Friday, October 28, 2005


More Links

I still haven't had a chance to collect my thoughts on Sacrifice and Cain and Abel, so that'll have to wait until after this Shabbos -- I am too busy suffering from writer's block and not working on my dissertation to be writing much else. Anyway, I thought I would link to another friend's blog:

Steve Alter

Also ... Neil Fein [was "is", now "was"] temporarily here.

But he's back here now.

Thursday, October 27, 2005


Republicans vs. Democrats

A lot of questioning has been going on in the blogosphere, both left and right, about the conservative credentials of those in power in the Republican party.

It's all very simple really. As the old saw says, the Republicans are the party of "Main Street" and "Wall Street" and the Democrats are the party of everyone else. That is the Republicans have been, since their inception, a conservative party.

But the thing with conservatives is that, depending on what they want to conserve, they can have very different ideologies and even be at different points on the political spectrum. Teddy Roosevelt was as conservative, in his own way, as Robert Taft, but what they wanted to conserve was so different as to place them on very different points in the political spectrum. As the interests of Main Street and Wall Street often diverge from each other, the Republican party is, by neccesity, a "big tent" with many conservative views represented.

On the other hand, the conservativism of Main Street and Wall Street changes through time. The Wall Street conservativism of a century ago looks somewhat like the Silicon Valley "liberalism" of today. The Main Street conservativism of what is now the Upper Midwest in Lincoln's time wanted to conserve a very different lifestyle (free land and free soil) than did the conservativism of the ranchers leading the sage-brush revolution or the Religious Right of today. So even as the Republican party is no less or more conservative than it was in Reagan's day or in Goldwater's day or even in Lincoln's day, as it wants to conserve something different, it may have abandoned the Hollywood conservativism, fiscal conservativism and the platform of Lincoln.

But what happens to the conservatives who do not fit into whatever the conservative coalition is among the Republicans at any given moment? They become Democrats. The Democrats have long been a party with both conservatives and liberals. The Democratic-Republicans of the early Republic had Madisonian liberals, Jeffersonian agrarian conservatives and Patrick Henry style cavalier conservatives. The Democrats of a later era had both Northern Urban liberals, machine conservatives and Southern conservatives. Even before the Southern Strategy, many progressive conservatives found a home in the Democratic party of FDR and afterwards many other classes of conservatives have joined them. Thus, the Democrats are too diverse to even form a big tent.

So presumably, at some point, the Republicans will loose the fiscal conservatives to the Democrats as they continue to focus their support as being from specific other sorts of conservatives. But the Republicans will gain whatever conservatives from the Democratic party who decide they fit in more with the Republicans than the Democrats. In the past, the Democrats have said "good riddance" as when the Republicans picked up the Southern Conservatives and northern Copperheads (aka Reagan Democrats) from the Democrats via the "Southern Strategy". So why cannot we say this today as the rest of the social conservatives jump ship? If we have the confidence to build a coherent policy around our current coalition of Paul Simon-esque fiscal conservatives, liberals, progressive conservatives and techie-conservatives -- a policy framework providing a clear alternative to the Republican party, we don't have to win every social conservative vote to win elections ... we just need to show that we are a viable alternative for Joe and Jane Sixpack so they can vote for us even if they disagree with some aspects of our policies.

The Republicans will always be conservative: but as what they want to conserve changes, their approaches to specific conservative issues will change. We Democrats have to take advantage of this, not by moving to the right, but by providing a brand of leftism which is distinct and left-wing enough to be a distinguishable brand, but with which conservatives (some of whom are actually left wing) can be comfortable. Pandering to social conservatives will not work. A coherent economically left of center policy framework along the lines of a less improvised version of the New Deal will.


Any Pro-Lifers Reading This?

I have a question, asked in at least some sincerity:

How do people who feel abortion is murder feel about miscarriage?

After all, to believe abortion is murder, one must view fetuses, or possibly even embryos, as being signatories to the social contract, so to speak, i.e. they are "human". So what happens when a woman's body rejects a fetus or embryo -- has she killed, even inadvertently, a human? If a driver does not have the capacity, due to illness or age, to drive without placing others at risk, likely he will not be allowed to drive, and if he does drive and kills someone, he will be liable, perhaps only in civil court but perhaps criminally, for the death he has caused. If a woman miscarries a few times and thus demonstrates she may not have the capacity to carry a fetus to term, if she miscarries again, could she be criminally liable for that miscarriage? After all, just like the driver who caused a death by driving when he lacked the capacity to do so safely, the woman has caused a death by getting pregnant when she lacked the capacity to do so without harm to the fetus developing inside her.

