Thursday, July 31, 2008

Rabbi Manis Friedman at Skokie Chabad July 27

Rabbi Friedman, shlita (term of respect/honor), wrote one of my favorite recently read books, Doesn’t Anyone Blush Anymore?, about modesty and relationships. When I saw the note in Likutei Peshatim, our community bulletin, that Skokie Chabad lined him up to speak, I decided to attend. I arrived at about 8:20 Sunday evening, just in time for Rabbi Friedman to begin. This was a wonderful speech, highlights of which I will try to summarize here. Rabbi Friedman almost convinced me to convert! I do not consider myself Lubavitch/Chabad, but I certainly admire the worldwide movement. Chabad did record the speech, so it is available by request:
Rabbi Friedman’s speech was about Moshiach, and he also addressed the question of whether the last Lubavitcher rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, z”l, was Moshiach. Big questions, big rabbi, big speech, and I thought he handled these well.

Rabbi Friedman considered strict belief in G-d really inferior to knowledge of G-d’s existence. He compared belief in G-d to belief in idols; we can only believe in idols because they are not real. With G-d, on the other hand, we have that in us. We got our belief in the Torah at Natan Torah—the event at which G-d gave us the Torah. G-d said to Moshe Rabbeinu, “I will speak to you, the people will hear, and the people will believe in Me forever.” Well said!

From there Rabbi Friedman moved to Moshiach, the promise of the Messiah. How do we “get” our belief in Moshiach, he asked? It is one of Rambam’s 13 Principles of Faith. If you don’t believe in the coming of Moshiach, then you don’t believe in the Torah. Now that the Temples are gone, we temporarily observe 270 of the original 613 mitzvahs. But every mitzvah is eternal; every mitzvah will be (or has the potential to be) observed forever. “Temporary” is not true. The fact that there are mitzvahs we don’t/cannot keep simply reflects the fact that we are in golus, which is a temporary situation. Rabbi Friedman mentioned another mitzvah that has never been fulfilled—building cities of refuge. (I did not know this.) The last time period when Jews could keep all the mitzvahs, Rabbi Friedman said, was during the time of David HaMelech. For this to recur, we need world peace, all the Jews assembled together, and the Third Temple. If you believe the world will stay the same, as it is today, then you don’t believe in Moshiach or the Torah. Belief in Moshiach, he said, means belief in the permanence and eternity of the Torah.

Moshiach will not need to perform miracles. Miracles are exceptions to the laws of nature suggest that nature is unholy. Torah tells us “Make this world holy.” This world is holier than the Next one, he said. (This surprised me, and I had to reread my notes. For the past 10 years all I’ve heard is that all we’re doing in this world, Olam Hazeh, is preparing for the Next One, Olam Haba.)

There is a tendency to replace knowledge with faith. (And that’s bad.) Moshiach is a Halachic necessity and a physical inevitability. (I like Rabbi Friedman’s optimism. He sounded very confident.) Belief in Moshiach is a step back from that. To illustrate, Rabbi Friedman mentioned former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin shaking hands with the terrorist mass murderer Yassir Arafat on the White House lawn in 1993. Rabbi Friedman asked, “Why must I believe in Moshiach and shake hands with Arafat?” The implication was he would rather (falsely) believe in Arafat and shake hands with Moshiach.

Briefly, on the belief that Rebbe Schneerson is, was, or could be Moshiach: Rabbi Friedman said the rebbe wanted people to stop believing in him as Moshiach. Rabbi Friedman really considers the idea an insult to the rebbe. Rabbi Friedman called the rebbe the Moshiach of his time (and every era has a Moshiach). He mentioned the rebbe’s tefillin campaign, which persuaded many Jews to add one additional mitzvah. For the first time in 2000 years, he said, no country suppresses Yiddishkeit. He gives the rebbe credit for that, and I don’t disagree with him.

What would it take for morality to take over the world? Rabbi Friedman considered the power the pope has—the spiritual leader of about one billion people. The pope gave a speech at an orthodox shul when he recently visited New York. Rabbi Friedman said this was a missed opportunity; the pope should have gone to the shul and listened. To the pope, Rabbi Friedman said, “Keep the mitzvahs you’re supposed to keep: get married!” Rabbi Friedman said the pope has the power to move the world in the direction of becoming good overnight.

A joke in Israel: Ariel Sharon is fine. It’s Olmert who is in a coma! He continued talking about Israel’s ability to change the world: We are not here to export oranges. We are here to export Torah. We could say, “We’re going to live by Torah and fight by Torah.” The Israeli government is a fraud. It is afraid of winning “Because they’ll hate us.” Then Rabbi Friedman shouted, “Hello!” This was pretty funny coming from Rabbi Friedman. But his point was serious. He mentioned the recent prisoner swap, in which Israel gave up a living murderous terrorist and child-killer for a couple of corpses. Embarrassing.
On Moshiach, again: our responsibility is to bring him, not believe in him.

I wish my notes were more complete; I didn’t bring a pad with me, and I had very little to write on. I’ll be better prepared in the future.

July 28: Cubs 6, Brewers 4

I bought tickets in February for the opening game of this week’s Cubs-Brewers series in Milwaukee’s Miller Park. I missed the first-day sale date, so we ended up in the 400 level, near the back of the section, between third and home. In Miller Park, that’s actually not so bad. I joined my friend Keith Rosenthal and his brother Scott. We try to make it up to Milwaukee for a Cub game once a year. It’s nice to get out of town, even if just to Milwaukee, and I think Miller Park is great. I don’t need to worry about the weather, unless it’s horribly hot, which hasn’t happened to me yet. If it’s freezing out (and it once was, for a mid-May Sunday game), the Brewers can close the roof and heat the stadium to 30 degrees warmer than outdoors. The weather for Monday night was picture-perfect. My rule is normally to hit the ballpark’s massive parking lot (east of the ballpark, Mets or Dodgers lots) about an hour before first pitch. Due to the size of the lots, distance to the ballpark, and size of the ballpark, it’s a 15-min. walk from the car to one’s seat. Alas, we hit traffic on our secret shortcut (ask me if you need it), and we were stuck waiting in line to get into the lot from 6:23 to 7:10 or so, right after Alfonso Soriano doubled leading off the game. The lot actually closed in front of us, and the parking attendants let us park in a cul-de-sac nearby. Ultimately, I think we were better off there, but I wish we had arrived on time. After all that, we really only missed the top of the first. The Cubs weren’t done scoring, and the excitement continued.

It was great that the Cubs were able to needle, rattle, and score on the Brewers’ recently acquired pitching ace, CC Sabathia. The Cubs’ offense certainly set a tone for the rest of the series. So did the pitching! The back-to-back home runs Ted Lilly gave up were terrible, but otherwise the pitching held up, and giving up four runs in a game isn’t bad. I just wish the game hadn’t run 3:21, making us very late getting home.

Miller Park reminds me how bad I think Wrigley Field is. To me, the ballpark in Lakeview (please, not “Wrigleyville”) is a dump in desperate need of renovation. The Cubs added the upper deck in the 1930’s, around the same time they installed the scoreboard. So the main-level concourses were not designed to handle the 38,000 fans (everyone except the bleacher fans) who use them every game day. This makes for extreme congestion and long waits to reach one’s seat, the restrooms (the men’s troughs—don’t get me started), and the exits. The views of the field are not terrific, and most of the main level terrace reserved—great seats through the 1980’s—have obstructed views of fly balls and the (pathetic) scoreboard thanks to the overhanging skyboxes the Cubs installed in 1989 or so. The Cubs added a few televisions in that area to compensate for the obstruction, but I don’t think the Cubs have replaced them in nearly 20 years. They’re not big enough, and they still have analog glass screens.

The Wrigley Field scoreboard, which everyone likes so much, doesn’t have room for all the out-of-town games. At least the digital board below the main scoreboard (added in early 2000’s, I think) compensates for the scoreboard’s inability to show detailed statistics for each batter and new pitcher. Still, I like to keep score during play-by-play, and the Wrigley board’s one-letter indication of the official scorer’s decision on a play (“E” for error, “H” for hit) is insufficient.
Miller Park has escalators to the upper decks. After the game, fans can use them to return to the main level. At Sox Park and United Center, the escalators are closed after the game. Pay attention, Mr. Reinsdorf! Miller Park has wide concourses, dozens of concession stands, and large gift shoppe areas. The Cubs would kill to have room for a gift shoppe. The Cubs just don’t have the room in their ballpark to soak every possible dollar from their legions of out-of-town fans. That’s why independent vendors outside Wrigley Field do so well, selling official and counterfeit merchandise. Miller Park’s seating layout makes sense. In a row, Seat 1 is not next to Seat 101, like it is at Wrigley Field. After using a manual out-of-town scoreboard along the outfield walls, the Brewers switched to a digital out-of-town scoreboard on the left-field wall that also shows ads during inning breaks. The out-of-town scoreboard shows the inning for each game and men on base at that moment. Miller Park’s main scoreboard shows detailed scoring for each play (e.g., “single, E-4”). It also has a very nice video board and shows each team’s lineup. Miller Park offers an overall superior experience for its fans. Thanks, southeast Wisconsin taxpayers who were forced to pay for the ballpark through a sales tax surcharge.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Gun buyback program in Chicago

Criminals are laughing about Saturday's gun buyback in 25 churches citywide.

