Several people have recently asked me why I’m always enrolling in MOOCs (Massively Open Online Courses) whose subjects have nothing to do with anything else I do. To answer that, I want to take a second and share my ideas. I must start by saying that I have no background or experience to qualify me to say what I’m going to say. So, take this for what it’s worth and nothing more.

I used to be a bodybuilder. One technique we used to break through barriers was to avoid getting into the habit of doing the same exercises over and over. Doing exercises differently than before, challenged our muscle fibers to grow. I think (with no proof mind you) that the brain needs the same thing.

When you do things over and over, your brain increases the strength of the synapses involved. Neuroscientists (which I’m not) call this synaptic plasticity. It is a good thing because it gives us the capability of doing lots of things (like driving) without much thought. It’s also bad because bad habits form the same way that good ones do. I don’t know why, but I feel like, in addition to strengthening oft used synaptic connections, it might be a good thing to continually “exercise” new ion channels. (Like I say, I might not even know what I’m talking about). So here is what I do:

Once every few months, I go on to a website like Coursera.org or EdX.org and pick a class on a subject that I know absolutely nothing about. The only criteria is that I have to have the prerequisites to do it successfully. (For example I won’t take advanced organic chemistry if I don’t have the math skills to do the work). After selecting a class I know nothing about, I try the first few weeks to see if I’m at all interested. If I am, I complete the class. By doing this, I feel like I am continually putting my billions of neurons into configurations they’ve never been in before. I create new networks and build new pathways.

So far, in the past 2 years I have taken “Computational Neuroscience” from UW, “Statistical Analysis of fMRI Data” from Johns Hopkins, “The Brain and Space” from Duke, “Modern and Contemporary American Poetry” from Penn, “The role of the Remimbi in the International Monetary System from the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and “The Art of Poetry” from Boston U. I’m just finishing another class from Hong Kong called “Classics of Chinese Humanities”.

I have no idea whether my thinking is justified. What I do know is that there can’t be anything wrong with learning new things. Besides, my wife says it strengthens my “Renaissance-ness” which she likes and so do I.

Then again…. maybe I’m on to something.

 

The Nobel Peace prize has gone to some pretty silly recipients in the last few years: The whole EU in 2012, Barack Obama in 2009 (before he even tried to actually do anything), Jimmy Carter (one of America’s worst presidents ever) in 2002, and, of course Yasser Arafat the great terrorist in 1994.

It has gone to some great people too, I have to say. Like MSF in 1999, Kofi Annan in 2001, Muhammad Yunus (a truly amazing man) in 2006, and Liu Xiaobo in 2010.

If you think about the reason that Nobel actually established the peace prize, only Mohamed ElBaradei in recent memory actually has anything to do with nuclear nonproliferation. He’s not all that great of a guy but at least he worked on nuclear disarmament.

It seems pretty clear that the Peace Prize has nothing to do with its original intent. I don’t think that’s bad. But when the best you can do is to give the prize to Barack Obama before he’s even put in charge of anything, Arafat a terrorist turned imitation peace negotiator, and a big blob called the “European Union”, then I can’t say I think it has much value.

HOWEVER…

There is something that has the capacity to bring about a peaceful world. There is something that can turn religious zealots into rational actors on the world stage. There is something that can allow our future world leaders to make decisions based of reason not dogma, dignity not hatred, thinking not belief. That “something” is EDUCATION. There is something else too: the strength, pride, honor, and courage required to stand against evil and to “speak truth to power” regardless of the risk. One of the winners of this years Nobel Peace Price is virtually the perfect symbol of both attributes. That person, fully recovered and even more articulate than before she was shot in the head by a pure embodiment of hatred, is Malala Yousafzay.

Imagine a world where, even in the smallest rural Afghan villages, poor Muslim girls could learn critical thinking skills, science, history, and leadership skills! That would be a world where, perhaps, rationality has a chance. That is a world that  Malala Yousafzay probably does not even envision. But’s it’s a world toward which her work can lead. So, I want to say how happy I am that Ms. Yousafzay has received recognition  for her contributions to a world in which the Taliban is accepted for the evil they are and in which all young people have an opportunity to learn to use the most unique of human attributes: Reason.

