Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Yue Yue - Never Again!

It is a central and universal teaching in Judaism that Torah can, should, and must be ignored to save a life. Bystanders have a "religious, ethical and legal" duty to help those in danger (even if they're non-Jews!).  So while I didn't hear about this story when it first broke last week, only learning of it from Geek in Heels today, I am sure it will surprise no one that I join the ranks of those horrified by this event. Originally I was going to say "shocked and horrified", but the more I thought about it, the less shocked I was. From Jenny's blog post:

But when discussing the story over dinner last week, my in-laws told me a couple of things that set things in perspective:
  1. Due to the underdeveloped legal infrastructure in China, there have been many cases in the past where a good samaritan would step in to a stranger’s aid, only to be blamed and charged with the crime they had never committed.
  2. Additionally, local laws dictate that if a person is found guilty of devastatingly injuring another person(s), they are responsible for all of the medical bills and expenses for the rest of the victim’s life. This, coupled with the fact that the majority of the Chinese population — especially in poorer regions like Foshan where Yue Yue lived — would not be able to afford to financially provide medical care, leads people to leave victims for dead rather than help. That is, they would rather go to jail for manslaughter than be in debt (and become a burden and embarrassment to their families) for the rest of their lives.
This isn’t to say that I — or even my in-laws — believe what the 18 passerbys did was right. Neither am I justifying their actions (or lack thereof, in this case).
But now that I have been informed these cultural factors, I can better understand what had happened.
While some blame China's pursuit of economic growth and educational system, most stories confirm Jenny's; Good Samaritans in China help others at their own risk. It even seems some good may come of this; at least one university has pledged legal defense support to Good Samaritans (and started a new meme in the process), and international attention has ignited a new debate about China's ethical future.

So horrified? Yes. Hopefully this will catalyze positive change? Yes. But surprised? No; not at all. This is, after all, the Capitalist ideal.

My high school government teacher used to refer to "capital-C Communism" versus "small-C communism" to differentiate Marx's political theory from the real-world governments of the same name - say what you will about its validity, Marx's theory never killed anyone; that was the government that co-opted it. It is in that spirit I refer to Capitalism; not the economic theory, but the way we see it practiced in America today, where people are financially incented to let their neighbor's house burn down. Where we take as given that we're willing to let children starve to death and freeze on the street, and only debate how much we're willing to let it occur.

Look, what happened to Yue Yue should never be allowed to happen anywhere ever again. Good Samaritan protections should be universal and powerful; no one should hesitate to help those in danger because they fear financial or legal retribution. But let's stop kidding ourselves that this obligation to help others only applies on the individual level, and only to emergencies that happen right in front of us. Starving a child kills them just as surly as hitting them with a car - it just takes longer.

None of us are obligated to save the world entire; what is expected of us is what we are able to provide and no more. It's the "and no less" part that gets forgotten. Some see this as encouraging individual action, with each of us giving as best we are able (hey; that sounds like small-C communism!). In truth, though, what we as a nation are capable of is so much greater than what we as individuals can do that it is unconscionable to me to settle for anything less.

This is the origin of my political "liberalism". Not a desire to coddle everyone or contribute to a culture of entitlement, but a deeply held conviction that when the power of the world's mightiest nation is applied problems like hunger, poverty, and sickness cannot stand.

Do I honestly believe we can feed, clothe, educate, house, and treat every soul in the world? No; not even every in our own country. But I do believe we can save many. And I, for one, want to be sure the next time a child dies that I was not an inactive bystander.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

'Tis a dark and stormy knight

It started with thunder booming so loud that all our cats - even the non-cowardly ones - ran and hid under the bed. Rain is pounding against my window hard enough I can see the glass vibrate, and at a speed and rhythm most speed metal drummers would envy. It's not yet 7pm and the night is so dark I can't see the house across the street, and even if I could it would seem too far to walk, having to fight the wind the whole way.

All in all, it's oddly appropriate. Happy Sukkot everybody! Chag sameach!

Monday, October 3, 2011

Marriage with a sunset clause?

This is...actually a very interesting idea. Like the wizard, it is great and terrible. But interesting. Short summary: new law in Mexico City allows couples to sign a marriage contract with an expiration date (minimum of two years), after which time the couple can choose to extend the marriage or simply let it expire.

My first reaction is amusement, because it seems like an idea got pulled from a speculative fiction short story and turned into an actual policy/social experiment. The stated goal of the policy is to reduce the divorce rate - it will almost certainly be successful at this, even if it does not increase the number of marriages that last to three years or longer - and the contract requires the couple to make many long-term decisions upfront (what to do with any potential kids, etc.), a step which would probably benefit many "traditional" marriages.

Let me get this out of the way: Yes, I just completed one year of marriage. No, I'm not looking to get out, or wishing I had this kind of deal. Just intrigued by the potential social impact the policy could have, especially if it's successful.

To oversimplify, there are three ways this could go:

1. Nothing changes except for the terminology. Marriages still fail at the same rate, with the same amount of fallout, baggage, and legal drama.

2. The Nightmare Scenario. Mexico City replaces Vegas as the hotspot destination for quickie, ill-advised weddings. People enter marriage lightly (because that's not already happening) without taking seriously the long-range implications. Families are devastated, childrens' lives ruined, and we move further down the slippery slope to legally endorsing bestiality, necrophilia, pedophilia, and all the other scary things "pro-family groups" are going to trot out to demonstrate this is an irreversible step towards the Apocalypse.

3. The Best-Case Scenario. I can see an argument for this actually making marriages stronger. I think the big problem with many marriages (and long-term commitments in general) is people don't actually understand what they're getting into. They think it's always going to be the fun, sexy, easy relationship it was at the beginning, and freak out when it becomes work, the "spark" is gone, and they realize they're trapped in the relationship for the rest of their lives. Or, you fall in love, marry someone, then see what they're really keeping behind their mask - whether it's an inability to properly clean the bathroom, a tendency to sleep around, or severe psychopathic tendencies - and realize you need to get out quickly. This starter kit approach to marriage allows people to learn what being married really means and who their partner is in a much more forgiving environment. Taking off this pressure might mean that when the problems come, people feel comfortable working together to resolve them instead of freaking out and running away.

I honestly think in the short-term the first scenario is the most likely, especially since there will likely be so much stigma against a marriage with an expiration date. It will be great or terrible for couples in equal numbers, based on what they bring into the relationship. What I really want to see is what happens if the policy survives long enough for a generation to grow up thinking it's "normal"; then we'll really see something interesting.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Completing the cycle of forgiveness

There comes a moment, in the process of repentance, after you have wronged someone but before they are aware of it. Many times, in this moment, we have already come aware of our transgression and have begun feeling the guilt, pain, and remorse that signifies genuine t'shuva, but we also feel fear: the fear of having to admit our action and endure the other person's anger and pain.

In this moment the temptation is often to conceal our actions. We already feel remorse, after all. We have acknowledged our wrongdoing, and may genuinely have learned from our actions, changed our ways, and vowed - truthfully! - to never do it again.

This temptation is, however, the Yetzer Ra - the wicked inclination. To deny the other person knowledge of your transgression is itself transgression. There is a teaching in Jewish law that one can only forgive sins committed against themselves; I cannot forgive you for what you did to my neighbor. Likewise, I cannot forgive myself for what I did to you.

The pain of telling the other person is the pain of healing coming it. It may not feel like it at the time. As with many medical procedures, it may cause great harm in the process of healing a greater wound. But without it you are not forgiven. At best, you have merely gotten away with it. Covered it up, buried it, and hid the evidence like a criminal escaping the police. To escape justice is not the same as to reclaim innocence.

L'shana tovah; may you have an easy fast.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Happy New Year, One And All!

Maybe it's because I spent a lot of time this week in pursuit of tickets for the Holy Days, but I've been thinking about the upcoming new year in terms of an amusement park ride. It's the cyclical nature of the year, with the same peaks and valleys every time, like a roller coaster or a Disney-esque storybook ride.

At least, that's how it goes on paper.

In reality, we all enter and exit at different points. There's no preset boarding area; we don't get time to securely fasten our seat restraints before the train starts moving. In some ways the better comparison is the lazy river; lots of entry points, and it's up to you to jump into the flow of things. Once you get in, though, it's the same path for everyone, every time you go 'round.