My letter to RedEye about a former judge's own buyback program:

Hi Kenneth,Thank you for writing in to RedEye we'll keep your letter about the gunbuy-back program on file for possible future publication. Thanks for reading RedEye. -----Original Message-----From: Kenneth Salkover Sent: Monday, July 21, 2008 3:00 PMTo: ctc-red-

Dear Editor: As a former judge, Raymond Figueroa should know his gun buyback program is just a harebrained scheme that doesn't reduce street violence("Taking a Stand," July 21). Gun buyback programs simply create a sellers' market for handguns, giving criminals an incentive to trade up to more sophisticated weaponry. Some buyback programs even offer more money than guns are worth on the street, giving criminals a significant profit opportunity. Gun buyback programs don't work. Gun bans don't work. Criminals find both laughable. The best defense against street violence is a populace that can legally arm itself against its gun-toting criminal adversaries.
Kenneth Salkover

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Gun buybacks don't work

My thoughts exactly. From Eric Zorn's Change of Subject blog at

Hard to find good reason to buy back guns
Here are six reasons I'm wary of gun buybacks, such as the one scheduled for Saturday in Chicago in which those who turn in firearms at any of 25 locations get a $100 prepaid credit card per gun, no questions asked:
1. I can't imagine criminals disarming themselves for a lousy $100.
Sure, they might dump their excess, scrap or stolen piece for the bounty. But if having a gun is integral to their criminal activities, it's absurd to think a buyback would inspire them to give up the tools of their trade.
2. I don't see the economic sense of offering law-abiding people a flat fee for their guns.
If you own a firearm worth more than $100, as most firearms are, the only reason to take less for it is if you have no use for it. In that case, your gun is probably not contributing to the gun violence these programs are supposed to address.
3. I worry about buyback programs subsidizing crime and weapons traffic.
When an evildoer offers up a junky old firearm that's worth less than $100, the money stands not only to help him purchase a better gun but also creates an incentive for him to hoard and steal cheap guns.
A regular buyback program (Saturday will be Chicago's fourth annual) "will actually raise gun holdings since it permanently lowers ownership costs," according to a March 2001 analysis in the International Review of Law and Economics. They will "therefore have the opposite effect of what buyback proponents intend."
4. I can't find much evidence that buybacks are effective.
I went searching and found study after study concluding, as the U.S. Surgeon General concluded in a 2001 report on youth violence, that gun buyback programs are "a particularly expensive strategy [that has] consistently been shown to have no effect on gun violence, including firearm-related homicide and injury."
The report added, "There is some evidence that most of the guns turned in are not functional and that most persons turning in guns have other guns at home."
Was I somehow missing studies that showed the opposite? The Illinois Council Against Handgun Violence and the Chicago Police Department, backers of the program, had nothing. The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence didn't respond to a detailed query.
5. I'm not convinced that buybacks get "problem" guns off the streets.
Chicago Police Department spokeswoman Monique Bond didn't have any kind of statistical breakdown of the roughly 6,050 firearms obtained in last year's buyback. What percentage were actually functional? What sorts of crimes were they traced back to?
6. I hear in Mayor Richard Daley's arm-flapping jibber-jabber on this point an admission that the buyback is simply a feel-good program to make citizens believe the city is actually doing something to reduce gun violence.
"If someone takes that gun and fires at you, are you willing to take that chance?" Daley demanded of a reporter Tuesday when asked about the guns' quality. "Not many people are. Besides that, no one likes to have a gun placed in front of their face. So don't ever think that the guns turned in don't work."
He went on: "We're going to go over [to your office] and find out whether they work. We don't ask anyone to do that. They do work. These weapons are very significant. They do work."
You can read a longer transcript of Daley's defense of the buyback online at, where I'm building a webliography of sources on this topic.
My mind remains open, but I can't think of one reason why.

A webliography of sources on the topic of gun buy-backs is here
An extended version of Mayor Richard Daley's discursion is here
Gun buy-back locations here
Post your comments on this issue on the thread here

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Theft from auto

Just a note and a warning--really a follow-up from a news article I read about a surprising number of thefts of GPS units from vehicles. Driving south down Lehigh from Touhy to Devon Avenues this morning, I approached Devon and noticed two vehicles parked on the west side of the street, near the fire station, with piles of broken glass on the street next to them. I pulled over and parked (had to pick up a RedEye newspaper anyway), and noticed the driver's window broken on each vehicle. Impossible to say what had been taken, but the stereo systems appeared to be intact. Were GPS units gently removed from the windshields? Word to the wise: when you leave your car, take your GPS with you. Wipe off the windshield so the suction cup mark doesn't show. Don't leave it in the glove compartment as thieves will look there. I think we need to start printing "No GPS--I took it with me" stickers (with the "no" circle and a red line through it sign) similar to the "No radio" stickers once ubiquitous on parked cars in Manhattan and elsewhere. The thief can break the window and leave a "just checking" note--I read about that happening once--but most would move on.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Funk it Up About Nothin' (Much Ado About Nothing)

Just wanted to post a note about guys doing rap Shakespeare. I saw their Hip-Hop Comedy of Errors in 2003, and I could not stop laughing. Except to listen to the d.j. spin while they rapped, and to enjoy hilarity ensue onstage. In the trailer, they channel the Beastie Boys classic "Paul Revere" to hilarious effect. I hope I'm able to catch this before it closes Aug. 3. $25, runs just 1:05, at Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier. (Where else?)

an "ad-rap-tation" of William Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing
created and directed by GQ and JQ

Upstairs at Chicago Shakespeare
June 25 – August 3, 2008

From the minds and rhymes behind The Bomb-itty of Errors comes the world premiere of Funk It Up About Nothin’. The Q Brothers transform the Bard’s romantic comedy into an exuberant hip-hop extravaganza, rapped to the rhythm of six MCs and a DJ. See it on Navy Pier this summer, before Funk It Up heads to Scotland for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

Recommended for mature audiences (contains adult language)

Approximate Running Time: 65 minutes (no intermission)

" "

–Time Out Chicago

"Downright irresistible!"

–Chicago Sun-Times

"Wildly energetic and likably clever!"


"A bawdy and fun remix!"

–Chicago Tribune

"A def, deftly imagined, exuberant bit of theater!"

–Daily Herald

Funk It Up About Nothin' is presented in The Carl and Marilynn Thoma Theater.

The next big 5 events for Las Vegas

Not sure why I can't link directly to FB from this blog. I'm reprinting this from my favorite part of L.A.T.

The Movable Buffet: Dispatches from Las Vegas by Richard Abowitz

5 things worth waiting for

11:01 AM PT, Jul 17 2008

These are uncertain times even in a city that has such unbreakable optimism that others have always called it foolhardiness. But now even the relentlessly positive conversations one has in Vegas have been breached by headlines from outside town. There was a time, just a few months ago, that was truly not the case and it was said by casino executives, though not for attribution, that Vegas doesn't have recessions. A low dollar meant only more foreign tourists. But the majority of our tourists statistically come from Southern California. And the obvious has hit home: Hard times for them mean hard times for us. Now people do not say that the national economy won't impact Vegas. Local giants Harrah's and MGM-Mirage have had layoffs. And locals who once scoffed at the idea that Vegas could ever overbuild with hotel rooms now take that notion seriously as 20,000 to 30,000 more rooms head toward completion in a city that expects occupancy rates to stay above 90%.

But even in a time of doubt there are plenty of exciting things on the horizon. Sorry for that transition. I mean only that there is a lot happening here and, speaking truth, Vegas is all about money, and hard times here usually mean everything is cheaper for tourists. This is a time to fight for a bargain, and you will get it no matter what range you shop. Here are five things worth coming to town to check out in coming months.

