Friday, December 25, 2009

The Bind of Orthodoxy: Tolerance and Toevah*

On Tuesday, four gay Orthodox men spoke at Yeshiva University, sharing their stories and answering questions. (Unofficial transcript, with names changed.)

That this event took place is a step in the right direction, of course. Some elements within modern Orthodoxy are pushing hard to spread a message of tolerance and sensitivity. I commend them for that. But they've already stretched the limits of Orthodoxy to the breaking point. They can go no further, and it's not clear that they can sustain the expansion of tolerance that they have achieved.

This is a letter signed by 5-7 (versions vary) roshei yeshiva**:

The Torah requires that we relate with sensitivity to a discreet individual who feels that he/she has a homosexual orientation, but abstains from any and all homosexual activity. Such sensitivity, however, cannot be allowed to erode the Torah’s unequivocal condemnation of homosexual activity. The Torah’s mitzvos and judgments are eternally true and binding. Homosexual activity constitutes an abomination. As such, publicizing or seeking legitimization even for the homosexual orientation one feels runs contrary to Torah. In any forum or on any occasion when appropriate sympathy for such discreet individuals is being discussed, these basic truths regarding homosexual feelings and activity must be emphatically re-affirmed.

And this is a message from the president and principal of RIETS, the rabbinical seminary of YU:

In light of recent events, we want to reiterate the absolute prohibition of homosexual relationships according to Jewish law. Of course, as was indicated in a message issued by our Roshei Yeshiva, those struggling with this issue require due sensitivity, although such sensitivity cannot be allowed to erode the Torah's unequivocal condemnation of such activity. Sadly, as we have discovered, public gatherings addressing these issues, even when well-intentioned, could send the wrong message and obscure the Torah's requirements of halakhic behavior and due modesty. Yeshiva has an obligation to ensure that its activities and events promote the primacy and sacredness of Torah in our lives and communities. We are committed to providing halakhic guidance and sensitivity with respect to all challenges confronted by individuals within our broader community, including homosexual inclinations, in a discreet, dignified and appropriate fashion.

We must be sensitive, but homosexuality is an abomination. We regret that Orthodox Judaism's rules and stigmas against homosexuality cause untold suffering and sometimes suicide, but we must be terribly careful not to send the message (chas v'shalom!) that homosexual behavior is okay. It's *more* important to avoid sending that message than it is to promote understanding and sensitivity.

The Torah says that (male) homosexuality is an abomination, and that those who engage in homosexual behavior deserve to be killed. Orthodox Judaism says that the Torah is true and is the foundation for all that is good. This cannot ultimately be reconciled with what every decent person living in a modern society in the 21st century knows to be true: that love is love.

The Torah is the problem, and as long as Orthodox Judaism maintains that the Torah is the word of God, Orthodox Judaism is the problem. If you are an Orthodox Jew, *you* are part of the problem.

People wrote the Torah. That this is controversial to anybody at this point is frankly insane. There's no magical sky god that dictated this scroll to a great man named Moses at the top of a mountain for 40 days and 40 nights thousands of years ago. Are you all children? This is a story for children, or perhaps primitive illiterates like the ones who were the original audience for this story.

That was then and this is now, and you need to step up and start being honest with yourselves and each other. You can't be tolerant or sensitive as long as you believe that the Creator of the Universe thinks that homosexuality is an abomination and you willingly worship him.

*Toevah: abomination.
**Roshei yeshiva: heads of religious instruction.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Mazel Tov To Chelsea Clinton!

Cross-Currents, representing the warmth and love of right-wing religious people everywhere, wishes No Hearty Mazal Tov For Chelsea. Why? She's marrying a Jew. And she's not one.

That reminded me of a dream I had when I was first going OTD. I was, in this dream, engaged to Chelsea Clinton! And my parents were fuming that I wanted to marry a non-Jew.

It's not that I was ever particularly interested in Chelsea Clinton, romantically. I think the role she played in my dream was like the role Sidney Portier played in Guess Who's Coming To Dinner: a perfect catch who had no flaws a parent could complain about, forcing the parent to oppose the marriage on explicitly racial (religious) grounds or not at all.

I think it's a damn shame when the response to the engagement of two people in love is anything but celebration. If your religion (or prejudice) causes you to feel something else just because the couple are Jewish and gentile or black and white or members of the same sex, well, your religion (or prejudice) just kinda sucks.

(Previously: Intermarriage and Interdating, Part I and II.)

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

America Is Insane: War vs. Health Care

President Obama just signed a 680 billion dollar "defense" appropriations bill. That does not include the cost of either war!

But we're having an enormous debate about spending 90 billion dollars a year for health care (which will probably end up being deficit neutral anyway!)

America is insane. There's all the money in the world for wars and guns and planes and bombs and soldiers stationed all over the world (we have 50,000 military personnel in Germany alone!) but spending a tiny fraction of that on health care is somehow deemed irresponsible socialism.

Hat tip: Chris Hayes via Ezra Klein.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

My Message For A Gay Orthodox Jew

Chana writes about a gay Orthodox YU student with a blog.

Here is my message for him and anyone else in a similar position:
Just read about you on Chana's blog. My heart goes out to people like you who suffer unnecessarily. I grew up Orthodox and it is my honest belief that it is 100% untrue. There is no God and he did not write or dictate or inspire the Torah. The words of Leviticus were written by mere mortals a couple thousand years ago and should no more keep you from finding and experiencing love (and/or sex) than the Book of Mormon should.

I've been around Orthodoxy and Orthodox Jews long enough to know I'm never going to convince someone who doesn't want to be convinced (unless they're unusually intellectually honest AND curious) but I really, truly believe that the case is a slam dunk if you are willing to consider it.

There's just no good reason for you to live a life of suffering and deprivation. I hope you realize that sooner rather than later.

Feel free to email me, and good luck.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Life's Origin -- A New Hypothesis

The picture painted by Russell and Martin is striking indeed. The last common ancestor of all life was not a free-living cell at all, but a porous rock riddled with bubbly iron-sulphur membranes that catalysed primordial biochemical reactions. Powered by hydrogen and proton gradients, this natural flow reactor filled up with organic chemicals, giving rise to proto-life that eventually broke out as the first living cells - not once but twice, giving rise to the bacteria and the archaea.

Many details have yet to be filled in, and it may never be possible to prove beyond any doubt that life evolved by this mechanism. The evidence, however, is growing. This scenario matches the known properties of all life on Earth, is energetically plausible - and returns Mitchell's great theory to its rightful place at the very centre of biology.

See also Ten Steps To The First Cells.

Friday, October 09, 2009

WTF: Obama Wins The Nobel Peace Prize?

