Wednesday, August 31, 2005
The sensible answer that Prager offers is that we are misunderstanding this fundamental Commandment to think it has to do with mere figures of speech. Going back to the original Hebrew, he translates the Commandment as "do not carry the name of the Lord thy God in vain". Not "take" or "invoke" the name, but carry it, lift it up. Like a flag. Prager's interpretation is that the Commandment proscribes committing evil acts in the name of the Lord. (The New International Version gets pretty close with their translation "You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God".) With this interpretation, Prager then points the finger at those who commit acts of terror in the name of religion. He notes that while the Nazis committed murder (violating the Sixth Commandment), Islamist terrorists violate not only the Sixth but the Third (the unforgiveable) Commandment, as they not only kill people but drag G-d's name into it.
His interpretation makes a lot of sense to me, especially in the context of the Bible at large. If you read the Prophets, one of the things they most railed against was religious hypocrisy, people going through pious motions and ostentatiously conforming to the "jots and tittles" of the Law while neglecting its fundamental spirit. Likewise, if you read the Gospels and the Epistles, one of the things that Jesus (and Paul) berated people for was religious hypocrisy. The Pharisees are called out for such hypocrisy so often in the Gospels that their name has become synonymous with it. It thus seems completely convincing that the Third Commandment -- the unforgiveable Commandment -- proscribes not swearing but religious hypocrisy.
No one should dispute that religious terrorism is the nadir of Third Commandment violations, and the lowest ring of Hell is surely reserved for them. But it seems clear to me that the Third Commandment applies not just to atrocities but to general religious hypocrisy. And G-d knows there are plenty of Pharisees running around, as many today as when Christ was on earth, equally involved in politics, but with their insidious influence compounded by modern media. Sadly, it's not hard to think of flagrant Third Commandment violaters among us. Just recently, Pat Robertson made headlines by advocating violation of the Sixth Commandment (recommending the assassination of Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez), but it was his Third Commandment violation that made it a headline. And who can forget the appalling remarks of Jerry Falwell in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, blaming it on the ACLU, pagans, "abortionists", feminists, gays and lesbians. And surely there's a special place in Hell for the Rev. Fred Phelps and his followers, who are now picketing the funerals of soldiers. These so-called Christians do more violence to the reputation of Christianity (and by implication G-d Himself) than any pagan, feminist, or gay man ever could. I can see now how violations of the Third Commandment make even Saints and Prophets explode with anger, and how even G-d might find it impossible to forgive.
Monday, August 29, 2005
Thursday, August 25, 2005
Dear Senator Scott,If you are a Californian, please take a moment to contact your state Senator.
I don't often take the time to write to you on legislation, but AB 849 (Religious Freedom & Civil Marriage Protection Act) is very important to me, and also to countless gay men and lesbians throughout the state of California. My husband and I had a wedding ceremony four years ago, and consider ourselves married in every sense but the legal one. We are recognized as a married couple by our family, friends, neighbors, co-workers, and fellow church members. More and more Californians are coming to realize that discrimination against same-sex couples in marriage law is as wrong as the anti-miscegenation laws of decades past. In fact, a California Superior Court judge has ruled as much, although legal appeals will keep the final outcome tied up for another couple of years. However, I am confident that the California Supreme Court will do the right thing when the time comes, and rule same-sex marriage discrimination as unconstitutional. Meanwhile, the California legislature could just wait for the Supreme Court, but it would be much better for the legislature to make a decisive stand for justice on this issue. California was one of the earliest states to legalize inter-racial marriage, and I would be proud to see California take a leading role in legalizing same-sex marriage. The opportunity before you is a historic one, and in voting for AB 849 when it comes before you next week, you should be confident in being on the right side of history. I hope you will give this bill your full support.
Wednesday, August 24, 2005
Tuesday, August 23, 2005
In another case, "K.M. vs. E.G.", the two women had arranged that one woman's ovum would be artificially inseminated and planted in the other woman to bear their child, so that both women would have some biological relationship to their child. Later when they separated, the birth mother attempted to shut out the egg-donor mother, mostly based on the fact that the egg-donor mother had signed away her legal parental rights as part of the standard egg donation procedures at the fertility clinic that performed the procedure. Not so fast, ruled the Court. This child was conceived by the active intention and participation of both women, and was held out as their child, therefore both women are parents. "We perceive no reason why both parents of a child cannot be women," said the Court.
In the third case, the two women had a written pre-birth agreement to share parental rights and responsibilities, which the biological parent later tried to get out of. The Court noted the strong public policy interest "favoring that a child has two parents rather than one." In each of these cases, the Court built on a body of common law that has been built up in cases regarding unmarried heterosexual parents, and found no reason not to apply the same standards to same-sex couples. These are pro-family decisions in that they defend the best interest of the children, and enjoin parental responsibility. And they underscore not only the reasonableness but the necessity to allow same-sex marriage, in order to better protect same-sex families raising children. (In the meantime, shame on those who would cynically abuse the lack of legal same-sex marriage to try to dodge their parental responsibilities. A deadbeat is a deadbeat, straight or gay.)
