Saturday, May 5, 2018

Cobra Kai; Random Musings (heavy spoilers)


“Daniel LaRusso’s gonna coach?  Daniel LaRusso’s gonna coach!”

That one line about sums up what I was expecting Cobra Kai to be.  I was thinking it would be a needless throwback to a series that should have ended when it did—with Mr. Miyagi twisting John Kreese’s nose in the parking lot.  Karate Kid II and III might as well have stayed on the cutting room floor.  The Next Karate Kid?  Never saw it, and I’m sure Pat Morita also didn’t.  And the remake with Jackie Chan and Jayden Smith?  Never saw it, don’t plan on it either; but based on the preview, that is probably the biggest insult to the franchise altogether.  I mean come on, it takes place in China, is about Kung Fu—how stupid do they think we are?  But I digress.

In 1998, Jonathan Silverstein and I did a project for our high school statistics class.  Which decade was cooler, the 80s or the 90s?  Silverstein, it was well known, was obsessed with the 80s, but he still had friends (as it said in our yearbook).  The consensus of the survey was that the 80s definitely had cooler TV and movies.  And one of the most timeless bildungsromans of the 80s was the first Karate Kid.

You all know the story.  Daniel is a nerdy kid from Newark, NJ whose mother moves to Reseda, CA.  Right away he earns the ire of a biker/karate gang by hitting on the leader’s ex-girlfriend.  After getting his ass kicked several times, he gets bailed out by his building’s handyman—a simple fisherman from Okinawa who likes to trim bonsai trees and catch flies with chopsticks.  Mr. Miyagi prefers to use diplomacy than his fists.  But when he realizes that John Kreese was a man who teaches kids that the best defense is a good offense, and that karate is about hitting first and hitting hard, Miyagi maneuvers Kreese into getting his Cobra Kai to leave Daniel alone until Miyagi can train him to face them in a tournament. 

Right away, we contrast the Miyagi-do way and the Cobra Kai way.  Kreese said the best defense is a good offense.  He taught them how to punch, and to never turn their back on their opponent.  Indeed, Kreese has won accolades for his fighting, especially from his days in the military. And we see that Kreese does run his dojo like a drill sergeant.  His fighters are highly disciplined.  One could say there is no code of honor among the Cobra Kai.  But theirs was a code of being badass.  

The Miyagi way was the complete opposite.  Okinawa is a small island where there is nothing to do except fish and karate.  While Kreese is about yelling and drilling, Miyagi is about balance and breathing.  In fact, the Miyagi way is so counterintuitive, it’s hard to believe it’s even karate!  But my understanding is that this is how traditionally karate was taught in Okinawa.  They didn’t start with punching and kicking; they started with balancing and breathing exercises.  Once you found your center and learned how to properly breathe, the punching and kicking would come to you. 

Indeed, that’s how Daniel first learned.  We all remember the Miyagi way, immortalized as “this hand wax-on, this hand wax-off; don’t forget to breathe.”  After a week of that, and Daniel losing his temper, Miyagi famously demonstrated how “wax-on; wax-off” was all along karate.  Was it more effective than the Cobra Kai method?  Based on the movie, one would think so.  Daniel was a total n00b, but by the time he got to the tournament, he was able to handle himself in a fair fight.  Of course, the Cobra Kai play dirty.  “Sweep the leg” would not work against a more experienced karateka; but since Daniel was still relatively new, it worked.  But then, Daniel pulls off a crane kick (which, to quote an old teacher of mine, is a second-degree black belt kata, and you’d get your ass kicked if you tried it in a real fight), winning the tournament. 

That was then.  Fast forward 30-something years later.

When I was in yeshiva, one of my rabbis used to talk about the time he was in synagogue and the guy sitting in front of him was talking about that Yeshiva of Flatbush vs MTA basketball game from 20 years ago and how he was still living in that moment.  “What a loser!” the rabbi said.  Never getting over a high school basketball game as an adult?  It appears, as the deux ex machina would have it, both Daniel LaRusso and Johnny Lawrence are still living in that moment. 

The tables have turned.  Johnny was the rich spoiled asshole, while Daniel was the working class nerdy kid.  Now, Daniel is a successful owner of a car dealership chain with a nice house with a pool in Encino.  Johnny is an alcoholic who can’t keep a job, is estranged from his kid, and living in squalor.  Daniel, years later, has changed his life for the better.  And Johnny’s life has spiraled. 

For those of you who like How I Met Your Mother, you know there are those who say that Johnny might have been the real good guy in Karate Kid.  The way events are portrayed in the movie, it’s hard to sympathize with Johnny.  But now, Johnny is given dimension.  No, he is not a good guy.  From the get-go, we see that he is still an asshole.  Johnny is an anachronism of the 80s, when casual racism, sexism, classism, and just being a dick in general, was a lot more acceptable.  Johnny has not, and will not, get with the times.  And it’s not just him telling his acolyte to listen to Guns N’ Roses.  It’s like Johnny is stuck in that time warp, where he doesn’t know about social media, or about what kids are into these days.

