Thursday, June 29, 2006

Godol Hador and the Babelfish

The angst-ridden GH has been trying to find the proof that G-d doesn't exist. I did the dirty work for him:

"Now it is such a bizarrely improbable coincidence that anything so mindboggingly useful could have evolved purely by chance that some thinkers have chosen to see it as the final and clinching proof of the non-existence of God. "
The argument goes something like this: 'I refuse to prove that I exist,' says God, 'for proof denies faith, and without faith I am nothing.'
"'But,' says Man, 'The Babel fish is a dead giveaway, isn't it? It could not have evolved by chance. It proves you exist, and so therefore, by your own arguments, you don't. QED.'
"'Oh dear,' says God, 'I hadn't thought of that,' and promptly vanished in a puff of logic.

Actually, the poor guy has taken to capitalize Faith and Reason, and so reading his posts is starting to feel like I'm reading the Romance of the Rose, or the Pilgrim's Progress. Instead of science fiction, maybe his next posts should be in the form of Medieval Allegories. Faith and Reason can battle, while Love and Pride watch on.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Life during wartime - part I

The invading army crossing the Potomac River (June 2006)

The destruction of Skokie, IL (June 2006)

Army volunteers in Lincoln, Nebraska (July 2006)

Civil Defense in Elizabeth, New Jersey (July 2006)

Woman carrying dead daughter after air raid (December 2006)

Executed Civilians. Kansas. (Nov 2006)

Hanged Civilian. Ohio. (Dec 2006)

Tortured children. Pontiac, Michigan. (Jan 2007)


We Real Cool


We real cool. We
Left school. We

Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We

Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We

Jazz June. We
Die soon.

-- Gwendolyn Brooks

Friday, June 23, 2006

I only drink to make other people interesting (Oscar Wilde)

Actually, I probably should have a drink.

It appears that my office building is about 1300 feet from the Sears Tower. So if it were brought down, it would have to pretty much fall in a straight line for it to crash into my building...

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Freedom to speak

First an old joke:

An American and a Soviet meet. The American says, "You Soviets aren't free. I can stand outside the White House and scream 'Ronald Reagan is an idiot!' and nothing will happen to me." The Soviet replies - "We are just as free as you are. I can stand in front of the Kremlin and scream 'Ronald Reagan is an idiot!' and nothing will happen to me"

And now for something serious. In the j-blogosphere, being a reflection of real life, it is getting harder and harder to question and explore certain ideas which are deemed "politically incorrect" especially wrt Jews. This is not a new thing, but it really bothers me. Examples include the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Holocaust, "Jews behaving badly", etc...

I am not naive. I understand the motivations for this pressure, and frankly I don't deny that many of the reasons for this are valid. So I don't really have a good solution for this, except it feels wrong to me.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Secret Identities

Two blogs that I read off and on have recently de-anonymized themselves. One is Annabel Lee, who after much angst seems to have found her beshert - Mazel Tov!

The other blog is ADDeRabbi, whose Torah often inspires me.

As for myself, I may have a few posts in the works that will probably make anonymity useful for some time :)

Help, the Black Helicopt...

I sat next to a guy from my shul on the train yesterday, who told me matter of factly that the world is run by the Council for Foreign Relations. They control the president, and set policy all over the world. They put Rabin in power, and then they were responsible for his assasination. Amir was shooting blanks.

He used an interesting deductive reasoning. "If I can figure this out based on the limited information that I have, of course all the important people are aware of this. They just want to keep it from the unsuspecting public"

Where do I go with this? The funniest thing is that the CFR figures prominently in many conspiracy theories about the One World Government, the New World Order, etc... Of course, usually it is also tied in with the Jewish conspiracy to run the world.

The scary part of this whole thought process, is that it is very convincing when you hear it. It is just like reading the Da Vinci code. Facts, half-truths and lies all mingled together to make a convincing story.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Shomer Negia Whale Crackers

Socrates on Marriage

An interesting discussion on nature of homosexuality going on here. I am still noodling some of the points in my head. Meanwhile, here's a thought:

By all means marry; if you get a good wife, you'll be happy. If you get a bad one, you'll become a philosopher.

- Socrates

Monday, June 19, 2006

Da Vinci - Not impressed

Well, I finally caved in and read the book. I was not impressed. I read "Angels and Demons" first and thought it was better. This seems like a rehash of that book. I guess I was pretty pissed off at the way things are presented as fact. In reality, most of the statements he represents as facts are half truths, or statements taken out of context, etc... Council of Nicea - a good example. The main thrust of the council was not to dispute the divinity of Jesus, but rather the type of divinity, especially his relationship to the Father. This duplicity when calling things facts was noted previously by another (now semi-retired) blogger.

