Tuesday, December 16, 2008

A Story From Work

I met a girl today. She's about three weeks old now, weighs about two pounds and has been in the NICU [Neonatal Intensive Care Unit] since birth. Let's call her Elizabeth - and this is her story which I feel compelled to write.

Elizabeth's mother is a crack addict with a $300 dollar per week habit. She's also an active prostitute working in the Bronx and she's got the likely slew of active infections that inevitably go along with that. Elizabeth's mother is 38 years old but looks like she's a senior citizen. Her mother realized for the first time that she was pregnant three weeks ago and came to the public hospital where I work to seek an elective termination of the pregnancy. And with a mother as unfit as she clearly is and a pregnancy as clearly unwanted as it was, nobody on staff seems to even think to object.

As you likely know, elective abortion is only legal in America up until the end of the second trimester or 24 weeks. What you may not know it that estimation of the fetal age can be done by ultrasound by taking measurements of different fetal anatomical features. It is well known by any competent obstretrics staff that by the second trimester these estimates can easily be as much as two weeks off. It can also be somewhat subjective since it depends on the ultrasound's operater to determine where to measure from. This technique's main purpose is just to show that the fetus is growing appropriately over time, not to age the fetus with a great degree of accuracy. Obviously the mother did not have even a single visit of prenatal care and so nobody knew how old the fetus was. The chief resident instructed the intern, "Go find out if the fetus is less than 24 weeks old." Then with the pressure to find a young fetus, the intern returned with a reported estimate of 23 weeks and 5 days.

With that factoid in the place, the team started to induce an abortion. The goal was to deliver the 23+ week old fetus intact and alive and then, since it being woefully premature and unprepared for the outside world, refrain from providing neonatal care with the expectation that nature would take its course and it would soon die. This is all permitted by current US law. And so this is what they did. They delivered the fetus and laid it on the crib in the delivery room under the warming light which was not turned on. She laid there for a full 7 minutes - losing body heat and not breathing while they dealt with care for the mother. At seven minutes, the attending physician walks in and sees that that fetus is still alive! She immediately calls in the neonatal pediatricians who manage to resuscitate the baby and Elizabeth is whisked away to the NICU, where she still lives today. After examination, it turns out that the baby weighed nearly 900 grams - a weight more consistent for a fetus of 27 weeks than of one of 23.

Think about what this means folks. What happened here was that these doctors were so jaded about bringing another unwanted crack-baby with hepatitis into the world that they fooled themselves (I'm being generous) into believing it was less than 24 weeks old, delivered it prematurely and then were willing to sit back and do nothing while it died right in front of them. When I saw poor Elizabeth in the NICU with tubes and probes going every which way and I heard this story I was absolutely floored. What the FUCK! I had previously worked with these people and I cannot believe that their judgement could be so absurdly screwed up on all moral, legal and medical levels.

Granted, a baby born - even at term - with a sustained cocaine exposure in utero and a number of serious infections is unlikely to have a great outcome, but delivering her prematurely and then allowing her to lie there freezing and anoxic for seven minutes surely didn't help her situation one bit! The neonatalogist treating her told me that she has good expectation to survive but zero expectation to do so without severe neurological consequences. I find it difficult to even find words to describe my enraged reaction to how the selfishness of the mother and the collaboration of her doctors lead to this horrible outcome for an innocent baby girl. It sounds like a sick joke, but she's an abortion survivor.

Of course her mom who tried to abort her did not give a damn and within one day of delivery she slipped out of the hospital and has not been heard from since. What tops the icing on this shit pie is the likelihood that if the mother had the inclination to, she probably has standing to sue for malpractice even though they were doing exactly what she asked of them and she's as, if not more so, culpable morally as any of them.

Update: 12/20/08

So I did some more sleuthing on Friday and I think I need to give those doctors an apology. Not entirely, but I think they were definitely more within their scope of practice than I had initially been told. What had actually occurred was not that the mother came in seeking an abortion, but came in with a story of abdominal pain, preterm premature rupture of membranes and likely chorioamnionitis. She hadn't wanted the pregnancy and had intended on a termination (she had had ten (TEN!) previous terminations on record) but that wasn't the reason she came in. The sono showed anhydramnios AND with their estimation of a previable fetus they decided to follow the course they did. If they hadn't induced labor then the fetus was likely to die anyway given the anhydramnios and the likely chorioamnionitis, and thereby also offer a serious risk to the mother.

What they still did wrongly though (imo), was in performing a poor estimation of the fetus' age - she was still significantly more than 24 weeks old and was indeed (obviously) viable - and then not having pediatrics in the room to perform a proper and timely resuscitation. So here it's less of a moral/legal issue and much more to do with simply poor management. All the same though, a terribly sad story all around.

Monday, December 15, 2008


LNM writes: "I think a big part of this was that philosophically I had tied "doing mitzvos" directly to "serving god". For decades my attitude about Torah and Mitzvos was that everything we do is in the service of god. Light menorah? Because god wants us to. Shake the lulav? See god. Tie your shoes in the opposite order you put them on? god again."

My perspective:

Doing something in the mindset of "avodat Hashem" doesn't necessarily imply that "God wants us" to do anything. Think of all the times you do an act in honor or in respect or in memory for something or just to show your allegience to an ideal without a conception that the 'something' wanted it to be done.

The simple understanding of mitzvot is indeed 'commandment,' but there's also a strand in Chassidic thought (see Likkutei Torah, Parshas Bechukosai 45c) that it's related to the word 'tzaveh' - which means 'connection.' Jewish observance can therefrom be understood in part as a human-based effort to 'connect' with the transcendent.

So yeah, it depends completely on your approach and mindset, but shaking lulav for example can indeed be an attempt to connect with the divine by using it as a vehicle to raise your consciousness towards those ideals. This isn't to say that Jewish observance doesn't have it's great value as social activities and a cultural heritage, but I think this is a nice vort to put a little kavanah back into your actions.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Yom HaDin

If there's one thing that troubles me about basic monotheistic theology is the idea of divine justice. Not that the idea is a bad one per se, but it just seems to fly so contrary to what I know about life and what goes on in the world that it makes it very hard for me to believe that justice reigns and that everyone gets it square in the end. When innocent children die painfully from genetic defects, murderous tyrants on the other side of the world live in luxury and at any time any regular shmo can die suddenly from a previously undiagnosed medical condition or a car accident or a stray bullet or a hurricane it certainly seems like what rules the roost in this world is mere chance rather than justice. At birth you're dealt a random hand and most of your life is played out with one roll of the dice after another. Sure, maybe you make some decisions on your own that set the course of your life, but there are larger forces in play that can wipe out all your plans in a moment.

Anyway, sure, this is an old old issue and there are always some stock answers that people pull out to reassure themselves. Maybe there's a Master Plan, maybe everything gets sorted out in the next life, maybe maybe maybe. Maybe not.

