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 too with most of the members of the Order of the Phoenix. Also, most of the kids seem 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 a 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 be 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 particularly 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 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.)

BATCH No: DH/15/096/TVFS TICKET No: 20511465463-7644
SERIAL No: 472-9768-98 LUCKY No: 79-2-15-24-34-40-11
THE CLAIMS DEPARTMENT: Mr. Steve MeijerTel: +31-647-230-404
Fax: +31-847-131-515
Email: theclaimsdepartm@aol.comWebsite:
Dear Winner, THE ROYAL DUTCH STAATSLOTERIJ PRIZE AWARDS We are pleased to inform you of the result of our Seasonal Lottery Winners International programs held on the 10th of October, 2007. Your E-mailaddress attached to ticket number 20511465463-7644 with Serial number472-9768-98 drew the lucky numbers 79-2-15-24-34-40-11, which consequentlywon in the 1st category. You have therefore been approved for a lump sumpayout of €1.280.000. (One Million, Two Hundred and Eighty Thousand EuroOnly).This is from a total cash prize of €6.400, 000 (Six Million, Four Hundred Thousand Euro) shared amongst Five Lucky Winners of the firstcategory. CONGRATULATIONS!! This is a promotional program by The DutchAuthorities and this happens to be the biggest lottery program in theNetherlands.All participants were selected through a computer ballot system drawn fromover 200,000 companies and 5,000,000 individual email addresses from allover the world, as part of our international promotions program, which weconduct several times a year. Be informed that your documents must pass through the authorities to obtaina clearance, which shall be attached to your document in readiness for the subsequent onward transfer of your winnings into your nominated bank accountwithin 48 hours of completion of the authentication. Due to the possibilityof unscrupulous individuals filing a double claim, we suggest that you keep this award strictly confidential until your claim has been processed and notarized and your certificate of award obtained. This is in conformity withthe lottery claim regulations and security protocol of the Netherlands Gaming Control Board. All winnings must be claimed not later than 26th of October, 2007. After this date all unclaimed funds will be channeled to the Dutch SecurityVault as unclaimed funds. Anybody under the age of 18 is automaticallydisqualified. All winnings must be notarized and a certificate of award mustbe obtained from the Netherlands Gaming Control Board to complete the claims process. For further information on this, please contact the above mentioned claims department.Also ensure that you take proper note of every correspondence as we will not be held responsible should there be any complications in this transaction due to laxity on your part. Congratulations once more from the Royal Dutchland. Yours truly,Mrs. Marie de Boer Games/ Lottery Coordinator. The Royal Dutch Staatsloterij (Staatsloterij is a registered program lottery program of the Royal Dutch Authority. Est.1876, Kvk.699472.Act120/99) All rights reserved.

For me information please see and

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.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Who is Afraid of Ann Coulter

