Thursday, November 26, 2015

A Modest Proposal to Allow Syrian Refugees Into the Country

As a libertarian and a free marketer, I strongly believe in open borders. If you believe that the United States government should not stop Mexico fro m bombarding the American market with tomatoes, you should also have no problem with being bombarded with Mexican workers crossing the border to pick tomatoes. The practical economic results are identical. As such, I am particularly angry with Rand Paul for selling out his libertarian principles to appeal to the bigotry and paranoia of the Republican base in stopping Syrian refugees from entering the country. I do recognize that there are real security concerns, but this is no different than any other liberty issue. Yes government must inevitably act to place restrictions on liberty, but let us allow discussions regarding government action to start with a presumption of liberty. When the government wishes to restrict liberty, the burden of proof is on them to demonstrate that they are doing only what is strictly necessary to defend people's physical safety and that safety is their sole concern.

In thinking about how to let more Syrian refugees in while addressing legitimate security concerns, an idea just occurred to me. We already have a system in place to handle people whom we are not ready to lock up, but are a plausible threat to public safety. It is called bail. People accused of committing crimes are allowed to hand over money to the court as a guarantee of their good behavior while they await trial. If they attempt to flee or commit crimes while on bail, they will go back to jail and lose that money.

My idea owes some inspiration to Kalman's pediatrician. This pediatrician happens to be from Syria and has family trapped there that he would like to bring over. Why not allow him to post "bail" for them? For the sake of throwing in numbers, let us say $100,000 for a man between the ages of 18-50, $50,000 for a woman and $20,000 for children and old people. I assume this doctor trusts his family enough to put up the money for them. So for a year, his family would not be able to commit any felonies, leave the State of California and they would have meet monthly with a case officer. After a year, assuming these conditions have been met, the family members would all get green cards and the doctor would get a refund on his bail money. Everyone wins; the doctor saves his family without losing any money and the American people receives a reasonable guarantee that the family members are not terrorists. If the doctor himself suspects, that his family would violate the agreement and does not want to front the money then that is pretty good evidence for me that these people should not be allowed to enter in the first place.

What I like about this idea is that it puts the market to work solving the problem of figuring out which refugees are genuinely fleeing violence and which ones mean us harm. Let private individuals or organizations put hard money on their evaluations. Whether these evaluations are based on personal knowledge or some complex algorithm is as irrelevant to me as the details of business decisions of any company whose products I consume. Might ISIS decide to spend the bail money as the price for getting a man in? It is possible, but you have to think that there are ways of smuggling terrorists into this country that are cheaper than $100,000.            

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Kalman Evolves Into an Altruist

Kalman is progressing nicely in his eating skills. He has even figured out how to use a spoon. One might even say that he is in danger of becoming civilized. In observing Kalman's development, I am once again amazed by its spontaneity. While Kalman may be very intelligent, it cannot be said that he has any design for his education. Instead, he does things for his own toddler ends. It is only by a happy coincidence that his means have brought about my desired ends. (It certainly has not been due to any parenting skills on my behalf.) This can be seen in Kalman's development into an altruist with an interest in feeding me.

Altruism is a tricky issue for evolution as, on the surface, it seems to go against natural selection. An animal that gave food to someone else would be decreasing its chances of survival and passing along its altruistic genes. By contrast, a selfish animal would be more likely to survive and pass along its selfish genes until those selfish genes have taken over the entire species. Richard Dawkins has argued for kin selection. The altruist would most likely end up helping its own relatives and could therefore indirectly pass along its altruist genes even at the cost of its own personal survival. E. O. Wilson argues that altruism is more deeply rooted in the basic makeup of those species, like ants or primates, which operate in a group setting.

What I find so fascinating about Kalman's attempts to feed me is that, even as it achieves an altruistic end, it does not appear to be motivated by any conscious altruism. Give him food when he is hungry and his first move will be to feed himself. So clearly Kalman places his own welfare above that of anyone else. It is only after he is mostly satiated that he will try to feed someone else. This could be because he has developed a "theory of mouths;" he knows that putting food in his mouth stops him from feeling hungry so he might theorize that, if he puts food into other people's mouths, other people will feel full. More likely, Kalman is responding to the fact that I react to being fed by licking his fingers and making appreciative noises like the good primate I have evolved from. Kalman's brain has evolved to find this kind of social interaction to be even more pleasurable than throwing food on the floor, a perfectly reasonable option when lacking better alternatives, so he pursues altruism for his own selfish ends.

It can be hoped that Kalman's accidental altruism will come to serve as the basis for a more conscious form of altruism. His brain could develop a Pavlovian positive feedback loop from the mere act of causing other people to be fed regardless of whether they lick his fingers. As his frontal cortex develops, he will come to believe that there is something inherently virtuous about feeding other people. He will then, in the fashion of David Hume, use his considerable rational intellect to scout for people to feed in order to satisfy his subconscious passion.  

From an alternative perspective, like a good Adam Smith baby economist, Kalman maximizes his food utility. First, he feeds himself. If he is full he tries to trade his remaining food for love and affection. If there are no ready mouths in which to place the food he will use the food to educate himself on the movement of objects by throwing it on the floor. In the midst of this selfish calculation, we also see the development of Kalman as a good Adam Smith, of the Theory of Moral Sentiments, baby. He is not solely interested in his physical benefit but also cares about operating within a social framework in which the good opinion of others as expressed by getting his fingers licked.  


