Thursday, July 23, 2009

BeyondBT Now Censoring Names and Links

The cure for a fallacious argument is a better argument, not the supression of ideas. -- Carl Sagan, The Demon Haunted World

It used to be that my favorite baal teshuva blog BeyondBT would let some of my comments in, assuming I wasn't actively arguing for atheism, etc. Now they won't even do that.

In response to Tuesday's post in which a guest contributor asked the question How Can The Average Orthodox Jew Achieve Kiddush HaShem and Reduce Chillul Hashem? I posted the following comment (paraphrased from memory) which could not be less objectionable:

One of my favorite quotes from a rabbi:

"I wanted to change the world, but I realized it was too large of a task for one person, so I tried to change my community. That was also too hard, so I tried to change my family. That was also too hard, so I decided to try and change myself. And though it was very hard, I finally changed myself. And once I changed myself, I discovered my family changed, the community changed, and the entire world changed." - R' Israel Lipkin Salanter

(The quote has long been one of my favorites. Googling for the exact quote, I found it on blog-friend Ezzie's blog!)

It a quote from a rabbi, directly on point and not remotely subversive. I figured it would probably get through the moderators.

But no. I received a polite email saying that the comment was appreciated, but could I please change my name and remove the link to my blog? I wrote back saying that this is the name I respond to blogs with and the link is a link to my blog and I wasn't comfortable changing either one. They wrote back "ok" and then deleted the comment.

Blogs for people joining Orthodox Judaism hide opposing points of view from their readers. Blogs for people leaving Orthodox Judaism link to both supporting and opposing points of view. We think our arguments can hold up if allowed to compete. They think it's better to hide.

That's been pretty much my experience in the real world, too. Skeptics are excited to debate (when they're not afraid of repercussions for "outing" themselves.) Believers tend to become uncomfortable and defensive if you even hint that something they believe might not be true. Skeptics devour arguments from both sides. Most believers stick to arguments for conclusions they prefer. (They call this "chizuk," or "strengthening," as if "strengthening" a belief is a good thing.)

Jon Stewart on the "Birthers"

This is great:

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
The Born Identity
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political HumorJoke of the Day

It's really despicable how right-wing media guys like Lou Dobbs and actual Congressman like John Campbell cater to these guys. (Watch Chris Matthews push for two minutes before Campbell finally admits that he believes Obama was born in the U.S.)

How many people think that if Obama were a white man born in Hawaii to a British, Christian father that this would still be an issue for these "birthers?"

Monday, July 20, 2009

In Defense of "Uncivil" Atheists

A reader of The Daily Dish writes:
I understand where you are coming from when you say, "Atheists are much more likely to be ostracized for their beliefs, but that does not excuse incivility on their part." Even as an atheist, I get annoyed by many of the tactics of hardlined atheists and do wish for more civility in the discussion, but one has to realize that its incredibly hard to be an atheist and even the best of us have days where we can't bite our tongues. Surely as a gay person Andrew has had those moments where he just snapped at someone's homophobia.

Most people are aware that admitting to atheism pretty much bars you from political office, immediately makes your patriotism suspect, can ruin friendships, families, and careers. For reasons of self-preservation, we're often compelled to live "in the closet". In some ways, its tempting to make parallels with other minorities that have been discriminated against over the years, be it based on gender, race, sexual preference, etc. But unlike those groups, we're not forbidden to vote, get married, buy houses, eat at the same restaurants, or any of the other rights other groups had to fight for. In some ways, even I, as an atheist that has been discriminated against time and time again feel like maybe I don't really have any right to complain. But I am treated very differently, and very unfairly, and in a country where "all men are created equal" its time we put an end to that. But what is there to end?

There are no real battles to be fought and won other than general acceptance. Laws about religion are already on the books. There are no acts of Congress that can alleviate the acts of discrimination we face. It is almost purely a battle of intangible social constructs. There are no equivalents to the marches against Prop 8 or riots against faulty elections. There are very few ways to channel the anger, sadness, and frustration of our discrimination.

Every atheist is bound to have a day just bad enough where they explode on some poor believer who pushes too hard and every atheist has felt at time that even the most accepting of believers is tacitly agreeing to the discrimination we face. Sure, I disapprove of many of the less civil tactics some of the more well-known atheists engage in, but I can't say that I don't understand what pushed them to that point. But, in the grander scheme of things, as a group we've yet to do anything as "uncivil" as Stonewall, or the riots we saw during the civil rights movement. Many of these acts are not only forgiven, but celebrated as reasonable responses in the face of discrimination, yet we're screamed at any time an atheist acts like a jerk on TV, writes something a bit testy on a website, or files the occasionally dumb lawsuit.

I dare say that in the history of discriminated groups in this country, atheists have been the most civil and with plenty of room to spare, yet still, we're told that its too much and that we need to calm down and scale it back a notch.

