Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Why Poverty Hasn't Taken a Good Licking From Food Stamps....Oh, Snap!

Poverty is no fun. Neither is food insecurity. Not knowing where your next meal is coming from must be a real drag, especially given the issues with food security since the recession. With the House's recent passing of Nutrition Reform and Work Opportunity Act of 2013 (H.R. 3102), which will provide $39 billion in food stamp spending cuts over the next ten years, I had to wonder whether food stamps are a viable solution to the nation's culinary woes or not.

First, let's delve into how food stamps work. Food stamps are a form of financial assistance provided to low-income families for the purposes of purchasing food, and economically speaking, they function as a social in-kind transfer. What makes an in-kind transfer different from a cash transfer is that the individual does not receive direct cash, but rather a good or service [at a reduced rate]. Historically, this sort of in-kind transfer has been in the form of stamps, although recently, there has been increased usage of providing the subsidy in form of an Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT). Not only does an EBT reduce the rate of fraud, but it also removes the stigma of using the in-kind transfer in the first place, although given that over 47 million citizens (15% of the population) derive benefit from SNAP , the social stigma seems to be dissipating.

So do food stamps make for good public policy? Let's ask ourselves what is good about this policy. As the Left will argue, the money goes to people in need, and it increases the wealth of low-income families. At least right now, SNAP-related fraud is at a near-historic low (1.2%), which is exceptionally low for a government program. The program is popular. The program also compensates for undesirable consumer preferences, e.g., alcohol, smoking, which proponents use to justify the paternalistic intervention (Currie and Gahvari, 2007). According to the USDA (because we all know that they would never have a vested interest in this outcome), the multiplier effect is 1.84.

If the multiplier effect is that great, why not just continue generating food stamps? Probably because the supposed multiplier effect within a transfer program generates economic effects  is net zero. There is a reason why they call the GDP "Gross Domestic Product." Food stamps do not add to the economy because there is no net production.

Aside from lack of wealth creation, there are other issues with food stamps. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that the effects of SNAP on hunger relief are inconclusive (GAO, Domestic Food Assistance, p. 27), which is hardly desirable considering that hunger relief is supposed to be SNAP's primary goal. Availability does not translate into healthier diets (GAO, p. 28), which is unsurprising because the program isn't paternalistic enough to regulate participants' diets. Direct cash transfers have smaller administrative costs than in-kind transfers. In the instance of SNAP, administrative costs are $4.8-5.7 billion per annum, which ends up being nearly 6% of total costs. There is lack of transparency, as well as bureaucratic overlap (GAO, p. 41) that creates redundancies. Another issue with food stamps is that they are economically inefficient because cash transfers typically lead to higher indifference curves, i.e., higher utility, because food stamps create a kinked budget curve.

Much like with unemployment benefits, food stamps cause reduced employment and average working hours (Hoynes and Schanzenbach, 2010), which is foreseeable because that sort of wealth transfer creates a disincentive to work. Body mass index increased for 28% of the participants. There is also the issue of payment error rates, which when combined with the fraud and the administrative costs, exacerbate the inefficiencies.

There is also the matter of the cost of the program. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) recently published a report that the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) will cost $724 billion over the next ten years. The plus side is that the cost of SNAP is a small percentage of the country's overall GDP, although I would argue that the federal budget is too large as it is. Although a lot of the increase in food stamp production is due to the recession, the inefficiencies related to food stamps go well beyond the mere need for food stamp reform. Food stamps are symptomatic of just how much entitlement programs are driving up the nation's debt-to-GDP ratio and causing increased dependency on Big Government. What was initially a temporary safety net turned into a form of subservience (see chart below, which shows that the participation isn't going to decrease all that much, certainly to its pre-recession levels, by 2019). As FDR said back in 1935, "The lessons of history, confirmed by the evidence [immediately before me], show conclusively that continued dependence upon relief induces a spiritual and moral disintegration fundamentally destructive to the national fibre."

Even with all of that to consider, my biggest kvetch would have to be that the rate of poverty has not decreased since the onset of the recession (Census, Poverty Data, Table 5). Food stamps are not pulling people out of poverty; they perpetuate the status quo. There would be better alternatives to food stamps, not mention better topics to focus on in order to alleviate hunger issues.

One could argue that direct cash transfers are more economically efficient than in-kind transfers, which is true, but then there's the who redistributionist mentality of which I am not a huge fan. I'm not saying that poverty is going to be fully eliminated anytime soon, but there was a time when food pantries, feeding centers, and faith-based and other charitable organizations could adequately handle the poverty issue before government largesse began back in the New Deal and continued during LBJ's War on Poverty, but increasing their role would mean that the government would have to stop crowding out the private sector.

Although this can be expounded upon in multiple blog entries in the future, perhaps we should be looking at other factors would make the issue of food security less burdensome. The government could remove [or lower] minimum wage or take it easy on regressiveburdensome regulations so employers would feel more amenable to hiring employees. Alternatively, the government could eliminate agricultural subsidies that distort unhealthy food prices so that healthier foods could be cheaper.  Looking at the expenditures for the lowest quintile, I'd opine that consumers can also look at how they spend money and take more personal responsibility for their expenditures, or even work on their propensity to save because spending more than you have is not a sustainable way of life. The Fed could work on its monetary policy so that the dollar stops devaluing. There are multiple ways to approach the improvement of overall economic wellbeing so that individuals have more purchasing power, and this is by no means an exhaustive list. However, given the economics behind the program, there is no way that SNAP will ever stamp out poverty.

October 16, 2013 Addendum: The Cato Institute just came out with a policy report on reforms for SNAP. Worth the read!

October 8, 2015 Addendum: The National Bureau of Economic Research recently released a working paper showing that SNAP doesn't reduce obesity.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Parsha Bereshit: The Joys of Dealing with Temptation

The creation of the universe, potent trees that give knowledge and life, a talking snake, and having a fourth of the world's population wiped out with a single murder. Yes, it is that time of year where we recommence the Torah cycle and start off with the Torah portion of Bereshit. One of the less commonly analyzed sections of Bereshit is the end of the Torah portion, where G-d is so disappointed with humanity that He intended to wipe out nearly all of mankind. A couple verses beforehand (Genesis 6:5), G-d saw just how low mankind had fallen. It was so bad that any thought that man had produced [in his heart] was non-stop, pure evil (וכל יצר מחשבת לבו רק רע כל היום). What are we supposed to take from this verse? Is is saying that man is really that immoral and irredeemable?

