Friday, November 06, 2009

ITC Volenuteer serves as Substitute Teacher

Yest. at the Amal school at which I volunteer to help out students with English in small groups through the Otzma ITC program, I was suddenly notified that two teachers didn't show up that day and I was asked to attend the class of "Sari" (10th grade). I was very excited and honored at this request. After all, one of the core reasons for me being on this program, is the availability to polish up on my teaching skills, especially in classroom settings, in preparation for a possible future job as a teacher. Unfortunately, I hadn't expected this and so I didn't really have a prepared lesson plan. I did have my usual repertoire of ideas and exercises which I had been using to teach my students in the usual small-group setting. The really unknown variable was: will I be able to control the class? Will the students listen to me? Will they find my tone and style engaging?

The control issue was addressed through the presence of a substitute "discipline" teacher whose duty it was to keep the class in order. She was apparently not qualified to teach English and so she just made sure that the students were well-behaved and paying attention to my class. The first half of the class went wonderfully. I had a long list of English nouns, verbs and adjectives written on small color-coded papers with their Hebrew translation on the reverse side. I put that to good use in the class, reviewing those vocabulary words with them. I made extensive use of the whiteboard, marking English words and their Hebrew translations on board and often illustrating with a sample sentence.

I also found that many Israeli students tended to confuse similar-sounding English words such as "wait" with "white", "angry" with "hungry" and so on. So whenever I asked the class for the meaning of an English word and it became apparent to me that they were confusing the word with another one, I immediately wrote both words on the board; I "modeled" the difference in pronunciation, if any, and I also pointed out the difference in spelling and meaning.

Later I moved on to some other topics. I reviewed the spectrum of colors in English, in which activity they fully participated. When it came to prepositions, pronouns and the proper auxiliary verb used with pronouns (am/are/is) I had a more difficult time maintaining their full attention but there were always some who did pay attention. In fact, there was one student who kept shushing the others and directing them back to me whenever they sought to start their own little conversations in class. It works amazingly well when a student, rather than a teacher, does shushing.

Finally, the students insisted they wanted "galgal hamazalot" (wheel of fortune). I wasn't quite sure how to conduct this game. So I had a student administer the game in front of the class using Hebrew words and I then proceeded to do the same in English. I was citing famous American actors such as Brad Pitt, Jim Carey, Johnny Depp and Leonardo DiCaprio. I also noted on board the names of major movies they starred in. This was a pretty popular activity.

It was all a milestone for me since this was the first time I ever taught in a traditional high school class setting. I am --somewhat surprisingly-- quite satisfied with my confidence level. For a first-timer I think I did great. In the future however, I hope to be coming a bit better prepared and I will do my utmost to make the material as entertaining and enjoyable as possible.

Over the past two months here in the Qiryat Malakhi school system, I noticed that all students essentially do want to learn. The question really is: at what level and through what methods? the challenge for me is to figure out how to tailor-fit a lesson to the needs and preferences of the class at hand, so as to maximize their participation and learning experience.

Overall, the ITC program here is making a huge difference. Most of the students at my school know me by now, even though I still sometimes wonder how, not remembering most of their names. The small student group setting has been extremely effective at getting through to students who feel that big classes are too cold and impersonal. When I teach in small groups I make sure that everyone understands the text we are reviewing and the newly acquired vocabulary. I very often have students tell me that they want to be with me more often and that this experience works so much better for them.

Also yest. I had a student who was so happy and excited about studying English in my class that she said (in Hebrew) "with your help I will be able to do well on the Bagrut exams. I want to be with you every time (instead of the regular class)". Towards the end of the class she insisted that we finish the text in its entirety before we adjourn. I felt that she experienced a newly kindled hope and confidence in her ability to succeed in English after that class. I should point out that, ironically, this very same girl was a bit reluctant to join my group at first, claiming that she wouldn't understand me in English. The teacher assured her that I can explain things in Hebrew and that is of course precisely what I did, in order to make the text accessible and fun for her to read and understand.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Otzma ITC Experience

The Otzma ITC Experience in the Qiryat Malakhi School System. Today was a very special day for me in my journey towards becoming a school teacher: I was sitting in front of a full class of 12th graders and interviewed them as a preparation for their oral 5-point bagrut (=matriculation) exam. The kids were 16-18 years old and it was very evident that they invested a great deal of effort to reach the stage they were at in English proficiency. Some of them were almost as fluent as native speakers which most impressed me.

written Nov 4 2009

Friday, October 30, 2009

rain water in Israel, good or bad?

Today was the first time it rained in Israel in the current winter season. In Israel rain is precious. Unlike in the states, today is an unofficial holiday; everyone is happy that rain has finally come. At the town in which I reside, Qiryat Malakhi, there is lots of parched earth and dust but little grass or even weeds. Folks cannot overcome this challenge by irrigating their yards since there is a shortage of water. Natural rain water is the only practical way of generating plants and greenery as well as supply water for human consumption.

As I was pondering the benefit of rain, as contrasted with its nuisance status in the states, The verse in Deut. 11:11 came to mind:

For the land, into which you are entering to possess it, is not like the land of Egypt from which you came, where you used to sow your seed and water it with your foot like a vegetable garden. But the land into which you are about to cross to possess it, a land of hills and valleys, drinks water from the rain of heaven, a land for which the LORD your God cares; the eyes of the LORD your God are always on it, from the beginning even to the end of the year.

God contrasts The land of Israel with the land of Egypt, the former being irrigated by the Nile and the latter relying on rainwater. At first glance we are bothered: why mention this? According to historical and scientific data, we know that rivers are a better source of water for agriculture than rain; the very first "civilizations" sprang up along the Nile and the Tigris-Euphrates rivers as a result of society's ability to produce excess agricultural produce in such fertile regions. Why would God point out a negative aspect of the land of Israel?

So we must be misreading the text. Gos is pointing out this contrast in order to show a positive aspect of the land of Israel, namely, that its residents must turn to God for help with their agriculture; they cannot rely on the natural, assured course of events. Or, more precisely, that God shows a "special interest" in this land by actively bringing rain upon when needed, as opposed to abandoning its fate to the natural course of events as is the case in Egypt.

It's like a teacher who is giving special attention to a weak student in the class and then makes a point of it, saying: You are "special". Unlike the other students (who are smart enough not to require extra help) you get my undivided special attention at times, so that you will understand what is being taught in class.

But is this really a compliment? I suppose that in our culture the above-cited example is more likely to be taken as an insult than as a compliment, and rightfully so, it seems. But the Biblical author, in his naivete, genuinely thought that God's "special attention" is more valuable than the superior natural environment in Egypt and Mesopotamia.

My question is: Is there any truth to such an idea? Note: that the existence of God and his ability to favorably single out one nation from the rest does not have to be established in order to investigate this matter. My question is: In the minds of the biblical authors of Deut (seventh cent. BCE), who evidently operated on such assumptions, does this positive idea regarding their "special status" have any rational basis?

Surprisingly, the answer is yes! Let me sashay into Greek culture for a moment in order to illustrate this. While the Ancient Assyrians, Babylonians, Hittites, Egyptians and early Persians were the masters of the civilized world, the Greeks were not on the map yet. They were barley managing to survive in the tough climate of their native hilly mountains of Attica and Peloponessus. What happened? What propelled them onto center stage? Well, it was necessity! They had no choice! In order to survive, they couldn't rely on the accepted practice of agriculture and were forced to seek out an alternative. They thus became shipbuilders and seafarers, merchants and tradesmen. For the first time in world history, there was a people who found themselves in a unique position to absorb a wide array of cultural information from the various people they encountered in their travels and to redistribute that information and culture in an improved form. In other words: they initially set out to trade material goods but what turned out to be far more important is the much more "profitable" trading of ideas that their adventures enabled them to accomplish. Democracy, Philosophy, Mythology and Logic are just a few of the Greek inventions that were so influential in catapulting them into stardom. It is precisely the humble origins of the Greeks that guaranteed them center stage in the future.

We all know that the Ancient Israelites have likewise left an indelible and most valuable legacy to world civilization: religion. All contemporary western religions have their origin in the ideas that circulated in seventh century Judea. So, we must ask, what was so special of them after all?