These were the thoughts that I had running through my mind all through davening on the first day of Rosh Hashana. See, my conception of God (in the abstract, non-anthropomorphic panentheist kinda way) certainly makes good sense of God as the almighty, as the creator, as the sustainer, as ruler, as awesome and fully worthy of reverence and praise. It also can make good sense of God being the source of an objective morality with schar and onesh following suit not as divine interventions, but as natural consequences of community behavior. I'll refrain from going into too much detail, but I see it in how moral action raises the net well being in a society and simultaneously betters the noble sense of self, whereas immoral behavior does the opposite. But still, how can I make account with the traditional conception of the Dayan Ha-emet given what I see of the world and my conception of a non-personal deity? In what sense does a panentheist God judge? And for that matter, in what sense can a panentheist God forgive?

So, as I was saying, I just could not get this out of my mind. What is the meaning of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur if not for the whole Yom HaDin thing?

To work my way through this dilemma I oriented myself to the idea that God doesn't judge per se, but that God is that moral standard against which we must judge ourselves. I think I went through this in a post last year about Yom Kippur, but whereas we might go easy on ourselves when considering our past actions, if we would imagine a perfectly reliable and righteous Judge considering our deeds we'd realize that we wouldn't get away with a fraction of what we'd permit ourselves. We then must judge ourselves to whether we are truly *worthy* of all the gifts given to us in our lives - and, yes, whether we deserve some comeuppance. Different people have different strengths - in this past year have you done all you could do to make this world a better place? I'm sorry to say it, but I know I haven't. Not that I'm a bad guy - or so I like to think of myself - but I've surely fallen short of what I could have done or what I could have been.

See, I believe in justice. I believe it is a characteristic set in the moral fabric of interpersonal relations. It is something we need to strive for, to struggle to achieve, rather than a fact of reality bestowed upon the universe. A common theme in Judaism is that humanity is co-creator with God. We have the potential to make justice have more impact on our existence than even chance. It is in our power and it is our duty.

So we're given a set time of some ten days at the start of the year to orient ourselves back to this basic task. And even if we were to judge ourselves unworthy we are given tools like teshuvah, tefilla and tzedaka to help change our mentality and to alter our behavior so that we can start the new year afresh with full potential. The purpose of these days is not to endlessly harp on our wrongdoings, but to do so only until we right what is wrong and become better people from that point on.

So with that conception in mind, an extended metaphor, I was able to finish davening with a clearer head - and I can look forward to a meaningful experience on Yom Kippur.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Kannoim Strong-arm Twerski Off Molestation Panel

Top Doc Scared Off Panel On Rabbinic Sex Molesters
by Hella Winston

A prominent Orthodox rabbi and psychologist has been intimidated into quitting as head of a just-formed task force dealing with rabbinic sex abuse of minors, organized by Assemblyman Dov Hikind this week.

Dr. Benzion Twerski told The Jewish Week Wednesday that he was quitting the task force because “I was prosecuted in the street for daring to join such a venture.”

“To protect myself, my family, and reputation, I decided to withdraw from this project,” he wrote in an e-mail as the paper was going to press with a story announcing Hikind’s formation of the task force. “From this point, I am avoiding participation in any forms of public service. Public life is not for me.”

Hikind, a Brooklyn Democrat who represents Borough Park and Flatbush, deplored Twerski’s abrupt departure from his new panel.

“He was basically forced to resign,” said Hikind. “He was literally put against the wall, and he felt he had no choice. We’ll get somebody else who’s very respected. But that’s not the point. The point is they got to him, they threatened him.”

Twerski’s dramatic departure came just as Hikind was rolling out the new panel, planned as the next step in a personal crusade against child sex abuse in the Orthodox community that he has come to view as an epidemic.

Hikind said he had amassed a dossier with the cases of “hundreds” of individuals who say they have been sexually molested by rabbis and other Orthodox community members during their childhood. And he threatened to broadcast the names of their abusers if community leaders do not respond to his call for action against them.

“Let me tell you,” he said in an interview last week, “when there’s a person who we have confirmed through a variety of people has been doing terrible things” and those who know refuse to go to the authorities, “I am prepared to name names. I am prepared to be sued by those pedophiles. If they’re innocent, let them sue me.”

Neither man would specify the nature of the threats made against Twerski to force his departure. But Hikind called them “pathetic and sad.”

“My heart goes out to him,” he said. “I don’t know if I should laugh or cry. Things are opening up, people are coming forward, but we are still so far away.”

This story is absolutely pathetic. I really hate what those self-important holier-than-thou protectors of child molesters are doing. Friggin' Taliban Kannoim. Somehow in their screwed up little minds, they think making a serious attempt to put a stop to rabbinical child abuse is somehow a potential damage to their community. Their priorities are totally screwed up and each person who pressured Dr. Twerski - or frankly aided or abetted this apparent policy of secrecy and cover-up generally - is morally responsible for each and every child molested since their obstruction of justice. Make no mistake, that is what they are doing and by right they ought to have their own seats right next to the actual molesters when they have their day in court. Utterly disgusting.

On the bright side though, I'm very glad to see Dov Hikind stepping up to the plate on this one. I'm surprised to see it, since I've generally not been impressed with his public service to date, but I give credit where credit is due. Frankly, I'm glad to see people of some note making motions to control this festering disease deep in the underbelly of the Orthodox community.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

קָצַפְתָּ עָלֵינוּ עַד-מְאֹד

As I often do following the night's reading of Eicha, since my shul only has these ancient kinot booklets instead of real books, I looked it up in the English in order to get a better understanding of what was read. I have a passing understanding of Biblical Hebrew, but to really get at the little phrases and deeper meanings some further examination with a translation is helpful. Anyway, I found something interesting that I hadn't noticed before.

The final couple of pasukim from the megillah are as so:

כא: הֲשִׁיבֵנוּ יְהוָה אֵלֶיךָ ונשוב (וְנָשׁוּבָה) חַדֵּשׁ יָמֵינוּ כְּקֶדֶם. כב: כִּי אִם-מָאֹס מְאַסְתָּנוּ קָצַפְתָּ עָלֵינוּ עַד-מְאֹד

Which mean, according to my understanding, '21: Bring us back to you, God, and we shall return, renew our days as of old. 22: For even if you totally rejected us, you have exceedingly raged against us.' The point being - we've been punished enough and it's cold outside, let us back in and we'll be good.' The Artscroll translation basically agrees with this assessment - 'For even if You had utterly rejected us, You have already raged sufficiently against us.'

But what I had been reading initally was, I confess, not the Artscroll but rather the NIV, which goes:

21 Restore us to yourself, O LORD, that we may return; renew our days as of old 22 unless you have utterly rejected us and are angry with us beyond measure.

Now that certainly gives the whole thing a different flavor, doesn't it? UNLESS? Clearly, in the Christian mindset there's a distinct possibility that God may have rejected the Jewish people and thereby explaining the whole reason for their religion. God needs to outsource his message since his chosen company isn't being reliable.

This is even more clearly seen in the older King James Version which I subsequently reviewed out of curiousity:

21Turn thou us unto thee, O LORD, and we shall be turned; renew our days as of old. 22But thou hast utterly rejected us; thou art very wroth against us.

BUT? Here the Christian assessment is that hope is lost for the Jews. God has rejected them utterly.

Ok, so that's an interesting little tidbit about the basic historical Christian understanding of Jewish persecution, but let's hear a nice dvar about this whole fasting deal in the face of theological skepticism.