I thought it was an article from the Onion at first. And then... "What?!"
The Norwegian Nobel Committee said it gave the prize to Obama for his "efforts to strengthen international diplomacy," his "vision of and work for a world without nuclear weapons" and for inspiring hope and creating "a new climate in international politics."

Emphasizing diplomacy ahead of force is a big improvement, but at this point it's mostly just rhetoric. He's only just started to accomplish something in Iran with diplomacy. Elsewhere, we're still fighting TWO wars and he's considering escalating one of them. He's effectively covered up and excused much of the previous administrations' torture and gross human rights violations and Guantanamo Bay remains open and running. He increased the size of the "defense" budget. He has spoken about ridding the world of nuclear weapons but not indicated how that could happen nor done anything about it. He has made no appreciable progress in Israel and Palestine.

Obama does not deserve this award. I hope that knowing he doesn't deserve it makes him feel obligated to earn it retroactively.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Conditional Love And Orthodox Judaism: A Little Mussar From A Jewish Atheist

There were a lot of conditions for love and affection and continued membership, And they were serious, and they were ludicrous. It was, "You don't wear a yarmulke you can get out. You intermarry, we sit shiva for you. You eat non-kosher and our children are not allowed to hang out with you." --Shalom Auslander

When a Parent’s ‘I Love You’ Means ‘Do as I Say’
The studies found that both positive and negative conditional parenting were harmful, but in slightly different ways. The positive kind sometimes succeeded in getting children to work harder on academic tasks, but at the cost of unhealthy feelings of “internal compulsion.” Negative conditional parenting didn’t even work in the short run; it just increased the teenagers’ negative feelings about their parents.

What these and other studies tell us, if we’re able to hear the news, is that praising children for doing something right isn’t a meaningful alternative to pulling back or punishing when they do something wrong. Both are examples of conditional parenting, and both are counterproductive.

The child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim, who readily acknowledged that the version of negative conditional parenting known as time-out can cause “deep feelings of anxiety,” nevertheless endorsed it for that very reason. “When our words are not enough,” he said, “the threat of the withdrawal of our love and affection is the only sound method to impress on him that he had better conform to our request.”

But the data suggest that love withdrawal isn’t particularly effective at getting compliance, much less at promoting moral development. Even if we did succeed in making children obey us, though — say, by using positive reinforcement — is obedience worth the possible long-term psychological harm? Should parental love be used as a tool for controlling children?

Deeper issues also underlie a different sort of criticism. Albert Bandura, the father of the branch of psychology known as social learning theory, declared that unconditional love “would make children directionless and quite unlovable” — an assertion entirely unsupported by empirical studies. The idea that children accepted for who they are would lack direction or appeal is most informative for what it tells us about the dark view of human nature held by those who issue such warnings.

In practice, according to an impressive collection of data by Dr. Deci and others, unconditional acceptance by parents as well as teachers should be accompanied by “autonomy support”: explaining reasons for requests, maximizing opportunities for the child to participate in making decisions, being encouraging without manipulating, and actively imagining how things look from the child’s point of view.

The last of these features is important with respect to unconditional parenting itself. Most of us would protest that of course we love our children without any strings attached. But what counts is how things look from the perspective of the children — whether they feel just as loved when they mess up or fall short.

Rogers didn’t say so, but I’ll bet he would have been glad to see less demand for skillful therapists if that meant more people were growing into adulthood having already felt unconditionally accepted.

That article sent a pang through my heart, because I recognized so much of my parents' disciplinary style in the "what not to do" sections.

Just last week, I kind of casually mentioned to my mother-in-law that I'm something of a disappointment to my father (in that I'm not Orthodox.) She was, of course, horrified and insisted that it must not be true. And maybe it isn't, but this article sure explains why I would feel that way. My parents probably have always loved me unconditionally, but it felt to me that their love and affection were contingent on my behaving in certain ways... and I either could not or would not always behave in those ways.

I think that that kind of parenting goes hand-in-hand with fundamentalist religion (although it appears everywhere.) The Orthodox community itself is the same way. They are so warm and accepting as long as you Do As They Say. Be (or appear to be) a mainstream Orthodox person and you can have dozens of friends two weeks after moving into a community. But if you don't fit the mold, you don't fit the community, and they get rid of you, if only by not making you feel welcome.

Yes, Modern Orthodox communities will tolerate a blue shirt, some mixed dancing, and even eating non-kosher dairy out, but the entire community is built around the set of behaviors that is Orthodox Judaism. If a kid becomes an atheist or is openly gay or even just becomes a Reform Jew, he (generally speaking) no longer has a place in that community.

It's important to note that no harm is intended by Orthodox communities, just as no harm is intended by parents trying to teach their children to behave themselves. But harm is caused. Gay kids, atheist kids, apatheist kids, weird kids, outspoken kids, freethinking kids, boys who don't like gemara, kids who don't want to go to Israel -- they get the message that they aren't loved and don't belong. In more right-wing communities, kids who like secular books and movies, girls who don't want to be housewives or even mothers, girls who want to go to college, boys who wear blue shirts -- they get that message too.

I remember when I first told my parents that I didn't believe anymore and wasn't going to remain Orthodox, I asked them if they'd prefer me to be happy or to stay Orthodox. They refused to answer, arguing it was a false dichotomy (and probably it was.) But it gets at an important issue. There is so much focus in Orthodox families and Orthodox communities in making sure that children turn into this one kind of adult that it does a lot of damage. I genuinely did not (and do not) know how my parents would answer that question honestly, assuming they had to pick. A happy son or an Orthodox one?

And don't you liberal Orthodoxers pat yourselves on the back if you allow a little more leeway, say a blue shirt or a secular school. If you make it seem like your love is in any way contingent on your kids (or brothers or sisters or friends) remaining Orthodox or straight or marrying another Jew, you are part of the problem. Love (or the perception of love) should not be used in that way.

This is NOT to say that you can't argue for someone to marry a Jew or remain Orthodox or try to become straight (even though I'd disagree with those arguments.) It's about letting your loved ones believe that your love is contingent on their behaviors and life choices.

There are some Orthodox people who get this right, even when "tested" by gay or OTD or whatever kids. I don't want to make it sound like I think every Orthodox person is guilty of this. There are probably even some Orthodox communities who get it right, probably in very small communities where they don't have enough people who are the same to cast out those who are different.

But this is a problem that's built into the very notion of "Orthodox community." "Orthodox" should refer to an individual's beliefs or behaviors, not to a community. It's fine and natural for Orthodox people to associate with each other and to form communities, but it is not fine (although it is natural) for them to exclude non-Orthodox people from those communities. And it's not enough to welcome non-Orthodox people for meals or events with the intention of bringing them closer to Orthodoxy. If you don't value people as people regardless of their choices, then you do not love them. And I don't think even the Torah commands you to love only your Orthodox neighbors.