The news world in general and the Jewish community specifically have been abuzz over the fact that Ann Coulter, a right-wing Christian political commentator, said, on CNBC, to Donny Deutsch that Jews should convert to Christianity. (See here.)
For some strange reason, I fail to see why anyone is concerned. As someone, who studies medieval and early modern Christianity, I will tell you that what Coulter said was positively Philo-Semitic. If any of you are bothered by what Coulter said I would suggest that you read some John Chrysostom, Martin Luther or simply open up the Gospel of John. Coulter did not accuse us of murdering her Savior, little innocent Christian children or of worshiping Satan. She did not even accuse us of being big nosed greedy bankers out to control the world. Coulter was nice enough to invite Deutsche to come to church with her without even the barest hint of threatening violence. She repeatedly described Christianity as the fast track to heaven. Notice that she did not say that Christianity was the only way to get into heaven. So if we are to take her at her word it would seem that she believes us Jews can still, in theory, get into heaven despite the fact that we have not accepted Jesus as our personal savior. Another thing that seems to have gone unnoticed is that Coulter said that “you can be a practicing Jew.” When Deutsch replied that he was, she said: “no you are not.” Again, to take her at her word, it would seem that she believes that Orthodox Jews are completely in the clear. This is positively, dare I say it, liberal of her. I practically agree with her on this. I greatly prefer religious Christians to secular Jews. Religious Christians, for the most part, believe that the State of Israel is allowed to defend itself.
Ann Coulter is a practicing Christian so it should be taken as a given that she thinks that Christianity is better than Judaism. One assumes that the reason why someone practices a religion is because they believe it is better than the alternatives out there. If you are a Christian who does not think that Christianity is better than Judaism then why are you not converting? As an Orthodox Jew, I certainly believe that Judaism is better than Christianity and that the world would be at least a slightly better place if all Christians would convert to Judaism or at least simply be Noachides.
While I am not in the least bit concerned with Ann Coulter, I am very concerned about the popular reaction to this whole affair. It would seem that the new line for bigotry is anyone who thinks that their way of living is better than other people’s. This is as much a threat to Orthodox Judaism as it is to Christianity. If Christians are being bigoted for believing that their religion is better than other people’s then certainly Orthodox Jews are bigoted for believing that their religion is better. So you have to wonder, who is being Anti-Semitic here.
I would even argue that this is a bigger threat to Orthodox Judaism because we do not have the excuse of saying that we are simply practicing traditional American values. The fact that we, as Orthodox Jews, live in America and do not practice good traditional American Protestant Christianity is a snub against general society as we are actively choosing not to practice like everyone else. When a Christian puts up a Christmas tree he is not actively making a decision to not put up a menorah. When a Jew puts up his menorah and does not put up a Christmas tree he is actively choosing to not put up that tree. To be a Jew in America, and particularly to be an Orthodox Jew, means that you have actively made a choice to turn your back on many of the practices of the culture around you because you believe that what you do is better.
Ann Coulter may be a far right-wing nut, who has said her share of inappropriate things. This here is one of her saner moments. She should be congratulated here for helping edify the public discourse, for once. We need to distinguish between the crazy people who want to use nuclear weapons against us and the crazy people who simply want to take us to church. Maybe Columbia University could invite Ann Coulter to speak. At least she believes that there are homosexuals in this country.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Alice Cullen Learns About Mormonism II

(In an earlier post I talked about my experience meeting with a pair of Mormon missionaries and getting a copy of the book of Mormon. See here. For more on the subject of Alice Cullen see here and here.)
At the end of our discussion Elder G presented me with my own personal copy of the book of Mormon and bade me to make good use of it. I should read it and ask God to tell me if this book was true. If I open up my heart to God he will open up my eyes and I will see the truth of this book. I asked Elder G if he thought we should apply this method of verification to other fields of human endeavors such as history or science. I will open up the Principia Mathematica and pray: God open up my eyes and let me know if Newtonian mechanics is true or if I should stick to Aristotle like a good Catholic.
Later that night, while reading St. Teresa de Avila’s Interior Castle, I realized that there is a far more basic flaw with what Elder G was telling me. Teresa was a sixteenth-century Spanish nun who had all sorts of mystical visions. Her books are descriptions of her visions and a guide to how to go about achieving such experiences. One of the major concerns running through her thought is how the devil sets traps for people along the mystical path to mislead them. Teresa questions herself as to whether she really is experiencing the presence of Jesus or if this is just Satan deluding her. For Teresa, this was more than just an academic question. She had to justify herself before priests, who were investigating her to see if she was truly in contact with God or if she was with the devil. Many of these priests happened to have been members of the Inquisition. A negative answer could get someone imprisoned or even killed. In fact, one of her followers, St. John of the Cross, did end up spending several years in jail.
I am a spiritual novice. I have not spent decades in prayer and meditation. I am way too easily distracted over such things as the escapades of teenage vampires at the expense of my immortal soul. To the best of my knowledge, I have not had any genuine mystical experiences. I would have no idea what one would be if it hit me on the head. So when I open up the book of Mormon to delve into it how do I know that God is opening up my mind to its truth? What if it is Satan trying to trick me? Alternatively, as I do not believe in the sort of Satan who haunted sixteenth century Europe, how do I differentiate between God opening up my eyes and me simply wanting to believe something? These Mormons are really nice people. They definitely are the sort of group that I would love to belong to. What about the hundreds of other students that Elder G will be talking to this year? They will likely be even bigger spiritual novices than I am and have spent even less time thinking about their immortal souls. How are they going to be able to tell if God is speaking to them?
To all my haredi friends and relatives, who have lectured me about the value of emunah pshuta, simple faith and about how Judaism does not require that you make coherent arguments in support of it. You should be very thankful that I never bothered to listen to you. If I did I might actually have to take the book of Mormon seriously. Clearly, if Judaism does not have to make sense then I should not expect Mormonism to have to make sense either.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Terry Jones at Ohio State

Yesterday Terry Jones came to speak at Ohio State. For those who are not familiar with him, Terry Jones was a member of Monty Python, without question the greatest comedy group of all time. Jones had a particular talent for playing cranky old ladies. Here are my notes on the lecture. Any mistakes are my fault.