Sure. See, a great thing about these terrible days is that few skeptics doubt that what they describe actually happened - at least not in any foundational detail. The Temples were destroyed, many Israelites were killed, the people were exiled or enslaved and basically the Jews were on the losing side of overwhelming ancient conquests. All of this before the adoption of the Geneva conventions. But what about the theological implications traditionally employed? Did God really [literally] send Babylon and Rome as means of punishing the sinning Jews?

Well, here's my take on it. While I wouldn't say that God plotted out the rise of those nations to pour out his wrath in such and such a way, but that to a certain extent a society's welfare is bound directly to the moral standards of its people and its leaders. When corruption abounds, when the rich abuse the poor, when brother cannot trust brother and the whole edifice of civilized society is on the brink then that decadent society has become weak at its heart and can be easily overcome by outside pressures - especially by foreign invasion. Isaiah, as related in this past haftorah, particularly remarks on the failings of the corrupt leadership and we are all familiar with the classic sinat chinam before the fall of the Second Temple. These things are cancers of society.

So with that, we have the traditional Jewish approach of following a tragedy with mussar. We look into ourselves to see what we can improve to perhaps prevent anything like it from happening again. I think this is a great approach. Producing something morally constructive out of something terrible. But we shouldn't be thinking of it in terms of satisfying a metaphysical Umpire (though perhaps metaphorically), rather it should be seen as a proactive effort to strengthen our moral ties to each other and to society at large. We can prevent the threat of moral decadence and the dangers it poses to society in general.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Informed Consent for HIV Testing

This is a topic that's bothered me for some time. In most US states it is state law that HIV testing first requires the patient's (often written) informed consent - this is STUPID. See, even while you would think most people suspected for HIV would eagerly want to know if they were infected and then change their behavior to help their own health and protect the people around them there remains a significant population who frankly prefer to remain ignorant - or at least maintain their denial. The fact is that the population of people who tend to get HIV are those who are not very health conscious and engage in risky behavior like having unprotected sex with multiple casual partners, especially men who have sex with men, and share needles for their drug habits. These are people who prefer living life as if there are no consequences and I don't think medical ethics demands that we kowtow to their preferences and permit them to remain nominally ignorant as they remain a public health threat.

As far as I know, for every other infectious disease it is standard policy in America to assume presumed consent by the patient and test at will unless the patient proactively refuses. You don't need informed consent to test for hepatitis or Lyme disease or syphilis, so why HIV? Now I know why HIV has been put in this special legal bubble. It was once upon a time an incredibly scary disease, poorly understood with severe social stigma and no real treatment, so it made sense to protect a population which had little interest in finding out they had a death sentence. Few of them would seek medical care generally if they knew they'd be forced to face the horrible truth.

Fair enough, but that was decades ago and now with proper treatement HIV is more of a chronic disease. Infected individuals can lead a fairly normal life. What was once sensible medical policy is now obstructive to getting this life saving treatment to people and is a real threat to the public. People should be routinely tested if they are suspected of HIV, need to be told sooner rather than later and face their fears so they can get the treatment they need. (Whether they ought to be penalized if they don't subsequently change their behavior vis-a-vis public health concerns is another question. After all, STDs are essentially behavioral disorders more than anything else.)

As some have noted, I haven't been doing much blogging this past little while and the reason for this is that I just started doing my clinical rotations at med school and as you may imagine that tends to take up some time. For the past six weeks or so, I've been working at a hospital in the Bronx where HIV is more prevalent than the common cold in the inpatient population. Zero exaggeration. There were times when easily more than half the patients on our service were known to be HIV positive. And if not HIV then you can be sure as the ever hopeful Obamanicks that the patient has got hepatitis. Maybe I'm getting a poor cross section, but it seems like you can hardly throw a rock in the Bronx without hitting a person with a severe, chronic infectious disease.

Anyway, while I had been thinking that way about HIV for a good while, what really hit the point home was a patient I've been following. Guy came in for some difficulty breathing over the course of several weeks and was found to have an AIDS defining pneumonia that only the immunocompromised can get and a CD4 count in the single digits. Patient refused HIV testing. His wife communicates with the doctors by telephone about his condition and she's casually complaining about how she used to be such a healthy person but lately she's been feeling sick. Hum...

So normally, with a positive HIV test, you can break with normative patient/doctor confidentiality and inform the spouse that their sexual partner has HIV if you have reason to believe the spouse won't do the informing on their own. But because this guy is refusing testing, the doctors can't legally label the patient as HIV+ even while he's being treated with a clinically AIDS-defining pneumonia and therefore cannot tell the wife. Welcome to the world of medico-legal meshugas. Anyway, what we ended up doing was telling the wife to tell her family doctor that her husband is being treated for a pneumonia with this and that drug regimen, which any astute physician would immediately understand to be HIV related and have her follow up with him. Hopefully that'll work out as best it can.

Of interest, it seems like the CDC recently came closer to my way of thinking and as of 2006 their recommendations are:

-HIV screening (another term for broad-based testing) for patients ages 13 to 64 in all healthcare settings after the patient is notified that testing will be performed unless the patient declines (opt-out screening).
-HIV testing of people at high risk for HIV infection at least once a year.
-Screening should be incorporated into the general consent for medical care; separate written consent is not recommended.

Now, I'm for the total normalization of HIV testing to be like other infectious diseases. If the patient is in the hospital then you can just test their blood for whatever without special notification. We don't tell patients that we're testing for hepatitis - which we do test for regularly. HIV should not be treated like a legally special condition and it's time for the state legislatures to get on the ball with this one.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

An Atheist Questionnaire

I was tagged by Da'as Hedyot, so I guess I'll do my blogging duty.

Q1. How would you define "atheism"?

Strictly as simply the lack of belief in gods. But in general, practically for those who take the title, it subsumes a whole series of assumptions about humanity and our relationship with the rest of reality. The basic worldview asserts that the universe was an accident without consequence or meaning. Humans exist purely by luck and our interaction with the rest of reality doesn't go beyond it being merely the otherwise irrelevant backdrop for the navel-gazing human drama to play out. Morality is subjective (and therefore is without any means of authority to orient right from wrong).

That, in the end, we are all nothing (ala Hawking) but the chemical scum placed on a moderate-size planet, orbiting around a very average star in the outer suburb of one among a hundred billion galaxies.

Q2. Was your upbringing religious? If so, what tradition?

Blah, blah. Everyone knows about this already. Modern OJ, relatively chilled.

Q3. How would you describe "Intelligent Design", using only one word?


Q4. What scientific endeavor(s) really excites you?

Space exploration. Biological systems. Deep-time evolution.

Q5. If you could change one thing about the "atheist community", what would it be and why?

To stop defining themselves by what they are not. It's terrible when the only way they seem to be able to progress their cause is by attacking the alternatives. Not that the method doesn't have its place, but the "atheist community" seems far too sure of its worldview which it only reached by denying the views of others.

Q6. If your child came up to you and said "I'm joining the clergy", what would be your first response?

Alright, just make sure you don't get so frum that you won't eat in my house anymore.

Q7. What's your favorite theistic argument, and how do you usually refute it?