Oh, and perhaps somewhat counter-intuitively, you might be able to make a serious dent in your OTD "problem" by not using your love as reward and punishment. There are plenty of potential OTDers who probably wouldn't care enough to leave if they weren't made to feel so unwelcome.

(HT: Abandoning Eden)

45,000 Excess Deaths Annually Linked To Lack Of Health Insurance

Harvard study:

A study published online today [Thursday] estimates nearly 45,000 annual deaths are associated with lack of health insurance. That figure is about two and a half times higher than an estimate from the Institute of Medicine (IOM) in 2002.

The new study, "Health Insurance and Mortality in U.S. Adults," appears in today's [Thursday's] online edition of the American Journal of Public Health.

The Harvard-based researchers found that uninsured, working-age Americans have a 40 percent higher risk of death than their privately insured counterparts, up from a 25 percent excess death rate found in 1993.

Lead author Dr. Andrew Wilper, who worked at Harvard Medical School when the study was done and who now teaches at the University of Washington Medical School, said, "The uninsured have a higher risk of death when compared to the privately insured, even after taking into account socioeconomics, health behaviors and baseline health. We doctors have many new ways to prevent deaths from hypertension, diabetes and heart disease -- but only if patients can get into our offices and afford their medications."

The study, which analyzed data from national surveys carried out by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), assessed death rates after taking education, income and many other factors including smoking, drinking and obesity into account. It estimated that lack of health insurance causes 44,789 excess deaths annually.

Bin Laden killed 3,000 people on 9/11. Lack of health insurance kills fifteen times that number every year.

It's easy to forget what we're fighting for with all the ranting and raving and lying going on. This isn't about soaking the rich or getting votes or growing government or turning the country into a socialist utopia; it's about saving a lot of lives and improving the quality of life for a lot more people.

Let's try to remember that.

(HT: Andrew Sullivan.)

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

The False Beauty of Intelligent Design

Chana posts an ode to intelligent design from Sing, You Righteous by R' Avigdor Miller:
(Mr. Goodfriend is entertaining Eliezer and his younger brother Aaron on the back porch. Watermelon is being served.)

G. Last year I visited a farm in the South and I saw watermelons growing alongside the steps of the Negro workers' cottages.

Aaron. Why did they plant them near the steps?

G. They did not. In the evenings they had held watermelon feasts on their steps, and the slippery seeds had shot in all directions just as they do here. That is the purpose of their slipperiness.

A. Do you say that they are purposefully slippery? Is that not merely due to the moisture of the melon?

G. Rub the melon water between your fingers: it is not slippery. The seeds are coated with a slippery mucus which causes them to fly out under pressure.

A. Then why are only watermelon seeds slippery, but not orange seeds?

G. The watermelon seeds are palatable, and must therefore be protected by making them elusive. The orange pips are bitter and therefore need no protection. That is the purpose of their bitterness.

Eliezer. Even the U.S. Department of Agriculture says so in one of its publications on the orange.

A. You say, Sir, that the bitterness is for the intentional purpose of protecting the pips. This implies that the orange tree knows that there are eaters, and therefore intentionally makes its seeds bitter. The tree, then, also knows that the eaters dislike bitterness.

Eliezer. And it implies also that the orange and the watermelon know that the future of their species depends on the protection of the seeds.

A. The biology teachers would be outraged at such language.

E. What else could anyone say, whether he wished or not?

A. If the melon is entirely purposeful, why is its flesh colored red?

E. When your mother makes ice cream, why does she color it? The color enhances the pleasure of eating.

A. You are now implying that the watermelon knows also that the eaters have eyes, and it knows that the eaters are not colorblind.

G. And it knows that the eaters relish sweets, for it sugars the flesh of the melon. You are also forced to admit that it knows how to mix starches and acids, colors and flavors, all in exact proportion, and cooks them in the sunshine until ready to eat.

E. A master chef!

G. It is superior to the best of chefs. The chef is supplied beforehand with all the materials; whereas the plant creates a masterpiece from nothing but water, air, sunlight and soil.

E. It is also evident that it is careful to waste no materials. The red color stops at the rind.

G. Yes. A colored rind would be misleading, for the eater might be tempted and cause himself stomach cramps. Only the edible part is colored.

A. Are you crediting the watermelon with so much intelligence? Perhaps its purpose is merely to produce seeds.

G. That in itself is enormously purposeful. But the seeds do not need the meat of the melon, for each seed is provided with its own store of food within its jacket. This food in the seed-jacket is colorless and unsweetened, for the seed does not need an attractive color or luscious flavor such as the watermelon-meat possesses.

E. The melon proclaims as clearly as could be that it is intended for eaters. The seeds of the fruits and vegetables are provided with their own supply of food, and the kind of food which they need, inside the seed. Therefore the meat of the fruit clearly has no purpose other than to be eaten.

A. And the color of the orange flesh?

G. It causes the eater increased enjoyment.

A. To say that the melon wishes to protect the eater against stomach cramps, seems too imaginative.

G. Do you not see that all unripe fruits are green? Why?

A. That is their natural color.

G. Then why do apples turn red when ripe, and not before? Why do oranges turn yellow only when ripe, and grapes turn purple? In ripeness they have various colors, but when unripe all are green. Why?

E. You can say nothing else: to protect the eaters from stomachache. The green warns them.

G. The green causes the fruits to be inconspicuous among the green leaves. The unripe fruit remains unnoticeable, in addition to remaining unattractive, as long as it is unfit for eating. The ripe fruit assumes a bright color in order 1) to make it conspicuous among the green leaves and 2) to make it attractive to the eaters.

A. You attribute very much intelligence to all plants.

G. Yes. The fruit tree knows 1) of eaters 2) who have eyes 3) which distinguish colors; and 4) who possess stomachs, and 5) who have the senses of smell and taste, and 6) dislike sour food but 7) relish sweets flavored by gentle acids, and 8) whose digestive systems are equipped with complex chemical processes with which the tree is familiar. The tree knows also that 9) the eaters possess teeth and 10) that they have no wings with which to fly.

She and Ezzie think this is the best thing ever.

I'm actually embarrassed for them. It's one thing to think that God had a hand in evolution; quite another to act like you've never even heard of Darwin!

If they liked that, I've got a video that will blow their minds:

For an elegant, readable, even beautiful explanation of the "intelligence" behind evolution, I recommend Richard Dawkins's The Blind Watchmaker or The Selfish Gene.

Evolution is way more beautiful and way more mind-blowing when you realize that it doesn't need some magic sky fairy to guide it.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Pop Quiz: What Percentage of Americans Oppose The War In Afghanistan?

Opposition to the war in Afghanistan is at an all-time high in a new national poll. Fifty-seven percent of Americans questioned in a CNN/Opinion Research Corporation survey released Tuesday say they oppose the U.S. war in Afghanistan, with 42 percent supporting the military mission.

