Category Archives: PASSOVER

For Passover this year, China will take Pharaoh’s role

The Passover story provides us with deep insights into the nature of tyranny. This year, China’s tyranny is the subject of my annual Passover post.

For roughly 3,500 years, Jews have been telling and retelling the story of Passover — which is also the story of the world’s first revolt against a totalitarian dictatorship. The story remains relevant because each generation sees dangerous tyrants abusing their people and trying to expand their reach beyond their own borders. As we stare down those monsters, the thing to remember is that those atop the tyranny pyramid care about only one thing, which is that their tyranny remains stable and protected. And that leads me to this year’s iteration of my annual Passover post.

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A doubting Jew I know, rather than seeing the Passover ceremony as a celebration of freedom (for it celebrates the world’s first successful slave revolt), justice, and morality (insofar as it gave us the Ten Commandments), derides the whole ceremony as the unconscionable and immoral celebration of the Egyptian people’s genocide. To support this theory, he points to the fact that, after each plague, when Pharaoh seems about to soften and let the Jews go, God hardens Pharaoh’s heart, leading to the necessity of yet another plague harming the Egyptian people, a cycle of pain that culminates with the death of the firstborn.

Those familiar with the Bible understand that this objection is predicated upon ignorance. The tenth plague, which saw God strike down the firstborn in every family without the Pascal lamb’s blood above their door, was not a random punishment. It was, instead, divine retribution for the Pharaoh’s own decree, in effect at Moses’s birth, that all firstborn Jewish males should be drowned in the Nile. Still, doubters will argue that God was petty when he later punished innocent people who were not complicit in Pharaoh’s genocidal attack on the Jews.

One argument is that the many plagues, culminating with the firstborn’s death, are nothing more than dramatic license, meant to increase the tension and danger surrounding the Jew’s escape from Egypt. After all, if the exodus had been easy, it wouldn’t have been much of a story. Imagine if Moses had asked, “Hey, Pharaoh, can we go?” and Pharaoh had answered, “Sure.”

That narrative lacks punch and heroism. More importantly, God’s involvement is minimal or, at least, unexciting. Surely it resonates more strongly with the people reliving the narrative every year to have an escalating series of plagues, with the audience on tenterhooks as to whether those pesky Jewish slaves will actually be able to make a break for it.

The above reasoning is silly. The Bible is not so superficial. There is, instead, a much more profound purpose behind the ten plagues, and that is to remind us of the tyrant’s capacity for tolerating others’ suffering, as long as his power remains in place.

What Pharaoh discovered with the first nine plagues is that life can go on, at least for the ruler, no matter the burdens he places upon his people. A blood-filled Nile River may, at first, seem appalling, but the red recedes and life went on. Pharaoh still holds power. The same is true for each subsequent plague, whether lice, boils, frogs, darkness, or any of the other plagues. As long as Pharaoh realizes, after the first panic, that he is still powerful, he will always reconcile himself to his people’s incremental destruction.

Sheltered in his lavish palace, Pharaoh might have a theoretical concern that a starving and frightened populace could turn on him. However, as long as he is assured that his people will continue to fear and worship him, their suffering is irrelevant. It was only when the price became too high — when Pharaoh the plague struck in his own palace, killing his firstborn* — that Pharaoh is convinced, even temporarily, to alter his evil ways.

Human nature hasn’t changed in 3,500 years. Think, for example, of both the Nazis and the Japanese at the end of WWII. For the Nazis, it was apparent by December 1944 (the Battle of the Bulge) that the war was over. Hitler, however, was a megalomaniac in the pharaonic mold, and his high command, either from fear or insanity, would not gainsay him. Rather than surrendering, the Nazi high command was not only willing to see its country overrun and its citizens killed, he never stopped using military supplies for the Holocaust. The war ended only when Hitler, facing personal humiliation, killed himself and the remaining high command, see their lives at stake, finally gave up. Hitler and his commanders were Pharaoh. Only when they, personally, faced a humiliating death would they stop fighting.

The same held true for the Japanese. Truman did not decide to drop the bomb just for the hell of it. Even impressing the Soviets was an insufficient reason for doing so. What swayed Truman was his advisers telling him (credibly as it turned out) that the Japanese Bushido culture would not allow Japan to surrender. Instead, Truman understood that, despite an inevitable American victory, if he didn’t take drastic action, that victory would take another year, and cost up to 100,000 American lives and as many as 1,000,000 Japanese lives (including Japanese civilians).

Truman had two choices: Wage war for at least another year, killing 100,000 Americans and up to a million Japanese civilians, or end the war instantly, with no more American casualties and an estimated 100,000 civilian Japanese casualties. Put that way, the choice was a no-brainer.  Not only would he save the military, he would also save tens of thousands of POWs, both military and civilian. One of the Dutch civilian POW saved was my Mom, who was on the verge of starving to death in a Japanese concentration camp.

The Japanese high command was Pharaoh. No amount of smaller plagues could stop the command from its chosen path. Only a large plague would swiftly lead to the inevitable conclusion.

The only way to destroy an evil institution is to decapitate it. That’s what God did with the 10th plague. That’s what Truman did when he dropped atom bombs on Japan. That’s what the Allies did when they engaged in total war against the Nazis. In each case, the only way to end a tyrant’s rampage of murder, torture, and enslavement was directly hurting the tyrant’s person.