Sorry to get political, but I bet Johnny voted for Trump.  What our generation needs, he said, is to stop being a bunch of pussies.  Indeed, karate was considered a very manly thing back then.  Elvis Presley was notoriously a huge fan of karate.  I know, Sterling Archer has called karate “the Dane Cook of martial arts”, preferring Krav Maga (where there literally are no rules—perhaps more akin to the Cobra Kai way). 

But this show is not just about Johnny and Daniel rekindling their rivalry.  It’s not just about Johnny trying to not be the next John Kreese (but inevitably holding his mantle), while Daniel becomes a new Miyagi.  It’s the next generation too.

And here’s where the show got it right.  In some of these next generation shows (I’m looking at you, Fuller House), the kids are not that interesting.  The plot lines between them are too contrived, the callbacks are overdone, and no one really cares about the drama between them.  It’s like they are living vicariously through their parents, reliving their lives.  But the writers don’t bother to make them compelling.  Not in Cobra Kai.

First, we have Daniel’s kids.  Anthony is kind of that side character who isn’t that interesting.  But his daughter, Sam, she is in her own right an interesting character.  The rich girl who is embarrassed by her father.  She starts off as that mean girl, but pretty quickly we see there’s more to her than that.  And then, she begins to fraternize with the enemy.  And that becomes the impetus for a lot of the drama.

Miguel Diaz is the breakout character.  An Ecuadorian-American who just moved from Irvine, falls in with the nerds, and gets his ass kicked by the rich assholes.  Starts off like Daniel.  But his savior was not Mr. Miyagi; it was Johnny Lawrence.  Similar to Miyagi, Johnny is at first reluctant to take on Miguel; and Miguel’s mom doesn’t want him learning karate either.  However, as inevitable as it is, Johnny becomes Miguel’s sensei, and Miguel becomes his top student.

Finally, we see from the inside, how Cobra Kai really worked.  Johnny is much more nuanced than Kreese, who was pretty much just an angry douchebag.  We don’t have all that much of a backstory for him (yet:  season 2, perhaps?)  Johnny is not a bad guy.  He just has a lot of demons.  And he loses many students because he tries running his dojo the same way Kreese did.  But those who stick with Sensei Lawrence begin to become pretty badass.  Some for the negative (“Hawk”, who gets a full back tattoo and a Mohawk, becomes a bully himself). 

In the movie, it was pretty black and white:  Miyagi good, Kreese bad.  Daniel the flawed hero, Johnny the dick who was pretty much what Kreese made him.  In the end, good triumphs, Daniel wins for Miyagi-do, and Cobra Kai is shamed.  Miyagi, good teacher, following old code of honor from Okinawa, cutting bonsai trees, and focusing on balance and breathing.  We all got to know the Miyagi way quite intimately.

In this show, we see further glimpses of the Miyagi way.  Daniel ends up training Johnny’s estranged son.  No rowboat this time, but a tree.  Either way, Daniel shows him how balancing and breathing are the most solid foundation to karate.  And the “wax-on wax-off” is done very silently and subtly.  They didn’t overkill it.  But we, the fanboys, knew what was going on, and we smiled as Daniel showed him how all this time he was teaching him how to block. 

But then, at the climax, in the tournament, we revisit the question of whether the Miyagi-do way really is superior?  While the movie made it look like it was, in this show, we see some of the shortcomings.  We see that Sam is willing to sit back and critique both methods (“you shouldn’t have swept the leg, it was too obvious” and “you telegraphed that kick”).  So we see that Johnny’s method makes the Cobra Kai into tough fighters, and they go far.  But some, like Hawk, take it too far and end up fighting dirty (to Johnny’s chagrin). 

In the final faceoff, Miguel ends up winning.  But it was a tough fight.  Indeed, Daniel’s student pulls off the one-handed double kick that Daniel could never pull off—his secret was the half-pipe on a skateboard. 

But the twist, oh the twist.  Turns out that all this time, John Kreese was looming in the background.  Or was he?  Johnny said that Kreese is dead.  Was he?  And is Johnny really all along trying to please his old sensei?  And Daniel wants to reopen Miyagi-do.  But Miyagi only ever had one student (I’m only counting Daniel LaRusso).  A whole dojo for Daniel?  Definitely not the Miyagi way.  But I am interested to see where he goes with this. 

I don’t know how this show holds up without the nostalgia factor.  But if you were a fan of the original movie, you must see this show.  It’s not even a question. 

Thursday, October 19, 2017

SOLD!!!

SOLD
          He presented an idyllic world in which everything made sense.  I was too young to know about Heinenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem’s, or Lewis Carrol’s Jaberwocky.  If I followed his way, everything would make sense.

          The saying in Aramaic goes “Hafach bei V’hafach bei d’Kulah bei.”  Turn it over, and turn it over again, as everything is in it.  If one were to study the Torah in its complete depth, one could even learn advanced calculus. 

