Monday, May 21, 2007

Shane's Wish

I don't know if anyone is even reading this blog anymore, but just in case, here's something you might be interested in doing - MAJORLY TIME SENSITIVE!

Shane Bernier is a courageous seven-year-old boy from Lancaster, Ontario who was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia when he was only five. On June 6th, 2006 Shane and his family received some unfortunate news: Shane experienced a relapse after completing 108 of 130 weeks of treatment. However, despite the bad news, Shane has managed to keep a positive outlook on his situation and has made a heart-warming wish... He hasn’t asked for money or toys or anything of the sort. Instead, his birthday is on May 30th and he would like to break the world record for the most birthday cards ever received. His goal is 350 million cards. With every card, Shane’s courage grows. Something as simple as sending a birthday card could be enough to help Shane find peace and joy in his current circumstances. Please take the time to send a card to Shane and make his dream become a reality. Share his story with your friends, family and co-workers. If at all possible, get your youth groups, church congregations, employees, neighbours or communities to set aside a few minutes to write a thoughtful note to Shane. With every card, Shane’s smile grows...

If you’d like to send a card to Shane, please send it to:

Shane Bernier
PO Box 484
Lancaster, Ontario
K0C 1N0

Check out this website:

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Very Tough Moral Dilemma

It's clearly the end of an era and the beginning of a new one. Ariel Sharon, if he survives, will never hold political office again, barring a miraculous recovery. (If anyone anti-Sharon is reading this, please understand that I am using the word 'miraculous' in the literal sense - ie, that it would take a miracle for him to recover fully to the level to be able to run for political office again - not the optimistic sense - ie, that it would be wonderful and miraculous if he could make it back to power. I am attempting to leave politics completely out of this conversation.)

But the question has presented itself to me: How do we treat Sharon's illness on a religious/spiritual/Jewish level?

If we love Ariel Sharon, we must obviously pray for his full, "miraculous" recovery, and that he chooses to ignore what will almost certainly be his doctors' most urgent order, to retire for his own health's sake. If, however, we oppose Sharon, as a prime minister, as a politician, and/or even as a person, we are faced with a dilemma.

I do not know the answer, but here are the factors that must be considered:

1. He is a human being with a family, and one who spent his life trying, at least in his own mind, to serve Israel and the Jewish people as best as he can.

2. He is a Jew. Jews have always prayed for one another. We have a saying from Pirqei Avoth: "Kol Yisrael 'Arevim Zeh LaZeh" - "All of Israel is responsible for one another." (Israel is this case, of course, refers not to the State but to Jews as a nation). This statement has been understood throughout the millennia to mean so many things, including one another's physical survival, welfare, health, financial well-being, and even religious/spiritual well-being.

3. He has been involved in political scandals. He may have muscled his way to power and abused power. He and his family have been accused of criminal conspiracies.

4. His policies may be damaging to Jews and the Jewish state.

5. He is a symbol of Jewish strength and political and military success.

This is where the dilemma comes in.

At what point do we draw the line and pray for someone whom we hold to be damaging to the Jews? Do we say that he deserves this as punishment for his actions? Do we assume that if he lives he will have no influence over policy, and that therefore we can be comfortable with his survival (assuming we disagree with those policies)? Do we say that we pray for any and all human beings, no matter how much we may disagree with them?

My feelings may appear to have come out a bit in this post, but I have tried to stay neutral. I believe I have succeeded. I played both sides, and I noted where assumptions on one side or another would be necessary. Obviously the dilemma is slightly more pronounced on one side than the other. I hope I didn't offend anybody. This post was inspired by some conversations I had with others, in which many different opinions came out, and I tried to represent all of those opinions fairly here.

Monday, October 31, 2005

Death Penalty in Judaism

I recently submitted a comment to a widely read macro-blog, which is more of an online think-tank for Orthodox Jewish intellectuals. The original post to which I was commenting can be found here.

They have very high standards and review all comments to decide whether or not to publish them, so I don't know if I'll make the cut. Even though it has nothing to do with being from outside of New York, the issue raised by the other blog, and which is fundamentally similar to the story I submitted, is an issue of philosophy, with which I'm sure many Jews with modern sensibilities and Western thinking have to wrestle, so I'm posting it here (with style and grammar editing - I submitted it at about 2am).

