Monday, April 30, 2007


Non-reduced Idiots

aka ... oxymorons (ok, stupid nerd pun, I'll admit ...)!

I'm soon gonna be cookin' up one: gumbo sans gumbo!

Thought I'd share with the multitudes that read this blog ...

Saturday, April 21, 2007


Tzaria/M'tzora Blogging

In our modern, clinical world-view, the Priestly Code, especially those sections dealing with what's translated as "leprosy" (although it does not refer to Hansen's disease), seem remote and meaningless. Hence, at this time of year, Rabbis and lay preachers the world over turn to the Prophetic readings for sermon material -- and in this case, blog material (n.b. some of this I know I've covered in the past, so bear with the repetition ...).

And what an interesting portion we had last week: four people, marginalized by their "scale disease" (a preferred translation) end up bringing the good news to Samaria that the siege of their city is over. By being left outside of the besieged town, by the very marginality of their status, they are in the perfect position to be the salvation of their city. Of course, first they have to make the moral choice that just feasting on the victuals left by the Arameans who fled what they thought were neo-Hittite and Egyptian armies (really just a clever sound effect from the Lord) was not right -- that they should inform the city from which they were temporarily cast out. And before that, even, they needed to make the decision to get off their bums and do something about their situation. Yet the fact remains that, like the cornerstone rejected by the builder, it was these four people on the margins of society who saved society.

This echoes the evolution of the priesthood itself. In the Torah, you see aspects of priestliness given to those who would otherwise be marginal figures due to their over-zealous tendencies toward violence: Levi is disposed of his share in the lands of Israel due to his vengeance and Pinchas is given the priesthood to reign in and redirect his violently zealous tendencies. Indeed, the priesthood itself is a potentially "polluting" profession and the priests are all but an untouchable caste: the priesthood is, in a sense a punishment even as it is an opportunity to lead oneself and one's society in spiritual growth.

In a sense, the priests were the physicians of their time. And like the evolution of barbers into surgeons, the prestige of the priesthood increased as time went by and religion centralized in Judah and Israel. The story of the priesthood is the story of a marginal people, given a role in society, with which role they can excel and be integrated into that society.

The very idea of "holiness" is that of separateness. Those who are separated often have a different perspective that can enrich society (indeed, the real danger of intelligent design is not that it denies "survival of the fittest" but that it ignores the real importance of diversity in evolution -- the salvation of a species is not necessarily the seemingly intelligently designed perfect specimen, but the mutant). But first, like the "lepers" of the Haftarah portion, they must get off their bums. And then they must decide that what they are doing isn't right -- that they need to enrich society.

As we learned all too tragically last week, our society simply does not know how to deal with marginal figures. What do we do? How do we prevent them from lashing out but rather re-integrate them into our society and let them enrich us rather than kill us? I have no answers here, but somehow the Torah seems to -- in the case of Levi, in the case of Pinchas, etc.

Perhaps the key lies in the notion of the priesthood. As the physicians of the time, priests were responsible for physical healing ... but as priests, they were responsible for spiritual healing as well. It is only recently that we have rediscovered the importance of healing the whole body and the spirit. Disease, like the "scale disease", both physical and mental, can be isolating and alienating. And our society needs to learn to deal with disease.

To start with, we need real health care reform. But we must go further. The right wing is right -- something is deeply sick about our society. While I tend to think that their "prescriptions" go in exactly the wrong direction (parallel to how the neo-cons have correctly identified many problems but their proposed "solutions" really are more of the same "realism" which they criticize), we do need to do a better job at being not only an open society but a friendly society. A society which pulls people in, rather than pushes them out onto our violent edges.

But how do we as individuals and as a society do this, which we must do before it is too late?

Friday, April 20, 2007


Shillin', Shillin', Shillin' ... Keep those senior correspondents shillin'

Today NPR's Morning Edition interviewed "senior correspondent" Juan Williams about the GOP's constant allegations of voter fraud. He reported these allegations as if the GOP was just innocently after voter fraud. And even though he did report that studies show voter fraud is not really an issue, all he could muster in terms of balancing his reporting was something to the effect of "Democrats are livid about GOP efforts to combat voter fraud" -- as if the Dems. are cheating.

This is not reporting, it's yet another example of stenography. A journalist would ask real questions: "The Republicans claim to be conservative. Let's take them at their word. A conservative, by definition, believes 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it'. Yet the GOP is so keen to fix something that ain't really broke? What gives?"

