Tag: Judaism

Idiosyncratic Interconnections: Loshon haRa and New Orleans R&B (Episode 1)

Part of a new series, “Idiosyncratic Interconnections,” in which I unveil oddball connections betwixt two things that—most likely—only I, in my unusual mind, would notice… realizing a seemingly unrelated thing unexpectedly interconnects with another thing to explain, illuminate or give insight into the first thing. Each episode connects two things. Let me know if ya’ll like the series.

Idiosyncratic Interconnections

New Orleans R&B songs illustrating why Loshon HaRa, “tongue o’ evil,” and Rechilus (tale-bearing) is so bad

In September 2013 I last blogged on the subject of Loshon HaRa, complete with original cartoon-painting imagining the demonic forces that can escape your pie-hole via Loshon HaRa

Loshon HaRa is like libel, to willfully defame or dis someone, to talk smack outside of respectful norms. But unlike slander/libel, the truth is not your shield. Telling others “Suzie is a meth-whore” is Loshon HaRa even if she totally is, since you’ll never have the omniscient knowledge necessary to harshly judge another person, and relaying the dis to peers is assuming the role of judge and dropping the hammer / delivering a sentence of lost reputation. Not your place; keep it zipped. Unless telling it to someone (singular) could protect them.

poster from World War II

We all have our share of the yetzer HaRa (innate evil inclination, urge to destroy) and it can be difficult to hold your tongue. Certainly in the foibles and outright fails of your peers there is a ton of comedic value to leave holstered if one is circumspect in talking of others, plus the prospect that you will look cooler in contrast to the latest idiocy wrought by idiots is ever-tempting. Resist.

The biggest component to guarding your tongue is really mindset. A fidgety, itchy, dissatisfied mind is more likely to spread defamatory info than a chilled-out and content one. No one’s perfect, but following ANY rules of speech is next to impossible without a cultivated calmness of approach, deliberative and careful lips and larynx….

The verse “Do not go as a gossipmonger among your people” (Lev. 19:16) bans all forms of Loshon HaRa. However, the term “gossipmonger,” refers specifically to rechilus, “tale-bearing” or gossip that may sow the seeds of ill will or conflict between two or more others. Whereas directly derogatory info can cause others/the community to lose respect for the subject, rechilus can cause damage to relationships between the subject and his fellows, undermining the accord between another and a 3rd party.
“She thinks you’re dishonest, Chaim” being a classic rechilus example. Even if true, relaying the slight harms both the slighted (Chaim) and the slighter (the 3rd party who originated the negativity). It is wrong to help the initial slighter dis Chaim; they can wrong Chaim just fine without your help or complicity. Additionally, once the offense spreads, it can get a life of its own, pinball all over the community, go viral, damaging the social fabric. Like a computer virus or bug—0 where 1 ought to be—messin’ up the Kabbalistic code that animates the spiritual plane and sustains the constant earthy process of Creation™; put another way, “a disturbance in The Force.”     What began as something small can snowball, mutate… 48 hours and several “telephone game” manglings of 3rd-and-4th-party versions later, the FDNY is trying to talk Chaim down from the George Washington Bridge….

Though Sefer Shmiras haLoshon “way of speech/laws of the tongue book” is a Jewish thing, specifically Orthodox Judaism/yeshivah thang, plain from the sources I found, from Daily Sefer Chofetz Chaim and Jewish Heritage Foundation, both which require some knowledge of yeshivish terms to understand, there is nonetheless broader applicability….

People need more structure and discipline when it comes to speech, to minimize damage to the social fabric, so how can I make laws of the tongue more relatable…?
Well, most can relate to music. To wit…

Interconnection: Illustrative New Orleans R&B songs

New Orleans R&B is exemplified by Fats Domino, Professor Longhair, Snooks Eaglin, Allen Toussaint… I think of it as a close relative of the piano blues and an important forefather of rock, but Fats Domino songs like Be My Guest with prominent walking bass-line on piano and skank on the uptick inadvertently created the ska/reggae sound, as well….

“Big Mouth,” written by Fats Domino & Dave Bartholomew…

News is out all over town
Big mouth
You standing over there
Like you don’t know what it’s all about

I guess you satisfied,
that you made me cry
big mouth…

Allen Toussaint is best known for songs he wrote for other performers, and Gossip Gossip was sung by Diamond Joe.  Now considered a rare soul track, the original Diamond Joe 45 is a mega rarity…

Gossip, gossip
can’t stop us
from gettin’ along
they don’t know we gotta
solid thing goin’ onnnnn

they get a charge
draggin’ other folks down…

Advance to next II: episode 2 | or II: episode 3

Tananim Gedolim: “great reptiles,” the dinosaurs in the Torah

Originally written December the 5th, 2006, I’ve revised and re-named it to be part 2 of 4 of my D-cember: Dino-cember! series

Tananim Gedolim, in English, “Great Reptiles”

The Spiritual Can Illuminate The Scientific. The Scientific Can Illuminate The Spiritual.

There has been (and will continue to be) debate about evolution and the age of planet Earth.

Among Christians, especially the growing fundamentalist groups, creationism is often embraced, stating a literal 6 day creation of the Earth. Some Charedi Jews (i.e. ultra Orthodox) hold to the Earth being 5767 years old, though an important distinction should be noted: the “literal” reading—the idea that the text shouldn’t be interpreted as much as simply “read”—taught by many forms of fundamentalist Christianity, isn’t really possible within Judaism because we work with the original Hebrew of the Torah which, by definition, can only be interpreted into English, ancient Hebrew worldview converted into English thought and words. So even the more hardline factions that strictly hold to the 5700+ Hebrew calendar years timeframe for the Earth’s age (not meaning 5700+ years from Adam and the human spirit’s first run-publication, or something else) aren’t fundamentalist in the same way strict, sola scriptura literalists are, as they don’t insist that this is the only meaning within the passage.  Within Judaism it’s taken for granted that multiple meanings and explanations, even hidden mystical interpretations, exist on every page, with numerous wisdom and commentary texts relied upon to “bring down” (from Sinai) right interpretations, not the “one book, one meaning” mentality associated with the sola scriptura-thinking prevalent in Protestant versions of Christianity.