Those who prefer the stability of tyranny to the risks of freedom are the same people who refuse to accept that, under tyranny, the innocents are always going to die, with the only question being whether they will die quickly or slowly. That’s the problem with an evil regime. If you’re unlucky enough to live under that regime, you’re going to end as cannon fodder. Pharaoh will let you die of plagues, and the Nazi and Japanese leadership will let you be bombed and burned, and China’s leadership will release a plague on the world and let tens of thousands of people sicken and die, both at home and abroad — as long as the tyrant can retain his power.

People of goodwill must sometimes recognize that the generation raised under tyranny is a lost generation that cannot be saved, whether because it will die under the tyrant’s lash, in the tyrant’s war, or in a war against the tyrant. Sometimes, when slaves finally taste freedom, they fear it. The Bible recognizes this problem, banning the Promised Land to those who were slaves in Egypt. They were a lost generation.

For this reason, when one sees a people groaning under tyranny the most humane thing to do is to destroy the tyranny quickly and decisively even if that process causes people to suffer. Most of them were always going to be lost. Our actions are for the benefit of subsequent generations and, if we are lucky, for those who survived both the tyranny and the liberation.

Protecting freedom for the greatest number of people sometimes demands proactive behavior. And there is nothing more proactive than an overwhelming response when a tyrant starts putting out feelers to see how far he can go. Had Chamberlain done that in 1938, WWII might have been avoided.**

Today, the tyrant is China’s government and, as was the case with Nazi Germany or Bushido Japan, China’s tyranny has suddenly started to reach far beyond its borders. No matter how China’s bought-and-paid-for American media work to cover up China’s responsibility for what happened, John Adams was correct: “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”

We know the facts: COVID-19 escaped from a Chinese lab, although we do not know whether this was deliberate or accidental. China, in true tyrant fashion, was so determined to cover up its failure that it willingly let people die by destroying anything (e.g., information and doctors) that might have helped battle the plague early. When Wuhan began to see mass die-offs, China continued to deny there was a problem. As the plague spread beyond China’s borders, its government continued to deny responsibility, so much so that both China and the WHO (which we pay for, but which answers to China) lied consistently about COVID-19’s reach, danger, and origin.

Now that the plague is a world-wide phenomenon, China is sending or selling useless masks and test kits to hurting nations around the world. It is trying to blame America for COVID-19. And it’s almost certain that people are still dying in the thousands in China, even as the government insists it’s tamed COVID-19 and tells the world to start readmitting its people and its shoddy products. The Chinese communist government is Pharaoh.

The only way to stop tyranny is to fight tyranny. Despite media efforts to cover for their Chinese paymasters, Trump is calling China out on its lies and other malfeasance.

China needs to pay. The world must pull out of China: No more cheap Chinese goods flooding the American market and denying jobs to people in America; no more Chinese-made fentanyl killing America’s citizens; no more plague-ridden Chinese citizens hopping on planes and traveling the world, even as China knew they were contagious; and no more rich Chinese students flooding American colleges and buying off leftist college faculties and administrations.

All of that needs to end. Trump is trying hard, despite Democrat and media pushback. Other countries’ leaders are making weak little grunting noises. We can only hope that Trump turns those grunts to roars and builds a great wall around China until the tyrants at the top give up. They give up hurting their people, they give up imprisoning religious people and using them as slaves and unwilling organ donors, they give up funding North Korea’s tyranny, they give up trying to build islands in the South China Sea, they give up using economic blackmail against poor countries, and in all other ways, they turn inward and cure themselves. This is how you end tyranny: you make the tyrants suffer so that they change.

 

With that, I’d like to wish all of you a Chag Sameach (Happy Passover). Whether Jewish or not, I hope that the Pesach celebration serves as an occasion for all of us to remember that, though the price may sometimes be high, both for slave and master, our goal as just and moral human beings must be freedom. So please join with me in saying, as all Jews do at this time of year, “Next Year in Jerusalem.”

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*The fact that Pharaoh survived the last of the ten plagues tells us that he was not his father’s firstborn son. Either an older sibling died or Pharaoh was the younger child in a family unrelated to the Egyptian ruling family and, through a coup, seized the throne.

**And yes, I am aware of the argument that Chamberlain might not have been Hitler’s dupe. Thanks to England’s anti-War fervor after WWI, which led to disarmament and the drawing down of her military, Chamberlain might have believed by 1938 that England could do nothing to stop Hitler. That belief would have led him to choose appeasement as the only option. I don’t agree with this view because bullies will back down quickly if their intended victim fights even minimally, but I’ll give Chamberlain the benefit of the doubt because he was a decent and patriotic man.

(A couple more things. I highly recommend Dennis Prager’s The Rational Bible: ExodusIf you don’t want to read the whole book, you can just buy his The Ten Commandments: Still the Best Moral Code, which is a companion to his videos on the Ten Commandments. It’s a quick read and a refreshing one.)

The post For Passover this year, China will take Pharaoh’s role appeared first on Watcher of Weasels.

