Friday, July 30, 2010

Are Jews a Race?

[Reinhard Heydrich. A Jewish nose?]

I'm wondering if there is any physical or mental characteristic which distinguishes Jews, even Jews whose families have been Jewish as far back as anyone can remember, from gentiles.

The answer is apparently, no.

In other words, if a forensic anthropologist were to autopsy a recently deceased person and he chose to run every DNA test and examine every organ and bone, I don't believe he would be able to answer the question "Is this a Jew or a gentile". DNA can merely indicate if some of someone's ancestors were probably Jews. The famous Jewish nose seems to be a poor criteria as well.

Mentally, there is the Jewish high IQ, or "Yiddishe kopf", however obviously there is a very wide range of intelligence among Jews and gentiles even if the average may be higher among Jews of Central European origin. Being smart in and of itself surely does not prove Jewishness.

So in any case, the "Jewish race" is simply a myth, probably originating with anti-Semites. (The expression "jüdischen Rasse" was used by Hitler, and not in a positive way.)

So what does make a Jew a Jew? As an Orthodox Jew, I would say it is the possession of a very elevated, very holy soul which a person aquires by either converting to Judaism or by having inherited it through matrilineal descent from someone else who converted. The event at Mount Sinai was a mass conversion. (See Way of God by Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto 2:4 for more details.)

From the point of view of an atheist, however, since he does not believe that he has a soul, and he does not believe in the Jewish religion, there is in fact no difference between himself and any other atheist. Therefore expressions like "Jewish atheist" or "Jewish skeptic" are really nonsensical. The Jewish atheist or agnostic or secular humanist should logically drop the "Jewish" label since he does not believe that he differs in any way from anyone else. Some of his ancestors practiced Judaism, that's all. Some of my ancestors were Catholic, however I hardly would introduce myself as a "Catholic Jew".

Friday, July 23, 2010

Apocalypse Soon?

[New Orleans, Louisiana August 29, 2005. A taste of more to come?]

I'm currently reading a book called "The Flooded Earth" by Peter D. Ward, professor of biology at Washington University in Seattle. The book makes predictions concerning global warming and it's affects on mankind.

Personally, I always take predictions with a little skepticism. According to Yogi Berra "It's tough to make predictions, especially about the future."

However the data concerning global warming seems to be very compelling.

The whole problem began in Britain about 1790. Steam engines became more advanced and these were powered by coal. Thus began the Industrial Revolution.

The Industrial Revolution is the basis for all the wealth of modern society. In pre-industrial times, life was hard, painful and short for most people, as it still is for example in rural Africa today. When we think of all the miracles and advances of science, we are generally referring to the Industrial Revolution and all it's byproducts, such as good health care, plentiful food (grown with modern fertilizer and machinery), etc. Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, the earth's population has increased about nine fold. Average life expectancy has more than doubled. Without the Industrial Revolution, I would be writing with a quill pen on parchment by dim candlelight, if I knew how to write at all. Children often had to work the fields rather than go to school, and no money was available to pay a teacher. The chance of mankind reverting to a pre-Industrial way of life is of course nil. Bear in mind that the Industrial Revolution is still continuing full swing in China and India, which at this moment are building endless new factories, power plants, cars, etc. Industrialization is only rapidly accelerating, in spite of all the good intentions of Al Gore and others. The treaties to stop climate change are all just so much hot air. (No pun intended!) No one is voluntarily going back to 1750 and there is no cheap, clean substitute for coal.

The only small problem with the Industrial Revolution is that it may kill most of mankind off. We may consider the Industrial Revolution to be a sort of global thermonuclear war in very slow motion.

Here's why.

The burning of coal, along with gasoline and natural gas, which became commonly used for fuel after 1908 and 1950 respectively, creates carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide is a "greenhouse gas" which tends to make the earth warmer. As the earth becomes warmer, the Arctic and Antarctic ice will melt. Coastal areas will experience more frequent flooding and finally will become submerged. (Hurricane Katrina was a preview.) Many of the world's coastal areas are heavily populated urban or agricultural zones. Tropical and temperate regions will suffer more frequent drought and crop failures. Malnutrition and disease will become more widespread.

This is more or less comparable to the effects of a total global thermonuclear war, the main difference being that this disaster will happen over several centuries instead of over a few months. It's ironic that in the long term all the alleged wonders and miracles of science may do more harm than good.

What's interesting about this is that according to Jewish eschatology, this world will last only 6000 years and the Messiah must arrive before that (Talmud Sanhedrin 97a at the bottom of the page). The year 6000 of the Jewish calendar corresponds to the Christian year 2240. Furthermore, the Talmud predicts a great deal of suffering before the advent of the Messiah, "R. Johanan said: When thou seest a generation overwhelmed by many troubles as by a river, await him, as it is written, when the enemy shall come in like a flood, the Spirit of the Lord shall lift up a standard against him;(Isaiah 59:19) which is followed by, And the Redeemer shall come to Zion. (Isaiah 59:20)" (Talmud Sanhedrin 98a)

However the Talmud also states there "R. Eleazar's disciples asked him: 'What must a man do to be spared the pangs of the Messiah?' [He answered,] 'Let him engage in [Torah] study and benevolence'."

