Monday, December 27, 2010

If you can call it that...

I heard this phrase tonight on a podcast. It was a Dan Savage podcast, so you know the guests are going to be...interesting. Today's guest runs a program that helps men get in touch with their sexual energy by giving and receiving erotic massage, to/from other men.

The guy clearly represents a fringe position; he wants hetero men to share erotic massages with other men to improve their health, happiness, and sexual performance with their wives/girlfriends. True or not, this is a position outside the mainstream, yet when describing the program he says the massages "start with 'safe body parts', if you can call them that..."

That bothered me. Not the description of the program - if I was disturbed by people expressing non-standard sexual views I wouldn't listen to the Lovecast to begin with - but his inability to accept that someone might disagree with his position. Either that or he handwaved past a major component of his argument.

Sadly, both are behaviors frequently seen in people that hold fringe beliefs. They often have the unfortunate side-effect of making the outlandish belief seem more acceptable, because they hide the major flaw or faulty premise with a quick act of legerdemain.

Put differently, this is the tactic used by many tele-pundits in the Wikileaks coverage: "Assuming for the moment that Assange is found guilty; in that case, shouldn't we seek the death penalty?" Debating hypotheticals is one thing, but this behavior is problematic; in this country we're supposed to start by assuming innocence, until proven guilty, yet this premature discussion is jumping straight to sentencing! Now the airwaves are full of the hypothetical debate, instead of the actual one, and Assange's defenders are wasting time fighting the hypothetical instead of focusing on the actual issue. It's crappy argumentation, and they get away with it because no one calls them on it.

Of course, religious people are all too familiar with the behavior. Or, at least, they start to be if they take time to look around. I listen to, and occasionally enjoy, Ari Goldwag's Parsha of the week podcast; he has a bad habit of saying, essentially: "Given that Abraham had great mystical powers, it clearly follows that..."

Wait a second; back up the bus here. He has what now? How did we get there? You've made a huge cognitive leap that the rest of the home audience may not be able to replicate. It somewhat begs the question; we can't debate the mystic purpose of Abraham's sojourns until we establish he was, in fact, a mystic!

Unless you're using this to screen for like-minded people. Maybe it's a screen for education; he's assuming, or requiring, a certain amount of study or familiarity so he can just say, "As Rashi proved...", without explicating Rashi's proof. Maybe he is only interested in similarly mystical, scholarly adherents, in which case he's preaching to the choir. But an argument that only holds up within the group putting it forth is a bad argument.

I don't really want to pick on Ari here; his podcast is well researched and insightful, even when I don't agree with those insights. Once or twice per episode I have to turn off the iPod until I calm down enough to listen more, but I like that he challenges me and I have gotten several good ideas from him. I'm just pointing to him as an example of the type.

I feel I have lost the track of this train of thought, so I should bring it to a close. I was just stunned by my visceral reaction to someone that was more amusing than offensive, and examining my response I realized this was why. The casual way he dismissed his detractors; "...if you can call them that..."...

Have enough perspective to understand that those who disagree with you might, at least, have reasonable grounds to do so. Have enough perspective to recognize that, no matter how much sense it makes to you, your belief may be pretty "out there" for most people.

Monday, December 6, 2010


I probably could make some clever statement relating Wikileaks to Hannukah, but that's not the point. The point is that what's happening to this company is really horrible, and regardless of what Wikileaks did or did not do, we should be more outraged by the treatment they are receiving.

I read today that PayPal has joined the list of companies abandoning and distancing themselves from Wikileaks. At the end of the post is this comment:
Although these companies have said that their terms of service forbid the support or facilitation of illegal activity, such pronouncements about Wikileaks are debatable. While it is a crime to leak classified information, receiving and publishing it is not.
I acknowledge that there is room for debate about the legality of Wikileaks actionis, and I join with those calling them foolish for doing what they did regardless of the legality, but all of this punishment is happening in the social and business sphere, pre-trial.

Let me say that again. As far as I've heard, Wikileaks has not gone to trial. They have not had charges brought, and have definitely not been found guilty. Yet the US government is swinging their weight around in what amounts to an attempt to put the company out of business.

And what's happening? Company after company is caving, running as far away from these "villains" as they possibly can. Amazon and PayPal now get to define "criminal" activity? I should be very careful about what I use their services to buy, then, lest I trip some invisible "US Government Doesn't Approve" alert.

There's also more than a little bit suspicious about the "criminal charges" now being pressed against Wikileaks's founder. Admittedly, I haven't been following the case closely, but it sounds like a case that should have been thrown out before it had time to even look around the courtroom.

Why's this bother me? For one, our government doesn't have a very good record when it comes to government-sponsored witch hunts. Yes, I'm looking at you, Joe McCarthy. And this harassment of Wikileaks sets an uncomfortable standard.

What if they determine that the New York Times, in reporting on the Wikileaks case, aided in the dissemination of top secret information? What if Google, by returning search results about it, is culpable? Especially since most of the information that came out is, frankly, very stupid. Like Junior High note-passing stupid. "Sarkozy thinks Putin has a big nose and smells funny!" "Gaddafi's new girlfriend is a complete slut, and have you seen what he's wearing?"


Hey, Congress, if you really think Wikileaks did something damaging, arrest them. What, are you worried because you know it was completely legal, and you don't want the further embarrassment? Either put up or shut the hell up.

And Amazon and PayPal and all you other craven corporations? Stop shrinking away to hide just because the government looked at you all mean. That's not how it works. Stand up to them now, or lose the ability to ever do so.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Comments Fixed (Hopefully)!

Several people have told me comments weren't working on blog posts. I think I fixed it, finally. All I had to do was get rid of the template I'd spent so much time customizing. Guess it's good that happened during Hannukah; fits with the whole "rededication" theme.

Gaming and Ethical Questions

One of the things I love about tabletop RPGs is they provide an excellent laboratory for interpersonal interaction and ethical dilemmas. Most of the time people keep the game at a very surface level, but every once in a while it goes deeper, or prompts an interesting question.

For example:

I'm in a Pathfinder game that just started a few weeks ago. We've only had a few sessions, so I'm still developing my character and finding my role in the party. One of the things I knew for certain is I did not want to be the party's voice/smooth talker; it's a role I've played many times, especially as a GM, and I wanted to try something different. Accordingly, I deliberately built my character without the social skills and traits I would need to be good at that role mechanically; one of my favorite parts of RPGs is how game mechanics interpret and reinforce the story, so leaving Diplomacy off my sheet is an important reminder that I'm not supposed to be the diplomat.

It's also important to me not to be the social character because there's another player who is running a social character - a Bard. I don't want to step on her toes, especially since she's never played this type of character before. I know how easy it is to get discouraged from trying to play a Bard well; you worry so much about being clever or a smooth talker that you over think it, and sound more like a bad theater or English major than a silver-tongued scoundrel of legend. So mechanically and behaviorally I have incentive to let other people take the lead in social-based encounters.

Our most recent session was a lot of fun, but there were several moments that I felt I was overstepping my character's bounds, letting my personal "sneaky-bastardness" substitute for my characters. It worked - and more importantly was a lot of fun! - but afterwards I felt...guilty? That's the closest I can describe it. And it got me thinking: is it more important for me to act in the group's best interest, even if it means overstepping my bounds, or to let designated group member do their job and risk failure?

The question extends beyond gaming. I saw this type of situation develop time and time again working with volunteer groups. In almost every one of those situations the "helpful" volunteer was severely overstepping their bounds, and their action was detrimental to the group in the long run because they taught the newbie to depend on them rather than do it independently, or weren't able to focus enough on their other tasks, or ruined other plans they were unaware of in their narrow view of the situation.

It's easy to write off people those volunteers as "more interested in their own status than the good of the group"; frequently that's true, but there are also people that legitimately have the group's best interest at heart, and just don't understand the full consequence of their actions.

On the other hand, there are moments when timely action on your part can save a project from the incompetence or inexperience of the person that should be doing it. Inaction at those moments is as bad or worse a crime as whatever it is you should have prevented; you can't, for an extreme example, allow your company to send out toxic cat food just because quality control isn't your job.

The trick is in determining which type of situation you're in; that's often an easy call as an armchair quarterback or after the fact, but can be very difficult while you're in the moment. It's easier said than done, but I find that if you can honestly focus on the good of the group you will usually make the right choice.

