Thursday, November 29, 2012

When editors take a nap

Did the Jerusalem Post just decide it doesn't need editors? You'd think after that ridiculous front-page typo a few years ago they'd realize someone should probably look at their stories before they post them all willy-nilly. Who do they think they are, me?

Anyway, here's the latest head scratcher from the Post:

If you don't know, the man in the picture is Yoel Kraus, a longtime activist from Neturei Karta in Jerusalem, a guy so anti-Zionist he has his own cow so as not to taint his holy stomach with "Zionist milk." No, really.

So here's the million dollar question: what's the relevance of showing a picture of a well-known Israeli activist who as far as I know has never left his zip code with a story happening in Poland? Were they trying to go with a random "background shot" of a Haredi guy and just wound up picking Kraus? How did no one spot this?

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Wars of the Jews, cont.

Garnel wrote a nice comment. I had so much to say it became another post. Whoops.

Garnel writes:
Here's what I see as the fundamental difference between the Orthodox and the non-orthodox.The Orthodox ask: how can I be a good Jew? Let me open up the halacha books and find out.The Heterdox ask: how can I be a good Jew? Well, my values include X, Y, and Z so I'll say that those values are Jewish values and be a good Jew. 
Now obviously this is not about conscious statements but when you hear heterodox people talking about how supporting gay marriage or unrestricted abortion is a Jewish value then you get the impression that heterodox Judaism is defined as "Here are my values, and I'll call them Jewish". And then an adjective in front appears. 
In addition, there's a branding disagreement. For the Orthodox there's a clear definition of Judaism - matan Torah, one God, supremacy of halacha, etc. Now within Orthodoxy there is a battle being wages over a bunch of peripherals, stuff you identify in your post like the rationalists vs the irrationalists (eg. Slifkin controversy) but the basics are what define Judaism. 
So when someone comes along and says "Well I'm a Reform Jew so I practice Judaism even though I don't believe in Matan Torah" we look over and say "Well that's like saying that Sprite you're holding is really a Coke because you want to have Coke but not to actually buy it.
My response:

Thanks for your comment, Garnel. It's nice to be able to discuss topics like this without things getting too heated.

I think that your description of heterodox Jews is true in some cases. However just like there's a range among Orthodoxy, there's a wide range of what makes someone a heterodox Jew (for the purposes of this discussion I'm separating secular Jews from heterodox Jews, whom I define as people that attend a synagogue at least once a year and/or have membership in a synagogue), ranging from minimally engaged 2-times a year Jews all the way up to heterodox rabbis, and I think most intellectually honest people would be hard-pressed to claim that children can spend eight or twelve years in heterodox Jewish day schools and come out of that not knowing anything about Judaism. You may question the prism through which the information or the message is diffused, and you may be correct that the areas emphasized may not be the same as in an Orthodox school, but you have to at least concede that some heterodox Jews have a basic, even fairly detailed, knowledge of Judaism-- though their interpretations of what "Jewish values" are may differ from many Orthodox perspectives. (I realize plenty of heterodox Jews don't send their kids to day schools, but for this discussion I'd like to talk about them a little bit to at least establish that committed/educated Jews exist outside of Orthodoxy.)

Furthermore, I think it's not unreasonable for people to integrate their Jewish values with other values or causes that are important to them, particularly since there are plenty of areas where modern and Jewish values/principles overlap. Tikkun olam gets a bad rap as being overused, but part of being a good Jew is being a good person, and many mitzvot can legitimately be thought of as "good deeds." We may disagree over the specifics of mitzvot ben adam l'makom, but everyone agrees, at least on paper, that mitzvot ben adam l'chaveiro are important. Visiting the sick, giving to charity, not humiliating others, being stewards of the environment, etc... These are all modern values as well as Jewish ones and I don't see why people interpreting their actions as least partially through a Jewish filter is such a bad thing.

Yes, some people may just take their contemporary values and call them Jewish. On the other hand, people who are more educated and thoughtful about Judaism and its values may be better able to articulate where their modern values and some Jewish values differ. My guess is that any day school graduate who's taken even quasi-serious Talmud classes (which are required among most of them) would be able to give you a list of issues they've encountered in their studies that they find problematic. In some cases people may be opting out of some Jewish practices out of apathy or disinterest or assigning other values Jewish status or significance out of ignorance, but the mere fact of choosing does not indicate ignorance. It can just as easily be the result of informed choice, of learning about Jewish values, finding some in conflict with modern values they sincerely believe in (one major one being egalitarianism), and making a thoughtful decision best aligned with their personal conscience. You can personally disagree with that approach, but it's not fair to dismiss it as just being a case of liberal Jews not knowing what they're talking about.

Now, if someone takes a reductive approach to their Judaism and says that Judaism is solely defined by working at soup kitchens, planting trees or marching for Darfur, then I think that's unfortunate and I disagree with that view as being shortsighted and misinformed-- however I think you can make the same error in the other direction by spending all of your time checking for bugs in your lettuce, exercising your OCD, or studying Talmud to the exclusion of everything else, a-la Rav Elyashiv/Yoel Teitelbaum/Rav Scheinberg. That's part of the reason why though I have a different relationship to halacha, I have a lot of respect for the Modern Orthodox world because they really do attempt to strike a serious balance between two worlds, and I think that balance, to one degree or another, is quite important: The stereotype of Orthodox Jews is that they're overly legalistic and insular, while heterodox Jews are all supposedly super granola hippy types who don't know their Hillel from a ham sandwich. The reason these stereotypes exist is because they illustrate some uncomfortable realities, but that doesn't mean that the stereotypes are reality.

In my case, I fully realize that I do not live a fully halachic lifestyle and have no problem saying so-- part of this is because there are parts of halacha I disagree with, and part of it is that I don't accept halacha as being a fully binding system. By that same token, I also have no problem admitting that there are parts of traditional Judaism I don't follow. The issue, as I see it, is that so many people, particularly institutional leaders (but also laypeople) are so personally invested in their branding that no one is willing to admit that there is not a single Judaism, there are multiple ones. It's a spectrum, and not just a horizontal spectrum, but a vertical one, as well:
Something like this, for the sake of having a visual model.

Do you focus on ritual mitzvot or ethical mitzvot, or do you try to cover all of them to the best of your ability? My firm belief is that people select their priorities and the rest follows suit. Most people do simply not have enough mental, financial, or temporal resources to apply themselves equally in all aspects of Judaism, and if some folks are going to attack Jews who spend their time engaging in activism but don't put a lot of effort into, say, text study, they should have the honesty to focus their next criticism on textually literate Jews who ignore the principles of justice that those same texts spend so much time talking about.

