Monday, September 27, 2010

An open letter to Fox on Glee


Jewish date:  19 Tishri 5771 (Parashath Bere’shith).

Today’s holidays:  Ḥol hamMo‘edh Sukkoth (Judaism), Feast Day of Vincent de Paul (Roman Catholicism), Feast Day of St Hieronymous Bosch (Church of the SubGenius), Feast of Cosmus and Damianus (Thelema).

Worthy cause of the day:  “Stand Up for Veterans - They Stood Up for Us - The Petition Site”.

Today’s topic:  I have received an anonymous open letter from someone wishing to complain about anti-Semitism in the latest episode of Glee, “Audition”, which you can see here courtesy of Hulu:

The open letter is addressed to the heads of the Fox Broadcasting Company, who are responsible for Glee.  A copy is being sent to  Others who are likewise offended may also wish to E-mail Fox and ask others to do so.  While the author of the letter apparently has issues with rudeness and may need a values overhaul, she does make points worth noting.  So without further adieu…

The title card for the musical comedy series G...Image via Wikipedia
Hey, network pinheads!  Listen up!
I realize Fox is below the bottom of the barrel for television.  Not your fault.  Maybe if you had some decent shows.  The Simpsons?  That’s been going on for, what, fifty years and Bart’s still in the fourth grade?  Time to move on.  How about American Idol?  That’s an idea, throw a spotlight the tone-deaf losers of America.  Nice job ripping off The Gong Show.  Let’s not forget Fox News.  You know it’s bad when you get better information ripping open an cat and looking at its entrails, or even watching E!.   “News Corp.”  Don't make me laugh, as if your comedies could.
Plenty of shows on Fox make me so gut-wrenchingly nauseous that I’d rather sit through twelve of those “fill-in-the-blank movie” movies than an hour of that channel, but one is so odious that I would sooner turn on the Disney Channel.  That’s right, that program is Glee, that quirky little show about singing teens too lame to be in the chess club and their deluded advisor with more grease in his hair than the BP oil slick.  Sure, it’s all boys and girls, blacks and whites and none-of-the aboves, including the one openly gay kid to show how progressive they are.  Yay for you.  And I suppose if you hire a black janitor for your white-filled office that makes you Martin Luther King.  (That’s right, Glenn, I’m talking to you.)  Sad story is, Glee is just the same mess of prejudice and hate that the news department is.
Maybe none of the kids openly worship Hilter or spout like Mel Gibson, but when was the last time anyone claimed they were a hate-filled bigot?  Let’s take the treatment of Jews on this show.  Traditional kicking boys of history, Fox continues this noble tradition in how they treat the major Jewish characters:
  • Rachel Berry:  Chief diva of the glee club, this trampy little tease changes boyfriends more often than her panties.  She arrives, drama follows, disaster ensues, any episode.  Watch out, Stephen Hawking, she’ll be calling you to register as center of the universe.
  • Noah “Puck” Puckerman:  Here’s a prize, some meathead bully whose hair wasn’t even stylish when Mr. T had it.  First he’s too stupid to wrap it before he tapped it, and when his loser girlfriend got pregnant, he wasn’t even man enough to take the credit.  Did I mention this punk is a reverse-cougar who joined an a-capella group just to bed older women?  While he claims he knows “what it means to be a Jew,” I’d put down cash that even al-Qaeda knows that better than he does.
  • Jacob Ben Israel:  Sleeze-in-charge of the school paper who engages in gutter journalism.  The second season opened with him doing an online smear piece on the glee club’s “gay summer,” carrying a microphone labeled in blue-on-white with his initials in Hebrew-styled letters and a Star of David.  And his name is “Jacob Ben Israel.”  That’s as subtle as a drunk Irishman named “Patrick O’Malley” who’s a rapist.
This doesn’t include the lying little hussy Tina Cohen-Chang of unknown religion, the one with the suggestive name and horrible outfits.  No one’s saying Jews should all be perfect, but when you go this far to drag a group through the mud, you got to wonder.  Any time one of the little nitwits starts to look almost decent, along come the writers to knock them down a peg.  Maybe they’re a little unkind to all of these losers one way or another, but week after week, Jews seem to be singled out for this special kind of treatment.  Someone, of course, may point out that writer, creator, and executive producer Brad Falchuk is supposed to be Jewish.  Big deal.  Since when couldn’t Uncle Toms come in any color?
Do I really care about the Jews?  Of course not.  I’m against all wastes of skin, regardless of persuasion.  But in this day and age?  Old hat, cliché.  You think you’re being edgy or cool, but you’re as obviously bigoted as a Michael Bay film.  Should I choose to waste my time listening to heavily processed music and narrow-minded prejudice, I’ll do it at a old-folks’ home on karaoke night when I can skip the commercials.
And that’s how I see it.

Peace, and don’t let Fox bite.

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Sunday, September 26, 2010

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the Church of Body Modification


Jewish date:  18 Tishri 5771 (Parashath Bere’shith).

Today’s holidays:  Ḥol hamMo‘edh Sukkoth (Judaism), Twenty-Sixth Sunday of Ordinary Time (Roman Catholicism), Feast Day of St. Frank Liszt (Church of the SubGenius), Bureflux (Discordianism), Greater Eleusinian Mysteries (Thelema).

