Saturday, December 20, 2014

King David or Aliens: What Do You Believe In More?

For a long time it has been a standard truism of the archaeological community that King David probably never existed.  This conclusion was drawn by virtue of the fact that no hard evidence of his existence was unearthed - until recently.  In what has been hailed as a significant discovery, an inscription on a stone from Tel Dan in Israel describes the conquests of Hazael, king of Aram-Damascus and the killing of Ahaziahu - King of the "House of David."  You can read about it here.

Archaeology is great and they do the best with what they have - which is often very little.  Like other forensic sciences, archaeology attempts to piece together a story-line based on a limited series of clues.  Often these clues can be interpreted in a variety of ways which can lead to heated debate on any given find.  Other times, there are no clues available at all.  What conclusions should be drawn in such cases?  Should they be drawn at all?  Despite the fact that it's logically understood that "lack of evidence is not evidence of lack," in the case of a (supposedly) major figure like David, there was a sense that we should have found something by now.  When nothing was, it was taken as evidence that no such person actually existed.

What we see from this is, as is always the case, that whatever assumptions we bring to a given set of information will color our conclusions about it.  It's interesting to note that the Federal Government continues to spend millions of dollars on the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Life (SETI) project despite its total failure to produce a scrap of evidence of alien intelligence.  Why?  Because it's simply assumed that given the vastness of space that there simply must exist other habitable regions that have produced intelligent life.  No proof, but an accepted truth nonetheless.

Contrast this with the fact that the Jewish People have writings thousands of years old that describe the life and times of David in detail.  These writings have been faithfully transmitted from teacher to student and from parent to child for a very long time.  It's part of our national consciousness and has always been known to be true.  How interesting that this counts for nothing in the eyes of the scientific and historical communities.  Will they believe us more now that they see we knew this particular piece of information about our King long before they did?  Probably not, since they already "know" that biblical accounts are largely mythological or historical fiction at best.

Perhaps in time Jewish national consciousness will be given its due and the opinions (and historical record) of the people who actually lived these events, knew its players and carefully transmitted it from generation to generation will be taken seriously.  Until then, it appears that we'll need to patiently wait for science to catch up.

For a comprehensive look at the confluence of the biblical and archaeological records see Professor Ken Kitchen's On the Reliability of the Old Testament.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Science Says the Sea Split For Moses

I'm always surprised and, admittedly, somewhat pleased to read articles such as the one I saw in today's WSJ which is entitled "How Did Moses Part the Red Sea?"  Given the general hostility of the scientific community to religious matters and the derision with which they are often met, it's almost a tad jarring to see one of them taking the time to provide an explanation (albeit one wholly rooted in materialism) to one of the events which the theological world considers to be (almost) fully miraculous.

The author, Bruce Parker, is the former chief scientist of NOAA's National Ocean Service and is a visiting professor at the Stevens Institute of Technology.  In other words, he is apparently an expert on the way that the ocean behaves.  He explains that the phenomenon of the Red Sea waters greatly receding for long enough for pedestrians to traverse it and then to collapse back to their normal state with enough force to destroy whoever is unfortunate enough to find themselves caught there, is all quite normal.  In fact, he points out that a similar event was observed by no less a figure than Napoleon whereby he and his men were "almost drowned in 1798 at the northern end of the Suez... ."

Professor Parker surmises that since Moses lived "in the nearby wilderness" he would have been familiar with the phenomenon and have seen various caravans traveling across the expanse when it was feasible.  Yes, he admits that the timing would have to have been impeccable but gives Moses credit enough to be fully capable in this regard.  Fine, but even assuming Moses's highly keen sense of observation and timing consider just how many fortuitous events and timings would have to have preceded the arrival of the Children of Israel (and of Egypt) at just that moment.

Remember that the Egyptians were beaten and had actually encouraged the Jews to leave only to have a sudden change of heart later.  Would Moses really have been able to bank on that reaction? And how did the Egyptians arrive at their defeat to begin with?  Recall the year long series of natural (and supernatural) events that befell them.  Could Moses have known how long they would take and plan the great sea trick around that?  Doesn't seem too likely.  It's true that the Torah seems to go out of its way to minimize the supernatural aspect of this event by ascribing it to a strong eastern wind that blew the whole night before, but in the final analysis, the timing is just too great a coincidence to overcome.

Finally, I always wonder at (but enjoy) when secular-minded people take the time to explain away various miraculous occurrences that our tradition records - the flood, the plagues, the Ark of the Covenant, et al.  Inasmuch as they could be inclined to just chalk them up to the standard mythology of some Bronze Age nomads, as some do, the fact that they meticulously search for natural explanations obviously means that they give them a lot more credence than a lot of other myths.  I've yet to see the scientific analysis of the speed at which Thor's hammer traveled or the horse-power of the species of peacock that pulled Hera's chariot.  As such, I take Professor Parker's exploration as a complement - even if it only tells part of the story.  In any event, he's correct in asserting that "it has to qualify as the most dramatic an consequential tide prediction in history."


Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Atheist's Case of Commandment Envy

There's an interesting (and popular) post by Kimberly Winston in the Huffington Post entitled "10 Commandments For Atheists Who Want to Explore Their Values."  There are several aspects of the post that I find interesting.  The first is that this strikes me as yet another example of how unsatisfying atheism must be as a philosophy and lifestyle - so much so that they appear to be in desperate want of ritual and guiding principles. 

This truth is reflected in the spate of atheist books aimed at mimicking theology's (often) enviable mastery of the creation of community and the imparting of meaning to their adherents (see Alain De Botton's "Religion For Atheists" and Terry Eagleton's "Culture and the Death of God").  

So too is there a deep and real human need to live life with purpose and meaning - something atheists can only attempt to do by living according to an agreed upon fiction of their own devising.  As I've said and written many times, if there is no God, then there is no meaning or purpose save what individuals invent to call "meaningful."  Hence, there will be many attempts to co-opt the "good" and desirable aspects of religion to plaster over this glaring (and ultimately fatal) flaw in atheism.  The atheist's only other alternative is to fully accept and embrace the inherent bleakness and lack of hope that is inseparable from his or her world-view - something that most of them are understandably reluctant to do. Therefore, the creation of a 10 Commandments for Atheists is another stab at creating meaning and principle from so much vapor.

