The musings of a previously unemployed Jewish Freemason. I write about the job search, about Judaism, and about Freemasonry.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Philosophy and the Question of Evil

Something I wrote from an online discussion group in which I am participating, about Philosophy and the Question of Evil:

The philosophical/theological subject of why evil exists is called theodicy. It presumes the existence of a benevolent Supreme Being, and asks why the Supreme Being, if benevolent, allows evil to exist. Most theodicies are religion-specific. As a Jew, I'm aware of Jewish theodicy, which because of the Holocaust has become very central to Judaism. The book of Job in the Bible is a very old explanation of theodicy, but I'm not sure its conclusions are very satisfying to everyone. I prefer the theodicy of the book of Jonah. Evil has to be confronted, but people have free will to abandon evil and seek to do good. The king of Nineveh repents of his sins and encourages the whole city to repent, and they do. If you think it happens too easily, consider the journey that Jonah has to make to bring his message to Nineveh.

 My personal theodicy is that evil is an inherent by-product of being separated from the One. I'm not separated from the One, but my ego thinks it has an independent existence, and from its perspective, it does to some degree. In three dimensions, my body is not connected to anything larger, but in more dimensions, that ceases to be the case. To the extent that I can find my way back to where I am connected to the One, I retreat from evil. To the extent that societies can find their way back to where they are connected to the One, they retreat from evil.

But I exist in a world of some complexity, and there are a lot of moving pieces that aren't me in my current perspective. Sometimes those moving pieces cause chaos and havoc and destruction, either through human agency or through natural forces, and evil is the result. Evil changes with perspective. It does not have permanency, although it seems to have ubiquity.

That's only my opinion, and very much flavored with my religious convictions. Jesus as a Divine actor in this reality makes the dynamics of Christian theodicy quite different, and Muslim, Buddhist, Sikh, Hindu and ancient Greek theodicies all have their own individual flavors.

But pure philosophy, separated from faith, cannot handle theodicy, as far as I'm aware. Without the idea of a benevolent and loving Supreme Being, there'd be no reason why evil wouldn't exist.

My experiences with philosophy, while enriching, have not been especially grounding. A spiritual practice, especially one in the body, seems to ground me more than philosophy does. Walking without talking, or sitting in meditation or prayer, or martial arts study have been very grounding for me. Exercise in general helps, especially exercise in silence. Mathematics stills my mind as well, especially geometry. The three-volume Dover paperback of Euclid's Elements is a great place to start. Get a ruler, a compass and actually construct the geometric constructions along with the book. The Dover version is annotated by Sir Thomas Heath, who is brilliant. You can get lost in his footnotes. Don't get lost, but enjoy them. Working with a study partner or partner helps.

Philosophy for me begins with Plato's dialogues. Plato is not always right, but he hits all his marks. I would start with the Republic, which is an exploration of Justice. If you can, read it with a friend or with many friends, and get together regularly to discuss it. It is not an accident that Plato's Academy had a geometry pre-requisite. 

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Devarim: See that Good Land

The Book of Deuteronomy (Greek for "second law") is the last book of the Torah. Moses has guided the Children of Israel to Moab, to the East Bank of the Jordan River, and they are ready to cross the river and enter the Promised Land. God has told Moses that he must ascend the mountain on that bank, and die, and that Joshua, son of Nun, will lead the Israelites across the river to their destiny. As a final gesture, he assembles the Children of Israel and makes one last great speech, which is the Book of Deuteronomy.

The Documentary Hypothesis suggests that Deuteronomy was written by a different author than the rest of the Bible, a post-exilic author. It certainly has a different feel than the other books of the Torah. About 70% of the book is a repeat of things in the rest of the Torah, with about 30% new information. The Ten Commandments are repeated here, but are subtly different. Often the rules repeated here have a slightly different spin on them.

The book starts with Moses describing their journey of the last forty years. He does not paint a flattering picture of their conduct, showing how their bickering, idolatry and faithlessness is what contributed to their misfortune. He tells the story about the spies who were chosen to enter the land and report back to the Israelites, and how their faithlessness condemned their generation to die in the wilderness [Deuteronomy 1: 35-39], with the exceptions of Joshua and Caleb. The date of this condemnation is taken to be Tisha B'Av, which is coming up this Saturday (but because it falls on Shabbat this year, will be observed on Sunday).

There is a midrash that at each new camp in the Wilderness, God commanded each of the generation that left Egypt to dig their own graves and lie in them. Each night, they would line up in front of their individual graves, enter them and lie down inside the grave. And each time this was done, a few of them did not emerge from their graves. After 40 years, the graves had consumed them all. By the time they reached the end of the Book of Numbers, none of that generation were left.

Because Moses is addressing a generation of people born in the Wilderness who never knew Egypt, he has to restate the rules to this new generation. He knows that when he finishes talking, he has to die, so Deuteronomy has an urgency as Moses tries to tell these people everything he possibly can that he feels that they need to know.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Logic and Epistemology

You were born with a brain, but you were not born with an owner's manual for that brain. Science tells us that feral children who reach puberty without learning any language never really learn how to think. Thinking is a skill that we have to learn. It is not an inherent ability. More particularly, assessing the truth value of a declarative statement is something that is learned, not something we pick up via osmosis in the course of learning how to talk. How do you know that you know what you claim to know? Seriously, how do you make your case that you actually know to be true what you assert to be true? If you are not asking yourself this question at least once in a while, you might some day have to entertain the notion that you have no idea whether there is any truth to anything you claim to be true. The branch of philosophy which deals with this question is called epistemology. One way to handle epistemological questions is through logic (another is ideology, which will not be discussed in this post, except obliquely).

