Friday, March 30, 2007

Oped: Bush's long history of tilting Justice

An op-ed from yesterday by a 35 year veteran of the Dept. of Justice (Civil Rights Division) detailing how the Bush Administration has systematically used the justice department to skew elections. Read it and weep.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Gay Rabbis and Newsweek's Best

Two things that just happened today.

1. JTS and Gay Rabbis

JTS will now ordain gay rabbis. I'm not sure what ramifications this will have. One thought is that the
right-wing of JTS will split off, a la UTJ (Halivni etc). Conservative already broke from d'oryta Judaism when - in 1950! - they allowed driving on Shabbat. You'd think that the tumult in the early 80s about ordaining women would be less controversial than sublimating michalelei Shabbas b'farhesia, but you'd be wrong.

Is ordaining homosexuals worse than driving on Shabbas? I'd say no: because halakha does not recognize homosexuality as an identity - it's an act not an ontology - there's no problem with a gay rabbi, per se. Gay marriage is even less of an issue because, at worst, it's just a problem of sheim shav, and that happens all the time in their movement. Driving on Shabbas is worse, therefore, because it basically gave a blanket heter to violate the basics of Shabbat (creating fiery explosions) and thus removed the sanctity of Shabbat fully.

On the other hand, it does not say so completely explicitly that you can't drive on Shabbat in the Torah (it's close to explicit, though) - while homosexuality is pretty durn explicitly forbidden in the strongest terms. So looking at the issue in a broad sense, while driving on Shabbat violates the Day of Rest, and a Shabbat-violator, according to Chazal, is the equivalent of someone who denies God (because God rested on Shabbat, there's a logic there), allowing gay marriage basically states that there's no divinity to the Torah.

Thus stated, is denying God's Creation worse than denying the validity and sanctity of the written Torah? That's a true lifeboat question.

The Best Newsweek Rabbis

Newsweek, in its wisdom, created a list of the top 50 most influential
American rabbis. Yes, there's the head of Chabad (#2) and Satmar (#15) but
the list, naturally, is ignorant of the wider frum community (e.g. Rabbi Lamm
is #44 but no Rosh Yeshiva of YU, like Rav Schachter, is on the list - even though Schachter is the true head of the institution, and halakhic head of the OU to boot).

However, I think the list reflects what I've described as the 'Wexner
Fellowship' (or UJA, Federation) frame of reference for the Orthodox community. I mean, Shmuely Boteach (#9) and Marc Schneier (#33) but not Rav Malkiel Kutler (head of Lakewood), or Rav Aaron Schechter (head of Chaim Berlin) etc. I'm not
denying that the 50 people on the list have influence but Newsweek (surprise
surprise) lacks effective insight into a not insignificant part of the
Jewish world.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Another Dude Who Agrees With Me About the South

'Taint many. But this dude agrees with me about how we should be reviling those who talk about the 'Southern/Dixie Heritage.' The picture here shows (The Thinkery: My New Favorite Photo) what the southern heritage is all about: violence, oppression, and slavery.

This art exhibit was shown at The Mary Brogan Museum of Art and Science in Tallahassee, Florida. And the best part? People were protesting the 'desecration' of the flag.

Desecration? Of a symbol of slavery, violence, horror? Of the flag of TRAITORS who led an ARMED INSURRECTION against the United States? Considering how brutal and idiotic we've been in the past few years in our reaction to 9/11, how can these cracker bigots - who doubtless applaud the torture and prisoner abuse of 'furriners' - defend an entire army and government of traitors and terrorists. A terror state that killed more Americans than any other Army.

Hang the flag high boys, on twisted hemp.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Paul Krugman Says it Better Than I

I find it useful to quote people who agree with me because it's too weird to actually quote your own self. So here's today's Krugman (Don't Cry for Reagan):
"... both cronyism and abuse of power are part of the movement conservative package. In part this is because people whose ideology says that government is always the problem, never the solution, see no point in governing well. So they use political power to reward their friends, rather than find people who will actually do their jobs."
This is why Bush, Bush & Reagan negligently and actively destroyed the government. And as Katrina and Walter Reed has taught America, there are just some things that we need and that only government can do.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Barack Obama Background

This is a very important article from the blog 'Obsidian Wings' about Obama's first two years in the Senate. Upshot: Obama has been an active and bi-partisan co-sponsor of many pieces of important, but not flashy Kerrey/Kennedy-esque BIG ISSUE, legislation. Another plus in the Obama direction. The guy is starting to sound like a winner to me.

