Wednesday, November 30, 2005


It sounds bad to say it but ...

Why does it have to be an atheist challenging the sacriligious invocations of God on our currency, etc.? A key aspect of the Hebraic mindset is the idea that, unlike the ancient Greeks and Romans, etc., who would invoke the gods whenever possible and thus reduce such invocations to mere tokens of cultural belonging, the invocation of God is something significant and not to be done in vain.

So shouldn't people defending Judeo-Christian morality (I am sure Jesus would have some choice things to say about currency invoking God) be at the forefront of trying to get God off of our currency rather than fighting to keep a vain (I thought the religious right was in favor of the 10 commandments, not against them -- if they just want to post them without actually following them, doesn't that make those monuments into mere idols?) invocation on our currency? Why does the so-called "religious" right want to continue the cheapening of the invocation of God, reducing it to a mere token of cultural belonging? And why is it left to a non-believer to be safeguarding the name of God from vain invocation?

I guess a true Christian might respond -- that's just the way things are: after all, "blessed are the poor in spirit" -- not necessarily blessed are those with great faith.

BTW -- anybody hear about Harold Bloom's new book? The NY Times Book Review describes it as expressing the kinds of things many Jews think about Judaism (it is somehow distinct from the religious view expressed the J-author of Torah) and Christianity (Jesus was exactly aligned with the J-author, Christianity sometimes seems to be something quite different, which is not necessarily a bad thing) -- and that sounds about right to me from the descriptions presented in that review. I reckon I should actually read that book someday.


It's about time we wake up

We Jews need to understand that not everyone who supports Israel is really a friend.

It seems more and more Jews are understanding that.


Our Mission in Iraq

I heard GW Bush in a speech describe our mission in Iraq as being to defeat the terrorists there.

Given that these terrorists were not terrorists in Iraq (i.e. they were not committing acts of terror in Iraq) until after we invaded, did we create our reason for going into Iraq when we went into Iraq in the first place? Is the war in Iraq a self-justifying war? Goodness -- Eisenhower must be spinning in his grave right about now.

When it comes to this administration, I am always reminded of an admonition they have appearantly never heard: "don't piss in the wind and tell me it's raining".

Tuesday, November 22, 2005


Vayeira and Zionism

One aspect of last week's Torah portion, Vayeira, is the notion of chosenness: we Jews are the "chosen" people who are to be, in later Biblical terms, a light unto the nations.

A month or two ago people on the internets were talking about the notion of whether integration would lead, e.g., to the death of blues. As some pointed out, this sort of comment is as prejudicial and bigoted as wondering whether Zionism would lead to the death of Jewish success in, e.g., the sciences. Which of course begged the question: would it?

I actually fear it might -- not because increasing opportunities for Jews in all fields will result in fewer extreme Jewish successes in particular fields, but because of the decline of the notion of chosen-ness. Historically, we Jews have been successful in many areas in spite of great oppression, not because oppression inspired us nor because we have special powers, but because we not only have a certain emphasis on education, which when directed beyond the four cubits of halacha shines brilliantly so long as the flavor of those four cubits is maintained, but we also feel an obligation to show the rest of the world how it is done: we have historically taken our self-appointed role to serve as examples very seriously.

Zionism, OTOH, historically is a philosophy of Jewish normalization. It holds that we Jews ought to be a nation like any other nation. Moreover, that Israel is unfairly singled out for criticism in the community of nations has created a further backlash of moral relativism which reaffirms the original Zionist commitment to Jewish normality and even Jewish mediocracy.

Perhaps it is healthier for us Jews to not put so much pressure on ourselves. But if we only aim to be like everyone else, will we continue to be as successful at so many things as we historically have been? And if we no longer allow ourselves to be a blessing -- what will happen, cf. this Torah portion, to the nations?

Do we Jews have an obligation to be especially good? The Torah says we do. But Zionism has historically said we do not. While I believe in many ways the State of Israel has done many good things for the Jewish people and ought to be maintained as a Jewish democracy (which, btw, requires it to spin off a Palestinian state before Israel itself looses either its Jewish or democratic character), the Zionists and their relativist heirs today are wrong -- we Jews ought not to be normal! Now even some so-called religious Jews seem to say we have no obligation to be a light unto the nations and embrace a rather un-Jewish definition of our people (and manage to look down upon non-Jews while refusing to serve as beakons to them) even as the Torah obligates Jews to hold ourselves to a higher standard.

