Monday, December 31, 2007

Great Books That Do Not Have Harry Potter as Part of Their Titles

This year will forever be remembered by fantasy readers as the year in which the final Harry Potter came out. I do not expect, in my lifetime, to see the Potter phenomenon repeated. I suspect that, for better or for worse Potter will remain the pink elephant in the room whenever people talk about fantasy. In this spirit, here are some other notable pieces of fantasy literature that came out this past year. Some of these books have been discussed before on this blog, others have not.

Lady Friday: This is the fifth book in Garth Nix’s Keys to the Kingdom series. This series is, without doubt, the greatest work of allegorical fiction in modern times. And when I say this I am including Narnia. Nix has completely reinvented the traditional morality play. You will never think of the Seven Deadly Sins the same way again.

Eclipse: This is the third book in Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series. I have already devoted several long posts to these books. (See here and here) These books have, deservedly, become major bestsellers. More than any other series of books being printed right now, these have the ability to repeat Potter’s success. Meyer has not said how many books she intends to write. She is set to come out with a fourth book in the series, Breaking Dawn, this summer. Let us see what kind of publicity gets generated.

The Sweet Far Thing: This is the third and final book of Libba Bray’s Reader’s Circle series. It just came out last week. I am actually in middle of it right now. I read the first two books at the end of the summer. I had decided to wait until I have finished this one in order to write a post on the series as a whole. Stay tuned.

Fatal Revenant: This is the second book of the Final Chronicles of Thomas Covenant and the eighth book overall of the Covenant series. (See here and here for my review)

Name of the Wind: This is the first book of Patrick Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Chronicles. I saved this one for last. Fantasy, unlike science fiction, does not have a Hugo or a Nebula award for best book of the year. If it did, Name of the Wind would certainly have my vote. (See here for my review) I feel a need to say more about this work. I will probably simply wait until book two, Wiseman’s Fear, comes out.

Well I am looking forward to a wonderful year of fantasy. Considering that all but one of these books have sequels coming out, there definitely is much to be waiting in giddy anticipation for.

Joe's Response to Some Good Christmas Tolerance I

Here is another response to my post, Some Good Christmas Tolerance. As with Tobie, Joe makes some good points and at the end of the day I, for the most part, agree with him. That being said, he is still is unable to think outside of the basic liberal talking points. He just assumes that they are self evidently true.

Your Christmas blog struck me as interesting. You expressed some interesting views that I have heard in very few places. I would quibble with your descriptions of liberals, though. You use a very large brush to paint them and come off to me as missing the mark for a great many of us that call ourselves liberal. Some liberals do think as you suggest, but a great many have a more nuanced and thoughtful view than you portray.

For instance, in many cases, the argument that the majority should be tolerant of minorities has nothing to do with needing a free exchange of ideas. It does have a very great deal to do with the idealized concept of freedom. Our country is founded upon the principle of freedom for all (I realize this concept is rather abstract and not completely held in truth by our founders in that they wanted freedom for themselves and not so much for others oftentimes, but bear with me in the idealized version). To wit, there can be no true freedom for anyone so long as some are not free. Part of that freedom means being able to hold various religious beliefs without the government putting forth its own interpretation of the correct religion. As such, having the government support Christian displays of Christmas without also equally supporting other religious displays is hypocrisy and inhibiting the freedom of all of us.

I am a Christian, yet I do not support government sponsored religious statements as that infringes on the freedoms of all Americans. Now, if a government sponsored an event welcoming input from all religions, I would support that, but thus far, I have yet to see an event that did more than give lip service to tolerance of other faiths in this country by our government and that to me, is against the very principles upon which we as Americans should stand.


My Response: I do not see myself as attacking liberalism. I see myself as a liberal, albeit a 19th century one. As to your statement that "can be no true freedom for anyone so long as some are not free." In ancient Greece and in the ante-bellum south there existed free people and slaves. Are you suggesting that those so called “free people” were not free? I am a Jew. Seeing a Christmas tree on state property does not in any way bother me and in no way gets in the way of my freedom of religion. My father is a rabbi and I grew up studying Jewish law. I have yet to come across a single Jewish practice that is violated by gentile officials of a gentile government putting up a Christmas tree.

We live in a democracy. We vote, either directly or through our elected representatives, on all sorts of things. When Democrats or Republicans lose, the government does things that they do not support but they can still go home and believe what they want. Why can't we vote on holiday decorations? So what if Christians win, I can still go home and live my life as I want.

(To be continued ...)

Sunday, December 30, 2007

SB's Response to Haredi Generation Gap

SB, who was one of the people I talked about in my post, Haredi Generation Gap, responded to me via email, which he was kind enough to allow me to publish here. I think it demonstrates my point wonderfully. Last I checked Yeshiva Torah Vodaath has no interest in producing graduates who have read Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America.


First, the nomenclature … of the word “haredi.” I don’t believe I heard the word until my late adolescence. The word is an Israeli term and indicates Israeli influence. We referred to ourselves as “yeshivish” or “litvish.” There was no term encompassing Chasidim and yeshivish people. This is not just a nitpicking point, since arguably yeshivish people moved to the right because it became de rigueur for guys to learn in Israel after high school.

When you stayed with us, I tried to expose you to the ideas of Rodney Stark regarding the sociology of religion. (I know that he has written several bad books recently, but that doesn’t negate the quality of his good works.) I believe that Stark has dealt only briefly with changes in Jewish life and not at all with changes in the orthodox community, but I believe that you have to take an “economic approach,” i.e., thinking about changes by looking at the alternatives available at the time. For instance, the orthodox world was much smaller then. Yeshivos were more tolerant because they were expected to take everyone. In contrast, in the current world, yeshivas can exclude anyone who has a tv at home.

Another change involves the economic concept of making tradeoffs. In my day, people went to Brooklyn College; now they go to Touro. I cannot comment much about the education at Touro, but I had several professors who were radical Marxists; I don’t think a Touro student is likely to have that exposure. Assume that a parent who went to Brooklyn is choosing a college for his son. He is very likely to be aware of the advantages of sending the son to Brooklyn, yet choose Touro because it will be easier for him to learn in yeshiva while going to Touro.

I don’t want to go through many examples, but in each case we can look at individual choices based on the “market,” i.e., the options available. In any case, what I want to stress is that rather than blaming my generation, you might want to consider how we got from the situation, say in 1969, when I started Torah Vodaath high school. You may not agree with my economic approach. That is ok. You may want to use Toqueville’s concept of the Unlimited Power of the Majority. But the point is, as an aspiring historian, you should try to understand historical changes, not bemoan them. While I threw out a few ideas, I cannot give you a complete explanation of the changes. That would require a book length treatment that I have no desire to complete, but I certainly would appreciate reading if you were to do so.
Lastly, the Unlimited Power of the Majority usually is not manifested by tarring and feathering, but by simple disapproval. The only negative consequence that I have experienced personally is that my daughter Dasi was rejected by Bais Yaakov of Brooklyn. However, that probably was the result of her behavior, not mine.

I hope that this email does not offend you, but encourages you to study contemporary Judaism as a historian. After all, Haym Soloveitchik did write a seminal article about contemporary orthodoxy, although as you know, I disagree with his interpretation.


My response: I use the world Haredi because unlike ultra-orthodox it has no negative connotations. I admit that, as with all human categories, it is flawed.I don't think we are disagreeing here. I was describing the situation that we have gotten ourselves into. You deal with how we have gotten there. Your economic explanation makes a lot of sense. I would love to hear you elaborate on it. (I guess I have to come visit you next time I am in New York.)Personally I tend to look at history more through the lens of intellectual history but that is just my personal taste. If I had to explain how we got here I would focus on 60's multiculturalism. Something for a future post, I guess.

Confessions of a Doubting Liberal

I have been having a discussion with my friend Tobie, a law student attending Bar Ilan University in Israel, on my recent post Some Good Christmas Tolerance. Tobie has strongly objected to my suggestion that minorities owe a debt to the society around them for putting up with them. Tobie’s essential argument, and it is one that most readers of this blog would probably agree with, is that one does not owe someone something merely for doing the right thing.

I thought that it would be useful to take this opportunity to explain something that underlies much of my thinking and that often leads me into lines of thinking, such as in this case, that may, at times, perplex and even disturb people. Ultimately, you are probably still not going to agree with me, but hopefully you will understand where I am coming from.

Despite what many people might think of me, I consider myself a liberal, or at the very least a part of the liberal tradition. My liberalism though is something that I actively came to through a process of doubting that closely parallels my journey through Judaism. I was interested in politics ever since I was a nine year old kid watching, from the comfort of my grandmother’s kitchen, Governor Bill Clinton run for president in the summer of 1992. Like my most people growing up in western society I believed absolutely in liberalism in its best sense, in freedom, democracy, equality and tolerance. It was not just that I believed in these things, I saw them as self evident truths that all people, not insane, stupid or just downright wicked, must accept.

