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    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.

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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.

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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.

Christian Fundies and Evolution – how stupid do you have to be?

Intelligent design, creationism, magic, call it what you will, the christian fundamentalists are at it again (or more accurately:  still). The same folks that have finally admitted that the Earth revolves around the Sun ares till trying to convince folks that creationism is real science. And if they CAN’T convince people that their particular fantasy is real, they’ll do their best to legislate it into existence.

Turns out that there are STILL places where the Fundies swing enough political power to force schools to teach creationism instead of evolution. A few years ago the pope finally admitted that Galileo was right. I guess god has been really busy because it only took him 400 years to get the message to the pope (the pope does, after all, talk to god). That particular message must have gotten lost in all that other important stuff – like how to hide the fact that priests are regularly buggering their alter boys, while pontificating about the evils of homosexuality. Ya know, it takes a LOT of effort to keep that kind of hypocrisy under cover, and even god had his hands full keeping all those alter boys shut up. ( I could go on for pages, but its just too easy to find the many places that the fundies get it wrong, and then make idiots of themselves trying to cover it up or justify it, so back to evolution.)

So, anyway, it turns out that in March the Texas School Board approved a new set of “science ” standards that allows the fundies to teach that evolution simply can’t be real because (get this) it is too complex. Yep, after having been shot down in every rational venue they’ve tried, the fundies have fallen back on the “I can’t understand it, so it CAN’T be true”. Of course, the whole basis of christian fundamentalism is to simply accept what you’re told without any thought or reality checks, so I guess this shouldn’t be a surprise. After all, these folks just realized that the Earth isn’t the center of the universe. Of course, the fault doesn’t lie entirely with the fundies. The folks on the school board, those that elected them, and pretty much anyone that happens to live in the state of Texas holds some responsibility. Makes you wonder how Texas manages to survive – either the rational people have all fled, or they’re so scared of the fundies that they stay quiet. Course, when they’re competing with idiots like these, it probably also means that they’re rich enough to send their kids to private school (where they’ll get something that resembles an education), and let the fundies wallow in their ignorance. If this is allowed to continue, we have potential for a truly ironic situation: social evolution driving the fundies into extinction. Think about it. In today’s world, you need to be able to operate at SOME level of rationality. The fundies in Texas are forcing their schools to teach fantasy, so the smart families are going to send their kids to private school, leaving the fundies in the schools that teach the kids that ANYTHING they believe is real. After a while, those kids will grow up, and base their decisions on the stuff they learned in school. “Really, if I just pray hard enough, god will fix my hard drive” “god will find me a job” “Don’t worry Timmy, god told me it was OK, now just drop your pants and bend over”. Meanwhile, the rest of the world will be living in the 21st century, and the fundies will end up living in trailer parks waiting for the next tornado.

And they wonder why the rest of the world is laughing at them. Just god’s will, I guess.

those wacky Christians. Ghandi had it right.

“I love your Christ, but I hate your christians” (slightly paraphrased from the big G).

Speaking as a Jew (actually, as a Jewish Carpenter, I feel particularly qualified to spout on this topic, seeing as I have pretty much all the same qualifications as that Jesus dude…)

Anyway, the whole idea of what being a “christian” means is a good sight different from what Rabbi Jesus suggested. See, Jesus was would today be considered a conservative (or maybe right wing reform) Jew. He took the Torah and ‘modernized’ a couple parts of it – mostly as an intellectual exercise – the same way rabbis have been doing for the past 6000 years (give or take a few). The problem is what happened after he died.  See, there was all this political turmoil, and J’s followers (who still identified themselves as Jews) had a couple of radical rabble rousers, who figured that he small differences between the sects of Judaism (and there were a ton of them -maybe even as many as there are now) presented a pretty cool tool to use to advance their political agenda. The whole “Us” and “Them” concept. Politicians have been using it for ages – from Bush, t0 the Muslim Jihadists, to the Nazis, to pretty much every political leader in the history of the modern world (including our own revolutionary war folks, and the folks on both sides of the civil war, war of 1812, Spanish American war, etc. etc. etc.).  So, as these rabble rousers started to gain a foothold, they felt that it was time to start identifying themselves as something other than Jews (this wasn’t until a few hundred years after the Big J bit it).

So, these guys get together, write a collection of Jesus’ “sermons.” Really, after 100+ years of political posturing, they hadn’t changed a bit, and were still the same exact words… Really. trust me on this. I have a college degree, and besides, God told me it was true. Don’t get me started on that whole virgin birth thing – my bet is that either Mary was getting a bit (or maybe a lot) on the side, or Joseph finally got fed up with that whole “saving myself for god” thing, and set her straight. Anyway, suddenly a set of documents appear that really prove that Jesus’ followers are really not Jews (even though J kept insisting that they were, and the4 Jewish population pretty much agreed that they were too). But hey, who cares what reality is when political power is involved? To make a long story short, these guys succeeded. The following few thousand years of “christian” history pretty much continued this trend, with the church completely ignoring any and all of its tenets in order to secure and maintain political power. Holy wars, crusades, even the fun witch hunts within the different sects of christianity make the Muslim Brotherhood look like a couple of guys out on a street corner having an argument. The christians have the blood, terrorism, murder, rape (it’s not rape if the victim isn’t christian – check out your history – particularly during the crusades and medieval period), and otherwise nasty stuff down pat. And when they’re not actively involved, they’re sitting on the sidelines either ignoring, or quietly supporting the actions (recent examples include the vatican’s response to the Holocaust, the KKK, and other hate groups).

So, what IS there to love (or even like) about the christians? There are actually some of them that have managed to bypass the history and teachings of the church, and are dece3nt human beings. ‘Course, that can be said for any group, so it doesn’t really hold much water. Probably the best thing that can be said is that they’ve finally started to realize (as their political power has slowly slipped away) that they have to start playing nice, or they’re going to quietly get laughed into oblivion. They’ve already (in most of the world anyway) slipped from a major political power to a  fringe group that is mostly laughed at. Yes, there are local concentrations of them that continue to cause problems (the wackos in Texas and other parts of the deep south that are still trying to force schools to teach creationism are good examples). Yep, ignorance is the only way to continue to try and force folks to buy the christian point of view. Course, that has ALWAYS been the case – if the masses are too uneducated to actually read the bible and question it, the mother church can fob off whatever blather suits them at the moment. However, for the most part, the truly ‘dedicated’ have faded into the comics page of life.

So there ya go: the basic premises of Jesus’ teachings are pretty much universal, and for the most part taken directly from the Jewish Torah: treat others as you wish to be treated, be accepting of other points of view, and in general just be a decent person. Sounds like most major religions, which is not surprising as the monotheistic religions are the main religions now, and they all originate in Judaism. Maybe that’s why the christians have such a hard time with the Jews – they don’t like to admit that the ‘christian’ ideals are really the same as the Jewish (and by the way, Muslim) ideals. Anyway, christianity has become a great example of a good idea that completely failed in execution. Of course, ‘execution’ is an idea that the christians really liked – they are the only monotheistic religion that has consistently given people the option of “convert or die”…..