Passover: the nature of tyranny never changes but freedom is worth the fight

Passover tells us that tyrants fall only when revolution affects them directly and that revolutions are successful only when focused on individual liberty.

Passover, which begins tonight, is about so many things: the Jewish people’s renewed covenant with God; their escape from slavery; the journey that ended with the Ten Commandments and a return to Eretz Israel, the Holy Land of Israel; and — which is the subject of my annual post — the nature of tyranny.

Think about this for a minute: The Passover story, depending upon which Biblical archaeology you’re referencing, places the Passover story sometime between the 16th and 13th centuries B.C. In other words, this is a story that Jews have told and retold for as many as 3,500 years — and it’s a story that is always relevant. Slaves in the South took it as their story in 19th century America. And a couple of decades ago, when I was the only straight person at a gay Passover, the attendees there took it as their story too. The yearning for liberty is a timeless aspect of the human psyche.

It’s worth contemplating for a moment what “liberty” means. In European history, “liberty” invariably means trading one form of tyranny for another form of tyranny — only one in which the revolutionaries will have control. To Europeans, therefore, “liberty” is a gigantic state that will give them, rather than the others, all the goodies government can grab. And if, in exchange, government gets to control what they do, say, and think, well, they’re still “free” if the goodies keep flowing.

Once upon a time, the Americans went in a completely different direction that was more consistent with the original Exodus story. To go back to Exodus for a moment, Exodus might have told how the Jews rose up against Pharaoh, defeated him, took over Egypt, and enslaved their former enemies, at which point everyone who sided with the Jews lived happily ever after . . . right up until the Jews were deemed the tyrants and in turn overthrown.

But Exodus tells a different story: It tells about Jews leaving the old system behind entirely in order to live as a free people, even if that freedom meant the lack of a government safety net. After all, Pharaoh may have been cruel, but he kept them fed and housed. In the desert and in the land of Israel, the Jews were responsible for themselves, for better or worse.

In the same way, the American Revolutionaries, having concluded that England had become a tyrant by taking their money and dictating their actions without giving them a say in government, opted to create a different system entirely: one in which government played as small a role as possible and in which citizens had the greatest control over their lives . . . a notion both exciting and frightening. Ultimately, with fits and starts, failures and victories, tweaks and intransigence, this liberty-oriented system gave birth, not only to the most powerful nation in the world, but also to a nation that lifted more people out of poverty than any other nation ever had. Poverty is its own form of subjugation, so America spread freedom from want around large parts of the world. Indeed, today, those parts of the world most mired in poverty are nations that have systems antithetical to the American principles of individual liberty, small government, and a free market.

Put more simply, America went the Exodus route and traded enslavement for liberty. America did so because Americans, like the ancient Israelites, believed freedom was worth the scary downsides. And just as the ancient Israelites gave birth to a set of rules that changed the world (by which I mean the Ten Commandments), so too did Americans give birth to a political system that changed the world (by which I mean a system predicated upon limited constitutional government allied with a free market).

Both the Exodus story and the American experiment show that freedom is worth the price.

The eternal timeliness of the Exodus story also matters because it reminds us that tyranny never changes: Different tyrants may use different forms of tyranny, ranging from actual enslavement, as Pharaoh did, to oppressive political systems in which people ostensibly have citizens’ “rights” but lack all actual power over their lives. These modern tyrannies can be religious (think Iran), military (think of every Latin American junta), or ideological. In the latter category are fully socialist nations, such as North Korea pr Venezuela; socialist nations that nevertheless have commerce, such as China; and micromanaged liberal fascist states, of the type embodied in the European Union. In all of them, true freedom is illusory but the state, whether as a loving parent or a cruel, minatory parent, hides this lack of freedom by boasting about how it takes care of its citizens’ needs.

Another thing that never changes about tyranny is that, no matter how tyrants talk about what they do for the people, they hate the people. The only thing that matters to the one(s) atop the tyranny pyramid is that the tyranny remains stable and protected. Which gets me to my annual Passover post which, as always, I’ve edited it to reflect current concerns.

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An antisemitic Jew I know, rather than seeing the Passover ceremony as a celebration of freedom (commemorating as it does the world’s first and, for a long time, only successful slave revolt), justice, and morality (insofar as it gave us the Ten Commandments), derides the whole ceremony as the unconscionable and immoral celebration of the genocide of the Egyptian people. What troubles him so much is the fact that, after each plague, when Pharaoh seems about to soften and let the Jews go, God hardens Pharaoh’s heart, leading to the necessity of yet another plague, culminating in the death of the first born.

As those familiar with the Bible know, this antisemitic Jew’s objection is predicated upon ignorance. The tenth plague, which saw God strike down the first born in every family that did not have the blood of the Pascal lamb above their door, was not a random punishment. It was, instead, divine retribution for the Pharaoh’s own ruling, in effect beginning before Moses’s birth, that all first born Jewish males should be drowned in the Nile.

Still, an atheist could argue that God was petty when he enacted retribution against innocent people who were not complicit in Pharaoh’s genocidal attack on the Jews. I know that the antisemitic Jew who gave rise to my thoughts about Passover would have made that argument had he been just a little bit more knowledgeable about the Book of Exodus.