Why have even the so-called frum rejected the Torah in favor of a secular "ism"? All I can say is -- what a world!

Tuesday, November 15, 2005


Rule by a Common Man vs. Government of, by and for the People

The Bush presidency has revealed a very interesting tension within democratic governments: many people want a ruler who is someone like them. There is something inherently "democratic" feeling about having a "common man" as a ruler. Ignoring the un-commonness of Bush himself, part of his support is that he is able to affect the mannerisms of "Joe Sixpack" who supported him, supposedly, because Joe would rather chug beers with George than sip sherry with John F. Kerry (I'm a poet, and I do know-it). Indeed, that George W. Bush is such a man of means but would still have "the common touch" probably adds to his popularity over the popularity of what a true man of the people would obtain based on being a commoner.

But even as there is something democratic feeling about having a President who is an "ordinary person", this is, in fact, quite an un-democratic and un-republican way of thinking. In a republican democracy, the President is someone we the people have hired to lead us. Should we hire someone to do this job simply because s/he is someone with whom we would like to have beers? No! A republican democrat would not revel in the commonness of his leader but rather in the elitism of her leader -- she would pick the best man or woman for the job. And since government has a lot of work to do, this leader better be quite good!

It is a populism that leads inevitably to fascism to insist that the sum total of popular representation is to have a leader who is one of us. A true democratic republican views government as a tool to get things done -- to maintain infrastructure, to provide for the common defense, to regulate trade, to protect the rights of the minority, etc., etc. As such a true democratic republican, no matter how expansive his view of what government ought to do, would want the best person for the job of being a leader-- the person best able to lead the country where it ought to go. To demand that the President be one of us is actually to view the role of government as something more than a mere tool -- to view the state as incorporating the people. That is not democracy but fascism. Ironically, to believe that government can do quite a bit of good and even to want an expansive government lead by a strong and capable leader is more democratic than to think of government as a generally useless tool for doing anything other than maintaining public morality and acting macho on the world scene that ought to be headed by someone just like the rest of us.

So when will the electorate stop thinking as cells within an organic state and start thinking of the government as a useful tool -- to start thinking as republican democrats who want to hire the best person to do the job of being our leader rather than being obsessed with having a President with the right religious views or plebian enough tastes?

Monday, November 14, 2005


Sarah and Martha

A few years ago I was attending mass with a very dear Catholic friend of mine (we have known each other since kindergarden!) and the readings for the day were the story in which Sarah receives news that she will have a child and the story of Mary and Martha.

I thought this was a perfect, though perhaps not entirely intended, compare and contrast between the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament.

First let me say the story of Mary and Martha has always puzzled me: why would a supposedly perfect man like Jesus show such a lack of tact. I can understand being more appreciative of Mary's company than Martha's good food. But why not just send Mary to the kitchen to take over for Martha and speak to Martha privately, saying

You know Martha, while I absolutely love your cooking, what I really miss when I am on the road is good company from my friends ... if you don't mind, would you just let me talk to Mary ... if you feel overwhelmed -- why not try to get the food to a stopping point and we can eat later? I would also like to talk to you as well as Mary.

Perhaps this would have been what Jesus said -- but the NT sources decided to shorten the words the, I hope this is not too offensive to my Christian friends, rather tactless reply of Jesus saying Mary is more blessed than Martha. Perhaps this, along with the story of the fig tree not bearing fruit, is an illustration that Jesus, like the Jewish Founders, was not perfect but flawed? Perhaps the point of these stories is in fact to show that Jesus lacked what we would call the "human touch" -- the Christian view, after all, is that Jesus is not merely human but divine, so these stories are in the NT to show that Jesus is not merely human.

But what I, as a Jew, found most interesting is that while Jesus says Martha is blessed, in the Hebrew Bible, the angel's good news, a child, is not something to benefit Abraham, who already had his heir in Ishmael, but Sarah. In the Christian NT, Jesus prefers Mary, the host, to Martha the cook. In the Hebrew Bible, Sarah the cook is preferred to Abraham the host, who presumably wanted other things besides another son he would be all too eager to sacrifice later anyway.