The point is that everybody chooses. People choose what theology they actually believe in, what stuff they pretend to believe in for appearance's sake, and what stuff they just plain ignore. So honestly, part of the issue with branding is not that Reform Jews are maintaining "I'm practicing Judaism;" it's that Orthodox Jews will never admit that Orthodox Judaism is not synonymous with Judaism (TM). That meta-brand, if you will, is bigger than any one movement, even Orthodoxy. I see "Judaism" as being the collective output and worship of klal israel, and so I have no problem acknowledging my Judaism is not Orthodox Judaism-- I've never claimed anything to the contrary-- but I'd never be willing to say "my Judaism is not real Judaism," which seems to be the subtext of what you're saying when you use the example of a Reform Jew saying "I practice Judaism." The reality is all of us are practicing forms of Judaism. The Judaism you have is different from what Abraham had, from what Moses had, from what the Maccabees had, and in some ways, even from what Rashi or Rambam had. Claiming otherwise because you need to believe in an infallible, perfect chain of Torah is the kind of thinking that leads to people saying Moses wore a streimel or that Ever's tent was actually a yeshiva.

I don't believe we're talking about Coke versus Sprite here (which would be something like comparing Judaism and Hinduism). The better model is Coke and Pepsi. Are they both colas? Well the ingredients vary and there are clear differences (at least according to my soda-drinking friends), but even the most rabid Coke/Pepsi partisans have to agree that yes, they're both the same kind of soda. And while I have no problem admitting I'm a Coke and not a Pepsi, I will get annoyed if I start being told that the only true cola is Pepsi and that it's been that way for time immemorial.

(Hmm, for some reason I'm now craving something fizzy...)

Committing to Engagement

Garnel had a post last week about the Reform and Conservative movements that was framed around the idea that non-Orthodoxy's raison-d'etre is a "lack of commitment." He believes that this, in turn, is precisely the reason why so those movements are losing members. As he put it,
how do you build a strong feeling of commitment to a philosophy based on a lack of one? 
A movement that makes any actual Jewish practice optional can't expect to raise large numbers for a rally. No one is going to pack a stadium with a crowd shouting "We want to do whatever we want and still be considered good Jews!"  Yes, there will always be candidates for their so-called rabbinic programs but how many dedicated pro-feminist and pro-gay people who also have a liking for Bible studies are there out there?  And how can they connect to congregations that see a lack of connection as part of their Jewish identity?
Let's start by putting aside the strawmen of non-Orthodox Jews perpetually searching for the perfect rabbi who will give them permission to do whatever they want while still being declared "good Jews." I don't know anyone who lives that way and if they do, I hope they get some help. While we're at it, we can also shelve the line about liberal congregation members viewing "a key part" of their identity being a "lack of connection."You know, because the whole point of joining a community is so you can keep feeling good and alienated. (Is Garnel confusing unaffiliated and non-Orthodox here? Is he vaguely alluding to the challenges of non-Orthodox kiruv? I can't tell.)

Anyway, this was the part that really tweaked me:
Reform needs Orthodoxy (we supply them with all those OTD's) but the American Jewish community does not need inauthenticity.  It needs an open admission that a lack of interest in proper Judaism is not in itself a genuine form of Judaism and to stand up and create real standards that define them.
First, I agree with Garnel that the primary problems in American Jewish life today are a lack of interest and engagement in Jewish education, culture, identity, and so on. There's no question that the liberal movements are shrinking, though there are plenty of reasons offered as to why.

However, no one is served by simplistic, reductionist and ultimately dishonest depictions of what liberal Judaism-- or liberal Jews-- believes.

Let's start with the movements themselves: from my research and experience, both personal and academic, I strongly disagree that the ethos of non-Orthodox movements is "a lack of interest in proper Judaism". Quite frankly, this gives Orthodoxy more credit and importance in the eyes of the non-Orthodox than it deserves. Liberal rabbis don't go to seminary for six years to spite the Orthodox. I don't wake up on Saturdays and go to shul because I'm thinking, "Yay, I can't wait to go do Judaism WRONG!" The engaged non-Orthodox Jews I know have many affirmative reasons they choose to be Jewish, and choose their particular path in Judaism. In my experience, "I don't want to be Orthodox" isn't often on the list.

The simple matter is, for many American Jews, including those with strong Jewish educations and who are committed to Judaism and Jewish identity, Orthodoxy is not even an option. A skeptical or scientific POV-- which is increasingly common these days-- is largely incompatible with the philosophical and theological demands of Orthodoxy, and if you don't have those as a motivator, it becomes extremely difficult to take on mitzvot that have practical ramifications in your daily life-- to say nothing of the fact that Orthodox belief and practice contain some things that, to modern eyes are, at best, extremely challenging, and at worst, deeply problematic, even offensive. And, as Garnel wrote in his post about YCT, Orthodox culture is increasingly less open to differences of opinion or practice. So given all that, why would anyone who hasn't had some sort of mind-blowing experience where they're suddenly convinced of its existential correctness choose Orthodoxy? The mere suggestion is a total non-starter. And yet many Jews still feel that being Jewish-- in some form-- is important to them. They value it. So they find some middle point. That's the motivation. The binary nature of his post suggests that if a Jew isn't willing to be Orthodox they might as well leave Judaism entirely. I don't see how that helps them, or the Jewish people.

Is there superficiality in liberal communities? Of course. Is there ignorance, apathy and laziness? Yes again. However, the more I read about the various layers within Orthodoxy, the more it becomes apparent that these issues are not limited to liberal Judaism. No community is safe from apathy or disengagement, not even the Haredi communities which do their best to ensure continuity by stigmatizing the outside world and keeping their children as segregated as possible.

Garnel may see non-Orthodox Judaism as illegitimate and clueless, and I don't deny that the movements have their issues, practical as well as existential. However I see the major divide in klal israel not being over a lack of interest, but a lack of a common worldview, both of existence and of Judaism itself. Orthodox Jews view existence through the prism of halacha and Orthodox theology first, and apply this same rubric to their views of what Judaism is. Non-Orthodox Jews, to varying degrees, view existence through other perspectives (modern, post-modern, scientific, materialist) and then try to graph Jewish law and theology onto it as best they can, which necessarily creates a multiplicity of Judaisms as well. If you genuinely believe in a literal Torah mi-Sinai and that the Torah is literally true as well as infallible, then you're probably not going to take issue with halacha, no matter how at odds it might be with your internal reason or personal ethics or preferences, because it came from God. On the other hand, if you don't share those foundational beliefs, then a lot of halacha just doesn't make a whole lot of sense, and so you're naturally going to use your brain and conscience to the best of your ability to figure out how best to live your life in a way that makes sense to you. For some people this approach will incorporate many elements of halacha, for others, less. But that, I am convinced, is the dividing line: is there one objective truth, or not? And if there is, is it Orthodox Judaism's truth? Statistics suggest that most Jews don't think so.