          But it wasn’t God who built bridges.  “Lo BaShamayim Hi.”  It is not in heaven.  Men and women built bridges.  They used engineering.  They used ingenuity.  And the people who discovered these principles did not have deities directing them.  They were heathens who worshipped hundreds of competing spirits—or perhaps none at all, who cares?

          If I believed everything the rabbi told me, I would think that the Torah is the most sublime book in the world.  What about the Bhagavid Gita, Tao Te Ching, Qur’an, Gospels, and other spiritual texts I haven’t yet read?  Oh, don’t worry about them.  The rabbi dabbled in Hare Krishna in the 60s….no wait, he heard George Harrison sing about it, same thing, right?  I promise you, they are empty.  Like the drugs that give an ephemeral high and make you crash, like the sex that causes long-term drama in the long run, and like the rock and roll that pollutes your soul, their ways are “Hevel V’rik”, vanity and empty.

          But what if my beliefs are wrong?  Oy, so my mind is so open, that my brains might fall out.  Once in a while, I need to close my mind and just stifle my curiosity.  You know what curiosity did to Catwoman?  Do you have to experience a burning stove to know it hurts, or would you rather take a burn victim’s word for it? 

          Then why are our people such a small minority?  I mean you said it.  They know the emes (truth).  They know we are the bearers of the true tradition of what god really wants.  So why does 70%-or-so of America identify as Christian if they know it’s bullshit?  Because humans crave what’s fast and what’s easy.  Es is shver tsu zein a Yid; it’s hard to be a Jew.  Most people can’t handle being chosen.  So that makes you, eh, special!  Appreciate the gift you’ve been given, born into the minority elite. 

          All you have to do is follow his straight derecho, and you will find that life becomes more facil…
          Easier
          More manageable
          Just look at that group of Hassidim sitting at the tish singing in unison while the Rebbe tears about his Challah with his bare hands.  Listen to them mumble their prayers.  Life is so simple when you all dress the same, are not allowed to watch TV, and are forbidden from engaging with American pop culture.


          They had a point there.  I spent a year-and-a-half being out of the loop, completely missing the years that Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Justin Timberlake, and Jessica Simpson began to take over the pop charts.  I entered college at age 20 not knowing who Eminem was.  Sure, I knew about every pop artist from 1994-98.  I could recite the lyrics to most Green Day and Nirvana songs.  But when I landed the plane from Israel, I didn’t know what happened to the pop charts I had forsaken for classic rock circa 1997.

          He presented a belief system that made sense.  Trust me.  That the rabbis themselves argue a lot?  Eilu V’Eilu Divrei Elohim Chayyim.  These and these are the words of the living god.  Even Schrodinger’s Cat would scratch its head at that one.  Hillel and Shammai are simultaneously both correct, but Hillel is somehow more correct than Shammai.  Unlike, say, the followers of Korach, who were only in it for their own personal glory, Hillel and Shammai were seekers of truth, and thus they both spoke the truth.

          But who was Korach, and what was his problem?  Oh yeah, you mean the man who was not impressed with the nepotism in Moses’ leadership?  The man who wanted a democratically elected leader?  Or was he just jealous of Moses?  Well, the Torah says he was bad, so fuck it, he was bad.  Don’t mourn for Korach.  His sons became prolific psalmists.  But Korach is bad, mmm-kay? 

          I wanted to be one of the happy people.  I wasn’t.  I couldn’t pray 3 times a day. I couldn’t give up my classic rock.  I couldn’t give up wearing colored shirts.  I couldn’t give up science. 

          The subtext—I was defective.  Anyone who opens for Hashem the eye of a needle will have His kingdom opened up for them.  I couldn’t give Hashem that eye of a needle.  I must have been defective.

          For many years, this was the subconscious narrative I told myself.  My lack of emunah (faith) came from being defective.

          The first step to recovery was realizing that in fact, asking questions is healthy.
          Only then, did the healing process begin.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Me Too: When I Was an Enabler