I don't like calling the year "lazy", though. Plus, moving slowly up a big hill before a sudden drop sounds a lot like how most years begin. What is needed is some ride that's halfway between the two. Or maybe one that changes back and forth, because some years the path is smooth and gentle, and others it is rushed and a little bit frightening.

I hope that your year combines a little bit of each of those - smooth gentleness when you need it, with enough fast drops and big loops to keep things interesting.

L'shana Tovah, everybody! May your year be sweet as honey, filled from end to end with living and joy.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Last Ten Years

A few years back my sister introduced me to a musical called The Last Five Years. It tells the story of a relationship from first date to break-up. What makes it memorable is that the woman's story is told in reverse chronological order while the man's is told chronologically, so we see her broken heart overlying his excitement about meeting her, and his eventual good bye matches up with her anticipation of seeing him "tomorrow".  This juxtaposition makes the pain of their break-up especially poignant. (It's possible I've mentioned this musical in an earlier post; like I said, it stuck with me.)

I had somewhat the same feeling this weekend watching the 9/11 memorial programming, Especially when they showed people's reactions at the time, contrasted with their feelings today. I remember one reporter talking about the "effects of this day staying with us for weeks and months to come", and feeling slightly mournful for his optimism. Another time a clip showed one of the survivors rejoicing to be alive a week after the attack, and I couldn't help but notice she was conspicuously absent from the interviews with her saviors today.

We didn't know how much worse it would get.

We didn't know that it would eventually get better.

Such is always the way, right? As we sit here, nearing the top of the cycle of the Jewish year, we are reminded of both how similar and how different this coming year will be from the last. Some who are with us today will not be; some new people will take their place. Are the 9/11 attacks different? Were our dually misplace optimism and pessimism something unique, or just...bigger?

It's hard to say. Leon writes about seeing the day as an outsider, an ex-pat at the time. I had in many ways a similar experience. Safe in central Illinois, I never worried that I might be next. I forgot my uncle actually worked in the building until after I'd heard he was ok, leaving nothing to fear but what might have been. Other than that, all it was to me was something happening on tv.

No; that wasn't all it was.

I remember the day. I had the day free, so I was sleeping in and taking a lazy morning of it. After showering I turned on the radio and heard, "The president will be making a special address momentarily regarding this morning's acts of terrorism."

My first thought was, "What did that moron do this time?" I jumped straight to a conspiracy theory smokescreen to distract us from what a bad job Bush was doing as president. So I went to the living room and turned on the tv.

Just in time to see the second plane hit.

In moments of extremity, I tend to go emotionally cold. I have dispassionately cleaned and bandaged my own lacerated arm while simultaneously reassuring those around me and organizing them into helpful tasks. Useful as survival instincts go, but it also means I tend to ask questions like "How are you feeling?" only when I come to them on my checklist. That includes asking the question of myself. By the time I checked with my own emotional response the dust (literal and figurative) had somewhat cleared. I knew I had seen not only the deaths of thousands of people, but also of a chapter in American history. It was obvious we would be going to war, and quickly; the only question was how soon we'd be able to get out of it.

Ten years later, we are still asking that question.

We have been a nation in mourning for the past decade. Every conversation about our country, no matter the topic, eventually is about that day. Watching the coverage this weekend, I think it's possible we as a nation have post-traumatic stress disorder; to paraphrase the West Wing, we need to be able to remember that day without reliving it.

It is my hope that today will mark the end of this decade-long shiva. Remember, always remember, but hopefully now the healing can truly begin.

Thursday, September 1, 2011


Siyyum represents one of my favorite concepts in Judiasm, one of the things that, I think, really sets us apart and reminds me why I am still Jewish as opposed to, say, another religion more in keeping with some of my other...interests.

According to JewishEncyclopedia.com, siyyum is:
The formal ceremonial act of completing the writing of a scroll of the Law, or the formal conclusion of the study of a division ("massekta") of the Mishnah or Talmud. In the former case the ceremony is called siyyum ha-Sefer; in the latter, siyyum massekta.
Either way, it's the celebration of the completion of a book. What a marvelous concept, especially for a people that highly value education and language, and claim to be of the book!

Now obviously not just any book is grounds for celebration; stopping for a party every time I finished a comic book on a Sunday afternoon would get exhausting, and some books I have celebrated completing only because it meant I didn't have to read them anymore (I'm looking at you, Wide Sargasso Sea!). The concept originates in the Talmud and clearly carries the implication that one has been reading sacred books (and really, what else would one want to read?). I believe, however, it is allowable and proper to expand the concept to include any well-loved book or rigorous course of intellectual development. I would not look askance (much) at a friend that had a siyyum upon completing the Harry Potter series, especially, at this point, if the point of the celebration was finally catching up on the past 15 years. Likewise, a friend that had just finished working through a MCAT prep book would be well justified in throwing a siyyum.

A more interesting question would seem to be, in our increasingly multimedia age, does it have to be a literal book or will any similarly challenging academic pursuit qualify? If one has a siyyum for the Potter books, what about for the Potter movie? For completing a difficult post-graduate course? I am torn on this. On the one hand, the siyyum is celebrating learning, which would suggest the medium is unimportant; on the other - and this might be because I am a sentimentalist - it seems to lose much when divorced from the concept of a book. I therefore have somewhat of a compromise position: I would personally only hold a siyyum for a book, but would not begrudge a friend that wanted to celebrate something else.

I also see value in embracing the siyyum as a national practice, regardless of religion. The siyyum could make reading cool again. I referred to the Potter books because when they first came out many people were thrilled that they were getting kids to read again. Rather than wait for the next mega-popular book series to come along, the siyyum heightens the concept of reading itself, regardless of what one reads. I can see teachers using this in school; would students be more willing and eager to read the classics if there was a class party waiting at the end?

The modern book club could be seen as a form of siyyum. In theory, most book clubs select works of some academic or social importance (it's debatable which of these Oprah's imprimatur would be). The group then comes back together to celebrate and discuss; that seems to be exactly what the sages were describing.

Monday, August 22, 2011

John Shore responds to a reader

I very much enjoyed John's response to this letter; it's a good example of why I like his stuff.

One line in the writer's letter spoke to me: "Remember, we are the clay; God is the potter. HE made us."  Well first of all, the potter makes the pots, not the clay. So if we are the clay, then God just found us lying around on Earth and tried to make us into something prettier. Interesting metaphor for religion, but not, I suspect, what the writer intended.

Also, I don't have a lot of experience with potting, but the more I learn about every form of art (including fencing, science, and the "practical arts"), the more it's apparent that, at some point, the artist can only achieve what the medium will allow him to achieve. To use an image from my direct experience, every time I pick up a new sword, it tells me how it should be moved and what strategy it wants to use; I can choose to do as the sword wants, or spend my time fighting it instead of my opponent.

The same is true of cooking; I can use the food as it wants to be used, or fight it and wind up with flavorless mush (also known as the Fast Food technique). Same in music; I can only make the notes that the instrument is willing to make. So if we're going with the "potter and the clay" image, then God can only shape us into who we are meant to be and what we are willing to accept. But the potter is not the one in charge.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Old Bachelors in Metropolis

There has been a wave of big name super heroes having long-term pairings break up the past few years. This is going to come back around to Judaism soon, I promise. Couples established and strong enough that they have entered into the mainstream: Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson, Cyclops and Phoenix (ok, this one might be less well known), and now Superman and Lois Lane. Moviebob has a good explanation why he thinks this is a good idea; his argument makes sense, but whether getting married was a good character idea or not, I have a problem with the way these super break-ups are happening. Or rather, not happening.

Spider-Man's wife made a deal with the Devil to erase their marriage from existence. Yes, literally. Granted, for a noble cause, but still. Cyclops and Phoenix's relationship ended when Jean Grey (Phoenix) died; Scott (Cyclops) had basically moved on to another woman, but they were still legally married at the time. And Superman and Lois are collateral damage of DC's continuity reboot. Their marriage, possibly their entire relationship, just...never happened.

Stick with me; this will be about religion soon.

There are probably other examples, because the major publishers are going through a bit of a Silver Age nostalgia right now, and striving to return their beloved characters to the form they grew up reading; usually this means single. But in all these cases what bothers me is not the change in the character so much as the efforts to write the marriage out of existence.

Character development, in my mind, should always move forward. That doesn't mean a character can never backslide, but that they should only move one way down their path even if that path loops back on itself. What that means here is if you really want the characters to be single again, have them get divorced. It's not like modern readers would have trouble identifying with that.

