Thursday, November 27, 2014

For These I Am Thankful

Good morning America from Acherland. 

It was a wonderful day.  I spent it with my parents, my brother, and my girlfriend.  My mother was never much for cooking Thanksgiving meals, so she ordered take out.  This saved me cooking.  For the first time in a few years, I did not resemble a balabusta fressing over my food.  So this was the most peaceful thanksgiving I've had.  So now, with apologies to Arlo Guthrie, a Thanksgiving poem.

Riding on the Borough of Fair Lawn
NJTransit afternoon bus
20 miles and 40 restless minutes
One pissed off driver and 30 passengers plus

All along the Northwest bound odyssey
The bus pulls down Rt 4 out of Ft Lee
Rolls along past buildings trees and shopping malls
Passing cars that have no names
Bus stops full of old commuters
And the graveyards of childhood memories

Good morning America how are you?
Don't you know me, I'm your forlorn son
I'm the bus they call The Borough of Fair Lawn
I'll be 20 miles when the day is gone.

Reading Guns, Germs, and Steel wedged by the window
Turning a page a minute, ain't no one keeping track
Won't you pass the paper that reads today's news
Feel the hum of the road beneath the floor
And the sons of the transit workers
And the sons of the ticketeers
Ride their father's magic carpet made of steel
Mothers with their children asleep
Are rockin' to the gentle beat
And the rhythm of the wheels is all they feel

Good morning America how are you?
Don't you know me, I'm your forlorn son
I'm the bus they call The Borough of Fair Lawn
I'll be 20 miles when the day is gone.

Nighttime in the City of Harlem
Changing pace out of Ft Lee
Half we home, we'll be there by evening
Through the Hudson darkness
Rolling to the Bay
And all the towns and people seem
to fade into a good dream
And the paved road still ain't heard the news
The driver sings his song again
The passengers will please refrain
This bus's got the disappearing transit blues

Good night America how are you?
Don't you know me, I'm your forlorn son
I'm the bus they call The Borough of Fair Lawn
I'll be 20 miles when the day is gone.


Now that I'm finished butchering this classic, here is my list of things I am thankful for.  I am 35 years old, so I will list 35, in no particular order.

1.  My family.  They have been with me for everything. The good, the bad, and the ugly.  Strikes, gutterballs, when I was the king, when I was the fool, when I was in the trough, when I was on a plateau, and when I was completely nowhere at all.
2.  My wonderful girlfriend.  She has brought out the best in me.  I may not always be the best boyfriend out there.  But she has stood by me through it all.  It took me longer than Jacob to finally consummate my feelings for her.  But we both waited patiently.  And it all worked out for the best.
3.  My friends.  This list is too long to enumerate.  The older I get, the smaller my list of close friends get.  But better a smaller list of close friends than a larger list of asshole buddies.
4.  My books.  I've had a love-hate relation with them over the years.  More love than hate.  My attention span may not do them justice.  But from them, I have learned plenty.  Perhaps I have filled my head with too much useless information.  But books are the friends who can never reciprocate my love for them. 
5.  My students.  Each student is another learning experience.  Aside from teaching them, I grow from each one.  I can only hope that I spend many more years enriching the minds of many many more.
6.  My TV.  As Homer Simpson once said, "teacher, mother, secret lover."  Need I say more?
7.  Netflix.  The consummate time waster. 
8.  Beer.  Again, the Wisdom of Homer J Simpson, "The cause and the solution to all the world's problems."
9.  Food.  The quickest way to a man's heart.
10.  My apartment.  It gives me shelter, it gives me a place to entertain, to live, to love, and to be me.
11.  My coworkers.  They look out for me, they are there for me, they are great company.
12.  My previous job at Starbucks.  When I was at the lowest point in my life, this job helped me pick up the pieces.  It was there that I became the man I am today.  They put up with plenty of my bullshit over the years.  They kicked my ass when I needed it.  They shaped me into a fine young man.
13.  City College of New York.  When I first transferred there, I was a broken man.  I was in between many things.  It was there that I finally pulled my shit together.  It was there that I finally learned how to buckle down and apply myself.  It was there that I learned how to do research.  It was there that I was exposed to a diverse student body.  It was there that I learned how to survive in a multicultural environment.  And it was there that I met the love of my life.
14.  Music.  Ah music.  You sooth the savage beast.  You make me happy, sad, and everything in between.  I am so glad you are in my life.
15.  New York City.  The greatest city in the world. 
16.  America.  The greatest country in the world.  I may not have the best relationship with you.  But you haven't given up on me either.
17.  President Obama.  I have not given up on you either.  You have enriched many with hope who otherwise wouldn't have it. 
18.  My guitar.  I haven't played you in a while.  But from playing you, I was exposed to many genres of music I otherwise wouldn't have dreamed of touching.
19.  Judaism.  I may not consider myself Jewish anymore.  But you did shape my early life.  I have held onto some of the more important lessons you have taught me.  And hey, I still enjoy a good cholent and niggun.
20.  My health.  It may not be what it used to be.  But I have it. 
21.  My gym.  Great way to let off stress.  And it is making me more energetic.  It makes me feel better about myself.
22.  Video games.  I may not get the modern ones.  But the ones I play are possibly my biggest vice.
23.  My pets.  Lady the Turtle and Winter the Cat.  You are great company.
24.  Cartoons.  Never too old to enjoy them.
25.  My clothes.  I wear them.  They keep me warm.  They keep me from being naked. 
26.  My iPhone.  Sure, it's addictive.  It keeps me from human interaction.  But it is quite useful.
27.  My computer.  Currently a Windows Tablet.  I should use it more often.
28.  The MTA.  I spend a good chunk of my day commuting on it.  Your prices may have more than doubled since I've come to NYC.  But I still love you.
29.  Logic.  You may not always make sense.  But you help me put things in perspective.
30.  Mornings.  I am not a morning person.  But you make me smile when I see you.  I have survived another one, I like to say.
31.  The Nighttime.  When I really shine.  When I get most of my work done. 
32.  Weekends.  Even though I work through most of them, you give me a chance to recharge my batteries. 
33.  My hat collection.  From yarmulkes that I hardly wear to my favorite trilby, I have a nice collection.
34.  The stars.  I hope in my lifetime I get to visit other systems and see how they look from up closer.
35.  The world.  What a wonderful place to live.