The passage that mentions “the great reptiles,” Bereishit (Genesis) 1.21, says the following:

21. And God created the great sea monsters, and every living creature that crawls, with which the waters swarmed, according to their kind, and every winged fowl, according to its kind, and God saw that it was good

The Hebrew words “tananim” (reptiles, serpents, Leviathan) and gelodim (great, plural) are translated here as “great sea monsters.” The term gelodim, the greats, is clear and unambiguous, “the greats” is frequently used by itself as a noun, especially to refer to the Talmudic greats, the great sages. Tananim is the area of difficulty. Most translations render “tananim gelodim” as great sea monsters, great serpents, or the Leviathan…the King James Version goes with “great whales.” The Leviathan is an ancient mythological sea monster, think Loch Ness Monster, a massive marine reptile described as a fire-breathing dragon in Job 41:
“18 His snorting throws out flashes of light; his eyes are like the rays of dawn.
19 Firebrands stream from his mouth; sparks of fire shoot out.
20 Smoke pours from his nostrils as from a boiling pot over a fire of reeds.
21 His breath sets coals ablaze, and flames dart from his mouth.”

It’s unmistakable that tananim are giant reptiles or members of a terrifying reptiloid species of some kind. In modern Hebrew, “tananim” are crocodiles.

Rashi, the famous Torah commentator and rabbi from 11th century France, offers more insights into the tananim gelodim, which he sees as the Leviathan. Rashi is so foundational because he focuses on the basic meaning of the Hebrew words, the grammar, and decoding ancient idioms. He typically keeps it brief, not getting into hidden interpretations, but for the Leviathan he makes an exception, since the letters in tananim gelodim led to the midrash (retelling) cited. Rashi writes:

the sea monsters: The great fish in the sea, and in the words of the Aggadah (B.B. 74b), this refers to the Leviathan and its mate, for He created them male and female, and He slew the female and salted her away for the righteous in the future, for if they would propagate, the world could not exist because of them. הַתַּנִינִם is written. [I.e., the final “yud,” which denotes the plural, is missing, hence the implication that the Leviathan did not remain two, but that its number was reduced to one.]- [from Gen. Rabbah 7:4, Midrash Chaseroth V’Yetheroth, Batei Midrashoth, vol 2, p. 225].

Okay, come on… c’mon, we’re talking about ancient giant reptiloids that emerged before birds and mankind, and have to go extinct before humanity can begin their world, being too mean, too enormous, too terrible, to co-exist with humans.
The preponderance of the evidence indicates the tananim gedolim are dinosaurs.

I love dinosaurs. They did exist.

the Barosaurus was unbelievably tall when leaning back onto the hind legs to slap attackers.
the Barosaurus was unbelievably tall when leaning back onto the hind legs to slap attackers.
me with the Barosaurus skeleton in the Hall of Saurischian Dinosaurs, American Museum of Natural History, NYC. Early June, 1999.
me with the Barosaurus skeleton in the Hall of Saurischian Dinosaurs, American Museum of Natural History, NYC. Early June, 1999.

There are people who retcon history to erase the dinosaurs, or say dinosaurs coexisted with humans, or say that tananim gedolim being dinosaurs is Biblical proof that dino-human coexistence occurred. The Creation Museum in Kentucky has displays showing a vegetarian Tyrannosaurus in Eden, mankind (including human children) peacefully coexisting with predatory dinosaurs that somehow aren’t chasing and eating them, dinos saddled for riding… it’s crazy.

To assume that all Triassic fossils are 248-208 Million Years inaccurate
all Jurassic fossils are 208-144 Million Years inaccurate
and all Cretaceous fossils are 144-65 Million Years inaccurate is way too much for me to swallow.
We’ve proven that situations like The Lost World or The Flintstones didn’t happen.

In this actual exhibit at the Creation Museum (real, not photoshopped) a baby Tyrannosaurus eats plants in Eden, as a Jesus-looking figure (standing inside the T-Rex’s kill radius) looks on peacefully. The Tyrannosaurus‘ teeth, blades rather than the grinding molars characteristic of herbivorous dinos, may have made chewing leaves physically impossible.

It stretches credulity past the breaking point to think the dinosaurs (meaning “terrible lizards”), including Tyrannosaurus Rex, each tooth a scimitar-looking kill-blade, chilled with early homo sapiens, just kicked back and watched Eden flag football together with mankind like bros, and didn’t make a midnight snack out of the human race and end it forever. Velociraptors would see humanity as a feast, raptor-christmas!!!
Dinosaurs are called dinosaurs, “terrible lizards,” for a reason—not because they did a terrible job of lizard-ing—because they terrorize us, and can strike terr into the hearts of man, even in crumbly fossil form.  Listen to Rashi, gigantic dragon-like predators aren’t compatible with the world of man; “if they would propagate, the world could not exist because of them.”

But of course, dinosaur fossils and an Earth that is demonstrably billions of years old doesn’t necessarily contradict the Torah. To insist on a literal six-day Creation is to have a shallow understanding of a Creation story that has infinite depth in each verse.  There’s much more to it.  There is so much more to Torah, so much more depth and color, so many layers and intricacies to the numerous interpretations and subtexts, not to mention the richness of the oral tradition (the aggadot, midrashim, etc.)
Dr. Gerald Schroeder makes a convincing case that the six days are six epochs, and brings down several Tanakh passages that substantiate that idea.

Dr. Gerald Schroeder is an Orthodox Jew and MIT-trained scientist who has made it his life’s work to teach that the Torah can offer enriching perspectives to verifiable science and visa versa. His lectures are the source of much of what I’m about to tell you.

What is a day? All sides can agree that day, by definition, is the time between sunrise and sunset. We know that since Torah tells us the sun wasn’t created until day 3, it can’t be referring to literal days (because a day requires a sun) so these 6 days refer to epochs of Creation. Psalm 90:4 says “a thousand years in Your sight are as but yesterday.”

The Jewish sages of the Middle Ages tell us the Earth is billions of years old, and they weren’t bending to science, because science didn’t even exist in their era. Nachmanides described all matter of the universe expanding from the size of a seed (the big bang) in the 13th century… scientific truth mirroring spiritual truth.