I was particularly disappointed by the part of the book where **MINOR SPOILER** they find a parchment with some writing on it, and the Harvard symbologist, who was just told how everything is centered around Leonardo da Vinci, doesn't recognize the famous mirror text which Leonardo was famous for. Instead, he thinks it is a Semitic language, perhaps Rashi script (???!) or STA''M with crowns (!#?!??!^%). You have to be kidding me. I won't even get into the description of the library computers...

Overall, I thought the book was pretty good in terms of action, but pretty weak on scholarship and fairly hyped and sensationalist. Sorry to once again be contrarian.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Learning from Sagwa

Godol Hador watches a lot of Zoboomafoo, but in my house we also watch Sagwa, the story of a family of cats living in China.

The other day I was sitting in the room when the show was on, and I caught a bit of dialog from the cartoon. Basically, someone was saying that no matter how much you change, you cannot change the basis of who you are. That your true, original "nature" will always remain deep inside you. I guess the reason that I paid attention to this is because this is also how my parents think. To them, it is impossible to change one's nature (which makes for some frustrating conversations in my house: "Mom, stop feeding 5 pounds of fruit to the kids! - I can't stop, it is my nature!"

In general, this seems to be the difference between the Old World attitude, and the typical American attitude of - any change is possible as long as you're willing to try hard enough. And, I guess, I fall in somewhere in between. I do believe that to a certain extent change is possible, but at some point you hit against the limits, there are some basic parts of you that you cannot change.

Friday, June 16, 2006

The prayers of a lecher

Just found out that this guy, a religious man, who davens at a Chabad synagogue, has been coming on to one of my wife's friends, a married woman with three children.

Other than being disgusted, I am also thinking what this guy talks to G-d about when he davens three times a day?

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Always forgive your enemies...

nothing annoys them so much.

-Oscar Wilde

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

t'fillah interruptus

About a year ago, I was going into work late, and so that morning I davened at home. Suddenly, the door to the bedroom swung open and the two Polish cleaning girls walked into the room. When they saw me wrapped in a tallis with tefillin on my head and arm, they looked at me as if I was a warlock or something. They ran out of the room and from that point on, should they run into me, would stay clear of me as best as they could.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Three lousy miracles

One of my favorite SNLs ever:

Jane Curtin: Millions of Americans are celebrating St. Patrick's day today, and here with a comment is our good friend Father Guido Sarducci. Father Sarducci?

Father Guido Sarducci: [ smoking cigarette ] Thank-a you, thank-a you. Most-a people are very aware that-a Saint Patrick is-a the patron Saint of-a Ireland. He lived around-a the year 400, 500, right in-a there. Most people-a know him because-a they think that he chased-a the snakes from-a Ireland. But actually, that's not-a the truth. Really, he didn't-a chase them, he kind of-a led them. He was-a kind like a pied piper for snakes. I don't know, it was-a just something about him that snakes liked-a to follow him around, you know. And-a you may think-a that snakes go very fast and they do if they're just going short distances. But, like-a, when they're on a long journey, they go very, very slowly. And-a Saint Patrick, he had-a to walk-a very, very slow, and all of the snakes followed him, and then he tricked them. He went into the ocean, and they all followed him, and he went way, way out, and he waited till they all drowned, and then heswam back in. That's-a what he did.

You see, he was a good-a saint. But he wasn't a great-a saint. Like-a Saint Joseph, the patron saint of Italy. He's a great-a saint and not just a good-a saint. You know, Saint Joseph's named day is-a coming up-March 19th, only two days away. But-a, there won't-a be no parades, no parties, not even a song for Saint-a Joseph. And-a the reason is-a because of-a Saint Patrick. You know, it's just like having a birthday two days after Christmas-you just don't get-a the same attention, you know. And it just-a breaks my heart that he was a great-a saint, and this good, mediocre saint gets all-a the glory.

You know, you don't have-a a patron saint for the United States, but there are some American saints. Just the last couple of years they made-a some. The first was-a about-a two years ago. Her name was-a Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton. Mother Seton-is-a what they call her. And she's got-a these nuns of her own order who lobby-they're real heavy-they came to Rome and everything. And it's amazing, you see. To be made a saint in-a the catholic church, you have to have-a four miracles. That's-a the rules, you know. It's-a always been that-a. Four miracles, and-a to prove it. Well, this-a Mother Seton-now they could only prove-a three miracles. But the Pope-he just waved the fourth one. He just waved it! And do you know why? It's-a because she was American. It's all-a politics. We got-a some Italian-a people, they got-a forty, fifty, sixty miracles to their name. They can't-a get in just cause they say there's already too many Italian saints, and this woman comes along with-a three lousy miracles. I understand that-a two of them was-a card tricks. Next thing you know, they're gonna be making Kreskin a saint. Saint Kreskin-they'll probably call him. It's a good one.