So did I make the right choice? I think so, because it contributed to the enjoyment of the entire party and I didn't overshadow any of the other players, deliberately or otherwise. Ultimately this instance is not terribly important - this is only a game, after all - but the question it prompts is.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Holiday Frustrations

Yes, I know this post from Cake Wrecks is written in jest; my frustration, as I've walked through the stores this season, is that many retailers really do seem to think this level of stuff qualifies as Hannukah-themed.

When the heck did blue & white come to mean Hannukah? I know, I know; 1948, when "Israel" became synonymous with "Jewish". Ironically, I got really upset when I saw blue & white "Merry Christmas!" wrapping paper; what, are they trying to trick Jews into buying it?

"Honey, I wrapped all the Hannukah presents and...wait, the paper says "Christmas"? Well I guess we have to be Christians now!"

Thursday, December 2, 2010

A Happy Assimilated Hannukah Everyone!

Happy Hannukah to all; may your dreidles spin mightily and your candles burn brightly!

Last year I celebrated by making latkes that caused heartburn for eight days, even though I only used enough oil for one. Not repeating that.

Thought for the week: last year our temple had a guest speaker most notable for the fact that every time he visits us, he pisses off at least me and usually one of my friends. Not in a "Sir, I disagree with your conclusion!" kind of way; more a "Why did you tell my Catholic friend that all Christians are guilty of massacring Jews at Easter?" way.

Anyway. Last year he gave a very patriotic/jingoistic "Yay for Hannukah!" speech, celebrating one of the central story of the holiday: the victory of traditional Judaism over the Hellenistic Jews. A triumph of preserving our religion, he said!

Problem is, he said this in a room where every Jew was carrying a cell phone on Friday night.

The Hellenistic Jews were the assimilated modern Jews of their day. Nowadays the closest parallel to the Maccabbe/Hellenist conflict is probably the Ultra-Orthodox/Reform rift. Given that, how do we understand Hannukah so that it's a celebration of maintaining and preserving our tradition, without including the self-hating, anti-modernist aspect?


Sunday, November 28, 2010

Thankfulness and Tragedy

The one theological idea that has had the greatest impact on me over the past few years is that one is not supposed to pray to God “from whom all good things flow” because it implies that there is another God from whom bad things flow. The idea itself is simple enough, but the extensions and implications stagger me: God sends not only good things, but also bad. The same God that gives you life and joy also gives you loss and pain.

Of course, right? Isn’t that the whole deal with monotheism, that “alpha and omega” idea? Granted, but this idea (and I wish I could find the rabbi that taught this, or remember which book I read it in) takes it a step farther. If we want to thank God for the good things in our lives, in this season of giving thanks, we have to thank God for the bad things as well.

That’s not a simple idea; are you able to be grateful for the bad things in your life? And I don’t mean in that “there’s a lesson or hidden upside to it” way, as if there was a pre-emptive karmic cost for the good things in life, or God were a sadistic gym teacher that believes the only way you can truly grow into an adult is if he makes you cry. I mean being truly grateful for the bad parts of life, in and of themselves. I try, but I’m not always sure I’m strong enough.

It’s a slippery slope, to be sure. If you’re not careful, you start sounding like the most out-there of far-out fundamentalists, either abdicating all responsibility for the events in your life to some divine power or becoming a sacred masochist, thanking God for this opportunity to suffer further because you deserve it. So what, then, is the proper middle ground?

It’s something I’ve been thinking about lately. I’ve been having a lot of Back to the Future/Groundhog Day style fantasies, imagining what I would do differently if I could relive my life with the knowledge I have now. Or what advice I would give to a younger me. The question quickly encounters a frightening time traveler’s dilemma: I’m pretty happy with my life right now, and wouldn’t want to make any major changes. What could safely be changed that would end with me still here, in my current situation, with just some fairly superficial improvements?

Should I have gone to an Ivy League school? My career would definitely have taken a different direction if I had, especially if I retained knowledge of future events. But a different career path means I wouldn’t have wound up at my current job. Without this job I wouldn’t have moved to LA, which means I never meet my wife! How much would I be willing to change my past knowing it would almost certainly mean losing her?

Not much, and when seen from this perspective it becomes easier to be grateful for all the steps in my journey that brought me here, both good and bad. I didn’t enjoy breaking my arm in 4th grade, but that was one of the steps that brought me here. It’s not an experience I would repeat, but it’s one of the things that brought me here. Looking at it that way, I’m glad I broke my arm!

But then you get to the major traumas, the big pains. I look back at some of those and ask myself, would I be willing to endure that again to get to her? That’s where it gets hard, because I honestly don’t know what the answer would be. Would I do the things that led to years of pain and therapy again knowing that She waited on the other side, or would I avoid those moments and risk losing the good things I’ve got?

I don’t know. I wish I did, but it’s not a question I can answer. All I know is I’m grateful I’m here now!

In the time between writing this and posting this, I had another of those moments. One of the soul-wrenching, life-changing, “am I strong enough to deal with this?” moments. Even as it was happening I was wondering, what future joy could possibly be worth this? Will I ever be able to look back and be thankful for any path that included this? On the other hand, it’s only because of skills learned to cope with previous heartbreak that I’m getting through this one relatively intact.

Each pain preparing you for the next, bigger one; is this what it takes to learn gratitude?

Friday, November 19, 2010

Read Matt Taibbi's article in Rolling Stone. This is so disgusting. The problem in our country is now, more clearly than ever, not Republican v. Democrat or Black v. White or Straight v. Gay, it's Rich v. Poor. No not even that; it's Rich v. Not-Rich. They're more than happy to bleed anyone "lower" than they are, not just the lowest of the low. And increasingly it's becoming a Predator/Prey relationship, or at least a scavenger.

It's interesting, though, to hear who complains about "class warfare" - the ultra-rich and those who think they can become or want to toady to the ultra rich. We plebes don't look at it as class warfare, we look at it as "I'd like to keep my house, please", or "I'm trying to pay off my debts, but it's too hard to stay even, let alone pull ahead."

I know I'm not the first to have this idea, but we've really recreated the aristocracy in this country, based on wealth instead of blood. But still, the best predictor of future wealth seems to be how much your parents had, so it's not strayed far from blood. I can't believe people put up with it! I guess it's the same problem as every other time in our history; we the not-downtrodden-but-merely-lower-in-resources feel powerless to truly change the system in a meaningful way, and those people we select - elect - to defend our interest pay lip service to us and tax cuts to our "rulers".

I'm angry. I'm angry and I don't know what to do about it. Send a polite letter to my Senator, or even, heavens forbid, an impolite one? Yes, surly this is the act upon which nations turn. Go protest on a street corner for the amusement of passing traffic and the benefit of the news stations? There was a time in our country when that worked, but then that generation took power of our country and defanged the tool that helped put them there.

Words of revolution would seem appropriate, but those get you put on special lists if they're even understood.

It gives me a lot of sympathy - no, understanding - of those who use violence to enact change. Not the revolutionary or the terrorist, but the ones that actually got in trouble for it. It's not that they're violent people, it's not that they want to cause pain, it's that they can find no other effective means for getting heard.

I want a new political party, one that grows out of the same sentiment the Daily Show tapped into and the growing disgust with both sides of our current political "spectrum". One that cooperates in more arenas than just the political. If the problem's in Washington DC, fine we'll go there; if the problem's with a particular bank or corporation, we'll focus our efforts that way.

Anyone know how to start one?

Saturday, November 13, 2010


I'm reading Karen Armstrong's A History of God and it's got  me thinking about perspective. More specifically, about how the meaning of a story changes depending on whether you're at the beginning, watching its writing, or at the end, listening to it being told and retold.

My answer to the question of Free Will vs Predetermination used to be, "When are you asking me?" I irritated a couple of teachers by trying to explain my theory that when I woke up this morning I had complete freedom of will to wear whichever shirt I wanted to, but now that choice is set and immutable. Perspective. This morning I had free will, now it is a fixed decision. It sidesteps the question of whether I always was going to choose this shirt, but from a practical standpoint, from the perspective of the one making the choice, the difference between actual freedom and the illusion of freedom is minuscule.