I reckon some might consider a miscarriage an act of God ... akin to a tree limb falling on someone and killing them. But if the tree were on my property and my negligence in caring for the tree created a situation in which any reasonable person would realize the tree limb might fall and kill somebody, I would very well be sued for this occurance. Depending on how inevitable the situation was, I might even be prosecuted for criminal negligence. Certainly, if I have 'dominion' over the tree in my property and an obligation, both legally and morally, to keep them properly trimmed,a woman would have certain obligations to her fetus, right?

So if you believe abortion is murder, when does a woman who miscarries become liable for wrongful death? For criminally negligent homocide? For manslaughter? For depraved indifference murder?

Inquiring minds would like to know.


Weekly Portion Blogging: Bereshis (Part II)

Just a question (later will be some on Cain and Abel):

I am sure there is already some midrash on this, but why are the days of Creation given ordinal numbers ("second", "third", etc.) but the first day is called "day one" rather than "first day" ("yom echad" rather than "yom rishon")? And why is it "day one", "second day", etc., rather than "the first day", "the second day", etc.?

What is the use of language trying to tell us here?

There actually was a dispute in Mishnaic times about the use of language in the Torah. R. Akiva held a view that today we would describe as "Orthodox" in regards to the divine authorship of the Torah. R. Ishmael held a view we would describe as "Conservative". R. Akiva felt that the Torah were the exact words of God whereas R. Ishmael, while still viewing the Torah as God's law and having authority (why I said "Conservative" rather than, say, "Reform"), saw the text of the Torah as something written down by humans. As such, R. Akiva put great weight on the exact wording of the Torah -- any grammatical oddity, particular word usage, etc., was fodder for speculation. OTOH, R. Ishmael eschewed such speculation as the precise words of the Torah were whatever was the language of the time the Torah developed.

What is interesting is that, even if R. Akiva was "Orthodox" while R. Ishmael was "Conservative", liberal Jews (we Jews are weird ... Conservative Judaism is a kind of liberal Judaism) will often use the reasoning of R. Akiva to try and deduce the actual intent of a law in order to have adequate fences and forgo un-necessary ones, whereas Orthodox Jews might find such Akiva-esque reasoning to be grasping at straws. Consider the issue of homosexuality and Judaism: many liberal Jews use Akiva-esque reasoning based on the peculiar wording of that passage in Leviticus to infer that modern homosexuality is not forbidden, but more traditionalist Jews would follow R. Ishmael, even if they would agree more with the underlying philosophy of R. Akiva, and say that we liberals are twisting the words of Torah to suit our own agenda.

This just goes to show, I reckon, that sometimes one's underlying ontology and epistemology (e.g. whether you believe that the knowledge in Torah is exactly revealed from God) and the consequences of that in terms of one's approach to logic and rhetoric can be at great odds (perhaps someone might care to comment on this tension in the world-view of R. Akiva and how it effected his getting involved with a false messiah and eventually being a martyr). It also goes to show that just because, e.g., a liberal might agree with Alexander Hamilton or a conservative with James Madison, doesn't make Hamilton a liberal nor Madison a conservative. While we can and should learn from the past and respect precident and figure out why people felt the way they did, specific political agendas must change over time in response to changing situations: someone who tries to use 18th century political programmes or economic theories too literally today is being foolish -- did we have limitted liability corporations then? or the full scale of the industrial revolution? There is, though, some basic conception wherein we can say Hamilton was a conservative: we might not be able to express it, but we know it when we see it.

But still: what would R. Akiva say about the use of language in the Creation story? Is it a clue that something more than the literal meaning is going on with the story?

Wednesday, October 26, 2005


Be Careful of What You Ask For

Hopefully soon I'll get back to the Weekly Portion, but a thought popped into my head.

Those of us with strong beliefs have a tendancy to feel that, since we believe ourselves to be reasonable people, any reasonable person would think as we do and hence share our strong beliefs. This can occur in relationships (how can my friend, partner, etc., be so stupid as not to agree with what I find patently obvious?), faith and politics.

It causes some especially confusing thinking where faith and politics meet. Many on the religious right seem to want to have some legislation of religion and/or morality. At the very least they want government to grant some sort of recognition to their religious tendancies -- e.g. allowing them to use state resources (e.g. property) to display religious documents, icons or idols. Indeed, for a while, many on the religious right tried to argue that the Bill of Rights did not stop the various States from establishing religions.