TEHRAN. With the President of Iran, Mahmoud Ah...Image of Ahmadinejad being treated as if he were a decent human being via Wikipedia
Topic 1:  Muslim misbehavior and failure of the West to treat it as misbehavior.  In “Ahmedenijad, Media Rock Star” and “Ahmedenijad Says America Killed the Victims of 9/11” Rav Shmuley Boteach complains about how Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, president of Iran, loudmouth who spouts indecencies (to put in very mildly), defender of his country’s violation of a nuclear weapons control treaty which his country is a signatory, and all-around rotten person is treated with the deference of a decent human being by people in power, both in government and in the media, and is not treated like the dangerous lunatic he is.  And Rav Boteach has a point.  Because the West claims to be committed to noble virtues, such as freedom and justice, and a maniac like Ahmadinejad, who has proclaimed his intent to commit genocide, is in such contradictions to these values that he should be reviled as an archenemy.

In “Australian Muslim Cleric Calls for Beheading — Who Cares?” Larry Elder correctly notes a disparity in outrage concerning freedom of speech.  A Christian threatens to burn the Qur’an, and there is a huge outcry of condemnation.  But Muslim threats of violence and murder are ignored.  Burning books may be childish and offensive, but people normally claim that humans are morally more valuable to insentient books.  Why are Muslims being held to a different standard than everyone else?

Violence in east Jerusalem clouds peace efforts” deals with “Palestinians” rioting in Israel, making a mockery of all claims that the time is ripe for peace.

In “"Rushdie Rules" Reach Florida” Daniel Pipes deals with Muslim attempts to squelch anyone speaking against Islam, coupled with Islamic denigration of other religions.

Moroccan Convert Serving 15 Years for His Faith” deals with how those who leave Islam are treated in the Muslim world.

Topic 2:  On to something different than my usual complaints, with thanks to Erin for alerting me to this case:  “NC teen: Nose ring more than fashion, it's faith”.  The North Carolina teenager in question has been suspended from school for wearing a nose ring.  The reason she wears the nose ring in the first place is because she is a member of the Church of Body Modification.  And before you click on that link, do be aware that many may find the graphics on the site unsettling.  This is how the Church describes itself (under “About the Church”):
The Church of Body Modification represents a collection of members practicing ancient and modern body modification rites. We believe these rites are essential to our spirituality. Practicing body modification and engaging in body manipulation rituals strengthen the bond between mind, body, and soul. By doing so, we ensure that we live as spiritually complete and healthy individuals.
Two things should be noted about what are not stated.  First, no substantial reason is given to believe their chosen rites are useful in any way, shape, or form.  Second, there is no real theology in this description, e.g., which god told them to do this is not mentioned.

Now, of course, a few sentences are a small amount of material to put a lot of details in.  But the other statements on the site are also wanting.  Under “Mission Statement” they have:
We, the congregation of the Church of Body Modification, will always respect our bodies. We promise to always grow as individuals through body modification and what it can teach us about who we are and what we can do. We vow to share our experiences openly and honestly in order to promote growth in mind, body, and soul. We honor all forms of body modification and those who choose to practice body modification for any reason. We also promise to respect those who do not choose body modification. We support all that join us in our mission and help those seeking us in need of spiritual guidance. We strive to share a positive message with everyone we encounter, in order to act as positive role models for future generations in the body modification community. We always uphold basic codes of ethics and encourage others to do the same. We are a dynamic community, always growing and changing, continually promoting safety, education, and experience in body modification.
This is likewise lacking in real justification or theology.  And under “Statement of Faith” they have:
As followers of this faith, it is our purpose to educate and inspire, to share ideas, and to help each other achieve our dreams. We strive to unify and strengthen our mind, body, and soul so we can overcome any challenges we may encounter. We assert and protect our rights to modify our bodies and to practice our rituals.
We believe our bodies belong only to ourselves and are a whole and integrated entity: mind, body, and soul. We maintain we have the right to alter them for spiritual and other reasons.
Affirmation of our living, breathing, physical beings is paramount to our self-identities and helps us define who we are. The Church of Body Modification promotes affirmation and growth of a more expansive perspective of our physical and spiritual being.
No mention whatsoever is made of a deity who promotes body modification or anything else theological.  Though unusual, this is not an absolute barrier to religionhood; Unitarian Universalism is creedless, but it is normally considered a religion.  But while the Unitarian Universalists seem to be focused on the quest for truth, body modification and manipulation rituals seem to form the core of the Church of Body Modification.  The rituals themselves are supposed to have positive effects, as if the rituals are some sort of psychotherapy or magical rites.  This is the reverse of the way religions normally work, in which theology drives or at least is used to justify rituals.  (Though the Unitarian Universalists do have rituals of their own, too.)  If the rituals themselves are supposed to have power (as opposed to rituals being a form of worship and not necessarily more than symbolic), how they know these rituals have power is left unstated.  (Try to imagine a proper double-blinded study measuring the spiritual effects of tattooing.)  I have written to the Church, asking them to confirm that they have no theology, but they have not written back yet.  Hopefully more information on this new religious movement will eventually become available.

Topic 3:  For today’s religious humor: “seven sharpies”:
funny pictures of cats with captions


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Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Some Thoughts on the Religious Significance of Naked Lunch


Jewish date:  13 Tishri 5771.

Today’s holidays:  Feast Day of Matthew and Evangelist (Roman Catholicism), Feast Day of St. Jerry Garcia (Church of the SubGenius), Fall Equinox (Ritual of the Elements)/Feast Day of Virgilius (Thelema).