For the purposes of this post, I am going to make a distinction between symbolic logic and rhetorical logic. Symbolic (or mathematical) logic is a field in mathematics that explores the expressive and deductive power of formal systems. While a fascinating topic, it is highly abstract and not immediately related to the way that people express themselves and make deductions through spoken or written language. For that, we need rhetorical (or informal) logic.

Rhetorical Logic

Rhetorical logic is the analysis of how truth is conveyed through language. Truth is hard to define, but falsehood (especially demonstrable falsehood) is easier to define, so rhetorical logic is usually introduced by teaching the concept of logical fallacies. These are statements that use an argument that is flawed. There are lots of different ways in which an argument can be flawed, but fallacies are usually categorized into two major groups: formal fallacies, or flaws in the form of the argument (regardless of the subject matter of the argument); and informal fallacies, or other kinds of flaws in the argument (usually, but not always, in the content of the argument).

Formal Fallacies

A formal fallacy is a structural non sequitur (Latin for "it does not follow"), or an argument where the conclusion does not follow from its premises. This can happen for a variety of reasons. I'll go over many of the more prevalent:

Appeal to probability: just because something is likely to happen, does not mean that it will happen. "My small child wandered into the street. He must have been killed." Streets have cars, and cars drive fast. Sometimes cars hit people or animals that wander into the street. However, just because it is possible that a child in the street could be hit by a car, that does not mean that it is inevitable that the child was killed.

The Masked Man Fallacy: "I know who my father is. I don't know who the thief is. Therefore, my father cannot be the thief." The problem is that both premises can be simultaneously true even when they refer to the same person. You do not know who the thief is, and even though you know who your father is, your father might be the thief anyway and you might not know that your father and the thief are the same person.

Some specific types of formal fallacies are propositional fallacies, quantification fallacies and formal syllogistic fallacies.

Propositional Fallacies

Affirming a disjunct: "The car is red or the car is large. The car is red. Therefore the car is not large." The problem is that the or in the sentence is not an exclusive or (or xor), but an inclusive or (A or B means one of  a) A, b) B, or c) A-and-B is the case). The car can be large and red, and still have the premise be true.

Affirming the consequent: "Hostile people make Jane feel apprehensive. Alex makes Jane feel apprehensive. Therefore Alex is a hostile person." Alex could make Jane feel apprehensive for reasons that have nothing to do with any hostility on his part.

Denying the antecedent: "If my cat were a person, she would drink water. My cat is not a person. Therefore she cannot drink water." Even though the first premise is false, that does not make the conclusion necessarily false.

Quantification Fallacies

Existential Fallacy: "All unicorns are animals. Therefore some animals are unicorns." Unicorns are an empty subset of animals. An empty subset is still a subset. The quality of being a subset does not infer that the subset is non-empty.

Formal Syllogistic Fallacies

A syllogism is an argument in three parts: a major premise, a minor premise, and a conclusion. A simple example is: "All men are mortal. Aristotle is a man. Therefore, Aristotle is mortal." "All men are mortal" is the major premise, "Aristotle is a man" is the minor premise, and "Aristotle is mortal" is the conclusion. There are a bunch of different types of syllogism:
  • A is a B; B is a C; therefore A is a C.
  • B is not a C; A is a B; therefore A is not a C.
  • B is a C; A is sometimes a B; therefore A is sometimes a C.
  • B is not a C; A is sometimes a B; therefore A is sometimes not a C.
I could keep going here, but I'll stop. There are 24 valid syllogisms in total. If you mess with the structure of a syllogism, you get a syllogistic fallacy.

Affirmative conclusion from a negative premise: "We don't read that kind of trash. People who read that kind of trash cannot appreciate good literature. Therefore, we appreciate good literature." The conclusion does not follow from the premises.

Fallacy of four terms: "Nothing is better than enlightenment. A tuna salad sandwich is better than nothing. Therefore a tuna salad sandwich is better than enlightenment." The word nothing is being used in two different meanings here, creating a fourth term.

Illicit major: "All dogs are mammals. No cats are dogs. Therefore no cats are mammals."

Illicit minor: "All cats are felines. All cats are mammals. Therefore all mammals are felines."

Negative conclusion from affirmative premises: "All dogs are animals. Some pets are dogs. Therefore some pets are not animals."

Fallacy of the undistributed middle: "All students at Jefferson High wear uniforms. My grandfather wears a uniform. Therefore my grandfather is a student at Jefferson High."

Informal Fallacies

These are subtler, as they require an analysis of the content of the argument. They are also far more common. Let's tackle some common types:

Correlation does not imply causation (cum hoc ergo propter hoc): "Since the 1950s, global atmospheric carbon dioxide levels and rates of obesity have risen. Therefore, atmospheric carbon dioxide causes obesity." This fallacy is probably the most common, since it can be very persuasive.