What they seem to forget is that they are not the only game in town religion-wise. It is natural to forget such a thing: just as I might think conservatives are all unreasonable dolts, they might think anyone who truly believes in God would think as they do. But given that they are not the only game in town, what would really happen if religions were even to be given some sort of official imprimateur?

Legislatures compromise: that is how they work. They even horse trade. As I have suggested elsewhere: what is to stop a legislator from making a deal "you fundies get to have government recognize your religious dictates by the government letting you put up 10 commandments monuments on public property and in exchange, liberal religious folk who believe God wants everyone to marry, regardless of sexuality, get to have government recognize their religious dictates by having official imprimateur given to gay as well as straight marriages". This certainly is "doing unto others" (perhaps this is why many religious figures have rather supported the "negative golden rule" of "do not unto others as you would not have them do to you"?), but do members of the religious right really want to subject their religious dictates to legislative horse trading? Because, no matter how powerful the religious right thinks they are, this is what will happen once the wall between Church and State is breached.

Part of the problem is exposure. In order to imagine that people might just think, in good faith and with plenty of reason, differently than you, you must know faithful and religious people who think differently than you: for example, I know many Jews who claim themselves to be "pro-life" because they are against using abortion as birth control -- they support causes, however, which work to make abortion illegal even when it would halachically be required. Why? Because they cannot imagine that people of good faith would be opposed to abortion even when a woman's health is in grave, if not mortal, danger. Similarly, their Christian friends probably cannot imagine that a person of faith would place anything but the life (not even the health) of the mother-to-be in priority to the life of even a fetus.

I have had the privalege of having friends starting at a very early age whose whole worldview is different than my own. But alas, all too few people have such a privalege and do not even think of this as a privalege and a duty so that they cultivate such friendships when they have a chance. Unfortunately, such close-minded ignorance is bad for democracy and our nation as it prevents too many people from reaching the best conclusions as to how to best govern our country. And when we the people, who have the ultimate say here, are too close-minded, we really do loose the vigorous debate and empathy necessary to steer this country in the right direction.

Sunday, October 23, 2005


Weekly Portion Blogging: Bereshis (Part I)

Let's see how well I'll keep up with this, but it would be nice to have weekly Torah portion blogging won't it? (Also ... sorry for all the blank space on top ... blogger put it in and I cannot figure how to edit it out)

Anyway, let's start at the beginning. After all, according to Julie Andrews, it's a very good place to start. This week, with Simchas Torah, we start reading the Torah at the beginning. Hopefully, soon I'll have a chance to comment on Cain and Abel and the meaning of sacrifice, but for now, I'll just give a few thoughts on the Creation itself.


There has been a lot of discussion lately about the idea of "Intelligent Design". As I have stated before, I wonder if the whole goal of this discussion is simply what some Republicans are saying they want to do: "teach the debate". After all, what will students come away learning from such a "debate"? That evolution is how life has come to exist as it does, but that living organisms are darned near divinely designed. The problem with this is that living creatures are full of design flaws while "free market theory" uses evolutionary language to make ridiculous claims (as ridiculous as my spelling). If students do not really learn what evolution is capable of, how it works (I recently heard a fundamentalist saying that the variability of living organisms is evidence against evolution when, in fact, such variability is a key aspect of the theory of evolution as well as its key import in theology -- evolution destroys the position of the Medieval "realists" for whom the 'prototype' was more real than the variable and hence 'imperfect' individual by showing that it is our imperfections and variability that allows for evolution, both biological and spiritual!), etc., they will be more susceptible to evolutionary-themed economic and socio-political snake oil. They will believe Friedmanite economics and The Bell Curve because instead of being taught how evolution really works, they are taught evolution is almost divine in its perfection.

What is often missing from this debate is a full discussion of what is ment by "Design". While most scientists oppose "Intelligent Design" as an alternative scientific theory, I would reckon that of those scientists who are religious/believe in God, two philosophies prevail.

One philosophy borrows from Schopenhaur, Ibsen, James, Nietzche and Kierkegaard, not to mention Bayes and Pascal: the scientist believes because that is his "will". Belief in God is a "vital lie" and it's vitality makes belief and religion not only a "will" and a "right" but a pragmatic thing to do. At the very least, because belief does not kill, it makes one stronger. Therefore, one ought to make a leap of faith and be religious. A Bayesian might point out that the existance of God, while not provable, is probable and therefore it is advisable to believe in God. At the very least, even if Bayesian optimal beliefs are not actual true, they are utilitarian and must be adopted even if they are lies -- they are vital.

