Sunday, December 31, 2006

How to Practice Discrimination Against Homosexuals

One of the problems that I have with the gay rights movement is that they have, with great success, built a campaign that rests on intellectual blackmail. Anyone who opposes them is by definition labeled a homophobe, a bigot and as being no different than a Nazi. This worries me on a number of levels. As someone who believes that the salvation of the human race lies in our ability to conduct a free, honest and open rational dialogue with each other and ourselves, the fact that we have a generation that is being taught that you can win arguments simply by calling your opponent a bigot. I have no idea what will happen to the issue of gay rights, but one way or another life is going to go on and there will be new movements, with new issues, and new debates. Does anyone really want this to be the legacy of the gay rights movement? The other cause for concern is that there are real bigots, racists, and Nazis out there and these labels need to be saved for them.
So where should one draw the line between opposition and bigotry? I would link it to discrimination. As I see it discrimination is an opposition to being; it goes beyond actions.
Imagine this. Mr. Fabulous walks into a government office to get a marriage license so he can be married to Ms. Straight All American Gal. The official opens up a file and says: "Mr. Fabulous, we see here that you are a fan of Judy Garland and Barbara Streisand. Our psychologists, therefore, believe that you are in fact gay. As such we refuse to give you this marriage license. Now, this would be discrimination and evidence of bigotry. Stopping Mr. Fabulous from marrying Ms. Straight All American Gal would be no different than stopping a black man or a Jew from marrying her. The government would be excluding someone from something given to society at large on the basis, not of an action, but on a perceived state of being.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

How to Murder a Philosopher Who Has Been Dead for Over 300 Years.

For Hanukkah my mother bought me Betraying Spinoza: the Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein. To be fair to my mother, I asked for it. This book is a perfect example of how one should not handle the subject of history. It is difficult to describe what the book is about mainly because it is an incoherent ramble without any clear thesis.
Act I of the book deals Goldstein's reminisces of her dealings with Spinoza at various points in her life. She tells of the rant given by by her teacher, Mrs. Schoenfeld, in her all girls Yeshiva high school in New York. Spinoza in this case was used as an example of the sort of dangers of thinking for oneself and asking too many questions. Goldstein next moves on to her philosophy professors in college who trashed Spinoza's metaphysics and who also saw Spinoza as the ultimate example of intellectual arrogance for thinking that the human mind, through sheer logic, could comprehend the entire universe. Goldstein though, later on as a teacher in her own right fell in love with Spinoza. She is not clear why she came to love Spinoza, particularly since in practice she rejects almost all of his thought. I have no idea why someone like Goldstein would approve of Spinoza more then those "irrational," "superstitious" kabbalists, which Goldstein decries. One is left with the impression that Goldstein's interest in Spinoza has less to do with the actual thinker then with his utility as a patron saint for secularists.
Act II of this book provides an overview of marrano history and of the Jewish community in Amsterdam, which excommunicated Spinoza. None of the material is original; Goldstein is completely dependent on secondary source material and she does not seem to have any notion of how to get a proper grip on the material. Reading this part of the book could make one forget that this is supposed to be a book about Spinoza.
Act III is a narrative of the life of Spinoza except that in Goldstein's hands Spinoza sounds like Rebecca Goldstein. He went through the Yeshiva system and slowly became disillusioned by it and broke free of the shackles of tradition. His pure intellect simply could not digest the slop he was fed in school. Talk about betraying Spinoza, he has been body snatched. As the man who helped create the modern world, the least one could do is give him his life.
For all of her attacks on Mrs. Schoenfeld's class, Goldstein has managed to learn quite a bit from it. She has managed to reproduce everything wrong with popular orthodox history writing. She does not care for the past except in as it serves as a springboard to polemicize about a contemporary agenda.