Me Too:  On Being an Enabler
            #MeToo has been pervasive on my news feed.  I’m sure that many of my readers have also seen it trending.  For those unaware, #MeToo is a call for anyone who has been raped or otherwise sexually assaulted to speak up.  I assume the purpose is to raise awareness as to how ubiquitous sexual assault is. 
            The results are not shocking to me.  I already have many friends who have been outspoken on the subject.  I can only assume that I have exponentially more who haven’t.  Even now, there are those who do not want to participate.  And there are those who don’t have access to social media, but are still victims
            As such, #MeToo is a very unscientific way to gauge how rampant the problem really is.  However, I do not need a statistically sound method to tell me that it’s bad.  I didn’t need Harvey Weinstein to know that it’s rampant in Hollywood.  I’ve known for years how easy it is for a man (or person of any gender) to get away with even the most heinous acts.
            #MeToo.  In my past, I was an enabler.  I sat on the sidelines as people spoke of rape, sexual harassment, and all the other shit around me.  I was told I am living in a patriarchal society; out of the other side of my mouth, I was told not to buy into whatever wave of feminism was en vogue when I was young and more ignorant of such matter.
            #MeToo.  I have tried being a white knight.  I’ve been told “don’t patronize me.”  I’ve been told, in the words of Bob Dylan, not to criticize what I don’t understand.  I’ve been told I’m not above it either.
            #MeToo.
Me Too:  First Awakening.
            My first actual exposure to a man in power who was a perv was in high school.  He kind of resembled Chris Farley, only a bit shorter.  I would say he was about 5’6”, very rotund, loud, robust, and unbridled.  Many people looked up to him.  He was a smart man, master of the double entendre, expert at histrionics, brilliant speaker, one of those people who knew how to speak the language of the cool teenager.  And to those of us who were not in the cool crowd, well, he would treat us the same way other cool teens did—completely ignoring us, or perhaps the occasional derision. 
            Baruch Lanner was a highly decorated rabbi from New Jersey.  He had been involved in Jewish outreach since the ‘70s.  He once taught at the high school I went to.  He then became the principal of a school in Central NJ.  He worked with an organization called NCSY.  I was a regular at their events when I was in high school. 
            I didn’t really have much to do with Lanner.  I remember him once making fun of my last name.  I remember once, he was giving a lecture, I asked what he deemed a dumb question, and he responded “you belong in the lady’s section.”  Yeah, a misogynist to boot. 
            But then, in 1997, when I was a senior in high school, Lanner quit his job as a principal.  The official story given was that he did some soul searching and discovered that being a school administrator was no longer his calling in life.  He wanted to do outreach work full time.  In other words, he quit his job as a principal because he loves us!
            Or did he?
            One day, I was in an AOL Chat Room for Jewish teens.  This was the popular waste of time/space, or way to avoid doing homework, back in the late ‘90s. 
            A rando came in the room and asked “hey, does anyone here know Baruch Lanner?”  I said yes.
            “Well fuck him.  He’s a pervert.”  I was one of several people who chided the rando to show some respect for the rabbi.
            “No, fuck him.  Do you know why he quit his job as principal?”  I responded that he wanted to do outreach work full-time.
            “That’s a lie.  The real truth was covered up.”
            And so, the rando explained to us that actually, Lanner had for years been using his position as principal to garner sexual favors from students.  Eventually, shit began to catch up to him.  So he was told to either quit, or they would have to investigate.
            The chat room began to explode with others joining the rando in saying “Fuck that asshole.”  People who didn’t know Lanner.  But they became judge, jury, and executioner.
            #MeToo.  I chided them.  Do they know who Lanner was?  How could an organization as established as NCSY allow a man who has committed such indiscretions work for them?
            I was just cursed out for being a sheeple.  I wasn’t given answers. 
            Not until June of 2000.
MeToo:  Awakening
            It was my first semester in college.  I was done with most of my finals.  I was getting ready for the summer to begin.  I went home to my parents’ house for the Sabbath.
            That Sabbath, during his sermon, the rabbi slipped in something about an article that was written about Lanner.  He said the article should never have been written.  They should have settled it quietly, behind closed doors.  But the article is “Loshon Hara” (evil speech), and should not be uttered.
            My father approached the rabbi after the services and told him he should think before he says such things.  He informed the rabbi that there was going to be a witch hunt in the community, and he doesn’t want his name tarred with the same brush as Lanner.
            What my father didn’t realize is that Lanner was living with my rabbi at the time.  And oh yeah, my rabbi never did change his tune about Lanner.
            What article, you ask?
            The next week, a friend sent me a link to the article.  “Stolen Innocence” by Gary Rosenblatt of the Jewish Week.  It was a long article that made some very serious allegations against Lanner.
·         A large cross-section of women over a period spanning 30 year claiming to have been groped, fondled, proposed to, sexually harassed (in person, over the phone, etc), assaulted, and other indiscretions.
·         A history of violence against both men and women, including kicks to the groin, pulling out a knife and chasing someone, slapping on the back really hard (just to prove he’s one of the guys)
·         Many different organizations turning a blind eye, even rebuffing those who reported him
·         A Bait Din (Jewish Tribunal) being called to investigate Lanner, behaving like a kangaroo court, and no alleged victim actually being referred to them
·         A battery of excuses being made by those who were close to him and very likely aware of his behaviors
·         The true stories about why he left his job as a principal, and then was asked to leave several other teaching jobs.

