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Monday, February 25, 2008

Equality Before the Law

Haaretz today tells the story of Natasha Erdman.

Briefly, this 32-year-old scientist postponed her military service when she was 18 to acquire a BSc (in the IDF's "atuda" programme). Upon graduation from the Technion, she applied and received a scholarship from Northwestern University in the US. The army refused to postpone her service further, so she made a false request to visit a relative in the US, and never came back. She is now, according to the article, a successful and "desirable" PhD in her field. Now she wants to come back to Israel, to be near her parents, and is asking the army to promise she won't be sent to jail (she's still considered a deserter).

Erdman decided to pursue her personal professional goals and abuse the agreement she had with the army. She did so knowingly - after all, she had to apply to Northwestern - and as an adult (she was about 22 years old at the time). Fair enough, that was her choice. But now that it's no longer convenient for her elderly parents to come visit her in the US, she's asking the army to forgive her and not pay the price for her decision.

Erdman has some chutzpah but that is not surprising. This is not the first case of somebody spitting into the well that one day he or she might need to drink from. What really annoys me is the tone of Haaretz. Not a newspaper to miss a chance to laud the principle of equality before the law, this article smacks of sympathy towards Erdman and contempt towards the IDF's position. Why should Erdman be above the law? Shame on Haaretz for so easily shedding its highbrowed principles to support a pseudo-liberal and annoyingly self-serving cause.

Monday, February 18, 2008

The Dumbing of America

American author Susan Jacoby wrote an excellent article that appeared in yesterday's issue of The Washington Post. Bottom line: "Americans are in serious intellectual trouble". She quotes three main reasons for this trouble: the decline in reading (taken over by the "video culture"); the erosion of general knowledge; and the fact that many Americans are actually proud of their ignorance (a form of "anti-rationalism").

Not that we needed Ms. Jacoby to know this about America, but she did a good job summarising the pain points. Perhaps Obama, Clinton and McCain will start their promised era of "change" by devoting some attention to the dumbing of their constituents?

Which reminds me. My wife is worried about Obama's lead in the Democratic primaries. I told her I'm not so worried, as I believe that in a McCain-Obama face-off, the difference between the candidates will be so blatantly obvious that Americans will surely be smart enough to make the right choice. Now, after having read Jacoby, perhaps I should be more worried...

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Barack "Small Shore" Obama

We've all heard about Barack Obama. But did you hear about Obama, Japan?

One line in the article caught my eye:

"At first we were more low-key as Hillary Clinton looked to be ahead, but now we see he is getting more popular," Obama Mayor Toshio Murakami said.

In this short sentence lies evidence of a typical Japanese trait: going with the winner. The Japanese respect power (as the events of August 6, 1945 have shown) and will in most cases partner with the winner. Moral and ethical considerations, let alone political ones, take second place to making sure the strong guy in the neighbourhood is on "our side". I believe this is the main reason behind Japan's gradual rapprochement with China: to make sure the Land of the Rising Sun stays close to the emerging regional (and potentially global) superpower.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Extreme Ironing

Confession: I like to iron. I don't do it very often, but when I do engage in it, I find it exercises a kind of calm on me that comes, I guess, from going through the same dull motions over and over again.

So I was glad to come across an article in Reshimot about an activity unbeknown to me, called Extreme Ironing. Apparently, this "sport" is quite popular in some circles. Not surprisingly, the Japanese are avid practitioners and have achieved some rather spectacular feats - see here.

I will never see ironing the same way. And I will certainly never again refer to it as a dull activity.

Constantine's Sword, by James Carroll

Contantine the Great was the Roman emperor that embraced Christianity in the 4th century and gave this religion the necessary means to propagate itself throughout the Roman Empire and become, over time, the world's largest religion. The story goes, that on the eve of the crucial Milvian Bridge battle of Rome in 312, Constantine saw a vision of a cross in the night sky with the words In Hoc Signo Vinces ("with this sign you shall win") across it. He pledged that if he would be victorious, he would embrace Christianity. Thus, "Constantine's Sword" became a symbol of the power of the cross combined with the sword, the power of the Christian Church.

James Carroll used to be a Catholic priest, and nowadays he's a writer-historian with a mission in life: to reform the Catholic Church. For Carroll, the fundamental flaw and central issue in the church's thinking since its inception, the "defining sin" if you like, is the church's attitude towards Jews. In this book, Carroll describes almost 2,000 years of how the church thought, preached and acted towards Jews. It is an extended version of J'accuse, an indicting statement against the Catholic chruch through the ages. What Carroll tries to show is that an alternative path could have been chosen by the church's leaders at various points in this bloody and murderous journey, a path that would have defined the Christian-Jewish debate in completely different terms.

Carroll strips traditional Christian beliefs apart, showing how they were formed and why they are flawed. He does so by starting the obvious: Jesus lived and died as Jew, wanting to renew and reform his fellow Jews. It was only much later, within the context of the debate between his followers and the Jewish majority and in response to the persecution by the Roman emperors, that the concept of the "other" was formed and a line separating the two religions began to form. He does so also by unravelling the political and economic factors hiding behind the church's leaders' so-called theological decisions through the ages: from Constantine's "conversion of convenience", through the murder and explusion of Jews for "religious reasons", culminating the in unholy pact between Pope Pius XII and Hitler shortly after the latter came to power.