The answer seems to lie, as the case is with the Greeks, in their adversity, not their material successes. The Judeans, were FORCED, unlike inhabitants of the major civilizations in Egypt and Mesopotamia, to constantly be on the alert: will there be the Early rain (yoreh, in the month of heshvon) to break up the ground for ploughing? Will there be late rain (malqosh, in kislev) to provide nourishment to the seedlings? They were forced to conceive of elaborate cause and effect relationships concerning a universal all-powerful God who is creditable and responsible for their successes and failures. Unlike Egyptians and Mesopotamians who "couldn't fail" (their crops grew reliably year after year), Judeans were forced to ponder the question during years of famine: why has our God forsaken us? What did we do wrong? How can we improve going forward? This self-critical modus operandi proved to be invaluable to the world!

Remember this rule: success generates failure and failure generates success. The USA, the strongest country in the decades following WWII, is now doomed to swap positions with China, the weakest major power in the world. I am concerned about the future of the the West (including the USA) and if history is a reliable guide, there is, alas, nothing we can do to reverse the long but inevitable process in which the USA and China reverse roles.

edited 6/29/2011

Friday, October 02, 2009

The Underpinnings of Israeli Society are Starting to Piss me Off

Hello from celcom: on evenings strating from 8 pm until 7 am and on weekends from 2 pm on Friday until 8 am Sunday morning our service representatives will provide service in the event of lost or stolen phones. For all other matters we will be happy to assist you starting on Sunday 8 am.

This is the message I just received on my phone when trying to make an outgoing call. This, after being notified that my phone had been marked as lost or stolen! I repeatedly get this message in Hebrew and English alternately whenever I try making any call, including the customer service phone number designated specifically for lost and stolen phones. So, what’s wrong here?

According to the message, they will provide service in my case; yet nobody is answering the phone!

But let’s analyze this message a little more closely. Note that the message is quite cryptic and very difficult to comprehend for several reasons:

• The message does not clarify that the time I am calling falls within the range of “afterhours”.
• It starts with an introductory clause –a complicated linguistic mechanism—for no reason. The emphasis should be on the task the listener wants to perform, not on the hours celcom is available to help. The introductory clause totally distracts my attention since it doesn’t seem to address the issue I am concerned with.
• Assuming that the customer is calling to seek routine customer service and it is therefore unavailable at that time insofar as it is afterhours, the message actually fails to drive that point home. The listener is still left wondering whether celcom is willing to help him during afterhours. At best, the message seems to imply that they don’t “happily” provide service during afterhours, but it is far from clear that service is not available at all during afterhours for non-phone theft matters.
• “we will be happy to assist you starting on Sunday….” What about the ending? Once again the announcer makes an unwarranted assumption that the listener still remembers that Friday afternoon at 1pm is when “afterhours” kick in. Besides, it’s never been mentioned that any particular service becomes unavailable on Friday at 1pm.
• The message could be construed as stating that phone theft support is only available during afterhours.
• The announcement illogically first deals with the unusual case of phone theft support and only later mentions the available hours for regular support. This is a very bad practice since the listener is likely to hang up the phone –be in intentional or not-- before he gets to hear the part of the message that is relevant to him.

All this sows who Israeli society is not logically organized and there is no real commitment to customer service in this country despite the great strides they seem to have made in the overall adoption of western mores. And what’s up with all these holidays? Am I not expected to be on the phone on a holiday? What, then, do people do on holidays and weekends? If having a functional celphone is not important on a weekend, then what is? In the country I come from (USA) there is fierce competition for the sale of goods and services to consumers. If the consumer wants or needs something, the consumers gets it, because if they don’t, they will find another company to provide it for them or a company will happily spring into existence in order to fill a void in consumer demand that can and should be filled. What
is wrong with this country?

Monday, August 03, 2009

Judeo-christianity vs. Greco-persian culture

Between the years 400 BCE and 100 AD the four corners of Ancient Civilization combined in inexplicably intricate ways to form our modern "Western Civilization". I have recently spent hours upon hours attempting to untie the Gordian Knot but I am still struggling. What is the true relationship between these four elements? Which is cause and which is effect? Which is the winner and which one is the loser? Are there any other elements that should be part of the equation and if so, assuming what role?

Let's start by classifying a movement as either political or religious. We know that Judaism and Christianity were mostly religious movements during this period. We also know that Greece and Persia vied for political control of Asia and Europe, so they can viewed as political rivals. However, viewing Judaism vs. Christianity as rival groups, implying that they both carried more or less equal weight and competed within the same domain, is probably incorrect. This is part of the reason why it's so difficult to figure out the true nature of the relationship between those various forces.

So what really is Judaism all about and when was the religion born?

Judaism was largely born in response to the Assyrian attack against Judea in 701 BCE. This particular campaign, in my opinion, holds pivotal significance in the inception of Judaism. There is, in fact, no evidence of any "Judaic practices" before this date. 2Chron 29 recounts how Hezekiah revitalized temple sacrifices. 2Kings 18:5 tells us that no Davidic king before or after him (Hezekiah) was like him in piety and greatness. It seems sensible to connect his great political and military maneuvering with his religious reforms in the temple. The Yahwistic cult that he established was designed to unite the nation politically against Assyria. Hence, when the bible describes how he removed the "high places", it promptly also tells us that "Yahweh was with him; wherever he went out (in war) he was successful, and he rebelled in the king of Assyria (Sennacherib) and he did not serve him". The suggestion is that removing the high places enabled him to be more successful against Assyria. (Of course, for the late Biblical author, Hezekiah's success was seen as a supernatural reward for his piety, but we need not conform to such interpretation. We can explain it through the natural, rational connection between national/religious/political unity and military success in parrying off a foreign invader.)

Historians do not know exactly why and how Jerusalem was spared against the Assyrian onslaught. The bible tells us that an angel smote the Assyrians encamped against Jerusalem whereas Sennacherib wants us to believe that Hezekiah paid a heavy tribute and the Assyrians then left voluntarily having been satisfied. In the "Taylor Prism", Sennacherib states that he had shut up Hezekiah the Judahite within Jerusalem, his own royal city, "like a caged bird".

Regardless, this event is extremely significant both for Assyrian and Jewish History. For Assyrians it's important because it's the only city that was not actually conquered and exiled by the Assyrians (albeit perhaps at a significant monetary cost to the Judahites). For Jews it's even more important because if Jerusalem had been conquered by Assyria at that time (and it was just a split hair away from such a fate), the Judahites (from whence "Jews" is derived) would --in all probability-- have been exiled and assimilated just like their northern brethren two decades earlier. There would have been no Judaism and no Christianity, as we know them.

So why indeed were the Jews spared? Were the Assyrians really incapable of subduing Judea? That's quite unlikely! I think the answer is a combination of the Judaean unique position in the Ancient Near East and some good luck to boot. The good luck element is that Sennacherib was informed of a coup back in his capital at Nineveh and so had to care of more important business first. The rational explanation for Judea's political survival relies on several factors:

Judaea --unlike the northern Israelite territory-- did not contain any natural resources, which would make them a prime target for would-be conquerors. Judaea is pretty much situated in the midst of a desert and is the capital of a land of poor peasants who barely subsist off the land and are forced into pastoral nomadism or migration during rough times. Judea, did not hold any material importance to the Assyrians in the same way as the Philistine (Gaza) or Phoenician (Tyre and Sidon) coastal cities did. Judaea's importance lay solely in its role as a linking station between the two great ancient civilizations: Egypt and Mesopotamia. In Earlier times (late Bronze age), when Egyptians were stronger, the buffer zone between the two powers was situated far to the north, as evidenced by the famous battle of Kadesh in the early 13th century between the Hittites (who were a ruling caste in Mesopotamia at that time) and the Egyptians. Incidentally that battle also likely ended up in stalemate despite both sides claiming victory, which is also precisely what's happening in 701 BCE with respect to the Assyrian vs. Judaean-Egyptian campaign. Thus, the ONLY reason the Assyrians lay siege to Jerusalem was to accomplish the goal that our modern Pres. Bush articulated in the Iraq war of 2003 "let's fight them abroad, so that we don't have to fight them at home". The Assyrians sought to check Egyptian ambitions by pushing the border farther south and thereby consolidating more securely important territories that lay within their empire.

Viewed under this light, the 701 BCE battle over Judaea is both the least and most important of all the Assyrian campaigns through their two centuries in power. It's insignificant because there really wasn't anything material to be reaped from the region. But it's also of critical importance to Assyrians, if they are to establish a secure border with Egypt. From history we know that 701 BCE also roughly marked a military turning point for the Assyrians. Even though they continued to hold power in Asia for most of the seventh century, their power was by then on the decline. A new kid on the block, the Babylonians, were the rising stars. This meant that the Judaeans were safe from a second attempt at conquest on the part of the Assyrians. The Assyrians had reached their peak in 701 BCE by expanding their empire all the way from Nineveh to Samaria, but that was as far as they would go. It was all down hill from there and that fact is what saved Judea from Assyrian conquest, UNLIKE any other city-state situated more closer to Assyrian lands.