Some people try to explain away the escalating plagues in Egypt, culminating with the first born’s death, by saying that the plagues are nothing more than dramatic license, meant to increase the tension and danger surrounding the Jew’s escape from Egypt. After all, if the exodus had been easy, it wouldn’t have been much of a story. Imagine if Moses had asked, “Hey, Pharaoh, can we go?” and Pharaoh had answered, “Sure.”

That’s not a narrative with much punch or heroism, and God’s involvement is minimal or, at least, unexciting. It’s much more dramatic, and resonates more strongly with the people reliving the narrative every year, to have an escalating series of plagues, with the audience on tenterhooks as to whether those pesky Jewish slaves will actually be able to make a break for it.

This reasoning is silly. The Bible is not so superficial. There is, instead, a much more profound purpose behind the ten plagues, and that is to remind us of the tyrant’s capacity for tolerating others’ suffering, as long as his power remains in place.

What Pharaoh discovered with the first nine plagues is that life can go on, at least for the ruler, no matter the burdens placed upon his people. A blood filled Nile River may, at first, have seemed appalling, but the red receded and life went on. Pharaoh still held together his government. The same held true for each subsequent plague, whether lice or boils or wild animals or frogs, or whatever: As long as Pharaoh could maintain his power base, he could always reconcile himself to the incremental decimation visited upon those he ruled.

Sheltered in his lavish palace, Pharaoh might have a theoretical concern that a starving and frightened populace could turn on him. However, as long as he was assured that his people, despite the horrors inflicted against them, continued to fear and worship him, their suffering was irrelevant. It was only when the price became too high — when Pharaoh’s power base was destroyed because his citizens were destroyed and when the plague struck in his own palace, killing his own first born* — that Pharaoh was convinced, even temporarily, to alter his evil ways.

Human nature hasn’t changed much in 3,000 years. Think, for example, of both the Nazis and the Japanese at the end of WWII. For the Nazis, it was apparent by December 1944 (the Battle of the Bulge) that the war was over. Hitler, however, was a megalomaniac in the pharaonic mold, and his high command, either from fear or insanity, would not gainsay him. Rather than surrendering, the Nazi high command was willing to see its country overrun and its citizens killed. Only when the death toll became too high, when it was apparent that nothing could be salvaged from the ashes, and when the high command knew that the Americans and Russians were coming after them, personally, did the war on the continent finally end.

The same held true for the Japanese. Truman did not decide to drop the bomb just for the hell of it. Even the fact that it would impress the Soviets was an insufficient reason for doing so. What swayed Truman was the fact that his advisers told him (credibly as it turned out) that the Japanese Bushido culture would not allow Japan to surrender even when surrender had become the only reasonable option. Instead, the military warned Truman that, although the Americans would inevitably win the war, if Truman didn’t take drastic action, victory would take another year, and cost up to 100,000 American lives and at least that many Japanese lives (including Japanese civilians).

Truman therefore had two choices: another year of war, with the loss of 100,000 Americans and up to a million Japanese civilians; or an immediate stop to the war, with no more American casualties and an estimated 100,000 civilian Japanese casualties. Put that way, the choice was a no-brainer. The outcome would be the same for the Japanese, but Truman would save the lives of more than 100,000 Americans, not to mention the lives of British, Australian, and Dutch troops. The atom bomb also saved the lives of the civilian prisoners of war all over the Malayan peninsula. One of the Dutch POWS, incidentally, was my Mom, who was on the verge of starving to death in a Japanese concentration camp.

The Japanese high command was Pharaoh. No amount of smaller plagues could stop the command from its chosen path. Only a large plague would swiftly lead to the inevitable conclusion.

The only way to destroy an evil institution is to decapitate it. That’s what God did with the 10th plague. That’s what Truman did when he dropped atom bombs on Japan. That’s what the Allies did when they engaged in total war against the Nazis. In each case, making sure that the tyrant felt the pain personally was the only way to end that tyrant’s rampage of murder, torture, and enslavement.

What my antisemitic friend, and others who prefer the stability of tyranny to the risks of freedom, refuse to accept is that, under tyranny, the innocents are always going to die, with the only question being whether they will die quickly or slowly. That’s the problem with an evil regime. If you’re unlucky enough to live under that regime, whether or not you support it, you’re going to be cannon fodder. Pharaoh will let you die of plagues, and the Nazi and Japanese leadership will let you be bombed and burned, and Maduro will let his citizens eat garbage — as long as the tyrant can retain his power.

People of good will dedicated to freedom sometimes have to recognize that the generation raised up under tyranny is a lost generation that cannot be saved, whether because it will die under the tyrants lash or in a war against tyranny, or because, when it finally attains freedom, it is afraid to use it. The Bible recognizes this latter problem, because it bars from the Promised Land those who were slaves in Egypt. Even when Pharaoh no longer lashes his whip over them, they are incapable of freedom. One can remove them from the lash, but one cannot turn them into a free people. They are a lost generation.

For this reason, when one sees a people groaning under tyranny the most humane thing to do is to destroy the tyranny quickly and decisively even if those same people will suffer through the destruction. Most of them were always going to be lost. Our actions are for the benefit of subsequent generations and, if we are lucky, for those who survived both the tyranny and the liberation.