Thank you all.  And Happy Thanksgiving.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Potentially the Most Offensively Tepid Post I've Ever Penned.

I don't know what it is about this bombing in Har Nof that pisses me off the most. Is it that the victims were not the ones who are the real enemies of the killers?  Is it that neither side can find a peaceful, more constructive way to ameliorate the tensions?  Or is it the copious posts bleating about how much the whole world hates the Jews?


I have tried remaining silent about this issue. After all, no good has come from my discussing my point of view. I'm not going to change any minds. After all, I am already perceived as a self-hating Yid (I'm not).  And so, not only have I denied my people, I have thrown out the baby, the bathwater, the crib, and most of the nursery too. Right?

After all, how can any decent human being seriously criticize Israel?  If you deny the Jews (even the secular ones) their Israel, you [insert Reductio ad Hitlerum here].


Where I stand (or shall I sit?)

For those following my other posts, you know that I am a pretty hard skeptic about the Bible as a reliable history source. This includes the traditional interpretation I was raised with.
-a one deity
-has all these rules that are imperative
-belief is intrinsic
-there are chosen people

Yes, chosen people. And a chosen nation for a chosen people.

Sure, everyone wants to believe they are special.  Everyone wants to believe they are loved by whatever spirits watch over them. And when bad things happen, why not blame it on the supernatural?

Israel. Palestine. Zion. Judea-Samaria. Whatever you choose to call it.

The chosen land.

Well, I don't necessarily subscribe to the biblical narrative anymore.

So why should I support Israel at all?

Answer: very minimally.

-the only fully Westernized country in the area. Sure, it is as a result of colonialism. But in this case, I would think the bad outweighs the good.
-humanitarian perspective. What other country has full rights for women, minorities, LGBTQ, and people of all stripes?  Israel is much closer to that than Palestine.
-anyone who denies that the Jews had a presence in the land does not know their history. However, the Jews do exaggerate how strong their ties to the land are.


And how about the group known as the Palestinians?

If I hear one more person say "there's no such thing as Palestine", I will blow my lid.

You don't hear Hindus say there's no such thing as Pakistan. Or Turks saying there's no such thing as Armenia. And do the Tutsis deny that the Hutus exist?  And does anyone deny that the Jews exist?

Okay, there are those who deny that Ashkenazim are "Real Jews;" those who say they are Kuzarim who converted en masse; they would say that the real Jews are either nonexistent or dispersed among the Sefardi/Mizrahim.

But other than that--saying that there's no such thing as Palestine is pretty damn pernicious if you ask me.

Sure, it is a synthetic definition. But aren't most regional identities synthetic to an extent?

I mean take my ethnic identities. I am an American. I live in Harlem. I was raised in New Jersey. I was born in Brooklyn. I was raised Jewish. My mother is half-Polish half-Hungarian. My father is a big mix of Polish, German, Galitzyan, and who know/cares what else. I am an ethnic mutt!  And I'm proud.

Palestinian. Until the early 1960s, it meant the people living in the Levant area, what's now called Israel and Jordan. Then Jordan became a Hashimite Kingdom.

Then, the PLO gave it more specific definition. They fit it to mean those who were expelled from their land between the years 1947-50 as a result of the Naqbaa (as they call it). Later, the definition was extended to include 1967 and the West Bank.

And I say so what if they choose to self-identify as Palestinian?

So what if the people who now call themselves Palestinian were not always Palestinian?

For how many years were the Jews considered wretches without a land?

And now, they have become the former slave torturing the former master.

Does that make it right?

Gah. Too complicated to answer in one simple post.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Tip of the Mountain, part 0

The man in me will hide sometimes to keep from being seen

But that's just because he doesn't want to turn into some machine
Take a woman like you 
To get through to the man in me.
--Bob Dylan

Suspend reality for a moment. Pretend that you know nothing about dating. Pretend you have never been in a relationship in your life. Pretend that you don't even know the first thing about courting a member of the opposite sex (or the same, if you prefer). Picture, for a moment, that all the rules about how a relationship should work are able to violate themselves for one brief moment. And in that moment, love can be born completely ex nihilo. 