It can provide great dramatic tension: imagine two team members' divorce tearing their group apart as sides are taken. Or, if you just want to put it behind and move on, make it an amicable, no-fault divorce. Those do happen, I've been told. Instead, the writers just snapped their fingers and, poof!, no marriage.

What about Cyclops and Phoenix? Didn't she die? Yes, and granted dying seems to be Jean Grey's other super power, but that's still a way of getting out of the relationship without having to deal with marriage. As Dan Savage ironically says, a successful relationship means you stay together until one person dies. Plus, as I mentioned, Scott had already pair up with someone new; there was barely any mourning period, they just moved straight on with him and the new, edgier girlfriend instead of the stable, boring wife.

This got me wondering about the writers; what's going on with these people that they seem to hate marriage so much? Then I realized; most of the (primarily male) writers are right about the age that many marriages are breaking up. Superheroes have always been about escapist fantasy fulfillment, maybe that's what this is; acting out of their desire to "reboot" their own lives as young, single people, not stuck in bitter marriages or going through messy divorces.

Say what you will about these character decisions, but the writers are the ones making the choices. Everyone gets their own interpretation of the character, but the writer's is the one that becomes official.

This is where it becomes about religion.

One of the problems with retaining so much dogmatic history is we keep the laws independent of the context in which they were created. Many bizarre-seeming religious practices have very reasonable explanations in the period in which they originated. For example, there is a burial tradition of placing an egg inside the burial shroud. In the Middle Ages, it was illegal for Jews to bury non-Jews in their graveyards; if strangers showed up with an already prepared corpse, you needed an easy, subtle way to check its legitimacy. Pressing on the corpse's chest and feeling the egg crack provided such a test. Very clever, but does it still make sense now?

One of my former rabbis used to joke that Ashkenazic laws were harsher because they were written by rabbis that had nothing to do all winter but sit around, be miserable, and make new laws. Funny, but it really resonates; it would explain so well the drab, joyless approach to religion that tradition can take.

Still, it may have made sense at the time. But that begs the question: how much do laws that made sense to people living a certain lifestyle still apply to us today?

Monday, August 8, 2011

Harry Potter and the Chosen People

Much ink has been spilt over possible Jewish connections and stereotypes in the Potter-verse (personally I saw neither when I read, but I was mainly reading for the characters and narrative). One aspect I have not seen, though, is Rowling's perspective on what it means that Harry is "chosen".

There is debate about whether Jews should continue referring to ourselves as "the chosen people", both within and without the Jewish community. Some feel there is an implication of racism or superiority in the name, as we were chosen because we are somehow better or have special privileges because of that choice. Others see the name as a historical artifact, like calling Japan the "land of the rising sun", that has little meaning today. But what would Harry say?

One of the reoccurring themes of the later books and movies (spoiler alert!) is that Harry only became the "chosen one" when Voldemort chose him. Harry's classmate Neville is presented as another candidate that fills the prophesy as well as Harry (and to many would have made a better savior as well), but because Voldemort pursued the Potter family, Harry became chosen. It was the act of attacking, in fact, that created the situation that gave the "chosen one" his "powers".

This is supported by the arc of the books. Harry is never the smartest or strongest or best student. He barely has any defining heroic characteristics at all, except maybe for courage and leadership. And even those arguably are a result of his choosing, not something innate, and anyone that survived (by luck and support of his mentor) the same type of early adventures he did would develop those traits.

So what does that say about the Jews? This week's Edible Torah includes a discussion question about a verse that reminds us we were not the largest nation, but the smallest. The implication, reinforced by other midrash, is that we were the nation willing to accept what God offered and required. One could even argue that we needed the protection, so signing up seemed like a good deal. If there were any traits the Jews possessed they were faith and loyalty, and who's to say any nation that had received so much from God would not have developed the same traits to the same degree?

We became chosen because God chose us. Nothing more, nothing less.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Security: A modest proposal

Why is the federal government responsible for airplane safety? Seriously; why is it a federal concern? Why does each airline, from small regional to transcontinental, have the same standards and practices?

Here's my thought: make safety the airlines' concern.

Sure, maybe there can be some slight minimum standards that apply to all, but in general let the air lines get their own equipment and make their own policy.

I think this would actually make a better experience for the customer, by balancing security procedures against market forces. If one airline let their standards dip too far, and their safety rating started to fall, they would have incentive to ratchet security back up. Of course, if they relax security protocols and, as I suspect would be the case, nothing happens, then travelers would have a less annoying, less invasive option. One airline could still be the "strip search and MRI for everyone!" airline, so those looking for a more "secure" experience would be satisfied.

It would give airlines something to compete on besides just price and who has the best peanut-alternative in-flight snack.

It would also provide benefits by allowing individual airlines to act as a lab, of sorts, to test new policies. I'm sure there are measures the federal government has not attempted because they are too expensive/impractical to roll out country wide. Smaller and more adaptable, individual airlines could innovate new security measures. The ones that work become part of the "minimum standards".

Monday, July 25, 2011

Speaking out

Last Friday ginandtacos asked, at what point should you speak up when you see a stranger is in trouble? 
Being a generally nosy and outspoken person, it's rare that I see her without wondering If I Should Say Something. Of course I never do. The excuses for avoiding it are so numerous. It's none of my business. She wouldn't care what a stranger says anyway.... Her friends and family are probably already intervening. I'm being paternalistic and sexist. And so on.
Like Ed, I am a generally nosy and outspoken person, so this is an issue I struggle with as well. Even in smaller, less life-threatening ways, like when I see people committing a faux pas because, apparently, they're new to the area and don't know the culture. Does my attempt to help them fit in override the rudeness of pointing out their mistake? What about confronting people who are themselves being rude? Like asking the guy sitting on the metro to give up his seat to an obviously pregnant woman; am I the hero for helping out - and helping this guy be polite, which he probably wanted to do - or a jerk for embarrassing him?

But those are trivialities. The more frightening examples are the ones Ed points to. Do I speak out when a friend seems to have a problem? What about a co-worker? A complete stranger? Especially if I'm acting only on my amateur analysis of the situation.

Sometimes, I've learned, people don't want - or aren't ready - to be helped. With my friends I've learned to be present and supportive without trying to change them. It's not easy. In the past I have had to essentially cut some of my friends out of my life - temporarily - because they were not ready to change and I could no longer be part of their self-destruction. At some point it's what they need from me in order to get better; at some point it's what I have to do to keep myself from going down with them.

But again, strangers are harder. Ironically, this is a place where "nice people" have more trouble precisely because they are nice. They - we, I hope - care about the other person's feelings, even if the other is acting a manner not deserving such compassion. Our desire to help runs into our desire to avoid embarrassing or upsetting them. I think that's why characters like House have so much appeal; here's someone that won't let hurting patients' feelings get in the way of helping them. We envy that...freedom. That ability to speak, to act, without reservation when we know it is right, regardless of the harm it may cause, secure in the belief the greater good will be served.

Because without it, all to often, we just watch. In silence.

There is a prayer in Judaism which asks God to open our mouths that we may pray properly. Several, actually. I have come to love this prayer. It addresses directly the issue Ed and I face. It asks God - whatever that means to you - to help us find our voice.

To give us the strength to speak.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

With all my heart

A couple weeks ago I got very excited by the idea that the name for our historical priests ("Levi") was very similar to "Lah-vi", which means "my heart". Further research dispelled this notion; there are two letters that make the "v" sound, and the similarity of the two is merely coincidental, not indicative of a linguistic link. Still, the idea intrigued me enough that I wanted to spend some time playing with it.

Following the link in one direction, the priests become the heart of the community. The vital organ that keeps blood and life flowing through our communal body. While the modern rabbi is very different in many ways from historical priests, this part remains the same. More than leading prayers, more than teaching the youth, the rabbi's job is to keep the vital energy flowing through the congregation, spreading prayer, education, and administration where they are needed like nutrients through the bloodstream.

Moving in the other direction, I love the image that each of us has our own personal priest residing in our chest. We do not need external clergy to regulate our connection with the divine; we can create prayers, interpret the law, and talk or listen to god all on our own. This is the voice inside us that reminds us what is right and what is wrong. Beyond the written Torah and the oral Torah we have this inner Torah; we study the others just to remind ourselves of what our hearts already know.