In high school I read a book that changed my life. I am sure many of you have had, in your lives, such books. For me that book was J.S Mill’s On Liberty. Mill did two things to my thinking. The first is that, for the first time in my life I was exposed to an intelligent, well thought out attack on liberalism. For example Mill raised the issue that Democracy was not the same thing as liberty and in fact is likely to be a mortal threat to it. More important than any actual argument he offered was that he got me to doubt the tenants of liberalism. For the first time in my life I had to ask myself the question: maybe we would be better under an authoritarian form of government. The second thing was that Mill made me a believer in liberalism; specifically, that for all of its flaws, liberalism held out the best hope of building an intellectually open society. While it is this belief in a liberal society that has the most direct effect on my day to day political views, my thoughts on politics come out of this act of doubting liberalism and my struggle to overcome this doubt.

This struggle with doubting the tenants of liberalism has been made more acute by the nature of my field of historical inquiry. The thinkers that I deal with on a daily basis, such as Maimonides or Isaac Abarbanel, operated outside of the liberal framework, to say nothing of the modern liberal framework. As much as I may want to, I can’t take any of the easy ways out. I respect them too much to simply dismiss them as being closed minded, prejudiced and irrational or to patronize them by saying that they simply lived in a less enlightened times and did not know better. I have too much intellectual integrity to try to whitewash them and make them into something that my liberal sensibilities could be comfortable with. That leaves one option, to deal with them as they were and to come to terms with their political thought as they understood it. This means I spend much of my time exploring systems of thought that do not operate on liberal assumptions and in fact assume things that fly in the face of liberalism. I do not have the luxury of simply dismissing such thought; I have no other choice but take such views as serious intellectual options.

Because of this, I am constantly forced to confront the issue of what do I believe, why I believe it and am I justified in my beliefs. It is not that Mill made me doubt and then offered some nice clean solution to save me from doubt, like what one might expect from some religious outreach professional; I continue to doubt. Amongst many other things, I struggle with Mill himself. Was he himself too dismissive of his own questions? Do his answers really hold? While I believe in tolerance and all the other major tenants of traditional liberal thought, for me these are not givens. I follow these tenants for very specific reasons and that there is a price to be paid for those liberal beliefs; not everything is neat and clean. Other people, upon examining the issues, are likely find that price to be too high and seek alternatives to liberalism. By doing this they are not being close minded, prejudiced and irrational any more than the many great thinkers of the past, who also did not accept the basic tenants of liberalism.

To bring this all back to Tobie and my Christmas post, for me Jews being tolerated by American society is not something to be taken for granted as a basic level of morality. I recognize that there can be sane, rational and decent people that want a different sort of society than the one offered by liberalism. Furthermore, I recognize that it is possible that such a society might have little use for someone like me. At times I even suspect that such people might be correct in their rejection of liberalism. For me this is not an attack on liberalism but a reason why it is all the more urgent to defend it.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Horseshoe

This past week I took myself on a vacation to Los Angeles. I had never been to the west coast so I figured it counted as me expanding my horizons in ways that do not involve going to church or anything else that would raise my grandparent’s blood pressure. On both trips I had a stopover in Phoenix for an hour, another city that I had never been to. So I also got to see Phoenix, or at least the inside of the airport. Now you might say to me that it is only rational that someone living in Columbus OH would want to escape the Midwest December weather and head to Los Angeles.

Truth is that the weather in Los Angeles was horrible for the entire week I was there except for Sunday, when I went to Disneyland. That was an interesting experience. It was the day before Christmas and they had a Christmas themed parade through the park complete with ice skating; all this in weather that, according to my Midwestern mind, should only exist in the summer. I have an idea; you should only be allowed to celebrate your version of the Judeo-Christian-Atheistic-Capitalistic-Gift Giving Season if you are in a place that actually has legitimate December weather. Otherwise it is not really the holiday season.

Well considering the nature of the weather one would have imagined that it would only be people from Columbus touring the west coast and not the other way around. But then again, I was just coming back to my apartment when a well dressed man stopped me and asked me if I could take a picture of him by the Ohio State sign. Turns out that this man was from Phoenix and he was here on a business trip. As a boy growing up on the west coast he used to watch OSU football; he was a big fan of Archie Griffen. To those of you who do not live in Columbus or who are not college football fans, Archie Griffen won two Heisman trophies, playing Running Back for OSU back in the 70s. So this man, as he was here, had decided to tour the campus. After getting his picture at the sign he then asked me for directions to the Horseshoe, our football stadium. I gave him the directions. Of course considering that the Horseshoe seats about 105,000 people (and it gets filled on game day particularly if the opponent is Michigan) it is pretty difficult to miss.

So to all of you who think that Columbus is just some dull Midwestern town. You see that even people on the west coast have heard of us and come to tour our city even in December.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Some Good Christmas Tolerance

It is Christmas again. To those of you who are unfamiliar with the holiday, Christmas is when Americans, across the political spectrum, get together to celebrate the cultural war and fight about the meaning of Church and State and tolerance. For me, the yearly attempt by the ACLU to ban crèches from state property and public schools and to replace Christmas trees with holiday trees is a perfect example of how modern liberals do not understand the concept of tolerance. Of course liberals will tell you that they are the tolerant ones and that their campaign is being waged in the name of tolerance. Our majority Christian culture needs to take into account the fact that not everyone in this country is a Christian; there are Jews, Muslims, and Hindus, not to mention deists, agnostics and atheists here in this country and they are good and loyal citizens. Therefore Christians have to be sensitive to the feelings of other groups and not do anything that might make them feel left out.

When it comes down to it, the liberal notion of tolerance is that the dominant culture/the culture that lacks favored minority status in the eyes of liberals must accommodate itself to “minority” cultures/cultures that possess favored minority status in the eyes of liberals. Read the material on tolerance put out by liberal groups such as the ACLU, NOW, the NAACP or People for the American Way, their narrative of tolerance is one in which the dominant culture makes accommodations to minority cultures, it is never the other way around. When do you ever hear it discussed as to what blacks owe white culture, what women owe men, or what homosexuals owe heterosexual society?

For me tolerance is about the dominant culture making allowances for minorities, but it is also about the debt owed by minorities to that dominant culture. I am a Jew who lives in the Christian country of the United States of America. Christians have no reason to tolerate me and every reason to resent me. American Christians do not owe Jews anything nor do we Jews have anything that they need. This is not the Middle-Ages; we are not needed as money lenders, tradesmen or doctors. I have no reason to doubt that, if the United States expelled its Jews, the country could continue to function without a hitch. In fact Christians pay a price for tolerating us. By tolerating us, Christians give up on having a Christian society. Now liberals would argue that society does benefit from tolerating minorities in that it allows for an open exchange of ideas. The problem with this is that you can get an open exchange of ideas simply through books, without the aid of people at all. If the United States were to expel its Jewish population, Americans would still have access to Jewish ideas. An American Christian could sit down and study the Talmud, Maimonides or Sigmund Freud without ever meeting an actual Jew. If he really felt the need to meet Jews first hand then he could always travel to a foreign country, such as Canada or Israel, to see them. He does not need to tolerate their presence in his own country.

American Christians have no reason to tolerate the presence of Jews yet they do it anyway and for that we Jews should be incredibly grateful. We owe American Christians a debt we could never repay. All we can do is to say thank you for the gift and try not to abuse it. For a Jew to raise his voice and complain about the public celebration of Christmas is to be ungrateful. Any Jew that tries, in any way, to stop or alter the celebration of the holiday needs to be smacked. The same thing applies to all minority groups living here. Tolerance is not a right that one can demand; it is a gift that a dominant culture gives.

I use Christmas as a time to reflect on how much I owe American Christians. As an expression of my appreciation, I make it a point to wish people a Merry Christmas. Here is my modest proposal. Instead of using Christmas season as the High Holidays of our cultural wars, let Christmas be a time that Jews and all other minority groups learn a lesson in tolerance and give our dominant Christian culture an earnest thank you.

Merry Christmas.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Haredi Generation Gap

In my last post I raised the question as to how someone like Rabbi Horowitz could justify remaining in the Haredi world considering his views on the internet. Rabbi Horowitz is not the only person in this predicament of viewing himself as Haredi depite being open to the world. My father sees himself as part of the Haredi world, despite the fact that many of his closest friends are reform and conservative rabbis. My cousin’s father-in-law has a PHD in history and teaches gemara at Bar-Ilan, but lives in Bnai Brak. SB, the father of a good friend of mine, strongly indentifies with his Torah V’daat education despite the fact that he has an apartment full of books on philosophy, politics and history.

Because of my father, I identified myself as being part of the Haredi world through high school. Growing up in Columbus OH, I assumed that Haredi meant people like my father; someone who meticulously kept Jewish Law. It was very easy to make this mistake since, as I was growing up in Columbus OH as the rabbi’s kid, my family was the most religious family that I knew. It never occured to me, for example, that there were Yeshivot out there who would have rejected me because my family owned a television.

I believe that what separates me from my father is the generation gap. My father and all the other people I mentioned were born before the late 1960s. Back then the Haredi world was much more of a big tent. Being part of the Haredi world meant you were deeply committed to practicing Jewish Law. It has nothing to do with not seriously studying secular subjects, banning television and banning the internet. Haredim before the late 1960s were still raised as relatively normal American kids, albeit with tzitzit and kipput. They followed sports, watched television and movies and got an education. In my experience when dealing with Haredim from that generation, even those who support not having anything to do with the secular world, if you scratch below the surface you will find that they do have a background in secular culture and that they got it honestly. The interesting thing is when you talk to their kids. The kids have no such background, at least not any that they got honestly. Do kids raised in Haredi homes know about secular things? Quite often yes. The thing is that they have gained it, usually from movies, by breaking the rules and engaging in behavior that they themselves see as wrong.