Protecting freedom for the greatest number of people sometimes demands proactive behavior. And there is nothing more proactive than an overwhelming response when a tyrant starts putting out feelers to see how far he can go. Had Chamberlain done that in 1938, WWII might have been avoided.** Had Obama done that in 2009 . . . . Well, think about it:

Thanks to Obama’s inaction during the 2009 Green Revolution, the Iranian people have suffered ten more years of fearful tyranny than they would have when they were willing to face down the tyrannical mullahs. Moreover, if Obama had acted and the Mullahs had been deposed, it’s entirely possible that Syria’s civil war, which Iran financed on Assad’s behalf, might never have happened. The 500,000 who died in Syria would still be alive. ISIS, which was birthed in Syria’s bloody war, might have died a’borning, saving thousands of lives in the Middle East, Europe, and America from its sadistic energies. And of course, the refugee crisis that is destroying the last vestiges of Western Enlightenment civilization in Europe might never have happened. One can credibly argue that Obama’s cowardly refusal to face down the Mullahs means that he has the blood of hundreds of thousands of people on his hands.

Closer to home, look at the Russia collusion hoax. Nixon’s Watergate was a one-time theft involving non-government actors in an effort to sway an election, yet it appropriately stirred an entire nation, both Democrats and Republicans. Russiagate was different: It was an ongoing spying and intimidation action involving the White House, the DOJ, the FBI, and the CIA. These extraordinarily powerful institutions worked together, first, to sway an election and, second, to take down a duly elected president. Moreover, when their conduct come to light, rather than stirring the outrage of an entire nation, one political party doubled-down on this illegal and un-American activity.

Mueller’s report, although it finally exonerated Trump and the people around him from colluding with Russia, nevertheless seeks to keep the tyrant’s hold over the attack on Trump and the election. It does this by focusing minutely on all the things that, ultimately, Trump and Co. didn’t do wrong, building them up into a laundry list of actions that imply to credulous, biased people that something bad really did happen. (As Scott Adams said in one of his podcasts, only deluded people look at a laundry list of zeros and conclude that ten zeroes makes one hundred, rather than . . . zero.) All the while, the report ignores entirely the Clinton camp’s collusion with Russia to get that Steele dossier and the Obama administration’s reliance on that manifestly partisan, faked dossier and its use of a covert police state to get Trump and overturn an election. And that’s not even to mention the icky stench the Mueller report deliberately left by refusing to acknowledge the obvious fact that Trump’s openly tweeted anger at a witch hunt, when coupled with his decision to do nothing to hinder the witch hunt, cannot amount to “obstruction.”

The Mueller report therefore, does not promote freedom; it is, instead, part of that same refusal to make a principled stand against illegal and un-American activity. If that’s not creeping tyranny that’s more Soviet in nature than American, I don’t know what is.

The only way to stop tyranny is to fight tyranny. That’s why I am happy to see that the Trump government will not let these bad actors slink away. Instead, it is turning a gimlet eye on these Leftist bullies. Moreover, rumor has it that many of those being investigated are saving themselves by selling each other out. This is how you end tyranny: you make the tyrants suffer.

Never forget, though, that those who are dedicated to freedom must never let their righteous anger turn into a corrosive rage that destroys them. Kay Wilson, who was almost murdered by Palestinian terrorists, and saw her friend hacked to death before her eyes, speaks about this:

With that, I’d like to wish all of you a Chag Sameach (Happy Passover). Whether Jewish or not, I hope that the Pesach celebration serves as an occasion for all of us to remember that, though the price may sometimes be high, both for slave and master, our goal as just and moral human beings must be freedom. So please join with me in saying, as all Jews do at this time of year, “Next Year in Jerusalem.”

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*The fact that Pharaoh survived the last of the ten plagues tells us that he was not the first born son of the previous pharaoh. Either an older sibling died or Pharaoh was the younger child in a family unrelated to the Egyptian ruling family and, through a coup, seized the throne.

**And yes, I am aware of the argument that Chamberlain might not have been Hitler’s dupe. Thanks to England’s anti-War fervor after WWI, which led to disarmament and the drawing down of her military, Chamberlain might have believed by 1938 that England could do nothing to stop Hitler. That belief would have led him to choose appeasement as the only option. I don’t agree with this view because bullies will back down quickly if their intended victim fights even minimally, but I’ll give Chamberlain the benefit of the doubt because he was a decent and patriotic man.

(A couple more things. I highly recommend Dennis Prager’s The Rational Bible: Exodus. If you don’t want to read the whole book, you can just buy h is The Ten Commandments: Still the Best Moral Code, which is a companion to his videos on the Ten Commandments. It’s a quick read and a refreshing one. Also, here’s the link for Wilson’s book, The Rage Less Traveled: A Memoir of Surviving a Machete Attack.)

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Religion should look like and act like religion — or why bother?

There’s nothing like trying to find a good synagogue to teach you that, when religion seeks meaning in pop culture not God, it no longer serves mankind.

Would any of you argue with me if I opened this post by saying that traditional religion is under attack in the West? No, I didn’t think so. Some religions, though, or at least some branches of the Judeo-Christian faiths, didn’t wait to be attacked. They just surrendered. They thought that, by surrendering, they’d stay alive, but they merely hastened their deaths. I have a few examples, and then I’ll see if I can use those examples to help prove my point.

