Monday, December 31, 2012

My respect for Penn Jillete has plummeted

He's a great showman, and a wonderful entertainer, but Penn Jillete really doesn't know his Bible. Ordinarily  this would not matter at all, but I caught a clip of him defending his atheism on the grounds that "Reading the Bible (Or the Koran, Or the Torah) Will Make You an Atheist."

He then goes on to demonstrate that his own reading of the bible was far from careful or complete:

Penn's lead-off howler is inexcusable. @2.00 the magician declares that "Lot's daughter [was] gang-raped and beaten, [with] the Lord being okay with that... " yet in the Bible Lot's daughters are neither raped nor beaten. In fact, the Lord's own angle saves her by striking the mob with blindness.  Other mistakes follow. For instance, Jillete speaks about the bible's "hostility toward homosexuals" as if the scolding and cursing goes on for chapters, when in fact homosexuals are mentioned once, and the statement, while negative, is not especially hostile.

Jillete winds up his attack on a the bible that exists mostly in his own imagination with a smug little smile, announcing "when someone is trying to interpret something they always have an agenda," hardly seeming to realize that what he's really done is indicted his own good self.

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Are the (Orthodox) Jews really so exceptional?

Reviewing "This is Forty" in the New Yorker, Megham Daum makes it clear she doesn't know many (orthodox) Jews:
Some implausibilities, however, deserve some dissection. Let’s take those children. They are eight and thirteen. Their parents, Pete and Debbie, are turning forty. That means they had their first child at twenty-seven. You don’t see that very often in people with three million dollar houses, unconventional careers and no trust funds.
She goes on to argue that you just can't have too many children - and certainly not before age 30 - and expect to make very much money. Speaking of the kiddie one-percenters she knows, Daum asserts:

You will also find that their moms and dads were generally not having babies in their twenties, since acquiring that kind of real estate almost always means delaying childbearing (and in many cases marriage) in favor of building the careers that will pay for it.

So what is it about the(Orthodox) Jews? I know dozens, if not tens of dozens, of comfortably well-off one-percenter Jews with four, five and even six children, children they started having immediately after marriage. Is the answer simply that non-Jewish one-percenters could have also simultaneously acquired wealth and children had they tried? Or is there something else at play?

UpdateJoe makes a solid comment. Obviously, I've made the error of discounting all the OJs who aren't very rich. If I want to claim having kids isn't an obstacle to financial success, I have to do a whole lot more than point at the cases I know about. But has Meghan Daun done any better? She also claims to have identified a truth about the universe - kids !=wealth - based on nothing but he own anecdotes.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

What was God's original plan for the world?

Say the first couple had followed the rules. Imagine Eve ignored the snake's solicitation and never passed the forbidden fruit on to her too-easily corrupted husband. How would things turned out? Would all of us still be  dwelling in Eden, unashamed and unclothed? And what about the tree. Would it still be standing, tempting us, at the center of the garden? Is that how God wanted the world to work?

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Friday, December 28, 2012

Is Javert a Pharisee?

I saw the big, bombastic movie last night, and came out feeling tainted. Have we ever had a mass market movie that so covertly pushes Catholic themes and Catholic morals? This isn't the Passion of the Christ, of course. Les Misirables does not wear religion on its sleeve. But underneath the sappy love story I saw the story of the Christian supersessionism.

Start with Jean Val Jean. In the movie, he wears a Christ-like beard and lifts a cart on his shoulders in the manner of Jesus carrying his cross to Calvary  Judas sold his master for a few pieces of silver, and in this retelling a kindly bishop buys Val Jean's soul for a pair of silver candlesticks. Touched and changed by the generosity of the bishop, Val Jean goes into the world reborn.

After this conversion, Val Jean becomes a model of unconditional love. He tries to save low and broken Fantine only because she suffers. In the novel, he first appears to Cosset on Christmas Eve, and from that moment on sacrifices everything he has for her happiness. And at the conclusion of the movie, he even rises from the dead with the redeemed Marius on his back.

Javert, his pursuer, is a different sort of man. While Val Jean represents love, Javert cares only about the law. When Fantine is arrested, Javert knows the halacha - she must go to jail for striking a john - but Val Jean focuses on the surrounding details of her story and appeals for mercy. Val Jean looks at Fantine and sees her humanity. Javert only sees people as the sum of their sins and transgressions. His justice is blind. There is no room for love.

On the cross, Jesus said "it is finished" and later Christian books understood him to be speaking of Torah law. The idea developed that Jesus had fulfilled the law through his sacrifice, and that love, not law, was the new path to redemption.

Javert, with his blind devotion to the law, and his inability to reconcile law with love or mercy, is a New Testament caricature of a Pharisee. Here's Wikipdeia describing the Christian bible's view of them.
An important binary in the New Testament is the opposition between law and love. Accordingly, the New Testament, particularly the Synoptic Gospels, presents especially the leadership of the Pharisees as obsessed with man-made rules (especially concerning purity) whereas Jesus is more concerned with God’s love; the Pharisees scorn sinners whereas Jesus seeks them out. [DB: Fantine!] 
After Val Jean acts out the resurrection by climbing out of the mud and grime of the sewers, Javert kills himself. There are two meanings here. First, the Pharisee figure is imitating the suicide of Judas, the original Christ's own antagonist. Second, his demise, following the resurrection, represents the death of cold-hearted law and the triumph of Val Jeans redemptive love. Javert, literally, self destructs, because he can't reconcile law with love, while Val Jean goes forward into victory, his love having defeated the emptiness of the law.