What I am proposing here is that Judea up until the times of Hezekiah was just like any other ancient near-eastern state. Their laws, customs, rituals, temples and henotheistic religion were all essentially indistinguishable from other ANE city-states. The thing that set them apart from the rest going forward was their geographic location and the fact that they were saved from Assyrian political conquest due to that.

After 701 BCE there was no doubt great celebration within Judea on occasion of their ability to maintain their independence: no other city-state had been able to do so. As was typical in those ANE cultures, military success was ascribed to the superior ability of the victor's national deity. Thus, I could imagine that Judaeans were then convinced more than ever that their god --whom they now called Yahweh-- was tremendously mighty and worship-worthy. This in turn initiated a very vigorous movement to centralize and standardize their religious practices and temple rituals. At the very same time that this was occurring in Judea, other conquered peoples in Asia were being assimilated into the Assyrian empire.

In 612 BCE, the Babylonians took over the helm of leadership but that had no overall effect on the empire. Then, in 537 BCE the Persians and Medes came to power and as "liberators" they sought to reverse the processes of the Assyrian and Babylonian regimes by respecting and even aiding provincial religions. However, at this point (200 years after the Assyrian campaign across the Levant) there wasn't much left to resurrect of ANE cults since they had been mostly subsumed by the Assyrian and Babylonian empires. In other words, once again Judaeans were in a unique position to benefit from Persian religious toleration, since other peoples were already too assimilated within the Assyro-Babylonian melting pot to be helped by Cyrus' Edict of Toleration.

For the next 200 years, until the Hellenic age commenced with the Alexandrian conquests 333-321 BCE, Judea developed in a very special way. Unlike other Persian provinces, the Jews were more "religiously conservative" as a result of their past history (as described previously). Also, during this period Judea's "buffer zone" status had disappeared. It was no longer a battleground state. The Persians ruled Egypt as well and so Judea held absolutely no political or material significance to the Persians. The Persians were perfectly fine with the Judaeans not worshipping Persian gods as long as they behaved themselves and paid the reasonable taxes demanded of them, which they did.

By the time of the Greek conquest of the Levant in 331 BCE, Judea once again was a meaningless province. Judea is NOT EVEN MENTIONED by Greek historians. The Tyrian siege and the Gazan conquest are vividly described by historians but there's no mention of Judea. Why? The Greeks completely overlooked this worthless Persian province. They couldn't care less what went on culturally and religiously within Judea. Judea was a way station to them -- a stopover on their way to Egypt and the great new city of Alexandria that the Greeks founded there. Needless to say Judea wasn't in any position to resist the Greek forces passing through the region; but neither were the Greeks interested in occupying Jerusalem since there was no material wealth to be had from it.

first written on Aug 3 2009

-to be continued-

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Why be "rational" and anti-huddling

Kisarita asks the following questions:

From whence the assumption that ALL rational people should agree with me?

Why the certainty in my lifestyle is the best, and yours are destructive?

Why are artificially "rationally" created "like minded" communities better than emotional tribal ones?

By what possible reasonable criteria do you define who is superior and who is inferior?

Bkitzur, why do so may ex-frum sound like born-again religious converts in their devotion to secularism?

Me thinks there is something very suprarational about that.

end quote.

It would also be useful for readers to read Kisarita's post "In defense of Emotions" at .

My friend. Let me explain my position on this with an illustration ("men ken es farshtein mit a mashal" we can understand it with an analogy).

Judge Sotomayor was recently nominated for a Supreme Justice of the United States of America. As the procedure is with such high-impact life-time appointments by the President, The U.S. Senate questions the candidate about her judicial and even general socio-political beliefs. So the questions arises: why are we asking her what she thinks about Roe. v. Wade? Why should the actual opinion matter, as long as she is actually qualified for the position (experience-wise)? Would a Senator dare ask her how many times she brushes her teeth each day or her sexual intercourse frequency? Of course not! Would any politician inquire as to my judicial or political position? Of course not.

The difference here is that I am not a candidate for office of U.S. supreme court justice. In other words: I have not put myself out there in a position where my opinion should be relevant. If, for example, Judge Sotomayor were to be a dentist and she was nominated for administrator of the (theoretical) dentistry division of the Health Dep. then yes, it would matter somewhat whether how many times she brushes her teeth. If she is presenting herself as an expert on such matters and she is going to advise citizens on how frequently to brush their teeth, then --yes-- senators do have the right and responsibility to ascertain whether she indeed practices what she preaches. If she doesn't, there would be justified suspicion that she wouldn't be executing her job well.

How does all this relate to us?

Well, I did in fact grow up in a highly restrictive environment physically, emotionally and intellectually. If I am going to truly move on in life, then these issues do matter. It's not okay to shove them under the rug and say "let me live and let live". Clearly, if I have been told for 20 years that God created the world in six days, that Noah is the only one who survived the flood and that Moses received a revealed law code from God, it IS MY BUSINESS to set the record straight.

I totally denounce the non-judgemental-ism approach that many OTD's insist on. The Haredi movement is extremely judgemental. Why then, should I stand on the sideline and allow them to preach and advise their youth according to a system which I see as corrupt, incoherent, and illogical. If I am unable to engage successfully in a polemic on such topics, then my lifestyle and my offspring's are in jeopardy. I will never be able to gain the elusive stability that I am so wistfully yearning for. Therefore, I WILL judge my ex-community and say that their lifestyles are silly and I WILL explain why that is so.

This does not mean that I advocate forceful adherence to a code of law as they do. This is where the core American ideal of liberty creates a wide golf between us. I believe that reason should be engaged in and let the person then make an informed, wise decision on how to live. The Orthodox mostly adopt a Freudian defense mechanism of completely suppressing the "dangerous thoughts", denouncing them as heresy and shutting off any possibility of its members being able to extract themselves from their midst in a reasonable manner.

Life is a game of poker. The cards have been dealt and my hand sucks. What's worse is that the information so desperately needed to play this weak hand properly is being suppressed. Why should I be contain my sense of exasperation over how bad my hand is. I will speak up about it and tell the world how bad the cards are in Borough Park and how best to play the seven-deuce. By the way, for those who don't know, the best way to play 'em is to fold! But it's important to fold with style and that's where I come in. I am not imposing my beliefs on others. I am not saying that one "must" live in a particular way or believe or "not believe" any particular thing. I am simply getting a conversation off the ground. I am simply eager to discuss topics that were off-limits in my ex-community. I am eager to use research tools that were totally unheard of in the entire Ortho world from A to Z. In my biblical research I am suddenly encountering German, Christian scholars who have centuries ago employed sophisticated scientifically sound historical and linguistic tools to see the Hebrew Bible in a new light. This info has been completely withheld from me. I want to study it now. I want people to know it's out there.

If you still insist that a life devoid of education and truthful information is perhaps meaningful and advisable, then surely you should stop reading this post and I have nothing further to say in my defense. However, you've read til hear, so it seems to me that --consciously or not-- your instinct impels you to seek the truth and set the record straight.

I hope I explained my self well and good luck to everyone.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

The short and Long Route: Difference between the Jewish Denominations

We all know there are three Jewish denominations: Orthodox, Reform and Conservative. But, do we understand the doctrinal differences between them? I think that many people --even those whom you'd expect to know more on this issue, such as OTD's-- don't.

I recently had a conversation with an OTD (off the derech) who made the remark that "reform Judaism is just a different form of religion. They are in theory just as dogmatic and religious as their ortho counterparts". I was appalled. It really irked me to hear this. Of course, in the heat of our conversation I had little success in debunking such a flawed understanding. So let me discuss this here.

It's important to understand that every religious movement and denomination thereof, has a certain real-life setting it feels most comfortable with. Each individual member, however, could do whatever they want and could claim that their behavioral systems are perfectly compatible with the founder's vision. While I usually cannot scientifically prove them wrong, studying the movement's history usually reveals its philosophical underpinning and that is a tremendous indicator as to what the movement stands for, its values, its direction and outlook on life. Do not get sidetracked by individual members claiming "there's absolutely no problem with dosing so and so in a given denomination". I'll give several examples to illustrate what I mean.