At the very least, a journalist would report all the relevent facts. Not only did Renquist get his start as a GOP poll watcher trying to look out for voter fraud, but he was, as has come to light recently, part of a generation of GOP poll watchers whose "mission" was to intimidate voters with false accusations of voter fraud. And it isn't just Democrats being concerned that the constant crying of "voter fraud" by the GOP is cover for something more sinister -- it has actually happened, e.g. in FL in 2000. Yet, these facts, which would totally change the impression of the story, were mysteriously left out.

Is Juan Williams stupid? That's the impression he sometimes leaves, but he's a very smart man. Also left out of the NPR story was a disclosure of the Williams family's ties to the GOP (as Atrios would say, "time for another blogger ethics conference") -- Mr. Williams knows on which side his bread is buttered, and he shills accordingly. And yet again, "even the liberal NPR" has reporting as if the GOP is sincerely, if misguidedly, concerned about voter fraud and the Dems. are being paranoid about the GOP's actions or worse ... actually trying to get away with voter fraud.

Of course, we Dems. have been infamous for voter fraud in the past -- but there's a difference: when the Daley machine took stacks of absentee ballots into nursing homes and then emerged with stacks of ballots voting for Dems, even if the machine was breaking the law in "getting out the vote", most likely those AKs would have voted Dem. anyway. As would have the dead people if they lived a few more days ;) I'm not excusing what the Dems. did, but two wrongs don't make a right and moreover the wholesale effort to disenfranchise large segments of the population is so eerily remeniscent of our racist past that it truly is frightening at a level in which the Dem. voting fraud of the past was not.

So NPR, et al., let's report on the whole story instead of letting shills with ties to a particular party report on half of the story in a way that makes that party look good.

Thursday, April 19, 2007


By Request

Someone (you know who you are) requested I address the VT shooting on my blog. Alas, I am not as smart or clever or all knowing about ideas as thought by some (and some people can always comment on my blog ;) ). Anyway, he of the accent-marks has thought this out, so we don't have to.

As to the NJ Gov. situation -- how come I get stopped for going much slower than the Gov's driver. Where are the po-po when you need them? Too busy manning speed traps, I guess?

Wednesday, April 18, 2007


What Have They Done?

Is it just me or are Macs not as "intuitive" and easy to use as they used to be?

Tuesday, April 17, 2007


A Mighty Fein Blog

Neil's blog is evidently back; check out his website.


The Idea of Justice II

Just a few updates to this post. I spoke with one of my conservative Christian friends recently, and he was again expressing some of the sorts of views of justice as being something only God can provide and it being somewhat futile for us humans to try to approximate it (c.f. Judaism in which we are commanded: "justice, justice shall you pursue" -- still, only God can be truly just, but the pursuit of justice is not looked upon as futile in any way by Judaism). But this time around, the spin was more secular, and my friend (half-jokingly) referred to his point of view as being very "post-modern". When I said he was actually being quite Pauline, he was flattered by the comparison to someone who is a saint in his religion, but thought my thesis went a bit too far. Still, he thought it was an appropriate corrective to those who tend to view Christianity in terms he would consider to be "hippy-esque".

Anyway, it also occured to me that there are limits to how far Judaism would take its idealistic Pragmatism -- e.g. we won't go as far as Kant (who seems to mistake, however, Judaism for Catholicism or Islam -- we aren't that heteronomic) in totally rejecting heteronomy. So I guess one can say that Christianity need not reject the Jewish idealistically Pragmatic view of justice but that it either must reject that point of view in favor of a more realistic point of view or it must embrace it to the point of rejecting any trace of heteronomy arising from viewing certain axioms, serving as the basis for legal reasoning, as being given by God at Sinai.

Sunday, April 15, 2007


Why Moonbats Need to be More, not Less, Consistently Liberal in order to Succeed Politically

While when looking back on what liberals actually have said on the matter it seems that they spoke in as lawyerly of a way as Clinton or the supposedly "plain spoken" Bush speak so that it turns out that they never did quite say what we've thought they've said, the apparent response of some in feminist left-blogostan to the Duke rape case makes very clear a key weakness of moon-bat liberalism: too many moonbats have specific failures of empathy that hurt our cause.