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Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Ami Magazine whines too much

This rings a bell. In the 19th century official Vatican newspapers and other Catholic rags constantly whined about how the (Jewish controlled) secular media had it in for them. Like Ami and the Satmar community the Church confused opposition to corruption and mendacity and hypocrisy with opposition to their faith.

Burt Prelutsky is still a stupid moron

Look what arrived in today's mail:
"That has changed, as you may have noticed. And I lay a great deal of the blame at the feet of my fellow Jews. When it comes to pushing the multicultural, anti-Christian agenda, you find Jewish judges, Jewish journalists and the largely Jewish funded ACLU at the forefront." 
Let me see if I have this straight: The Jews were able to maintain the sanctity of Yom Kippur and half-a-dozen other holidays in Europe, where there was organized oppression and persecution, yet in America, where Christians own the Presidency and the Congress, they can't keep Christmas holy, and that's our fault?
Long time readers may recognize this exchange, as it was first published (by me) in 2004. It's a response to a terrible screed written by an evil anti-Semite named Burt Prelutsky. His self-hating argument in favor of assimilation(!) earned him a lashing from me and Lazer Brody, but a hug from David Duke. I bring it up again, because lazy Burt keeps republishing his idiocy with a new date on it  and many of you might be seeing it for the first time. So, in the interest of truth and justice, I am reprinting my fisk.

See if after the jump

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

The Moral Animal, by Jonathan Sacks, is deceptively terrible

The Moral Animal
The New York Times

IT is the religious time of the year. Step into any city in America or Britain and you will see the night sky lit by religious symbols, Christmas decorations certainly and probably also a giant menorah. Religion in the West seems alive and well.

But is it really? Or have these symbols been emptied of content, no more than a glittering backdrop to the West’s newest faith, consumerism, and its secular cathedrals, shopping malls?

I think the Rabbi is looking at Christmas decorations through Jewish goggles. In our faith everything is symbolic of something, but that's us.
 Not them. Though the manger scenes and cross always had religious content, other symbols of the season like lights or trees or poinsettias never represented anything religious per say. They were merely signs of the holiday - like greenery at Shavuos as opposed to esrogim -- and they still are.

At first glance, religion is in decline. In Britain, the results of the 2011 national census have just been published. They show that a quarter of the population claims to have no religion, almost double the figure 10 years ago. And though the United States remains the most religious country in the West, 20 percent declare themselves without religious affiliation — double the number a generation ago.

Given that the religion that is losing ground is one that has been unremittingly hostile to the Jewish people, these stats are something to celebrate. I won't be sorry to see Christianity go, and any Jew who knows his history also prays it will disappear speedily and in our days.

Looked at another way, though, the figures tell a different story. Since the 18th century, many Western intellectuals have predicted religion’s imminent demise. Yet after a series of withering attacks, most recently by the new atheists, including Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens, still in Britain three in four people, and in America four in five, declare allegiance to a religious faith. That, in an age of science, is what is truly surprising.

The irony is that many of the new atheists are followers of Charles Darwin. We are what we are, they say, because it has allowed us to survive and pass on our genes to the next generation. Our biological and cultural makeup constitutes our “adaptive fitness.” Yet religion is the greatest survivor of them all. Superpowers tend to last a century; the great faiths last millenniums. The question is why.

The superpowers don't last because they aren't flexible and can't evolve. The religions that last are able to survive only because they adapt. 21st Judaism may resemble 1st century Judaism, but they aren't the same. We've added and dropped both practices and doctrines. So religion does survive, but it survives the way any living thing survives: By changing.

Darwin himself suggested what is almost certainly the correct answer. He was puzzled by a phenomenon that seemed to contradict his most basic thesis, that natural selection should favor the ruthless. Altruists, who risk their lives for others, should therefore usually die before passing on their genes to the next generation. Yet all societies value altruism, and something similar can be found among social animals, from chimpanzees to dolphins to leafcutter ants.

Neuroscientists have shown how this works. We have mirror neurons that lead us to feel pain when we see others suffering. We are hard-wired for empathy. We are moral animals.

But that happened - if it happened, the science is still out - via evolution. Acquiring those mirror neurons provided us with a survival advantage.

The precise implications of Darwin’s answer are still being debated by his disciples — Harvard’s E. O. Wilson in one corner, Oxford’s Richard Dawkins in the other. To put it at its simplest, we hand on our genes as individuals but we survive as members of groups, and groups can exist only when individuals act not solely for their own advantage but for the sake of the group as a whole. Our unique advantage is that we form larger and more complex groups than any other life-form.

A result is that we have two patterns of reaction in the brain, one focusing on potential danger to us as individuals, the other, located in the prefrontal cortex, taking a more considered view of the consequences of our actions for us and others. The first is immediate, instinctive and emotive. The second is reflective and rational. We are caught, in the psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s phrase, between thinking fast and slow.

The fast track helps us survive, but it can also lead us to acts that are impulsive and destructive. The slow track leads us to more considered behavior, but it is often overridden in the heat of the moment. We are sinners and saints, egotists and altruists, exactly as the prophets and philosophers have long maintained.