57% of Americans oppose the war.

57% of Independents oppose the war.

But that's not exactly the picture you get from the media, is it?

On yesterday's Meet the Press, which was devoted in large part to "debating" the war, 100% of the panelists supported it. (The other half of the show was devoted to "debating" health care, in which 75% to 100% of the panelists opposed the public option. A majority of Americans support the public option.)

Liberal media, my ass. Not only are liberal views not represented even when a majority of Americans hold them, they're not even treated by the media as "serious" or "legitimate" views to hold. To be taken seriously by the media, you have to be a hawk and a fiscal conservative. Socially, you can be a little more liberal. As long as you favor war and limiting social spending, of course.

Yesterday, Meet the Press hosted a panel discussion to debate two primary issues: (1) foreign policy -- specifically, the war in Afghanistan, and (2) health care. The panel: Rudy Giuliani, Tom Friedman, Harold Ford, Jr., and Tom Brokaw (as Jay Rosen often notes, Meet the Press is doing a fantastic job of fulfilling its pledge to present "fresh voices" in its discussions).

With regard to Afghanistan, there is a major debate currently taking place about whether we should stay in that country. A majority of Americans now opposes the war. But there was not a single participant there who shares that view. All of them believe that it is imperative we remain, and put on their little General hats to exchange deeply Serious analyses of how we need to adjust our strategy and tactics for greater mission success. Of course, all of three of those whose views were known about Iraq -- Friedman, Ford and Giuliani -- were vehement supporters of the invasion. As always, not only does support for that war not produce shame or even impair one's credibility and Seriousness, but the opposite is true: having supported it is a prerequisite for being considered credible and Serious, which is why those are the only people -- still -- from whom we hear when it's time to convene Serious discussions of foreign policy. What an odd filtering standard for The Liberal Media to use.

On health care, the same dynamic repeated itself. The prime controversy in that debate is over the inclusion of a "public option," with large numbers of Americans supporting it. Yet once again, not a single member of the panel advocated it (though David Axelrod was interviewed before the panel and paid lip service to the public option on his way to clearly signaling it would not be part of the ultimate plan). Guiliani warned there would be no health care with a public option; Ford told his "liberal friends in Congress" that they will have to be disappointed by the outcome; Friedman insisted that Obama adopt the proposals of Mitt Romney and John McCain and ensure he has the support of centrist Republicans (Brokaw offered some mild pushback against the attempt to demonize the public option). The words "single payer" were never spoken.

What you had with the health care discussion, just as was true with the Afghanistan debate and the lead-up to the Iraq War, is one that -- by design -- completely excluded any views to the "left" of DLC Chair Harold Ford, even where such views are held by large numbers of Americans. With very rare exception, that is the spectrum of opinion typically allowed on Liberal Media shows like Meet the Press. The Liberal Media doesn't even pretend to include liberal views.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

How Did Economists Get it So Wrong?

The introduction and conclusion of a long article by Paul Krugman in yesterday's NYT:

Few economists saw our current crisis coming, but this predictive failure was the least of the field’s problems. More important was the profession’s blindness to the very possibility of catastrophic failures in a market economy. During the golden years, financial economists came to believe that markets were inherently stable — indeed, that stocks and other assets were always priced just right. There was nothing in the prevailing models suggesting the possibility of the kind of collapse that happened last year. Meanwhile, macroeconomists were divided in their views. But the main division was between those who insisted that free-market economies never go astray and those who believed that economies may stray now and then but that any major deviations from the path of prosperity could and would be corrected by the all-powerful Fed. Neither side was prepared to cope with an economy that went off the rails despite the Fed’s best efforts.

And in the wake of the crisis, the fault lines in the economics profession have yawned wider than ever. Lucas says the Obama administration’s stimulus plans are “schlock economics,” and his Chicago colleague John Cochrane says they’re based on discredited “fairy tales.” In response, Brad DeLong of the University of California, Berkeley, writes of the “intellectual collapse” of the Chicago School, and I myself have written that comments from Chicago economists are the product of a Dark Age of macroeconomics in which hard-won knowledge has been forgotten.

What happened to the economics profession? And where does it go from here?

[skip about four pages to the conclusion]

So here’s what I think economists have to do. First, they have to face up to the inconvenient reality that financial markets fall far short of perfection, that they are subject to extraordinary delusions and the madness of crowds. Second, they have to admit — and this will be very hard for the people who giggled and whispered over Keynes — that Keynesian economics remains the best framework we have for making sense of recessions and depressions. Third, they’ll have to do their best to incorporate the realities of finance into macroeconomics.

Many economists will find these changes deeply disturbing. It will be a long time, if ever, before the new, more realistic approaches to finance and macroeconomics offer the same kind of clarity, completeness and sheer beauty that characterizes the full neoclassical approach. To some economists that will be a reason to cling to neoclassicism, despite its utter failure to make sense of the greatest economic crisis in three generations. This seems, however, like a good time to recall the words of H. L. Mencken: “There is always an easy solution to every human problem — neat, plausible and wrong.”

When it comes to the all-too-human problem of recessions and depressions, economists need to abandon the neat but wrong solution of assuming that everyone is rational and markets work perfectly. The vision that emerges as the profession rethinks its foundations may not be all that clear; it certainly won’t be neat; but we can hope that it will have the virtue of being at least partly right.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Rationalizing Belief: Or, I'd Love To Play Poker With Rabbi Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student of Hirhurim, drawing from the seventh Harry Potter book, writes about belief in the face of incomplete evidence:

This raises the question of what to do when you have inconclusive evidence. Should you follow the direction of the preponderance of evidence, even if you know that you are missing significant pieces to the puzzle? Should you remain without an opinion? Or should you choose whichever outcome you want, as long as it can somehow fit in with the evidence currently available?

Of course you should follow the preponderance of the evidence! How is that even a question? Obviously I'm aware that people choose to believe what they prefer to believe, but I didn't realize people were conscious of doing it, let alone rationalizing it explicitly. Kudos to Rabbi Student for being more self-aware and open about it than most, but really, how can you live like that?

Rabbi Student then shifts from Harry Potter's fictional dilemma to a real-life one faced by educated, open-minded Orthodox people everywhere:

Another area in which this dilemma arises is that of belief in theological principles. For example, the Divine authorship of the Pentateuch. Evidence from biblical criticism and related fields indicate that the Pentateuch was written by different people. However, an honest observer will admit that the evidence is not completely conclusive, and perhaps can never be when discussing the authorship of a text thousands of years old.

If the current preponderance of evidence points to human authorship, must we accept that conclusion? Or can we choose which position to believe, since either can somehow fit within all the evidence? Or should we retain the traditional belief of Divine authorship and dismiss new findings as either incorrect or explainable?