This led me to miracles. The word "miracle" gets pretty abused, from all sides. We identify as "miraculous" things that are really fairly commonplace and easy to explain, and discount as "trivial" things that, even as we learn more about how they work, are truly amazing. That's what I love about biology; life isn't miraculous because it's inexplicable, it's miraculous because it works at all. And the more we learn about the hows and whys of it, the more awestruck I am by the complexity and simplicity of it all.

So perspective. A lot of the debate around miracles focuses on whether God (or other supernatural force of your choice) could commit some action which violates or supersedes the laws of nature. For me, though, this is a matter of our perspective, looking at things from the end of the story. If nature is God's creation, then the natural laws are also of God's making. The question of whether God could break these laws, then, is moot because these are God's laws, either self-imposed or the working conditions under which God created the universe. It's less like asking the umpire to cheat on your behalf, in other words, and more like asking the inventor of baseball why it's 3 strikes instead of 7. The game could have been designed that way, but it wasn't; the game we're playing only gives you 3 strikes per plate appearance, gravity is (mostly) a constant, and living things age in one direction only.

From our perspective as characters in the story, looking backwards, these natural laws seem fixed and ordinary. If we could have seen creation over God's metaphorical shoulder, we would see their miraculousness.

There's a parable that certain key objects were formed at the time of creation, and held waiting for the moments they would be needed. Jonah's giant fish and the ram Abraham sacrifices in Issac's place, for example. I like this "Bill & Ted" -esque explanation of miracles. It's the same trick good writers do in an extended series (in any medium): toss a ball in an apparently arbitrary direction early on, ignore it for several chapters, then turn and catch it, seemingly out of nowhere, right when it's needed most.

In real life, though, we can't tell, from our perspective, whether the ball was thrown deliberately by someone trying to help us, or if we were just fortunate that it was there when we needed it. The difference, as with free will, is minuscule - from our perspective. The miracle is not that the thing occurred - we can explain that easily enough - it's that it happened at all, and at just the right time.

The only reasonable response, then, is gratitude. Not necessarily to anyone or anything, but simply gratitude that it happened at all. There is a continually growing body of research showing many emotional benefits to expressing gratitude: our ability to empathize improves, dependence on material items decreases, negative emotions effect us less severely, and, most of all, positive emotions are experienced more strongly. The decision is ours, whether or not to be grateful or just write things off as the vagaries of fortune.

It's all a matter of perspective.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Dead Sea Scrolls Coming Online!

Google and the Israeli Antiquities Agency are working to make a free, online, searchable version of the Dead Sea Scrolls!

My comment on the article:

As an amateur scholar of Jewish theology and history, I think this is incredible!

Yes, there is potential for misinterpretation; that's hardly a condition new to any modern religion. More importantly, there's an opportunity for education.

Most people don't realize how many variations exist between the various versions of our holy books. I love how Bart Ehrman describes it in  Misquoting Jesus, saying, with my apologies for misquoting Ehrman, "There are more variations between versions of the New Testament than there are words in the New Testament".

When you look at the Old Testament things are a little more difficult, because I can go to Borders and see 20 different Bibles, each with minor differences, on the shelves, but the Torahs will be virtually identical. In Hebrew, at least. Having access to these scrolls will give us something to compare the modern Torah to, and learn more about where it comes from, what it means, and what it was "supposed" to be.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Burning Houses

Sigh. Just...sigh.

I was so angry about this earlier, and now when I sit down to write about it, all is quiet. Not that I'm less angry; my fiery passion on the matter has just burned down to warm ashes.
Firefighters in rural Tennessee let a home burn to the ground last week because the homeowner hadn't paid a $75 fee.
Gene Cranick of Obion County and his family lost all of their possessions in the Sept. 29 fire, along with three dogs and a cat. 
The only thing worse than the story itself is the debate that has sprung up surrounding it. Not even the content of the debate so much as the fact people feel a need to discuss whether it was correct to let this family's house burn to the ground. Seriously. What. The. Fuck. "House on fire" is literally the example used in conversation to denote a situation so immediate and dangerous that you help right away no matter your beliefs or the cost.

I have to wonder how much of this is a deliberate political shot at FDR's famous speech justifying the Lend Lease Act. As the Great Satan of the Teabag movement, and Neocons in general, how wonderful it must be to have this example of people literally haggling over the price of a hose. There's at least a certain political integrity to it; we're opposed to helping those lazy, poor freeloaders when it comes to jobs, housing, feeding their children, providing medical care, or educating them, and we're damn sure going to be opposed to helping them when their house is burning down on top of them!

The family's four pets were killed - slain really. Yeah, sure; they're just animals, right? No reason to risk human lives to save animals. But they were someone's pets! As a pet owner, who has lost a pet within the past year, I know pets are really part of the family. There's a limit to the heroic efforts that should be undertaken to save a pet, absolutely! But that limit is surly higher than $75.

Every one of the firefighters in this department are guilty of criminal negligence, and probably much worse, as far as I'm concerned. They showed up to the neighbor's property to fight the fire there:
""They put water out on the fence line out here. They never said nothing to me. Never acknowledged. They stood out here and watched it burn," Cranick said.
A bunch of trained firemen with equipment stood and watched a house burn down; how is that not criminal? Ok, the law was on their side; they were not legally required, according to county laws, to put out the fire immediately in front of them. Fuck that; legal or not, it was an immoral act and - and this is something I think I've never said before in my life - they will be judged for it by a higher power.

Starting with their own consciences, I hope.

One particular Teabagger talk show host - who I will not dignify by naming and improving his SEO - kept harping on the economics of the issue; "If you put out fires for people that don't pay, then no one will pay!" Well, that's certainly very telling about you, sir, that you are willing to freeload off the government even when you can afford to pay. I don't believe it's universally true, even if it's "economically true". I would pay, and so would most of the people I've discussed this with. Why? Because we want quality service in the area.

And when our neighbor "sponges" off our payment by getting his house extinguished for free, what then?

Then I will feel happy my $75 was able to help him, and contribute more to help with repairs.

Oh, and you're no longer to identify as Christian. Or any other religion, for that matter. There is no holy book in the world, except possibly Atlas Shrugged, that would support this behavior. In fact, they're rather vocally against it. The Koran even teaches, "Do not sit down to dinner while your neighbor's house is on fire." Oddly applicable. That means, Mr. Teabagger, that you now lack the moral center of an Islamic terrorist. Congratulations.

Damn it. This blog was supposed to be about the joy of learning more about religion! I can't believe we have to discuss the morality on the level that any Kindergartner would easily get right.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Happy Book Day!

I've said it before, I'll say it again; Simchat Torah is my hands-down favorite holiday. I mean, it's a drinking holiday to celebrate finishing a book! And starting a new one! As someone who used to pack spare books for the bus ride to school, this is a concept near and dear to my heart.

Given some of the depressing news about religion and reading lately, like the poll I mentioned yesterday or certain attention-seeking idiots in Florida, it's nice to hear something positive on the subject.

In case you're wondering, the "something positive" in question is "Pass the Schnapps!"

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Jumping on the Pew bandwagon

As a blogger who focuses on religion (I hesitate to name myself a religion blogger), I believe I am obligated to link to the new Pew survey that found most Americans are about as well educated on religion as they are on mitochondrial RNA.
"On average, Americans correctly answer 16 of the 32 religious knowledge questions on the survey. Atheists and agnostics average 20.9 correct answers. Jews and Mormons do about as well, averaging 20.5 and 20.3 correct answers, respectively. Protestants as a whole average 16 correct answers; Catholics as a whole, 14.7. Atheists and agnostics, Jews and Mormons perform better than other groups on the survey even after controlling for different levels of education"
Sadly, not surprising. I have often suspected that for people to hold the religious beliefs they do, follow certain religious leaders, etc. they can't really know much about what their religion really teaches. The most disturbing finding to me was that most Christians (ie, the majority of Americans) are woefully ignorant "on questions about the role of religion in public life, including what the U.S. Constitution says about religion." Again, not a surprise, sadly, given the number of times I've had to explain why having the Ten Commandments on the wall behind a federal judge might be a problem.