On April 19, 2019, just as the sun is setting, Jews around the world will begin to celebrate Passover. According to tradition, Jews have been celebrating the Exodus story, and their escape from slavery, for more than 3,300 years. Even if one doubts tradition, it’s certain that they have been celebrating it for over 2,500 years.

As with all serious rituals, Passover follows a strict form. For thousands of years, in Israel itself, in Europe, in the Americas, in Asia, in Africa, and in the Middle East, in Australia and New Zealand, in whichever part of the world Jews have settled, they have taken seriously the admonition that they must commemorate the Exodus story. It’s a story that began when Moses, on behalf of an enslaved people, faced down the most powerful monarch in the world, a feat he accomplished because God was at his side and had his back. In different countries, there will be differences in food, language, clothes, furnishings, and music, but the core ceremony is always the same. Whether I go to a traditional seder in England or Argentina or Israel, I will feel at home.

Regular readings know that I grew up in a non-religious, yet highly Jewish, household. My father grew up in an orthodox German orphanage and then, having escaped the Nazis, spent the next two decades in British Mandate Palestine/Israel. My mother grew up the child of a mixed marriage, but from the age of 13, interrupted only by her years in a Japanese concentration camp, lived in British Mandate Palestine/Israel. For both, Jewish education and observance went without saying.

When my parents moved to America, though, they still thought that “being Jewish” went without saying. They were wrong. In America, if you want your kids to know Judaism, you must belong to a synagogue. It never occurred to them, though, to join one and, given my Dad’s long-standing communist tendencies, he would have resisted if my Mom had suggested they join. Moreover, given that my Mom’s favorite holiday was Christmas (remember that mixed marriage, right?), a wholly Jewish lifestyle wasn’t going to happen.

Nevertheless, in an interesting way, my childhood still managed to be wholly Jewish. Despite my Mom’s mixed DNA, she identified 100% as Jewish, as did my Dad. Having both been in the Israeli military during the Israeli War of Independence, they identified 100% as supporters of the world’s only Jewish state. With only one or two exceptions, all their friends were Jewish. My parents were steeped in Jewish history, values, and culture, which inevitably found its way into my psyche. Even in silly ways, we knew we were Jews. As kids, my sister and I could identify every old-time Hollywood star who was secretly Jewish (Leslie Howard, Lauren Bacall, June Allyson, John Gilbert, Edward G. Robinson, Theda Bara…. I can still list most of them).

Most importantly, although we did not observe the High Holidays (that would have involved paying to belong to a synagogue, plus Mom would never fast because, as she said, “I have low blood sugar”), we did celebrate Passover. Oy, did we celebrate it!

Given that my parents were bilingual in Hebrew and English (they were, in fact, multilingual, but that’s another story), we did the whole service in both Hebrew and English. Also, we sang all the songs twice. Why twice? Because my parents grew up knowing different versions. They always fought over which was the “correct” version, so we always did both versions.

In my memory, the Passover dinner lasted eight or ten hours, but I think, more accurately, from the moment we sat down until we kids went hunting for the afikoman, the meal ran about three hours. Still, though it was long, I loved certain parts of it. I loved the four questions, I loved placing drops of hyper-sweet, purple-red Magen David wine on the plate to commemorate the ten plagues, I loved singing the songs (both versions), and I loved, really loved, the haroset, which is a wonderful blend of chopped apples and walnuts, flavored with honey, cinnamon, and a dash of lemon (or sweet wine). The haroset more than made up for having to take (tiny) bites of maror, the bitter herb to remind us of the pain of slavery. (Our maror was horseradish from the local grocery.)

Every year, Passover was a ritual observance. Every year, we children were reminded of the Passover story and the glories of individual liberty. Year after year, Passover carved out a very specific place in my memory, the only place in my childhood deliberately reserved for God.

My seders stopped when I ceased to be a child in my parents’ house. I had almost no Jewish friends and it never occurred to me to take the lead in my own Jewishness. Eventually, I married a man who had been raised in a house even less religious than mine and he viewed Passover as anathema because he believes it celebrates of mass murder. (His views, along with the views of other Jews hostile to Passover, became the genesis for my annual Passover post.) I decided that it was better to raise my children Passover-free rather than have an annual fight over whether Passover is a good thing or a bad one.

However, in the interval between leaving my parents’ home and having my own, I attended two memorable Passover dinners, courtesy of Jewish friends. Both seders departed from tradition in significant ways, and both made me wonder why, if you take traditional values out of religion, including God, you should even bother with the pretense of being religious.

The first memorable seder occurred when a college friend invited me to share her Passover. Because the family attended a southern conservative synagogue, I was worried that their seder would be even longer and more religious than the ones from my childhood. I need not have worried.

Although my friend’s family could not have been more welcoming (I still consider my friend and her family among the best and nicest people I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing), their approach to Passover dismayed me. They rushed through every prayer, skipped the songs, and wouldn’t stop talking about everything but Passover through the entire, very abbreviated ceremony. That was when I — the most non-religious person in the world and, at that time, an avowed atheist — concluded that, if you’re going to do religion, do it right. Otherwise, why bother? This ceremony was just a long dinner. It had no greater meaning.

