in tax dollars than the poor, I think they pay more than their fair share in taxes.  But good luck telling that to those who perpetuate class welfare in order to aggrandize Big Government.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Is Ten Percent of the Population Homosexual?

It's always nice to know that you can meet up with your high school friends with whom you have kept in touch all these years and still partake in political polemics as if nothing has changed.  Granted, I became libertarian since then, and thus don't agree with the Right like I used to, but it's still pleasant to have that sense of nostalgia with good friends.

I had such a rendez-vous with some Left-leaning high school friends yesterday. Although a good number of topics came up in discussion, the one that lasted the longest and was the most heated was whether a tenth of the population was homosexual.  Whether it was personal experience, intuition, or previous, brief encounter with a small handful of studies, I didn't agree with the "ten percent gospel" that has its origins in the well-renowned Kinsey study.  As I should well know by now, if you question something that someone else deems "unquestionable," the response is "attack mode."  As long as it's not personal, I don't mind the heated debate since the important thing at the end is ascertaining the truth.

I was told by one of my friends that I should look at the Kinsey study, as well as the Time Magazine article from 2004.  A lot more has been published on the subject since Kinsey, and the article from Time didn't answer the question of "what percent of the population is gay?"  Regardless, I was going to look at the data to see if my friends were right.

It's not only a matter of the fact that homosexuality is a hot-button issue in America.  Both sides have a stake in the debate, which is why I am just as skeptical of the Left's 10% claim as I am of the Right's claim of a considerably small homosexual population. 

A paramount question is how one goes about defining "homosexual."  Is a homosexual who has only one sexual encounter with someone of the same sex? Can we define a homosexual as someone who exclusively or predominantly has sexual relations with someone of the same-sex?  Are people who self-identify as homosexual an accurate measurement of the homosexual population?  As we go through the prominent studies on the matter, let's keep these questions in mind.  

A look at the Kinsey study itself: The Kinsey study was under heavy criticism for selection bias.  But let's consider that the Kinsey study isn't methodologically flawed, because no study ever is, right?  Under the Kinsey study, 37% of males and 13% of females have had at least one overt homosexual experience.  A good majority of us are not going to consider translating one homosexual interaction into being homosexual.  The colloquialisms for such an experience are "experimenting" or "being bi-curious."

Analyzing more long-lasting findings, the study shows that 10% of males and 2-6% of females were exclusively homosexual.  80% of the aforementioned males (i.e., 8% of the statistic sample) were exclusively homosexual for at least three years.  However, 4% of males and 1-3% of females were exclusively or predominantly homosexual from the onset of adolescence.  How long does someone have to have same-sex attraction to be considered homosexual?  Your answer is going to vary based on your definition.  In spite of that, the revered study hardly claims that 10% of the population is homosexual.

The Census Bureau findings are commonly used by those on the Right because the percentage is around 2-4%.  The Census Bureau has a few flaws.  First is that there is no explicit question asking about sexual orientation.  The person filling out the form has to report how the other person is related to them, which causes ambiguities in the answer.  There is still the social stigma of being homosexual, which means people are hesitant to put their sexuality on the form.  Even if that stigma didn't exist, there will still be people out there who feel that it's none of the government's business.  

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) recently did a study on sexual behavior. The study measured sexuality on two primary levels.  The first is the sexual act itself (Table 10).  Does having any sexual contact count?  Does it have to be a specific act?  And again, does partaking in a single homosexual act render you homosexual?  Then there's the matter of sexual identity.  How the question is framed brings about different answers.  Being framed in terms of "Are you mostly [or partly] homosexual/heterosexual, or just bisexual (Table 11)" has different results than "Do you consider yourself heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, or other (Table 12)."  You can finagle over 10% from Table 11 if you lump in people who consider themselves mostly heterosexual.  You can't pull it off with the findings from Table 12.

The Williams Institute, which essentially is a think tank for issues regarding advocacy for sexual orientation, did a study about same-sex couples and individuals in the United States.  Looking at Table 2, the state with the highest estimation of gay men, lesbians, and bisexuals was Washington DC at 8.1%.  Since the sample maximum is below 10%, there is no way the national mean is 10%, which means that according to this pro-gay rights study, the LGB (Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual) population is not 10%.