This book is, strictly speaking, not a history book. Many would undoubtedly argue, and with justice, that Carroll is not an historian and his use of secondary (and selective) sources to prove his point of view is not rigorously academic. But I don't think that was his intent. This is very much a personal story, of how Carroll fell in love with the Catholic Church, how he became a priest, why he decided to remove his habit, his journeys through Europe and his ideas about chruch reform. This combination of historical facts with a personal story is very powerful. Although it does become a little too personal for my likeing when he tells us about his erotic attraction to his pious mother, who took him to see the seamless robe of Jesus in Trier.

I read this book during and after a course I took about Jews and Christians in medieval times. It was a good companion to the course and helped me frame many historical events in their proper context. It is not an easy book to read (not least because of its length) but it's a must read for anyone wanting to understand the core values that drove, and to a certain extent are still driving, the attitude of the Catholic church towards Jews.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Is Google a Deity?

Religion is a serious thing. And so seem to be the people behind the newest of religions: The Church of Google. They composed nine "proofs" that Google is god (a "she" god, no less). I liked the following one:

Google answers prayers. One can pray to Google by doing a search for whatever question or problem is plaguing them. As an example, you can quickly find information on alternative cancer treatments, ways to improve your health, new and innovative medical discoveries and generally anything that resembles a typical prayer. Ask Google and She will show you the way, but showing you is all She can do, for you must help yourself from that point on.

I guess having Google as a religion is less harmful than many other kinds of religions floating around...

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Save Israel, Drink Pepsi

I always knew that Jews control the world. But I never imagined the extent of our control. Now, thanks to Iranian TV, the truth is out there.

Think about it, next time you buy a Pepsi.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Mishpatim - Helping the Donkey

כי תראה חמור שנאך רבץ תחת משאו, וחדלת מעזב לו, עזב תעזב עמו

(שמות כ"ג, ה')

Mishpatim is a parasha fraught with commandments that encompass all walks of life and deal with some of the most complicated issues concerning commercial and fiduciary laws. But the parasha also deals with simple and seemingly mundane issues, such as helping someone's donkey:

"If you see the donkey of someone who hates you lying under its burden, and you refrain from assisting him, you shall repeatedly help with him"

What does the Torah mean by "and you refrain from assisting him"? If you must "repeatedly help him", then why would you refrain from doing so? Rashi says this is actually a rhetorical question: "would you refrain from assisting him? Of course not! You shall repeatedly help with him". (Although, halachically speaking, there are situations where one is indeed exempt from helping, and Rashi brings such an example).

The 16th century commentator Kli Yakar (R. Shlomo Efraim of Luntchitz) offers a different explanation. The first part says "and you refrain from assisting HIM", using the word lo (him) in Hebrew. But the concluding statement says "and you shall repeatedly help WITH HIM", using the word imo (with him) in Hebrew. The Torah changes pronoun from lo to imo to teach us that the owner of the donkey is not allowed to sit there waiting for another Jew to come along, and say: "unload my donkey, as this is your mitzvah!". In such circumstances, one is not obligated to help HIM. But if the donkey owner is willing to roll up his sleeves as well, only then is one obligated to help WITH HIM.

The Kli Yakar makes a profound sociological statement. If a person is able-bodied and capable but does nothing to help himself, then he cannot come to the community and ask for charity and help. All of us are familiar with people who expect the community to help them even if they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to help themselves first.

This is a shrewd interpretation by the Kli Yakar, but the fact remains that the context of this mitzvah is to help even if the donkey belongs to someone who hates us. To understand the full meaning of this help, here is a short story told about R. Israel Salanter, head of the mussar movement.

R. Israel was travelling on a train to Vilna. He was seated in a smoking compartment, enjoying a cigar, when a young passenger approached him and started yelling about the smoke. Although it was his right to smoke, R. Israel immediately put out the cigar and opened the window to let the smoke out. The same fellow shouted again at the rabbi, telling him to shut the window as it was now getting too cold.

Upon arriving in Vilna, the young man noticed the hundreds of people waiting to greet R. Israel and realised who the elderly passenger was. He started crying, begging R. Israel for forgiveness. R. Israel forgave him and asked him what he was looking for in Vilna. The youngster replied that he was looking for a job as a shochet (ritual slaughterer) but needed first a recommendation from a local rabbi. R. Israel referred him to his son-in-law for a letter of recommendation, but the man's knowledge was so poor he failed the test. So R. Israel found tutors to teach the man and prepare him for the test. Several weeks later, the man passed the test and R. Israel helped in again to find a job in Vilna.

The man came to R. Israel and asked him: I understand that you forgave me for my rudeness on the train, but why did you help me out so much, sending me to your son-in-law, finding tutors and helping me get a job? R. Israel reponsded: anyone can say "I forgive you", but I felt that the only way to really forgive you was to get to like you. And to get to like you, I had to help you, as the key to becoming someone's friend is to give from yourself. I wanted my forgiveness to be sincere, not merely lip service, so I had to go out of my way to help you.

And this is what the Torah commands us. We naturally feel like refraining from assisting our enemy with his donkey. But we need to overcome our natural inclincation, help him, and thus turn an enemy into a friend.