Wednesday, September 26, 2012

On Freedom and Fasting

Freedom's just another word for nothin' left to lose,
And nothin' ain't worth nothin' but it's free,--Kris Kristoferson and Fred Foster, "Me and Bobby McGee"

During the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that conditions called war; and such a war, as if of every man, against every man.
Thomas Hobbes 

The liberty of the individual must be thus far limited; he must not make himself a nuisance to other people.
John Stuart Mill 


Today, September 26 2012 is another Wednesday, just like the other 52 Wednesdays of the year.

But to those of the Jewish religion, it is also Yom HaKippurim, the day that god will seal everyone in the world's judgement.  And so, for the last month most Jews have been trying to curb their iniquitious behaviors for a change--trying to go from being total assholes to everyone to simply being a bit of a dick.  Also, there's a little game they play where they go up to everyone and ask "do you forgive me for anything I've done to you?"  Of course, it's just a formality, few ever really find something they need to ask forgiveness for, and then when it's over, back to being total douchebags--just like yesterday.

This will be the 9th year of my existence that I have not attempted atoning for my sins on this lovely Autumn day.  At first, I used to report to work just like it was a regular weekday, but I would still fast.  But then, about 6 years ago, I said fuck it and began treating it like it was every other day of the year.  Sometimes I'd make extra sure to eat a ham sandwich, take a long hot bath, or engorge in some delectables just to spite the Invisible Man in the Sky I No Longer Believe In.

However, tomorrow I will wake up and go to work just like any other normal day.

So in honor of said freedom, I would like to flash back to the Summer of 2002, when this journey really began.

During this time, I was at a first of many crossroads in my life.  I had dropped out of Yeshiva University,  did a semester in Brooklyn College while working part time, and then moved back into Washington Heights and transferred to City College (which I would eventually graduate).

But first, while I was still figuring things out, I moved into a small 2 bedroom apartment with some old buddies of mine from Yeshiva University.  I think there was like 4 of us camping out in there on average.  It was a nice setup.  I worked maybe twice a week.  The rest of the summer, I smoked plenty of weed, drank, played video games, listened to music, and basically squandered my life.

But then the most sudden change of all.  The one that would change the course of my life forever.

It began on a Friday.  A Friday just like any other Friday in July.

Except this Friday, 2 of the friends I was sharing the apartment with (let's call them Gabe and Stu) were going to go to a movie.  They asked me if I wanted to come along.

Now let me be clear on where my religious observance was at the time.  I was dropping certain beliefs left and right.  I no longer prayed 3 times a day (possibly at all).  I still felt in place inside a synagogue, but I no longer was set about praying; praying was just something I did if I happened to be around people who were praying.  I also was starting to walk around without a yarmulke (I'll write more on that in another post).  In general I still wore the yarmulke, but mostly when I was in areas around other Jews.  

But the two big ones, Sabbath and Kosher I still kept.

But of course, during this tumultous period of my life, I was not only dropping observances left and right.  I was also seriously questioning God.  Much of it was anger at first.  Much of it was also irresponsibility.  But what I didn't have was a venue to actually explore being a heathen.

Until that night.

Naturally, Stu and Gabe had no way of knowing that they were opening Pandora's Box for me.  But they did.

We went to see Road to Perdition.  It was a nice movie.  We weren't a fan of the directing, but Tom Hanks was great.  Either way, it was a great alternative to Shabbos Koidesh!

We then went to The Rodeo Bar & Grill, a novelty faux-Honky Tonk in NYC.  Now at that time I was bar hopping a-plenty.  There was nothing really strange about the experience of going here.  A small part of me felt the Chimes of Freedom.  But the rest of me shrugged it off and said that it was just another day I'm allowed to go bar hopping!

There was an Elvis impersonator playing that night.  Gabe was a huge fan of Elvis (Rockabilly in general).  It was fun.  The three of us drank, chain-smoked, and enjoyed the music.  Oh yeah, did I mention that this was back in a day when it was still legal to smoke in bars in NYC?  Tee hee hee.  Now that I've quit smoking, I don't mind.  But back then, it hit me pretty hard.

But the spree had just begun:

Gabe and I moved to the restaurant side of the venue.  Stu ditched us to bury himself in the corner of the bar to write some poetry on napkins (or something like that).  Gabe assured me that it's okay, it makes him happier when he does this.  So it was just the two of us, our beers, and plenty of cigarettes to smoke.

