Friday, May 26, 2006

Condition White for Self Defense

I'm not a poet like Tiel, so I can't say it as well as she did here or here. I really hate the cancer that walks like a city, Las Vegas. It's a monument to all that is worst in the human spirit: greed, self-deception, lust unalloyed by love or even human connection, addiction, drunkeness, gluttony and the shutdown of all the higher faculties. It produces nothing, just extracts money from visitors with mathematical precision and pours water out onto the desert. It is hard to express just how much I loathe that place. (Note to self: Don't hold back. Tell them how you really feel.)

We were just in Las Vegas on family business. Fifteen years ago it was appalling. Now it's plain terrifying.

Everyone knows how the lights on the Strip and in the casino don't let you know whether it's day or night. The bars stay open, and there are no clocks on the walls where there is gambling. That's only part of it. The buildings lack all sense of scale and proportion. It's difficult to tell how big or how far away anything is. Rooms can be close without fostering intimacy or enormous while still being oppressive.

There is noise everywhere, but it's chaotic, arrhythmic and as intrusive as possible. The lights are even worse. With the animated billboards, neon signs and slot machine displays there is movement everywhere at odd angles and and from strange directions. It never stops. It's all designed to attract attention while shortening the attention span and encouraging compulsive behavior. The Strip supports enormous luxurious hotels and huge casinos on the strength of twenty five cent slot machines. They have to provide an environment that encourages people to focus in on the machine or the gaming table and keep ponying up.

As long as you ignore your environment and keep feeding money into the city's maw you are pretty safe. Food, drink and entertainment will be provided. Large men in gray suits keep regular criminals away from the customers. If you step outside the psychic box it becomes overwhelming in a few minutes and psychosis-inducing in a couple days. I've spent the last few years trying to live in Condition Yellow on Colonel Jeff Cooper's Color Code (as modified by many others) - relaxed, prepared for trouble and aware of the environment. Most of the time it's an excellent state to be in. It is the minimum acceptable level of preparation for an armed person. It is very difficult to maintain unfocused awareness when there is so much going on which is designed to distract and disorient.

Over long periods you can learn what is important in that environment and tune out the rest. You can try to maintain environmental awareness and activation during complete sensory overload without specific targets. Or you can dial your awareness down and revert to Condition White, experiencing Las Vegas the way you are meant to. I didn't have time for the first, got cranky and twitchy doing the second and (reluctantly) went to the third while inside "safe" places like casinos. Eventually we just kept repeating to each other "We'll be out of here in a few days and we'll never have to come back."

If you're teaching awareness to martial artists, bodyguards, cops or similar by all means take them there for a final exam. Have your students spend three or four days on the Strip visiting casinos in quick succession and walking around outside, especially at night. If they can go the whole time in Condition Yellow without having a psychotic episode or falling into Condition White out of psychic self defense they've passed the test. Hell, take off your belt, bang your head on the floor and beg them to take you on as their student.Either they've mastered the material or the local Zen monastery has snuck one of their Sages into your school as a ringer.

So ¡Muerte Las Vegas! The place would be improved if the US military moved the Nevada Test Site to half a mile above the corner of Flamingo and Las Vegas Boulevard.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Wrestling With G-d, Hoping For Two Falls Out of Three

A Jew's relation to Judaism can be a lot like a fish to the fisherman. A lot of line can be played out, but there's always the potential that you'll get reeled in. Well, they sunk the hook in me early, and much as I've run away from it from time to time there's always that connection. Lately it's been stronger. I grew up in a very secular household and didn't get much of a Jewish education. The local synagogue wasn't terribly helpful. The backbiting, politicking, and personality conflicts were so strong sometimes that I doubt even G-d could get a word in edgewise. Unorganized reading of Torah, Talmud and Kabbalah in translation helped, but there's just way too much for an outsider to collate. So I'm taking courses from the JLI taught at the local Lubavitcher shul.