Consider these questions:

  • Should the United States be a Christian Nation?
  • Should all Arab Americans have extra screening in US airports?
  • Should LGBT Americans be prohibited from marrying?
  • Should the top 100th of one percent of the wealthiest Americans be taxes at a much higher percentage that the general population?
  • Should pornographic websites be prohibited by law?

In the United States is is quite likely that a large part of the electorate would answer “yes” to one or more of these. As I see it, here is the problem:

  • Atheists, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, Shinto, Self-Realizationists, New Age Spiritualists, Native American Spiritualists, Objectivists, Agnostics, and every other type of believer or non-believer is afforded equal rights in our nation.
  • Most Arab-Americans are great people who have nothing whatsoever to do with terrorism.
  • Lesbians and Gays are just as human and just as loving – often more so – as straight people and nearly all homophobia is founded on religion.
  • Pornography, whether or not we like it, is nothing more than a particular genre of entertainment.

In situations like this, where a minority must be afforded equality, a simple majority can destroy lives. That is why democracy can not work without checks and balances. Our polity was designed specifically to prohibit this “tyranny of the majority”. It is “liberty” NOT “democracy” upon which America is built. It is LIBERTY that permits EQUALITY to exist – NOT democracy.

Without liberty, we are no better than the nutcase African nations with their anti-Gay laws, the European nations with their state religions, the Muslim nations who stone their gay population to death and where a rape is the victims problem not the perpetrators. Some would like us to be like those nations: A Christian country with religion-driven “moral” codes and sealed borders. Not I.

I prefer living in a land distinguished by it acceptance of people regardless of race, creed, color, religion, or sexual orientation. I prefer liberty to democracy, I prefer universal dignity to dogma. For those reasons and more, when the religious right comes along to again shove its way into the 2016 presidential campaign, I will be there waiting; waiting to fight the onslaught of populist tyranny at every single turn.

Hey, it’s time again for the “Value Voters” summit. It’s the time, in Washington DC, where politicians quote Corinthians, and Libertarians show pictures of fetuses. It’s the time when the fundamentalists among us stand up for the right to be closed-minded and to make it clear that Christian values are the ONLY values.

In this close minded land of isolation we Jews, our Muslim friends, our Buddhist friends, our Hindu friends, and, God forbid, our Atheist and agnostic friends are insulted, degraded, and generally treated like crap. Oh, and by the way, let’s not forget about how much we hate the LGBT community.

Welcome value voters!

I have to tell you, candidly, that I hold some relatively conservative opinions. But, I also have to say that, when it comes to conservatism, It is mostly about economics where I sit on that side of the line. I, personally, have never seen a great society founded on socialist principles. While there are some really terrible capitalists around, I have to say that a capitalist society is the type of society in which I choose to live. I am not as hard line as most of my Libertarian friends. I think that government, and even government regulation, have a place in our society. But, to me, that is not what the value voters summit is about.

The reason that I could never be a Republican is because of your social views. This is where I adamantly side with my Libertarian friends. Using government to force people to live according to fundamentalist Christian values is exactly the opposite of that upon which my country was founded.

You folks have every right to be fundamentalist Christians. I respect that. I even admire you for your dedication to your beliefs. But, I have a value system that is formed on Jewish ethics which has at least as much validity in its foundation in biblical history as yours.

One major difference between me and you fundamentalist Christians is that I am not caught up in dogma. Furthermore, I use my study of the Bible as but one of many data points in my construction of my own value system and ethics. Along with that I consider reason and rationality to be a tremendous virtue.

I also try to live my life on the premise of liberty. You stay out of my bedroom and I will happily stay out of yours. You leave my gay and lesbian friends alone to enjoy their love and I will happily leave your straight friends the same way. In fact, I will happily leave MY straight friends the same way as well. You try not to make value judgments about my atheist friends and I will try my best not to make value judgments about your Baptist ones. And, for what it’s worth, I admit this is difficult for me.