It's probably because of my love of puns, but I am less willing to believe in pure coincidence than most scholars when it comes to words sounding alike. Granted, every language has words they assimilated from other cultures, which greatly heightens the evidence for "coincidence", but one of these terms is a name. That means at some point someone said, "I like the way this word sounds! I want to be called that for the rest of my life." Someone else, knowing the meaning of the name, chose it for their child. Interestingly, the name "Levi" is translated as "joining"; some sources attribute this to Leah's desire for Jacob to join with her. Even if it is a coincidence, there is a very pleasing resonance between "joining" and "my heart".

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

He no go to Meatland!

This pretty well sums up organized religion. Follow my set of arbitrary rules for a theoretical reward that may or may not exist, and anyone that questions it gets kicked out.

Sometime it's necessary to kick out the questioner, as they seek not knowledge and understanding but chaos and disruption of the community. Usually, though, kicking out the questioner is the issue single most responsible for everything that goes wrong with religion.

Ask questions; there will still be meat.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Jewish kids are volunteering, just not for Judaism

And is anyone surprised?

From the article:
Of those polled, a whopping 80 percent [of Jewish youth] reported having volunteered during the previous twelve months. This puts Jewish youth far ahead of the general American population, among whom, in the past year, even the most educated showed only a 42-percent rate of volunteerism.

But in one critical area, Jews are not only failing to hold their own but are markedly underperforming. When it comes to volunteering for religious groups, a venue that commands the primary attention of about one-third of Americans in general, the comparable figure for young Jews is only 22 percent. The remaining 78 percent report indifference to the distinction between Jewish and non-Jewish venues, with 18 percent of these actually expressing a preference for the latter.
Interestingly, the surveyed students were primarily Birthright participants. Which means that, in theory, they should be the most involved Jewish youth, or at least so fresh off this "life-changing experience" that they're looking for ways to help out. It makes the lack of religious volunteering even more notable.

Thinking back to my own experiences with Birthright, I'm not very surprised to hear they got these results from polling the participants. While I did have very intense personal and spiritual moments on the tour, one of the major take-home themes was that Israel is as modern a nation as the US. Tel Aviv might as well have been next to Miami instead of Jaffa, and the locals we met were "Jewish" in the same way most Americans are "Christian". I wonder if this message is backfiring by showing youth they don't need to do Jewish things to be Jewish.

Furthermore, generational research suggests the current crop of high school & college students are very resume minded. They are genuine in their desire to help others, but are very aware that it also looks good on college applications and the like. Given that, is there a concern that "limiting" themselves to Jewish organizations pigeonholes them too much? Are teens volunteering at Jewish agencies also applying to Jewish schools, and working in the Jewish community? Is it too defining, too limiting of the public perception of your personal identity?

A question arises: how is the study defining "religious groups"? Is it enough that a food pantry is funded primarily by Jewish charities, or are we looking specifically at teens helping out around the temple, joining youth group, etc? I assume they mean the former, which makes it a direct apples-to-apples comparison where the primary variable is Jewish affiliation. So we're teaching our kids to help others, and they're helping causes that relate to Jewish values, but they're not identifying as "Jewish" in the process.

And why should they? What are we offering them that enriches the experience? In a way I see this as the over-success of integrating "Jewish" and "American" identities; if the two are combined, why should I self-segregate by volunteering at specifically Jewish agencies? Modern Judaism is at a crossroads, and right now has stopped to consult the map, look both ways, and ask for directions. Meanwhile teens see a religion that's moving away from a stuffy, melancholy past, but not yet moving towards anything new and meaningful.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Dead Jews found down a well

BBC reports that 17 bodies found at the bottom of a medieval well are likely Jewish victims of persecution. 

The most likely explanation is that those down the well were Jewish and were probably murdered or forced to commit suicide, according to scientists who used a combination of DNA analysis, carbon dating and bone chemical studies in their investigation.
The skeletons date back to the 12th or 13th Centuries at a time when Jewish people were facing persecution throughout Europe.
The article describes the source of anti-Jewish sentiment well:

Jewish people had been invited to England by the King to lend money because at the time, the Christian interpretation of the bible did not allow Christians to lend money and charge interest. It was regarded as a sin.
So cash finance for big projects came from the Jewish community and some became very wealthy - which in turn, caused friction.
Interesting article, especially for someone with interest in both Jewish and medieval history, but I am amused that their evidence for these being Jewish corpses seems to be, "Of course they're Jewish! I mean, who else would you stuff down a well?"

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

To my son

I heard your heart beat yesterday.

It's the most beautiful thing I've ever heard.

I want to record it and make it my ringtone,
or lay out speed bumps on our street so when I drive at the right speed
it makes the same rhythm.

Convert it to a data stream and send it into space,
or bounce it from end to end across the internet,
an infinite loop of data. Noise. Life.

I already love you, and I don't even know your name.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Magneto and the Holocaust

Just saw "X-Men: First Class" with my brother and sister-in-law. Pretty good; I enjoyed! One thing really bothered me, though.

It's always the small details with fans, right? With all that changed in the remade Star Trek, my wife gets most upset about Kirk having the wrong eye color. In X-Men, they decided to make Magneto Jewish.

This seems like a small enough change; in the comics, Magneto was (gently) retconed as a Holocaust survivor, informing his separatist vision, making him more sympathetic anti-hero than over-the-top villain, and ratcheting up the irony of his whole "genetically superior race" thing. He was in the camps, though, for being a Gypsy, not Jewish.

Small change; don't really care, on the surface. Glad to have another overachiever in the ranks, right? Except the movie uses this as an excuse to ratchet up the Holocaust imagery to a degree not seen in any summer blockbuster since "Schindler's List". At the end of the movie (spoiler alert!) Magneto declares that he has suffered enough at the hands of those "just following orders" - a badass line! - then dramatically stage-whispers "Never Again!" before doing something naughty.

That was the step too far. Sure, it's another movie where the only identifiably ethnic characters are all villains, but mutants have always been Marvel's metaphor for race, so I'll allow some room for that (small room, though; not happy about it). But summing up Magneto's creed by using modern Holocaust imagery doesn't fit, and turns this complex character into a comic book Jewish Defense League ("A .22 for every Mu....tant"?).

It also reinforces the message that the Holocaust is the central issue of modern Judaism, a philosophy that drives me batty. I get it; he's motivated by revenge. Of course, if he was a nice WASP like Batman he'd be a hero, but no; the Holocaust is so important that it turns Jews violent. Just look at Israel, right?


I don't think that's what the writers were trying to do. I suspect that, like most modern Holocaust literature, one of the writers is the grandchild of a survivor, and wanted to honor his grandparent's struggle, or reinforce how important it was to them, or something. They probably included the "Never Again" line as an inside reference they thought Jewish viewers would appreciate. "Oh," we're supposed to say, "I totally get his motivation now!"

We get it. Fine. But that was the line too far. Based on this subtlety I expect the sequel will be about Magneto's attempts to broker a "Two-State Solution" based on the '67 borders.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Short timer's club

There's a path near my house,
I walk it every day.
Once going out...
...and once coming back.
I realized yesterday there are a finite number of times left
that I will walk those steps.

I say goodbye to my friends,
just for the night,
not knowing if I will ever see them again.
Did I tell them that I love them?
Do they know?
Did we spend our time together well enough,
if this is the last bit we get?

Seeing the seconds slip away,
so many of them, but
going so fast.
An eternity to wait, with no time to act.

Today I walked that path for the very last time.
Unless, someday, I chance to walk those steps once more,
and say to myself,
I never thought to pass this way again.

It's always the little moments that break my heart.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Is circumcision mutilation?

So this is interesting.
A San Francisco group looking to outlaw the practice of circumcision in the Bay Area is one step closer to getting its way...
If the measure passes, circumcision would be prohibited among males under the age of 18. The practice would become a misdemeanor offense punishable by a fine of up to $1,000 or up to one year in jail. There would be no religious exemptions.
And it seems Santa Monica is considering a similar measure. The Santa Monica article contains a number of gems from the head (no pun intended) of the group backing the measure, such as comparing the "mental scaring of circumcision" to what rape victims endure, stating that adult males that get circumcised feel "a sense of loss", and this:
"If you raise your child to be smart and practice safe sex," circumcision is unnecessary..."If you're raising a dumb kid who won't use a condom, then go ahead and cut off two-thirds of his nerve endings and one-half of his penile skin."
It's interesting this is starting in San Francisco; a place so liberal they now want to protect us from our constitutional protections. How can a city with "Pro-Choice" practically printed on the official letterhead get away with restricting parents' right to chose?