Fremonteast 5. Downtown's return (ongoing). There is a little optimism kicking in with this one because people have been talking about the return of downtown since I moved here with little apparent results. Well, things are now happening. The Fremont East entertainment district and places like the Beauty Bar are finally pulling in tourists. I can feel the greater numbers of people under the canopy of the Fremont Street Experience, the single best bit of weirdo brilliant entertainment Vegas has to offer. Certainly as much as any of the offical plans to revitalize downtown the bargains available became the biggest pull in making the older properties and areas more desirable to new generations of tourists. But a lot of money has gone into preparing for this moment. And while some casinos are more ready for their spotlight than others, I can highly recommend the Golden Nugget as one casino downtown that has put money into making the property the jewel of downtown again. This remains an uncompetitive category. But I think Golden Nugget still has applied gusto to winning.

4: Aliante Station (opening in November). It used to be that a locals casino was of interest to only locals. There were key ingredients like a movie theater, a food court an arcade and gambling. Certainly properties like Palms and Rio had locals as costumers But both were within blocks of the Strip. With Green Valley Ranch (which I live across the street from), a locals casino truly proved able to offer an alternative to tourists searching for a high-end experience away from the bustle of the Strip. When Green Valley Ranch proved a worthy alternative to a nice Strip hotel to a certain segment of the travel market, locals casinos finally found a way to get tourists away from the Strip who few even aspired to reach before Green Valley Ranch opened. It probably helped with tourists that a cable television show was made about the casino. After Green Valley Ranch, Stations perfected this approach with its next offering, Red Rock Resort. Red Rock offers among the most scenic locales in Vegas, and nature aside, there is even a beautiful view of the Strip in the distance. People from out of town love the exclusive feel of the place while, like all Stations casinos, the property also services its neighborhood with a food court and movie theater. But Red Rock Resort has also offered talent competitive with the Strip, including Kanye West's most recent concert in Vegas. I also wrote on the Buffet about the principals of Jane's Addiction playing together this weekend at Red Rock. That said, Aliante Station seems a more modest affair. But it is telling that even a modest affair in Vegas these days includes a bar with bottle service and a 700-seat showroom and six restaurants. There is also a value to all these new showrooms because even at a local casino they need acts of national stature to sell that many seats. The new showrooms (the Hard Rock, see next item, is opening another one) are the primary engine behind the increasingly unpresendented concert diversity of the offerings in Vegas.

3. Hard Rock renovations (ongoing). At one time the Hard Rock was the rare off Strip casino that carried the prestige of the Strip. Even tourists not staying there wanted to visit and see the memorabilia or play the Sid Vicious slot. In fact, back in 1999 the Hard Rock was easily the coolest resort in Vegas able to enjoy strong local support while becoming a first-choice tourist destination too. Then the Palms opened in 2001 and simply did a far more sophisticated and impressive job at understanding and marketing to the best elements of the Hard Rock's clientele both locally and with tourists. After "The Real World" aired, the Palms pretty much aged the Hard Rock overnight into a Boomer place while the young and hip began migrating to the Palms. Then the nightclub revolution happened, making the Strip a much cooler destination for L.A. elites than the old days. And even the Rio of late has made a play for what was once the audience of young too-cool-for-Vegas types that made up the Hard Rock's core audience. That few now object to Vegas in the way the Hard Rock could wink at while capitalizing on in 1999 has also been a factor. There is little irony anymore in there being the rock casino. But while all the Hard Rock's competition caught on to how to market to the next generation, little changed at the venerable property. Now finally the results of $800 million in planned renovations are beginning to show. A rock concert bar called Wasted Space already has its doors open, with a grand opening on the way. More openings in retail, a new nightclub, a revamped concert venue and numerous other improvements not yet announced are all set to open in the 12 months. The result, one hopes, will again make the Hard Rock one of the best destinations in Vegas. This is a property all Vegas benefits from keeping at the top.

2. Cirque's Believe starring Criss Angel (October at Luxor, grand opening). Angel has become quite a controversial local presence since the show was announced. As a result, there is a lot less good will toward this show than one would expect from such an interesting combination of talents. Angel's edgy performance art is a lot closer to the street performances that the Canadian circus troupe left behind decades ago in its ascent to becoming the leading entertainment company on the Las Vegas Strip. When Believe opens, the Angel vehicle will be the sixth permanent show Cirque has sandwiched between a couple of miles of Las Vegas Boulevard. Yet no one seems concerned if Believe will oversaturate the market because of the star: Criss Angel. Few entertainers have that impact. This show fails or succeeds based on Angel. And Angel has proven to be fantastic at pulling in an audience. Also, the Angel opening must be seen compared to what the rest of the Strip is up to doing. Other shows set to launch include Donny and Marie at Flamingo and Danny Gans at Encore. In terms of excitement, Believe is truly opening without competition.
1. Encore (end of year). The online system will not accept reservations before February. But Encore is set to open by the end of this year. Las Vegas has a lot of new Strip resorts being planned and built right now as part of the latest construction boom. The most impressive is the six-tower CityCenter under construction as a partnership between MGM-Mirage and oil rich Dubai. The first of this new wave of resorts to open was Palazzo at the start of this year. Since Palazzo is physically joined (especially for back of the house functions) to the Venetian, the two combine to make Venetian/Palazzo the structure with the most hotel rooms of any resort in the world. But for locals the real excitement is saved for the opening of Encore near the end of the year. Why? Steve Wynn. From Mirage to Belagio to Wynn, no one has a better track record at amazing openings to even more amazing resorts. Steve Wynn is his own category, and he has set the standard for decades. Encore, Wynn's latest, will be examined by his competitors and customers as a measuring stick of the possible for all the other resorts. (Photos by Sarah Gerke)

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Morality: Who needs God?

Exactly. This is why the Torah is so important, and why it must come from God. If its authorship was just a group of guys, then it''s just another opinion of morality--no different from the Greeks (condoned infanticide) *or* the Aztecs (human sacrifice) *or* the Soviets (murdered enemies of the state). If we believe the Torah is from God, then its moral code supercedes all others.

Morality: Who Needs God?
by Rabbi Nechemia Coopersmith

If there is an absolute standard of morality, then there must be a God. Disagree? Consider the alternative.

God's existence has direct bearing on how we view morality. As Dostoyevsky so famously put it, "Without God, everything is permitted."

At first glance, this statement may not make sense. Everything is permitted? Can't there be a morality without an infinite God?

Perhaps some of the confusion is due to a murky definition of morality we owe to moral relativism. Moral relativism maintains that there is no objective standard of right and wrong existing separate and independent from humanity. The creation of moral principles stems only from within a person, not as a distinct, detached reality. Each person is the source and definer of his or her subjective ethical code, and each has equal power and authority to define morality the way he or she sees fit.

The consequences of moral relativism are far-reaching. Since all moral issues are subjective, right and wrong are reduced to matters of opinion and personal taste. Without a binding, objective standard of morality that sticks whether one likes it or not, a person can do whatever he feels like by choosing to label any behavior he personally enjoys as "good." Adultery, embezzlement, and random acts of cruelty may not be your cup of tea -- but why should that stop someone from taking pleasure in them if that is what they enjoy.

Is having an intimate relationship with a 12-year-old objectively wrong just because you don't like it?

Perhaps murder makes a serial killer feel powerful and alive. A moral relativist can say he finds murder disgusting, but that does not make it wrong -- only distasteful. Hannibal, the Cannibal, is entitled to his own preferences even if they are unusual and repugnant to most.

Popularity has nothing to do with determining absolute morality; it just makes it commonplace, like the color navy.

"But this killer is hurting others!" True. But in a world where everything is subjective, hurting an innocent person is merely distasteful to some, like eating chocolate ice cream with lasagna. Just because we may not like it doesn't make it evil. Evil? By whose standard? No one's subjective opinion is more authoritative than another's.


Although many people may profess to subscribe to moral relativism, it is very rare to find a consistent moral relativist. Just about everyone believes in some absolute truths. That absolute truth may only be that it is wrong to hurt others, or that there are no absolutes. The point is that just about everyone is convinced that there is some form of absolute truth, whatever that truth may be. Most of us, it seems, are not moral relativists.

Bertrand Russell wrote:

I cannot see how to refute the arguments for the subjectivity of ethical values but I find myself incapable of believing that all that is wrong with wanton cruelty is that I don't like it.

Not too many of us believe that killing an innocent person is just a matter of taste that can change according to whim. Most of us think it is an act that is intrinsically wrong, regardless of what anyone thinks. According to this view, the standard of morality is an unchangeable reality that transcends humanity, not subject to our approval.


An absolute standard of morality can only stem from an infinite source. Why is that?

When we describe murder as being immoral, we do not mean it is wrong just for now, with the possibility of it becoming "right" some time in the future. Absolute means unchangeable, not unchanging.

What's the difference?