Jacob slaved 7 years for the wrong woman, another 7 for the right woman, and ended up in one fucked up dysfunctional marriage. I may as well have bided my time for a woman I am glad I ended up with.  


In my dreams, she was far from angelic. She was the opposite of the aidele maidel that I was programmed to pursue from the time I was young. She would never be the type to stay at home and clean my dishes while I earned some bread. She smoked. She cursed. She most certainly did not put up with my bullshit. I do not even remember what our first conversation was about. All I know is that we argued about something. One of many we would get into. 

And somehow, I managed to get her number by the end of that conversation. Unusually smooth for me. 


I sat there, almost naked in front of her. It was a hot summer day. I was wearing a worn pair of boxer shorts, and nothing else.  I must have looked like something between a beached whale and a hobbit reclining there. 

She sat there on her bed. She was wearing shorts and an orange tank top. She was barefoot, hair clipped upward, and with small round glasses. 

How long can two young, supple ventigenarians successfully live together and not allow their sexual tensions to get in the way. If every bad sitcom and chick flick was correct, not very. 

Sure, society says that a man and a woman should not cohabitate before marriage. Even if they live in separate bedrooms, never see each other naked, and never even hold hands, they have violated a sacred taboo. And even those who are more open and liberated ask what the fuck is wrong with us. Why don't we just fuck already?  Or make love, if you prefer. 
But sometimes, a couple is simply not ready to cross over to the other side. Sometimes, when things are rushed into, they implode. 

I can only imagine what would have happened if we tried engaging in coitis early on in our relationship. 

Perhaps she would find me too forceful. 
Perhaps my lack of confidence would turn her off. She is probably more used to men who already have a well established sexual routine. 
After all
It's not like I was a cherry. I was not. 
Then again
It's not like I ever enjoyed sex either. 
I had never been with a woman who gave me room to find my own sexual identity. 
All the women I had been with were bad for me. 
The wrong sort. 
Yes, they expected me to already know my way around their holy of holies when I was a mere plebeian. 
She might have been put off by my puerility.

Or perhaps she would have enjoyed it.
But we were not ready for each other.
Inevitably, we would get into a fight.
Things would fizzle out.

In short, she would have just been a fling. But the best damn fling I would ever have.

Pop quiz, no peeking:
What's the worst place to take a woman on a date?

A strip club is probably not the absolute worst. But it's pretty fucking bad.

This night in late August was just another night for us. She wanted to go to Atlantic City. Funds were too low. So instead, we went to a strip club.

It was a waste of $200. But the best damn waste of $200 ever.

The drinks were watered down and insipid.
The chairs were comfy.
The girls were concerned that I wasn't slobbering over them. Maybe I was too polite. They thought it was because I was with my wife and she was being a buzzkill. Actually, we are not married and it was her idea to go to the club.

They tried to make small talk with me. I was never good with small talk.
They asked me what I do. I said "special ed teacher". She said "but you don't look like a teacher, you look like a rock star!"
I guess I do look like I'm in a band. It helps when I'm trying to get into a club. They sometimes let me in for free because they think I'm with the band. I do give off that vibe.

The women were very good at what they do. They kept dragging me away from her, into the corner, and tried getting me into the champagne room. I smiled and told them that when I make champagne room money, I will oblige. Until then, I pay by the lap dance.

Our Cupid was a dancer who was on her off session. She was slightly older than the others. She had short hair, yellowing teeth, and a thick Romanian accent. She may not have been as sleek as the other dancers, but what she lacked in youth she more than made up for in experience.

She came over to us. Gave us both a dance at the same time. She caressed us both. She took off her dress. She rubbed her tits against us both.  I really appreciated the lack of cellulite on her. They were probably no bigger than b-cups. They sagged slightly. But I prefer the natural look. They looked great on her.

She even kissed us both on the cheek.

Perhaps the sexiest dance we both had that night.


A moment alone. We were spent and almost ready to go.

I was complaining about how I just didn't have the funds to spend on more services that night.

She said "you know you could have me for free, right?"

Now, I do not shock easily. Very few things in this world actually surprise me.

My reaction must have been a paradoxical combination of surprise and "well, what do you expect?"

Monday, July 7, 2014

Acher's Question

There are many aspects of the Acher story that have intrigued me ever since I first learned the Gemara in Kiddushin about Acher.  According to this one (Kiddushin 39b), he saw a boy falling off a rickety ladder after performing two mitzvoth that promise one long life--honoring his father and chasing away a mother bird before taking her eggs.  

But this Gemara is much less esoteric than the more famous one about him.  Chagigah 14b has a very mysterious story about four who entered a Pardes.  Pardes usually refers to an orange grove.  I believe it has the same root as the modern day "paradise".  Some even consider it an acronym for the four levels of interpretation for the bible.  PaRDeS=PRDS.  Peshat, Derash, Remez, Sod.  The simple interpretation, the allegorical interpretation, the hinted interpretation, and the secret interpretation.