Topic 1:  Someone has decided to save me a lot of work by sending me a review of Naked Lunch.  I am hesitant to read this book for reasons this review should make clear; I do not even own a copy yet.  Those with weak stomachs may wish to skip directly to the religious humor section.

Some Thoughts on the Religious Significance of Naked Lunch
Burroughs, William (1959).  The Naked Lunch.  Interzone:  Olympia Press.  ISBN:  9783548028439.  See also:  Burroughs, William S. (1959/2004).  Naked Lunch (restored text ed., Grauerholtz, James and Miles, Barry, eds.).  Interzone:  Grove Press.  ISBN:  0802140181.

Naked Lunch is a classic of drug-related literature.  According to the introduction, it was strongly influenced by the author’s experiences with opiate drugs.  Unlike a typical novel, it consists of a series of chapters that have little in the way of plot to connect them.  There are recurring places and characters, but the connections between them are more in terms of themes rather than an overriding story.  While the chapters may have a sort of internal logic, the style is disjointed if not outright schizophrenic, the world of the story disconnected from usual notions of space, biology, and rational behavior.  Much of the material is disturbing or disgusting, especially to more conservative readers.  Sexual references are frequent, mostly anal intercourse between men, and the author is fixated on anuses and penises.  Violence is equally common and nearly as graphic.  Drugs are often mentioned in bizarre metaphors, including monsters and grotesque transformations of the body.  For anyone who has difficulty getting past the superficial level of description, there is plenty to offend and repulse.  This may in fact have been the intention.  The subject matter, especially drug addiction, itself is offensive and repulsive, capable of reducing functional people into shadows with little thought of anything other than the next fix.  If his intention was to portray how disturbing and revolting the experience of drug addiction is, he succeeded brilliantly.

There are several religious references in Naked Lunch, most of them about Islam.  An organization called “Islam, Inc.” is explicitly mentioned, as are a few of its agents, who are involved in nefarious affairs.  References to Arabic people are frequent and typically negative and often as violent people.  This is as deep as the exploration of Islam goes, a negative portrayal without details of what is believed or  what the motivations are.  A few other references pop up, included characters making anti-Semetic claims that Jews only want to have sex with Christian women.  At a surface level, the lack of depth of these references make the book seem religiously insignificant.  In all fairness, men of any demographic get at best a neutral or negative portrayal, so the negativity may have to do more with a general negative portrayal of humanity, or a simple, shallow prejudice rather than any specific religious issue.  (Women are less certain, being infrequently portrayed, and there is only one explicit scene of heterosexual behavior, but that is a side issue.)

The book, however, does touch on some issues of relevance.  The most explicit one is the relationship of drugs to religion.  In the introduction, Burroughs notes that several cultures have religious behavior built up around hallucinogens (think of the ritual use of peyote), whereas opiate drugs are not treated as such.  Throughout the book there is not a trace of the holy, reverence, or serious thought that is the usual material of religion.  This world of an opiate addict is crude, base, and cruel, untouched by any of the finer attributes religion may inspire or the better qualities of humanity, “unclean” in every sense.  Perhaps this may be what Burroughs intended, not an exclusion of religion per se, but only an inclusion of the ugliest parts, those specifically lacking the holy and concern for others.  While people often think of religion in spiritual, otherworldly terms, it is as much something people do in this world as cooking eggs or making the bed.  Although often neglected, the use of drugs as part of religion may be an important aspect and critical to understanding some.  Factors in life which disconnect people from religion, including drugs, are also worth exploring.

The other relevant issue is worldview.  The world (or worlds) of Naked Lunch is (are) bleak, with little in the way of joy, care, or concern for others.  There is nothing positive to be said about establishments and authority, especially government and the medical profession.  It is a place where lay people may be arbitrarily bullied, abused, maimed, and murdered on a whim.  Everything and anything can be unexpectedly lost, including privacy and the integrity of body and mind.  Violence is normal and common.  It is a dystopia by way of the Alice books, with little concern for creating a better place or even securing another generation.  This is the world of a junkie, someone whose usual concerns are so overridden by their need for drugs that interest in others is lost in its entirety.  In a world where all that matters is getting the next hit, there is no room for anything else.

While written specifically about opiate addiction, this world bears a resemblance to those of others whose lives are overly dedicated  to a single purpose.  A video-game addict may resent others who try to pry them away from the console and towards other responsibilities, see the authorities as repressive and cruel, living only for being in front of the screen when they disconnect from space and time itself and immerse in another reality.  A sexual compulsive may see metaphors for sex everywhere, find the restrictions of society oppressive and find potential partners manipulative and mean when they merely work towards their own self-interests.  And with most relevance to this project, the religious fanatic might come to act in a similar way.  Someone who only thinks of what they have to gain in the next world has no interest in this one, no interest in improving it.  With no regard for others, people who fail to measure up are mere irritations of no value.  Such wholesale dedication with no regard for others produces something as undesirably removed from common humanity as a far-gone opiate addict.

As a literary depiction of drug addiction, Naked Lunch is a must-read, and anyone considering opiates should consider it a warning.  But the kind of world and the kind of person in it that the book portrays extends beyond drugs.  For anyone interested in the thoughts of any kind of addict or fanatic, the book remains a worthwhile source.

—“Fingers” Schaffer, M.D.

