Thursday, November 30, 2006

Esther & Achashveyrosh: Love Unexpected

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Did you ever wonder what exactly it was Esther did for Achashveyrosh in the bedroom that was so special he not only ignored his own personal house rules, but even altered the domestic policies of his entire kingdom on her behalf? Whatever it was that Esther did for him must have truly blown his mind. Yet, all things considered, how would this have been possible? Let’s check this out.

Achashveyrosh likely possessed a large harem and there had to have been many young and beautiful girls among those conscripted into his sexual service. That Esther was in some manner endowed with special sexual skills that the others did not possess is not evident. Achashveyrosh, typical of kings of his time and culture, could take any woman he desired and probably had vast selection of sexual partners, both prior to and after the ‘talent search’ that resulted in Esther’s abduction. The question as to what Esther possessed to win his special favor remains a mystery. Could it have been something other than sexual?

Esther, adopted by her uncle Mordechai HaTzadik, was probably raised in an environment lacking any sexual context. So where exactly would she have developed the necessary sexual or sensual talents she may have used on the king? Winning the sexual and emotional affection of a man like Achashveyrosh could not have been easy. Consider the range of his sexual appetites and the ongoing competition among the members of his harem; all trying their damnedest to be the sexiest lover – all vying to become the queen. It is unlikely that any of the other girls in Achashveyrosh’s harem would offer any helpful advice to the new arrival that might jeopardize their own aspirations. Becoming queen meant becoming somebody; something more than just a sexual slave girl living at the king’s behest. We can be pretty sure that none of the other women with whom Esther would be sharing the king, gave her one bit of good advice on how to please him.

So, if there was advice to be given, where did it come from? According to the Megillah, Esther was snatched up in an intense and determined search for a new harem after the execution of Vashti. Those particular ministers in charge of procurring the right sort of girls would likely have coached the candidates, collectively and individually, on how to avoid displeasing the king. If the girls taken didn’t manage to please the king, these ministers might likely face the wrath of a very unpredictable and violent monarch. After all, everyone was well aware of Achashveyrosh’s fits of rage and subsequent depression, as was evident from his behavior with Vashti. Just how much the eunuchs could have taught Esther in such a short period of time is not known.

It’s fair to say at this point that the entirety of Esther’s sexual experience, until the time she entered the king’s chamber willingly, occurred under severe duress. Esther probably resolved herself to her fate and, knowing that her survival depended upon being as pleasing as possible, learned quickly the likes and dislikes of the king. Held in captivity, she may have kicked into a ‘survival’ mode that permitted her not only to subject herself to the king, but it also provided the emotional wherewithal to mentally ‘escape’ inside herself while with the king. Her body was doing one thing while her ‘soul’ was doing another. We just call this ‘faking it’. Esther wouldn’t be the first or the last to feign sexual interest or pleasure with a man whom she despised.

Yet, even with faking a like or dislike of the act, one cannot fake ease or comfort in sexual experience. An experienced lover knows full well when he or she has just crawled into bed with a novice. To fake it well, Esther would have had to have some positive sexual experience by which to gauge her performance. To a sexual beast like Achashveyrosh, her body language and movements would have to mimic those of a real expert, and there was no way for her to determine what those subtle, and not so subtle, signals would be. Her ruse would be discovered even if Achashveyrosh paid her little concern or was even intoxicated duiring their time together. Being in a royal house, where there was probably plenty of spying, perhaps for the king’s safety, she would have had to deceive her handlers as well.

Now, it is very possible that Achashveyrosh, known for being a vicious tyrant, enjoyed the deflowering of inexperienced girls and may have not cared one bit for their feelings and their sexual skill level meant nothing to him. Yet, if that were so, how would Esther have ever found favor with him at all? Achashveyrosh must have developed some feelings for her, as he had once for Vashti, and those affections he held protected her later on. So how, lacking the necessary sexual skills we imagine she may have needed, did she gain his affections, especially as she was possibly ‘faking it’ and the king might have picked up on this insincerity at some point?

Many have answered that Esther had a particular non-sexual charm which pleased Achashveyrosh. For those men who have had several or many lovers, some women, even those with somewhat lesser sensual abilities, are often much better company and nicer to be around than the ones who are great in bed. I can say that I have dated a few dozen women or more and there are some that were awesome in bed and others, though not so sexually stimulating, that were simply a pleasure to be around all the time. There are also issues of trust, and a woman that can be trusted, is a woman that makes a man feel secure and comfortable. Perhaps Esther was one of those women who acted without guile or ulterior motive, having never asked Achashveyrosh for any personal favors. Perhaps she also had an innate understanding of the dominant-submissive role-play that worked well with the king’s fragile ego. Maybe she decided to shun all the advice and just be ‘herself’, without any coquettish scheming or manipulative strategies that an Achashveyrosh would likely have seen a thousand times already and grown weary of.

Now, I don’t wish to paint Achashveyrosh in too much of a sympathetic light, but let’s get one thing straight; he was just a man like all others. Achashveyrosh, for all his other faults, was very much capable of love and he wanted to love again as he did for Vashti. He could tell the difference between happy, sad, and phony. A king has to rely on those instincts when making policy or forming alliances. Maybe this tyrant had a soft spot and a sensitivity that did not filter down into the way he governed. Probably, he was taught to govern with a stern hand because this was how a nation, according to his ministers, had to be governed. Maybe Achashveyrosh was conflicted because he always had to live a double life and hated it. The simple, honest, and straightforward Esther, making no unusual requests or begging favors; engaging the king without guile and perhaps even recognizing his turmoil, became the sole object of his affection because of her sincere character.

If this is so, then why hadn’t he called on her for so long? Why did she have to take the initiative to see him? Surely, had she won his affections to such a great degree, he would have called upon her more often, if for no other reason than to feel that safety and security of her company if only for a few hours? For the answer, we have to change, not our opinion of Esther, but our assessment of the man called Achashveyrosh.

Achashveyrosh knew that Esther never came to him willingly, neither for the initial beauty pageant or those few occasions that she was summoned to his bed-chamber. The king understood how Esther reacted to his touch and to his person, and that she wasn’t completely comfortable around him. Yet, in a twist of irony that borders on the miraculous, Achashveyrosh was sedated and eased by the woman who he felt may have hated him most. He began to love this innocent woman for her simplicity, and actually felt a sense of guilt and empathy for her plight; so much so that he was resolved not to force himself upon this woman ever again. He knew, deep down, that she never wanted to be his queen, and he would never make the mistake of forcing her, as he had crudely done with Vashti, to ask anything of her that she did not wish to offer willingly. The moment that Esther appeared to the king uninvited and unannounced, may have actually been one of the happiest moments of his life.

Such is the love that Achashveyrosh was capable of giving. Who would have imagined? Esther’s charm alone could not have won the day. It had to have a sympathetic heart and understanding to be recognized and adored. That Achashveyrosh, with all of his glaring faults, would be the one man to truly appreciate Esther’s character, is probably the greatest miracle of Purim.

When we stop viewing the players as one-dimensional archetypes, it opens the possibility for much richer and profound experience within the story. We are no longer limited to rigid judgments of good and evil, but see people as real people, sometimes bad, and other times, surprisingly congenial and honest. In our reassessment of Achashveyrosh and Esther, we haven’t changed any part of the initial tale; only opened the story to resemble people living within the most likely scenario. The natural richness of the Purim story comes to life.