Regarding the title, I find it perplexing that atheists would want to explore their "values."  Why?  What values are there to be held in the first place and can any two atheists be said to share a set of these common "values?"  If so, where did they get them from?  From a materialist's perspective, a "value" is nothing more than an electro-chemical impulse that occurs in the three pounds of squiggly pudding encased in the skull.  That pudding produces a lot of those impulses.  Are they in any explicable way different from say a lightning storm?  Does the storm have any "meaning" or "values?"  Clearly not.  It would therefore seem fundamentally paradoxical for atheists to explore their "values."  So much for the title.  How about the "commandments" themselves?

Here's #1:

"I. The world is real, and our desire to understand the world is the basis for belief."

Ok, several questions come to mind.  First of all, what is meant by the "world" - presumably just physicality - in essence a lot of electrons, etc.  Why the desire to understand a large amount of random and meaningless particles?  Also, many atheists believe that there is no such thing as free will.  If that's the case, how would we be able to arrive at any conclusions regarding a things's reality or non-reality given that we are just "programmed" to believe one thing or another. Furthermore, how do we know that our faculties (themselves products of random and meaningless forces) are reliable to begin with?  One may have a desire to "understand the world" but what "belief" could that possibly engender?  Belief in what?

It would probably be instructive and interesting to go through each one but I think this suffices for now to evidence the point I'm making - that atheists would be better off (as some have) acknowledging the limitations of their way of thinking and working on ways of unburdening themselves of the (from their perspective anyway) fictitious and erroneous desire for a coherent and meaningful set of principles for living.  Theology has that one under lock and key.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Bias Is a Two-Way Street

A post of mine was recently critiqued as essentially an exercise in wishful thinking.  I had been bothered by the seeming disappearance (or even lack of existence) of the "Paleo-Hebrew" script that we are now all familiar with in the course of Jewish history.  Given that much of Kabbalistic thought is built off of those letters, the idea that they were introduced in the time of Ezra (many centuries later than the Jewish tradition suggests) is potentially troubling to a theist like myself.  After doing some research, I came up with an answer that satisfied me and found a similar approach discussed on a blog called Aish Das.

The blogger known as the "Atheodox Jew" begs to differ.  His contention is that in the same way that hokey alternative medicine practices such as the "dowsing rod" (which he believes the practitioner subconsciously moves in accord with his wishes) are merely the result of below the surface bias - so too is the belief that there was an original Hebrew alphabet that was carefully preserved over time and only introduced to the masses later in Jewish history.

Fine.  This contention can be argued and approached from a variety of historical, archaeological and philosophical perspectives.  What I find irksome about the contention is the (all too common) self-congratulatory style with which many "free-thinkers" conduct their thought.  While leveling the charge of hopeless and wanton bias at the believer, the skeptic often seems wholly unaware of the bias and unsubstantiated assumptions with which he draws his conclusions.

For instance, Atheodox Jew writes that "Billions of years of evolution have imbued us with a formidable intuitive capacity, i.e. the ability to make spot assessments of circumstances, to sense things about ourselves and our environment, in order to take the kinds of actions that will help us survive."  As popular as this belief may be, it is simply an assumption.  There is no formal proof that this is the case, there is no model by which to test it and furthermore, it oftentimes seems that human beings are actually quite deficient in this capacity to begin with.

Though they don't like to explore it much, the history of science and "free-thinking" is littered with egregious examples of gross bias and group-think.  Yoram Bogacz offers a stunning example of this phenomenon in his book Genesis and Genes whereby the entire scientific community concluded that the age of the Earth was 100 million years - largely due to the great influence of Lord Kelvin.  Here were the results:

By the end of the 19th century, there was an entrenched, virtually  indisputable scientific consensus that the Earth and the Sun (and thus the universe)  were at most 100 million years old...the paradigm was pervasive and considered unassailable [much like today's views of evolution].  It was the consequence of fifty years of determined scientific effort, involving dozens of researchers  in multiple disciplines.  This result was repeated in countless books, monographs, journals, symposia, lectures and articles in popular magazines and newspapers.  Virtually all scientists and educated members of the public were convinced of the veracity of the paradigm.  It was almost inconceivable that results from such apparently-independent methodologies, drawn from such a wide array of disciplines and produced by the application of the most advanced tools of science could converge to such a narrow limit coincidentally.

Today it has been totally discarded.  

Despite this obvious truth about people - all people - Atheodox Jew goes on to make various assumptions that he finds meaningful  - about cosmology, and about linguistics.  On the latter, he cites a paper by UCLA professor William Schniedewind on the apparent evolution of the Hebrew letters in question.  In response I'd like to share a salient quote from Professor Schniedewind himself where he correctly affirms that "the assessment of the evidence here - and in other cases - depends quite a bit on the assumptions that we bring to the linguistic data."  (How the Bible Became a Book, P.179)  Indeed.

I once had the pleasure of meeting with psychoanalyst and physicist Dr. Jeffrey Satinover.  Over coffee I asked him how I (as a layman) could make sense of the fact that there are credible paleontologists who draw completely opposing conclusions regarding the fossil record - some seeing it as proof positive of the Darwinian theory and others as a refutation of it!  He made a fascinating assertion to me - that the position of the scientists were not scientific but rather emotional.  Each side viewed the data through the lens of his bias and drew the conclusion he most wanted - same data, opposite conclusion.

Everyone is convinced the he or she is a "free-thinker" and that their beliefs are solely the product of rigorous logic and rationality but we would probably all benefit from a frank admission that we are all blinded by one bias or another.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Help, I Don't Exist!

I find neuroscientist Sam Harris to be considerably more interesting than most of his fellow "New Atheist" thinkers and, despite my fundamental disagreement with him on many matters of critical importance, I often find myself interested in his approach to various topics and periodically in agreement with what he has to say.  Recently, Harris who has lectured extensively on the topic of consciousness has been studying and practicing Eastern Meditation, for the purpose, he says, of revealing that the "self" does not really exist. 

Why is Dr. Harris doing this?  Because he is a materialist who believes that physical reality is the only reality and the problem of consciousness has long been an irritating thorn in the side of the materialist worldview.  He wants to explain how it could be that we all have a sense of unique self-hood - a tall order considering that it has been widely recognized that no one has any idea how a material entity could be consciously aware of itself.  This oddity is openly acknowledged by most of the great thinkers on the topic.  For instance, it’s been described by philosopher and cognitive scientist David Chalmers as "the Hard Problem."  As he once wrote:

It is undeniable that some organisms are subjects of experience. But the question of how it is that these systems are subjects of experience is perplexing. Why is it that when our cognitive systems engage in visual and auditory information-processing, we have visual or auditory experience: the quality of deep blue, the sensation of middle C? How can we explain why there is something it is like to entertain a mental image, or to experience an emotion? It is widely agreed that experience arises from a physical basis, but we have no good explanation of why and how it so arises. Why should physical processing give rise to a rich inner life at all? It seems objectively unreasonable that it should, and yet it does.

