Sunday, July 1, 2012

Thousands of Days

I was on the subway with a tourist, and when the subway went above ground someone pointed out some famous New York City landmarks.  Her eyes went wide like saucers.  "Wow, it's the Statue of Liberty!" "Wow, it's the Brooklyn Bridge!"

Afterwards, I was thinking about how religious people talk about all the miracles done by an invisible G-d.  The human body is complicated.  Stars and planets are pretty cool.  When you're young everything has that new-car shine to it, but when you get older it's only natural to take these things for granted.

A new sports bar opened up a few blocks from my house.  My brother's getting married on Wednesday.  What about the rest of us who don't have any red-letter events going on in our lives?

A friend posted on Facebook that we're getting an extra leap second this weekend.  He linked to a funny article about all the things that you could do in a second.  

I could be traveling 792 feet per second if I were on an airplane.  But seriously, who hops on a plane for the sole purpose of going fast and with no interest in their destination at all?
Bypasses are devices that allow some people to dash from point A to point B very fast while other people dash from point B to point A very fast. People living at point C, being a point directly in between, are often given to wonder what's so great about point A that so many people from point B are so keen to get there, and what's so great about point B that so many people from point A are so keen to get there.
-- Douglas Adams, "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy"
And then I thought about the episode "Orpheus 3.3" of "21 Jump Street," where Officer Hanson is obsessed with the surveillance videotape of his girlfriend's killing, thinking he could have saved her if he would have done something different.
Officer Judy Hoffs: How many times have you seen this? 
Officer Tom Hanson: 122 times... but I don't watch the whole tape. I watch 3.3 seconds. 3.3 seconds that slipped through my fingers. 3.3 seconds where I could've done a thousand different things. But I didn't move. Do you know how many things you can do in 3.3 seconds? You can take off your shoes, pop a beer, and shoot someone in 3.3 seconds. 
The play "Rent" deals a lot with issues of death and mortality, and the importance of making the most of the time we have.  One of my favorite lines is: "Why are entire years strewn on the cutting-room floor of memory when single frames of one magic night forever flicker in close-up on the 3D IMAX of my mind?"

In the "Stargate" episode "Brief Candle," the main characters are trapped on a world where everyone ages so quickly that the typical lifespan is only a few months.
O'Neill: I've learned so much from you. I'll treasure every day of my life because of you. 
Kynthia: For thousands of days? 
O'Neill: I sure hope so. 
Kynthia: That is almost forever. 
O'Neill: Almost. 
I still don't have any simple answers, but I think I've clarified the question.  How do you live as an adult without losing the curiosity of a child? 

One thing all these examples have in common is that the character in question learns what he needs through relationships, not by sitting alone and thinking about his problems.  For those who want something concrete and tangible to do, I recommend reading "Flowers for Algernon" by Daniel Keyes, or listening to "Least Complicated," by Indigo Girls.  For something more emotional, you can read the messages of love sent by people who died on September 11, 2001.  For something transcendentally beautiful, there is a Haagen Dazs commercial.  If you're a scientist or an atheist, try Brian Greene's op-ed in "The New York Times."

Whatever you end up doing, when you're done, find someone who is important to you and tell them that you care about them.  And then go out and have fun.  You probably still have thousands of days left.  Make the most of them.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

How to Argue with G-d (Part 1)

In chapter 18 of Genesis, G-d decides that the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah are wicked and need to be destroyed, and Abraham argues on their behalf.  How did Abraham know that he was supposed to argue?

First we'll examine the text of Genesis:
And Abraham drew near and said, "Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Perhaps there are fifty righteous within the city? ... Far be it from you ... to slay the righteous with the wicked ... [S]hall the judge of all the earth not do justice?" (Genesis 18:23-25)
Now we'll jump to Dr. David Keirsey's description of the "Architect" personality type, which correlates to Myers-Briggs personality type INTP:
Architects ... show the greatest precision in thought and speech of all the types. They tend to see distinctions and inconsistencies instantaneously, and can detect contradictions no matter when or where they were made. [1]
Naturally, I'll be making the case that Abraham was an INTP.  For me, the real question is: "Under what circumstances is it ok to argue with G-d?"