So my father was not deceiving me when he raised me to believe that being Haredi meant being meticulous with Jewish Law; that was the Haredi world he was raised in. The problem, though, is that my father’s Haredi Judaism has disappeared. What is left are eccentric intellectuals or, as in my father’s case, people who live outside of New York and therefore failed to get the message.

I have no such option available to me and it is my father's generation's fault. They failed to preserve a big tent for Orthodox Jews and my generation has to pay the price.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Can "Walmart" Destroy the Haredi World? II

(This is the conclusion of my earlier article, “Can Walmart Destroy the Haredi World?”)

The rise of the internet, and in particular the rise of the blogosphere, has created a modern incarnation of many aspects of the Enlightenment. In an earlier post I discussed how the act of blogging seemed to me to hearken back to the confessional style of autobiography exemplified most famously by Rousseau’s Confessions. A blogger puts forth his “private” thoughts before the public. This creates the persona of a unique self. By doing this the blogger is declaring that he is a own unique individual with his own vision of the world and that as such he has value in of himself without any recourse to any social institution or tradition.

This Enlightenment view of the individual was a direct challenge to traditional views and it can be seen as laying the groundwork for Kant. Once we have created the individual as something possessing its own authority then this individual, which we have now created, can turn around and challenge the traditional authority. The modern internet has repeated this same process. Ultimately the internet can be seen as Kant’s Enlightenment on steroids. The internet gives each individual the power to sit and judge traditional authority based on his own thoughts and understanding. The blogosphere is nothing if not precisely this. Now every Moshe David Jew, with a connection, has an open forum to criticize and judge the gedolim, religious sages, and be heard by people around the world.

Just as the traditional world of European Jewry proved ill equipped to take on the Haskalah of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; the modern Haredi world is ill equipped to take on the modern “Haskalah on Steroids.” It is not just that the internet gives people access to opinions that are “heretical” and people might become convinced by them. The very act of confronting a variety of opinions and choosing between them, even if one chooses the “right” one, is a sword to the very heart of the Haredi world view. For one is no longer submitting to received authority, but is placing oneself as the authority before which all traditional authority most bow.

The only traditional European Jewish community that had any real success at confronting the challenges of modernity was the Hirschian community in Germany. While most people, when reading Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch, focus on his willingness to incorporate secular learning within the rubric of Judaism, to me what is so crucial about Hirsch was how his vision of Judaism empowered the individual. For Hirsch Judaism was something a person chose out of something within himself. There is nothing in Hirsch about how you must listen to the gedolim, the gedolim are always right and if you do not listen to the gedolim God is going to throw you in Hell. For Hirsch the important question was how to take ones moral ideals theoretical beliefs in God and put them into something concrete. For Hirsch that vehicle was the performance of the Divine commandments found in the bible and Jewish law.

Hirschian Judaism could survive the Haskalah, because it did not run counter to Kant’s Enlightenment. On the contrary Hirschian Judaism was dependent upon it. It too believed in the in authority of the individual. While Kant’s enlightened individual challenged traditional society to justify itself before the authority of reason, Hirsch’s individual Man of Israel challenged the enlightened world to live up to its own ideals and put them in practice.

For all of its faults Modern Orthodoxy continues in this Hirschian tradition of individual authority. Modern Orthodoxy does not have authority figures which one must submit to without question. It has nothing to fear from the internet or any blogger. On the contrary the Modern Orthodox world can welcome all bloggers, even those who attack Modern Orthodoxy, as people who are taking up their rightful mantles as individuals. The Haredi world could never accept bloggers, particularly bloggers who criticize the Haredi world, because to do so mean accepting the fact that these people have legitimate authority as individuals and do not have to submit to Haredi authority.

In the end I do not understand how Rabbi Horowitz can speak of the Haredi world accommodating itself to the world of the internet. For the Haredi world to do this would mean that they would have to accept the notion of the individual being able to judge traditional authority instead of meekly submitting oneself to it. That would mean the end of the Haredi world and the triumph of Modern Orthodoxy. So what does Rabbi Horowitz believe? Does he really believe in the authority of individuals? If he does how can he still call himself part of the Haredi world?

Sunday, December 9, 2007

So this is what the Catholic League is so Scared of? a Review of the Golden Compass

As regular readers of this blog know, despite my loathing for Philip Pullman, I am a fan of his fantasy series, His Dark Materials. I have been waiting with anticipation for months now for the film adaption of the first part of the trilogy, the Golden Compass. The film of course has drawn its share of controversy with the Catholic League attempting to boycott the film. The mainstream media, true to form, is treating the protests from the religious community as attacks on freedom of expression against a work which only “supposedly is atheistic.” Of course anyone who actually bothered to read the books or to listen to Pullman before he tried to get the books made into films knows that His Dark Materials is not supposedly atheistic, it is straight atheism. Pullman wrote these books as a counter to Narnia and as a way to sell atheism to children. So when religious leaders complain about His Dark Materials they are not making things up or being paranoid. I still believe that a copy of His Dark Materials should be placed in the hands of every boy, girl and adult in this country, but then again I am strange.
So last night, with a friend from my building, who is also a fan of the books, in tow, I went off to see the Golden Compass. To keep things simple, the film was absolutely dreadful. Not even fighting polar bears could save this film. I found that I could not care less about any of the characters. None of them made any sense. Despite the fact that Tom Stoppard helped write it, the screenplay was a mess. It was a serious of tenuously held together events crashing into each other. I admit that the book was quite episodic itself, but you can get away with it much more easily in books than you can on film.
How does one go about taking one of the most original pieces of fantasy literature and reduce it to a pile of clichés? In the books alethiometers are rare and the Magisterium takes an active interest in them. In the movie, I guess feeling that they needed to raise the stakes to make the story more like the common stereotype people have of fantasy, they made Lyra’s alethiometer the last one in existence. In the books the members of the Magisterium maintain at least some semblance of being human. They are not evil per se but bureaucratic. In making the film someone must have decided that, being that is fantasy, the Magisterium needed more like traditional fantasy villains. "Fearing any truth that is not their own," they are out to catch Lyra and destroy her alethiometer. I was reminded a bit too strongly of how the Da Vinci Code film made Opus Dei even more over the top than the book did. One is left to wonder why anyone actually bothers to follower an organization that is as evil and incompetent as the Magisterium. For me the biggest crime against the books was the ending. Those who have read the books know that, at the end of the Golden Compass, Lord Asriel, Lyra’s uncle (really her father), murders her best friend Roger in order to use the energy released by Roger’s dying soul to open a gateway to another world. The movie decided to end before this point. Lyra and Roger are still traveling toward Lord Asriel and we are told that there is a prophecy about Lyra telling how she will decide the coming war.
His Dark Materials were books that purposely defied the traditional fantasy cliché in which the world is divided into neat categories of Good and Evil. Lord Asriel is one of the good guys. Lyra mother Mrs. Coulter is also, in her own way, on the good side, despite the fact that she also does some pretty horrible things. For the life of me I cannot understand why the writers of the film could not keep to this. Could it be that Pullman felt that he needed to simplify his atheistic message to make it more digestible to today’s TV addicted youth? And I thought that atheists were the smart ones.

Friday, December 7, 2007

The New York Times Does Asperger Syndrome

The New York Times has a story on Asperger Syndrome, Asperger’s Syndrome Gets a Very Public Face. The story focuses on Heather Kuzmich, who competed on the show America’s Top Model with much success and has now become a bit of a celebrity.
While overall the article took a positive stand to Aspies, the author, Tara Parker-Pope, still insisted on describing Asperger Syndrome as a “neurological disorder” and as a “disability.” This is a wonderful example of a journalist coming into a story with preconceived notions and holding onto them even when they fly in the face of the facts. Heather, as the article points out, is a talented art student, is on the edge high fashion and has a knack for connecting with the camera. She was voted favorite model eight weeks in a row. So what is Heather’s problem? She had difficulty relating to the other girl’s on the show, who were at times quite mean to her. But is that a problem with her or with the other girls on the show? Heather did nothing wrong, it was the other girls who mistreated her. It is they who have a problem; it is they who need to learn to be more tolerant and accepting of other people’s differences.
Aspies are not disabled in any way. It is not that we lack social skills it is just that we socialize in very different ways. For NTs (neuro-typicals) being sociable is an ends in of itself. For Aspies it is a means to achieve specific ends. It is no fault of Heather’s that she did not do much socializing. Why should she have needed to? Our way of dealing with the world may make us appear aloof and standoffish but it is also far more rational. It is not we who are disabled; we are the reasonable ones here. While Aspies, like everyone else, are not perfect, we have an advantage over NTs in that we are much better at thinking in terms of set rules. This gives us an edge in our moral reasoning. We live in a world dominated by True/False, Right/Wrong. Also, since we do not put such a high value on society, we are not so easily trapped into playing social power games and trying to knock other people down the social hierarchy ladder.
I am not saying the Aspies are better than NTs. That being said, do not dare to stand in judgment over us and cast dispersions as to our abilities lest we turn around and start judging you.
Congratulations Heather for showing the word what people with Asperger Syndrome can accomplish. If only the New York Times could catch on.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Can "Walmart" Destroy the Haredi World?