Sunday, October 11, 2015

Rachael Ray's Cat Food Burgers

I was shopping the other day when I discovered that Rachael Ray, the author of the wonderful Book of Burger, also has a line of cat food. One struggles to think of a common theme to unite the two. Is it possible that a celebrity chef is being honest about their actual cooking skills and confessing to their real line of work? Perhaps she wants to specialize in things that my wife has no intention of eating.

It was revealed to me that the cat food contains a great secret to decode the burger book. Rachael Ray must be a believer in the true anti-nomian kashrus of kitty stew. Contrary to what is believed by the materialist reader, who sinks so low as to pay attention to recipes in the first place, the delicious burgers she is holding are made from kitty. Of course not every kitty can merit being so elevated. A worthy kitty must be made plump solely on a gluten free diet. It is important that we look after the health our pets and give them a diet that is in keeping with the one kept by their ancestors before the agricultural revolution.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Does Rabbi Jonathan Sacks Believe in Free Speech?

If you were to ask me why I am proud to be an American it is because the United States Constitution takes a clear principled stand in favor of free speech as an absolute right. (It should be noted that the fact that I call myself an American should be understood merely as an expression of geography and the influence of an intellectual tradition and not as a pledge of allegiance or the recognition of the authority of the Federal Government.) While most civilized people pay lip-service to free speech, even in the West, there are few true believers. In fact, it is becoming popular to brazenly declare that free speech is a problem that needs to be reigned in. 


(Start at 2:50)

The reason why there is such a large gap between protestations of free speech and its practice is that free speech is one of those things that by its very nature demands extremes. Free speech is the mirror of being pregnant; you can't be a little bit for free speech, but this is because, unless you go all the way, you are not a supporter at all. The reason for this is that free speech is only meaningful if you are willing to defend the rights of your opponents. The only speech worth protecting is the speech that offends and is a threat to public order. What does it mean to defend inoffensive speech? Most claim they support free speech, but that is merely cover for the defense of their right to speech. When it comes to their opponents, they can always find some excuse to say that is is a threat. (This is very easy if you do not draw a line between physical and psychological harm as everything is psychologically harmful to someone. ) 

This brings me to Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. In reading his new book, Lessons in Leadership, containing thoughts on leadership based on the weekly Torah reading, I found a disturbing comment on free speech. In addressing the issue of cyberbullying and the unfortunate suicide of Hannah Smith, Sacks notes:

The story of Hannah Smith is a tragic reminder of how right the sages were to reject the idea that "words can never harm me," and insist to the contrary that evil speech kills. Free speech is not speech that costs nothing. It is speech that respects freedom and dignity of others. Forget this and free speech becomes very expensive indeed. 

I actually agree with the first and third part of what Sacks says. I do believe in a concept of loshon harah, evil speech, and support the use of religious and social means to suppress it. Furthermore, as a free speech radical, I am very conscious of the incredible price of free speech. One of the benefits that J. S. Mill's On Liberty had on my political thinking was that it killed any naive thoughts that free speech would be anything other than radicals offending public sensibilities. The alternatives, though, are worse and, in the long run, society should emerge from the incredible damage done to it stronger than ever. Perhaps, I am reading too much into this, but free speech specifically has political connotations. Sacks certainly cannot play innocent here in a world in which even most people in the West are now supporting government regulation of speech to stop cyberbullying. In essence, Sacks, like most conservative opponents of liberty, makes the jump from saying that something is harmful in a very real sense to saying that government, with its monopoly on violence, should step in and stop this evil. 

Being a patriot means "dulce et decorum est pro patria mori." As Israelis are now once again tragically learning on a daily basis, having a country means people dying for it and having to go out and kill other people, who want to take it from you. Anything less and you will not have a country. Similarly, free speech also requires blood. As distasteful as it sounds, I am willing to sacrifice Hannah Smith on the altar of free speech. It is not that I take her death lightly, quite the contrary, it tears at my consciousness. The alternative, though, of not having a meaningful protection of free speech is simply unthinkable.        

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

The Constitutional Right to Watch Porn on Library Computers

Earlier today, I was working with a tutoring client at a local public library. I looked up and noticed that across the room there was someone using one of the library computers. I was not absolutely certain, but I was pretty sure that the man was using the computer to watch porn. I am not naive about what is out there on the internet nor am I the kind of person inclined to try stopping people from pursuing their own good in their own way as long as it does not involve directly initiating physical violence against someone else. I will defend to the death, the right of people to watch porn to their heart's content in the privacy of their own homes, on their own computers and with their own internet connections. That being said, using a publically financed building and computer to watch porn in public struck me as just a little bit inappropriate. Furthermore, this was at a time when school was getting out and I was sitting in the "Teen Zone." So I went over to a librarian to tell them that I thought someone was using a library computer to watch porn and to inquire what the library's policy was in regards to this matter. In my experience, library computers are supposed to be used to look up books and do research. Even to look at your email is something frowned upon. To my surprise, the librarian responded that the person had a First Amendment right to use the library's computer to look at whatever he wished.

It is great every once in a while to run into a situation where the libertarian and conservatives sides of my brain come together in perfect synchronicity, leaving no conflict between the two. As a libertarian, I would point out that this is the inevitable conclusion of the obscenity known as positive liberty. If you are going to claim that people have a right to libraries then you must admit that people have a right to computers and then decent internet connections. Just in case you were fooled into believing that all of these things were to be used so people could read Adam Smith and, as such, were necessary to uphold a liberal democratic society and stop us from degenerating into the darkest savagery of the Scottish Highlands, tax-payer funded government libraries are for porn.