#MeToo.  I felt like someone had stuck a knife in my belly and twisted it with enough force to send my kishkas in bunches.
`           And so it goes.  Lanner was fired.  The organizations he worked for “cleaned house.”  Investigations were made.  As my father predicted, the Jewish communities around me suddenly became witch hunts.  Plenty of people were in panic.
            Lanner was eventually put on trial  Two girls were able to sue him.  One had her testimony dismissed.  The other, it was enough to give him 7 years. 
            It did not vindicate him of everything he was accused of doing.
            #MeToo.  It was thanks to this that I changed my tune.  I woke up and realized that most of the people I once trusted were all more interested in their own agendas than actually protecting their youth.
            #MeToo.  This is not the thing that made me less religious.  But this was one of the precursors to me asking questions.  I would say this event stirred me so much, that I opened myself to even the rabbinical world being bullshit.
Me Too:  I Believe You Now
            #MeToo.  The other person whose life affected me was Shlomo Carlebach.
            Shlomo Carlebach was one of the greatest Jewish songwriters of the second half of the 20th Century.  Born in Austria, he moved to New York City as the Holocaust was beginning to rage in Europe.  He began his life studying in various yeshivot, hoping to become a scholar.  But over the years, he realized his energies were being wasted in the study hall, and he dropped out.  Toward the mid-50s, he picked up a guitar and began to sing. 
            His songs were different than what was out there.  Back then, there were two major genres of Jewish music:  Klezmer and Cantorial.  Both were very formal, and they resonated of the old country.  Klezmer was that old European conservatory style music, and Cantorial reminded people of long and boring prayer services.  This was the 1950s.  Kids wanted their Elvis Presley.  They wanted rock and roll, perhaps some folk, or some jazz, or whatever had you. 
            Shlomo was the first to write Jewish music that could have passed for ordinary folk music.  Most of his melodies were simple and easy to sing along with.  His voice was nothing special.  His guitar playing was pedestrian at best.  I’m told he never even learned to tune his guitar!  But there was something warm and inviting about his music.  He became a star.  His tunes became ubiquitous among all denominations of Judaism, from the liberal to the ultra-right.
            He began to develop a cult following.  During the 1960s, he moved out the San Francisco.  He got a mansion and called it “The House of Love and Prayer.”  He began to galvanize “Holy Hippelach.”  He would try to bring them back to Judaism.  He became the hippie rabbi.  He traveled all over, and people followed.  He was that pied piper figure who would hug and kiss everyone he met, greet them with a smile, and make them feel special.  And when he sang, people would listen.  He would ask them to join him.  And they would sing along.
            He died of a heart attack in 1994.  I didn’t get into him until at least 1997.  I began to read his stories too.  He became a hero of mine.  He sounded like a rabbi who said “to hell with the rules.”  He sounded like that rabbi who accepted everyone for what they were.  He was smart, he was charming, but he also loved everyone.  People hated him because he played fast-and-easy with halacha (Jewish Law).  But his cult became bigger than him as people continued to sing his songs. 
            #MeToo.  There were stories about him being a womanizer.  I heard whispers of them.  I said they were just jealous because he was so successful where they weren’t.
            #MeToo.  I was studying abroad in Israel.  At that point, I was totally immersed in his cult.  Except for the copious drugs that his followers were known for accepting, I made it a point to learn as much of his music as I could.  I wanted to be a drug-free Carlebachian.
            #MeToo.  Aaron, a fellow student, heard some of us talking about Carlebach.  He said that if it wasn’t for “kavod haMet” (respect for the dead), he would piss on Carlebach’s grave.  We asked him why.  He said “because he was a horrid man.”  I pressed on and asked why.  “He sexually assaulted my mother.”
            #MeToo.  There I was, confronted point blank with an allegation.  I responded the same way any good yeshiva boy would.  Three simple words.  “I’m not mekabel.”  (I don’t believe you).  When confronted with Loshon Hara (Gossip) about someone, you are supposed to say “I’m not mekabel” or else you are guilty of the sin of listening to gossip.
            #MeToo.  The sensitive thing to do when someone tells you they (or someone they know) has been sexually assaulted is to say “I believe you.”  I was too obtuse to do so.
            #MeToo.  Years later, after I became less religious, I opened my mind to the fact that I was wrong about everything, including Shlomo.  I read some damning allegations.  I read the article in Lilith Magazine.  Yes, many women claimed to have been sexually assaulted by him.  None came forward while he was alive.  It was too late to vindicate them.  Shlomo would never be brought to justice.  Can’t beat a dead rabbi. 
Me Too:  I Want to Change the World
            What can I do?
            #MeToo.  I can shut the fuck up and listen.
            #MeToo.  I can know that no means no.  Not maybe.  Not “keep begging and maybe I’ll change my mind.”  It means no.
            #MeToo.  I can educate myself and others on how to not be part of the problem.
            #MeToo.  We can do this.
            #MeToo.  We do not need another high profile case to awaken us. 
            #MeToo.  For those who think that a girl sharing a drink with you is a guaranteed booty call.  It is not.  Get over yourself.
            #MeToo.  For those who think it’s cool to nonconsensually slip off a condom mid-coitus. That is never okay. 
            #MeToo.  And for those who think that wolf whistling and catcalling at random people on the street is appropriate behavior.  Has that EVER yielded positive results?  Serious question.
            #MeToo.   For the rest of you all too.  You don’t have to live your life thinking that the only way you’re going to get any action is by thinking with your penis and not with your brain.  The biggest erogenous zone is the brain.  Try it sometime. 
            #MeToo.  I wish I didn’t need to post this.