“There is always some madness in love, but there is also always some reason in madness.” (Friedrich Nietzsche 1844-1900)

Kol Tuv

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Notice to Readers (if there are any left)

I am fairly sure by now that this blog has very few readers, since interest in the topics I discuss are never timely or controversial enough to attract any attention. I have also noticed that comments I offer on many of the other blogs and groups receive no response or acknowledgment. It is true that those within the Jewish community are not interested in engaging with those on the outside, and that is a perfectly natural thing. After all, I do not provide the freak-show atmosphere that some of the still closeted Jewish heretics and Christian evangelicals maintain. People are attracted to enigmas. I cannot help that.

If you ever read this blog, even at gunpoint, please let me know. I would like to get some idea of who is reading and what they may like or dislike about it. If you have a personal complaint about me, my writing, or my philosophy, I would appreciate the critique.

Kol Tuv

Monday, November 27, 2006

A Sister's Love Gone Bad: Miriam

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מצורע דכתיב (במדבר יב) אל נא תהי כמת........Avodah Zara 5a

In Bamidbar 12, we have the story of Miriam becoming Leprous due to her criticism of Moshe’s apparent unwillingness to take a native Israelite as a wife. Moshe married a Kushite, and to Miriam, this was kind of a slap in the face to Israelite women. I don’t know what exactly it was that Miriam was upset about, but, like some siblings do, they must have called a family meeting without inviting the subject of discussion and hashed over the thoughts among themselves. I have no doubt that my mother called a few of those herself on my behalf without asking for my personal participation.

It could be that Moshe’s wife, coming from a different culture and race, created a political trap for Moshe. Perhaps Miriam felt that a leader-king of Israel should have as a mate a woman who is thoroughly Israelite-ish herself, if for no other reason than to show the people, by example, that Moshe, once an Egyptian heir, was truly one of those he sought to govern. Miriam may have seen this marriage to this non-Israelite, as an underlying cause for the persistent rebellion against Moshe’s authority; a rebellion which they did not carry out against Aharon, who seemed to curry more favor with the people. In politics, having a leader who doesn’t share your socio-economic or cultural background sometimes causes the governed to become suspicious of the ruler’s motives. This was clearly evident in Russia, where the people became emotionally predisposed to revolt based upon the Czar’s marriage to a catholic German princess. Moshe just seemed too strange already to the simple Israelites in too many ways, and by taking a bride from another race just made matters worse. This was likely what Miriam was complaining about. It is also likely that she was genuinely concerned for the safety of her little brother, and there was no guile or ulterior motive to her complaint. HaShem, however, did not think it was an issue and struck Miriam with leprosy as punishment for her speaking out. Verse 12:2 bears this out when Miriam says what she believes the people are thinking. She is right.

So, what turned this very accurate and insightful political observation into Loshen Hara and worthy of severe punishment? The fact that Moshe and his wife were not invited to the meeting or that the concerns, legitimate as they might have been, were not shared directly with Moshe. Even speaking from caring and concern without the subject being present is a form of Loshen Hara. The next question is why Leprosy as opposed to some infection of the teeth, gum, or larynx which would seem fitting since that’s where the words came from?

There is a story about the Chofetz Chaim, known for his crusade against Loshen Hara, that as he was aging he began to lose his hearing. A student once asked him. “Rabbi. Aren’t you worried about going deaf?” The Chofetz Chaim thought for a moment and replied, “Well. At least I can be pretty sure at that point that no one will approach me to shout Loshen Hara into my ears.” Loshen Hara, as a phenomena, is a social disorder; there has to be someone to tell it to. Leprosy’s punishment is not that one becomes ill, but that one resides alone while in quarantine and is forbidden from maintaining social contacts. As the song says, “One is the loneliest number.” Thus, a disease requiring quarantine is the best spiritual medicine for gossip.

So, when Aharon pleads with Moshe not to cut Miriam off from family and friends he says “Don’t allow her become like a dead person” i.e. bereft of social contacts, shunned, and eventually forgotten. For Miriam, who was from the beginning of his life a caretaker for Moshe, to be cut off from him and his work would be devastating. Therefore, she was struck with leprosy, and it is comparable to death insofar as it signals an end to her reason for living. Such is the maternal love of a sister for her baby brother that she would risk the wrath of HaShem on his behalf.

Moshe should have considered himself very lucky.

Dasan & Aviram : The Most Likely Scenario

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דף ה,א עבודה זרה

"......עני דכתיב (שמות ד) כי מתו כל האנשים ומאן נינהו דתן ואבירם ומי מתו מיהוי הוו אלא שירדו מנכסיהם"

The Gemara tells us that Dasan and Aviram were the ones who informed on (ratted out) Moshe to the Department of Slavery when he killed the Egyptian taskmaster. This offers us two conflicting accounts of these men. On one hand, we are to believe that they collaborated or sought favor with their Egyptian overlords, and then, on the other, the Torah counts them among those willing to follow the very same man they conspired against on a previous occasion, out across the water and into the desert!

We are also told by the Midrash that Dasan and Aviram had a hand in the Chet HaEgel incident at Har Sinai. These two guys, for not having any particular special status other than being grandchildren of a little known tribal elder, sure seemed to get around, especially in a world with a purported 2.2 million refugees! These guys would have to mount some kind of amazing and supernatural biltzkreig of persuasive advertising to get a large number of people to follow their lead into revolt. It doesn’t seem like either of them, both of them, or even when in league with Korach would ever be able to mount an effective revolt considering their small sphere of influence. So what was so special about them and why were they so determined to get back at Moshe that Moshe had to fear them should he return to Mitzrayim too soon?

This idea repeats in at least two other places in the Talmud; in Yerushalmi Nedarim 9 and in Nedarim 64b. To be honest, I could never figure out how the rabbis knew who the informers were. Shemos 4 only mentions that someone squealed to the cops, but it never says who or why. Our Gemara here suggests that Dasan and Aviram were now considered as ‘dead’, since in the interim period between their treachery and Moshe’s vision in the desert, these two men lost all of their status and thus, didn’t matter. This made it safe for Moshe to return to Mitzrayim.

I have a crazy question. How exactly did Dasan and Aviram become wealthy in first place if the entire Jewish nation was enslaved and suffering? No one bothers to explain how that works. One could retrofit into the story a tale about Dasan and Aviram bribing Egyptian taskmasters, taking small bribes (of some sort) from fellow Jews to perhaps escape from work or punishment, and then sift off a percentage of the ‘take’ for themselves. They may have even been well-paid informants, which makes perfect sense. The Egyptians would have to hire a few willing, cooperative Hebrews in order to have spies, managers, and agents on the inside for intelligence gathering, considering that the Jews spoke their own language and maintained their own separate culture. Dasan and Aviram may have also had good intentions, hoping to act as double agents and earn a few bucks on the side. They may have been helping the Egyptian field-boss manipulate the books so as to appear more productive, thus helping the taskmaster’s career in the process. I cannot see the Department of Slavery being any less corrupt than any other government agency since. Be that as it may, the Department of Slavery would likely have needed hundreds of such agents, and to assume that Dasan and Aviram were the dirty rats might be impossible to pinpoint. Let’s try anyway.

Since we have nothing but raw speculation as to how they may have come by their wealth under such harsh conditions, we also still have no clue as to how they lost that wealth later on. If we continue with our ‘most likely’ explanation, it would not be unreasonable, at this point, to assume that the taskmaster that Moshe killed was the one who was doing all the monkey business with Dasan and Aviram. This would also explain how these two came into direct knowledge of Moshe’s role in the killing! The presence of an Egyptian royal among the slaves would have been widely noticed. This unexpected turn of events, along with Pharoah’s mandate for higher productivity, not only killed the brother’s business plan, but also sent them back into hard labor. Once they lost their special status, they were ‘as good as dead’ in their own eyes. Dasan and Aviram blamed Moshe for interfering with their lucrative venture, and that blame turned into a lasting desire for revenge that the brothers carried with them out of Egypt and straight into the Midbar. It would explain why every time there was trouble for Moshe those brothers were somehow involved.