I suspect it's not a coincidence that the two most knowledgable religious groups in the survey are two of the most ostracized in this country (I didn't see where Muslims fit in). It's easy to be ignorant of your religion when you've never had to fight for it, defend your practices to bosses that want to refuse time off, teach your first grade teacher what Hannukah is about, explain to her why you don't want to say a prayer to Jesus after reciting the pledge of allegiance, or call a bunch of parents to explain that the field trip has been canceled because a bunch of skinheads vandalized the temple's bus. It's easy to let religion into your politics when you're just going to hide in the majority anyway.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Innovative Modern Sukkot

My dad once commented that I talk about many of my past jobs on this blog (Boy Scouts, Hillel, summer camp), but never my current one working with him. I told him as soon as I found a place where building product marketing consulting intersected with modern Jewish studies I'd work it in. So here you go dad; happy new year!

NY Times Magazine recently posted the 12 finalists in their modern sukkah design contest. While there were many beautiful entries, I especially like #8, "Sukkah of the Signs" by Ronald Rael and Virginia San Fratello of Oakland, California (check out the article for a larger shot). From the description of the project:
"It is traditional to eat and sleep in the sukkah for one week each fall, as a way of practicing a kind of ceremonial homelessness and empathizing with those who don’t have a roof over their heads. As a political statement, and as a way of transferring the prize money to those in need, Sukkah of the Signs is clad with cardboard signs purchased from destitute individuals across the country."
This wasn't my favorite from an aesthetic point of view, but I love the story and message of it. As with all Jewish holidays, there exist a huge variety of explanations of the "meaning" of the festival, starting at the surface level as a harvest holiday and moving on to such ideas as reclaiming our history as a nomadic people, reflecting on the impermanence of all things, being reminded of the fragility of our physical world, being grateful for the houses we do have, and reconnecting with nature. (Sidenote: interesting how many of those ideas started with "re-" verbs. Appropriate as we're just past the beginning of the yearly holiday cycle!) Somewhere in many interpretations of the holiday, however, is the implication that, but for the grace of God, we would be homeless too. Whether metaphorically as a people, lost wandering in the desert, or literally as a family with no roof to sleep beneath.

This reflects in several of the festival traditions, most notably living and dining in such a public space where any homeless people could see us and join us. Some temples also use it as an opportunity for a food drive, if they didn't just do one at Yom Kippur; one temple I belonged to collected fresh apples which were donated to a local food bank. I volunteered to transport them one year, and my car smelled like my favorite parts of fall for months afterward.

To me, a good modern Jewish observance combines a deep spiritual experience with an equally fervent effort to change our world for the better. I like this design for the highlighter it puts on homelessness. It puts the issue front and center; makes it unavoidable. There is a wonderful irony in sleeping in a home made of relics from the homeless; I would expect it to be a transformative experience for anyone that got the chance. If we slept here, we would spend the night considering the blessings that fill our lives, and return the next day to our homes filled with gratitude for all we have received. After that it would not be nearly so easy to turn a blind eye to the homeless people we pass on the street. Especially the ones holding the signs we ourselves might be sleeping under a year from now.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Badass #1: Exodus 2:11-12

11 One day, after Moses had grown up, he went out to where his own people were and watched them at their hard labor. He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his own people. 12 Glancing this way and that and seeing no one, he killed the Egyptian and hid him in the sand. [source]
 I actually wrote about this passage in one of my rabbinic school essays. To quote myself:
Furthermore, Moses himself is a murderer! In fact, Rashi suggests the “Egyptian man” Moses killed [Exodus 2:12] is the same “Egyptian man” as the blasphemer’s father. And this very parsha [Emor] tells us “One law shall be exacted for you, convert and resident alike” [Leviticus 24:22]. So why is this man [who blasphemed] put to death when Moses is allowed to live?
In the movies this is the big heroic moment for Moses. It's his personal Rubicon, his burning of the bridge (which directly lead to that whole sea-parting thing).

But...badass? Not really. Especially since the next two events are Moses getting dissed by a couple street rats as an unfit leader, and Moses fleeing to the desert to hide from Pharaoh.

In my eyes, Moses is a murderer, plain and simple. Debate extenuating circumstances if you wish, but it doesn't change the facts on the face.

I wonder how the crime happened? Did Moses walk up to him and challenge him to a duel, Kung Fu movie style? Did he ninja up behind the guy and shank him from behind? Or, given that this guy was the former prince of the land, did he walk straight up to the guard, say, "Hey, I'm the prince; kneel before me," and crack him over the head with a walking staff?

Was the guard beating a defenseless elderly Hebrew to death, or was he punching a young, healthy slave in the mouth after catching him in bed with his wife?

How much "hiding in the sand" was done? Like a shallow grave? Or body parts dismembered and separated? In other words, exactly how hard did Moses try to hide his crime? How aware of and wracked by his guilt was he?

I have an idea for a show, maybe a YouTube series: a bunch of biblical stories retold as crime dramas, Law & Order style. It doesn't hurt that most of my knowledge and understanding of the criminal justice system comes from that series.

I'm imagining the prosecution working to assemble the case against Moses; what was his motive, how far in advance did he plan? Did he have help? Should we implicate this "Yaweh" person as a co-conspirator? Can't wait to see Moses take the stand in his own defense; "But I did it because God told me to!"

The funny part? He didn't. There's no evidence God told him to murder this guard, or even to save this slave. God acts throughout as if he's willing to sacrifice individual Hebrews to save the greater number of the people, "hardening Pharaoh's heart" after each plague to increase the totality of the eventual freedom, but losing more people under the increasingly harsh reactions that had to follow each plague.

Even after Egypt, "the word of God" as interpreted by the people that wrote the Torah is much more concerned with the community than the individual. Look how many crimes carry capital penalties, killing individuals that the greater society might live. So the idea that God would want Moses to endanger himself, expose himself, and make himself known to Pharaoh by killing one guard to save one Hebrew - an action that actually weakens Moses's position as leader - is ludicrous. Moses acts by himself, for himself. We never even see him check on this slave afterward, making this a form of "White Guilt"; we'll save you from cruel overseers, but don't really care what happens next.

What really bothers me about this particular story, though, is that through inclusion in the Torah it is law. It is part of God's word, which is inherently perfect, and therefore this story, and the actions of its characters, must also be perfect and divinely ordained.

What follows from this idea is books of commentary based on the idea, "Given that we know Moses would never do anything wrong, here's how we explain this story as a good and noble act on Moses's part."

This philosophy bothers me, for many, many reasons. For now, though, I'll limit it to this: people are not perfect. If the Torah is perfect, it makes it that much harder for us, as imperfect vessels, to understand it. A Torah we can relate to is one that has more meaning, value, and utility for us in our everyday lives (ie, the parts of life outside of Sunday School).

Imagine a Moses that we allowed to be a flawed leader. Imagine getting to talk to that Moses. "You think you've screwed up," he'd say, "Let me tell you what happened my first day back from the desert. And don't even get me started on the kinky shit my wife is into. I'm all for women acting in the "Egyptian fashion", but I haven't got a clue which magazines she got these ideas from!"

That's a spiritual leader I'd want to "study some Torah" with!

Monday, August 30, 2010

Badass Bible Verses

Been trying to get myself back into the blogging habit. The upcoming Holy Days were providing much inspiration, but clearly no where near as much as this:

The 9 Most Badass Bible Verses

I particularly love their commentary on Deuteronomy 25:11-12.

I'm inspired to respond comment on each of these verses individually; we'll see if I can fit it in around Rosh Hashana choir practice and being a newlywed.

Friday, August 13, 2010

A Very Special Wedding Present

So I'm getting married tomorrow, and amidst all the cards and congratulations that came in, I got this note from one of my favorite volunteers from my days working with the Scouts.
A number of years ago you sent a memo to area scoutmasters asking if anyone would like to have a scout visit their troop in the family's search for a new troop. The scout had a medical condition that had him hooked to an oxygen tank 24/7. You said the dad was involved in scouting and would probably be involved here too.

Well, he joined my troop. In February of 2009 he got a double lung transplant. A few months after his surgery he completed his Eagle project. Along the way he found out he had cancer. He has faced these challenges bravely.

Saturday is his Eagle Court of Honor. Today he found out he is now cancer-free. He weighs 101 pounds. The first time he has been over 100 in his life. He swam for the first time in his life this last week.

And he is going to Notre Dame in the fall with a rather large scholarship.

His dad is our advancement chair and his little brother is now in the troop. He and his family have been a blessing to everyone in the troop (and the school community).