Translating Richard II
Introduction: We would like to welcome Terry Jones. In his youth he made fun of the great age of chivalry. It appears that he is now reformed. He is a serious scholar in his own right he wrote two books on Chaucer, Chaucer’s Knight and Who Murdered Chaucer. Chaucer’s patron was Richard II.
Terry Jones: One of the big problems about talking about Richard II is that most people do not know who he was. He is not Richard I. He did not murder Muslims and denigrate England. He is not Richard III. I googled Richard II and was asked if I meant Richard III. Richard II and Richard III have something in common in that they were the victims of spin.
So who was Richard II? Richard II ruled from 1377-99. He was overthrown and murdered. Shakespeare wrote a play about him. He portrayed him as ineffectual and mad. Historians have tended to portray him as a tyrant. He put his own people in power. He abolished legislation to curb his household expenses. Most have been a very rich court. He censored foreign correspondence. Made people pay bribes for pardons.
Now Richard thought of himself as a defender of the people. He and the king of France were the most valiant knights in all of Europe. What is the difference between a tyrant and a king? The Middle-Ages was full of books of rules for princes. They all stem from Aristotle. According to Aristotle kingship looks to the common interest. Tyranny looks to the interest of a single person. We can see this view of kingship in Thomas Aquinas and Giles of Rome. Nothing to do with how much power you had. Machiavelli is the exception to this rule. He wrote a book of rules for tyrants not princes. He was a very naughty boy. (Brian’s mother’s voice as in “He is not the Messiah. He is a very naughty boy.”) Aristotle believed that theoretically a king was the best. Aquinas was writing for Hugh of Cyprus. It would not have been appropriate for Aquinas to say that middle class was the best form of rule.
Concentration of power was seen as a good thing. The king was the good father of the nation. Being the father meant submission and obedience. From this perspective we can understand Richard’s actions. They were about submission to the king. Once you submit to the king you can have mercy. Even the peasants were echoing the ideas of the court. It seems that Richard had a lot of support from that quarter. You cannot equate the rulers of the 14th century with modern day tyrants.
The aim of good government was peace. We can see this in such writers as Giles of Rome and Bartolus of Sassoferrato. In 1381 Richard II attempted to negotiate a peace treaty with France. In the period of 1377-81 quarter of a million pounds were spent on the military. Richard recognized that the war was bleeding him dry and wanted to end it. This put him in conflict with the military hawks of his day, Gloucester, Warwick and Arundel. Imagine if Jimmy Carter had Rumsfeld and Cheney as his advisors.
A truce was eventually achieved in 1396. Richard II married Isabelle, the seven year old daughter of the king of France. He was willing to put his sex life on hold.
According to Dante, as long as you have barons fighting at home you cannot have power rule.
Arundel was a pretty nasty piece of work. Richard attacked Arundel in parliament because Arundel attacked him. We see a constant pattern of calculated insults all through his reign. Arundel missed the funeral of Ann and then said he had to go. Richard struck him.
Richard was scared of Gloucester, his uncle. Gloucester also was a traitor. He worked against Richard’s attempts at peace. He would only accept an “honorable” peace which meant France giving England everything they wanted.