While we are on the subject of informers, we should ask as to why would Dasan and Aviram not report this killing to the authorities? Undoubtedly, the murder of an Egyptian government employee would bring a whole lot of unwanted heat down on that labor sector. It could be that they demanded the culprit step forth or the whole group would be punished. Had Dasan and Aviram not come forth with their testimony, it is possible that innocent persons might have been punished for Moshe’s act. We see what Moshe did as courageous and noble, but others, some Israelites included, might have seen this as bringing nothing but more trouble for an already troubled people. In retrospect, we may hate the brothers because of who they ratted-out or because their motives may not have been 100% pure, but they may have not had a choice in the matter, given the circumstances.

This account, completely concocted in my fertile imagination while pondering the most likely scenario given the circumstances, is not stated anywhere in Torah or Talmud. It does however, make all the pieces fit quite nicely together. Maybe our Sage was trying to do the same thing and looking for a better source than just his own imagination. (I used a most likely scenario, which commonly involves slaves, overseers, government employees, and random opportunists.)

Overall, I think we should cut them some slack. We find that the standards by which we deem a thing ‘good’ and ‘evil’ are often blurred by the various interests of those involved. Dasan and Aviram could have started out with the noblest of motives, but allowed their ultimate selfishness to prevail. They are no less human than we.

Kol Tuv

“I am myself made entirely of flaws; stitched together with good intentions.” (Augustyn Burroughs)

O Forgetful Moses!

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From the Midrash:

"Why were these things duplicated in Deuteronomy? The animals [were duplicated] because of the shesuah and the birds because of the raah vulture -- to teach that one should not be ashamed to say he had forgotten. It is an inference from minor to major; if Moses, the wisest of sages, the greatest of greats, father of the prophets, was not afraid to say he forgot, a person who is not even one of a thousand millions, of multitude of myriads of his disciples' disciples -- how much more so should this person not be afraid to say 'I forgot.'"

The Midrash claims that Moshe forgot about the vulture called ra’ah and about the animal called shesuah. As a result, Moshe duplicated the whole portion, more than a dozen verses, in the Torah. Isn't the Midrash clearly implying that Moshe wrote this portion at least once without dictation from Heaven? Or maybe both times HaShem's dictation was the same, but at least once Moshe failed to record it correctly? In this case, where else might he have erred in recording the words of the HaShem?

There are more than just a few problems with this Midrash. Now I know that may people do not take the Midrash seriously and I know why they don’t. The Midrash has many facets to it, but mostly I believe it serves as a way to reinforce religious faith in the common people. I am not sure if the Rabbis who are quoted in the Midrash actually believed what they wrote, but there is no doubt that they thought others should. Personally, I feel the Chazal used the Midrash as a control on free thinking people who would ask rather obvious questions. By ‘poisoning the well’ with slick diversions and fairy tales, the real questions at hand never need be answered.

This case is classic, where not only does the author try to divert attention from the real question, but he engages in a common and well-known rabbinical argument, thus couching the diversion with the appearance of logical debate, by employing the “Kal ve’chomer”, which means ‘from light to severe’. This is a very common logic scheme utilized throughout the Talmud.

Our Midrash uses the ‘kal v’chomer’ to ‘flip the script’ on the guy asking the good, tough question. Let’s ask the question first to make sure we have it right. Moshe lists the kosher and non kosher animals in one part of Torah and then, later on, repeats the list he already wrote in order to include two animals he neglected to mention the first time around. There are a series of questions that stem from the primary and I’ll list them in order here.

1) If the Torah was either given or dictated to Moshe through Ruach HaKodesh, then how was it possible for him to forget, being that Ruach HaKodesh is not subject to the normal rules of time, space, cognition, and memory?

2) If you say that even those under Ruach HaKodesh sometimes forget, then how can we be sure of anything that anyone who claims Ruach HaKodesh says?

3) If you want to suggest that Moshe was not under the influence of Ruach HaKodesh, then how did he manage to communicate directly with HaShem?

4) Even if one assumes that Ruach HaKodesh wasn’t necessary, one would think that Moshe, of all people, would remember what HaShem said clearly. After all, if HaShem spoke to you, wouldn’t you remember every word from such a profound encounter?

5) In any case, now that we know that Moshe, divinely inspired or not, was prone bouts of forgetfulness when it came to the details of the mitzvos, how many other things did Moshe forget? How many things did he add thinking that he may have forgotten them earlier?

6) Wasn’t anyone proof-reading Moshe’s work? Would he not have at least shown or discussed each mitzvah as it was revealed with either Aharon, the Levi’im, or the Z’keynim? What were they doing?

7) How long did this question linger before any answer was offered at all? Surely, some from the generation, or at least from the ‘multitude of myriads’ who first received the Torah would have noticed the redundancy. So before this clever little Midrash was composed by a rabbi some 1000 years after Sinai, what answer were they given?

8) Could the other two aminals not originally listed by Moshe be inferred by the very rabbinical logic that the Midrash employs to berate the questioner?

9) The Midrash insists that Moshe repeated himself (or HaShem forced him to) in order to teach us to humility and admit when we forget. Then why doesn’t the Torah say anywhere that Moshe admitted he forgot something when he repeated the mitzvos? Certainly, that would have been a great moral lesson, but Moshe never once admits to being senile or overwhelmed.

10) Throughout Torah we are warned many times by Moshe to “Remember and not forget!” Was Moshe reminding the Bnei Yisroel, or himself?

11) Why didn’t HaShem correct Moshe? Certainly, HaShem knew that Moshe had omitted a detail, yet He let it slide. Why?

The above-mentioned questions must leave one wondering how exactly the Torah was given, dictated, and compiled. It is shocking the number of years and effort the rabbis have spent unnecessarily reconciling all these contradictions and without ever asking the sort of questions that would reveal the obvious from the very beginning.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Kill the Heretic!

“Heretics, that is, Jews who do not believe in the Torah and in prophecy -- it is a commandment to kill them. If one can kill them with a sword in public -- he should, and if not -- he should act against them with cunning, until he causes them to be killed. How? If he sees one of them fallen into a well and there is a ladder in the well, first he should remove the ladder and say, 'I must take my son down off the roof, I'll bring it back' or something like that.” (Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat, 425:5)

This statement is directly from Jewish Law. What is amazing about the rabbis is how they make statements like this one and then, when confronted with the sheer cruelty and barbarism of it, backtrack to find innumerable ‘exceptions’ and caveats to the rule. Well, if these exceptions were so obvious or important to understanding how Jews are to regard the heretics among them, then why wasn’t it stated plainly in the first place? Why does everything have to first become controversial and then, and only then, do the rabbis bother to ‘explain’ it?

This reminds me of the typical racist, chauvinist, etc. who makes broad, sweeping comments about a particular group and then, when confronted with possible and notable exceptions, begins to waver a little from his original stance. No doubt our racist will continue to believe that he never really changed his mind, only that he admits that some members of his intended bigotry might not be as bad as he proports them to be. Nevertheless, though we have cornered the racist and caught him with his own logic, we still know that he remains a racist bastard.