Gabe then ordered some food.  "Rattlesnake Bites", shrimp rolled in bacon and stuffed into a fried jalapeno pepper.  He then asked me if I wanted to try one.  I obliged.

And the crazy thing is that I actually enjoyed it!

I hear so many stories about people having trouble appreciating shellfish when they first try it.  Not me.  My reaction was more along the lines of "mmmm....where have you been all my life?"

I hate to sound crass, but I enjoyed my first time eating trayf more than I enjoyed my first time having sex.  I know, it's sad.  I definitely enjoyed it more than my first time getting high.  But the fact stands:  that night, I had my first trayf--the same night I first violated the Sabbath--and I never turned back.

No, this weekend lead to many more weekends of violating Sabbath and eating trayf.

The Sabbath was made for man, not the man for Sabbath--Mark 2:27

And so, this honorable Wednesday just like any other Wednesday, I will not be specially asking for anyone's forgiveness.  I will not be going out of my way to be a douche because I can either.

Because although I have the freedom to do so, I do not feel compelled to do so.

Just today, another person made the fallacy that my choosing to be an Atheist means I now am allowing myself to potentially rape, pillage, steal, and commit countless other atrocities that religious people are obviously above doing themselves. 

Now I don't want to get too deeply into this one just yet.  Oh trust me, I could more than triple the size of this post just devoted to this subject, but I'd like to posit one thing.


As Spidey's Uncle Ben very famously said, "with great power comes great responsibility.

Including the responsibility for being productive.

Including the responsibility for not being a douche.

The responsibility for making the world a better place.

For being a better person.

Being Righteous and true.

And I most certainly do not need some Invisible Man in the Sky Who I Know Longer Believe In to tell me how to be good or bad.

Or a so-called "Good Book" either.

All I need is to wake up tomorrow, breathe in the air, and live tomorrow like it's another day.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Movie Review: Ted

For a slight change in my course, today I attempt a movie review, something I haven't done in a long time.

Ted, the freshman screenplay of Seth McFarlane, sea manatee at large, is just what I expected it to be.  Anyone who's a fan of Family Guy (or its sloppy seconds American Dad, or sloppy thirds The Cleveland Show) is already familiar with McFarlane's sense of humor.  In every 22 minute episode, maybe 5 minutes are dedicated to the plot itself.  The rest are cutaway gags, pop culture references, elongated dialogue that goes nowhere, or extended fight scenes.

Ted is no exception.  If you are already a fan of McFarlane (which I am), this movie is a must see.  No spoilers, this movie is chock full of enough pop culture geekdom to cause any Gen X fanboy to splooj in their pants.  And of course, the cameos, oh the cameos--Patrick Warburton, Patrick Stewart, Nora Jones, and others I will not spoil.

The plot:  Marky Mark flexes his comedic muscles as a manboy with a foul-mouthed, weed smoking, sex addicted teddy bear who's his best friend.  Now in this one he does manage to keep his shirt on most of the time; but there are plenty of fight scenes!  After all, what is Marky Mark if he keeps his shirt and pants on?  He still loves getting into fights.  And of course, plenty of breaking-the-fourth-wall references to his very pronounced New England accent (Spoiler Alert:  Ted making fun of how Boston girls sound when they're having an orgasm).

Those who have seen the previews know the basic plot.  Marky Mark is John Bennett, a 30-something used car salesman who has almost nothing redeeming about himself except for (a) his charming good looks (he is constantly referred to by girls who are way out of his league as the best looking in New England), and (b) his girlfriend Lori.

Lori is played by Mila Kunis, who in this movie is also doing what she does best.  She is so good at being the good looking nag, that many find it hard to believe that she was cast as Meg Griffin.  So in this movie, she plays an executive at some automotive company, one who's making too much money and of too high social status to be dating Marky Mark.  And she's always being hit on by her boss, a true-to-form Ryan Seacrest lookalike, total obvious I'm-sexy-and-you-know-it douchebag.  And yet Lori continuously spurns his advances.

And so, the very cliched bromance triangle.  John Bennett must now choose between his best friend and his girlfriend.  So naturally, Lori manages to flit between total ballbuster to concerned female partner who simply wants her partner to GROW UP!  She ends up convincing Ted to move out on his own and get a job.  But John still sneaks away to smoke weed with Ted, miss work, spend less time with Lori, and get himself in huge trouble!