Post hoc ergo propter hoc (Latin for "after this, therefore because of this"): "The rooster crows, and then the sun rises. Therefore the rooster's crow causes the sun to rise." This can often be more subtle. "I can't help but think that you are the cause of this problem; we never had any problems with the furnace before you moved into the apartment."

Begging the question: "Opium induces sleep because it has a soporific quality." Soporific means sleep-inducing. So it is assuming your conclusion in your premise.

False dichotomy: I deal with this one so often that it drives me nuts. "You are either with us or against us". Never mind the fact that most people are oblivious to the "us" in the previous statement. By reducing the myriad of possibilities by two, and observing that your opponent rejects one, you force them into the other possibility. "I hate how high my taxes are. You are less concerned about your taxes. Therefore you love paying high taxes."

Dicto simpliciter: "If you want to allow chemotherapy patients access to medical marijuana, then why not just legalize all illegal drugs?"

Hasty generalization: "Jane supports Proposition 1. Phil supports Proposition 1. Enrique supports Proposition 1. Trinh supports Proposition 1. Therefore everyone supports Proposition 1."

No True Scotsman: "No Scotsman would ever refuse a plate of haggis!"
"But Angus McClaren just refused a plate of haggis, and his family has been in Inverness for centuries."
"No true Scotsman would ever refuse a plate of haggis."

Cherry Picking: "Abraham is willing to sacrifice his son to God. Therefore, the Abrahamic faiths justify murdering your own child."

Ad hominem:  "Why should we listen to Bill's argument about the new budget? You know he cheats on his wife."

Appeal to fear: "A vote for candidate X is the same as voting for the terrorists."

Wishful thinking: "I dislike the incumbent. Therefore, if he is defeated in this election, our lives will be so much better."

Reducio ad Hitlerum: "You want to know who else invested heavily in infrastructure? Adolf Hitler. He built the Autobahn. Still think investing in infrastructure is a good idea?"

Straw Man: So called because one person builds a man of straw and demolishes it, instead of challenging the other person: "We should provide sex education in schools."
"Really? Telling them they can screw around with impunity? Don't you think that's irresponsible?"
The respondent is conflating sex education with an invitation to licentiousness, which is not the same thing as sex education, but easier to refute.

False analogy: using an analogy in your argument that does not sufficiently match the case you are arguing. "There should be a flat income tax. It's unfair to have a graduated income tax. That just punishes rich people for their success. After all, we don't penalize honor students for having good grades." Money exists in an economy. Grades exist in an evaluative educational setting. Grades are finite, whereas money is potentially infinite. The tools of economics cannot describe the fluctuation of grades, since money and grades are too dissimilar. There is an income tax, but there is no tax on grades, so it is comparing things that are qualitatively different.

This should provide a start. Certainly you don't have to learn all these names, or be able to catalog these and other examples, but if you find yourself asserting that a fallacy is true, you are wrong. Basic intellectual hygiene depends on rooting out fallacies in one's reasoning and embracing a clear epistemology. Understand that a scientific epistemology will differ from a philosophical epistemology which will most certainly diverge from a religious epistemology. But when someone asks you: "How do you know that you know what you claim to know," you need to have an answer.

However, I do not assert that reason is the highest possible standard for dealing with the myriad of experiences, impressions and ideas that life has to offer, although it is very high. I can come up with reasoned arguments for and against why I should love my wife, but at the end of the day, I either love her, or I don't. Reason can persuade me to disengage or engage more deeply with her, which might augment or diminish my love for her, but at a given moment, I love her or I don't, regardless of what I think. [I'm not actually married].

Similarly, religious experiences probably cannot be reduced to reason. Certainly, gnosis is an extra-rational experience. Not necessarily beneath reason, but certainly beyond it.

In the USA, we are coming upon another Presidential election, and emotions are high, and much of what passes for reason is actually highly emotive and not very rational. If your argument is: "My proposition is true because I am very emotional about it," you have no argument. If your argument is: "My proposition is morally obvious," then if even one person fails to find it obvious, you need a backup argument that appeals to reason, which if it truly is obvious, should not be that hard to do. Political parties, and more especially political action committees are going to be trying to persuade you to vote for their candidate, and they are not usually going to bother with giving you valid arguments. Be vigilant.

In Hermetic philosophy, reason is symbolized by a sword. A logical argument is similar to a fencing match, with thrusts and parries, and the occasional kill shot. But reason can also be a heavy claymore, or a scalpel, or a poignard, or a bayonet, depending on how we use it. The four elements are earth, air, water and fire, symbolized by disks (or coins), swords, cups and wands in the Tarot. We master the element of earth, with coins, by harmonizing with our bodies, and with the environment, and by figuring out how to earn a living and support ourselves. We master the element of air, with swords, by mastering reason and understanding its role in our lives, and how it is able to overcome folly and error. We master the element of water, with cups, by being able to hold our emotions in suitable vessels, that do not stagnate or fester, but allow our emotions to flow through us, enriching us. We master the element of fire, with wands, by discovering our true wills, and empowering ourselves to exercise our true wills to take up the space we occupy in the universe, and to further our aims. All students of Hermeticism learn to use these tools to master the four elements, and thereby to transcend them and enter higher consciousness.