This problem has also been explored in NYU philosopher Thomas Nagel's work "What is It Like to Be a Bat?," which is intended as a refutation of Reductionism,  the idea that a complex system is simply a sum of its parts. Reductionism would argue that all mental processes could be fully described if all of the physical processes in the brain could be described.  The "Hard Problem" then is that there is no reason to expect that the bat should have an experience of "bat-ness" and yet it would seem obvious that it does.  If the brain (ours or that of any animal) is only a machine—an arrangement of physical components that obeys the laws of physics like a computer or a calculator—all that it should be doing is executing its program (how the program came to be in the first place is another matter).  The calculator presumably has no experience of calculator-ness, so why should we be any different?  Yet clearly we are; hence the "hard problem."

Dr. Harris has a solution in mind: our consciousness. Our awareness and experience of our "selves," is simply an illusion.  As he recently said in a NYT's interview:

The feeling of being a subject inside your head, a locus of consciousness behind your eyes, a thinker in addition to the flow of thoughts [is not real]. This form of subjectivity does not survive scrutiny. If you really look for what you are calling “I,” this feeling will disappear.

He illustrates this with a picture:

His thinking is that just as there really is no square here but only the illusion of one, so too is the feeling of one's "self" equally illusory.  I'm not sure that there is any great correlation between an optical illusion (which has no awareness of itself and hence no experience to negate) and the universal awareness of self that we all have and which he struggles to explain away.  Furthermore, I'm not at all uncomfortable with counter-claiming that the square does indeed exist but simply exists in a different way than the three-quarter black circles do.  In the same sense that Jews would claim that the soul (or any spiritual entity) cannot be measured but only implied from what can be measured, so too the square. 

Harris claims that the goal of the mystics is to remove the "I" from our consciousness - which is the fiction that blocks us from perceiving the true reality (according to Harris): there is no true "I."  This would appear to align nicely with Buddhism and conceivably part of what attracts him to this sort of exploration is that Buddism has no God concept.  

Some questions regarding this whole approach:
  1. Who or what is doing the realizing when it's realized that there is no "I?"  The illusion? 
  2. If there's no "I," how is this realization remembered, since memory would presumably be a function of the "I?" 
  3. What the overall goal of this exploration?  What do "I" hope to gain in discovering that I don't really exist?
  4. How do we know that it's not the disappearance of the sense of an "I" that is actually illusory?
The whole enterprise of attempting to come to such a paradoxical and non-intuitive realization that there is no “I” and no true self would appear to be wholly subjective and lacking the standards of scientific rigor that the "New Atheists" generally claim to embrace.  How would we hope to test this idea?  In commenting on this problem, Harris acknowledges that "Whatever we study, we are obliged to take subjective reports seriously, all the while knowing that they are sometimes false or incomplete."

Perhaps what Professor Harris and the Eastern mystics mean is something akin to what Judaism teaches - that the destruction of the ego (a warped perception of the self) will free our minds (or souls) to be able to perceive the "Universal Mind" or Infinite Consciousness that we call God.  It’s difficult to assert, as Harris does, that if people just think about it enough that they will come to understand that their most basic sense of consciousness is not really there.  The advantage of such an approach is that it conveniently elides the conclusion that many would be drawn to make – that our pervasive and universal sense of self is quite real and that given that there is no explicable physical basis for it there must be a metaphysical one.  

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Did Judaism Really Just Lose a Whole Script?

I have to admit that I have been bothered by the prospect that the Jewish People had at one time written their Torahs in one "font" only to have it be lost and then reintroduced by Ezra hundreds of years later.  If they couldn't be trusted to keep their alphabet straight, how could we believe that the "Mesora" (the chain of transmission of law) has been accurately conveyed?

Well, as of last night I thought that I had got myself a pretty good answer to it and then I came across a much better one.  So instead of recreating the wheel, I'll just cut and paste an excellent analysis from '02 that I found on the Aish Das website:

The Script of the Torah

The Gemara in Sanhedrin 21b-22a tells us what at first seems very surprising. However, after a careful reading and placing the events in an historical context they do not seem surprising at all.
Mar Zutra and some say Mar Ukva said: Originally the Torah was given to Israel in Ktav Ivri (paleo-Hebrew characters) and in the holy lanugage. It was given again to them in Ezra's time in Ktav Ashurit (Assyrian characters) and in Aramaic. Israel selected for themselves Ktav Ashurit and the Hebrew language... It was taught: Rebbe said: Torah was originally given to Israel in Ktav Ashurit. When they sinned it was changed to Roetz (Ktav Ivri). When they repented, Ktav Ashurit was reintroduced... R' Shimon ben Elazar said in the name of R' Eliezer ben Parta, who said in the name of R' Elazar Hamodai: This writing was never changed...
We see three opinions regarding the script of the Torah. According to Mar Zutra, the Torah was given to Israel in Ktav Ivri and in Hebrew but Ezra changed it to Ktav Ashurit and Aramaic. The people, however, only accepted Ktav Ashurit and Hebrew. According to Rebbe, the Torah was given in Ktav Ashurit but was changed to Ktav Ivri due to the people's sins. According to R' Elazar Hamodai, the script of the Torah never changed.

This passage raises a number of questions. How could Ezra change the script of the Torah? How could he change the Torah's language from Hebrew to Aramaic? Furthermore, if he found the authority to do so, how could the people determine an outcome against his decision? According to Rebbe, why would the script of the Torah change based on whether Israel sinned or repented?
R' Reuven Margoliyot (Margoliyot Hayam, Sanhedrin ad loc,; Hamikra Vehamesora, ch. 9) answers all of these questions with the following historical reflection. It is known that some ancient cultures had one script for sacred purposes and one for everyday use. For example, the Indians only used Sanskrit for religious purposes and not for the mundane. The talmudic sages mentioned in the above passage were debating the extent of this practice of having a script for only holy purposes in Israel. However, according to everyone this was the practice, similar to the talmudic dictum, "Something that is used for the sacred may not be used for the profane" (Avodah Zara 52a).