The message of Harry Potter is that there is no reliable method. Until we have all of the information, even the preponderance of evidence might be misleading. There might be some significant mising piece of information that will entirely change the picture.


Where does that leave us? Should we believe that vampires exist because they have not been conclusively proven to not exist? What about spontaneously generating lice? At what point do our beliefs become ridiculously irrational? What we have to say is that there comes a point, which cannot be objectively determined, when the evidence becomes overwhelming. We do not need 100% confirmation. At some point we have enough pieces of the puzzle that the conclusion is clear and we cannot ignore it.

Has the issue of human authorship of the Pentateuch reached a level of overwhelming evidence? I certainly don't think so, and I have written a number of posts on that subject. The message of Harry Potter is that when there is uncertainty then within the realm of rationally viable possibilities you are free to choose which to believe based on emotion (i.e. non-rational) reasons.

Now, as XGH points out, clearly you are "free" to choose what to believe in the sense that there's no rule out there requiring one to base beliefs on evidence. But if you make a pattern out of choosing beliefs contrary to the preponderance of evidence, the law of averages says that you're going to be wrong more than you're right.

Or, to put it another way, I'd love to play poker with Gil! Even when the preponderance of evidence tells him that he has the worst hand, he might just choose to believe the opposite and bet all his money -- after all "there might be some significant missing piece of information that will entirely change the picture!"

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Jewish Missionaries Outraged at Christian Missionaries

This article (via Jewcy via OTD) is fascinating:
The Seed, like all messianic Jewish congregations, used deception and slick marketing to appeal to uninformed Jews, attempting to convince them that it is Jewish to believe in Jesus.

As David Kelsey at Jewcy points out, that same sentence with some minor changes fits Aish Hatorah -- the organization hosting this article! -- to a tee:
Aish HaTorah, like all kiruv congregations, used deception and slick marketing to appeal to uninformed Jews, attempting to convince them that Orthodox Judaism is true.

(Kelsey also points to an example of deception and slick marketing used by Aish HaTorah.)

Aish's lack of self-awareness is only part of the attraction for this article. We also get to see how one of these organizations views the threat of another:
All of this raised the ire of Chaim Feinberg, z"l, a young, fiery Orthodox Jew living in Albany's small Orthodox community. He brought his concerns to Scott Moskowitz, an active member of the Orthodox Jewish student's group at SUNYA. Scott, in turn, raised the issue with Rich and suggested that they endeavor to find a non-Jewish student to join the Seed to investigate its inner workings and tactics.

Why a non-Jewish student? Because Aish knows first-hand how effective missionary techniques can be. Truth, reason, empiricism, all irrelevant. Because Aish knows that with missionary work, the important thing is which organization gets the most face-time with you.

Deciding that finding a non-Jew for the job would be too hard, Rich himself (a Reform Jew) volunteers. Feinberg and Moskowitz, though, were worried. After consulting with a "reknowned" (but anonymous) rabbi agreed with the plan, but established some "strict ground rules":
These rules included the instruction that Rich was not to take a single move without Feinberg's approval, and that after each meeting with The Seed, Rich would need to sit and learn with Feinberg as a sort of deprogramming.

So "learning" with a "fiery, young Orthodox Jew" is DE-programming??

The lack of self-awareness continues:
During that first phone call, Rich and Pastor Birnbaum spent two hours talking. Rich laid the bait: he was lonely, Albany was so gloomy, everybody was so materialistic, he was a twice-a-year Jew who yearned for more spirituality. Birnbaum did not just take the bait, he gobbled it up voraciously. He told Rich that he knew exactly how he felt since he, too, had attended college in Albany.

Is that not the same story given to dozens of chabad rabbis and other kiruv professionals every day?

More on the "deprogramming":
Rich was in constant contact with Feinberg, nearly matching hour for hour the time he spent with The Seed -- deprogramming, learning together, and reporting on the tactics, inner workings, and funding structure of the Seed. At one point Larry Levy, then executive director of Jews for Judaism in Baltimore, was flown in to add his expertise to the deprogramming team working with Rich.

The story goes on from there, with Rich ultimately and triumphantly calling out the Seed organization from the stage of a Purim play "because a Jew is a Jew and never a Christian!" The press gets the story, and Seed ultimately falls apart.

Typically, the story would end there. But Aish apparently wanted to highlight their spectacular lack of self-awareness in the funniest way possible:
Rich had always toyed with the idea of spending junior year abroad and now the idea seemed perfect. He enrolled in Hebrew University. After a few weeks at Hebrew U, the seed of Torah that had been planted in Albany and watered by Chaim Feinberg began sprouting. Why did I travel halfway around the world to study the same things I had been studying in Albany? Rich wondered. What am I doing in the spiritual capital of the world without tapping into anything spiritual?

By the end of September, Rich had enrolled in Aish HaTorah.

King Solomon teaches us "There is a time to plant and a time to uproot that which has been planted." Sometimes, it seems, by uprooting what has been planted, a person also plants anew. While The Seed of Abraham has been relegated to the dustbin of history, Rich Maisel and his family are living a blossoming Torah life.

UPDATE: A "Messianic Jew" responds.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

A Question I'd Like to Hear Orthodox Bloggers Discuss

Your son, a sweet, well-behaved boy, comes to you at age 16 and tells you he does not believe in Orthodox Judaism. He says that while of course he will not violate the laws of shabbat or kashrut in your home, he no longer wants to attend religious schools or participate in davening. He'd like to attend a secular school and start hanging out with non-religious and non-Jewish teens. He doesn't want to wear a kippah any more, either. You can tell that he is speaking from a place of integrity and genuine soul-searching, and you can also tell that his mind is made up.

Do you force him to stick it out in the Orthodox school? Coerce him into continuing to daven as long as he's living in your house? Make him promise to keep kosher and shabbos even outside the house? Forbid him from taking his kippah off at least while any of your friends, family, or neighbors might see? Or do you accept his wishes and support his choices, much as they pain you?

I've never seen an honest discussion about what to do when your kids go off the derech other than discussions about how to get them to stay or utter denial that it's even possible in your family.

It would be great if this became a meme that went through the Orthodox blogging community. I'll start by tagging Ezzie, Chana, DovBear, Orthoprax, and BrooklynWolf. Please tag some others in your replies.

Jewish Philosopher: Don't bother. We know you'd chain your kid to the radiator and try to beat the devil out of him.

Monday, August 17, 2009

CATO Institute Finds $180 Billion Benefit to Legalizing Illegal Immigrants

The Washington Independent:
A new study from the libertarian CATO Institute concludes that legalizing the more than eight million undocumented workers in the United States would have significant economic benefits for the country, while simply enhancing border enforcement and applying restrictive immigration laws would actually hurt the U.S. economically.