My wife thinks this is a thinly veiled attack on Jews - or at least on non-Christians. I don't see antisemitism at the core of this, but I am sure many bigots will eventually sign on. Unless they decide it would be better to see us suffer diminished sex lives; could go either way, really. I think the debate started as a side-effect of increased public awareness, and opposition to, female genital mutilation. That's horrible, but, unfortunately, usually happens in far away places where our protests do no good. So, deciding that all cutting of children's genitals is equal, people started looking at male circumcision.

The two practices are NOT comparable. The difference is like trimming your nails, or having them ripped out. Like removing a mole from your arm, or amputating your hand. Granted, there's risks with any medical procedure, but I have never met, or even heard stories from, anyone who had a modern circumcision go awry.

Historical circumcision was a horrible thing. But all "medicine" was pretty barbaric in the days before antiseptic practices and sterilized instruments. Many rabbis would use their mouths to draw blood away after cutting, which is both disgusting and an excellent way to spread infection (especially if you're living in a time before flossing). I am strongly on-board with the idea that anyone practicing "traditional" circumcision in this manner should serve some jail time.

But for modern circumcision, performed by trained professionals with sterile implements? I'm less concerned.

I never really bought the "it reduces sexual enjoyment" argument; generations of Jewish men have complained about their sex lives, but typically that was because they lost sensitivity, but because they were married to Jewish women. On the other hand, I don't buy the "it reduces vulnerability to STDs" argument either. The "30% reduction!" is pretty exciting, but less so when you consider that reduced a 10% infection rate to 7%; neither of those are population-shifting numbers. Looking more closely, most of those studies measured the impact of circumcisions performed on grown men. I'm willing to bet the reduced infection rate roughly corresponds with the reduction in their total sex life during the recovery period. Not to mention that any adult male religious enough to get circumcised is probably also religious enough to avoid a lot of sexual contact.

So where does that leave us?

Technically, circumcision is genital mutilation. But only in the same sense that ear piercings are auricle mutilation. How does that weigh against being part of a tradition stretching back thousands of generations? I don't think it's fair to say "Let the child decide when he's old enough!" Elective cosmetic surgery on a sensitive body part right as you're entering college? Not likely. And not even a very reasonable request. The penis changes a lot during puberty; I don't know if nerve sensitivity increases during that period, but I was much more aware of it afterwards.

In the end, I'm still left with doubts. Would I want my own son circumcised? I'm not sure. Would I condemn someone else for circumcising their son? Not likely. Is this law a good idea? Absolutely not. But for reasons larger than antisemitism. It attempts to curtail the debate through legislation, rather than persuasion.

As a response on GetReligion.org puts it:
However, the crucial legal question is whether the medical opinions and evidence can trump the religious liberty of Jewish parents to make this decision to follow the tenets of their faith. Does the state, in effect, have the right to change the doctrinal content of the Jewish faith by moving this rite from the first week of life to the, well, first week of adult life?
Where do we draw the line? At what point do we permit a discomforting practice to occur on religious grounds, and when does public health and safety trump even constitutional rights?

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Liberal Judiasm's two foundational problems

This post by Bruce on Three Jews, Four Opinions is the type of thing I aspire to achieve with my own blog. 
This is the scylla and charybdis of liberal Judaism: inauthenticity and irrelevancy. And these two manifests themselves in much of liberal Judaism. I attend a Conservative synagogue, and I certainly see both of them. Many Jews my age (mid 40s) simply opt out of many traditional Jewish practices. They do not keep kosher, attend synagogue, celebrate many holidays, daven, wear tefillin, etc. The attitude of many of my friends is simply that it seems irrelevant, sort of silly, and a little strange to do these things. After all, God did not literally said to do these things, and there just does not seem to be a good reason to do so. And when they do do these things (for whatever reason), it lacks authenticity. So someone might to go synagogue (say, for a bar-mitzvah), but will not feel elevated by the davening, does not know what the Torah parsha says, and does not expect these things. They feel a little like a religious tourist, watching and even going through the motions without really participating.
It gets straight to the core of the issue, presenting it clearly and insightfully. I can't wait to see the rest of the series!.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Myths We Want To Believe

Cracked.com has a post "4 Reoccurring Myths We Apparently Really Want To Believe" that examines some of the more persistent internet rumors and the reasons they have endured. The author is mostly speculating (but probably fairly accurate) about what type of socially unacceptable needs get met by, for example, watching videos of rich people behaving badly.

Amusing, possibly accurate. My favorite part, though, is the ending:
If you ever run into a news story that gets you physically excited, make sure to take a step back and ask why you want it to be true so bad, and see if it's clouding your judgment.
People are frequently reluctant to ask the question, "Why do I believe this?" I'm not talking about major, big-B "Belief", such as belief in God or reincarnation, but the smaller, day-to-day beliefs that we cling to even in the face of other evidence.

"Crime may pay in the short run, but it'll lead to a bad end."

"Study hard in school and you'll get a good job after college."

"Michael Bay is capable of making a great movie."

Big-B Belief tends to be made of many smaller beliefs. in many ways, that makes it worse. It's easy to deal with one potentially non-rational choice, but having to assess and assimilate hundreds, if not thousands, of smaller individual beliefs is daunting. It's easy to believe in big Beliefs like "The government shall not obstruct free speech," or "Thou shall not kill." It gets more difficult when looking at specific cases.

When it gets to the level of these details, it is important to determine not only what you believe but why you believe it. Did you examine the evidence and decide this is the most rational stance, or is it because of a bad experience you had in college? I won't argue that one is better grounds than the other, but it is important to understand for yourself. You may find some of your tightly held beliefs don't actually match your values, if you look closely enough.

Monday, May 2, 2011

My trip to the doctor's office

My hand has been hurting pretty badly for about a month now. Last Tuesday I decided it wasn't going to get better on its own so I looked up a local sports doctor and scheduled an appointment. The earliest they had was Friday morning. I had a day-long driving trip scheduled for Thursday, so this sounded like a terrible idea. Sadly, there were few other options, so I booked the appointment.

Friday morning I arrived early, figuring there would be paperwork. It was a good thing I did.

"We have no record of your appointment," said the receptionist. "Who did you schedule with?"

I did not know who I spoke to. Fortunately, they were still able to get me in. Turns out the doctor had an opening in his schedule at the same time my appointment was supposed to be. So that was convenient.

Then came the paperwork.

I walked in wearing a splint on my left hand, complaining about severe wrist pain. Then signed the check-in sheet - with my left hand, slowly and painfully - while the nurse watched. Then she asked me to complete 12 pages of forms by hand. Now, I would expect many doctor offices to have a system in place to help people that might have difficulty writing, but I understand that a sports medicine clinic might not see those kinds of injuries very often. So that was ok.  I was amused comparing the quality of my handwriting on the first page (pretty good) to the last page (loosely recognizable as English), and contrasting that to the volume and frequency of my screams.

This was followed, of course, by the waiting.



Finally, I got to go to the exam room where a very helpful nurse filled out more forms, asking me for all the same information as on the earlier forms. So it's a good thing I wrote it all out.


Then it was time for the X-rays. The tech was very helpful, and promptly tried to X-ray my knees. I mentioned that probably was not the right strategy, as it was my wrist that was hurting, and, in fact, still had the large splint on it. He consulted his notes for a moment, then stepped into the hallway for a consult. He then returned, and I, reassured by his diligent attention to detail, moved to a new position to have my wrist X-rayed.

Bones properly scanned, he helpfully said, "You're done here," and left. I then ventured forth and attempted to find my original exam room again.

Eventually I did, and was rewarded for my efforts with more waiting.

Doctor finally showed up. Strong jawed, well groomed, looking more like a heroic leading man than  a medical professional. I'm fairly certain he maintains the borderline incompetent staff to make him look even grander by comparison.

He was actually fairly helpful. Although the stereotypical surgeon who doesn't really listen to what I'm saying, or let it deter him from his pre-programed script. Eventually I realized we were having two nearly parallel conversations that would, given time, eventually intersect somewhere around my bill.

"Ok, so what you have is a condition with
a funny name called..."

"De Quervain's tendonitis?"

"...De Quervain's tendonitis. It's an inflamation of the
tendons by the thumb that..."

"Yeah, I figured; I had it a couple years ago."

"...can come up without warning.
After the first case it can reoccur..."