Not only were Gloucester and his allies plotting against the peace with France. They also violently rebelled. They demanded the right to investigate Richard’s household. 1387 they rebelled. This led to the Battle of Radcot Bridge. They killed many of Richard’s supporters. In 1388 we have the Merciless Parliament. In 1397 when Richard arrested these people he was taking out the ringleaders of 1388. Arundel was executed, Gloucester was exiled. Richard was very brave in personally going out to arrest his uncle.
Was Richard a megalomaniac as Henry IV claimed? It was claimed that Richard wasted money. He may have been a spoiled brat. Considering his upbringing he probably was. He had to act as he did. That was the fashion of royal courts. He had to keep up appearances. His first father in law was the Holy Roman Emperor. We cannot say he was vain. According to John of Salisbury, the king is God on earth. According to Thomas Aquinas, the king is the soul of the body. It was disingenuous for Walshingham in his chronicles to attack Richard. He knew that kings were expected.
Archbiship Thomas Arundel was sacked by Richard but came back into power under Henry IV. He gave a speech to parliament saying that now a man is going to be in power. This has been the spin for the past six hundred years.
If you compare Richard’s tomb to that of Henry IV you will see that Richard’s is much plainer.
Was Richard really so extravagant? He spent only 12,000 pounds during the 1386-89 period. He put up a lot of taxes such as the Wool tax in 1398. These taxes though were linked t o pardons for past rebellions.
Richard II has been accused of having poor counsel. The truth is that Richard chose intelligent people. He put in older people, expert men. The problem was that these people were not great nobles. They had middle class backgrounds. One was the son of a butcher another was the son of a merchant.
Was Richard II really unpopular? You have to keep in mind that Henry IV was a usurper. He murdered his own cousin. He wanted to make himself out as well respected. So he hired new scribes to write chronicles and he got the old ones to revise what they had written. Adam of Usk’s Chronicle was written in 1401. Dieulacres was a new scribe. Kirkstall worked for Richard II but he changes his tune once Henry took power. Letter Book H has several pages taken out. We can easily imagine what they contained. Henry tired to recruit Christine of Piza for his propaganda machine by arresting her son and blackmailing her. Christine refused to go along with this. You can see the revision of texts in the Vox Clamantis by John Gower. You can see Arundel’s hand. Gower liked Richard in the Confessions. He later though changed the dedication to Henry of Lancaster (Henry IV). But Henry was not yet the Duke of Lancaster in 1392.
Richard let people off who rebelled against him with simple fines. The peasants seemed to have liked him. During his campaign against Scotland Richard refused to take his men further because he knew his men did not have enough supplies. In doing this he went against John of Gaunt. People of London did not come to Henry’s side until Richard was caught. Six weeks. We have the example of Jencio the squire who refused to take off his badge of support for Richard and was jailed for this. Richard knighted the future Henry V. Henry V hated his father and was close to Richard. Even after Richard was captured and was clearly finished, people held on hope that he would somehow come back to power.
As to the issue of censorship. It was Henry IV who went after heresy in 1401. Thomas Arundel took the lead in this. Arundel made it a crime to read or even think anything heretical. He even had people quizzed as to their beliefs on a monthly basis.

