Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Intelligent Design

The Middle District of Pennsylvania has rendered its opinion in the Intelligent Design case, Kitzmiller v. Dover School District. For those who have been living under a rock this year: the case challenged the constitutionality of a local school board's decision requiring science teachers to read a brief statement about the theory of "Intelligent Design" (or "ID" for short) before teaching evolution.

I confess, before reading the opinion, I was a bit surprised by the outcome. What I had heard about ID seemed to indicate that it was a reasonable middle ground, supported by a small minority of scientists, and based on my own knowledge of constitutional law (I am a law librarian with a law degree) I thought it could have passed constitutional muster. However, after reading the opinion, it appears that that a borderline scientific theory has been hijacked by people with an agenda that cannot pass constitutional muster.

Let me preface this discussion by saying that I have no theological committment to Intelligent Design, and I have no objection to the idea of studying evolution. The Creator, if He is so inclined, is perfectly capable of designing a universe in which his involvement is completely transparent. If He chose to do so, no proof could be found, so there is no need to try to find any. As to evolution: whether it is truly the means by which life on Earth came about is largely irrelevant, but if the Divine created the world with the appearance that it works this way, then we can undoubtedly learn valuable lessons by studying the pattern he put in place.

What is Intelligent Design?

I first heard about ID while watching a morning news show. A scientist explained the theory with an analogy: if you look at Mount Rushmore, even if you've never heard of it before, you can tell that somebody created it. You may not know who or how or when, but the complexity of it suggests that there was an intelligence behind it. Those faces on the mountainside didn't get there by themselves! There is nothing irrational or unscientific about this conclusion. ID likewise looks at the complexity of life on the planet, including the complex interactions of interdependent species, and concludes that random mutation and natural selection are not sufficient to explain what we see. The complexity suggests an intelligence behind it.

Of course, when we are talking about an intelligence that designed life on this planet, we're talking about something outside of the scope of life on this planet. It does not, however, necessarily mean the One Judeo-Christian G-d. It definitely does not necessarily mean that the universe was created in 7 days some 6,000 years ago. The designer could be gods the Greco-Roman pantheon. It could be aliens. It could have occurred 1500 years ago or 15 billion years ago. Intelligent Design does not give answers to these questions. As I understood it, ID is not a complete alternative theory of the creation of life on Earth or in the universe; it is at most a footnote on the theory of evolution that says, random mutation and natural selection alone are not the end of the story.

There are legitimate scientists -- not merely religious fanatics -- who would agree with this understanding, and who have been quoted as saying these sorts of things. They are, admittedly, a small minority, but when did that ever become a reason to ban teaching something?

Under my understanding of ID, somewhere in the course of teaching evolution, the teacher would inject a statement along these lines:

A small minority of scientists believe that Darwin's theory of evolution through random mutation and natural selection is not sufficient to explain the complexity and complex interactions we find in nature. These scientists believe that there may be an intelligent designer involved in the process.

This could perhaps be followed up with an example or two of the kinds of complexity that these minority scientists believe cannot be sufficiently explained by Darwin.

What was wrong in the Dover School District?

The concepts I explained above are apparently not what was taught in Dover. The school, driven by an evangelical Christian agenda to put G-d back in the classroom, had the teachers read a statement that basically said, "The law requires us to teach evolution and to test you on it, so that's what we're going to teach, but there's another theory that explains the origins of the universe, and you can read the book Of Pandas and People to find out about it."

I confess, I have never read Of Pandas and People, but the court's opinion in Kitzmiller indicates that it is nothing more than thinly-veiled "creation science," a theory promoted by evangelical Christians some 20 years ago that used scientific terminology to claim that the literal words of the Bible were objectively provable scientific fact. The teaching of "creation science" was found to be an unconstitutional establishment of religion in Edwards v. Arkansas, 482 U.S. 578 (1987). The Kitzmiller court indicates that Of Pandas and People was originally written as a "creation science" text, but after the Supreme Court's decision in Edwards, it was edited to substitute the words "Intelligent Design" for words like "creation," "creationism" and "creation science."

The court also emphasized the contrived dualism of Dover's intelligent design proponents, characteristic of their creation-science predecessors. They set up the idea that there are two complete and independent theories: Evolution and Creation. If there is the slightest flaw found in the Theory of Evolution, then in their minds this proves Creation beyond any doubt. The logical flaw in this premise is obvious: they assume that the two possibilities are mutually exclusive and mutually exhaustive, but they are not. In the theory of ID as I originally understood it, the two theories interact -- not mutually exclusive, but supplemental. And of course, there is always the possibility that some other theory not yet developed could explain any limitations in the Theory of Evolution, so they are not mutually exhaustive.

Of course, the setting up of a duality with a straw man is a typical evangelical Christian tactic. I have had many interactions with fundamentalist Christians who insist that they can prove that Jesus is the messiah because "either he was messiah or he was a complete lunatic." Of course, there are many other possibilities: he could have been honestly mistaken; his followers who wrote about him could have been honestly mistaken; etc., etc. etc. But they set up this false duality like a magician setting up a force in a card trick: they give you two choices, and the one that disagrees with their position is debunked. The same trick is apparently going on in Of Pandas and People.