Well, I'm-a very happy to announce that-a next time you see me, I'm-a gonna be monsegnior. That's right. I was-a promoted. (audience applauds) Thank-a you, yes, thank-a you. Actually it's not until next week that-a they sign-a the papers, but nothing can-a stop me now, and I'm-a real excited getting the new costume, everything, you know. When you're monsegnior, you get to have a nice-a red stripe, (points to his right sleeve) and they say that-a nothing brings out the good veal in Italian restaurants than that-a red stripe, you know. I'm-a really looking forward to it. I just wish I was-a feeling better. Last night I got-a this-a tattoo (scratches left sleeve) and it's-a really been itching me. I have a little fever, and-a I hope I feel better by the ceremonies.

Well, it was-a more than-a wonderful spending a couple of moments with you. Bill, you can-a take it-a back-a please.

Bill Murray: Thank you, Father Guido Sarducci.

Friday, June 09, 2006

"The story behind Akdamus", the River Sambatyon, and the martyrdom of Saint-Denis

A few days ago I posted about the difficulty in accepting what seems to be unnecessary accretions to the central dogmas of Judaism.

In the comments to the post, several people pointed out that one need not believe all this to be literal in order to remain a Ortho-Jew in good standing. While I agree with this position, my point was more that while technically true, am I in a precarious minority in the Orthodox community, and if so, how does that affect me socially (and I don't mean will I be invited over for Shabbos)? I may not be a heretic, but who wants to live in a community where everyone thinks what you believe is somehow deficient, or borderline heretical. Will my children be indoctrinated to believe things I don't want them to believe. This isn't an epistemological question, it is an interpersonal, social one.

Shoshana commented that a rabbi once told her to "believe with skepticism" in this situation. Boy, that is the money quote for today!

Also, coming back to the idea of the slippery slope. I am not just dealing with Midrashim here. There is all the aggadatha in the Talmud(s), but also the various stories that have come down through the centuries. Someone once said, "Amnesia is not a Jewish disease". We keep adding to our compendium of the miraculous and we never take away. We layer new myths on top of old and anchor our old myths to the fundamentals of our faith, in some bizarre perversion of the Kuzari principle.

As it often happens, I manage to stumble across another blog dealing with the same type of issue. Someone's son comes back from yeshiva with an incredible "story behind Akdamus", involving sorcerers, the magical river Sambatyon, a faceoff between an ancient man from beyond the river and the evil Christian sorcerer. The son wants to know if it is true. The father is stumped.

One of the issues that further complicates this for me is the fact that it puts the whole comparative religion thing onto a whole new level. I'd like to think that as the keepers of the "True Faith" we Jews would be immune to the need to "prove" it to everyone by miracle story one-upsmanship. I think that by making up stories, we lose this distinction. We invent a mythology that frankly isn't different from other faiths and cultures; oftentimes we appear to be borrowing from them.

Just for grins, here is a great story from the 13th century compendium called the Golden Legend. (I steal most of this stuff from Wikipedia btw, so feel free to look there for more info)

Saint Silvester exorcizing a dragon:

In this time it happed that there was at Rome a dragon in a pit, which every day slew with his breath more than three hundred men. Then came the bishops of the idols unto the emperor and said unto him: O thou most holy emperor, sith the time that thou hast received christian faith the dragon which is in yonder fosse or pit slayeth every day with his breath more than three hundred men. Then sent the emperor for S. Silvester and asked counsel of him of this matter. S. Silvester answered that by the might of God he promised to make him cease of his hurt and blessure of this people. Then S Silvester put himself to prayer, and S. Peter appeared to him and said: "Go surely to the dragon and the two priests that be with thee take in thy company, and when thou shalt come to him thou shalt say to him in this manner: Our Lord Jesu Christ which was born of the Virgin Mary, crucified, buried and arose, and now sitteth on the right side of the Father, this is he that shall come to deem and judge the living and the dead, I commend thee Sathanas that thou abide him in this place till he come. Then thou shalt bind his mouth with a thread, and seal it with thy seal , wherein is the imprint of the cross. Then thou and the two priests shall come to me whole and safe, and such bread as I shall make ready for you ye shall eat."
Or how about the story of Saint Denis who after being beheaded, walked for several miles holding his head and preaching a sermon.

Or perhaps if you're tired of Christian miracles, how about a Muslim one:

One night, Muhammad, accompanied by the angel Gabriel, flew on the back of a winged, horse-like creature to Jerusalem to visit the temple that was built by King Solomon (who, by the way, is also considered to be one of the prophets). At the Temple, Muhammad prayed with Abraham, Moses and Jesus. Muhammad was then carried up to heaven by Gabriel, where Muhammad met God. Because of this trip, Moslems consider Jerusalem to be the third most holy city, after Mecca and Medina
Finding additional amazing miracle stories of diverse cultures and faiths is left as an exercise to the reader.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Escape from Metatron

For the uninitiated, the figure to the left is Metatron's cube. Who, you may ask is Metatron? Why he is a mysterious angel who figures prominently in Rabbinic writings. According to the Talmud, the famous heretic Elisha ben Abuya saw Metatron sitting down in Paradise and mistook him for a second G-d. He has a twin brother, the angel Sandalphon, who the Talmud says was so tall that his head reached heaven.