As a conservative, I take it very personally that this patron and the librarian have entered into a conspiracy to rob me at gunpoint and violate my religious convictions by making me support the distribution of pornography. (And I thought I would only have to bake a gay marriage cake.)

It is shocking that the librarian failed to appreciate the public relations implications of her position. The moment we acknowledge that the existence of public libraries means that people have a constitutional right to use them to watch porn, conservatives would rebel in mass and refuse to fund public libraries at all. Imagine if every time a librarian took the stand at a public hearing over library funding they were asked what steps they were taking to making sure that government money was not being used to support porn.

In this time of crisis, as we try to figure out whether the First Amendment covers using library facilities for porn, I call for the shutdown of all government libraries until the Supreme Court can weigh in on this matter. I would be fine with whatever the court rules. If they rule against library porn then that would be a victory for a sane First Amendment. If the court rules in favor of library porn then that will be the end of government libraries.

Of course, the court might come to rule that the people must fund libraries with computers; how else are people going to watch porn? That could never happen here. (Cue Trekkie Monster laughter.)

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Are You a Heretic or a Psychopath? Towards a Halakhic Morality

(See Haredi Criminal in Training.)

Imagine that you are secretly taken to a dingy cellar where, surrounded by cloaked figures, you find a bound and gagged child. Puzzled, you ask your escort for an explanation and are told that this child, personally innocent of all wrongdoing, is a genetic Amalekite. He has been chosen because of his great purity to be the first Amalekite, since possibly biblical times, to be killed in fulfillment of the commandment to wipe out Amalek. If they simply took a Nazi or an Arab terrorist Amalekite, people might think that this had something to do with justice. By choosing an innocent little boy, they are demonstrating that they are only motivated by a desire to fulfill God's will, the only innate good in the entire world. Any attempt to be moral is really sowing the seeds of heresy; it implies that you have personal values and think that they can trump the word of God. Only by committing the most profoundly immoral act possible in God's name can someone hope to save himself from this trap. To be clear, this Amalekite killing has been organized by top Torah scholars and all legal and pragmatic issues have been dealt with. They hand you a document signed by leading sages in support of carrying out this "mitzvah" as well as a declaration from the government promising to not interfere with this "free exercise of religion" or punish anyone afterward.

I, for one, would never agree to such a thing; I would even try to stop them. The interesting question, though, becomes why I would save the Amalekite. I could easily defend this decision on Jewish grounds. We are both the children of Abraham, whose tent was open to everyone and challenged God to spare Sodom. Rather than hunting Amaelites, we should pray to God to have mercy even upon Amalekites. Even if Jacob was right to steal the blessings from Esau, the rabbis teach us that Esau's tears have harmed us through the generations. Should we risk the tears of the boy's Amalekite mother when he does not come home? Moses looked into the future before he killed the Egyptian to make sure that no one righteous would come from him. Do we have a prophet to tell us that no one good will come from the Amalekite? Moses told God to either forgive the Jewish people or "erase" him from his book. Part of our job as the chosen people is to tell God that if he wants us to be serial killers than we do not want his people. Let God find some other group to do his dirty work.

Some of these arguments might have more merit than others and I am sure readers can come up with other justifications. But let us be honest here, these are justifications. The real reason why I would not murder the Amalekite boy is that, underneath my Orthodox exterior, I really am a follower of the "Benzion Noam Chinn religion." This religion has a lot in common with Judaism. So, as the Benzion Noam Chinn religion only has one adherent, it made sense for me to formally practice Judaism in order to have a community. When there is a contradiction between the two, I will attempt to cover up the problem through intellectual creativity. It should be understood though that this is all really a dodge and if I ever run out of solutions I will simply reject Judaism rather than be untrue to my Benzion Noam Chinn religion.

The Benzion Noam  Chinn religion is hardly a pacifist creed. If there was a member of the Naturei Karta tied up instead of the Amalekite than I would have no problem with slitting the guy's throat. He is a moser, who is spoken out against Jews to non-Jewish government officials, endangering millions of Jews. So, according to both the Benzion Noam Chinn religion and Jewish law, such a person deserves death to be carried out even extra-judicially. That being said, the Benzion Noam Chinn religion strongly opposes killing innocent little kids. I will follow what my true religion teaches me, regardless of what Judaism commands.

It is common to hear rabbis declare that all of their decisions are based on halakah and they never make recourse to any outside sources, certainly not to anything non-Jewish. Such people are either intellectual imbeciles, who have never considered the implications of taking such a doctrine seriously, or they are dangerous psychopaths, ready to murder innocent children when their "unbiased" reading of a text comes up kill. Such people are a danger to society in general and the Jewish people in particular.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Kalman Isaac's Campaign Announcement

This is Kalman Isaac and my Abba has been introducing me to American politics. Like many of you, I have been shocked, horrified and disgusted by the rise of Donald Trump to become the leading candidate in the Republican primaries. Note that this shock, horror and disgust is with the Republican party and not with Trump, who is simply beneath contempt. In this time of crisis, there is only one thing that can save the Republican party from Trump; I place my name forward as the eighteenth candidate for the Republican nomination for president. For any of you worried about the fact that I will not even be thirty-five months old by January 2017, elections should be about maturity and I possess more of it than a number of candidates. More importantly, I can defeat Trump on his terms, offering personality over substance. Understand that every time a reporter asks an obvious question about something that, in a rational world, should preclude Trump from the nomination, he simply plays into Trump's hands, turning Trump's weaknesses into strengths. Trump is Trump and anyone who tries to use logic against him misses the point and increases Trump's appeal. I can out Trump Trump, turning his strengths back into the weaknesses they should be.  