This is, in fact, what the rabbis do time and time again. They quickly switch ‘halachic’ gears once caught either contradicting themselves or facing the quizzical and sometimes appauled looks of those who happen to read Jewish law and come across these nasty little bits of information. For the rabbis, their game is a game of opposites where they say one thing yet mean another and so on. It becomes very tiring when you start to notice how often that these ‘brilliant’ sages didn’t possess the basic foresight or straightforward understanding to be clear about their own words or the consequences thereof.

The rabbis also remind me of politicians on the campaign trail, making bold, strong, populist assertions and then, once elected, backpedalling from their original promises. Yet, weren’t the rabbis supposed to be better than politicians? So whom were the rabbis trying to impress by calling for vigilantism? What societal problem was cast at their feet by the Jewish masses that they felt it required such extreme measures? Or, like many issues today, were concocted by the rabbis to garner public support?

To be clear, this is what the abovementioned statement really says:

“Listen Jew. If you know anyone among you who doesn’t believe exactly as we do, it is your job to kill them. If the situation permits you to do it violently and in full public view, then by any means, do so. If not, one should wait for the opportunity to be at indirect cause for his death by some clever ruse.”

Freedom of Religion? Nope.

Freedom of Thought? Nope.

Freedom of Expression? Nope.

Right to a Trial? Nope.

Right to Jury Trial? Nope.

Right to Legal Counsel? Nope.

All you get for disagreeing with the rabbis is death at the hands of an angry mob or a cunning vigilante, with the tacit approval of the rabbinical authorities. Now you make think this is crazy and that Torah would never allow it but in many cases, the Torah commands the quick and painful death of any and all dissenters, even those who don’t question Torah or mitzvos! Even their wives and children, such as those of Korach, Dasan, and Aviram were wiped out with their rebellious fathers. The Torah itself offers us prime examples of summary execution of defendants without trial or proper defense.

Torah laws are really military laws. Moshe divided the Jews into military regiments based upon family and tribal lines, most likely to avoid the natural animosities that existed between them from spilling over were they not kept separate. Moshe instituted many militarisitic rules as far as encampments and latrines. Considering that the Jews were on a military quest to conquer Canaan, this makes perfect sense. Yet, along with the militaristic society came militaristic jurisprudence which, even to this day, remains apart and distinct in many ways from common civilian law. In addition, Moshe’s courts were tribunals in the field; convened in a moment’s notice and sentences carried out forthwith.

I cannot speak for everyone, but I am not one who wishes to live under a military justice system, be it Torah or the USMC. As Groucho Marx once said “Military justice is to justice, what military music is to music.” If we are soldiers, and not citizens, then our act of disagreement is not merely an act of a free thinking human being, it is an act of disobedience to a superior, and therefore, considered a highly treasonous offense.

Perhaps the rabbis spoke in theory and then dealt in reality later on when it became a more practical matter. I don’t know. It remains troublesome that these allegedly wise and ingenious sages seemed to have lacked foresight as to the consequences and controversial nature of their words. Their flip-flopping on both principle and detail leads me to never take them at their word. Once you have 'outed' yourself as a bigot, theocrat, fascist, or nationalist, good luck trying to win back my favor, no matter how many excuses or rationales you offer.

Kol Tuv

Thursday, November 16, 2006

עץ חיים היא : A Story About a Lost Friend

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“If you reveal your secrets to the wind you should not blame the wind for revealing them to the trees.” (Kahlil Gibran, 1883 - 1931)

In my early years, we lived next door to an elderly couple. I think Mr. K was a retired accountant, but I cannot be entirely sure. Mrs. K baked cookies and exchanged minor pleasantries with the neighborhood yentas. They were a quiet and not overly social couple, but everyone adored them. Mr. K davened in my father’s shteibel and I think his son was a Rov somewhere in Europe, but I have no idea which country. Mrs. K spent a good deal of time reading, and on occasion would exchange recipes and the latest news of her eyniklach with my bubbe. I don’t remember if they were Poylish or Russish, but their children were all hard-core Misnagdim. If the Ks themselves had any philosophical or religious issues with their chasidishe neighbors, they kept it a very well guarded secret.

The outer appearance of the K’s house was exactly like ours in almost every respect. Most homes in that section of Brooklyn look a lot like dominoes stood close enough alongside each other so that if, one was so inclined, one could level the entire block with a gentle nudge. The one noticeable difference was their backyard. Our yard fell under the relentless dominion of my father; a man predisposed to maximizing every inch of available real estate for something purposeful and hopefully, edible as well. I do miss his garden, with the smell of ripened tomatoes, stalks of dill, fresh peas, and a few varieties of flowers sprouting up in between the rows. Despite all the kvetching and yammering I did when having to perform of the heavy labor, as my father’s arthritis was already very painful for him, I still came to miss those times later on in life. I very much enjoy gardening myself, but I lack the natural expertise for which my father, in his small circle of friends, was well known.

The K’s yard, unlike our own, was quite bare; with its sole discerning feature an overgrown scrub tree that miraculously projected itself sunward through a large split in the crumbling pavement behind their garage. As the tree grew and its trunk expanded, it gradually dislodged more and more of the cement around its base. There were huge chucks of broken concrete that appeared to have been placed around that tree by human hands; perhaps in an attempt to protect it from urinating dogs or passing cars. Since I had never given it much thought back then, I never measured its exact height. When perched upon the highest branch to which I could reach, looking out and over our garage and down into the alleyway behind the street was pretty easy. Though not an overall scenic or even useful view, I nonetheless felt a sense of power in being able to survey the neighborhood from above the street level.

The first instances of my interaction with this tree began at approximately four years of age. I honestly cannot say what I did in or around that tree that first time. If I was anything like other kids, which is highly unlikely, I was probably skipping around aimlessly, picking off the lowest of leaves and then releasing them into the passing breeze, carelessly watching them flutter earthward from my fingertips. I recall other occasions, much later on, when I would take a sefer or a drawing pad and squat under that tree and read for what seemed to be hours on end. As I got a little older and my tuchis a bit more sensitive, I placed a plastic milk crate on the ground beneath it. Eventually as I was able to climb higher up into the tree, I found a good sturdy branch, and with feet dangling, I would read, say tehillim, and sometimes ‘zone out’ while staring out into no place in particular. If I was nowhere else to be found, my bubbe always knew to check for me in the tree.

Other than the occasional stray cat, bird, or curious squirrel, the tree was my exclusive lair. I cannot recall one instance where I came home to find another human occupying my tree. It was my sanctuary. The K’s eyniklach, who must have lived some distance away, seldom visited, and when they did appear ex nihilo, never ventured out into the yard. The Ks never bothered to put up a swing set or jungle gym, so the yard’s nonconformity to modern childhood usefulness was evident. I did invite a few of my chaverim to enjoy the shade or engage in some gratuitous climbing exercise, but there were no takers. I began to imagine that HaShem placed the tree in the “midst of the Garden” just for me and even He did not want anyone else using it.

When I say that the tree served as a sanctuary, it is no exaggeration. That was my personal refuge from my father’s sullenness, my bubbe’s nosiness, and my own intellectual boredom. But, most of all, I was there to escape a graying pall of sadness that engulfed our home when my step-mother was diagnosed with terminal yenne-machalah and spent her last several months of life in a cancer ward. The poetry I wrote for her, when weather and time permitted, was conceived under the low hanging, and serrated leaves of that incredible tree. If I could have those daydreams back now, I could write my entire life away, and even if doing little else, never complete even one of those childhood afternoon’s cerebral meanderings.