According to Mar Zutra, the first tablets of the ten commandments were written in Ktav Ashurit (see Responsa Radbaz 3:442) but once Israel sinned with the Golden Calf they were deemed unworthy. They could not be trusted to use Ktav Ashurit for purely sacred matters. Therefore, the second tablets and the Torah scrolls written for general use were in Ktav Ivri. This can, perhaps, be seen from the fact that in Megillah 2b Rav Chisda says that the mem and samech in the tablets were miraculously hanging in the air. This can only happen in Ktav Ashurit and not in Ktav Ivri. However, in the Gemara in Sanhedrin quoted above, Rav Chisda seems to agree with Mar Zutra that the Torah was originally given to Israel in Ktav Ivri. Therefore, it seem that Rav Chisda would have to say that the tablets were in Ktav Ashurit and the Torah in Ktav Ivri. Or, as the Radbaz suggested, everything was originally in Ktav Ashurit but after the sin of the Golden Calf the second tablets and the Torah were in Ktav Ivri. But not all of the Torahs were in Ktav Ivri.

That the original tablets were given in Ktav Ashurit but not the second tablets can be seen hinted in a number of sources. For example, the Gemara in Pesachim 87b says "the tablets broke and the letters floated in the air". Exactly what it means that the letters floated in the air is unclear. However, on that same page the Gemara says, "Three things returned to their origin... the script of the tablets". That sounds like Ktav Ashurit being replaced with Ktav Ivri. Similarly, the Mechilta on Exodus 17:8 says that after the tablets were broken "the heavenly writing returned to its place". We perhaps also see evidence of the disappearance of Ktav Ashurit much later in history. The Tanchuma on Vayeshev 2 says, "What did they do [in response to the Samaritans]? Ezra, Zerubavel, and Yehoshua gathered the community to the sanctuary... and excommunicated the Samaritans with the sacred name of G-d, with the script that was written on the tablets, with the decree of the heavenly court,..." The use of the "script that was written on the tablets" is important for two reasons. First, it seems that this script was unique. Furthermore, we know from the Gemara in Sanhedrin and from other historical sources that the Samaritans used Ktav Ivri. The contrast between the Samaritans and the "script that was written on the tablets" implies that this script was not Ktav Ivri. We thus see that there is ample material supporting the Radbaz's claim that the first tablets were in Ktav Ashurit.

Recall that Mar Zutra said that the Torah was given to Israel in Ktav Ivri. The Ritva deduced from this that the special Torah of Moshe that was kept in the ark and later in the Temple was in Ktav Ashurit. Only Torahs for the people were in Ktav Ivri. The ability to read Ktav Ashurit was maintained by priests and scribes, which is why King Yoshiyahu needed a priest to read to him from Moshe's Torah when it was found in the Temple (2 Kings 22:8-11; Abarbanel). The king had never before seen Ktav Ashurit and his reaction to seeing it fo the first time, and in the Torah scroll that Moshe himself had written, demonstrates the deep religious emotion it evoked. We perhaps find hints of this in Isaiah 8:1 where the prophet is commanded, "Take a large tablet and write on it in common characters". This is must have been referring to Ktav Ivri that was used by the common people (see Rashi). Ktav Ivri had gained such prominence that the existence of ending letters (ךףץןם) was forgotten by the masses and had to be restored (Megillah 2b-3a).

However, Ktav Ashurit was still studied by the priests and scribes, of which Ezra was both. When he saw that Ktav Ashurit was so forgotten that, when it was written on the wall of King Belshatzar of Babylonia, only Daniel could read it (Daniel 5) he realized that it must be reintroduced to the people. Yet, he still had the dilemma that people would then be writing Hebrew in the holy Ktav Ashurit for improper purposes. His solution was to translate the Torah into Aramaic and introduce the Aramaic Torah in Ktav Ashurit into common usage. That way people would become familiar with Ktav Ashurit without using it in their daily Hebrew writing. This is what is meant in Nehemiah 8:8, "So they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation." It was interpreted by translation into Aramaic (Megillah 3a). (This translation was later recreated by Onkelos). However, the people had lived their whole lives with a Hebrew Torah and were not ready to change the language of their holiest of books. Therefore, they decided to retain a Hebrew Torah in Ktav Ashurit but conduct their daily business in Aramaic. This would produce the results that Ezra desired because Ktav Ashurit in Hebrew would not be a part of the daily routine.

Rebbe agreed with this historical reconstruction but attributed the original transition from Ktav Ashurit to Ktav Ivri to the idolatrous era of the First Temple rather than the episode of the Golden Calf. According to Rebbe, it is even more plausible that the scholars always retained knowledge of Ktav Ashurit. It was only the masses who were busy with their daily lives and/or idolatrous ways who forgot Ktav Ashurit when the Torahs were changed to Ktav Ivri.

R' Elazar Hamodai does not necessarily disagree that people forgot Ktav Ashurit. He only argued that the Torahs were never changed from one script into another. However, he agreed that people had forgotten Ktav Ashurit, the script used only for sacred purposes, and that Ezra had to re-educate the masses in the holy script (see Teshuvot HaRambam, ed. Blau no. 268).

As a final note, the Gemara in Sanhedrin 22a offers two opinions why the script is called Ktav Ashurit. One is that the Jews brought it back to Israel with them from Babylonia/Assyria (Ashur). The other is that it is a beautiful script (me'usheret). Since the literal translation of Ktav Ashurit is "Assyrian script", we must ask why the Gemara even asks such a basic question. It is called Ktav Ashurit because the Assyrians used it. Furthermore, the view that it is called Ktav Ashurit because the script is beautiful strains credibility. We already know that it is called Ktav Ashurit because it is an Assyrian script, as the words simply mean.

We have seen that many questions can be raised about the validity of our Torahs. However, Judaism, like any other serious thought system, is complex. While by necessity we were taught simplicites in our childhood, we need to sieze all available opportunities to broaden our perspectives and deepen our faiths. Rather than using questions as reasons to reject traditional Judaism, we must use them as opportunities for intellectual and religious growth.


Wednesday, September 10, 2014

God or Me: Who Comes First?