The new report, written by Professor Peter B. Dixon and Research Fellow Maureen T. Rimmer at the Centre of Policy Studies at Monash University in Australia, relies on an economic model used by the U.S. Departments of Commerce, Agriculture, and Homeland Security, as well as International Trade Commission.

Weighing public spending and revenues, U.S. employment rates in various occupations, and price levels for imports and exports, among other things, the authors conclude that “increased enforcement and reduced low-skilled immigration have a significant negative impact on the income of U.S. households.” The minimal savings in public spending on immigrants now “would be more than offset by losses in economic output and job opportunities for more skilled American workers.” A policy that reduces low-skilled immigration to about a third less than projected levels, then, over ten years, “would reduce U.S. household welfare by about 0.5 percent, or $80 billion.”

In contrast, “legalization of low-skilled immigrant workers would yield significant income gains for American workers and households,” the study found. Legalization would eliminate the costs of smuggling illegal immigrants, would allow immigrants to be more productive and openly participate in the economy, and it would “create more openings for Americans in higher skilled occupations.”

The overall positive impact for U.S. households of legalizing these workers over ten years would be “1.27 percent of GDP or $180 billion.”

The findings are consistent with previous studies that show economic benefits from the legalization of illegal workers.

Why is "amnesty" such a bad word among the Republican base again? I'm sure it's got nothing to do with racism, Holy Hyrax.

(Hat tip: Patrick Appel, filling in for Andrew Sullivan.)

Previously: On Immigration: Why I Favor Amnesty.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Airborne Rabbis Fight Off Swine Flu

(Video removed because it auto-plays. See it at the link.)

A group of rabbis and Jewish mystics have taken to the skies over Israel, praying and blowing ceremonial trumpets to ward off swine flu.

About 50 religious leaders circled over the country on Monday, chanting prayers and blowing the horns called "shofars".

The flight's aim was "to stop the pandemic so people will stop dying from it," Rabbi Yitzhak Batzri was quoted as saying in Yedioth Aharanot newspaper.

The flu is often referred to as H1N1 in Israel, where pigs are seen as unclean.

While these are crazier-than-average Orthodox Jews, I can't say the scene looks much different from the average prayer service at my yeshiva in Israel... except for the plane, of course.

Sometimes 60 seconds of video speaks louder than volumes of intellectual argument.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Big Government and the Bailouts Saved the Day

So it seems that we aren’t going to have a second Great Depression after all. What saved us? The answer, basically, is Big Government.

Just to be clear: the economic situation remains terrible, indeed worse than almost anyone thought possible not long ago...

For all that, however, the latest flurry of economic reports suggests that the economy has backed up several paces from the edge of the abyss...

So what saved us from a full replay of the Great Depression? The answer, almost surely, lies in the very different role played by government...

Probably the most important aspect of the government’s role in this crisis isn’t what it has done, but what it hasn’t done: unlike the private sector, the federal government hasn’t slashed spending as its income has fallen...

In addition to having this “automatic” stabilizing effect, the government has stepped in to rescue the financial sector. You can argue (and I would) that the bailouts of financial firms could and should have been handled better, that taxpayers have paid too much and received too little. Yet it’s possible to be dissatisfied, even angry, about the way the financial bailouts have worked while acknowledging that without these bailouts things would have been much worse.

The point is that this time, unlike in the 1930s, the government didn’t take a hands-off attitude while much of the banking system collapsed. And that’s another reason we’re not living through Great Depression II.

Last and probably least, but by no means trivial, have been the deliberate efforts of the government to pump up the economy. From the beginning, I argued that the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, a k a the Obama stimulus plan, was too small. Nonetheless, reasonable estimates suggest that around a million more Americans are working now than would have been employed without that plan — a number that will grow over time — and that the stimulus has played a significant role in pulling the economy out of its free fall.

All in all, then, the government has played a crucial stabilizing role in this economic crisis. Ronald Reagan was wrong: sometimes the private sector is the problem, and government is the solution.

And aren’t you glad that right now the government is being run by people who don’t hate government?

Yglesias points out that "“bailouts saved the economy” and “bailouts were structured so as to be very favorable to politically influential financiers” are not exclusive options."

I think that's right. The stimulus worked, but it could have worked better if it had been targeted solely at... stimulus, and less at, oh, say Goldman Sachs.

If there are any responsible Republicans left, please take lessons from this for the healthcare debate. You can't stop it, like you couldn't stop the stimulus. (In fact you shouldn't stop it, like you shouldn't have stopped the stimulus.) But if instead of fearmongering and holding your breath and throwing tantrums, you direct your opposition to things that actually should be opposed, you could affect positive change.

With regard to the stimulus, you could have held your fire, not smeared Obama as Stalin-incarnate, not ridiculed the very idea of stimulus, and instead insisted on making sure that the stimulus was as trim and directed as possible. Oh, you'll say you did argue against some of the waste and misdirected funds, and of course you did, but that was lost among the greater lunacy.

Now you have an opportunity to make sure that the health care plan does what it sets out to do rather than rewarding corporate interests at the expense of everybody else. But you've got to stop lying about everything, smearing Obama as a socialist, pretending that Obama's coming for grandma, insisting that government can never do good, and generally engaging in fearmongering. Instead, be a responsible opposition party. The Dems put forward a plan, respond with the same plan slightly improved. Stay on message. Say you support the plan, but you want to include tort reform. Or you want less money for X and more for Y. You can do that. If you put all your energy on making the plan better and none of it on insanity, you could not only cause a better health care plan, but take great strides in restoring a civil democracy.

Or you can scream "Socialism" and tear at your hair and have to live with whatever the Democrats manage to ram through without your help. Your choice.

Monday, August 10, 2009

War in Afghanistan Getting Bigger; Still Pointless

Walter Pincus reports in the Washington Post:
As the Obama administration expands U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, military experts are warning that the United States is taking on security and political commitments that will last at least a decade and a cost that will probably eclipse that of the Iraq war.

Mark Lynch wonders why:
I find the strategic rationale for escalating the war in Afghanistan extremely thin, and the mismatch between avowed aims and available resources frighteningly wide. What are the strategic reasons for expanding the commitment in Afghanistan? Why should the US be committing to a project of armed state building now, in 2009?

I hope that the argument isn't that it's to prevent al-Qaeda from reconstituting itself in the Afghan safe havens. That's a fool's game. It makes sense to keep the pressure on al-Qaeda, but does that require "armed state building"?

Suppose the U.S. succeeded beyond all its wildest expectations, and turned Afghanistan into Nirvana on Earth... So what? Al-Qaeda (or what we call al-Qaeda) could easily migrate to Somalia, to Yemen, deeper into Pakistan, into the Caucasas, into Africa --- into a near infinite potential pool of ungoverned or semi-governed spaces with potentially supportive environments. Are we to commit the United States to bringing effective governance and free wireless to the entire world? On whose budget?