You should have been taught logic, and especially rhetorical logic, in high school (if not middle school). Chances are, unless you were on the debate team, none of your teachers shared any of this with you. That's tragic, but remediable. Start now. If you Google "fallacy", there are 12.8 million results, including lots of web pages explaining more about fallacies. Please do yourself a favor and spend a few minutes learning about them.

And if you are a Mason, than the study of logic is non-optional for you. From the night you became a Fellow of the Craft you have been beholden to study logic and follow reason. If you no longer feel that logic applies to you, and you no longer want to follow reason, you might want to sit down and seriously consider why you chose a fraternity that values reason so highly, and demands adherence to reason of its members.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Masei: Cities of Refuge

This Torah portion recaps the journey the Israelites took through the desert on their way to Canaan. Then God tells Moses the rules for the invasion of Canaan, ironic considering that God has ordered Moses' death on this side of the Jordan River without permitting him to set foot in Canaan.

God tells Moses that the Israelites are to drive out the current inhabitants of Canaan, who have committed offenses to God bad enough that the Israelites are the retribution God has planned for the Canaanites. The Israelites are to destroy all the idols and altars of the Canaanites. The Canaanites who remain, God predicts, will be "that those which ye let remain of them shall be pricks in your eyes, and thorns in your sides, and shall vex you in the land wherein ye dwell. Moreover it shall come to pass, that I shall do unto you, as I thought to do unto them." [Numbers 33: 55-56]. The Hebrew of "pricks in your eyes" is "bee stings in your eyeballs". Not a comforting image.

Then God defines the borders of the Promised Land. I'm not going to bother to quote this part (it's not like the Bible isn't readily available), since it has become the justification today for Religious Zionists to occupy the West Bank and Gaza, as well as some Transjordanian land as well, claiming that this ancient promise justifies their actions.

Because the Levites are not a tribe in the same sense that the other tribes are, they are given cities and their surrounding suburbs for their tribe. After describing these cities, God explains that a few of the cities will be designated Cities of Refuge. If a person commits manslaughter, they can escape to a city of refuge, and the city will protect them from the victim's family's vendetta until there can be a trial. The manslaughterer can find refuge in the city, and will be safe until there can be a fair trial. The passage defines the difference between murder and manslaughter. I'm not aware of a more ancient text to make the distinction.

But not only does the Bible make that distinction, but God will, later on in the Bible, designate six particular cities to be cities of refuge. To me, this seems particularly noteworthy. Who would want to live in a city of refuge, knowing that potential murderers, and people who want to kill them, will show up there? But there is also mercy in this, as these cities of refuge provide asylum for those who accidentally kill others.

The passage ends with resolution for the daughters of Zelophehad, who are told to marry within their tribe, so that their inheritance, while theirs, does not pass to another tribe when they marry.

It is customary in Torah study, when a student or group of students finishes studying a book of Torah, to say: chazak chazak v'nitchazek. This could be translated as "Be strong! Be strong! And may we be strengthened."
חזק חזק ונתחזק

Monday, July 16, 2012

Matot: have ye saved all the women alive?

This is another week with a double Torah portion. This portion has three major themes. The first is the sanctity of vows. Men and divorced or widowed women are to keep their oaths and obligations. Wives and dependent daughters, if they make vows, can have those vows vetoed by the man responsible for them. This is problematic for a modern, egalitarian sensibility, but is pretty standard for a heavily patriarchal culture.

This veto is a double-edged sword, in a sense. God is merciless to the man who makes an oath he cannot honor, but shows some mercy to the woman who makes an oath she cannot fulfill. This mercy is entrusted to her patriarch, who can decide for her that she cannot be obligated to carry out her obligation, provided he objects within a day of her oath. In one sense, it is profoundly insulting to the woman's autonomy that a patriarchal figure in her life has veto power over her agreements. However, much of Jewish law is how to get rid of an obligation that one has made but cannot fulfill, and Jewish law is much kinder to women than to men who fail to meet their obligations.

The second theme is Moses' vengeance on Midian for the heresy of Baal-Peor. Recall that the Israelites have been journeying through the wilderness, and on the plains of Moab are nearly done with their journeys. They have been seeking passage to Canaan, and finding various nations have opposed them in their attempt to enter the land. First, the Israelites responded by avoiding their opponents, then when later opponents attacked them, they cursed their cities and avoided them, still later, when their opponents attacked them, they defended themselves and took the battle to their opponents, killing them. Finally, with Midian, the Israelites engage in a war of extermination.

God tells Moses that he is to organize a surprise attack on Midian, and that afterwards, Moses will die, and cede leadership to Joshua. Moses gathers a force of 1000 men from each tribe, and these shock troops, led by Pinchas ben Eleazar the priest, mount a surprise attack and slaughter every adult male in Midian, and take the women, children and livestock captive, along with all their valuables and possessions. They single out and execute by sword the five kings of Midian, along with Balaam the sorcerer (although presumably his donkey was spared). All of the buildings in Midian are set on fire.

Moses is furious. He asks the generals and captains: "Have ye saved all the women alive? Behold, these caused the children of Israel, through the counsel of Balaam, to commit trespass against the Lord in the matter of Peor, and there was a plague among the congregation of the Lord. Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him. But all the women children, that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves." [Numbers 31: 15-18].