The other approach is that of belief due to belief, in spite of Hume, in the Design Argument. The universe is Designed for life by a Designer. While some may wish to blow smoke in the current debate by citing the acceptance by many scientists of the Design Argument, this argument is purely meta-physical and neither yields a testible hypothesis nor precludes evolution as a mechanism of Design. Indeed, while we mere humans cannot understand the methods of God, human design is often evolutionary: we take an idea, mutate it, test it, tinker with it, etc. If a watch is evidence of a watchmaker, that watchmaker designed the watch by tinkering with previous watch designs and optimized them to the best of his ability.

There is an idea in some quarters of Judaism that God transcends time as well as space (indeed, one Jew happened to make quite some waves claiming the equivalence of time with spatial dimensions). Some people hold notions of a process philosophy in which God runs a creative process. In either case, the act of Creation was not a one time event but is something continuous. And what is the mechanism for Creation? Evolution, perhaps.

It thus must be clarified that "Intelligent Design" is not the "Design Argument". "Intelligent Design", in spite of the protestations of some scientists, is being presented as a testible scientific theory -- no more nor less scientific than evolution. Of course, it is a patently wrong theory -- the evolution of all of the supposedly "irreducibly complex" systems cited by ID theorists is easy to conceive if not well understood in scientific practice. But what concerns me more than the incorrectness of the science of ID are the theological implications.

Evolution is not incompatable with religion or even the Design Argument, but it is incompatable with certain religious philosophies, e.g., Medieval Realism. Similarly, those who attempt to derive a scientific and testible form of the Design Argument (as "Intelligent Design") are proposing a theory with specific theological implications. If God Creates by Evolution, that takes a lot of responsibility for our imperfections out of the hands of God. But if God has created complex systems directly, then why did He Create them so imperfectly?

Is God imperfect? Is God trying to teach us lessons about something? And if so, why not just reveal those teachings to us like the religious hold he has revealed so much else. Of course, some ID proponants do hold God to be limitted ... and not in the sense of Steinberg. God is, to them, limitted in His ability to accept our sincere repentence, as discussed by Kaufmann who is quoted on Adventus.

OTOH, the ID proponants pointedly do not claim God is the Intelligent Designer. Are the ID proponants specifically advocating Platonic or Gnostic thought? Obviously some are.

Evolution is a scientific theory with meta-scientific consequences. So is ID. When is it acceptable, in a secular society to teach such theories? I would say it is acceptable to teach evolution but not ID. Why? Because evolution seems to be true and more importantly has practical consequences: to fully appreciate the power of microevolution, which affects us greatly with emerging diseases, etc., we must believe in macroevolution. Is ID true? Is ID pragmatic to believe? I think not ... so why teach it?


One interesting aspect of the debate over evolution is the role of the Creation story in this debate. Belief in evolution, or even ID, is incompatable with a literal intepretation of the creation story presented in Genesis (although ID is closer to a literal interpretation). But if the creation story in Genesis is not literally true, why include it in the Torah? Jews, Liberal Christians and Orthodox/Catholic/Calvinist Christians can answer this question easily: the story is either myth or allegory. Even the Talmud pretty much treats the Creation story as allegory by asking why creation went the way it did ... and later Jewish thinkers, even before Darwin, clearly viewed the creation story in terms compatable with Darwin. For some Christians, the Creation story can function as an allegory to explain the "origin" of Original Sin.

But what do fundamentalist Christians, whose soteriology is not so orthodox in terms of Original Sin but who do not accept the Jewish/liberal Christian allegorical interpretations of the creation story, do about the creation story? They have no choice but to view it relatively literally. So that is what they do.


Sorry about the confused nature of this post -- I have a lot to say and not so much time to say it. Hopefully, though, it ties in some way together a lot of stuff I've been ranting about lately.

Thursday, October 20, 2005


Four Letters Often Used but Seldom Understood

On the subject of justice, which in the Hebraic mindset at least does not only refer to the results of a due process of law but also to wealth redistribution, perhaps rendering unto Caesar what may be Caesar's but certainly rendering to God what is God's, Rev. RMJ quotes Matthew 22:36-40 on the subject of love. My first reaction was to compare this story with the story of (Shammai) Hillel and the prospective convert. But a friend of mine asked me a question and this got me to thinking:

Why does one person love another?