You see, I disagree with your religious and your political views but I would die defending your right to hold them. On the other hand, not only would you not die in defense of my right to hold my views, but a few of you would shoot an abortion doctor, let Latin American children die in the desert, defend someone who shoots a black teenager just for being black, choose non-interventionism over human rights, prohibit a loving the lesbian couple from having the same relationship that you could have with your partner, and will gather for the express purpose of the degrading everyone who does not believe what you believe.

Welcome Value Voters!

Now, I want to be perfectly clear. You all have every right to have a Value Voters summit. What you do not have is the right to do is to contend that everyone who has values which differ from your own is VALUELESS.

That is what bothers me about you calling this event a Value Voters summit. I disagree with you on many, many things. Simply by naming your event as you do, you are making the direct statement that people like me not only disagree with your values but have no values. I take issue with that. In fact, I would say that my values are equally valid as yours. I admit that I have quite a bit of difficulty accepting you, but at least I will try. Conversely, you will never accept my belief system as being valid. That, my friends, is why I called you closed-minded.

Now here’s an especially funny one…

Many of you consider yourselves to be in the intellectual line of Ayn Rand. Have you ever actually read Ayn Rand? Have you ever heard her speak? Have you ever gone to YouTube and listened to her interviews? She is the intellectual opposite of you. I have to admit, she is equally dogmatic. But Ms. Rand would have absolutely nothing to do with any of your religiosity; in fact, when she was alive, she often very vocally spoke out against religion: your religion, my religion, any religion; because religion is not rational. So, for God’s sake (sic), don’t think that Ayn Rand would support The Tea Party, or any of your “value voters” agenda. You think she’s one of your role models, yet the word that she would use to describe you, and me, and every other person who participates in any religious practice, is “EVIL”. So, please don’t pretend that your belief system is even consistent, let alone accepting of anyone besides yourselves.

If you are thinking about telling me that I am no better than you, then I will not even dispute that. But, I do have to say that this blog is specifically about my contradictions and my struggle with them. So, at least, instead of having a political summit with everyone with whom I agree, I am trying to deal openly, and publicly, with my own intellectual struggles. In my humble opinion, this to be a better use of my time.

My bottom line is this: enjoy your summit but please don’t think that your values are the only values that can be held as the foundation of an ethical, vital life. My value system diverges from yours but it is a solid foundation for a life. Ms. Rand’s value system is diametrically (except when it comes to the sign of the dollar) opposed to yours: yet it too can be the foundation of a valid, vibrant, and highly fulfilling life. So, meet, speak, and speechify to your heart’s content. But, if you think that fundamentalist Christian values are the only valid values, then I, Jews around the world, atheists, and every religionist who is not Christian will be there to fight the battle for our own liberty, our own right to believe what we believe, our own sexual ethics, and our own paths to a world of love, benevolence, and respect for all human souls.

The campaign sign below wins the award for most appalling thing I’ve seen in recent American politics. Robert Ransdell is a long time antisemite. He’ll tell you so himself. Even if it didn’t, the simple fact that he is a former regional coordinator for the National Alliance in Cincinnati, and is, right now, a coordinator for the National Alliance Reform and Restoration Group (NARRG) says it well enough. Anyone who would post this sign is simply the embodiment of evil.

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Fortunately Mitch McConnell has nothing to fear from a write-in whack job. Still, every clerk in Kentucky is legally required to count the votes for declared write-ins no matter how nutty or evil they may be. Worse, you know as well as I that there are Kentucky residents who will vote for the guy. Plenty of people out there hate we Jews and our minority friends. Stormfront will have a field day with an opportunity to make this seem politically acceptable.

All I can say is this: Please Kentuckians, don’t let this continue to be acceptable to you. Every vote for Robert Ransdell is a vote for hate, a vote for white supremacy, a vote for evil. End this now!