If this is so, we are in a position to understand why religion helped us survive in the past — and why we will need it in the future. It strengthens and speeds up the slow track.

How? The chief Rabbi doesn't say. And really? The history of religion is the history of war and destruction. The Crusaders, for example, were deeply religious, but were they on anyone's "slow path"?

 It reconfigures our neural pathways, turning altruism into instinct, through the rituals we perform, the texts we read and the prayers we pray. 

Whoah. What? This is so much wishful thinking. How does a prayer change my neural pathway? How does waving a lulav make me more altruistic? None of this is explained. We're just asked to accept it.

Elsewhere @efink suggestst that what Rabbi Sacks means here is that religions promise a payoff for restraint  and as a result this important lesson is internalized. But where does Judaism offer a payoff for restraint? Judaism doesn't promise a payoff for restraint. It promises a pay off for chanting incantations, purchasing expensive fruit and unleavened bread, and demonstrating OCD behavior around the house. Where is the payoff for restraint?

It remains the most powerful community builder the world has known. Religion binds individuals into groups through habits of altruism,

Maybe recently. But historically, religion didn't invite altruism and it bound individuals into groups the same way an affinity for the Jets binds individuals to groups. It wasn't about altruism. It was about being part of the same team, regardless of what the team did. 

creating relationships of trust strong enough to defeat destructive emotions. Far from refuting religion, the Neo-Darwinists have helped us understand why it matters.

The type of religion described here is perhaps 2000 years old. Christianity spread and flourished, at first, because it demanded that Christians extend special privileges and special expressions of love to each other. You became a Christian, in those early days, in part because the existing Christians treated you like a king, and because it was easier to live and easier to travel with other Chirstians looking out for you. But that was a new development. The human species has existed for several hundreds of thousands of years. If the lovery-dovey expressions of religion matter so much, how did we survive for so many hundreds of thousands of years before the the lovery-dovey expressions of religion developed. Ancient religion wasn't about altruism. It was about community and teamwork and appeasing the Gods. No about acts of charity or expressions of love.

No one has shown this more elegantly than the political scientist Robert D. Putnam. In the 1990s he became famous for the phrase “bowling alone”: more people were going bowling, but fewer were joining bowling teams. Individualism was slowly destroying our capacity to form groups. A decade later, in his book “American Grace,” he showed that there was one place where social capital could still be found: religious communities.

Mr. Putnam’s research showed that frequent church- or synagogue-goers were more likely to give money to charity, do volunteer work, help the homeless, donate blood, help a neighbor with housework, spend time with someone who was feeling depressed, offer a seat to a stranger or help someone find a job. Religiosity as measured by church or synagogue attendance is, he found, a better predictor of altruism than education, age, income, gender or race.

Here's where this article dies. What the chief Rabbi identifies here is a correlation not a cause. People do things, much research has shown, because of peer pressure and peer support. And a religious group is able to provide both in spades. But it is that - pressure and support - the makes people do good (or bad) things. Not the religion.

Religion is the best antidote to the individualism of the consumer age. The idea that society can do without it flies in the face of history and, now, evolutionary biology. This may go to show that God has a sense of humor. It certainly shows that the free societies of the West must never lose their sense of God.

And here's where the article decides the logic is a luxury it can do without. Because even if I will concede that individualism needs to be balanced, I don't have to concede that religion is necessary to provide that balance.

Jonathan Sacks is the chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth and a member of the House of Lords.

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The Nonsense that is Nittel Night

This is from January 2006.

My local Hasidic Rabbi took the night off last Friday night. He didn't speak before Kabalas Shabbos, and he didn't appear at his regular Friday night shiur. Why? Because it was Nittel Nacht, per the Greek Orthodox calendar, and on Nittel Nacht it is his custom to act like a mourner and forgo all Torah learning -- even on Shabbos.

A few notes on the practice:

1 - It's stupid. My local Hasidic Rabbi ignores July Fourth. Memorial Day is not remembered. He goes to work on Thanksgiving. None of those days exist on his calendar. If he is going to ignore days that celebrate events from which he has benefited, how can he justify his recognition of Orthodox Christmas? Even a negative recognition is recognition. Memorial Day is not within a Hasid's ken; but Christmas is. That's topsy-tursvy.

2 - Orthodox Christmas? I understand the Rabbi's customs originated in lands where Orthodox Christmas is celebrated, but there are reasons for this custom and the most familiar reason does not adhere on on the sixth of January.

2A - According to Miriam Shaviv, Hasidim abstain from Torah study because they "don't want to bring about such improvements [to the world through their Torah study] at a time when the Christian majority is devoutly steeped in their prayers, lest outsiders believe the improvement came from the Christian worship." Fabulous, only in America, Jan 6 is not a day of Christian prayer. If that's your concern, you should fast from Torah study on December 25 (or on Super Bowl Sunday when the betting halls probably contain as much prayer as any church)

2B - A second justification for the custom is that often we dedicate Torah study to the memory of revered Rabbis and beloved ancestors. If we studied on Christmas, the argument goes, someone might mistake Jesus for a revered Rabbi. Worse, he might accrue credit on his heavenly account in the merit of our learning.