This is a difficult question I do not fully know how to answer. But it comes up quite often: why do my parents love me? What have I done to deserve their love? Why does my girlfriend love me? What does she even mean when she says she loves me? Is she infatuated with my physical beauty (well, maybe not -- I'm not that attractive: I'm a Niebelung, remember? ;) )? Does she love all of me or just some parts?

One way in which this question arises is the same way in which people, who are raised in even rather optimal environments, still find it difficult to honor their parents: sometimes, just as it is hard to accept that one's parents did a decent job as one came out well enough, it is also hard to accept that one can be loved.

Currently, it is within the festival of Succos (or Succot or Succoth, however you prefer): the harvest festival. The order of the Jewish calendar is such that within the same lunar month (is "lunar month" repetative or redundant? or part of that old legal law tradition of having an Anglo-Saxon and Norman-Latinate word pushed together?), we have the New Year, the Day of Atonement and then the Harvest Festival. Why celebrate the New Year, then the Day of Atonement and then the Harvest? Isn't that backwards?

Well, the Harvest Festival, as the Rabbi at my girlfriend's shul pointed out in a sermon I missed, is a season of joy in which we are commanded to be joyful -- which is a pretty unusual command. How can one force oneself to be joyful? What if one is depressed? This is the same question as how one can accept love: whether it is God's love or the love of a fellow human. In order to accept love -- in order to know why one person can love you -- you must first renew yourself. You must first accept that you will be starting your life anew (the New Year), then you must atone for your errors (the Day of Atonement) and then you can reap the joy of the Harvest. As the Psalm (126?) chanted after enjoying a festive meal says: you sow in tears but reap in joy.

So what does this have to do with justice? Well, to not be able to accept love is to feel that it is unjust that you are loved. But when you love your neighbor as yourself, you must accept love, your own love for yourself, in order to love your neighbor. Justice is rooted not just in the legal order but in accepting that order -- as we read on Rosh Hashana, God accepted Ishmael, a troubled kid from a troubled family who was left to die, where he was.

To look at this situation conversely, we learn even more. Many commandments are associated with the Harvest: not gleaning, leaving the corners of your fields for the poor, etc. All of these commandments are associated with justice, in the Hebraic sense of the word, as is the fast of Yom Kippur ("is this not the fast I seek?" -- Isaiah). The sacrifice of the fast is not you giving up your food, but realizing that it is ultimately God's food that is sustaining you. There is no bread without Torah but no Torah without bread. A korban, a sacrifice, does not mean you should feel you are giving up something, but that you are giving back something. By showing your love, by being unselfish, you prepare yourself to be loved. If a fear of being loved is a fear that you are unjust and in a just world you do not deserve love, then the way to accept love is to be just and loving. When you are just and loving, even if you may have sinned, God will and Humankind ought to accept you where you are: after all, nobody is perfect nor would we want anybody to be perfect.

Judaism, no less than Christianity, realizes the saving power of God's grace. But to us, God's gracious love is something that may be difficult to accept. Just as we wonder why our friends love us, our partners love us, etc., we wonder how God can love us. But God has, in divine grace, given us a path to accept love. By walking in the ways of justice and mercy, we can accept God's love. The ways may not always seem so pleasant, one may cry much as one plants, but God willing, we can harvest in joy.

Monday, October 17, 2005


Yom Kippur and the Ring Cycle

Given some (hopefully now resolved) turmoil in my personal life, I have been thinking a bit about the nature of vows -- which I guess is an appropriate thing to think about around Yom Kippur.

If you vow to be a friend: when are you free of the obligation you have incurred? When your friend stops being a friend? What if your friend thinks what he or she is doing is out of friendship when in reality it is not? In terms of the news: when is a journalist free to reneg on a vow of secrecy? When the anonymous source burns the journalist? In general, when are you free of vows?

On Yom Kippur we say the Kol Nidre releasing us to vows made to God. But when and how to we release ourselves from vows made to our fellow humans? Can we ever do so? Should we ever do so?

On the surface of things, nothing could be so much further removed than the morality of the Ring Cycle, written by the anti-Semitic composer Richard Wagner (who, btw, seemed to mainly associate with Jews rather than non-Jews), in which freedom and progress finally come from the release from too many obligations as the obligation based lifestyle of Judaism. But on a deeper level, isn't Judaism's iconoclasm equivalent to Wagner's? Don't the Kol Nidre and Akedah together comprise the same narrative as the Ring Cycle?