Cheers,

    Acher.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Pascal's Wager, or The Futility of False Dichotomies.

          Blaise Pascal:  mathematician, physicist, inventor, writer, and theologian—truly a polyglot.  Most of you probably associate him with his laws of fluid dynamics.  As a scientist, he was quite important to the then fledgling enlightenment.  He even had a unit of pressure, the Pascal, named for him.  As a lover of the sciences, he probably would be turning over in his grave if he knew how his “wager” was being misconstrued by many professional “kiruv klowns.”
          The wager can be stated as follows:
1.      Either god exists or he does not.  Reason cannot decide between the two alternatives (nb:  remember this part.  We will get back to this later).
2.     A game is being played…where heads or tails will turn up (like the flip of a coin, where there are ONLY two possible outcomes).
3.     You MUST wager (it is not optional).
4.     Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is.  Let us estimate the two chances.
a.     If you gain, you gain all.  (that is, if God exists, and you wagered that he exists, you have some “eternal reward” to gain).
b.     If you lose, you lose nothing.  (that is, if God does not exist, and you wagered that he does exist, then it doesn’t matter, what did you have to lose by acting like he does exist?)
5.     Therefore:  It is better to wager that God exists, because there is an infinite reward to gain, and a finite reward to lose if he does not.  (to use the analogy a Seventh-day Adventist preacher once used in a sermon that I attended, “it’s like betting a paper clip and gaining a house.)
6.     As for those who cannot believe:  endeavor to convince yourself that you believe.


We begin by analyzing the false dichotomy set up by Blaise Pascal.  At best, the wager is a great introduction to “decision theory.”  That is, when analyzing the opportunity cost of any major decision you have to make, when you weight what you have to gain/lose by each decision, assigning it a mathematical probability, you can determine which action is the best to take.
     Of course, the simplest illustration of this is doing a coin toss.  The assumption is that in a coin toss, you have exactly a 50% chance of flipping heads and a 50% chance of flipping tails.  In this situation, there is no advantage to picking either heads or tails.
A more sophisticated example would be the classic “Prisoner’s dilemma.”  There are many ways to approach this problem, so pardon me for dumbing it down for the sake of this exercise.  Let’s say Rueben and Simeon were both accused of committing a crime and were interrogated separately.  Rueben and Simeon have exactly two choices:  They can either stay silent or betray the other party.  The following table shows what happens with each choice.

Reuben stays silent
Rueben betrays Simeon
Simeon stays silent
Both serve one year in prison
Simeon serves 3 years, Reuben walks off with no sentence
Simeon betrays Rueben
Rueben serves 3 years, Simeon walks off with no sentence
Both serve two years in prison

I do not want to go through the many ways to approach this dilemma.  However, I have seen some websites use this dilemma as a philosophical “rock-paper-scissors” type game to see how people would “play each other” if they could recursively reenact this scenario.  Although in reality, there are more than two options, this still serves as a stellar example on how to teach “decision theory.”
Pascal very likely did not intend for his theory to be used as a baseline for praxis at all.   In fact, the only thing this wager could actually establish at all is that one cannot rationalize their beliefs, and in the end, they must resort elsewhere to justify their beliefs—not logic.

Let us look at the first proposition of the wager.  Either God exists, or he does not.  Reason cannot decide between the two.
          Of course reason cannot actually determine if god exists.  After Pascal’s time, Karl Popper would establish the concept of “falsifiability.”  The fact is, one cannot falsify most theological arguments.  I cannot set up an experiment or test to empirically disprove that Russell’s Teapot exists.  Therefore, for me to decide which of the many possible deities or faith systems are more correct than others, I have to rely on means that are beyond the scope of science and reason.  I must rely on semantical arguments, conjecture, and faith. 
          This is key in understanding the real intention of Pascal’s Wager.  I cannot use logic to find God.  So I must rely on faith.
          And so, since I am relying on faith, Pascal decides to make it interesting.  Let us forget about the fact that Pascal was a practicing Catholic, so he was probably speaking of a Catholic faith system.  Would Pascal have believed that one who practiced Lutheranism also had an infinite to gain?  What about the Jews?  Muslims?  Hindus?  Zoroastrians?  Buddhists?  Jainists?  Find yourself a deity, and assume it exists.
          Remember, you only have two choices here.  Your choices are like flipping a coin—heads or tails.  Either your preferred deity exists, or it does not.
          If you do what that preferred deity says, you have infinite to gain. 
          AND THIS IS WHERE THE SYSTEM FALLS APART.
          In reality, there is no universally accepted belief in one deity that will get you and infinite reward no matter where in the world you are. 
          That’s right.  The Seven Noachide Laws?  Nope.  Not if you are a Catholic.  The sixth law, not eating a limb from a live animal, is not an issue for them. 
          What about not eating fish on Friday during Lent?  Jews don’t have a problem with that.
          There are so many laws, rules, regulations, and bylaws specific to each faith system.  Why should a Jew waste their time praying three times a day every day and extra on Sabbath when it might be enough to just receive communion and confess your sins?  And why should a Catholic confess their sins when perhaps what God really might want is for you to shut the f..k up and just meditate for a few minutes each day? 
          I mean it’s one thing to assume that either God exists or does not.  But what does that have to do with Praxis?
          Repeat after me:  JACK and SQUAT.  In that order.