My dislike for olives is unchanging. I'll never start liking them. That doesn't mean it is impossible for my taste to change, even though it's highly unlikely. Since it could change, it is not absolute. It is changeable.

The term "absolute" means without the ability to change. It is utterly permanent, unchangeable.

Think of something absolute. Take for example an icon of permanence and stability -- the Rock of Gibraltar. "Get a piece of the rock" -- it lasts forever!

But does it really? Is it absolute?

No. It is undergoing change every second. It is getting older, it is eroding.

The nature of absolute is a bit tricky to grasp because we find ourselves running into the same problem of our finite selves attempting to perceive the infinite, a topic we have discussed in a previous article in this series. Everything that exists within time undergoes change. That's what time is -- a measurement of change. In Hebrew, shanah means "year," sharing the same root shinah, "change."

If everything in the finite universe is undergoing change -- since it exists within time -- where can we find the quality of absolute?

Its source cannot be in time, which is constantly undergoing change. It must be beyond time, in the infinite dimension. Only God, the infinite being that exists beyond time, is absolute and unchangeable.

'I am God, I do not change.' (Malachi 3:6)

Therefore an absolute standard of morality can exist only if it stems from an infinite dimension -- a realm that is eternal, beyond time, with no beginning and no end.


In addition to the demise of morality, moral relativism inevitably leads to the death of education and genuine open-mindedness. The thirst for real learning comes from the recognition that the truth is out there waiting to be discovered -- and I am all the more impoverished with its absence.

Professor Alan Bloom writes in his book "The Closing of the American Mind,"

It is the rarest of occurrences to find a youngster who has been infused by this [liberal arts] education with a longing to know all about China or the Romans or the Jews.

All to the contrary. There is an indifference to such things, for relativism has extinguished the real motive of education, the search for the good life...

...out there in the rest of the world is a drab diversity that teaches only that values are relative, whereas here we can create all the life-styles we want. Our openness means we do not need others. Thus what is advertised as a great opening is a great closing. No longer is there a hope that there are great wise men in other places and times who can reveal the truth about life...

If everything is relative, then it makes no difference what anyone thinks. Ideas no longer matter. With no absolute standard of right and wrong or truth and falsehood, the pursuit of wisdom becomes nonsensical. What are we searching for? If no idea is more valid than another, there is no purpose in re-evaluating one's belief system and being open to exploring new concepts -- since there is no possibility of ever being wrong.

A common argument often heard for supporting relativism is that in the world at large we see a plethora of differing positions on a wide range of moral issues. Try to find one issue all cultures universally agree to!

Professor Bloom addresses this contention:

History and the study of cultures do not teach or prove that values or cultures are relative ... the fact that there have been different opinions about good and bad in different times and places in no way proves that none is true or superior to others. To say that it does so prove is as absurd as to say that the diversity of points of view expressed in a college bull session proves there is no truth ... the natural reaction is to try to resolve the difference, to examine the claims and reasons for each opinion.

Only the unhistorical and inhuman belief that opinions are held for no reason would prevent the undertaking of such an exciting activity.


The plethora of disagreements demonstrates exactly the opposite point. If everything is relative, what on earth are we arguing about?

Imagine walking down the street and you hear a ferocious argument taking place behind a door. People are yelling at each other in a fit of rage. You ask a bystander what the commotion is all about. He tells you this is a Ben & Jerry's ice cream store and they're fighting over what is the best flavor of ice cream.


Real debates and disagreements occur only because we believe there are right and wrong positions, not mere preferences of flavors. Think of a time you experienced moral outrage. The force behind that anger is the conviction that your position is the correct one. Matters of preference, like music and interior design, do not provoke moral outrage.

What provokes our moral outrage? Injustice? Cruelty? Oppression? There is the sense that an absolute standard of morality is being violated, an objective standard that transcends humanity, that stems from an infinite and absolute Being.

Author Biography:
Rabbi Nechemia Coopersmith is the co-editor of and director of Research and Development for Aish HaTorah in Jerusalem. He is the author of Shmooze: A Guide to Thought-Provoking Discussion on Essential Jewish Issues.

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How to deal with nonsense criticism

I thought this would be helpful in terms of dealing with ad hominem critical attacks. --Ken

How to Deal with Nonsense Criticism
by Dovid Lieberman, Ph.D.

Don't get angry. Why let someone else dictate how you feel?

When someone is rude to us our first reaction is to protect our ego. We get upset and respond with something like, "How dare you talk to me like that!" "Don't you yell at me!" We make this angry person our problem.

Why let someone else dictate how you feel? Getting angry gives another person control over your emotional state. That's a lot of power for one person to possess, especially someone that is rude to you.

If you resist your initial inclination to get defensive, you may be surprised at what happens. Instead of, "Why are you treating me like this?" try saying, "You seem to be having a rough day." Rather than, "I didn't do anything. Don't talk to me like that!" say, "This seems to have upset you." Don't take possession of his problem. It's his problem, not yours.

The psychological dynamics change dramatically as soon as you use the word "I" or "me." Then it becomes something between you and him. By using the word "you," you keep the ball in his court and the problem remains his sole property.

You will find that by not responding defensively you won't become as upset by the exchange. It has nothing to do with you as long as you don't try to take part ownership of it.

Sometimes criticism comes in the form of nicely packaged advice. In this instance thank the person for offering her insight, and then later you can decide whether or not there is any credence to what she said. Sometimes it can be hard to separate out the message from the messenger, but when you do, you may find some good advice.

Thank the person regardless of how unproductive or self-serving the remark is. Recognize that if the advice is more of a put-down than it is constructive, she is coming from a place of pain and she needs to do this in order to feel good about herself. Have compassion and empathy for her and rise above it. If you get angry or annoyed, it's the same as kicking the shins of a 90-year-old man who wants to pick a fight with you. First, no matter what happens, you can't win. And second, what are you doing? Do not get defensive. Do not engage her. Simply say "Thank you, I will give that some thought," sincerely and directly.

If you want, you can then ask a question regarding how or why she herself is so capable, without being sarcastic!

Comment: "You know, Aaron, you were way off your game in that meeting."
Response: "Really? I'll have to review that later. You're so great for looking out for me. How would you have handled it?"

Comment: "Marcy, you know that outfit is not very flattering on you."
Response: "Oh, thanks for letting me know. A lot of friends wouldn't tell me something like that because they'd think I might get upset. You're such a special person. Where did you get such a great sense of fashion from?"

Comment: "I thought you were trying to lose weight. Do you think you should be eating that?"
Response: "Oh, you're so sweet for remembering that I'm dieting. Thank you. You seem like you have great willpower. I'd love for you to tell me your secret."

This person is being disrespectful to you because she craves respect herself. By thanking her and asking her for her input, you feed her psyche and end the "attack."

Of course, not all criticism comes from people in pain. And just because it's not done in a caring way does not mean that this person doesn't still care about you. She may not be able to critique you effectively and kindly, even though she does really care.

Alas, we should always keep in mind the optimum motivation for holding our tongue. The Talmud (Gittin 56a) reveals that the strength of God is manifest through His non-reaction to the insults and blaspheming of the wicked. Elsewhere, the Midrash states that one who is silent in the face of insults is called pious, and a partner with God. What greater motivation do we really need?

So the next time someone fires an insult or criticism your way, remember you don't lose by saying nothing in response.

Real Power offers specific strategies that will enable readers to harness untapped abilities and experience immediate and dramatic change. Click here to purchase.

Author Biography:
Dovid Lieberman, Ph.D., is an award-winning author and internationally recognized leader in the field of human behavior and interpersonal relationships. Techniques based on his seven books, which have been translated into 18 languages and include two New York Times bestsellers, are used by the FBI, The Department of the Navy, Fortune 500 companies, and by governments, corporations, and mental health professionals in more than 25 countries. Dr. Lieberman's work has been featured in publications around the world, and he has appeared as a guest expert on more than 200 programs such as: The Today Show, PBS, and The View. Infusin Torah wisdom into the psychological process, Dovid Lieberman lectures and holds workshops on a variety of subjects across a spectrum of audiences. He writes a bi-weekly column called Human Nature 101 for The Jewish Press, and lives in Lakewood, New Jersey.