Take a look at my beautiful head full of curly hair. No need to fear that my hair will fall on some ambassador. Unlike the tower sitting on top of Trump, my hair is all natural and serves as a metaphor for my handling of the economy. My fellow Americans; many of you are out of work and going bald. A year ago, I had almost no hair. If I became president, the economy would grow like my hair, saving millions from their dependence on Rogaine.

While Trump denounces illegal immigrants, I openly identify myself as one. I used to live in Tummy, but snuck into this country without asking permission from a single government bureaucrat. It would have been useless to build a wall as I would have found a way to tunnel in. Voters should exam my record as the democratically elected dictator of Tummy; I left Tummy with a surplus of pee from the time I first took over.  

Unlike Trump, I know that the way for Republicans to win women voters is not by insulting them and resorting to cheap stereotypes. I am a total expert on manipulating women. I just need to smile and clap and they fall right in line to do my bidding. 

Speaking of women, my lack of family values is not going to cause a scandal. On the contrary, it will help me because I will be so upfront and honest about it. America, are you ready for this? I am pretty certain that there are pictures of me naked floating around the internet. If reporters cannot get enough of my wee-wee, I will gladly send them more images of it. I live with a woman, who is not my wife and we have a deeply intimate relationship. This woman is married to another man, who is totally accepting of our relationship. (I am still working on tolerating him being married to my woman and do not understand what she sees in him.) 

When I debate Trump, I will open up by speaking using coherent syllables. Then, on national TV, I am going to throw down the trap challenge to change my diaper. If he refuses it will show that he does not understand the concerns of working families. If he tries to change my diaper, I will have totally shown my dominance over him and that I am really the much classier fellow. Also, I intend to pee right in his face. Afterward, I will call up my woman and her husband to the stage. Social conservatives will go wild at the sight of my totally unchristian lifestyle, particularly when I show them my tushy. What is Trump going to do, pull down his pants? He will have no choice, but acknowledge that I should be the Republican nominee to represent their supreme values of tushiness and scandalous family lives.      

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Finding John Kasich in My Family Album

My summer schedule for tutoring is somewhat lighter than during the year as a number of my regular students are away. Since my wife is also off for part of the summer, we took the opportunity to visit my parents in Silver Spring, MD for a week so Kalman could get some extra grandparent love. Flipping through an old family album, I found a picture of my father at an Israel event back when he was a rabbi in Columbus, OH. Speaking at the dais is a young Ohio congressman, who is much better looking than a certain Ohio governor now running for president.  

This photo is a key piece of evidence linking the Chinn family to John Kasich as part of a vast Zionist conspiracy. I need to hire Umberto Eco to hash out the details to this an engrossing and sophisticated work of fiction.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Learning to Walk: What Kalman Has Taught Me About Evolution

While I had previously used my son, Kalman, to make a joke about evolution, in truth, watching him every day has offered me a greater appreciation for how evolution works. One of the greatest challenges to evolution is how organs can evolve to serve different purposes by passing through intermediary stages. For example, how can a hand evolve into a wing when any species would have needed to spend millions of years without possessing either a fully functional hand or a wing? For evolution to work, every intermediary stage needs to offer its own advantage that allows the species to successfully reproduce.

Learning to walk is a complicated process. People who do not live with babies might think that a baby simply starts crawling one day and then starts walking, but there are many more steps. First, the baby learns to turn himself over onto his back; then he flips himself from his back to his front. Next, comes rolling and finally crawling. To learn to walk, a baby first starts pulling himself up using walls and other objects. Next he starts to use these supports to hold onto while he waddles around. Finally, he drops the supports and becomes a fully functional bipedal being.

As with species evolution, a baby develops into a walker because each intermediary step offers something beneficial to the baby and offers a means to reach the next step. Flipping himself onto his back did not allow Kalman to move from place to place. On the contrary, it left him stranded on his back like a turtle lying on his shell. That being said, turning himself onto his back allowed Kalman to move to a position of great comfort, from which he could make greater use of his hands to grab things. Flipping himself onto his back strengthened his muscles so that he learned to also turn himself over from his back to his front. This too did not allow him to crawl, but merely to roll over. Such motion is slow and does not lend itself to easily calculated movement. Nevertheless, it made it possible for Kalman to grab nearby objects and helped him develop the thigh, stomach and arm muscles to crawl. Crawling was an obvious benefit for Kalman, giving him access to the entire house and forcing his parents to seriously contemplate the meaning of "childproof." (Kalman, as the sort of ingenuous child that evolution has traditionally selected against, had no trouble outsmarting me in thinking of ways to render objects harmful.)