In large part, the moonbat position is the big-P Pragmatic one, even as we get painted by many as being doctrinaire, well, moonbats. Our positions on many issues boil down to "you can go very far in many problems simply by being empathetic": if you identify with where people are coming from and why they act the way they do (rather than chalking it up to some meaningless, non-constructive, abstract notion of human behavior as "sinful" or "rational"), you can figure out how to solve many a problem in terms of how to create environments where people can behave morally, ethically, survive without fear and in safety, peace and prosperity. The importance of empathy is emphasized by thinkers as disparate as Jesus and Sun-tzu.

And yet, while the moonbat position is generally based on the power of empathy, when it comes to certain categories of people, too many of us suddenly loose that skill. Too many of us refuse to empathize with the privileged, with religious people, with Zionists and various other categories. And when we liberals, who are so good at being empathetic with everyone, suddenly refuse to empathize with someone who is a white, middle-class male, is it any wonder that people begin to think we hate white-middle class males? People who, even if they stand to benefit from liberal programs, consider themselves to be white-middle class males and hence won't vote for Democrats because they feel we hate them?

And yet, in the Duke rape case, we saw liberals who pointedly refused to even allow themselves to consider that just because someone is white, male and privileged doesn't mean that they are automatically guilty -- the presumption of innocence no more stops because your social class is privileged than it stops because you, out of desperation, have done not so legal things in the past. Yet, too many liberals seem to empathize with one side and not the other. I already hear the cries from liberals, "but conservatives empathize with the privileged and not the un-privileged". Indeed they do, even if they themselves are un-privileged -- but, outside of realizing this empathy with the privileged is itself a powerful reactionary political force, what conservatives think is no more relevant to how we liberals should think than what Jesse Jackson or rap stars might have said about Jews or women is to the justification of Imus' firing. Two wrongs don't make a right , as the old saying -- supported by liberals in the context of opposing vengeance -- goes.

And this isn't just the Duke rape case. When we liberals, who are so good at being empathetic with everyone, suddenly refuse to empathize with religious people, is it any wonder why religious people might think us to hate religion? We might not agree with what would be theocrats want, but at least in order to respond effectively to their point of view, we must first understand why it is they feel they have a right to offend with their public displays of religiosity even as they feel they have a right not to be offended. And, when we liberals, who are so good at being empathetic with everyone, suddenly refuse to even admit that Zionist arguments are reasonable, is it any wonder why Zionists might wonder why the double-standard of empathy (and the underlying assumption that Jews are privileged rather than historically oppressed) exists and start thinking we moonbats are anti-Semitic?

Empathy is a strength of liberalism, even empathy toward enemies -- far from being a position that indicates our weakness, it is a position that exudes strength and strategy. "Know thy enemy" is a fundamental rule of warfare. Part of the GOP's success in divide-and-conquer politics is that they view politics as warfare and thus make sure to know us, their perceived enemies to exploit our weaknesses. Interestingly, they pointedly refuse to do this in our so-called war on terrorism, which, to this liberal, says something about their goals (as much as the empathy-blind-spots of many liberals no doubt say to conservatives): do they really want to win the war on terror? E.g. during the Cold War, liberal established foreign policies which conservatives, well, conserved, emphasized knowing our enemy, whence Sovietology. Yet so-called conservatives, un-interested in actually winning the war on terrorism and very much interested in demagoguing it, encourage populist know-nothingness to the point where know-nothing-ism is considered serious strategy while serious strategy is considered pie-in-the-sky moonbattery.

Yet we moonbats fail to be consistent in this moonbattery in such a way as to indicate to the inside the beltway crowd, if only them (who have more power than we'd like), that we don't care about winning elections. Do we really make any effort to "know our enemy"? No -- when it comes to certain groups we somehow deem privileged, we shut off our empathy to the point where we can't even address the system which privileges such groups and do something constructive to help others. Too many of us come off as being "reverse-prejudiced" when we should be, to parody a famous but problematic Christian saying, "hating the patriarchy but loving the patriarchs". If we are perceived as being so against privilege to the point of not even caring about those Archie Bunkers who cling to what little privilege they have, even those whom our policies might help will say "liberals hate me, so why should I vote for them?".
So when people say we moonbats have just gone too moonbatty ... we need to realize that isn't our problem. Our problem is not that we are too lefty to make electoral headway, but that we fail to be consistent in our moonbattery and whence alienate those toward whom our consistency fails. We shouldn't, e.g., embrace the patriarchy: but we must have some empathy for those who support it if we want to make headway in convincing them to stop embracing it. We cannot close ourselves off and have double standards -- that's what we moonbats rail against, so it becomes all the more painful and wrong when we do it ourselves and all the more powerful when we cast out our vengeant desires for reversals of fortune and be consistent in our moonbattery rather than trying appease moderates by being wishy-washy as the punditocracy claims we should be.