What does Judaism have to say about ID/Creationism?

In this as in many other things, there is a wide range of opinions. My impression is that the non-Orthodox are not bound by biblical literalism, and accept evolution without qualm or question. But even within Orthodoxy, there are many who have no problem with Evolution. Rambam, a medieval Jewish scholar and physician, believed that science was a way of better understanding the Divine, and that any conflicts between science and the Bible arise from either a lack of scientific knowledge or a defective understanding of the Bible.

There are many within the Orthodox movements who believe that the Bible is literally true, but cannot be proved and must be accepted on simple faith. According to this point of view, the universe was created in a way that appeared older to allow mankind the free will to choose whether to believe. After all, how could you choose whether to believe if carbon dating proved that nothing on the planet was more than 5800 years old and the fossil record showed that all species were complete in their current form over the span of seven days? Contrary evidence must exist to give people the choice what to believe. Creation Science/Intelligent Design would be irrelevant for them, because these theories claim to prove something that should be taken on faith.

Many within Orthodoxy, however, take a harmonization approach, believing that the Bible is the word of G-d, but it was written in language that could be understood by the simple desert nomads it was originally written for and is not necessarily literal. It is indeed often striking how well the biblical text metaphorically expresses scientific discoveries: I remember reading about astronomers viewing the "Big Bang" and describing what they saw as "energy separating from matter" ... now where have I heard that before? Genesis Chapter 1 speaks of creation beginning with light separating from darkness. Light is energy; matter is dark. The order of creation is also much in line with what the Bible would suggest, albeit not the timing.

On the Orthodox educational website, you will find several articles on the age of the universe and on evolution. I list a few below, which seem to take a middle road.

Articles from

Monday, October 03, 2005

L'Shanah Tovah!

Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, starts at sunset tonight!

Wishing all of my readers a happy and "sweet" new year in 5766!

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Hurricane Katrina: Morality in Hell

Please note: I am not a rabbi and am not certified in any way to make decisions about Jewish law. This article is intended solely as food for thought. It is based on what I was taught, supported by my review of the relevant passages in the Talmud.

Thou shalt not murder...
Thou shalt not steal...
Thou shalt not covet...

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, as the social order in New Orleans crumbled, many intellectuals contemplated their navels in their cozy living rooms and debated the morality of the behavior we see on our TV screens. Most agreed that ethical constraints need to be adapted to the situation, though some took a hard-line approach and maintained that rules are rules.

It is worth noting that Jewish law addressed these issues long ago, not from the safety and security of ivory towers, but from a desperate real-world situation where oppressors routinely ordered Jews to violate Jewish law or suffer death. The Talmud takes a practical approach to the situation that is quite close to what most people's "gut instinct" looking at the New Orleans situation dictates.

Judaism teaches that human life is of incalculable value, and to save a human life (either our own or someone else's), almost any law may be transgressed. Almost all of the 613 rules that gentiles think of as the be-all-and-end-all of Judaism are secondary to the value of human life. The only laws that cannot be violated to save a human life are murder, incest/adultery and idolatry.

As I understand it (and as I said, I'm not a rabbi), Jewish law would say that a person who finds himself in a life-and-death situation like New Orleans is permitted to steal food, water, clothing or tools needed to survive (yes, it's still stealing, even when it's permitted), as long as he does not take them from somebody else who also needs these things to survive (that would be tantamount to murder). It is permitted to take goods from a store or home whose owner has left for higher ground or who – G-d forbid – is already dead. Before you judge the morality of such things, consider the morality of a store or homeowner who, having found safety before the storm, would begrudge survival necessities to those who are still in danger.

In the atmosphere of lawlessness that we saw in New Orleans, Jewish law might even permit stealing guns for self-defense. Although Jewish law does not permit murder for survival and would not permit you to, for example, kill someone to get their food, it does permit you to kill a “pursuer” (not an innocent third party) in self defense. If someone came after you with a gun trying to take the food or supplies you needed for survival, Jewish law might permit killing to protect yourself and the supplies you need; and in an environment where it is known that people are doing this sort of thing, Jewish law might permit stealing a gun to be able to protect yourself.

Unlike some of the pundits, Jewish law doesn't seem to concern itself about the quality of the goods stolen for this purpose. Some pundits and government officials have suggested that those who steal bread and cold cuts are entitled to leniency while those who steal caviar and fancy crackers are not; Jewish law doesn’t seem to make that distinction. Jewish law would allow a person to steal and eat non-kosher food on the Sabbath if that were necessary to survive (though kosher food should be taken if both are equally available and readily identified as such). On the other hand, it is difficult to see how wide-screen TVs and DVD players could contribute to survival, so Jewish law would not permit that sort of thing.

Some pundits have also suggested that the theft isn’t necessary; food and water are being shipped into the region and people should just go to where the food is. Assuming that the people in need had this information, they certainly have ample reason to doubt it. The news has reported that many people were sent to the Convention Center for food and water, only to find that there was neither food nor water and once there they could not leave. Jewish law does not require people to act on such dubious information. For example, a rabbi noted that denying charity to beggars, though it is a sin, can be forgiven because we know that some beggars are frauds.