Wintertime was a little tough for me because the tree shed its leaves and the naked limbs no longer served to shade and comfort as they had all summer. I was somewhat consoled in the knowledge that springtime was coming again soon and soon enough my precious tree would return to its blossoming green splendor. I remember a teacher telling us that “Trees need to rest, too”, so I was not too broken up about a forced wintertime hiatus in our friendship. As it was, I did not go near the tree on Shabbos or Yom Tov anyway, and as I got older I was sometimes just too busy to get anywhere near it. I never, however, forgot about that tree, even in the dead of winter. I thought the tree had to be cold out there without its mantle of leaves.

Mrs. K was always worried I would fall and break something on their property. Mr. K referred to me once as the “shimpanze”, but never shooed me off. I think he was being paid off in fresh tomatoes from my father’s garden, and didn’t want to disrupt his ‘vegetarian’ good fortune of living next to a compulsive urban farmer. Besides, I was never any trouble. Other than leaving a chumash out in the rain once and failing to retrieve some pages that had fallen from my sketchpad, there were no behavioral or disciplinary issues surrounding my occupation of Mr. K’s scrub tree.

One my early talents, other than writing, was watercolor painting. I never took any classes, nor was I even encouraged, as religious kids know, to become an artist. I was just plain good at it. In fact, my father, who never claimed pride in any accomplishment or success I achieved, framed every single one of those crude paintings. It was the only art on our walls. In the center of our dining room wall hung a watercolor portrait of that tree which, in my estimation, was a real work of love. It is unfortunate that the fire, which took not only my father’s health and happiness, also destroyed those paintings. Though I had long since given up any artistic ambitions, it would have been nice to look at that tree again, even if only through the eyes of an eight-year-old aspiring impressionist.

I clearly remember Mr. K’s levaya, Mrs. K saying goodbye to my Bubbe, and their house going up on the market. Everyone wondered who would move in, but we were fairly sure it wouldn’t be empty for long. As children, we have this naïve sense that good things last forever and I, giving no real thought to the possible demise of my beloved tree, went on with daily life as if nothing had changed. I was still able to visit at my leisure and, having never imagined otherwise, assumed that the new owners of the K residence would not mind one bit if I continued hanging out in their back yard.

When my stepmother o’h passed on, the family had already prepared for the worst-case scenario. We all knew she was sick and becoming sicker by the day with no hope of recovery. We knew there were operations, surgeries, and medications. I knew, just by seeing her that her life was slowly leaving her. As a child, I didn’t process what all of that meant as an adult would know it to imply, and because of that, I may have seemed cooler and more distant from her passing than I would otherwise. I may have been in shock. My father suddenly got much older, and the sympathies of neighbors and family that poured out to us confused me and pushed me further into a desire for solitude. It seemed there was nothing that I could rely upon to always be there for me. Nevertheless, my tree was still there; taller and much leafier than last year, and still willing to tolerate my daily sojourn beneath its branches. That, too, was soon to end.

One Erev Shabbos, when I was probably eleven years old, while on my way home from the bakery, I decided to stop by the tree for a few minutes and maybe to have a cookie or two and ‘hang out’ under my tree. I distinctly remember strolling along with an unconscious, carefree sort of gait; the sort that children use when they aren’t hurried by adults or worried over mundane childhood concerns. I stepped through the K’s gate without a thought, expecting to see my beloved tree as always. However, all that remained was perhaps eight inches of stump and a pile of broken cement, having been pulled back from the trunk to allow easy access for the chainsaw. At first, I really thought I had walked into the wrong yard and I looked around to make sure I knew where I was. To the left were my father’s green beans dangling between the spaces of the chain link fence and the smell of dill carried on the summer breeze. My tree was gone. Just like that.

I cannot remember if was angry, shocked, sad, numb, or all of the above and more. I do very specifically recall wondering why anyone would cut down a tree that never hurt anyone or did not seem to obstruct anyone’s path. Did someone need firewood? What kind of mamzer would do that to my tree? I was also curious as to why my father, whom I thought must have known that someone going to murder this tree, did not protest its violent execution by running out and shouting “Wait! Stop! That is my Shloyme’s tree!” I felt hurt, abandoned, and betrayed. The tree had always been there, it seemed, and it never asked anything of me or objected to my presence. I loved the security the tree offered and now it, like other things I loved, proved as temporary and fleeting as those turned out to be. That sudden change of scenery awakened a deeper sense of insecurity; injury added to the stinging insult of being left unawares. I was the only one who cared about that tree and nobody bothered to ask my opinion! The tree no longer existed and, as far as humankind was concerned, apparently neither did I.

It’s been thirty-six years to date since my tree o’h was cut down, limb by limb, and chipped up into mulch. As I recall, this was among the worst acts of senseless, meaningless violence I have ever witnessed. I haven’t been back to the yard on C Street, nor have I really wondered too much what the new owners replaced my tree with, if anything. I suppose there have been quite a few alterations to the landscaping since then. I moved on and forgot about that tree, my good friend, for a while, but every so often I am reminded of those times and the peace I enjoyed under its branches. Things change and we change along with them, but memories good or bad, are not so bad to cherish.

I still miss that tree. I felt very much alive then. I think Maybe there is still some grieving to do. Maybe I just need another tree.

(In writing, I try to offer some lesson in the hope of bringing a closure to a question or inspire readers to think from a new perspective. There are no such noble intentions here. I could go on about ‘not taking things for granted’ and other redundant platitudes; but that would be overstating what is already glaringly obvious to anyone. This was just a story about a disappointed daydreamer, a scrub tree, and the insecurity that came with being unprepared for inevitable changes.)

Kol Tuv

Mounting Your Kill - Literally

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting

November 16th, 2006 at 09:55:36

Lawyer: Sex with dead deer no crime

Duluth News Tribune

Prosecution of a Douglas County case involving alleged sexual contact with a dead deer may hinge on the legal definition of the word “animal.”

Bryan James Hathaway, 20, of Superior faces a misdemeanor charge of sexual gratification with an animal. He is accused of having sex with a dead deer he saw beside Stinson Avenue on Oct. 11.

You have got to be fucking kidding me. A cold, dead deer? And road kill to boot? I have heard of rednecks and country folk bailing from the pick up truck to scrape up a free meal from up off the pavement now and then, but sex with road kill? I guess nothing is out of the realm of possibility for some folks. This guy needs therapy.

I might have even understood this odd event, weird as it is, had this moron actually chased the deer down, killed it, and his act of triumph became somehow transformed into a heat-of-the-moment frenzy of sexual conquest. Think of it as a victory dance of sorts. After all, the guy is only 20 and from a very small town. Who knows what those people do for entertainment?

I guess this gives whole new meaning to ‘mounting’ your kill.

A Letter We All Want to Write (1)

Dear ___________,

It has recently come to my attention that you are one of those nit-wad busy-body pseudo-psychologists out there that habitually project their personal psychosis, phobias, and paranoia onto the lives of others, all the while offering them advice on how to live. Well, fuckwad, here is some advice for you. I suggest you take it if you want to avoid my wrath. I fucking mean it. I am tired of you bothering me with your redundant psychotic bullshit. Stop treating everyone as if they are mirror images of yourself. If I lived in any manner or form that resembled your pathetic excuse for an existence, I would have done humanity a kindness and eaten a bullet long, long ago.