Friday, April 13, 2007


Bible Blogging

Of course, I'm by far not the only one who's been doing this. Some have been doing this far more systematically and regularly than I. For example, there's this blog (which I've not yet read, but I'll link to anyway -- hey: ya only live once!).

I wonder if I'll be able to work in my comments on the recently dismissed Duke case, the Puritanism of certain quarters of the left and their empathy blindspots and other strategic failures to fully embrace the liberal views they generally champion with a blog posting about parshas Shemini.

Shemini Cricket! That reminds me -- I still need to study those 5 verses I'm supposed to lein tomorrow!

Tuesday, April 10, 2007


The New Turing Test:

Presentation design software that is intelligent enough to grasp which objects you actually want to select ... seems to me the heuristics in existing software (Powerpoint, its Open Office equivalent) sometimes are on the mark and sometimes are not -- and no matter how much you "learn" the software, there's always some selection you'll get wrong.

Or maybe the fact that you cannot "outsmart" the selection heuristics indicates that presentation design software already has a (malevalent) intelligence and passes the Turing Test?

Hmmm ... has Bill Gates discovered the ultimate in AI in designing Office? It's an interesting and disturbing thought, isn't it? Although, I've suspected as much ever since I started writing my dissertation ...


Other questions to discuss:

-- Why didn't those British sailors fight the Iranians trying to take their ship?

-- What is Giuliani's appeal? I understand his appeal to someone seeking a libertarian combination of economically conservative/socially liberal but with a pro-law and order stance that libertarians would naturally lack* (although the degree to which Giuliani has, in the past, appealed primarily to people of the "I want someone who'll put 'those people' in their place" ilk would, if Giuliani were to start really doing well, make me nervous about what has infested our body politic) ... but I know people who are the kind who worry about politicians playing the "tough on crime" game, etc. and who worry that we really misplace our efforts in getting all paranoid about crime rather than actually doing concrete things, including addressing the effects of centuries of racism, to prevent crime -- you'd think these are the last people to whom Giuliani would appeal -- to whom Giuliani appeals. What's the nature of this appeal and how do we counter-act it, lest we end up with (kaynenhora) "Giuliani time" going national starting in 2009? My theory is that Giuliani is perceived by these people to (ironically given past potential election match-ups that didn't quite happen) be, politically, the person who Hillary Clinton actually is. So, if we Dems. do end up for some reason nominating Sen. Clinton, how do we ensure people view Sen. Clinton as the person she is rather than how she's been perceived in the past? Any thoughts from the Giuliani supporters out there?

* I suspect this "law and order libertarian" crowd, of which I would count a few as friends -- Shalom Chaverim! A shout-out to y'all! -- constitute a large plurality of our body politic. You'd think Hillary Clinton would appeal to this crowd. If you are reading this and a member of this crowd who supports Giuliani over Clinton, do feel free to comment as to why -- I'm sincerely eager to know.

Thursday, April 05, 2007


Last Weekend at Talmud Study ...

... we read the famous story where R. Eliezer disagrees with the majority and appeals to divine revelation, which rules in his favor. Whereupon R. Joshua and R. Jeremiah (a Karaite conspiracy theorist would have a field day with these names being "used" by the Gemarah to voice this opinion) famously respond that the Torah, having been given at Sinai is now ours to interpret according to reason.

Religious liberals often use this story as justification for modifying the law for our own time -- the Torah was given to us at Sinai and it is now ours to interpret. However, within the context of the Talmud (Bava Metzia, Folio 59), it is R. Eliezar's opinion which is lenient (although in general, R. Eliezar was rather strict and austere). The reasonable majority is actually being, in the view of us liberals, rather un-reasonably conservative. We liberals would do well to remember that the Puritans (and to some degree certain quarters of liberalism are more Puritan than they'd like to think) came out of the Age of Reason and that many of the tropes of modern fundamentalism emerged from the Enlightenment: a faith in reason is not necessarily a liberal faith.