Meh. I'm so bored with that endless debate. Generally it's a matter of someone asserting something about God and I just say, "Oh, how do you know that impossible to know thing?"

Q8. What's your most "controversial" (as far as general attitudes amongst other atheists goes) viewpoint?

I'm not an atheist. That tends to get 'em riled up and remarkably few seem to comprehend the significant gradations between I and some Biblical literalist.

Q9. Of the "Four Horsemen" (Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens and Harris) who is your favorite, and why?

I like Dawkins. Actually I liked him before he became a militant atheist performer since I appreciate his contributions to evolution, but even so he's great with the turn of phrase and he makes his points with excellent clarity. Harris though seems to be the most reasonable-sounding of the bunch.

Q10. If you could convince just one theistic person to abandon their beliefs, who would it be?

Hmm. I really don't care all that much. How about the next virgin-addled pro-murderer before he completes his massacre?

Hoc est Pocus

I found this absolute gem when I was reading "When They Severed Earth from Sky" (y'know, the book that describes the mentality of mythmaking and how the seemingly strange stories were actually invested with good data in the absence of a literate public).

Page 135: "Hocus Pocus is a mutilation(!) of the Eucharistic phrase Hoc est corpus [meum], "This is [my] body."

I don't know if this is true or not, but it's a brilliant little insight for a common subversive streak of a society dutifully unimpressed by the Church's magic of transubstantiation.

I just had to share.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Anim Zemirot

Think about it:

Sweet hymns shall be my chant and woven songs,
For Thou art all for which my spirit longs--
To be within the shadow of Thy hand
And all Thy mystery to understand.
The while Thy glory is upon my tongue,
My inmost heart with love of thee is wrung,
So though Thy mighty marvels I proclaim,
'Tis songs of love wherewith I greet Thy name.

I have not seen Thee, yet I tell Thy praise,
Nor known Thee, yet I image forth Thy ways.
For by Thy seers' and servants' mystic speech
Thou didst Thy sov'ran splendour darkly teach,
And from the grandeur of Thy work they drew
The measure of Thy inner greatness, too.
They told of Thee, but not as Thou must be,
Since from Thy work they tried to body Thee.
To countless visions did their pictures run,
Behold through all the visions Thou art one.

Better than Artscroll.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Confucius say "Follow Halacha"

Yen Yuan asked about benevolence. The Master [Confucius] said, 'To return to the observance of the rites through overcoming the self constitutes benevolence. If for a single day a man could return to the observance of the rites through overcoming himself, then the whole Empire would consider benevolence to be his. However, the practice of benevolence depends on oneself alone, and not on others.'

Yen Yuan said, 'I should like you to list the items.'

The Master said, 'Do not look unless it is in accordance with the rites; do not listen unless it is in accordance with the rites; do not speak unless it is in accordance with the rites; do not move unless it is in accordance with the rites.'

-Lun Yu (The Analects), 12:1

Interesting: this symbol of Confucianism means "total harmony, righteousness, in your own life and in your relations with your neighbor." Reminiscent of a couple of familiar tablets, eh?

Wednesday, May 21, 2008



"Speaking of concentration, Dr. Herzl has a clear insight into the value of that. Have you heard of his plan? He wishes to gather the Jews of the world together in Palestine, with a government of their own -- under the suzerainty of the Sultan, I suppose. At the convention of Berne, last year, there were delegates from everywhere, and the proposal was received with decided favor. I am not the Sultan, and I am not objecting; but if that concentration of the cunningest brains in the world was going to be made in a free country (bar Scotland), I think it would be politic to stop it. It will not be well to let that race find out its strength. If the horses knew theirs, we should not ride any more."


"Will the persecution of the Jews ever come to an end?"
On the score of religion, I think it has already come to an end. On the score of race prejudice and trade, I have the idea that it will continue. That is, here and there in spots about the world, where a barbarous ignorance and a sort of mere animal civilization prevail; but I do not think that elsewhere the Jew need now stand in any fear of being robbed and raided. Among the high civilizations he seems to be very comfortably situated indeed, and to have more than his proportionate share of the prosperities going. It has that look in Vienna. I suppose the race prejudice cannot be removed; but he can stand that; it is no particular matter."


"If the statistics are right, the Jews constitute but one percent of the human race. It suggests a nebulous dim puff of star dust lost in the blaze of the Milky Way. Properly the Jew ought hardly to be heard of; but he is heard of, has always been heard of. He is as prominent on the planet as any other people, and his commercial importance is extravagantly out of proportion to the smallness of his bulk. His contributions to the world`s list of great names in literature, science, art, music, finance, medicine, and abstruse learning are also away out of proportion to the weakness of his numbers. He has made a marvelous fight in this world, in all the ages; and has done it with his hands tied behind him. He could be vain of himself, and be excused for it. The Egyptian, the Babylonian, and the Persian rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded to dream-stuff and passed away; the Greek and the Roman followed, and made a vast noise, and they are gone; other peoples have sprung up and held their torch high for a time, but it burned out, and they sit in twilight now, or have vanished. The Jew saw them all, beat them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities of age, no weakening of his parts, no slowing of his energies, no dulling of his alert and aggressive mind. All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?"

-All from "Concerning the Jews"


"I will set down a tale as it was told to me by one who had it of his father, which latter had it of his father, this last having in like manner had it of his father- and so on, back and still back, three hundred years and more, the fathers transmitting it to the sons and so preserving it. It may be history, it may be only legend, a tradition. It may have happened, it may not have happened: but it could have happened. It may be that the wise and the learned believed it in the old days; it may be that only the unlearned and the simple loved it and credited it."

- Intro,"The Prince and the Pauper"

Monday, May 19, 2008

Passover at the Finkelsteins

"I am a great believer in a total separation between tradition and research. I myself have a warm spot in my heart for the Bible and its splendid stories. During our Pesach seder, my two girls, who are 11 and 7, didn't hear a word about the fact that there was no exodus from Egypt. When they are 25, we will tell them a different story. Belief, tradition and research are three parallel lines that can exist simultaneously. I don't see that as a gross contradiction."

-Israel Finkelstein

How about that. The arch-skeptic Biblical minimalist has a traditional Pesach seder. Interesting how there are so many others who refuse to do so based significantly on his work.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Israelites Came From...?

Here is a short article on possible contemporary answers.

None of them particularly blow me away, but a tweaked Albrecht Alt 'infiltration' model seems to be the idea most consistent with the physical evidence and coherent with the stories in Tanach. Various Hebrew tribes entered the land more or less peacefully and settled primarily in the empty highlands (as is coherent with Judges and the archeological data). Perhaps they were associated or identified with the Hyksos who were chased out of Egypt in the 16th century BCE - so perhaps they did come from Egypt, though perhaps they came from other regions. These Hebrews eventually joined forces under a new religious vision imported from the south by a group of escaped Hebrew slaves and the Israelites as we know them were founded.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008


"Joshua son of Nun, the servant of the LORD, died at the age of a hundred and ten. And they buried him in the land of his inheritance, at Timnath Heres in the hill country of Ephraim, north of Mount Gaash.

After that whole generation had been gathered to their fathers, another generation grew up, who knew neither the LORD nor what he had done for Israel. Then the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the LORD and served the Baals..."