This movie is not one of those that will make any new McFarlane fans.  It is a great first attempt at a movie for a man who's already accomplished so much.  Right now, he pretty much rules Fox's Sunday night lineup. But as far as movies go, he could have taken it much further than he did.  The plot seemed a bit too undeveloped.  True to his form, the plot was definitely secondary to the gags, slapstick, one-liners, and geek references.  Of course, the plot is a bit stronger than those early Family Guy episodes.  At least it is there.  I think Seth McFarlane has so much going for him as a writer.  I hope he continues to make movies, and if he makes a another one, it's much stronger than this one was.

So to answer the question, is this movie worth seeing?  For those who love Family Guy, HELL YEAH!  For those who watch it once in a while, wait till you can Netflix it.  For those who hate Family Guy, er, see it but be like Statler and Waldorf the whole time...

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

What I've Been Reading

Now that I'm done with grad school, I've been ODing on the reading.  Here's my current reading list.

"The Elegant Universe" by Brian Greene
I love science.  While some may argue that science is merely another religion, science in its nature uses empirical methods to prove its findings--as opposed to religion, which is more backed by faith.  Yes, even science and mathematics have postulates that cannot be proven; but at least once they get past the postulates, the rest all follows logic.  For this reason, I am more partial to science than I am to any organized religion out there.

Of course, most books I have read on cosmology were almost as spoon-bending as the Holy Books themselves!  For example, Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time did bring to my awareness what contemporary scientists believe.  However, there were still plenty of questions amiss.  After all, Dr. Hawking was painting in very broad strokes about 200 years worth of heavy research.  So some of the sections of that book--especially subatomic particles, black holes, singularities, quantum mechanics, et al--raised my eyebrows a-plenty.  Having not read the studies that yielded these results, I had to resign to blind faith--faith that these scientists know what they're talking about and I am merely a boorish ignoramus.

I then tried reading "A Stubbornly Persistent Illusion", or Dr. Hawking's compilation on Einstein.  Holy Red Heifer!  Now this book made me even more confused.  First of all, I do not have the requisite background in mathematics to be able to comprehend the workings that Einstein did.  I could parse on a philosophical level the problem he was trying to solve: James Clerk Maxwell proved that a beam of light moves at a constant speed, so if one were to ride on a beam of light, what would happen to time?  But then, the math he did TOTALLY lost me.  I wasn't even up to Special Relativity and I already threw my hands in the air.  Like I could understand the Cliff Notes version of General Relativity as explained on Wikipedia, but the math behind it?  Fuhgedaboudit!

Enter Brian Green.  I've seen him speak at the World Science Festival.  I've watched a few of his NOVA specials.  He is a brilliant scientist, but extremely charismatic.  I would describe him as resembling Gene Wilder with a Midwestern accent.  He's a bigshot Physicist at Columbia, but still able to explain even the most daunting of concepts to non-scientists/mathematicians like me.

So this book, The Elegant Universe, is his persuasive argument for String Theory.  For those unaware, String Theory is one of several attempts to come up with a TOE (Theory of Everything)  to explain all natural phenomena.  Right now, we have GUT (Grand Unified Theory), which unites the Electromagnetic Force, Strong Nuclear Force, and Weak Nuclear Force.  The odd-man-out here is the Gravitational Force, which does not behave like the other forces.  This has troubled scientists for a long time.  In fact, Green claims, Einstein spent the last 30 years of his life trying to reconcile this, but failed.

And so, this book as an attempt to persuade readers that String Theory is the future.  There are others out there, but String seems to be the one that is the most mathematically sound (so far).  But what I like about this book the best is that Green does an excellent job explaining why scientists believe in things like subatomic particles and why they are necessary.  Reading this book, I find a refreshing reaffirmation of my faith in science.

From the opposite spectrum:
"How to Read the Bible" by James Kugel.

This is not the most heretical thing I've ever read.  However, if you can seriously read this book with an open mind and still believe that the Torah was written by Moses all at once, then your faith is more unwavering than Job!

The most interesting thing about this book?  The author, James L. Kugel, identifies himself as a fully observant Orthodox Jew.  That's right, this man, who sometimes abashedly/tongue-in-cheekly tears a hole in Biblical Monism still is a man of faith!  One day, I hope to ask him how he reconciles this (I'm sure it's out there on the interwebs....)