Topic 2:  For today’s religious humor: “Basement Kitteh”:
funny pictures-Sentimental Mood


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Sunday, September 19, 2010

Absurdity in the name of publicity

Sukka In New HampshireImage of a real sukkah via Wikipedia

Jewish date:  11 Tishri 5771.

Today’s holidays:  Sukkah-Building Day (Judaism), Paryushana (Hinduism), Twenty-Fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time (Roman Catholicism), March of Reanimated Corpses/Talk Like A Pirate Day (Secular) (Church of the SubGenius).

Note:  Sukkah-Building Day is not an official Jewish holiday.  11 Tishri, however, is traditionally the day one should start building one’s sukkah (a sort of temporary building with vegetation for a roof) so as to be ready in time for Sukkoth, which starts 15 Tishri.

Worthy causes of the day:  “Don't Build the Belo Monte Dam! - The Petition Site” and “Protect the Paradise Forests and the Orangutan - The Petition Site”.

I have a huge backlog of religious news to comment on, and there is no way I can deal with all of it.  This would be true even if I did not have to put up my sukkah today.  What to choose… What to choose…

Topic 1:  Since Sukkoth is the holiday just around the corner, let us start with “A Look at the Finalists in the Sukkah City Design Competition”, described as “Twelve architects compete to redesign the ritual holiday hut—and you get to pick the winner.”  I would hesitate to call any of the top contenders a winner.  The top 12 are depicted on the voting page, and it is not clear that any of them is ritually acceptable.  Many one would never guess were intended to be sukkoth at all.  When making something ritually acceptable is not a basic requirement, one has to wonder what the people behind this competition are thinking.

Topic 2:  “Pregnant nun ice cream advert banned for 'mockery'”, with the offending graphic visible with respectable detail in “'Pregnant nun' ice cream ad banned after Catholic outcry (on eve of Pope's visit)”.  This is getting in due to being the most recent controversy, not the most worthy one.  Let me just quote this article:
An ice cream company banned from using an advert displaying a pregnant nun has vowed to position similar posters in London in time for the Pope's visit.
Antonio Federici's advert showed a pregnant nun eating ice cream in a church, together with the strap line "immaculately conceived".
The Advertising Standards Authority has ordered it to be discontinued, saying it mocked Roman Catholic beliefs.
I am disturbed that the Advertising Standards Authority banned the ads; freedom of speech does include freedom to say things other people do not like.  However, the ad itself strikes me as at best poorly thought out.  The term “immaculate conception” refers to the Catholic doctrine that Mary, mother of Jesus, was born without the taint of original sin.  The term is often misunderstood as referring to the conception of Jesus, purportedly accomplished by the Holy Spirit and not by the usual human method.  The pregnant nun would seem fit better with the incorrect understanding of “immaculate conception” than the correct one.  A nun conceiving in the usual manner would be getting pregnant through sin (as she is required to be abstinent), and the child would have the taint of original sin.  But a nun conceiving through the Holy Spirit would not commit any sin, and the child might be free of the taint of original sin.  But how does immaculate conception fit in with ice cream?  Ice cream is not conceived at all, nor is the concept of original sin really applicable to it (or anything else inanimate, for that matter).  And if one really wants to force “immaculately conceived” to apply to ice cream, what the meaning of that?  Is this ice cream somehow like Mary or Jesus?  Or is eating this ice cream somehow connected with miraculous pregnancies, perhaps even causing them?  Yes, this is overthinking an ice cream advertisement, but it only qualifies as overthinking since the only thinking which seems to have gone into it is how to cause enough controversy to get a lot of publicity, not thinking about making the content make any sense.

Topic 3:  For today’s religious humor:  Since Sukkoth is coming up very soon, “The Laws of the Sukkah according to Dr. Suess”.  For something so silly, it contains a lot of accurate information, not to mention footnotes and references.


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Friday, September 17, 2010

Religious miscellany


Jewish date:  9 Tishri 5771.

Today’s holidays:  ‘Erev Yom Kippur/Eve of the Day of Atonement (Judaism), Paryushana (Hinduism), Feast Day of Robert Bellarmine (Roman Catholicism), Feast Day of St. William Shatner (Church of the SubGenius).

NOTE:  Starting tonight is Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement.  For information on this holiday, see the relevant part of the Orthodox Union’s site.

Today’s topic:  Miscellaneous more or less religious things I saw in Israel.  We will start off with two signs found on buses:

This one reads “Before hoariness you will stand”, a quote from Leviticus 19:32.  Evidently it is intended to mean here than one should give up one’s seat to any senior citizen who needs it.

I apologize for the poor lighting conditions.  This one reads “And you will love your driver like yourself”.  This is a play on Leviticus 19:18.

Only in Israel:  a ṣedhaqah [more or less equals charity] box out in public, such as this one I found at a bus station in Ramath Gan.

This display at the Yerushalayim Central Bust Station quotes Psalms 137:5, wishing bad things on oneself if one forgets Yerushalayim (Jerusalem).

This building in Tel ’Aviv bills itself as “Binah [= Understanding], the secular yeshivah [= institution of Jewish learning]”.  I have no idea whatsoever what this institution is collectively thinking, but there is an obvious logical difficulty here.

The restaurant being advertised on this sign is named after the parah ’adummah [= red cow, or more archaically, red heifer], which is ritually slaughtered and burned, and its ashes are used in purification rituals (Numbers 19:1-19).  I have no clue what the connection is other than the cowness of both.