Viewing it from a Christian paradigm, the answer is an unequivocal "yes." In Christian theology, man is really that irredeemable. Unsurprisingly, I disagree with such an interpretation. First of all, G-d is delivering a judgment of mankind within a specific temporal context. This verse was not meant to be an eternal condemnation of mankind, but rather illustrating that free will's double-edged nature can either result in good or evil (and in this case, humanity opted for evil). Second, G-d doesn't judge for future sins; He only judges us for the culmination of past events and how that has made us who we are (JPS commentary on Genesis 6:5). Third, these individuals made a decision to choose evil. Even if there is a powerful inclination to commit evil, one of the joys of being human is we are beings created in His image, which means that we have the potential to choose good. As G-d states earlier in this week's Torah portion, "Sin crouches at the door, but you can overcome it (Genesis 4:7)."

One of the many things I appreciate about Judaism is its ability to adapt to reality. As my previous comments imply, Judaism does not have a rosy picture of human nature. As Genesis 6:5 points out, mankind has the potential to be horrid. Picking up a history book or newspaper and reading it confirms that reality. Even so, man's proclivity towards doing bad, or what Judaism calls the יצר הרע (the evil inclination; yetzer hara), is only part of the equation. As can also be observed, man can choose to be good by committing good deeds.

But is any of this ideal? Weren't we supposed to enjoy the idyllic peace in the Garden of Eden? In my humble opinion, no. If we had everything handed to us, life would be boring and numb. Additionally, although there was a disobedience element to Adam and Eve's eviction out of the Garden of Eden, it was ultimately their inability to take personal responsibility and perform acts of teshuvah. We weren't created to be angels. Not to be tautological, but we were created as humans. Being created in His image means we have a divine spark, and that a part of us is divine, which is great. Nevertheless, we still have that animalistic part of our selves. There is a famous parable in which the yetzer hara is captured for a few days. What the rabbis noticed is that no one built a home, engaged in business, or got married. There wasn't even a single laid-egg because even the animals lost their drive! The moral of the story here (Talmud, Yoma 69b) is that if we eliminiated this "evil inclination," all of human and animal life would cease to exist. Our yetzer hara literally is a necessary evil, and as R. Joseph Telushkin points out (A Code of Jewish Ethics, Vol. 1, p. 36), we are here to channel our "evil" inclination for the betterment of ourselves, mankind, and to serve G-d.

Additionally, the Talmud (Kedushin 30b) takes a look at Genesis 6:5. In Rashi's commentary on Kedushin 30b, he points out that כל היום that the evil inclination is constantly making its move in terms of tempting us to do wrong. Both the evil inclination and the good inclination are in play, which means if the spiritual bar is set so high where we ask ourselves "What would G-d do," then we're bound to screw up because not to be tautological, we're only human. We will err. We are here to do our best. That is why G-d had such foresight that He created teshuvah before He created the universe (Talumd, Pesachim 54a).

So how do we deal with the yetzer hara? There has been much ink spilled to answer this question, but I will nevertheless provide a brief answer. In hopes of not sounding too cliché, we deal with it one day at a time. Throughout our entire lives, we will have situations that test us. Sometimes, the choice will be easy to make, and other times, doing the right thing will border on being unbearably difficult. There are people who think that sounds painful. Being responsible and having to make decisions is not easy. It is simpler to have someone make decisions for you. But that is not what being free is about. Our ability to choose between right and wrong is the very thing that makes us human. Rather than shy away from it, we should take the gift that Adam and Eve gave us and live our lives to the fullest, which is the way G-d intended.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Why and How Rejoicing on Sukkot Is a Mitzvah

There was a time when I thought of Sukkot as some antiquated agrarian celebration. However, after spending this past Sukkot with some great friends, I realized that Sukkot is more than just a harvest holiday, "The Feast of Booths," or even a pilgrimage holiday. My friends showed me why Sukkot is known as "the time of our rejoicing" (זמן שמחתינו). The simplest reason for Sukkot being considered a time of rejoicing comes straight from the Torah:

ושמחתם לפני אדני אלהיכם שבעת ימים
"And for seven days you shall rejoice before G-d." -Leviticus 23:40 (also see Deuteronomy 16:14

Knowing me, "because the Torah says so" has never been a satisfactory explanation unto itself because it leaves a lot to be desired, particularly on a level of spiritual meaning. When I hear that "rejoicing on Sukkot" is a mitzvah, it brings up a few issues. One, how can G-d command any emotion, never mind that it's happiness, for an entire week? Two, we are explicitly commanded to live in a simplistic, temporary construct for the duration of the holiday, during which one is to "endure Mother Nature at her finest." That doesn't seem all that joyful. Three, this holiday does not commemorate any major event in history. If I were to designate a time of year for rejoicing, it would be Purim. The Jewish people avoided genocide, which is something worth celebrating. We eat, dress in costumes, and even have a few drinks. So how did Sukkot end up being the Jewish holiday for rejoicing?

