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.