Rabbi Yakov Horowitz of Project YES has an interesting article, “Walmart is coming,” in which he uses the analogy of Walmart to describe the threat posed to the Haredi world by the internet. Walmart can provide a whole array of different products all at a cheap price. If you an owner of a mom and pop store in a small town, not used to any competition, Walmart is likely going to destroy you. The only way to survive is to innovate. You need to give people, who have Walmart to shop at, a reason to still shop by you. The internet is, as Rabbi Horowitz observes, “the Haskalah on Steroids.” It provides a world of options at the click of a button. The Haredi educational system is built around the mom and pop store model. It assumes that students do not have other options and that they will continue to accept what they are taught simply because that is the way things should be. Will the Haredi world learn to adept itself to this new world or will they go the way of thousands of small mom and pop stores around the country?
Rabbi Horowitz is without question the blogosphere’s favorite Haredi rabbi for his honest and insightful criticism’s of the Haredi world. What perplexes me, at times, about Rabbi Horowitz is how he still views himself as part of the Haredi world and has not declared himself Modern Orthodox. Many of the things that he criticizes Haredim for are not simply problems that the Haredi world has but things that by definition make the Haredi world what it is. This article on Walmart and the internet is an excellent example of this.
Rabbi Horowtiz talks about the internet as “the Haskalah on Steroids.” What made the original Haskalah so dangerous? One needs to understand that the Haredi world is built around a paradigm of obedience. A Haredi Jew submits himself to the authority of his community, the Gedolim and Chazal. There is no room of an individual, as an individual, to judge, let alone challenge, these institutions. The original Haskalah of two-hundred years ago built itself around a paradigm of the individual. As Immanuel Kant argued in his famous essay, “What is Enlightenment:” the enlightened individual is one who is not bound by the authority of tradition. Everything must be judged before the bar of reason. What is important here is not the acceptance or rejection of the claims made by traditional authorities, but the right of the individual to judge those traditional authorities. Once you admit that the individual can judge traditional authority than that traditional authority has already lost. It no longer has any real power and must bow before the feet of the individual. In a similar vein C.S Lewis, in his essay “God in the Dock,” argued there that the essential sift to modernity lay in how man viewed his relationship to God’s judgment. In the pre-modern world man viewed himself as standing in the dock, being judged by God. In the world of modernity the roles have been switched. It is no longer man being judged by God, but man judging God. God now stands in the dock and man sits in judgment.
I am not here to judge between these worldviews, that is a discussion for a different post. What is important here are the different worldviews and the stakes attached to them.
(To be continued …)

Sunday, December 2, 2007

What Church Services Have Taught Me About Prayer II: In response to some Questions

1)What benefit to you see in "ambushing" Christians? How is there any Kiddush Hashem in making them feel ignorant of their own religion? We as Jews should not be telling them how to worship any more than they should be telling us how to worship.

First of all, the people I talk to usually do not know that I am Jewish. More importantly, I do my best to do my “ambushing” in a friendly, non confrontational manner. For one thing I do not attack Christianity or any Christians. I do not see the world in terms of Jew vs. gentile. I see the world more in terms of people who believe in God in such a way that it affects their daily lives having to face off against the likes of Richard Dawkins and a highly sophisticated army of atheists. I believe that I am helping the cause of religion by pushing Christians to understand their own religion. I am not telling people what to believe. On the contrary I wish to strengthen their beliefs.

2) Why do you look to other religions for motivation? What do you perceive to be lacking your own religion? If you need motivation then leave Columbus and go to Eretz Yisroel or minimally the greater New York area.

I don’t see anything lacking in Judaism beyond the fact that religions are a lot nicer in theory than when you actually have flesh and blood human beings put them into practice. Studying Christianity helps me be careful not to take my Judaism for granted and it keeps me on my toes. As a Modern Orthodox Jew, a major part of my Judaism is my confrontation and dialectic with the world around me. Therefore, as a Jew living in 21st century America, I must come to terms with Christianity.
Judaism is my first concern. Believe me everything that I do to Christians on an occasional basis I do to Jews on a daily basis. And when I deal with Jews I get a lot more aggressive and less tolerant of foolishness. One should always be tougher on one’s own family and hold them to a higher standard.
Not having a large Jewish community is one the major drawbacks of Columbus though I do love the community here. I am actually planning on spending a year or two in Israel to finish off my degree.

3) How do you view the fact that you grew up in an "out-of-town" community such as Columbus and the education you received there as influencing your interest in Christianity?

The fact that I grew up in an “out of town” community has a lot to do with the kind of person I am today. It left me a lot freer to form my own understanding of Judaism than if I had grown up in New York. No one stuffed Judaism down my throat or threatened that I would go to Hell if I did not behave a certain way. I suspect that if I had grown up in a more “normal” Jewish community I would not be religious today.
I thank my father for raising me in Columbus it is one of the best decisions he ever made.
As to my interest in Christianity, probably the biggest factor was being a student of R’ Carmy at Yeshiva University. He got me into C.S Lewis.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

What Church Services Have Taught Me About Prayer

When I was at Yeshiva University, a professor of mine, Dr. Steven Fine, posed a challenge to me: how could I call myself a medieval scholar if I had never actually been inside of a church? As he saw it, if I was going to study Christianity I needed direct, first hand experience of it. And so he gave me a special assignment that at some point in the school year I had to enter a church.
I have taken his words to heart and I now have made church hopping an occasional hobby of mine. I attend different church services sporting my usual OSU baseball cap so I am not obviously recognizable as being Jewish. I have been to different types of churches, Catholic, Protestant and Episcopalian. There is a wonderful revivalist service here on campus every Sunday night at 6:30. It reminds me a lot of Emunat Yisroel in Boro Park. There is lots of singing and the people there are really nice. Anyone interested in learning how to create a vibrant religious service, that can reach out to people, should come see this church group.
I find that going to church is a a good way to practice the sort of open mindedness that I preach. It also offers a wonderful opportunity to talk to/ambush Christians by getting them into discussions dealing with theological minefields. It amazes me to no end how little most Christians know about their own religion.
In addition to making me a more knowledgeable and worldly individual, going to church has helped me in my Judaism by making me appreciate certain aspects of prayer that one might miss growing up praying in an Orthodox shul. The first lesson I have learned is that music really adds something to a service. Music makes everything much more exciting and it gets people involved. We, the Orthodox Jewish community, pay a price because we do not have music. The second thing church has taught me is that praying in English is really lame. One should not be praying to the Almighty in the same tongue that you use every day. You should have a special language to come to God. Being a believer should require some work. Is it too much to ask that people learn a foreign language? Now I am very open to suggestions. You want to pray in Hebrew, Hebrew is a beautiful language, so is Latin. I don't know any Greek but my friends tell me that it is interesting. When I hear Christians, particularly Catholics say something as basic as the Lord's Prayer in English I feel betrayed. What do you mean you people cannot be bothered to study Latin? As a protest I recite Pater Noster under my breath. Stupid Christians, dumbing down their own religion.
I have a lot of respect for Christian theology. I guess it has become my pure intellectual alternative universe Judaism. To all you Christians out there: You have a beautiful religion. Why don't you bother to actually study it? For that matter to all you Jews out there: You have a religion that even manages to make sense most of the time. Please sit down and study it.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

My Friend the Mormon

My Mormon friend, CJ, recently wrote me an email commenting on my posts about my meeting with some Mormon missionaries. (See here and here.) CJ himself spent two years as a missionary in Peru. He is the sort of religious, intelligent, decent person that my parents probably would have wanted me to turn out like. (Just a Jewish version though) We had an interesting back and forth between the two of us, which CJ has kindly allowed me to reprint here.

CJ
Well I do appreciate you getting to know the church before you past judgment on Mormons. So many times even my closets friends never really took the time to understand its basic principals. I do realized that you are probably not looking to convert, but just to know more information. It was pretty obvious from your method of getting the book of Mormon and because I know you. By the way I have like 4 extra copies, so if you ever lose the one you have I got your back. If you are ever interested Mormons have other canonical books as well that I could get to you a free copy as well. But anyway, I think some of your concerns are quite valid, especially regarding whether a spiritual experience is from god or not. This is something that has worried me and many people I taught as a missionary. But I think there are ways to know, it just might take longer than people are willing to invest. Although I do disagree with you on one point, just because we don’t believe in Thomas Aquinas or any other post New Testament religious philosopher doesn’t disqualifies from being Christians. I always have viewed Christians as people who believe Christ is the Messiah (and subsequently follow his teachings). But I think you were more concerned about the Christian tradition than beliefs per se. So in that sense you are right. By the way the missionaries are only 19-21 years olds that haven’t had much university training. There are Mormons that are more knowledgeable regarding Mormonism versus classical Christianity. They don’t really train missionaries to encounter people have a master’s degree from Yeshiva University. (Although I do know a Mormon who went there). So that’s what I think. I still think you have good potential for becoming a Jewish Mormon Missionary. I not sure we can work that one out (you would probably actually have to become Mormon), but it would be hilarious none the less.