Let's back up a bit and see what was going on in the Bible immediately before Abraham says this.
And G-d said: "Shall I hide from Abraham what I am doing, seeing that Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him?  For I have known him, to the end that he may command his children and his household after him, that they may keep the way of the L-rd, to do righteousness and justice ...

And G-d said: "Behold, the cry of Sodom and Gomorrah is great, and their sin is exceeding grievous.  I will descend now and see whether they have done altogether according to the cry of it, which is come unto me, and if not, I will know."

And the men turned from there and went toward Sodom, but Abraham stood before G-d.  And Abraham drew near and said: "Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked?" (Genesis 18:17-23)
We can see an orderly progression in the text:
  • First section.  G-d explains his logic to the reader.  G-d has already blessed Abraham that he will become a great nation.  Abraham has already demonstrated that he wants to do righteousness and justice.  G-d intentionally sets up a situation where Abraham will get a chance to see what it means to do "righteousness and justice" in practice.
  • Second section. G-d speaks aloud to Abraham and the men, saying that he plans to "descend" and judge the people of Sodom and Gomorrah. [2]
  • Third section.  The other men leave, and Abraham stands alone before G-d.  Abraham chooses to step forward. [3]
On the one hand, it takes a lot of courage for Abraham to argue his case.  On the other hand, what was he supposed to do?  If G-d wanted to strike down the cities right away he would have left!

Here we have an important lesson: G-d is teaching Abraham nonverbally how to behave.  G-d intentionally sets up a situation where Abraham would have a choice of whether or not to argue, but G-d doesn't make the test too hard.

In the next part of the series, we will examine Abraham's words in more depth, as well as discuss some of the errors that people commonly make in their own arguments.  We will also strengthen the connection to the INTP personality type, and use this personality type to explain other incidents in Abraham's life.


[2] G-d also "descends" to judge the builders of the Tower of Babel.  (Genesis 11:5)

[3] The word "to step forward" also shows up when Judah stands up to Joseph to defend Benjamin.  (Genesis 44:18) Joseph is second-in-command to the Pharaoh at the time, and Judah risks his life to save his brother.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Maybe We're Just Not Orthodox

Last week my friend Julie Sugar posted a very touching article  describing the tension she feels between her commitment to human values and her commitment to Orthodox Judaism.

The official position of the Orthodox Union is that "Jewish law is unequivocal in opposing same sex relationships . . . . [W]e, as Orthodox Jewish leaders, oppose any effort to change the definition of marriage to include same sex unions."  While I disagree with them, I don't claim that my own views are representative of Orthodox Judaism.  And I don't seriously expect the Orthodox Union to compromise its principles in response to public pressure.

According to the Wikipedia article on "Homosexuality and Judaism":
[A]ll of Orthodox Judaism puts certain core homosexual acts ... in the category of yehareg ve'al ya'avor, "die rather than transgress", the small category of Biblically-prohibited acts ... which an Orthodox Jew is obligated ... to die rather than do.
That sounds pretty definitive to me.  Just for the sake of argument, let's assume that these "core homosexual acts" are sins.  And we'll also assume that every letter in the Five Books of Moses was written by G-d.  Now the challenge (for me) becomes how to transform Orthodox Judaism so that it can live in peace and harmony with the gay people.