Even a 2010 study, which grabbed the Huffington Post's attention because it was "the largest survey on the topic published since the 1990s," does not match up to the 10%.  Looking at Table 1 (p. 258), 92.2% of men and 93.1% of women identified as heterosexual.  You would have to include bisexuals to have a median population parameter of 5.65%, which is a fancy way of saying that it doesn't make it to 10%.  Even if you decide to use sexual acts within the past year as an indicator (which is better than sexual acts over a lifetime, but still is limited in terms of meaning), none of the homosexual acts reach the 10% mark.

Postscript: There are other studies on the issue, but the major, peer-reviewed ones have been covered in this blog entry.  In order to make the "ten percent" argument, one would have to make the definition of "homosexual" so broad that it included bisexuals, individuals with very transient same-sex attraction [much like in the Kinsey study], and those who have had at least one lifetime homosexual act, all of which undermine the claim itself.  This is truly a stretch of statistical data to bolster numbers.  Looking at the data puts the percentage closer to five or six percent.

Does this mean that Americans should stop focusing on making sure that homosexuals are provided their rights?  Absolutely not!  Having a smaller percentage of homosexuals in society does not mean we abandon the endeavor of making sure that the government protects the natural rights for homosexuals, an endeavor that will most likely be the civil rights issue of our time.  However, the continued usage of the "ten percent" statistic only debilitates credibility.  Those who argue for gay rights don't need to use exaggerated numbers when they already have the advantage of a sound argument.

6-5-2016 Addendum: Last Wednesday, the Archives of Sexual Behavior published a study showing the prevalence of same-sex behavior. The number of men having sex with at least one man increased from 4.5 percent in the early 1990s to 8.2 percent in the late 2010s. For women having sexual relations with women, that increased from 3.6 to 8.7 percent within the same time period. Given the increased societal acceptance of homosexuals and homosexuality, these findings could simply mean that more people are comfortable reporting their true sexuality and sexual practices. Assuming that a) these figures are correct and b) we want to use the definition provided in the study, they are still slightly below the 10 percent mark.

5-22-2018 Addendum: Gallup estimates that 4.5 percent of the U.S. population is homosexual.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

What War on Christmas?

For years, you have heard Bill O'Reilly clamor about it.  The Christian Right in this country fears it.  Even Rick Perry brought it up in his recent gaffe of an advertisement.  Yes, it is that most wonderful time of year: to bring up the War on Christmas.

Recent cases that are supposed to prove that there is a "war on Christmas" are attempts to ban the construction of a Nativity scene on public school property or re-naming the Christmas tree a "holiday tree."

If this war honestly existed, let me tell you what it would look like.  There would be public burnings of Christmas trees.  Those dressed up like Santa Claus would be assaulted.  Churches would be vandalized.  Giving a Christmas mass or praying to Jesus in public would have you detained by the police.  If you want to see what religious persecution actually looks like, take a look at Jewish history.      

If you're still not convinced, take a look at polling.  Rasmussen shows that 70% of Americans prefer the greeting "Merry Christmas" to "Happy Holidays."  Gallup polls are even better.  Not only do 51% of Americans consider Christmas to be 'strongly religious' for them, but more than 90% in this country celebrate Christmas.  Something tells me that Christmas will continue to be a part of American society and culture.

Why is it that those who are delusional about this "war" prioritize better?  What about worrying why Christmas has become a celebration of rampant materialism?  Or better yet, why not worry about real problems such as unemployment, increasing health care costs, or insolvent government spending?  Rather than appease the Religious Right in some fictitious war, maybe O'Reilly and his ilk should be thankful that Christians throughout America can worship their religion freely.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Parsha Miketz: A Spiritual Recession Trumps This Global Financial Recession

In this week's parsha, Joseph interprets two of Pharaoh's dreams.  The first is that of seven fat cows being eaten up by seven lean cows (Genesis 41:1-4).  The second dream was that seven fat stalks of grain were overcome by seven lean stalks (ibid 41:5-7).  When interpreting these dreams, Joseph actually told the Pharaoh that the two dreams were one in the same (ibid 41:25).  What did Joseph mean when he said that? The significance of each dream were the same exact one: seven years of plenty would be followed by seven years of famine (ibid 41:27).