So drive a Toyota Prius if you like. I do, by the way. However Torah study and helping others, not environmentalism, is our only possible hope.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Pedophilia and the Talmud

[cover from Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov]

Some people claim that Orthodox Judaism permits adult men to have sex with little girls. Actually, this is true. In fact, the Shulchan Aruch Even Ha’ezer section 37 is entitled “All the Laws of Betrothing a Little Girl”. However, certain stringent conditions must be met before this union is condoned by Talmudic law.

First of all, the couple must be married. There must be a legally binding, publicly committed, long term relationship between the man and the girl. Offering her candy and driving away with her is not allowed.

Second of all, her father must consent to the union and participate in the betrothal ceremony.

Thirdly, a man is not allowed to have sex with his wife without her consent, as is mentioned in the Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim section 240:3.

Considering this, how frequent are sexual relations between adult Orthodox Jewish men and little girls, with the blessings of the rabbis? Not very. I know of no Jewish bride in modern times who was under 17. In ancient times, my impression is that typically brides were 12 while the grooms were 18. In fact, the Talmud Tractate Kiddushin 41a states “It is prohibited for a father to betroth his daughter in marriage until she matures and declares that she wishes to marry the groom.” Tosafos however does qualify that by saying that in a situation of extreme poverty and economic uncertainty, as was the case for Jews in medieval France, a man may marry off his small daughter if he is afraid that later he will not have the financial means to do so and she will therefore remain a lifelong spinster.

In conclusion, based upon the available documentation, a sexual relationship between an adult man and a little girl, with the consent of the rabbis, seems to have been a rarity which was permitted in some unusual, emergency situations in medieval Europe. Today it is unimaginable.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Our Brave New World

It's interesting to note how certain things which we now take for granted are actually very new, at least in the United States.

Searching the archives of the New York Times:

The New York Times first mentioned a homosexual residing in New York City in 1944.

The New York Times first used the phrase "genital herpes" in 1969.

The New York Times first used the word "pedophile" in 1974.

The New York Times first used the phrase "serial killer" in 1981.

The New York Times first mentioned the HIV virus in 1986.

It would seem that along with, or perhaps because of, all the sexual liberation and freedom of recent decades, America has also developed a very dangerous, secretive subculture of perversion, disease and death which was entirely unknown only a few decades ago.

How fortunate we Orthodox Jews are to still be almost completely free of this decay, and how fervently we must recite each day the blessing "Blessed are You who has not made me a gentile" (Tosefta Berakhot 6). In the midst of a growing putrid swamp, we are a small, beautiful garden preserved by our Torah .

Thursday, July 15, 2010

The Codependent Family

[Watch a family trying to detach.]

One thing which I have noticed is how many people who have chosen to convert from Orthodox Judaism to atheism continue to be supported financially and emotionally by relatives who are still Orthodox.

This is somewhat surprising, considering that Judaism teaches an absolute hatred of the enemies of God, as it states in Psalms 139:21-22 “Do not I hate them, O LORD, that hate Thee? And do not I strive with those that rise up against Thee? I hate them with utmost hatred; I count them mine enemies.” See Chofetz Chaim 8:5 where they are defined as those people who deny the divine origin of the Pentateuch, the legal portion of the Talmud or any part of them. These people actually hate the idea of a Higher Power who is telling them to do things and who will reward or punish them accordingly. Therefore we pray constantly for the heretic's complete destruction. When he dies, his relatives celebrate his death (Yoreh De'ah , 345, 5) . He may not read from the Torah in the synagogue or lead communal prayers. If he pours wine, a Jew may not drink it.

Some people may apologize for these apostates by claiming that they are merely ignorant or misguided however they have no bad intentions.

I think this depends on the circumstances.

Let's consider for a moment Holocaust denial as an analogy to Torah denial.

Let's say someone tells me that he believes that the Holocaust is a hoax fabricated by the Zionists. Now if this person were raised in Iran and educated from childhood by this parents and teachers to believe this and he had little opportunity to learn anything else, in that case I would say that he may be a good man who has simply been misled by his society. However, if he was born and raised in America, then I would say that there is no excuse for his false beliefs and he is clearly a Jew hater. Nothing else could cause this delusion.

By the same token, if someone raised in a secular home tells me that he does not believe in God and the Torah, I would say that he may be a good man who has simply been misled by his society. However, if he was born and raised in an Orthodox family, then I would say that there is no excuse for his false beliefs and he is clearly a God hater. Nothing else could cause this delusion.

The families who continue to support relatives whom they know, or strongly suspect, of being heretics, I believe are exhibiting classic codependent and enabling behaviors which are so often seen in the families of substance abusers. They are exacerbating the problem and are making themselves part of it. Bear in mind, that generally the heretic does in fact have real addiction problems, such as sexual addiction.