Monday, December 25, 2006

Gay Chess

As someone who operates within the traditions of classical liberalism, this whole debate over gay rights has me scared to my very core. As a religious Jew, I really could not care less what the government decides. So what if the government decides that marriage can mean other things besides for a man and a woman. In my entire life, I have not lost a moments sleep over the government recognizing intermarried couples as being married even though Jewish law would never recognize such a marriage. The government can have its definition of marriage and hand out tax breaks and special privileges to whomever it wishes.
As a liberal though I am troubled because this whole issue of gay marriage is being argued in terms of gay rights and not in terms of libertarianism, that the government has no business getting involved with people's private lives and making value judgments about them. The concept of gay rights only makes sense if we view homosexuality in terms of being and not in terms of action. The argument being made for gay marriage (or against anti-sodomy laws for that matter) is that the state, by not giving it due recognition is not allowing homosexuals to fulfill a vital aspect of their being and hence is robbing them of their due humanity.
If we were to view homosexuality in terms of an action then this whole argument collapses. The state is not allowing heterosexuals to marry people of the same gender and it is not allowing homosexuals to marry people of the same gender; everyone is being treated, or mistreated, in complete equality. If a homosexual person wanted the tax breaks and special privileges so badly then that person could always get married to a person of the opposite gender.
I would give the example of chess. Let us say that the government would one day declare that, having recognized the value of having people play chess, it will now give tax breaks and other special privileges to all those who are active chess players. Now would doing this discriminate against all those who were active players of checkers? People who play checkers could make a very good argument that their game is just as good as chess and that therefore they should get the same benefits, but they could not claim that they had been discriminated against. If they wanted these privileges and tax breaks the could always start playing chess.
A major pillar of classical liberal thought is that the government should not treat sex differently than any other action and that the government has no business involving itself in the sex lives of consenting adults. This only makes sense if we treat sex as an action. Once sex becomes what defines a person then it is no longer just another action, like playing a game of chess or drinking a glass of water. If sex is what defines a person's being then the government has every right to take an interest in people's sex lives. Furthermore, the government would be justified in deciding that certain types of sexual beings were more useful to its interests than others. Hence it would be justified in encouraging certain types of sexual behavior over others.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

In Defense of Mediocrity: Some Musings on Eragon

This past weekend I went with my best friend to see the movie Eragon. I had previously read the book that it was based on my friend had not, but we are both big fantasy people. We both came out of it with identical conclusions; the dialogue was awful and the film was in every conceivable way inferior to the Chronicles of Narnia to say nothing of Lord of the Rings. That being said we both enjoyed the film and I recommended it to my father as his sort of move. (You run into the bad guys, you run away from the bad guys and everybody lives happily ever after.) I think part of the reason why we were so positive about the film was that we were playing mystery science theater 3000 together. Besides for that the acting in of itself was actually quite good and there were a number of really cool scenes. Despite having an absolutely lousy script the actors managed to put together characters who were likable and engaging.
From what I have read, Fox spent over $100 million on this film. It has taken in around $30 million in its first week so it seems fair to say that it is heading to be a major box office flop. This raises the question of who gave the green light for this production? Especially since, as I mentioned earlier, the problem with Eragon is that it features one of the worst screenplays in the history of modern fantasy. In making a film the first thing one needs, at least in theory, is a script. That comes before putting actors in front of a camera, costomes and special effects. That means that someone at Fox looked at this script and said: let us invest $100 million on this.