I fear that the escalation of the war in Afghanistan is following a dangerous path of least resistance. Given the assignment to win the war in Afghanistan, of course a military which has been reshaped by its experience in Iraq will turn to COIN doctrine. Once the decision is made to apply a COIN approach, of course the military is going to ask for more troops there, and a long commitment, since it's always been obvious that really doing COIN in Afghanistan would require vastly more troops than are currently deployed. And then, at each step of the way, there will be a strong tactical argument for expansion and a very difficult sell for any attempt to argue for restraint. Once that iron logic has been accepted, all else follows -- and it becomes extremely difficult to reverse course.

Links via Ezra Klein.

(Previously: Obama Is Wrong On Afghanistan)

Monday, August 03, 2009

Homosexuality and Orthodoxy

Chana writes a story about an Orthodox Jew with a secret:

“During my year in Israel, I hated myself.”

The words hung in the air, sharp as knives. She saw them before her, printed black on white, strung together on a silver shred of barbed wire. “Why?” she questioned softly, tentatively, tucking her legs up underneath her.

“Because I’m gay.”

The words shocked her. They ripped through her body, confusing her; it was almost as though she had not heard correctly. It was totally impossible. He was involved in so many committees, had so many friends; he had dated her friends, for God’s sake! And he wanted to become a Rabbi! How could he be gay? And how could she, Lisa, know someone who was gay? “Oh, Jason,” she mustered, her eyes clouding over in confusion and pain.

“And I hated myself for it. I hated myself like you wouldn’t believe, Lisa. I literally wanted to rip it out of me, kill it. See, there’s a certain eroticism you feel at any naked body, but when I look at a woman, it’s just- I don’t want that. That’s not what I want. But a man- a man gets me excited. I want men.” His voice was thick with hatred and disgust. “And I didn’t want to want them. But you have no idea the images that swam through my mind, the things I thought, and here I was, in high school- because yes, it started before Israel, but it was when I was finally away from home that I could really think it through-and there were guys that I had crushes on. I mean, I tried to wipe that off as no big deal and no big thing; I had one friend and I finally told him and he broke my heart.”

The words were said in a rush, as though he was struggling to get them off his chest. “I just told him I was gay and he was my roommate and he was completely freaked out. I had thought we were best friends; our friendship would withstand anything. I was wrong.”

“But Jason,” Lisa whispered, her voice very low, “are you absolutely…sure?”

“Sure?” He laughed. “You have no idea. I went to JONAH and those therapists who are supposed to turn you straight. I wanted to be straight, Lisa; I wanted to be! And I would do all those things, even put rubber bands on my wrists that I would flick every time I thought of a guy that way, to try to remind myself. I wanted to control my mind. And I even watched porn, of girls, to try to get myself excited. And obviously I dated girls and I just- I just don’t like them like that. I can’t get aroused for them, because of them. And can you imagine what that would be like, marrying a woman and wanting to love her and just not being able to get it up for her? Only able to do it if I think about men?” He shook his head; his expression was filled with self-loathing.

“What are you going to do?” she asked. Confusion whipped through her, feelings that she was unsure of; she didn’t know what to say or what to do, how to help. What could she do? The law existed apart from them both and the law was greater than them both. The law took precedence over them and their lives; God had stated that a man could not lie with a man as he did with a woman. And yet, and yet- this was Jason she was speaking to, her Jason, the man she loved like a brother.

Chana is sensitive and intelligent. And yet she's part of the source of Jason's suffering. All the Orthodox are.

Here was my response:

My heart goes out to people like Jason. And I feel anger for those who support the religion that does this to them. I mean, I understand. I know they mean no harm. (At least some of them don't, anyway. I mean "Jason" himself believes.)

But it's so unnecessary. There's nothing wrong with being gay. You know that intuitively, Chana. Jason knows it too, I hope.

Thousands of gay people form happy gay relationships and families and it's just not that big a deal.

I've known a few Jewish-but-not-Orthodox gay men who simply realize that they're gay sometime in their childhood or teens and then it's just not that big a deal. Their families support them unconditionally, they are completely open about their orientation, and they find nice guys to settle down with.

No drama, no tears, no anguished struggle, no hating friends, no rabbis who try to "help" with ridiculous "cures," no shunning from parents or community. Just normal. Just like you and me when we find somebody we like. People are just happy.

That's how it can be. That's how it should be. God didn't write the Torah, people did. You gasp, that's kefirah, but it's the clear and obvious truth to anybody who didn't grow up Orthodox or otherwise fundamentalist.

"18:22 Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination... For whosoever shall commit any of these abominations, even the souls that commit them shall be cut off from among their people."

Those are not the words of the creator of the universe. Those are the words of some guy living in ancient Israel, or perhaps they are borrowed from someone living earlier than that. They weren't written by God, and everybody outside the Orthodox (and other fundamentalist) circles knows it. The non-fundamentalist scholars know it and the laypeople know it.

All you Orthodox people who think you don't have to read about the Documentary Hypothesis or even seriously think about whether what you believe is actually true because you're happy with your religion -- you share some blame for these tragedies that go on every day in America and throughout the world.

If you've honestly investigated the truth and continue to believe that Orthodox Judaism is correct, okay, you've got to stand up for what you believe in. I get that. But if you're one of the majority who just loves being Orthodox or is too scared to look, you bear responsibility.

Don't just shake your heads at the tough position people like Jason are in. You're part of the problem. Do your research, honestly, and if you find out what the rest of the intellectual world already knows, have the courage to say so.


A Gay, Closeted YU Student Speaks Out (Anonymously)
Who Wrote the Bible?
Great Example of Intellectual Honesty
How Orthodoxy Causes Good Men To Do Evil

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.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

This War Has Nothing To Do With Religion, Part II

Tony Blair believed God wanted him to go to war to fight evil, claims his mentor:
John Burton, Mr Blair's political agent in his Sedgefield constituency for 24 years, says that Labour's most successful ever leader – in terms of elections won – was driven by the belief that "good should triumph over evil".

"It's very simple to explain the idea of Blair the Warrior," he says. "It was part of Tony living out his faith."

Mr Blair has previously admitted that he was influenced by his Christian faith, but Mr Burton reveals for the first time the strength of his religious zeal...

"But Tony's Christian faith is part of him, down to his cotton socks. He believed strongly at the time, that intervention in Kosovo, Sierra Leone – Iraq too – was all part of the Christian battle; good should triumph over evil, making lives better."

Mr Burton, who was often described as Mr Blair's mentor, says that his religion gave him a "total belief in what's right and what's wrong", leading him to see the so-called War on Terror as "a moral cause".