Although the Jewish law in this area sounds like situational ethics, there is a subtle but important difference: in Jewish law, there are specific rules with built-in exceptions, though application of those rules is sometimes complicated. Situational ethics is much more fuzzy. To put an example in concrete terms that I think everyone can relate to:

  • Jewish law: You can’t drive faster than 65 mph on the highway, unless you are an emergency vehicle responding to an emergency call, in which case you can drive faster but you should have your lights and sirens active if it is possible and will not interfere with your emergency task.
  • Situational ethics: You can’t drive faster than 65 mph on the highway, unless it’s really important to get somewhere quickly.

See the difference?

Examples of these principles in the Talmud:

  • Sanhedrin 74a et seq., which says, among other things, "if a man is commanded: 'Transgress and suffer not death,' he may transgress and not suffer death, excepting idolatry, incest [which includes adultery] and murder."
  • Pesachim 25a et seq., which says, among other things, "We may cure ourselves with anything except idolatry, incest and murder" (regarding using forbidden items to effect cures of serious illnesses)
  • Yoma 82a, "There is nothing that can stand before [the duty of] saving life, with the exception of idolatry, incest and bloodshed" (regarding eating on Yom Kippur)
  • Kethuboth 19a, "There is nothing that can stand before [the duty of] saving life, with the exception of idolatry, incest and bloodshed" (regarding sworn falsehoods under duress)

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

King David's Palace

Israeli archaeologist Eilat Mazar has uncovered the foundation walls of an ancient and significant public building just outside the walls of the Old City in Jerusalem. She believes that she has found King David's palace, the palace that the Bible describes as being built by King Hiram of Tyre about 1,000 years Before the Christian Era (BCE). This remarkable find was announced earlier this month.

If you haven't heard about this story, don't feel guilty: Lots of people haven't heard about it. It has hardly made a blip on the mainstream press in the United States. A search of a LexisNexis news database covering hundreds of newspapers gets only 6 results for the search "King David w/10 palace" since the beginning of August. Searches for the archaeologist by various spellings of her name return the same results. I would not have known about it myself if I had not read an editorial about the discovery in the Jewish Exponent last week.

And no wonder the media doesn't want to touch this story: If this structure is what Mazar believes it to be, the potential political, historical and social ramifications of this discovery are enormous. Anti-Israel hard-liners have claimed for many years now that Jews have no historical connection to Jerusalem, that King David ruled from some other hill somewhere else; if this discovery is proved to be King David's palace, it places King David directly outside modern Jerusalem's walls. The fashionable scholarly opinion in recent years has been that King David was nothing more than an insignificant hill chieftain, that the Bible is nothing more than fiction and the stories it tells should be given no credence whatsoever; if Mazar is correct, this find shows that King David was more significant than fashionable scholars want to believe, and the Bible at the very least contains some accurate historical details.

Of course, I doubt we will never know whether Mazar is correct. There are too many people who are too emotionally committed to either believing or disbelieving it. The Palestinian Authority has already declared the find to be "worthless and groundless" without examining any of the evidence, implying without explicitly saying so that these "clandestine excavations" were fraudulent.

It is interesting, though, to compare the media's treatment of this story to their treatment of the so-called "James Ossuary" in 2002. For those who don't recall, a media frenzy ensued after it was announced that someone had found an ossuary (a box for holding bones of the deceased) inscribed with the words Ya'akov bar Yosef akhui di Yeshua, widely translated as James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus, although "Ya'akov" would perhaps be more accurately translated as "Jacob." It was widely believed that this was the first physical evidence ever found of the existence of Jesus, though some expressed skepticism because of the commonness of the names. The Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto examined the ossuary and declared it to be genuine, although some bells and whistles should have gone off because this is not the first remarkable archaelogical find the same collector had owned. The owner of the box was later arrested for antiquities forgery. Police arresting him found implements for conducting antiquities forgery as well as articles in various stages of the forging process. The Royal Ontario Museum and others continue to maintain that the box was real.

Perhaps the James ossuary fiasco has made the media a bit more gun-shy, although one has to wonder how someone could fake a massive 3000-year-old building.

NY Times article about the discovery

Jewish Exponent article which was my first exposure to this story (Note: this article is likely to disappear very soon; they only keep stories for a couple of weeks)

A Palestinian News Agency article dismissing the significance of the find

Monday, August 22, 2005

About the "Jew Couple"

A colleague of mine recently told me the story of a couple identified on a restaurant check as "Jew couple." Apparently, some restaurants routinely use descriptions of patrons, rather than table numbers, to identify which table goes with a check. My colleague reported that she has received restaurant checks identifying her as "blond girl" or even "pretty girl." What is so wrong, she wondered, about calling two people "Jew couple" that the New Jersey attorney general would be investigating the story?