BZ
Well there is one Mormon, who goes to OSU, whom I have great respect for. ;)
I greatly admire Orson Scott Card, though I have never met him in person. What other holy books do Mormons have? The life of Joseph Smith, anything else? Let me get through the book of Mormon. Lord knows when that will happen. As to the issue of how one defines being a Christian. There is an evangelical Christian group known as Jews for Jesus. They argue that they are Jews who simply believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God and part of the Trinity. The Jewish community as a whole refuses to view them as part of the Jewish religion. I would justify this stance by saying that Jews for Jesus is outside of the Jewish tradition and is part of the Christian tradition. In this sense Jews for Jesus is different from Reform and Conservative Judaism which, while I may disagree with their understanding of Judaism, I still view as part of the Jewish tradition and therefore a type of Judaism.You view Catholics and Protestants as Christians even though you disagree with them. Do you view people who say that Jesus is not a divine figure as still being Christians? I believe in Jesus. I believe that he was a great moral teacher. I have no problem with saying that he was born of a virgin, did miracles or that he ascended to heaven alive. I do not believe that he was God nor do I believe that he fulfilled Isaiah 11. Can I be counted as a Christian? You believe that Christianity went to pot after Paul. I believe that Christianity went to pot with Paul. As to our 19-21 year old Christian missionaries, I assume they are going to run into educated Christians at some point, who are likely going to do to them what I did. There is no way that you are going to be able to talk to such Christians unless you can talk about Aquinas or Augustine. Or have the Mormons simply decided to only talk to Christians who know nothing about Christianity. Whats the story behind the Mormon who went to YU? Did he go to one of the graduate schools or did he convert to Mormonism later in life?

CJ
… We have two other canonical books along with other inspired commentaries. In truth Mormons have a pretty loose definition of scripture. We believe revelation is a continual process.
As for defining who is a Christian and who isn’t really does not concern me. I am well aware of the Jews for Jesus movement and if they or you or anybody else wants to consider themselves Christians, I don’t really care. I just wanted to affirm that Mormons are Christians since they are followers of Christ. Hence the real name of the church: the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
In regards to Missionaries, I think it is unfair to expect them to have read Aquinas or Augustine, since they don’t even believe it. Would you expect a Rabbi to have read the Book of Mormon? (Or even one of the more obscure religious tracts from Mormonism.) I sure many have, but I would not view it as an expectation. We seek out all classes of people, not just the uneducated. I myself taught people as a missionary that were in the seminary and who knew a lot more about Aquinas and Augustine that I would ever hope to. But my message wasn’t about Aquinas or Augustine. The message of the missionaries is inherently spiritual. There are other Mormons that could and would be elated to discuss medieval religious philosophy, if you want to converse with them I would be glad to provide their email.
As for my friend who went to Yeshiva. To my knowledge he has been a Mormon all his life. I believe he did a master’s degree there. In what, I do not know.
I hope I don’t sound too contentious. I just want to be well understood. I not sure we are every going to agree on some of these issues, but I do enjoy discussing them. …

BZ
… My problem with the missionaries was not that they had not read Augustine or Aquinas, I myself have only read bits and pieces, but, from what I could tell, they did not know who these people were. I asked them how Mormons understood the concept of Grace and how their conception of it compared to someone like John Calvin. I got a blank stare from them. They should have gotten this in high school history. Yes I know our school systems stink, but that only means that it was all the more important for whoever trained them to make sure they knew this.By the way I have yelled at Rabbis before, not because they had not heard of the book of Mormon per se, but because they did not know what the Four Gospels were. Side story, I once, as part of a quiz, asked the students in my section what the name of the Christian Bible was and one student said the King James. I also asked them to name three early Christians. Someone put down Augustus. With the campaign of Mitt Romney the whole issue of are Mormons Christian becomes more of an academic issue. Let us imagine that a member of Jews for Jesus was running for public office. I would be offended if the media were to say that he was a Jew. I would have no objection to voting for the man if I thought he was a good candidate. All the best.

CJ
Well those missionaries must just not be very good, because I know that John Calvin is mentioned in their teaching guide, so they need to do reading. They gave us two hours in the morning to study but like school some take more advantage of it than others. I must admit though that we have in some way been trying to address some of your concerns. About 3 years ago they changed some of the training that missionaries receive to include more history. So although I think Augustine and Aquinas are a stretch, at least in theory they should know more. In fact the new teaching manual has information of non-Christian religions as well like Buddhism and Islam. I would agree though that ignorance about religion in general is high. Today asked my class about the story of Moses. One of our readings had made a passing reference to him. I got a bunch of blank stares and had to explain in detail his escape from Egypt in order for them to understand the reference. It was quite ridiculous. Oh well. I guess that’s why they have people like us teaching in University.
Chao,

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

The Continued Adventures of HaRav HaGaon HaTzadik Thomas Covenant HaKofer: Rebetzin Kofer to the Rescue II.

Stephen Donaldson wrote the original books of the Covenant Chronicles more than twenty years ago. Recently he started another round of Covenant books titled the Final Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. He plans to write four books for the Final Chronicles. So far he has written two of the books, Runes of Earth and Fatal Revenant, which just came out.
Covenant died at the end of the Second Chronicles. He sacrificed himself for the land he did not believe in. The Final Chronicles are really about Dr. Linden Avery, who came into the Land in the Second Chronicles along with Covenant and was his companion through the events of that trilogy. Avery does not have Covenant’s issues with believing in the Land. She struggles more with issues of power and control. In a sense she is the opposite of Covenant in that she fears being helpless, of not being able to save others, while Covenant feared the moral implications of having power and the responsibility of saving others.
In the Final Chronicles it is Avery’s task to once again save the Land from Foul. The thing about Foul, and what makes him such a great villain, is that, like Donaldson’s heroes, Foul is a far more complicated character than what you would usually expect from fantasy. Foul is not simply this evil doer who wants to take over everything and kill everybody. Foul is bound to the Land and wishes to destroy the Land in order to break free and once again challenge the creator. In order for this to happen he would need Covenant’s white gold ring to willingly be surrendered to him or for someone else to use the ring to destroy the Land. Foul always works in multiple directions. While on the surface he presents a threat to the Land, his real goal is always to get either Covenant or Avery to use the ring to bring about the destruction of the Land they wish to protect. Foul has a knack for being able to put his opponents in situations in which their particular characteristics will work against them and to allow them to gain powers precisely tailored for them to misuse. In Avery’s case, Foul has two weapons to wield against her, her love for Covenant and her desire to save her son, Jeremiah, who Foul has under his control. To better aid Avery in allowing her to bring about the doom of the Land, Foul has allowed Avery to regain the Staff of Law, which she now wields in addition to Covenant’s ring.
At the end of Runes of Earth, Avery was reunited with a resurrected Covenant and Jeremiah. Covenant, now a part of the Arch of Time, is no longer the same man whom Avery once knew. Covenant has a plan to destroy Foul, but he needs Avery’s help and Avery, with good reason, does not trust Covenant. The book is a bit slow until you hit page 266, at which point everything changes. The second half of the book has some awesome fight scenes. Particularly with Avery having to take on an adult and very twisted Roger Covenant.
If Lord of the Rings is the greatest overall fantasy series ever written then the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant has the most sophisticated characters. In a way this can become a weakness of Stephen Donaldson. At times he becomes too smart for his own good and makes his characters too complicated much in the same way that Frank Herbert, in the later Dune books, made his characters so complex that they were reduced to incomprehensibility. Donaldson though manages to keep his characters human in ways that Herbert, despite his unquestionable genius, failed to do.
Fatal Revenant, as with the rest of the Covenant Chronicles, is an experience. Be warned though, whatever you might think of fantasy, the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant are anything but light reading.
Long Live the Unbeliever.

Monday, November 5, 2007

The Continued Adventures of HaRav HaGaon HaTzadik Thomas Covenant HaKofer: Rebetzin Kofer to the Rescue I.

I met my best friend, AS, a few years ago. Some people whom I had just met invited me to come along to some friends of theirs to watch Star Trek. The couple, to whose house we were going to, had a son, which these people thought I might get along with. I walked into the basement and behold there was the Extended Edition of the Lord of the Rings Movies. So that was already one thing we had in common. It took a few more seconds to move from Lord of the Rings to a whole range of other things which we had in common, like our habit of making passing references to obscure topics which for some strange reason most other people are not familiar with.
It was AS who introduced me to the work of Stephen Donaldson and his fantasy series, the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever. The original books were written back in the late 70s and early 80s. They consisted of two trilogies, the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever and the Second Chronicles of Thomas the Unbeliever.
The story is about man named Thomas Covenant who suffers from leprosy. Covenant found out that he had leprosy when he was taken to a hospital after a cut on his hand, which he had not even noticed turned gangrene. This accident lost him several fingers. When his wife found out about this she abandoned him, taking their young son, Roger with her. Covenant, in order to cope with his predicament, needs to believe two things about himself. One, that nothing that has happened to him is his fault. Two, that he does not have the power cure himself.
Covenant finds himself mysteriously transported to this magical place known as the Land. Covenant, with the aid of his wedding ring which is the focus of wild magic in the world, must defend the Land against the evil Lord Foul the Despiser. Now wait you say, this is Narnia and Lord of the Rings and just about every other work of fantasy ever written. Covenant must learn to believe in himself, cast off his notions of what is real and not real, have faith and all will be well. Or at least that is what you would expect. This story, as the title indicates, is not about belief but about disbelief. Covenant does not believe that the Land is real and persists in actively disbelieving in it, earning him the title Unbeliever. It is crucial for Covenant to maintain his disbelief, because to believe in the Land and in himself as its savior violates the very principle upon which he has built his life, the belief in his own helplessness. As the series goes on it becomes imperative for Covenant to continue to disbelieve in the Land even as he falls in love with out and finds himself risking everything to save it. It is because Covenant refuses to give in to simple belief that he has the power to stand against Foul.
The spirit of the series can best be summed up in the tagline to the third book, the Power that Preserves, which is: “Be True Unbeliever.” AS and I have adopted this as the official salute between ourselves.
It would be easy to categorize the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant as a work atheistic fantasy similar to Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant though is far more nuanced than a simple attack or confirmation of faith. It is about the dialectic between faith and disbelief. If the series is a polemic against anything it is against absolutism and the demand for simple, concrete answers.
It is for this reason that AS and I so strongly identify with this series. We are both deeply committed religious individuals. Our faith though is about questioning and challenging things. God is the person we love to yell at and Judaism the religion we love to criticize. Aside from Judaism, we love to talk about sci-fi, fantasy and Christian theology. He does nineteenth century evangelicals. I do medieval Catholicism. This is not an easy balancing act, but we keep each other strong in the faith.
(To be continued)