In Genesis, you see one beginning, not a cyclic universe. This has been shown by science, a big bang booting-up the universe and linear time.

The second description of Creation describes Adam not finding a mate among the animals. “And man named all the cattle and the fowl of the heavens and all the beasts of the field, but for man, he did not find a helpmate opposite him.” (Gen. 2:20) Obviously, Adam in sinless Eden is not a sheep molester. The Midrash explains among the “beasts of the field” were animals who looked and talked just like people! Prehistoric man! And since he couldn’t find a soul mate among Neanderthals, Hashem created the male and female soul. 5767 years isn’t the age of the Earth, but the time since the human soul was bestowed. 5767 in history mirrors what has been discovered by archeology as about the time organized civilization arose. I don’t think this is a coincidence; this is obviously an important break in human history.

Astronomy has shown that light exploded into the matter of suns, then suns exploded into chunks, element-rich planets which spawned life, i.e. we come from light beams. This is confirmed throughout Judaic thought, as we are called “beings of light.”

Spiritual truth can mirror scientific truth. There are countless examples of this. Another was how a Talmudist, going on kabbalistic teachings, deduced a major descending artery in the brain that was later confirmed to exist by science.

Both the scientific and the spiritual are very exciting to study, because they have the potential to expose and confirm the deepest, most visceral truths of our existence. Science should be embraced by the religious, and it’s very frustrating to see them bashing science. They align themselves with the same mentality of those who insisted the world was flat. Our global reality would be greatly improved by a new Renaissance or Islamic Golden Age that harnesses the best thinkers, undivided: theologians, scientists, anthropologists, everyone toward a goal of bettering the world of man, without heeding specialty boundaries and the counter-productive “thinking from silos” that’s so prevalent today.  Unity.  Unity would be great.

I recommend checking out Dr. Schroeder’s take on the dinosaurs and the translation of tananim.  Dr. Schroeder isn’t one of these “Answers in Genesis” types, he’s more a physicist who’s well-versed in Torah and takes you deeper. His explanations add richness to our understandings of the cosmos and Torah alike.  It’s good to seek out scientific truths, (“…the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever” Deut. 29:29) and the exciting scientific discoveries ahead can only help us understand ourselves and all creation.


For the other dinosaur-posts in my D-cember: Dino-cember! series, go to:
Part 3: Brontosaurus, you shan’t be forgotten

Part 1: The Griffin Was Based On A Real Creature! (#1 most-visited page on nickscrusade.org, by far)

Some Thoughts On The Power of Speech

Obviously I lean heavily on written communication, both in texting basic needs and writing long-form when ideas need room. Personally, I think the novel is best used when your/my/the author’s ideas about something large (our past, our future, technology, childhood, humanity, the soul, big stuff) are deep enough that you need an entire novel to explore them in proper detail. Length of a given novel should be tied to exploring its theme, I guess I’m saying, and the written word has a special magic, but…

…in a way text is lacking, as large amounts of information normally conveyed through tone, inflection and other nuances can be lost. Limiting oneself to text only, as the web often forces us to, is sort of the personal communication equivalent of converting music from vinyl to digital, you’re getting 101010 but you have lost information between 0-1, losing the sounds at 0.09 for example, missing lots of raw data that is in the analog recording… but much worse. While there are many valid arguments that digital gives both creator and listener more advantages than its downsides, and early adopters of digital recording (Frank Zappa for example) offer proof positive of that, losing verbal expression is an unambiguous net loss for both creator and listener.

Sarcasm and other subtle types of humor are very difficult to do without the nuances of speech, and easily can be misread as nonsensical or offensive… those who can make a comedy novel work, communicating humor clearly solely through text (Douglas Adams for example) have a special sort of genius that’s too often overlooked.

Speech is uniquely human, even more part of being alive than motion, animation. Through my college years I learned that my garbled speech made people uncomfortable, that people are naturally averse to sifting the signal from the noise and the time consumption implied. People are even more bothered by the differences in speech than the lack of animation. This is a major social obstacle for vent users, at least for those of us whose underlying condition is wrecking the vocal musculature on top of the respiratory failure (e.g. major problem if you’re vent-dependent because you’re compensating for a—known or unknown—neuromuscular disease, less of a problem if you’re on a ventilator due to spinal cord injury). For me, it meant I was limited to communicating with a handful of students who had a natural comprehension of “Nickenese” or the patience to learn, then limited to the times they were free and I was on campus.

There’s also something spiritual in the power of speech. A few months back I spoke with a Jesuit friend of mine who I hadn’t talked to since we were both Spring Hill students in like 2004. He still understood a solid 3/4 of what I said (over Skype and my non-functioning mic) despite the negative changes to my trach and vocal musculature since then, which I thought would be impossible (the good MacBook internal mic picking up when my headset mic inevitably fails does go a long way). This led me to theorize… that there must be some sort of spiritually-unique imprint in the voice, some sound beneath sound that can be recalled like we recall faces, and then climbed like a lifeline toward comprehension of the voice’s words. There’s definitely more to speech than the tangible.

The idea that there’s more to speech than immediately apparent isn’t new. One of the parts of the Jewish tradition that resonates the most with me is its concepts around the power of speech, the idea of speech creating forces

Demon escaping through your speech!  Pastel with oil brush background (Corel Painter). Created September 21st, 2013
Demon escaping through your speech! Pastel with oil brush background (Corel Painter). Created September 21st, 2013

in the spiritual world (which is synonymous with our world, but sort of an unseen 5th dimension). You say something good, good is perpetuated in the world. You say something bad, you’re creating an evil that can stick around in the world. It’s like unleashing a demon. One abusive phrase can follow someone for the rest of their lives. “Lashon haRa,” roughly translated as “the evil tongue,” is a major spiritual problem to be carefully avoided, to apologize for, to atone for.  I’m not even close to perfect on this, but I do try to stay aware of it.

Don’t take the power of speech for granted. For me verbal communication is more and more valuable because of its power and scarcity.  Like Helium-3 or something.


Leviticus and Disability: My Take

Patrick A from PunkTorah asked me to comment on parsha Emor, and here’s what I came up with.

Everyone please turn to Leviticus 21, kthx. In this week’s parsha, Emor, Moshe Rabbeinu (Moses) tells us about some of the laws regulating kohanim (Temple priests).