The key to resolving this paradox is the realization that Torah is self-limitting. While interpretation can and must add fences and fences around the Torah, the laws themselves are finite in number and do not proliferate. And we shouldn't proliferate them for ourselves by taking unnecessary vows or invoking God in vain. While some may consider it to be a sign of religious devotion to constantly invoke God, others remember the lesson from the Torah portion read the morning of Yom Kippur (from Leviticus, chapter 16): when Aaron's sons brought up the spectre of God and religion at the wrong time, they died in a strange fire.

Without true T'shuvah ... with taking unnecessary vows and obligations ... by invoking God inappropriately and bluring the lines "hamavdil ben kodesh l'chol" -- as too many people in this society are wont to do and the rest of us do in spite of ourselves -- we risk bringing strange fire on ourselves and becoming spiritually dead.


A post-Yom Kippur Confession

I have a confession to make:

One of my favorite quotes is quoted in Harold Titus' Introduction to Philosophy (I forget the original source) in which, talking about existentialism, it says, to paraphrase, Nietzsche is as essential to Existentialism as Aristotle is to the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas but to call Nietzsche an Existentialist is a bit like calling Aristotle a Thomist. (You can make the same quotation in the political world in terms of calling Strauss a Platonist or in terms of calling neo-conservatives Straussian ... or in the religious world in terms of calling modern Fundamentalists, Calvinists).

My confession is that sometimes I feel that, while Torah is essential to Judaism, calling Torah Jewish is a bit like calling Aristotle a Thomist.

While Judaism takes from the Torah and weaves from it an entire system of living, one can imagine other systems being taken from the Torah and possibly even Judaism weaving its magic from other covenants. Like our Constitution is more than just the words on a piece of paper (I am not a Strict Constructionist, if you haven't figured that out -- btw, if one is a Strict Constructionist and Originalist, does one go all the way in extracting meaning from every stray word and punctuation mark in the Constitution a la R. Akiva's method of interpreting Torah?), the Brith is more than the terms in the written Torah but the process which has evolved to interpret those words. This is why the "vital lie" of Jewish Orthodoxy, that the Oral Torah was also given at Sinai, is so vital: because it is the process of Torah which is as important as the writing. This is also why Christian Reconstructionism makes no sense: how do you follow Torah, or any law, if you expect to follow mere words on a page. If rote following of the written law were possible, we could have computers take over the role of judges. Any judge is inherently an activist lest a computer take her place (just as any judge is inherently conservative lest the judgement not be grounded in the order of things). This is why the Torah itself commands the appointment of judges and only regulates the roles of other (secular) leaders should they be appointed/elected.

OTOH, there are books in the Bible that do strike me as truly Jewish. The Torah doesn't seem culturally Jewish to me, but Jonah (with God sounding exactly like my mother), Job, Daniel, the Megillot, deutero-Isaiah, Jeremaiah and indeed most of the later Prophets and Writings sounding very "Jewish".

But maybe my idea of Jewish is shaped too much by a false notion of "authenticity" based on what books reached me first.

I guess that is another confession. As much as I am a nominalist who views the key triumph of "Darwinism" as a triumph of the notion that variation is as important as type, I have a love of the "typical" -- products that match my image of what the class should be like ... I like my 'typical' tea (Scottish Breakfast), my 'typical' honey (fireweed), etc.

Oh well, I am rambling ... I guess I need more caffeine?


'Cause I've not yet seen others blogging about it

Heard an interview on NPR regarding this a while back ... I thought it would be the talk of the left-wing blogs, but it isn't.

Louis Freeh reminds me of the boy who murders his parents and then pleads for mercy from the court on account of being an orphan: if you head a politically motivated investigation of your boss, don't whine and complain about your boss not talking so much to you.

And while Siegal did have Freeh backpeddling faster than Lance Armstrong peddles forward, he still didn't nab Freeh on Freeh's biggest allegation, which really shows Freeh for all of his brazen gall and "I'm a boy from Jerz" "toughness" to be gullible enough to be sold a certain bridge about an hours' drive from my neck of the woods in NJ ... but maybe this was too complicated for even the "sophisticated" NPR? --

The biggest complaint Freeh has about Clinton's handling of the war on terror is that Clinton's people couldn't get the Saudis to let the FBI talk to Saudi prisoners about the Khobar towers bombing. This is a fair enough complaint ... Clinton, not wanting to piss off a major source of oil, probably did not persue the sensative case as doggedly as he probably should have.