-Judges 2:8-11

Sunday, May 04, 2008

The Discovery of Law

"Men do not make laws. They do but discover them. Laws must be justified by something more than the will of the majority. They must rest on the eternal foundation of righteousness. That state is most fortunate in its form of government which has the aptest instruments for the discovery of laws. The latest, most modern, and nearest perfect system that statesmanship has devised is representative government."

-Calvin Coolidge

(How comes people don't talk this way anymore?)

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Carter and Hamas, BFF

Hmm, should Israel follow Carter's lead?

אִישׁ חָמָס יְפַתֶּה רֵעֵהוּ וְהוֹלִיכוֹ בְּדֶרֶךְ לֹא-טוֹב

"A man of Hamas entices his neighbor and leads him on a way that is not good."
- Proverbs 16:29

I always found it an ironic coincidence that Hamas would choose a name for themselves that was so apropo.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

For your consideration:

There is a thing, formless yet complete.
Before heaven and earth it existed.
Without sound, without substance, it stands alone and unchanging.
It is all-pervading and unfailing.
One may think of it as the mother of all beneath Heaven.
We do not know its name, but we call it Tao.

Deep and still, it seems to have existed forever.

-Lao Tzu

See more on philosophical Taoism and on pan(en)theism generally.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Moral Methods

So I've just been having this extended debate (as typical on GH's site) with several other people on the nature of morality and how we ought to go about ascertaining correct action. So the typical theist's assertion is that only God has the authority to determine what is moral and what is not - human-based reason is subjective and without authority.

Now the fact is that I believe in an objective morality because otherwise there's no point in discussing morality. If it's all subjective then everyone does what they wants and nobody has any authority to tell others what to do. So if you're going to meaningfully discuss morality then you need to presume that there is an objective morality to which we ought to conform our behavior. Whether this objective morality involves God in some way is really not the issue here. I'm inclined to say 'yes' - assuming God is involved in all things, but I'm not prepared to say that God wrote a list and told it to any particular group of humans. I believe we can make a kind of science of ethics and determine correct action as best we can through applying the tools of reason and logic, as well as relying to a certain degree on intuition, historical study, and whatever else may be relevant. This science is objective and ought to be compelling in argument - so it has some authority.

Now the difference between the orthodox religious person and I is that they believe in a whole theology through which they claim to know God's moral will. Revelation. They don't claim to use reason or logic - they have divine revelation telling them what's right and what's wrong. Wow. I mean that semi-seriously too because it would be really convenient to have a perfect being telling me what's what. A lot of that pesky moral uncertainty would vanish and it has a boatload of authority. But an issue arises - the same one as always - how do they know this revelation is true?

If they say that they rely on faith - then seriously WTF? The Halachic system proposes things like killing people for lighting matches on the Sabbath - how can you dare to condemn a man to death (even theoretically) for something which you have zero rational reason to suggest is true? Those who rely on faith are ontologically unsophisticated and and ethically negligent. How can they be any different from any other religious nut who claims - based on faith - to have God's backing for any kind of evil you could imagine?!

But suppose the religious person believes they have reasonable arguments for their belief system. Ok, so maybe they aren't as negligent. They may be entirely wrong and thereby supporting bad ethics, but at least they're trying to dutifully ascertain righteousness. But you see the issue already don't you? If they are relying on _reason_ to help them out ontologically how is that intrisically different from my system of ethics which relies on _reason_ to determine morality? They both rely on human reason, which is subjective and without authority as far as the theist is concerned.


So I asked one of the theists on GH's blog, would you be willing (assuming he lived in a time and place where it were possible) to execute a man for lighting a match on the Sabbath? And he, after extensive digressions and diversions, finally admitted that he would! He claimed to have reasonable circumstantial evidence for believing in Orthodoxy and was then prepared to accept the Halachic system as-is. But, wait a second - he's relying on circumstantial evidence to promote a system where he executes a man for ritual offenses? He'd kill based solely on circumstantial evidence! Wow! As per Halacha, a Jewish court certainly needs more than that in order to convict and execute.

My point here is that in order to support a revelation-based moral system that can execute for ritual offenses you need to be as certain as a capital-offense jury verdict that the whole system is valid before you can possibly be willing to execute a man based on it. We're talking 99++% certainty here. Could you convince a jury of your peers of your religious beliefs? If you aren't that certain then you are deep in moral turpitude to be willing (even theoretically) to execute people based on it.

Who among the Jbloggers are so certain? RJM? Bueller?

Now I willingly admit that my methodology of asertaining correct action is limited. Human reason is not perfect and so I believe we ought to take a conservative approach to ethics and not get too bowled over by the rhetoric of guys like Peter Singer who suggest that infanticide is justifiable. Yet at the same time, it must be noted that it is the best tool we've got. This is in wild contradistinction to the likes of religious ethics which are as reasonably based as the Hamas manifesto. An Orthodox Jew cannot convince the Hamas guy that his actions are irrational or wrong because it's just a matter of dogma vs dogma. They both believe in their moral system based on a claimed revelation. They are on precisely equal playing fields and the debate becomes a tawdry argument over theology. But if we could inject a little reason into the discussion and make people justify their actions on reasonable grounds then maybe some progress could be made.

Friday, April 11, 2008


I think, more than anything about Judaism that fascinates me to no end is the question of origins. Naturally this includes the big questions about the universe, the Jewish people, the Torah and so on - but also the relatively smaller questions. Why was pork forbidden as an unclean animal? What is tzitzit? Why circumcision? Why Shabbos? Who wrote this or that prayer and what does it mean? Why do we fast on Ta'anit Esther? Why don't we cut our hair during Sfira?

What is often most fascinating about all this is the very different answers you may get from traditional sources as compared to academic scholarship, assuming the origins aren't lost in the sands of time. As I brought the question up recently on XGH's blog - why is Chanukah eight days long? The Talmud says because the oil miraculously lasted that long. What says historical sources like 2 Maccabees? Because they were celebrating Succos in Kislev. Back in Tishrei when they were at war, the Temple was impure and they couldn't do it properly so they translated the eight days of Succos + Shmini Atzeret into Kislev and established a holiday. Understanding the true origins of a practice usually makes it that much more meaningful.

Anyway, I was wondering recently about the origins of the feather, wooden spoon, and candle deal that is traditionally used for bedikat chametz. I figure it's probably kabbalistic, but I haven't been able to track it down. What are the objects supposed to signify? A gold star to whomever can give me the answer.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Choosing Observance

Found an interesting blog run by a Conservative convert who seeks a community with an observance level beyond what is commonly performed by the relatively lax Conservative world. Amazing how the two of us came from very different perspectives but seem to hold a few key considerations in common:

"However, what I’ve come to realize is that I am becoming something of an “out of the shul Jew”. What I mean by that is that my sense of Judaism isn’t just grounded in official synagogue study and activities. Rather I increasingly experience my Judaism outside of the shul. For example first thing in the morning when I get up and wash my hands, recite morning blessings, put on one of my Tallit Katan and force (yes sometimes those first few minutes are excruciatingly difficult) my way into the living room to daven Shacharit. I can feel my Jewishness bubbling up through my keeping kosher even when it’s difficult. I certainly feel it when Shabbos is made sacred and I’m not talking about going to shul because that’s the easy part. It’s in the preparing of a lovely table and putting on nice clothing before Shabbos starts, then sharing a Sabbath Seder with friends. I can feel my Jewishness in the struggle to stay out of the car, off the computer and television and in not spending money for 25 hours. I feel my Judaism deeply when walking down the street sporting a Kippah and someone gives me a smart ass remark. I feel like a Jew every time I manage to make even the smallest sacrifice, out of a sense of commitment to observance. Especially during those times when no one is watching and I could get away with cheating ,if I wanted to. I feel my Judaism every time I act from a place of loving kindness and I feel it when I miss the boat by falling into Loshon Hara but am able to catch myself even if it’s after-the-fact and do Teshuvah.