We're not living in a "global" famine like the one in the Torah, but we certainly are living in global financial crisis.  The state of the Eurozone is a tumultuous one with many unknowns.  America cannot even deal with its own debt issues properly.  Another difference between then and now is that we didn't have a Joseph to tell us that the economy was going to be in shambles.  Sure, the economy has busts and booms.  We all know that.  But were we prepared for an economic issue on a global level?  Absolutely not.

Even though we were not prepared for the magnitude, we know that this is how economic cycles work.  Life is not always going to deal us a Royal Flush.  Even when we are dealt good hands, we should not take it for granted.  What Joseph's planning teaches us is that we should not be so hedonistic or short-sighted that the only thing that we can grasp is the short-term.

What got the better of people?  Materialism.  Many Americans thought that keeping up an insanely high level of consumption would not cause a housing bubble to burst, consumer debt, or trade deficits.  The Pharaoh's dream is as telling back then as it is today because there is more to this dream than a lesson in the need of having a rainy-day fund and being fiscally savvy.

Rashi noticed that the cows were described as handsome (יפות). From the Genesis Rabbah 89:4, Rashi points out that "handsome" means that in days of plenty, no one envied each other.  The Midrash Tanhuma Miketz elaborates a bit further.  In this instance, the focus is on the reed grass (באחו .(באחו is similar to the phrase "in brotherhood" (באחווה).

These "good times" are not just economic; they are also societal and moralistic.  When times are "good," we view people as brothers, and without envy.  The moment we view others as strangers not worth helping, that's when the "bad" times come.  That is why when the lean cows consumed the fat cows, they did not get any fatter.  They were not satisfied with what they had spiritually.  The lean cows were only concerned with their own hides.

We've been in a spiritual recession much longer than we have in a financial one.  Technology has made it easier to live more individualistic lives, and thus cut ourselves off from social contact from one another.  Being bombarded with advertisements makes wanting to fulfill an insatiable desire for material goods all the more alluring.  That level of self-indulgence makes it easier and easier to ignore others and reduce those who are close to the status of stranger.

Although the economic prospects aren't as inspiring as one would like, I'm sure that we'll pull out of the financial crisis before we pull out of this spiritual one.  If I were to put policy making into spiritual parlance, the first policy I would recommend is getting in touch with people.  This could entail rekindling friendships, attending a house of worship (or some other way to build a sense of community), or being closer to family.  It could also encompass people you don't know, whether it's finding a social club or some form of volunteerism.  Whatever the decision is, the sure-fire way out this spiritual recession is not to use people, but rather to treat people like human beings, show them some dignity, and develop relationships with people.  And it's amazing how an individual can inspire another individual to act in the same way.  Hopefully, this "spiritual policy recommendation" can become contagious and we can pull ourselves out of this spiritual bankruptcy.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Secular Republican Changes His Mind on Same-Sex Marriage for the Better

I have a much greater propensity to read articles and studies from think tanks than I do when it comes to reading [political] blogs.  Analysis and expectations, even when not libertarian, are much higher in the think tank world.  However, there are a few blogs that I decide to read.  One such blog is Heathen Republican.  Although I am neither a Republican nor a secularist, I nevertheless have a great of respect for the blogger because of his adherence to sound, reasoned argumentation.

That is why I was surprised by his initial blog entry as to why he was against same-sex marriage.  When push came to shove, opponents of same-sex marriage never had a rational argument for such opposition, which explains my bewilderment.  As of today, he has since redacted such argumentation and has taken a pro-gay marriage stance.  I find this to be an important step, especially since support for gay marriage and conservatism are not mutually exclusive.  

I want to dissect his initial opposition, as well as add to why he ultimately made the right decision in supporting same-sex marriage.

On the plus side, he immediately eliminated the "because the Bible tells me so" argument.  However, he went into arguing about equal rights are still assured because no one, gay or straight, has the right to marry someone of the same sex.  As a libertarian, my primary argument has been embodied within contract rights, which you'd think a conservative would share similar, if not identical, sentiments.  Upon addressing the equality issue, the Heathen Republican framed the equal rights issue in terms of disparate impact.  My approach to it is different, but disparate impact is an equally valid argument.  He uses the example of a hypothetical ban of entering Catholic churches.  Although the ban technically applies to everyone, it is most detrimental to Catholics, since they are the ones practicing Catholicism.  Same goes for same-sex marriage.  Although technically everyone is banned from a same-sex marriage in most states, it does the most damage to homosexuals since they are the ones that would derive benefit from such an arrangement.

