Thursday, December 29, 2005

Traveling Light

I don't mind travel and I don't mind not sleeping, but when you combine the two, it leads to overpacking. And overpacking makes me cranky. Fortunately I took a sacred oath to never travel with more than one bag, so I should be okay. Thus endeth the rant.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

On Friendship

Sometimes I'm not sure why I bother to blog about Hashkafic issues. I don't think I possess any special intelligence that will glean any insight that several thousand years of human civilization hasn't come up with yet.

A case in point is this discussion I had on GH's blog a little while ago. GH thought it was absurd to consider a state of existence that doesn't have any higher purpose (i.e., one that is not man made). I don't see what the big deal is. Religion invents far more questions than it answers. The Kiruv Klowny rabbi is satisfied with using God as First Cause. Here is how that conversation goes:
Me: Rabbi, I'm not sure God exists.

Rabbi: C'mon, how else did we get here? Creatio ex nihlo is impossible! Blah blah, Rambam, blah blah.

Me: Gee, I guess you have a point. I have no idea how the basic ingredients of the Universe got here.

Rabbi: Aha!

This is usually where I leave the conversation. But God does not answer anything. He only presents more questions. Who created Him? If yesh mi'ayin is impossible, where did He come from? And if He does not need a creator, doesn't that violate the whole premise of the original question?

And let's not pretend the Torah offers clear cut ethical advice either. Much mediation of competing interests are done by human rabbis, since real life presents complications that a mere paper cannot address.

Which brings me to my next point. Living your life according to a religious code is not nearly as meaningful as some would like to pretend it is. According to the religious view, this period of life is only preparation for an eternal life. Inequity does not matter here, because the Big Guy will make it okay there.

From a secular point of view, this life is what is important. What we do in the here and now is important because when this "brief light is extinguished, an eternal night must be slept." Life becomes infinitely more meaningful when you realize that this is the one life we will ever lead. It is far more enjoyable to grapple with the questions that life presents than to try to dance the dance of religious apologetics. Does the believer really have faith that their religion is immutable? That religion is free from the pressure exerted by archaeological time? That 5,000 years can pass without religious thinkers like the Rambam and his intellectual predecessors altering the religion of the ancient B'nei Yisroel? That the description of prophecy dovetails too perfectly with the symptoms of epilepsy? That there is no evidence supporting a global flood? That there is no evidence for Exodus? That Ezra in canonizing the Bible did not massage his source material?

Human existence is far too fascinating to close the door of rigorous inquiry with the blind acceptance of Orthodox dogma.

Some, like GH, question the possibility of a meaningful life outside of religion. The secular life is described as "depressing" or cold and dark. It seems to me quite the opposite is true. The conception of religious life is the depressing one. God created this world, plunked us into it and then created a labyrinth of questions that we can never resolve. Religious apologists always have the nuclear option at their disposal- the irrational belief that God presents these questions to test us and if we choose to go with our reason, we have failed the test. Faith in God means putting dogma over reason. That must make an interesting scene in the Heavenly vestibule. I come before God, or whatever angel has been appropriated for the purpose, to explain my life.
God: Why did you not believe in the Flood?

Me: I couldn't help it. The mind you gave me told me it couldn't possibly be true.

God: But it was.

Me: How was I supposed to know that? You altered the historical record.

God: But it was a test!
Me: But how am I supposed to know when to suspend reason? Can I be rational in one sphere of existence and then hang it up when it comes to You?
And so while I plummet to Perdition, the irrational are admitted into Heaven.

Then there is the Modern (Orthodox) version of the Bible in which everything is allegory. That is even more distasteful. Nothing has any real meaning anymore. Heaven isn't a place full of togas and grapes but more of the warm, fuzzy feeling you get when you do what God wants. The Bible stories are not depictions of actual events, but moral metaphors. Which definitely explains why early commentators derived law out of word usage. I'm not sure how anyone could believe this and remain Orthodox at all. If it is the story that is important, and not the words itself, the Talmud has some major explaining to do. Christianity, of course, has a much better take on this:
"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God."

But I digress.

In the comment thread, Holy Hyrax challenged my assertion that pursuing meaningful friendships is a goal of secularism. As usual, I am frustrated to discover that this is hardly an original idea. Cicero, in his essay "On Friendship" wrote "without friendship, life can have no true enjoyment." And he should know, the poor bastard.