Whatever it is these four intrepid scholars were doing, it was something deadly.  Without basic Qabalistic knowledge, the story does not make much sense.  The story ends with Ben Azzai dying,  Ben Zoma going insane, Acher tearing down the shoots, and Akiba entering in peace and leaving in peace.

After a bit of pontificating, the Gemara asks what Acher saw.  He saw the angel Metatron sitting while writing down the merits of Israel.  Now Acher was under the impression that none may sit while doing such an important task.  Perhaps, he thought, there are two divinities.  

As a punishment for not standing when Acher came, Metatron was punished with 60 lashes.  And then, Metatron was given permission to strike out Acher's merits.  When Acher saw that he was now doomed, he decided that he might as well enjoy the rest of his existence on this Earth.  And the rest of the story is a combination of him descending into hedonism and defying his former masters/students.

And this story always troubled me.  If Acher was wrong, then why did Metatron not correct him?  He was not punished for sitting; he was punished because Acher was not supposed to see him sitting.  So if Acher's understanding of how the angels in the upper echelons are supposed to behave was incorrect, then they should have corrected him. But instead, they punished both Metatron and him.  

What gets me is that even the gemara itself does not bother to explain why Metatron was allowed to sit and why Acher's conclusion that he may have been some sort of demiurge was false.  

And this, I am told, is why Qaballah is a forbidden subject for those under 40.  Christianity split God into a Trinity, Qaballah splits him into 10 sefiroth.  If one didn't know any better, one would think that the whole dichotomy of the Eyn Sof and the Sefiroth might very well be Gnosticism with a Yiddishe Zach.  

Sunday, April 27, 2014

International Godwin's Day

Godwin's Law, coined by attorney Mike Godwin in the 1990s states that as any discussion increases in length, the chances of probability bringing up the Holocaust or Nazis becomes closer to 1.  At the time, he was referring to Usenet groups (remember those?).  However, given the proliferation of online discussion forums, the law now applies to all forms of mass online communication forums as well.

The original intention was a lesson in memetics.  However, some have turned Godwin's Law into a meta-fallacy.  The unspoken rule is that as soon as one brings up anything to do with Hitler, the Holocaust, the Nazis, or anything to do with the Third Reich, the discussion immediately ends and whoever made the reference "loses."

Shoah Business
"There's no business like Shoah business," a rabbi of mine once coyly said.  

Shoah, for those unfamiliar, is the Hebrew term for the Holocaust.  

In the years since the Shoah ended in 1945, it has taken a life of its own.

For many years, plenty of survivors were silent about it.  It happened, but many did not want to talk about it.  They had seen as close to hell on this earth.  And they did not want to experience it again.

I have heard many survivor stories over the years.  And so many different ways to approach the horrors that the Jews experienced in those 10 years that the Nazis were in power.  Or even the 6 years that the world was at war.  Or even the 3 years from the Wannsee Conferences to the time that the Americans and Russians liberated the death camps.  

There is much documentation on what really happened in Europe during that period.  Much has been written on why something like the Holocaust was allowed to happen.  Why someone as evil and morally decrepit as Hitler was democratically elected and then allowed to do the things he did.  And why so many people suffered as a result.

As a child, I could never fathom it.  Every year, my school had a vigil for Yom Hashoah.  They would light candles.  One Rabbi would sing a tearful "El Molai Rachamim" for those who perished.  Those students who lost family in the Holocaust would stand by the candles.  The rest of us would watch.  And we would get a speech.  And another speech.  And then more sad songs.  

One Saturday, we were walking to synagogue.  My sister was insisting that our father tell us about Hitler.  I never heard the name Hitler.  I was 7 years old.  That name was completely new to me.  It sounded like Hillel (common Jewish name, I knew a few).  But my sister said "not Hillel, Hitler."  

So my father, on our 20 minute walk to synagogue, told us in brief about Hitler.  He told us about him taking over Europe.  He told us about the death camps.  He told us about the gas showers.  He told us about the ovens.  But then, he told us something I never expected.

He told us about Savta (our maternal grandmother).

We knew that Savta was from Hungary.  That's why she spoke with an accent.  We didn't know how old Savta was.  Every time we asked, she would say "100".  We could not even fathom her having ever been young.  

But apparently, Savta had something to do with this Hitler person who did all of those bad things.

When my father spoke of the camps and the showers and the trains, I was only lending him half of an ear.  For all I knew, it was some bad fairy tale.  But then when I heard he was talking about Savta, he suddenly had my attention.  This story was not some bad fairy tale.  It really happened.  And it happened to Savta too.

Savta was from Budapest.  Most of the Jews in Budapest thought they were safe.  They did not think Hitler would come after them.  They could understand why he attacked Poland.  But as far as they were concerned, they were safe where they were.

Savta and her family knew it was only a matter of time before Hitler would turn around and attack Hungary.  After all, Hungary was so close to occupied Poland and Austria.  They didn't know how soon.  But they knew they had to get out of Hungary.

