Thursday, June 29, 2006

The Unforgivable Crime

"The unforgivable crime is soft hitting. Do not hit at all if it can be avoided; but never hit softly." - Theodore Roosevelt

Hmm... Maybe Olmert is a fan of TR too. Or maybe he should be.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

"Curing" Homosexuality

CNN reports:

NEW YORK (Reuters) -- A man's sexual orientation appears to be determined in the womb, a new study suggests. ...

Bogaert found that the link between having older brothers and homosexuality was present only if the siblings were biologically related -- this relationship was seen between biological brothers who were not raised together. The amount of time that a man was reared with older brothers had no association with sexual orientation.

"These results support a prenatal origin to sexual orientation development in men and indicate that the fraternal birth-order effect is probably the result of a maternal 'memory' for male gestations or births," Bogaert writes in his report in PNAS Early Edition.

A woman's body may see a male fetus as "foreign," Bogaert explains, and her immune response to subsequent male fetuses may grow progressively stronger.

"If this immune theory were correct, then the link between the mother's immune reaction and the child's future sexual orientation would probably be some effect of maternal anti-male antibodies on the sexual differentiation of the brain," he suggests.

Question is - if homosexuality is caused, at least to some extent, by an abnormality in fetal development then theoretically that abnormality can be accounted for and prevented or adjusted for by technological or medical intervention. In fact, if it is so mechanistic then homosexuality, theoretically, can be avoided with proper medical surveillance and care. It can be "cured."

Yet, if it can be "cured," does that mean that medically homosexuality can be considered as a physiological illness - the same as if we could avoid having children with other congenital physiological maladies. Or should homosexuality be viewed as natural variation like blue or brown eyes and ensuring that the child is heterosexual is on the same level as ensuring the child has blue eyes - though this study clearly indicates that homosexuality has a non-genetic component. If the latter, then most people would consider it unjustified tampering with the natural process. If the former, then most people would take it for granted that children should not be born with congenital maladies if it can be avoided.

The real question is - suppose the technology already existed that made this all possible and it was reliable and it wasn't overly expensive, would you ensure that your child be a heterosexual or would you let the dice fall as they may?

Monday, June 26, 2006

The Power of Names

For some time, when I was inclined to think about it, I was a little perplexed about the few times in the first few lines of Bereishit when God has to go about naming things. I mean, there he is all busy doing Creation why would the text specifically announce that he also gave them names? What's the deal?

3 And God said, "Let there be light," and there was light. 4 God saw that the light was good, and He separated the light from the darkness. 5 God called the light "day," and the darkness he called "night." And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day.
6 And God said, "Let there be an expanse between the waters to separate water from water." 7 So God made the expanse and separated the water under the expanse from the water above it. And it was so. 8 God called the expanse "sky." And there was evening, and there was morning—the second day.
9 And God said, "Let the water under the sky be gathered to one place, and let dry ground appear." And it was so. 10 God called the dry ground "land," and the gathered waters he called "seas." And God saw that it was good.

So much naming.

It appears to me now that really it was the extension of the same ancient idea that if you name something, or at least know its name, then you gain power over it. The act of God naming all of these things indicates that God has power over them.

But the naming doesn't end there. Bereishit 5:2 - "He created them male and female and blessed them. And when they were created, he called them "man."

Here we see that not only does the Bible claim that God has power over the physical world, but man itself. But that much we knew already.

Further, we have other examples of naming things. Bereishit 2:19 - "Now the LORD God had formed out of the ground all the beasts of the field and all the birds of the air. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name."

See, it sounds a little silly, all of this pointless naming if you don't understand its significance. Man's naming of the animals shows his power over them. This then jives nicely with God's instructions to "Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground" (1:28). Since man named it, man has power over it.

This then brings me to my last example of naming in the Bible, 2:23 - The man said, "This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called 'woman,' for she was taken out of man." Hence, according to the Bible, by virtue of the fact that man named women he has authority of her.