Sunday, August 21, 2005
Last night we saw March of the Penguins, a documentary about the Emperor penguin. The film provides an informative documentary about the life of these extraordinary creatures, told in a kind of story form, following their life through the course of a yearlong mating cycle. What these penguins go through to perpetuate themselves is simply amazing, and even inspiring. The film does a great job of presenting the extreme environment they inhabit, and the obstacles the penguins surmount in order to produce and raise their young. The film also has no qualms about humanizing the penguins, which is not difficult given some of their behavior traits. The penguins choose a mate each year, and remain monogamous for that year. Their courtship is cute, and there are some very sweet shots of penguin couples nuzzling. The successful raising of a penguin chick requires an elaborate ritual of great hardship and sacrifice by the parents, as well as the cooperation of the penguin "community", and there are a number of critical points where things can go wrong. It is adorable to see the footage of tiny penguin chicks being born, taking their first steps, and growing up. It is inspirational to see the sacrifice and cooperation of the parents to raise their chick (going to extraordinary lengths to bring it food), and the cooperation of the colony (such as huddling together to survive the worst storms, letting everyone have a turn in the center of the huddle). And it is very moving to see the expressions of anguish when a parent loses its chick to the elements.
It may be inaccurate to attribute emotions to animals, but some of their expressions seem incredibly emotional (and the editing and narration consciously foster an anthropomorphic viewpoint). While it may be unscientific to project human emotions onto animals, I see nothing wrong in anthropomorphizing certain animal behavior where it seems to provide an admirable example of desirable human characteristics, such as family bonding, self-sacrifice, and community cooperation. While animal behavior per se is no basis for human morality, if watching penguins can inspire us to be better humans, I think that's all good. This may suggest that these are good attributes for facing hardship, and (the other side of the same coin) that hardship fosters these attributes.
The film is an unusual moviehouse offering. While I've adored penguins as long as I can remember, George was less enthusiastic about spending a Saturday night seeing a documentary. ("Why go to the theater when we can get that sort of thing staying home and watching the National Geographic channel?") Nonetheless, we'd heard positive reviews from a number of friends who had seen it. I think it may be the humanizing viewpoint that sets this apart from your ordinary documentary, and makes it so appealing. The story-like narration, read by Morgan Freeman, added to that. Not to mention, imagining what the filmmakers had to go through in order to obtain the footage that they did adds to the appreciation of the extraordinary quality of this film. The stars are the penguins themselves, with Mother Nature getting credit for the set design, as many shots showcased the stark beauty of the Antarctic.
The amazing creatures presented in this film may provide interesting fodder for contemplating the evolution versus "intelligent design" debate. What these penguins go through to perpetuate themselves is nothing short of incredible, and the whole cycle is incredibly fragile. That's certainly something one could point to and ask "how could something like that possibly have arisen out of random mutation?" On the other hand, one would certainly wonder how and why an "intelligent designer" would have designed such a precarious and improbable life form, whose hardships seem almost cruel if intentionally designed. The fragility of their life pattern also makes me worry whether and how they will survive global warming. In any event, this film should delight you, might leave you thinking, and may even inspire you.
Wednesday, August 17, 2005
Tuesday, August 16, 2005
The entire reading covers the extensive wanderings and trials of Abram, basically going for 24 more years before G-d finally fulfills his promise of a son to Abraham (as he was renamed) and his wife Sarah. (Abraham was 99 years old and Sarah 90 when she conceived their first child.) The second lesson is that G-d's promise is eventually kept, but you may have to endure a long period of setbacks and faith in the yet-to-be-fulfilled, and it may not be fulfilled in just the way you expect.
It's also worth noting that this reading tells us of the birth of Ishmael, son of Abram by Sarai's handmaid Hagar. While Abraham's son Isaac is the patriarch of the Jewish people, his other son Ishmael is the patriarch of the Muslim people. While G-d promises to make the children of Isaac His covenant people, He also promises to bless Ishmael, and to make him a great nation. Lesson three is that the Jews and Muslims are cousins and kinsmen. It is timely to remember that.
The reading also relates Abram first coming into the new lands with his brother Lot, and how the land was not enough to support both their flocks, and there was fighting between their herdsmen.
Abram said to Lot: "Let there be no strife between you and me, between my herdsmen and yours, for we are kinsmen. Is not the whole land before you? Let us separate: if you go north, I will go south; and if you go south, I will go north." -- Genesis 13:8-9The final lesson is that wisdom sometimes requires a little distance to preserve peace among relatives.