Going into further detail of what exactly a sukkah is can help answer these questions. A sukkah is a temporary dwelling constructed for Sukkot. The sides of the structure is typically made of wood (although the sides can be made of metal or other materials), and the roof covering is made of material that grew from the earth, but is disconnected from it (e.g., wood, palm leaves, bamboo sticks). The sukkah is ideally a construct au naturel, derived from natural and organic materials. The sukkah is to be constructed under open skies so we can be exposed as possible to the elements of nature. With that brief description in mind, let's list some reasons as to how Sukkot is a festival of rejoicing, and how it can be construed as a commandment:
  1. Ancient Israeli society was an agrarian society. Since the fruits of one's labor have been gathered, one rejoices for a good harvest, regardless of how it turned out, because one is thankful for the sustenance that G-d provides.
  2. Sukkot comes right after the High Holy Days. On Yom Kippur, we contemplate the importance of teshuvah and how we should prioritize our lives. The juxtaposition of Yom Kippur and Sukkot gives us joy because G-d gave us a positive judgment, and we are able to start off with a clean slate (R. Shlomo Wolbe). Additionally, if we are to start the year "with a clean slate," especially if it is meant to be a joyous year that was better than the last, we cannot end with the holidays with chest-thumping and guilt-tripping. G-d placed Sukkot where He did so that we can both start the New Year and finish the holidays on a positive note.   
  3. The sukkah becomes a metaphor for life: fragile, uncertain, ephemeral. Our exposure to nature illustrates just how little control we can have over life. The rejoicing comes from the fact that "everything is in G-d's hands (Rashbam's commentary on Leviticus 23:43)."
  4. Since I don't believe in a personal G-d, I don't personally buy #3, although there are a good amount of Jews that do. Yes, the sukkah becomes a metaphor for life: fragile, uncertain, ephemeral. Given the nomadic nature of the Jews wandering in the desert (See Point #6), the sukkah can be interpreted as a manifestation of the "wandering Jew 'in exile," which is symbolic of how we should never be complacent in our surroundings. Even so, the message ultimately is that we don't need to be afraid of anything external. Rather than life live in a self-enclosure (i.e., the home), we become exposed to the elements (i.e., the ups and downs of life) in order come to terms with and be at peace both with who we are and with our environment. (R. Yitzhak Berkovits). This realization brings us joy, which is the ultimate antidote to fear.
  5. The sukkah represents the simplest form of living, which is the entire point. On Sukkot, we are not supposed to live in luxury because we are to realize that happiness does not come from material goods. As Hillel said (Pirke Avot 2:8), "the more possessions, the more worry," which is to say that people either fear loss of their material possessions or worry about the jealousy of others. We should not put such emphasis on our homes or material possessions, but in something more transcendent. And we should do so because people have a tendency to conflate physical fulfillment with spiritual fulfillment. In Judaism, most acts are not intrinsically mundane. Sukkot is a great reminder that we are able to elevate the physical and mundane into something more holy, and for that opportunity, we should be happy, even when inhabiting the simplest of constructs. As Ben Zoma points out (Pirke Avot 4:1), "Who is rich? The person who is happy with their lot."
  6. The festival of Sukkot commemorates the forty years spent in the desert. Part of having been freed from Egypt and being free person endowed with free will is to accept the daily challenges of existence, and to do so with a sense of fulfillment and joy.
  7. Happiness is not something we acquire; it is a byproduct of what we accomplish, and to what and to whom we connect. Within the mitzvah to rejoice, G-d is not commanding us to feel an emotion. G-d knows that it is not easy to be happy because there will always be stress in life. Rather, G-d gave us an opportunity to create our own happiness during Sukkot or any other time of year for that matter. G-d is commanding us to partake in certain actions, i.e., externalities [that we Jewishly call mitzvahs], to induce happiness. During the holiday, we enjoy time both at synagogue and at home. We are engaged both with our family and friends. We even give tzedakah and pray for guests (אושפיזין) to come to the sukkah, as a gesture of hospitality. To quote R. Avraham Weiss, "Spirituality means encountering the moment, being conscious of the moment, while recognizing G-d's role in the moment." What does this R. Weiss quote have to do with Sukkot? The mitzvah of living in the sukkah is one of the only mitzvahs that utilizes the entire body (the other one is walking in the land of Israel). This mitzvah involves the entirety of our physicality. Much like with the mitzvah of living in the sukkah, being happy entails our entirety. By pursuing the mitzvahs pertaining to Sukkot and spending time with others, what it helps us recognize is that by realizing our purpose in life and opting to pursue that purpose, we can choose to be happy and partake in actions that increase our overall happiness.

Regardless of which reasons work best for you, I hope that you find happiness and joy during this Sukkot.

חג סוכות שמח!

Monday, September 16, 2013

Refuting the "Homosexuality Is Unnatural" Argument

It's amusing as for what passes for science these days, especially in the developing world. In Nigeria, a well-renowned student "used science" to "prove" that "gay marriage is wrong" because opposite poles of magnets attract, whereas the same poles repel one another. His conclusion? He extrapolates what he observed from magnets to human nature, and thus concludes that homosexuality is immoral. Anybody see the issue with this? I would say that people in the West don't have to resort to arguing that homosexuality is wrong because "it is unnatural," but then there are people like Kirk Cameron who espouse that very opinion. 

It sounds nice when opponents of gay marriage say that "homosexuality is unnatural." Using terminology such as "nature" or "natural law" comes off as neutral and "as a matter of observable fact." It becomes much easier to ignore accusations of homophobia, bigotry, or intolerance. However, when one makes the argument, what does "homosexuality is unnatural" even mean in the first place?

Let's start with the one of the most common definitions of "natural," and what is used when making this argument, which is that which occurs commonly in nature, i.e., within the context of what exists within the rest of the animal kingdom. It makes me wonder why we are using animal behavior as a basis for how humans should behave or whether it should determine the moral status of a given action, but let's go along with it for a moment. Observing animal behavior, there is much despicable behavior, including killing their mates, abandonment or killing of offspring, overt and public sexual acts [with multiple partners], and eating fecal matter. Evidently, this is not behavior that we want to emulate simply because "it is natural." Conversely, air conditioning, technology, art, wearing clothes, speaking and writing, chemotherapy, driving cars, the pursuit of happiness, religion, and free will, not to mention a sense of right and wrong, would all have to be considered "unnatural." If we are to take this argument seriously, even the institution of heterosexual marriage is "unnatural" because animals cannot enter into marriage contracts. But let's assume that the animal kingdom is a good basis for human behavior. Homosexuality can be found in many species, whereas homophobia can only be found in one. Which phenomenon do you think is more "unnatural": homosexuality or homophobia?

Additionally, humans are a part of nature. Therefore, there are humans that have homosexual relations because they have a natural, sexual attraction towards the same sex, so how is that not "natural?" For homosexuals, there is nothing "unnatural" or artificial about such behavior. In this sense of the term, gay men and lesbians are naturally homosexual.

Another interpretation of "homosexuality is unnatural" is based on the homosexual's inability to procreate "the old-fashioned way," that is to say "naturally." Not everyone gets married for purposes of procreation. People also get married for love and companionship. There are some heterosexual couples that are infertile. Other heterosexual couples are too old to have children, and other couples simply opt not to have children. Are we going to make procreation a prerequisite to acquiring a marriage license? And if propagating children is such an important value in society, then heterosexual rape would arguably be "natural," and there would be a most peculiar moral equivalence between being gay and other acts such as non-procreative sex, masturbation, being on birth control, and celibacy, all of which leads to a morally problematic line of thought. Furthermore, homosexual couples can and do have children via in-vitro fertilization, adoption, artificial insemination, or surrogate motherhood, and guess what? The children in same-sex families fare just as well as those children with a mother and a father.   

Going off the "procreation" argument, "unnatural" can very well mean "that the use of [reproductive] organs is contrary to its 'intended use.'" According to proponents of natural law theory, reproductive organs have a "natural" function of reproduction, and anything else is "unnatural." Can't an object have multiple uses? I can use my mouth for speaking, kissing, whistling, and singing. But how does one determine what an object's primary use is? Let's be adult here for a moment. Under natural law theory, one argues that the penis is used for reproduction, i.e., its primary function is ejaculation for the sake of reproduction. But it's safe to say that a man urinates more frequently than he ejaculates, so couldn't I argue that a penis' primary function is urination? Yes, procreation is a usage of sexual organs, but it is hardly the only function they have. Not only can an item have multiple uses, it is not easy to determine what a "legitimate use" of that item is without it coming off as too arbitrary. And let's not forget that sex also has multiple purposes beyond procreation, including [mutual] pleasure, expression of affection, dealing with boredom or loneliness, emotional well-being, or stress relief.  