On a personal level, I consider myself very "interested" in Judaism, and continue to work towards becoming a more educated, thoughtful, and committed Jew. I read the parsha, I study Talmud, I go to shul, and I'm still working on my Hebrew. But since I don't share the foundational beliefs of Orthodoxy, and since I find much in Orthodox practice and culture personally objectionable, my practice is not focused around Orthodox standards, and never will be. Not because I'm "not interested" in Judaism, but because I do not see Orthodoxy as the only "proper" manifestation of Judaism-- not least because I don't believe a single proper Judaism exists in the fist place! What some seem unable or unwilling to realize is that for many like me, this viewpoint doesn't stem from an emotional defiance or specific hostility, but sincere belief. You can come up with all sorts of caused for this belief, but it's there, and I refuse to accept a scenario in which my only choices are "belong to a community that you fundamentally disagree with" or "don't be Jewish."

A lot of times in these types of discussions people will use terms like legitimate, authentic, or the increasingly popular "true." I do believe in concepts of authenticity, but in my view Judaism is too large and too varied to have a single authentic expression. There are traditional beliefs and practices in Judaism, certainly, but those have evolved over time and many would be unrecognizable to, say, a Jew living in the first Temple era, much less one of the patriarchs. I don't think anything can be called Judaism, but I do think that a lot of times people give "tradition" more legitimacy than it's necessarily entitled to. The reality is that there are many ways to do ritual, many ways to find God and/or meaning, and yes, even many ways to observe halacha-- remember that this was part of the reason the rabbis got mad at Yosef Karo for writing the Shulchan Aruch and Rambam for putting down the Principles of Faith.

So while I do believe that you can do things "authentically," I also believe that authenticity is only really meaningful in context-- you can have an authentic Orthodox Jew and an authentic Reform Jew, for instance. They may be doing different things but both are being authentic to their traditions, beliefs and understandings, and that doesn't bother me-- because I see both as being part of Judaism. Obviously, if you disagree with that premise, you have a problem. But that's primarily an Orthodox dilemma, because despite the successes of the B'aal Teshuvah movement and Orthodoxy's claim to "true authenticity," when most American Jews leave their liberal temples, they don't head for an Orthodox shul, they stop going to shul altogether.

That said, while most American Jews have no interest in being Orthodox, many are still attached, in various ways, to being Jewish. So what are their options? If some had their way, these people would "self-deport" and never engage with anything Jewish again. Like it or not, it is through the liberal communities that many Jews come into some form of observance that they otherwise would not participate in at all. Some may think that if they aren't frum or doing things to frum standards whatever they do is treyf anyway; I say if Jews are studying Jewish texts, celebrating Jewish holidays, being involved in Jewish worship, etc, it's a win. Again, it comes down to your perspective: is it better to do something rather than nothing? Because realistically, for many American Jews, that's the choice. Not Orthodox or liberal, but liberal or nothing. Frum folks not liking it doesn't make it not true. So the question becomes: if the choice is liberal or nothing, how does choosing the latter benefit klal israel?

Let's go back to commitment: Obviously, a major focus of being an Orthodox Jew is being committed to halacha, and this is an area where many liberal Jews may differ from them. However I don't believe that liberal Jews are committed to a "lack of commitment"; I think they're committed to being Jewish, and, in some form or another, staying Jewish, in spite of having a complicated, even antagonistic, relationship with Jewish tradition. At their core, affiliated liberal Jews believe in staying connected and engaged with Judaism even if they don't take all of it as gospel; indeed for many of them, it is the precise act of giving themselves permission to look at the tradition in a non-literal and non-binding way that is crucial in helping them to stay connected. I realize that may not make sense to some of our Orthodox compatriots, but I think that's the crux of what many liberal Jews believe. They can criticize if they like, but my sense is that's much closer to the truth than "committing to non-commitment."

I agree that there are some big problems in American Judaism today. But I don't think they center around a lack of "authenticity"-- because that implies that most Jews see Orthodoxy as authentic and still choose not to follow it. That's not what I see going on. I think Reform and Conservative and the others need to figure out how to be authentic to their core principles and spread those messages. If people respond to them and the movements grow, so much the better. If not, then hopefully the present generation of alienated Jews will figure out some kind of connection that works for them. Maybe in a generation's time we'll see a non-Orthodox field less dominated by one or two movements and instead a more equal split between the four major ones. On the other hand, maybe what we're seeing right now is another generational/ideological split like we saw 100 years ago during the huge immigrations of Jews to America. Perhaps when all is said and done, it will leave the liberal movements smaller but stronger, with the more apathetic/less engaged members ultimately deciding to cut the chord. I don't know, and honestly, I don't have a particular preference for how things shake out. I have found a path that works for me and my family and since I don't claim to have access to the one true way, I don't feel all that worried about the existence of unaffiliated Jews in the world, or about whether liberal Judaism will survive in the long-term. People will live their lives the best way they see fit, and if liberal Judaism can speak to them and engage them and touch them, so much the better. If not, then not.

The irony, though, is that while some Orthodox like Garnel rightfully chastise liberal Judaism for sometimes being too idealistic, they simultaneously seem to believe in a fantasy in which somehow if  Reform and Conservative suddenly disappeared, it would lead the masses of unaffiliated and uneducated Jews to suddenly choose Orthodoxy and Orthodox standards as the guidepost for "legitimate" Judaism. That's just as utopian as anything the early Reform rabbis said about the demise of Orthodoxy.

The truth is that the Orthodoxy ship has sailed, and most of the Jewish people opted to stay on the dock. The question is where they go next.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Who decides?