After the admonition for kohanim to not have contact with corpses, parsha (portion) Emor goes on to list the various deformities and disabilities that would disqualify a kohen from performing his Temple duties. They include: blindness, mobility impairment, sunken nose, unibrow, broken or twisted limb, one limb disproportionate to the other, sores, and, of course, crushed testicles. If the Temple was excluding disabled priests, does that mean Judaism is discriminatory and ablist?

Josh over at parshablog says one possibility is that this is a concession to the prevailing cultural attitudes of the time. DovBear suggests that this is just one of several “rules and requirements and presumptions that no longer fit anyone’s idea of morality” in Torah.

I don’t fully agree with either of these opinions. I think there’s nothing we can’t learn from, especially words of Torah (nothing is not relevant, and if you’re not able to find something to learn from in a chapter, you’re not looking hard enough).
What can we learn from this? Well, to me, ablism means blocking people with disabilities from doing things we can do, assuming we have nothing to contribute, and stifling our potential. It doesn’t mean I get an equal shot of playing shortstop for the Yankees. Maybe a disabled kohen can’t drag a bull up the ramp to the sacrificial altar. And we have to remember that Torah was recorded during a time where G-d was smiting people as an example that even minor infractions should not be committed with the Temple service. This was a lot more important than a Yankee game, and if you were reckless in the Temple, G-d would be reckless with us (i.e. smiting). In Torah, every tribe and every person has a role they’re born for, and that’s one lesson we can take away. And in this life of confusion, chaos and darkness, one who finds their purpose, their meaning, is fortunate indeed.

I’m not offended by the stringent requirements for Temple services. Disabled kohanim were only barred from leading Temple rituals. They were never stripped of their title, and were still allowed to eat from the holiest of sacrifices (they got all the benefits of their role). Some were even allowed to perform the priestly blessing (source).

the birkat kohanim (priests blessing)
This is how the birkat kohanim (priests’ blessing) was/is done traditionally, a kohanim-only group benediction, blessing the congregation with both hands, horizontally, to resemble the Hebrew letter “Shin.” Leonard Nimoy made the “Vulcan salute” identical to this, except one-handed. For more on this, Nimoy’s inspiration for the Vulcan salute, see this article on judaism.about.com.

And unlike illegitimate kohanim, disabled kohanim continued to keep all the benefits, and all the priestly laws. To suggest a physical defect is a spiritual defect (as this commenter did) is ablist and false.

The fact that disabled kohanim stay kohanim, and can’t be expelled, is fascinating to me, and I think we should learn from it.

Also in Leviticus, those with skin disease never have to pay for their affliction (free health care). The Torah makes sure that anyone in need is looked after and cared for. Kohanim were responsible for properly caring for and overseeing infection control for the community.

People with disabilities are never excluded or discriminated against in the Torah. Isaac‘s blindness certainly never diminished his authority as a Patriarch and leader.

In this 1638 oil painting by Govert Flinck, a blind and aged Isaac blesses Jacob to be the next leader of Israel
In this 1638 oil painting by Govert Flinck, a blind and aged Isaac blesses Jacob to be the next leader of Israel

I see Torah as proposing a semi-Utopian system, where everyone matters, everyone has a role, everyone has a portion, not the cruel dystopia many paint it as.


Here is the PunkTorah commentary on this blog. And check out the video:

And to see all the PunkTorah videos, go to the PunkTorah YouTube Channel.

The Essenes: A Historical Hoax?

Israeli scholar Rachel Elior has rocked the blogosphere with her allegation that The Essenes didn’t exist at all, and Josephus likely made them up to make Jews look tough to the Romans:

Elior contends that Josephus, a former Jewish priest who wrote his history while being held captive in Rome, “wanted to explain to the Romans that the Jews weren’t all losers and traitors, that there were many exceptional Jews of religious devotion and heroism. You might say it was the first rebuttal to anti-Semitic literature.” She adds, “He was probably inspired by the Spartans. For the Romans, the Spartans were the highest ideal of human behavior, and Josephus wanted to portray Jews who were like the Spartans in their ideals and high virtue.”

Early descriptions of the Essenes by Greek and Roman historians has them numbering in the thousands, living communally (“The first kibbutz,” jokes Elior) and forsaking sex — which goes against the Judaic exhortation to “go forth and multiply.” Says Elior: “It doesn’t make sense that you have thousands of people living against the Jewish law and there’s no mention of them in any of the Jewish texts and sources of that period.”

Source: TIME: Scholar Claims Dead Sea Scrolls ‘Authors’ Never Existed

Her strongest proof here is the lack of evidence. The Talmud and other Jewish texts are voluminous beyond belief, and cover pretty much every detail imaginable, every law, every heresy against it that the sages knew of, yet a heretical sect as radical as The Essenes never merited a mention? No sages noticed The Essenes?

Elior’s case is far from air-tight, but personally I’ve always been suspicious of the Essene story too. It’s just so against the Jewish character, and, frankly, weird, for Jews to hide in caves waiting for the afterlife, and forgo sexual contact in a culture that puts such emphasis on marriage and mating. Jewish culture is a culture of shidduchim (matches) and the shadchan (matchmaker) and finding your b’sheret (soulmate). And the “are you married yet? why not? want to meet my daughter?” attitude comes through strongly, even in the earliest rabbinic sources.


“Are We Rome?” Part V: The Spoils of Ctesiphon

There were many wars between the Romans and the Iraqis / Persians, too many wars to adequately describe here, one time a Roman general even defected to the Parthians and invaded Syria, but suffice it to say, neither side ever gained much territory long-term. The wars continued into the era of the Byzantines vs. the Caliphate, and, arguably, the continuation of this West / East clash is ongoing as we speak.

When the Roman Empire was at its furthest territorial extent, Emperor Trajan was able to make the greatest gains against Parthia in Roman history.

Statue of Trajan

Internal divisions plagued Parthia, and Trajan crushed the Parthian army, took the key cities of Babylon, Seleucia and captured their capital at Ctesiphon in 116 AD. He deposed the Parthian king, annexed Mesopotamia and made the territory into two new Roman provinces. According to Edward Gibbon, Trajan was the first (and last) Roman Emperor to sail in the Persian Gulf.