"Yeah, I know. I had it a few years ago. They gave me
one of those funny splints to immobilize my thumb."

"...anywhere from months to years later."

"Yeah. So I'd prefer not to have surgery
at this point, but figure a cortisone..."

"Treatment can involve surgery, but usually we just use
a cortisone shot and a special splint called a 'spica' splint
that immobilizes your thumb."

"....I'm not actually needed for this part of the process, am I?"

"I don't think you'll need surgery; we'll do a quick
ultrasound to make sure, and I'll have someone bring
you a splint. Do you need us to show you how to put
it on? It can be confusing the first time."

"...That would be very helpful, thank you."

So they did the ultrasound - no tendon damage, yay! - then pulled out Satan's own hypodermic and gave me the cortisone injection. I hate needles, so I turned away while he did it. Which meant I got to watch the process on the ultrasound monitor. It's possible that was more disturbing.

Hand's feeling better now. The shot was full of painkillers to tide me over until the cortisone kicked in, which made the rest of the day fun, and the brace did help a lot. The doctor was, overall, very friendly and helpful, so on balance it was a good experience. He even invited me to come back next week if my knees are still hurting.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

My reactions to the news

This is not the first thing I wrote about today's news. Nor even the second. It is a hard thing to discuss without becoming preachy for one point of view or another, and that is not what's needed on this day.

So let me say just this:

It's a good thing he's dead; he was a bastard and I'm glad he's gone. I will not be joining the dancing in the street, but also will not judge those that do.

This is not the end, though.

Osama's death means very little while our troops are still in harm's way. Celebrations tonight mean little if tomorrow is the funeral for another soldier. Already the news tells us the State Department is putting out travel advisories; killing Osama may have made air travel more dangerous. This, in turn, means the lines at the airport will take more time, not less. Already our sights are turning towards Pakistan; what they knew, why they concealed it, and why they did not help us.

To honor those who have died, both on September 11 and in the wars since then, to make Osama's death mean something, make this a step back towards peace and freedom. To the relative sanity our nation enjoyed before the attacks.

Congratulations to our military, who demonstrated once again their devotion and training. Congratulations to President Obama, who probably just secured re-election. Congratulations to all those still hurting from the attacks, who got the vengeance they deserved. 

Osama is now a part of yesterday; make tomorrow about us. They've told us how he died; now let's show them how we live.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Listen to this episode of This American Life!

In Episode 430: Very Tough Love Ira Glass takes a close look at a Drug Court judge that seems to operate way beyond the guidelines usually employed by Drug Courts.

Hell, she seems to go past guidelines set forth by the US Constitution, basic morality, and the Geneva Conventions.

This is the cost of our "War on Drugs".

This is the cost of removing regulators and checks & balances.

This is the cost of giving too much power to the people sworn to protect us.

Listening to the podcast, I honestly believe Judge Williams has good intentions. She wants to help fix these drug addicts, to divert them from a life of crime, and to prevent future drug use. I also believe she was traumatized by her personal contact with addiction, and cannot respond to these cases in a fair, unbiased manner.

But there is a problem with giving too much power, especially unrestrained, to one person, no matter how pure their intentions. We see that time and time again.

Please listen to this story, and share it with a friend. This is a judge that either needs to be removed from her position, or made to understand the effect of her actions clearly enough to change her ways.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Exodus Rhapsody

Our second night seder was painfully dull, and occasionally just painful. On the plus side, I was able to use the time to write this:

Exodus Rhapsody
To the tune of Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody"

Me: Is this the real life
Is this just fantasy
Caught at the Seder
But no food is in front of me
Out of Mitzra'im, but I'm just tryin' to eat...
Read my Hagadah, cheered when they crossed the sea
Because I was a slave, now I know,
Moses said we must go
So we cooked the matzah, doesn't even have time to rise,
To rise.

Slaves: Yaweh, just killed a lamb,
Put its blood upon my door
(This is worse than Yom Kippur)
Moses, once he had to run
But we knew that he'd come back again some day.

God: Moses, oo oo oo, go and see that Pharaoh guy,
This burning bush thing can’t go on forever
Hurry up, hurry up, but first you must cut off your foreskin.

Me: Empty plate, no food has come
And I’ve drunk two cups of wine, head is spinning but I’m fine.
Goodbye, ev’rybody, I’ve got to go,
Gotta find some eggs or maybe chicken soup.
Matzah, oo oo oo, the afikomen we did hide
I really wish we could have eaten it…

Moses: I see a little burning bush around my lamb

Slaves: "Moses go, Moses go, will you go talk to pharaoh?"

Moses: Hello mister pharaoh will you set my people free?

Slaves: Mr. Pharaoh, Mr. Pharaoh, Mr. Pharaoh, Mr. Pharaoh
Mr. Pharaoh let us go!

Pharaoh: You shall not go!

God: I’ll send some frogs, blood, hail, lice, and wild beasts
Darkness and boils, locusts and anarchy
But harden your heart so you won’t set them free!

Moses: Plagues have come, God’s strength show, will you let us go?

God: (Harden heart!)

Pharaoh: No, I will not let you go!

Slaves: Let us go!

God: (Harden heart!)

Pharaoh: No, we will not let you go!

Slaves: Let us go!

God: (Harden heart!)

Pharaoh: No, we will not let you go!

Slaves: Let us go!

Pharaoh: Will not let you go!

Slaves: Let us go!

Pharaoh: Will not let you go!

Slaves: Let us go!

Pharaoh: Um.. No, no, no, no, no, no, no!

Moses: Oh mighty pharaoh, mighty pharaoh, mighty pharaoh let us go.
‘Cause Adonai has a worse plague set aside, you’ll see!
You’ll see!
You’ll see!!!!!

[Instrumental break by frogs]

Moses: So you thought you could break us but now you’ll see your first born die!

Pharaoh: Now I know why I shouldn’t upset Adonai!

Moses: Oh, Pharaoh; set my people free Pharaoh!

Pharaoh: Go on and get out, go on and get right out of here…

Me: Pescah really matters
It’s how we were freed...
Pesach really matters,
But I still am waiting
To eat…

Slaves: Have a Happy Pesach!

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Can the nation protect Roe v. Wade from the states?

A common theme of debate between me and my wife is laws that we agree with in spirit and based on outcomes, but may be a step farther than the government is justified in taking. For example, public smoking; I enjoy smoke-free environments, and therefore support anti-smoking laws, but I'm not sure how the government can justify passing them; it starts a slippery slope where other public activities, some of which I may enjoy, get banned because others find it offensive or harmful.

Which is why I was very conflicted when I read this article on Jezebel.

In summary, many states (about 50, at last count) are considering legislature that erodes Roe v. Wade. The Supreme Court case mainly impacts federal behavior, so there is no protection against these new measures until one is taken to the Supreme Court and overturned (which seems unlikely on several levels).

Putting aside my personal opinion on abortion, though, isn't that how the system is supposed to work? The States may not make a more permissive law than the Federal (which is why California and Colorado are having so much trouble legalizing medical marijuana), but they may be more restrictive. It can suck if you're stuck in one of those more restrictive states, but that's one of the reasons people move. At fencing practice a couple of the guys were discussing friends that would never move to California because they would have to give up some of their guns; agree with their position or not, that's the way it works.

I know there's an exception for civil rights, but I don't understand how it works. A state cannot overrule the permissive Federal definition of who qualifies as a citizen by ruling that, for instance, Jews can't vote. Is there some way that abortion fits into this category, or do we just accept that, like public smoking and gun control, laws will vary from state to state, and move accordingly?

Monday, April 18, 2011

If Moses Had The Internet

Happy Passover!

My favorite part is the background music. If they had only posted that, it would have been enough.


Friday, April 15, 2011

Religious map of America

Saw this about 2 weeks ago, loved it, and wanted to write a whole post about it:

Now, been sitting on it too long, don't remember what I originally wanted to say.

It's probably important to note that this seems to measure plurality, not majority, so even in the heart of Georgia it's possible that most people are not Southern Baptist, they're just too divided among other groups to swing the needle.