If the savagery of Moses drives you to contemplate atheism, you would not be the first, nor certainly the last, to do so. Thomas Paine, in The Age of Reason, wrote the following about this passage:
Besides, the character of Moses, as stated in the Bible, is the most horrid that can be imagined. If those accounts be true, he was the wretch that first began and carried on wars on the score or on the pretence of religion; and under that mask, or that infatuation, committed the most unexampled atrocities that are to be found in the history of any nation, of which I will state only one instance.
When the Jewish army returned from one of their plundering and murdering excursions, the account goes on as follows: Numbers, chap. xxxi., ver. 13:
"And Moses, and Eleazar the priest, and all the princes of the congregation, went forth to meet them without the camp; and Moses was wroth with the officers of the host, with the captains over thousands, and captains over hundreds, which came from the battle; and Moses said unto them, Have ye saved all the women alive? behold, these caused the children of Israel, through the Council of Balaam, to commit trespass against the Lord in the matter of Peor, and there was a plague among the congregation of the Lord. Now, therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known a man by lying with him; but all the women-children, that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves."
Among the detestable villains that in any period of the world have disgraced the name of man, it is impossible to find a greater than Moses, if this account be true. Here is an order to butcher the boys, to massacre the mothers, and debauch the daughters. Let any mother put herself in the situation of those mothers; one child murdered, another destined to violation, and herself in the hands of an executioner; let any daughter put herself in the situation of those daughters, destined as a prey to the murderers of a mother and a brother, and what will be their feelings? It is in vain that we attempt to impose upon nature, for nature will have her course, and the religion that tortures all her social ties is a false religion.
After this detestable order, follows an account of the plunder taken, and the manner of dividing it; and here it is that the profaneness of priestly hypocrisy increases the catalogue of crimes. Ver. 37 to 40, "And the lord's tribute of sheep was six hundred and three score and fifteen; and the beeves were thirty and six thousand, of which the Lord's tribute was three score and twelve; and the asses were thirty thousand and five hundred, of which the Lord's tribute was three score and one; and the persons were sixteen thousand, of which the Lord's tribute was thirty and two persons." In short, the matters contained in this chapter, as well as in many other parts of the Bible, are too horrid for humanity to read or for decency to hear, for it appears, from the 35th verse of this chapter, that the number of women-children consigned to debauchery by the order of Moses was thirty-two thousand.
People in general do not know what wickedness there is in this pretended word of God. Brought up in habits of superstition, they take it for granted that the Bible is true, and that it is good; they permit themselves not to doubt of it, and they carry the ideas they form of the benevolence of the Almighty to the book which they have been taught to believe was written by his authority. Good heavens! it is quite another thing; it is a book of lies, wickedness, and blasphemy; for what can be greater blasphemy than to ascribe the wickedness of man to the orders of the Almighty?
Paine judges Moses by the standards that he would judge the way that 18th century Englishmen of sufficient birth would treat each other. The Pennsylvania of his time was one that ran a spectrum from the developed East to the wild West, where the Eastern coast was ethnically cleansed of native inhabitants and its Western border was still engaged in bloody guerrilla war between natives and Europeans, with massacres committed on both sides. The England of his time was one where Luddites were hanged for damaging factories, and riots were broken up with bayonets and rifles. It was also a time where Ireland was pacified with brutality and oppression. It was also a time of massacres in India, in Africa, and in Guyana. This cruelty outlived Paine by many, many years. Just last night, listening to the BBC, I heard that victims of English cruelty in the Mau Mau uprising were suing Great Britain. One woman told of driving with her husband and children in 1958, and being stopped at a road block by British soldiers. She and her husband were separated, interrogated, and tortured. Her husband was castrated. Both were eventually released, and spent the next decade scouring Kenya looking for their children, whom they never found. They reluctantly concluded that they had all been murdered. She was suing the UK for war crimes.

Moses lived in a time where empires put whole peoples to the sword. The Assyrian empire, which shows up later in the Bible, impaled the entire populations of those they conquered, leaving them to die horribly over several days. Israel was a new nation surrounded by vicious enemies. If their actions seem horrific, they were, but no more so than their neighbors.

As Walter Kauffman wrote in reply to attitudes like Paine's: "The reproach of callousness and insufficient social conscience can hardly be raised. Our social conscience comes largely from the religion of Moses. ... [But] to find the spirit of the religion of the Old Testament in [these biblical passages], is like finding the distinctive genius of America in the men who slaughtered the Indians."

The third theme is that of the Transjordan Israelites. The tribes of Reuben and Gad, along with half of the tribe of Manasseh, liked the land in Moab for grazing cattle, and asked Moses to allow them to reside there. Moses, assuming this was a dodge to keep them from participating in the conquest of Canaan, was upset with the request. But the leaders of these tribes promised to form the advance guard in the conquest, and return to this land only after Canaan was under Israelite control. With this stipulation, Moses agreed. Sadly, because of this, these tribes were the first lost tribes, as they did not have the same protection as the other tribes, and were picked away by conquest. Sadly, among the more zealous Religious Zionists, there are those who make a claim on the Transjordanian lands that were once occupied by Reuben and Gad for a modern state of Greater Israel. It is not clear that the Jordanians would ever comply with this.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Pinchas: I Give Unto Him My Covenant of Peace

This Torah portion continues the story of the sin of Baal-Peor. Unable to curse the Israelites, the Midianites send their women to the stream of Shittim (acacia) to seduce the Israelites, and to get them to worship Baal-Peor, the Midianite god. The Israelites succumb, and this angers God, who sends forth a plague to punish the idolaters, and commands the people to publicly impale the offenders. The leaders of the Israelite tribes huddled before the Tent of Meeting, hesitant to execute the offenders, when Zimri, son of Salu ran into the tent with a Midianite woman, Cozbi. Pinchas, the son of Eleazar and grandson of Aaron, followed the couple into the Inner Sanctum with a spear, and impales them, in flagrante delicto, thus ending the plague, which had killed 24,000 people.