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Monday, July 14, 2008

Noted philo-Semite Michaelangelo

I heard Rabbi Blecht (the author of this piece) on The Michael Medved Show (weekdays, 3-6pm EDT). Just an amazing story. From World Jewish Digest, edited by my friend Gerald Burstyn, via

The Michelangelo Code by Rabbi Benjamin Blech
Is the Sistine Chapel the site for the greatest subversive act in the history of art?
In the heart of the Vatican, the Sistine Chapel is the site of the conclave where every new pope is elected. It is without doubt the holiest chapel in the Christian world, and draws more than 4 million visitors per year. Most of the world knows it best for its magnificent frescoes painted by the great Renaissance artist Michelangelo Buonarroti. What has remained a little-known secret, however, is that within this citadel of Christianity lies perhaps the greatest subversive act in the history of art.
Almost none of the visitors who enter the Sistine realize that they are gazing upon secret messages embedded by Michelangelo in his artistic masterpiece. They would certainly be surprised to learn that, in the pope's own chapel, Michelangelo employed these secret messages to advocate for a revolutionary change in Christianity's relationship to Judaism, and that the code itself was rooted in the Jewish tradition.
Michelangelo became fascinated with Midrash and Kabbalah as a teenager, studying with private tutors provided by his patron, Lorenzo de' Medici. Using his knowledge of Judaism and its mystical symbols, he later incorporated messages, via painted images, on the chapel's walls dangerously contrary to the teachings of the Church. In this way, he criticized the corrupt spiritual leadership of the time, and condemned the Church's failure to acknowledge its debt to Jewish origins.
Expressed 500 years before the more liberal contemporary theology of Pope John Paul II and "The Good Pope," John XXIII, discovery of his secret code and heretical views might have cost Michelangelo his life.
When I first heard these claims from Roy Doliner, a Jewish docent and scholar of the humanities who has been leading tours of the Sistine Chapel for close to a decade, I assumed they were too incredible to be true. Only after he shared with me his diligent research (after which I performed a great deal of scholarly sleuthing on my own) did I became thoroughly convinced of their legitimacy.
I eventually co-authored a book with Roy, "The Sistine Secrets: Michelangelo's Forbidden Messages in the Heart of the Vatican," which was released earlier this year. To our great delight, the book is already beginning to alter the way scholars interpret the work of Michelangelo, sparking vigorous, and sometimes heated, debate.
"Just as the work of Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel changed forever the world of art, so will this book change forever the way to view and, above all, to understand the work of Michelangelo," said Enrico Bruschini, official art historian for the U.S. Embassy in Rome and a leading expert on the art of Rome and the Vatican.
A true Renaissance man, Michelangelo was at home in philosophy as well as art; in Christian theology as well as Jewish mysticism. However, those who have studied his work in the past generally have not been conversant with the wide corpus of knowledge that forged him as an artist. Most Sistine Chapel scholars were not well-versed in Judaism and Kabbalah; it was impossible for them to fully grasp the artist's allusions. By combining the scholarship of our respective fields, Roy and I, the docent and the Orthodox rabbi, were able to uncover secrets long buried in Michelangelo's frescos.
From the start, Michelangelo had a personal agenda different from that of his patron. In 1508, we know that Pope Julius II ordered Michelangelo to re-plaster and paint the crumbling ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, a demeaning job at that time for any great artist, and especially for Michelangelo, who detested painting and lived only to sculpt. The pope gave him a simple design, a very standard and banal layout of Jesus and Mary at the two ends of the ceiling, surrounded by the Apostles and a common design of geometric shapes in the center. The artist refused, and fought with the pope who, sick and distracted, finally let him develop his own plan.
Imagine the surprise of the pope and the viewers when the completed project was unveiled four and a half years later: Ninety-five percent of the Chapel was adorned with heroes and heroines of the Jewish Bible. The rest was filled with pagan sibyls and naked boys.
In the 12,000 square feet of the world's largest fresco, there was not a single Christian figure to be found. The only nod to the Gospels - and one of the ways Michelangelo managed to save both his life and the painting - was a barely-noticeable series of names of the Jewish ancestors of Jesus that do not even appear in chronological order. Why did Michelangelo disobey the pope in this way?
Michelangelo had a hidden agenda: to remind the Church that its roots were grounded in the Torah given to the Jewish people. This insight, which he inserted throughout his work, is only now beginning to receive attention in contemporary scholarship. It is also showing up in the popular media. Time magazine's March 24 cover story, "10 Ideas That Are Changing the World," singled out what scholars are now calling "Re-Judaizing Jesus" as the most powerful idea in the field of religion.
Michelangelo's frescos emphasize the universality of God and the kinship of all mankind by beginning the pictorial narrative with the Creation story of Genesis, not with the birth of Jesus. To a Church that preached exclusionism and stressed Divine love for only a limited number of His children, Michelangelo emphasized tolerance of all faiths, even the despised Jews of his time.
One fresco exemplifying this idea is the portrait of Aminadab, father of Nachshon, which appears above the elevated area where the pope sat on his throne. Hebrew scholars know that Aminadab's Hebrew name means, "from my people, a prince." But the Church interprets a "prince of the Jews" to refer directly to Jesus. Michelangelo positioned Aminadab, "Prince of the Jews," as surrogate for Jesus himself.
This is one of the extremely rare figures painted by Michelangelo sitting perfectly upright, looking forward, a signal by the artist that the figure is, indeed, noteworthy. Moreover, a bright yellow circle, a ring of cloth sewn onto a garment appears on Aminadab's upper left arm. (This detail was not revealed for modern audiences until the frescoes were restored in 2001.) This patch displays the badge of shame forced on the Jews of Europe by the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 and the Inquisition during the 15th Century. Here, directly over the head of the pope, the Vicar of Christ, Michelangelo was reminding the Church that Jesus was a Jew. He was condemning the Church for its shameful treatment of the Jews, from whom Jesus was born.
This was a courageous statement. His veiled messages were painted at a time when the Talmud and other Jewish sacred texts were being burned all over Europe, the Inquisition was operating at full strength and the Jewish people had just been expelled from Spain in 1492. Michelangelo had the courage to challenge the papal court, asking via the symbols of his painting, "Is this how you treat the very family of Our Lord?"
Michelangelo's contempt for the Church's treatment of Jews went further to insult the pope himself via an almost imperceptible gesture of Aminadab. Almost hidden in shadow, this surrogate for Jesus is subtly making "devil's horns" with his fingers, which point downward toward the very spot where Pope Julius' richly embroidered ceremonial canopy would have been, over the papal throne.
In somewhat similar manner, in another fresco placed over the original chapel portal through which Pope Julius entered, Michelangelo depicts the prophet Zechariah with the pope's own face. Over his shoulder one can see a little angel with his fingers curled in a way to make an obscene gesture known in Italy as "giving the fig."
In the symbolism of the Sistine Chapel frescoes, instead of shame and persecution, inclusiveness and acknowledgement of Divine Favor are the qualities Michelangelo advocates for the Church's treatment of the Jews. We have an even more powerful indication of Michelangelo's philo-Semitism in his later work, "The Last Judgment."
In it, a golden-haired angel robed in red poses directly over Jesus' head and points at two men within a group known as the "Righteous Souls," a collection of figures who represent those privileged to spend eternity in a state of bliss with Jesus as reward for their deeds on earth. Michelangelo portrays both of these men as Jews, a potentially blasphemous act. One wears the two-pointed cap that the Church forced Jewish males to wear to reinforce the medieval prejudice that Jews, being spawned of the Devil, had horns. This figure is shown speaking to the other older Jew as he points one finger upward, indicating the One-ness of God. The other figure wears a yellow cap of shame; during the 13th century, the Church ordered Jewish men in Italy to wear such caps in public. In front of the two figures, a woman, her hair modestly covered, whispers in the ear of a nude youth before her. The youth resembles Michelangelo's young tutor, Pico della Mirandola, who owned the largest Kabbalah library in the world at the time, and who taught the young artist secrets of Jewish mysticism as he infused within him a life-long respect for the Jewish people.
In granting Jews a place in heaven with Jesus, the 16th century Michelangelo took a then-blasphemous stand on an issue which still provokes heated debate among Christians in the 21st century. His depiction of those granted Divine Favor clearly contravened official Church doctrine, which maintained that Jews could never hope to have a Heavenly reward.
Michelangelo defined genius as "eternal patience." This year, the 500th anniversary of Michelangelo starting his work on the Sistine ceiling, we have finally "cracked" his "code," and his insights, ingeniously concealed in his work, can at last be heard.

This article originally appeared in the World Jewish Digest.

Click here to order the "The Sistine Secrets: Michelangelo's Forbidden Messages in the Heart of the Vatican."

Author Biography:Rabbi Benjamin Blech is the author of 12 highly acclaimed books, including Understanding Judaism: The basics of Deed and Creed. He is a professor of Talmud at Yeshiva University and the Rabbi Emeritus of Young Israel of Oceanside which he served for 37 years and from which he retired to pursue his interests in writing and lecturing around the globe. He is also the author of "If God is Good, Why is the World So Bad?"
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Why is anyone even talking about peace?