What does this say about the distinction between the Jewish and Christian views of holy works? I do not know -- but I bet it says something interesting.


Lech Lecha and Vayeira

This week and last week we get two Torah portions which deal with two different responses to a situation in which the environment is so evil, one has to either fight or leave. Lot delays the inevitable and barely comes out alive, while earlier Abraham leaves Ur well before it is "too late".

A lot can and has been said about this, but lately I have been thinking of the concept of a "comfort" zone and the role of religion in maintaining this comfort zone or trying to free one from the prison of comfort.

What got me started was seeing a sign for a local church advertising the preaching as "refreshing" and "relevent". I wonder -- should a goal of preaching be to refresh or to be relevent? Should preaching refresh the soul and give practical advice, or should it try to awaken our moral sense to higher issues and the need to serve humanity?

Religion certainly can be relevent, but sometimes it is at its best when it forces us to look beyond the practical and everyday. This month, following a month chock full of Jewish holidays, we Jews look toward the everyday, but we must remember that the Shabbos and the Holidays are not "every-day". They are not our normal comfort zone. They are not necesssarily relevent to every-day concerns or, as the Catholics would call it, "ordinary time", but rather they are extra-ordinary. There is, though, a challenge of religion: how to translate what happens on Shabbos, on the Holidays to every-day life; how to keep the momentum of the holidays alive in living as a Jew (or Christian or what have you) during the day-to-day world. In this way, being "refreshing" and being "relevent" are two opposite things -- the holidays refresh because they are not relevent. So maybe, far from being flippant, the church which claims its preaching to be both refreshing and relevent is setting a pretty high standard for itself.

Back to the issue of comfort zones -- sometimes, though, the goal of religion is to take you out of a comfort zone and put you in an even better one. I may be comfortable living in a secular suburb, but when I visit my girlfriend in a very Jewish area, while it is difficult to get there (traffic can be horrible), there is a certain comfort walking to shul on Shabbos and actually living a more Jewish life, if only for a day or two a week. But before reaching true comfort, one must "build" the comfort zone -- and that requires being shaken from slumber. And having the alarm clock wake you is not always comfortable!

Monday, November 07, 2005


Haftorah for Noach

From the book of Isaiah, Ch. 55 (JPS Translation):

1. Ho, every one that thirsteth, come ye for water, and he that hath no money; come ye, buy, and eat; yea, come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. 2. Wherefore do ye spend money for that which is not bread? and your gain for that which satisfieth not? Hearken diligently unto Me, and eat ye that which is good, and let your soul delight itself in fatness. 3. Incline your ear, and come unto Me; hear, and your soul shall live; and I will make an everlasting covenant with you, even the sure mercies of David.

What does this exactly mean? What does it mean to "buy without money"? Why should we not spend money, money which we have earned, on things which do not satisfy us? Why would we spend money this way that Isaiah even needs to tell us this?

What does this exhortation say about the assumptions of free market theory? That they do not make sense -- as we do not spend on what we want? That they are immoral as we ought to only spend based on needs rather than wants and that anyway what we earn is not really ours to freely decide how to spend?

How does this passage relate to the distinction between different kinds of sacrifices made in my last post?

4. Behold, I have given him for a witness to the peoples, a prince and commander to the peoples. 5. Behold, thou shalt call a nation that thou knowest not, and a nation that knew not thee shall run unto thee; because of HaShem thy G-d, and for the Holy One of Israel, for He hath glorified thee.

Is this merely saying we Jews are "chosen" or is it saying something else? If so, what?

6. Seek ye HaShem while He may be found, call ye upon Him while He is near; 7. Let the wicked forsake his way, and the man of iniquity his thoughts; and let him return unto HaShem, and He will have compassion upon him, and to our G-d, for He will abundantly pardon

Why wouldn't one be able to find God? Relating to discussion on Adventus, note that God will abundantly pardon -- the Jewish teaching is certainly that God forgives all who truly repent and make restitution: God cannot create a rock which He cannot lift. The rituals of Judaism are not sacriments (relation to sacrifice is ... ?) performed so as to allow us to be in a state to receive God's Grace but rather are part of a path which God has showed us in His Grace. OTOH, accepting God's love is, as I have previously pointed out, non-trivial and rather difficult.