Victoria Osteen, wife of mega-church televangelist Joel Osteen made something of a rukus when she suggested that what God most wants is for people to do for themselves - as she put it:

"When we obey God, we're not doing it for God...we're doing it for ourself. Because God takes pleasure when we're happy. Do good 'cause God wants you to be happy. When you come to church, when you worship Him, you're not doing it for God, really. You're doing it for yourself because that's what makes God happy."

So would Jews agree with Victoria on this or not?  Though her wording contains the potential for some theological confusion I think that we indeed would.  It should be rather obvious that given our conception of Divinity as infinite there is pretty much nothing that we can do for the Almighty as He already "has it all."  Infinite plus one is still infinite.  As such, we're forced to conclude that all that God does in this world is solely for us.  If so, why does He want us to "obey" Him?  Because the best thing that He can give us is Himself (or rather access to or closeness to Him) - that's the source of the happiness He wants for us.  The way to get it is to "obey" Him - in our case by keeping the 613 commandments. 

But if this all seems a bit mercenary it might be because it's not really how we're supposed to approach it.  The Mishna tells us that we should "be like servants who serve the master not for the purpose of receiving a reward."  Seems reasonable.  It would be unimpressive and slimy for someone to listen to and attempt to please his father for the purpose of securing the family inheritance.  One would hope the son would do it due his love, respect and gratitude for his dad.  In a healthy and functional relationship that's how it would work and in all likelihood the thing that would most please the father would be for his son to be happy.  Having lived longer and possessing a broader perspective on life, the father will instruct the son in the most efficacious way to live a good and satisfying life.  The son will not always get why these suggestions are necessary but if he trusts and loves his father he will do them anyway and through his obedience to the will of his father he will nonetheless be doing the greatest good for himself.

Good job Mrs. Osteen.

Check out the whole thing here.     

Monday, August 25, 2014

The Gettysburg Hypothesis: What If Bible Critics had a Crack At the Text?

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Even the most casual reader cannot help but be struck by the unorthodox numbering system that the writer employs here.  One suspects that it was an anachronistic flourish added at a significantly later period and meant to emotionally connect the listener to the well-known folk origins of the nation - to a time in which this "primitive" system of counting was widespread. 

Most scholars now agree that the notion that "all men are created equal" is a relatively recent innovation and shows signs of editing in our text.  There is a well-intended desire to want to push back notions of equality to earlier and earlier epochs in the nation's history to assuage feelings of guilt at the true, rather unequal nature of the nation's founding.  The people who are apocryphally supposed to have penned this idea could not possibly have held such views in their day and a cursory survey of all of the extant literature of the time shows no trace of such egalitarian sentiments.  Are we to suppose that they were developed in a vacuum?  History conclusively shows that such concepts can only be developed over long periods of time and that the development can be clearly traced.  We may never know the true "proposition" that the writer references but it is of little consequence as the redactor's heavy hand has sealed the sentiment for posterity.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

The author never actually experienced the war but only heard oral accounts of it of course.  This is clear as stylistically, the piece is cobbled together from earlier and later periods as mentioned above. Many cultures have nostalgically claimed minor skirmishes as "great" wars whereby the war legends of multiple generations are rolled onto the back of these relatively inconsequential conflicts and recounted generationally - mostly for their moral instruction and entertainment value.

The author is depicted as being literally on a battle-field fraught with existential danger (not ideal conditions for composition one would think).  Here the text surprisingly shifts and the battlefield becomes a martyrs memorial. This shows evidence of competing traditions - one written at the height of pitched battle and the other long after its denouement.  Wishing to preserve both of these traditions, the editor references them both here.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate -- we can not consecrate -- we can not hallow -- this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.

Here the phantasmagorical notions of the people comes into play with the revelation that the battles of the "great wars" were fought both by the living and the dead - ostensibly raised from the netherworld to fight alongside their brethren of flesh and bone.  Such notions were common currency in many theologically rooted cultures.

We conclude our analysis by noting a unique instance of prophetic flourish.  The author predicts that the world will not even bother to note the actions of the people on the battlefield nor even the content of the document that the redactor has dedicated himself to.  Clearly, the author was not too accomplished of a prophet as here we are, years hence, pouring over the enduring literary achievement of this remarkable group of people.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Torah: A Radical Equality Manifesto

According to Dr. Rabbi Joshua Berman one need look no further than the Five Books of Moses to see the origins of many of our modern notions of equality.  He describes these ideas, ones that are wholly unlike what existed in the ancient world, as revolutionary - and they are.

Here are several examples that you can read about at length in his book Created Equal: How the Bible Broke with Ancient Political Thought:

Universal Private Ownership of Land

In ancient times land was held by the king or the priest.  The idea that an average citizen would also be a land owner would have struck most people as extremely odd.  As Rabbi Berman notes "land was owned by the king and by the temples, while the common folk worked as serfs or as slaves. But in the Torah, God – who officially owns the land – gives it over to the Israelites. Every common Israelite is a land owner (Leviticus 25), which means that every Israelite has a source of income – history's first example of universal private ownership of land by the citizens."

Debt Relief

The forgiving of debts in the ancient world was a political tool used by kings to triangulate against the rich - at once weakening them and increasing the king's popularity with the masses - which had the added benefit of keeping him safer.  Rabbi Berman notes that "debt cancellation of this sort is actually the original Greek meaning of our modern day English words amnesty and philanthropy. The Greek historian Plutarch writes that when the Spartan ruler Agis sought to impose debt relief, the measure was considered by his detractors as nothing more than a Robin-Hood scheme: "By offering to the poor the property of the rich, and by distribution of land and remission of debts, he [bought] a large bodyguard for himself, not many citizens for Sparta."  Contrasting that with the Torah's system he says "in the Torah, debt-cancellation is enacted automatically every seven years. No longer the political tool of a new monarch, debt relief in the Bible becomes the legislated right of the common citizen (Deuteronomy 15)."

History's First Redistributive Tax for a Social Purpose

In the ancient world taxes were levied for the purpose of supporting the political and priestly classes. The poor were, by and large, left to struggle on their own.  There was no concept of government assistance and certainly no attempt by the government to coerce the rich into supporting the poor.  In sharp contradistinction the Torah required an agricultural tithing system that mandated that successful farmers gift a portion of their crops to the needy (Deuteronomy 14).