{2009 Update: pic from a 2006 speech of Obama at the OU, here.}

Friday, March 16, 2007

Paul Mooney Agrees With Me

Paul Mooney is a comic virtuoso. I first saw him on the Chappelle Show as "Negrodamus" and I had heard that he wrote one of the best routines in SNL history: the job interview word association sketch between Richard Pryor and Chevy Chase (Monney was Pryor's main writer).

The Onion AV club has an interview with Mooney this week and they asked him why he no longer uses the N-word:
AVC: You've vowed to stop using the N-word.

PM: I won't be using that, no. That's a no-no.

AVC: What was the reasoning behind that?

PM: Well, Michael Richards, his meltdown. His nervous breakdown is what did it.

AVC: How so?

PM: Well, it was something else. I heard about it, and then I saw the video, and it freaked me. I'm not easily freaked. And the way I used the word, I was an ambassador for the word. The way I used the word, I was a part of it too. It became an equal-opportunity word.


And there were layers to his breakdown, to Michael. I've known Michael for over 20 years. There were layers to it. This came out of Michael. Michael's a victim of America. There are a lot of white people who have this stuff inside them. It just takes the right situation to bring it out. White America should take responsibility for it like I'm taking responsibility for it. I'm not saying it. You have to say no to it. I was married to the word, I was the ambassador for the word and now I'm not saying it any more.
I've seen too many commentators and pundits associate any use of a racial slur with "Michael Richards" or "Mel Gibson." But those two acted in a very different way than using a slur - Gibson reportedly and Richards on camera were completely insane with hatred. See the clip to see what hatred looks like unleashed (if you've, thank God, never experienced it).

In fact, I can't see "Seinfeld" anymore. True, I was never much of a fan, but I can't see Kramer anymore and laugh. He makes me sick.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Yes! Dept. Head Rawlings is Back

We all have our petty obsessions. Like all Americans with an above-average Hi-Q (humor-quotient), I'm an avid Onion reader. In fact, during 2000-2002 I subscribed to the print version and the online versions until they made both of them free. Anyway, there's one writer dude whose work has been missing for a while - the guy, or team, who write the Advice Columns and the serial-story columnists.

The Advice Column, "ask a..." are great inside and out. The concepts are usually hilarious (e.g. "Ask a Faulknerian man-child") and the columns contain a hidden narrative which adds even more to the possible humor.

Then there are the specific columnists. For some reason, the Onion churns out great quantities of the columns in the voice of some stoner dude, a bourgois house-frau, and a white Hip-Hop accountant. But the best ones are the internal story lines.

The second best is Gorzo the Mighty - a parody of the space opera genre. But my absolute favorite is Dept Head Rawlings - a parody of spy thrillers.

Check out the first episode: Allow Me To Introduce You To The Other Members Of Alpha Bravo Team.

And just today, after a hiatus of about a year, the newest episode: We Have New Intelligence Regarding The Identity Of The Counter-Spy Within The Department


Tuesday, March 13, 2007

They've Known For Years!

Andrew Sullivan shows us this news story: "From the Washington Post, June 29, 2005 - buried on page A19:
The Bush administration disclosed yesterday that it had vastly underestimated the number of service personnel returning from Iraq and Afghanistan seeking medical treatment from the Department of Veterans Affairs, and warned that the health care programs will be short at least $2.6 billion next year unless Congress approves additional funds.

Veterans Affairs budget documents projected that 23,553 veterans would return this year from Iraq and Afghanistan and seek medical treatment. However, Veterans Affairs Secretary Jim Nicholson told a Senate committee that the number has been revised upward to 103,000 for the fiscal year that ends Sept. 30. He said the original estimates were based on outdated assumptions from 2002."
Got that? The military alerted the government that they were going to need more money to help the soldiers. Who ran Congress back in '05?