Crawling is such a wonderful thing that it almost becomes a trap. It is hard to come up with an easily achievable next step that offers an overwhelming advantage. Why not remain a crawler forever?
While crawling allows Kalman to cover the entire house, it does not allow him to reach objects more than a few inches off the ground. He, therefore, learned to pull himself up against the legs of short tables to grab whatever is on top. (Kalman is very keen to test the theory of gravity to make sure it constantly works.) Hoisting himself up a pants leg also allows Kalman to remind lazy parents that if they only performed their duty, he would not need to waste his time learning to move in the first place. Crawling has another major weakness in that it tends to require both the use of feet and hands. Kalman has, therefore, worked steadfastly on learning to crawl while using one of his hands to hold a toy or blanket. He has even gotten pretty good at carrying objects while crawling up stairs.

One day soon, Kalman is going to put his ever strengthening leg muscles to use in solving both challenges. He will simply grab something from a table and walk away with it on his own two feet. Once this great feat of evolution is achieved, who knows what might come next? Before too long, Kalman might start painting pictures of kitty, develop fire to roast the kitty, religion to explain why all of this will help appease an angry deity, and the selling of options just in case this deity's wrath is aroused.


Monday, June 1, 2015

In Defense of a Maimonidean Judaism: A Response to Rabbi Ysoscher Katz

Dr. Alan Brill just published an intriguing guest post by Rabbi Ysoscher Katz, who grew up in the Satmar community and now teaches at YCT. A running theme in much of Dr. Brill's work has been the presentation of different approaches to "Modern Orthodoxy," the attempt to formulate a Judaism that is faithful to halakha while maintaining an ability to engage modernity at either an intellectual or social fashion. Rabbi Katz offers an intellectualized Hasidic version of this project. (I would be curious as to how he sees himself in relationship to Rabbi Abraham Heschel.)

What particularly caught my attention where Rabbi Katz's comments regarding Maimonides. In middle of the post, Rabbi Katz declares his personal sense of betrayal by Maimonides:

 I for many years was the object and fool of Maimonides “the seventh reason” as presented in his introduction to the Guide by not seeing his philosophic views.  In that passage, Maimonides condones misleading the masses for their greater good, even to the point of advocating contradictory ideas for different audiences and then obscuring those contradictions.

He ends the post, by arguing that Maimonides has led Modern Orthodoxy into a trap:

Contemporary Modern Orthodoxy is struggling; a significant number of its adherents are abandoning yiddishkeit and many who stay no longer find it meaningful; inertia has set in. I suspect that Modern Orthodoxy’s rationalist ethos is partially to blame. Current Modern Orthodox theology is Litvish and hyper-Maimonidean, it lacks a native spiritual core, and does not satisfy people’s search for meaning. 

There is an irony here in that much of my knowledge of the Guide comes from a class taught by Dr. Brill more than a decade ago back when I was a student at YU. This class profoundly affected me and helped make me the kind of "litvish hyper-Maimonidean" that Rabbi Katz criticizes. As such, I feel it is prudent to offer a response.

As with a number of self-described Maimonideans I have run into over the years, the main attraction of this path for me is that it allows me to actively engage academia without ever risking my commitment to halakha. I could read a book on biblical criticism at night and never worry about my decision to put on phylacteries in the morning. It is not that I am so smart that I will figure out a way to disprove what I have read. On the contrary, it might turn out that I agree with the author. The reason for this is that, as a Maimonidean, my understanding of things like God, prophecy and the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai is so theoretical as to be impervious to modern scholarship. The price I pay is that I must tentatively accept their truth even before I have examined them.

Now one might accuse me of being a secularist, who enjoys Orthodox practice and does not want to upset my family and my Asperger equilibrium by stopping to be religious. My counter-punch is that being a Maimonidean has given me a positive spiritual program in recognizing the manifest law in the world. This is put into practice, at a personal level, through ritual observance and an active opposition to idolatry. It is not that, as a Maimonidean, I am as religious as other Orthodox Jews. On the contrary, I denounce the larger Orthodox community as idolaters. If you accept Kupat Ha'ir then you are an idolater. If you have any energy leftover from denouncing the Haredi leadership for their blatant idolatry (or you believe there is really a meaningful difference between them and King Ahab) to denounce more liberal movements over their acceptance of biblical criticism then you clearly lack appropriate zeal for monotheism and cannot be considered a true believer. This makes the confrontation with potentially "heretical" ideas in academia and their non-denunciation, a great spiritual act. It confirms my relationship with the One God I theorize about as I recognize how utterly I reject the idolatry of those who would denounce me as a heretic.

I think there are two major areas of agreement between Rabbi Katz and myself. First, we both dislike the label "Orthodox" as it implies schism and a rejection of the wider Jewish community. In its place, we want something that places the emphasis squarely on traditional observance. This leads to the second area in that Rabbi Katz wants to separate Judaism from theology in favor of a lived experience. As counter-intuitive as it might seem, Maimonideanism might be helpful in this regard. Judaism as ritual and community is distinct from Maimonidean theology. This is necessary considering all the idolatrous Jews out there.

This leaves plenty of room to allow Hasidism to influence Jewish society and the experience of ritual. My father likes to say about Torah Vodaas in his day that the learning was litvish, but the spirit was Hasidic. I am certainly open to the idea of a Modern Orthodoxy that is Maimonidean in theology, litvish in its learning and Hasidic in spirit.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Warrior Daddy: Taking My Son Back from the Clutches of Neurotypicality

(Abba used to be able to take Kalman to proper Asperger events like a Renaissance Faire. Will neurotypicality soon cause Kalman to prefer SpongeBob SquarePants? Not if this Daddy Warrior can help it.)