One of the blogs I have on my sidebar is by Mark Paredes, a Mormon blogger at the Jewish Journal who writes about Mormon-Jewish issues. I was going through some of his recent archives and found an article from last month in which Paredes talked about Mormon-Jewish dialogue. That's all well and good, and Parades makes some excellent points about how to do interfaith communication right (for starters, if you want to understand what members of a religion believe, your first step should be to ask members of the faith to speak for themselves, not their critics). However I couldn't help but notice a paragraph where Paredes mentioned the one continual sticking point between our communities:
I deliberately left out any mention of proxy temple ordinances in my speech, which Rabbi Wolpe was quick to note. I took the opportunity, which I will also avail myself of here, to announce that I will no longer discuss the proxy ordinances issue in future presentations. Quite frankly, I’m tired of hearing about it. A small group of Jewish leaders has blown this issue way out of proportion for 20 years; even they decided last year to move on to agenda items that actually affect living Jews, instead of worrying about what a few disobedient Mormons are doing in their own temples. I’ve blogged several times on this issue, and don’t plan to spend more time or effort explaining it. Instead, I will refer curious Jews to the rabbis at the Simon Wiesenthal Center so that they can tell them by what authority they are authorized to speak on behalf of the dead and explain just why they felt it was necessary to carry on this campaign for two decades with the help of an anti-Mormon researcher.
This is where I start to lose respect for Paredes, because while it is true there are plenty of other meaningful and important topics to discuss about the Mormon-Jewish relationship, the fact that Paredes has decided that he's sick of talking about this is galling as well as troubling. I thought part of the point of Paredes' talks is to promote dialogue; so I'm rather confused about the logic of barring proxy baptisms as a legitimate discussion item just because Paredes is sick of the topic. Guess what, Mark? SO ARE WE. The reality is the reason this continues to be a sore point is because members of your community keep doing it; your response should be to encourage your church to better police its members rather than chastise Jews for daring to be offended that you continue, after 20 years, to apparently not care that you're doing something lots of us find offensive.

At his suggestion, I took the time to look up some of Paredes' old posts on the issue. Not surprisingly, they weren't all that satisfactory. Parades repeatedly points out that Mormons believe that their relatives are required to have proxy baptisms, and then usually pats the church on the back for being so magnanimous to exempt "Jewish Holocaust victims," even though other people would like their relatives' names taken out as well:
No one thinks that more than a handful of Mormons (out of nearly 14million today) continue to defy the Church’s policy on name submissions. In other words, we have 99.9999% compliance. While the LDS Church is hierarchical in nature, it is not a police state. If a rebellious member insists on submitting the name of a Jewish non-relative for temple ordinances, his efforts will likely besuccessful. When the Church is made aware of the improper submission, it can and does act to remove it from the ordinances database. Indeed, this is a special promise made only to Jews, though others have requested it as well. After all, Mormons should not be submiting the names of any non-relatives—whether Catholic, Buddhist, Brazilian or Zulu—for temple ordinances. However, if a Jewish name is submitted improperly, the name will be removed if a request is made. This unique arrangement is a testament to the respect and love that Mormons feel for the Jewish community. Our leaders have had to walk a fine line between accommodating Jewish leaders’ wishes while affirming our obligation to perform temple ordinances for our kindred dead, and I think that they have largely succeeded.
How big of you, Mark. The fact that you guys have decided to give a medium-sized crap about Jews who died between 1939 and 1945 really makes me feel better in the light of the tiny crap you give about Jews who died in all other years (to say nothing of Catholics, Buddhists, or Zulus who lived or died at any time). Wow, too bad my various ancestors who were baptized had to go and die in New York instead of Auschwitz like their cousins. Just our bad luck, I suppose.

Every time the issue is raised, Paredes repeats the party line. Only a handful of Mormons are doing it, the LDS leadership wants to respect Jewish wishes, they can only do so much, etc. He also tries to skirt the issue by pointing out that Mormons perform other rites with dead people's names that people usually aren't as vocal about:
When I first started discussing posthumous temple rites with Jews, I quickly noticed that they only raised objections to the ordinance known to Mormons as “baptisms for the dead.” Even though Mormons perform several ordinances for the deceased, Jews focused almost exclusively on that one. [I have never heard a Jew object to the eternal marriage by proxy of a husband and wife who perished in the Holocaust, for example].
Funny thing, Mark, that doesn't make me feel better. At all.

Paredes raises this point as a way of saying that the LDS proxy baptism doesn't mean that the person has actually "become" Mormon, just that it's been offered. But by issue is that the very act of using the person in a religious ritual is perceived, and felt, as a violation. The fact that the Mormons don't see it that way doesn't change this, and the fact that some people think it's not a big deal doesn't change it, either. If someone does something offensive to someone else, it is offensive. You as the offender do not decide when it stops being offensive. You can either work to stop it, or you can be honest and say you don't care. But you most certainly don't get to be mad when we keep bringing it up. The continued insistence by Mormons that proxy baptisms don't matter and that we have no right to be bothered by it, bothers me more than the rites themselves. It's another layer of theological arrogance, best shown in an article from nine months ago when Paredes attacked Elie Wiesel and the Wiesenthal Center:
Last week the charade involving a group of leaders in the Jewish community and the LDS Church’s practice of proxy immersions reached a new low. Elie Wiesel, one of the towering moral figures of our age, found out that his father and grandfather’s names had been submitted by a disobedient member of the church for temple ordinances. The church quickly canceled the submissions, but not before Mr. Wiesel had called on the church (via the Huffington Post) to stop performing temple ordinances for all Jews, not just Holocaust victims. He then asked Mitt Romney to “speak to his own church” about the issue. With all due respect to Mr. Wiesel (and considerable respect is due), he would probably do more good by suggesting to certain Jewish leaders that they mind their own business.
Apparently Jews are only allowed to be offended by topics vetted by Paredes. Who knew?
In the early 90s, a group of Jewish leaders approached the church after discovering that a few members had submitted – in violation of church rules – names of Holocaust victims for LDS temple ordinances. Although these ordinances do NOT confer membership in the church, the leaders claimed to be offended.
They claimed to be offended. Apparently in Paredes' worldview, other people don't have the right or autonomy to actually have their own opinions when it comes to his church.
Had I been in charge of the LDS delegation to the initial [1995] meeting, it would have been a short one. I would have started off by asking the leaders what authority they had to represent dead Jews. The answer? None. 
Stupid question that deflects the issue. Obviously no one can "truly" speak for the dead; they're not here. However one can look to the beliefs of a community, of families, and in some cases, of the dead themselves to guess what they might have wanted-- assuming that this is your actual goal. If your goal is find ways to justify behavior that members of that community find offensive, then you play stupid games like this. In the Jewish community, this issue has always been framed as one of a lack of respect-- a lack of respect of Jewish beliefs, and a lack of respect for what the dead most likely would have wanted. Paredes' response exemplifies the Mormon response: we don't care what you think. In Paredes' world, Wiesel has NO RIGHT to be offended that his father and grandfather, who were clearly devoted to Judaism and as far as he knows had zero interest in converting to anything or being used as part of another religion's rituals, were used in this way. He's simply not allowed. Just like Daniel Pearl's family isn't allowed to be offended on his behalf.

Here's a question: what authority do Mormons have to do anything with dead Jews? None other than the authority they claim, which is exactly the same argument Jews claim. The difference is that as the descendants of the people whose names the Mormons are using in their ceremonies and who are part of the same community as the dead, it seems to me that if anyone has more authority to speak for the dead, it's the Jews and not the Mormons. Paredes skirts the issue by saying the Jews are being arrogant by presuming to speak for their own relatives. As I've said several times, the best comparison I can think of to proxy baptism is peeing on someone's grave. Who's to say that your great-grandfather wouldn't have been totally into urine play?