Sunday, August 14, 2005
If you've ever read the Old Testament history of the Jewish people, you'll recall that it's a long account of G-d smiting the enemies of the Jews, alternating with G-d allowing the enemies to smite the Jews when they grow complacent, hypocritical, and forget about G-d. When the Jews were first given the land of Israel, they built a great Temple according to G-d's instructions. In 586 BCE, when the Babylonians conquered Israel and dragged the Jews off into a long captivity, the 9th of Av was the day that the Temple was destroyed. Eventually, when the Persians sacked the Babylonians, the Jews were allowed to return to Israel, and the Temple was rebuilt. Much later, in 70 CE, when the Jews attempted to rebel against Roman occupation, the Romans destroyed the second Temple. This also happened on the 9th of Av. (The famous "wailing wall" in Jerusalem is a remnant of the destroyed Temple.) In 135 CE, again on the 9th of Av, the Romans vanquished the last outpost of Jewish rebels, and Jews were scattered around the world. One of the better places for Jews to end up, at least for many centuries, was Spain, which under Moorish influence had a relatively tolerant coexistence of Christians, Muslims, and Jews. But eventually there arose the Spanish Inquisition, and by royal edict all Jews (and Muslims) were expelled from Spain, with the last Jew to be off of Spanish soil by a certain date in 1492. Yup, 9th of Av once again. (As Tevye may have said, only the Chosen People get to be so blessed.)
This year, Tisha b'Av will be fraught with extra significance because as soon as the holiday ends, the Israeli government is scheduled to begin the controversial evacuation of the Gaza (and a few West Bank) settlements. While this move is apparently supported by the majority of Israeli citizens, as well as majority of US Jews, it is a highly divisive and emotional issue, and those who oppose it do so vehemently. It is inherent that the settlers who inhabited these outpost settlements were courageous, determined, and motivated by either a political patriotic form of Zionism or a religiously-motivated Zionism. For the political Zionists, I hope that just as they moved to the settlements in the first place for the good of the state of Israel, they can now voluntarily pull up their stakes and move, also for the good of the state of Israel. And in fact, some of them have, although political opinions differ as to whether the pull-out is indeed in the best interests of the state. For the religious Zionists, there seems no room for compromise. They are there because the Torah tells them that G-d gave all of the land of Israel to the Jews. As some have said, if we pack up and quit Gush Katif (one of the orthodox Gaza settlements), why not pack up and quit Jerusalem, Haifa, and the rest of Israel as well? Alas, it's hard to imagine how to reconcile that kind of attitude with any practical path toward peace or even security for Israel (short of counting on G-d to smite all of Israel's enemies, which doesn't appear to be His present intention). Thus, for some the Gaza evacuations will be seen as yet another catastrophe to fall on Tisha b'Av, while for others it will be accepted as part of Israel's trying to make its way forward given the realities of the world.
Saturday, August 13, 2005
Friday, August 12, 2005
Wednesday, August 10, 2005
Director Wolfgang Peterson has done a good job of crafting this film as an epic. The scenes of the walled city of Troy, the masses of Greek ships at sea, and the battles were well worthy of big-screen viewing. And the adaptation does well in capturing the sense of great heroes waging the battle amidst the thousands of troops, and the classic sense of honor among them. Amidst the epic, he skilfully develops a number of characters. The romantic tension between Achilles and Briseis is a nice invention, with each coming to love and admire the other's strength of character. Achilles is rightly portrayed as both noble (as we see not only with his treatment of his captive Briseis, but also his concern for his "cousin" and for his men) and also egoistic, a bit of a pouty prima donna. Agamemnon is painted as political and power-craving, and the dynamic between the two is nicely done. Brad Pitt does an outstanding job portraying the moody hero, and the film does not disappoint those who would go just to get a good look at this gorgeous actor in action. (He has seriously worked out for this role, and it shows.) Orlando Bloom plays a naturally impetuous Paris who struggles to become responsible in the end. All in all, some great performances, a visual feast, a good solid story with engaging characters, and a memorable adaptation of a classic work.
