Friday, June 24, 2011

The Big Weiner

Help! I have to pay taxes but I'm without representation in Congress. So are all the other poor heavily taxed voters in Congressional District 9. Our Congressman, Anthony Weiner, resigned over a sex scandal, or perhaps a non-sex, or just plain nonsense, scandal. It will be several months before we can have a special election for someone to warm Weiner's seat until the regular election in November 2012, by which time the district may well be gerrymandered out of existence in the mandated redistricting. New York is slated to lose two seats in the House of Representatives based on the results of the latest census.

Remember former Governor Eliot Spitzer? He too resigned over a sex scandal, when his patronizing of prostitutes (okay, high-class "call girls") came to light. He was known in the little black books as "Client Nine." Maybe there's some kind of jinx in the number nine. But Mr. Weiner never, as far as is known, had sex with a prostitute or with anybody other than his new wife. The whole donnybrook is over pictures sent to women (and a 17-year-old girl) over the internet. The pictures are all over the Web now, and we can judge them for ourselves. Just Google "Weiner crotch" and "Weiner shirtless." Somehow, conservative columnist Andrew Breitbart got hold of some of them and made them public. I nominate Andrew Breitbart for tzara'at. He is guilty of gossipmongering for transparent political reasons. Anthony Weiner has been a most effective Congressman, delivering the goods to his district (e.g. "Weiner's Cleaners" powerwashing graffiti off walls) and advocating for a strong foreign policy, and bucking his own Democratic Party in the process. He is also a skilled debater and a forceful advocate for President Obama's health care reforms. I have my reservations there, especially as regards his single-payer proposals. I also want to keep the generous health-care package that the United Federation of Teachers negotiated for me. But these issues deserve to be debated on their merits, not scuttled by dirty gossip from the opposition.

As far as I am aware, the Congressman did not send pictures of himself naked, as so much of the media implied. He sent pictures of himself in his underwear, with a discreet outline of his genitals visible. People of a certain age will remember "Underwear That's Funtawear." The men's briefs featured a strategically placed "Big Mac" or "Home of the Whopper" (I'm sure McDonald's and Burger King raked in handsome profits). The women's panties declared their owners "Slippery When Wet." None of us got particularly uptight; if we didn't like the message we didn't wear the underwear. And today pictures much more risque than the ones Mr. Weiner sent out are all over the web.

Are the Weiner photos any worse than this wrestler, available on a public site?

As far as the shirtless photos go, the man was in a gym for heaven's sake. What is inappropriate about being bare-chested in a gym? Those poor women saw nothing that all of us do not see every day this time of year. Add to that guilt-by-innuendo, when columnists opined that "some of the women might have been under age." The people making the charges have the burden of proof, and none was forthcoming. The age of consent in New York is seventeen. Authorities in the jurisdiction where the 17-year-old in question resided did not have a problem, and neither did the girl's parents, so why do the media have a problem? Conservative pundit Dennis Prager declared that what the Congressman did was worse than an extramarital affair (in which more than one Congressman is known to have indulged), and asked if a teenage boy would rather have his father look at raunchy pictures or have an affair. Well, I'd rather he looked at pictures. Nobody ever contracted a venereal disease from pictures. So Mr. Weiner gave in to a yetzer hara. We all do that on occasion.

What bothers me more than sending the pictures is lying about them once they came to light. If Mr. Weiner was running for the first time, that probably would have caused me to vote against him or sit out the election. But he was our Congressman for a long time, and a very good one. As long as he did not break the law or Congress' code of ethics, the media feeding frenzy was far more unseemly than anything Weiner did. And the feeding frenzy is going to have a chilling effect on the body politic for years to come. If sainthood is now a requirement for public office, who would want to seek public office? Everyone of us is a package. You take us with our good qualities and our faults. And ordinary people will also suffer. I am a biology teacher. It is not beyond the realm of possibility that a 13-year-old student could contact me on the Web with questions about human reproduction. I have no way of verifying her age; neither, probably, did Mr. Weiner. If I keep the conversation on a high level (anatomical names for body parts) but give the student the straight answers she was probably not getting at home or in school, have I done anything wrong? Might I get in trouble for it years down the pike? Such a climate of fear is not healthy for teachers, students or other living things.

We live in a society where sex is used to sell everything from automobiles to zirconia. It is hypocritical, to put it mildly, to jump on a Congressman who sent pictures of himself that were mildly inappropritate (I would not have sent them if I were in his place). So now we lost an effective public official over a tempest in a teapot. Stay tuned.

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Friday, June 17, 2011

A Parsha Thought - Unintended Consequences

Tomorrow we will read Parshat Shelah, whose central theme is the meraglim, twelve spies sent by Moshe Rabbeinu to reconnoiter Eretz Canaan, as it was then called ("Palestine" is never mentioned in all of Tanakh, not once), and report back on the lay of the land, the quality of its produce and its military vulnerabilities. They returned, according to tradition on the evening of Tisha B'Av, and all but Caleb and Joshua reported that the people were tall and exceptionally strong, and it would not be possible for the Israelites to conquer it. All of the adults cried and sulked, and did not listen to the "minority report" of Caleb and Joshua. God decreed that the people would wander in the wilderness for 40 years and that all of the adults, age twenty and up, were to die in the wilderness. Their children, those born in Egypt but not yet 20, as well as those born and yet to be born in the wilderness, whom their parents and grandparents complained would be booty for the Canaanites, would be the ones to conquer and inherit the land.