Political Office

Rabbi Berman notes that "only with the American Founding Fathers do we eventually find a new notion of political office, in which a political office exists without reference to class, and which any citizen is eligible to hold."  Again, long ago, it was considered right and proper that the prosperous and "high born" were fit to rule.  The idea that a commoner could make decisions and rule over the wealthy would have been seen as an absurdity.  Nonetheless, "this revolutionary notion of political office has only one precursor: the Torah. Any citizen can be chosen to be a judge (Deuteronomy 16). In fact, the Torah doesn't speak about the process of choosing judges, other than that the people (the collective "you") must choose them from among themselves. That is even more significant when one considers that the monarch was beneath the law. The "elders" and "judges" we meet throughout the Bible—and later in the Mishnah—formed a veritable parliament for the people, of the people. In practice, many came from common homes and supported themselves with menial labor and crafts."

The Monarchy 

Amazingly, the Jewish people had no king or centralized government for longer than the United States has existed.  The Torah actually grants the authority to the people to decide if they want an king or not (and ends up criticizing them for choosing to have one).  Furthermore, the king need not be bred of noble stock and like David, can come from rather simple backgrounds.  Again, Rabbi Berman shows that "the Torah specifies that the people will have a king over them, only if they initiate the idea (Deuteronomy 17:14; cf. 1 Samuel 8). Until David was chosen as king, any citizen could have been chosen (Deuteronomy 17). Even afterwards, the hereditary rights were predicated upon the king finding favor in the eyes of God and the eyes of the people. This is the halachah (law) today as well: the future Davidic king will be deemed legitimate only if he is able to rally the people around him (Maimonides, Laws of Kings 11:4-5)."


There is debate as to exactly who first became literate in the ancient world...and when, but all agree it was in the vicinity of Israel/Canaan sometime around when we became a nation and began following the Torah.  Either way, the usage of an alphabet, as opposed to hieroglyphs or impressions on clay tablets, universalized writing and took it out of the hands of professional scribes.  Rabbi Berman writes that the Torah "is the first text in the ancient world to suggest that it be copied and disseminated to the masses (Exodus 24 and Deuteronomy 31). The Torah was unafraid of the Israelites achieving literacy, because it sought to create an ennobled and empowered citizenry."

The Value of Women

Ancient literature takes a fairly negative and short-sighted view of women.  One well-known quote from the Greek poet Palladas suggests that "Marriage brings a man only two happy days. The day he takes his bride to bed and the day he lays her in her grave." (Morton M. Hunt, The Natural History of Love, Alfred Knopf, 1959).  Very much unlike this pervasive attitude the Torah clearly cares for and values women.  Rabbi Berman concludes that "perhaps nowhere did the Torah revolutionize the standing of the common person, as it did with regard to the standing of women. In the narrative literature of the ancient Near East, we find that women fill only two roles: they either satisfy mens' desires, or they tempt them. It is in the Torah that we first encounter women like Sarah, Rebecca, Miriam and Yocheved who are noted for their industriousness, insight, courage, and spiritual acuity. For the first time in the history of western literature women are people too."

The Torah is not just another ancient document.  In many ways it was a radical departure from all known social and political thought of its day.  Its effects continue to reverberate in our culture today and much of what we think of as right and good comes directly (or indirectly) from the revolutionary ideas that it introduced to the world.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Conservatives, Liberals and Religion on "The View"

There was an interesting exchange between conservative political commentator S.E. Cupp and Whoopi Goldberg a few days ago on The View.  They were arguing over whether or not it's appropriate to suggest to someone that they should "pray over their food" or maybe just even having to see someone praying in public (it wasn't totally clear from the exchange).

If the former, I would certainly agree with Whoopi that it's pretty rude to randomly critique someone for not "praying over their food" and might suggest that people who do that (does this really happen a lot?) should probably mind their own business.  It's not likely these people will win anyone over by getting in their faces about it.  If someone really wanted to convince another to "pray over their food" - something that Judaism values - it would be significantly more effective to lead such an exemplary life that people will be compelled to wonder "what makes that person so fantastic?" "How can I be more like her?"  They will notice, as they get to know the "food praying person" that he or she has a remarkable relationship to and appreciation for food.  They may become curious and inquire about the practice.

Or maybe not.  But either way, religious people don't do themselves any favors by attempting to guilt people into behaving in ways that they deem fitting and I can't in fact think of a better way to ensure that the person they're trying to "help" will not do what they suggest and will leave the conversation with a bitter taste in their mouths.

Btw -  S.E. Cupp is a model atheist - open minded, non-adversarial and extremely accepting of the religious practice of others.

You can see the view of the whole exchange here.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Where's Waldo and the Teleological Argument

Dr. Ed Fesser has a fun analogy on his blog in the form of a "skeptic" and a "believer" arguing over the existence of the "Painter" of a Where's Waldo scene.  The skeptic says:

 “Painter?  Oh please, there’s no evidence of any painter!  I’ve been studying this canvas for years.  I’ve gone over every square inch.  I’ve studied each figure in detail -- facial expressions, posture, clothing, etc.  I’ve found plumbers, doctors, dancers, hot dog vendors, dogs, cats, birds, lamp posts, and all kinds of other things.  But I’ve never found this painter of yours anywhere in it.  No doubt you’ll tell me that I need to look again until I find him.  But really, how long do we have to keep looking without success until people like you finally admit that there just is no painter?”

And the believer retorts:

“I think you’re overlooking crucial evidence, Skeptic,” Believer says.  “I agree that you’re not going to find evidence of the painter on any cursory examination, or in most of the painting.  But consider that in the upper left corner, among the other figures, there’s a policeman leaning at about a ninety degree angle, yet whose facial expression gives no indication that he feels like he’s going to fall over.  Now it’s possible that he’s leaning on something -- a mailbox perhaps -- but that seems very unlikely given that we see no mailbox, and a mailbox would be too big for part of it not to be visibly sticking out from behind one of the other figures standing around.  No, I think that the best explanation is that there is an invisible figure standing next to the policeman, or at least an invisible force of some kind, which is operating at that spot to hold him up.  And an invisible cause like that is part of what we think the painter is supposed to be, no?  Also, you’ve said that you’ve gone over this painting square inch by square inch.  But we’ve got techniques now to study the painting at the level of the square centimeter or even the square millimeter.  Who knows what we’ll find there?  In fact it seems there are some really complicated patterns at that level and it doesn’t seem remotely probable that any of the figures we do see in the painting could have produced them.  But an invisible painter could have done so.  In fact the patterns we find at that level show a pretty high level of cleverness and artistic skill.  So, when we weigh all the evidence, I think there’s just a really strong case for the existence of a painter of some sort, in fact of a really skillful sort!”