For his first year of life, my son, Kalman, was the perfect Asperger child. He would monologue in his perfect James Earl Jones voice. When not monomaniacally hunting the kitty, he could be found sitting in a corner examining heretical or otherwise banned books. As a Daddy Warrior, I knew in my gut that vaccines cause neurotypicality. Far more people, who have been vaccinated, have turned out to be neurotypical than Asperger so the evidence is clearly indisputable. That being said, I allowed myself to be conned by an agent of Big Medicine into allowing my son to receive the MMR vaccines. He offered me a lollipop so how could I resist? I knew something was wrong when my son cried upon receiving his shots. Clearly, my son had been given a boo-boo, which is always bad. My nightmare was just beginning. Almost immediately, Kalman began showing an interest in other people. He even began smiling for no obvious reason. There is no doubt about it. My son has become neurotypical.  

Daddy Warriors naturally love their babies. Because it is natural, our love, unlike boo-boos, most always be a good thing. We are not like doctors, who accept bribes from pharmaceutical companies to allow our darlings to be harmed. Therefore, we know best which century's medical practices should be inflicted on our kids. We are also blessed with a perfect understanding of cause and effect as well as an unbiased memory. This allows us to compare our children's behavior from arbitrary before and after points.

This Daddy Warrior is ready to fight for his Kalman like an inquisitor fighting for the soul of an unfortunate heretic. (Neurotypicals cannot appreciate Monty Python and, therefore, never expect the Spanish Inquisition.) I propose a gluten diet, consisting of gluten and to raise Kalman in a sensory deprivation box until he is eighteen. When Kalman crawls out and blinks up at the sun, he will certainly be an Asperger.  If living in a box could save Thais from being a prostitute, it can save my son from the infinitely worse fate of irrationally not becoming what I want him to be. My love makes me wise, wonderful and selfless. I love my son too much to allow him to live as a neurotypical and not appreciate dark and dry humor.


Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Kalman Takes a Stand on Evolution and Bananas

This is Kalman Isaac Chinn, master of shloofy and stinky as well as parents. Over this past year, in between my very important work learning how to be a good very big Jewish boy instead of taking over the world, I have been hearing lots of talk about this theory of evolution. There has been much misunderstanding on all sides as even those who possess the truth fail to reach the proper logical faith-based conclusions. Being able to contemplate the wonders of myself has given me a special perspective, which I would like to share. 

Evolution is clearly a lie. I am much closer to being a monkey than my Abba. Do you see how cute I am? For this reason, though, my Abba should show me respect. Think about it; what is better, to be a near relative of a monkey or Moses? Which Charlton Heston would you want to be like, Ten Commandments or Planet of the Apes? Those rabbis, who take plane trips with their grandchildren and mysteriously sit next to high officials from the Israeli government need to rethink their conclusions. 


I am very impressed with the argument of the great theologian Ray Comfort to prove the existence of God from a banana. Comfort is even smarter than Rabbi Avigdor Miller as bananas are more delicious than apples. Comfort, though, fails to understand the full specificity of God's plan. Notice how perfectly the banana fits in my hands; how perfectly it fits into my mouth and can be mashed up in my mighty fist to allow me to glorify God through post-modern artist. Obviously, God created bananas just for me so all bananas are mine. This includes the half banana Abba always takes for himself. God wants me to have lots of bananas in my tummy so I can get all constipated like Martin Luther and create a new theology based solely on my bowel movements.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

An Experiment/Reality TV Game to Prove Libertarianism

(Kalman Isaac's taste in reading is far more sophisticated than his Abba's.)

Michael Shermer's new book The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom is certainly a worthwhile read. He offers a more generalized and accessible version of the argument made by Stephen Pinker, in his Better Angels of Our Nature, that there is a connection between the type of abstract thinking necessary for science and for ethics. One needs, though, to get past the laughably bad chapter on slavery where he tries to minimize the role played by Evangelical Christianity in the abolitionist movements on both sides of the Atlantic. For those unfamiliar with the issue, I suggest you start by reading Uncle Tom's Cabin (probably the most successful piece of anti-slavery literature ever written) and try separating Harriet Beecher Stowe's views on slavery from her Christianity. To be fair to Shermer, he generally avoids the simplistic polemic of "religion bad, science good."

On his blog, Shermer has a debate with Marc Hauser about whether science can directly offer proof for moral claims. Shermer is in a difficult position because, while he is not about to commit intellectual suicide by questioning David Hume's classic distinction between is and ought, his claims are interesting proportionally to how close he gets to that line. Much of his argument depends not only on a willingness to accept the advancement of intelligent life as an axiomatic goal, but also the equation of ethics with utilitarianism. This has the advantage of placing ethical questions within the sort of territory that science is fairly well equipped to handle, physical well-being. For example, it is better to save five people from being run over by a trolley even if it means letting one person die and it does not matter if that death is caused by a switch or by pushing a fat man in front of the trolley. For the purpose of the physical world, as shown by science, it is irrelevant whether something was caused by your hand or not so we should not concern with such an issue. Shermer also discusses Jonathan Haidt's moral categories of liberty, harm, fairness, loyalty, authority, and purity. Shermer argues that science has led to more people valuing the "liberal" values over the "conservative" later three. The former directly leads to the improved physical well-being of individuals.