Now, compare what you've learned here to the first few verses of the Enuma Elish, the Sumerian Assyrian story of creation:

When on high the heaven had not been named,
Firm ground below had not been called by name . . .
When no gods whatever had been brought into being,
Uncalled by name, their destinies undetermined

Naming is very important, for without naming the objects have no character, no destiny. It makes good sense that the Biblical creation story was written as some sort of monotheistic (or monolatrous) response to either the Sumerian story or to the general idea and gave to God the power of naming and hence authority over the world.

Friday, June 23, 2006

M'shum Pritzut or the Obscenity of Public Consummation

For those who think that today's standards of sexual indecency are so low, I recommend you take a look at Kiddushin 12b. Go on, you can check it here.

Anyway, the discussion in the Gemara that I'd like to point out is where it explains how the Rabbis were not in favor of having marriage made solely through having sexual relations. The reason being because to do so would require a couple of eligible witnesses and it is obscene to have people watch you doing the dirty. In fact, the Rabbis liked it so little that they would flog those who did kiddushin in such a manner.

Ok, that's not so incredible. What I found really wacky is the Tosafot towards the bottom that begins M'shum Pritzut. R. Tam is complaining about how he agrees that having kiddushin done in such a manner is obscene, even though it is technically Halachically acceptable, but then he goes further and relates about how _public consummation_ is likewise obscene.

Public consummation? Wha?

Apparently it was common course at the time, 12th century, that marriages were consummated publically (that way the whole neighborhood could see) and some Jews took on the practice. (You know what they say, when in France...)

So do we really live in a time when pritzus is at an all time high? Hmm. How do you rate shagging in the middle of a wedding hall compared to today's standards?

Sunday, June 18, 2006

New Thing to Learn Today

There's no point to this post, just a little fact that I found to be interesting.

R. Sherira, Gaon at Pumbedita ( circa 969-998) reported in a responsum that he and his predecessors used secret police to spy upon people to be sure that they meticulously observed the Passover injunctions against leaven. (Mann, Jacob. The responsa of the Babylonian geonim as a source of Jewish history, p. 186)

Secret police, wow. It's amazing how things change and how things stay the same.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Deterministic Damnation

Some people that I talk to don't seem to get the direct implications that a simple deterministic universe necessarily results in. So they say, yes, my actions may not be free, being how they are determined from previous states, but that doesn't mean I need to fall for a fatalistic view of life. It is still myself who is performing those actions and I might as well do my best and live life to the fullest. I can't actually tell that I'm not free, in my personal experience, the machine of my brain is so complicated, so I might as well live as if my will were free.

Now, I'm using determinism a little loosely here. Quantum mechanics may have very well overthrown the conceptualized deterministic clockwork universe of Newton, but random will is hardly a preferential substitute for determined will. The only difference is on a global scale as the idea of fate is undermined. For if events are fundamentally of only probabilistic occurrence then our future is open to many, perhaps infinite, possibilities. Suffice it to say, our problem lies in the lack of self-chosen will.

'Free' Will is often a very confused subject. Some people will argue that as long as we are able to freely pursue our desires, we are truly free in any way that matters. But no! This is not so! It is our will which we are concerned with. Imagine you were hypnotized to desire to act like a chicken, would you then consider yourself a free agent because you could act like a chicken to fulfill that desire? Absurd!

Our very wills are determined from before we were born. They are forced upon us by the unfeeling laws of nature. When I want to eat an apple, is it I making the positive choice to want to eat that apple - or is the state of my hungry body and the directives of my chemical brain which make me want to eat it? Our desires are not our own. Many people want to have children - but why? The answer is because the desire is built into our evolutionary-designed genes to produce another generation. We don't freely choose to desire sex - it is built into the operating system of the human being.

Every time you desire anything, every time you find that you want something to happen, it is not you somehow making a decision to want it. It does not come freely from within yourself. It is forced upon you by external factors that you cannot control. What does this turn the human being into? Our consciousnesses become prisoners, unwilled observers with complete inability to do anything or to want anything on our own.

Our actions are not our own, they are only what the external factors forced us to do. We cannot be held responsible for things done wrong or be lauded for things done right. We really had nothing to do with it. We observed it, we experienced it, yes, but we, as in our wills, were controlled by the other. Our logical thinking, our desire for rationality - all have nothing to do with us. How can we even love? For love itself is forced upon our consciousness, an unwilled state.

