Sunday, February 25, 2007


Yitro, Mishpatim and Teruma Blogging

I somehow procrastinated too long and never did make any notes for the sermon I volunteered to do yesterday, but I managed to remain vaguely cogent (more-so than I am with this sentence that would be a run-on but for the punctuation of it), and I even managed to work in the material that I would have given as a sermon on Parshas Yitro. A summary:

These last three parshios form a narrative arc that tells us something about how law, punishment and redemption work. Note that the first one is parsha Yitro, not parsha Eseres Divros. Fundamental to any system of laws is the suggestion by Moses' father-in-law (amazing how in-laws always stick their noses in your business ... imagine how it was for Moses, when his in-laws actually were right!) that laws are not documents on paper but require a system of courts to adjudicate them and to keep them as living doctrines by re-interpreting them for the time and place at hand, pace the "Constitution in Exile" crowd. Indeed, while some are obsessed with putting the "10 commandments" in court-houses, etc., Judaism teaches that the universal commandments are the 7 Noachide laws, one of which is to set up a system of courts.

And while a system of courts is necessary to any collection of laws, what is also necessary are the details. The giving of the Decalogue may have been a climactic moment, but real life begins with the denouement; the Decalogue is neither the beginning (which is the establishment of a legal system per Yitro's advice) nor is it the end of law. After the Decalogue we get the various laws of Mishpatim that tell us how to actually implement the principles of the Decalogue.

Of course, we all end up slipping and backsliding. But does that mean we cannot be redeemed by our own actions? A legal system is only just if it can be followed and moreover if there are mechanisms for one to atone for lapses in following it. Terumah, a word which is usually translated as "gift" (appropriate to the upcoming holiday of Purim, during which exchanging gifts is a custom) but relates in its actual connotation of setting something aside to be a gift to both the concept of holiness and of an alliyah, describes the building of the mishkan (tabernacle complex) including the mizbeach (altar) on which sacrifices are offered. The word mizbeach happens to be an acrostic for the Hebrew words for forgiveness, merit, blessing and life. Through the mishkan and later the Mikdash (Temple), one can achieve forgiveness.

But the holiday of Purim reminds us that we Jews have for thousands of years lived as Jews without a Mikdash. So how do we atone? The Christian answer would be that atonement comes through the blood sacrifice of Christ Jesus. As Kierkegaard put it, we achieve salvation by making a "leap of faith" into accepting the bizarre tales of the Christian Bible. As Jeff Goldstein (of all people for me to be citing) pointed out, accepting the Jewish "vital lie" that we all experienced the Exodus from Egypt, that we all were at Mount Sinai for the Revelation is our leap of faith. We Jews can atone through repentance, prayer and acts of righteousness because those acts place us spiritually in a position where we are in the Temple, sharing meals with our fellows and thus in sharing meals, which we still do, being under the grace of the Shekhina (c.f. Pirke Avos).

Our salvation comes, though, not from the sacrifices per se, anyway, but rather from the gifts we give to others, whether they be gifts to friends at Purim, donations to charity of the donations toward the construction of a mishkan that enables our atonement. We achieve atonement, merit, blessings and life through setting aside gifts, in which we give of ourselves and hence to God. And this is in exchange for the gift of the Mitzvos which guide us to remain on a moral path to holiness. Does accepting this require a leap of faith? Maybe, but maybe such faith itself is a gift. P.S.: we sang the hymn Eyn Keloheinu to the melody of Simple Gifts. The melody and words fit together perfectly and the sentiment of Simple Gifts is reflected perfectly in the coda to Eyn Keloheinu.

Friday, February 23, 2007


Self Employment Tax

In general I have little patience for "the gummint should get its mits off my money" crowd (I think I might side with that Jewish carpenter feller some in that crowd claim to worship about who's picture is on the money and whence it should thus be rendered), but this galls me: how's someone making about $25K a year supposed to pay about $3K in "self-employment tax". At least if your making $25K a year as an employee, you have your payroll tax paid by someone else.