According to the Talmud, the couple are speared through their embracing genitals [Sanhedrin, 81-82]. This gruesome image shows something of the graphic imagination of the authors of the Talmud. I have to admit, gentle reader, that I am at a loss as to what such a spearing would symbolize.

Judaism struggles with how it treats exogamy. Moses married a Midianite woman, and yet Esau is condemned for not marrying within the tribe. It is clear that endogamy was at one time defined patrilineally, and was later, in Talmudic times, changed to matrilineal progression, which lasts today. The Bible often condemns Israelites for marrying foreign (especially Canaanite and Philistine) women, and yet David and Solomon are not condemned for doing so, until Solomon begins to worship his wives' gods. Therefore, it appears that it is apostasy and not exogamy that is being condemned here.

I have to admit that I am uncomfortable with how strictly Jews proscribe exogamy. Ashkenazi Jews are prone to all kinds of genetic disorders because Ashkenazi communities were tiny for so long, forcing a very limited gene pool, and causing some pretty horrible disorders, like Tay-Sachs. It would be insensitive to interpret such maladies as God telling us to lighten up about exogamy, but all the same, maybe the strictures against exogamy are not serving us well in the modern world. In Israel, there is far less intercourse between Ashkenazim, Sephardim, and Mizrachim (let alone Ethiopian, Indian, or Chinese Jews) than there should be. Even within the Jewish world, there is not the gene mixture that a limited gene pool needs so much.

In various pagan Semitic religions, sex is offered as a sacrament. The Bible describes the קדשה or קדש (qedesha or qedesh, male or female sacred prostitute) who offers themselves sexually for temple worship. This sort of divine sexuality was associated with the cult of Asherah, whom some speculate was a feminine consort of the male God El of the Bible for some Semitic people. The Bible mentions the Asherah pole (a phallus erected for worship) being forbidden. To modern sensibilities, it might seem odd that Temple animal sacrifice was sacred to the Israelites, but Temple sexual sacraments was forbidden, since one ends lives whereas the other generates life. Some of the ideas and practices of Semitic paganism have enjoyed a resurgence today. To modern Jewish sensibilities, the use of child sacrifice in ancient pagan worship was what made the whole religious system intolerable, but to the ancient Jews, all of these pagan practices were loathsome, since they felt that such practices worshiped something that was less than Divine.

In any case, the Israelites sought to distinguish their religious practices from those outside of their tribes, and one major delineating factor for them was proscribing the use of public sexual sacraments. However, sex within monogamous marriage is celebrated within Judaism, and interestingly, sex is always a mitzvah, even if it ventures into forbidden practices. Thus, in Orthodox interpretation, a child born out of wedlock is a mitzvah, and the sex that created that child is a mitzvah, even when the act of adulterous sex is a sin. Sex on the Sabbath is particularly sacred, since the Shekhinah is closer to us during the Sabbath, and thus the sex that we have is imitative of the sacred union of the Shekhinah with the rest of Divinity.

The rabbis of the Talmud were uncomfortable with how gruesome Pinchas' act was, and how the Torah seems to laud it uncritically, so they looked for ways to show that the violence of the double homicide was not to be emulated. Consider the passage:
And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying, Phinehas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, hath turned my wrath away from the children of Israel, while he was zealous for my sake among them, that I consumed not the children of Israel in my jealousy. Wherefore say, Behold, I give unto him my covenant of peace: And he shall have it, and his seed after him, even the covenant of an everlasting priesthood; because he was zealous for his God, and made an atonement for the children of Israel. [Numbers 25: 10-13].
This "covenant of peace" could be considered a palliative for Pinchas' violent impulsiveness. By making of his line an everlasting priesthood, God is yoking Pinchas and his descendants to the strongest religious structure they could possibly be given, keeping them from acting upon their violent urges. So what seems at first like a reward is actually a harsh restriction.

The Torah portion also contains the story of the Daughters of Zelophehad (Banot Tzelafchad), whose father died "of his own sin" in the desert [Numbers 27: 3], and who had no brothers. By the patrilineal rules of inheritance, they could not inherit their father's estate. They appealed to Moses, who could not judge the case for himself, but appealed to God, who allowed them to inherit their father's property. These women had a righteous plea, challenged the status quo, and won their appeal to God. In the 1970s, there was a Jewish feminist group called Banot Tzelafchad, named after these women from the Bible. As if to reward them for their righteousness, the bible names them: Mahlah, Noah, and Hoglah, and Milcah, and Tirzah.