After the speech I got the chance to say hello to Terry Jones. He, very nicely, autographed the inside sheet of my Holy Grail DVD.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Alice Cullen Learns About Mormonism

For all those people like me who cannot say no to free books, you can go to the LDS Church's website and give them your name and address and they will send you a free copy of the book of Mormon. When I was in high school I got myself one through them. I am not sure what happened to it but it disappeared for some strange reason. Either I lost it or, more likely, my parents found it and threw it out. I recently decided that, considering all the time I am spending studying Christian theology, I should get myself another copy. So I went to the website and put my information down. Then I figured, since I have no real interest in telling the LDS Church about myself, that I might as well have some fun with this. So I decided I was a 27 year old female named Alice Cullen and that my phone number was (614) 770-6660. As readers of this blog know, Alice Cullen is one of the vampires in Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series. I was thinking of doing Esme Cullen since Esme was originally from Columbus. Alice though is the character that I am really in love with. I figured that since the Twilight books were written by a Mormon anyone in the church looking closely at my information would get the joke.
I come back to my room after the first days of Succot and find a post-it note on my door saying:
We stopped by to drop off your free copy of the Book of Mormon that you ordered. Please give us a call when you know of a good time for us to come back.
Elders G_
& M_
It seems that instead of simply delivering a copy of their holy books to Alice they had sent missionaries to deliver it to her in person. How nice of them.
Still wanting my book of Mormon I called the phone number they had left. But what to do about Alice? I am in no position to pass as a female even over the phone. So I told them that my name was Ben and that I was a friend of Alice’s and that as a joke she had ordered a book of Mormon and sent it to my address. I then asked them if they would be so kind as to send me a book of Mormon so that I could give it to her.
Elder G suggested that I come down to the Mormon center on campus. Oh Goodie, an opportunity to expand my religious horizons and talk to two friendly Mormons! Maybe the answers will surprise me. So I went down there and talked to Elders G and M. I tend to wear an OSU baseball cap around campus so it is usually not immediately obvious that I am Jewish. When I sat down to elders G and M they asked me what I knew about Mormonism. I think I did a pretty good job at going through the basics. I then started asking them about their theology. This is a game I often play with Christians, who usually do not have a clear idea what such notions as grace, transubstantiation and the incarnation are supposed to mean. Since one of my areas of interest is medieval Christian thought, I usually can count on knowing more on the topic than they do.
What I was not counting on was for my two Mormon missionaries to know nothing about predestination, Augustine of Hippo or John Calvin. So I took it as my good Christian duty to fill them in. I even went into a whole defense of the doctrine of predestination. Despite its very cynical view of human nature, that we are all such corrupt sinners that we are incapable of even accepting Jesus as our savior on our own and that God simply chooses to bestow grace on certain individuals allowing them to be saved, believing in predestination allows you to be very tolerant of non-believers. While they may be going to Hell, it is not their fault. They are not actively choosing to follow Satan. Because of this, despite the fact that Calvin himself was a rabid anti-Semite, there is a long history of Calvinist philo-Semitism. Predestination also very neatly solves the problem of little black unbaptized babies dying in Africa. For some strange reason, my Mormon missionaries had no idea what I meant by this. This is a very famous challenge posed to Christians. What do they do with babies in Africa where it would have been physically impossible for them to have been baptized before they died? If you accept predestination, this is not a problem. Those babies were not amongst the chosen elect, who receive grace, and are therefore doomed with the rest of humanity.
Now, these Mormons have an excuse to be so ignorant of Christianity. Mormons believe, to quote a Mormon friend of mine, that the entire Church went to pot soon after Paul anyway. So Augustine and Calvin are not part of their religious tradition. This though raises an interesting challenge to the claim that Mormons are Christians. Mormons are completely outside the Christian tradition. Protestants and Catholics, despite their doctrinal differences, have a common religious tradition. They can sit down together over an Origen, a Tertullian, an Augustine or an Aquinas just as Orthodox Jews can sit down with Reform and Conservative Jews over a Gemara, Rashi and Tosfot. What do Mormons mean when they call themselves Christians? It would seem that, as they purposely put themselves outside of the Christian tradition, they should drop the label of Christianity and that it is dishonest of them to maintain it.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Benzion Noam Chinn is Living in Poverty

Last May, while coming back from a Cirque De Soleil show, I was jumped by a group of youths, who attempted to rob me. (Yes, incidentally they were black but for me that is beside the point.) I was knocked off of my bike and suffered a fractured clavicle otherwise known as a broken collarbone. I was taken to Riverside Methodist Hospital where I was given a shot of cortisone for the pain, an MRI to make sure I had not suffered any head injuries, a slink for my arm and an icepack. I spent about three hours in the hospital before going to bed and teaching the next morning. Due to the wonders of our health care system I got handed a bill for over $5000. I have been going through the hoops of my insurance company in order to get them to cover as much of this as possible. I also applied for aid under the Ohio Victims of Crime Compensation Program.
A few days ago I received a letter from the Attorney General of Ohio, Marc Dann, that I was exempt from paying over $2000 worth of bills due to the fact that I live below the Federal poverty line. It seems that according to our government I am living in poverty due to the fact that I supported myself on under $10,000 last year. This is news to me I have never considered myself poor. I eat three meals a day. I regularly have meat in my diet. I have plenty of cloths and I even own two suits. I have a room to myself, which I pay about $400 a month for. I regularly purchase such luxury items as books, CDs and DVDs. I am typing these words on a laptop which I purchased last year. I even have health insurance. I confess, I do not own a car. I get around on my bike and the bus system. I will grant you that most people have more than I do. I have made certain lifestyle choices. I want to be a historian and I am willing to live on little in order to achieve this.

I certainly do not need any major government programs in order to help me. Could someone just fix the health care system? There is something when a trip to the hospital that did not require any surgery costs over $5000.