Around five years later, I was working in San Francisco, so at least 1/5 of my friends and colleagues were gay. One of those gay colleagues very kindly invited me to his Passover celebration. I was the only straight person there. To be clear, the host and his other guests made me feel incredibly welcome and the food was traditional and delicious (more traditional, in fact, than my mother’s would have been). Moreover, unlike the seder with my southern friends, this seder followed closely the framework of a traditional Passover service.

What made the whole thing peculiar, though, and left me feeling very distant both from my childhood Passovers and from the Book of Exodus itself, was the fact that the attendees recast the ceremony entirely. It was not about God freeing the Jewish slaves and preparing them for the Land of Israel. Instead, it was all about the gay struggle to come out of the closet. God really had no place in this service. I left well fed and having had a good time, but believe me when I say that “Nearer my God to thee” was not the refrain playing in my head. The louder song was probably “YMCA.”

Not long after that second Passover seder, I attended two weddings within two weeks. One couple belonged to a deeply conservative Christian faith and participated in the most traditional service I’ve ever attended; the other couple had one of their friend gets a mail-order New Age ministry certificate in order to perform their “joining ceremony.” In the first ceremony, the couple made a series of covenants to each other, each of which had God as the central figure in the covenant. In the second ceremony, the couple said they liked each other and vowed to hang out together as long as they continued to like each other. I was pretty certain that the first marriage would last. I knew, however, that the second wouldn’t last and, indeed, it was over less than a year later.

All of which brings me to today, when I had three reminders that one should look to religion for one’s values, as opposed to demanding that one’s religion look to pop culture for its values. The first reminder came about when I went looking online for a synagogue. It’s been a long time since I’ve attended a regular sabbath service and, for varying reasons, I decided now was the time.

Based upon my “If I’m doing religion, I’m going to do the real thing,” I looked for a conservative synagogue. As far as I’m concerned, based upon attending innumerable bar and bat mitzvahs over the years, reform synagogues are way too kumbaya for me. There’s lots of hand holding, clapping, and navel gazing, but a peculiar absence of religious rigor. I therefore searched for a “conservative synagogue” in my area.

The top hit billed itself as a “conservative synagogue.” Nevertheless, I felt a little worried when I saw it boasting that it is “egalitarian” and conducts an “alternative” service, whatever the heck is. The website didn’t explain either of those terms, but they sound suspiciously like virtue signaling to me.

I thought that I might learn something by reading the rabbi’s bio. The rabbi turned out to be Harvard-educated, which is already a clue that this synagogue probably has a non-traditional edge. Sorry, but I’m biased.

Reading further did not change my instinctive take about the rabbi. Before becoming a rabbi, he worked trying to push a two-state solution for Israelis and Palestinians. Hmmm. Harvard he may be, but that position doesn’t argue well for his intelligence. While Leftists relentlessly push for a two-state solution, Palestinians are very clear that they want a one-state solution: their state, built on the bloodied bodies of dead Jews. As far as I’m concerned, those who keep insisting that Israel “negotiate” with people who openly want Israelis dead are not very bright.

But you know what killed it for me? And I mean absolutely killed it: At the end, of the rabbi’s little bio, the bearded man (there was a photo) who boasted about his lovely wife and children, included his pronouns. Given that the congregation is allegedly conservative, I should have been grateful that his pronouns were “He/ his/ him” but I wasn’t grateful. I was disgusted.

Just yesterday, a tweet reminded me that the Old Testament is old-fashioned in that it posits a binary world:

While God may have a male and female element (since both men and women were created in his image), we’re not supposed to. We’re not gods. We’re just created in his image, with God having separated his male and female identities into two distinct parts. Thus, as with so many things in the Old Testament, the world is clearly divided: Clean and unclean, holy and profane, man and woman. A manifestly male rabbi in a conservative synagogue should not be suggesting otherwise. (I have since decided that I’ll go to the local Chabad house.)

And then, just to round out today’s thoughts about religion functioning as religion, rather than as a soothing gloss on top of pop culture, I saw a post at PJ Media: Nuns Should Look Like Nuns, not Real Estate CEOs with Dolled up Hair and Hoop Earrings. The author, Thom Nickels, writes about a parochial school childhood in which nuns dressed like nuns, complete with traditional habits. He then describes his experience a few years ago, when he found himself in conversation with a nun:

Several years ago I had the privilege of talking to a modern St. Joe’s nun when I went to a friend’s Vesper memorial service at Rosemont College.

At the reception, I sat beside a neatly coiffed woman whom I assumed was a college administrator or bank executive. She wore an emerald broach, amber earrings, a silk scarf, as well as a perfume I’ve often smelled while walking through the women’s department in Macy’s.

While slicing into a lamb chop, I asked the woman, “What do you do for a living?” When she told me that she was a St. Joe’s nun I thought of the old nuns in my parochial school with their towering headgear and veils. What a difference forty years makes.

“You’re really a nun?” I said. In my own way, I was showing her that I disapproved of her lay clothing.

I looked in vain for a microscopic lapel cross pin that might indicate Sisterhood, but instead found the broach that indicated Macy’s.