Savta and her father managed to get into the United States.  Savta was the third oldest of 9.  But her older brother was in the army and her older sister was not born in Hungary.  So somehow, only Savta was able to get a visa.  I am not completely clear on why the rest of the family was stuck in Europe (I have heard many conflicting stories; and none of them make any sense).  So Savta and her father managed to escape to America.  But the rest of the family was stuck in Europe.

Her mother and one of her brothers died in Auschwitz.  Her youngest sister Edith (who is still alive) survived Auschwitz; she was liberated by the Russians.

Suddenly, my father had my attention.  

I still could not fathom the global enormity of the Shoah.  All I got was a bad guy named Hitler (not Hillel) and something happening to Savta and her family.  At this point, I thought the Holocaust was all about what happened to Savta.  Not until a few weeks later was it explained to me in school the global significance of the Shoah to European Jews.  That many families were torn apart.  It is approximated that 6 million died.  

From here, the Holocaust became the greatest human travesty ever to walk the face of this earth.  This Shoah became living evidence that the Goyyim hate us.  That even if they act nicely toward us, if there was another Shoah they would all jump on the Jew-killing bandwagon.  

Anti-Semitism and Me.

It would be very naive of me to say there's no such thing as anti-Semitism.  Yes, it's out there.  I've gotten beaten up for no reason other than the fact that I am Jewish.  I've been called it all. Kike.  Money-grubber.  Big-nose.  Heeb.  All that lovely stuff.

I remember one time, Savta was taking us on a busride somewhere.  This old Italian man stood in front of me and started commenting on the fact that I was wearing a yarmulke.  This old man looked and sounded a lot like Tony, the head custodian at my school.  Like Tony, he smelled of cigars and he was missing a few teeth.  But Tony was a nice man.  Tony always smiled at the kids (except when they were running in the hall and making noise, in which case he was scary).  Tony used to bring us ice cream from Carvel when we were good.

This man looked and sounded like Tony.  But he was not very nice.  He was ranting and raving about how I should take the yarmulke off.  He pointed around the bus and said "look, no one else is wearing one of those beanies.  Your grandma isn't wearing a beanie.  Why do you wear it?"  And he went on and on and on degrading me, calling me names, saying I'm not human, etc.  I was scared.

I asked Savta "why is he being mean?"

Savta just answered "don't listen to him.  He's crazy."  And there was a finality in her voice that said the discussion was over.  

Fast forward years later.

I was 20 years old.  It was my first semester in college.  

I got a random e-mail from some guy, screen name AmeriKrap.   How charming.

AmeriKrap wanted to know why we Jews are all so fucking rich.  He started complaining to me about how he and his brothers all work their asses off and don't make much money.  Meanwhile, we Jews are all comfortable, rich, and making him and his brothers miserable.  So the first thing he wanted was for us to "share the wealth" and stop being so greedy.  And he also wanted me to know that if he or one of his brothers from Paterson (the next town over from where I lived, used to be full of Jews, but since the area became dangerous many of them moved out) ever came and robbed us, we would know why.

I wish I saved the e-mail.  As a naive 20 year old, I did not know what to do with it.

But there was one line in that e-mail that really struck my eye.  He ended the e-mail with "don't give me any of this Holocaust bullshit."  Yes, he went there.  He was sick and tired of Jews doing whatever they want and then bleating about how much they suffered during the Holocaust.  He reminded me that his people suffered through hundreds of years of slavery and civil rights.  And so, he is sick and tired of hearing Jews complain about how much they've suffered in light of how much his people suffered.

After giving his e-mail thought, I responded.  Oh yes, I responded.

It was not easy for me.  I had to give it thought.  This was coming from a young, rather privileged white Ashkenazi Jew.  At the time, I could honestly have said I never had a friend in the black community.  I had one biracial friend named Chris in 7th grade.  That was it.  Other than that, I was still extremely sheltered at the time.  So my response back then was slightly different than the one I would give now.

I began by attempting to empathize with his feelings against Jews.  I explained to him that as a young person, I mean no ill will against him or any of his brothers.  I also do not support those who do mean ill will against them.  

I told him that yes, at the time my father was rather well off.  My father was a pretty high paid corporate lawyer who worked hard for his money.  But I asked AmeriKrap to consider one thing before he passed judgement on my father.  I reminded him that Michael Jordan, at the height of his career, was making $44 million plus endorsements.  I also told him that the most underpaid player on the New York Knicks probably makes more money in a year than my father does.  There are a handful of "brothers" out there who are much more well off than my father and do much less work than him--with all due respect to having a killer jumpshot, it is not harder work than corporate law, I said.  So I asked him why not go after these brothers who make all that money?  If Michael Jordan, Patrick Ewing, John Starks, et al decided to share the wealth with their brothers in Paterson, there would be more wealth to share.

As for his "don't give me that Holocaust bullshit" remark, I could not leave that one alone.

I asked him to consider this.  To commemorate the Holocaust, we have a day called Yom Hashoah.  My Jewish schools didn't even do much for that--a candlelight vigil, a movie, a lecture....hardly anything.  But in America, February is Black History Month.  Even my Jewish schools observed Black History Month.  Yes, we learned about Sojourner Truth, George Washington Carver, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Elijah McCoy, Martin Luther King, etc.  We learned that slavery against the Blacks was a bad thing.  And most importantly, a little federal holiday known as MLK Day.  Yes, even my Jewish schools were closed on MLK Day.  And we learned who he was.  We learned why he was such a great man.  We respected him.  