Am I being a little self-important and self obsessed, maybe so, but I’m not sure if that’s such a bad thing. I don’t want synagogue affiliation or even denominational affiliation to be my primary source of Jewish identity. I want it to be observance and more importantly, I want to be in an environment that supports that kind of lifestyle."


Thursday, March 13, 2008

Who Knows Thirteen?

I live in a building that has no 13th floor. And the hospital where I take a clinical course also has no 13th floor. Obviously this isn't because the buildings are short, but rather because of the common superstitious fear of the number thirteen. They go right from 12 to 14. This always struck me as rather amusing given that from a Jewish perspective 13 is actually a good number. Think Bar Mitzvah, 13 Attributes of God, 613 mitzvot and even the Rambam's 13 Principles of Faith.

Anyway, I just found out recently that in some East Asian nations the number 4 is feared. (Though, again, Judaism has a number of positive connotations for the number 4. Are there any bad numbers in Judaism?) This is because the Chinese, Japanese, and Korean words for four also sound like the word for death. So buildings in those countries tend to likewise skip floors 4, 14, 24, etc.

And then I saw this picture (from wiki) which made me laugh. It's from an elevator in a building in Shanghai, which is apparently a melting pot of the world's superstitions:

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Mishe Mishe Mishenichnas Adar

Will Lipa still be able to sing this song?

Friday, March 07, 2008

James Kugel on Orthopraxy

DH: I just finished "The God of Old" and found it to be an enlightening, if rather speculative, insight into the Biblical minds of old. I also intend on reading your newest work when I get the opportunity.

But the real reason I'm writing you is not for the quality of your work ... but of the curious juxtaposition of it to your ostensible Orthodoxy. Frankly, I do not understand how the same man who intellectually deconstructs the very human pathways that lead to modern Orthodox Judaism can at the same time hold belief in their immutable correctness. I do not mean to sound accusatory in the least - and I know you probably already get flak from all directions about this - but is what you really believe "Orthodox" as you could find described in some dictionary or recognized rabbinical treatise, or rather is it a kind of self-styled religious philosophy that maintains *Orthopraxy* as proper Jewish behavior?

That may be mere splitting of hairs for some, but as I am an individual who (I think, like you) is very interested in maintaining traditional Jewish observance, I am struck by the gross untenability of typical Orthodox beliefs in the face of modern scholarship from numerous fields. I should also mention that I was raised Modern Orthodox and have maintained general observance even while my philosophical and scholarly thoughts have strayed, as it were. The great trick of course would be how to open the eyes of so many of our observant co-religionists without prompting disillusionment and a tumbling of the Halachic system - assuming such a feat were even possible and assuming we ought to even be interested in carrying out such philosophical revolutions.

In the meantime, as I count myself among the "Orthodox" as a sociological identity, I often encounter difficulties where what I have learned through modern scholarship contradict established tradition. Indeed, when the Torah is raised at hagbah, should I say along with the congregation that “This is the Torah that Moses placed before the people of Israel at the command of the Lord through Moses”? Clearly modern Bible scholars like yourself would say that even if Moshe did write a Torah, the modern Pentateuch we have raised before us is not it.

I'm not exactly sure what I am asking of you here and it may even be inappropriate (and if so, then you have my apologies) but how do you engage the philosophical difficulties that lie between living our traditional observances and the generally poorly informed beliefs of so many whom we observe them with? Is there a philosophical or theological or sociological endpoint to seek or should each man merely find their place between skepticism and traditionalism and hope the great Jewish masses will one day raise their minds from the merely Medieval?

Practically, how much does traditional Judaism need to adapt so to honestly assimilate these intellectual elephants sitting in the living room? In ironic form, can these elephants become kosher?

JK: Well, that is the question. I did try to address it in a few pages of the last chapter of HOW TO READ THE BIBLE, but judging by people's reaction, I obviously need to do more. (I didn't go into more detail there because that book is not really aimed at Orthodox Jews, or even Jews in general, and it is not, despite what a lot of my correspondents seem to think, a kind of personal confession. It's really a book about the Bible.)

I suppose the longer answer that I might write some day would start by saying that I really don't buy into the distinction between "Orthodoxy" and "Orthopraxy" that you, and a lot of other people, invoke. An Orthodox Jew isn't just someone with the right "doxy," the right ideas; you wouldn't call someone "Orthodox" who sincerely believes that the Torah was given by God to Moses on Mount Sinai and fervently upholds his faith in the resurrection of the dead etc., but who does not keep Shabbat or the rules of kosher food.

In a subtler way, I think the opposite is also true. I've heard lately from a lot of people who say that they like the "Orthodox life style," but that they are only "Orthoprax" and not "Orthodox." I hope that's not really true. As you know, Judaism is notoriously long on deeds and short on doctrine; still, I can't imagine that any such "Orthopraxy" can be pursued in the long run by someone who doesn't have some basic belief in H' and in the connection between that belief and all the "deeds" of his or her Orthopraxy.

Rather, I think what such people mean is that they have difficulty accepting one or another of the traditional teachings of Judaism: they are bothered by what you call the “gross untenability of typical Orthodox beliefs in the face of modern scholarship from numerous fields.” I certainly understand what you, and they, mean. It seems intellectually dishonest to – if I can reverse the contemporary cliché -- walk the walk (not a bad way of referring in English to keeping the halakhah) while at the same time mumbling when it comes time to talk the talk, that is, affirming those traditional beliefs that seem to clash with modern knowledge. So what to do?

You may say I’m chickening out, but I’ve always been a fairly conservative person, certainly when it comes to throwing off traditional teachings (though some of my readers may doubt this). I would never want to announce to anyone, “Forget about that mitzvah,” or, by the same token, “This specific belief isn’t really important.” I think history teaches that people who start down the road of public rejection of this or that specific thing rarely stop there.

But history does have another lesson, and that’s the one I would highlight. Most of the “creedal statements” of Judaism were originally made in opposition to something or someone. That is, the very enterprise of formulating the "musts" of Jewish belief in rabbinic times arose out of doctrinal differences among the various Jewish groups that flourished before 70 C.E., or later on, as a result of the rise of certain changes in the Jewish world (Karaism, e. g.) or the world in general. The point of these affirmations of belief often was: If you want to be with "us," you can't uphold what "they" say or do. But situations do change, and so do (eventually) the things people feel it essential to assert. As I'm sure you know, the Mishnah (perek Helek) specifies a few things that Jews are to believe in or lose their portion in the world to come. The list of essential beliefs was considerably expanded when Maimonides (not unopposed) introduced his Thirteen Principles. After his time, other things did get added from time to time (creatio ex nihilo, for example, or free will), while some of the earlier items were dropped. You might look at the wonderful article by the late Professor Alexander Altmann,"Articles of Faith," in the Encyclopedia Judaica. So certainly one lesson of history is that at least some of these affirmations were not written in stone.