Also, note the voluntary nature here -- we cannot force the wicked not to be wicked. We cannot legislate morality. But what we can and must do is provide an environment where people can be moral. There is no Torah without Sustainance -- so we must, at least, provide a safety net (as a society -- not merely as individuals) so that people can be moral. We must enforce standards of law and order and the due process of law so people are not making Hobson's choices every day. We must protect our environment, our work places, etc., so people can thrive. We must not interfere with religion nor force our religious expressions on others who must be allowed to find their own morality. But we must allow rather than force the wicked to return. But at some level we have to trust that people will do what is moral: we cannot force them to do so. If morality is merely performed because it is legislated by Man rather than made obligatory by God, when someone does do the moral thing, have they truly returned to God?

Getting beyond the actual Haftorah for Noach but yet more to ponder (and relating to rain and hence the Flood -- and in the wake of weather related natural disasters -- how to they bring food? what is really the nature, pace Dagobert Runes, of the circle of life? is it really Godly?):

8. For My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways, saith HaShem. 9. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts. 10. For as the rain cometh down and the snow from heaven, and returneth not thither, except it water the earth, and make it bring forth and bud, and give seed to the sower and bread to the eater; 11. So shall My word be that goeth forth out of My mouth: it shall not return unto Me void, except it accomplish that which I please, and make the thing whereto I sent it prosper. 12. For ye shall go out with joy, and be led forth with peace; the mountains and the hills shall break forth before you into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. 13. Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress, and instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle; and it shall be to HaShem for a memorial, for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off


Long Delayed Post on Cain and Abel

I hope that after so much of a build up, this post doesn't disappoint you, my readership (how many are you? two, three, four people?).

Anyway, I was wanting to say more (as is my wont) than what is below, but here goes ...

I was thinking about why God would accept Abel's sacrifice and reject Cain's. What occurred to me is that there are two kinds of sacrifices, or more accurately, two ways of thinking of a sacrifice.

One way of thinking of a sacrifice is to think of it as something of yours that you give up for the sake of God or for Godly purposes. The other way of thinking of a sacrifice is to think of it as something belonging ultimately to God which, while maybe it was "leased" to you for use for your own purposes, you have, either bound by duty or motivated by charity, reverted back to God (to use the true meaning of the Hebrew term for "sacrifice", Korban -- brought closer to God) for the sake of God or for Godly purposes.

While capitalism is a good system for distributing wealth and providing for economic growth, at some fundamental level we must realize we do not own things -- we merely lease from God whose universe this is. To view a sacrifice as giving up something of yours is fundamentally to miss the point. Tsedakah is not mere charity and Korbanos are not things of yours you have given up. Perhaps the sin of the landed Cain, whose punishment was to be made to wander without land, the sin which prevented him from being able to receive God's grace in an acceptance of his sacrifice, was to view capitalism as something other than a pragmatic system, to invest his ownership of the land with significance other than a pragmatic means to an end? I have no evidence for this interpretation: that Cain's sacrifice was not accepted because Cain thought of himself as giving something up whereas Abel thought he was giving something back to God -- but it is an interesting possibility. Consider God's reaction to the fast of so many as described by Isaiah ("is this not the fast I seek?" ...) ...

To look both forward and back to the Akedah: note that Abraham reassures Isaac that "God will provide a ram" ... what is sacrificed is provided by God in the first place. To look forward to Deuteronomy -- the Land is presented as a jealous land that must be maintained but is never really owned ... indeed, the institution of the Jubilee year indicates that transferance of property has limits and land has fundamental liberty to not be owned. Do contemporary figures who want to institute an "Old Testament" theocracy here stop to consider what that would mean in terms of the free market their political allies so cherish? That an unfettered market and a not merely pragmatic notion of property rights does not square with what the Bible has to say? Are they the new 'Cain's of our era?