To the first concern I reply: Bwahaha. Not even the most degenerate Gop-Jew would mistake Jesus for a revered Rabbi. (I hope) To the second concern, I say "so what?" The real Jesus was a Jew who cared about other Jews. He had no intention of abolishing Judaism, or of establishing a church that would seek to destroy his people. If the clerk in charge of divine credit is stupid enough to think that my Christmas Eve learning is meant to be deposited on Jesus' account, I have no objection. (though I will suggest that the Almighty hire a clerk who doesn't have his head up his rear end.)

3 - The common justification for the Heredi refusal to pause for the siren on Israeli Memorial day is that it is bitul Torah. Can you explain to me why two minutes to honor Israeli war dead is impossible, while a full night without learning has become accepted?

4 - The practice was unknown in Lita. The Chofetz Chaim, for example, learned on Christmas. Though perhaps those of Hasidic heritage can justify the practice on the grounds of "our ancestors did it so we should too" non-Hasidim have no excuse, and really should resist the temptation to embrace foreign minagim just because they look frum.

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A common mistake

From the comments:
Dovbear, I think there's an inverse relationship between how often a blogger throws out the "idiot", "moron" and "jerk" epithets and how happy he his.
I don't agree at all. First, this is a hunch, back up by nothing empirical. Second, my own personal experience does not support your theory. Third, you neglect to take into account the possibility that blogging is a show, and that bloggers play a role.

Consider this a friendly reminder that you may know the blogger, but none of you have ever met the person who does the blogging.

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Monday, December 24, 2012


I am not sure what I find more deeply distasteful:  Idiots who say the unlucky midrashim or the unlucky rishonim are "against real Judaism" or "not from our mesorah" or the jerks who say the masses of Jews who know of nothing but the lucky midrashim and the lucky rishonim are "simpletons."

I posted this on Facebook last week, and I have to confess the strangeness of it has caught up with me. When I first started this blog I was definitely the sort of jerk described in the second part of this post. And, I suppose, like all of us,  I went through a stage in late adolescence when I was every bit the idiot described at the beginning of the post. 

The lucky midrashim are the ones you learned in grade school and likely never re-examined. These include "Rivka the three-year old bride" and "Stretchy-armed Bas Paroh.*" The lucky rishonim include the Ramak who taught that "there are no coincidences" and the Rambam who convinced us all that God is incorporeal and that the Torah we have today is exactly the same Torah Moshe received.  If you're a certain kind of moron, you react with pious indignation whenever someone shows you a  midrash or rishon that presents another view. Those unpopular opinions are the ones I call "unlucky"

*And if you're a different kind of moron you believe that any supernatural sounding midrash is an allegory or not to be taken literally even when the context makes it clear that the midrash's author believed he was describing a historical event. But that's a subject for a different post.

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Why can't women wear talitot at the kotel?

Exactly what do the Haredim fear will happen if women who wear talitot are permitted to pray unmolested at the Kotel?

I've spent the morning trying to work this out, and I've come up empty. Try as I might, I can't see the damage in permitting a woman to wear a talis at the kotel. Maybe you can help? What horrible disaster are the Haredim preventing via such obnoxious, discriminatory, aggressive, semi-violent behavior? It has to be something big to justify such a powerful response, right? So what is it?

Aside: It's like the crazed opposition to gay marriage. No one is saying you have to go out and marry a man. No one is even saying your faith has to recognize such a marriage or that your clergyman has to perform them. So why not just sit quietly and wait for Eliyahu to sort it out?

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North Pole Chabad

A great post about Jesus and his Judaism

Friday, December 21, 2012

Why did Sandy Hook happen?

In the interest of clarity and honesty, I've taken it upon myself to explain what "Judaism*" says about the Sandy Hook shooting. To the best of my knowledge, these are all "classic" rabbinic explanations for the suffering of children. Should I have misstated any of them, please correct me in the comments and updates will be provided. PS: Not making any of this up.

(1) The children were killed as a punishment for their parents (Unlucky break that so many parents who needed punishing had kids in the same class)

(2) The kids sinned and this was their punishment.

(3) The kids were all going to grow up to become evil, so this was preemptory.

(4) Sure, it looks like something horrible happened in Sandy Hook, but if you were able to see things from God's perspective you'd realize that the massacre was a good thing.

(5) The children were re-incarnations of souls who needed to go through the trauma of Sandy Hook in order to acquire atonement for past misdeeds

(6) The guilt of this generation made the suffering of the children necessary. Their death was an atonement for all of us.

(7) Their suffering is trivial compared to the reward the waits for them in heaven

*Judaism doesn't say anything. Jews are the ones who say things, and they've said different, sometimes contradictory things, on this subject. Above I've made a poor attempt at summarizing them

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Thursday, December 20, 2012

Lonely Satmar Hasid of faith

An early arrival for a mass gathering of Satmar Hasidic Jews in New York. Thousands attended the celebration of the 68th anniversary of the rescue of their founder, Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum, from the Nazis

Eyewitness: New York
Photographs from the Guardian Eyewitness series

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Fox interviews Santa

So, in no particular order here's what's strange about Fox's decision to grant Santa a public forum:

(1) Santa is a secularist: The fat red elf fights on OUR side in the war on Christmas  He's the guy making  the holiday about toys, not Jesus. In fact, he was invented by a corporation for the purpose of selling soft drinks.
(2) Santa is basically a socialist, obviously funded by some shadowy NGO, who has made the redistribution of assets his mission in his life.
|(3) Santa is anti-merit. Every kid gets a toy, no matter how good he is. If Santa was a real American the really good kids would get better toys.
(4) Santa is an immigrant Maybe Fox cuts Santa a break because he's from the North Pole, not the South, if you get my drift.