T-shirts, some of which we have encountered before, are found commonly on sale in Israel, including vaguely Jewish-themed ones, such as “DON’T WORRY.  BE JEWISH” and “GUNS AND MOSES”.

Gan ‘Edhen (the Garden of Eden) is a natural metaphor for people to hit on, especially when they quit reading the Hebrew Bible in Genesis right after ’Adham and Ḥawwah (Adam and Eve) are kicked out of ‘Edhen or they do not have a clue what ‘Edhen might possibly mean.

This bottle of water has the brand name of “Waters of ‘Edhen”.  The advertisers apparently wish to cash in on the idea of something pure, natural, and uncontaminated.  This is a variant on the appeal to nature, a logical fallacy.  Not to mention that bottled water for the most part is a scam to get people to shell out money for a product they can get for a lot less money out of a tap.

I am murky on what “The Gan Eden of Jewish Books” is supposed to mean.  Gan ‘Edhen doubles as a Jewish equivalent of Heaven, so the intention may be that Pomeranz Bookseller is some sort of book Heaven.  Which would be odd, since that ought to mean the books are free—something in contradiction to selling books.

Kodak appears to be trying the same image stunt.  The alternative, that they specialize in photographs of naked people, is unlikely to be tolerated in Yerushalayim.

I am not sure what to make of this “Lion in Zion” graffiti.  The lion is probably a reference to the lion as a symbol of Yehudhah (Judah), and Ṣiyyon (Zion) is another name for the Temple Mount.  But exactly what the vandal was trying to communicate is left murky.

OK, this is not really a religious fallacy or misconception.  I just cannot understand why a shop in the Old City of Yerushalayim would be called “ALABAMA:  THE HEART OF DIXIE”.

And finally, doubling as today’s religious humor, we have this rubber duck present at the home of some people whose house I had lunch at in Ḥayfah (Haifa):

This is the only rubber duck I have ever seen wearing a kippah and ṭallith.

Peace, and may you be sealed for a good year in the book of life.

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Thursday, September 16, 2010

Jewish graffiti


Jewish date:  8 Tishri 5771.

Today’s holidays:  Ten Days of Repentance (Judaism), Feast Days of Cornelius and Cyprian (Roman Catholicism), Paryushana (Hinduism), The Day That Shall Not Be Named (Church of the SubGenius).

Worthy cause of the day:  “Got Science?”.

Topic 1:  Jewish outreach gone wrong.  In practically any religion, getting the message out, at least to the members, is of value.  Thus outreach in some form is to be expected.  And anything which can be done right can probably be done wrong, too.  And Jews are no exception in this regard.

The most famous Jewish group engaging in outreach is Lubavitch, known officially as Ḥabbadh (Chabad).  This group of Ḥasidhim are famous for setting up tables in public settings and inducing men to put on tefillin, and I did see a few instances of this.  Lubavitchers are also famous for many of them thinking that their last rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, is Mashiaḥ (the Messiah), despite the inconvenient fact that he died in 1994.  And this belief featured almost always in Lubavitcher signs which I saw in Israel:

The top caption reads “May our lord, our teacher, and our master, king, the Mashiaḥ live forever and ever."  The lower caption reads “Mashiaḥ promises—not even one Jew will remain in exile!”

What really struck me is that the religious advertising, both Lubavitch and of other groups, was not limited to legal signs.  There was also a sizable amount of graffiti.  How anyone rationalizes petty vandalism is unknown to me—graffiti is a form of damaging the property of other people or the public in general—but they do it anyway.

This illegal poster reads “The anointed king (= Mashiaḥ) will live”.  All the Lubavitcher vandalism I saw was in the form of posters.

Less famous for outreach, but clearly working hard at it, are the Breslover Ḥasidhim.  This is one of the groups featured in the Israeli film ’Ushpizin.  During my trip, some of them repeatedly set up a station at the end of Ben Yehudhah Street in Yerushalayim and played loud music with the intent of attracting people.

Notice the poster, which bears the caption “Na Naḥ Naḥma Naḥman from Uman”.  Rav Naḥman was a Breslover rebbe, and he is buried in Uman, Ukraine.  This caption was revealed in a mysterious note in 1922, and some Breslovers use it as a mantra.  And they have been hard at work trying to spread this mantra by spreading it all over Israel, often in the form of graffiti.  There were some posters, but a lot of the copies of mantra were written by hand:

Religion often blurs into politics, and so it should be no wonder that religious vandalism also can have a political aspect.  To give two diametrical examples:

This sticker proclaims “Today all know Kahana’ [= Meir Kahane] is right!”, referring to the angry Zionist political activist whose activities went beyond peaceful protest and civil disobedience into violence.  In opposition to this, we have this unacceptable accusation:

The writing reads “Zionists = murderers” and was probably written by someone of a Neṭure Qarta’ or Satmar bent.  The writer definitely has no grasp of what the Israeli government or Zionists actually do.

Anyone with any information on how anyone rationalizes the sorts of petty vandalism documented in this post, please let me know.

Topic 2:  For today’s religious humor:  “Kitteh Komic of teh Day: Gods n Goggies”:
funny pictures of cats with captions
This comic, of course, reflects very primitive notions of godhood.


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Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Old City of Yerushalayim


Jewish date:  7 Tishri 5771.