Thursday, November 1, 2007

B is for Movie Reviewed by BZ.

I received tickets for a pre-screening of the new DreamWorks cartoon, Bee Movie, which was being shown at the Drexel theater on campus. I had no particular interest in seeing this movie but a free night out is a free night out. So last night I found myself on line to watch this Bee Movie. When it came time to let us in, the theater manager opened the barrier and waved me through and pointed me to a nearby theater entrance. I walked through the barrier and headed into a movie theater and sat down. Not bothering to look up at the sign at the entrance, I did not realize that I had not entered the theater for the Bee Movie but the theater right next to it. A few minutes later the previews started to role. At this point I began to think that something was strange. Why were they showing a bunch of previews for what were clearly adult, art house films before a kids movie? Then the movie started and I got my answer. I was not in the theater for Bee Movie but the theater for Lars and the Real Girl.
A moral quandary here. Lars and the Real Girl was a movie that I actually wanted to see. It stars Ryan Gosling, who as far as I am concerned is the greatest young actor there is. If you have not heard of Ryan Gosling, watch the Believer. He gives new meaning to an off the derech Yeshiva bochur. The character he plays, Danny Balint, is a drop out Orthodox kid who becomes a neo-Nazi. To the best of my knowledge, Gosling is not Jewish nor does he have any background with Orthodox Judaism. Which makes the performance he pulls all the more impressive. This is one of the few films that I have seen that understands Judaism and what makes it tick. Gosling also stars in the Notebook, which has to rank as one of the greatest Romantic films ever made. I love the two main characters. I happen to love them a lot more when they are both dressed, but that is a separate issue.
What is to stop me, now that I am inside, from just sitting back and watching this movie? No one would have to know and no one is actually being hurt. If the case was that I had bought a movie ticket for one movie and went and watched another movie instead would there be any issue at all? It is not like I had purposely gone into another theater; I accidently wondered in. This should be chalked up as one of those many marvelous mishaps you get into when you have a brain that is high on Asperger Syndrome. I walked out of the theater and went and watched Bee Movie.
Bee Movie, in the spirit of Antz, is about a bee named Berry, voiced by Jerry Seinfeld, who is frustrated with the bureaucratic life of the hive and wonders forth into the wide world. Along the way he befriends a florist and learns all the usual good liberal lessons that one would expect from a cartoon; be yourself, be tolerant of others and help take care of the environment.
I happen not to be a fan of Jerry Seinfeld. I am one of the few Jews I know who was never into the show Seinfeld. In general I am not much into Jewish humor. I am much more of a British humor person. This film is very much a Jerry Seinfeld film. If you like his humor you will like this film if you do not then you won’t.
I found the film frustrating because it had potential at points. In the second half of the film Berry discovers that human beings are taking honey from bees and using it for their own benefit. He therefore sues the major manufacturers of honey and Ray Liotta in court. If only the people making this film had understood what makes a scenario like this funny. What we have here is a minority group claiming nonexistent rights and creating frivolous law suits. The problem with the film is that, for some strange reason, it seems to side with the bees. Berry becomes the valiant lawyer standing up for the rights of all bees against the corporations and their villainous lawyer who looks like a short, fat and ugly version of William Jennings Bryan. The lawyer, befitting his role as a good conservative villain (those are supposed to be one and the same thing right) makes snide remarks about Berry and his florist friend and implies that there is something unnatural about their relationship. So we even have our sop to the gay rights movement. We know we are in trouble when writers can write jokes and not realize that the joke is on them.
I have no problem watching liberal propaganda as long as it is done well. Mom why did you not raise me with just a few less morals?

Friday, October 26, 2007

The Columbus Blue Jackets’ Civil War Hockey

I was raised by no one less then my rebbetzin grandmother to be a hockey fan. My grandmother, living in McKeesport PA, is a very big Pittsburgh Penguin fan. I grew up in Columbus before we had the Blue Jackets so, like a good boy, I was a Penguin fan. The Penguins still are my team but I follow the Blue Jackets a little as well. My sister in Baltimore, similarly, is now a Caps fan. While I have lived for the past year three miles away from Nationwide Arena, I had never been to a Blue Jackets game before. So last night I decided to take a break from my Christianity studies and took myself out to see a Blue Jackets game. I got a student rush ticket for $25 that put me three rows behind the glass. As you can see there are certain advantages to living in a city in which people do not care about their professional sports team. In Columbus the team that people care about is the Ohio State Buckeye football team and, depending on the year, the basketball team. There is no way that I would get student rush rink side seats to a Penguins game.
Long before I got myself into Late Medieval and Early Modern History, I was a Civil War buff. I was the sort of kid who asked for the Ken Burns Civil War documentary as a bar mitzvah present. Glory is my favorite Civil War Movie. God’s and Generals is the more inspiring and heart wrenching film but despite its genius it is too flawed a film. While I am at it, the best novel ever written about the Civil War without question is Killer Angels.
Despite the fact that the Blue Jackets have a mascot named Stinger, the name Blue Jackets is supposed to refer to the Union army in the Civil War. To those of you who are illiterate in American history, Ohio fought on the Northern Side during the Civil War and produced the North’s two greatest general, Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman. The Blue Jackets have recently been emphasizing this. They now have as their motto, “Carry the Flag.” Before the game begins Stinger comes out to plant the Blue Jacket's flag. As they are about to bring out the team a clip from Glory comes on the Jumbotron. It’s the one where Matthew Broderick is about to send the 54th Massachusetts, a colored regiment, to attack Ft. Wagner. He goes over to the carrier of the regimental flag and asks his men: “If this man should fall who will lift the flag and carry on?” You then have members of the Blue Jackets saying I will, I will. The screen then goes to an animation of charging soldiers who then morph into hockey players.
Considering all the Russian and European players on the team, this Civil War ethos is a bit humorous. When the Blue Jackets score they fire off a series of cannons. Maybe in homage to our Russian players we can follow up the cannon fire with the end of Tchaikovsky’s Overture of 1812.
The Blue Jackets were a lousy team last year and look to be, at best, a mediocre team this year. Probably the more appropriate scene for them to have used would have been the one where Matthew Broderick gets killed and Denzel Washington rushes forward and grabs the flag and shouts “Come on” before being shot himself. The men of the 54th then heroically charge forward into battle and are slaughtered.
The Blue Jackets beat the St. Louis Blues 3-0. The Blue Jackets are now 5-3-1. This Civil War hockey fan holds on to hope.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

A Delicious Serving of Jim Dale: A Review of Pushing Daisies.

