What Can We Learn?

Obviously, the Paterno/Sandusky news from the Freeh report today was terrible.  The victims can almost feel doubly hurt by the knowledge now that the sicko Sandusky was abetted and helped for so many years.  I’m sure there are many people who will make the connection to the Ultra Orthodox communities and the systemic secrecy at PSU, and hope for a similar type of exposure to the harsh light of day of the many secrets and pedophiles we’ve harbored and helped over the years.

But my particular focus in this post is a little different.  It seems that Nike, the same day as the report was made public, began to remove Joe Paterno’s name from one of it’s buildings (a child development center).  For more, see SB Nation or Deadspin.

Paterno wasn’t tried or convicted, he was just exposed.  And yet, his name is an embarrassment to Nike, so they removed it.

And yet…the names of criminals (tried and convicted and in jail) remain on countless buildings and institutions in our communities.  A criminal is an embarrassment to the entire community, and shames the institutions that bear his or her name, regardless of the crime.  And while people may make a moral relativism argument that Paterno’s crime is worse than some of the financial ones  we are so well known for, I say that’s irrelevant.  The financial crimes had victims, too, and are still a black eye on the community.

Our institutions should have the conviction of action that Nike does, and remove the names of convicted felons from their institutions and buildings.  In an ideal world, our institutions could return the money that was ill-gotten, but that not really a possibility.  But the basic step of disassociation from criminals is, and should be taken.

Does the Underlying Reason Matter?

Having received, by email, the personal recommendation from a friend whose opinion I value in the highest, I just ordered the book Why We Pray What We Pray: The Remarkable History of Jewish Prayer, by Rabbi Bernard (Barry) Freundel.  If it is as it’s described (“the book is fascinating, incredibly well researched, and is so different from anything I have read about prayer”) then I am looking forward to it immensely.

But not just because of the high praise.  Because of the subject matter.  For instance, from the book description on Amazon:

”Why We Pray What We Pray” details the various factors that influenced six important Jewish prayers and shaped how and when Jews recite them. This book shows that each prayer (Shema, Nishmat, Birkat HaHodesh, Anim Zemirot, Aleinu and Kaddish) has a complex history of which contemporary worshippers are mostly unaware. When we learn about the factors and forces that shaped these prayers and Jewish liturgy in general, our appreciation of what Jewish worship is all about becomes that much more profound. Why We Pray What We Pray also sets forth important moments in Jewish history with depth and detail.

I have recently, or not so recently, come to think about the origins and evolutions of things.  Whether that’s the prayer/liturgy/ritual we perform or the bible itself (one has a hard time avoiding such questions reading Kugel’s How to Read the Bible) (DovBear posted something tangentially related earlier today.)

For instance, and this is only one example, the alphabetical acrostic.  This poetic form is all over our liturgy, from ancient Psalms to modern-day kinos, to the point where the alphabet itself is revered and the acrostic given holiness of form.

But was it always so?  I have my doubts.  See, in the time of oral transmission, the acrostic was a mnemonic device.  It’s much easier to remember the words if you know the words, or the sentences, are alphabetical.  The alphabetical acrostic made remembering and transmitting the composed prayers much easier.

Which gets me to my question in the headline: let’s assume for a second that a particular liturgical form or particular ritual activity was created or evolved the way it did for a specific reason.  Does the removal of the underlying reason remove the holiness of the activity?

This calls to mind the old story told of the shul that everyone ducked their head as they walked into.  A guest came to town as asked his host why this was, and the host told him that it was always that way.  Finally, not satisfied, he asked the oldest member of the shul, one who had been there since childhood.  Who responded, “I remember, when we first started, the room we used to daven in had a low header.  Almost every adult except the shorted had to duck to avoid getting hit.  By the time we moved into a new building, everyone was so used to ducking as they came into shul, they kept doing it, even with the taller doorway.  I guess it stuck.”

So if the only reason ancient composers used alphabetical acrostics was as mnemonic devices, does that mean the holiness we’ve ascribed to the form is wrong?  Does that mean in modern times, in modern compositions (post-printed era) there’s no need to adhere to the form?  Or has the added significance given to the form since its advent now become the new reality?

Has The Time for Federalism Ended?

[Cross-posted]

As a response to a link I tweeted (this) comparing “Obamacare” to “Romneycare” (which was designed to show the striking similarities, and hilight the inconsistency in Romney’s position against the ACA), Adam responded:

“Not fair comparison, bec one was fed law and one was state law. Always was (was) arg that states can do what feds can’t.”

Now, setting aside that that still makes Romney a hypocrite, because he’d have Federal legislation banning gay marriage (supporting DOMA) but yet would preserve states right w/r/t health care.  Eh?

Anyway, that got me thinking about something that’s been brewing in my mind for quite a while: has the Federalist system of government in America run its course?