Added to this is what history teaches about the actual application of various orthodoxies to real life. Even when things don’t change de jure, they sometimes change de facto. For example, that same chapter in the Mishnah says a Jew must not read from the "sefarim ha-hitzonim," and even if the Mishnah doesn't say exactly what those books are, it seems likely that that rubric includes at least some of the writings studied in courses currently given by Orthodox professors at Yeshiva University or Bar Ilan; indeed, a number of Orthodox posekim have explicitly ruled that this prohibition is no longer in effect, because times have changed. This is, I admit, a fairly small example of what you call “the Jewish masses rais[ing] their minds from the merely medieval,” but it did happen. (We’re talking about doctrine; I’m sure you can think of numerous examples in the domain of halakhah lema’aseh.) On a somewhat different plane, the use of
amulets (kame'ot) for quasi-magical purposes, or the attribution ofmagical powers to mezuzot -- both of which, I’m afraid, are quite common in Israel today -- suggest beliefs that are clearly at odds with Jewish doctrine as formulated in the Torah, Mishnah, and by numerous later authorities. But these things do go on, and they are actually almost never denounced as heretical; in fact, they are espoused and practiced by prominent rabbinic figures. So I'm not sure that, in any descriptive (rather than prescriptive) definition of Orthodox Judaism, all required and prohibited beliefs are treated equally.

In saying all this, I'm not looking for a back door out of what I take to be Judaism's basic doctrine about the Torah, namely, "Torah min ha-shamayim." There's nothing in my book (or in me) that denies that belief. As I've written several times, words are words, and there is no litmus test that modern biblical scholars could ever perform to determine that this word was divinely inspired and that word was not. But in my book I did try to put the whole doctrine of a divinely-given Torah in a somewhat different perspective, which, since you say you haven’t yet read the book, I might summarize here:

What I tried to show was that, at a certain point within the biblical period, the religion of Israel suddenly changed (I would say "as if by revelation," except that I don't mean the "as if"). Now, "avodat H'" was no longer principally understood as the offering of korbanot in the
Temple, but the keeping of God's numerous laws. This is evident within the Bible itself, and the trajectory of avodat H' as presented in the Torah carries over into all the later stages of Judaism, even in such perfectly human activities as writing piskei halakhah (or, for that matter, formulating lists of required beliefs). Keeping the mitzvot is the way that Jews seek to reach out to H', and I would make no exception in this for people who define themselves as "Orthoprax." It can't just be a matter of lifestyle.

So... The point of this rather long-winded answer is that people who devote themselves fully to keeping the mitzvot are, at least by my definition, Orthodox in the true sense of the word: they have grasped what is essential in Judaism, avodat H', and they are living it. All those mitzvot have a single trajectory, from the Torah itself through centuries and centuries of human interpreters, the makers of midrash halakhah and aggadah, takkanot and gezerot shavot and piskei halakhah, down to the present day. I think someone who truly understands this will not be troubled by the things you mention.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Barbs in Your Eyes, Thorns in Your Sides

Alright, here were are again in July 2006. Hundreds of rockets are being shot indiscriminately at Israeli civilians from Islamic terrorists from lands recently vacated by Israeli troops. The UN, EU, Muslim countries, watchdog groups, the Pope and your leftist mother are clamoring to morally undermine Israel and her absolute right to defend herself by tying Israel's arms behind her back with calls for proportionate response and an immediate end to the violence.

How typical. Where the hell were these people for the last forever when Hamas was doing its best to provoke Israel by targeting civilians with these rockets? "Suck it up" they say to Israel. How tolerant do you think any other country in the world would be to a constant barrage of rockets falling on their border towns? Double standard BS.

This endless fighting with Gaza and Hamas is deeply absurd. You let Hamas fire endlessly at Israeli citizens and the Gazans celebrate Hamas for fighting against the Zionists and Israelis die. If you fight back against Hamas then Israeli soldiers die in the fighting, Hamas militants hide among the civilians, Gazan civilians die, the people rally around Hamas for fighting for them and world opinion turns on Israel. Hamas has no interest in building a Palestinian nation. They love anarchy and destruction because it only fuels their power and ability to harm Israel.

What the hell are you supposed to do with these kinds of people?

It's times like these that I am sorely tempted by ideas that involve transferring the Gazan population somewhere else. I don't care where, but if these people can't live peacefully next door then why should Israel have to tolerate them? What kind of world is this? At no other place or time in history has a weaker party been the aggressor with such aplomb. They fear no real consequences because the world won't let there be any. And they call it a Holocaust! The world not just allows, but actively enables this conflict to fester and fester.

"This is what the LORD says: 'For three sins of Gaza, even for four, I will not turn back my wrath . Because she took captive whole communities and sold them to Edom, I will send fire upon the walls of Gaza that will consume her fortresses.'" - Amos 1:6-7

Friday, February 22, 2008

On the Question of Meaning

Littlefoxling wrote a recent post on the issue of meaning and I've been giving it some thought of late. (Not that I have the time for this and it is eating away at my studying, but that help explains why I'm writing this post at 2 am.)

Essentially you have two general approaches to finding meaning in life. The first is for meaning to be found in something bigger than oneself. This includes the classic religious approach where meaning is found in being a part of God's master plan and each of us have a mission in life for which we were specifically created. We also see this in the more secular nationalism or humanism where the good for society or humanity in toto is the good to which one's life is given meaning. It is in service to the public good to which our life is worthwhile. These two aspects are not incompatible and indeed we often see political leaders (Republicans typically) who invoke their belief that their public service is their place in God's plan or that they sought to serve the public because they believed they could further God's plan.

The second approach for meaning seekers is introverted and is the classic view of existential philosophy. They say that the rest of the world is impossible to value objectively and therefore obtaining a sense of meaning from a valueless externality is hopeless - vanity, as it were. So the Existentialists seek to understand themselves as subjective beings and best authenticate their lives with integrity. I am who I am and being true to myself is the meaning of my existence.

It's interesting how both of these paths are essentially non-materialistic, if well applied. Seeking God's will or the common good obviously transcends the immediate desires for creature comforts, but even existential authentication retreats from "selling out" or becoming an empty cog in the machine. If you are familiar with the movie Fight Club or Randian protagonists, you may recognize this theme. But I'm not trying to intimate that one path leads to global prosperity and the other to violent anarchy, but that both depends on the underlying ideas behind these theories. If God is good then finding meaning through God will lead to good. If you find your authentic existence is to be a good person then it too will lead to good. These may both be reversed if you're contemplating joining Al Qaeda.