The Lubavitch Chassidim are great people. They are very observant but live in the world and, as the Rabbi says, "If it can't be applied to real life throw it out." They were in New Orleans after Katrina even before the Mormons arrived. They help even ignorant secularized Yids like yours truly learn Torah. I just can't say enough good things about them. So it's very painful to have to wrestle with some of what they teach and to say that, when I examine my conscience and do the best I can with my limited faculties I just can't swallow some of what they're teaching.

The current class is "From Sinai to Cyberspace". It's a course in the basics of Jewish thought and how Judaism views and interprets the sacred texts in a changing world. So far most of it is very good. The 13 principles for deriving meaning from the Written and Oral Torah are helpful. The quotes from the Sages are illuminating. The relationship between the Written Law and the adaptive Oral Law is beautiful. But when it comes down to it I am unconvinced by some of their arguments about the fundamental question:

What does G-d really want from us?

Before we go any further I need to make a couple things absolutely clear. This is not an indictment of Judaism as Judaism. The problems I see here are ones that can affect any religion. But since it's Judaism that is raising the questions at the moment it's Judaism that I'm wrestling with.

I'm willing to grant that what is written down in Torah is what is written down there. Torahs all over the world from Ethiopia to China are letter-perfect identical. I'll accept that the direct given-to-us-at-Sinai portions of the Oral Law have been preserved faithfully. It's the other two parts, the stuff derived according the rules of Jewish scholarship and later legislative acts that start activating my bullshit meter. To cut a long story short, what is derived is considered to be Torah as much as, if not more than, what is written. Further, a posek's pronouncements have the force of Torah.

I'm quite ignorant of Torah, can only sound out Hebrew, don't know any Talmud to speak of. But the brain works pretty well. And what does it perceive that troubles me deeply?

The first starts with science. And where is Steven J. Gould(ztl) when we really need him? The attempt to justify science with religion or religion with science does neither any good. No matter what the fundamentalists say - doesn't matter whose fundamentalists - you can't use a revealed religious text as a science book. And no matter what the sociobiologists or reductionists say you can't use science as religious scripture. We know more about the physical world than we did 3000 years ago. The nature of science as a discipline dictates that everything we do is our best effort at the moment. It will be superseded by better understanding and information later, but it's what we have to go on. In every lesson there's a bit or two that is usually labelled "HDTK?" or How Did They Know? A pronouncement about the physical world is made from Talmud, and it is declared that what modern science is just discovering was revealed back in the day. Therefore the religion is true.

The problem is that it often isn't. Tonight's HDTK was from the Talmud, to the effect that pigs are unlike all other animals because their internal organs are like humans'. There are similarities, but the statement just isn't true. Bears are just as close albeit bigger. Monkeys are even more like us. Apes are closer still. But if you try to say that the answer is that science is imperfect. It's a classic ratchet mentality. What supports my beliefs is true. That which contradicts them is your error. Cats don't have poison in their claws. Pi is not equal to three. If the woman orgasms first the child will not necessarily be a boy. Fasting, holy water and sacrifices will not cure leprosy. In a larger sense, if you look for validation of religion in science you'll either have to backfill and wave your hands vigorously when the science changes or accept that your religious tenets will have to evolve with our understanding of the physical universe. If you hold out the imperfection of science as a way of denying new understanding that contradicts religious beliefs about the nature of the physical universe you can not claim the mantle of science to validate your theology. Any other position is self-deception if not actually dishonest.

The second is selective derivation and its sibling, moral abdication. The Torah as written is sketchy and doesn't provide a lot of details. The Oral Torah provides the key. Among the tools for figuring out the meaning and the Almighty's design are thirteen rules of inference. All well and good. Judaism has a tradition of rigorous scholarship and logic. But there are times when it is incredibly selective. In many cases it's a good thing. Part of the Jewish tradition is change so that Jews can live in the world and with the Torah. But dishonesty creeps in again.

Let's take a subject which arouses strong feelings in many of us, rape. The Written Torah is absolutely clear about rape. If the victim is in the city and doesn't cry out for help she dies as a punishment for her immorality. If she was out in the back-beyond or was in the city and cries out she marries the rapist and can never get a divorce. Given the nature of Israel in those days it made a certain sense. Later rabbis have pretty circuitously come to the conclusion that the rapist is required to give up his right to marry the victim and she's entitled to, what is it, nine different compensations for pain and suffering. It's a valiant attempt to get around a huge obstacle in the road of justice. It's still sophistry albeit for the best of motives. I wish to be closer to the Almighty, but this is a point where I have to say "Lord, if that's your rule I just won't follow it. And I'm willing to spend extra time in Gehenna for that disobedience. Rapists belong in prison or floating face-down in a ditch."