          Final thought:
          There is a simpler problem with Pascal’s Wager.
          Is it better to genuinely disbelieve or disgenuinely believe?
          Let’s say I only keep kosher and pray three times a day because if I don’t, then the scary invisible pink unicorn in the sky is going to kick my ass when I die?  If I were an omnipotent and omniscient being, would I give two shits about whether or not said person actually refrained from eating pork?
          Food for thought.
          “Bring no more vain offerings.  Incense is an abomination to me.  New Moon and Sabbath and the calling of convocations—I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly.  Your New Moons and your appointed feasts, my soul hates them.  They have become a burden to me.  I am weary of burdening them.”
          --Isaiah 1:13-14.
          I believe that the prophet Isaiah hit the nail on the head here.  This can apply to anyone who thinks that life is about kissing some deity’s ass to get into heaven.  If you believe, great, tzeit gezunt.  But If you don’t believe, don’t think that just because you are winging it and feigning devoutness, that the same deity who was quite bloodthirsty in the Old Testament cares about you.
          If you can’t bring yourself to believe, don’t force yourself. 
          Search for the answers.
          Don’t buy into the bullshit of the people who want to impose their beliefs on yours.
          Search for the truth. 
          And if you’re frustrated because you can’t find the truth, don’t take it too hard.  You need to find what works for you.  Consider it a challenge.  Enjoy it. 

          And remember, faith is not a coin toss.  It can be a beautiful thing.  But not if it is forced upon you or disingenuous.  

Monday, May 22, 2017

The Kuzari--a Proletarian Approach.

     Reading through the first chapter of the Kuzari again, I have tried to come to terms with his hypothesis for why Judaism is the Truth.  Some version of his rationale is one of the simpler arguments commonly used in the kiruv industry when trying to convince people to be Jewish.  Between that and Pascal's Wager, I've seen even educated people fall into a sophistic claptrap and be unable to pull themselves out.

           Before I continue, I would like to firmly state my intention.  I come not to tear down the walls of the yeshiva.  For those who genuinely believe, and for those who use their beliefs to bring light into the world, I say render unto yourselves that which you find sacred.  But for those who use pseudoscience and fallacious logic to try to impose your views on others, I am speaking to you.  I, the self-righteous heathen, speak to you.  And to those of you on the fence, I encourage you to read up on those more learned than me.  

           There are many people more learned than me who can take apart the common kiruv arguments using math, using logic, using science, using archaeology, using many disciplines I don't have the sitzfleisch to master.  So I will attempt to deconstruct it using my proletarian understanding of the subject.
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IN THE BEGINNING, THERE WAS A WORD.  The word was spread throughout mankind.  But mankind could not seem to remember the word.  They eventually began to use their words to create new words.  And with those words they worshiped other entities.  The word begat other words, and the one begat many.

             Along came an archetype, a shiekh called Abraham.  He was very likely a Northern Semitic expatriot from Ur or Elam.  From there his family migrated to Haran.  And from there, he moved to the land of the Canaanites.  In that land, there were many local deities, and some grand ones.  The one he chose to worship was known by many names; He revealed Himself to Abraham as El-Shaddai.  He stayed with Abraham for many years.  Abraham begat a son named Isaac, and Isaac a son named Jacob.  Jacob begat 12 sons.  Eventually, the 12 sons migrated to Egypt to escape a famine.  The second-youngest, Joseph, became a vizier named Zaphnath Paneach.

            As far as I know, there is no actual archaeological or historical evidence to back up much of the above.  That there was a Semitic influx around the time, that is true.  That a group commonly called the "Hyksos" ruled Egypt for a time is agreed upon.  Modern scholars doubt that the Hyksos were the Hebrews.  There was another group called the Hapiru (or Habiru).  That sounds more like Hebrew (or Ivri), but the jury is still out on that one.

            Our story really begins with an Exodus of 600,000 men, roughly 2 million people total.  The Exodus was spurned by one Moses.  Moses bore the name of a deity who claimed to be the Lord of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  He was known by many names.  He revealed himself to Abraham as El-Shaddai.  He told Moses "Eheyeh Asher Eheyeh", or as Popeye would say, "I 'yam what I 'yam."  He revealed to Moses his ineffable name YHWH (perhaps Yehovah, or Yahweh....no one really knows).  Bearing this name, Moses and his brother Aaron sent 10 plagues on Egypt.  When that was over, the Pharaoh let the 600,000+ slaves go to their promised land.