"I understand your feelings of confusion, and I commiserate with you regarding the difficulties in reconciling Torah and Halachic rulings that conflict with personal inclinations. My example, which I took up with [a high profile rabbi and philosophical thinker with broad influence], is the application of the death penalty in Halachah. As I see it, Middah KeNegged Middah (measure for a measure) dictates that there must be a direct correlation between the guilty party's crime and his deserving of death. It is my feeling that the reason he deserves such a punishment is due to a forfeiture of the sinner/criminal's Tzelem Elokim (image of G-d, with which every person is endowed). In killing someone else, or kidnapping, enslaving, and selling another human being, he has robbed his victim of his Tzelem Elokim. In denying HaShem, either by committing 'Avodah Zarah (idolatry), Chillul Shabbas (desecration of the Sabbath, the symbol of our belief in HaShem's existence and role in the world) or various other capital sins, he has forfeited his Tzelem Elokim.

"In this way there seems to be a consistent pattern, which helps me to understand why there can be a death penalty at all, and how it can apply to other sins/crimes that don't seem quite as severe as murder or idolatry - cursing one's parents, for example, or the right to kill a Ba BeMachteres (an intruder).

"My question, however, was (and still is) why rape, a dehumanizing violation of another person's physical and spiritual essence, which utterly destroys its victim's sense of worth and humanity, carries no such punishment. In my view, a death penalty for such a crime fits very well within a system that values, and severely punishes the rejection of, not only HaShem's supremacy and dominion over the world, but also man's Divine nature and connection to HaShem.

"[The rabbi] unfortunately did not give a very satisfactory (or very memorable) answer that I can report to you here. The gist of his answer was that my underlying presumption was incorrect. But I recall being unsatisfied with his answer, and I don't remember if he offered an alternative reason for a death penalty that would encompass such a varied set of crimes. As such, this still weighs on my mind, and I thank you for giving me yet another puzzle to contemplate (although on some level I do like the explanation you were given)."

In retrospect, perhaps I should have mentioned the following facts in my original comment: The question I had asked the prominent rabbi was one that I had thought about for several years on my own, and I only had the opportunity to ask of the prominent rabbi while walking him back from a lecture he had given; I really put him on the spot by asking him that heavy of a question when he was in such a hurry; he did take a few minutes to think about it and tried to give me an answer, but I left unsatisfied; he told me that I could come to his office to discuss it further with him at another time, but I never did get that chance.

Monday, August 22, 2005

The Soul of Judaism?

Read this article (click on the heading of this post). It's an Op-Ed piece from today's Jerusalem Post online edition. In it the author, Nathan Lopes Cardozo, dean of the David Cardozo Academy in Jerusalem, argues that in Israel today there is a deep void in the fabric of Israeli society, which presents itself as a lack of sprituality, when in fact, according to Cardozo, there is a lack of Menchlichkeit, or manners, and proper treatment of one's fellow Jew. He goes further than I would (he states that there are too many Yeshivot, for example), but he makes some very good points about the direction in which Israel is headed.

But isn't all of this true here as well? Isn't it true everywhere? Is it just Israelis who are reaching for some sense of spirituality, something that is intangible, yet Hollywood makes us think is easy to obtain by following their simple steps toward self-fulfillment? In his book, Twersky on Spirituality, Rabbi Abraham J. Twersky, M.D., defines sprituality as humanity - the state of being a person. Thinking, feeling, working, having a goal. Animals lack the ability to deny their own physical needs, hence they are not free to choose. Man, who can supress his desires based on morals or ethics, without any fear of retribution or punishment, is uniquely free, and this is what makes him human. All things that are uniquely human make up the human spirit, and therefore humanity is spirituality.

All mankind looks for some form of personal fulfillment, and, in doing so, we tend to trample on one other's humanity/spirituality (yes, sometimes inadvertently). What we need to focus on is not so much our own selfish needs, like animals, for giving in to our desires is the opposite of spirituality. We need to focus on the needs of our society as a whole, by ensuring that we take care of each other's needs one at a time.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Comic Relief

Oy, as hard as everything involving the Disengagement has been on everyone involved and tens of thousands (more?) around the world who have been focusing on it so closely lately, it's sometimes nice to have some comic relief.

I found the following article posted this evening on a fairly strange blog, which I had never seen before, and I found it very interesting. Unfortunately I was unable to find the actual, original article, supposedly disseminated by the Associated Press, after several Google searches. But I did find a press release about the same topic on the website of the organization mentioned.

Here's the "article" as I found it:

Animal rights group awaits permission to enter Gaza to save strays
By The Associated Press

An Animal rights group is trying to rescue dogs and cats left behind by settlers being evacuated in the Gaza Strip.

Hakol Chai (Everything Lives) is awaiting permission to bring in a mobile veterinary clinic replete with cages, traps and trained staff.

"Cats and dogs left behind by departing settlers have no ability to survive under the extreme conditions that will exist during and after the disengagement," said Merav Barlev, the group's director. "Without our help, when all that remains is dust and ruins, those who escape the massive bulldozers will die of hunger, thirst, and injuries."