Do not ever again fucking come to me in a bad mood and ask me why I am not unconditionally happy. My refusal to live in the sort of phony, ignorant, stupefied bliss that has become your trademark expression is none of your fucking god-damn business. All you really want to know is from where I got the nerve to be in a different mood than your own. Either you seek my codependence or you desire to live vicariously through my moods to provide an escape from your own miserable non-ending life-drama. Obviously, you imagine your problems to be so catastrophic that no one else’s sadness could be of any importance by comparison. Maybe you really are fucked up way beyond what most of humanity could ever withstand. Either way, I don’t give a flying shit and if there were a god out there from which I could solicit a much needed favor, I would be begging it to make you disappear.

Not that you actually give a fuck, but the greatest issue I face at present is you. You have some kind of fucking audacity to come to me while loaded up on pharmaceutical mood-inhibitors and attempt a lengthy clinical diagnosis of my emotional state based upon how I react to your bullshit. You can take all that new-age-dime-store-pop-psychology shit you picked up from reruns of Dr.Phil, and shove it directly back up into that tightly clenched vice grip of a butthole you lug around behind you all day. The moment I see your chaotic existence resemble anything within the range of normal human behavior, I will then and only then remotely consider the possibility of wanting your opinion on anything.

Now fuck off. Whatever it is you have, I don’t want to catch it.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Responsible Rage?

“If you do not wish to be prone to anger, do not feed the habit. Give it nothing, which may tend to its increase.” (Epictetus, Stoic Philosopher)

I find anger the most straightforward and practical of emotions. Consider the following three points: (1) The capacity to feel anger is natural; built into our biology and important for moderating our physical and emotional levels ;(2) Anger is a signal that something is amiss, though it could be in perception only. Long-term suppression of these signals may be emotionally and socially harmful. Anger may also serve as a survival mechanism, a last ditch attempt at living; (3) Anger warns others to be careful. Anger serves as one of many "cues" that indicate tension and even danger. Anger, like love, is a chemical reaction triggered by our thoughts.

Ahh. If it were only that simple!

Love, Anger, & Process

Many, who normally exhibit great difficulty when it comes to expressing love, find it relatively easy to show anger. Anger could be called ‘emotional masturbation’ because one can always do it alone. One does not require assistance to get mad though, should anyone decide to lecture me on the ‘evils’ of anger, it tends to make me even madder. Love, on the other hand, is a bit more complicated because, although we can thoroughly internalize it, we must integrate our emotional interests with those of others once we decide to use it. In displaying love, we become subject to and limited by any number of preexisting societal norms that govern relationships. Therefore, as a singular experience and in the absence of this complication, anger appears, at first glance, to be about as simple as it gets.

Ask anyone for the ‘meaning of love’ and they will probably be hard-pressed to pinpoint any exact definition. They may offer any number of ways in which love expresses itself, what sort of things they feel, or how a moral code based on fellowship love shapes human conduct and social justice for the better. Many even speak of love in the third person (I just did in the previous sentence), as a personification or transcendent moral absolute. Most people will, however, admit to having no idea what exactly love is, and that confused majority, in spite of this inability, still have nothing but wonderful things to say on love’s behalf. No one who wishes to be declared sane by his peers dares question the moral or ethical value of the Biblical admonition to “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” So much for love. Everyone loves a lover.

Now ask those same individuals to, similarly, define anger. It should come as no surprise that we would find ourselves, once again, mired in innumerable descriptions of how it appears and how it feels without getting to the core of what anger really is. Anger expresses in any number of ways; some subtle and others, well, not so subtle. Love, as an event or ideal, is ‘processed’ in as many variant ways as there are lovers who process that emotion, and the same principle should apply to anger. Everyone I know angers (and loves) in a different way with different effects and for different reasons. Love and anger both share the apparent ability to escape definition. So if they share this fundamental mystery, why did love become the stuff of song and anger a curse to be damned? Notice that few ever personify or animate anger as they do feeling of love.

(The simple answer is that love just plain feels better. After all, who in their right mind dreams about being in anger? Alternately, anger is easier than love because it doesn’t appear carry any particular responsibility to another maintain it, unless you are that sort who becomes consumed or obsessed with that anger.)

Now when I use the term ‘processed’, I mean to say that when we experience love or anger, we filter the information gathered from the event through our own preconceived notions of said emotions. This is a result of both genetics and socialization; in other words, ‘processing’ is how we are trained to think of things. The problems in ‘processing’ occur when we project conclusions that result from our own unique set of descriptions onto the actions of another. I know what makes me mad, and if I witness another not becoming angered over the same event, I begin to wonder if that person is blind, crazy, or both. My ‘processing’ tells me, unconsciously in most cases, that anger over such-and-such is appropriate, but his does not. As an example, I will use my own unique brand of anger to demonstrate how this unconscious ‘processing’ can lead to misunderstandings and disaster. As they say, “Looks can be deceiving.” I have found that emotions, too, when not put into their proper context can be equally perplexing.

The ‘Volcano’

My nickname in school was ‘Volcano’, and though I hated it at first, I came to realize that the moniker was well-earned and a highly accurate description of my emotional self. Leave it to one’s rambunctious classmates to perform the perfect diagnosis! I tend to anger without warning. Predicting when I get angry is like prognosticating the eruption of a yet-to-be-discovered volcano. Even with all types of special instruments, observers, and indicators; no matter how much you watch and wait, it will erupt when it is damned good and ready. There are times one would expect an eruption and it does not occur, and others, whereupon it blindsides humanity with its speed and hot volatility. It is who I am. It isn’t always pretty.

Like our unpredictable volcano, I remain dormant for extended periods and then, for no apparent rhyme or reason, suddenly quake and forcefully erupt. On the plus side, however, as quickly as I may be prone to explode, I am equally able to calm down as if nothing ever occurred. Sometimes, I am fully cognizant of changes to my own biochemistry and act to mitigate the effect of those internal signals. That is how my anger operates. If there is a reason to be angry, I can quickly get right down to the business of solving the problem or, even better, realize that said problem was rooted in my fertile imagination and therefore requires no further emotional or mental effort on my part.. It’s not that I deliberately turn my emotions on and off as with a switch, rather when my tantrum is over, it is finished and I have no desire to be angry any longer. As General Colin Powell once said, “Get mad. Get over it. Move on.”

Witness Protection?

Now all this self-awareness of my own anger and how it plays out is all fine and good until, or course, there are witnesses to the cataclysm who do not ‘process’ the event in the same manner that I do. A possible misinterpretation of the event would lead onlookers to believe something about my angered state and its effects that, in my mind, are preposterous assumptions about my own emotional person. If a person who tends to remain angrier for longer periods watches me get angry, he will assume, even after the fireworks cease, that I am still furious, because he is ‘processing’ my anger through his own and perhaps drawing some very incorrect conclusions.

Now you may be thinking that I shouldn’t give a damn what anybody else thinks about my anger. I disagree. If this person misinterprets my anger, in either volatility or duration, then the resolution for the problem or the relationship between that observer and I becomes altered by this misperception. Rather than approaching me and discussing the issue sooner, the observer might choose to assume that I am still angry and thus avoid closure. Similarly, if the observer believes that I am angrier than I really am, he or she may wrongly assume that I am unjustified in my anger and never seek resolution. As it turns out, my perception of his perception is vital, not only in terms of understanding the reality of the event, but as to how those participants or observers will be affected. It all comes down to ‘processing’. We are all participants and observers simultaneously.