It also doesn't indicate how many people are religious in an area; there's no measure of intensity. That means you could have areas where every religious person in that county belongs to X, and yet they are still only 1% of the population. In other words, we're not a predominantly Catolic nation, as this map appears; they just have the most consistent geographic distribution. Compare to this map, showing density of religious adherants, across all religions:

The color scheme probably helps, but I was also reminded of the electoral maps from recent presidential elections. Compare to this one showing shift in voting patterns from 2004 to 2008:

Raises some questions: are Catholics more liberal than we thought? Are they attracted to liberal areas? Does a concentration of Baptists increase conservative tendencies? Combining this with the earlier observation, is the reason some Catholics feel persecuted that they are the largest religious group in ares of the country where not many people are religious?

I also find it interesting that all the non-Christian religions get grouped under "Other". That suggests none of them had more than the LDS's 81 counties (not surprising), and I'm sure some of those "Others" are also Christian varietals, but still.

Talk about being made the outsider; they literally labeled all Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and every other Asian religion as The Other, a term usually applied to groups to explain why they are hated and/or feared. Heck, looking at this map you'd think there are no non-Christians in the country! That disturbs me more than a little.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Of Petroleum Bondage

Tomorrow marks the one year anniversary of BP treating the ocean like an unconscious drunken Freshman girl at a frat house ruining the Gulf ecology for decades to come. This year is also the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War, an event with no small thematic relation to tonight's seder. As I was listening to the Backstory podcast on "Why They Fought", the three events started coming together in my mind.

One of the must surprising points the American History Guys made in the podcast was that many, if not most, of the Southern solders were not slaveholders. So why did they fight to protect the institution? For some it was aspirational; they hoped to one day be wealthy slaveholders. For others it was because their livelihood, and the entire Southern economy for that matter, was dependent on cotton. And cotton depended on slaves. Ending slavery, therefore, was seen as enough of a threat to their financial well-being that they were willing to fight and die to maintain it.

When put that way, it started to make sense to me. I still could not condone it, but, I imagined, what if a law was passed tomorrow banning the use of all petrochemicals starting immediately? Heck, go smaller; just outlaw it as a fuel source. Don't even worry about all the manufactured products that contain petrol. How much chaos would it cause? How much would people fight; would it be enough to get them up in arms?

I think it might.

On a recent episode of Extreme Makeover Home Edition, the team built a net-zero house. All the energy would come from wind and sun; a small up-front investment would result in long-term savings for the family and the environment. It made me really upset - not that they built the house but that this type of construction is encountering so much resistance to adoption! It seems like it should be a no-brainer. Annual home energy cost in LA is about $1,500; given a 20 year life on a home, as long as the net-zero additions add less than $30,000 it's a net savings! And even if the end cost is slightly higher, the environmental benefit makes it worthwhile.

So why all the resistance? Because too much of our economy depends on oil. That has made the oil companies rich enough to buy into other sectors of the economy - and government - meaning change is unlikely to come from those directions either. The institution of slavery was economically "successful" enough that it, ironically, made the beneficiaries of the system prisoners to it, as did the Egyptians in biblical times; they had to give their lives to prevent its destruction. Likewise, we have become prisoners to oil.

As with the Southern soldiers, I understand but do not condone. Massive societal level change is frightening and difficult; incremental change is either too minor to notice, or small enough to be quashed. Finding the balance between "actually getting stuff done" and "societal disruption" is difficult. But it needs to happen.

Passover reminds us that we are, each and every one of us, slaves and descendants of slaves. That teaches us to look past any temporal "economic benefit" to see the human suffering behind it and demand release. Our endless need and quest for oil holds the Earth hostage; our economic gain comes at the cost of tremendous suffering by our planet and the living things upon it. We must see past that and demand freedom!

I make this bold statement, and then I will go downstairs, get in my car, and burn two gallons of oil to get to my seder. Because I too am a prisoner.

Happy Pesach

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Headline Issues

Tonight's episode of 60 Minutes included a feature on Archbishop Dolan, the Archbishop of New York that many people say is the best candidate for an American Pope in the near future. It was an interesting interview; he's a very gregarious guy, and it's not hard to see why he has risen so high in the church.

Much of the interview dealt with his "very conservative" views on the major politically controversial views held by the Church (homosexual marriage, female clergy, abortion, etc.). His reply was: "Instead of being hung up on these headline issues, let's get back to where the church is at her best."

Interesting response; I would be curious to hear his views on where the church is best. More than that, though, is it's a very good point. The Catholic Church, and religion in general, does so much more than usually gets discussed; we get hung up on specific policies and all the "Thou Shalt Not" language, and forget about helping people grow spiritually and emotionally.

But it's also a response that cuts both ways. He's essentially saying, "forget about this issue so we can focus on the important stuff". Well, fine, but in the face of pervasive and radical social change, why is it the congregation that must forget about it rather than the church?

These issues have become distractions. They steal focus and resources from the things we should be focusing on. It says something about the Church that they point to the debate around these issues as a distraction, but continue funding it.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Work Ethic

A short one:

The Protestant work ethic is frequently held up as the core of America's productivity. Work hard, don't complain, never ask for or expect anything for yourself, and feel bad if you fall short of expectations, whether internally or externally applied.

This is what makes a good Protestant. It is also what makes a good worker.

It is also what makes a good slave.

Was this Protestant ethic the beginning of our modern version of feudal society? If we're not there already, we're quickly moving towards that point. Strong inequalities between the "upper" and "lower" classes, educational and cultural divides, and financial systems that keep the less-well-to-do indebted to their corporate masters.

If so, is this a case of a system turning on itself, with hypocritical or oblivious Protestants profiting from their fellows, or a case of religious exploitation where another group came in and took advantage of the Protestants' hard-working nature?

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Oboist? Really?

Check out these fun charts on Three Jews, Four Opinions:

The online comic strip xkcd sometimes includes funny charts and graphs showing the number of google hits for variations of a phrase or sentence. For example, "x bottles of beer on the wall" shows a spike at x=100. I figured I would try a few Jewish themed ones just for fun.

Are we equals?

I'm never quite sure what to make of things like this:

I support the cause of women's equality, and agree that the problems enumerated by narrator Dame Judi Dench are serious ones, but I feel like the type of equality she's asking for can never quite be reached, in the same way that we can never completely eliminate crime, homelessness, and violence. It's an asymptotic thing; we can get close to, but never actually reach, zero.

So at what point do we say enough is enough?

Her closing remark answers that question: "Until the answer is yes, we must never stop asking." Her statement is a reminder that, though we may never complete the work, we are not exempt from it. That perspective recasts this entire video for me and redirected my opinion on it. There will always be that last bit of equality to strive for, and as things stand today that "last bit" is pretty large.

That said, as I watched this video I was reminded of the epidemiologist that observed AIDS patients are now living long enough to die of other things. The video points out that two women a week are killed by domestic violence in England; that's tragic, but in 2008 (the most recent year I could find numbers for) murder rates for male victims were 225% higher than for female. So if we want to talk about violence as an indicator of inequality, let's consider the full picture.

The gender salary gap in America is still a problem, but during the recession unemployment is significantly higher for men (pdf). Furthermore, college admissions are skewing strongly female (57% since 2000), and young boys are more likely than girls to be illiterate, drop out of school, and go to jail. All factors likely to lead to lower lifetime earnings.

Remind me again which way that "inequality" arrow is assumed to be pointing?

My goal is not to play a game of "Who has it worse?"; that's a game you only lose by winning. The answer, of course, is to work on improving the environment for everyone. But that's part of why I have trouble with messages like that in this video, whatever the oppressed group in question. Archaic assholes aside, and I think we all can agree that is a demographic that needs to be quietly and quickly shuffled to the side, most members of the "privileged" group tend to honestly believe these "equality" problems were already settled. So seeing a video like this causes...confusion.

"I thought this was taken care of", the internal monologe goes. "What, exactly, still needs to be done? Am I supposed to apologize? Write my Senator? Donate money?" Compassion, and confusion, have been generated, but without a clear channel for these energies the mind deals with the stress by converting the emotions into something easier to deal with.

Like anger, or resentment.

I appreciate a good piece of messaging; I liked the video for the narration, even if I didn't understand what they hoped to achieve with Daniel Craig. For most of it, though, my primary emotional reaction was defensiveness. "Those poor women," I thought, "how they are suffering! What wicked, shameful group is oppressing them so?


...like me?"

I thought one of the goals of equality was to prevent media messages from making people feel bad about themselves because of gender, race, or equality; how does it help the cause to turn the tables on the "oppressor"?

Harry Chapin set a good example (in an interview that I now cannot find, dang it!). He talked about coming back to school the day after Thanksgiving break, and having the principal address the class, saying, "We did a great job with our food drive, collected a lot of food for a lot of families! Now let's talk about what they're going to eat tomorrow..." 