Close on the heels of selective derivation is the limited, human nature of the Sages and their normal human blind spots. The ancient and not so ancient rabbis were incredibly knowledgeable and wise men. No doubt about it. They dedicated their lives to Hashem and used every faculty they had to that end. But they were human and suffer from the same frailties that all human beings are heir to - ratchet mentality, groupthink, cultural assumptions and the blindspots that go with them and more. No matter how wise a person is these things happen. The results of these systematic errors must be accounted for when we use their teachings, legislative acts and interpretations of Torah. Unfortunately, that is heresy. The Rambam himself said that questioning those who pass down the Oral Torah is forbidden. Far from being heresy I maintain that it is a serious responsibility. When we stand in front of the Final Judge what should one say?: "Who am I to question that wise man? Take my failings up with him." or "I did the best I could with what I had and disagreed with him when I could not honestly agree."

Just as a trivial example consider sheep. In chumash and the rest everyone has sheep. Avraham had sheep. So did Isaac and Jacob. David was a shepherd. By the time we get to the codification of the Talmud the center of Jewish intellectual life was in Babylon. That part of the world is cow-loving. Where cows are loved, sheep are hated. All of a sudden shepherds are low, venal, crude and worthy of contempt. But "shepherds ben Avraham" are fine. The arguments are unconvincing. I can't honestly accept them when a more parsimonious one works better.

Connected to this is the over-reliance on tradition. Tradition is important. Shared values and customs are the glue that hold a community together especially in times of oppression or diaspora. It's quite another thing to say that because it was done before a tradition is binding in the same way that Divine Law is binding. The comfort of the familiar is seductive. It makes a person feel psychically safe. The danger is that it will become autogenic and that a person will follow it because it is familiar, not necessarily because it reflects G-d's will. When you raise a human tradition to the level of G-d's Law you come dangerously close to deifying your habits. Arguments like "The Sages were closer to Sinai, so whatever they did is more proper" or "We don't want to be like the Gentiles, so any particular thing we used to do to distinguish ourselves is a religious duty" seem intellectually bankrupt and self-serving at my level of understanding.

One of the most egregious examples is the division of Jews into Ashkenazim (North, Central and Eastern European) and Sephardim (everyone else from Italy to Indonesia). Such and such is required for Sephardic Jews but forbidden to Ashkenazim. Ashkenazim may do that. Sephardim should consult their rabbi. There were no Sephardim and Ashkenazim at Sinai or during the time of the Temple. It's a later historical development, and it has permanently divided the single Jewish people into two increasingly divergent tribes. It reaches its nadir in the treatment of the Ethiopian Jews. Bet Yisrael as theycall themselves have been Jews since Biblical times. They have the same Torah as Jews everywhere else. They have somewhat different Oral Traditions, no rabbis and customs that seem strange to outsiders. A reasonable person would say "You have what you have and have done your best to keep G-d's Covenant. We went a different way doing the same thing in a different time and place." Not so. First they were told that they weren't really Jews and would have to convert to be accepted. Then, when the Israeli Rabbinate nearly went into schism it was agreed that they were Jews. But the scholasticists and deifiers of tradition then said "Their religion isn't Judaism because it doesn't have the same history that ours does."

Today we have some better tools. It turns out that almost all Cohanim share a gene on the Y-chromosome. It's not surprising. Priesthood passes through the male line. A "family tradition that we were Cohanim" is good. The ability to check it out genetically may be better. Likewise, family tradition aside, if you're a Cohen or Levite and have the genetic markers to support it shouldn't that be considered? Oral family records are unreliable. At the most basic level a mother is a fact while a father is an opinion.