1) If you are having a polemic with an enlightened Orthodox Jew about the world being created in seven days (according to the Torah), they will likely admit that the world is older and make the common apologetic argument that the bible is referring to "god days" which are longer. Thus, they will say, the bible and the Orthodox religion are generally consistent with the secular chronology of human history. Wrong! they can believe whatever they want but the Orthodox premise specifically is NOT to interpret the bible allegorically. The importance of observing all the modern minutiae of Jewish law hinges on the belief that God intended the law to be eternal and immutable, precisely as it is presented in the book. Orthodox religion, by its very nature, doesn't allow "longer god days" wiggle room. In other words, while this "enlightened" yeshiva bachur can say and/or do whatever he wants, he's really missing a very essential point here: that the founders of the movement that he follows vociferously rejected any compromise with science. The general spirit of the movement does not allow such an interpretation of the Torah. His approach, rather, would be more fitting to the Reformed or Conservative view of religion.

2) If you've met a karlbach adherent, you may have noticed their intense passion for Judaic rituals such as prayer, dance and hymns. Traditional haredim dismiss them as not authentically religious. Actually, they are precisely what the early hasidim of the late 18th cent. were. The early hasidim were --contrary to modern hasidic practice-- not distinguished by dress, adherence to Jewish law or such. They disregarded Jewish law and scholastic pursuits in favor of a more emotional approach to religion. The karlbach's are as "hasidic" as they get. Don't let the looks fool you. If an satmar hasid ever tells you nishtakkecha torath habbal shem (the teaching of the baal shem had been forgotten), tell him "the karlbach's know what it is, let's go ask them". In contrast, modern "hasidic" practice has evolved so heavily from what its original founders had in mind that it is a misnomer to call it "hasidism"; it conjures up the wrong images. This is true even among the sects who maintain more of the hasidic veneer by emphasizing tischen (firday night table ceremony) and such. Those hasidim are cult-oriented in the sense that they gather round a charismatic figure and venerate him. That's not what true hasidism (as shown by historical fact) is all about.

Let me illustrate the difference between the dominant Jewish denominations through the biblical case law for theft. If one steels an ox or lamb and is caught, he must make restitution and also pay a 100% penalty (he must give back two lambs). Sounds pretty reasonable. However, if he has sold or slaughtered the ox or lamb, then the court forces him to pay a 3x and 4x penalty, respectively. Why the greater penalty? Why even ask this question?

The highly-traditional Eastern European answer is just that: The laws of the Torah are from God and we don't know why they are so and we have no right or reason to question them. The German Orthodox school (represented by Rabbi S.R. Hirsch), however, would acknowledge that there is some rational reason behind this: consumption of stolen property is viewed as consummating the crime; hence, the greater penalty. What the Hirsch school will not do is allow one to extrapolate from this law. To Hirsch, God knows what's good for us and instructs us to behave accordingly for our own benefit. If a computer laptop is involved instead of an ox or lamb there would no "dalet wahe" (4x or 5x penalty) if the thief resold the laptop. That's because God decides how to apply his rules; we are not to reason beyond what is provided by the law.

The Conservative school (represented by Solomn Schechter) would, in principle, allow extrapolation from the theft law. If we understand why the penalty for consumption or resale is greater than mere theft, we can --and should-- further extend this model to apply to other stolen items as well. The Torah only speaks of lambs and oxen because in Biblical times that was the only steal-able property. (Note that in this regard, a "progressive" movement is stricter in the application of ancient law, than a conservative movement -- a source of confusion to neophytes in theology and religious matters). The conservative school believes in the primacy of Halacha but they believe that it should be updated in accordance with modern culture and lifestyle.

The Reform movement, on the other end of the spectrum has the most liberal take on this. Reform scholars are Deists. In matters of conflict between science and religion they essentially side with science. They also advocate enlightenment, the power of reason and a complete revision of Biblical law so as to discard everything that is inconsistent with modern thought or practice. All they see in the theft law is a philosophical precept, which is in fact accounted for in modern Common Law or Civil Law through the imposition of a penalty in addition to restitution in aggravated cases of theft and deception. In other words, what's the point of sticking to the ancient law if-and-when it conflicts with what we would have said in its absence? All the ancient law says, according to reform jurisprudence, is that the ancients saw it best for their society to apply the law thus. Those very ancients themselves would have agreed that as social and economic conditions evolve the law should be updated accordingly. To the Reformer, then, Biblical law has very little significance beyond its moral or didactic element.

Returning to the original topic of this post, on the question of whether there is a fundamental difference between the religion practiced by Reform and Ortho Judaism, I must decisively say: yes, there is an enormous difference between the two. Of course, you could walk in to any Reform synagogue and see the Rabbi donning an unsightly talith and tefilin and preaching to the community on the importance of studying Hebrew and religious materials. You can also walk in to a charedi shul and hear the Rabbi talk about hos the tsiyyon we crave for in the amidah (shemonah esreh) is an allegory representing also the yearning for general salvation from our troubles such as making a living, family relations, morality etc... In both cases we have Rabbis who are preaching or acting in a manner that is more typical of a different denomination; they are "crossing over" (a Gregor Mendelian term?). Don't become obfuscated by such atypical rhetoric and make flawed inferences as to the general character of the movement, and the lifestyle those respective denominations advocate.

I view the various branches of Judaism in through a prism. The branches can --and should-- all be pegged steadfastly within the spectrum of the rainbow, one more conservative than the other. It is a mistake to suppose that one can remain attached to a hasidic lifestyle but be liberal in mind, or that the reform-affiliated congregant who goes to synagogue every Sabbath and says all his blessings constantly is somehow more religious than some Ortho Jews and so there's no point in distinguishing between the two.

The way I see it is that the route from religion to secularism is fixed and is longer than it seems. For ultra-orthodox Jews that route involves a liberal form of Judaism which should be studied and embraced on their noble route out of the shtetel and into 21st-century Western society. Without making this critical stopover in the journey to secularism, there is a high risk of relapse. It's what the Mishnah calls derekh qetsarah vaarukhah: the short route that is (=turns out to be) long.

Monday, May 25, 2009

The Problem with Small Tight-knit Communities

Ultra-orthodox Judaism has been enduring "spiritual persecution" for 250 years now. Ironically, America --traditionally the most free country in the world-- is also the country in which spiritual persecution of Orthodox Judaism has been most pronounced. Unlike Eastern European countries of the 19th cent. and the former half of the 20th cent., America just wasn't a suitable environment for Orthodoxy. For the record (for those who don't know), Eastern European Jews flocked in the millions to America in the late 19th and early 20th cent. (1880-1924). Those Jews were very traditional --the equivalent of what we call orthodox. (They didn't identify themselves as "orthodox" since in most cases there was no teilung in their Russian communities). Yet, to everyone's surprise, the second generation so lovingly adopted their new culture that there was practically nothing left of their former religion. They went to public schools, mingled with the Italians and the Irish and graduated as goyyim gemurim (utter gentiles). No Yiddish, no dress code, no kosher, no family purity, no intra-faith marriages, no nothing! Only after the second world war, with the new Holocaust-survivor immigrants, did the Orthodox movement take root in this country.

And so, the question arises: why? How come Jews in Eastern Europe had no problem holding on to their traditions by the millions despite centuries of physical oppression and how come American Jews couldn't pass their traditions on to even one generation, despite the tremendous religious-practice liberty that greeted them here? What a paradox!

The answer is very profound and teaches us an extraordinary lesson in our evolutionary quest for survival.

The Jews of Europe had for many centuries been a minority, persecuted, beleaguered ethnic group. They had learned to survive by employing what I call the "huddle effect". They huddled together in their synagogues, leaned on each other's shoulder, looked out for each other in times of physical need and comforted each other in times of emotional trauma. These behaviors are typical of ongoing, small, persecuted minorities throughout the world and throughout all ages. This kind of community bestows an immense survival edge --it seems-- upon its members through its social services and commitment not to let any of its members fail. There's a caveat, though. The Jews of Eastern Europe NEVER had a chance to break out of the mundane, depressing, dreary Eastern-European peasant and lower-class lifestyle. They were guaranteed survival through mutual protection services but the stakes of the game were also low; they couldn't win much. Their life was as boring as watching paint dry. From the beginning to the end it was almost as predictable as the sunrise and sunset.