First, let me emphasize that the word "Jew" is not an offensive term. I am a Jew. I am Jewish. I use these two phrases interchangeably and see no difference between them, and many other Jews feel the same way. In fact, when the subject came up in the newsgroup soc.culture.jewish, several people were offended by the idea that the word "Jew" is an offensive term, as if being a Jew were such a terrible thing that people should not be reminded of it. One person was also offended by the idea that "Jewish" is better than "Jew," suggesting that the notion reflected the idea that "Jewish" sounded less Jew than "Jew," just like "bluish" is less blue than "blue."

So the the word "Jew" is not necessarily a problem. But there are several problems related to the restaurant's use of the phrase "Jew couple."

First, the word "Jew" is a noun, not an adjective. It is grammatically incorrect to use "Jew" as an adjective, as in the phrase "Jew lawyer," "Jew doctor," "Jew janitor" or more commonly, "Jew bastard." The adjective form is "Jewish," so the more correct form would be "Jewish lawyer," "Jewish doctor," etc. More important than the grammatical technicality, though, is the fact that these misuses are most commonly used by those who are predisposed to hate Jews. It is theoretically possible that someone who calls Shawn Green a "Jew athlete" is simply ignorant, but it is more likely that it is an expression of distaste, more likely that "Jew bastard" was implied if not stated, and Jews recognize that usage for what it is. It would be more accurate and would not be so suggestive of antisemitism to refer to the patrons as a "Jewish couple." The NJ Antidefamation League spokesman recognized this distinction when he told the media, "It doesn't even say 'Jew-ish.' It's indefensible."

But even if the check said "Jewish couple," I'm not sure that this entirely solves the problem. My colleague said that she has been identified as "blond girl" or "pretty girl," terms that are physically descriptive and would help a waiter identify the correct table. How does the phrase "Jewish couple" help the waiter to identify the correct table? The couple apparently weren't wearing any obvious Jewish symbols, such as a necklace with a Chai or Star of David, or a yarmulke (skullcap). Jews don't have any particular physical appearance. Jews come in all shapes, sizes and colors. There are tall Jews and short Jews; fat Jews and thin Jews; Jews with thick hair and Jews with fine hair; blonds, brunettes and red-heads; blue, grey, green, hazel and brown-eyed; light-skinned, darker-skinned and even black Jews; Jews with big hooked noses and Jews with surgically bobbed noses and Jews with noses you would never notice. When people think they know what a Jew "looks like," they are usually thinking in terms of negative stereotypes. So the use of "Jewish couple" as a physical identifier suggests negative stereotypes about Jewish appearance. It is less like "blond girl" and more like "fat girl."

And quite frankly, "Jew couple" or even "Jewish couple" isn't particularly uniquely identifying on the Jersey shore. The restaurant where this occurred is in Allenhurst, NJ. Check any online phone directory and you will see more than a dozen synagogues, Jewish community centers and cemeteries of all movements, Reform, Conservative, Orthodox and Chasidic, within five miles of Allenhurst. In fact, the term was so incredibly not identifying that the couple in question were able to show the bill to another Jewish couple in the restaurant at the time, who shared their outrage.

Apparently, this is not the first time the restaurant in question has engaged in offensive labeling of their customers. Another former patron reports that her bill once identified her as "Dirty Joanne."

Read more about it:
Table for "Jew"
Attorney General Probe
Dirty Joanne

Friday, July 29, 2005

Kapoor Family Update

My friend has just informed me that the Kapoor family, discussed in my last post, has been released from detention! The next hurdle, of course, is the possibility of deportation, but at least they have been reunited with their family.

See an article from an English language Indian newspaper:

Monday, July 25, 2005

Sometimes a Box Is Just a Box

A colleague of mine told me a harrowing tale of her experience on public transit. She boarded a train and saw a man standing in the back, moving in strange ways. She thought he might be a suicide bomber: he had little boxes apparently taped to his body. Being the responsible citizen that she is, she promptly reported it to the conductor. The conductor laughed. He said, "I thought the same thing the first time I saw him, but he's not a bomber. It's a Jewish prayer thing."

The little boxes she saw "taped" (actually strapped with leather) to his body were tefillin, boxes containing verses of scripture that are worn during morning prayer to fulfill the commandment "bind them [words of Torah] as a sign upon your hand and they shall be frontlets between your eyes" (Deut. 11:18). The boxes certainly contain something of great power, but not in the way my colleague had in mind!

I found her story quite amusing until a few days later, I received an email from an old friend whose story of post-9/11 paranoia has taken a much less amusing turn. My friend is a doctor at University of Pittsburgh's medical school. He wanted to let me know about the troubling status of his boss's 70-year-old brother, Gokal Kapoor, and I will pass this story along to you.

Dr. Wishwa Kapoor, my friend's boss, is a native of Afganistan and has been an American citizen for 25 years. His older brother, Gokal Kapoor, and his wife left Afganistan in 1997, fleeing religious oppression by the Taliban. They sought asylum, but were denied. On June 22, 2005, after their work permits ran out, immigration officers appeared on their doorstep to take them "for questioning." They never came home. No one ever told their young son, who graduated high school that very day, what happened to them or where they were. The family hired a lawyer, who eventually managed to track them down to a detention center in their home state of Virginia. They apparently have not been questioned nor charged with any crime. At the time of this writing, Gokal and his wife are still detained and have had no direct contact with their family. The family is afraid that this 70-year-old man and his 67-year-old wife will be deported to Afganistan, a country in shambles where religious hatred runs rampant, where they may well be murdered for their minority beliefs.