I have been teaching formal ethics for the past several months to some of my teenage students. They instinctively get utilitarianism. I have needed to challenge them to consider the possibility that straight utilitarianism might lead to some highly tone-deaf morality for which they might need to take either Aristotle or Kant into account. This makes me skeptical of seeing the embrace of utilitarianism, whether or not it is a good thing, as a sign of progress in mankind's march to greater moral sophistication.  

As a libertarian, I am the sort of person who, as Haidt points out, turns liberty into a trump card that reduces the other values into irrelevancy by comparison. It struck me that it might be possible to construct an experiment to prove libertarianism. Now before anyone gets excited, all I am seeking to prove is that the vast majority of people, including those who denounce libertarianism, really are libertarians in their moral philosophy when it really counts. Now the moral value of liberty is really the non-aggression principle. I refuse to cause physical harm to other people unless they are planning to cause me physical harm as I have no interest in endangering myself by giving that person or a third party a motive for causing me harm. Am I really part of a small fringe minority in believing this? I strongly suspect otherwise.

Imagine the following thought experiment. There is a large group of people. Each one of them has a device attached to them that can give them an instantly lethal electric shock. Everyone also has a smartphone app with the names of every other member of the group. Each person has the option of pushing a button and killing any member of the group they choose. The only drawback is that all the surviving members will be immediately informed of that decision and it is likely that some of them will retaliate in kind. Under such circumstances, what sort of rules will the group create? Will people insist on creating a group-wide school system or health care plan, demanding that everyone pay for it, knowing full well that people might "strongly object?" If a person refuses to comply, who will be willing to push the button and make an example of what happens to those who defy the group?

I doubt we will ever be in a position to try this version of the experiment. If you think about it, though, the danger the group members would be, in theory at least, no greater than the danger every one of us faces on a daily basis. There are 7 billion people in the world and almost all of them are physically capable of killing you if they really wanted to and there is little you can do to stop them. Perhaps we could do the experiment with non-lethal shocks. Alternatively, we could do a reality TV game in which each participant can send off any other participant. Survivors at the end each get a large sum of money. It does not matter how many people are still in the game at the end; it might be that everyone wins. Before they go on the show, contestants would be taped talking about their political beliefs on a wide variety of issues. During the game, contestants will have to engage in group discussions about politics. These will be used as the basis for setting up group rules. For example, contestants will be able to vote on whether they will receive access to things like meat, pornography, and alcohol. The side that loses will have the option of eliminating enough of their opponents so they will form the new majority and change the rules to suit their taste. Under such circumstances, would anyone be so foolish as to vote for prohibitionist policies, antagonizing those whose pursuit of happiness they are interfering with and putting a target on their own foreheads? Clips of participants' pre-game political views will be played to create maximum embarrassment and conflict. It should prove quite entertaining to watch an Evangelical Christian having to explain his opposition to gay marriage to a homosexual, who has the power to send him home, costing him the prize money. Will he agree to turn around and, when voting on conjugal visits, agree to include gay spouses? It is the possibility of backtracking that is important here. If people start sounding very libertarian on the show, in contrast to their expressed politics in their real lives, then it would show that people really are libertarians when something real is on the line. It would be particularly interesting to see if contestants, who have never heard of libertarianism, find themselves working out libertarian principles on their own.

The reason that most people are not libertarians in their daily political lives is that government acts as a shield so that they do not comprehend the violence of their political actions. Since government possesses overwhelming force, people are unlikely to openly violate the law, giving the impression of widespread consent even though that consent is no more valid than any other agreement made at gunpoint. Furthermore, since government agents are the ones engaged in the physical act of violence, citizens are able to duck moral responsibility instead of recognizing that they are also participants in violence. If you find it morally objectionable to personally cause someone physical harm in the pursuit of an agenda, then it should be equally objectionable to use the third party violence committed by the government in pursuit of that same agenda. As with all untried experiments, I really have no idea what would actually happen if we tried it. I expect that there would be surprises along the way and we will all learn something about political morality.      


Friday, February 20, 2015

Oh Nuts Purim Gift Basket Giveaway 2015

My good friends at Oh Nuts are once again offering a Purim gift basket giveaway. Here is how it works.

There are 3 ways to enter:    

1. Readers should go to the Oh Nuts Purim Basket Gift page. They have to choose their favorite Purim Gift and leave a comment on this blog post with the name and url of the gift they love the most.

I will pick a random winner and Oh Nuts will send them a  $30 gift certificate.

2. Readers can go to the oh nuts facebook page  become a fan and post on the wall the url and name of their favorite  Purim Gift Basket . They should also write "I am here via "Izgad." 

3. Readers need to follow @ohnuts and should Tweet 

" Win a Purim Basket from Follow @ohnuts and RT to Enter Daily "

For option 2 and 3 Oh Nuts will pick the winner. 

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Convivencia at the Alhambra Library

Next week Tuesday, January 20, I will be speaking about "convivencia" in medieval Spain at the Alhambra Civic Center Library in Alhambra, CA. This came out of a conversation I had with one of the librarians regarding the origins of the city name in Andalusian Spain. She informed me that, despite the fact that the city high school team is called the Moors, most people know very little about medieval Spain. I will be setting forth the contrast between the legacies of convivencia and reconquista. Working from David Nirenberg, I will be arguing that the two of them are inseparably linked, the products of a frontier culture where different societies mixed together. On a day to day basis, this created a society where a spirit of tolerance was taken as a given. This social tolerance, though, had a way of breaking out, in extreme circumstances, in extreme intolerance and a desire to eliminate non-believers.    