Let's turn it around: Hey Mark! I've got a new religion that has some special rites I'm supposed to do. Yeah, and I have a quota to fill, so I'm going to need some help from your family on this. Oh come on, what's the big deal? For all you know, maybe your grandparents secretly wanted to be exhumed, put into a glass casket, and used in an Aztec-themed rap video? You know, if you keep complaining about this, I'm going to start feeling persecuted!

The only leg Paredes has to stand on in this whole discussion is a claim he makes regarding the 1995 agreement between a Jewish delegation and the LDS church:
the church offered at that time to “freeze” names of all known Holocaust victims for purposes of temple work if the Jewish leaders would agree. Unfortunately, they chose the second option of taking upon themselves the responsibility of notifying the church whenever they discovered the submission of a Holocaust victim’s name. The Jewish leaders knew from the beginning that the option they chose would mean that many names, and sometimes the same names, would continue to pop up in the database. In a stunning moment of candor, someone with detailed knowledge of the early discussions acknowledged to me that one of the reasons that the Jewish leaders chose this option was so they could continue to hold church leaders’ feet to the fire on this issue and eventually reach their ultimate goal: to have the LDS Church declare that Judaism was sufficient for salvation, and temple ordinances were not necessary for Jews.
Sorry Mormons, you may feel burned because some leaders you worked with 20 years ago suggested that we'd settle for you "exempting" Jews who died within a six-year time period. But, yeah, the truth is that we do not want you doing anything with our dead, Holocaust or otherwise, because it bothers the hell out of us, and it's not ok, and it's never going to be ok, and if you want us to shut up about it, then you're going to need to stop doing it, and if you're not going to stop, then we're entitled to complain about it. If you fell for that then it's your own fault.
Rabbis Hier and Cooper have no standing whatsoever to demand that a church change its religious practices because they’re offended by them. They tried that with the Catholics (e.g., the resurrected Good Friday prayer), and were politely told to mind their own business. 
Sorry Mark, you're missing the point. If people are legitimately offended something in another religion, they're entitled to continue to make noise about it. That doesn't mean the other religion is obligated to respond or change, but neither do you have the authority to stop your critics from talking about it. Additionally, the details here are substantially different from the Good Friday example. That's one prayer, it happens once a year, and it's a broad theological statement. The proxy baptism issue is deeply personal and is continually happening all the time.
There are 14 million Mormons, and in the idealized world of the SWC, computers at LDS genealogy centers would somehow be able to detect when even one of them is about to improperly submit a Jewish name for a temple ordinance. This is ridiculous, and they know it. I have a question for them: Why can’t they do something to address the problem of agunoth in the Orthodox community worldwide? Everyone knows that it’s outrageous, and rabbis throughout the world denounce husbands who refuse to grant divorces to their estranged Jewish wives. Why can’t Rabbis Hier and Cooper force every Orthodox husband to toe the line on marriages? Because the husbands have free will, that’s why. 
Funny thing, Mark: last I checked, the LSD church operates according to a hierarchy, whereas Judaism is historically, almost comically, decentralized. Furthermore, your ritual has become digitized. The LDS church owns the databases, they operate all the temples, and they perform the ceremonies. They could do a moratorium on proxy baptisms until their system is better centralized. They could establish new processes to ensure that LDS members who violate church agreements are punished for it. They could increase the burden of proof on people submitting names, requiring them to document their line of descent better. Perhaps most importantly, they actually could establish a "do not baptize" list, documenting every person they've had to take off, and ensuring that if someone tries to baptize them again it raises a red flag. You can do that with computers now. So it's not an issue of can't, it's an issue of won't. If they recognized this as a serious issue, these are some things they could do. Instead, they've told Jewish people who find names to contact them and they'll take them off the lists-- but only if they fall into the one specific category they've "exempted." That's it, even though Paredes admits that the only names that should be submitted, much less used in the ceremonies, are people with Mormon descendants. Is it any wonder some people don't think that's good enough?
The rabbis have also threatened LDS leaders with protests on more than one occasion unless their demands were met. This is a violation of both ethics and decency that is beneath the dignity of rabbis of their stature.  In spite of this persecution, Mormons can take consolation from the fact that Jews, even Holocaust victims, are still not exempted from the requirements of LDS temple ordinances. 
There you have it: in Paredes' world, when Jews complain or even threaten to protest, it constitutes persecution of Mormons. And people accuse Jews of having a victimization complex? Grow the hell up.

The reality is that the LDS church will probably not stop doing this, and so at a certain point you do need to figure out when to move on and how to build positive and productive relationships with other religious groups. But Paredes isn't doing himself any favors by silencing discussion on the topic by essentially saying that "it's not a big deal and you're not allowed to think it is, because I'm done talking about it."

Remember, the whole argument Paredes and the LDS church are trying to advance is that their church is incredibly pro-Jewish, believes in connecting with Jews, supports Israel and all the rest. Well you can't really say all that and demand all this credit for being such good friends with the Jews if when some Jews criticize you your reaction is to say, "I don't want to hear it!" and throw that same supposed friendship back in their face. You can't claim to be sensitive to Jewish feelings and concerns if your response to Elie Wiesel expressing hurt and pain at finding out that his father and grandfather were, in his eyes, at least, dishonored, is to dismiss him by calling him old and suggesting the problem is that he's senile and being taken advantage of by opportunists in the community. Yes, it couldn't possibly be that he has a point!

If Paredes wants to build bridges he needs to recognize that this will continue to be an issue among (some) Jews because we care about it. Paredes does not get to decide when or if Jews cease to care about it, and he most certainly is not in a position to dictate to the Jewish community how they "get" to feel. He can choose what he's willing to discuss publicly, but if he's looking for Jews to say this is ok, I have news for him: as someone affected by this issue, this is not and will never be ok with me. I do not appreciate you using my ancestors' names in any of your rituals, I do not think they would have appreciated it, and there is nothing you can say that will negate that feeling. Furthermore, removing the names, in my opinion, is not the solution. That's not what I want. What I want is for you to reform your procedures for these rituals and stop using non-Mormons' names in your rituals except for the tiny amount of cases where it is "required" by church doctrine. Until that happens, you can expect to keep hearing about it. Feel free to be pissed about it. I know I am.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Growth Spurts

Last weekend Mrs. Yid and I attended our first-ever synagogue retreat. I blogged about it more in-depth at TCFS, but one of the big things that happened was that I was asked to lead services on Friday night, and I did, and it was wonderful. Not only am I proud about leading services (which I really, really am), but also about all the other ways in which I put myself out there, beyond my comfort zone. I talked to people I don't usually talk to, engaged in ways I usually opt out of, and even drove back from the hotel (50 miles on the highway without incident; keep in mind I've only been driving since August)! Work has been intense but is also going well; again, I'm doing things that are challenging, sometimes downright difficult, but the important thing is that I'm doing them, and thereby getting the benefit of overcoming the obstacles.