This portion also determines that Joshua, son of Nun, will be Moses' successor when he dies, which will be very soon. Moses lays his hands upon Joshua before all the people.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Fat Freemasons

I went to the doctor's office today, and I am heavier than I have ever been before. My Body Mass Index (BMI) is above 42. When I became a mason, it was 34. I'm not blaming Freemasonry. I've been as high as 41 previously, before I was a mason, and I've been as low as 26 (when I was doing martial arts training 3-5 days a week in preparation for my aikido brown belt test). But today, it's dangerously high. Coupled with morbid obesity is hypertension, depression, compound obstructive sleep apnea, fatty liver, erectile dysfunction, knee problems, circulation problems, pre-diabetic symptoms, and a guarantee that years of living this way will lead to diabetes, heart disease, risk of colon cancer, risk of stroke or aneurysm, dramatic shortening of life.

I look around, and I see a lot of fat masons. It's often said that you will gain 10-20 pounds in your year in the East, and it's equally often said that being District Deputy Grand Master will cause you to gain 25 pounds. We like dinners. We like banquets. When other people are at the gym, we are at Chapter, or Scottish Rite rehearsal, or at a Shrine unit meeting, or at a hall association meeting, or some other masonic event. We look around, and we see other fat masons, and we feel at home. Every year, a few of us succumb to heart disease, renal failure, colon cancer, or a stroke, and the rest of us shrug it off.

We are a fraternity. We are a band of brothers. Some of us are living unhealthy lifestyles, and because so many of us are, we don't seem to mind, or even notice. We regard any suggestion that we are being unhealthy as intrusive. We regard the fraternity as a refuge from scolding, a shelter from real-world concerns, and yet the Black Camel is waiting for each of us. Our ritual is scattered with so many symbols of memento mori that we really ought to prick up our ears and take notice.

If there existed an exclusive appendant body (say, the Knights of the Gazelle) that required a mason to keep a BMI under 30, a lot of masons would scramble to lose weight. If you could not become a Warden or Master if your BMI was over 35, you'd have a lot of dieting masons. If you could never become a District Deputy Grand Master if your blood pressure was above 140/100, all ambitious masons would diet and exercise and take blood pressure medication.

We know what motivates the men in our fraternity. Titles, decorations, accolades, exclusive organizations with limited membership, peer confirmation; all of these drive men to exert themselves.

We also know that peer group weight loss structures, like Weight Watchers and Jenny Craig, also work better than dieting alone.

So I am throwing down the gauntlet. I hereby declare my intention to form the Knights of the Gazelle (I'll take a better name if offered). Provided that I get Grand Lodge permission if required, it will be open to any masons who want to lose weight. Once it gets up and running, we can discuss opening up the Ladies of the Gazelle (for women in the Masonic family) and Squires of the Gazelle (for children in the Masonic family). We will base the content on Weight Watchers (or something better if better technology exists), have confidential meetings backed by Masonic secrecy. and progress reports. Chapters will collectively record BMI points lost, and different chapters can compete to see which chapters can lose the most BMI points. We can consult with lodge cooks to ensure that healthy options are provided at lodge meals for Knights of the Gazelle. Nobody would be required to join us, but if they do, we will welcome them, encourage them, and help them get to a healthy BMI.

Let's use the power of fraternalism to save our lives, and improve the quality of our lives, and to ensure healthier outcomes for us. Let's use existing masonic structures to help us stave off the Black Camel. After all, dead masons pay no dues. It's in everyone's interest to keep us around and keep us healthy.

Please feel free to steal this idea, provided you use it for good.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Balak: How Goodly Are Thy Tents, O Jacob!

This Torah portion is intentionally humorous. The Bible can be funny (like the story of Jonah), and this story humorously depicts the confusion of the Moabites at Israel's approach. After a sequence of nations obstructing Israel's journey to the Promised Land, the Israelites finally fight back when the Amorites attack them, utterly defeating the Amorites and slaying them. Next along their journey, the Moabites realize that Israel will mow them down if they are not stopped. They hire a famous sorcerer, Balaam, to curse the Israelites, and the story of Balaam and his adventures is a funny story, complete with a talking donkey.

Balak, the Moabite leader, holds a parley with the Midianites and the Amalekites, and other enemies of Israel, and they decide to hire Balaam to curse the Israelites. Balaam lives on the far side of the Euphrates, and so Balak sends a contingent out to visit Balaam and to persuade him to come with them to curse Israel. Balaam invites the party to spend the night, and tells them that he will sleep on it, deciding what we will do in the morning, after consulting with God. God tells Balaam not to curse the Israelites, and in the morning, Balaam sends them away. Balak decides to send a much bigger and more impressive embassy to Balaam, who informs the dignitaries that he can only do as God permits. But after sleeping on it again, God tells Balaam to accept their invitation and go with them.

We now encounter a theological conundrum as God appears to change His mind. If God dwells in Eternity, how then can this happen? If God permits Balaam to journey with the embassy back to Moab, why then does he send an angel to oppose his journey? The rabbis of the Talmud suggest that it is all in Balaam's attitude. They interpret Balaam as one who gets all of his sorcerous powers from God and yet yearns to use them wickedly. When God allows Balaam to follow the dignitaries back to Moab, Balaam (according to the rabbis) was thrilled, thinking he would get the chance to destroy the Israelites with his sorcery. In order to check his misaligned enthusiasm, God sent an angel to interfere with Balaam's journey.