This recognition is most useful when it comes to managing my own anger. I know ahead of time that there are those who interpret my actions differently than I intend them to be understood. To resolve this problem, I tell those around me more about my angry states and what goes on inside me when mad. I also inform them as to how to deal with it and sometimes diffuse it. That level of communication means that there is no more guesswork involved in handling my outbursts. People then know how long, how far, and how fast it will go. The goal of such communication is to allow others and myself around me the freedom to be the emotional people they wish to be at any given time without having to worry that others will misread their actions. It is not just about being able to admit to being angry, but that one can be ‘safely’ angry, knowing that the consequences of misinterpretation will not cause the individual to dangerously suppress his or her emotions. In turn, they share with me their emotional ‘modus operandi’, and everyone is better off when operating out in the open.

In truth, anger, like love, comes with a reflexive responsibility on both the part of the one who is angry and those who observe his fit. Anger, as it turns out, if to be handled responsibly, becomes a shared event and thus diffused somewhat among the safety of other’s understanding. Like love, we must express it and bear witness to it responsibly; with open eyes and clear understanding.

“Anybody can become angry, that is easy; but to be angry with the right person, and to the right degree, and at the right time, and for the right purpose, and in the right way, that is not within everybody's power and is not easy.” (Aristotle, 384 BC - 322 BC)

“Do not teach your children never to be angry; teach them how to be angry.” (Lyman Abbott)

Kol Tuv

Moralism, Maimonides, & Marijuana

Mishna Torah, Hilchos Dayos, Chapter 2:6

וכן הכעס, דעה רעה היא עד למאוד; וראוי לאדם שיתרחק ממנה עד הקצה האחר, וילמד עצמו שלא יכעוס, ואפילו על דבר שראו לכעוס עליו. ואם רצה להטיל אימה על בניו ובני ביתו, או על הציבור אם היה פרנס, ורצה לכעוס עליהם, כדי שיחזרו למוטב--יראה עצמו בפניהם שהוא כועס כדי לייסרם, ותהיה דעתו מיושבת בינו לבין עצמו, כאדם שהוא מידמה איש בשעת כעסו, והוא אינו כועס.

And similarly with anger; a horrible trait to the extreme. It is proper for a person to distance himself from it in the utmost; teaching oneself never to anger even over matters where anger seems justified. However, if one seeks to instill fear in his children or other members of his household (i.e. wife), or upon members of his community (if he is a leader), and he wishes to use anger to motivate them for a positive end, he may feign such anger providing he remains calm within.

Maimonides' Manipulations

This passage from the Mishneh Torah seems innocuous enough. Maimonides, while listing the rules for character and personal discipline, ranks anger, along with pride, as one of the worst negative traits possible. In this, the Rabbis are in agreement with catholic Doctrine that anger is truly a deadly 'sin'. The Rabbis go so far as to equate anger with idol worship; the rationale being that anger is a denial of Providence and thus one imitates the non-believer by becoming angry. First of all, such a comparison seems a bit exaggerated. I do not see why one could not acknowledge and respond emotionally, albeit angrily, at the same time. I may know that certain circumstances are the Will of HaShem and, in the same breath, be quite upset that such events occur. I do not see a contradiction.

Secondly, why not just say that anger is a denial of Providence? Why call it akin to 'idol worship'? Don't idol worshippers also believe that their deities also determine events and circumstance? Most religions do accept Providence as a basic tenet. So why would the rabbis compare anger, as a denial of Providence, with another faith that accepts Providence as well? It makes no sense. The Rabbis could have easily said
"Anger is a tacit denial of HaShem's Providence" and be done with it. We would all understand it clearly. Instead, they exaggerated to make a point and end up confusing anyone who gives it the least bit of thought.

This obsession with anger, that it should be avoided at all costs and comparable to idol worship, is surprising considered that there is no specific Torah or Rabbinic command against becoming angry. In fact, we have instances in Torah, where certain persons i.e. Pinchas became filled with righteous indignation and anger and were rewarded for it. Now the Torah does not say that Pinchas became angry, but one would assume that if he took up his spear and murdered two people in front of everyone that he must have been rather irate about something. To asume that every act of vengeance, justice, or religoius zeal was performed with a cold, unmoving heart is just plain stupid. One would have to assume that our forefathers were emotionless automotons.

Perhaps this is why Maimonides retreats a bit from his moral absolutism and speaks of a practical application for anger when needed for a specific moral purpose. Apparently, the most evil character flaw ever isn't really all that bad when wielded properly. According to Maimonides, anger is useful for scaring the 'Holy Bejeeezus' out of family and friends to get them to comply with Torah. As some parents would say
"It is time to put the fear of God into that child." Maimonides doesn't want to ban anger, he simply wishes to limit it's use to those who think themselves worthy. What a hypocrite!

Now Maimonides allows this purposeful sort of anger with one small condition; it must be feigned. The one who shows the anger must not actually be angry! Can you say "Academy Award'? I see more than few problems with this idea. Follow along here.

First of all, we just finished reading how unbelievably nasty anger is and how we must run like hell away from it. We can assume that since this little tidbit of information was widely published and likely to have been read, so that people would know well ahead of time that this display of anger was an act and not respond accordingly, thus defeating the whole purpose of getting mad. In addition, if we thought the one who appeared angry wasn't really angry, then we could assume that our apparent lack of Torah observance, the reason he
says that he is angry, doesn't really make him angry at all. The one who is feigning this anger doesn't appear to care at all. We all know he is faking it. if he weren't then he'd be really angry, which he isn't permitted to become.

Secondly, this provision sends a very mixed message to listeners. It first adminishes them to avoid anger like the plague, but then to feign that very same anger for some 'holy' use. Not to be over-picky here, but if anger is akin to idol worship (thus a denial of Providence), then how would acting like an idol worshipper further any holy causes? Could one influence people to keep Kosher by eating pork? Committing a 'sin' to further a holy cause makes not one lick of sense to me.

Apparently, Maimonides is counting on all of us being complete numbskulls and not catching on this little subterfuge. Perhaps unsuspecting wives and naive children would buy into this game, but rational adults either would not accept it or not need it altogether. Maimonides would not have sounded so patently ridiculous had he first stated the exception and then offered a general rule for any other instance. He was, however, bound by the Rabbinic principle of overstatement and hyperbole; the same sort of absolute moralism that lead the Rabbis to project images of idol worship onto normal human emotions. Essentially, what Maimonides says is that
he is allowed to anger, but you are not.

Lastly, isn't feigning anything i.e. love, like, hate, or even anger just a little bit dishonest? There are direct commands to
"Be honest with weights and measures" and against "Bearing false witness" in a court of law. There are also Rabbinic laws governing fraud by subterfuge and false advertising even to Gentiles! Honestly in word and deed is a common theme throught Jewish Law. Yet, like or case here with anger, telling or promoting outright falsehoods is also not so absolute as the Rabbis would first have us believe.

Maimonides acquiesces in that his original moral stance is too absolute to withstand reality, but he fails to consider that those who feel the wrath of holy indignation, feigned as it is, will be a little skeptical next time they are told not to become angry themselves. This reminds me of the drug enforcement spokesperson who railed against the 'sin' of mind altering substances, yet freely dosed himself with 'legal' stimulants such as alcohol and Prozac.

Enter Spinoza

One of the greatest contributions to modern philosophy is the 'immoralism' of Spinoza, and his rejection of all moral absolutes as religious minded and arbitrary assumptions. According to Spinoza, moral absolutes place unnatural claims upon perfectly natural occurences in an attrempt to remove them from the normative process of cause and effect. This leads to three problems. First, actions become taboo irrespective of their actual effects and second, and perhaps even more dangerous, the effects (or influence) of said actions become overexaggerated. Under absolute moralism, an act need not have any actual correlation to a particular negative effect to be considered 'evil'. By example, religious Jews believe that masturbation leads to poverty. (
You try and figure that one out.)