Maybe "unnatural" is synonymous with "uncommon," "atypical," or "different." In this interpretation, homosexuality is abnormal because it is the sexual orientation for a minority of human beings. Rather than confine the argument to sexuality, I'd like to apply the argument to all facets of life. By this definition, the fact that I am Jewish and left-handed are both examples of how I am "unnatural." That would also mean that such atypical traits as deafness, blindness, autism, or having red hair are all "unnatural." Does having an uncommon trait make one immoral or perverted? Absolutely not! If we followed this line of reasoning, activities such as watching Nascar, starting one's own business, or playing classical music would all be "unnatural" simply because they are activities done by a minority of people. Also, we have to realize that most things are statistically unusual, whether it is one's name, talents, or situation in life. It doesn't make what we do or who we are morally wrong.

Funny how anything with regards to this argument that can be claimed as "unnatural" is actually natural or simply immaterial to whether homosexuality is immoral or if same-sex marriage should be legal. The argument is a non-starter because it is a logical fallacy, i.e., appeal to nature. Just because homosexuality isn't "the norm" doesn't mean we can draw moral conclusions from it being "unnatural." Death, natural disasters, disease, snake bites, viruses, pains and aches are all natural, but no one is claiming that these are advantageous or desirable. It is difficult to take those who claim that "homosexuality is unnatural" seriously when people do and use "unnatural" things all the time. When it comes down to it, "unnatural" is another way of saying that it is "personally disgusting or offensive," and that is most certainly not a basis for dictating public policy or quashing civil rights in this country.  

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Post-Yom Kippur Thoughts on Technological Teshuvah

Most actions or objects are not inherently bad, wrong, or evil. Fire can be used to destroy, but it also has positive uses such as heat, light, and a way to cook food. Money isn't evil either. It can be used for greed or it can be used to help those who are less fortunate. How we use our technology also comes with a similar conundrum.

As I pointed out a while back, whether it is our Facebook accounts, our iPhones, or e-mail, technological progress is very much a double-edged sword. On the one hand, technology is a great tool for me to keep in touch with those who do not live in close proximity. If it were not for Facebook or e-mail, I would have to handwrite letters to family and friends far away, which would be quite tedious. Social media, the Internet, e-mail, these can all be instruments to enhance our lives, particularly in terms of communication.

Conversely, technology has downsides to it, and since we're all too human, it has a way of getting the better of us with its allure. For many of us, technology is not so much as life enhancer as it is an extension of ourselves, or even worse, a form of enslavement. If someone sends a text message, many of us would feel very compelled to answer it immediately, and if we don't, it eats us up inside. The amount of time spent on social media or in front of a screen can be mind-blowing. As I was reminded of while sitting in Yom Kippur services yesterday, one of the biggest casualties of using technology as a crutch is with our social relations. Texting, Facebook messaging, and writing e-mails are no substitute for having an actual, personal relationship. Although our real friends are also Facebook friends (unless they don't have an account), that certainly doesn't mean that anyone who is a "Facebook 'friend'" is an actual friend.

What does any of this have to do with Yom Kippur?

One of the fundamentals of Yom Kippur is teshuvah. Although it is commonly mistranslated as "repentance," it literally means "return." When we talk about returning, there is always an indirect object, even if the indirect object is implied. So to what is it we are returning? In essence, we are returning to our good essence. We realize that we are more than our mistakes and errors because the potential we have to perform good acts is quite astounding. In this instance, we have to realize that we are more than our Facebook accounts or [text] messaging interfaces. We are social creatures that need authentic social interactions and intimate relationships to truly live. We are told to choose life over death (Deuteronomy 30:19), and that applies here because when we gravitate towards technology, we have opted for the virtual world instead of the real world. Instead of having a live interaction with another human being and develop intimate relationships with other human beings, it has become simpler to use technology as a form of escapism.

Since a vital part of teshuvah is about examining our lives and relationships, now is as good of a time as any to apply that to technology. A recent study about Facebook shows that one of the primary reasons people are on Facebook as much as they are is because of boredom. Going with the definition that boredom is a pervasive lack of interest in one's surroundings and perceiving them as tiresome or tedious, then one has to deal with this ennui in order not to get sucked into the abyss of technology. With all the pastimes out there, knowledge and subject material to study, and all the forms of live, social interaction, it makes me wonder how anyone can ever be bored. In order to get past this sentiment, we need to be committed to saving ourselves from ourselves. What is the first step? Much like any addiction, the first step is admitting there is a problem. Realize how precious time truly is and make the best of it instead of wasting it in front of a screen.

In this context, "making the best of it" starts by making a concerted effort to limit time on Facebook, on the Internet, and in front of a screen. I'm not advocating to completely remove oneself from technology because in this day and age, that is unfeasible. Nevertheless, there should be some time we should set aside some time to disconnect from cell phones and computers. I find one of the best ways to have a digital detox is Shabbat. Think of it: a whole day where you're not bombarded by e-mails and text messages. Instead, you get to spend that time having authentic interactions with real people. I find that non-usage to be such a tranquil, liberating part of my week--really helps with my blood pressure. If you haven't tried it, I highly recommend it.

After Yom Kippur services, I decided to make a commitment for the year 5774 to spend less time in front of a screen and more time with people. I hope that you join me in choosing the real over the virtual, the authentic and profound over the superficial. In short, I hope that we can all choose life by returning to our true selves.

This blog entry was heavily inspired by a Yom Kippur morning sermon given by R. Taron Tachman. Todah rabah!

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Ashamnu: Confronting Sin and Forgiving Ourselves on Yom Kippur

Yom Kippur is the holiest day on the Jewish calendar, during which one fasts and intensely prays. According to Jewish tradition, Yom Kippur, also known as the Day of Atonement, is the time which one appeals G-d to be sealed in the Book of Life. During this appeal, one of the repeated facets of the Yom Kippur service is the Ashamnu (אשמנו), which is an alphabetic acrostic prayer acting as a confession of one's sins. While going down the acrostic list of sins, one beats their chest while communally reciting one's sins, which includes verbalizing such confessions as "we have betrayed" (בגדנו), "we have stolen" (גזלנו), and "we have rebelled" (מרדנו).

[For a list of all 24 of the sins in Ashamnu, as well as interpretations on each sin, check out the insights from Aish HaTorah, Orthodox Union, and a translation of Chayei Adam (18 c.)]