Every interest you hold in anything is forced upon you. It is not your own. Knowing all of this - how can you take it seriously? How can you lose yourself in your interests? How can you fall in love? Can you not see the utter futility in every human effort and human achievement? None of it was done on our own accord. We may have supplied the muscle power and even the thinking power, but our wills, our essence, are held captive by the forces of nature. None of it was our own initiative. We are beasts with unself-directed instincts fooling ourselves into thinking that we chose it this way all along.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Defending My Theory on Judaism

This was a response to another member on TSFG who had been critiquing my new idea of Judaism.

Ok, so as I see it, your basic issues with my proposed theory on Judaism are these: 1) What is the point of doing it? What benefit is there to those who contemplate higher reality? And in what sense can it be called progressive understanding if the object remains ultimately incomprehensible? Secondly, 2) In what way does performing traditional Jewish practices help one in this goal of further comprehension? And in what way can they be considered traditional if we are changing their focus and/or meaning?

To respond to the first slew of problems, I can first point to the arguments offered by Aristotle that using our active intelligence is the highest good for man, what he calls eudaimonia. Our rational mind is what distinguishes us from animals and using it is what excels us to our most perfect way of being. This is contemplation. And the best form of contemplation is when the subject of contemplation is the highest truths that exist - that would be God. Hence to be in a most perfect state would be during the act of contemplation of God.

Doing this contemplation is not subject to further utilitarian critiques. It is the highest good and the highest perfection. It is an end in itself. It is what transcends human life and human experience from the baser concerns to the infinite, to the divine. Scoff at that, if you wish, but I direct you to the Nicomachean Ethics.

That the full understanding of the Ultimate may be infinitely distant from us should not dissuade us from starting the journey. There are always going to be interesting points to ponder that one can only access on that road. Understanding more and more aspects of reality that we can comprehend takes us further towards higher and fuller comprehension of all. Contemplation though, we must remember, is the goal. It is the act of striving to understand, not necessarily the understanding itself.

Now, how does Jewish practice follow from all of this? The answer is that it doesn't! At least not directly. There is no way that Jewish tradition is somehow logically independent so that it makes sense to do it for the above goals without previous familiarization. But we don't need it to be either.

The point is that we are Jews and are already familiar with Jewish tradition. Historically it was considered that Halacha was commanded by God and divinely adjudicated by the Rabbis and so it is already invested with divine meaning. All I am doing is turning it from commanded from God to inspired by the idea of God but sanctified by our history. Would you deny that the laws were composed with God in mind? For those who are inclined to think of it, doing the mitzvot puts one into the mindset of God. That’s what often happens to me when I do certain acts. Investing everyday acts with sanctity raises the mind towards higher thoughts.

Finally, it is the acts themselves that are important, less so for the specific traditional reasons given for them. In the whole history of Rabbinic Judaism it has been adherence to Halacha which has defined normative Judaism and what has stood outside of normative Judaism. This goes beyond any of the different interpretations of the Law, be they mystical or rational or kabbalistic. That Lubavitch theology is often seen as heretical in other Orthodox circles doesn’t matter inasmuch as they still follow Halacha. The reasons behind the Laws have changed many times in history and the reasons have piled up on each other, sometimes even being contradictory, but the point is adherence. If we want this movement to be considered a valid form of Judaism, which I do at least, then it must adhere to the given rules. Judaism without the mitzvot is an impoverished Judaism. In fact, I would offer that it is the meanings we give to the traditional practices which most enrich it.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Ruth-less Conversions

So we read on the first day of Shavuous the story of Ruth. Naomi and Elimelech and their two sons have gone into the land of Moab because there's been a famine in Israel. The two sons marry Moabite women, one of them being Ruth. Then all the men die through unstated agents and the three women are left as widows. Oy, so what do they do now?