Funny, that's exactly what Random said in response to my claim that religiosity and hawkishness are linked:
Well, if we're going to blunt about it, we could say that the real overlap is between religiosity and a clear and firm sense of right and wrong, and in particular the idea that evil should be fought and not relativised into something acceptable.

Yes, exactly.

And this is an interesting difference between the U.S. and Britain:

Mr Burton makes the comments in a book he has written, and which is published this week, called "We Don't Do God".

In it he portrays a prime minister determined to follow a Christian agenda despite attempts to silence him from talking about his faith.

"While he was at Number 10, Tony was virtually gagged on the whole question of religion," says Mr Burton.

"Alastair [Campbell] was convinced it would get him into trouble with the voters...

Tony Blair complained in 2007 that he had been unable to talk about his faith while in office as he would have been perceived as "a nutter".

"It's difficult if you talk about religious faith in our political system," he said. "If you are in the American political system or others then you can talk about religious faith and people say 'yes, that's fair enough' and it is something they respond to quite naturally. You talk about it in our system and, frankly, people do think you're a nutter."

In Britain being a religious nut is a liability while in America it's a requirement. Either way, we ended up with religious nuts in both countries at the same time and, as a result, over a hundred thousand people are dead. Yaaay God!

Friday, May 22, 2009

Republicans Continue to Elevate Level of Discourse

The Republican National Committee will conclude a special session with a much-anticipated vote on a resolution to re-brand the Democratic Party as the "Democrat Socialist Party."

ANP senior producer Harry Hanbury roamed the RNC meeting with a camera and spoke with committeemen and state chairs to hear their thoughts on the vote and their ideas about both parties.

Via Oliver Willis, via Crooks and Liars.

At this point, I might actually prefer them to call us the "Socialist Party" over the grammatically incorrect Democrat Party they've insisted on for the last century. It would still highlight their immaturity but without grating on the ear as much. I wonder if we can convince them to go with that.

I like Willis's take, too:
I should point out the equivalent of this would have been, in May of 2001, if the Democratic party convened and decided whether we would call the Republican party the Poophead Party or the Crappy Pants Party.

Funny, but it'd be more like if the Democrats got together and tried to pass a serious resolution "rebranding" the Republicans as the "Republican Nazi Party."

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Bias in Action: Ida the Fossil

I wasn't going to post about this amazing fossil find because I'm not in the mood to have another debate with creationists. But then I came across this wonderful example of scientific skepticism vs. creationist "skepticism." I'll post just the excerpts that are skeptical in some way.

The Washington Post, one of the most well-respected papers in the English language:

About the size of a small cat, the animal has four legs and a long tail. Nobody is claiming that it's a direct ancestor of monkeys and humans, but it provides a good indication of what a long-ago ancestor may have looked like, researchers said at a news conference.

In an evolutionary sense, the fossil is like an aunt from several generations ago, said Jens Franzen of the Senckenberg Research Institute in Frankfurt, Germany.

The fossil is the best preserved ever found for a primate, said Jorn Hurum, of the University of Oslo Natural History Museum, one of the scientists introducing the specimen. It's about 95 percent complete, even including fingertips with nails, and lacks only the lower portion of one leg, Hurum said. It also includes gut contents, showing the creature ate leaves and fruit in its rainforest environment.

Experts not connected with the discovery said the finding was remarkably complete because of features like stomach contents. But they questioned the conclusions of Hurum and his colleagues about how closely it is related to ancestors of monkeys and humans.

"I actually don't think it's terribly close to the common ancestral line of monkeys, apes and people," said K. Christopher Beard of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh. "I would say it's about as far away as you can get from that line and still be a primate."

Rather than a long-ago aunt, "I would say it's more like a third cousin twice removed," he said. So it probably resembles ancestral creatures "only in a very peripheral way," he said.

Beard said scientists already have a fossil from China of about the same age that is widely accepted as coming from monkey-ape-human ancestral line, and it's much smaller than the new-found fossil and ate a different diet. "They are radically different animals," he said.

John Fleagle of the State University of New York at Stony Brook said the scientists' analysis provides only "a pretty weak link" between the new creature and higher primates, called anthropoids, that includes monkeys and man.

"It doesn't really tell us much about anthropoid origins, quite frankly," Fleagle said.

The Washington Times, favored by Republicans (Reagan endorsed it early on) and owned by cult leader (seriously) Sun Myung Moon:
But not everyone shares in the Ida adulation.

"This is an incredible piece of hype to popularize a movie and a book. It's hard to believe that this story took off, but the media picked up on very emotional claims about the 'missing link.' It's created good publicity," said Ken Ham, president of Answers in Genesis and founder of the Creation Museum.

"What was wrong with all the other fossils over the years? Why get so excited with this one?" he asked.

"This is a noteworthy fossil find because it's so complete. But comparing it to the Rosetta Stone is quite an exaggeration," said David DeWitt, director of Creation Studies at Liberty University.

"They say 'we have proof' of the missing link. A few years later, they'll claim they have proof all over again. The important question is this: Where did the genetic information come from that produced that skeleton in the first place? It's not random chance," Mr. DeWitt said.

A 2006 Gallup poll found that eight out of 10 Americans believe God guided creation in "some capacity" - with 46 percent thinking God created man in his present form sometime in the past 10,000 years, while 36 percent say man developed over millions of years from lesser life forms, but God guided the process.

Thirteen percent of Americans think mankind evolved with no divine intervention. [Emphasis added.]

LOL. Now that's "fair and balanced."

Sunday, May 17, 2009

This War Has Nothing To Do With Religion!

Right-wing bloggers mocked me and everybody else who threw around words like "theocons" and "religious nuts" with regard to the Bush administration. They roundly dismissed claims that Bush said that God told him to invade Iraq. They said we were overreacing when Bush referred to the war as a "crusade." They scoffed at the notion that there's any connection between religiosity and hawkishness in America. (I guess the immense overlap between Iraq War supporters and the religious right is a coincidence. And the only reason Orthodox Jews are the only Jews who vote Republican is that they are the most rational. Uh-huh.)

And yet: Donald Rumsfeld put insane Bible verses (and chickenhawk war-porn) on the cover sheets of his top-secret intelligence briefings in the days surrounding the U.S. invasion of Iraq:

These are not powerpoint presentations put together by bored 12 year olds at Bible camp. These were the covers of intelligence briefings by the Secretary of Defense given to the President of the United States of America.

This country is so topsy-turvy. Americans say they'd never vote for an atheist, and being a religious fanatic is a plus. Gays in the military are required by law to hide their orientation (and consequently their families and loved ones) because homosexuality is something shameful and dangerous, but being a religious wacko will help you get promoted. Supposed followers of Jesus -- the Prince of Peace who was tortured to death in a "stress position" -- mindlessly support torture and atheists are called immoral or worse.