               There are many holes that can be poked into this one.  For starters, a slave rebellion of that size would not go unrecorded.  The population of Egypt itself was barely larger than a million at the time.  If that many people actually escaped Egypt, it would have been a bigger deal.

               Assuming the Exodus happened around the time it allegedly happened, then Egypt would have ruled Canaan at the time, and would have had garrisons throughout.  It would not have been safe to run away there.

               They were afraid to escape the route of the Phillistines.  But the Phillistines would not have been in the picture yet.  Clear anachronism.

               I am purposely leaving out the problems brought up by higher criticism, such as the notion that Moses and Aaron were rivals, that the P narrative is supporting Aaronid, and D supports the Mushites (supporters of Moses and a monarchy, not a priestly caste).  I am also leaving out the split narrative of J (Judah, the southern tribes), and E (Joseph, the Northern tribes).  I will address those at a different time.  

          And so, the Children of Israel wandered in a desert for some time before approaching a mountain alternatively known as Horeb or Sinai.  It was on this mountain that the Children of Israel had a massive epiphany.  It wasn’t like when Jesus went in the desert all by himself, got tempted by the Satan, and overcame him.  It wasn’t like when Muhammed went up the mountain all by himself and heard the word of Allah from the angel Jibril.  No, it wasn’t like any other epiphany in recorded history.   All 600,000 men, plus the women and children were there in front of Horeb/Sinai.  Each and over one of them heard the word of God as He recited the Decalogue.  And oh yeah, the midrash takes it further.  Not only that, but did you know that the souls of every Jew who would ever be born was there too?  Yep, it was a spectacular epiphany.
          And then came the Golden Calf.

A brief pause.
         
          Ladies and Gentlemen, let us pause to soak in the magnitude of this epiphany.  600,000 people saw the same thing.  Not one.  And thus, this narrative must be true.  Why?  Bear with me. 

          I am purposely reducing the elegant argument to its bare bones, so please feel free to provide me with a link to a more fleshed out version of the argument in the comments.

          So we have a choice.  A dichotomy if you will.  Either the story happened, or it didn’t.  True or false.

          Let’s say it’s false:  If only one person saw it, then you only need to falsify one person.  If two people saw it, that’s two people to falsify.  600,000 men is pretty effing hard to falsify.  Because I could lie about one person or two people or even ten people seeing something crazy.  But to lie about 600,000 people seeing something crazy such as a big fire on a mountain?  No one in their right mind would buy that.

         OR WOULD THEY?

I propose a few thought experiments for those who think that the Kuzari hypothesis is incontrovertible.

1)      Never underestimate human gullibility.  As Einstein allegedly said, “two things are infinite: the universe, and human stupidity; and I’m not sure about the universe.”  I don’t know if Einstein ever really said that, but bear with me.
a.      Are you familiar with Stanley Milgram’s experiments? If not, here is a good link.  Humans will believe all sorts of asinine things when told by a well-modulated authoritative voice.
b.     Nickelback has sold over 50 million records worldwide.  That means how many people out there actually think Nickelback sounds good?  (I kid, but seriously?  Nickelback?)
c.       Another post for another time is how many people every year get sucked up into cults.  Don’t get me started here. 
2)     But it’s impossible!  600,000 people can’t be deluded into believing something false?
a.      Consider this.  If you are a Jew, then you think that your way is the only authentic way.  Given that, 2.17 billion people worldwide identify as Christian; 1.6 billion identify as Muslim; 1.13 identify as unaffiliated; 1.03 identify as Hindu, and only 0.01 billion identify as Jews.     (source:  Pew Forum)

How could such a large chunk of the world believe in “false idols”?  If theirs is such a lie, and is so much more easily falsifiable than Judaism, then why do so many more people believe in it?
b.     Ever played a game called telephone? 

You know the rules.  Everyone sit in a circle.  The first person in the circle gets a message.  He or she whispers it to the person next to them.  That person whispers it to the person next to them. Keep going until everyone in the circle hears the message.  The last person must say aloud what they heard.

In the end, the last message is rarely ever the same as the first.  At least I’ve never seen it happen.

Now let’s change the game a bit.  How stories change over generations. 

Assume, if you will, that the Torah was not finalized until the 6th century B.C.E (or so).  Perhaps by a man named Ezra.  Before that, there were many competing traditions.  Is it plausible, then, that over the 2 millennia or so between the alleged epiphany of Sinai and the times of Ezra that some parts of the story were embellished, perhaps made to be more grandiose? 
This is just the groundwork for what I hope to be a larger and more drawn out answer to those who try to shake my lack of faith.

Have a great week,

  --Acher.