Trajan’s conquests were the closest the Romans would ever come to their dream of duplicating Alexander the Great’s empire; they would never advance this far east again.

But the Roman hold on Mesopotamia was tenuous and short-lived. The population was still loyal to Parthia, and had no interest in being Romanized.

The Jews, who for centuries the majority of whom lived in Babylonia (thanks to the many expulsions from Judea by enemies) rose up in full insurrection against Rome. Little is known about the Kitos War (Second Jewish Rebellion) and its causes, but I suspect that Rome looting Jews’ property to finance their wars against Parthia, the continued repression and attempts to impose idolatry on the Jews, the need for revenge for the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD, and general sympathy for the Parthians (Jews had usually been partial to the Persians, one of the only uses of the word messiah in the Tanakh refers to Cyrus the Great) contributed to the worldwide uprising of what some would call a “fifth column” of Jews against Rome.
Around 115-117 AD, Jews revolted from Libya to Cyprus to Babylon, and according to Roman sources, it was horribly violent;
Lukuas, a Jewish “king,” basically declared Jewhad (word made up for Jewish jihad) and led the community on a rampage through Egypt, razing temples of idolatry and bathhouses, destroying roads and massacring hundreds of thousands of Hellenes, genocide so extensive that Rome had to repopulate North Africa (though they probably exaggerate all this to demonize the Jews). Unlike the First Jewish Rebellion and the Third (Bar Kokhba’s Revolt) there is little direct evidence of the Second Jewish Revolt, aside from scant Roman accounts and a Latin inscription (below) referring to the city of Cyrene being rebuilt after the tumultu Iudaico, the Judaic tumult.

The Roman reaction to the revolt was just as violent and horrifying. Moorish general Lusius Quietus (the only black African to be Roman consul) led a campaign of rape and ethnic cleansing in Babylonia (and was rewarded with the governorship of Iudaea province) and rebellious Jews in N. Africa and Judea were executed en masse.

The Second Jewish Rebellion forced Trajan to divert legions to Judea, and this loosed his hold on Mesopotamia. The Jews were not yet fully crushed when Trajan died of edema August 9, 117 and Hadrian succeeded him as emperor. Hadrian gave up on controlling Iraq and stationed the Sixth Legion to permanently occupy Judea. They had lost the war to Parthia.

But it wasn’t the last time Rome would attack
Mesopotamia. Hardly. After Parthia reconquered Armenia, the Romans under Marcus Aurelius retaliated and annexed Northern Mesopotamia in 165 AD (they would’ve conquered even more but were crippled by a plague of measles). They held it for decades, but it was an enormous burden in manpower and money to keep such a resistant, unstable area secured.

Seeing an opening during the chaos of a new Roman civil war in 193 AD, the Parthians retook the region. But in 198, new Roman Emperor Septimius Severus counter-attacked and quickly reconquered it, and subjected the capital Ctesiphon to its worst looting yet, taking enough silver and gold back to Europe to postpone an economic crisis for decades. Without its treasury, Parthia was impoverished, went into rapid decline and faded into history, and by 226 AD had been replaced with a new Persian empire (the Sassanids) that retook Iraq and would prove far more formidable than their predecessors.

Despite Rome outliving the Parthian Empire, they remained deeply etched in the Roman memory, and were so respected and feared, Christians in the East later had a prophecy that emperor Nero would rise from the dead as the anti-Christ, and the zombie emperor would lead a horde of fearsome Parthian horsemen to sack Rome.

Ruins of Ctesiphon Palace

Emperor Severus’ plunder of
Ctesiphon brings the motive of war into stark relief; it’s money. Plato warned the Greeks that “all wars are fought for the sake of getting money” and Cicero told Rome “endless money forms the sinews of war” (he was later beheaded for trying to stop tyranny) but we evidently don’t learn much from the words of wise men, or from history. Humans continue to put together vast empires in the hope of vast profits, even though large empires, whether it is Rome, Germany, Russia, Japan, Britain or the U.S., always require vast violence to maintain.

If we haven’t learned yet, how will we learn?


Next: The Final Chapter

Jewish Funeral For Liviu Librescu

In my last post, I covered the death of Professor Liviu Librescu in the VT Massacre. Librescu, who survived a Nazi slavery camp during the Holocaust, was given a Jewish funeral today in Brooklyn. Full story

He’ll be buried in Israel.

I was moved by these photos.

The casket of Liviu Librescu is carried through the street in Brooklyn, New York, Wednesday, April 18, 2007.

Praying and crying

75-year-old Holocaust Survivor Killed In VT Massacre

This life is full of sick ironies.


Israeli professor killed in US shooting
As Jews worldwide honored on Monday the memory of those who were murdered in the Holocaust, a 75-year-old survivor sacrificed his life to save his students in Monday’s shooting at Virginia Tech college that left 32 dead and over two dozen wounded.

Professor Liviu Librescu threw himself in front of the shooter, who had attempted to enter his classroom. The Israeli mechanics and engineering lecturer was shot to death, “but all the students lived – because of him,” Virginia Tech student Asael Arad – also an Israeli – told Army Radio.

Librescu’s wife, Marlena, told the NRG Web site that her husband had loved his job with “all his heart and his soul.”

The couple immigrated to Israel from Romania in 1978 and then moved to Virginia in 1986 for his sabbatical, but had stayed since then, their son, Joe, told Army Radio.

In the deadliest shooting rampage in modern US history, the attacker, who had yet to be positively identified, cut down his victims in two attacks two hours apart before the university could grasp what was happening and warn students.

The bloodbath ended Monday with the gunman committing suicide, bringing the death toll to 33 and stamping the campus in the picturesque Blue Ridge Mountains with unspeakable tragedy, perhaps forever.