I understand the need or benefit of having local government run local concerns.  And I understand the benefit of having easily distinguishable units for the purposes of deciding representation in national government.

Yet…the idea that states are separate and independent governing bodies makes no sense in today’s world.  Things have changed drastically since the founding of the country.  Forget travel across state lines (Pennoyer v. Neff, anyone?) and interstate commerce…I can cross a DOZEN state lines the course of a few hours, not to mention communicate instantly with multiple people in every state at the SAME TIME without moving (TV, Radio, Twitter, etc.).  It’s not just that the rules have changed…it’s a completely different game now.

Should the person living in Hoboken, who commutes into NYC for work every day, really need to be governed by two separate state governments?  Is that genuinely the interest being protected.  That person is as much a New Yorker as a New Jerseyan, affected by NY law in a real way…yet he can’t vote for NY policy or governance.  I understand there are going to be cases in any system where people aren’t properly accounted for.  But in a system of regional governance that isn’t determined by random state lines, it’s less likely.

But even more so: we have the federal government, which, because we’re so close and connected, pretty much governs most things.  There shouldn’t be a fight over who gets to legislate marriage or health care.  Is the idea of marriage or health care different for me than it is for people living in New Jersey?  Should there be separate rules for the two of us?  We’re both American.

And I understand, yes, the consitution reserves rights for the states and you have to respect that.  First of all, I don’t respect the governance of dead men over the living.  A document written hundreds of years ought not control my life today.  That’s why I’m a Jeffersonian and believe in a living constitution.  But that’s a red herring.  Because for the purposes of this post it’s irrelevant.  I’m talking about what’s legal or in the Constitution, I’m trying to have a philisophical thought experiment here.  Has the reality that made Federalism a viable government model passed?  I think so.

Parshat Beha’alot’cha: The Paradigm of Prayer

I know I’ve talked about this before, but contained in this week’s parsha is what I consider the greatest (and my favorite) example of personal prayer.  Allow me, if you will, to set the scene:

Miriam and Aharon, in front of Moshe apparently, are talking about him (I will make no judgments here about whether they were speaking ill or simply about him).  Miriam, for that particular sin, is immediately afflicted with tzara’at.  Aharon turns to her, and “behold, she is afflicated with tzara’at.” (Side point: I think this is more than just he saw that she was; Aharon is the Kohen Gadol, and only a Kohen can make a determination of tzara’at.  Aharon turning to her is because he has to, to inspect her, and the “behold” is because it is, in fact, tzara’at, and he has to rule that it is.  This might even be the first time Aharon has actually encountered tzara’at (depending on when this story actually happened)).

Aharon turns to Moshe and with what I read as a sense of urgency, begs him to “not press charges,” essentially.  This appears to be a serious affliction, as Aharon calls her, pretty much, “half dead.”  Things are dire.  They don’t really know that she’ll survive.  It’s scary.  

Moshe now is dealing with a moment of deep personal feelings; perhaps the most personal of reasons he’s ever had to pray to God for help.  This is his family.  If there was ever going to be an outpouring of emotion, wordiness, prakim of tehillim said over and over, it would be now.

And yet, Moshe says five words.  That’s it! FIVE WORDS! And two of them are please.  “El na, refah nah la.”  “Please, God, heal her, please.”  That’s it.  There IS nothing more to say.

That, to me, the true emotion of it, the succintness of it, is the model we should follow in our prayer.

I feel like we truly miss the point sometimes.  We go to shul and recite formulas that we don’t (for the most part) truly understand.  We say the things that are written there, and we spend hours doing it.  That’s not tefillah. That’s no way to strengthen our connection to God.  God has no need to be read to; he wants to be engaged.  He wants us to pour out our hearts.

Please, God. Please.

Game of Quarterbacks

Or, “A Song of Ice and Quarterbacks.”

For the limited part of my audience that exist in the Venn Diagram overlap of (NFL Fans) (Game of Thrones fans) – which I concede may be me and two other guys who I’ve already discussed this with – I present: NFL quarterbacks as “The Seven” (the seven “new” gods of Westeros; really seven facets of one god – see here for more, or here, spoilers at your own risk).

The Mother: Tony Romo
The Father: Tom Brady
The Warrior: Aaron Rodgers
The Maiden: Eli Manning
The Crone: Peyton Manning
The Smith: Drew Brees
The Stranger: Ben Reothlisberger

We put this together before Eli won a second title, but still, the idea of Eli Manning as a young woman makes me happy.

As we pointed out then, that makes the Old Gods of Canton the ones with their faces carved in metal.  And Tebow as R’Hllor, Lord of Light.  Why?  From @ElieHecht: “False god, with some unexplainable power and lots of crazy followers.  It works.”  Of course that was before Tebow was traded to Elie’s Jets.  Wonder how he feels now?  Considering that Tebow might kill his team, maybe it’s the Red God the Faceless Men serve?