The Jews who decided to make the journey to America had one thing in common in addition to their "failure to communicate" their religion to the next generation. They all stepped up to the plate and swung the bat. It was a very difficult pitch; they knew that if they swung and missed or fouled, they were out! BUT, they also knew that if they came through all the way with a home run, then the reward was infinitely huge! Horatio Algiers stories (rags-to-riches) was what this country was associated with and rightfully so. In the pure capitalist spirit, in America a Jew who worked really hard, was able to rise above the rest and reach new, hitherto-unheard-of heights of social and economic success for Jews. They also knew that --just like the rest of the folks-- if they failed to make it, they would starve homelessly to death without anyone blinking an eye at them. What distinguished the Jews who made the immigration from those who didn't was that the immigrants were not afraid of the challenge; they welcomed the risk; they voluntarily discarded the "huddling" services provided by their existing communities and bravely declared, individually: I prefer to risk my life and take the precarious journey on my own, rather than live a safe but limited life in the comfort of the huddled Jewish communities.

How does all this relate to religion? Well, one of the major impetuses for the continuance of the Jewish religion through the middle ages, it seems to me, was the very Christian persecution that was meant to coax them into converting to Christianity. Persecution prompted the huddle effect, which in turn dictated that regardless of whether there was merit in the Christian religion, Jews should protect and shore themselves up against persecution by turning inwards and rejecting foreign influence. Those Jews who came to America had a completely different attitude. They said: enough with all these mutual-protection assurances. Let's be chivalrous and fight for survival like we're supposed to. Let's go out there and meet the enemy head-on. Jewish immigrants didn't justify their religious status-quo through a desire for the huddle-effect. As a result, once their religion was stripped of "immunity", laid bare and forced to compete against the Christian-inspired Capitalism of the USA, it invariably lost battle after battle to the tone of nearly a 100% casualty rate among the 1880-1924 second-generation immigrants.

American social and religious freedom is precisely the component of its culture that turned out to be the most lethal weapon against orthodox Judaism. Orthodox Judaism cannot compete in the open-capitalist market. Rather, Orthodox Judaism thrives on its assurances of a safety net to all its members in exchange of unquestioning adherence to its now archaic, irrational teachings.

What stirred me to discover and elaborate this profound insight into the American Jewry OTD (off the derech) phenomenon of the 19th century?

It was a curious encounter that I had today with a 36-year-old man named Joseph. I met him early in the morning at Times Square in Manhattan. We were both seated at the red chairs and tables in one of the Square's traffic islands. He looked just like any other Manhattanite, well-groomed, fashionable and happy. Once we struck up a conversation I realized something was amiss. He was just too glib for a New-yorker, too accessible! Okay, I discover, he's not from NY, he's from PA. He's not married, he's divorced, he's not employed, he's jobless. Oh, and he's also a writer, so maybe that explains his willingness to pour his heart out to a stranger --also a writer-- he just met.

But it turns out that his story is far more intricate and puzzling. His dad died when he was 21 and his mom is loony. He never attended college because he decided to spend his time caring for his dad before he died. Yet, somehow, he's quite educated. He's lived in four different states, including Hawaii where he was given a free condo and job by his father-in-law, only to be kicked out after he insulted his wife's stepmom. He's had numerous concussions from playing football and thus developed migraines which went untreated until one nice day a doctor allegedly twisted his neck the wrong way and caused neck injury which he couldn't prove in court since there were no before and after x-rays. As a result, his wife divorced him after having two children and miscarrying four and being caught cheating on him. His ex-wife then filed for welfare benefits even though her parents were filthy-rich and her new boyfriends were buying her luxury cars. The state then billed him 9k for the welfare costs and issued an arrest warrant after he stopped making payments.

About a month ago he decided to move to NYC since he didn't have a car and couldn't work in PA for fear of being arrested. With little money in his pocket he wanders out all alone and finds his way into a $25 per night hostel in the city, living in dormitory-style 12-bed bunks. Finally his money ran out and so he couldn't afford to stay in the hostel any longer. So, I'm up 6:00 in the morning because I can't sleep at night; he's up because he doesn't have where to sleep but he refuses to consider himself "homeless" and so he won't sleep on the street. In addition he had no money for cigarettes and so he was picking up burnt-out cigarettes strewn on the sidewalk and taking 2-3 hits of each before discarding them and picking up more continually as we walked and talked. He has a collection of books in PA which is about to be shipped over to him so that he can sell them on NY streets and make an estimated 3k which will keep him going until he can get his teeth straightened out and get a job as a bartender. At one point he was scratching nickels and dimes from his backpack until he found enough money to buy himself a bottle of water, while regretting the delay of his book-collection delivery due to the memorial weekend Holiday --where his prospective income is tied up.

Towards the end of our conversation, he told the following story: he once responded to a woman acquaintance's request for help moving out of the house of her abusive boyfriend. The woman was petrified of her BF who was reluctant to let her leave. He tried to make sure the door remained open at all times, so that he can keep an eye on her and "protect" her. Suddenly, the BF shut and locked the front door and there was yelling and screaming "he's killing me, help!!". In his 21-year-old naivete he decided to break down the door in order to "save the girl's life". After several tries --hurting his shoulders in the process-- the door finally caved only to be nearly killed by a knife the BF swung towards him as soon as he entered the house. He quickly ran out and got hold of his father's gun. He then forced the BF to cooperate at gunpoint until the woman got her self packed up and moved out. Reminiscing about this event he described his motives for this violent childish behavior: maybe to impress the girl.

Why am I saying all this about this Pennsylvania stranger from Times Square?

Because his story struck me as highly unusual, but very credible. The movies frequently portray both the kind of poverty and precarious existence that he's experiencing and the violent, macho fights over women. I always dismissed such features as hyperbole and relegated them to the realm of movies, not real life. After hearing his story, I suddenly took a second look into myself and the --highly-contrasting-- super-secure family I grew up in. My parents are the kind of folk who would make 10oK per year through employment (as opposed to entrepreneurship, at which my dad failed repeatedly), "save" 80K of the 100 and live off the 20K. There are no vacations, no remodeling the 30-year old house, no new $99 G&G suits for dad unless the old one is threadbare, no 79 cents/pound bananas for mom if she could get 69/pound bananas several blocks further down 13th Ave. The word that comes to mind constantly is: scrimp, scrimp, scrimp, save, save, save, frugal, frugal, frugal. It's an uncanny how they will deny themselves the most basic comforts of life and convince themselves psychologically that they're perfectly happy, all the while accumulating a fortune that they cannot and will not ever consume --they do all this for the sake of security.

While I am aware that my parents' particular behavior in this regard is not necessarily idiosyncratic of Jews as an ethnic group, I do find such an association valid at some level. Their frugality is related to the huddling behavior mentioned earlier. It's all about the need for assurances that nothing will possibly go wrong and the aversion to take a risk and venture into unknown physical and mental (i.e. religious) territories.

Unlike Joseph, in the Ultradox community no Yeshiva boy would EVER think about fighting to impress a woman. The entire concept of men having to fight and "earn" a mate --as it is in nature throughout the Animal Kingdom-- is completely lacking in traditional Jewish culture. The huddle mentality had supplanted all need for individuals to do any fighting on their own behalf.

I would also like to go on a limb here and explain the Jewish-communist relationship in the same vein. THE MOST FUNDAMENTAL difference between communism and capitalism is that in the former the "state" assumes the risk (and reward) for major communal initiatives and in the latter the individual assumes the risk. Jewish fervent historical embrace of communism stems from this very same huddle-prone culture that they had cultivated for over a millennium; the culture that shuns risk-taking regardless of the potential reward.

That's the real definition between a Jew and a gentile: When gentiles talk derisively about the Jewish insatiable craving for money, they're really talking about the Jewish craving for an ultra-secure form of existence, supported by a single-minded, pernicious pursuit of money and the meticulous saving of every penny earned or acquired.

Friday, May 22, 2009

No Triplets, Just Twins!

Today, on my bus commute from the train station home, I was somewhat surprised that after an unusually long wait for the MTA city bus, only two consecutive buses showed up. Usually the longer the delay, the greater the number of buses piling up behind the lead bus. God forbid a trailing bus driver should pass an occupied lead bus and start picking up passengers instead of driving around vacant after the oversized crowd crams into the lead bus!

The MTA transit is probably one of the most wasteful and inefficiently-run organizations in the world! I know that I'm somewhat narrow-minded in this assessment since I haven't really gotten a close-hand look at every --or even close to every-- organization in the world. Yet, an educated guess, based on the circumstances that typically contribute to bureaucracy syndrome and the resultant inefficiency, leads to me to believe that this is the case. There are several factors that serve to promote laziness, wastefulness, incompetence and indifference in the MTA.

1) It's based in NYC. NYC is one of the biggest cities in the world and so its mass transit system and the apparatus overseeing it is also one of the biggest. This means that there is more hierarchy, less accountability and personal responsibility by employees for its daily operations. With big organizations, things kind-of run themselves. Each individual presumes that someone else will take charge and no one steps forward to do the right thing, solve a problem or propose a solution or suggestion for a smoother, more efficient operation.