Full story at the Jerusalem Post

Confronting The Absence of G-d

Confronting The Absence of G-d

Filling the Gap Called Life

I was born with some weird, unknown muscular dystrophy (yeah, Jerry’s Kids Telethon *gag*) believed to be related to the metabolic cycle. On September, Friday the 13th, 1991, at age 9, I had back surgery to put rods in and supposedly straighten my spine (unnecessarily, really). I developed a horrible, raging pseudomonas infection. Prior to this, I was able to go to school by myself, feed myself, and use a manual wheelchair. Sometimes I could even stand up on my own. I was very independent and would drive around the house on a self-propelled three-wheeled motorcycle. Some people didn’t realize that I had any sort of disability. The post-op infection I got (and the surgeon wouldn’t treat) knocked me off the metabolic balance beam. All the abilities I had before I soon lost. I got down to 35 pounds. My muscles wasted away; my digestive, cardiac and pulmonary systems shut down as doctors continued to make one horrible mistake after another. I wasn’t expected to live, but after many terrible episodes, hospitalizations and near death experiences, I was infection-free by 1993. The infection made the metal rods not fuse, and for years they were unstable, moving and grinding metal against bone; the pain was unbearable, and to this day I have to take painkillers at least every four hours.

But anyhow, since getting a trach and ventilator in ’94 to breathe, my stamina’s improved and I have been relatively stable. Though my lack of muscle means I can barely move at all, can’t turn myself at night or eat without help, and need the machine for each breath, I get along fine with the proper help.
I can’t use a keyboard, lift my hands at all. I type with my thumb on a trackball mouse and click out text by hitting letters on onscreen keyboard software. Sometimes it takes me hours to type out something (nearing 4 hours on this one), but this also gives me time to consider my words and extract the best possible writing from myself. I was admitted to Spring Hill College at age 16, and from age 19-22 did the whole national campaign thing, speaking all over the country. Now I’m in the “WTF am I gonna do now?” phase.

I recount this difficult history not to self-flagellate, not to impress you, but to properly frame my spiritual struggle. To show you my path so far so you understand where I’m coming from.

I persevered and survived when several doctors said I couldn’t.

My faith didn’t survive.

Losing all physical ability in mere months crushed my belief in G-d. During my time of greatest anguish, with me a 10 year old child in ICU near-death with no father, the only religion I was exposed to was local Christians saying “it’s G-d’s will, ” or “everything happens for a reason.” I thought that G-d would never hurt me or use incompetent doctors as agents of His judgement, as that went against everything I had ever felt about G-d (e.g. that He is all good and all loving). Therefore, I concluded that G-d either does not exist, or He doesn’t control human actions. I rejected all religion for the next 10 years. I couldn’t even conceive of an Omnipotent Being under those terms, since it posited a divine torturer, so I recoiled in deep existential horror at any talk of G-d. The idea of a personal G-d was loathsome to me. I thought religion (at the very least) was passively assenting to a barbaric theology of a mass-murdering, evil, torturing Deity, and should (at best) be avoided, and (at worst) possibly denounced or ridiculed, because any Being responsible for the unendurable suffering I’ve seen is inherently illegitimate, and logically must be a lie, and all lies must be exposed for what they are. I was pretty sure a personal G-d could not exist, and I settled into a kind of content agnosticism for the intervening decade (“if G-d wants to exist, that’s His department! I’m not involved.”).

A kind of mournful, reluctant parting, isn’t it?

But my path in life cannot help but routinely scrape up against the limits of human rationality. And when the material world fails utterly, it is natural to seek answers from the spiritual. There is no real rational explanation for why the Jewish people (a distinct ethnic group that has no existence separate from its religion, Judaism) have survived against all odds. There is no good rational explanation for why I lived when I should have died, and still endure. There is no rational explanation for why I get awards and national media coverage, then am stuck in my room for three years. There is no good rational explanation for why I know deep down with such abiding passion that all disabled and elderly citizens MUST be secure if we are to have any semblance of a good society, it is just a deep spiritual truth I know. Because if there is only cold logic, the United States could achieve immense additional wealth (and the happiness freedom from taxation brings) if we euthanized every single disabled and elderly person. If there is no moral law, no soul connecting us, and I am just an inferior material product, why should I not be killed? There has to be something greater than ourselves, and whenever I advocate, I feel that pull toward this idea. Activism is most often pursued by those who don’t count on an all-controlling Being for salvation and think it is up to US to change the world, so the role of “do-gooder” has been increasingly filled by atheists and agnostics like I was, but activism for the downtrodden and oppressed is an innately, intensely spiritual act, even if I didn’t always know it acutely.

My work getting the law changed to save lots of disabled people from losing their care, in a sense, reconnected me to G-d. In recent years, I’ve embraced my mom’s Judaism and now am learning a lot, believing more and looking for answers. In 2006, I absorbed a massive amount of Jewish knowledge.

But the question of G-d’s role in every human action deeply troubled me, and often still does. If G-d is running the world, He’s not doing such a good job is He? It is this gripe, this apparent absence of G-d allowing unspeakable injustices and horrors to unfold, that for years animated my agnosticism and today spurs the skewering of religion from sites like WhyDoesG-dHateAmputees.com and books like Richard Dawkins’ The G-d Delusion and Sam Harris’ The End of Faith.

Does G-d hate me? Why doesn’t G-d grow limbs back for amputees? I rejected G-d most of my whole life because I thought a G-d that would allow me to suffer so much couldn’t possibly exist. I was right, such a G-d does not exist. I, and those like Sam Harris, fundamentally misunderstand the nature of The Matrix we find ourselves in when we pursue that flawed line of inquiry.

The only way the world exists and the only way G-d exists is if G-d contracts Himself and is absent and allowing free will to shape (and f**k up) the world. This absence of G-d is implicit every day we experience and every page of scripture we read. Genesis has barely begun when Cain whacks Abel. In chapter 34, Dinah is raped. In chapter 38, Yehuda (Judah, the father of our nation) pays for the services of a Canaanite temple prostitute (his daughter-in-law Tamar) in exchange for one goat, his staff and ring, and he impregnates her with the son that becomes the Davidic (Messianic) line, then tries to have her executed. She evades being killed only by showing she still has his signet ring.

In this painting by Horace Vernet, Yeduha gives his ‘ho some bling.

And this is all in the first book! This book is not about perfect morality and serendipity; far from it!