We often speak of a "law of unintended consequences," whereby significant decisions have unanticipated results, usually negative ones that bite us on the behind. So, I submit, is the case here. Who was supposed to be punished? The adults, for their lack of faith and confidence in God and their agitation against Moshe Rabbeinu that would reach a climax in Korah's revolt in next week's parsha. But in my estimation it was not the adults who suffered most; it was the teenage boys. The adults knew what they did wrong, so much so that a good deal of them embarked the next day on an unauthorized mission against the Canaanites that failed. But the teenage boys, those who were the same age as me during the Six Day War, had no part in the wrongdoing. They personally witnessed the miracles of the Exodus and the war with Amalek, and all that was happening at that magical time of life when a boy is bursting with male hormones and everything seems possible - the same wonderful confluence that changed me and my contemporaries in 1967. I can imagine those boys taking every opportunity to go outside and spar with blunted weapons to get themselves ready for the battles that they were eager to be part of. And now - they were to be punished for the sins of their parents. Grounded for forty years! To a boy that feels like life in prison. Oh, they would enter Canaan all right, when they would be in their forties and fifties, too old and weak to wield a sword or throw a javelin, militarily useless. Imagine the resentment they must have felt toward their parents for condemning them to such misery. When I was in fourth grade or so, my teacher asked me which of the Ten Commandments is hardest for me to keep, and without hesitation I answered the fifth. If I was asked the same question today, I would give the same answer. Perhaps those teenage boys in the wilderness bequeathed their well-founded resentment to their descendants to the last generation.

At this point one might ask why God did not simply kill off the bad generation at once, or perhaps over one year, and allow the young to enter Canaan right away. Ultimately, of course, we can never know why God does what He does, but we glean a little insight from the Hasidic doctrine of tzimtzum. God shrinks himself, as it were, so we can relate to Him in a confined place, be it physical - the beit mikdash - or intellectal. He established the laws of nature as the "constitution" by which He runs the world, and confines Himself to the natural order most of the time, even when it leads to what we mortals view as unintended consequences. The generation of the wilderness had to die before Canaan could be conquered, but they had to die of natural causes, and that takes time. The boys would not fight, but they would train their sons and, when the time came, share in their sons' joy when they went out, weapons in hand, and conquered their land. And that too is something they bequeathed to future generations. Jews have always endured economic and other hardships in the hope that their children would have it better than they did. And so may it be until Mashiach comes and redeems the world, in our time but, if not, in our children's.

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Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Too Hot To Handle (2)

Prof. Michael Zimmerman at Butler University is circulating letters for Christian clergy and rabbis to sign, asserting that religion and the theory of evolution are compatible. He recently added a letter for Muslim clergy and notes with dismay that it attracted some hateful and vile comments. I posted the following comment to the professor's column in Huffington Post:

Sorry Prof. Zimmerman, but I have to disagree here. When your country is attacked, it is natural (especially for the male of the species) to be full of anger and even hatred toward the attacker. I'm a New Yorker. My country and city were attacked, and I am filled with hatred at the people who did it in the name of their perverted brand of religion. What I see now is what played out in Spain in the 12th century. Fanatical Muslims, the Al-Muahadin (Almohades) poured in from North Africa, took over, and destroyed the regime of "convivencia," where Muslims, Christians and Jews lived together in relative harmony and advanced human civilization immeasurably. Maimonides and others had to flee to other lands, much to the detriment of Spanish culture and civilization.
Of course there are moderate Muslims, but they are not heard above the din of fanaticism emanating from Saudi Arabia, which has unlimited funds to spread their Wahhabi cancer through madrassas around the globe. The Imam Letter can help stop this madness, but only if knowledge of it spreads beyond the scientific community. We need all moderate Muslims, especially those still in positions of authority, to SPEAK UP LOUD AND CLEAR that terrorism is vile and anti-Islamic. By the way, since you will not reproduce those "vile names," your readers have no way to evaluate their vileness.
All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.

This is not the first time that I posted comments to Prof. Zimmerman's columns in Huffington Post, but for the first time my comment was rejected. I sent a copy to Prof. Zimmeerman, who was surprised that the comment was rejected. He assured me that Huff Post's editors, not he, make the decisons on what comments to publish. I believe him. He says he has no idea why my comment was blue-penciled. I have an idea. There is a taboo in our society against criticizing Muslims. All other religion and their clergy are fair game for criticism, lampooning, cartoons and the like. None of the objects of all this respond with violence - except Muslims. Nor is this something new. Years ago, a movie called "Muhammad, Messenger of God" debuted in theaters. It showed images of Muhammad that some Muslims deemed blasphemous. After a bomb threat (or maybe an actual bomb, I don't remember) at a theater in Washington, D.C., the theater canceled the movie and other theaters declined to show it. Later the movie was edited to remove depictions of Muhammad and was retitled "The Message." At the time, such violence and threats were rare. Today, especially in Europe, it is becoming routine. But our response is as craven now as it was then. Dutch politician Geert Wilders must travel under guard because he has received death threats for fearlessly sounding the alarm about an Islamic takeover of Europe. Danish newspapers were threatened for publishing cartoons making fun of Islam's penchant for violence, and now censor themselves accordingly. Dutch film director Theo van Gogh was assassinated because he had the temerity to make a film critical of Islam's treatment of women. And on and on.

I suspect that this is the reason my comment was too hot for Huffington Post to handle. Freedom is not free. It must be defended in every generation. In my youth the enemy was Communism. Today it is Islamic fascism. If our country ceases to be the home of the brave, it will not be the land of the free much longer.

Here are two of the cartoons that led to threats against a Danish newspaper:

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