What's so special about Ashamnu? What makes it such an important prayer?

Before answering that, a bit on the Jewish notion of sin. Judaism conceives sin differently than Christianity does. Jews do not believe that Jesus died for our sins or in Original Sin. To quote Genesis 4:7, "Sin crouches at the door, its urge towards you, but you can overcome it." In Hebrew, the word חטא is commonly mistranslated as "sin." When taking a closer look at its usage in the Tanach (Hebrew Scriptures), the word is better translated as "error" or "mistake." For a Jew, "sinning" is much more akin to the idea of an archer missing his target. Even righteous people still err (Ecclesiastes 7:20); it does not make them bad people. For Jews, humans are neither inherently evil nor inherently good. We are born with a strong inclination towards evil (Genesis 8:21), but nevertheless have the potential to become good by performing good deeds because we have free will.

With free will comes great responsibility. We do not live in isolation. Our actions affect others, which is one of the reasons why the confessions in the Ashamnu prayer are written in the first person plural. Although many of the sins in Ashamnu are actualized on an individual level, and while we need to view our spiritual selves on an individual levelwe are still a community and as such, responsible for others in the community.

Let's briefly contrast Ashamnu with Al Chet, the longer confessional prayer that proceeds Ashamanu, to provide further insight. The reason that Al Chet is longer because it goes into further detail with more concrete examples. Concrete examples are what makes it easier to connect to something like Al Chet than Ashamnu. How so? When one reads Al Chet, one essentially recites symptoms of a given חטא. In contrast, Ashamnu is a list of root causes. Root causes might be more difficult to examine, but if we are to truly improve upon ourselves, we need to confront them at their source. This is the gift that Ashamnu provides, which is important because knowing is half the battle.

Every time we thump our chests during the recitation of Ashamnu, the thump acts as a heartbeat. We need to be reminded of our conscience, our good inclination (יצר הטוב) because if we don't, our confession would look something like this. However, the Ashamnu prayer is a reminder that we can only beat ourselves for so long, both literally and metaphorically. After reciting the Ashamnu and Al Chet, we ask that "for all these sins, G-d of forgiveness, forgive us, pardon us, and grant us atonement" (ועל כלם אלוה סליחות סלח לנו מחל לנו כפר לנו). If we keep beating ourselves up indefinitely, we get exhausted, disillusioned about life, and lose sight of what is important. Ashamnu tells us that yes, we need to remember the wrong we did and figure out what caused it. Even so, we need to stop beating ourselves up and realize that not only we need to ask G-d for forgiveness, and then we need to forgive ourselves. The text doesn't explicitly state to forgive yourself, but how do we know that we need to do so? Because if we don't, we cannot move forward.

Most of us are hardest on ourselves, which makes sense. We know ourselves better than anybody else does. We also have the greatest amount of control over our own actions.  But if we are to "love your neighbor as yourself" (ואהבת לרעך כמוך; Leviticus 19:18), we have to remember the "כמוך" bit and realize that we need to love ourselves first because that self-love and self-confidence is what helps us actualize our full potential. And at the same time, we have to come to terms with what it means to be human. Looking at the list of sins in Ashamnu, odds are that we did not break every single one. Nevertheless, we are supposed to examine the entirety to remind ourselves which ones we did not commit (i.e., our strengths) and which ones we committed (i.e., our weaknesses, the ones upon which we can improve). We cannot live a life of perfection, nor does Judaism expect us to.  Everyone screws up at some point. When we fall, we need to get back up. All we can do is our utmost to make sure that we personally confess to less sins next year than we do for this year. May this be a year in which we not only forgive others, but we forgive ourselves.

גמר חתימה טובה!

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

A Libertarian Argument in Favor of Smoking Bans in Public Places

Ever since the colonial days, smoking tobacco has been a part of American history. Until recent times, smoking was common practice amongst many Americans. Once we realized the side effects of smoking did social norms regarding smoking change for the better. One of the ways in which we see that societal shift is in smoking bans in public places, which ironically enough, include privately owned establishments (e.g., clubs, bars, restaurants). If it is a public domain, such as a government building or a public university, then I do not have a problem with a smoking ban. When we are talking about privately owned establishments, that is the moment I start to take issue with a smoking ban. Normally, I would simply say that a business owner should be able to self-regulate his own property because we are in a free society. However, I cannot treat this like any normal governmental intervention. How so? Unlike so many other policies, this one actually works. A smoking ban creates a cleaner environment, it reduces exposure to second-hand smoke both to customers and employees, has generally high compliance rates, and it does so without causing net economic damage. Plus, it is nice to go somewhere like a restaurant or bowling alley and not have deal with inhaling cigarette smoke or come home smelling like an ashtray. Regardless about how I personally feel about allowing smoking in privately owned establishments, from a philosophical and deontological standpoint, I feel uncomfortable using public policy to coerce business owners into certain business-related decisions, even if this one would be a particularly lousy decision. What I would like to explore is whether the wishes of the proprietor trump any other considerations or whether some other factor(s) can supersede the decision to allow for smoking in one's private establishment.

Economic effects on businesses: One of the arguments used against smoking bans is that it will impose extra costs and drive business away. There are certain businesses that are more adversely affected, such as casinos, taverns, and bingo halls. However, once revenue and employment data are aggregated, the vast majority of studies show that a smoking ban hardly has an effect, and could very well improve the establishment (Alamar and Glantz, 2004). As the St. Louis Federal Reserve points out, the effects both on employment rates and business' revenue are aggregately, at best, negligible. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) also found that there are no negative economic effects on employment or sales. (Also, see the MN House of Representative's Office, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC], Bartolome and Irvine [2010]). The fact that a government ban can be implemented without negatively impacting a business is, in my humble opinion, quite impressive.

Health care costs: Those who are in favor of smoking bans argue that it will not only cut back on inhalation of second-hand smoke, but will also cut back on people who actually decide to smoke. Let's suppose that the partial ban succeeds in decreasing the amount of smokers, which they do (Evans et al, 1996). Much like I illustrated with the cigarette tax, decreasing the number of smokers would not automatically translate into less health care costs. For one, if an individual dies earlier due to smoking-related illnesses, that individual could have very well avoided huge bills caused by elderly care and living. Also, there is more than one way to contract an illness, or to put it another way, there can be another way to get sick that can just as easily cost as much, if not more, than a smoking-related illness. As such, one cannot definitively determine net health benefits due to a smoking ban in public places.