Balaam rises early in the morning, and saddles his donkey, and rides upon the donkey while two male servants accompany him on foot. The rabbis note that Balaam had servants, and yet he saddled his own donkey. This shows his eagerness to begin his journey (the rabbis also imply that Balaam had a sexual relationship with the donkey, but that might just be too gross to contemplate). In order to check that enthusiasm, God places an angel with a sword in the middle of the road. The angel is invisible to the men, but the donkey sees it, and she turns off the road to avoid the angel. Balaam beat the donkey to try to get her back onto the road.

Later, they are travelling through a narrow path between two fenced-off vineyards, the angel brandishes a sword and blocks their way. In avoiding the angel, the donkey crushes Balaam's foot against the fence. Balaam, enraged, beats the donkey even harder. Finally, the passage narrows, and the angel blocks the path a third time. In resignation, the donkey lies down before the angel. Balaam loses his temper, beating the donkey with a stick.

The donkey speaks to Balaam, and asks him: "What have I done unto thee, that thou hast smitten me these three times?" [Numbers 22: 28]. Balaam replies that he feels mocked by the donkey, and that if he had a sword, he would kill the donkey. The donkey appeals to Balaam: "Am not I thine ass, upon which thou hast ridden ever since I was thine unto this day? was I ever wont to do so unto thee?" [Numbers 22: 30]. Once Balaam acknowledges the donkey's loyalty, God opens Balaam's eyes, and gives him the power to see the angel with the sword.

As Balaam lies prostrate before the angel, the angel tells him: "Wherefore hast thou smitten thine ass these three times? behold, I went out to withstand thee, because thy way is perverse before me: And the ass saw me, and turned from me these three times: unless she had turned from me, surely now also I had slain thee, and saved her alive." [Numbers 22: 32-33].

Balaam offers to go home and abandon his journey, but the angel tells Balaam to continue, but to only say the words that God provides for him to say.

The rabbis of the Talmud have a lot of problems with this story. God speaks to Balaam, and yet the rabbis understood that they themselves lived in a post-prophetic era where God no longer spoke to people. Balaam is a gentile, and a sorcerer, and a wicked man by their reckoning.Why, then, would God speak to this person (and not to them)? Also, the rabbis were rational enough to be uncomfortable with fantastic things like talking animals. They interpret the donkey's speech as God speaking out of the donkey's mouth. Balaam is having a Divine vision, and in the vision, the donkey speaks (as an animal might talk in a dream).

The Talmud mentions the mouth of Balaam's donkey as one of the things created last, at twilight on the Sixth Day of Creation. [Pirkei Avot 5: 6].

I'm very fond of Balaam's donkey. She's a lot more human than anyone else in this story.She's funny and sweet and very endearing. Jewish feminists rightly point out that there are few females in the Bible who have speaking roles. It is hardly flattering that one of the great female characters in the Bible isn't even human, but a donkey.

When the company reaches Moab, Balak and a host of dignitaries come out to greet Balaam. Three times, Balak sets up a sacrifice of seven altars, with a bull and a ram sacrificed on each altar, and each time, Balaam fails to curse Israel. The last time, Balaam in an ecstatic trance, recites the following:
How goodly are thy tents, O Jacob, and thy tabernacles, O Israel! As the valleys are they spread forth, as gardens by the river's side, as the trees of lign aloes which the Lord hath planted, and as cedar trees beside the waters. He shall pour the water out of his buckets, and his seed shall be in many waters, and his king shall be higher than Agag, and his kingdom shall be exalted. God brought him forth out of Egypt; he hath as it were the strength of an unicorn: he shall eat up the nations his enemies, and shall break their bones, and pierce them through with his arrows. He couched, he lay down as a lion, and as a great lion: who shall stir him up? Blessed is he that blesseth thee, and cursed is he that curseth thee. [Numbers 24: 5-9].
The first line of this is recited in the Jewish liturgy whenever one enters a synagogue.

Balak, furious, dismisses Balaam, who delivers the following parting shot:
I shall see him, but not now: I shall behold him, but not nigh: there shall come a Star out of Jacob, and a Sceptre shall rise out of Israel, and shall smite the corners of Moab, and destroy all the children of Sheth. And Edom shall be a possession, Seir also shall be a possession for his enemies; and Israel shall do valiantly. Out of Jacob shall come he that shall have dominion, and shall destroy him that remaineth of the city. And when he looked on Amalek, he took up his parable, and said, Amalek was the first of the nations; but his latter end shall be that he perish for ever. And he looked on the Kenites, and took up his parable, and said, Strong is thy dwellingplace, and thou puttest thy nest in a rock. Nevertheless the Kenite shall be wasted, until Asshur shall carry thee away captive. And he took up his parable, and said, Alas, who shall live when God doeth this! And ships shall come from the coast of Chittim, and shall afflict Asshur, and shall afflict Eber, and he also shall perish for ever. [Numbers 24: 17-24].
The passage says that Balaam went home, and yet, the Book of Numbers later reports that the "sin of Peor" (which I will deal with next week, even though it starts in this Torah portion) was designed by Balaam, and later, in the Book of Joshua, it is reported that Balaam was killed by the Israelites.