Recently I’ve been reading a book called “Abraham Geiger and the Jewish Jesus” by Professor Suzannah Heschel, the daughter of the great Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, of blessed memory. The book is about Geiger’s intellectual quest to bring proper understanding of ancient Jewish texts to the study of the historical Jesus.

Geiger’s work is particularly important in light of the very biased and blatantly antisemitic Christian scholarship that was going on in the 19th century. Therein, Jews were always depicted in a negative light, as is often done, thanks to PAUL, Not Jesus, in the New Testament. Geiger’s work proposed that, contrary to what is shown in the Gospels, Jesus was the product of the Pharisees traditions of religious innovation. To Geiger, Jesus was, not only NOT at odds with the Pharisees, he was, himself, a member of that very tradition. 19th-century New Testament historiography was fundamentally based on the work of the people who had no knowledge, or very limited correct knowledge, of the Talmud or the real teachings and writings of either the Pharisees or the Sadducees.

Many Christian scholars hated Geiger’s work. In fact, some of the most important Jewish scholars of that time also were at odds with Geiger. Personally I like Geiger’s work and it has forced an interesting thought to pop into my head.

In my tradition we have a book which we commonly refer to either as the Hebrew Bible or the Tanakh. Typically, that book is also referred to by Christians as the Old Testament. I have come to believe that, while the words on the page may be the same words, the Hebrew Bible and the Old Testament are not the same book.

It has occurred to me that the Bible is more like a temporal hologram than it is like a fixed narrative. Looking at it from one direction it seems to be the mythological narrative of my Jewish people. But, looked at from another angle it is an entirely different book. To me, the Hebrew Bible is a closed ended narrative. To my Christian friends it is simply an anticipatory narrative trying prophesying that which is explained in the New Testament.

I happen to enjoy studying the Bible with a combination of people from different religious traditions. But I have come to realize that my Christian friends perspective on the words, and the interpretation thereof, is so vastly divergent from our Jewish reading of the text that we really are not even studying the same book.

This can explain why Jewish and Christian political views are often so vastly different. It also explains why evangelical Christianity is so often explicitly against everything that I and my tradition hold to be dear and sacred.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. But it does mean that neither of our religious traditions should try to understand the other from within its own context, Rather, we should try to understand each other’s tradition from the context in which the OTHER resides. In other words, Christians must learn to respect Jews, and Jews must learn to respect Christians, knowing that they do not really have the same book as a foundation. Indeed, we have the same words. But looking at the book from the standpoint of a hologram, where the same object can look completely different from different angles, we have to realize that we really don’t have a common book. We have a common history, and we have common foundations. But intellectually we don’t really have a common Bible.

Here is my opinion on how we should approach this issue.

Every once in a while, Christians should walk around to the other side of the Bible and try to view it from our angle. We then, should walk to their side of the Bible and see what the book looks like from that side of the hologram. Most importantly we need to remember that, although the words on the page are the same, our interpretations are so vastly different that we shouldn’t be trying to fit each other into the mold of our religion.

The words might be the same, the stories might be the same, but the fact is that our foundational narrative is not the same. As long as we continue to pretend that it is, neither of our religions will properly value the other; neither will give the other the level of respect we each deserve.

So, my recommendation is that we view the Hebrew Bible as a hologram; as you move from one side to the other the image completely changes. Let’s just respect that.

Hypocrisy?

Posted: August 16, 2014 in My moral code, On Compassion, Politics

I’ve been thinking a lot about Israel today. I’ve been very sad about all the death in Gaza. But, considering how Israel could destroy most of the region with their military might, they have shown an incredible amount of restraint.

It saddens me very deeply when I think about the fact that no one seems to protest the vicious murder of Yazidi and other Christians in Iraq but so many people are perfectly happy to protest against Israel. Every single human life is precious. So maybe it’s time that people stopped protesting against Israel and started to protest against those evil killers who don’t show any restraint.

It seems to me that most of the world is overloaded with an amazing amount of anti-Semitic double standards. It’s time to lay off Israel and to protest against the indiscriminate rape, kidnapping, shooting, and beheading of people just because they won’t convert to Islam.