According to the family's website, the Immigration office and Congress have received so many faxes in regard to this family's situation that they have asked people to stop sending them! The family has agreed and is discontinuing its fax campaign at this time, hoping that they will soon be reunited.

Please do not send any faxes or letters at this time, out of respect for the family's request. However, I encourage you to keep your eye on the family's website, to make sure that this unfortunate situation comes to a happy conclusion, and to be prepared to contact your representatives if it does not. And I encourage you to remember this story, and mention it whenever you hear anyone say (as conservative pundits often do) that no injustices have been committed under the Patriot Act.

The Kapoor family's website:
From Newsweek:
From the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:
Judaism 101 on Tefillin:

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Ten Commandments Revisited

Yesterday, the Supreme Court rendered its decisions in the two cases related to Ten Commandments displays. In McCreary County, Kentucky v. ACLU of Kentucky, the Court held that the display of large, readily visible framed copies of the Ten Commandments in county courthouses violated the Establishment Clause of the Constitution, and this violation was not remedied when the counties, after initiation of the lawsuit, added displays of secular documents containing religious references. In Van Orden v. Perry, the Court held that a donated 6-foot-high monolith inscribed with the Ten Commandments, added to a preexisting display outside the courthouse that already contained a few dozen monuments and markers, did not violate the establishment clause.

I have provided links to the full text of the opinions at the end of this post, but I have not yet had a chance to thoroughly review both of these lengthy opinions (75 pages each). I skimmed the summaries at the beginning of the opinions, and the outcome of these cases seems to display the kind of good sense and reasonable balance that, as I said in my post in March, the courts have generally displayed in these Establishment Clause cases. The opinions did not provide the kind of bright-line test that many observers were hoping for, and some have said the opinions have only muddied the waters further, but these don't seem to be the kind of cases that are suitable to bright-line tests. The two opinions in conjunction lead to the quite reasonable conclusion that there are circumstances in which a display of religious material does not endorse a religion and there are circumstances in which it does.

But the sense of balance I feel from these opinions is somewhat artificial. The reality is, four justices (Kennedy, Rehnquist, Scalia and Thomas) thought both displays were constitutionally acceptable, while four justices (Ginsburg, O'Connor, Souter and Stevens) thought both displays were constitutionally unacceptable. The only justice who agreed with the result in both cases, who thought the Kentucky display was unacceptable and the Texas display was acceptable, was Justice Breyer. So ultimately, the court's decision does not genuinely reflect the court's conclusion that some displays are acceptable and some are not; rather, it reflects one judge's opinion that some are and some aren't, who agreed with four judges in one case and the other four judges in another case.

I may have more to say about this when I've had a chance to read the whole opinions, but I wanted to get the links to the opinions out there ASAP for those who are interested. As you may have noticed, I have a certain level of contempt for media outlets that compress information through the funnel of their personal bias (both liberal and conservative) without giving you the tools to draw your own conclusion.

  • McCreary County, Kentucky v. ACLU of Kentucky opinion from the Supreme Court's website.
  • Van Orden v. Perry opinion from the Supreme Court's website
  • My post from March, discussing the Jewish community's reaction to the controversy
  • Judaism 101 on the Ten Commandments

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Cinco de Mayo de Cinco

Today is Cinco de Mayo (Spanish for May 5th), and not only that, but it's May 5, 2005: 05/05/05, Cinco de Mayo de Cinco, a great excuse for a party, for Mexican food and Mexican beer.

Most Americans don't have a clue what Cinco de Mayo is, aside from the fact that it's Mexican and is an good excuse to get plastered. Most people who have any idea about the holiday think it is Mexican Independence Day (May 5, July 4, what's the difference?), but actually it commemorates a rather small but surprising underdog military victory by the Mexicans against the invading French, a battle that occurred almost 40 years after Mexico's independence. In Mexico, it is a regional holiday, celebrated only in the state where the battle occurred.

I heard on the radio this morning that some in the Hispanic community are becoming uncomfortable with the way the Anglos, and particularly the Anglo commercial interests, have misappropriated Cinco de Mayo. The holiday is rapidly becoming a Mexican version of St. Patrick's Day, a holiday that is nominally Mexican but mostly an excuse for Anglos to sell food and beer to other Anglos, none of whom have any idea what the holiday is really about. Although some have tried to use interest in the holiday to bolster Hispanic pride, others have opted out of the corrupted, commercialized version of Cinco de Mayo in favor of a more significant holiday, the real Mexican Independence Day, September 16. Conveniently, that's close to Labor Day, so the Anglos are all partied-out and are less likely to co-opt it!

So what is any of this doing on a Jewish blog? (aside from the fact that I myself am planning to party tonight, though mostly because of the amusing 05/05/05 aspect of the date rather than Cinco de Mayo; we also celebrated 03/03/03, 02/02/02, and of course 01/01/01) .

I understand how some Hispanics feel about what is happening to Cinco de Mayo. I watched it happen to Chanukkah, a Jewish holiday that, like Cinco de Mayo, was a minor holiday commemorating a military victory that was distorted by commercial interests into a reason for spending money. I can imagine the dread I would feel if the Jewish holiday of Purim (which is admittedly a holiday for drinking and eating) were to be taken over by gentiles who have no idea what it meant. And I have watched a Catholic friend of mine express her frustration when people who partied all night long on Mardi Gras ask her why she's got dirt on her forehead the next morning (Ash Wednesday, which is more or less the reason for Mardi Gras).

I wish the Hispanics in our country the best of luck in trying to maintain the integrity of their holiday! And I wish anyone who celebrates it a festive Cinco de Mayo de Cinco!

(The time at the bottom of this post is, of course, altered for your amusement)

  • The true meaning of Cinco de Mayo, at MexicoOnline
  • A Hispanic Mexican restaurant owner confused by the holiday, in the Sun Sentinel
  • Hispanics in Oregon looking for a better day to celebrate, at Oregon Live
  • A Hispanic community in Texas using the holiday to bolster Hispanic pride, at KWTX

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Passover College Memories

I always think of this story at this time of year. I heard the story from my roommate, who was a good friend of the David in this story, and she heard the story from David. She assured me that this was a true story, but even if it isn't true, it should be.

I went to a college in Pennsylvania where about 20% of the students were Jewish. The dining hall made a special effort for the Jewish students at Passover. They had a special Passover line at the dining hall with matzah, Passover cakes and cookies and even gefilte fish.

Gefilte fish is a popular Jewish delicacy and a Passover tradition, sort of like a crab cake but made with chopped up fish held together with matzah meal and eggs. It is cooked and stored in fish broth, then is served with sliced carrots (often cooked in the same broth) and horseradish (another Passover tradition).

The gentiles working in the dining hall had no idea what gefilte fish was, and they were clearly uneasy being around this strange food. Several of them picked it up and served it using tongs held at arms' length to avoid coming into too close contact with it (I observed this myself on several occasions), but the Jews coming through the line were all eager for this holiday treat (at least for the first five or six days!).

Just about everyone who asked for the gefilte fish was Jewish, except for one fellow: an international student from mainland China. Although the name he used in America was David, he was not Jewish. He had no idea what to call this food item, but he knew what he liked. He just came into the Passover line and pointed at it. The gentiles working the dining hall picked it up at arms' length, as usual, and put it on his plate.

One day, one of them asked David, "You really eat that stuff?"

"Yeah!" David said, "It goes great with soy sauce!"

Friday, April 22, 2005

Beware the Passover Aisle!

Just a quick heads-up for those still shopping for Passover: Beware the Passover aisle! Some supermarkets are very diligent about keeping their Passover aisle stocked only with Kosher-for-Passover items, but others are very sloppy about it. In my neck of the woods, Pathmark has always been very diligent, and a new Genuardis seems to be very good, but the Acme near me has always been appalling. Not really surprising, coming from a chain that once ran a full-page ad in the Sunday paper announcing a sale on “Challah, a Passover Tradition!” Challah is a kind of bread, and the only Passover tradition related to it is not eating it!

I just got back from a last-minute shopping trip to my Acme, picking up eggs and milk before Passover starts, and I noticed that they had shelved some Hamentaschen in the Passover aisle. Hamentaschen are Purim cookies. I’ve never heard of kosher-for-Passover hamentaschen, but I gave Acme the benefit of the doubt and carefully checked the label. Not surprisingly, it’s not kosher for Passover. They’re wheat cookies, leavened with yeast. It doesn’t get any less kosher for Passover than that. It’s not the first time I’ve had this kind of problem at this Acme.

When I flagged down a clerk in the store and told him of the problem, he looked at the label and said, “It says kosher.” I told him, “It doesn’t say kosher-for-Passover. Passover is different.” He shrugged his shoulders and said, “I dunno.” He did nothing about it, nor did he inform anyone.

This kind of misshelving is standard operational procedure at my Acme, and the uncaring attitude of the store clerk is also standard. Your grocery store may be the same.

Don’t assume that everything in the Passover aisle is kosher for Passover! Before you buy anything for Passover, check the label carefully. There should be a P to the right of the kosher certification symbol, or the words “Kosher for Passover” in English or Hebrew. If you can’t find those markings, it’s NOT kosher for Passover!

Caveat Pesach Emptor! Passover Buyer Beware!

Have a happy and kosher Pesach!

Passover Cooking Tips at Judaism 101:
(includes examples of Passover kosher certification marks)
Passover at Judaism 101:
Kashrut: Jewish Dietary Laws at Judaism 101:

Monday, March 21, 2005

The Ten Commandments Controversy

The United States Supreme Court recently heard arguments about the posting of the Ten Commandments on government property. I've watched cases like this come and go for a number of years, and I think overall the courts have done a good job of assessing the situations presented: a two-and-a-half ton monument to the Ten Commandments placed as the centerpiece of a courthouse rotunda, with the explicit intent of reminding citizens of the sovereignty of G-d and His revealed law, was found to be an impermissible establishment of religion. Glassroth v. Moore, 335 F.3d 1282 (11th Cir. 2003). A small plaque that was a longstanding fixture at the disused entrance to a historic courthouse was not. Freethought Soc'y v. Chester County, 334 F.3d 247 (3rd Cir. 2003).