This dialogue is meant to capture the modern debate between atheists like Richard Dawkins and Intelligent Design advocates like Steven Meyer - who is a modern day proponent of a classical line of argumentation for God's existence known as the Teleological Argument.  In a nut shell this argument notes that the world appears to exhibit evidence of design - a heart seems to essentially be a pump, a bacterial flagellum looks very much like an outboard motor and a liver functions very much like a filter.  Scientists like Meyer observe the remarkable machine-like qualities of the various organelles of the cell such as Ribosomes, Golgi an Mitochondria and the DNA molecule and conclude that given the age of the universe, there could not possibly have been sufficient time for natural processes to produce the level of functional information to make these things work.  Truth be told, this argument strikes me as very strong and very intuitively obvious.

Professor Fesser thinks it's all besides the point.  He sees the skeptic and the believer as butting heads over a red herring and that the real discussion should revolve solely around the "Painter."  As he says:

Skeptic’s and Believer’s shared conception of how to determine whether the painter exists is like the dispute over whether William Paley or ID theory provide sufficient “scientific evidence” for a “designer”; whereas the correct conception of how the painting points to the painter is like the conception of God’s relation to the world one finds in the cosmological argument rightly understood -- understood, that is, the way Aristotelian, neo-Platonic, and Thomist and other Scholastics understand it.  It is not a question of natural science -- which, given the methods that define it in the modern period, can in principle only ever get you from one part of the world to another part of it, and never outside the world -- but rather a question for metaphysics, which is not limited by its methods to the this-worldly.  (See the posts collected here for what’s wrong with “design inferences” as usually understood.  See the posts collected here for what the cosmological argument, rightly understood, has to say.)

To change the analogy slightly, it’s as if the New Atheist on the one hand and his “theistic pesonalist” and “design inference” opponents on the other are playing a pseudo-theological variant of Where’s Waldo? (also known as Where’s Wally?)  The New Atheist thinks that the problem is that too many people refuse to admit that Waldo is nowhere to be found in the picture.  The theistic personalist and the ID theorist think the problem is that the New Atheists refuse to see how strong is the evidence that Waldo is at such-and-such a place in the picture (hiding behind a bacterial flagellum, perhaps).  The classical theist knows that the real problem is that these guys are all wasting enormous amounts of time and energy playing Where’s Waldo instead of talking about God.

We hear in these debates about “open theism,” “process theism,”  “onto-theology,” “neo-theism” and so on.  Perhaps we need a new label for the essentially creaturely or anthropomorphic conception of deity that gets endlessly hashed over in pop apologetics and pop atheism while the true God -- the God of Athanasius and Augustine, Maimonides and Avicenna, Anselm and Aquinas -- gets ignored.  Call it “Wally-theism” or “Waldo-theology.”

Food for thought.  Read the whole thing  here.  


Thursday, July 31, 2014

8 Ways In Which Gaza is Not Like the Warsaw Ghetto

This is supposed to be a blog about theology - which is usually what's predominantly on my mind.  In the last few weeks (for obvious reasons) I've been rather distracted from that and as such have been thinking about other things.  I have seen way too many comparisons between Gaza and the Warsaw Ghetto for my liking - one that strikes me as particularly pernicious and wrong.  As such, here are the first 8 ways that came to my mind regarding the great dissimilarity of the two populations.

1.  The Warsaw Ghetto was designed to lock Jews in.  In October of 1940 the Germans ordered the Jews of Warsaw to build (at their own expense) a walled off and barb-wired section of the city.  Anyone attempting to leave could be shot on sight.  Gaza has no such features as Gazans regularly come to Israel for medical treatment. Israel never required them to live there and would not protest if a Gazan desired to emigrate. 

2.  The Jews of the Ghetto lived on a starvation diet.  The average daily amount of calories consumed in the ghetto was 184.  Consequently, many Jews, including many children, died of starvation.  Gaza, on the other hand, receives thousands of tons of food and medical supplies from Israel itself through the Kerem Shalom crossing - even in wartime.  No one is starving.

3.  The Warsaw Ghetto received no international aid.  The Jews of Warsaw were on their own - which is why most of them died.  Gaza, however, is the recipient of extremely generous amounts of money.  In 2013, the US alone allocated 440 million. Sadly, much of this assistance seems to have been used to buy rockets and build terror infrastructure. 

4.  The Warsaw Ghetto was ultimately a way station to the extermination camps.  An estimated 300,000 out of a total population of 400,000 were either gassed in Treblinka, died in the ghetto uprising or died of starvation.  While the Jews were actual victims of genocide, there is (quite obviously) no such plan for Gaza.  In fact, if the Israelis are attempting genocide on the Palestinian population they are doing a very poor job as their population has actually increased by 2 million in the last 20 years.

5.  The Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto had no state sponsor of weaponry.  They were able to fashion some simple incendiary devices and smuggled in some guns and bombs which they used to stage their well known uprising in 1943.  The Hamas rulers in Gaza receive thousands of short and long range rockets, automatic riffles, anti-tank rockets and mortars supplied by the Iranians.  Many of their fighters have undergone advanced military training.  In short, Gaza has a professional army - one that the Jews in Warsaw lacked.

6.  The Jews in the Ghetto had no diplomatic backing.  There was no UN or EU or Arab League to stand up for them and decry their inhumane treatment.  The Gazans have the ardent backing of each of these organizations and many others and are able to parlay world sympathies into leverage for more favorable cease-fire agreements, increased funding and as a tool to harm Israel's international standing.

7.  The Jews in Poland didn't do anything to the Germans or Poles.  Polish Jews had been quiet and productive members of Polish society for 1000 years.  Hamas, by contrast, was founded in 1987 for the express purpose of killing Jews as is stated in their charter in 12 places.  So whereas there was no logic to keeping the Jews separate from the Polish population, there is excellent reason for the Israelis to maintain strong and high fences between themselves and Hamas.

8.  When the Germans attacked the Ghetto, they systematically annihilated it block by block until nothing was left standing.  When the Israelis counter-attack Gaza they do it though an unprecedented series of warnings via leaflets, phone calls, text messages and the like.  So while the Germans did everything they could to raze every building, the IDF exerts the same type of effort to preserve them. 

In short, Gaza is nothing like the Warsaw Ghetto.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Is the Bible Literature?