From National Review via

The Peace Test by Clifford D. May
It',s time to be candid about the results. Israelis, Americans, and Europeans are serious about peace. Their enemies are serious about defeating them.
The anniversary passed with scarcely a mention. Six years ago, on June 24, 2002, President Bush turned American policy in the Middle East in a new direction. In a ground-breaking speech, he announced that the U.S. would support the creation of a Palestinian state. His only condition was that Palestinians first choose "leaders not compromised by terror." He asked also that they "confront corruption," and "build a practicing democracy based on tolerance and liberty."
Bush was optimistic that this would come to pass, and that by the time he left the White House, a Palestinian state and a Jewish state would be living side by side in peace. In the years that followed, the stars appeared to be aligning.
In 2004, Yasser Arafat died, removing from the scene the longtime Palestinian leader most identified with terrorism and corruption (and never seriously tempted by tolerance or liberty). In 2005, Israel ended its occupation of Gaza, pulling out every soldier, farmer, and grave, but leaving behind greenhouses for Palestinians to use to grow vegetables and flowers. (They were trashed instead.)
In 2006, elections were held in Gaza and the West Bank. Those elections were widely regarded as free and fair. (That required ignoring the fact that Palestinians did not enjoy freedom of speech, the press, or assembly.) Hamas, a terrorist organization, declared itself a political party and won. Even so, there was hope that, entrusted with authority, Hamas would demonstrate responsibility over time.
But it was more power that Hamas' leaders coveted, so in 2007 they launched a wave of violence against rival Fatah security forces. Since then, Hamas has been unchallenged in Gaza and no one talks of new elections or civil rights.
Nor has Hamas attempted to build an economic base. Instead, it turned to Iran's rulers for money and guidance -- and then complained that Palestinians were living in squalor because they weren't receiving sufficient funds from the U.S. and Europe.
Hamas rains missiles on Israeli towns, sends terrorists into Israel on killing and kidnapping missions, and assigns suicide-bombers to blow up the few border crossings with Israel. Then Hamas complains that Israel is not delivering as much food, medicine, gasoline, and electricity as Palestinians require. (United Nations employees in Gaza complain about that, too.)
Meanwhile, in the West Bank, Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas is in charge of increasingly less. Is he at least uncompromised by terror? Samir Quntar has been incarcerated in an Israeli prison for having used his rifle to crush the head of a four-year-old Israeli girl, after first killing her father. As I write this, Quntar is expected to be freed in a prisoner swap with Hezbollah, Iran's proxy in neighboring Lebanon. Palestinian Media Watch reports that on the Palestinian television station run by Abbas, Quntar is being celebrated as a "hero" and a "brave warrior."
Despite all this, on his most recent visit to the Middle East in May, President Bush expressed optimism that an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement could be struck before his term ends in January 2009. The basis for his optimism is elusive. He might just as well hold out hope that before New Year's Eve, Social Security will be reformed, the tax code will be simplified, a bipartisan agreement will be struck on immigration and Harriet Miers will take her seat on the Supreme Court.
Six years ago last month, President Bush established a new paradigm for American policy in the Middle East -- but he did not take into account the reality of the radical ideologies ascendant in the Muslim world. He believed that Palestinians wanted a state to call their own -- and that they wanted that more than they wanted the destruction of the Jewish state next door.
With that in mind, in 2002 Bush said: "If liberty can blossom in the rocky soil of the West Bank and Gaza, it will inspire millions of men and women around the globe who are equally weary of poverty and oppression. . . . This moment is both an opportunity and a test for all parties in the Middle East: an opportunity to lay the foundations for future peace; a test to show who is serious about peace and who is not."
He was right. It was a test. And now it's time to be candid about the results. Israelis, Americans, and Europeans are serious about peace. The enemies of Israelis, Americans, and Europeans are serious about defeating Israelis, Americans, and Europeans. It's as simple -- and as complex -- as that.

This article originally appeared in the National Review.
Author Biography:Clifford D. May, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism.
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Friday, July 11, 2008

City Council anti-war resolution--for Iran!

This is my reply to an email message sent to me by Neighbors for Naisy, a neighborhood grassroots political group keeping the fires warm for Naisy Dolar's run for alderman in 2011. The message expressed support for a Chicago City Council resolution opposing an American-led war in Iran.

Let me first say at the outset I believe local governments should not pass resolutions regarding foreign policy. Foreign policy is set by the White House and its State Department, with the advice and consent of the Congress. If citizens have opinions regarding foreign policy, they may contact their representatives on Capitol Hill. In our case, those representatives are Rep. Jan Schakowsky and Sens. Dick Durbin and Barack Obama.

The U.S. needs to keep all its options open with Iran. The Islamic Republic presents a clear and present danger to Israel, its neighbors, the West and the world. When negotiations fail, we must show Iran we mean business, whether that would be a naval blockade, a first-strike air attack, or an air-and-ground invasion. We must keep all options on the table and avoid Dennis Kucinich-inspired appeasement, such as ruling out military action.

Edens speed trap watch

Driving home from the Chicago Botanic Garden Wednesday (Edens from Lake-Cook to Touhy), I saw two Illinois State Police squad cars hiding under two separate bridges and an unmarked police car with a cop inside finishing the paperwork on a ticket as his victim pulled away. Everyone maintained the legal construction speed limit, staying between 45 and 50 mph. Don't be stupid! The speed trap cameras may not have been installed yet, but the cops are lying in wait to hit motorists who dare drive 55.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

High-roller suites in Las Vegas

I'll probably never stay in one of these, but it sure is fun to gawk:

Didn't even mention the Real World suite at the Palms!

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Lost cont'd.

Is Claire still alive? Why did she hide out in Jacob's cabin--with her dead father--and abandon her son? Very odd behaviour.

Presidential campaign

40% of Jews say religion is important in their lives. Among those Jews, they are split 45-45 on their choice for president.

That's encouraging for McCain. I would expect him to lose the Jewish vote 65-35. Maybe he'll do better than that.

A critical view of Sen. Obama's platform: surrender abroad; grow government at home. (Michael Medved, July 8)

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Torah as symphony

From CTN Torah Minute by Rabbi Moshe Katz. --Ken

Hope all is well.

Our two boys, who are in day camp, went on a three day overnight last week.

So my wife and I “escaped” for a few days in Milwaukee.

Among the things we saw advertised?

An outdoor concert by the Milwaukee Philharmonic Orchestra.

And off we went.

But we were in for a surprise.

Because we didn’t read the small print.

They weren’t playing the standard classical music.

What were they playing?

The music of a Milwaukee rock band.

The Gufs!

(Talk about being overqualified!)

We figured we would wait and see.

And it was fascinating.

While I wouldn’t say you could close your eyes and swear it was Beethoven?

And while I’m certainly not 'into' rock and roll ...

It actually sounded quite good when played by the Milwaukee Philharmonic Orchestra!

… And it got me thinking.

About the Torah!

How Torah is our Philharmonic Orchestra.

... We all do some pretty boring and unexciting things.

Like getting up in the morning. Eating. Going to work. Talking on the phone.

But our tradition gives us tools to elevate every part of our lives.

To put everything to music!

When we get up in the morning?

If we thank G-d we’re alive? Really appreciate the gift of life?

And resolve to make the coming day meaningful?

… It’s a symphony.

When we eat?

And we make a bracha, a blessing?

Even appreciating the small things?

Like a bowl of (whole grain) cereal. A piece of fruit. A drink of water?

… It’s a symphony.

When we get to work?

And greet everyone with a smile.

Especially when we don’t feel like it.

Or ask ourselves, “Would the Torah want me to do this? Is it ethical?

Will someone’s feelings be hurt?

… It’s a symphony.

And when we get on the phone?

But we don’t share that piece of juicy gossip?

Or when we use the call to raise someone’s spirits?

… It’s a symphony.

And like our concert?

It doesn’t cost a penny to turn our lives into a symphony!

China's pathetic human rights record

A Different Olympic Torch
by Sara Yoheved Rigler

What no Jew can ignore.

As the world revs up for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, a different kind of torch is being relayed around the globe. It is the Human Rights Torch Relay, a campaign to stop the despicable persecution of prisoners of conscience in China. The campaign especially focuses on the persecution of the Falun Gong, a spiritual movement tens of thousands of whose practitioners are being held in 36 slave labor camps throughout China.

The Human Rights Torch will pass, with accompanying events, through 37 countries in six continents. It arrives in Israel on February 18. To receive the torch and the mandate it represents, a mass rally will be held on the grounds of the Tel Aviv Museum at 5 PM.