This last year has been a big year of growth for me, and it's a really good feeling. Some of it, like driving, is something that I had been meaning to do for a long time and was just holding me back. Some of it, like my job, is something I've been working at for a while and is very rewarding to finally start to see some results in. And some of it, like becoming more involved with shul, and even leading a service, is something that I almost can't believe I've done; it doesn't feel like something I'd be able to do. I know I'll never be a social butterfly, but for the first time in a long while, I'm starting to realize that I'm capable of stretching myself farther than I gave myself credit for. And that's a great feeling.

Post-election thoughts

I've been meaning to do an election post, but hadn't gotten to it. I was never all that political, but there's something about being overloaded with election crap for months and months that just makes me want to beat every political talking head with campaign signs until they go into a coma. Anyway, here are a few brief thoughts:

First of all, after hearing about how close the election might be, I decided I wasn't going to waste any energy or emotion on the TV idiots like I did in 2000. Instead, on election night, Mrs. Yid and I had a quiet dinner and then watched a silly horror movie, deliberately not checking any news until it was over. (Partially this was out of principle, partially because I find it incredibly irritating to watch newspeople killing time while they pretend they have new information when they damned well know they don't.)

As it turns out, the right overestimated how fed up/scared/brainwashed the American people are (and I have been listening to the conservative radio station in the car for the last two weeks as they spin and spin it, trying to explain how a majority of Americans-- slim, but still a majority-- could possibly disagree with them). The triumphalist Jewish Republican pundits also apparently also drank the pre-election kool-aid: counter to Abraham Katsman's optimistic claim that Romney would get over 30% of the Jewish vote, he actually stalled out right around 30%, giving Obama 70%. It's true that these are lower numbers than Obama got last time (74-78%), but it's hard to tell how much of that is due to issues with Obama vs. the Democratic party itself (and considering that Katsman was predicting Obama not clearing 60%, still nothing to sneeze at). It is possible that we are seeing the seeds of a gradual Jewish drift to the right, but if that is happening, it's either happening extremely slowly or in such small numbers as to not matter. I do think that eventually there will be less of a reflexive/automatic Jewish attachment to liberal politics, which on a philosophical level is probably a good thing, but I don't see it going past 40% to the Republicans anytime soon, if ever. The reality is that most Jews are liberal, and that even ones who may lean fiscally or socially conservative are not crazy enough for the hard-right conservatives running that wing of the party these days (though if the party decides to disassociate itself from the culture nuts, that may have some ripple effects). One last gloat: Katsman, I told you American Jews don't decide their vote based on Israel. (Nor should they, IMO.)

I recently saw a documentary about the polarization of US politics, and so though I'm happy my candidate won, it's really got me thinking about what's best for the country on a national level. Though I definitely have liberal pet causes, I also genuinely believe that the country is better off when governed through some sort of centrist consensus, particularly in the Legislature. The reality is that while you have crazies in both parties (and legitimate issues with both parties, as well as their media proxies), I still believe that a majority of the country is reasonable and relatively sane. Now that the dust has settled, I'm hoping that some sense will start permeating into Congress and lead to some genuine bipartisan action to fix some of the real issues we're all dealing with, rather than everybody double-downing on the rhetoric and ideology to appeal to their fringes.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Israel Thoughts

I followed the recent fighting in Gaza rather closely, and though it's unclear whether Israel's made any long-term gains from it, I'm happy that the Israeli casualties were relatively low. It's interesting to compare my reactions to the fighting to my reactions in previous years: during Intifada II I was fairly critical of Israel, but over the last few years my sympathies for the Palestinians and focus on the IDF's foibles have shifted. I still recognize that the IDF isn't perfect-- and there are plenty of cases I've heard about over the years where I question individual actors' judgment-- but it's also quite clear that at least when it comes to Hamas, there aren't a lot of options at the Israelis' disposal. Two days before the cease-fire, Mrs. Yid and I were driving home in the car and I happened to put the radio onto a public access show run out of Berkeley, and the hostility toward Israel was so infuriating we both started yelling at the radio. It's quite a contrast to my first days of becoming aware of Middle East politics and discussing such topics online with people, often taking the Palestinian side, or at least playing a very strong devil's advocate for their position.

I don't think I've drank the hasbara kool-aid, but after a lot of years of reading and talking about Israel and becoming closer with relatives there, I now feel more identification with it and the Israeli people. I certainly don't think of myself as Israeli, but I feel that I understand Israel much better than when I was younger. At the same time, I've tried to work to better understand Palestinian and Arab-Israeli issues and viewpoints as well, and I think that's important, too, if only so one can be educated about all the things going on there. While I continue to have sympathy towards Palestinian civilians I also recognize that the politicians and fighters in their society bear a large measure of responsibility for the ongoing conflict with Israel. Listening to the idiot on the radio talking about Hamas "bottle rockets" and comparing Gaza to the Warsaw ghetto and Israel to the Nazis, I realized that people like that are why it's becoming so hard for honest liberals to feel like they have a place in the discussion. It is true that we need to be talking about Palestinian deaths, and it is true that no military is infallible, but as soon as you've started minimizing Hamas' behavior or making ridiculous accusations or comparisons, you've lost any credibility-- or at least, you should have. I don't know whether the crazy rhetoric was just more subtle during my high school years or I wasn't listening to those kinds of people, but now I feel like I better understand what the real issues are-- and what they aren't. Israel isn't perfect, but it sure isn't genocidal (though it does have its share of morons). And, while some may accuse me of naiveté or squishiness, I don't think most Palestinians are, either-- though I do think they require major social and political shifts to get to a point where coexistence starts looking like a reality. I'm worried about the next generation of Palestinians and how they get from where they are today to where people would like them to be.

What I've mostly tried to do over the last few years, though, is become more thoughtful about how and when I offer my opinions about what goes on in Israel and proto-Palestine. Because I realize that while I'm entitled to an opinion, it doesn't mean a whole lot if I'm not there, on the ground, living through what people there are living through. My opinions-- and especially, my advice-- don't mean much, because I'm not the one on the line. Though it's natural for people outside the region to want to help or feel a strong urge to contribute to the discussion, sometimes I think we'd all be better off if we took a step back and tried to listen more, instead of lecturing the Israelis and Palestinians about what they need to do to bring peace. As with so many others, I still hope for peace and resolution in my lifetime, but I realize that those dreams have to be shared and realized by the people actually living through the fighting-- and who have the most to gain or lose.