Next comes what I refer to as the Sheri Tepper syndrome or excessive information hygiene. The rabbis speak of building a fence around the Torah. It can mean many things such as defending the Torah from corruption or making sure that knowledge doesn't get lost. Most often we see it used to justify laws that are stricter, sometimes wildly stricter, than what Hashem dictated in order to avoid error. What seems to be lost is that it is possible to go so far in that direction that you are further from the mark than those who are somewhat lax. Sherri Tepper parodied this logic in one of her last good books, Raising the Stones I believe. A commandment "Don't be sexist pigs" ends up after a few generations as "Don't eat anything with four legs" in a few logical steps.

Where does that leave us? The great Rabbis and Sages had to make the best they could with what they had. They were wise, and their words are a guide for the ages. But they were only human beings trying to make sense of the world. If we are to be honest and show moral courage we can't take the easy way out and say that they've answered it all, and it's heresy to ask inconvenient questions. We have to make the attempt ourselves to make our religion vital and come as close to the truth as we can. The attempt will fail. We are imperfect by design. But the virtue and the reward lie in the attempt.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Progressive Faith Blog Carnival: Misquoting Jesus

The Abrahamic religions - Judaism, Christianity and Islam - all place great importance and hang a good bit of their legitimacy on sacred Books. In fact the youngest of these refers to their adherents as "People of the Book". Whether it's the Quran, the Gospels or the Torah the faithful look to their texts for guidance, validation and G-d's words. The question that comes immediately to mind is "How do you know your Book is accurate?" Let's leave aside the arguments that insult one's intelligence like "The Book is true because it says so right in the Book", supposed codes that are almost certainly applications of the law of large numbers and that classic of theological persuasion "Believe or I will kill you, you blaspheming heretic." Where do the books come from? How do we know they are accurate?

We've bought most of our books at Amazon for some years now. Their cluster-analysis software has gotten terrifyingly good at predicting what we will enjoy, so just a couple months ago I was surprised to see Bart Ehrman's Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why on our recommendation list. I'm not a Christian. The Gospels and the letters of Paul are of no interest to me. But I had enjoyed the Nag Hammadi texts and some of the non-canonical Gospels such as Thomas and Mary Magdalene. My next thought was that it was the latest in a long line of ill-tempered rants about the Christian Bible. But the price was attractive, and it was paired with something else I was interested in, so a copy was soon on its way from Nevada to Oregon.

Dr. Ehrman has impressive academic credentials - doctorate from Princeton and currently chair of Religious Studies at UNC Chapel Hill. But he's not just a liberal scholar with no real religious background. He was Born Again in high school and attended Moody Bible Institute and Wheaton. His criticisms of his faith and its underpinnings are reluctant. His enthusiasm is obvious. Textual criticism is one of the driest possible subjects. His passion for the subject is infectious.

Misquoting Jesus addresses a number of important areas. First, there is the formation of the Christian canon. This has been dealt with in detail elsewhere, but he goes over it lightly - church letters and their significance, martyrologies, apologetics, tracts, acts of the apostles, apocalypses and important attempts at formalizing the canon such as Marcion's. Much is made of the fact that the original manuscripts have been lost and had, in fact been lost for decades when the earliest Christian Bibles were first put on paper.

A large portion of the book is devoted to copying and copyists. We think of a book as being published in editions each of which is a letter-perfect replica of all the others. I was amazed at how false that turned out to be. In an age when literacy, defined so loosely as being able to recognize one's own name on paper, was at about 5% there were very few Christian scribes who could actually read and write. Accidental changes were common as were intentional alterations to fit the views of the copyist. In fact, the earlier the manuscript the worse the errors and the more the editorial changes. A long piece on the history of textual criticism of the Christian Bible points out that the discrepancies run into the tens of thousands and that is impossible to honestly say what the "original" text said. A number of important passages are shown to be of questionable provenance either through error or deliberate adulteration to support the copyist's beliefs.