The motto of the Human Rights Torch Relay [HRTR] is: "The Olympics and crimes against humanity cannot coexist in China."


In 2006, reports began to circulate that the Chinese authorities were harvesting organs -- hearts, lungs, livers, etc. -- from live Falun Gong prisoners and selling them on the lucrative organ transplant market. The allegation was so grotesque that many people dismissed it as an urban myth.

The government of Canada, however, appointed two respected attorneys, David Matas and David Kilgour, to investigate the allegations. On May 8, 2006, they submitted their report. The report confirmed the worst -- that organs were being taken out of the bodies of thousands of live, healthy prisoners of conscience to supply the booming Chinese organ market.

"The atrocity is so great that there are simply no words to express it," stated Rabbi David Druckman, Chief Rabbi of Kiryat Motzkin. "It is especially incumbent upon us as Jews to lead the campaign that expresses total disgust at this phenomenon."

Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv of Jerusalem is the world's leading halachic authority. Rabbi Elyashiv was asked by an Orthodox Israeli doctor who was hired to accompany a Jewish patient to China for an organ transplant if such transplants were permissible, given the likelihood that a human being was murdered to provide the organ. Rabbi Elyashiv ruled that it is absolutely forbidden to receive an organ transplant from such a source, even if one's own life is at stake.

Several months ago, over 220 Israeli rabbis, academics, and politicians signed a petition calling for an end to the Chinese atrocities. In a rare show of Jewish unity, the signatories included the entire Israeli spectrum from the right to the left, from religious to secular.

Between 2004 and 2007, about 20 Israelis received heart transplants in China, 10 received liver transplants, and some 200-300 received kidney transplants. In 2007 all Israeli health funds agreed to refuse funding for organ transplants in China and other ethically questionable locations. Tal Babich, an Israeli Falun Gong supporter, points out that while organs are being stolen from victims in Turkey, the Ukraine, and India, these crimes are being perpetrated by Mafia-like elements. Only in China is the government itself behind the forcible extraction of organs.


Falun Gong began in China in 1992. Today the movement has over 70,000,000 adherents in China and many thousands abroad. Falun Gong believes in the Divine, and advocates the cultivation of three principle traits: truthfulness, compassion, and forbearance.

Borys Wrzesnewsky, a Canadian parliamentarian, observed that while the atrocities being perpetrated against the Falun Gong by the Communist government of China are horrific, they are not "shocking," in the sense of surprising. Communism is, after all, an atheistic system, doctrinally opposed to belief in God and spirituality. [Witness the genocide that the Chinese Communists committed against Tibetan Buddhists.] Moreover, he points out, Communism believes that everything can be reduced to economic factors. A human being, therefore, has a purely economic value, either as a worker or, in the case of political undesirables, as the possessor of organs worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. "Harvesting organs" from a human being in the same way that one harvests cucumbers from a field is thus perfectly consistent with Communist ideology.

The Torah introduced to the world a different value system. According to the Torah, human beings are valuable because of their spiritual essence, because they are created "in the image of God." While the ancient Greeks, the originators of the Olympic games, were practicing infanticide of babies who were undesirable because they were girls or handicapped, Jews were asserting the inviolable sanctity of human life.

Never Again

"We as Jews must therefore stand at the front lines of this war," asserts Rabbi David Druckman, "and employ every possible tactic in order that the world expunge atrocities such as this. Jewish law requires us to spread the values of faith in the Creator and of maintaining the 'image of God' throughout the world. The same Torah that tells us to keep the Sabbath and to eat only kosher food also requires that we [ethically] influence all of mankind."

So what can we do? HTHR recommends three lines of action:

1.Raise awareness of the atrocities being perpetrated in China. Forward this article, speak to your friends, feel outraged.

2.Social action: Write letters to your local newspapers, to the Chinese Embassy, to the Olympic Committee. If you choose to attend the Olympics, wear a T-shirt condemning Chinese crimes against humanity. Attend the Human Rights Torch Relay when it comes to your area. Let China know that it will not be accepted as a respectable member of the community of nations until it releases the Falun Gong. Do something!

3.Donate money to publicize the campaign.

We dare not remain silent.

Beautiful story

A lovely narrative about a true tzaddik (holy person). I hope the girl realized how lucky she was.

Dear Mr. President
by Yudit Brown

Sometimes great people do write back.

When I was in second grade I wrote a letter to the President of the United States. I had something of crucial importance to discuss with him, and I made it clear that it was an emergency. He never answered.

So I tried the vice president, but he didn't answer either. I was deeply offended. I could not understand why they weren't answering me. After all, when I wrote to my teacher during the summer of first grade she wrote back, and nobody was busier than she was.

I decided to write again. I checked the address in the yellow phone book, and painstakingly wrote it out in large purple letters on my favorite stationery. I then wrote SOS underneath, and proceeded to write my letter on matching stationery paper.

I began the letter with a compliment on the great job he was doing as president. (All presidents love compliments.) I then went straight to the point. I asked him if he could please, please come down to our school in three more weeks on Tuesday afternoon. I wanted to "show 'n tell" him to the class. It would be my turn then. And this was an emergency, because no one had ever brought the president to our classroom yet. He could give a small speech, not like the long ones he always does, and then I would give out doughnuts and he could leave. If he absolutely could not make it, I would be willing take the vice president instead.

But a few days passed and there was no answer in the mail. I figured there must be something wrong with the mailbox, and that my letter never got transferred to the one in the White House.

I asked my mother if there was a better way to send important letters, and she told me, yes, there was Federal Express. But when I asked her to send my letter that way, she stubbornly refused and nothing I said could convince her otherwise.

Finally, I decided on my last option. I would to try another mailbox. Maybe a different one would work better.

Two days before show 'n tell, I received an envelope from the president. Inside was a portrait size picture of him, and under the picture he had signed his name.

I was furious. What was I expected to do with a portrait size picture of the president's ugly face?

I wrote him a letter raging that when I would grow up I was never gonna vote for him, and, here -- he could have his picture back.

That was the last time I ever wrote a letter to the president.

In fact, that was the last time I wrote any letter at all until the end of the year, when one evening I had an explosive argument with my brother.

I loved chewing pens. When I was doing homework, writing or thinking, I was chewing off the top part of a pen. My mother always told me to stop -- I was deforming all the pens in the house. My father told me that I was ruining my teeth, and my brother teased the life out of me.

One day he walked into my room while I was peacefully chewing on a pen. He grabbed it out of my mouth, and gleefully informed me that I was not allowed to chew on pens any longer. They weren't kosher.

I told him to hand me back the pen immediately.

But he held the pen over his head gloatingly, danced around my room in circles, and said that he couldn't give it back to me. I was chewing something treif.

I argued that the pen was definitely kosher because I had bought it in a Jewish grocery store. But he said it made no difference -- there was no supervision symbol, no hechsher on it.

I said that it didn't matter, because I wasn't really eating it. But he held up the pen close to his eyes, and said, actually, I sure was.

So we argued and yelled until he finally said that I could ask the biggest rabbi in the world, and he would tell me that pens weren't kosher.

I said fine. I was gonna ask the biggest rabbi in the world. My brother looked at me, and burst out laughing. He laughed and laughed and finally said that he would even give me the address of the biggest rabbi in the world, and I could send him my silly question and see that he was right.

He pulled out a "Torah card" from his pocket and showed it to me. It was a picture of Reb Dovid, one of the biggest rabbis in the city. This man is busy day and night assisting people's lives and dealing with important community issues. I carefully wrote down the address on my homework pad, and kicked my brother out of my room. He was still laughing and yelled through the door that Reb Dovid got millions of letters from people, and that I was dreaming. He would never answer my stupid letter.

But I wanted to know if a pen was trief, and did it really need a hechsher to put it in my mouth? I also wanted to know how much I was allowed to hate my brother, and was it a smaller or bigger sin than eating non-kosher?

So I wrote the letter and sent it that evening before I went to bed.

I went to school, failed a math test, argued with my brother and received a letter at the end of the week. Reb Dovid wrote back. It was a long letter. He wrote that he was delighted with my letter, and I should continue to write to him whenever I have a question. He said that my questions were good ones, and he had spent a lot of time thinking and looking through many holy books before he was able to answer. He could tell I was an intelligent person, and that I liked to think, and then he answered my questions.

Pens, he answered, are a lifeless object, so the concept of kosher is irrelevant. But even if it wasn't a problem according to Jewish law, I should try to stop chewing pens was because it was an annoying habit that ruined the pens, and it probably bothered whoever else wanted to use it.

He once had a friend who also loved chewing pens, and then one day he chewed right through the ink tube and had a black mouth for a week.