As scary as the memo you sent was, things worked out for the best.

This is why I loved being involved with the Scouts; it's not that this couldn't have happened without me, but I did this. I made this kind of difference in someone's life.

What a wonderful wedding present!

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Hearing and Learning to Play Shofar

My dad was on the radio, teaching about shofar. Check it out!

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Buber: The Original Blogger

In a recent comment about our company's blog, someone said:
I did indeed take a look at the blog and, as I thought I would, liked it. It had the right feel of authority mixed with an I-thou reach to the audience. (Martin Buber was the original blogger, don't you think?)
Liked that so much I had to share. It's an important insight to blogging, too. Traditional media is very unidirectional, which makes it more I-It, or it's self-gratifying which makes it I-I. The successful blogs create the personal I-Thou dyadic.

Can you imagine if Buber had written a blog though? Each post would be 2,000 words, and would take you three months to read. And a few years to understand.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

This is me being a communications geek

I’m Sure The Laughter Eases The Sting: "

Submitted by: S. VonDoom via Submission Page"

As you may or may not know, I studied interpersonal communication in grad school, with a strong focus on communication technologies. At the intersection of interpersonal & technology, I've been fascinated to watch the emergence of emoticons as a new non-verbal written language. As far as I know, this is the first example in history! (It's possible there's something in one of the hieroglyphic languages, but that's not a field I'm familiar with) While not a true emoticon, LOL and all its derivatives fall into this category in my mind, as they are text-based indicators of emotional state and non-verbal information (laughter being non-verbal).

What really fascinates me is when people use LOL incorrectly. Granted, there's the argument that all communication is defined by usage, so if theory doesn't match field observation then theory is wrong. Ignoring that for now (for reasons I'll explain later upon request), I saw a lot in chatrooms LOL being used to take the sting out of insults. Or possibly indicate laughing at the target of the barb.

Assuming the more generous possibility for now, the idea seemed to be that LOL next to a phrase such as, "You suck!" indicated it was a joke. I'm laughingly, playfully telling one of my friends they suck. If this is true, it's an example of assumed over-familiarity, because this behavior often occurred between complete strangers. Saying IRL, "You suck, haha!" makes the insult worse. So this is an intriguing evolution, and somewhat contrary. Fine, and a natural growth of the phoneme (what's a nonverbal phoneme? A noneme?), but it stuck out in my mind because LOL is supposed to be an indication that I am physically laughing at the time I type this. Typing LOL at your own joke is as gauche as laughing at your own jokes. And laughing IRL to indicate that something was meant to be a joke is usually a sign the joke failed. Miserably.

Makes me wonder what was meant in the exchange captured above. Was it an attempt to lighten the situation? Break the tension? An overly cute attempted greeting (I walk into the room smiling and giggling, even when it's bad news!)? It's unclear. Maybe one of the participants will find this and elucidate.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Game Theory Visualized

I wonder if Zach realizes how often he gets cited, positively, on a blog about religion, and if he'd feel he was doing something wrong if he did know.

Best explanation of Game Theory I've ever seen:

I'm not the first, and neither is Zach, to suggest this, but it's unfortunate how often religion gets forced into the position of being a juvenile form of social control. We need that type of guidance and limitation when we're young ("Alcohol is bad!", "If you go outside without a jacket you'll get sick!", "Vote Republican or the terrorists will win!"), but hopefully most of us outgrow it.

Ironically, I blame nostalgia. There are people that are just plain not intelligent enough to grasp more complex social contracts and interpretations of religion, but fortunately (and sadly) that's not most people. Even those with below-average intelligence can learn to grasp ideas like, "This is not always true, but it's a convenient way to teach." I think most people just want to keep their religion the way it was when they were kids.

I think the biggest problems people have with religion start because we continue to experience religion and the divine (however you define it) as we did when we were children. This is damaging to individuals in the short term and societies in the long term. An entire culture based around powerful-but-distant-daddy-issues is not a healthy one.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Conversations With The Rabbi

Had a great talk tonight with our Temple's rabbi.

...and I wanted to say a lot about it, but apparently it's one of those that had too deeply personal an impact for me to process and share right away. That or I'm stalling.


I asked her opinion of some of the independent rabbinic schools, and her answers led us into a very open, frank discussion about the education, job, and life of a rabbi, and I completely got it. She made me realize my doubts aren't necessarily problematic, and to some extent they will never really go away.

One of the questions we discussed was why does everyone that feels drawn to Jewish life & work feel that becoming a rabbi is the only way to express it? Would it be possible to get the same benefit, spiritual/intellectual development, and community involvement by, hypothetically, being director of a JCC and taking lots of night classes?

Well, frankly, yes. That's a large part of the problem.

But having her ask me this made me do something I haven't done much recently; I had to argue my case for wanting to be a rabbi instead of taking this other path. And that forced me to refine a couple things in my mind to the point I could express them as arguments..

Basically, a large part of it is a matter of direction and perspective. I wouldn't become a rabbi so that I could be that JCC director, but if I became a rabbi and then took a job as JCC director that would be fine. Small difference, but important one.

Also, I want the link to Jewish communal life to extend beyond my current job. When I was bouncing around the non-profit world in a previous life, I felt at times like a mercenary. I will care deeply and passionately about whatever cause I am paid to believe in. What'cha got, heart disease? Great; let's go fundraise for that. Last week it was starvation in Afghanistan, and next week it'll be adopted children with developmental difficulties, but for now I completely and truly care about heart disease. It started feeling shallow and false, and completely at odds with the reasons I got into non-profit work. Being a rabbi is, first of all, for me. More than that, it represents the link, the common thread in my life. I may work with a congregation, or a summer camp, or a JCC, but as I move between those worlds I will still be a rabbi.

I don't know if I explained that well, it's gotten late and I've had a long day, but that's the evening's epiphany.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

I forgot to mention...

Been busy lately. In all the hubbub I forgot to post to the blog...

...I'm getting married!

I can't believe I've been writing a Jewish blog long now? Almost two years? And I missed out on the chance to write about Jewish wedding law! Oh, and to share the news with my friends and readers; that too.

It probably says something about me that posting important news online was not one of my early thoughts; I hope it's something good.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

This Makes Me So Happy!

I can't believe I missed this!

From The Daily Show:
Tuesday May 11, 2010

Jason Jones meets a pastor who teaches mixed martial arts and an evangelist who breaks inanimate objects in the name of Jesus.

This! Fits with what I've been saying for a while now.

I feel better about spending this Shabbat engaged in acts of war.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Hanukkah Stubs

Cleaning out my notebook.  Ideas to develop more fully later:

  1. What do people really mean by "Freedom of Religion"? Religious freedom vs. Freedom of MY religion.
  2. Israel (Macabbees): Palestein = Assyrian Greeks: Israel (Modern)
  3. Was the Macabbee war really the first war for religious freedom?
  4. How much are the origins of our holy days romanticized, ala the US Founding Fathers?
  5. We as modern, secular, integrated Jews are the ones "Seduced by the alien culture" that Macabbees opposed.

Saturday, May 22, 2010


My feeling about miracles has always been that they're not about some seemingly impossible thing happening, they're about the right thing happening at the right time. In the story above, the "miracle" is not that David was able to kill Goliath (to paraphrase Salvatore, a rock through the head ends life quite naturally), but that when someone was needed to defeat Goliath, David was there.

Similarly, I've never had a problem with the attempts to scientifically re-explain the Exodus; if anything, I think they make the story cooler. A God that can reach down and smite pharaoh or part the seas? Interesting. But one that causes volcanic eruptions on the other side of the ocean in order to set off some Goldberg-esque series of events that would lead to our freedom? Neat! Besides, I think all evidence supports the idea that God would never take the simple and direct route when some unnecessarily difficult method was available.

The miracle was not that it happened, but that it happened at the right time, when we needed it.

Of course, this raises the question: on all those other occasions when we needed a miracle and nothing happened, where was God?

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Saudi Woman Beats Up Virtue Cop

For those that have yet to see the story:

When a Saudi religious policeman sauntered about an amusement park in the eastern Saudi Arabian city of Al-Mubarraz looking for unmarried couples illegally socializing, he probably wasn’t expecting much opposition.

But when he approached a young, 20-something couple meandering through the park together, he received an unprecedented whooping...