Monday, March 12, 2007

Israeli ambassador found naked, drunk

This is not a Purim post; I am not making this up. The Jerusalem Post reports: :
"Two weeks ago, police in El Salvador discovered Tsuriel Raphael bound, naked, and drunk on a city street."
I'm not sure how much more embarrassing this could be for Israel. Oh wait, this is how:
"According to reports, the ambassador was wearing some accessories which hinted at sado-masochistic acts. Although drunk, Raphael managed to introduce himself to police as the Israeli ambassador to El Salvador. "

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Magical Thinking, Jewish Oompa Loompas

I've been slipping in my posts the provocative phrase 'Oompa-Loompa' and while it could be interpreted as an anti-cloned-midget slur, I'm using a metaphor to describe a type of religious thinking found (at least) in the orthodox Jewish community. I've heard examples from other religions, certainly, but I don't have the same first hand experiences there.

As I explain here (a month in the future) the Loompas are: "people who want to follow religious practices that make them completely interchangeable with others of their kind. Hence, a chareidi wannabe - someone who doesn't learn enough Torah to know how to follow chumras - is often an oompa loompa."

Midrashic & Magical Thinking

One hallmark of the Loompas is what I call "Midrashic Thinking" (as it applies to Jews) - which may just be a version of a phrase I've heard called "magical thinking." Magical is in contrast to 'postivistic' or 'scientific' or 'rational' or 'evidence based.'

The major difference between Midrashic Thought and Scientific Thought is between authority vs. experimentation. For the Midrashic mind, if a recognized authority says that something is true, then the truth is reliable only so far as, or as much as, the authority is trusted. To a scientific mindset, authority only goes so far; even the claims of the most eminent scientist must be checked/refuted/verified.

The Valis Case

One story which brought this home is the case of Yisroel Valis - the chassidic father accused killed his infant son. His defenders came from all sides of the Charedi spectrum, including Gadol HaDor haRav Eliyashiv who cleared Valis of wrongdoing because Valis' wife says that her husband couldn't have done it. He's such a good guy, ya know.

Anyway, the methodology these gedolim used to determine guilt/innocence was rudimentary. Naturally, were Valis not to have been arrested by the secular authorities it's possible that Rav Eliyashiv would have found him guilty, as long as it could have avoided prying eyes. Oh, and I just googled and found that Valis was convicted of the crime.

Another Source of Loompa Thought

I've noticed this trend of thought because as an anthropologist/philosopher, I get a morbid pleasure reading these examples of parochial-magical thinking. Ask anyone, I confront brazen criminality and irrational thought with laughter. I don't know why, just yet; maybe it's because it's audacious or absurd (and I love abusrd humor, e.g. Monty Python).

So one my favorite sources of Oompa-Loompa Magical Thought is a parsha sheet called "The Pleasant Ridge Newsletter" by Rabbi Leibie Sternberg from Monsey. I checked the author out recently because I needed to know if he was writing the newsletter as a joke or not. Not a joke. He's a teacher for Gateways, this Aish ha-Torah wannabe organization out of Gateshead.

You can get the newsletter, a pdf, here. And I recommend reading it, and not just for the humor (unlike the Blumenkratz Chumra-of-the-Year Club). The rest of the parsha sheet is often equally disquieting, but R'Sternberg will usually bring great snippets of Aggadata or Halacha that actually makes it a must read for me. Seriously.

Ma'ase Rav

Every week he has a Rabbi story under the rubric of "A Lesson Can Be Learned From." There are no sources given for where he finds these and so I have no idea how some of this information arrived in his computer. Crazy enough, the presumed/proposed "lessons" aren't made explicit - the reader is left to puzzle out what we're possibly supposed to learn.

Naturally, the answer to that puzzle - from the Midrashic/Magical mind - is that every action of a Gadol b'Torah is a lesson: a 'Maase Rav' (lit: 'the behavior/action of a [great] rabbi'). And as a frum dude, I'm not disputing that religious point - Gedolim are to be respected and their actions are like Torah.

But. I will only follow a "Ma'ase Rav" that is accurately reported, and since they almost never are (except in a valid sefer), I cannot advocate learning from these or any stories. Because the author of the "Ma'ase" cannot be trusted, again except in special cases, to know what the Gadol meant. As such, the "Ma'ase" can be seen as the authority of the reporter and not the original subject.

Two cases to illustrate: when Rav Moshe Dovid Tendler reports that his famous shver, Rav Moshe Feinstein, said something or did something, the tale/reportage is at the authority of Rav Tendler not Rav Moshe. I saw this in action with the battle between Rav Tendler and Rav Breitowitz about brain-death.

Another, less universally accepted, case is about Rav Schachter's book about Rav Soloveitchik, "Nefesh ha-Rav." It's a great book, a must read, but almost everyone I know considers it more a reflection of what Rav Schachter perceived than bona-fide nevuah of the Rav.