Anyway, it could be that both of these approaches have their places and that some synthesis can be made of them. To put the meaning of one's life completely on the other empties one's personal experience, but to lean wholly on the subjective leaves one contextless and lost. Classically: "If I am only for myself, then what am I?"

So I would encourage self-investigation and being true to oneself because ultimately we each walk down life alone and it is only through that path that one can find out who they are and what matters to them. This is the soul of man. But I also say that some faith in the meaningfulness of our surroundings and the human condition is not out of place. Although some are skeptical, I do not believe that our existence is an accident. And from that realization comes the conclusion that we hold some honored place in the grand scheme of things. Whether there's a mindful Schemer or a non-conscious Orderer is not so important as much as our place in the order of things. From this follows the valuation of human beings and human interests generally.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Mickey Mouse Rabbi

I just found out recently about this guy on the left. I was by my friend's house and a small picture of him was taped on the wall. Apparently he, the Grand Rabbi Yeshaya Steiner of Kerestir, has the amazing ability to bless homes that display his likeness with a segulah to keep away mice! (Though ironically while I was there - I actually did see a mouse!)

How this is foundationally different from Catholics and their semi-avodah zara patron saints of whatever is a distinction lost to me.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Give Gaza to Egypt?

Daniel Pipes yesterday came out with an article saying that the Hamasian border breaking fiasco should be used as an opportunity to change the whole Gaza equation and return the territory to the way it was ruled from 1948-67 - i.e. basically ruled by Egypt.

He writes:

Washington and other capitals should declare the experiment in Gazan self-rule a failure and press President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt to help, perhaps providing Gaza with additional land or even annexing it as a province. This would revert to the situation of 1948-67, except this time Cairo would not keep Gaza at arm’s length but take responsibility for it.

Culturally, this connection is a natural: Gazans speak a colloquial Arabic identical to the Egyptians of Sinai, have more family ties to Egypt than to the West Bank, and are economically more tied to Egypt (recall the many smugglers’ tunnels). Further, Hamas derives from an Egyptian organization, the Muslim Brotherhood. As David Warren of the Ottawa Citizen notes, calling Gazans “Palestinians” is less accurate than politically correct.

Why not formalize the Egyptian connection? Among other benefits, this would (1) end the rocket fire against Israel, (2) expose the superficiality of Palestinian nationalism, an ideology under a century old, and perhaps (3) break the Arab-Israeli logjam.

See, the idea has a certain elegance - and in fact I had a friend mention the same idea days before Pipes' article - but even if it were at all feasable (since I'm fairly certain Egypt has no interest in Gaza as such, with a million-plus poor and radical people along with a well-armed group of religious extremists) I'm not sure it's the greatest idea. I think a main reason peace has been maintained with Egypt for the last 30 years is due directly to the Sinai being demilitarized and Israel and Egypt keeping each other at arm's length.

Suppose Egypt does take responsibility of Gaza - won't that necessarily involve Israel giving up airspace, freedom of travel and the ability for Egypt to bring up loads of troops to police the territory? Is it really in Israel's interest for Egypt to have that kind of presence right along the Israeli border?

But even besides that, do we really believe that Egypt will be more successful than Israel at controlling rocket attacks from Gaza? And when they fail - what is Israel to do? Ask really nicely? Actually threaten Egypt? The modern Egyptian military is a real force to be reckoned with. One of the largest in the world and now armed with up-to-date American and European equipment. I think we should keep our distance.

How the current crisis is going to resolve itself however is a real mystery. There are reports of Hamas putting up their flags in Egyptian towns - an act Egyptians see as an attack on their sovereignty. Is Egypt prepared to use actual force against Gazan militants? (Which I'm not sure they can even do, due to troop restrictions in the Sinai from the '79 peace agreement.) Or are we going to see a growing Hamastan in the northern Sinai? Does anyone believe that the Gazans are really all just going to pack up and go home quietly?

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Neglecting God

A few months ago from my studies I was told of a fascinating, though rather rare disorder of the mind - hemispatial neglect syndrome. This can occur when a person might have a huge stroke to one side of their brain and the consequence is a total lack of awareness to one side of reality. This may not sound so surprising, but you have to realize that I'm not talking about losing the ability to perceive space - like how damage to your visual cortex can cause blindness - but about the very human comprehension that there is more world on your left side.

Depending on the form of the disorder, if you tell these people to draw a copy of a clock face, you can see that it might go from 12 to 6 and totally lack the other numbers or they might try cramming all twelve into one side. They will only comb one side of their hair, will only shave half their face, will only read pages on one side of a book and will actually deny that one of their arms belongs to them! Even in their imaginations, if you tell them to recount the view of a famous street they will only report the buildings on one side. (Though if you tell them to walk up the street rather than down it, they will report only the buildings on the other side.)

This kind of disorder makes us uncomfortably aware of our own fragility, of course, but also tells us about the functions of our own awareness. It's a little unnerving to think about one's awareness of external space being tied so directly to the physical function of one's brain. It seems impossible that I could forget that half the world exists, that my left arm is my own, even if I suffered terrible trauma. I mean, I could easily see the other half of the world if I turned my head, so what would keep my from realizing it's there? I don't have eyes in the back of my head, but I am aware the universe extends behind me. These patients often don't even realize there is anything wrong with them! Even in cases where there is no sensory loss at all, this ability for awareness can be terribly affected.

Anyway, this is all fascinating, sure - but the reason I bring it up is for how it's treated. What is done for the patient is to constantly bring their attention to the affected side. For reading, if you put a red line on the margin the patient will know that he has to keep looking to the side until he sees that line in order to read the whole page. Playing catch and throwing the ball to their left side. Things of this nature to constantly encourage the patient to keep engaging the left side of the universe, directing his consciousness beyond what he perceives. Eventually, though how remains a mystery, the healthy brain tissue may take on some of the skills of the damaged brain and awareness can be extended on the side.

But the point is that these little exercises may seem absolutely pointless and strange to the patient. He doesn't necessarily think he's missing anything on his left - there's nothing there - so why should he cooperate with these kooky therapists? Even if they accept that they're missing half of reality, patients are often simply uninterested in it.

This is analogous, I think, to the function that apparently weird and pointless religious rituals can have for people. Judaism is full of chukim with rules and rituals that appear absurd to the secular and a source of amusement for the cynical. But they are not pointless. Their purpose, as opposed to the sensible moral laws or the rules that encourage benefits to the family, society or the environment, is but to be a service for God. What this means is that they are tools for stretching our consciousness beyond what we are normally aware of as far as physical reality goes, to see transcendence and ultimate value where we might otherwise see nothing. They are vehicles by which our awareness can transcend beyond merely what we see with our eyes.

Indeed, if chukim actually served a utilitarian purpose - like that kashrut was healthy - I believe it would actually completely remove it's power as a religious act. The whole mechanism by which our thoughts are raised by these acts is through being inscrutable. A utilitarian act drives no more thought beyond understanding its utility. That we understand the acts to be as if commanded by God drives our thoughts towards God.

We are born unconscious to the great noumenon beyond our senses, but through these exercises perhaps we can gain some sense of it - or at least drive our consciousness towards it. Others may be satisfied without it and still others may not believe it exists at all, but maybe they along with those patients with neglect syndrome just have no idea what they're missing.