And you do not hear me saying "don't give me any of that 'Black History' bullshit."  Nor will you ever hear those words come out of my mouth.

So he should not be saying "don't give me that Holocaust bullshit."  It is not bullshit to my people.  

He wrote back to me.

In his letter, he apologized for his initial letter.  He was pissed off at his Jewish boss.  He somehow found my profile on AOL.  My profile indicated that I'm Jewish.  So he decided to take out his vitriol at his asshole boss on the next Jew he met.  

I am not sure if he ended up changing the way he looked at Jews or not.  

But he definitely changed the way I look at non-Jews.

Godwin's Day
Today is Yom HaShoah.

And I remember not only the Jews that were lost.

I also remember everyone who was a victim of any kind of genocide.

This is my problem with the way the Holocaust is taught.  To many, the Holocaust is cheapened into something crazy that happened in Europe a few generations ago.  But few really look at the global implications.  

It's not just about the Jews who were killed.  Or the Gypsys, or the homosexuals, or others.

It's not about how many Russians died defending their land against Hitler (and how many more by Stalin during his purges).

It's about genocide in any form being bad.

It's about the Armenians who were slaughtered by the Turks in 1915.

The Tutsis by the Hutus in Rwanda in 1994.

The Khmer Rouge genocide in the 1970s.

Bosnia.  Kashmir.  Congo.

The list goes on and on and on.

This is not to minimize the Holocaust, or the suffering of my people.

This is to not cheapen it.  Not to have us only focus on the bad things that have happened to our people and to completely blank out the bad things that have happened to others.

This is to show that genocides have happened.  And we are not alone.  And let our remembrance of the Holocaust be also used as a springboard to ensure not only that we will no longer be persecuted; but also, that others will not be persecuted as well.

Friday, February 28, 2014

Doing What's Right or Doing What You're Told?

These and these are the words of the living God.   
Within that short epigram is a deceptively simple explanation for the idea of machloket.  That is, how is it that from the time Jews began codifying their laws, there was almost never an unanimous consensus on what the law is.  Famously, Hillel and Shammai.  The idea is that at Sinai, Moses was given two laws; the literal law and the oral law.  But over time the oral law got muddled.  Plus, as local traditions made their way in, individuality became inevitable.

And so, how can both Hillel and Shammai be right?  It seems almost paradoxical.  So instead of figuring out which one is right or wrong, the sages speak of which one we follow.  In fact, it is even said that at Sinai, Moses was given all of those opinions.  Which makes little sense.  After all, did Moses not review the entire law with the Israelites before he died?  And they understood everything.  If he was indeed given the entire corpus of the Talmud, it would take him more time than plausible to complete all of it. 

And so, to a certain extent, individual opinions ARE respected even to this day.  Over the years, the rabbis have come up with some pretty ingenious interpretations of the law.  Based on the existing precedent--the Torah, the Talmud, the works of earlier rabbis (Rishonim), the casuistry of the later rabbis (Achronim), etc, they try to figure out what individuals should do.  And if done properly, it is not a cut-and-dry process.  It is quite dynamic!  When reading through the responsa of the great rabbis, one finds that many of the more erudite ones would take into account who was asking the question, the repercussions of each opinion, and even modern understanding of the issues. 

However, there are exceptions.  Most famously, Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, and even Modern Orthodoxy.  Plenty of hard-line right wing Jews look with extreme contempt of the liberties they are willing to take with halacha.  And then when you point out that from the time of the second temple (perhaps earlier), rabbis have changed traditions, they start splitting hairs on why what they did was acceptable.

I am reminded of Chaim Potok's The Promise.  The protagonist, Reuven Malter, is studying for his rabbinic ordination.  He is in a school that is very loosely based on Yeshiva University.  Now Reuven's father is a bigshot in a school loosely based on the JTS.  As a result, Malter's method of learning is one that's not approved by tradition.  Now Malter is a bright student and able to keep up with his rabbis.  But not all approve of him.  The highest level shiur is taught by one Rabbi Gershonsen, holocaust survivor with a chip on his shoulder.  He has neither the patience nor the will to indulge Malter.  So Malter asks to transfer into a lower level shiur, one where the Rabbi is more indulgent.

In the end, Malter is taking his ordination exam.  One of the stages is a faher, where he sits in front of three rabbis and is grilled by them.  One of them was Rabbi Gershonsen.  Of course, Rabbi Gershonsen tried to trap Malter.  He presented Malter with a very difficult to understand piece of Talmud, one that makes no sense as it is worded.  He asked Malter how to interpret it.  True to form, Malter does what his father would do and assumes that due to a scribal error, the wording was a mistake and opted to change the wording.  When the Rabbi asked him on what authority he tweaked the words of the Talmud, he quipped back that many Rabbis, from the Tosafists to the Vilna Ga'on did it all the time.  But of course, Gershonsen argued back that there was a difference: when the Tosafists and the Vilna Ga'on did it, they had a text that supported their changed wording...