So what's the point here? Is it just an attempt to pull down Christianity? I would say not. The easy certainties are always casualties of the search for truth. Biblical scholarship is no exception. The author makes the point forcefully and repeatedly that the authors of the Christian Bible were trying to make sense out of the world. They had texts of varying reliability. There was doctrine. There was argument about doctrine. Somehow what they believed had to be reconciled with the words of the Divine. Thus we have four very different views of Jesus, passages corrected to accord with what the writer knew in his heart to be true, alterations to emphasize or support the wholly Divine Jesus versus the half-Divine or the Adopted Jesus and many others. The Bible has to be seen as a collection of documents coming out of a living tradition, a very human collection that must be viewed more as an exploration than a destination.

On a deeper level, these scribes and copyists, secretaries, monks and apologists were trying to do something which is ultimately impossible. They were trying to take a picture of G-d, to encompass and put a form around that which is by nature beyond human comprehension. We have to do this since human minds are all we have to work with. The effort will fail. It is still important to try.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Revisiting old topics: Portland Barbecue and the Geography of the Burrito

Long ago I wrote about barbecue in Portland and promised to talk about burritos. I'm finally getting around to it, and it's an interesting story.

One of the first things immigrants do is find ways to make money. A classic one is to sell food. It might be scraping together the money to buy a 7-11 franchise or open a grocery store. Those with more hope than is realistic open restaurants. As near as I can tell they fail more often than anything except martial arts schools.

Now, Portland is a strange city. By most measures it is the most integrated US city for Asians and the most segregated for African-Americans. I can't prove it, but I'm pretty sure it's responsible for the concentration of barbecue and Southern cooking in our part of town and the ubiquity of Pho, Thai food, Bento, Sushi and bad Chinese everywhere else.

Of course, there are still concentrations of Asian communities here. The Hollywood district has a lot of Vietnamese businesses. There is still a mile or two of really scary Chinese restaurants out on SE 82nd, recently joined by the equally dodgy Hung Far Low (I swear to G-d I'm not making that name up)that used to be downtown. But on the whole, Asian food has spread all over the city. I particularly welcome the opening of the Malay Satay Hut in the Fubon Pan-Asian shopping center and supermarket on 82nd.

What does this have to do with burritos? More than you would think.

Fifteen years ago there really wasn't much Mexican food in Portland. Taco Bell doesn't count. With one or two notable exceptions (Lil Mexico, La Caretta, etc.) the only good Mexican food was out in Hillsboro where there were many Hispanic farm workers.

Over the intervening years we've seen places start to pop up. When contractors started hiring large numbers of Latin Americans we started to notice lunch carts switch from stereotypically American food to tacos and burritos. Some neighborhoods began to sprout taquerias: St. John's, Alberta, and others. They were followed or accompanied by ethnic specialty shops, bakeries, Spanish-language video stores and everything else you'd expect. Meanwhile several of the late and unlamented taco y burrito gringo joints have gone under, pushed out by better and more authentic vendors.

Infernal Snowball Fight to Follow Porcine Landing Maneuvers

Years back QWEST took over our phone company US West. Their slogan was "US West is now QWEST!" to which many of us replied "And still sucks!" When Speakeasy started offering VOIP we signed up right away. And I had started the process of dropping QWEST altogether. Nothing could convince me to stick with QWEST, its customer "service" and hidden costs.

That all changed today.

Some of you may have been raised in a bell jar and have only recently been released. I'll bring you up to speed. The President has decided without any law being passed, any Court decisions made or even the sneering formality of a signing statement that he can spy on any communication between Americans in this country. No probable cause. No ongoing investigation. No court order. He just can. The separation of powers doesn't apply to what Attorney General Gonzales calls "The Unitary Executive".

Bush has been exercising this newly created power by sending the NSA on a massive fishing expedition. The phone calls of tens of millions of Americans have been intercepted, analyzed and stored in the NSA's databases. These are not people who are suspected of terrorism. They are just innocent people caught up in the largest invasion of privacy this country has ever experienced.

All of the big telcos except one rolled over and gave the President what he demanded. QWEST was the lone holdout. They refused to hand over their records without proper warrants out of concern for their customers' privacy. For that alone they deserve our support. We'll keep the VOIP for extended long distance calls. We'll still grumble about our phone bill. But we'll be sticking with QWEST. They came through when it mattered and when nobody else had the courage to stand up to Big Brother.