Today’s holidays:  Ten Days of Repentance (Judaism), Feast Day of Our Lady of Sorrows (Roman Catholicism), Paryushana (Hinduism), Feast Day of St. Gilles de Rais (Church of the SubGenius).

I apologize for not having posted earlier this week.  I am keeping busy with other things (such as getting ready to move to Israel) and allergies.  Expect a lot of posting disruptions for the next few months because of the move.  Also expect a different posting schedule after the move, at the very least posting happening at different hours.

I also would like to apologize for neglecting current religious news, such as everything surrounding the Cordoba Initiative’s planned mosque near Ground Zero (a lot of it paranoia, ignorance, immaturity, and dishonesty) and Dr. Stephen Hawking’s unjustified claims about the existence of God.  This is not a denial of the importance of these topics.  Rather, I feel it more important that I generate content than simply comment on other people’s content.  I was in Israel recently, and I saw things not discussed in the news, and no one can report on what I saw but myself.

Topic 1:  The Old City of Yerushalayim/Jerusalem.  The name is something of a misnomer.  The original city of Yerushalayim, at the time of Dawidh (David) was to the south of the Temple Mount.  Yerushalayim has been demolished and rebuilt a number of times since then, with the city walls in different places.  E.g., the wall from the First Temple Period runs through the current “Old City”:

The current “Old City”, which has the Temple Mount at its southeastern corner, was (re)built by the Ottoman Turks, making it the “Old City” by virtue of the fact that the rest of modern Yerushalayim grew (and continues to grow) around it.  It is not a modern city.  The streets are mostly narrow and unsuited for automobile traffic.  On those streets that can carry vehicular traffic, pedestrians are frequently dangerously close to vehicles.  Some streets are largely or entirely covered overhead and are more properly corridors rather than streets.

The Western Wall and the Jerusalem Archaeological Park, which are properly in the Old City, have been discussed previously in this series.  And the Temple Mount itself, as I have not visited it yet, I plan to discuss when I do visit it (YHWH willing).  So what does that leave to discuss?

1) The Temple Institute.  This organization housed in an unassuming building close to the Temple Mount is working to prepare everything necessary for the rebuilding of the Temple.  Unfortunately, they do not like people taking pictures of their exhibits (which I respected), so you will have to visit them yourself to see what they have created.  But closer to the Temple Mount, they have put on display one item:

This is the menorah (candelabrum), which they are probably willing to have out in public due to the fact that it is large and heavy enough that carrying it off would be at best difficult, given that people walk by it 24 hours a day and there is nowhere to park a getaway vehicle.  Many other utensils, such as the shulḥan (table for showbread) and incense altar, are housed in the Temple Institute itself.  Reportedly there has been work on the main altar, though I do not know where that is housed.

2) The Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

This is where Jesus is supposed to have been crucified and buried.  I did not visit it so much as stick my head in the courtyard where it stands and take two pictures.  (Maybe I will feel a bit braver next time about approaching it, though entering it is out of the question.  If I take a non-Jewish friend with me next time, I may get some pictures of the inside.)  This building is reported as being claimed by all the major pre-Protestant Christian churches, and the truce under which they share it is tense at best.  At the right upper-story window you will notice a ladder; it has been there for a few hundred years because the factions cannot agree on who has the right to take it down.  It has been moved around a bit in contravention of the refusal of the factions to agree on who can move it.  I am not sure what Jesus would have made about all of this, though I suspect Christians may find inter-Jewish squabbles just as impenetrable and weird.

3)  The shops.  Where there are tourists, there are inevitably people trying to sell things to tourists.  (And I am NOT talking about that Judaica/Jewish bookstore near the Temple Mount, which I entered to get out of the heat and was allowed to browse in peace.  I am talking about the little shops found on the way to the Temple Mount and Church of the Holy Sepulcher.)  You definitely want to stay away from those people who run the tourist trap shops in the Old City, because they are extremely aggressive and will do whatever they can to try to get you to buy something.  (They are even more aggressive than the beggars near and at the Western Wall.)  This includes the merchants claiming you will get a blessing if you buy something, even something inexpensive.  These merchants are not actually dangerous, even in the Muslim Quarter—physically attacking potential customers would be bad for business, especially with Israeli police with big guns around—but they can be a real hassle.  Under no conditions should you enter their shops, as the merchants may try to block your exit.  The interesting thing (in terms of religious fallacies and misconceptions) about these shops is the ecumenicism:  the merchants often have things to suit a variety of ideological tastes.  For example:

Notice the presence of pro-Israeli and pro-“Palestinian” T-shirts.

Notice a lot of Judaica—and a big crucifix.

Here is a real doozy.  Lots of Judaica, but also those fancy eggs favored by Orthodox Christians and evil eye amulets in a style favored by Turks.  Notice the menoroth have seven branches; such a style is supposed to be reserved for the Temple and not for general use.  (But it may be a bit much to expect a Muslim shopkeeper to know and respect this.)  There were also a number of other items, such as chessboards and six-string ukeleles, which kept showing up at the shops, but whose connection to religion or Yerushalayim I am unaware of.

Topic 2:  For today’s religious humor, this book which I found in a bookstore in Yerushalayim:

There is nothing wrong with this book, but somehow Green Eggs and Ham in a country where the two most popular religions forbid eating pig meat seems rather odd.


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Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Jerusalem Archaeological Park


Jewish date:  29 ’Elul 5770 (Parashath Ha’azinu).