So no, I don't like the incivility some bring to the discussion, but if they didn't, would anyone even be talking about this issues? If everyone remained "civil" it'd get swept up under the rug like it always has in the past. Their incivility might not solve the problem, but it sheds enough of a spotlight on the subject to open a door for the civil conversations that need to happen. Without them I strongly believe the conversation would never happen at all.

As someone who has been guilty of incivility more than once, I agree. Growing up in a society that equates religiosity with morality and patriotism and in a community that equates leaving Orthodoxy with disloyalty, dysfunction, and selfish hedonism and essentially pretends that we no longer exist and don't need to be taken seriously, it's hard not to lash out sometimes.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Cronkite vs. Today's "Journalists"

Glenn Greenwald makes a devastating comparison:

Walter Cronkite:

"The Vietcong did not win by a knockout [in the Tet Offensive], but neither did we. The referees of history may make it a draw. . . . We have been too often disappointed by the optimism of the American leaders, both in Vietnam and Washington, to have faith any longer in the silver linings they find in the darkest clouds. . . .

"For it seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate. . . . To say that we are closer to victory today is to believe, in the face of the evidence, the optimists who have been wrong in the past" -- Walter Cronkite, CBS Evening News, February 27, 1968.

David Gregory:
"I think there are a lot of critics who think that [in the run-up to the Iraq War] . . . . if we did not stand up and say this is bogus, and you're a liar, and why are you doing this, that we didn't do our job. I respectfully disagree. It's not our role" -- David Gregory, MSNBC, May 28, 2008.

Cronkite's best moment was when he did exactly that which the modern journalist today insists they must not ever do -- directly contradict claims from government and military officials and suggest that such claims should not be believed. These days, our leading media outlets won't even use words that are disapproved of by the Government.


In the hours and hours of preening, ponderous, self-serving media tributes to Walter Cronkite, here is a clip you won't see, in which Cronkite -- when asked what is his biggest regret -- says (h/t sysprog):

What do I regret? Well, I regret that in our attempt to establish some standards, we didn't make them stick. We couldn't find a way to pass them on to another generation.

It's impossible even to imagine the likes of Brian Williams, Tom Brokaw and friends interrupting their pompously baritone, melodramatic, self-glorifying exploitation of Cronkite's death to spend a second pondering what he meant by that.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Former Orthodox Jew Tries Bacon For The First Time

I'd seen this video before, but never gotten around to posting it. Thanks to an email correspondent known as Baruch Spinoza for bringing it back to my attention.

What a great story. And so typical of Jewish guilt that a grown man with a wife and family still feels compelled to ask Jilette not to use his name so as not to upset his parents. Orthodox parents are either the most fragile people in the world or they've evolved an incredibly manipulative defense mechanism against their kids' leaving Orthodoxy. My money's on the latter.

I wish I had a great story about my first time eating non-kosher. But this is how it was for me:

Sometime in high school, I started eating vegetarian food that wasn't made under the supervision of a rabbi (and was indeed likely "contaminated" by non-kosher utensils and the proximity to non-kosher food.)

I started with salads and graduated to french fries and desserts. Nothing too exciting except for some delicious ice cream brownie sundaes and the ability to frequent and eat at some cool places.

The first time I ever ate non-kosher cheese, I got sick. I was in college, and I went to the Hard Rock Cafe on a second or third date with a conservadox girl. We shared a white pizza, which was delicious. Later that evening, I threw up, a clear sign of either psychosomatic illness, coincidence, or divine retribution.

Either way, non-kosher cheese became a part of my diet with no further issues. Non-kosher pizza became my go-to food when kosher food wasn't convenient and I also was able to partake in a couple of those pretentious yet delicious wine-and-cheese parties.

To this point, I'd branched out mainly out of convenience and so that I could socialize more freely with the sorts of people the rabbis wouldn't have wanted me to socialize with. I'd become somewhat lax in my observance, obviously, but I hadn't yet made a real break with (de facto) Modern Orthodoxy.

It wasn't for a few years that I had my first non-kosher meat. By this point, I had stopped believing in Orthodox Judaism and it was just force of habit that was holding me back. I'd long since stopped keeping shabbos and Subway tuna sandwiches (with cheese) were a fixture in my life.

One Friday night when I had nothing to do (this was after I left the community in spirit but before I'd made many non-Orthodox friends) I went over to the mall to wander around and probably read Richard Dawkins books in the Barnes and Noble. When I got hungry, I went down to the food court and for some reason, I decided this was the night.

I did not believe in God anymore, but the thought of eating non-kosher meat just felt so strange and wrong. I did a complete circuit of the crappy restaurants in the food court trying to make up my mind and then I decided to just get it over with.