Monday, December 18, 2006

An Alternatively Evil Snape

Curious Jew in her recent post, Severus Snape is a Good Man, makes a case for assuming that Snape is good despite the fact that, as everyone who has read HBP knows, he has murdered Albus Dumbledore. Like many people before her, CJ argues that Snape must have been acting under Dumbledore's orders. Her makes two arguments. She brings the precedent of Jon in A Clash of Kings, who goes over to the enemy in order to save his life and fulfill his duty. Her other argument is that it would be plain stupid if Snape really were evil in the end.
I find it ironic that CJ, who bashes the Potter series for being derivative, should suggest that Rowling should do what George Martin has already done. As for the issue of finding a way to have Snape being a villain and maintain Dumbledore's credibility. I do assume that Snape is evil though I do not assume that he is a straight follower of Voldemort. Rather I would suggest that he is allied with the wizard nobility party, the Malfoy's and other wizards who wish to maintain the "old" order. These people supported Voldemort because they believed that Voldemort would solve their problems for them, get rid of the mudbloods and anyone who did not agree with them. They had no objections to abandoning Voldemort when he lost power and I would suggest that now that he is proving to be beyond their ability to control they may be seeking to bring him down. Dumbledore's mistake, like that of the readers of the series, was that he assumed that just because Snape was against Voldemort and protected Harry he must, therefore, be on the good side. Snape needs Harry alive because he hopes that as long as Harry still lives Voldemort will be focused on him and could, therefore, be kept from destroying the wizard nobility party. Harry serves this purpose better than Dumbledore because, from Snape's perspective, Harry is not a real threat like Dumbledore was.
Rowling, I believe, has managed to pull the wool over millions of her fans by getting them to focus in on Voldemort as the central villain. Throughout the series, Voldemort has been, for the most part, in the background and the villains that we have had to spend most of our time on are the Malfoys and Snape. Yet we have not treated them with the proper level of seriousness because we were focused on Voldemort as, pardon my Buffy, the "big bad." It was this wizard nobility party that created Voldemort. Voldemort by himself is just a brilliant seventy-year-old angry teenager with father issues. (This is why it is so important that Dumbledore called Voldemort by his name, Tom Riddle when they met and why Rowling has put such an emphasis on the Riddle side to Voldemort's character.)
I do not believe that the story arch for book seven is simply going to be Harry questing after the remaining Horcruxes, culminating with a final battle against Voldemort, in which Harry manages to overpower Voldemort and destroy him. The main purpose of the quest after the Horcruxes is for Harry to learn the lesson Dumbledore was trying to teach him in HBP, that Voldemort is not a god. Behind everything, he is just a flesh and blood wizard. Meanwhile, we are going to discover that the party in power at the Ministry is in many respects quite similar to the wizard nobility party, if not the same entity under a different name. Voldemort is going to slaughter a whole bunch of these people, including those who are actual Deatheaters. This though is going to weaken Voldemort. He has Harry's blood in him, which carries the sacrifice of Lily Potter. As Voldemort isolates himself more and more and demonstrates that there is no one whom Voldemort loves or would be willing to sacrfice himself for. A major turning point in this regard is going to be when Voldemort allows either Nagini or Bellatrix to die, beings that Voldemort might possibly have loved. Harry will destroy Voldemort by demonstrating his willingness to sacrifice himself for Ron and Hermoine. (Ginny will die.) This will not, though, be a good triumphing over evil ending. The wizard nobility party will still exist and they will still be in power. We will forever leave Harry, Ron and Hermione with them realizing that, having overcome the schoolboy level task of defeating Voldemort, they will have to spend the rest of their lives fighting against this wizard nobility party, something that cannot be done by mere force of magic. This will be Dumbledore's true legacy to them. He never sought power; instead he built a school. Harry and his surviving friends are going to go out into the world as members of Dumbledore's Army and fight the everyday evils of the world.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

What Are We Celebrating?

Ask most people what Hanukkah is meant to celebrate and they will tell you it is about the victory of the Maccabees over the Seleucid Greeks. There is one small problem with this, it was the Seleucids who won the war. Two years after the re-dedication of the Temple the Seleucid forces came down and smashed the Judeans. Judah was killed and the Hellenist party was put back into power. The Maccabees took power again about 20 years later by allying themselves with one of the factions in the fight over the Selucid throne. Claiming that the Maccabees won is like a Southerner claiming that the South won the Civil War. The South won all these amazing victories at Manasses Junction, Fredricksburg and Chancellorsville against superior Northern forces. And less then 20 years after Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox court house, Federal forces were out of the South and they were free to oppress blacks to their heart's content. Truth be told my former roommate, who is from Dallas, operates with such narrative of the Civil War and I think he might even be serious some of the time.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