In the end, Gershonsen actually showed a side of himself that was slightly open-minded.  He agreed to give Malter ordination even though he disagrees with his methodology.  But he did warn Malter that when he gets out there in the world and applies his methodology, Rabbi Gershonsen will vehemently be a thorn in his side.  But at least Gershonsen was willing to ordain Malter.

In recent news, there was word that Yeshiva University was possibly withholding ordination from a student who completed his program of study but was being a bit too brazen for their palates.  He decided to throw a "partnership minyan" in his house, one where a woman is allowed an Aliyah to the torah and then to bentsch gomel.  Because of this one incident, he was no longer welcome in the minyan he usually prayed in, so he started his own private minyan.  He then received a letter from YU asking him, on one foot, if he can agree that when it comes to issues like that he is willing to consult with his superiors first.

But this leads to a problem.  Once you ordain a man, does that not confer upon him the right to decide the law?  Does not the process of ordination mean you think this man is ready to responsibly do his job without needing to consult with his superiors?  And if not, does it not undermine the entire process?

It is irresponsible to assume that the Word is Dead.  After all, if one assumes that there is a living God, then shouldn't one treat his words as the same?  In our ever changing world, there is no room for stagnation.  After all, the people who wrote the sources (Torah and Talmud) were mostly a pastoral society.  Over the years, times have changed.  Still, the Talmud uses plenty of agricultural references because that is what the common people understood back then. So as Jews moved to towns and cities and got into more professions, things had to change.

And so, why the backlash against those who take such drastic steps against tradition?  Why feel so threatened when one comes along and decides to take liberties?  Sure, we are a stiff-necked people.  But it is by being flexible that our people have survived.  Through persecutions we have moved from place to place.  We had to be able to adapt to our new societies.   Why not adapt to the changing times now?

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Book Review: "Who Wrote the Bible?" by Richard Elliot Friedman

       In my quest to reconcile the mythos I was fed as a childhood with current known history, I have done a steady reading of alternative views on Jewish History.  Some have been more instructive than others.

       As a rule, when you are trying to discredit a belief, it is good practice to replace it with one that is more plausible.  Plenty of times, this is not done.  For example, many will agree that the Warren Commission has plenty of holes in it; it does not plausibly explain who killed John F. Kennedy.  However, the alternate theories people have come up with are sometimes even more outlandish!  The CIA, KGB, FBI, Military, mob, aliens, citizens of Atlantis, sojourners from planet Nabiru, an underground cabal of Illuminati--the list goes on.  While it is safe to say that if Lee Harvey Oswald was acting alone he must have been damned lucky, more likely it was part of something bigger.  But there is very little out there I have found that is more compelling at all.

       The first foray I took into this was Isaac Asimov's Guide to the Bible.  Yes, the famous sci-fi author.  But he has written so much more than that.  The span of books he has written covers every subject in the Dewey Decimal System.  In his Guide to the Bible, he attempts to reconcile the greatest bestseller in the Western world with contemporary history (or contemporary in the 1960s).

       A little background.  Asimov was an Humanist Jew.  As such, he denies that the stories of the Bible are to be taken literally as History.  However, we can learn much about History by reading it.  Much as we can learn about Sumeria by reading Gilgamesh, the Greeks by Homer, and India by learning the Mahabharta.  The Bible provides us with plenty of insights about the people who eventually became the Jews and later also inspired Christianity, Islam, et al.

       So in his book, he attempts to reconcile the biblical narrative (both testaments) with history.  In many cases, he tries his best to take the Bible seriously when he can.  For example, the story of Exodus does not have a lot of support amongst plenty of secular historians I've read.  Asimov at the very least attempts to explain it as if it happened and how it probably came about.  Of course, he might be speculating.  Without extra-Biblical evidence, it is extremely hard to prove.  But he does give us a paradigm as to how it may have happened.

        However, there are times where he throws his hands in the air and says that certain narratives are clearly fiction.  E.g. Jonah, Job, Esther, Daniel, and Samson.  He does not even look for a way to reconcile them.  Jonah and Samson both read way too much like fairy tales for his pallet (and Samson even sounds Hellenistic, kind of like Hercules).  Whoever wrote Esther was clearly intimately familiar with the Persian Empire and their Court; but it also reads too much like a fantasy.  And no coincidence that Mordechai and Esther sound like Marduk and Ishtar (Babylonian deities) while Vashti and Haman share names with Elamite deities (an empire conquered by Persia).  But if Ahaseurus was indeed Xerxes (of The 300 fame), when did he have time to throw all those parties or get involved in such drama as explained by the Megillah?  In between fighting Sparta and ruling a vast empire, not a whole lot.  And Daniel is written in a dialect of Aramaic that is later than the period it speaks of; and this is a period of over 200 years, longer than the life span of any man!