Monday, August 08, 2005
I walked down to the middle of the swamp after meeting. When shall I walk with you again. Oh that you were here or I were there if only for an hour. Would to God that you were with me forever.The love story is sweet, but even more fascinating is the window into the life of a community practicing (and for a good while succeeding) what their founder, John H. Noyes, termed "Bible communism". Growing out of the American "religious awakening" of the 1830s and 1840s, Noyes was part of a movement called Perfectionism, a peculiar spin on Christianity that strove to live lives as sin-free as possible, and sought to create the "new Jerusalem" on earth (in this particular instance, on a farm in central New York state). Noyes' vision included a thorough-going communism in which everyone lived and worked for the good of the community. The community was conceived as one large family to such an extent that they considered all adult members as participating in one "complex marriage". While Puritanism informed the Oneida work ethic, Noyes had completely novel ideas about sex. A strong distinction was made between "progenitive" sex and "amative" sex, with the latter being performed using a technique in which the Oneida men trained themselves to be satisfied with a sexual interaction stopping short of the natural climax. While progenitive sex was planned and limited, "amative" sex was encouraged among the community members as a form of interpersonal community-building, with a variety of partners being preferable. Though it sounds at first like 1960s "free love", it really wasn't that kind of orgy. Though the acts themselves were done in private, these "communications" (as they were euphemistically called) were all negotiated in public light and through third parties, and seemed for the most part to effectively support the communitarian spirit. Getting too attached to any one person, however, was discouraged, as that was seen as selfish and working against the communitarian spirit. (And it was there that Victor and Mary ran afoul.) Similarly, children (the product of selectively planned progenitive "communications") belonged to the community family and were raised communally.
Though the community eventually collapsed in the end of the 1870s for a variety of reasons including a leadership crisis when the founder's less charismatic son tried to assert some new and different philosophy, it did thrive for some three decades, growing from 50 people in 1848 to over 200 in 1868. During that time, the community became economically quite successful, and there are some interesting observations to be made in that regard. One of the ingredients to their success was the ethic for continuous improvement, a spiritual goal that seemed to spill over into their practical life as well. The practice of arts, crafts, and ongoing education were encouraged, with individuals encouraged to seek out their particular interests and aptitudes. The communitarian principle was that individualistic self-improvement and self-fulfillment would naturally align with making the community stronger and better. This was also combined with a philosophy of maximum flexibility in work roles, which included the rotation of everyone through various jobs and duties, and occasional widescale redeployment on large tasks. For example, when a harvest was to be brought in, everyone might take a day off from their current positions and the whole colony would tackle the harvest, getting it done much more quickly and effectively. Hard work was made social and fun wherever possible. I think a modern economist would admire the "labor liquidity" embodied in their approach of highly fluid redeployment of workers as needed, combined with continual skill development. (History has shown that the communist central planning model fails badly at the national level, but I think with the right ethic some communal principles can be quite effective in small to medium-sized organizations, as Oneida proves a good example.)
When Victor Hawley's diary was recorded (1876-77), the community was starting to suffer tensions due in part to the introduction of new philosophical ideas. The founder's son Theodore Noyes was fascinated by eugenics and brought the notion (termed "stirpiculture") to Oneida, in which a committee of elders started to dictate who could make babies with whom. The elder Noyes, through philosophical conviction and personal charisma, had been able to maintain a happy balance that evaded his son, and some of his ideas brought the Orwellian tensions to the surface, with Victor Hawley and Mary Jones playing the role of Winston and Julia (108 years early). The book not only tells a nice love story, but its socio-historical context provides an intriguing foil for currently relevant issues such as the purpose of sex and marriage, and the struggle to resolve the personal versus the communal.
Saturday, August 06, 2005
Wednesday, August 03, 2005
Ben Karmelich had some definite ideas about how to measure a life. He firmly believed in the value of a good education. The first in his family to go to college, he graduated from UC Berkeley and took graduate courses at USC. Years later, in his 60's, he spent part of a summer taking classes at Oxford, just for the pleasure of broadening his education.
He also believed in working hard and becoming successful. The child of a Croatian immigrant fisherman who died when Ben was 18, he worked his own way through college while helping to support his mother and younger siblings. After college, he worked in banks, working his way up to branch manager. In 1968, he started his own bank with 3 employees, and when he retired in 1993, his bank had 11 branches, 200 employees, and 25 consecutive years of profit and growth.
Most importantly, he believed in family. His family was his greatest joy, and his idea of success was to be happily married, to have children, and to raise his children to be well-educated, successful, happily married, and have children of their own. Ben enjoyed 47 years of happy marriage. Through his loving support and inspirational example, all of his four sons are very successful in their careers, and Ben lived to know six grandchildren from three of his sons. And just days before he died, Ben learned that his son Mark and Mark's wife Heather were expecting their first child. At the funeral, there were collages of photos from Ben's life, and especially in the ones from his sons' weddings, you could just see him beaming. I can only imagine how filled with joy he was at Mark and Heather's news.
One might also measure a life by how many people come to your funeral. Ben was kind, generous, and warm-hearted, and he touched the lives of many people, through his good treatment of his employees and customers, through his involvement in a litany of community organizations, and through his genuine interest in the lives of his extended family and many friends. Yesterday at the funeral, there were nearly 400 people to attest to the esteem in which he was held, including some who traveled great distances just to be there.
I'd say with some confidence that Ben Karmelich knew how to measure a life, and he was blessed to live his life to his fullest measures. He was not only blessed, but he was a blessing to those who knew him. His clear values, his example of living out his values, and his great joy in living such a life are an inspiration worth striving for.