A freelance designer named Adam Lewis Greene is getting a lot of attention for the publication of a new Bible that is meant to maximize readability - both in terms of its layout (which is free of all of the chapter and verse numbers, notes, etc) and its translation.  It's called Bibliotheca and you can check it out here.

Greene funded this project through Kickstarter and was surprised by the enthusiastic response - exceeding his number almost overnight.  When asked to explain the popularity of the project he mused that "readers are ready to enjoy the Bible as the great literary anthology that it is, rather than as a text book.  The idea for the Bible as story is moving and spreading rapidly."

I'm not sure why he seems to present the idea that the stories in the Bible are exciting and moving as novel. As far as I know, it's been called "the greatest story ever told" for quite some time.  He does mention biblical scholars such as Robert Alter as inspiration for this idea and I do agree that Alter has done a lot to help people appreciate the literary aspect of the Hebrew Bible but it the Bible actually a work of literature?

For starters, no one really knows what literature is.  In an essay called "What is Literature" Simon and Delyse Ryan explain that "the quest to discover a definition of 'literature' is a road that is much traveled though the point of arrival, if ever reached, is seldom satisfactory."  For instance, what are we to make of the many genealogical passages or the various censuses that are taken?  What of the extensive building instructions for the Tabernacle and its vessels or the many details regarding the laws of Kashrut or the proper performance of holiday ritual?  From the second half of the Book of Exodus on there is precious little story-telling going on.  True, Walden, despite its long lists of crops and supplies, is considered a work of literature as is Moby Dick with its arduous and lengthy exposition on the processing of whale blubber.  But just why are those stories included in Genesis and Exodus (and a few others scattered through the other books)?

There's a principle in Jewish thought called "derech eretz kodmin l'Torah" which translates as "proper behavior proceeds the Torah."  This means that before we can fully engage with the Law (the word Torah actually comes from the word "instructions") we need to learn to live in an ethical way - implying that the whole edifice of the Jewish way of life is predicated on first learning what it means to be a mensch and then getting the details of how to properly fulfill the opportunities presented by the ritual.  The purpose of the stories, therefore, is not to entertain or to chronicle the history of a people, but rather to teach that people how to conduct themselves.  The same is true for all of the works of the prophets of whom it is said that they "came only to rebuke" (the people).

So whereas I applaud Mr. Greene for a beautifully designed series and some clever thinking in terms of his content, I would humbly beg to differ regarding his characterization of the Torah as literature.  It's much more complex than that.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Israel Haters and the Art Of Lying

Two days ago I made the mistake of responding to an anti-Israel tweet written by Glen Greenwald - a NYT's best selling author with about 63,000 Twitter followers.  I was surprised that he quickly responded - with another unreasonable tweet, but considerably more surprised by the hours long torrent of unhinged, antisemitic vitriol that landed in my Twitter notification box after that.  Here's a small sampling of what was said:

"Rabbi, one day will come we will come from Pakistan to kill your generation."

"you are a liar. Beaches and UN schools. Hospitals. Israel is targeting civilians. No weapons found."

"The reason u can justify this is because u r not a man of God, u have no soul. A disgrace to real Jews"

"U are ethnically cleansing Palestine!"

"Sorry to say this but You are no different than the Terrorists."

"No believes the thoroughly discredited shtick that "Israel kills innocent civilians by accident."

These individuals are lairs, or they have swallowed lies hook line and sinker and either lack the ability or willingness to see straight anymore.  They have had lies hammered into their heads for so long by the other side - one that is so brazen, so wholly audacious about the lies it tells - that it has managed to fully invert the truth so that good is now seen as evil and horrible, cruel and malicious depravity is seen as a reasonable response to the "crimes" of the Jews.

Hamas and their ilk are truly consummate, pathological deceivers.  If they were Pinocchio their collective schnoz would extend around the sun and back.  They would lie about the time of day.  They would happily lie to their grandmother's face if it helped "the cause."  They probably lie to themselves in order to justify their sick, repulsive and cruel barbarity.

So, sadly for anyone who values life, truth, justice or any value of the civilized world, they have managed to cause - among other things - people to believe that Israel (ie: the Jews) is guilty of:

Ethnic Cleansing

There is a cruel irony in this one in that the only people who the Jews actually did ethnically cleanse from Gaza were...Jews - uprooting each and every one of them (8,000) in 2005.  No credit of any sort is given for this intensely painful concession and strangely, despite Gaza being Judenrein for nine years, Jews are still saddled with the charge of:


Despite the fact that Palestine was solely the name of a geographic region and one given by the Romans specifically in order to distance the Jews from the ancestral homeland and despite the fact that there has never existed a Palestinian government or leader that governed or even controlled that area, we are routinely led to believe that this people has been peacefully dwelling there for thousands of years - until the arrival of cynical, displaced Jews from Europe who stole and usurped that aboriginal people's rightful ownership.  This one sticks like Crazy Glue.  Despite the fact that there has always been a Jewish presence there, despite many cubic tons of archaeological evidence linking our presence there to three millennium ago, despite the fact that the land was largely uninhabited swamp land and sand until the Jews began reclaiming it in the 19th Century, despite our being "given" the land by the UN in 1948 and subsequently defended (and expanded) in various defensive wars we are told time and again that it is not ours and that our very presence there is a crime.


Astounding.  The only people on this planet that have actually been the victims of a true genocide (a plan set in motion to eradicate an entire innocent nation) are now accused of perpetrating one.  Never-mind that the numbers don't come remotely close to other groups who commit "megadeath" - who kill huge numbers of people such as the Hutu's, or the Syrians or the Cambodians or the Turks, never-mind that it is abundantly obvious that the Israelis don't want to kill anyone and do everything in their power to prevent it and wring their hands over each and every death - amazingly, they are sold and the new Nazi's - a comparison so odious, so vile and so nauseating as to leave one recoiled and sputtering in shock.  And yet there it is - sold and bought by millions the world over.

It's a sad time for the Jews and for the world though I take some solace in knowing that it is our light and goodness that so incenses these people.  When pure evil points its hand and accuses others of wrong-doing, there is no better indication of the great meritoriousness of the accused.  Evil is coming for us - and no other.

"You know friends, sometimes it makes me sad, but sometimes it makes me happy; Israel has no friends in the world.  The Holy Land, the Holy People of Israel are all alone.  But you know what we have?  We have one Friend in Heaven - Yisrael B'tach BaHaShem!"

- Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach