• About Me

    I’m an opinionated Grumpy Old Man. I enjoy the intellectual give and take that goes along with that, but have very little patience for stupid people (Note: there is a big difference between “stupid” and “educated”. Some of the stupidest people I’ve ever met have a PhD…). Beside arguing, I like to build things in almost any media. Right now I’m mostly building in wood, Lego, and a bunch of different electronic media. I teach in a number of different venues - from preschool all the way through graduate school. Subjects range from talmud to neuroscience to engineering.

    For fun, I like to bash people with swords (OK, so they’re made of foam. It’s still fun). Although I spend a lot of my time in a wheelchair, I manage to keep pretty active (Like bashing people with swords). I am a libertarian, and have a hard time finding anything good to say about government or politicians. OK, politicians might make good sausage, but that's about as good as it gets.


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Why Conservative Judaism is a Failure

Hmmm.. a glance over the past few posts makes it look like this is a blog about the abject failure of the cops in the US.  To correct that, I’ve decided to blog about one of my favorite organizational failure: Conservative Judaism.

Now don’t ge me wrong, I dig the whole Jewish thing. Really. So much so that I became a Jew, although it took me over a decade to finally knuckle down and do it.

So, some fairly sarcastic background for those of you that aren’t familiar with the major categories of Jews:

First, ya got the “Orthodox”. These range from the radical right black hat crowd to the more centrist Lubavitch (who still dress funny). Wouldn’t think of eating a non-kosher meal. These are the ones that TV shows make fun of.

At the other extreme, you’ve got Reform Jews. Think Unitarian, but with a bit of Hebrew thrown in. Thinks the idea of Lobster Bisque appetizer and pork chop main course is fine. Never heard of kosher.

Then ya got the Conservative Jews. They are a lot harder to describe, because they are everything in between. Some of them would fit in just fine with an orthodox community, but have decided to be a bit more mainstream, and call themselves conservative. Some of them are really reform Jews, but know that mom and dad (or maybe gramma) would freak out if they knew.

Of course, that exposes the real root of the problem with conservative Judaism – they identify themselves by what they are NOT. The most common description I hear from conservative jews is “I’d be reform/orthodox, except for (insert whatever pet peeve you care for here)”. Conservative Jews know that the Rabbi should keep kosher, and follow all of the rules that an orthodox Jew would follow, but as longa s the rabbi does, no one in the congregation has to bother. The Temple’s Hebrew School has to teach the kids to read and speak Hebrew, know the Torah inside out, and be able to expound on the history, culture, and rituals of Judaism, but as soon as the kid is 13 and has their Bar/Bat Mitzvah, they can forget it all. Oh yeah, and don’t expect to see/hear/experience/ or discuss any of it at home, because “thats why we send you to Hebrew School”.

In the past few years, conservative Judaism has crashed. While the Orthodox and Reform populations have continued to grow, Conservative Judaism is withering. Congregations are shrinking, and temples are being forced to merge or close down. There is an old saying among non-Conservative Jews that conservative Jews are on a stepping stone to assimilation, reform, or orthodoxy. Why? Because Conservative Jews have set themselves up to be as orthodox as they choose, but to also be as mainstream as possible. Reform Jews had the good sense to simply admit that they wanted tobe mainstream, and punted the majority of the “baggage” that orthodoxy carries with it, and have openly admitted that they are more interested in being “normal” than in being Jewish. The conservatives tried to walk a middle line.

The end result is that the Conservative Jews that were truly interested in continuing to live a more traditional Jewish life were scorned, and pushed out. The folks that were comfortable with the fact that they wanted to be mainstream went reform to start with, or slowly wandered out of the conservative temples where the services had too much Hebrew, expected at least token following of ritual (at least in the synagogue), and were simply too traditional for the truly “liberated” jew.

What is left of Conservative Judaism? There ARE a few left after all:

The families that are so invested in the local temple that they simply can’t walk away from all that money spent to get the family name plastered on the windows, door frames, pews, and whatever other random bit of furniture was big enough to hold a name plaque.

The people who still need to feel that they are “better Jews” or “more Jewish” than those reform Jews over there (even though the only difference is that the “conservative” Jew goes to high holiday services at a conservative shul, whereas the reform Jew goes to the reform shul).

The otherwise orthodox Jew that has some issue with Orthodoxy in general, and chooses to affiliate with a Conservative shul, even though they know that they’ll always be outcasts and viewed as extremists.

Of course, the fact that Reform Judaism is moving towards being more traditional is also eating into the Conservative Jewish population. As the Conservative movement has moved more left, the Reform movement has moved more right, so there really is very little (if any) difference between the two – at least in reality. There are all kinds of  “real differences” that people will pontificate about, but when it comes right down to it, there really isn’t much difference. Walk into a conservative shul one weekend, and try a reform shul the next. Once you’ve tried a half-dozen of each, you’ll realize that many of the reform shuls are much more traditional than many of the conservative shuls, and many of the conservative shuls are much more liberal than many of the conservative ones.

So there ya go. Conservative Judaism is failing because of an identity crisis. They’re really (mostly) reform Jews that are simply unwilling to admit it, and as they admit (or die off, and their kids admit it) Conservative Judaism is fading away.


The New Dark Ages

I’ve been noticing a lot of similarities in some recent news and some not-so-recent history. The dark ages were a fun time: ignorance, poverty, disease, and war were the norm. A powerful christian government work hard to maintain ignorance, as literacy and rational thought were considered to be major threats to the mindless dogma preached by the church. By keeping the masses ignorant, the church was able to maintain power, and use war as a tool to continue that power. Poverty and disease are natural elements in an ignorant, uneducated population, and also served to reinforce the church’s stance (if you were poor, it must mean that god doesn’t like you,so you must have done something bad). A random walk through some of today’s news events shows a remarkable similarity.

Ignorance. The dark ages were rife with ignorance, superstition, and church doctrine. The general populace was not only discouraged from learning to read, but in many cases, it was illegal for them to know how to read. The dominant government (the christian church) decided what was fact, and what was acceptable for the peons to know. The idea was that all law came from the bible. Of course, if the peons could read, they would be able to figure out that most of what was being taught as church doctrine had nothing to do with the bible, so reading was reserved to the “right-thinkers” in the church. This was also a method of ensuring that the church maintained its position of authority – science and critical thinking would erode the church’s “we talk to god, so we know the truth” dogma, so the church did its best to keep people ignorant (this is the same church that threw Galileo in prison, and refused to admit that the Earth rotates around the sun until late in the 20th century). The church as an entity had an official policy of maintaining the ignorance of the populace. Among other things, it made it impossible to do any sort of business without church involvement (and taxation) – the church was the only agency that was allowed to write, so things like keeping track of shipping, sales, and land records was wholly under the control of the church. This provided a handy revenue stream to support wars against those pesky foreigners and heathens that didn’t buy into the church myth.

In the modern world, the church has much less official power – we even pretend in the USA that the church is just another social group. But if we take a look at what is going on, we can find “christian influence” (read: ‘christian ignorance’) in many places. One of the scariest is the influence that the church continues to have on education. While most of the first world laments the fact their children are not keeping up with upstart developing nations educationally, the church is working to continue to stifle knowledge and free thought. With amazing effectiveness. Depending on the surveys, as much as 30-60% of the people in industrialized nations continue to believe that creationism is as scientifically valid as evolution. The majority of people freely admit that most technology and science is little more than magic to them – it is simply beyond their understanding. Of course, in places like India and China, it is very common to find people who not only understand technology and science, but are using it to displace the “industrialized world” as the leaders of new technological developments. The first worlddoes still have the major educational institutions, but a visit to any hard science or engineering graduate program will make it clear that most of the students there are from second or third world nations. A review of the scientific and engineering primary literature shows the same thing. Take a look at journals from 40 years ago, and the vast majority of authors will have anglo-european names. Take a cruise through the journals today, and most of the names are asian, indian, or middle eastern.

Of course, the Dark Ages did end. The church was finally overthrown by internal divisions, and by the influence of educated free thinkers from other cultures – most notably Asia, India and the Middle East. In the modern world, we are faced with many dangers – a much hyped example is the militant extremists from the muslim left that kill a few people every day. A much more insidious danger is the creeping ignorance and denial of science that is so strongly supported by the christian church. So next time the bible-thumpers are at your local library or school board lobbying to get Harry Potter pulled off the shelves (it has witchcraft in it, and the bible says that witchcraft is bad), don’t just sit by and assume that rational thinkers will simply ignore them. Show up, and speak out. Make sure they know that we recognize their idiocy, and that we won’t tolerate it. When you hear or read about a school district that is buckling to the local moral minority, and is pulling evolution and science from their curriculum, go to the school board meetings and make some noise. At the very least, go read some history, and decide if you really want to live through another round of ignorance driven dark ages. We can hope that the developing world will save us from our own apathy and ignorance, but wouldn’t it be nice if we could do it ourselves?

Bible comics

In case you haven’t heard, R. Crumb the 1960s iconic underground comics guru is releasing a new comic book of (get this) the first book of the bible (Breisheit/Genesis). It is due out this fall, and apparently was started in the traditional Crumb style, but morphed into an “illustration project” using the complete text (not sure which version of the text though). Personally, I can’t wait to see it.

In the meantime, I also discovered (thanks to repeated pokes from good friends) Stoogepie, who also does a wonderful job of interpreting a few of the bible stories. Check him out here: http://www.stoogepie.com. Seriously, if you’re up on your bible lit, this guy has some wonderful points. If you’re NOT up on your bible lit, take a perusal anyway. You’ll see some of the bible that is usually kept pretty quiet.

Yeah, I know that this is a pretty tame post (at least for me), but these guys deserve some recognition for the hard work they’ve done.

Share and enjoy.

leftover Matzah? Here’s what to do with it

ok folks, in a rare fit of early morning pre-coffee surfing, I found this. Waste a few minutes and get a little giggle..

extra matzah

share and enjoy….

Singing at the Western Wall: Etiquette

The Western Wall is a constant source of discussion among Jews. Usually, the discussion (at least in my social circles)  involved discussing some event that made the news – usually an action by the more traditional Jews to try and maintain what they view as appropriate decorum at the wall. I have to admit that, in general, most of the issues that they have are not particularly relevant to my practice of Judaism. In part, because I live halfway around the world from the Wall, but also in part because I think they are just as entitled to practice their version of Judaism as I am. Here’s where the etiquette bit comes in.

Recently, there was a news article about a group of American Female Reform Rabbis who went to the western wall to Daven (pray). Now it is important to recognize some of the differences between Orthodox and Reform:

  1. Orthodox Jews segregate men and women during their prayers. Reform Jews don’t.
  2. Orthodox Jews do not allow women to be rabbis. Reform do.
  3. Orthodox Jews do not have women wear Kippot or tallis. Reform do.
  4. Orthodox Jews (typically) pray quietly, without song or lots of noise. Reform Jews sing, play musical instruments, and are no particularly quiet.
  5. Orthodox Jews do the majority of the prayer service by themselves, at their own pace, only joining together for a few prayers. Reform Jews tend to pray together, and as a group.

These are only some of the differences, but you get the idea.

Anyway, this group of female reform rabbi’s show up at the wall, and make their way to the woman’s section. This in itself is a pretty significant point of etiquette. By accepting that the Orthodox Jews prefer to maintain separate male and female sections, and respecting that boundary, they are showing respect for the Orthodox Jews beliefs. Yay Reform. One Point for you. By the same token, the Orthodox Jews recognize that a group of female rabbis has showed to pray, and doesn’t make a stink about it even though they are wearing tallis and kippot (in the past, this has been an issue). Once again, showing respect for the others, and letting them do their thing. Yay Orthodox. One point for you.

Things progress like this for a while – both groups being respectful, both groups doing their own thing, and both groups (I assume) managing to have a meaningful prayer session at the Western Wall. Yay everyone. One more point each.

Of course, so far there hasn’t been anything except some ideallogical differences – nothing requiring interaction or contact between the two groups. You stay on your side of the line, I’ll stay on mine, and we’ll both be fine. If things had continued on in this way, there’d be much happiness, and many points, and everyone would win. Of course, if that had happened, I wouldn’t be blogging about it, now would I?. This particular prayer group included more women than normal, and was louder than normal (according to the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC) – the Reform Movement’s legal arm. As they got a bit loud, some men shouted over the curtain between the men’s and women’s sections, shouting that a women’s voice is lewd (according to Orthodox Jewish Law, loud singing or shouting by women is considered unchaste and promiscuous. The ladies continued to sing, and apparently some Orthodox Women approached them, and asked them to quiet down. Things escalated, and the police ended up getting called in. I haven’t been able to find out if the Rabbis were allowed to finish their service, agreed to quiet down, or were allowed to continue.

So what happened to all the respect and good feelings that began? My guess is that the cultural differences simply blew up, and a simple situation got out of control. In general, Americans (not just Reform Rabbis, but most Americans) don’t take criticism very well, and, when traveling, tend to have the attitude that "our way is the right way, no matter where ther are. (I hate to say it, but most Americans live up to the international stereotype of fat, noisy, and obnoxious.) In my experience, Reform Jews tend to have some sort of complex when they are dealing with more observant Jews, and seem to often feel that they have to somehow "prove" that hey really are Jews. Of course, the Orthodox tend to be rather blunt in stating their opinions – in this case a simple "could you please be a bit more quiet" might have avoided the whole situation.

In any case, someone got their shorts in a knot, and things escalated. So after this rather circuitous path, we get to the whole issue of etiquette. Were the Orthodox out of line in expecting the Reform to be quiet? Were the Reform Rabbis out of line by being too loud? Were the individuals out of line for not being more polite? I like this one because some of the answers are easy, but some aren’t. The Reform rabbis were definitely out of line for being loud. Regardless of their tradition in their temples, the Western Wall is an area that is (usaully successfully) shared by all Jews. There is a fairly well established convention of what is tolerated, reached after many years of arguing and compromise.  A convention that requires everyone involved to give a little, look the other way, and cut others some slack. In other words, a compromise. So, the first breach of etiquette was in the volume. Penalty. One point off from the Reforms.

Of course, the response from the Orthodox man is pretty rude – at least by our standards. But, once again, we have to view this based on the norms of the Western Wall. Having only been there a couple of times, I don’t have a solid basis for this, but my impression is that a Jerusalem Jew would accept his shouting as “normal”. The far end of normal, but normal. Of course, in the interest of peace and harmony, it would have been NICE if he’d been a bit more polite.  Of course, the fact that the Reform Rabbis ignored the (albeit rude) request doesn’t put them into a particularly favorable light.Not enough for a full penalty, but definitely a warning for both sides.

I could go on, but the basic problem is that the group of Reform Rabbis broke the conventions that have been worked out. When informed that they had crossed a line, they didn’t return, but continued. I can’t tell if this is a religious issue  or just another instance of the Ugly American, but it really doesn’t matter. Even though we may not all agree with the way things are done at the western wall, there IS a workable balance. Anyone who has been the Wall will recognize it – especially if they are open minded and willing to look at all of the points of view. Everyone gives a little, and by doing so, everyone manages to share. When a group enters and tips the scales, they should expect to be asked to honor the local traditions. Jewish law (all Jewish law, not just orthodox) requires it – local traditions trump personal preferences.

It has been interesting to read the flurry of discussions on this topic – almost all of them are the typical knee-jerk “those Orthodox guys are crazy! they don’t own the wall etc. etc. etc.”. The real issue isn’t who owns the wall, or even what is or is not acceptable at the wall. The issue is “Is it OK to flaunt local traditions and agreements simply because you prefer to do things differently”. In my opinion, the answer is a definite, strong, and emphatic  “NO”. The Reform Rabbis were 100% wrong. They failed to follow the local norms and traditions (which allow all Jews to share the wall), and when informed that they were had violated the local mores, refused to back down. In this case, the Orthodox were simply requesting that the visitors respect established rules and agreements. The Reform Rabbis don’t have an ethical or moral leg to stand on.

Adventures in airplane cuisine

Ah the joys of international cuisine – especially on airplanes.

On a recent trip from Tel Aviv to Manchester, NH, I had the ultimate airplane food experience.

You see, on a trip like this (Tel Aviv to London to Dulles (Wash DC) to Manchester), you can expect to spend an entire day in airplanes and airports. That means that you’re stuck eating airplane food and/or grossly overpriced fast food at the terminal. If you bother to try and bring anything resembling real food with you on an international flight, plan on having it taken away at the first security and/or customs checkpoint.

Having resigned myself to a day of Bad Food, I figured I;d make the best of it, and request kosher meals o the flights. For those of you not in the know, the kosher meals are almost always a lot better than the normal airplane fare. There are a couple of noted exceptions (British Airways is one), but they are rare.

So, come breakfast time (Tel Aviv to London – about 5.5 hours of airtime), I get breakfast. Things are looking up. While everyone else if facing some sort of quiche sandwich, I’ve got a hot cheese omelet, fresh bagel, cream cheese, fruit and orange juice. Nice. For a while.  They say payback is a bitch, and this time, I got paid back in spades. Apparently, there was something a bit dodgy in my breakfast, because a half hour after eating, I was feeling a bit queasy. This in itself is rather unusual. Having traveled extensively in the third world, and having done my time in both the army and college dining halls, it takes a lot to get my stomach going. Whatever was in breakfast did it. After a quick dash to the lavatory (try that sometime on an airplane), and a few minutes returning my breakfast, I felt like crap. Major crap. Apparently, I looked like crap too, because as I staggered back towards my seat (being incapable of anything resembling a dash, or even normal airplane stumble) one of the stewardesses asked me if I was OK.

I explained that I wasn’t feeling to well, and she helped me to my seat, then spent the next 3 hours trying to keep me supplied with barf backs, napkins and water,as well as periodic assistance to get back to the bathroom to attempt to clean myself up. She also had the grace to find other seats for the people sitting next to me, for which I am eternally grateful.

On arrival at Heathrow (London) airport, they took me directly to the infirmary, where they decided that I had definitely got a good case of some sort of food poisoning. Apparently, it was a blessing that my system decided to purge so quickly. According to the doc that was taking care of me, it was very likely that whatever it was that hit me didn’t get the chance to make into my lower GI, so my emissions didn’t expand to the nether regions. I hate to think of taking a long flight with a major case of the trots. In any case, they were very nice, and sent someone off to arrange for ensuring that my connections were still on time (I had a 4 hour layover at Heathrow), and did a very nice job of taking care of me. Meaning that they ran a bunch of tests, made sure I had quick access to a basin, and made soothing noises. For some reason, the Brits seem to be extremely good at soothing noises and compassion. Not sure how, but they are. They were cute too. I think next time I need to spend time in hospital, I’ll see what I can do about getting to the UK…

Anyway, they offered to keep me overnight to see if I would improve, but I didn’t really want to – I wanted to be home. Instead, they offered to dose me up so that I would pass out for the next leg of my trip (from London to DC – 7 1/2 hours of airtime), and hope that I’d feel better by then. They escorted me through the security checks (easiest check I’ve been through in years), helped me onto the plane, and tucked me in. They even managed to make sure I had 2 adjoining seats so I could lie down. I felt kinda bad about that, because I know there was a bunch of people on standby, but I wasn’t going to argue…

The flight crew were great on this leg too. Whenever I woke up to turn over (probably about once an hour – those seats just are not meant to hold a 6’2″ person), they would be right there with a cup of ice and ginger ale, and asking if there was anything I wanted. When I finally woke up more or less for real, there was still about an hour left in the flight. I was actually feeling more or less human. The flight crew came up with a can of kosher chicken broth (I can only imagine that someone onthe ground planned ahead, because I can’t imagine that is anormal airplane stock item), and some toast. I nibbled, it stayed down, and I felt increasingly more human.

I managed the connection through Dulles with only minor assistance, and by the time I got to Manchester, I was tired, but feeling more or less OK. I even ate the snack on the flight.

So, all told, not the most fun I’ve ever had on a long plane flight, but I have to hand it to the staff all along the way – I’ve never been treated better (at least not in an airport/airplane). No matter how cold, impersonal, and detached they may be for “normal” passengers, the entire set of people I dealt with – 3 sets of air crew, ground and medical crew at Heathrow and Ground Crew at Dulles – were wonderful.

The really surprising thing: the Bad Breakfast was on BMI – an airline that normally has very good food and service. The last 2 legs of my flight (London to DC to Manchester) were on United – an airline that I’ve had innumerable problems with, and who have always been my last choice. I can’t blame BMI (too much) – mistakes happen, and because the food was kosher, it was double sealed, so all they do is pop it into the microwave, and serve (still sealed). United, however, has completely redeemed itself. I can deal with the “normal” treatment (no matter how unpleasant it may be) knowing that when it really matters, they are amazing.

So, to any of you who may be airline or airport crew: my thanks. To those of you who fly, I hope you never end up in a situation like this, but if you do, I think you’re in for a pleasant surprise (if such a thing is possible in those circumstances)…

The Golan Heights

Ok, so after a rainy, cold (for Israel) shabbat, we decided to spend a rainy, cold Sunday cruising around the northern part of the country. We were staying at a kibbutz on the west side of lake Kinaret, so we decided to follow the shore around the south side, then wander north and see  what we found.

Of course, we found the Golan Heights. After an amazing set of switchbacks and steep uphill climbs, we found ourselves on a fairly typical mountain plateau. Fairly flat, a bit more lush than the surrounding country, and (surprise) sunny. we had driven up out of the rain.

The Golan is beautiful. Exactly what I expected as far as scenery is concerned. However, knowing the history of the region, there were a few things that sort of jumped out at me. The first was the observation that a few Apache helicopters could completely control the entire area. Armor, Israel’s (and Syria’s) traditional base tactical units wouldn’t stand a chance up here if there wasn’t significant air cover to keep the enemies air-born tank killers from engaging. The next thing that hit hard was the fact that as we drove, I kept seeing what were clearly infantry stations – the equivalent of trenches in the second world war. They were everywhere.

Now, I am hardly a military-type person. I did my gig in the army to pay for college (my experience in prostitution), was unlicky enough to land in a war, but lucky enough for it to have been a fairly small one that most people have already forgotten. Cruising through the Golan, and seeing all the clearly military leftovers brought a lot of it back. It wasn’t horrible, or mind-bending, or any of the Hollywood versions of what vets go through, but it was definitely disturbing. I found myself looking out the car window checking out cover, laying out fields of fire, and evaluating sites for defensibility.

The really odd bit was that as we drove back down out of the Golan it didn’t stop. All the way back home, I was surveying the landscape as a soldier. Once I got close to home, and had stopped at the grocery, it had cleared out, but it was pretty odd. I have to say, I can’t imagine living there – Israel is making a lot of noise about giving back to Syria (a mistake in my opinion), but regardless of what happens, I don’t think it will be particularly stable in the long run. To be fair, it HAS been very quiet for forty years (since Israel captured it in the Yom Kippur War). Of  course the strategic value of having high ground fro artillery is not particularly relevant in the world of rockets (not completely irrelevant, but not as important as it used to be). The big issue now is that returning the Golan would give Syria access to the waters of lake Kinaret, which is already being drained at an alarming rate.

One more political issue around here that really doesn’t have an answer….