...the woman then allegedly laid into the religious policeman, punching him repeatedly, and leaving him to be taken to the hospital with bruises across his body and face.
This is a cool story for many reasons, not least of which is the "Virtue Police" totally deserve it and have well and truly made their own bed. Other people will cover the triumph of women's rights [interesting aside: Blogger's spell checker does not recognize the phrase "women's rights". Of course it also doesn't recognize "Blogger's", so don't read too much into that], the pro-feminist aspect, and, I'm sure, the positive effect of American culture on the rest of the world.

I want to point out a slightly different angle, though. Many people will praise this woman for her actions (In fairness: Jezebel also points out that " 'speaking out' is probably the safer, and ultimately more effective, route"), which amounted to beating a man lying on the ground. When was the last time a story reported positively on a man beating a woman, regardless of her current posture?

If this story was just about "rebellion against the oppressors" it wouldn't matter. I suspect, however, that most commentators will put some sort of gender-based spin on it. And the story wouldn't be nearly so salient if it was the woman's male companion who beat the cop. So let's look at it as a gender-based issue. How would this story read if the genders were switched, and it was an oppressed man striking the female representative of an oppressive regime?

Yes, I know; that scenario doesn't exist often outside of genre fiction and comics. Still, this story provides an interesting lens to consider our assumptions about and reactions to gender-based violence.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Nun Excommunicated For Recommending Abortion

Not surprising, just disappointing.

A Phoenix nun has been "automatically excommunicated" for recommending an abortion to save the life of a woman, raising the question of how much the Church hierarchy really cares about women's lives.


Sunday, April 18, 2010

Blog Against Theocracy

Missed the deadlines for this year's Blog Against Theocracy; it's a hard event for me because I have trouble finding something new to say on the idea (namely, it's a bad idea for religion to run government when even people in the same religion can't agree on what they believe).

Still, if I had written a blog for it, I probably would have said something like this.

Go on, check it out; I'll wait.

Back? Good. Yeah, I liked it too.

Just started a new book on the origins, rewrites, and changes in the Torah throughout its life; so far it's taken me an hour to get to the first page, so this might last me a while. Point is, we're just guessing when it comes to most of this stuff. We can apply our own best judgment, common sense, and current social norms, but when it comes to the original texts - what the founders of our religions actually said and believed (allegedly) - we're stuck.

And that's fine for religion, where it's a matter of personal belief and what you do with your family, that's fine. But for government, when it comes to making important decisions about other people's lives, religion needs to be so far out of the picture that it's in a different museum.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

And now to another favorite topic...

Leaving momentarily to sing at the city's Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony. Once again I'm reminded that what we really need is a Holocaust Getting Over It And Moving On Day for balance.

I was at the bookstore last week, looking for a new Judaica book (picked The Bible As It Was), and was struck by how many Holocaust books there are. Within the "Jewish Studies" section there are two sub-sections: Holocaust and Kabalah. Guess which is larger. In fact, Holocaust books outnumbered any other single topic.

I know, I know; most Jewish holidays are centered around some similar wrong done to us. But the mayor of Los Angeles doesn't come out for Tish B'Av or Purim. 

It's one thing to remember, and by remembering disallow a reoccurrence. It's another thing to live so completely in the past. We need to move past the pains of the last century and develop new tradition and meaning and value in our religion and in our culture. If not for us then for our children.

And with that, I go now to sing of past wrongs.

Response to D'var Shemini

Back over at Edible Torah, check out this week's drash on D'var Shemini. Discussing the death of Aaron's sons, Leon puts forth the following as possible motives:

We need: “Crime Scene Investigation: Shemini”
Our primary suspect is Hashem. We have multiple eyewitness accounts that place the suspect at the scene of the crime. Our main task therefore is to establish a motive. Since the suspect has been historically unresponsive to direct questioning since the time of the Prophets, not to mention the fact that I’m pushing my luck with all the God jokes so far, I am content to use the evidence we have at hand to derive some conclusions.
Possible motives would include:
  • God requires perfection
  • God is random and vindictive
  • Nadav and Abihu purposely engineered their own death
  • Nadav and Abihu did something extremely horrible, the consequence of which was death
The second proffered motive stuck with me; in a comment I discussed the "random" part of God's behavior, but here I wanted to look at the vindictiveness.

The Old Testament Yaweh does have a vengeful - that is to say vindictive - streak. "I do this because of what he has done unto me" is a common theme. It may not be random; it may even be logical. Many temporal rulers and scholars of power have strongly believed that to maintain a rule, and keep your subjects proud of their ruler, a king must act against any insult offered him. Not out of emotional needs for vengeance, but in the same way you would put down any crime. Still, it is hard to label such behavior as anything but vindictive. For that matter, many people suggest that punishing any crime is more about retribution than rehabilitation.

God in the Old Testament is, right or wrong, a bloodthirsty deity; we all know that. Look at the swath of blood God leaves behind Israel in leading them from Egypt to the Promised Land. Then, suddenly, we reach the New Testament and the bloodshed stops. (Well, slows down considerably. And is done with much more apology.) I always figured this was because after generations of trying to get his followers to kill their own sons, but being stopped at the last minute (usually), God finally succeeds at killing his own son. As so often happens, death of a loved one is a growth experience, helping Adonai mature, develop greater empathy, and realize what a dick he was being to many people. After that the demands to sacrifice, commit genocide, and be vengeful and vindictive stop coming from divine sources. Plenty of human sources still encourage such action in God's name, but it's not fair to blame God for his followers.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Hiding Behind Religion

We've all seen examples of individuals hiding behind religion, trying to excuse reprehensible behavior by claiming that a religion teaching peace, love, fellowship, and forgiveness wanted  them to murder, rape, mutilate, or watch Fox News. (Cheap shot! Pow!) But sometimes larger, societal-level problems also get hidden behind the skirts (choir robes?) of religion.

Take, for example, this article by Mollie at Priests aren't the problem

"We’ve seen a lot of stories that err not so much in what they say as what they don’t say. Sometimes we don’t hear all the details about a specific case. Sometimes we don’t learn about the efforts the Vatican has successfully made to change how it responds to sexual abuse. And I’ve seen very little media coverage that places the problems in the Catholic church in context of other religious groups’ problems or society’s larger problem with child sexual abuse...

...The story includes some helpful data points. Insurance companies that offer a sexual misconduct rider on liability insurance say their own studies indicate that Catholic churches are not at higher risk than other denominations."
She cites several articles that make the point even more strongly: Catholic priests do not commit child abuse at a higher rate.

So why does it seem so much worse? Mollie makes the point that it might just feel worse, since there's such a high expectation of trust. Or maybe it's because the Church did not act quickly enough to stop some of these priests, allowing them greater opportunity.

To me, though, this shows a different problem. We equate Priests with higher levels of abuse because it's easier to think of child abuse as a "Religious Problem".

This happens frequently in our culture. We equate a given "problem" with religious people (such as terrorism, polygamy involving children, or anti-intellectualism) and forget that there are many non-religious people displaying the same behavior. Granted, many terrorists have some religious motive. In other places, such as Palestine and Ireland, religion is so blurred with national identity and politics that it's difficult - and a little unfair - to lay it solely at religion's feet. And then there are Timmothy McVeigh and the Unabomber, neither of whom displayed any particular religious fervor.

I am not trying to write religion a pass here; there are definately bad people who have been inspired by religion, and others who, being bad, have found shelter and identification within it. But we too often forget that when discussing "religious wackos" it's the "wacko" part that's the problem, not the religion!

More importantly, by writing off such major problems as "because of religion", we risk ignoring much larger, systemic problems underlying them. If we got rid of all religion, would child abuse and terrorism also disappear? No; of course not. And hiding the real problem behind religion leaves us dangerously blind to it.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

I Give A Damn!

I'll refer you to moviebob's commentary because he's how I learned about this and says most of what I would want to say (about the campaign, not Ms Paquin's proclivities). Here's the spot:

To draw on a couple important and applicable platitudes:

1. All that's needed for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing.
2. If you do not speak out against an action, you are considered to have committed it yourself.
3. Justice, justice you shall pursue!