I will be visiting and revisiting things Kugel has taught me throughout my bloggings.  There is much to say.  Some I already came across in my readings.  Much of it was in passing--such as Documentary Hypothesis, which states that the Torah is a tapestry of at least 4 different strands (J,E,P, & D), each of which was written at a different time and by different authors (or sets of authors).  Of course, the theory is not incontrovertible, as we may never know who exactly these authors were.  My rule of thumb: if you are shooting down a popularly believed theory, at least make sure the one you replace it with is more plausible!  For example, the mystery of who really shot JFK:  Now the Warren Commission clearly glossed a lot of things over and left a lot of holes.  But some of the alternative theories are simply ASININE!  I'm talking about aliens, citizens of the Lost Continent of Atlantis, massive conspiracies that are so intricate that we might as well just throw our arms up and give into a lone gunman, etc.

Here's a taster.  When Uncle Moishy sang "Hashem is here, Hashem is there, Hashem is truly everywhere..." was he talking about the God of the Old Testament?  Sure, from the time I was a kid, this is what I was taught about God.  He is incorporeal and the anthropomorphisms of the Torah are meant to be taken euphemistically (i.e. "and God saw", "His outstretched arm", "and the Lord heard").  But Kugel argues that perhaps this was not always the dominant belief.  Like why did Moses have to climb a mountain with a burning bush to speak to God?  Why did the Israellites have to go to Mt. Sinai to receive the law?  And why then did they have to build a tabernacle?  I can't do justice to Kugel's arguments:  but he argues that at some point, it was believed that YHWH had his corporeality: he did "dwell amongst the people", he did "walk in the Garden", and he absolutely did "descend upon the Egyptians" and "pass over the houses of the Israellites".  That is, God had a finite spirit that did move around, and the tabernacle really was a place where he "lived".  Only later authors hint toward an incorporeal deity as currently believed in.

Monday, June 25, 2012

A Bit about My Raison D'Etre (if I need one...)

אַ֥שְֽׁרֵי־הָאִ֗ישׁ אֲשֶׁ֤ר ׀ לֹ֥א הָלַךְ֮ בַּעֲצַ֪ת רְשָׁ֫עִ֥ים וּבְדֶ֣רֶךְ חַ֭טָּאִים לֹ֥א עָמָ֑ד וּבְמֹושַׁ֥ב לֵ֝צִ֗ים לֹ֣א יָשָֽׁב׃

"HAPPY IS the man that hath not walked in the counsel of the wicked, nor stood in the way of sinners, nor sat in the seat of the scornful."--Psalms 1:1 (JPS translation)

With the FSM as my witness, I am that scornful that this verse is talking about.

Although I plan on balancing things out in this blog and speaking on many subjects, I'm told I tend to gravitate to the sacred a bit too often for a man who rejects it.  Thus, knowing that I will be doing this a lot, I figured I might as well begin with the first verse in Psalms.

The Hebrew word that translates to "scoffer" in this verse is לֵ֝צִ֗ ("letz").  Another definition for this word is clown.  But in this context, we're not talking about party clowns, circus-folk, or Shakespearean fools.  R. Eliyahu Dessler even extends the definition to include people who are too lazy to study Torah or do Mitvot (to be righteous, if you will).  But let me stick to the more simple definition--the scoffer.

And so, dear reader, I am giving Acher a bit of a new twist--my twist.  Those of you who have read Milton Steinberg's masterpiece As a Driven Leaf (which I will reference a lot) know that he perceived Acher as being a total Stoic; one who could not reconcile his passions with the faith he was raised in or the hyper-Hedonistic lifestyle that was rampant in Antioch, which was the 4th biggest city in the Roman Empire during his time.  

In my iteration, Acher is a bit of a לֵ֝צִ֗, a scoffer if you will.  Though many of the topics Acher will be addressing are of a serious nature, the author of this blog has reached a point in his career where he no longer takes a good deal of things too seriously.  Sometimes, laughter is the best medicine.  And so, consider this blog part serious exegesis and part parody.

And how do you tell which I am utilizing at any given moment?  Well, thanks to dear old Poe's Law, you may never know.  Consider this part of the fun and challenge of me writing a blog and you reading my blog.  While I will try to remain as lucid as possible as often as possible, I still have quite a bit of kinks to work out in my writing style.  I guess as I blog more, as I find my voice more, things should fall into place.