Today’s holidays:  ’Erev Ro’sh hashShanah/Eve of the New Year (or one of them anyway) (Judaism), Ramadan (Islam), Birth of Mary (Roman Catholicism), Feast Day of St. Jill St. John (Church of the SubGenius), Nativity of the Theotokos (Greek Orthodox Christianity), Feast Day of Robertus de Fluctibus (Thelema).

Worthy cause of the day:  “Protect us from toxic coal ash”.

Topic 1:  The Temple Mount, continued.  The Western Wall is an extremely tame area.  It has been cleaned up and made very convenient for visitors.  (There is security to go through to get there, but there is security everywhere in Israel.)  Do note that the archaeological digs at the site are hidden; they cannot be seen by anyone visiting the Western Wall.  Less well publicized is an area of the retaining walls at the southwest of the Temple Mount, which has been cordoned off and is now called the Jerusalem Archaeological Park.  Though that area has also been cleaned up to some extent and plants planted, one can get a better feel of the destruction wrought by the Romans in 70 CE when they destroyed the Second Temple.  Take a look at this:

That is a big pile of blocks.  The same sort of huge blocks which make up the retaining walls of the Temple Mount.  And there are an awful lot of these huge blocks lying around in the Park.  These are pieces of stone too large to be dislodged easily; even 2,000 years later, the retaining walls of the Temple Mount are still standing.  The Romans had to expend a lot of effort to knock them over the edge.

There are also rather a lot of pieces of columns lying around.

Unlike the Western Wall, at the Park there is little reluctance on the part of the caretakers to show the place in a desolate state.

What I saw that the Romans did makes me wish I had done my pilot trip right before the Nine Days rather than waiting until ’Elul, as the Nine Days commemorate the destruction of both Temples.  Also to be noted is how much the Islamic and Christian rulers from 70 CE to 1948 cared about the Temple Mount:  they really did not.  The Muslims built on top of the Temple Mount in order to assert the supremacy of Islam over Judaism, and the Christians temporarily turned the Dome of the Rock into a church to assert their own supremacy.  But neither bothered to clean up the mess made by the Romans.  The Park is an area where they had stalls to sell sacrificial animals and materials, as well as money-changers and ritual baths—a place necessary for the proper functioning of the Temple, but hardly glamorous.  Now at least these stones are getting serious scholarly scrutiny.  But given the current political climate, I expect it to be some time before everything is returned to its correct place.

And, yes, this is where Jesus reportedly went crazy.  The writers of the Gospels were no fans of the sacrificial service or any other Jewish institution.

Topic 2:  This plate I photographed in a shop window on my last day in Israel:

This is evidently meant to be the Ro’sh hashShanah equivalent of a sedher plate.  Each of the compartments is labeled with the name of a different symbolic food.  Symbolic foods are a form of prayer performed by eating something meant to reflect a wish.  All the names on this plate are Hebrew and Aramaic, easily making for untranslatable wordplay.  For an English example, some people on Ro’sh hashShanah eat lettuce, half a raisin, and celery, the wordplay intended being “let us have a raise in salary”.  (Yes, that is groan-worthy.)  The symbolic foods listed on this plate (from the top, going clockwise) are:  black-eyed peas, leek, beet, apple, pomegranate, date, squash, and fish.  For some reason, the head of an animal is left out.  (If anyone knows anything about the legality of selling cow brains for food in Israel, please let me know.)  One could also argue something is wrong when honey is omitted, though to be fair it is rather messy and often kept in a squeeze-bottle.  The point of this plate is clearly commercial.  There is no obligation to have all symbolic foods on the same plate or stick to a standard set.  Lettuce-half-a-raisin-celery is very recent, and there also have been symbolic foods based on Yiddish wordplay.  Still, at least this is a better idea than the plastic shofars.

Topic 3:  For today’s religious humor: “shana tova” (= “good year” or approximately “happy new year”):

Yes, someone hacked a Muppet skit.

Peace and shanah ṭovah.

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Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The Western Wall


Jewish date:  28 ’Elul 5770 (Parashath Ha’azinu).

Today’s holidays:  Laylat al-Qadr (Islam), Ramadan (Islam), Tuesday of the Twenty-Third Week of Ordinary Time (Roman Catholicism), Feast Day of St. Susan St. James (Church of the SubGenius).

NOTE:  In the spirit of the imminent Ten Days of Repentance, I hereby unconditionally forgive all those who have sinned against me in the past year and request the forgiveness of those I have sinned against.

Topic 1:  The Temple Mount (Har habBayith).  I did not visit the Temple Mount itself on my pilot trip.  Given my sheer disgust at Muslim efforts to over the past several hundred years to Islamize the site (including wholesale illegal excavation and denial of any relevance to Judaism despite all the evidence to the contrary), coupled with the Israeli government foolishly trying to appease Muslims by forbidding any Jewish worship up there, I chose to stay off the Temple Mount in an effort to avoid causing an international incident and ruining my chances at making ‘aliyyah.  I am saving getting kicked off the Temple Mount for praying up there until I have already made ‘aliyyah.

Nevertheless, I made it a priority to visit the Western Wall (hakKothel hamMa‘aravi), in fact doing so as soon as I realistically could after checking in at the hostel I was staying at.  (It was only about half an hour away on foot.)