My family got into Harry Potter listening to Jim Dale’s audio recording of the books. The books are of course incredible, but Jim Dale adds a dimension all of his own. There is something downright intoxicating about his voice and the voices he does for the characters are otherworldly. He set a Guinness World Record for the most different voices in an audio book. I recently found the British recording of Order of the Phoenix at a used book store. I happen to be a fan of Stephen Fry, who did this recording, but he is nothing compared to Jim Dale. To all those who do not get what all the fuss has been about this past decade you owe it to yourself to listen to the Dale recording.
This week, while folding laundry, I flipped to the ABC website (you can watch most shows these days at your convenience, with almost no commercials, legally at the network websites.) and watched this new show Pushing Daisies. Jim Dale narrates this show and he is at the top of his game. The show could almost be an audio book with visuals and actors to fill in the gaps in Jim Dale’s monologuing.
Even without Jim Dale this is one incredible show. It is about a pie maker, named Ned, who can bring the dead back to life simply by touching them. There are two catches to this. If he does not put them back to being dead within a minute someone else will drop dead in their place. Furthermore if he touches a resurrected person a second time they become permanently dead. In good superhero fashion Ned, in addition to running a pie shop known as the Pie Hole, fights crime on the side. He resurrects murder victims to ask them who their killer was before putting them back to being dead. The central plot of the show centers on Ned and his childhood sweetheart, Chuck. In the first episode of the show, Ned has not seen Chuck since they were about ten that is until he finds her in a funeral home after she was strangled on a cruise ship. Ned balks at putting Chuck back for which the funeral home owner pays the price. Now Ned has the love of his life back in his world, the only problem is that he cannot touch her. As an Orthodox Jew I love this plot line, a romance in which the two leads cannot sleep together or even hold hands.
It would be very easy to be oblivious to how good this show’s acting is. Comedy in general is very hard. As my father once told me: Comedy is much harder to do then drama. There is no such thing as mediocre comedy. In comedy you are either funny or you are not; there is no salvaging a lackluster performance. In drama if things do not work perfectly you can settle for being okay. Now this show is a particularly difficult type of comedy to do. One, you are dealing with a premise that is absolutely absurd with no believability to it. Yet somehow you have to be able to create characters that are believable. It would be so easy to simply allow the show to be ridiculous and ride that into mediocrity. Two, the show is built around comic straights. If good comedy in general is tough to do then being a good comic straight requires genius. A comic straight does not say or do funny things yet somehow has to be funny. The characters in this show are very normal people reacting to absurdity in a very matter of fact fashion. Anyone who thinks this is easy has never tried acting.
There are two performances I would particularly like note. The actor playing Ned, Lee Pace, brings a very straight boyish charm to the role but with a dark undercurrent. There is a very old fashioned quality to him that allows him to believably inhabit the show’s 50s set design and costuming. Pity, if he were a decade younger he would make such a good Edward Cullen. Kristin Chenoweth, who played Glinda in Wicked, deliverers an excellent supporting performance as Olive Snook, a waitress at the Pie Hole with a crush on Ned. Chenoweth is an incredible singer who seems to have a knack for playing dumb blondes who get jilted by the men of their dreams. The show has already given her one musical number; I suspect more will be on the way.
I can easily imagine how this show was born. Someone sat down and thought to himself: lets make a show for all those millions of adults Harry Potter fans out there, something smart, sweet and absolutely twisted. A show that is not afraid to embrace its own absurdity. Through the first three episodes we have been subjected to a pair of cheese crazy depressed aunts who used to be synchronized swimmers, a detective with a pair of hand knitted gun holsters, which he made himself, people getting suffocated to death with a plastic bag, a killer eco-friendly car, a murderous crash test dummy, and a duel with a Chinese southern aristocrat. Come to think of it this show at heart most closely resembles Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events.
This, without question, has got to be the best new show out there.
If you have not seen this show, eat your heart out.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Sex, Power and Albus Dumbledore III

When I first started reading Harry Potter I noticed that there seemed to be an awful lot of bachelors in the wizarding world All the teachers at Hogwarts seem to be unmarried so to with most of the members of the Order of the Phoenix. Also most of the kids seemed to come from small families with the Weasleys being a noticeable exception. We never hear of Seamus Finnegan or Dean Thomas having younger siblings. Draco Malfoy appears to be an only child same with Crabbe and Goyle. All this amounts to a society full of people who to all appearances do not particularly concern themselves with sex. To me this made perfect sense. The lives of the citizens of the wizarding world revolve around magic. Both good and dark wizards completely devote themselves to practicing it, studying it, and trying to increase their power. Notice how, besides for history, Hogwarts does not teach any normal subjects. Everything is devoted to the practice of magic. It does not take such a big stretch of the imagination to see magic as totally consuming their lives to the extent that they would show little interest in marrying and having children. This would particularly apply to Albus Dumbledore. Imagine you are Dumbledore. From the time you are a young adult you know that you are one of the smartest and most powerful beings to have ever lived. That power isolates you from everyone else and it places an incredible burden on you. You have a duty to use your power for good yet how do you avoid forcing your will on others and becoming a tyrant? In addition this power is an incredible narcotic. You are nothing short of a God made flesh. Can you begin to imagine what that must feel like? It should not come as any surprise if such a character did not pursue any sexual relationship. The surprise would be if he did.
I understood wizards such as Dumbledore and Snape as being “real” versions of medieval magicians. In fact the very real medieval alchemist Nicholas Flamel shows up in the books as the creator of a philosopher’s stone. If I were to have Dumbledore pursue a sexual relationship it would have been along the lines of Goethe’s Faust. On the surface Faust Part I, is an example of one of our medieval magicians pursuing a sexual relationship. Faust sells his soul to Mephistopheles in order to regain his youth, which he then uses to seduce a young girl named Gretchen. Gretchen becomes pregnant and tries to kill her child. She is caught and executed for her crime. Faust though is not simply a dirty old man out to get laid. He is a philosopher out to engage in bildung. Bildung can best be understood here as the act of engaging in struggle in order to rise above it. Faust, as a philosopher, believes that he must engage in the struggles of this world and cannot remain locked away with his books. This is all part of a wager between God and Mephistopheles to see if Faust, having been given the world, would, on his own, return to God. Perhaps the world would be a better place if people took their ideas about sex from Goethe and not from Freud. Without any doubt one can better appreciate fantasy through the lens of Goethe then through Freud.
In conclusion, while I do not have a problem with there being sex in fantasy, I think there are good reasons why fantasy has far less than most other genres of fiction. I do not think this is a problem that has to rectified. In the end I do not really have a problem with the fact that Dumbledore, it turns out, was gay. I would have preferred it if Rowling had not tried to make this an issue of tolerance. She could have simply said that Dumbledore was gay but that this was simply the way she had imagined him and that no one should think anything of it.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Sex, Power and Albus Dumbledore II

There was no reason to make Dumbledore gay and doing so seriously harms the character. Why did Rowling feel that she had to give Dumbledore a sexual side? The fact that she felt that Dumbledore must have a sexual side, to me, shows a fundamental misunderstanding, on the part of Rowling, as to nature of fantasy.
In fantasy characters are faced with temptations beyond mere sex. In the Twilight series, Bella asks Edward if vampires were capable of having sex as humans do. Edward responds: “… most of those human desires are there, just hidden behind more powerful desires.” (Twilight pg. 310) Normal vampires focus on their thirst for blood. The Cullens, who one can argue are meant to stand in for the Ex-Gay movement, are focused on being able to transcend their nature and avoiding causing harm to anyone. I would see this confrontation with power, as encapsulating what happens to almost all characters in fantasy. Fantasy, more than any other genre, is about characters dealing with extreme powers and extreme responsibilities. It is normal in fantasy to have characters, who possess supernatural powers and or find themselves in situations where they quite literally find themselves carrying the fate of the world. Such characters have far greater temptations and far greater concerns than mere sex. As such it makes perfect sense for characters in fantasy to not be particular concerned with sex. Not only that, but to have them become interested in sex “just like any normal person” would in most cases be a letdown.
Take Lord of the Rings for example. I never seriously wondered about the sex lives of Bilbo Baggins and Frodo Baggins. If the hobbits had been living in any other genre of fiction the fact that both of these characters live by themselves as bachelors for decades in Bag End would raise questions. What precisely was the nature of Bilbo’s adoption of Frodo? What precisely is Frodo’s relationship with Sam? The reason why I never wondered about such things is because both Bilbo and Frodo have to deal with the Ring of Power. I do not imagine Bilbo and later Frodo, during all the decades that they spend alone in Bag End, scoring on young hobbit girls or boys, jerking off or reading porno. I imagine them obsessing about the Ring. Either sitting around and looking at it or thinking about it. Once the story gets going and Frodo finds the fate of the entire Middle Earth resting on his shoulders and the Ring literally eating his soul out, Frodo is not in a position to consider wither he has sexual feelings for Sam or anyone else in the Fellowship. Sam can still dream about going home and marrying Rosie, destroying the Ring is not his responsibility and the Ring is not destroying his soul. Now imagine if J.R.R. Tolkien would have gotten up in front of a crowd of his adoring hippie fans and told them: You all thought I was some stuffed up professor of Anglo-Saxon but guess what. Frodo was gay and he really had a crush on Sam. So you see I am really a hip person, bravely fighting against the Man. Besides for thinking that Tolkien must have been smoking too much of the hobbit’s pipe-weed, I would feel let down because now the whole character of Frodo makes so much less sense. The whole point of Frodo was that he is finds himself utterly consumed by the quest and his struggle with the Ring. If Frodo is able to take a time out and indulge in having a sexual nature then we have no all consuming struggle and I have no reason to be interested in him.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Sex, Power and Albus Dumbledore I