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Cooke Monster Eats ...?

A major part of parenthood involves diapers. You have to take them off, put them on and clean up the stinky in between. In general, my wife and I prefer Pampers to Huggies as they seem to leak less often. I have no objection to crass capitalist cross promotion. If Pampers wishes to help cover the cost of protecting us from my child's never ending output of stinky by introducing him to Sesame Street then so be it. That being said, the other day, while changing Kalman, I noticed something odd.

Yes, Kalman has a very raspberryable tummy, but what is Cookie Monster eating? I have to work long and hard trying to protect my son from the corrupting influence of vegetables and now even Cookie Monster has betrayed me and strayed after carrots. How am I going to educate Kalman? As Ayn Rand taught us, "A equals A." Because of this diaper, Kalman will not learn that Cookie Monster equals eat cookie and will not grow up to be rational. If Kalman becomes a hippie socialist, can I sue Pampers and Sesame Street?

Much better for Kalman to learn about cookie and precious together.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Somewhere on the Internet is a Video of the Ultimate Traif Sandwhich

The wife, child and I spent this past Shabbos in Flatbush, NY with one of my Haredi cousins, who is an elementary school rebbe. As he is someone who uses the internet, I asked him what his school's policy was regarding web access. He responded that in general they were hostile, but allowed homes to have it as long as they had a filter. As I am sure regular readers appreciate, behind my mask of moderation lies an extremist. I am primarily interested in consistent principles as opposed to practical policy and it is usually the most extreme principles that are consistent. That being said, while I may personally choose one extreme due to my personal tastes and values, I maintain a high degree of respect for the opposite extreme, as opposed to the moderates that are superficially closer to my camp, as I recognize them as kindred spirits in consistency. In the case of the internet, I can empathize with those who wish to ban the internet from their community and are intellectually honest enough to endorse the sort inquisitorial practices necessary to give the ban teeth.

I asked my cousin to imagine that somewhere out there on the internet lies a video of the ultimate traif sandwich, designed by the world's greatest apikorsim, who made sure to precede every step with an antinomian declaration that they were motivated not by any material desire for food or money, but only to anger their creator and demonstrate their non-belief in him. The bread was owned by a Jew and made during Passover from new grain so it is both chametz s'over alov Pesach and chodosh, but no Jew turned on the pilot light so it is pas akom. The bread has also been flavored with the finest yayin nesach and cholov akom. And we have not yet gotten to what is inside the sandwich. Perhaps the people at the Williamsburg restaurant Traif could do us the honor of making the sandwich. The important question here is not whether we want kids watching a video of this sandwich, but how far should we be willing to go in stopping them. There are a number of reasons to treat any non-extreme method, that does not place keeping kids from watching this sandwich as the central purpose of Judaism and place the full resources of the community into this task, as deserving of scorn.

There is the problem of moral hazard. The ultimate traif sandwich filters may not be particularly effective, but parents think they are. Because of this, parents choose to engage in more risky behavior by ignoring other forms of protection such as a heart to heart conversation with their children about what kosher means to them. The end result is that, rather than protect our children, the filters will actually increase the risk and we would have been better off with no filter. There is an even larger issue at stake here than simply internet traif. If parents believe that their kids are safe in a general society that holds traditional values then they will drop their guard and stop protecting their kids. Thus, a religious society needs to keep parents scared and vigilant. If the internet is not overrun with traif sandwiches than perhaps we need to make sure it is. Make no mistake, Haredi society owes a great debt to the 1960s left that destroyed any sense of a common set of values. If "traditional values" ever came back into fashion then it would be the end of Haredim.

Which kids are we worried about? If it is a matter of all kids equally being at risk of looking at traif sandwich websites than a broad educational effort backed by a general fence, designed to serve more as a warning than an actual barrier, might be effective. What if we are dealing with hockey stick statistics where the vast majority of traif is being watched by a small number of kids? If this is the case then your entire strategy needs to change. Filters, even good ones, are pointless as these obsessive traif watchers are likely willing to go to extreme measures, such as using a computer in a public library, to get their daily fix of traif. Furthermore, such people clearly have far deeper problems than a desire to watch traif. We need to confront how they relate to food and until we do, stopping their internet access is going to be merely a Band-Aid to a knife wound.

Perhaps you might say that you want to protect regular kids from accidentally seeing traif on the internet. A child's mind is like cement and everything they see makes an impression that will last a lifetime. Granted, you are likely to find ads for traif on the internet, but are they worse than the traif ads that will catch the eyes of the casual viewer walking down the street? Unless you are willing to raise your children permanently on a sealed-off compound (something that anarcho-libertarian policies will make more plausible), you have to accept the fact that your children will be exposed to traif. Will they be affected? Certainly, but here is the good news; everything you experience affects you, but in ways that are difficult to quantify. It seems to me to be the height of cognitive dissonance for any teacher to seriously worry about their students being corrupted by casual exposure to internet traif. If our ability to influence students after twelve years into becoming good Jews, who love to study, is questionable at best, what are the odds that even an afternoon spent ogling traif will cause them to join Darth Chazor, no matter how delicious those sandwiches might appear?