An Open Letter

(This is a piece that I wrote a few years ago. I still think it is timely.)
Holy Yidden, I write to warn you of a deadly menace that has arisen within our midsts. A most foul and pernicious book has been circulating within our community, poisoning the unsuspecting Neshomos, of our youth, and even some adults as well. While some might be fooled by the fact that this book is written in lashon hakodesh, be forewarned, this book contains some of the most vile kefira known to mankind. While, as we well know (not from personal experience Chos V’Sholom) that the writings of the goyim, from their novels to their Science books, are merely a catalog of all immorality. This one single book contains within its pages every single one of 365 Lo T’Ashehs that a person can possibly commit. Not only that but within these evil pages you will find detailed descriptions of how to go about committing many of these Avairos, and anger Hakodosh Baruch-Hu; particularly how to go about committing the three most serious Avarios, Idolatry, Murder, and Gilui Ariyus, which we are commanded to give up our lives rather than commit.[1]
This book talks about how to worship all kinds of Avodah-Zora, from idols of wood and stone to idols of gold and silver. This book’s favorite idols are golden calves and another one which the book calls “Master,” Rachmona L’tztlon. This book claims that a golden calf is “your god,” and that it was responsible for your past redemption. Not only that but also that the first High Priest and the first King of Yisroel fashioned such golden calves, which were used by the Jewish people for worship. This is, of course, a lie; it is a well-known fact that before the Reform movement all Jews were frum. This book has the audacity to claim that even prophets of Hashem saw the idol called Master as an acceptable alternative to serving Hashem. A so-called prophet of Hashem is quoted by this book as saying: “If the Lord is G-D, go after him! And if Master go after it.” To help the people decide, this prophet even agreed to have a competition with the priests of Master, in order to see which is the true G-D. This seemingly “orthodox” prophet is portrayed as even agreeing to stand on the same mountain as the priests of Master, implying that there is some parity between two legitimate approaches to Judaism. It is as if to say: “Here, dear Jews are two ways of seeing the world. Feel free to choose as you wish.”
As for immorality, this book is even more enthusiastic in its endorsement of every moral perversity then it is of idolatry. This book is nothing less an endorsement of incest, prostitution, and intermarriage. This book dares to claim that we are all descended from a man and a woman, who ran around, unchaperoned, in a garden to together, with the woman not even bothering to wear long sleeves or cover her hair; this is even worse than the vile theories of Freud and Darwin. This book has the nerve to claim that the ancestors of the Jewish people and their relatives were open polygamists and fathered children with their own daughters. In the tradition of the most immoral goyish Romantic novels, this book even chronicles the escapades of a young woman who dresses up as a prostitute and sleeps with her father-in-law in order to have his child. Do you want your daughters to go off and imitate this?
I am going to quote a particularly not nice passage from this book, just to illustrate my point to you. You really should not actually read this next passage, of course; you should obviously cover it up and go to the next paragraph. The passage goes like this:

Near the corner he strode toward her house, in the twilight, as daylight wanes, in the blackness of night and darkness. Then behold, a woman approached him, bedecked as a harlot and with siege in [her] heart. She coos and she entices, … She sized him and kissed him; she thrust forth her face and said to him: ‘I had vowed to bring peace offerings, and today I have fulfilled my vow.’ … Come let us sate ourselves with love until the morning; let us rejoice with acts of love, for [my] husband is not at home; he has gone on a distant journey.
It is a shanda that people, who are so careful not to allow the TV, with its graphic images of violence, into their homes, allow their children to be exposed to this book. Within the pages of this book, your kinderlach will be introduced to a wide range of creative methods to torture and kill other people. This book gives the message that it is acceptable to kill people by decapitation, strangling, burning and even stoning. In addition to those actions, this book gleefully describes people getting their necks stepped on, getting their thumbs and toes cut off and getting tent pegs knocked into their brains. This book fully endorses rape, especially doing wartime; this book even gives specific instructions on how it should be done.
You may be wondering, how such a dangerous book could have been accepted into our most diligent midsts? As I have said, many have been fooled by the fact that this book is written in lashon haKodesh and that this book talks about Hashem a lot. This just goes to show you how sneaky the Satan can be and to what great lengths he will go in order to ensnare Yidishe Nashamos.
What should be done? We must make sure that children coming from homes that possess this book are not allowed into our Yeshivas. This is best done, in my experience, by surreptitiously making reference to episodes from this book. If the student in question gives a knowing response then we can presume that he comes from a home that has this book and we can therefore in all good conscious throw him out of Yeshiva. Furthermore, we must gather up all copies of this book and burn them within full view of the public. Parents should take their children, from young to old, and tell them; “It is because they kept evil books such as these, that Jews in Europe were burnt alive; it is a fact of Jewish History that in places where books are not burnt, they will eventually come to burn people.”
In the merit of being careful not to soil ourselves with books like this may we merit to see the face of Mashiach Tzdkanu, amen.