Oh, right. Also, Santa isn't a real person.

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Niggunim for the season

Teachers really should be armed.

Comment of the day (by AMP)
Teachers really should be armed. 
If a shooter gets into a school, the quickest way to subdue the shooter would be if a teacher takes him out first. 
Of course, there is always the possibility that a teacher could be a killer. So, the best way to protect the children in a classroom with a killer teacher would be to arm the children as well. 
No teacher would try to shoot a student if he or she knew they were in front of a class of 30 armed pupils. 
That way, no one will try to shoot anyone in a school again. Shooters would be afraid of encountering armed teachers, and armed teachers would be held in check by armed students. 
They would all in turn, be held in check by an armed janitorial staff, since they are easily the most mobile members of a school staff as they move troughout the entire school during the course of their daily duties. 
At the same time, shool bus drivers should also be armed.

Then again, all bus drivers should be armed. Not all shootings are school related. So subway personnel should be armed, too. As well as the passengers.
And if we say that a store is analogous to a classroom and a mall to a school, then everyone in a mall should be armed. But if we do that, we should arm everyone in every business establishment. 
And, seeing as people have shot and killed each other in road rage incidents, the roads would be much safer if every driver were required to carry a gun in their car at all times.
I agree with this 100 percent. Back in the days when everyone carried a weapon, no one ever got shot. Its what made the Wild West such a safe and law abiding place.

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Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Yet another Newtown crazy

This particular crazy person writes a column for a prestigious conservative journal:
There was not a single adult male on the school premises when the shooting occurred. In this school of 450 students, a sizeable number of whom were undoubtedly 11- and 12-year-old boys (it was a K–6 school), all the personnel — the teachers, the principal, the assistant principal, the school psychologist, the “reading specialist” — were female. There didn’t even seem to be a male janitor to heave his bucket at Adam Lanza’s knees... Think of what Sandy Hook might have been like if a couple of male teachers who had played high-school football, or even some of the huskier 12-year-old boys, had converged on Lanza
Lanza was carrying an automatic rifle. Had a couple of kids and their ex-jock teachers attempted to subdue him, they would have been mowed down like grass blades in front of a John Deer.

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Here come more Newtown crazies

Mike Harris, a former Republican candidate for governor of Arizona, thinks Israel sent a hit squad to murder the Newtown children. I am not kidding. He gave the interview to Press TV, an Iranian outlet, which summarized it as follows:
During his interview today, Mike Harris explained his rationale for looking to Israel as responsible for Sandy Hook, saying “This is exactly what Israel did in Norway; the political party that voted sanctions against Israel was retaliated against by a “lone gunman” who killed 77 children. This is what Israel always does, they go after the children. It is what they do in Gaza every day. It is what was done in Norway. It is what happened at Sandy Hook. Nobody buys the “lone gunman” story anymore, not with the Gabby Giffords’ shooting, not with the Aurora “Batman” shooting, certainly not with Breveik, and certainly not in Connecticut.”
Harris, by the way, is also the former head of the G.O.P's campaign finance committee in Arizona.

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Here come the Weberman crazies

Worse than Der Strumer, eh? In the 1940s Der Strumer looked like this.
Der Stürmer - 1940 Nr 51

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Here come the Newtown crazies

Good ole Newt Gingrich has figured our why a crazy person went on a rampage through a school house last week:
When you have an anti-religious, secular bureaucracy and secular judiciary seeking to drive God out of public life, something fills the vacuum. And that something, you know, I don’t know that going from communion to playing war games in which you practice killing people is necessarily an improvement.
Yup, the massacre was caused by secularism and violent video games! Little known fact: Adolph Hitler spent thousands of hours playing Assasians Creed 3 as a kid. All makes sense now, doesn't it? 

Meanwhile, former fattie Mike Huckabee also wanted to be heard: 
We ask why there is violence in our schools, but we’ve systematically removed God from our schools. Should we be so surprised that schools would become a place of carnage
God hasn't been removed from church, yet little Catholic boys were still molested there by God-fearing priests. Same for the Magdalin Laundries where Irish Catholic girls were enslaved and abused for decades. Evil managed to flourish there, didn't it, despite the mandatory hours of religious instruction. And, of course, all of your top medieval monsters and  murderers had excellent religious educations. Did it help much?

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

If you're in the mood to find organized Jewry horrifying this little article will do the trick:

In Sexual Abuse Case, Muted Praise From One Corner
A rabbi who has been fighting to expose sexual abuse cases in the Hasidic community says District Attorney Charles J. Hynes was late to the cause.