As Cicero believed in the Socratic eternal soul, his idea of friendship reflected something eternal about human relations. He wrote:
And great and numerous as are the blessings of friendship, this certainly is the sovereign one- that it gives us bright hopes for the future and forbids weakness and despair. In the face of a true friend, a man sees it were a second self. So that as his friend is, so is he. If his friend is rich, he is not poor. If his friend is strong, he is not weak, as his friend's strength is his own. And in his friend's life, he enjoys a second life after his own is finished. This last is perhaps the most difficult to conceive. But such is the effect of the respect, the loving remembrance, and the regret of friends which follows us to the grave. While they take the sting out of death, they add a glory to the life of the survivors.
While I make no claims about the eternality of the soul, should one exist, this idea of friendship presents us with the idea that the choices we make in this world is all that is permanent. Should you feud with someone, after you die, there will be nothing that will cure it. For the rest of eternity the fact that you were not friends is unalterable. The converse of that is if you have a close friend, even the shifting sands of time will not be able to change that fact.

A depressing existence? I don't think so.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Beware the Hills

Here is some free advice to those who want to run in Jerusalem- buy a topographical map. While my trusty tourist map ensured I didn't get totally lost, not knowing the elevation and gradient of your route is a sure way to kill yourself on murderous hills.

That being said, I had a decent run to the Knesset and its surrounding park. I fell in with a bunch of military types somewhere near Gan Saker who promptly led me way off my path and into a sudden rain shower. It was worth it though because it gave me a chance to ask directions from a young Russian couple whose Hebrew was far worse than mine.

Unfortunately, the weather has not been cooperating so it looks like I am going to have to retrain once I get back to the States.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Merry Chanukah, Happy Christmas

This year I finally accomplished one the milestones to maturity- I planned and executed a holiday greeting card list. Of course by the time I was through, I was terrified that I wrote Christmas instead of Chanukah and vice versa.

And I have no problem wishing someone a merry Christmas. Of all the Christian holidays, this one is actually quite insignificant to Christian theology. The people I wish a merry Christmas are the same ones who have no problem wishing me a happy Chanukah. Lastly, it is so bizarre that some UO do not say Christmas, since "Christ" is Greek for "anointed" and by using that term, you are acknowledging that Jesus was the anointed Messiah. Yet in the same document where a UO writer is so meticulous in writing "XMas," he has no problem writing Christian. Is there a difference here I am not getting?

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Golden Globe Nominations

Among the contenders for best drama are "Brokeback Mountain" and "A History of Violence."

Apparently this year's theme is "uncomfortable sex scenes."

My apologies to anyone who hasn't seen "A History of Violence." Don't.

Blog Spotlight

In case you haven't checked them out, JewsInGreen is a Jewish mil-blog. Wisely, they seem to avoid politics and focus on the cultural aspects of Jews in the military.

Also, they gave me my new wallpaper. This was my old one.

It's always annoyed me that the UO community treats the armed forces like a foreign animal. Do they really think that the Jewish kingdoms of yore didn't rely on a standing army to protect it?

I recognize that military service necessarily means violation of some halakha, but in today's age of Shabbos-clock euthanasia machines, I'm sure there are allowances to be found for the men and women who protect us all.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Skeptic Morality

I would be entirely remiss not to point out this discussion on GH's blog over whether morality and comfort with our existence demands religion.

I will convert my comments into a post as soon as possible.

Jettison Your Loved Ones

If you, like me, enjoy those artsy, over-the-top-corny, made-for-film-class films, you'll love this one.

Iranian Chutzpa

As a federal judge once explained to me, chutzpa is a defendant who murders his parents and then throws himself at the mercy of the court as an orphan.

As the situation in Iran rapidly spirals down to nuclear confrontation, the mullahs invite the US to invest in one of their civilian reactors. That sounds like a superb idea. Nothing like freeing up those budget lines for military applications.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Running in the Old City

I am leaving this frozen tundra you call Amerika shortly for warmer pastures.

Does anyone have any idea what constitutes proper running attire in the Old City? I'm assuming it is improper to run shirtless, my usual attire anytime it's above 70F.

"Kid Looks Russian, Prays Jewish, and Fights Black"

While real life continues to prevent me from posting anything of real substance, I came across this:
After receiving numerous plaudits for his role in 8 Mile, Eminem has finally lined up a new part to follow on with his Hollywood success story. The rap superstar is reportedly going to play Dmitry Salita, the Jewish boxing sensation, on the big screen.
Which is quite incredible, considering I used to slum in the same Chabad shul as Salita and didn't even know he boxed for several years.

IMDB doesn't have the movie listed and the report is kinda old, but this kid definitely deserves it. His website is here.

I think I owe someone a hat tip for this. Let me know who you are.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Meals Ready To Eat

Just to make sure you know about these. I didn't know about them until they were mentioned in a recent Hirhurim post.

I remember an Army two-star extolling the virtues of the military self-heating MRE. He said excitedly, "You can heat them up with any liquid- a handful of snow or a bladder full of urine!"