But until then, take nothing I say too seriously.  Unless I preempt it with thou shalt now take me seriously--don't even take that seriously!

Peace.  And Happy Monday.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

First Posting: Brief Introductions.

From the time I was young, one of the most perplexing figures for me in Talmudic literature has been Elisha ben Abuyah, AKA "Acher"  (someone else).

Very little is said about him.  Eventually, I intend to analyze some of the stories about him and give my impressions of them.  But for now, here's the bottom line--Elisha was a skeptic who gave in to his doubts and became a heretic.  Some say he became a Gnostic, believing that the God of the Bible was an inferior deity to a larger entity we could never understand.  Others make him a flat-out heretic, going into the Yeshivot telling the students that they were wasting their time studying and that they should go out and learn a trade--something useful!

But if there's one story about Acher that I truly relate to, it's the one where he and his former pupil, Rabbi Meir (who would eventually become so prolific, that an anonymous Mishna is considered to be his words) were walking together on the Sabbath; Rabbi Meir by foot, Acher on horseback.  Riding horses is not allowed on the Sabbath.  Another rule about the Sabbath is that you're not supposed to travel 2,000 cubits past the town limits (Techum Shabbat).  Acher realized that they were about to cross this 2,000 cubit boundary, so he informed his former pupil that perhaps he should turn back.  Rabbi Meir asked Acher to join him.  He refused, saying that he heard a heavenly voice saying that anybody can repent except for Acher.

The way the story was taught to me:  It's Acher that can never repent.  But Elisha ben Abuyah, he could repent!  It is significant that the heavenly voice said that Acher (someone else) can never repent.  He was Acher--somebody else!  And as long as he remained that somebody else, he could never repent.  He'd have to go back to being Elisha ben Abuyah to repent.  In other words, he'd have to "check Acher at the door."  After all, no repentance is true repentance unless the person has completely changed their mindset.

And this is why I've chosen to call myself Acher.  It was the day of my 30th birthday.  My mother and I were having a long conversation.  During that conversation, she asked me why I don't go back to keeping the Sabbath.  Now understand, I haven't intentionally kept the Sabbath since I was 24.  In future posts, I will discuss my journey off the beaten path of Orthodox Judaism in more detail.  But for now, let's just say that I work or Saturday, I do not attend synagogue, and I basically do not keep any of the ritual aspects of Judaism.  My family, for the most part, is only loosely observant as well.  But my mother, being the good Jewish mother she is, naturally worries about the Jewish education that had been wasted on me.

My immediate answer to my mother was that I had eaten the proverbial fruit of the Tree of Knowledge.  I have seen a world beyond the veldt of Orthodox Judaism, and it has pleased me.  I have willfully banished myself from the Garden--from being sure of anything.  And like Acher, I have descended so far into my skepticism, I could never repent.  There is nothing anyone can say or do to bring me back to thinking like an Orthodox Jew.  That even if I tried following an impractically blind Pascal's Wager Judaism (just follow the damn rules, you have more to gain by doing them against your will than by not doing them at all), this would entail my being very dishonest with myself, the world, and whatever higher being is up there--and is probably not deceived by my tartuffery!

And so, Ladies and Gentlemen:  I AM ACHER!

I am the silent scream of a confirmed, hardened skeptic.  I have commented on many Jewish and OTD blogs for quite some time under many names (and pseudonyms).  And now, here I am about to find my voice.

Some of this blog will be my musings.
Some will be pure nonsense
This blog is what it is.

And yes, as the name might indicate, this is an OTD blog:
OTD, for those unaware, is short for "Off the Derech", lit. Off the Path.
This is the stock term for Jews who have gone wayward.  Those of us who no longer consider ourselves observant.  This term is VERY broad.  Some merely question.  Others are flat-out Atheists/Nihilists.  I personally identify as an Atheist.  But as far as Atheists go, I am very soft.  That is, I am not calling for the complete obliteration of religious institutions, or religions themselves.  But I am very critical of them.  I do not believe that any of the organized religions got it right.  Because I was raised a Jew and Judaism is the religion I understand the best, most of my examples will be from the Jewish faith.  But of course, if I see fit, I shall try to balance it out by including others as well.

Of course, in my perfect world, people will no longer need God to see good in others.  That day will come.  I don't know if humanity is ready for that yet.

In the meantime, enjoy.  And thank you for checking in.