Some choice quotes:
Shame spreads a stain to many corners. A few months ago, David Zwiebel, executive vice president of Agudath Israel, an Orthodox organization, acknowledged that dissidents had surfaced a troubling issue. But, he asked, is it “worth the cost?” “At the very least, he added, “it’s rechilus, lashon hara, and bittul zman.” Translated this means malicious gossip, evil tongue, and telling tales, all prohibited by the Torah.
As Fred McDowell has already pointed out, the author has mistranslated "bitul zman"

"I guess that the actual meaning is so absurd that the writer could hardly believe that this is really what Zwiebel said." McDowell posted. And yet, that is what is what Zweibel said.
On Monday, I asked another prominent group, the Orthodox Union, if it had anything to say on the conviction of Mr. Weberman. Its president, Simcha Katz, offered that his organization has long opposed child molesting.
That is a comfort.
The OU has opposed child abuse since c2001. Pre lanner they were basically Satmar on the subject. Read the article for more 

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Facts and myths about your rights

What is it about the word "right" that turns people on both sides of the political aisle into raving lunatics? Whether the discussion is about gun rights, religious rights, marriage rights, or speech rights the errors people make are the same. So here's a post dedicated to dispelling some of the more pervasive myths and mistakes.

Fact #1: Rights are man-made Our rights are not a gift from the universe nor are they written anywhere in the sky. We have a right to [whatever] because, over time, people came to agree that it would be better if the particular right was established and protected. Speaking generally, "we" decided that "we" have a right to carry a gun or curse the president using the same process that "we" used to decide that the word "ain't" doesn't belong in formal writing. (though see Fact #3 for more) Now, some claim the existence of something called "natural rights" which are believed to devolve from human nature or from a divine edict, but I think that's just rhetoric. Even if there are such "natural rights" they only matter if human beings choose to recognize and protect them.

Fact #2: Rights are NOT inalienable The idea of "inalienable rights" is a brilliant and beneficial fiction, but a fiction all the same. Though we're all much better off if we pretend that our rights can't ever be taken away, the reality is that rights are always taken away. Nothing in the world stops a new ruler from invalidating our rights aside for the general belief and agreement that "rights are inalienable ". We pretend that rights are inalienable because this serves a very valuable purpose. But, it isn't so.

Fact #3: Some rights are more important than other rights Though the process used to create rights is similar to the process used to create the rules of formal writing, or the rules of wearing a tuxedo, or whatever, the results of that similar process are not equally valuable. Human progress doesn't depend on how or when you wear evening wear or whether or not you use the word "ain't" in a college essay but it does depend on freedom of speech. If we can't say what we like or argue and bring proofs against ideas that are bad we won't go anywhere as a species. We protect freedom of speech, not because protecting freedom of speech pleases the universe or because it makes liberals happy, but because we want to promote human progress. This is not true of all rights. The right articulated in the "Patient's Bill of Rights" are certainly important but not in the same way freedom of speech is important.

Fact #4: Rights can become more or less valuable over time Once upon a time, the right to carry a gun was essential to freedom. If we establish and protect a right to carry a gun, went the thinking, it becomes hard to impossible for a tyrant to impose himself on the people. A good idea, but it no longer adheres. If the current president were to lose his mind and successfully mobilize the military against American citizens, he'd have fighter jets and tanks at his disposal. Nothing you can purchase at a gun fair would stand a chance against that kind of fire power. So unless we broaden the right to bear arms to include a right to own tanks and set up private armies, the second amendment doesn't do too much to protect our freedom. Thanks to advances in technology, the second amendment no longer serves its purpose and has become a relic.

Fact #5 Democracy won't die if rights are narrowly defined or if rights are abrogated This isn't true of all rights. Without freedom of speech, Democracy can't flourish. But neither would it disappear if we were to drop the right to trial by jury in civil cases (Amendment 7) or the right to no double jeopardy (Amendment 5.) It serves a very valuable polemical purpose (a purpose I support) to insist that all of our rights are equally valuable to democracy, or to claim that America will vanish overnight if any of the Bill of Rights were to be canceled  but it simply isn't so.

Fact #6 The Bill of Rights are not permanent. The authors and ratifiers of the Bill of Rights were not prophets. They were just men. The Bill of Rights is nothing but a set of things they happened to agree were important. There's nothing stopping us from disagreeing and in the Constitution they wrote, the Founders created a process for us to cancel the rights they established or to create our own. Superstitious people believe that something horrible will happen if alter the Bill of Rights, but that's magical thinking. In fact, events of last Friday seem to suggest that horrible things will continue to happen unless we make some fundamental changes in the way we think about the out-dated, no longer very valuable right to bear arms.*

*Correct, I'd never say the same thing about the right to free speech, but this isn't because I have superstitious ideas about the origin, purpose or effects of that right. Without freedom of speech, human progress ends. We protect it because we value human progress. The same can't be said about gun rights. 

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Monday, December 17, 2012

Down with the Second Amendment

I think we can agree that its time to rewrite the Second Amendment. The text is ambiguous and out-of-date and the national debate we'd have over a new text would be healthy and a source of legitimacy for the nation's new policy on guns.

We can start the ball rolling here. My proposed text:
Section 1. The second amendment to the Constitution of the United States is hereby repealed.
Section 2. The transportation or importation into any State, Territory, or possession of the United States for delivery or use therein of fire arms, in violation of the laws thereof, is hereby prohibited. [Translation: Every state gets to decide for itself how to handle guns.]
Can we do this? Of course. Will we? Not a chance. Moron right wingers labor under the delusion that the Founders were infallible prophets. They'd never accept a revision of their work. Thanks to these RW delusions, we have to pretend that nothing changes and that all interpretations were known and accepted by the founders, even as we continue to serendipitously develop and apply new interpretations.