Monday, November 05, 2012

Israelis have opinions! Should you care?

That's the existential question posed by two articles I found. One by Abraham Katsman points out that 85% of American Israelis voted for Romney.
Israel has become a “red state” through such a solidly Republican vote.  In fact, if Israel were in the United States, it would be the “reddest” state in the entire country.  Redder, even, than Utah, or Wyoming or Oklahoma.  Significantly redder.  That should be a startling development for the Democrats, who once owned the pro-Israel vote.
Not really. The Israeli left has been on the ropes for anywhere between the last 9 and 13 years (depending on how you count), whereas American Jews tend to be overwhelmingly liberal. I personally think part of the reason for the difference (along with the security situation, which obviously plays a role) is that the Israeli political system allows for a much wider range of representation than the American two-party system. In any event, the Israeli left is in rather bad shape right now, whereas the American Jewish left, while perhaps losing some market share to the center-right, is still clearly the dominant force in the American Jewish political scene. Also, this whole thought experiment is incredibly stupid in the first place, as if Israel was part of the United States, its whole political landscape would be reshuffled as some of its most existential issues (security, synagogue & state, Jewish demographics, the West Bank territories, etc) would be drastically different if not off the table entirely. Hey, what if Israel was part of Mars?
Second, that 14% for Obama is 40% lower than the vote he received from Israel in 2008.  That should worry his campaign.  Even if his support in the Jewish community in America has eroded by only half that much, he may have trouble clearing the 60% mark.  An interesting historical note: for almost a century, every Republican candidate who received 30% or more of the Jewish vote was victorious–and it looks like Romney will win well over 30%.
Sorry, you're wrong. Polls are showing Obama will likely take 75% of the Jewish vote. Romney will probably only get around 25%, like McCain before him.
the Israel-based voters–who overwhelmingly voted Romney–were unusually highly motivated to vote.  Compare that to the 5% participation rate in the rest of the world–voters who lean towards Obama–and quite a contrast emerges between the relative levels of motivation to vote between supporters of each candidate.  This appears to be an extreme example something U.S. polls now show: higher motivation to vote corresponds to higher likelihood of voting for Romney.  And motivation correlates with turnout.  That is a doubly good sign for Republicans.
I guess, but I'm still unconvinced this means much. In 2008, Obama got almost 69,500,000 votes, compared to McCain's 60,000,000. Unless all those voters are from swing states (and they're not), 80,000 votes just isn't all that significant-- unless, of course, you're an operative for the Republican party and are trying to convince people that Romney has more Jewish traction-- and therefore, more general traction, period-- than he actually does. Incidentally, who does Katsman work for? Ah yes, he's a lawyer for Republicans Abroad Israel. Color me shocked.
Not surprisingly, the primary motivating issues in the Israel-based vote are Israel-related issues, such as candidates’ policies on Israeli defense and security, the American-Israeli relationship, the status of Jerusalem, the peace process, and policies regarding Iran and its nuclear program.  82% of respondents considered such issues most important, and 88% of those voted for Romney.  If voters with such concerns so heavily favor Romney among Israel-based Americans, there may be a corresponding  higher-than-expected Romney vote among U.S.-based voters concerned with the same issues.
EXCEPT that most Jews don't vote based primarily on those issues. Because, you know, they don't live in Israel. I guess this might help him with Evangelicals, but guess what, he was already going to get that vote.

What does it all mean?  In the short-run, this is all great news for Romney and the Republicans.  But in the longer run, it is healthier for both Israel and America when strong pro-Israel support is solidly bipartisan. Such a one-sided vote as we just had means that something is out of whack.  In fact, several high-profile Democrats have complained that Israel support is becoming a partisan, Republican issue. 
This vote, however, highlights what those complaining Democrats are missing.  It’s not that the Republicans have somehow driven a wedge between the Democrats and the pro-Israel community; it’s that the Democrats, led by President Obama, have drifted far enough away from their once-solid support of Israel that even life-long Democrats are crossing the aisle.

Right, except that some of the harshest Jewish Democratic critics of Obama's first term are now endorsing him. Whoops.

So what does it all really mean? Not a lot, other than that a lot of Israelis don't like Obama (and, possibly, that a lot of the increased voter registration in this election was done by Republican organizations with the goal of getting more votes for the Republican candidate). However much Katsman tries to spin it, the reality is that both parties still support Israel as an ally, so the contention that the Democrats have abandoned Israel and the only remaining party for Zionists is the Republicans is just hogwash. If the vote is really so one-sided, it indicates that either a lot of those who voted (including registered Democrats) either personally dislike Obama or have been turned off of the Democratic party, or that the Republicans have been better at spreading their message than the Democrats. Let's be honest, how many people actually believe that the "best" candidate or party is always the one that gets the most votes?

Additionally, as mentioned before, American Jews are not single-issue voters.
For the vast majority of Jews, Israel ranks surprisingly low in their considerations as voters. Early in 2012, the Public Religion Research Institute found that among self-identified Jewish adults, 51% of those registered to vote cited the economy as the most important issue driving their voting decision. Fifteen percent cited the growing gap between the rich and the poor, while 10% cited health care and 7% the deficit. Only 4% cited Israel as the most important issue to their vote. 
As David Harris, Executive Director of the nonpartisan American Jewish Committee, put it, "Jews are multi-issue voters. The notion they are single-issue voters is simply wrong."
That kind of deflates the main contention of Republicans like Katsman. Israelis can-- and should-- vote however they want. But however much they'd like us to, American Jews are unlikely to base their vote on what their Israeli cousins say.

Election Mishegoss

Not the Presidential one, I know/hope everyone already has their mind made up on that one. I mean local California stuff. As is my blogging minhag, it's time to revisit my favorite crank not named Tzvi or Dennis (don't worry guys, I'll get back to you): Dr. Terrence Faulkner, J.D., Esquire. (Yes, he has used all of those titles at some time or another. Do you think he went to law school?)

My favorite thing about Dr. F isn't that he's the only 55 year old I know who sounds like he's 85. It isn't that he can always be counted on to oppose just about anything remotely progressive (or even moderate). Or the fact that he doesn't seem to understand how to construct an argument or talk to people in a way that makes them listen, rather than tune you out. No, the best thing about Dr. F is that you can always tell what book he's reading by the arguments he writes for the voter's guide.