Why am I writing about angels? Because I am having a small crisis of faith. No, it is not doubting the existence of G-d. It is about the slippery slope of accepting more and more beliefs that don't really seem like a core part of Judaism, but seem like part and parcel of the Orthodox Judaism package.

I go to a "centrist" Modern Orthodox shul. Periodically, we get guest rabbis from the Kollel who give a Shabbos d'var Torah. Whenever they allude to a midrash, they always qualify it with the phrase, "Of course every midrash is literally true." Now, I don't know when people in the audience hear this what goes through their heads. Do they basically say, "Whatever, Rabbi! It is allegorical." Or do they actually think that the letters of the alphabet spoke to G-d, that the moon was jealous of the sun, that a giant frog plagued Egypt. (DovBear has some thoughts on this)

I started down this particular descent down the slippery slope after reading DBS' post on Megillah Ruth, where he mentioned the midrash of R'Meir praying at the Acher's grave. Reading about R'Meir, I discovered that he is descended from the Roman emperor Nero. Did you know Nero actually converted to Judaism after some miraculous signs with shooting arrows at Jerusalem and having a posuk explained to him by a young Jewish Torah student. Yes, the same Nero that had (alleged) sex with his mother, castrated his gay lover whom he dressed in women's clothes, burned down Rome, and then commited suicide. Funny, how his conversion went unnoticed.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. I wonder if anyone has ever catalogued all the miraculous events that are described in Rabbinic literature. They must have had a miracle happening every couple of hours.

People will tell you that you don't need to believe all this stuff is literal to be a good Orthodox Jew, but when I look around it seems like the people who are Orthodox in more than name only either truly believe this stuff literally, are really good fakers, or can compartamentalize better than Bill Clinton.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006


I was at my kid's school this morning for a ceremony, and of course they ended it with singing ha-Tikvah.

I have heard quite a few national anthems in my life (I used to watch the Olympics religiously), but I don't think I have ever heard one as unique and beautiful as this. For one thing, unlike many anthems, which glorify violence, struggle and superiority, ours is focused on hope. And the music reflects the sentiment of the words. It is not brassy, pompous, self-aggrandizing - it is plaintive, a little melancholy, the song of a people that have suffered way too long, but have not given up hope.

As long as deep in the heart,
The soul of a Jew yearns,
And forward to the East
To Zion, an eye looks
Our hope will not be lost,
The hope of two thousand years,
To be a free nation in our land,
The land of Zion and Jerusalem.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Talking Turkey

One of the things that sometimes baffles me is how isolated the US is from world culture. A good example of this is a quaint little character known as Hodja Nasreddin. His mis-adventures, witticisms and quips are beloved all over the world, from Europe to Africa to China. However, he is virtually unknown in the US. So I thought I would give y'all a little taste of Turkish humor:

One day Hodja Nasreddin was walking through the town when he saw a large crowd surrounding a well. Inside, he could see a man struggling to stay above water. Everyone was crowding around the well, screaming "Give me your hand! Give me your hand!" but the man stubbornly refused their offers and continued his futile struggle.

Hodja Nasreddin walked up to the man and stretching out his hand said "Effendi, please take my hand!" The man immediately grasped his hand and was pulled out of the well. Hodja Nasreddin then said to the crowd, "Don't you know that this man is a tax collector? He is much more practiced in taking than giving."

G-d: To infinity and beyoooond!

A recent post on Orthoprax's blog had the following comment by B.Spinoza:

At 11:57 AM, B. Spinoza said... >"Do you believe God is absolutely infinite?"

>I don't know what that means.

it means God has no limits. God is not limited by time and space or anything else. If the physical world has a separate existence from God then you would be saying that God has a limit i.e. God ends where time/space begins.

I don't know if I am being overly nerdypedantic, but the concept of infinity has never meant unlimited by time, space, or anything else. In mathematics, there is an infinite number of points on a number line segment between 0 and 1. It is infinity bounded. A line is infinite in two directions, but also bounded. A ray is infinite in one direction and bound in the other.

Maybe I am being too precise, but I think we need to be when we discuss important philosophical concepts.

Props to Jewschool

for a really funny article. Almost as funny as Kirk Douglas speaking at his Bar Mitzvah at age 83:

"I always fasted on Yom Kippur. I still worked in movies but I fasted. And let me tell you, it's not easy making love to Ava Gardner on an empty stomach."