There was one of those Chinese places with the aggressive salespeople standing in front with tiny pieces of meat and chicken on toothpicks, trying to suck you in with a free sample. I went straight to the closest one, took what she was offering, verified with her that it was chicken, and took a bite. It tasted like chicken.

Then I was able to sit down to my first really non-kosher meal. Still no pork, no shellfish, and no mixing of milk and meat, but I polished off some General Tso's chicken and some beef with broccoli.

I don't think I've ever had another tuna sub from Subway.

It was probably a year or two after that before I tried shellfish. My non-Orthodox but Jewish girlfriend and I were at the beach and I decided it was time. She hadn never eaten shellfish either, having grown up somewhat traditional and in a land-locked state, so we had to ask the waitress for directions on peeling and eating the steamed shrimp we ordered. It was great, but peeling is a pain in the ass, so I tend to stick to pre-peeled shrimp these days.

Once that milestone was passed, I got to investigate the whole world of shellfish. I love sushi, so I quickly discovered octopus (meh), squid (ok), crab (turns out that's usually fake), and various forms of eggs which could actually be kosher for all I know (love 'em for their texture and saltiness.) I even discovered that eel (not a shellfish, but not kosher) is my favorite kind of sushi. Fried shrimp and calamari became standard appetizers.

Sadly, I can't remember the first time I ate bacon, perhaps the tastiest of non-kosher foods. I do remember sitting down to a big old ham steak (on, I believe, Christmas Eve at some resort) which was weird even after bacon and pork sausages had been added to my diet. To this day, I'm a little skeeved out by ham.

Anyway, that's my non-kosher food story. Not as cool as sitting down with Penn and Teller and having them feed me every non-kosher food at once, but I definitely enjoyed (most of) the process.

Previously: Jewish Atheist's Top Ten Non-Kosher Foods.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Monday, July 06, 2009

Get Them Married Young Or They'll Leave Orthodoxy!!!

RafiG, via Ezzie, has this preview for a new documentary about the Orthodox singles scene in Manhattan:

The focus is mostly on the usual obvious "problem": boys and girls who grow up in single-sex environments and live in artificial communities and aren't allowed to be alone together or even touch don't have an easy time getting married by 22 or 23.

Those of you who did not grow up Orthodox will no doubt be thinking "22? 23? WTF? What's the rush?"

Well here's your answer, from an honest Orthodox woman:
When you don't get married young, you're likely to become less Orthodox. Uh, they will start experimenting with different things, they will start meeting different people, they will be influenced in negative ways... Uh, they will have different values, and they will not turn out to have a family life and be as Orthodox.

She's admitting that if you let these young adults, who have been sheltered from reality their entire lives, start to learn about themselves and the world, they're going to be less Orthodox. She doesn't see this as an indication that perhaps something is wrong with Orthodoxy, but just as a problem to be avoided by any means necessary.

Her solution is appalling. Get them married before they figure out who they are and what they want. Get them married before they start wondering if there's any truth to this religion they've been indoctrinated with since birth. Get them married before they have a chance to realize that what they've been taught about non-Jews and the non-Orthodox is not true. Get them married before they start having normal relationships and realizing maybe they don't want to be with a kollel learner or the rosh yeshiva's daughter.

It's possible that she believes that if they do get married young, they'll live happily ever after as Orthodox people. But it's also possible that she simply realizes that once they get married, it's too late. Once a person realizes that they don't want to be Orthodox anymore, they can't leave unless their spouse is on board. (This happens -- Hi Avi! -- but based on what I see in the Jblogosphere, doesn't happen as often as one spouse having to keep his/her beliefs secret so as to not lose their marriage and possibly kids.)

This is just bad parenting (by the parents and by the community, in loco parentis.) It's control-freak parenting. You want your kid to turn out exactly one way, so you hide from him all other ways and then trap him with marriage before he figures it out. It's wrong and it's unhealthy.

It's not even good religion -- what kind of religious people are you raising who are religious just because they never really had a choice?

What people should do -- what good parents everywhere do -- is raise their children to make informed decisions. Teach them your values, give them the wisdom you've accumulated, but then let them grow into the adults they are rather than the adults you wanted them to be. Children -- especially adult children -- are not your personal playthings.

If you want your child to become a doctor but he's a gifted artist, do you forbid him from lifting a paintbrush? Do you set up an entire community so that he can live his life without ever having a genuine conversation with a non-doctor? Do you force him to study premed and then enroll in medical school? Do you then take out the loans in his name so that he's stuck with a $200,000 debt he can only repay by becoming a doctor? And then make sure he marries a woman who will only stay with a doctor?

You do if you're a control-freak parent. If you're a good parent, you explain to your child why you think being a doctor would be good for him, and you share your concerns about living as a professional artist, but ultimately, you recognize that it's his life and if he doesn't want to be a doctor, it's probably not a good idea to manipulate him into becoming one anyway.