2) Outdated transportation networks. Unlike other European and Asian bis cities that had been crippled in the World War II or which transportation systems only appeared recently, New York is a very old city and its Subway had never been abruptly disabled at any one point in over a century of its existence. This also applies to the public city bus network which operates on roads that were originally designed for the horse and buggy and had mostly never been widened subsequently to accommodate the needs of the exploding car traffic. In a place like Brooklyn, the most populated county in this country! and one of the most crowded, there are only two limited access highways for the entire population: BQE and the Belt. It never occurred to anyone, for some reason, that this is grossly inadequate and the longer they wait to build a major thoroughfare the harder and more expensive it becomes to execute such a project. Buses are therefore competing with hordes of personal automobiles vying for the limited space available on public roads. "kal de'alim gebhar" (whoever is strongest, rules!) applies in NYC driving; being a gentleman is not going to get a NYC driver anywhere!

3) The MTA, being such a massive employer is also unionized-workers employer. Unions best operate under big employers. Unions also tend to discourage employers from demanding industry, creativity and shrewdness on the part of their employees. Unions demand that employers pay much for little and so we have an environment where employees feel a sense of entitlement and job security and are discouraged from deviating from using their discretion to deviate from the rulebook in order accommodate a customer or solve a problem. For example, last week I witnessed a driver getting into a nasty argument with a woman who hauled her cart onto the bus and --against regulations-- left it loaded with contents and unfolded on the bus. The rulebook advises the driver to ask the passenger to fold the cart or somehow get it out of the isle in order to make room for other passengers. Sounds good! Problem is... the bus was quite empty at the time and there was no need nor practical way of getting the cart out of the isle. The driver could have used his discretion to let go but chose to follow the letter of rulebook and be confrontational for no reason.

4) I find that MTA employees are just plain dumb! Unlike smaller suburban towns where there is no large uneducated, poor segment within the population, in NYC there is plenty of it. And for some reason, bureaucracy attracts precisely those people! In droves they line up for those city jobs that require very little creativity and responsibility for relatively good pay. All they have to do is fill out tons of paperwork and "qualify" for the job. The city never uses subjective criteria --such as evaluating an applicants temperament and attitude towards work. Oh no! that would be considered --god forbid-- "discriminatory". Just fill out the paperwork, meet the eligibility guidelines, go on a waiting list several years long and then when an opening occurs, accept the job and then you simply cruise on auto-pilot to retirement after 20 years and live happily ever after!! How sweet! Only in America!

Oh MTA! When will you wake up and realize that the economic problems this country is enduring right now are, in part, symptomatic of the kind of blithe, apathetic indifference they exhibit towards the welfare of their customer base!!? When will you start to seriously read, be concerned and motivated to act in response to customer complaints, instead of "launching an investigation" and concluding after half a year that the driver "just followed procedures"?

Thursday, May 21, 2009

This is a response to a comment left by Sarah to my "Jewish antisemite" blog entry.

"the jewish religion sprouted to keep the people together": you are confusing the raison d'etre for Judaism and its ancillary features. Anyone who studies history knows that Judaism --no different from other cultures, religions and nationalities-- originally was steeped in the overarching culture of the Ancient Near East and that's how it evolved as a religion. Biblical laws are mere modifications of centuries-old legal codes --such as the code of Hammurabi. Jewish sense of a unique identity evolved later, as a result of Seleucid persecution in the early second century BCE. Ever since then, Jews have --to some extent-- felt persecuted and subordinate to greater powers and hence the strong "huddling together" aspect of Judaism.

You should note, however, that during the first three centuries of the first Millenium, it was Christianity that was the officially persecuted religion and that exhibited as much of this huddling-together practice as the Jews later exhibited. The Jews back then actually were a "protected religion" under the Romans. The Romans only suppressed Judaea's political ambitions; they never had any agenda against its religious aspects; on the contrary, they were very friendly and receptive to Jewish religious and philosophical ideas (note the famous friendship, for example, between antoninus and R. Judah ha-nasi).

Bottom line is that huddling together does not justify the religion as a way of life. As modern humans we can find common ground on a much more rational basis and form a community around such principles. It doesn't make sense to go to synagogue and pray three times per day year after year --wasting two hours every day-- in order to gain the social comfort of meeting like-minded (???) individuals and getting to identify with them "against" the rest of the world (which is assumed, without proper basis, to be evil and diabolic).

Question: Why introduce race, if it's religion I object to?

Answer: I object to both! I'm saying that Jews as a racial or ethnic group (depending on how one characterizes them) are inferior to Christians! It's self-deprecating and it takes a great deal of courage to admit it but I'm being honest with myself and honesty ultimately leads to greater happiness than the immediate but facile comfort of self-pleasing defensive constructs. However, I don't object to Jews racially in the sense that I advocate Nazi-like discrimination or persecution against them! I believe in the American solution to "inferior-race" problems, namely: assimilation. In our case, I am advocating disavowing the Jewish religion as long-term goal to be espoused by all rational Jews. It's a process, not an act. It cannot be completed in one generation but we know empirically that it could be achieved through multiple generations. A step in the right direction is what I am advocating.

Question: What's there to admire about the colonialism and racism of Victorian Europe?

Answer: Did I hear "colonialism"? What's wrong with that? It may seem to artificial students of history and observers of current events that colonialism is not being practiced anymore but it actually is. The American war in Iraq is a very good example. All intelligent analysts know that it's not being fought for our security. It's being fought for oil. In that regard it's no different from colonialism which was the domination of foreign lands and its peoples for the purpose of cheap and easy access to its natural resources. Furthermore, even though Bush would never admit that that's the real purpose of the war, such denial is simply prudent from a PR standpoint. It's one of those things that we know but don't discuss. In more subtle ways, through the UN, foreign monetary aid and political angling, the US is exerting colonial-like pressure over friend and foe alike, to ensure that it has continual access to the resources it needs in order to maintain the high standard of living and wealth in this country. Hence, I have nothing but thumbs-up approval of the American bully posture. I'm a bully also when it comes to satisfying my needs and desires for survival and pleasure.

Statement: Cultural continuity is good for people; cultural continuity does not preclude change.

My response: For once, I agree with you. Cultural continuity does indeed not preclude change, although I would have worded it inversely (with the addition of a modifier): Change does not preclude some cultural continuity! I'm not advocating revolutionary changes in lifestyle or identity. It's a slow, gradual journey. But we need to hustle up, pack up and get on the way!

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Reaction to Movie: Capturing the Friedman's

This movie made a very deep impression on me. I often watch the same movie twice back-to-back, as I am sometimes am overwhelmed by unfamiliar material or situations which the second viewing elucidates. This time, however, my second viewing was from a diametrically opposed standpoint from the first, an unheard of phenomenon. During my first viewing, I submitted to the subtle implications of the featured interviews and footage suggesting the Friedman's were innocent. In my second viewing, I revisited every single piece of evidence and interpreted from the newly-held guilty-verdict perspective.

My position now is that the essential charges filed against the Friedman's are valid. Both father and so are guilty on at least some accounts of sodomy committed in Great Neck (as opposed to the admitted guilt by Arnie of two sodomy incidents in the 50's during a beach resort vacation). To me, the most convincing evidence that Jesse is guilty is his own admission to his lawyer, Peter Panaro, that he was sexually abused by his father and in an attempt to endear himself to his father he participated in some of the sexual abuse incidents that (allegedly) took place in these computer classes. This admission, according to his lawyer, was accompanied by emotional tears of guilt and was done voluntarily by Jesse after he decided against taking the case to trial. Panaro even refused initially to plea-bargain the case claiming that he doesn't make deals when his client is innocent. Jesse insisted that he "can honestly admit to the 14 counts of sodomy" and that's when they agreed to the plea bargain. Jesse also broke down in tears during his sentencing and essentially repeated this statement to the full court in front of the video cameras. In his Geralso Rivera interview while in prison he also fully admitted his guilt. Thus, his backtracking on his admission during and after the production of the film claiming that he was forced to agree to the plea-bargain because he "ran out of options" and his lawyer pressured him to do so, is --in my opinion-- untrustworthy.

Also, the fact that the film completely omits the Geraldo Rivera interview is evidence that the director was not even-handed and objective in his presentation of the case. As Judge Boklan said in the post-screening discussion, Jarecki distorted the facts in order to create "theatrics" and a riveting movie.