And, in a nod to the season:

4. I too was a stranger in a strange land.

This is a good consciousness alteration. I myself am guilty of "not giving a damn" about someone's sex life. I still feel to some extent that it's none of my business, nor do I want it to be, primarily for reasons of privacy. Regardless, the point is that it's not enough to ignore people and call that "tolerance". It's not enough to accept others as long as you don't have to see or think about them. I care about your sex life; I care that it is happy and healthy and fulfilling for you. I care about your identity, your ethnicity, your cultural heritage, your religion, your politics, your....well, your "you".

I give a damn about you.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Bye Bye Nukes!

I'm very happy about this story.
US President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev have agreed a new nuclear arms reduction treaty after months of negotiations.
The treaty limits both sides to 1,550 warheads, about 30% less than currently allowed, the White House said.
The deal replaces the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. The leaders will sign the pact in Prague on 8 April.
A great big "huzzah!" for President Obama! One of the most important tasks for all our leaders is maintaining and moving us towards greater peace; nuclear disarmament achieves not only that goal, but will have long term environmental and financial benefits as well. It makes me feel like we're moving back towards being a good role model for the rest of the world.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Eco-Kosher and the URJ

[Editor's Note: I originally wrote this post almost a month ago, and just realized it never actually got published.]

I focus on issues of sustainability and eco-awareness so much at work that it's easy to forget other industries also consider environmental issues, so it was very interesting to see this post at Reform Judaism Magazine. The topic under discussion: should we adopt dietary restrictions to Save the Environment?

In general, I agree more with Rabbi Barry Schwartz, representing the "Yes" position. That is to say, I agree with his line of reasoning and priorities; not sure if we should make it religious law.

Rabbi Cliff Librach argues "No", and I was a little disappointed by his arguments. It starts strongly, citing the Talmudic principle that “One should not impose a restriction on the community unless the majority can abide by it” (Baba Kamma 79b and parallels). A good teaching, one I feel the religious community often forgets, or does not correctly apply (True, it wasn't impossible for me to walk to temple when I lived in Michigan, but 3 miles through knee-deep snow does not tend to put me in a "religious" frame of mind). Although I'm not sure it applies here. I don't know the original proposal they're debating, but the article seems to focus mainly on eliminating/reducing beef consumption more than strict vegetarianism. It's a long road to walk to show it's "impossible" for people to cut back on beef. Unplesant, maybe, but that's a different question.

From there his arguments get worse. In short, it feels like a lot of the political commentary I see; a well-reasoned argument and a bloviating, overemotional, logic-lite response. He cries "Political Correctness" on Rabbi Schwartz and the UN ("Like much of the work of the United a case of misplaced (and hysterical) political correctness.") He uses "facts", such as:
"As more than half of all American agricultural land is unsuitable for growing crops, the grazing of cattle and other animals doubles the production of food products from the available land."
Problem with that is it assumes grain and cattle use land in a 1:1 ratio. That is not the case, especially when you consider that raising cattle still means growing grain to feed to the cattle. If we all ate only grass-fed beef that grazed only marginal land it might be different, but that still suggests a new "guideline" telling Reform Jews to look for that product.

More on the impact of beef, from the 2006 LEAD report:
- Livestock production accounts for 70% of all agriculture land and 30% of the land surface on the planet.
- 70% of previous forested land in the Amazon is occupied by pastures
-Livestock is responsible for 18% of greenhouse gas emissions (higher than transportation)
- Livestock accounts for over 8% of global human water use
- In the US alone, livestock is responsible for an estimated 55% of erosion and sediment, 33% of pesticide use, and 50% of antibiotic use
So what's my feeling? I'm always hesitant to implement new laws, or add additional strictures and requirements to existing ones. The fact that I agree with the principles at stake (or "at steak") don't change that. Still, I think this is a good dietary restriction to adopt, one much more reasonable and palatable than many previous restrictions. It fits with the Jewish tradition of Tikkun Olam, healing the world. Furthermore, it is less "Because God Said So" and more reason-based than things like shatnez or  the modern reinterpretations of forbidding electricity on Shabbat.

Creating new law based on existing principles to address current needs is the way this is supposed to work. Many times that process is used to create policies that fly in the face of current knowledge or societal development (contraception, evolution, etc.); restricting beef consumption, by contrast, fits with the best scientific research and modern social trends.

Would it be difficult? Yes. I started keeping Kosher about....I guess 7 years ago now. Avoiding pork was a major difficulty for the first few years - it's amazing how many places bacon gets added - and it's still a reoccurring frustration. Giving up beef would take out another entire section of the menu, including several popular, traditional Jewish foods. But we don't do the right thing because it's easy; we do it because it's right. Religion doesn't need to tell us to do the things we already want to do; religion exists to help us learn why, and how, we do the difficult things. Giving money to charity is not easy, emotionally, or natural; it's a learned behavior, which means someone had to teach it. Helping strangers is not easy, nor is visiting the sick or loving your neighbor. Judaism teaches us to do those things.

(To my atheist/agnostic friends: Yes, there are other ways to learn these things, some of which teach them better than religion does. But religion also teaches these things, and should not stand idly by on matters such as this just because it's a lesson that can be learned elsewhere; that's ethically irresponsible.)

I'll put my money where my mouth is on this, somewhat literally. I'll start by giving up beef for a month; I'll let you know how it goes, and we'll see how I feel about it then.

What's your position on this?

[Update: Having made it almost through the entire month-long project, I can tell you this: it's rough. I slipped up a couple of times when I was tired and hungry and at restaurants that had limited menus, but stuck to it fairly consistently in general. I can see this getting easier with time, as my cravings decrease for the Orange Beef at the Chinese place near my apartment and I find acceptable hamburger substitutes, but it definitely will be a burden for anyone trying to make the change as an adult. Especially if they have preexisting dietary restrictions.

I still think it's a good and worthy idea. After my trial, I would come down on the side of "reduced consumption of" rather than "complete elimination of". Only problem is, that's a little difficult to regulate because it requires definition of terms like "reduced". Not impossible, but difficult. Some of the best suggestions I've seen involve weekly meat-free days, whether it's a static "No Meat On Fridays", or a floating "Pick One (or more) Day Each Week". It could also go the other way, where only 1 or 2 days a week are designated for meat-consumption. I don't know of any places offhand where this kind of floating "pick one" exists in Judaism, but I'm sure there are Talmudic regulations saying "No more than 5 days out of 7" or such. If you can point to a specific example, please let me know.]

Friday, February 19, 2010

Blackwell says DOJ confirmations = Pogroms

From the RAC's website:
In response to an opinion piece published this week on, Rabbi David Saperstein, Director and Counsel of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, sent a letter to Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell asking him to distance himself and his party from the ideas espoused in the piece.
Rabbi Saperstein's letter goes on to say that:
"The intimation that, with these confirmations, our government would become an oppressive and Christian-hating regime rather than a democracy that values freedom of religious expression is a blatant falsehood. Mr. Blackwell’s use of rhetoric invoking the pogroms, the widespread destruction of countless Jewish lives in Eastern Europe, is aimed at quashing reasoned political discourse, suggesting that the confirmation of these qualified, respected nominees is beyond the pale of our normal politics. His likening of Ms. Johnsen and Ms. Feldblum’s confirmations to the persistent and violent killing of Jews in Cossack-controlled Russia desecrates the memory of those who died in the pogroms."
So Pogroms have become the new Nazis. Good to know someone found a history book that goes back past the 1930's. Unsaid in Saperstein's letter, but I'm sure one of the more salient points, is that at least one of the nominees is Jewish (I'm assuming, based on the name, that "Chai Feldblum" is a MOT), which gives the use of "pogrom" that extra-special twist. It was so nice of him to use one of our special words when referring to one of our own! I really feel like he gets us, and I certainly feel more sympathetic to his cause because he invoked something that was so painful to my ancestors. Painful in the emotional and political sense, naturally, as having your house burned down, or a horse trample you often is.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Reflecting on the Exodus

A few weeks ago we read about the Jews leaving Egypt, in a little preview of upcoming seders. Now we find them in the desert, beginning their wanderings. One of the perpetual questions this raises is why did God require us to spend so much time in the desert? Why forty years of suffering and toil? The past week gave me a new thought on the matter.