I'm guessing Gil uses more conventional liquids.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Halakhic Euthanasia

My jaw hit the ground when I heard this one.

Of course, I am used to such ridiculous heterim from my childhood, but the way this article is written, Orthodox rabbis sound positively demented.

Machines will perform euthanasia on terminally ill patients in Israel under legislation devised not to offend Jewish law, which forbids people taking human life.

A special timer will be fitted to a patient's respirator which will sound an alarm 12 hours before turning it off.

Normally, carers would override the alarm and keep the respirator turned on but, if various stringent conditions are met, including the giving of consent by the patient or legal guardian, the alarm would not be overridden.

Similar timing devices, known as Sabbath clocks, are used in the homes of orthodox Jews so that light switches and electrical devices can be turned on during the Sabbath without offending religious strictures.

Hat tip: WanderingJew

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Blog Spotlight

Posting is sparse as I deal with real life, but I would like to point out that one of my commenters, B. Spinoza, has started a new blog. I can't really claim Spinoza as one of my commenters, since we both started as commenters to the J-Blogfather.

Spinoza plays the admirable role of the little Dutch boy, and should be hosting lively discussions on important topics. Hope he has enough fingers.

Friday, December 02, 2005

God, Religion, and Emotion

The comments on this thread forced me to order my thoughts on God and Emotion. There are two issues here that I will try to address:

I. Affirming Religious Beliefs Based on Emotion
When discussing religion with folks more religious than myself, they often fall back onto a sort of appeal to emotion, the prototypical (and extremely tired) version of which is, "Haven't you ever experienced a Shabbos?"

Yes, I've experienced many Shabbosim. Hanging out with family for 25 hours with good food is bound to give you an emotional response. The idea of counting down the hours of sabbatical peace before the chaos of the week rushes into your life is bound to put you in an emotional state of mind. Seudat Shilishit (it's easier to type the Ivrit version) is a particularly emotional time. Besides it's heavy kabbalistic overtones, you sing the 23 psalm and sing Yedid Nefesh, a lovely ode to an emotional connection with God. Then the day ends by extinguishing a candle, a practice whose origins I can only speculate about, and it's time to repeat the cycle of a weary week until the next day of rest.

It is safe to conclude that Shabbos is an emotional experience.

So what?

If you justify a religious practice on the idea that it makes you feel good, there are plenty of alternatives available to you. Join a cult (insert Mis-Nagid snark here), pop a pill, or join many other religions whose members report a positive, faith affirming, emotional experience.

While a Shabbos experience may seem truly magical in a proper setting, once you remove yourself from that setting the day loses much of it's importance. Try skipping a meal this time around and let me know how you feel. If that doesn't work, repeat.

To think of an emotional response to a religious practice as indicative of value in the practice, is a little demeaning to your religion. Emotion is a primitive brain function. Other species have emotion. Even if you don't buy into the whole evolution fraud, you have to admit that emotion is an animalistic characteristic. Surely a religion should appeal to the higher faculties of mankind. If we follow our emotion aren't we just blindly following our baser instincts?

Which leads me to my next topic.

II. Reading Emotion into God
Now that we have established that religion is not only a very human attribute, but even an animalistic one, how do you imagine God experiences emotion?

Some speculate that emotion serves an important purpose by setting goals for its organism. If you view the higher brain as a computational device, without emotion, it would be useless. Imagine building the perfect calculator and then not inputting any data. It just sits there doing nothing. I'm not sure that God would need emotion of this sort, afterall, surely he isn't a slave to his emotion as that would be a ridiculous anthropomorphism.

Frankly, I think this theory is extremely unsound, mainly because, as stated above, the emotional centers of the brain preceded the higher brain.

An alternative view is that emotion serves only very basic life functions (chiefly the four F's- Feasting, Fighting, Fleeing, and Procreating). Once the higher brain evolved, however, the two systems struggle against each other. The higher brain may dictate one course of action, while your primitive brain screams against it. The resulting dialectic is probably 90% of the human tragedy. Again, this narrative seems to have no relation to a Godly emotion. Did God go through the evolutionary process? Did He have to engage in the four F's?

(Possibly. Fighting: YHWH, Feasting: Bacchus, Fleeing: Klipa, Procreating: Catholicism)

Therefore, to imagine any sort of divine relation to emotion is fairly ridiculous. How then do you explain reports of God laughing (Baba Metiza 59b), mourning (Megillah 10b), or enjoying the aroma of good BBQ (Leviticus passim)?

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Leatherneck Books

Ever wonder what the Marines are reading?

You Are as Young as Your Faith, As Old As Your Doubt

Anonymousette, a respondingtojblogs friend is back and discusses her faith.

I'm glad she's here to say nice things about religion. At least someone is.