Some other striking points follow:

David (Jesse's brother), who naturally had no first-hand knowledge of the atrocities committed by his dad and brother, succumbed to his emotion. Instead of facing the truth he perniciously assumed a state-of-denial approach to this scandal. To a lesser extent, this was also the approach of Arnie's brother Howie, but Howie never makes the claim that the charges are false. He just is incredulous about them and severely traumatized by the shock of such revelations. In some of the home movie scenes we see hos David is repeatedly being his dad's spokesman and claiming on his behalf that his dad never committed those crimes and he should therefore plead not-guilty, contrary to the advice of his mom, Elaine. In all this time, Arnie never backs up his son; he remains aloof of all the name-calling and back-and-forth accusations between the children and their mom. If he was really innocent, why didn't he speak up during those occasions?

It all started with the exposure of kiddy porn magazines delivered to Arnie. During the first search of his house, nothing else was known or being charged against him. However, it rightly prompted the cops to interview the children who attended Arnie's computer classes. I don't believe that the cops had a prior agenda against him at this stage. Why would they? He was a very well-respected member of the community! There would have been absolutely no motive for the cops to basically put those vivid descriptions of sodomy into the mouths of the children through cuing, as the defense claims. There must have been --at some point-- (seemingly the first children interviewed on the class list), children who freely volunteered information against Arnie when asked whether Arnie did anything inappropriate to them (and remember, there was probably cause for such questioning based on the porn magazines).

Having said this, I should also point out that from what I gather, it seems that the cops employed shoddy interviewing techniques by leading the children on through inappropriate forms of questioning like: isn't it true that Arnie did so-and-so to you? If I were a judge I would seriously consider not admitting such evidence in court. The cops should have operated more prudently. There is a possibility/likelihood that some of the sodomy accounts were simply made under pressure in order to satisfy the demands of the cops from the children. But on the essential question of whether Arnie committed some acts of sodomy against at least some children some of the time, I have to say that the answer is "yes, beyond a reasonable doubt". Under the circumstances, it is actually quite normal for kids not to report such incidents and for there not to be any physical evidence. Lack of discovery of the photographs and videos allegedly taken of the sexual acts is also not an indication of innocence. It is reasonable that the detectives would not discover such photos/videos during the first search or that he discretely hid them somewhere where they couldn't be found or that they had been destroyed/disposed by then. In this case I must say that discovery of this material would definitely strengthen the prosecution's case but lack of discovery is not evidence against it.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

How to Tackle the Big Three: Energy, Health Care and Education

Today in the news it was pointed out that the Democrats are now divided amongst themselves on whether they should go after the Bush administration and attempt to prosecute and/or embarrass those responsible for designing and executing policies that are now popularly denounced (such as "torture"), or not. See the article .

Some are critical of Obama for backtracking on his initial policy to release pictures of tortured detainee and associated memos. Lately Obama has decided not to pursue those issues and focus instead on domestic policies related to the Economy and the Big Three.

What's my position on this matter?

I am firmly behind Obama's current position not to pursue any action against the Bush administration and not to release any documents that would denigrate them or could compromise national security.

Philosophically, such a course of action (as advocated by the liberal wing in the Democratic party) is a grave error. I'll explain why.

Whenever one evaluates the merits of any activity, the first and foremost question one must ask is: how does the activity under question provide a direct benefit to its practitioner? The less "direct" the benefit is, the less the virtual points assigned to such activity should be, compared to other more "directly beneficial" activities. What's a directly beneficial activity? Working in the Agriculture is a great example of a "directly beneficial" occupation. Food is one of the most vital and fundamental of human resources. Activities that generate such a resource are thus directly beneficial. By contrast, "gambling" is a good example of one of the least "directly beneficial" activities out there. Casino gambling is formulated so as to provide a monetary losing expectation to players. In the long run, the games are virtually guaranteed to devour the gambler's money. Thus the only benefit provided to the gambler is "psychological"; essentially, it's the mind that is somehow being "erroneously" satisfied (by believing that this will be the gambler's lucky day) through the pursuit of a gambling lifestyle. The benefit thus provided to the gambler is extremely "indirect". Gambling is one of the only activities that does not generate any material wealth at all; it's completely in the mind and erroneously so. Other common hobbies and occupations are somewhere in between the spectrum of "directly- vs. indirectly-beneficial pursuits.

Revenge is sweet and retaliatory activities are sometimes necessary philosophically. But they have an innate and fundamental problem: they don't provide any direct benefit to the person taking revenge. At best, it satisfies emotional needs but nothing more. Think about the blood feud, for example. Say, you are a member of a respectable clan and a member of a rival clan kills a senior member of your clan. Your clan is outraged and seek revenge and so they murder a member of the opposing clan. Does this bring the senior member of your clan back to life? No! What's worse is that now there's reason for the opposing clan to murder another member of your clan which will, no doubt, prompt your clan to seek revenge once again by murdering a member of their clan and the vicious cycle never stops. There have been entire towns and regions decimated by the blood feud. In our modern society, in contrast, we know better. When murder occurs, even if the offending party is absolutely guilty, we will not usually impose exacting revenge on the murderer by taking his life. The reason for that is that society is not being helped by eliminating another life. We seek to "rehabilitate" the murderer, rather than punish him.

How is all this relevant to us?

As much as I hate Bush personally, his administration, their policies and the Republican platform in general -- the best revenge we can take now that we are in power is to actually reverse the detrimental policies instituted and upheld during his term in office. By going after those who are deemed responsible for the alleged "illegal activities" of his administration we are not accomplishing anything of direct value to us. As a consequence, we are more likely to be punishing ourselves in the process, by diverting our attention from the critical issues that are truly important to us. every word this congress speaks against Bush and Cheney, Torture and legal memo's authorising torture -- is a word not spoken in support of the Big Three: Health Care reform, Education and Energy.

Those three issues are extremely difficult to resolve and we need to concentrate our full attention to tackle them properly.

Health Care: The problem here is that this country's health care system is moving farther and farther away from preventing and curing diseases and instead we are now merely treating symptoms. If you go to a doctor to complain about a rash, for example, he'll charge you for the visit, prescribe you a medication and ask to see you again in a month. But he will not ask you lifestyle questions designed to determine why your body is reacting that way. He won't tell you to lose weight or exercise more or start eating more fruits and veggies. He's not treating the root of the problem; he's treating the symptom only. Why? For two reasons. One: they are lazy. It takes less time and effort, in the short term, to treat symptoms than to treat the root cause of the disease. It's also much easier to charge for such a service since the result is immediate and well-defined. Two: they are not sincerely motivated in many cases to really help you get rid of the ailment. If you are cured once and for all, they lose business. Another problem with the health care industry is the paperwork. There are so many forms that patients and doctors fill out, often for a visit that lasts 2-3 minutes. Often, doctors needlessly administer "routine exams" or repeat flu shots that have already been taken. It's all part of a medical culture that has ceased to be efficient and has become instead a lumbering, plodding, inefficient bureaucracy.

Energy: It's amazing how we have completely forgotten about the spike in Energy costs last year. No one seems to be making the obvious association (to some extent, at least) between the rise in energy costs and our current recession. It's plain to see that the two are intricately related. With the burgeoning energy costs, business and individuals alike saw themselves spending more resources to provide or acquire the same level of goods and services as before. Thus, they were forced to cut back on spending and lo and behold: an economic recession.

Ironically, the ONLY reason energy costs have since subsided is that the very high cost of energy brought on a recession and thus decreased demand for energy. Hence, the problem has become the solution; the arsonist is rushing to extinguish the fire. How misleading! How phony! Energy is our enemy; never forget what it did to us last year! It is lurking on the sidelines now that we're in a recession and will pounce again when given a chance. If we don't do anything about energy reform, we may be in such bad shape that energy will never get the chance to hurt us again because we will never be able to truly recover from this recession.

1) People need to start throwing away those hummers and SUV's and start driving smaller cars.

2) Stop driving motor vehicles altogether! Isn't there an obesity problem in this country, as of the last time I checked? Aren't we all just a tad too sedentary? Why don't people start cycling more? Why don't they walk more?

3) Use public transportation! Public transportation is far more efficient than private transportation and there are additional hidden benefits as well, such as the possibility of meeting some interesting new people. Also, there's no need to mindlessly and monotonously pay attention to the road.

4) Stop transporting goods from India and China. Stop shipping food from California to New York when there are farms nearby in New Jersey! This whole transport system is just operating very inefficiently right now. We got used to this mindlessness as a result of cheap oil; but it's not cheap anymore. Now we need to learn how to route goods in the most direct and efficient manner available.