8 Then Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, "Go back, each of you, to your mother's home. May the LORD show kindness to you, as you have shown to your dead and to me. 9 May the LORD grant that each of you will find rest in the home of another husband." Then she kissed them and they wept aloud 10 and said to her, "We will go back with you to your people." 11 But Naomi said, "Return home, my daughters. Why would you come with me? Am I going to have any more sons, who could become your husbands? 12 Return home, my daughters; I am too old to have another husband. Even if I thought there was still hope for me—even if I had a husband tonight and then gave birth to sons- 13 would you wait until they grew up? Would you remain unmarried for them? No, my daughters. It is more bitter for me than for you, because the LORD's hand has gone out against me!" 14 At this they wept again. Then Orpah kissed her mother-in-law good-by, but Ruth clung to her. 15 "Look," said Naomi, "your sister-in-law is going back to her people and her gods. Go back with her."

16 But Ruth replied, "Don't urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. 17 Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the LORD deal with me, be it ever so severely, if anything but death separates you and me." 18 When Naomi realized that Ruth was determined to go with her, she stopped urging her.

I think there are a couple of fascinating points I'd like to take from this excerpt. For one, the fact that Orpah is said to have gone back to her people and to her gods after leaving Naomi indicates that Judaism was rather different in those days than it is today. Note that she wasn’t really a convert at all, but was merely intermarried with a Jew. If we go with the monolatrous idea, that the Israelites didn’t say other gods didn’t exist, but rather that they were just not worthy of being worshiped, then we can understand how Orpah can go back to her own gods once she leaves the ways of the Israelites. She married into a belief system and then she widowed out of it.

A second point is that Ruth identifies herself first with the Jewish people (I know I’m using the term anachronistically) and only secondly as a believer in the Jewish deity. "Your people will be my people and your God my God." In fact, she doesn’t emphasize her beliefs in any way, just her loyalties. Now this is interesting because, Ruth being considered the first convert to Judaism in Rabbinic literature, we could use it as a good model for modern conversions.

A true convert to Judaism needs to show not that they necessarily understand or believe in the basic theological and historical claims of Orthodoxy, but that they are willing, if not eager, to make their lot one with the Jewish people and to share in its future. This is more akin to naturalization to nations than to conversion in typical religions. Adoption of Jewish practices, living a Jewish life, engrossing oneself in Jewish scholarship and obtaining a Jewish identity while making an open and serious commitment to the idea of the Jewish people as a whole is what should be needed for modern conversions.

Of further interest is the fact that Naomi at first tries to argue with her daughters-in-law to leave and go back to their previous homes, but she only stops arguing with Ruth when she realizes that Ruth was determined to go with her. This meshes well with the traditional practice of discouraging prospective converts until they prove their dedication.

Such demands will likely make many of the converts for marriage uncomfortable, but we need to take our own heritage and identity seriously if we want others to take it seriously too. Allowing anyone to join the club without any sort of preliminary effort or dedication cheapens Judaism. Cheap intermarriage will get you Orpahs, who will bail when things get tough. If we want converts, we want Ruths.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Kollel Conformation

Michelle wrote a post about her disillusionment with the current kind of kollel lifestyle promoted in Bais Yakov schools and the community leaders. This is my response to her:

"But a comment from my last post reminded me of to what extremes some teachers or school programs have gone to convince us that Kollel is the only way."

Oh, please say that it was me. ;) I feel like I've done a service when I get people to think about things.

Think about this - if the kollel guy who learns all day and is supported by daddy has ten kids and they all grow up to do what their father does - where does the money come from to support the ten grandkids? The system is economically untenable.

Furthermore, how well can a guy really "learn" about things if he's so divorced from reality? How can he form intelligent opinions if he doesn't know basic history or science or any extra-Talmudic studies? The 'Gedolim' are the case in point where they've done nothing but 'learn' their whole lives and then they say absurd things and pontificate about Indian hair and microscopic bugs in the water.

People should be interested in educating themselves, in the fullest sense of the word, not mindlessly 'learning' gemara which cannot give you an understanding even close to full comprehension of all that's out there.

There isn't any greater understanding in a "learning family." Just greater rates of conformity to what the "glorious leaders" consider the ideal Jewish lifestyle. See, the moment you begin to seriously think for yourself that's the moment you'll be freed from the sociological compulsion to conform. You are an individual! Act like it.