In 2006, explaining why he opposed a city resolution to impeach Bush and Cheney, he wrote about how Lincoln had also been unpopular, and that if any President should have been impeached, it was James Buchanan. Nothing like bringing up other bad Presidents that have been dead for 150 years to stay on topic, right? In 2008, carping on about a city proposition to amend the charter to emphasize diversity in hiring, Dr. F invoked Greek mythology and General Custer.

So how could he possibly top that?

The proposition: amending the city charter so that the positions of City Attorney and Treasurer are elected at the same time as Mayor, Sheriff and District Attorney. Mrs. Yid and I went back and forth on that one for a little while; while we kind of like the idea of having staggered elections so there's more overlap, we also noted that generally the "off-year" elections tend to have lower turnout, and there's a cost-saving benefit of consolidating two elections into one.

Not surprisingly, Dr. F disagreed. His rhetorical tool of choice?

The freaking Peloponnesian War.

About 507 BCE (or B.C.) the Athenian statesman Cleisthenes introduced a new form of government into ancient Athens. All free males of the city were allowed to appear, speak, and vote in the governing Ecclesia which met outdoors some 40 times per year on the hill of Pnyx across from the Acropolis. Democracy was born-- admittedly with many flaws and limits. 
Democracy works best when the people are paying very careful attention.
This proposed amendment... would create longer ballots and a situation in which less attention would given by [sic] the voting public to the individual candidates to be elected and the offices to be filled.
...If the Fathers of the Athenian Democracy-- the law reformer Solon-- the voting reformer Cleisthenes-- and the great Pericles who rebuilt the beautiful temples of the Acropolis-- were to return to San Francisco, I think they would all vote "NO!" on misguided Prop D.
That's his argument against. His rebuttal to the entire Board of Supervisors is even better. All it does is quote Pericles' funeral oration from Thucydides' Peloponnesian War. Way to use that classical education, Doc. Tell me, during that impressive classical education, did they by any chance ever point out that since Solon, Cleisthenes and Pericles never lived in California, it would in fact be impossible for them to "return" here? Just wondering.

Now, lest you think I just hopped back over here to bash on a lone Conservative crank, fear not! I am capable of being even-handed. For instance, we have the proud left-leaning local paper the Bay Guardian, which helpfully published their tear-off voter guide for people to use.

Let's look at two of their endorsements, shall we? Prop 30 and 38 both have to do with funding California public schools:


Why are we voting on — and watching the various interests spend about $30 million on — a simple tax increase that in most sane places would be vetted and approved by the state Legislature? Two reasons: California has an archaic and insane rule mandating a two-thirds vote of both houses for a tax hike, which is impossible as long as a few Republicans are still in Sacramento — and our crabby old oddball of a governor, Jerry Brown, insisted in his last campaign that he'd never raise taxes without a vote of the people.
Prop. 30 is an amalgam, a mixture of what Brown first wanted and what the more liberal supporters of a tax on millionaires were proposing. The guv had to come the table when it looked like the millionaire tax might have enough support to compete with his plan; he made a few concessions, and everyone signed off on this plan. It raises taxes on people with incomes of more than $250,000 (good) and hikes the sales tax by a quarter-cent (not so good) and would bring in $6 billion a year until it expires in 2019. 
A bit of perspective: When former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger whacked the vehicle license fee his first day in office, he cost the state about $4 billion a year, with the stroke of a pen. 
And in a state with more billionaires than any other place in America, a fabulously rich place with the world's eighth-largest economy, the notion that we have to argue about raising $6 billion in taxes is farcical. 
Nevertheless, it's crucial to pass Prop. 30. The money will prevent catastrophic cuts to education and social services. Prop. 30 won't move California a single step forward — but it will keep us all a few inches away from the abyss. 
Brown has gambled his governorship on this — and if he loses, he'll take a good part of the state's future with him. We live in strange and unpleasant times; vote Yes on 30.
All right, seems straight-forward enough. What about the other proposition?


There's so much wrong with Prop. 38, starting with its origin. It's another billionaire plaything, the work of the wealthy Molly Munger, who decided, on her own, that the state should raise income taxes to pay for better schools.
Yes, the state should raise income taxes on the wealthy. Yes, some of that money should go to education. But this is not the optimal way to go about it. 
Because nobody but Munger and her pals vetted the measure, it's got problems. For starters, it's not a tax increase on the rich — it's a tax increase for just about everybody. If you make more than $7,300 a year, your state income tax would go up. Granted, not by much: The sliding scale starts at 0.4 percent (about $30 a year for the very low end of the scale, and the wealthiest will pay much more) but still: the tax burden in this state (with its high sales-tax rates) falls disproportionately on the poor and middle class, and Munger's measure should have exempted all but the top earners. And it's got a popular, but troubling distribution scheme — between 60 and 85 percent of the estimated $10 billion a year in new revenue will go to K-12 education. The schools need the money — but so do cities and counties who pay for public health, affordably housing, public safety and a lot of other priorities. 
But the question facing the voters isn't whether Munger is a self-serving brat who went her own way on this, or whether there are flaws in the measure. It's whether the state ought to raise taxes to pay for education. With all the duly noted reservations, the answer to that question has to be yes.
Ok, so the Guardian endorses both propositions. Here's the problem: only one of them can pass. Per California budget rules, when two conflicting income tax measures pass, the one with the most votes wins. So if Prop 38 wins, Prop 30 by definition does not win... which means it triggers $6 billion in cuts from the education budget.

Reading the explanation of the "endorsement" of Prop 38, it sounds like the Guardian Staff understands this and really just want to alert their readers that we need to find a long-term solution to the education issue... but then why endorse both propositions when they cancel each other out? When did literacy stop becoming a requirement to work at a newspaper? Did the writers and editors just not communicate on this one? It feels like a mistake. But then why is it still on their online version and why has no correction been issued? What the hell, people?
Did you enjoy this, dear readers? I hope so. Now make sure you go and vote. I don't even care if your vote cancels mine out, just make sure you go do it. Don't be one of these smug morons.

Sunday, November 04, 2012

A little irony

Am I the only one that got a chuckle out of this?

1924: Kafka dies. Despite his explicit instructions to burn his works, Max Brod instead publishes all of them.

1968: Max Brod dies in Israel. Despite his explicit instructions to donate Kafka's work, his secretary Esther Hoffe instead kept the collection.

2007: Esther Hoffe dies. Her daughters inherit the Kafka collection.

2012: Israeli court orders Hoffe family to hand over the collection to the National Library of Israel, "after establishing that that was the original intent of Kafka's friend."

So here's the question: if original intent is the primary determinant... why does Brod's intent matter more than Kafka's? Other of course, then the fact that Israel wants the Kafka collection.

Too bad there are no more Kafkas left. I would have rather seen it go to one of them than posthumously rewarding Brod for ignoring his friend's last wishes.