I was recently asked, “if G-d exists, why doesn’t He shield us and provide for us like He did for the Jews in Exodus?” I said “Shielded? O Rly? Famine, disease and war were way MORE common in Moshe’s era than today! FAR from cuddled heavenly utopia, tragedy happened in spades to those led out of Egypt: plagues, wars, the earth eating people, angels of death smiting people; the first generations ALL DIED before entering Israel, including Moshe and Aaron…. The Five Books of Moses show us how important our mitzvos are, how even one good act can change the world and avert disaster, and one bad act can precipitate one. Some may see horrible hopelessness in the text. Judaism sees hope for meeting the challenge. The challenge of life is precisely how to navigate this certain gap, this absence of G-d portrayed in everyday life and the text of the Torah, the gap we must fill, that we must take responsibility for protecting our gifts, we must perfect the world, and Judaism provides the guidebook for doing just that with our Torah.

So the good folks over at
WhyDoesG-dHateAmputees.com are missing the whole concept of what G-d is all about. What is the point of the mitzvos (commandments) “do not blaspheme, do not kill, do not steal, do not amputate each other, etc.” if HE will intervene and fix it all for us? If He would always intervene, why have a covenant subcontracting out the work to mankind? The concept of commandments, by definition, mean that WE are responsible for this life; HE is not about smiting people, re-growing lost limbs, stopping wars, Holocausts, and so on. That is our task, our joy, and our tragedy.

As Rabbi Eliezer Berkovitz famously said, “G-d is mighty for He shackles His ominpotence and becomes powerless so that history may be possible.”

WHY Bad Things Happen to Good People Audio Series by Rabbi Benjamin Blech was a crucial resource for me to flesh this out. It does an amazing job giving the Jewish sages’ answers to these questions, explaining G-d and free will. I didn’t purchase any tapes, but they let you listen to half the lectures in the series free.

The jist is this: Hashem is all good and all powerful, but to preserve human freedom, without which we can have no real choice, and no relationship with Him, G-d limits His own intervention in our reality.

G-d performs many miracles, most of them we don’t even recognize, but most miracles WE have to do. He gave us the Torah and “thou shalt not murder” so that WE would stop the killing, so WE would stop Hitler, so WE would do righteousness. He didn’t give us the Torah so HE could do those mitzvos, He gave it to US to do them. So the Holocaust, and all suffering and death are the failures of humanity, not failures of G-d! If a perfect, omniscient G-d can exist, He is necessarily all loving, and incapable of failure.

WE are commanded the mitzvos, not G-d!
It is WE who have to make it right. Not G-d!

As Shakespeare wrote, “The fault, dear Brutus, lie not in our stars, but in ourselves…”

Life is the process of confronting this gap, this absence of G-d, and how we fill it.

May we do it well, and without arrogance.

I am still full of plenty of doubts, though the questions of where time began points me to theism, and the huge role of religion in providing organization to groups of unruly humans (and a Jewish identity that can never exist totally independent of Judaism) points me to theism, I still have questions.

Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, recoiling at the horrors humanity has wrought, have answers as certain as a fundamentalist, not just questions, and this lack of questioning, when conducted by anyone, can only stunt the search for truth.

Keep searching, and keep fighting to fill the gap called life G-d has left us; everything depends on it.


Amos Shoves G-d’s Social Justice Message In Your Face

Amos Shoves G-d’s Social Justice Message In Your Face

Nick’s Commentary on the Book of Amos

All my life, I’ve had this yearning to repair the world and set right the injustices it is replete with. This drive has burned within me and spurred me to act and become an activist.

As I study scripture, I am increasingly aware that this inner voice demanding justice is inseparable from the outer voice of the prophets demanding justice, inseparable from the Jewish tradition.

I recently read the Book of Amos. As it is only nine brief chapters, it was a quick read. Everyone should read it, because its message is so central and so necessary for our current struggles; in his polemic against the status quo, Amos attacks economic inequality almost-exclusively, and regards greed as closely associated with idolatry.

I’ll quote from it heavily as I give you a run-down.

Amos Chapter 2

6. So said the Lord: For three transgressions of Israel, yea for four, I will not return them; For selling an innocent man for money, and (selling) a poor man in exchange for shoes.

Here Amos is attacking decadence. The children of Israel in the latest fashions of Gucci and Manolo Blahnik I’m sure. But the key phrase here is “selling a poor man” in exchange for shoes. G-d is saying you are selling the needs of the poor down the river for the sake of luxuries. If you are consuming extravagantly, you are inherently stealing. Whenever you have too much, someone else doesn’t have enough.

As it was written in Proverbs: “Oppressing the poor in order to enrich oneself, and giving to the rich, will lead only to loss. (Proverbs 22:16)

And as it is taught in the Talmud: “If a person closes his eyes to avoid giving [any] charity, it is as if he committed idolatry.” (Ketubot 68a)

But back to Amos…

7. Who aspire on the dust of the earth concerning the head of the poor, and they pervert the way of the humble, and a man and his father go to the maid, in order to profane My Holy Name.

Injustice against the poor is mentioned beside sexual immorality.

8. And they recline on pledged garments beside every altar, and the wine of the fined ones they drink in the house of their gods.
G-d is attacking excessive consumption, and it is very linked to idolatry. People are reclining on expensive garments that have been pledged to idols and drinking wine dedicated to idols, in houses devoted to idols.

9. And I destroyed the Amorites from before them, whose height is as the height of the cedar trees, and they are as strong as oaks, and I destroyed his fruit from above and his roots from below.
Hashem destroyed the Amorites / Canaanites because of idolatry, and gave the land to Israel. He’s saying “the Amorites were mighty as cedars and I cut them down; what, you think I won’t do the same to your weak ass if you follow in their idolatrous footsteps?”

10. And I brought you up from the land of Egypt, and I led you in the desert for forty years, to inherit the land of the Amorites.

11. And I raised up some of your sons as prophets and some of your young men as Nazirites; is this not true, O children of Israel?” says the Lord.

Hashem is like “what, the Exodus wasn’t enough for you ungrateful bastards?”

Moving on…a longer block of text…

Book of Amos, chapter 5:

10. They hated him who reproves them in the gate, and they despise him who speaks uprightly.

11. Therefore, because you have trodden on the poor, and the burden of grain you take from him, houses of hewn stone you have built but you shall not dwell therein, precious vineyards you have planted, but you shall not drink their wine.