At a recent book reading J.K Rowling announced that Albus Dumbledore, the Dr. Middos character of the Harry Potter series, was in fact gay. (link) I am in middle of mulling over the news trying to decide if I am in any way bothered by this revelation, should I be bothered and does this in any way affect my opinion of the series. In theory I should not be bothered in the least by this. I have no objection what so ever to people having such inclinations. Five to ten percent of the population is this way. That is the way the world works. I do not even have any personal objections to the action itself. It just happens to be forbidden by my religion. I no more object to non Orthodox Jews engaging in homosexual sex than I object to non Orthodox Jews eating pork or violating any of the commandments. Rowling did not say if Dumbledore ever actually consummated any homosexual relationship she just said that he was in love with Grindelwald. Even if Dumbledore was involved in an actual homosexual relationship it should not be a problem. I never was under the impression that Dumbledore was an Orthodox Jew, despite his long white beard.
For me this decision on Rowling’s part perfectly illustrates what I had long suspected of her, that she is a shallow liberal. Her liberalism consists of declaring her creeds of tolerance and questioning authority, without truly comprehending what that entails. This is not an attack on liberalism. I have a problem with any intellectual position that is turned into a series of talking points to be mouthed by its adherents like a catechism. (At least a small part of what is wrong with Orthodox Judaism today can be laid at the feet of whoever bowdlerized Maimonides’ Thirteen Principles of Faith into the thirteen ani mamins.) Does Rowling really believe that by making Dumbledore gay she is helping to stop the persecution of gays, particularly when she waited until after she finished the books to tell anyone? What active intolerance against gays is there in the western world that Rowling feels she has to fight? (Clearly she is not trying to help the gay community of Iran since, as we all know, there is no such thing.) Ultimately for Liberals gay rights is not really about tolerance. The intellectual left rejects the notion of the hegemonic traditional family because it sees that as one of the major thought structures behind patriarchy. For them the gay rights movements is about the normalization of homosexuality as a means of deconstructing the traditional family. For most of the left, those unable to comprehend the very conceptual debates over family and patriarchy, gay rights are a creed to rally behind. As with any religious creed, the point is not that people should intellectually comprehend and believe, but that they should accept the creed as a something to declare and come to believe that they are superior to those who do not declare their belief in it. Most Liberals, in my experience, talk about their belief in gay rights, not as an intellectual position, but as words to be mouthed in order to make themselves superior to those who do not mouth the same words. What Rowling was essentially saying to her audience was that she was one of the brave tolerant people, unlike those nasty Christian fundamentalists out there. She even has a gay character in her books, albeit one that no one knew about. Three cheers for J.K Rowling for really sticking it to those intolerant people out there.
(To be continued.)

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Dr. Tony Attwood’s Definition of Asperger Syndrome

I am a big fan of Dr. Tony Attwood and his work on Asperger Syndrome because he is so insistent on viewing Asperger Syndrome, not as a disease or a mental handicap, but as an equally valid mode of viewing the world. Here is Dr. Attwood’s definition of Asperger Syndrome. (My comments as to how these things relate to me are italicized.)

From my clinical experience I consider that children and adults with Aspergers Syndrome have a different, not defective, way of thinking.

I definitely do not see myself, in any way, as having a problem. If anything it is everyone else who has a problem. The world around me is full of boring, dull and unintelligent people. I am the smart, interesting one. I should be the character you so often see in movies, who comes in to the lives of ordinary people and helps them see the true beauty of the world. The problem, of course, with the perspective is that, while it is perfectly reasonable, it leaves one trapped. If you are not defective then why change? If you have no intention of changing then what is the point of seeking help?

The person usually has a strong desire to seek knowledge, truth and perfection with a different set of priorities than would be expected with other people. There is also a different perception of situations and sensory experiences. The overriding priority may be to solve a problem rather than satisfy the social or emotional needs of others.

I have a reputation for being argumentative. I have no interest in simply talking to people as a means of being sociable. Talking for me is a way to engage in a discussion, usually about ideas and usually quite theoretical at that. I argue in a very forceful manner that many people find intimidating. The truth is that the only way I know how to socially relate to people is by engaging in intellectual brawls with them.

The person values being creative rather than co-operative.

I view life as an intellectual experiment in which I get to push the boundaries of sanity. The 19th century historian, Jacob Burckhardt, in the Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, defined the shift from the medieval world to modern world, ushered in by the Renaissance, in terms of the discovery of the individual. The individual was no longer to be viewed simply as a product of his class, who should meekly accept his station in life assigned to him by God, but as a being who could create his own purpose and meaning. The individual was a canvas upon which one creates one’s own unique piece of art. If we are to believe this, and our modern world’s celebration of the individual gives us every reason to, then I should be viewed as hero of modernity even by those who have never heard of Burckhardt. For some strange reason this has not happened. I suspect this has to do mainly with mass societal hypocrisy.

The person with Aspergers syndrome may perceive errors that are not apparent to others, giving considerable attention to detail, rather than noticing the “big picture”.

All I ask is that, unless you are intentionally being absurd and ironic for the sake of an intellectual joke, what you say should be coherent. I take the failure to do so as a personal insult.

The person is usually renowned for being direct, speaking their mind and being honest and determined and having a strong sense of social justice.

I am not much into social justice in its modern sense. I am, though, a person with strongly held Kantian sensibilities. One needs to have principles and keep to them, especially when they turn against you. Anything else is hypocrisy.

The person may actively seek and enjoy solitude, be a loyal friend and have a distinct sense of humour.

I spend the vast majority of my time alone in my own thoughts, where I play my intellectual games. In a sense my conversations with other people are simply an extension of these games. It is much more interesting to play the game against someone else instead of having to play both sides by yourself. This is of course assuming that the other person understands the game and is capable of some basic level of intelligent thought.

However, the person with Aspergers Syndrome can have difficulty with the management and expression of emotions.

I am very good at expressing certain emotions, such as rage and frustration. When I get angry I raise my voice and gesticulate furiously with my hands. This is perfectly reasonable. You did something to get me angry so what should you expect me to do but get angry.

Children and adults with Aspergers syndrome may have levels of anxiety, sadness or anger that indicate a secondary mood disorder. There may also be problems expressing the degree of love and affection expected by others. Fortunately, we now have successful psychological treatment programs to help manage and express emotions.

I have a running issue with depression. There is most probably a genetic component to it. I suspect that living in a world in which everyone else possess such different thought patterns from my own has not helped. I have a love hate relationship with my depression. It is a major source for my creativity, and much of what makes me interesting. I pay a heavy emotional price for these things. I tend to think that the price I pay in pain is worth it and if I had to choose between my suffering and being dull and ordinary I would choose my suffering, at least on most days.


One of the interesting things I have found in learning about Asperger Syndrome is how much of how I operate so neatly fits into standard Aspie patterns of behavior. Sitting down and reading Tony Attwood’s case studies of Asperger children is for my like reading the story of my own childhood. I keep on thinking to myself: yes that’s me, I did that. This raises an important challenge. I like to think of myself as a rational individual, not as the victim of funny brain chemistry. Does being an Aspie undermine my claims to being a rational individual? In dealing with society it is in my interest to portray myself as an Aspie. People are far more willing to put up with the shenanigans of minority groups or of the mentally handicapped than the shenanigans of eccentrics bent on playing out their own private games with reality.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Oh Boy I Am Now Rich

I just received an email informing me that I am now worth over one million Euros. Finally I can now abandon my life of crime/studenthood and live up to my most decadent dreams. (Mainly the ones involving me owning a massive library.)

THE ROYAL DUTCH STAATSLOTERIJINTERNATIONAL PRIZE AWARD DEPARTMENT REF Number: STT/231-ILGI0431/05
BATCH No: DH/15/096/TVFS TICKET No: 20511465463-7644
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THE CLAIMS DEPARTMENT: Mr. Steve MeijerTel: +31-647-230-404
Fax: +31-847-131-515
Email: theclaimsdepartm@aol.comWebsite: http://www.staatsloterij.nl/
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For me information please see http://www.fightidentitytheft.com/lottery_scams.html and http://www.stopecg.org/lottery.htm.

Monday, October 15, 2007

A Confession of Personality

Over the Succot holiday I had a deep heart to heart conversation with my grandmother, who happens to be a reader of this blog. (So I think that brings the readership of this blog up to at least two.) My grandmother was critical of the fact that this blog tends to be about my feelings and that I expose too much of myself by doing this. She was also very concerned about a piece I had written earlier about the Temple in which I implied that I did not want the Temple to be rebuilt. As to the topic of the Temple, let me clarify. It is not that I do not want the Temple built it is simply the fact that I have no idea how I would integrate a sacrificial cult into my spiritual life. From my discussions with other people, I suspect that I am not alone in this. If you feel that you could integrate a sacrificial cult into your daily worship of God please enlighten me.
I must admit that my grandmother made a valid point when she pointed out how much my personality comes into play with what I write here. She urged me to take myself out of things and write from a more distant perspective. She also wondered what I would do in twenty years if my views change. Would I not potentially be embarrassed by some of the things I wrote? Upon rereading some of my posts I myself was surprised as to how much of this blog is about me as and not straight impersonal arguments. I like to view myself as a deeply rational and analytical individual so in theory I should be keeping my personality out of this.
Part of the problem lies within the very nature of blogging itself. It is both a personal and a public act. One agrees to put ones private thoughts out for the public to see. It is a 21st century version of the Enlightenment’s confessional autobiographies such as the ones written by Rousseau and Solomon Maimon. The personality of the blogger, particularly his status as a common man is paramount. I see this blog as an intellectual diary narrating the evolution of my thought. I expect my thoughts and interests to evolve and I have no intention of ever feeling ashamed of any past positions I have held. The original reason why I started writing this blog last December was, as with most things in this world, because of a girl. She asked me to start a blog as she was curious as to what I would sound like as a blogger. A few days later she decided that it would be best if she never spoke to me again. (This seems to be a pattern with the women who enter my life.) I miss talking to her. I guess she sort of became my Beatrice and this blog came to life as half of the conversation that I wish that I could have had with her.
I am not sure if I should take myself out of my writing and if I should how to go about it. If anyone has any words of enlightenment feel free to share them with me.