[1] I should explain how it is that I was allowed to be M’vatal Torah to read this book. Realizing the grave danger posed by this book, I was given a Heter, by myself, to read this, and other books. In order not be M’vatal any more time than was necessary, I made sure to read just the most inappropriate passages and I did it all while I was using the bathroom anyway.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Tolerance I: How Christians Do Us a Favor When They Put Up Christmas Decorations.

There are two levels to tolerance.
Level one tolerance: You recognize that you have a pragmatic interest in tolerating other groups as this causes them to tolerate you. In essence different societies make quid pro quo deals with each other. You tolerate my people and I will tolerate your people. If Jews in Boro Park were to force through a law to stop their Christian neighbors from putting up Christmas decorations then my Christian neighbors here in Columbus may decide to pass through a law of their own to stop me from lighting my menorah. So when Jews in Boro Park are kind and respectful of their Christian neighbors they are helping light the menorahs of Jews around the world and when they decide to be "zealous for the sake of the Lord" and deface their neighbor's Christmas decorations they are burning down the menorahs of Jews around the world.
Level two tolerance: You recognize that there is an innate value in coming face to face with beliefs that you disagree with. As J.S Mill argued in On Liberty: if the belief is correct then you will have the opportunity to exchange error for truth. If a belief is false then you will benefit by having your beliefs withstand the challenge offered by this false belief. By being forced to defend what you believe you are less likely to take it for granted. Finally there is the possibility that you will find some things that are of value in this belief that you disagree with in which case you would be able to absorb the good whilst discarding the bad. When Christians in Boro Park, Lakewood and Monsey put up their Christmas decorations they are helping their Jewish neighbors be better Jews. (and not just in the sense of becoming "fulfilled Jews") When Jewish children see the Christmas decorations they will ask their parents what those decorations are for and why don't they have them in their home. Then the parents of these children could then tell them about Christianity and they could introduce them to such wonderful Jewish classics as Jacob b. Reuben's Milchemot Hashem, Ephodi's Kaliphot Hagoyim and many more anti-Christian polemics. Furthermore Jews can look at all the time and expense put into these decorations and say to themselves: look at the effort that these Christians put into their holiday shouldn't we put in at least as much effort into our service of God.
So when you next see a Christmas tree, a chrece or a lights display. Do not be offended. On the contrary say thank you to that Christian and wish him a a Very Merry Christmas.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Slifkin Affair I: The Theological Neccesity to Accept the Claims of Science.

As with any self respecting Jewish blogger I do have an opinion about the Slifkin affair and the relationship between religion and science. So here is a start. I am first and foremost a rationalist, someone with a deep rooted faith in the power of the human mind to understand the physical world and even to possibly go beyond it. If I did not believe this then I could not believe in the possibility of human beings knowing of God. If I reject the conclusions that my mind has reached as to the nature of the physical world, why should I be any less sceptical about the conclusions that my mind has reached about any supreme, omnipotent, metaphysical beings. As such from a strictly theological perspective I have no choice but to treat the products of human reason, such as science, with reverence. If the gift which God has given us leads us to certain conclusions then we must take those conclusions seriously even if those conclusions are problematic from the perspective of traditional thought. Those who dismiss science and argue that human reason is limited and must therefore submit to a divine tradition miss the point. If human reason has no validity then the structure on which we base this divine tradition goes with it. Because of this in the case of evolution, I feel theologically bound to accept its claims. To use religion to reject evolution would not just be bad science it would be heresy as well.

Friday, December 8, 2006

Izgad I

At the advice of a very good friend of mine I am starting this blog. We shall see were this will take me.