A more appropriate and truly merciful response would be complete detachment from the apostate.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Of Course, It's All About Science

In this video clip Penn Jillette, magician and militant atheist, describes the process by which one Hasidic Jew converted to atheism, beginning from the 8:30 point in the clip. The Jew was in a strip club and had paid a stripper to dance for him. The Jew and the stripper then somehow began discussing atheism and evolution and through this he became an atheist.

Just imagine the lengths this man went to - he went out of the comfort of his home all the way to a strip club, paid a stripper for her time, discussed with her, I guess while she was nude, the existence of God and the development of life. Strippers are well known for their philosophical insights. Perhaps she sat on his lap to demonstrate her sympathy with his spiritual quest. Considering that they were able to hear each other talk and hold a lengthy conversation, I assume our heroic Hasid rented a private room to consult with the stripper. Did he have a few shots of whiskey? I don't know but it's entirely possible. And through this intense intellectual experience he discovered the truth about the universe and left his family and community. That is a man I can truly admire. Let's hope he left her a nice tip.

And I used to think Jews converting to atheism had something to do with sexual addiction! I am so sorry! My bad. I really got that wrong!

The "Firmament" - Is It a Problem for Judaism?

[the expanse of the heavens - or is it firmament?]

In Genesis 1, there are a number of references to the "firmament". Some people assume that this means a "solid dome" and indicates that the author of Genesis understood that the earth was a flat disk and sky was a solid dome sitting on it. This would of course imply that the author of Genesis was ignorant of basic science and therefore obviously not divine. Some Orthodox Jewish converts to atheism have even cited this as being the primary proof of atheism.

Frankly, I don't think this argument is very convincing. Nowhere in the Hebrew Bible is the earth ever explicitly described as a flat disk with a solid dome covering it, even though this was apparently the belief of the ancient Babylonians and Egyptians. The word "firmament" is a translation of the Hebrew word רָקִיעַ which simply means "something spread out". The best English translation may be "expanse", which is used for example by the New American Standard Bible.

In essence, there would appear to be Jews apostatizing because of a poor translation of one word in Genesis 1.

As an aside, it's interesting to note that in the Hebrew Bible, רָקִיעַ is almost never used except in two places: Genesis 1 and Ezekiel 1. The Talmudic sages singled out these two chapters of the Hebrew Bible, known as Ma'aseh Bereshit and Ma'aseh Merkabah, as being filled with mystical meanings and therefore their study was strictly limited. In light of this, I don't believe that we may jump to any conclusions about the exact meaning of one ambiguous word. The full meanings of these extremely profound passages has been lost to us today. I think we simply don't know precisely what the רָקִיעַ is.

Sunday, July 04, 2010

The Incredible Knee

The knees are a marvel of engineering. They are the largest and most complex joints in the human body.

We usually take the knee joints for granted, however without them our legs would be almost useless logs. Walking, running, sitting down and so on would be impossible without the knees.

The knee is essentially made up of four bones. The femur, which is the large bone in your thigh, attaches by ligaments and a capsule to your tibia. Just below and next to the tibia is the fibula, which runs parallel to the tibia. The patella, or what we call the knee cap, rides on the knee joint as the knee bends.

When the knee moves, it does not just bend and straighten, or, as it is medically termed, flex and extend. There is also a slight rotational component in this motion. This component was recognized only within the last 50 years. The knee muscles which go across the knee joint are the quadriceps and the hamstrings. The quadriceps muscles are on the front of the knee, and the hamstrings are on the back of the knee. The ligaments are equally important in the knee joint because they hold the joint together. In review, the bones support the knee and provide the rigid structure of the joint, the muscles move the joint, and the ligaments stabilize the joint.

The knee joint also has a structure made of cartilage, which is called the meniscus or meniscal cartilage. The meniscus is a C-shaped piece of tissue which fits into the joint between the tibia and the femur. It helps to protect the joint and allows the bones to slide freely on each other. There are also bursae around the knee joint. A bursa is a little fluid sac that helps the muscles and tendons slide freely as the knee moves.

As an avid runner (about 20 miles per week), I'm very conscious of the need to care for the knees and not to over strain them. With sensible and proper care, the knee joints should give a lifetime of faithful service.

Unfortunately, in some cases the knees become badly damaged, usually by some form of arthritis. Obesity is an important risk factor. Starting about 40 years ago, doctors began having some success replacing the knee with an artificial joint made of plastic, ceramic and metal. A knee replacement costs about $35,000. The artificial knee may last up to 20 years. However it has limitations; running for example is not recommended. The less the artificial joint is used, the longer it will last. No matter how great modern technology is, it cannot replace the complexity of the natural knee joint. The replacement is not a normal knee.

Those of us who still have healthy, functioning knees should be filled with gratitude and love for our Creator and each morning fervently recite the prayer "Blessed is He who makes firm the steps of man" (Talmud Tractate Berakoth 60b)