Wednesday, November 02, 2005



I was thinking about supply/demand curves recently. I have for some time figured that the sorts of supply and demand curves they teach you about in Econs 101 rather misstate how and why people supply stuff and labor.

If for example, you have some good or service for which, if it becomes profitable to do so, people can enter the market and supply it, then the supply of that good or service will increase with increasing price for that good or service. But suppose there is a good or service which, if you supply it, you would be hard pressed to make your living supplying something else ... and if you don't supply it, it would take some time to switch gears to supply it. For example -- in a region in which only certain agricultural products are produced, farmers/ranchers might have difficulty earning a living supplying something other than ag. products while the cost of land makes it such that, should ag. products become quite profitable, even still few would be able to enter the market.

What would happen in such a case is that, in order for the farmer or rancher to survive, as the cost of ag products goes down, each farmer would supply more product in order to make ends meet. Thus, as people will only eat so much, especially in tough economic times, the demand curve is pretty level while the supply curve goes up with decreasing rather than increasing price -- the price equilibrium, therefore, is unstable and the market is, in the case of slight disturbances, prone to be flooded by increasingly desparate farmers, resulting in a deflationary price spiral. This sort of economic diabetes has actually been well understood for quite some time (I think Sen had noted this glut in the presence of famine for some time).

But what about the other end of the curve: if a field (say farming or auto mechanics) is hard to break into, as prices increase, those who supply the good or service in question, could simply choose to supply less and have more leasure time, while still having more money to spend. Thus, assuming demand is not entirely elastic, as price increases, there would be less supply but not so much less demand -- where is the price equilibrium? There is a stable one at infinite price! This sounds like inflation to me -- but has anybody considered the fact that at least for some markets the only stable price equilibria are at zero cost and infinite cost as a cause of not only deflation but inflation?

In general, my criticism of "U Chicago style"-economics (besides the political implications) is not the use of analogies to physical sciences and the emphasis on math per se, but that the analogies are often wrong and are based on a misunderstanding of the human psychology behind markets. Basing economic policy on a theoretical programme which ignores inelasticity, ignores intuitively obvious non-monotonic supply (and demand) curves and the resultant fact that not all economic equilibria are stable -- and those that are are often not obtainable or desirable (in general, do you want the economy to be at equilibrium anyway? no ... you want it to grow, etc.!), is kind of akin to basing the space program on a level of physics in which, in order to measure the wind resistance of a cow, we assume a spherical cow.


Whose Intent?

When people talk about Original Intent, whose intent are they talking about?

Many of our Framers had very different intents as to what they wanted the U.S. to look like ... and very different motivations for supporting the Revolution in the first place.

Many of what would become the Federalist party seemed to simply feel about the rising British Merchantile upper-class: "if you can't join 'em, beat 'em"

Southern Manoralists, like Patrick Henry, whose conceptions of liberty and their place in the world in resisting both centralizing pressures and democracy were the same as the Anglo-Saxon Barons who forced the Magna Carta on the centralizing Norman dynasties of England.

Agrarian Utopianists like Jefferson had a different intent about our nation than did even their close allies ... Democratic Republicans like Madison.

Besides Solomon and, on good days, Washington and Franklin, who really wanted the U.S. to be the democratic republic it quickly turned out to be?

So when a conservative says they believe in "original intent", the question is "whose?"

And not only that -- but why? In today's inter-connected world (or even the inter-connected world of the 100th anniversary of our Founding), the policies of Hamilton or Jefferson would have had a very different affect on the common man than they would have in Hamilton and Jefferson's day -- so even supporting Hamilton's vision of the US or Jefferson's would have a very different meaning than supporting that vision in the late 18th century when technology was different.

So when someone says "this is the intent of the Constitution": there is still interpretation and questioning to be done "whose intent and why?".

Of course, when it comes to Jefferson and Madison, there is also the hypocrisy factor with which even they wrestled.

P.S. those of the Framers who did intend to have a less centralized government did not intend for their to be a such thing as limitted liability, stockholder owned corporations in the U.S. If you believe in original intent, you either get to choose corporations being allowed to exist but with centralized regulations governing them or "States' Rights" but no corporations allowed (at least at a federal level, no recognition) and stockholder's being fully liable in federal court for corporate malfeasance.

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