But ... Freeh claims G.H.W. Bush was able to get the FBI access to prisoners very quickly. Why is Freeh not suspicious of this? One oilman talking to a bunch of other oilmen and suddenly the FBI gets what it "wants"? Why didn't Mr. Tough Jerzy Boy bother to look a gift horse in the mouth?

After all, what the FBI learns is that Iran may have been behind the bombings ... which is likely true. But doesn't Wahabbi Saudi Arabia have an interest in having its 'enemy' in the Islamic world, uber-Shiite Iran, blamed for this attack while shielding the Al Qaeda terrorists funded by people associated with the royal family? What did G.H.W. Bush promise to the Saudis to allow the FBI to "talk" to the prisoners? Was the reason why the difference that Clinton's people perhaps were demanding conditions that would allow the prisoners to talk a bit more freely about what really happened? Did G.H.W. Bush promise that the U.S. would focus on Iran and avoid focus on Al Qaeda? And was Freeh "in on this" or just duped?

All of this is speculation, of course, but it would be nice if a member of the media, NPR, which prides itself on in depth reporting, would have gone in depth and actually asked Freeh the tough questions about his claims regarding Iran and the Khobar towers and whether G.H.W. Bush actually got the FBI what it really wanted ...


Back from Yom Kippur

Hello Readership (however many you are: two? three? ...)

I am back from Yom Kippur followed by a post-Yom Kippur weekend. I have some thoughts from Yom Kippur, but I must get caffeinated first.

I cannot seem to find them (my googling skills are not so good), but Machzor Hadash, used by my Hillel, has some good Chassidic stories to ponder. If you can get a hold of it, consider the story of Rebbe Levi Yitzchak and whether the price of Salvation could be the life of Haim the washerman. Consider even the names of the characters and the questions asked: whose fault is it that we sin? Can the life of Life who washes us be what it takes to free us from sin?

I always wonder -- with the Dionysian leaders whose exploits are told in almost impenetrable allegories: is there any connection between Hassidism and Zen?

Tuesday, October 11, 2005


Reciprocal Posting

I am not the only Edison NJite with a blog. Looking at the pages on blogspot alone, there seem to be all too many people in this municipality with blogs. I was reminded that one of my friends in this fair township has a blog as well.

He's linked to mine, so I should link to his.

Happy reading!

Friday, October 07, 2005


One of those Obligations without Measure

Tangentially related to some personal issues in my life and how friends of mine have responded when similar issues have arisen in their lives, I was thinking of the commandment to honor your mother and father, and how difficult this commandment proves to be.

Ignoring the obvious and oft expressed concerns about how to honor your parents if they are truly dishonorable people, even if one's parents are truly honorable, it is often difficult to really honor them.


Because one's parents are from a different time (and for many of us, from a different place) and hence it is hard to relate to what they say. Sometimes indeed our parents are just plain wrong about things. But sometimes we need to realize that our parents, in spite of how different they are from us, know a thing or two and their opinions ought to be given weight.

In some sense, the real difficulty, though, in following this commandment is not the difficulty of honoring your parents per se but of respecting yourself. Perhaps the obvious way to follow this commandment is to say "in spite of how dorky and out of touch my parents seem to be, maybe I should pay them some heed ... after all, they did raise me and somehow I came out OK". If you cannot honor your parents, that means at some level you cannot respect yourself: if your parents have produced one thing worthy of respect, then maybe their words are worthy of respect as well ... but if your parents have not produced anything worthy of respect, that means you have deemed yourself unworthy of respect.

That is why this commandment is so important. Your parents were stewards to one of God's creations -- you. If you cannot honor them, how can you respect the divine in you?

Thursday, October 06, 2005


Speaking of the Rosh Hashana Torah Readings

On Adventus, the subject of the Akedah came up. Coincidentally, this is the second day Torah reading for Rosh Hashana.

I mentioned one interpretation, that it was not only God testing Abraham, but also Abraham testing God. And I figured I might as well put up another link for people's reading pleasure ... I have not myself finished digesting it, but figure it might prove interesting to people (and hopefully is not too far off the mark):

The Real Test of the Akedah

Wednesday, October 05, 2005


Looking Ahead to Yom Kippur

I was thinking about Leviticus 19 read in some synagogues on Yom Kippur. In particular, I was thinking about the injunction against placing a stumbling block before the blind.