The negative externality of second-hand smoke: A negative externality is economic parlance for saying that a firm or business makes a decision that creates an impact in which an individual or group of individuals did not [fully] consent to the decision [and its effects] voluntarily. Eliminating or decreasing a negative externality is the most legitimate use of any government intervention because it mitigates a market failure that the market cannot solve. In this case, the negative externality in question is second-hand smoke, which is the primary issue that smoking bans address. Let's face it: second-hand smoke is a real health risk that causes an increased risk of all sorts of diseases.

To what extent does the externality of second-hand smoke actually effect other people? Air and water pollution, for example, affect public goods. Smoking bans, on the other hand, primarily target the private sector. If a consumer does not like the fact that smoking is allowed in a given restaurant or bar, they can go to one where it is not allowed. Considering that 55% of Americans are in favor of a smoking ban, and this number does not even include other people who like smoke-free areas but are not as gung-ho to call for government intervention, I am willing to make an educated guess that most Americans want smoke-free establishments. If a customer is so opposed the fact that smoking is allowed in a given establishment, that customer will switch over to a competing business. So, if the demand for smoke-free establishments is climbing and climbing, then there might not even be a need for smoking bans in the long-run. Why? Businesses will realize that customers do not want to enter a smoke-filled establishment with ashtrays and cigarette butts everywhere. Unless a business wants to cater specifically to smokers, the proprietor will most likely prohibit smoking on the premises because bringing in the larger constituency of non-smokers translates into more profit. Either way, a business owner will either adjust accordingly to customer needs or go out of business.

Customers usually have the luxury of choosing an alternative provider for a given good or service so they can avoid the second-hand smoke. The same cannot be said for an employee, especially when the employer is making these decisions. A lot of the employees affected by the second-hand smoke are in the hospitality and entertainment sectors, and odds are that these jobs do not pay well. In a world with strictly competitive labor markets and no unemployment beyond the natural unemployment rate, I would argue that if the employee didn't like that they worked in a working environment with cigarette smoke, much like the customer, they could go elsewhere and simply find another job. It sounds like nice economic theory. The problem is that we do not live in that kind of world. We live in a world with real unemployment problems that affect people. The less education, experience, and skills one has, the more difficult it is to find a job. Since a great majority of these jobs are low-skilled, it is not that easy to "bounce back" or ask one's boss for a raise to financially compensate the additional risk taken for being exposed to second-hand smoke. The labor markets have labor rigidities, which is to say that it is not that simple to quit a job and find a new job if second-hand smoke is deemed to be that bothersome and detrimental to one's health. To paraphrase the Surgeon General (see Ch. 10), there is a legitimate negative externality on employees with regards to one's health (also see Meyers et al, 2009, which shows that smoking bans mean decreased rate of heart attacks), which is a clear violation of the non-agression axiom.

As can be seen throughout my blogging history, I would normally consider telling a proprietor what to do with their private property to practically be anathema. However, I have to remind myself that I am a consequentialist libertarian who believes in limited government. Aside from being a logical fallacy, I do not want to entertain a rebuttal based on the slippery slope argument because a partial smoking ban does not, in practice, translate to the government intervening in every facet of one's health.

When asking myself whether the government should intervene, I'm certainly not as simple-minded as "Of course the government should intervene! It can solve all of our problems." I first ask myself whether there is an actual market failure. If there is, I ask if there is a market solution to said market failure. If I realize that there is no market solution, I ask if there is a government solution that works. Typically, I find that such a solution does not work in practice. The point to make here is that in this case, a partial smoking ban works. 

I can think of alternative policies that can be implemented to potentially address the same issues. If an establishment decides to have both a smoking and non-smoking section, the government can mandate that there is a high surcharge or tax for sitting in the smoking section. That tax revenue can be collected to somehow compensate those who are exposed to second-hand smoke. The government can also provide an alluring enough of a tax credit to voluntarily ban smoking in an establishment, although where are we going to get the money? I could suggest that there is a licensing scheme in which an establishment would have to pay an exorbitant amount to allow for smoking, but that would be more difficult to regulate. Establishments could put up a sign for second-hand smokers warning them about the dangers of second-hand smoke, but effectiveness would be minimal. These alternatives might somewhat work, and could be used in concert with a partial smoking ban, but it would not be as effective as the partial ban (Hoffman and Nell, 2012). In summation, there are certain situations that merit reasonable, limited regulation, and given the nature of the negative externality, a partial smoking ban is one of those situations.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Unataneh Tokef: Coming to Terms with Reality on Rosh Hashanah

Rosh Hashanah (רוש השנה), also known as the Jewish New Year, commemorates the creation of the universe. Although Rosh Hashanah is a time of great celebration, it is also a time of unease because Rosh Hashanah begins the Ten Days of Repentance (עשרת ימי תשובה). During Rosh Hashanah services, the liturgy is based on the motifs of G-d's sovereignty and judgement. One of the most controversial and powerful liturgical pieces during Rosh Hashanah is a poem (פיוט) known as Unataneh Tokef (ונתנה תוקף).

The structure of the piece goes as follows: The heavenly court is assembled and G-d sits at the head of the court as the Judge. What is G-d judging? He is judging our actions. In front of Him sit the Book of Life [and the Book of Death]. On Rosh Hashanah, it is written, and on Yom Kippur, the Book of Life is sealed, which determines who lives and who dies. We are then reminded that no fate is set in stone, which is why Unataneh Tokef states that tefilah, tzedakah, and teshuvah can avert the severity of the decree (Midrash Genesis Rabbah 44:12). G-d wants us to repent and return to His ways, hence why He gives us second chance. Finally, the poem calls attention to the fact that our origin is dust and our end is dust, and that G-d's existence is eternal.

After reading this piece, I can see why many Jews, myself included, have a problem with reading this piece. At first glance, Unataneh Tokef illustrates a Deuteronomic view of G-d gathering the names of everyone, figuring out who has been naughty and who has been nice, and adjudicating a simplistic version of punishment and reward that makes me wonder about the role of free will in Jewish thought, especially since the poem states that G-d determines "who will enjoy tranquility and who will suffer," "who will be impoverished and who will be rich," and "who will be degraded and who will be exalted."

A literal reading of the poem forces me to question some things in the poem. G-d is infinite and incorporeal, so at the very least, G-d is literally not writing in a book. Additionally, if we are to read the poem literally, does this mean that G-d actually predetermines who lives and who dies within a given year? I cannot imagine G-d would grant us the gift of free will, the very thing that makes us human, only to take it away. I also find it troublesome that tefilah, tzedakah, and teshuvah during these ten days would merit another year of life, although the Talmudic precept (Rosh Hashanah 16a) applies year-round. How is that tefilah, tzedakah, and teshuvah can prevent earthquakes, cancer, or airplane accidents? But let's say that performing tefilah, tzedakah, and teshuvah can actually avert the decree [of evil]. What about good people who do these three actions and die? Did people who died in the Holocaust, in a hurricane, or in a car accident "get what they deserved?"  And what about evil people who completely ignore all of this: is it G-d's way of saying that evil people deserve another year of life?