Ironically, this is also the tactic used on Biggest Loser; let's acknowledge our successes, celebrate them, and talk about how we continue moving forward. This is a format most people respond well to; it acknowledges both the work done and that still remaining, and provides a gentle, irresistible pressure to continue. Leave the stark, bleak, frightening messages for actual life-and-death scenarios, and politicians trying to raise money.

Saturday, March 12, 2011


[I wrote this back in August 2009, and it got lost in my Drafts folder after that. I still think it's interesting, and decided to post without heavy updating or editing.]

Science news from last week is that the appendix does, in fact, have a purpose. Unsurprisingly, religious bloggers have jumped on this as "proof" of science's fallibility and therefore, by extension, religion's truth. Many suggest, as did Rabbi Yonason Goldson, that "... knowledge and understanding have caught up with yet another aspect of Creation ...", asserting the position that eventually science will learn enough to see religion was right all along (the writer somehow connects this to mixing wool and cotton; not sure I follow that particular leap).

I disagree with Rabbi Goldson, largely because he tries to strengthen the artificial divide between science and religion. The part of his article I do agree with is this:
"But jumping to the conclusion that anything we cannot explain must have no purpose or rationale demonstrates one of the most common forms of human arrogance. How often have science and medicine had to rethink their positions after new research has turned long-held truths upside down and inside out?

Even the greatest among us are prone to this kind of error. King David questioned the purpose of spiders and of insanity. (Personally, this author has a problem with mosquitoes.) The Almighty did not explain Himself to David."

This arrogance, as he terms it, exists on both "sides" of the debate. Just yesterday, while discussing the topic of belief, a friend determined the question unanswerable, the existence of God therefore irrelevant, and belief therefore foolish. But this is the same mistake biologists made for years; everyone "knew" the appendix had no purpose because we had been unable to find that proof. How, then, does lack of evidence disprove religion?

We cannot dismiss any idea or concept, whether the value of the appendix or the existence of God,  because of lack of evidence. All an unanswered question proves is that the question has not been answered.

Of course, that works both ways. Assuming there is a God, and the Torah/Bible/Koran contains his literal words is also incorrect, because it too is unproven. There exists a tension between the two positions, and it is within that tension that belief can exist.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Jews vs. NPR? It's a trap!

I read this today:
The oldest and one of the largest pro-Israel groups in the country is urging American Jews to call their congressmen and demand they de-fund NPR following the release of an undercover video showing two National Public Radio (NPR) executives agreeing as men pretending to be members of a Muslim Brotherhood front group lament “Zionist” control of U.S. media.
My first thought? Bullshit.

My second thought? Someone's trying to start a fight.

Several commentators have noted that parts of the conservative (political, not religious) movement of the last few decades has slowly but steadily worked to drive wedges between various segments of middle (as in class) America, slowly eroding most of the protections put in place to limit what Big Business can do to us. Unions? Check. Teachers? Check. Safety regulators? Check. 
That's what this feels like. First of all, it sounds like the ACORN and Planned Parenthood "sting" operations; people pretending to be Muslim Brotherhood members? Seriously? And they just happened to be recording the meeting? Shocking. It's amazing how often these things happen by accident.

Oh wait; these things don't happen by accident. Sure, meetings get recorded that shouldn't, and those recordings get leaked, but people don't "accidentally" impersonate Muslim extremists and badmouth Israel in front of network executives. 
My thought? The Republican Party has been after NPR for years. They have been opposed by Democrats and patrons of the arts, both groups in which Jews are over-represented. So if you can stir up some false controversy to move Jews away from NPR, then you can politically kill it.
Don't fall for it. NPR is important; it brings us a TON of amazing programing (Sesame Street? This American Life?). It puts the Arts on TV in a way that no other basic cable channel, and few premium ones, do. That is important to us as Americans, and as Jews. Art and education, especially education, are vital parts of Jewish culture. Look at how often the two are combined: we use operatic-level cantoral music to teach children prayers and Torah. Our religion began when God gave us a book and told us to study it, and shortly thereafter told us to decorate it prettily.

If you really are upset by this "gotcha journalism", you still should support NPR. Insist on the removal of those executives if you must, but keep network.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Pakastani leader murdered for opposing blasphemy laws

This is why rule by theocracy should never be permitted.
Christians say their community, and other minorities, no longer feel secure in Pakistan. Few believe government promises the killers will be brought to justice."They have neither the ability nor the will," one Khushpur mourner, Nasreen Gill, told AP.

In January, an MP from the governing Pakistan People's Party (PPP), Sherry Rehman, dropped a bill to reform the law, because her party leaders would not back it.

She has all but disappeared from view amid concerns for her security.
And it's legal, see? Because it was made into law.

The blasphemy laws, the policies being protested, make it a  capitol offense to insult Islam. Apparently it's now "insulting" to request that the law be removed. Next, I can only imagine, it will become an insult to Islam to oppose the Prime Minister's new export plan. Or object to an increase in taxes (except for Muslims, who receive a 100% "no insult intended" deduction).

Anyone want to guess how long until they decide it's an insult to belong to any faith besides Islam? And, of course, no one will be able to fight back or defend themselves, because violence is against the law.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

This is what obesity looks like

I've been wanting to write about this for a while, and a report on BBC.com today finally provided the impetus. According to the report, "only" a quarter of Canadians are obese, an approximately 5% lower obesity rate than the US. It seems a strange thing to celebrate, along the lines of promoting that your bottled water now has "5% less arsenic!", but that's not my problem. I object to the BMI chart used to categorize obesity; according to those charts over a third of American adults are obese.

And I am one of them.

According to the chart, at 6'5" and 270 pounds my BMI is 32 (30 and above is obese). If I lost 20 pounds, I would still be categorized as overweight (BMI 29.6). In fact, I would have to lose 60 pounds to reach a BMI of 24.9 ("normal weight") at 210 lbs. That's 20 pounds lower than I've ever been in my adult life, even when I went on a successful diet program and lost so much weight I had to replace every piece of clothing I owned because everything was too big.

For reference, I look like this:

No, wait; sorry, wrong picture. I look like this:

Yes, I have some weight around my gut I could afford to lose. Yes, my waist size is 42, which is 4" above my all-time adult low and  recommended Waist-to-Height ratio. I will accept "overweight" as a label, ignoring for the minute the societal commentary inherent in the idea.

But obese? That doesn't seem right.

Now the chart does admit that "athletes" might have skewed results due to higher muscle mass, and I am off the bottom of the standard chart based on my height, so I might just be in the point where things break down. But while I do have a couple "athletic" hobbies, I've never considered myself an "athlete". Especially since most weeks those hobbies only occupy two nights total. And there's a big difference between "slightly skewed results" and "need to lose 25% of your current weight".

It makes me wonder, though, when I hear these big national numbers. I'm hardly the most "athletic" person out there; if the statistics are (wrongly) labeling me obese, how many other people are falsely propping up these numbers? Should they actually read, "30% of all American adults, minus all professional athletes and people over 6"4"? How inaccurate are they at lower levels? For that matter, if these are based solely on height vs. weight but ignoring the source of that weight (ie, muscle vs. fat) so that an Olympic athlete and a couch potato can show up at the same BMI, how is this a valid predictor of health?

If this were purely a matter of scientific labeling it would be no big deal. But obesity has, over the past decade or so, become both a major political and social issue. And being the "fat kid" has been a major social stigma for much longer than that.

There is serious debate about charging obese people more for certain things, such as airplane tickets and health insurance. This is partially practical (obese people generate higher fuel and medical expanses), but mostly stems from the American Puritanical philosophy of "personal responsibility". Meaning we should punish these people for their sloth and gluttony.

Much better writers than I have pointed out that "fat" is one of the last acceptable forms of public discrimination. Magazines can call out people for their weight in ways they would never be allowed to based on race, religion, gender, or sexuality.

Being labeled overweight, let alone obese, can be emotionally and socially damaging for adults and even more so for kids. I agree that obesity is a major social health problem, and parents that allow (or cause) their children to be obese are performing them a disservice that borders on neglect, if not abuse. But we are throwing around this stigma and labeling and punishment based on a measurement that is flat-out broken.

Regardless of whether charts and measurements are the way to approach this issue at all, making such important measurements using a broken tool is beyond irresponsible.