The Ten Commandments controversy has split the Jewish community in interesting ways. The Orthodox, who believe that the Ten Commandments were originally carved in stone by G-d's own power and given to Moses on Mount Sinai and represent immutable laws of G-d that must be followed, claim that the Ten Commandments convey a secular message. Meanwhile, Jewish groups that tend to believe the Ten Commandments were written by man but inspired by G-d or inspired by a quest for G-d, argue that Ten Commandments displays are inherently religious. Christian and Catholic organizations have largely kept silent on the issue.

The explanation of this strange division is quite simple: The United States Constitution prohibits government action "respecting an establishment of religion." If the display is secular, it is permissible; if it is religious, it is not. The Orthodox want the display to continue, so they claim it is secular; other Jewish groups do not want it to continue, so they claim it is religious. Christian organizationss apparently don't want to get caught in the awkward position of claiming that the Ten Commandments aren't religious, so they're staying out of it, though some individual Christians have staked themselves out on courthouse lawns tearfully bemoaning the removal of G-d and the Ten Commandments from public life, providing proof that this is precisely the kind of religious display that would be prohibited.

This division within the Jewish community is nothing new. The Orthodox have in general favored government policies that affected religious groups, such as religious groups using public property or funding of faith-based initiatives, while other Jewish groups have opposed such things.

In the past, however, the Orthodox groups that supported such things had something to gain and little to lose. For example, when an Evangelical Christian group sought to use an elementary school's classroom for Bible studies, the Orthodox supported it. Good News Club v. Milford Cent. Sch., 533 U.S. 98 (2001). Perhaps they saw the value of access to public school space, and after all, it wasn't their children who were being proselytized.

What have they to gain here? Judaism is not a proselytizing religion; we do not try to convert people to Judaism nor even to the Ten Commandments. According to Judaism, only seven commandments are required for gentiles. We have no religious need to teach the Ten Commandments to the world.

Perhaps the motivation can be found in the Orthodox Union's press release, in which they describe themselves as "representatives of the faith to whom the Ten Commandments were initially given on Sinai." Perhaps they hope that displays of the Ten Commandments will serve as a reminder that these laws, which are a foundation of law and justice in Western culture, came to mankind through the Jewish people.

CNN article about the case:

The Union of Orthodox Congregations' press release:

The Anti-Defamation League's press release:

Judaism 101 on the Ten Commandments:

Judaism 101 on the Seven Commandments for gentiles:

Thursday, February 10, 2005

Doritos and Hillel

Last night while watching TV, I saw a rather odd commercial, with lots of trendy people text-messaging "innw," which stands for "If Not Now When." The commercial never said what product it was shlogging, but there was a follow-up commercial a minute later to inform me that the "if not now when" slogan was for Doritos, in which a large crowd engages in an act of urban destruction. Oy, a classical rabbi's most famous saying used to shlog a product that isn't even kosher!

For those not familiar with the commercial's catch-phrase: it is a quote from the great Rabbi Hillel, for whom the Jewish college student organization was named. In Pirkei Avot (a tractate of the Mishnah recording ethical sayings), Rabbi Hillel is quoted as saying, "If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, then what am I? And if not now, when?"

Rabbi Hillel used this phrase to teach that we should not hesitate to do the right thing. Another quote of his along the same lines that I inscribed in my law school textbooks was, "Do not say, 'when I am free, I will study,' for perhaps you will never be free."

I am more than a little troubled at the way Rabbi Hillel's teaching has been twisted into advice to do whatever feels good, much like Nike's "Just Do It" slogan.

To put this into a context that gentiles can better understand: can you imagine if Trojan tried to sell condoms with the slogan, "Do Unto Others"?

Rabbi Hillel at Judaism 101

Full text of Pirkei Avot - the saying that the commercial uses is in Chapter 1 Verse 14

Doritos "INNW" website

Monday, January 17, 2005

Calendar Conundrum

On a lighter note...

Richard Conn Henry, Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Johns Hopkins University, has proposed a revision to the Gregorian calendar used by most of the Western world for the last 400 years. Under his proposed calendar, which he calls the C&T calendar, the length of the year would be adjusted so that every day falls on the same day of the week every year. A sort of "leap week" would be added between June and July every five or six years to keep the calendar in sync with the solar year.

Of course, none of this has any effect on the Jewish calendar, which has been confusing gentiles for more than two millennia. Our calendar is based on rules from the Creator given to us in oral and written Torah, so we can't change it and we will continue to confuse you for the foreseeable future.

Why change the secular calendar? Laziness, of course! There is no limit to the amount of work geniuses will do in order to save themselves some work (I speak from personal experience). In this case, according to a journalist from the Baltimore Sun, Prof. Henry noticed that he was teaching the same courses using the same textbooks and assigning the same homework every year, but he had to revise his syllabus every year to reflect the new dates. Of course, this begs the question: why doesn't he update his course material? But that's not the point. The point is, if he can persuade the entire world (not to mention Microsoft!) to change their calendars, then he will never have to update his syllabus again.