I took this picture the last day I was in Israel from a special spot set up for nice photographs of the Western Wall.  The first thing one should notice is this place is huge.  (My photographic skills are limited, so do not be surprised if they fail to capture everything I mention.)  Herod the Great was a horrible person, but at least he knew something about architecture.  So when he set about reconstructing the Second Temple and the Temple Mount, he made everything as big as he could.  (And the Temple Mount, as far as what counts as the Temple Mount under Jewish law, was already 500 cubits × 500 cubits, something to the tune of 0.25 km × 0.25 km, no small potatoes.  And Herod added on to that.)  The scale is so large that my camera was not equal to capturing everything in one shot; one will notice the Dome of the Rock on top of the Temple Mount on the left, but the Dome of the Chain was too far off to the right to be photographed at the same time.  The Western Wall, which is the western retaining wall of the Temple Mount, shows two sections vertically:  an older, Herodian section below made of large, stylized blocks known as “ashlars”, and a younger, Islamic section above made of much smaller blocks.  (Despite Islamic pretenses of superiority, they failed to out-Herod Herod.  Herod’s blocks are around half the height of a human, while the Muslim blocks are wimpy twerps by comparison.)  Straight ahead are sections set aside for men (on the left) and women (on the right) to pray.  Not really visible but still there on the left are arches attached to the Western Wall; the undersides of them have been repurposed as prayer and Torah study areas.  Visible on the left are the Western Wall information center, a place where they hand out free food in the morning after shaḥarith (morning prayers), public restrooms, and a yeshivah.  On the right side is a ramp leading up to the Temple Mount.  In front is a large open area, and in front of that are archaeological digs.  The digs are well-hidden from anyone visiting the Western Wall.

Praying at the Western Wall is an interesting experience.  Inside synagogues, worshippers are confined to specific areas and frequently start on a set schedule.  But at the Western Wall, even under the arches, no one is confined to any specific area, and so many different groups are normally praying simultaneously, each starting whenever they get a critical mass of worshippers together.  Without any demarcation where groups begin and end, confusion is easy.  Synagogues also frequently cater to specific strains of Judaism, but at the Western Wall, which belongs to no one Jewish group, Jews with radically different conceptions of Judaism and different levels of observance frequently pray side-by-side.  This intrareligious inclusion is refreshing.

I have other things I need to do today, but I hope to talk more about the areas around the Temple Mount soon.  The Western Wall is not all that is left of the Temple Mount as it was in the Second Temple Period, and of what is left, I also visited the much less publicized area at the southwestern corner of the Temple Mount.

Topic 2:  Barry and I got into a discussion the other day about whether I should review a number of movies with more or less religious themes.  I have decided to post the list and open the matter for public discussion:
  • The Bells of St. Mary:  I thought this was a good idea.  I have seen this movie, and some of the characters have interesting religious attitudes.  Barry characterized it as “Christmas fluff, power of belief unrealistically overcoming all.  Best for the boxing nun and Bing Crosby as a surfer dude priest.”  I largely concur.
  • Dogma:  I had a copy.  I watched it once.  I was so disgusted I traded it in.  Barry notes “Had some interesting interpretations on sin, absolution, and the character of Jesus.”  Dogma indeed has some interesting religious ideas.  Unfortunately, those interesting religious ideas are mixed in with so much material in severely bad taste that watching it was painful.  (If you have not already seen this movie, you likely do not want to know.)  I do draw lines on content, and I believe reviewing Dogma is more pain than it is worth.
  • The Exorcist:  I have seen this movie once and found it dull.  Arguably it would be worthwhile to review as a popular depiction of exorcism.  Barry considers this movie “creepy”, though I am too jaded over horror movies to be creeped out by it.
  • Jesus Christ, Vampire Hunter:  (Yes, this is a real film.)  I had a copy.  I watched it once.  I thought it was stupid (as if the title alone was not a clue this was so).  I decided it was too minor and traded it in.  Barry notes this movie is “Stupid but amusing in parts”, but for me the stupidity outweighed the amusement.
  • The Omen:  I have not seen this movie.  Barry notes it has an evil child in it, and the Wikipedia description suggests it may be worthwhile examining as a popular depiction of the Antichrist.
  • Red Planet Mars:  I have probably seen this movie once.  Barry correctly notes on it “Apparently Jesus visited other planets.”  Reviewing this may be a good idea.
  • The Wicker Man:  I have not seen this movie, but its (bad) reputation precedes it.  I have rejected it a priori due to it being reportedly too far out of my comfort zone for me to watch.  Barry notes “The implications for neopaganism are serious.  There is also the question of the historical accuracy of the practice which is the title of the piece.  Seeing a little nudity will not kill you.”  However, I am very uncomfortable with watching depictions of full-frontal nudity, and if I watch something like this, I may need a bottle of Manischewitz to even make it possible.  That might result in an interesting review, but not a good one.
What are your thoughts on whether I should review these films?  And what other films should I review and why?

Topic 3:  For today’s religious humor, in the spirit of Ro’sh hashShanah (which starts Wednesday night), I present these toys I photographed on the last day I was in Israel:
These are meant to be “shofars for children”, shofars being animal horns blown on Ro’sh hashShanah.  The stickers on the horns themselves read “good year”.  Whoever created these was clearly not religious.  Not only are plastic horns invalid as shofars, but it is forbidden to blow them on Ro’sh hashShanah.  Not to mention these are probably a great way to annoy parents.  These things may work better for Purim.


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