The pay-roll taxes are regressive enough. But the gummint sticks them to people directly if they are "self-employed": WTF?

Wednesday, February 07, 2007


What's the Deal with South FL?

A friend of mine recently suggested that one place in the South where Giuliani will definitely get votes is South FL: because the alter-kockers will certainly vote for someone who is "tough on crime" and who will keep the "undesirables" away from them. And, oy vey, alas I worry he's right.

I was in South FL recently, and my it is a bizarre place. You have miles and miles of these gated communities filled with alter-kockers and nary a person of color around, except for nurses, caretakers and the occassional security guard. Are there so few non-white alter-kockers that these communities end up by happenstance being so segregated?

Mind you, the inhabitants of these communities are not racist (so they claim): "my daughter's best friend is black and my son's best friend is dating a black girl" and such, you'll hear. But these people are bit too obsessed with keeping the criminal element out -- and if a white person is acting shady, they'll just say the person is acting shady, while if a black person is acting shady, his race is guaranteed to be mentioned. And those places which are integrated, e.g. malls, are deemed "scary places which you should avoid".

The GOP won't need to have a nominally Dem. ringer design butterfly ballots likely to induce AKs to accidently vote for Buchannan in order to win the Northern Miami suburbs if Giuliani wins. He knows he to speak the right code (c.f. my remarks here on Giuliani and the "language of the South" -- n.b., of course, I don't think all social conservatives are racist -- I know personally some social conservatives who are actually very much concerned about the lasting legacy of segregation and are hardly racists, but the fact is that the rhetoric of many of the fundies might as well be against miscegenation and Jews rather than, as it ostensibly is, against gay marriage and abortionists). I wish I could be confident that our country has put it's past behind us, but, pace Tony Snow, alas racism is still alive and well in this country. And Giuliani will be able to capitalize on it.

Monday, February 05, 2007


Creating Smart Consumers of Media

If media is going to be just another crass, commercialized consumable, we need to be able to create smarter consumers of media. I read a letter to the editor recently in which a reader (clearly not a liberal as the reader referred to Turner as a leftist network) was complaining about the bias inherent in placing reporting on the Turner-associated bomb scare and some remarks by Sen. Biden on the third page when that paper would have placed a Fox-associated bomb scare and similar remarks by a Republican Senator on the front page.

I'll grant the guy his hypotheticals. Where he is wrong is ascribing the difference to bias. It's not. How many complaints of media bias are like this one: people just don't seem to get the fundamental principle of how news operates -- when "dog bites man", it's not news, but when "man bites dog", it is news. If a Dem. Senator criticizes a Rep. President, that's simply not as newsworthy as a Republican, a party famous for its discipline, Senator criticizing a Republican president. And if a network, whose so-called news division has been especially keen on our war on terror, were to do something mistaken for a terrorist attack, it would be more newsworthy than for a network that has been (only) somewhat less keen on the war to have done so.

Friday, February 02, 2007


Belated Tribute to the Late, Great Molly Ivins

Here's what she had to say about the Godwin's law violations leading up to the Iraq war (and how come those whose violations of Godwin's law are in support of a policy that has resulted in so many deaths come down so hard on those of us who add a mere rhetorical flourish or two on these here series of tubes known as the internets? are the cheerleaders for our foreign policy so out of touch with reality as to be psychotic? do they project much?):

Next up, several members decide to demand that if we use air strikes against Iraq, we take out Saddam Hussein. In the first place, murdering foreign leaders is not a proper tool of foreign policy, for the sensible reason that you never know what you'll get if you do. One of the most famous hypothetical questions of history is: What if someone had managed to murder Adolf Hitler early on? Suppose someone did, and then the Nazi movement had been taken over by, say, Albert Speer, who was a lot better organized than Hitler? - Molly Ivins, February 11, 1998 but might as well have been Feb. 11 2002 ... the more things change, eh?

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