A Lesson Can Be Learned From?

So, logic and halakaha should state that these stories are unreliable, especially without sources, or at least as reliable as their putative collator. As such, the clear lack of the lesson to actually be learned means the readers are left to their own abilities to figure out the lesson.

This is not so bad for some of the stories - specifically those of many generations past, e.g. the hero is the Besht or Rav Levi Yitzchak, or even Rav Chaim Soloveitchik. These are usually decent "maasa rav"s - a lesson truly can be learned from them.

But those stories are rare. More often, the stories are from newer generations, often from obscure Chassidim - or the happy anti-Zionist Satmar, and the results are often dangerous for Torah. Even were the 'lesson' made explicit, the behavior of the rabbis in the story and other explicit/implicit details can often encourage downright wicked 'lessons.'

Scary Example 1

Here's the story from Truma 5766 (the Hebrew in the original didn't come out so I put transliterations in brackets):
A Lesson Can Be Learned From:
There was once a young boy whose excess energy often landed him in trouble with his Rebbi and parents. As neither of them seemed able to control him, they resorted to discipline, which just drove him away. When his father slapped him in front of his friends one day, the boy ran off and joined a cult, throwing away Yiddishkeit entirely. After a while, the parents managed to get him back home but he proceeded to embarrass them consistently with one scandal after another. As a prank, he removed the Parsha from the Shul's mezuzah one night, and chuckled to himself as he watched everyone continue to kiss it. In particular, there was a simple tailor whose integrity, piety and fine character had led some people to believe he was a [tzadik nistar] - a hidden Tzadik. The boy watched him as he left his home, kissing his own mezuzah, but upon entering the Shul he did not. The prankster asked him why he didn’t kiss the Shul's mezuzah. The tailor told him that he didn’t know why himself, but as he came near to the Shul, his arm became extremely heavy and he was unable to lift it. The young boy was very disturbed by this and slowly, he began once more to believe that the world ran according to Hashem’s [cheshbon] (plan). This led him eventually to complete his [teshuva], which at long last brought some happiness back into his family.
Lesson?!?: So, as we do in my family when I read one of these charming heart-warming stories at the Shabbas Tisch, let's review. What is the lesson to be learned?

(1) That God does immediate and trivial miracles for tzadikim (as seen with the tailor)?

(2) Discipline does not work in raising children, it is better to depend on miracles?

(3) Slapping your child will drive them to leave Yiddishkeit? [not such a bad message]

(4) That this boy, after being brought back from the cult, wants nothing more than to mock Jewish practice. For no reason, of course [not related to a probably abusive father]

(5) His teshuva was only possible through a miracle?

OK, so I can't determine the lesson. Here's some reasons why I'm stymied:

(1) Where is the Torah or Halakha in this story? What siman in Shulchan Arukh or what verse in Tanakh is being explained or cited?

(2) This isn't even a Ma'ase Rav! It's a baba-maysa at best.

(3) How does the narrator know any of this? Is he that boy? The tailor? God? The mezuzah?

You can see my frustration. I will bring more of these later to illustrate more frustration.

Top pic was self made of a bunch of Oompacher Chassidim in the Givat Wonka neighborhood of Bnei Brak. Second pic [Valis] from here, thrid from the Wiki, fourth from here. Backpost finished 2009-12-13.

Monday, March 05, 2007

UNC Beats Duke on Purim

That's my Modern Orthodox definition of a religious experience.

[Historical note: my father is a graduate of UNC so this is personal not just eschatological]

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Swiss Accidentally Invade Liechtenstein

This is not a drill! As of Friday, according to the Washington Post:
Swiss Accidentally Invade Liechtenstein

What began as a routine training exercise almost ended in an embarrassing diplomatic incident after a company of Swiss soldiers got lost at night and marched into neighboring Liechtenstein.
OK, the headline is better than the lede, but it's still a heckuva story. And some true-to-life Purim Torah. Have at it.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Academic Pubishing in a Nutshell

My feelings exactly, from some dude at TNR's Open University:
"Looking to the university press for serious general reading has more than once led me to a jargon laden collection of unredacted note cards."
Backpost finished 4/10/08. I had only the link and the quote. The link no longer works, so I have no idea who said this, or why, but I love the sentiment.