How can one accept the poem literally? Poems aren't meant to be taken literally. That is why they are poems. Poetic license undoubtedly means usage of figurative language. Furthermore, given G-d's infinite nature, I feel compelled to read Unataneh Tokef figuratively, much like I would with any other prayer. On some level, we have to read Unataneh Tokef as if it were literal. However, we ultimately have to realize that Unataneh Tokef has to be understood figuratively. So what is Unataneh Tokef trying to convey here?  

When the poem says G-d determines "who lives and who dies," this is not literal. G-d is omniscient. G-d's omniscience is not the same thing as saying that He is micro-managing, e.g., G-d is not literally determining judgment on Rosh Hashanah. What G-d is writing in the Book of Life [or Death] are not His rulings. Especially considering the line of "who [will die] in his due time and who before" (מי בקצו ומי לא בקוצו), G-d is metaphorically exerting His omniscience and merely describing what will happen in the upcoming year.

The imagery of the Books of Life and Death, as well as Unataneh Tokef as a whole, are to convey a sobering message: "We are not in control of everything. Life is ephemeral. You do not have forever. Repair that which is broken in your life and return to a sense of wholeness." Unataneh Tokef reminds us that there are certain things that are within our control and certain things outside our control. We cannot change when or how we will die. We read this poem realizing our own mortality and how frail life can be. The strong language and literary devices that Unataneh Tokef utilizes make us cognizant of this message.

Even with this frightening imagery of G-d determining who will live and die, the poem proceeds on an upside, mainly that our fate is not determined. We can do something to counter whatever wrong we have committed. Unataneh Tokef shows us three paths for spiritual transformation: tefilah, tzedakah, and teshuvah. Tefilah, commonly translated as "prayer," is our attempt to communicate with G-d. Since G-d is omnsicient, and G-d is not a vending machine, our role in prayer is that we are vessels for blessing. When we realize G-d's existence and the blessings He bestows upon us, prayer has the powerful effect of changing that which is around us because prayer changes us. Tzedakah, which is mistranslated as "charity," is an externality involving material wealth and shows how we relate towards others through humility and generosity. Teshuvah, which comes from the Hebrew verb "to return" (לשוב), is much more of a repentant process than saying "I'm sorry." It is a process of truly changing oneself for the better and returning to our true essence.  

Performing the actions of tefilah, tzedakah, and teshuvah do not literally change whether we live or die in the upcoming year. G-d is constantly judging us (Talmud, Rosh Hashanah 16a). What changes is the effect of one's current spiritual condition. There is a personal transformation within us by performing these deeds: the blessing we receive, the forgiveness, the drive to become better human beings. The free will that we exert is a response within the confines of the events that are outside of one's control. G-d is a loving G-d, which is why shortly after the line about "tefilah, tzedakah, and teshuvah averting the decree", the poet reminds us that G-d does not desire death, but rather that one comes back to His ways and lives a full life.

The poem then continues on a more lowly note. "He [Man] is like a broken shard, like grass dried up, like a faded flower..."G-d exists and He is eternal. In comparison to G-d, we are "like whirling dust." Compared to G-d's existence, human existence is but a blip on the radar. Even in spite of human transience, the poem ends on a positive note: "[But] You are King, the Living and Everlasting." G-d makes it possible to connect with Him. G-d wants us to connect with Him, which is why He gives us the opportunity to do so.

This poem is not meant to cheat death or try to beg G-d for another year of life. Given the somber time of the year, it is also not meant to make us feel as if everything were hunky-dory and that the world is made of sunshine and rainbows. Unataneh Tokef  is supposed to scare us and make us think in a profound manner. The poet wants us to recognize our humanity, as well as our vulnerabilities and frailties, at that given moment. Upon grappling, dealing with, and accepting our mortality, we are reminded that living a spiritual life means positively interacting with ourselves, with G-d, and with other human beings. Ultimately, the message behind Unataneh Tokef is to come to terms with what it means to be human and to have that realization awaken our souls.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

The Burning Question of Whether Judaism Can Permit Cremation

Death is not something I think about all that often. After all, Judaism is a life-affirming religion (Deuteronomy 30:19). When something such as the death of the mother of one of my Jewish friends lamentably occurs, it made me stop and think about mortality. Eventually, it got me thinking about cremation within the context of Jewish law. Traditionally speaking, Judaism has very much been anti-cremation, even in spite of the fact that neither the Torah nor the Tanach explicitly prohibit such a practice. Nevertheless, the prophet Amos (2:1) speaks of how the nation of Moab is punished for, amongst other things, cremation. The practice of burial is an a fortiori inference (קל וחומר) from Deuteronomy 21:22-23, i.e., if an executed criminal is to be buried a day after the execution, all the more so with those who do not commit capital offenses. Also, Abraham bought a plot of land for him and his wife (Genesis 23:7-9). The practice of burial was later codified into Jewish law (Yoreh De'ah 362:1), which is why cremation is prohibited in Orthodoxy. Conservative Judaism prohibits cremation, too. However, if a co-religionist does not take heed to the prohibition, the Conservative rabbi can officiate the funeral before the cremation. Reform Judaism permits cremation, although the movement states a preference for burial.

Those who are pro-cremation in a Jewish context usually cite environmental concerns or issues of a burial being prohibitively expensive. I almost felt compelled to ask myself about the issues surrounding this prohibition because I felt ignorant regarding its origin. That ignorance was twofold: a) I haven't had to deal with death in a Jewish context, and b) I didn't want to think about it. That worked until very recently, which is why I had to wonder the following: is there a justification for permitting cremation, or has Jewish law been right in prohibiting it for all these years?

One of the eschatological arguments used against cremation is that after the Messianic era, there will be a resurrection of the dead. This eschatological belief is strong enough where Maimonides included it as part of his Thirteen PrinciplesAt least theoretically speaking, cremation disrupts that resurrection process, which supposedly creates problems. I have problem with using this as an argument against cremation. One is that ironically enough, Maimonides did not view the concept of resurrection literally. Maimonides viewed the soul as "pure intellect," and said intellect would "bask in His glory for all eternity." Essentially, Maimonides viewed "resurrection" to be synonymous with an eternal spiritual life (Commentary on Mishna, Sanhedrin 138; Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Teshuva, Ch. 8; also see "The Limits of Orthodox Theology" [p. 148-156]). Second, if G-d is omniscient and omnipotent (well, nearly omnipotent), how could this human act frustrate G-d's will? If G-d really wanted to, couldn't He just reproduce the body? Third, Judaism is not nearly as dogmatic about the afterlife as other religions are. Even if resurrection of the dead is considered "a central belief in Orthodoxy," there is still enough reason for skepticism about what the afterlife entails, or even if there is an afterlife. As such, I don't find this eschatological belief, especially unto itself, to have merit to be a reason to prohibit cremation, which is why I would assume there is something else acting as the basis for the prohibition.