As some of you may know, I recently received some upsetting news. I was less than halfway into my week of mourning for it, a kind of self-reflective shiva, when I had to leave for Las Vegas for a week-long trade show; one of the largest in the world. I suppose I could make some Exodus-related joke about heading back into the land of the pyramids, but driving from LA to Vegas really confuses that into/out of the desert question.

I've gone to this tradeshow before; difference is, this year I hurt my ankle the weekend before, meaning I was attending the show with a walking cast and several medicines for the pain. And there was pain. That low-level constant type that you don't notice until it becomes a large all-encompassing one.

On the second day, I was walking back to my hotel (saying that the distance to my hotel was less than the length of the expo floor doesn't really say much) I realized I hadn't been thinking about my rejection letter at all; the pain was so great I had completely forgotten to suffer!

Now I'm sure my therapist will have a field day with that idea when I share it with her (I hear she's naming her second yacht after me), but I wondered if that same idea couldn't apply to the Israelites.

Think about it. The Exodus and that whole "slavery" thing were definitely a form of major psychic trauma; it's probably fair to say that modern psychologists meeting the wandering tribes would find more than a few cases of post-traumatic stress disorder. Even if they had gone straight to the Promised Land, they would not have been able to enjoy it. The pain was too much. So instead they go and wander around the Sahara until their feet are ready to fall off. I can personally attest that this is a wonderful distraction from those tiny, inconsequential emotional pains.

Granted, this is not exactly a kind and loving divine solution; it's literally the equivalent of a parent shooting their child's toe off to distract them from a bad breakup. But consider the context. God had several thousand PTSD patients on hand, and psychotherapy wouldn't be invented for several more millennia, assuming, to complicate the matter, that the Israelites could even survive long enough to become Freud's ancestors! The guy (God) had to work with what was available, and what he had was desert.

Honestly, by the time the Israelites finally got to sit down in the Promised Land and rest their feet, they were probably too tired to even care about Pharaoh What's-His-Name anymore.


Don't worry; Merryl Strep does not appear anywhere in this post, except in this first sentence here and you don't have to worry about this one because it's going to end now.

Things I learned this week in Hebrew class (I'm not at the computer that has the Hebrew fonts loaded and my cheat-sheet on the keyboard, so just imagine this has actual Hebrew. I'll fill it in later if I remember.):

1. The root samech-fey-koof means, loosely, "to provide".
2. The words deriving from this root have related meanings; such as, "I have enough", or - work at this one a bit - "we will get there on time".
3. The same root - or at least the same letters, it's not entirely clear - makes the word safek, which means "doubt".

I'm a little surprised I never learned this before; it seems the type of apparent contradiction that rabbis live for. It's possible I did hear and wasn't listening, or forgot. Regardless, we played with this duality for a while in class.

Our teacher suggested it means that when you are content, it creates doubts that you will continue to be content. A variation on the idea that the more you have, the more you have to lose. Or possibly looking forward to say, "Today I have enough; will I tomorrow?" I pointed out a more scholarly bent; to whit, have you ever heard a Jewish scholar be happy when s/he lacked for a doubt? Certainty teaches us nothing; it is doubt that teaches us by driving us to answer it. A bit too much "the rose and the thorn"? Maybe. But likewise it is that fear of scarcity, that doubt, which drives us to achieve contentment; the two concepts are very linked.

There was another idea I liked better, though. To me the connection is a bit of an ironic one. I could easily see it emerging as a joking piece of slang. Or perhaps the irony is a bit deeper than that; perhaps it began as a prayer. When we express a doubt we are, in some way, asking for contentment. We are looking for answers, for reassurance, for security.

This idea exists elsewhere in Jewish teaching; I recall a midrash that tells us when we complain, God says, "You think that's bad? Check this out!" Likewise, when we talk about how good life is, God says, "You think that's good? Check this out!"

Safek could work the same way; an inverse dayenu, if you will. "God," we say, "I am content. I have all the food, shelter, love, and answers that I could ever need." God replies, "Oh yeah? You think so, do you? I bet I can make you even more satisfied with your life!"

Our doubts are our prayers. When we express them, we ask a question. Salesmen, good ones at least, love questions; they know that each one is an opportunity to draw you a little closer. Each doubt we raise, each question we ask, draws us closer to God, closer to perfect contentment.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

What I had for breakfast

Had a bowl of cereal and a glass of orange juice. There was a considerable interruption between the two as I got a call from someone I needed to interview for an article. Interesting thing I noticed is I said the bracha for the OJ but not the cereal, which would have been fine - I'm a one-bracha-covers-the-whole-meal kind of guy - except I had the cereal first. This got me thinking a couple of things:

1. Why am I bothering saying these prayers at all? Why bother continuing my Jewish practice at such a high level of commitment when it's not getting me anywhere? It reminded me and reinforced that I do this for myself, not to please or impress anyone else. And ultimately, that's where religion needs to happen; if you do it to please your parents, or your friends, or your rabbi (or your rabbinical school), or even God then it will not be successful. It becomes a chore, an externally applied burden, rather than part of your internal support and strength.

2. It is not required of us to be perfect; it is required that we make the attempt. God does not expect perfection, but rather expects that we will fall short, which is why repentance, forgiveness, and t'shuvah are major themes in Judaism.

3. I could only go two days without going off on some rant about Jewish practice and it's application to my life. Clearly I'm not meant to be a rabbi. :)

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

And the envelope please...

January 25, 2010
Shevat 10, 5770

Dear Aaron:

Thank you for meeting with the Rabbinical School Admissions Committee of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. We were inspired by your love of, and commitment to, Jewish life. However, after a careful evaluation of your candidacy, the committee regrets to inform you that we are unable to offer you admission.

We understand that this is a moment of disappointment for you, but we want to commend you for your dedication to the service of the Jewish people. We know that you will continue to find other rewarding ways to express your commitment to Judaism and make a difference to our community.

We wish you much success in the future.

Yours truly,

Vice President and Director of Admissions

No, they really don't understand that this is a moment of disappointment for me. It's the difference between knowing the sinking of the Titanic was a disastrous event and feeling the ice-cold water soak into your socks.

For all that I refused to act as if I were getting in, I really didn't think I would be rejected. And - for now, at least - with zero explanation as to why. I'm not sure what happens next, but it's going to take some processing.

Thanks to everyone for sticking with me for the duration of this experiment. It's been a hell of a lot of fun. For at least a while, though, I can't focus on this anymore. I'm putting the blog on indeterminate hiatus.

Thanks again for all your love and support this month; see y'all around the net!

Saturday, January 23, 2010

The great big daven in the sky

Don't know how I missed this story; it's a doozy! On my way to a concert so I'll try to post more later. Meanwhile read the article and tell me what you think.

Homeland Security questions teen about tefillin:

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Day After

Says it all really.

The chorus at least.

Waiting's hard; that's what I'm going for.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Today's the Day

Wish me luck!

Call Me El

Not finished yet. Comments appreciated.

To the tune of Paul Simon's "Call Me Al"

A man walks down the street
He says why should I leave my home now
Why should I leave my homeland
Life in the desert is hard
I need an heir to leave behind me
I want a shot at a family
Don’t want to end up a poor man
In an idol’s graveyard
Le-chi lach Le-chi lach
God come to visit me
Far away the world I know
He says Follow Me Follow Me
Get those idols away from me
You know I don’t find this stuff amusing anymore
If you call me Adonai
I can be your long lost pal
I will call you Abraham
And Abraham when you call me
You can call me El.

A man walks down the street
He says why am I seeing this ladder
Got to climb up this ladder now
And wo this ladder is long
Got two wives and a family
What if I die here
Who’s this man wrestling me
We’ve been wrestling so
Long Long
He touched me on the thigh
And we roll around I don’t let go
At the dawn dawn
There were sacraments and promises
There were hints and implications
If you call me Adonai
I can be your long lost pal
I will call you Israel
And Israel when you call me
You can call me El
Call me El

A nation’s on the street
It’s a street in a desert
There they are strangers
There they are in a strange land
They don’t have their freedom
They have a destiny
Here comes a holy man
He is surrounded by the sound
The sound
Prayers in the night time
Timbrels at the Red sea
He coming down down
They hear angels blowing shofars
Sounding to infinity
They say Amen! And Hallelujah!
If you’ll receive my Torah
I can be your long lost El.
You can call me Yaweh
And when you call me Yaweh
I’ll call you Yisrael
K’lal Yisrael