Monday, March 28, 2005

Keyword: Gush Katif

One of my shul's rabbi's favorite topics to speak about for the last few months each Shabbos morning has been about Sharon's proposed unilateral pull-out from Gaza and Gush Katif. As a firm religious zionist, he is very against the idea and cannot comprehend how anyone could even consider such an ignoble idea. He isn't too fond of liberal Jews either.

My views of the matter are this: I don't see every scrap of land settled by Jews in the area as sacred. Much of the land in the area has strong historical and cultural value as it is the area of ancient independent Jewish rule, but Gaza isn't really part of that. The land of Gaza was always a neighboring land, and sometimes under control of the Israelites, but it's hardly a Jewish land. So any argument of it being part of the traditional Jewish homeland is not convincing.

Another point of view says that any land conquered by Jews (especially in a defensive war) should never be given away. In a perfect world that might be fair but it fails to account for the political and demographic realities of today and things aren't always fair. As I see it, there are 1.3 million Palestinians living in Gaza and less than 8000 Israeli settlers. Those few thousand settlers are under constant attack and the state of Israel has to swallow huge expenses to keep them protected. And for what? Just to say that Jews are living in Gaza?

And Israel can't just let these settlers stay in Gaza but remove the IDF forces. These settlers are Israeli citizens and as such the state must go back and help them if they're ever in trouble. There is no doubt that in Gaza they will be in trouble. The only way for the state of Israel to remove itself from that inevitability is to remove the citizens themselves from the area.

Seeing the situation as a cost/benefit analysis, I think, clearly shows that settlement in Gaza is a huge cost for not much benefit. The ideologues who have settled there enrages the local Palestinians and endangers Israel more than it would otherwise.

Other arguments against the pull-out is that the settlement is for Israel's security. I don't think that's credible. Gush Katif is a security nightmare. A carefully monitored border on Israel proper would be much easier to manage and removing Jews from Gaza is removing juicy targets.

Another argument is that Israel is in a state of war with the Palestinians and if we want peace, it's stupid and wrong to let the Palestinians win by just giving them land. This may have something to it but I feel that although that's a valid concern I don't think peace will be gained or lost by Gaza alone. I think that in the long term, settlement there is too costly to perhaps use the area as a future bargaining tool for peace talks.

So I'm not very happy about the plan, I don't like to see Jews being ripped from their homes or to see Palestinians whooping in victory after Israel will pull out, but from a logical point of view it does seem like a good course of action. Doing so will even make Israel look good on the international media stage as they are giving the Palestinians more autonomy in the process. And maybe, just maybe, it will even lead to a sooner state of peace in the region.

Friday, March 25, 2005

Esther Bunny
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Freilicha Friday

Due to the coincidence of Purim and Good Friday, I've taken my super skills of a Paint.exe artist and created the wonderful chimera above.

Happy Purim!

Thursday, March 24, 2005

My Terri Schiavo thoughts

Terri Schiavo, what an unfortunate case. Seems like this is what everyone's been talking about lately. So here are my views on the matter:

Terri's cerebral cortex, according to experts, is completely gone. That along with cognition, sense of self, consciousness, feeling pain, and really everything which makes us human. "Terri" died years ago. What makes a person is not their body. A man who lost an arm is not less of a person. Personhood sits in the brain, specifically the cortex. When the cortex is gone, all you have left is a shell. So the question of morality if it's right to kill her is moot. She's already dead.

Second, according to the courts, it has been made clear to them that Terri would want to die if she was ever in such a condition. I'm no expert here and I don't know what she might have wanted or might not have wanted. I don't know her or any of the people involved. This is what the courts found and if true then Terri's wishes should be followed through.

This is what the courts do, they are fact finders. They're not infallible but I have no status to go on second-guessing their rulings. So, like I said, if Terri would have wanted to die, so be it.

The only final issue really is the method of death. Had Terri been on a machine and the question was about whether to pull the plug, that's one thing. She'd be dead in minutes and that would be that. But she only needs a simple feeding tube to keep her body alive. Dehydration and starvation are nasty ways to die and I think that's what really bothers a lot of people.

I think it's silly that legally they can order her to starve to death, but they can't order an overdose of morphine or other poison to kill her quickly. Terri can't tell the difference and I think that would make a lot of people feel better.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

A Few Jewish Quotes

"He that increases knowledge increases sorrow."
-Bible: Ecclesiatics 1:18

Oy! How true!