12. For I know that your transgressions are many, and your sins are mighty; you who oppress the just, taking ransom, and turning aside the needy in the gate.

13. Therefore, the prudent at that time shall keep silent, for it is a time of evil.

14. Seek good and not evil in order that you live, and so the Lord God of Hosts shall be with you, as you said.

15. Hate evil and love good, and establish justice in the gate; perhaps the Lord God of Hosts will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph.

16. Therefore, so said the Lord God of Hosts, the Lord: In all the city squares lamentation, and in all streets they shall say, “Alas! Alas!” and they shall meet the plowman with mourning and lamentation with those who know to wail.

17. And in all vineyards [there shall be] lamentation, for I will pass in your midst, said the Lord.

18. Woe to those who desire the day of the Lord. Why would you have the day of the Lord? It is darkness, and not light.

19. As if a man flees from the lion and the bear meets him, and he comes to the house and leans his hand on the wall, and a serpent bites him.

20. Is not the day of the Lord darkness and not light, even very dark, with no brightness in it.

21. I hate, I reject your festivals, and I will not smell [the sacrifices of] your assemblies.

22. For if you offer up to Me burnt- offerings and your meal-offerings, I will not accept [them], and the peace offerings of your fattened cattle I will not regard.

23. Take away from Me the din of your songs, and the music of your lutes I will not hear.

24. And justice shall flow like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream.

25. Did you offer Me sacrifices and meal-offerings in the desert forty years, O house of Israel?

26. And you shall carry Siccuth your king and Chiun your images, Kochav your god, which you have made for yourselves.

27. And I will exile you beyond Damascus, said He Whose Name is the Lord God of Hosts.

That’s right!! Amos is all “you spend on sandals and wine, and shove the poor aside from your gate. Hashem will be sending various plagues momentarily. Pwnage will flow like water. A reckoning is coming, and it will not be pretty for those who oppress the poor and venerate the image.”

The greedy and unjust are told where to jam it.

Activists for justice throughout American history, particularly those in the abolitionist and civil rights movements, have drawn heavily on the themes of Amos and the social prophets. Martin Luther King frequently quoted “justice shall flow like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream,” in his speeches, which emphasized the “day of reckoning” promised by the prophets.

In his new book The Shape of Things to Come: Prophecy in the American Voice, Greil Marcus argues this tradition of calling Americans to account, challenging them to live up to their ideals and warning them if they do not, has become a unique “American Voice,” spoken by Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King and even Bob Dylan. He’s right. But of course, the source of this voice of justice is the Hebrew Bible. Amos and the social prophets, especially when contrasted with ancient stories of the time, called out a radical change in the human narrative that has changed the world.

“A day of reckoning,” means evil and unjust practices cannot continue;
they are inherently illegitimate and will collapse from their own decay. Justice cannot be avoided. Prophets like Amos were sent to remind Israel not only that they must live up to their covenant, but that a living G-d will never forget the lost and oppressed. This is piece of LIVING TORAH brought down from Sinai by Amos. Living Torah means it is functional and applicable TODAY. Amos came to say Hashem will enforce Deut. 15:7-8, Exodus 22:21, and more, don’t think He ain’t ALL over this.

He is telling us:

Book of Amos, chapter 6:

4. Those who lie on couches of ivory and stretch out on their beds, and eat lambs of the flock and calves out of the stall.

5. Who sing according to the tone of the lute. They thought that their musical instruments were like [those of] David.

6. Who drink from basins of wine, and with the first oils they anoint themselves, and they feel no pain concerning the destruction of Joseph.

7. Therefore, now they shall go into exile at the head of the exiles, and the banquet of the haughty shall pass away.

The greedy will be removed from power.

And THE LIVING TORAH means HE is talking to all the fat cats and classist assclowns TODAY. No just in freakin’ 750 BCE, but 2007, and Hashem is confronting us. This isn’t some mushy, lovey dovey stuff, Hashem is being as confrontational and in your face as possible.

At Spring Hill College, Dr. Wilson would often emphasize that scripture is radical, and doesn’t line up at all with dispassionate, “civic religion” (people going to services as a kind of civic duty to listen to stale, non-confrontational sermons and still live their lives like everyone else). I’m not a Christian obviously, but Wilson was dead-on with that point.

How could anyone read Amos, and they not see how hardcore G-d is about the needs of the poor? How can it not dramatically change them?

Book of Amos, chapter 8:

4. Hearken to this, you who swallow up the needy, and to cut off the poor of the land.

5. Saying, “When will the month be delayed, so that we will sell grain, and the Sabbatical Year, so that we will open [our stores of] grain, to make the ephah smaller and to make the shekel larger, and to pervert deceitful scales.

6. To purchase the poor with money, and the needy in order to inherit them, and the refuse of the grain we will sell.”

7. The Lord swore by the pride of Jacob: I will never forget any of their deeds.

Amos shoves Hashem’s social justice message in your eye!


WOE UNTO YOU WHO VOTE FOR POLICIES THAT TRAMPLE THE WEAK AND THE POOR and think “oh, someone else will stand up for the poor.”

NO, HASHEM SAYS YOU MUST. A reckoning will come! As MLK quoted, “justice shall flow like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream!”

IT’S NOW 2007!

We are commanded to live up to our promise. In the recent Torah portions, we see the Jews living in slavery after they’ve sold their brother Joseph into slavery, and we see their path to redemption begin when the midwives refuse to kill the Jewish newborns because their allegiance is to G-d, not Pharaoh. We see from this that bringing holiness into their behavior is a choice, and one that had incredible ramifications.

It’s no less-so today.

Choose righteousness. Give tzedekah (charity) for example, but perhaps more importantly, STAND UP FOR THE POOR AND DISABLED in the public square as our rights and funding we depend on are continually attacked by politicians. The Academy of Sciences Reported that about 18,000 people die each year as a result of not having insurance. 1 in 6 Americans live in poverty. In the richest country in the world, that is unacceptable.

This cannot stand.

We must do the right thing. Redemption is a choice.

Make sure your loyalty is to something Greater than yourself, and something more than the next Pharaoh on his way to the dustbin of history.

As Amos taught us, a day of reckoning will come, injustice must be removed….



1. Amos illustration by Gustave Doré