He then brings up that "marrying for love" is an insufficient argument because if love were the qualifier for a legal marriage, then polygamy and pedophilia would have to be legalized, as well.  I've already addressed the non-analogous nature of this slippery slope argument.  The Heathen Republican makes a very similar argument to my own, and concludes with the following comment: "If society is allowed to define marriage, why can't we choose to say that marriage requires an exclusive commitment between two, unrelated consenting adults?  Sure, it doesn't have the simplicity and elegance of 'between one man and one woman,' but it does remove an inappropriate restriction that unfairly harms homosexuals."  Very eloquently said!

The Heathen Republican also stated that he hesitated to change his views because of a conservative bias towards "tradition over change," and that this sentiment was the sole obstacle.  I am glad that he re-visited the argument and realized that everything else considered, an argumentum ad antiquitatem cannot stand on its own as a well-reasoned argument.  It takes an individual of strong character to admit that they were wrong and change their views accordingly, which is a character trait I admire.  Kudos to the Heathen Republican!

I hope for a future in which a good majority of Republicans and conservatives can come to similar, cogent reasons for supporting same-sex marriage.

12-9-2014 Addendum: Slate published an overall convincing argument about conservatism and same-sex marriage.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Rebellion for Freedom of Religion and the Chanukah Story

The balance between obeisance and defiance in Judaism is captivating.  The story of Chanukah gives another example to better find that balance.

As the story goes, Antiochus IV Epiphanes expanded into the land of Judea, which resulted in a divide between the Jews.  On the one hand, you had the assimilated Hellenistic Jews, and on the other, you have what would become the zealously religious Maccabeans.  Cultural oppression ensued.  Jewish practices such as Torah study and circumcision were outlawed.  Antiochus even went as far as sacrificing a pig on the altar in the Temple!  Given the political climate, Judaism was at stake.  Rather than be obedient to the authorities, the Maccabees decided to revolt against the Greek establishment.  After much fighting, the Greeks were overthrown and sovereignty was returned to the Israelites. 

I find it ironic that a celebration of the victory of the Religious Right is the most favorite holiday of secular Jews that mostly lean to the Left, but I'll leave that one least for now.  The point I want to bring up is that the individual was meant to practice their religion, and practice it freely.  The ability to pursue under one's own conscience while not harming others is essential to freedom and finding meaning in life.    

Under normal circumstances, Jewish law dictates דינא דמלכותא דינא, or that "the law of the land is the law." However, Judaism takes exception to that when Jewish practice is at stake, much like with the Maccabees.  Just to elucidate a bit further, something being legal does not make it morally right.  Events such as the Holocaust and the Civil Rights movement remind us that there is certainly a distinction between the two.  

I'm not all too worried about this happening in America.  Historically speaking, freedom of religion in America has been pretty solid.  Thank you, First Amendment of the Constitution!  From a Jewish perspective, we have never enjoyed such freedom in the Diaspora.  The ultimate failure of San Francisco's recent attempt to ban circumcision exemplifies how much we don't have to worry about an attack on religious freedom (e.g., practicing Judaism) in America, especially to a point where we would need to rebel against our government.  

That is certainly a blessing I take into consideration this Chanukah: to live in a country in which I can freely observe my Judaism.  Even though we are not in any danger of losing such freedom anytime soon, Jews should nevertheless be ever vigilant to make sure that what the Maccabees endured is not a reality in our time, but merely a distant memory.  

חג שמח!         

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

You Can Be a Good Jewish Guy Without a Beard

Between the controversy over Matisyahu shaving his beard and the fact I recently read a Chabad article that said one of the reasons that Jews, and more specifically, Chasids, don't shave their beards is because shaving is a form of cross-dressing (true was a halachic ruling by the third Chabad rebbe), I figured I'd write a brief blog entry about shaving beards in Jewish law.