The third issue centers around the arbitrary nature of moral absolutes. Huh? What part of 'moral' and 'absolute' don't I understand? The part I fail to get is the one where the rubber meets the road sort of speak; where like in the case of anger, we begin to make exceptions to these absolutes based upon some exigent circumstances. Call me pedantic, but if you already have exceptions, then your rules were never as absolute as first imagined. The inevitable collision between reality and idealism crushes our moralism to bits and exposes it for the farse it is.

Moralism Is Immoral

Spinoza asserts that morals are arbitrary in that one always can find an excuse not be moral if another overriding ‘moral’ principle takes precedence at any given time. Morality is man made. It is a statement of ‘right versus wrong’ made in man’s head, and that same head can easily choose to violate or alter the morality at his choosing. This, in fact, is what the Maimonides does. If anger is a moral no-no, and thus absolute, then no excuse, religious or otherwise, should change it, and the Maimonides is mistaken to assume anger will accomplish any meaningful ends even if used for the ‘right’ reason, because the essence of that moral value is also an absolute.

As another example, we can go back to our drug enforcement officer. His job is to arrest and prosecute those who, by legislation, are not permitted to use, own, or distribute cannbis under any circumstances. The moral absolute, that no one should use cannibis, blinds the public to the obvious medicinal benefits and causes the moralists to tell outright lies about the effects of cannibis use. We have a perfect example of moral absolutism actually breaking down our moral code! After all, which is worse, smoking marijuana or lying? The moralist, as it turns out, doesn't care about any morals or absolutes that impinge on his ability to enforce another absolute. I can almost imagine our dear friend Maimonides feigning anger in order to stop me from feeling real anger!

Spinoza rightly chooses to swap out the moral language of ‘right versus wrong’ for the more natural and somewhat neutral ‘good and bad’. For most people this means exactly the same thing, as they equate right with good and conversely, wrong with bad. Nothing, to Spinoza, could be more wrong and bad than making this assumption. Good and bad are not moral absolutes but natural consequences of our actions mired in the natural processes of cause and effect. For Spinoza to feign anger to accomplish a particular result is no contradiction at all; he never claimed anger, though a negative emotion, to be an absolute evil. For the naturalist, anger is merely another emotion; a cause that leads to certain effects, and can be ‘good and bad’ at the same time. For the moralist, who lays claim to transcendent principles, causes and effects may exist, but those have no bearing on the morality. This is essentially what is contradictory within Maimonides statement. He wishes to play the moral absolutist on one hand and then the naturalist on the other. Maimonides, in spite of his rant against it, recognized the practical ‘good’ in anger through its effects on others. (Now if Maimonides were only so consistent in his assessment of other emotional states.)

By moving to a language 'good and bad' we take it upon ourselves to gain, as Spinoza calls it, the 'adequate idea' of a thing. This means that all things are morally neutral, of the same essential substance, and become 'good' or 'bad' only in the sense of their effects; dependant upon how their particular nature interacts with our own at any given point. Good and bad are not intrinsic properties of the objects nor do arbitrary assumptions a bad thing make.

An example offered by Spinoza is the story of Adam and that lucious apple. God simply commanded Adam not to eat of the tree. He gave Adam no reason and no rationale. He merely said "Of the tree in the Garden, you should not eat." Now Adam must have thought long and hard about this one commandment, so long in fact, that he began to imagine things about this command that simply were not true. For example, he told Eve, who was not present for the original commanding, not to even touch the fruit. Adam somehow turned a simple command into a moral crusade and therefore lied to Eve to preserve that moralism. When she touched the fruit and didn't die, as Adam had told her, he became caught in his own moral emptiness, and a complete moral breakdown soon followed whereby Adam ate the very fruit he was told not to.

Had Adam deemed the fruit of that tree to be not immoral or evil, but as a literal, physical poison and thus bad only in relation to him, then no amount of persuasion on the part of serpents, wives, or gods could have ever induced Adam to bite into that apple. No matter what silliness Adam's conjured in his mind, that fantasy could not change the fruit from being poisonous to healthy. Moralism distorts our perceptions of reality.

We all have to face the music sometime. Why not now?

Kol Tuv

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

But Have They Really Heard Us?

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(As much as I am trying to avoid getting into politics on this blog, it is inevitable that the subject will come up again, and I will do my best to keep it short.)

On November 7th, the voting public of America soundly rejected the GOP, both retaining challenges to Democratic incumbents and by winning hotly contested races across the nation. This same phenomena occurred in many gubernatorial races as well. Congratulations to the Democratic Party. Let’s hope the Democrats do not, once again, forget who gave them this renewed opportunity to govern the nation.

I have two observations to offer. House Speaker-to-be Pelosi, cute as a ‘button’ as she is, was the first of the Democratic leadership to disappoint me in victory. In her speech to the DSCC, she announced that she hopes to work in tandem with the GOP in a ‘bipartisan’ manner. This is asinine! Where has Rep. Pelosi been for 12 years of Republican stone-walling, obstruction, and outright derision of the Democratic membership?

Someone should remind Rep. Pelosi of an important fact. This new groundswell of voters did not rush out en masse so that those liberal and progressives we send to Washington D.C. could start making deals with the ‘devils’ we wanted out of our government completely. The GOP has offered America nothing but corruption and war, and last thing any of us should want is compromise with them. The new Democratic leadership should bring them the Karma that they offered to their own political opponents; no quarter offered and none taken. To turn the ship aright, one must not bargain with those who ruthlessly tried to scuttle her.

Secondly, but along the same lines, I would hope that the ‘Old Guard’ recognizes the amount of talent, energy, and innovation that has been brought by the newly-elected members and, most importantly, refrain from abusing their seniority to strangle them into submission. I would hope that the fresh momentum of this new talent does not become relegated to a ‘minority within a majority’ status. These newly elected members of Congress were chosen by ‘we the people’ because of their ideas, their magnetism, and their courage to stand up and stand out for change. They deserve to be in the forefront of those possible changes.

Voters called for a change in American politics, and it was more than just a switch from (R) to (D). This election is for a substantive change in how things are done all the way around; up to and including the parlimentary ‘nonsense’, lobbying, and inter-party wrangling for power and seniority. Different means different; not more of the same with a just a fresh coat of blue paint.

I hope that someone somewhere in the D.C. Democratic establishment gets the hint. I am doubtful. We, the people, have shouted. But have they really heard us?


Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Dear Believer

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Affirm as you might in ardent fervor
Upon the command of one All-Seeing
Please assuage my doubts
As to the exact whereabouts
Of this Omni-Present Almighty being

Seeking everlasting reward in afterlife's bliss
Lips whispering meek supplications
But superstitious pretense
Makes not one lick of sense
While He hides from His own creations

To an invisible taskmaster solemnly sworn
Devoted to cause and holy conviction
Yet the nature of that friend
Upon whom you depend
Remains to me merely a lackluster fiction

Abandon all hope for my eternal salvation
For by Reason shall I continue in living
Should sound judgment lapse
Only then sadly perhaps
Will I ever require another's forgiving


Monday, November 06, 2006

I Will Be Back Soon

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Savored moments of content
As to not endure evening spent
Embroiled in thought languishing a-mind
Perhaps a simpler course to find

Yet soon enough this hiatus ceased
As torrents of expression come unleased
Dragged and drowned in current's rage
Forced again this pen to page!

Silence is but a waiting tide
Of anticipation that lurks inside
O Soul who beckons from across the dam!
Bathe Me! Take Me! as I am