Disclosing Student Loan Debt on a Date

Over at Rabbi Fink’s blog, there’s an excellent discussion going on in regards to the recent article in AMI Magazine.  You should definitely read the article and definitely read Rabbi Fink’s post and the comments (including this erudite comment from a very good-looking commenter).

One thing that’s being discussed is whether the author of the article was somehow “duped” or “tricked” because his wife didn’t tell him about her student loan debt before they got married.

There’s a very tricky, very slippery slope that we’re on here when we start discussing what needs to be told to a date/shidduch and what doesn’t.  I don’t think student loans need to be part of the “disclosure statement.”

I actually think there are very few things that a person needs to “disclose” while dating.  Most things about a person you can tell by interacting with them, and therefore aren’t really issues.  Should a guy who’s acting nice be forced to tell his date “listen, I’m acting nice now, but come football season, I am most likely going to ignore you for a bunch of hours every Sunday.”?  To me, that falls under the “know the person you’re marrying,” and “ask the right questions” headings.

Less clear are the things you can’t tell.  A person who is terminally ill should probably tell the person they are dating, because health and a life together are reasonable expectations for a person (with no reason to think otherwise).

And I suppose that’s as good as any a place to start: what are the reasonable expectations a person has?  I don’t think (to take the example of the guy in the article) you can see a person who has an “ivy league” education and reasonably assume that person has no debt.  He/she/you might be lucky.  But especially in today’s educational economy, where the cost of higher education is so high (sorry), I actually think student loan debt should be assumed.  But even so, it’s not a terminal condition that needs to be “disclosed.”  I don’t think it’s fair to make any assumptions about a person’s financial condition that they should have to “set you straight.”  If it’s an issue, and you don’t mind being uncouth, ask: “whoa, college and law school; tuition must have really set you back.”  If he/she doesn’t take the cue and say “well, I’ll be paying it off for the next 20 years!” and you really want to know, ask for a 1040.  How deep do you go?

If a boy shows up to date wearing a nice suit, does he have to disclose “hey, listen, I know you might like this suit; FYI, it cost $600 in Brooks Brothers and I used a credit card”?  I say no.

Which brings me back to the AMI article and student loan debt: the reason this became a problem is exactly because the assumptions the author made were unreasonable and unwarranted.

I Understand The Way She Feels

It’s being called the “greatest voicemail ever,” (you can listen here), and it is marvelous in all the glory the English language has to offer in the “profanity” category.

I can sympathize, because this reminds me of a story that happened to me in college:

During registration for the second semester of my Senior year, I had to register for a lab that I didn’t want to or need to take, but that was a requirement I was lobbying to get waived (it was second semester Chem lab, to ‘complete’ my bio major, even though I had gotten credit for two semesters of chem lecture and one semester of chem lab from AP Chem; essentially, they were forcing me take a random lab without being enrolled for the attendant lecture).  The waiver was coming, but wasn’t finished, so to be safe, I registered for the lab.

I note at this point that my initial registration was completed without a hitch, my tuition and everything else being totally in order.

The next day I got the waiver, so I head back to the registration room (still doing in person registration instead of online) to drop the lab.  Problem, says the registrar: she can’t get into my registration because there’s a financial hold on my account so my registration is blocked.  What? “I don’t understand, I’m paid up; I just registered yesterday, all I want to do is drop the class.”  “Sorry, there’s nothing I can do, see the bursar.”

I head to the bursar to see what’s up: a $120 lab fee was generated on my account as soon as I registered for the lab.  OK, that’s annoying, but why the hold?  Apparently, the fee, being for that semester is generated retroactively to the date of the bill of the rest of the semester’s tuition, which today being unpaid, is now late and therefore a registration hold.

OK, that’s very odd, I tell the Bursar, but nonetheless, I am actually not taking that class, I just need to drop.  “I can’t take off the hold, it’s on the account,” says the bursar.  What?  Look, I am not paying a lab fee for a lab I am about to drop.  The fee will disappear in 30 seconds if you just let me drop it, I plead.  Finally, I get the Bursar, not to remove the hold, but to lift it for one day.  “Tomorrow, it’s going back on!” she threatens me.  “Do your worst” I think to myself as I mutter thanks, “I am dropping the damn class.”  I head back to the registrar, and drop the lab.

Given all this, I should really not have been surprised when my initial application for graduation was denied because I hadn’t completed all of the requirements of my major.  “What am I missing?!” I ask incredulously. “Second semester Chem Lab” says the registrar apparently unable to read the  waiver letter in my file (that I can see there in the file, plain as day) that says I was exempted.  I point out the letter, he says “Oh, ok you’re good.”  “So can I graduate?” “You need to fill out a new application; once it’s rejected, we can’t do anything about it.”