Art and the Metric System

Sometimes, I hear a snatch of a song a couple of times, and it recurringly pops up in my head months later, often triggered by a word or tone that sounds like something in the song. So it is with some songs by various contemporary Israeli artists. I don't listen to them regularly (though I'd like to start buying some of their work one of these days), but I occasionally hear them played at a Yom Ha'atzma'ut party, in someone's car, or on Internet radio.

Recently, my cranial DJ has been periodically spinning a theme from what Google tells me is an Achinoam Nini (aka Noa) song. It goes:
(Transliteration of Hebrew): baMEEliMETter shebeiNEE l'veinCHA
(Translation): In the millimeter between me and you

Now, it's occurred to me that this line could never work in an American song. In the US, a word like "millimeter" has overtones of scientific specialization, and there's no equivalently tiny measurement in the common parlance. "Sixteenth of an inch"? Too difficult to fit in a song, and anyway, makes it sound like a carpenter's singing. We just don't have an occupationally unladen way to express such a small distance.

An additional exploitation of the Metric System comes in a variant of this theme at the beginning of one of the verses:
baKEEloMETter shebeiNEE l'veinCHA
In the kilometer between me and you
This works well in Hebrew because "millimeter" and "kilometer" are pronounced therein in a way that lets them fit into the same, ah, meter. In addition, because mm and km share a basic unit, the contrast between the two variants of the line is stronger than if "inch" and "mile" were in their place.

So, interestingly (to me, at least), a particular artistic idea -- in this case one that achieved a great deal of popularity -- was enabled only because of a country's choice of standard measurement system. You don't normally expect decisions of the National Institute of Standards and Technology, for example, to impact the art world, but there it is.

Actually, the affect on art is indicative of a more general affect on what thoughts are available to people. The use of the Metric System by the general public allows everyone to conceptualize many different scales, from milli- to mega- (and beyond), and to understand intuitively how they relate to each other.

Ironically, the effect here is the opposite of what you might expect after reading George Orwell. The Newspeak he invented for Nineteen Eighty-Four would have approved heartily of the Metric System, since it uses one basic word per concept and forces all related words into modifications of that word (e.g. "doubleplusungood" instead of "horrible"). However, the intent of this feature of Newspeak was to limit the kinds of thoughts people can think, while, as I've demonstrated, the Metric System actually enabled an artistic expression that the more varied vocabulary of inches, feet, and miles hampers.

** Cross-posted from Mosi

Monday, August 15, 2005

Purpose of This Blog

I just realized this morning that I have to accept the fact that New York is currently, and will remain for the foreseeable future, the hub of the worldwide Jewish community, at least in the eyes of most Americans. Even though Israel has the largest concentration of Jews in the world, and is predicted to surpass the US in Jewish population by next year, your typical American Jew still thinks that NY is the New Jerusalem (a title formerly held by Berlin). There is also a belief among most New Yorkers, Jewish and non-Jewish, that New York is the center of America, and among many Americans that America is the center of the world (hence, to New Yorkers, NY is the center of the world). Therefore, especially to NY Jews, NY is the center of the Jewish world.

It is because of this belief that NY Jews tend to refer to all other Jews as "out of towners". This is true even when they are not in NY. When I was in Israel for the year to study in Yeshiva, a NYer in my Yeshiva brazenly referred to non-Americans in this predominantly Israeli Yeshiva, located in Israel, as "foreigners" and to non-New Yorkers as "out of towners". This is not new and it will not end soon. The "Jblogosphere" is also dominated by NY Jews and American 'Olim. This is slightly different from the rest of the Jewish world, in the sense that Israel gets more or less an equal voice to the New Yorkers', and there are in a sense two equal halves of the "Jblogosphere". But I am sad to say that we, the non-New Yorkers, who are stuck in Shmutz LaAretz, have to struggle for our voice. We sometimes have a different perspective on issues facing Jews and Judaism than the NY Jews or the American 'Olim. That is why this blog was started. It should have been started much earlier, but I guess this is a case of "better late than never".

Below are some stats I found on Jewish population this morning (I'm not sure how accurate they are - the WJC numbers at the bottom seem awfully high to me, but those numbers are from nearly a decade ago, so who knows?):

US population = 6,155,000 jews, acc. to; 5.2 million acc. to UJC in 2001
NY = 1.4 million jews (UJC)

WJC 1998:
US 5.8 million
Israel 4.847 million
France .6 mil
Russia .55 mil
Ukraine .4 mil
Canada .36 mil
UK .3 mil

City populations (WJC 1998):
NY 1.75 mil
Miami 535,000
LA 490,000
Paris 350,000