"None is poor but he who lacks knowlege."
-Abaye. Talmud: Nedarim 41a

Also true. What is worth more than knowledge? What else is worth pursuing compared to it?

It would seem that thinking people (who I try to emulate) are always running after sadness.

Something to think about...though, on the other hand, maybe not.

Perhaps Socrates has the answer:

"By all means, marry. If you get a good wife, you'll become happy."

And it would seem the Gemara agrees.

"A beautiful wife makes for happiness and her husband's days are doubled."
- Talmud: Tebamoth 63b

Perhaps it is love which is worth more than knowledge. Though there's no reason one can't do both, right?

Methinks maybe I should charge up my social life a bit.

Monday, March 21, 2005

Mendelian Magic

In Genesis 30, Jacob's payment for his many years of service for Laban is given as all the spotted and speckled animals in Laban's flocks as well as a promise to get all future spotted and speckled animals born in the future.

Laban eagerly agrees knowing that those color markings are irregular and uncommon. So he separates the regular sheep and cattle from the spotted, streaked, and speckled ones and delivers them to Jacob's sons' three days away.

Now Jacob is still caring for Laban's flocks and, of course, he wants more sheep and cows, so what does he do?

37And Jacob took him rods of green poplar, and of the hazel and chesnut tree; and pilled white strakes in them, and made the white appear which was in the rods.
38And he set the rods which he had pilled before the flocks in the gutters in the watering troughs when the flocks came to drink, that they should conceive when they came to drink. 39And the flocks conceived before the rods, and brought forth cattle ringstraked, speckled, and spotted.
40And Jacob did separate the lambs, and set the faces of the flocks toward the ringstraked, and all the brown in the flock of Laban; and he put his own flocks by themselves, and put them not unto Laban's cattle.
41And it came to pass, whensoever the stronger cattle did conceive, that Jacob laid the rods before the eyes of the cattle in the gutters, that they might conceive among the rods.
42But when the cattle were feeble, he put them not in: so the feebler were Laban's, and the stronger Jacob's.

Jacob made spotted and speckled sticks and put them before the sheep and cattle. This excited the animals so much that they got into orgasmic rushes and immediately copulated and soon had spotted and speckled young.

Ok, what? Seeing spotted sticks makes animals have spotted young?

If you lived thousands of years ago and had never heard of genetics, I'm sure sympathetic magic wouldn't make you think twice either.

A Blog Related to Purim...barely

In the Talmud, Mesechet Rosh Hashanah daf 3b, it says: "In the one place it speaks of Cyrus, and in the other of Darius. We have learned in a Boraitha that Darius, Cyrus, and Artaxerxes are all one and the same person."

Historically, we know such a statement is utter nonsense. See here.

Cyrus I 640 - 600 B.C.
Cambyses I 600 - 559 B.C.
Cyrus II, the Great 559 - 529 B.C.
Cambyses II 530 - 522 B.C.
Smerdis, (the Magian) 522
Darius I, the Great 522 - 486 B.C.
Xerxes I 486 - 465 B.C.
Artaxerxes I 465 - 425 B.C.
Xerxes II 424 B.C.
Darius II 423 - 404 B.C.
Artaxerxes II 404 - 359 B.C.
Artaxerxes III 359 - 339 B.C.
Arses 338 - 336 B.C.
Darius III 336 - 330 B.C.

As can be plainly seen, those kings are all different and ruled at different times. To be clear, the important kings in Tanach and those in the Talmud begin at Cyrus II since he was the first true king of the Persian empire free from Median overlordship. But this is just a clear example of how the Talmudic method shares no interest in empiricism and that the Talmud simply made all three kings into the same person to help support another argument. The manner of thinking is that since the argument must be valid, the facts must line up behind it. Quite the opposite to how science and empiricism operate.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Purpose of Afterlife

How exactly does belief in God make a substantive meaning to life? Life here on earth is meaningless, just a test to hope you get into heaven. Play by God's rules or go to hell. Then once there you spend eternity doing more of God's bidding and getting some sort of pleasure. You're in heaven for what end? What's the point? We live on earth as a test to ensure we have eternal pleasure?

The purpose of life, in the theistic point of view, is to look forward to promised pleasure in the afterlife.

The purpose of life to the hedonistic atheist is to get pleasure in the present life.

What's the major difference?

The only real losers here are folks like me who live by the strictures of Orthodox life but expect no heavenly rewards.

Monday, March 14, 2005

The Problem of Free Will

The problem of evil argument is one of the toughest arguments against theism. It's also one of the oldest going back at least as early as classical Greece and the time of Epicurus. The basic form is like so:

Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?