Sound familiar?

Friday, December 14, 2012

Remembering Eleazer Macabee

Do these Chabad self-promoters remember how Eleazer Maccabee was killed?

1 Maccabees 6:43-6:46

Now Eleazar, called Avaran, saw that one of the animals was equipped with royal armour. It was taller than all the others, and he supposed that the king was on it.So he gave his life to save his people and to win for himself an everlasting name. He courageously ran into the midst of the phalanx to reach it; he killed men right and left, and they parted before him on both sides. He got under the elephant, stabbed it from beneath, and killed it; but it fell to the ground upon him and he died.
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How did people light their Hanukkah candles BEFORE Shamai and Hillel?

Last night, I used Twitter to crowd source a question:

How did people light their Hanukkah candles BEFORE Shamai and Hillel?

The issue, of course, is that Hillel and Shamai famously disagree about the proper way to kindle Hanukkah lights.

Hillel says start with one candle and add one each night, reasoning that "In matters of holiness we add, rather than subtract." Shamai calls for the opposite procedure: Start with eight candles, he says, and take one away each night. His reason is that Hanukka candles are like Sukkos bulls. Just as we sacrifice one fewer bull on  each day of Sukkoth, we should light one fewer candles on each day of Hannukah

But about 130 years passed between the first Hanukkah and the days of Hillel and Shamai. How did people light their Hanukkah candles in the interim?

My friend, "The Jewish Genius" says that before Hillel and Shamai no one lit Hanukkah candles - at least not as a formal, religious imperative. Instead they celebrated different aspects of the holiday with different rituals. To back up this claim, JG points out that candles are not mentioned in Al Hanisim or in the letters the Maccabees sent to establish the holiday, which are reproduced in 2 Maccabees. According to both Al Hanisim and the Maccabee letters, Hanukkah is about dedicating the Temple, driving off usurpers, and reclaiming national prerogatives. It had nothing to do with candles or an oil miracle. Al Hanisim and the letters tell us that Hanukkah was first celebrated as a national day of independence, likely with feasting, sacrifices and Hallel, but perhaps with speeches and festivals or rallies, as well.

By the first century, however, the political landscape had changed, and the holiday had to change with it. Rome was on the scene, and it was no longer safe or wise to talk publicly about Jewish national prerogatives. The Jews could no longer rally in the street to celebrate the miracle of their deliverance from Greek persecution. The Romans might take that personally. But Hillel and Shamai were unwilling to let the holiday, and the miracle it represented, disappear from Jewish memory. So they did something modern Jews might find shocking.

In the ancient world, Saturnalia was the great holiday, and it was celebrated "with the abundant presence of candlesIts thought that the candle lighting ritual began as a primitive attempt to coax back the sun, but by late antiquity the candles were already being interpreted as symbolic of the quest for truth and knowledge. First century Jews knew about Satunalia, and many probably lit Saturnalia candles. JG thinks Shamai and Hillel took that ritual and converted it into a Jewish practice, and he thinks that they did this to give Jews a new, safe way to celebrate Hanukka.

But once they instituted the new tradition, they disagreed about the correct way to practice it. Remembering Hanukka's birth as a delayed Sukkos, Shamai wanted the candles lit in descending order. Hilell on the other hand saw no profit in preserving the memory of the connection between Hanukka and Sukkos, so he instead recommended following the ordinary rule about matters of holiness.

The point, though, is that Hillel and Shamai were able to have this argument because prior to their discussions there was no official Hanukkah candle lighting ritual. If Jews lit candles before Shamai and Hillel they did it in the same optional and unofficial way that Israeli Jews grill on Yom Haatzmaut. As the ones who established candle lighting as a formal religious imperative, Hillel and Shamai were also able to argue about the correct way to perform it.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

A Hanukkah thought experiment

Imagine we had a Jewish president. Now its holiday time, and our Jewish president has invited a group of Christians to the White House for the annual tree lighting ceremony. Afterwards, one of the guests gets up and sings a traditional song, a song consisting of these lyrics:

O God 
to praise You is a delight. 
We can't wait to worship you further
After You have prepared the slaughter 
of our blaspheming foes

Inconceivable right? There'd be an outrage. Abe Foxman would have multiple heart attacks. The singer of the song would be widely denounced.

So how cool is it that year after year some Jew gets to sing Maoz Tzur directly to a Christian president's face?

PS: As you have no doubt realized, the song's final stanza contains a direct reference to the Republican party:

Repel the Red One in the nethermost shadow
and establish for us the seven shepherds.


Start at @7:50 to avoid the speeches. Yes, this is from 2010.

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Best Frum Headline ever?

Phillip the Great sends us this ray of sunlight:

Tremendous Arousal Following Women's Rally to Fortify Walls of Taharoh;

That's an actual headline now showing on an actual frum blog. We do not kid.

By the way, belated props to DVD for giving us such a fine "window into the Charedi world" As you expected, and as this picture makes clear, all Charedim wear shtreimals, all the time. The men sit around grinning out the window and the kids - two per family! - are always well-dressed, happy, and content... and, in Haredi-land, there are no woman to be found.