Nichols was dismayed and, in writing about that dismay, he makes a very important point:

While many Catholic women’s religious orders ditched the habit after Vatican II, many orders did not. It’s also true that some religious orders have returned to the traditional habit. It may seem odd, but surveys indicate that “secular dress” orders like the St. Joe’s nuns are experiencing a decline in membership, whereas convents where the traditional habit is worn are experiencing huge membership booms.

I’ve always believed that visual symbols are powerful because they relay a message.

[snip]

At my parish church, St. Michael Archangel Orthodox church in Northern Liberties, I had my first interaction with an Orthodox nun from the famous St. Martyr Princess Elisabeth Monastery founded in 1999 in the Minsk region of Russia. This particular sister was touring the States to give a lecture on the work of her convent and school, a boarding home for children and adults with special needs, and a homecare facility for mentally challenged children.

The sister in question wore a full, traditional habit, standard operating procedure for nuns in the Eastern Church.

The same might be said of the Dali Lama, who travels the world dressed as a Buddhist monk, and who has never gone to Brooks Brothers or Macy’s in order to be outfitted in secular clothing or jewelry of any kind so that he can “fit in” and disappear.

When you have a message to deliver, it pays to stand out.

It’s not just that it pays to stand out, of course. If you’re neither willing to walk the walk nor talk the talk (nor dress the dress), you don’t seem to believe in your own message. And if you don’t believe in your message, why should I? Instead, you’ve just got a job like any other job and why in the world should I care.

It’s no surprise that religious institutions that pander to pop culture are failing, while those that don’t have continuing vitality. Religion, by standing apart from other institutions, serves vital functions: Most importantly (to my mind), it reminds us that we are not animals. Sure, we’re mammals, and we share DNA with monkeys and worms, but the fact is that we are very, very special animals because we have cognitive abilities and existential awareness that other animals lack.

No matter how clever or smart animals are, no matter their extraordinary skills, no matter their ability to feel love, joy, hate, and fear, I will stake my life on the fact that no animal asks “Why am I here?” or makes the philosophical statement “I think, therefore I am.”

As I told my son when he was a very little boy, lions are not “bad” because they kill. They kill because that’s how they eat. They don’t have the cognitive ability to reshape alternative food sources to satisfy their nutritional needs nor can they question the righteousness of what they do. They just do.

(In the same way, as an aside, all those Marvel superheroes are boring, because their super powers mandate success and make courage meaningless. A man throwing himself onto a bomb to save his comrades, knowing he will die, is brave. A superhero doing his/her superhero thing is as mindless, in a way, as that lion.)

The moral component of religion is incredibly important, and this is where the pop culture pandering is such a problem. Religion creates standards.

A healthy religion is predicated on recognizing every individual’s divine spark. Based upon that premise, it sets out rules for living that optimize healthy relationships at both the broadest and smallest reaches of society. In that regard, I highly recommend Dennis Prager’s 10 Commandments videos, for they explain how the Commandments are just irritating prohibitions against letting people “be free,” but are, instead, the surest pathway to a free, safe, and successful society. The Ten Commandments set out abstract principles that, once properly understood, can and should apply to all people regardless of race, color, country of national original, sex, sexual orientation, etc. Once a society catches on to this, you will not find a better place or time on earth to live.

In the same way, an unhealthy religion, rather than recognizing that we are all God’s creatures, instead creates unhealthy hierarchies that confer special status upon the few and then allows those few to do whatever they need in order to bring the rest of humankind to heel. Morality isn’t based upon abstract ideals that guide all people. Instead unhealthy religions have myriad, often constantly mutating, rules that enforce the hierarchy, that are often random in application, and that can be incredibly cruel (and equally random) in effect.

Leftism is one of those unhealthy religions. And Islam, if practiced in perfect accordance with Mohamed’s teachings, is unhealthy as well.

Healthy religions can become unhealthy if those in charge decide that, to remain “relevant,” they must abandon their larger, traditional principles and, instead, look to pop culture and Leftism for guidance.

Matthew writes that Jesus warned against the folly of building a house on sand:

Therefore whosoever heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them, I will liken him unto a wise man, which built his house upon a rock:

And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell not: for it was founded upon a rock.

And every one that heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them not, shall be likened unto a foolish man, which built his house upon the sand:

And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell: and great was the fall of it. (Matthew 7:24-27)

Those faiths that choose pop culture as their moral guide (i.e., He / him / his), aren’t building their house on sand, they’re building it on sewage. When the rains come and those houses collapse, they won’t just be washed away, they will be drowned in a cesspit of ideas drawn from a grotesque amalgam of Hollywood and Leftism.

I understand that religions grow and change with the times. (For example, while I find this wedding tradition fascinating and rather beautiful, especially considering that it probably hasn’t changed in 250 years, it would not be for me and I’m grateful that there are less intensive alternatives.) Reform can be a wonderful and, in same cases, a necessary thing.

But if that reform takes you away from central principles and even away from God himself, I ask again: Why bother? You don’t want religion; you just want to force a traditional institution to make you feel good about yourself. Worse, you’re willing to destroy the institution — and the benefits that accrue to society if the institution is an inherently healthy one — to reach that end.

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