5) Stop fighting the seasons! When it's 60 outside, there's no need for the temperature to be 80 inside. When it's 80 outside, there's no need for the temperature to be 60 inside. We seem to be "over-correcting" our thermostats. How silly! Learn to enjoy the seasons. When it's hot outside, open all the windows and let the fresh summer air circulate. If that's not enough, install some fans. If you're still hot, take your clothes off; we were born naked after all. If that still doesn't help, drink lots of water and enjoy the sweat; it is truly healthy!

Education: I'll discuss this some other time.

Friday, May 01, 2009

The Jewish Antisemite

The "Jewish Anti-semite" is a commonly invoked pejorative appelative these days. It seems like on oxymoron: If you're Jewish, why criticize yourself? Doesn't make any sense! Come to think of it, though, I just realized that --along with all the other long-despised and utterly-shunned appelatives such as "kopher", "apikoros", "upgafurune yid, nebech", I am probably also a Jewish Antisemite.

Let me explain.

Antisemitism --the hatred of Jews-- has existed ever since the fall of the Roman Empire in the fourth century (recall that the Romans actually granted the Jews special privileges such as not having to worship Roman Gods), when Christianity was burgeoning and it resented the stubbornness of its parent-sect, Judaism, in rejecting the message of one of its own. However, the prototype for what can be called "modern antisemitism" is the movement in Western Europe in the late 19th century.

At that time, the Jews of Western and Central Europe had been "emancipated" for nearly a century and were generally given equal opportunity to Christians to engage in whatever trade they chose and live wherever they wished. This indeed led to a precipitous drop in the level of Jewish observance, appearance and culture. However, Reform Jews of the late nineteenth century still identified with their faith and attended synagogue periodically and sought to provide their children with a distinctively Jewish education, in addition to their regular education. Some Christians, however, felt that the Jews hadn't come far enough. Considering their own culture and religion superior to that of the Jews, they pondered the implication of Jews still living a lifestyle that they deemed "inferior". Is it that they are genetically incapable of anything "better"? Thus was born the movement of "racial antisemitism". It is the rejection of the Jew based on deeply-rooted, immutable racial grounds, not because of their actual practiced religion. This ideology is associated with the Eugenics movement and is also the force behind the Nazi hatred of Jews.

Now I am not devoid of any emotional drives. I do find comfort and support in the Jewish community. I often feel that Jews understand me better than non-Jews; I have an easier time communicating with people who speak Yiddish, for example, and have been raised with customs identical to mine. But I have also made it my modus vivendi to analyze, criticise and dissect every argument I come across. When I was told in Yeshiva: this is how you do it because the Shulkhan Arukh says so, I asked: But why does the Shulkhan Arukh say so? When I found the source in the Rambam, Rosh or Riph (the big three) I did not content myself but followed the trail to the Talmud and from there I eventually hopped on the bandwagon taking me all the way back to plain and simple "miqra": reading the Torah and seeking to understand it as it was originally meant to be understood. What did the author have in mind in penning those words? I would ask.

After a long, exhausting, tortuous investigation I made some shocking discoveries. It turned out that the Jewish culture, with all the laws and customs it entails, were all originally meant to aid us in establishing an optimally functioning society, nothing more. Its the tremendously powerful force of "status quo" that did the rest in shaping the Jewish religion and culture. Through the Roman-Mishnaic era, the Middle ages, and --for some Jews-- the Modern Era, the Jews simply refused to allow any modification of this long-antiquated legal and theological system. They held on tenaciously to their hand-me-downs. That, and only that is the ultimate rationale behind Judaism as a distinct religion from Christianity. Think about it: Jesus from Nazareth preached to the Jews 2,000! years ago. He urged them: Stop being silly! Sabbath was meant to be a day of relaxation and pleasure. Surely healing someone on the Sabbath accords very well with such a noble day; why should the medical practice be prohibited on the Sabbath? He also said: Cut out the bullshit! God doesn't need your "sacrifice". Do you really think that an all-powerful omnipresent God needs the fats and blood of an animal for propitiation in order to grant a worshipper his wishes? What God really wants is compassion, kindness towards the poor and upright behavior! He also said: Instead of focusing on the ritual hand-washing before meals, why not invest our energies to avoid what really defiles a man: lies, and deceit!

Book of Matthew. Not that which goeth into the mouth defileth a man; but that which cometh out of the mouth, this defileth a man. Do not ye yet understand, that whatsoever entereth in at the mouth goeth into the belly, and is cast out into the draught? But those things which proceed out of the mouth come forth from the heart; and they defile the man.

Take note also of the following passage in Matthew:

Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.

From this last passage we see that Jesus presented himself as a reformer. He sought to eliminate the elements of Judaism that were no longer serving a useful purpose and instead highlight those elements that did serve a purpose. He sought to augment the existing law and the essential spirit behind it by getting rid of those laws that had become detrimental to the spirit of the original law.

Accordingly, it is firm rational affirmation that Christianity is indeed a "superior" religion to Judaism. Take special note of my wording: I'm, using the comparative here. I'm not saying that in absolute terms Christianity is a valid way of life. I'm saying that despite all the problems Christianity has exhibited through the ages, it's the full package that needs to be evaluated. I know that Jews were generally more educated than Christians. I know that the Christians made up "blood libels" and ignorantly blamed the Jews for their daily woes without having any basis whatsoever (such as the plague of 1333). But remember: two wrongs don't make a right. The essential message of Christianity is in fact more valid than Judaism, from a rational perspective (considering how the religion has an observable beneficial effect on society). Negating the value of Christianity simply by invoking those millions of poor, ignorant peasants who desperately sought a scape-goat for their troubles and found the Jew as the perfectly suitable candidate -- is utterly missing the point here. The messenger does not matter; the message is what counts.

I strongly admire the courage and persistence demonstrated by the French revolutionaries in the Late 18th century. There's no question that the result of all that chaos -- the Napoleonic regime-- was a major boon for Europe. It opened up the eyes of millions of Europeans and showed them what freedom was like. It empowered the majority "third estate" (commoners) through Europe,regardless of nationality. It emphasized equal opportunity over right-of-birth --the same ideal that we have come to admire so strongly in America and what has made this country so great. But let's not forget that there is effort to be made in order to achieve success. There was no silver bullet in the Napoleonic message. Those emancipated peasants would have to work really hard to overcome centuries of prejudice in order to trump their erstwhile superiors.

Jews had been emancipated by Napoleon as well and they were expected to make the same backbreaking effort for success, just like the rest of the emancipated. Did they pass the test? Well, it depends on how you look it it! Is the glass half full or half empty? Apparently, the Christian critics of the late 19th century who advocated Racial Antisemitism believed that the Jews had failed; they hadn't done enough to utilize their liberty in order to achieve true equality in rights as well as culture. If I were to score the test I would definitely not have failed them, especially the German Jews who made monumental progress and showed great bravery in reasoning their way out of a flawed, outdated and worthless system.

Regardless of the correctness of the ideas swirling in the mind of the 19th century advocate of Racial Antisemitism, as a Jew I would have greatly welcomed such criticism. Educated people know that being criticized is a good thing. It prompts them to reevaluate their positions and refine their behavior and stance on the issues under discussion. It's like the aphorism that goes: stay close to your friend but be even closer to your enemy. It's the enemy that makes a person great. It's the immunities and defenses that one develops against an enemy that ultimately distinguishes the winner from the loser in the game of life. Someone who only has friends is the real loser. If I was living in 1880's Germany or Austria or France I would be very appreciative and receptive to criticism, regardless of whether it's well-intentioned or not. As a result, I would have learned to accelerate my pace towards assimilation and I would have theoretically avoided the all-out catastrophe that ensued a half-century later.

So, to repeat the question: is the Jew (who identifies as such) as a racial being inferior to the "Nordic" race? Yes! Do I hate myself? No! Do I self-criticize myself and acknowledge the painful truth that I was not born into the greatest race in the world? Yes! Does this motivate me to do something about it? Absolutely! Do I have negative feelings about my self-worth? Not at all! It is folks who refuse to acknowledge the problem who should have negative feelings about themselves! I am just playing out my hand as best as I could.

Some players are dealt pocket aces, some pocket jacks, some ace-king and some seven-deuce. I sure wish I was the one holding the aces but I'm not. I'm on a draw! It's a long shot. With some luck and gritty determination I may get there or bluff my way into winning the pot but at least I have the clarity of mind to read my own hand: It's not an AK, I need help, fast!