And interestingly, even though R. Eliezar is excommunicated, this is depicted as something that leads to all sorts of further calamities because R. Eliezar does seem to have a hotline to God. So is the Talmud, which elsewhere celebrates R. Eliezar (a very enigmatic figure, actually -- feel free to discuss this in comments: my thoughts on the subject are not yet coherent, otherwise I'd say more here), really trying to place reason above revelation? Or is the real liberal lesson of the Talmud that God doesn't like it when reason, tradition and majority rule are used to justify un-reasonable demands of religious orthodoxy?

Remember, of course, this story comes within a discussion of why you should be very careful with what you say lest you embarrass someone so much their blood runs from their face, which would be tantamount to physically shedding blood. Which teaching comes in the context of laws against price-fraud. So how does this all connect? Hmm ... what think y'all?


Passover Blogging

Complementary to the Documentary hypothesis as to the origins of the Torah is the notion that the religion of the early Hebrews was torn between henotheism, the worship of one god exclusively while considering other nations to have other gods, and a kind of subtle theism, that would have been in the pagan world (and what would still be considered by certain Christians) to be a form of atheism. The parts of the Torah attributed to "J", "E" and "P" include both henotheistic and atheistic passages, although the Deuteronomaic text represents the triumph of "atheist Judaism" against earlier henotheistic Hebrew beliefs (note the use of language -- the term "Jew" first occurs in the Bible in the writings of the presumed Deuteronomist, Jeremiah).

Some parts of the Torah can even be read as representing a value judgment as to which theology and which documentary tradition represents the life-force of Judaism and which represents a doctrine that could have led to the end of the Hebrew faith. In particular, the Akedah begins as a henotheistic "E" text telling Abraham to sacrifice Isaac while it ends with Isaac, the already anointed middle patriarch of the Hebrews, being spared in a "J" narration that, while itself somewhat henotheistic, that many have read as a starkly "atheistic" lesson: the redactors, either Prophets with great vision as to how the Hebrew faith could survive an inevitable exile or perhaps, assuming a later redaction, already aware of how the abandonment of henotheism allowed the Jewish people to remain distinct in Babylon and survive the exile, may have, in compiling the story from the "E" and "J" traditions, spun the story this way on purpose.

Presumably, the Prophetic tradition, so keen on retelling the tale of the Exodus to remind the Hebrew of who were there real enemies and friends in the contemporaneous geo-political turmoil of the time, generally did frown upon henotheism -- and yet, while the general story arc of Exodus, e.g. the revelation of the burning bush, are very much against the grain of henotheism, the story of the Exodus itself -- as retold every Passover, is amazingly henotheistic in orientation, as was pointed out at the Seder I attended first nigh this year: it isn't that Hashem is the only god according to the story told, but that Hashem smites the gods of the Egyptians.

On the other hand, this henotheistic language does lead to a paradox: if the gods of the Egyptians can be smote, are they really immortals? So, perhaps the henotheism of "J" in the Exodus story is only skin deep? Can one call "J" Nietzschean?

Sunday, April 01, 2007


The Idea of Justice

I was talking with a Christian friend of mine about various things, and he made an interesting point (which I don't quite agree with): only God can be Just.

Often we tend to think of Christianity as providing an idealistic (in the common sense of the word) critique of Jewish views of justice and of Jewish legalism. But actually, the Christian critique is an Idealistic (in the technical/metaphysical sense of the word) but more importantly a realistic (in the common sense of the word), perhaps even cynical, rather than idealistic critique of Jewish Pragmatism (in the technical/philosophical sense of the word) regarding, e.g., justice. Of course, what Jesus actually is supposed to have said doesn't drift far away from Pragmatism -- it's actually quite utilitarian ("that which you do to the least of them" and "judge not lest ye be judged" are actually pretty close to Rawls, if you ask me), but Paul does add a very un-Jewish, un-Pragmatic, realist/Idealist spin.

But does it really help matters to be a hard-headed cynic and say any idea of human justice is futile and that "Justice" exists and only exists on some plane of the Ideas rather than as something we can attempt to achieve as the result of a legal process in the physical world.? If you ask me, there is something to the idealistic Pragmatism of Judaism -- even if we can never really be just, isn't it better to pursue justice than to deem it futile? Sometimes it's more pragmatic to be an idealist rather than a realist. Heck, sometimes it's Idealistic to be Pragmatic -- just ask Kant ;)

At the very least, to view a reaction against Jewish legalism as necessarily idealistic is to kind of miss the point of what both the "legalism" and the "reaction" entail. But alas, such simple-minded categorization is still used to misrepresent our religion and our Bible ...

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