Henry suggests that there are other advantages to the system too. For example, you could use the same calendar every year, and could buy a calendar any time of year you wanted.

I think perhaps Prof. Henry has not taken his plan far enough. Why do we have to have 12 months with varying numbers of days to keep track of? Henry's 364-day year could more conveniently be divided into 13 months of 28 days, yielding many more benefits. Every month would start on Sunday, so you could use the same calendar every month. Your monthly planner white board that you have to hand-write the days on? No more: the days can be pre-printed, because every month has the same days! The First Friday of a month always falls on the same day, no matter what month. Paychecks would always arrive on the same days of the month; no more confusion trying to coordinate a weekly payday with a monthly bill day! And think of the convenience for women on birth control: those three weeks on / one week off are always the same weeks. Of course, women not on birth control may not be happy to have their pregnancies expanded to 10 months.

Prof. Henry has an interesting idea, but let's be realistic: the chances of getting the entire world to go along with it are slim, and if the entire world isn't following this calendar, then there will be as much confusion between the C&T calendar and the Gregorian one as there is now between the Gregorian calendar and the Jewish one!

Calendar Reform - Professor Henry's home page on the subject
Astronomer wants calendar fixed - an article by a writer from the Baltimore Sun discussing the subject
Judaism 101: Jewish Calendar

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Counter-protesting at Outfest

I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.

Philadelphia is in the national spotlight this week for arresting fundamentalist Christians who were counter-protesting at a gay pride event.

It is hard to be certain of the facts at this time, because the rhetoric on all sides drowns out any attempt at rationality. The Outfest organizers complain of homophobia while the Christian protesters complain of homofascism. The Christian protestors claim they were charged with hate crimes for reading the Bible, while Outfest organizers claimed they were disrupting the event by shouting hate speech into a bull horn. Outfest organizers claim the Christians were trying to incite a riot while the Christians claim that it was the Outfest organizers who were trying to start a riot. The Christians claim that the arrests were unjustified while the Outfest organizers claim that the Christians went out of their way to get arrested to make themselves martyrs and gain attention for their cause. Several conservative commentators have blasted the "liberal" ACLU for not supporting the Christians, while ACLU representative Larry Frankel, agreed that it sounded like police overreaching but the ACLU was not asked to intervene.

It didn't take long for the whole mess to take an antisemitic turn, because Philadelphia's tough District Attorney Lynne Abraham happens to be Jewish. Her office has been receiving obscene and antisemitic phone calls as a result of her usual vigorous prosecution of this case. See 'Philadelphia Four' drawing nat'l attention.

When I first heard about this story, I couldn't help thinking of another demonstration and counter-protest in the Philadelphia area only two weeks before Outfest. On September 25, 2004, a small neo-Nazi group held a rally in Valley Forge National Historical Park, located about 20 miles from Philadelphia in its northwestern suburbs. It was probably not a coincidence that the rally was held on one of the holiest days of the Jewish calendar: a day that was both Yom Kippur and Shabbat, a convenient way to cut down on Jewish counter-protestors. There was, nevertheless, a considerable presence of counter-protestors, both Jewish and gentile, in response to the neo-Nazi rally. Security was tight, and there was a substantial police presence, complete with riot gear and pepper spray. The protestors occasionally turned violent, and one of the protestors was arrested, charged with striking a Nazi sympathizer with a stick. The entire incident was quickly forgotten by most in the area.

I want to see an objective difference between these two counter-protests, because frankly I am quite weary of those who are determined to save my soul and won't take "no thank you" for an answer, but I have a hard time finding a difference. Yes, the fundamentalist Christians told the people at Outfest that they were going to Hell; but the counter-protestors at the Nazi rally chanted "Nazi scum go to hell." Yes, there was concern that the protest at Outfest might get violent, but the protest at the Nazi rally did in fact get violent.

However, I disagree with the claim this is a liberal/conservative issue or a sacred/secular issue. The difference between Outfest and the Nazi rally likely has more to do with the difference between Philadelphia and its suburbs. Just look at the 2000 Republican Convention in Philadelphia, where hundreds of liberal counter-protestors were arrested. The Philadelphia police even infiltrated and later raided a warehouse that created large puppets for street theater protests. Almost all charges (including all charges against the "puppetistas") were later summarily dropped or dismissed and lawsuits for false imprisonment were quietly settled. Does this sound like liberal or secular bias? No, it isn't a liberal/conservative or sacred/secular issue at all, but rather a police department that maintains the peace at an organized events by arresting those who protest, presumably thinking that it is easier to dismiss the charges and pay off lawsuits later than to deal with a full-scale riot.

If you have ever attended a sporting event in Philadelphia, you will understand where the police are coming from. ;^}

* 'Philadelphia Four' drawing nat'l attention
* Nation's eyes on Christian protesters
* Neo-Nazi group rallies at Valley Forge
* Neo-Nazi's protest in Valley Forge Park (an article from the student newspaper of a Catholic college near Valley Forge)