Basically saying that if God is omniscient, omnipotent, and benevolent then evil should not exist in the world. Yet evil does, therefore that conception of God (typical theistic belief) does not exist. Hume weakens the argument somewhat by saying that although that conception of God may exist, the state of the world gives us no reason to come to that conclusion.

Anyway, there are a number of responses to this argument. Many theodicies, some not. But the one I'm going to focus on here is the most common proposed by theists: the free will response.

The basic free will argument is that God gives man free will and that it is man who chooses badly, that man is responsible for evil, not God. Some might object: But why is free will so great? Is the high price of evil worth free will? And the theist responds: Indeed, God creating man without free will is pointless. The very purpose of creation is for man to choose God and the way of God. Plantinga even posits that man without free will is a logical contradiction.

Now, I had heard this and I thought I came up with a good counter-argument to the theist. However, although I did come up with it independently, I was not the first to think of it. My argument attacks the assumption that the existence of free will in man automatically means that some men must choose evil. It is not contradictory to think that all men can have free will and that none will choose evil.

But how? By brainwashing them? No. Because as John Hick has shown, even if a person thinks he is free in that way, he is in fact enslaved to a will other than their own. A person might think he wants to run around and act like a duck, but really it is the hypnotist who controls that desire.

My argument is that as God is omniscient, He knows before he creates any person how that person will act. He knows if a person will be good or bad before he even brings him into existence. Why can't God, with his foreknowledge of how people will act, only create those who do good? Free will is still maintained - but only those who would choose well are created. They are not compelled to choose that way, it is their free choice to be good. So now that free will has been maintained and the necessary evil from free will debunked, the free will objection to the problem of evil is no longer useful to theists.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Purim Points to Ponder

There is no historical parallel between any of the characters of the Purim story except King Achashvairosh (Xerxes, reigned 485 - 464 BCE).

Historically, Achashvairosh's wife was Amastris, daughter of a Persian general - not Jewish.

Mordechai is not a Jewish name, but it's very similar to Marduk the head of the Babylonian pantheon.

Esther is also not a Jewish name, but it is Aramaic for Ishtar, a goddess in the Babylon pantheon and also cousins with Marduk (as Esther is cousins with Mordechai). Hadassah, Esther's original name, is also similar to the Babylonian word for "bride" which was also a reference used to denote Ishtar.

Haman is also the name of the chief Elamite god and Vashti may be close to Mashti an Elamite goddess.

The similarity in names may mean something - then again it may not. Some scholars say that the Purim story is actually a Judaized version of the mythological tale of how the Persian gods conquered the Elamite gods as the Persian Empire rose.

Also, take a look at Esther 2:5-6 - "5Now in Shushan the palace there was a certain Jew, whose name was Mordecai, the son of Jair, the son of Shimei, the son of Kish, a Benjamite;
6Who had been carried away from Jerusalem with the captivity which had been carried away with Jeconiah king of Judah, whom Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon had carried away."

The Babylonian exile of King Jeconiah occurred in 597 BCE. As I've stated above, the reign of King Xerxes of Persia didn't begin until 485 BCE. That means, that if we assume (generously) that Mordechai was an infant at the time of the exile, he would have to be 111 years old at the start of Xerxes' rule.

Now take a look at this: Ester 2:16 - "16So Esther was taken unto king Ahasuerus into his house royal in the tenth month, which is the month Tebeth, in the seventh year of his reign."

Seven years into the reign, Mordechai is now 118 years old. Not entirely impossible, but really stretching the plausibility of the tale. But if Mordechai was 118 and Esther was his cousin, she couldn't have been much younger than he! How could the Megilla refer to her as a "na'arah" young woman (2:8-9)? And how likely is it that the king would find a hundred year old lady so desirable?

Take all that plus the very unlikely aspects of a king allowing armed conflicts between his subjects - which of course is never found in any historical records, or the rise of a Jew to Prime Minister within a Persian court, and the fanciful descriptions of months-long banquets lend to the conclusion that Megillat Esther is primarily a book of fiction.

Sunday, March 06, 2005

Doubting Doubts

There are times when I doubt my very own faculties. The reason why I doubt is because I find that the evidence for the claims of religions is lacking. And oftentimes there is evidence against religious claims. But that's just what I think. Maybe I am the fool from Proverbs who believes what he thinks is right in his own eyes. Maybe I can't recognize the evidence. Maybe I'm just not smart enough to know it was evidence even if it landed on my doorstep.