After that his friend always put a little mustard on top of the pen he was using, until he got used to chewing his fingernails instead of the pen...

He also said that it was okay to hate my brother. My brother probably hated me sometimes, too, but we would become friends when we grew up. For now we only annoyed each other, and it wasn't really hating. He hated his sister, too, when he was younger. She would boss him around, and he never listened. Today, they are best friends.

I put the letter in a separate folder, and sat down to write another one. And another, and another, and another...

Could you push off Shabbat to Sunday if it was an emergency? Was I allowed to tell my friend's secret only to my mother and my teacher and my other three friends? Could I ask God for a new dress while davening?

Was I allowed to slap my teacher, if it was only in a dream? Could I "borrow" a snack from my friend if she didn't know?

Almost every week I wrote a letter, and almost every week Reb Dovid wrote back. He was always happy to receive my letters. Sometimes he wrote that my questions became difficult for him, and he had to consult with another rabbi. Did I mind? And could he read the last letter to his wife? She would enjoy it so much.

How was my annoying brother? Did I do well on the Chumash test? I should read the book, "Goodbye, Friend" -- an intelligent person would enjoy it.

What was I doing in the summer? Of, course, you should write to me then. Here is my address in the mountains...

My daughter didn't like day camp either, but in another few years you will start going to sleepover camp. Now, that is fun... Yes, you can definitely tell your mother that you don't like the new school shoes, it all depends on how you say it, and I'm so happy that you made friends with the new girl in your class. I see that you have a good teacher this year, your questions are on a high level.

It was Purim time, fourth grade, when I received the last letter. It was his longest one.

He would no longer be able to answer my questions. He had to go away soon... But here was the address of his good friend who knows all about Torah, and can write letters even better than he had. His friend loves letters like mine, and I should write to him whenever I felt like it. He had enjoyed my thoughts so much, and he knows that I would grow up to be a great person.

You are a smart girl, he wrote, and always must remember that what makes you so smart is that you ask questions.

Reb Dovid died two days after I received the letter. They told us about it in school, and we heard many stories about him. Everyone went to his funeral, and they wrote all about him in the weekly newspapers.

They published an article he had written before he passed away but I couldn't really understand it. His letters were much simpler.

I showed the letters only to my parents, and then hid them all in the back of my drawer. Once after he died, I wrote him a letter, but no one knew the address of Paradise. Instead, I wrote to his wife and asked if she knew how long Reb Dovid was planning on staying in heaven, and did he ever come to her in a dream, and when he did could she ask for the address? I wanted to write to him.

She wrote back that Reb Dovid would be in heaven until Moshiach came, and, no, he didn't come to her in a dream, and no, heaven has no address.

Then how, I wondered, did anyone know where to go when they died? And where was Moshiach all this time anyway? In heaven, or hiding somewhere on earth? At first I thought of waiting for Moshiach to write my next letter, but when a few days passed and he hadn't arrived, I decided he was taking too long. Until then, I would write to the other rabbi that Reb Dovid had told me about.

Original article copyright (c) Hamodia.

Author Biography:
Yudit Brown grew up in Flatbush and now lives in Jerusalem with her husband and toddler. She is pursuing an MA in English and writes for a number of Jewish periodicals.

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Dr. Schroeder vs. NYT

One of my favorite authors. --Ken

An Atheist Turns
by Dr. Gerald Schroeder

Unable to disprove the message, The NY Times tries to discredit the messenger.

On Sunday November 4, 2007, The New York Times Weekend Magazine featured an article, The Turning of an Atheist, written by Mark Oppenheimer. It describes the conversion of arch-atheist, philosopher, Antony Flew into a believer. In the article I am cited 21 times by name as the arch-offender in the abominable act.

Flew had authored an article in the mid-1950's, "Theology and Falsification" and presented this thesis at the Socratic Club of Oxford University, presided over by none less than C. S. Lewis. Many felt it was a brilliant and invincible proof for a godless world. Over the decades that have followed it became the consistently cited landmark confirmation for atheists

And then, a few years ago, Antony Flew met Roy Varghese, a successful high tech entrepreneur who spaces his time between Dallas, Texas and India. Roy had written several books on the magnificence of creation and urged Antony to read his book "The Wonder of the World" and my third book, "The Hidden Face of God." Those two books were Antony's undoing.

In 2004 Flew announced that the discoveries of modern science have made it abundantly clear that the creation of the universe and of life and consciousness from non-living inert matter must be the work of an infinite Intelligence and not the result of random acts of an unguided nature. This revelation, in which Flew also apologized for having misled so many souls over the decades since his "Theology and Falsification," was extraordinary news. Yahoo, in its daily news summary, even listed Flew's recantation as one of the five major events of the day. Roy released a DVD titled "Has Science Discovered God?" In it, Flew and I discuss the facts of nature, not speculations, that had such an impact on Antony. Here in a bit of irony, Flew tells us that he follows the creed of Socrates, "I go to where the truth leads me." Recall that his original argument was presented at Oxford's Socratic Club.

In October 2007, Flew's book, "There Is a God: How the world's most notorious atheist changed his mind," was published by HarperOne. This was already too much for Oppenheimer and also so it seems for The New York Times. In a scathing article, Oppenheimer attempts to portray Flew as a duped and senile philosopher, unaware of the ways of the scientific world. Yet Oppenheimer brings no arguments against the science. Because he can't. The science is fine. So his only approach can be against the veracity of Flew and me.

The supposedly senile Flew sums up brilliantly Oppenheimer's vitriolic attack on him and me, "If you can't disprove the message, then try to discredit the messenger."

For me, this has been an awakening of the obsessive lengths to which the anti-God community will go to maintain its control over what is taught in schools. My reply, edited by the Times to the 150 word limit, appeared a few weeks later:

Mark Oppenheimer [NY Times 4 November 2007] mentions me as a source for "the science" that "turned" Antony Flew from skeptic to believer. Some people may believe that Flew, being old and therefore possibly senile, was duped by this "pseudoscience." Let's look at just one aspect of our cosmic genesis. As Antony Flew realized, as does any objective evaluation of this cosmic genesis reveal, the wonder is not whether it took 6 days or 14 billion years, or even an eternity. The wonder is that it happened. The energy of creation became alive, sentient, learned the emotions of joy, love, boredom. There is not a hint of sentience in the electromagnetic radiation that marked the creation or in the 92 elements that the radiation eventually formed. But in an exotic combination of these elements we discover the self-awareness of life.
Gerald Schroeder

And that is truly the wonder of the world, our world. By a micro-second following God's creation of the world, the Big Bang Creation, the material world was composed almost exclusively of electromagnetic radiation, in simplistic terms, super powerful light beams. According to the Ramban, this was the only physical creation. All other creations were spiritual. Our bodies, not our souls, are made of the light of creation. No wonder that God, upon expelling Adam and Eve from the Garden dresses them in oahr spelled with the Hebrew letter ayin, which means "skin" in Hebrew. Before that while in the Garden they were dressed in oahr, but spelled with an aleph, meaning "light."

The most powerful challenge to an atheist's view of the world lies within the world itself: the simple reality of existence. Why is there existence? Forget things as complex as life. Just consider the being of anything: space, time, matter in any form. Is there some "law," some axiom, that demands there be existence independent of an underlying force that brought it into being? Even if we posit that the universe and all existence is eternal, the question remains: why is there an "is"? It's a question that calls out for an answer. Of course the facile response is if there were not existence, then we could not ask the question. True, but we do exist and so it is a puzzle that demands probing. The greatest self-revelation of a Creator is the creation It brought into being.

Moses, in his closing message to the Jewish people, tells us that if we want to discover the Creator, "Remember the days of old; consider the years, generation by generation" (Deuteronomy 32:7). "Remember the days of old" -- the Ramban relates this to the six days of Genesis, the wonder of the flow of nature. If that is not enough to convince one of a God active in this magnificent world, then consider the years, generation by generation -- the flow of social history. In every age there are miraculous wonders that reveal the hand of our Creator active within the creation. We don't have to go deep into history. The past 60 years are more than adequate to show God's hand. As David Ben Gurion is quoted, "If you live in Israel and you don't believe in miracles, then you are not a realist." We live in a land of miracles. Just look around.

Author Biography:
Gerald Schroeder earned his BSc, MSc and PhD at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is the author of GENESIS AND THE BIG BANG, the discovery of harmony between modern science and the Bible , published by Bantam Doubleday; now in seven languages; and THE SCIENCE OF GOD, published by Free Press of Simon & Schuster, and THE HIDDEN FACE OF GOD, also published by Free Press of Simon & Schuster. He teaches at Aish HaTorah College of Jewish Studies.

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