A theist like me would consider an atheist to be spiritually blind (note: spiritually, not morally or ethically: there is no reason why an atheist would be any less ethically atune than a theist, and an atheist may even adopt a theistic morality -- indeed, while the concept of the Fear of God is important in Jewish morality, a Hassidic master once noted that even atheism can serve God's will as it focuses the mind on the need for humans to do good works and not rely on God).

An invocation of God by an atheist would be in vain, would it not?

Thus, creating a situation where an atheist is likely to invoke God (e.g. by having the Pledge of Allegience in its post 1950s form recited in a public, secular forum such as a school, an atheist child might inadvertantly include the phrase "under God") is putting a stumbling block before the blind -- i.e. causing an atheist to spiritually stumble.

Why then do some who claim to guard our public morality do something that is precisely against the source they claim for that morality?

I am tired of those who refer to the religious right as having a Levitical morality. Their morality is quite the opposite of that encouraged by the Book of Leviticus. Leviticus tells us not to place a stumbling block before the blind: the religious right sometimes seems to revel in this conduct. Leviticus describes a public morality based on obligatory shared meals and wealth redistribution: the religious right tells us that the poor should be taken care of by "charity" rather than by obligatory wealth redistribution. Leviticus forbids us from doing whatever we want with our property but mandates some of the fruits of our land to be shared with the poor: the religious right tends to support politicians who claim that we can despoil our property -- do even evil to God's creation -- however we want.

While I would be the last to advocate a return to a Levitically-based theocracy in Israel or the establishment of one here, liberals would be pleased to know and members of the religious right would be horrified to realize that such a theocracy would be more socialist than free-market friendly.

I urge people, both left and right, to read Leviticus 19 and then re-evaluate their thoughts on Leviticus.


Some Thoughts from Rosh Hashana

As Rosh Hashana draws to a close, I am pondering the Haftarah portion from today (which I was volunteered to read and managed to alas mangle pretty badly -- not the best way to start of the new year, I reckon, but considering I don't read Hebrew all that well and pretty much know the trope only from the blessings, I think I did pretty well for only having had a day to prepare). No doubt, a lot of people have said a lot about this portion (Jeremiah 31:2-20), but what is interesting to me about it is what it is saying about the eventual salvation of the Jewish people and the world as a whole.

Jeremiah refers to Jacob (note: not Israel ... why the use of the name Jacob here? I do not know) being ransomed by God. While many Christians claim this refers to Jesus, an interesting question is by what payment is the ransom made? The Haftarah actually answers this question in verse 16: the ransom is the reward for labor -- i.e. even though God delivers the ransom, it is not God who provides the ransom for captive Israel, but rather ourselves. And in as much as we are to be a light unto the nations, we are showing all the peoples of the world that the ransom to deliver the world from the bondage of strife and into the hands of the Messiah will come not from God but from our own labors. If (and only if) we build a better world, we are redeeming ourselves from our sins.

Interestingly, the language used around verse 16 is remaniscent of the language used at the end of Psalm 126, which is about a redemption: we labor in tears but shall reap the rewards of our labor in joy. This passage appears to contrast with the wise advice of Antigonos of Socho who urges us to labor without a reward in mind. However, when we labor in tears as suggested both by the Psalmist and Jeremiah, we obviously are not laboring thinking of our reward but thinking of our current state, so the passages do not conflict. Moreover, the reward of which Antigonos speaks, is the reward of the afterlife. As Maimonides says, we mortals cannot comprehend what may or may not exist in the afterlife. But as Jeremiah and the Psalmist suggest, we must labor to improve the world in this life and for future generations. There is a sense in which we hope our afterlives will give rewards to us, but to focus on the afterlife is to deny God's creation in this world. We must praise God by laboring to improve Creation, not by emitting vain praises in the hope of getting into heaven.

A question remains in my mind: IIRC, Jeremiah is writing at the time of the destruction of the Temple -- so why the emphasis on Ephraim and Rachel and not on Judah?

p.s. pardon my spelling errors -- I cannot figure out how to spell check on blogger yet.


Opening Post

Hello Everyone ... and Happy New Year (i.e. the New Year that occurs on the seventh month!)

I figured I would finally take the plunge into blogdom and start a blog.

You will find here commentary of various sorts (political issues, Torah, etc.) from way out in left field.

As to the name ... well, my initials are DAS but unlike Alberich I hope not to sell out to "The Man", so to speak.

So ... let's see how this works out.

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