       So reading Asimov, I got a good sense of secular history and how the Bible fits in.  He even filled in some gaps I had.  One example is the Hittites.  They are mentioned in the Bible as one of the groups who inhabited the Promised Land.  We know that Abraham purchased a parcel of land from one Ephron the Hittite.  But if the Bible is our main source of history, we would not know that once upon a time they were a mighty empire that once ruled an empire spanning the Levant and Asia Minor even cutting into Egypt at some point.  In fact, Ramses II (who Asimov alleges may have been the Pharaoh of enslavement) drove their empire back into Asia Minor and even seriously weakened them.  So how come the Bible doesn't mention how great they were?  He surmises that at the time the Bible was written they were no longer a threat, and during the period that the Hebrews were allegedly in Egypt, they were their biggest; so the Hebrews never really dealt with them at their apex.

       But Asimov is not a Biblical scholar.  Alas, he is a man who loves knowledge.  But I wanted more.  I wanted something from an actual biblical scholar.  So I read a few interesting ones.  "A History of God" by Karen Armstrong and "How to Read the Bible: Then and Now" by James Kugel opened doors for me.  Both are great surveys into how people have viewed God and his Word over the years.  Kugel provided a nice survey into biblical criticism, including Documentary Hypotheses.

Documentary Hypothesis, for those unaware, is the Golden Calf of many modern Bible critics:
For many years, religious Jews (and perhaps others) have assumed that the Torah was a monolithic work, the word of God and transcribed by Moses.  The book is divine, cannot be split, not even a word or letter omitted or added.  Of course, those more educated know this is not completely true.  Some early Biblical commentators allude to the Bible having been edited somewhat.  Perhaps Moses did not actually write about his own death.  Perhaps certain editorial information (and this place is called XYZ until this day) was inserted by a redactor.  Most of the time, such controversial subjects were written about in disguised language.  But alas, there are those more learned than me who would better explain this.

Documentarians do not labor under the assumption that there was one author or that the Bible is divine. The theory states that the Bible as we have it today is like a patchwork quilt, woven together from multiple sources.  One redactor had several sources and put them together to form one unity.  The four that are traditionally named are

E:  Refers to God as "Elohim", written by an author from the Northern Israelite Kingdom, worshiped the chief Canaanite deity, El.  Not strictly monotheistic, possibly henotheistic (many deities exist but only one is fit to worship).
J:  Refers to God as YHWH or JHVH, the unpronounceable tetragrammaton.  Written in the Southern Judean Kingdom.  No one knows who YHWH originally was (possibly a storm deity from the desert folk).  But eventually he was conflated with El.  Whoever He is, He tells Moses that the forefathers did not know His name.   Eventually, E and J were combined.  Both imagined a deity who was personally involved with earthly matters.  He walked in the Garden of Eden, He sent down Fire and Brimstone, He sent angels and messengers, and He was pretty bipolar.

P:  Written later by a Priest.  The God of this source is more aloof.  He speaks and things are done.  He is more impersonal.  He says let there be light, and there is light.  Most of his source is lists, rules, and things to do with priestly duties.  He goes into great detail about how to build a tabernacle, what kinds of sacrifices are allowed and how to offer them, etc.  He is pretty much rules rules rules and lists.  Considered more dry and less literary than the other two sources.

D:  Deuteronomy.   The entire last book of the Torah and parts of Numbers.  The literary style here is completely different.  Whoever wrote this book was clearly sympathetic to the monarchy and less to the priests.  This book is mostly Moses reviewing the events that led up to the entry into the Promised Land but also reiterating the law.  

Many also add an R:  Redactor, editorial notes.  Information added by whoever put it all together.

Richard Elliot Friedman's book finally presented me firsthand with a proponent of DH.  Now I do deny the divinity of the Torah.  And I am not a believer in a personal higher being.  But as stated above, it would be good to have a replacement.  If the Torah was not a divinely written book by God and transcribed by Moses, then what is it?

Reading his book, I am actually now dubious about DH:

For one thing, when presented with a breakdown of verses and which author wrote each, I see that sometimes one verse has two different authors.  And he even admits that the styles of E and J are actually quite alike.  Although he does finally get around to explaining how he knows they are different sources, I don't feel as if he's actually replaces one nonsense with something more plausible.

The way it looks, our redactor may have been a sloppy editor!

Okay, he does say that there was no project like the Bible in its time.  No collaboration of sources in its time was as ambitious.  Our redactor (he believes it was Ezra) was not being sloppy at all.  He was in fact trying to satisfy all different streams.

D, for example, was written by descendants of Moses ("Mushites") who were estranged by Solomon but then got back into the fold during the time of Josiah.  And P was by Aaronid priests who were popular during the time of Solomon.  By the time of Ezra, both myths had permeated.  So he could not completely ignore them.  And not to mention that E and J were also popularly told by the people, so nobody would accept Ezra's torah as authentic if it left out those narratives.  So Ezra was trying to be cautious.  Sometimes, he could simply use doublets to tell the same story twice.  It's a style of poetry.  But sometimes, it was easier just to have a verse splice two different sources.  Why he didn't clean up the language and make it look like one source is not clear.

Still, now that I've read a serious attempt to explain DH, I find that as it stands it's an overelaborate scheme that makes Biblical study even more spaghettilike than it is to begin with.  Though it does raise some great points, like the different literary styles used in the Bible, I'm still not sold that it is THE answer to who wrote the Bible and how.

And so, the quest to find alternatives has begun.