When people typically think of a Jewish man, there will most likely be an image of a bearded man.  This association is not incidental.  The Torah states that "you shall not round the corners of your head, and do not destroy the corners of your beard (Leviticus 19:27)."  The verse is a bit ambiguous.  Fortunately, the Talmudic rabbis clear it up for us.  Essentially, they find (Makkot 20a) the verse to mean that it is not permissible to shave the beard with a razor.  Maimonides (Moreh 3:37) says that because it was the practice of idolatrous priests, we shouldn't shave our beards.

If this is all true, then does that mean there is an automatic correlation between beards and piety?  Absolutely not!

First and foremost, not all Jewish men historically wore beards.  Pious Jews in places such as Italy, France and Germany were clean-shaven.  They managed to remove their beards with scissors.  Even Joseph (Genesis 41:14) shaved his beard without any admonishment from G-d.  Whether a Jew wore a beard seems to be more based on the surrounding culture, as opposed to a strict adherence to Jewish law.  As a side note, even the Talmud (Shabbat 152a) notes that non-Jews in the ancient world had beards.

The Chatam Sofer, who was infamous for having said, in response to the Enlightenment period, "all innovations are prohibited," even said that there is no evidence of a prohibition of shaving (Responsa, Chatam Sofer, Orach Chayim 159) with methods that don't use a razor or razor-like objects.

This brings me to my next point.  As previously mentioned, certain pious Jews would remove their beards with scissors.  Fortunately, we have a much better method than a pair of scissors and functionally works like a pair of scissors: the electric razor.  Since the electric razor works like a pair of scissors (i.e., two or more edges coming into edge with the skin, as opposed to the primitive, single-blade razor), it is permissible to shave one's beard with a razor.

Just because it's worth mentioning, there are certain times, such as Chol HaMoed, the period between the beginning of Sefirat HaOmer and Lag B'Omer, and during the first thirty days of the mourning process, where you absolutely do not shave, regardless of method. The fact that these caveats exist should tell us that beards are not obligatory because wouldn't it be redundant to say you can't shave during these times if you can't shave during the rest of the year?

Keeping up the debate on these issues is always good.  And if you don't shave because that is your custom or you feel more Jewish because you have a beard, then go for it!  However, not having a beard does not make you any less of a good Jew.  Having a beard doesn't have an impact on if you keep Shabbat or kosher, or if you lead an ethical life.  Beards are only skin deep.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Thoughts on Herman Cain and Adultery

This previous Saturday, presidential candidate Herman Cain withdrew from the GOP primary race, most probably because of his alleged extramarital affair.  It doesn't matter what I think of Cain coming up with the 9-9-9 plan or his catering to social conservatives to get primary votes.  It was hardly fair for Ginger White to cry "affair" without any substantiation.  At least with Newt Gingrich, you can confirm it.  Anyone can accuse someone of adultery as a dirty political tactic to knock down a candidate.  What's worse is that it works, especially on Republican candidates who campaign on family values.

Regardless of political party or veracity of the allegation, it makes us wonder whether adultery is so terrible that it should disqualify an individual to run for office.  On the one hand, adultery entails deception, self-indulgence, and an inability to keep one's commitments.  If an individual cannot keep an ethically sound household, how do we expect him to do so elsewhere?

[Just to clarify, if the marriage were in the context of an open marriage (i.e., polyamorous marriage), we wouldn't be having this conversation.  This is specifically for those who promise to monogamously be with each other "for richer or poor, in sickness and in health, and until death do us part."]

On the other hand, home and work are two different spheres.  It can be possible to be a lousy husband or father while being successful in the workplace.  Bill Clinton was a fine example of that.  His personal life was something to be abhorred.  On the other hand, Clinton had a presidency with a minimal amount of warfare (if you count Kosovo), not to mention economic growth, which included the Internet Boom, a budget surplus, and cutting back on spending in welfare programs.

I'm more inclined to believe in the latter.  I understand that individuals are flawed.  It's part of being human.  I doubt that that I would want to be friends with someone who is deceptive enough to lie to their spouse.  However, that is on a personal level.  The question that voters should be asking is whether a candidate accused of adultery would still be the best candidate for office, even in spite of their flaws.