Thanks Deih Ve-dibur for giving us this awesome window into the Charedi world! We're sure your articles are equally enlightening!

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Scalia prejudges the DOMA case

How do you think Justice Scalia will rule in the two gay marriage cases he is set to hear this term? Well, here's a clue:
If we cannot have moral feelings against homosexuality, can we have it against murder? Can we have it against other things?"
Now, as per the AP "Scalia said he is not equating sodomy with murder but drawing a parallel between the bans on both" but his argument is still unbefitting a Supreme Court Justice.

We haven't banned murder due to our "moral feelings". We've banned murder because it takes a human life and causes tangible damage to a non-consenting victim. We've banned murder because its disruptive to civilized society. We've banned murder because we'd never get any work done if we were forever worried about being capped by an angry co-worker. None of that can be said about sodomy or gay marriage.

Scalia is correct when he says we're entitled to our moral feelings. I agree that any moral feeling is legitimate. I, for example, have every right be morally opposed to fat justices of Italian descent.  But we don't get to ban things just because we find them icky. 

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

A note to well-meaning gentiles.

Dear Well-meaning Gentiles:

As much as I appreciate your warm holiday greetings, it disappoints me to be wished a "season of peace and joy" This is your season of peace and joy, not mine. Telling me that you want the Hanukkah season to bring me "peace and joy" is a bit like me wishing you a Happy New Year on Labor Day. It makes no sense. Caveat Loquens.

I also thank you for the Hanukkah-themed piece of junk you brought me. Nothing cheers my spirit like a plastic top that plays that classic song about the dreidal made from clay. Perhaps I'll reciprocate next week, by sending you a jolly elf that plays Jingle Bells when you tickle its stomach. Won't that be fun!

Unfortunately, I do not have what you called a "Hanukkah table" upon which to display your gift. Yes, you're right: It would look nice hanging from a tree. Only I do not have one. Remember?

That's all. Appreciate the thought, but not the effort.

Your buddy,

Dov Bear

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My only Weberman comment

Inadvertently deleted this post. Its recreated below with the only comments I could save.

As you may have noticed, I've not said much of anything about the Weberman trial. This is because I think this case is unremarkable. Men, unfortunately, are arrested and convicted for crimes such as this all the time. Kolko's arrest was something new under the sun. This wasn't. Call me jaded, but I can't make a big blogging commotion every time a Jewish person stands trial. Even the allegations about community cover-ups, or witness intimidation, or rabbis saying stupid things were old hat. Seen that, done that. Ho hum.

Which brings me to my one little comment. I keep hearing people say that poor Mister Weberman was convicted "without a stitch of evidence." Excuse me? He may have been convicted without a stitch of scientific evidence, but his victim was on the stand for four days. Everything she said counts as evidence. And the jury accepted that evidence and found it credible.

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  • Hamas does a lot of chesed in Gaza too...
  • The reason Weberman's case is a big deal is not just because of the high profile but because the Satmar machine got something that was coming to it.  Maybe, just maybe this will give Joe Hynes to confidence to do what's needed, as opposed to merely what's needed to get votes.
    Addendum - I'm tired of hearing the defenders of Satmar talking about their great chessed, particularly how every kosher meal in the big NY hospitals is provided by Satmar.  (A) not true; (B) irrelevant.  While I can't speak for truly sick people, since the times I've stayed overnight in the NY hospitals have not been times of dire medical crisis, I'd gladly do without their chessed and get my own hospital meals (or eat food without hashgacha) if the tradeoff were no more molesters would get swept under the rug.
    I know I'm setting up a false dichotomy, but really, I am SO sick of hearing the kosher-meals-chessed excuse for this segment of society.  There's no excuse for what they've done.
  • Biblioteca 16 minutes ago
    I wonder if you agree with Rabbi Fink's comments.  I found them to play a bit too much into this notion of "no evidence".
    "First, the sobering news. I was not at the trial, but I did not read anything that indicated that there was any physical evidence or corroborating witness testimony. It’s scary that Weberman was convicted on these facts. Innocent or guilty, there were very few facts with which to nail him. On the one hand this might mean that innocent people can be convicted of these crimes. I am not saying the Weberman is innocent. I think he lost his chezkas kashrus a long time ago. But it is possible that similar facts could be asserted falsely. That is a little scary because it might cause a reprisal of rabbinic and lay reluctance to pursue these cases in court."
  • Biblioteca 18 minutes ago
    I think the case is a big deal and I hope there are more perpetrators brought to trial and convicted.  I also hope it leads to some positive change.
    That said, your comment is a good one.  Some people seem to think the only kind of evidence is multiple, independent eyewitnesses reporting how they walked in on the abuse while it was simultaneously being videotaped just after the guy left his DNA evidence which was immediately collected and matched 100% to the perpetrator with the odds of it coming from another person 1 in 100 billion.  Absent that the trial is a sham, it's a kangaroo court, and the judge, DA, and jury are antisemites.

  • I think the case is a big deal and I hope there are more perpetrators brought to trial and convicted.  I also hope it leads to some positive change.
    Yes, yes

  • Azi Grae 31 minutes ago
    Its very remarkable. Its the first high profile conviction of a Charedi community leader for sexual abuse. 

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