There is the idea that one should permit cremation because it is environmentally friendly. Judaism does take environmental concerns into account, so how does that work here? Let's be honest. There are environmental costs both to burial and cremation. A burial takes up land, this is true. However, Jewish practice prohibits embalming fluid (which is very toxic and causes ground and water pollution) and burial is done in a casket made of soft wood to speed up the decomposition process, both of which make for eco-conscious burials. Considering what's emitted in the air at crematoria, I have to wonder about the environmental impact of cremation. Let's say for argument's sake that cremation is better for the environment (I'm not convinced of that point, but this is for argument's sake). When looking at environmental policy, one looks at broader effects, typically on a global level. Jews make up 0.2% of the world population. Even if cremation were better for the environment, how much of a net impact do you think that would have on the environmental footprint if 0.2% of the world's population changed their approach to dealing with corpses? In the grand scheme of things, this argument is, at best, negligible.

One of the strongest arguments in favor of cremation is convenience. With a cremation, one does not have to worry about visiting the gravesite, especially if it is far away. However, what you have to worry about is where to put the remains. It is hard to find an appropriate spot to put the remains. Having remains of a loved one in your house can be downright awkward, assuming that you are not fighting with other family members about who gets to keep the remains. Even if that works out, how long will that last? There will be a point down the road in which the remains will either be ignored or neglected. Cremated ashes were never meant to be stored with families in the long-run. And if one were to scatter the ashes to avoid this headache, then future generations that desire to visit the gravesite could not do so. Even so, it almost does not matter if the gravesite is visited often because Moses never received any visitors, but he was nevertheless buried (Deuteronomy 34:6).

One also argues for convenience in terms of coping. In this day in age, we are have become accustomed to everything being instantaneous. We live in a society in which people go to fast food restaurants to get food right away and want an instant Internet connection because waiting longer than two seconds for a website to upload is too annoying. Cremation is no exception to this desire for instant gratification and satisfaction. Cremation is essentially pushing a button and moving on. The problem with applying instantaneity to this situation is that some things are not meant to be rushed, and Jewish tradition has enough insight to realize that reality. That would explain why the shiva process lasts for seven days, thirty days for loved ones who were even closer, and eleven months for parents. It takes time to grieve and process the loss of a loved one. Burial provides greater welfare to the mourner than cremation does because one goes through the motions (read: externalities) that one does not go through during a cremation process. When cremation takes place, very few, if any, individuals view the cremation because it is so violent. It is an action that lacks closure. When a burial of a loved one takes place, the ground is open, the casket goes into the ground, and something profound happens. At that moment, one recognizes that death is a natural part of life, thus helping realize our own mortality. When the coffin hits the ground, there is initial pain because the death is made real, but after that initial moment, it is easier to move on. Even after the funeral, it helps to have a proper place to visit so that the grieving process can go by more smoothly.

The other convenience argument used is the financial one, and it's a halachic argument I have used in the past. In a sizable amount of instances, cremations are cheaper. However, cremations often end up being comparable in cost because of additional costs (e.g., a viewing before the cremation [which entails renting a casket], a fancy urn, an urn burial, keeping the urn at a columbarium). Even if cremation ended up being cheaper, which is easiest to do through a direct cremation with none of the trimmings, there are some things for which price should not be an objection, and burial of a loved one is one of those things. But why should this not be treated like any other financial transaction in which money is the only factor?

The reason is to show honor for [the dignity of] the dead (כבוד המת), which is by far the most compelling reason in favor of burial. In Judaism, a human being is considered to be created in G-d's Image, and thusly should be treated with respect, even in death. If we are to dispose of inanimate objects such as tefillin, the mezuzah, and or a sefer Torah with such respect, קל וחומר, we should treat human beings all the more so with such postmortem respect. In the Talmud (Sotah 14a), it states that the Torah begins with an act of kindness and ends with an act of kindness. The act of kindness with which the Torah ends is the burial of Moses. The burial process is called חשד של אמת, literally meaning "true act of kindness," because the dead cannot [directly] return the favor, and is an act for which one does not expect any payback. Choosing to bury an individual is a manifestation of imitatio Dei, and that sentiment is shown throughout the process. There is always a person who stays with the body (שומר) from the death to the funeral to make sure nothing happens to the body. The chevra kadisha (חברא קדישא) washes the body with the utmost care, which is followed by a ritualistic washing called the taharah (טהרה), followed by the dressing of the body in simple white garments. During this time, one cannot engage in activities which the dead cannot do, e.g., eat, drink, wear tefillin, because it would be considered a mockery of the dead because, amongst other reasons, the dead cannot perform mitzvahs. Even the expediency with which the body is buried (Deuteronomy 21:22-23), i.e., usually within 24 hours of the death, shows respect for the deceased because exposure of the body for that long leads to putrefaction, which disdains [the memory of] the deceased.

All of this ceremony reinforces the Jewish idea that the body is the receptacle of the soul. Unlike other world religions, Jewish thought does not view the body at odds with the soul. Jewish spirituality means that the body works in conjunction with the spirit, not against it. The body is the vessel through which one performs mitzvahs. As such, Judaism expects us to express gratitude to that vessel by treating the body with care postmortem. Our actions speak louder than our words. Burial and cremation are a reflection of two different attitudes. In the former, the intrinsic elements do not change; they are given back to the ground (Genesis 3:19) and help rejuvenate the earth. Burial is a non-destructive and organic process (Talmud, Chullin 11a). Cremation represents something different. Burning something in a Jewish context, whether it is an idol (Deuteronomy 7:25) or chametz right before Passover, symbolizes abandonment and nullification. Cremation is a distorted grieving process that only results in ashes because a departed one's memory should not be abandoned or nullified.

In summation, cremation is decidedly not a Jewish practice. Cremation lacks the כבוד המת that is a part of Jewish burial. Cremation does not even provide what it advertises. When an individual is buried, it not only shows respect and dignity towards the deceased, but it also takes the mourners into account. Burial of the deceased is undoubtedly the option that is most congruent with Jewish values.