The prohibition against male homosexual relations is in Leviticus 18:22. "You shall not lie with a man as one lies with a woman; it is an abomination."  A few verses earlier the Torah says: "You shall not approach a woman in her time of unclean separation, to uncover her nakedness." (Leviticus 18:19)
According to "Jew in the City":
"[This] is a mitzvah, or commandment from the Torah, that says that during a woman's monthly cycle, plus seven days after her cycle is completed, a married couple refrains from all physical contact with one another.
These two commandments are both in the "die rather than transgress" category, and both are written in the literal Hebrew text of the Five Books of Moses.  But there is an important difference between them:  one of them is uniformly enforced in the entire Orthodox Jewish community and the other is not.  Male-to-male intimate relations, we are told, are a violation of Torah law and can never be accepted under any circumstances.  But there are plenty of rabbis who consider themselves Orthodox who will marry a couple who don't keep the laws of family purity.

(Edit: I'm not knowledgeable about the process of getting an Orthodox Jewish wedding.  I've been told that an Orthodox Jewish rabbi will require the bride to immerse in a mikvah (ritual bath) before the wedding.  I don't think this invalidates my central argument.  The bride and groom are following the laws of family purity on their wedding day, but they don't necessarily continue to follow those laws for the duration of their marriage.)

In fairness to the rabbis, this is a VERY hard problem.  One option would be to redefine the word "Orthodox" to refer to a much smaller subset of the Jewish community.  If the core values of Orthodox Judaism are that the Torah was written by G-d and what was written by G-d is not negotiable, then maybe a community that flagrantly disregards the laws of family purity shouldn't consider itself to be Orthodox.

Another option would be for Orthodox rabbis to have more stringent standards when deciding whether or not to marry a couple.  This would arguably create more problems than it solves.  The demographic realities are frightening, and I can see why the rabbis are acting as they do.  However, like Gandalf fighting the Balrog, sometimes in life you just have to take a stand and defend it.

The most realistic option, in my view, is to leave the facts on the ground exactly as they are but approach them from a different perspective, with a little more humility and a little less defensiveness.

On the blog "Mayim Rabim", author "Ruchama" makes an interesting suggestion.  If an unmarried man can go on a tefillin date, why can't an unmarried woman observe the laws of family purity?  Specifically, why can't an unmarried woman spend two weeks every month touching men and two weeks not touching men, with all the messiness and complications that that entails?

Short of living in a closed community, there really aren't any easy solutions.  But that shouldn't prevent us from being honest about defending the principles that actually matter.  If a sin is in the category of "die rather than transgress" and it's being ignored on a communal level, either it should be openly acknowledged that this isn't actually a core value, or else people have to stand up and defend it.  Either option is fine with me.  Please pick one.

Friday, March 9, 2012

I started the "Two Things" challenge two days ago.  I used the first two days to buy a plant and a pot for it.  I've been feeling that I want to "put down roots" in a couple of areas of life.  I purposely got bright yellow tulips.  (In chakras, yellow is associated with assertiveness and power.)  According to Feng Shui they are in the "Knowledge and Wisdom" part of my house.

I used other tasks to do bathroom cleaning.  (My bathroom is in the "Wealth and Prosperity" Feng Shui section.)  Today I used one task to drink two glasses of water and the other to finish reading an astrology book.  The water is because my doctor told me I should be drinking six glasses of water a day.  I got to the point where I wasn't having any water at all, which was making me feel really guilty!  I wanted to do something concrete about that.  I am reading the astrology book for a class that I am taking.  I am supposed to read 25 books by October, and so far I have read five.  (It worked out to 25 pages per day the last time I checked.)

My friend Nelly over at has been doing challenges for months, and they say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, so...

I just finished a 16-week challenge to do morning pages every day.  Morning pages are three pages written in longhand on any topic, and are defined in Julia Cameron's book "The Artist's Way."  I ended up missing only one day in the whole 16 weeks.  Yay!

My next challenge is called "Two Things."  Every day I pick two things to do in the morning, and I have to do both of them by the end of the day.  Naturally, these are not intended to be things that will take a lot of time.  Also I'm giving myself the day off on Saturdays and Jewish holidays.  The challenge runs until May 1, 2012.