I also sometimes doubt my own doubts because if God exists and is the eminent mysterious entity that people claim him to be, who am I to have the gall to demand to understand? If human cognition simply isn't powerful enough to understand the ways of God then it would make sense that some faith would be needed in any case to follow him. Perhaps there is a reason in the ultimate mysterious wisdom of God for why the evidence is the way it is.

And who am I to go against 3000 years of Jewish history? For millennia Jews have believed, who am I to tell them they are wrong?

And sometimes I wonder if all this is even worth it. Why do I stress so much about such unknowns or unknowables? Simple faith is so calming. Doubt is not fun. And such doubt leads to so many potential problems. I need to lead this secret double life that no one who I love and care about can find out for fear that they will come to despise and reject me. And I don’t plan on ever leaving Jewish life, it’s a big part of who I am, so why are such ephemeral and intangible things like "beliefs" so important?

We only have a few years on Earth. I’m twenty years old and if I’m lucky I can probably expect to live until I’m 80. I’m already a quarter dead. Is it worth spending so much time on what is ultimately unprofitable and unrewarded work? Why is the "truth" ultimately valuable? Some have argued that given the choice they would prefer taking the blue pill and living in happiness, if I’d be happier not knowing, why should I keep looking for truth?

Friday, March 04, 2005

Separatist Services

Regarding Jewish focused community services like Hatzoloh, Shomrim, or the chaveirim I question their appropriateness. Is it right to have a community service which serves only or primarily the Jewish community?

I do agree with the cliche that "charity begins at home" meaning that you take care of your own community before you send your money abroad. Though there is an analyzation which should be made for how much help is needed abroad compared to what is needed at home and give accordingly.

Loyalty to your immediate family is a no-brainer. Extended family...that would be measured by how extended. When you get to second cousins I think they don't get any special family loyalty.
Now here's where it gets tricky. On the one hand I see a loyalty to one's community. On the other hand there is a loyalty to one's entire extended family, which is the tribal unit. But by giving solely to your tribal unit, are you taking from your community? Should we be concerned with Brooklyn or with only the Jews in Brooklyn.

I think that since Jews are not found only in Brooklyn and alongside the maxim of "charity begins at home" charity service should be done first for your community, which helps all people in general around where you live. Helping only or primarily Jews is separatist and fosters negative feelings.

So while I value those Jewish services and do see that those who perform them are doing good work, I don't think they should be focused on only the needs of the Jews. We live in a wider society with many ethnic groups. Consider the scenario of the community if all the ethnic groups split off and had their own public services for themselves. Utter divisiveness which leads to ethnic tension. Community services should attempt to serve the whole community, not just parts of it.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Noah, Take 2

Take a look at Parshas Noach, go to Gen. 6:17 and read. It goes like this:

"17 I am going to bring floodwaters on the earth to destroy all life under the heavens, every creature that has the breath of life in it. Everything on earth will perish. 18 But I will establish my covenant with you, and you will enter the ark-you and your sons and your wife and your sons' wives with you. 19 You are to bring into the ark two of all living creatures, male and female, to keep them alive with you. 20 Two of every kind of bird, of every kind of animal and of every kind of creature that moves along the ground will come to you to be kept alive. 21 You are to take every kind of food that is to be eaten and store it away as food for you and for them." 22 Noah did everything just as God (Elohim) commanded him. "

Then check out the very next set of verses in chapter 7:

"1 The LORD (Hashem) then said to Noah, "Go into the ark, you and your whole family, because I have found you righteous in this generation. 2 Take with you seven of every kind of clean animal, a male and its mate, and two of every kind of unclean animal, a male and its mate, 3 and also seven of the birds of the heavens, male and female, to keep their various kinds alive throughout the earth. 4 Seven days from now I will send rain on the earth for forty days and forty nights, and I will wipe from the face of the earth every living creature I have made." 5 And Noah did all that the LORD (Hashem) commanded him."

Let's compare. First God says to take two of ALL types of animals. No exceptions. Then a few seconds later Noah is supposed to take, not two, but seven (some would say seven pairs and I also think that makes more sense) of clean animals. First "two of every kind of bird" then "seven of the birds of the heavens." What's with the change of directions?

Given the repetitive nature of these two paragraphs, it seems that Noah was given two directions and indeed the directions are not the same. Go to the Documentary Hypothesis, the first paragraph was written by E, as you can see that Elohim is doing the directing, the second is written by J and as you can see Hashem is doing the directing. It certainly seems likely that we have two traditions of the same story being melded here.