Category Archives: Dilemmas

A Plea to Reform Jews

The two subjects that should never be discussed in polite society are religion and politics; but society has not been polite for an awfully long time. If you are easily offended by religious discussions, you’d best skip this post and move on to another one.

A thoughtful analysis of religiosity will show that the road between the states of disbelief and belief are bi-directional; that is, one may start off as a non-believer and convert to a true believer, or one may start off as a true believer and become a non-believer. Of course we can imagine all sorts of permutations and combinations derived from a wide range states in between. One may even start out in one direction and turn back towards the opposite direction or even stand still wherever he/she happens to be between the two end-states.

I’m talking about the possible, not necessarily what may or may not be desirable in someone’s eyes.

I’m a non-believer, somewhere between an atheist and an agnostic. I don’t really have enough evidence about the existence of God as He/She/It is commonly defined (Creator and Prime Mover of the Universe) one way or the other. I would prefer to exist in a Universe in which God exists, but I don’t have any evidence that I’m in such a Universe. Of course I wouldn’t prefer to exist in a Universe in which God, as commonly defined (Chooser of one people over another ignoring the rest of His Creation, Creator of Heaven for true believers and Hell for non-believers, and Tester of peoples’ faith by commanding them to sacrifice their children) existed. I would prefer and follow a God who loved all his creation equally, who was fundamentally rational, and who was ethical; who was patient with questioners and doubters, and provided us examples we could live by.

I was raised as a Reform Jew. I grew to appreciate many elements of it over time. Much of what I wrote above about my preferences for a God are derived from what I learned from Reform rabbis in sermons, weekly religious classes, and frequent family discussions. There were some things I disagreed with, like the moral of Abraham’s readiness to sacrifice Isaac on the improvised altar on Mount Moriah. I thought Abraham should have stood up to God and rejected His command to sacrifice his son. How many people since Abraham have heard voices commanding them to kill their spouses or children? We hear lots of voices in our heads but we are not supposed to act uncritically on them. Anyway I learned that moral arguments were acceptable.

I would say that, for me, Reform Judaism was probably the last (or the first, depending on which direction you’re going) gas station on the long road of religiosity between belief and disbelief.

From what I had been exposed to, it became clear to me that Reform Judaism was an enlightened, tolerant, and liberal religion. We studied the other religions around us in order to understand the differences and commonalities between us. That orientation spilled over into the daily lives of Reform Jews. When I came across Voltaire’s famous quote from his letter to Monsieur le Riche, “I detest what you write, but I would give my life to make it possible for you to continue to write”, it came naturally to me to accept it as an ethical and worthy statement. It was the kind of thing we were likely to hear in a Reform Jewish sermon.

I continued to grow within Reform Judaism, often comfortably but sometimes struggling with some aspect or other, through high school, college, the US Army, marriage with a beautiful Israeli sabra (native), and raising our son in America. Then we decided to pick up our roots and make aliyah (immigrate) from a Democratic country (USA) based on a written constitution, majority rule and minority rights, and the separation of Church and State to a Democratic country (Israel) without a written constitution, majority rule but without minority rights, and no separation of Synagogue and State.

When I arrived in Israel I found that the ultra-Orthodox Jewish rabbinate and religious parties maintained de facto control over marriage, divorce, burial rights, access to the Wailing Wall (Western Wall of the Temple Mount), Jewish conversion, etc. That’s all part of the political status quo, an unwritten agreement that maintains whatever the situation was current at the time that the ultra-Orthodox agreed to support Ben Gurion in his bid to establish a Jewish state. Ben Gurion was desperate. Without the support of the ultra-Orthodox and the ultra-ultra-Orthodox, he felt he would not be able to claim that God promised the land of Israel to the Jews. It was written in the bible that all modern monotheists hold holy. Ben Gurion apparently didn’t believe the Holocaust would be enough to persuade the geopolitical powers that be that the Jews deserved to have their own land. In Haifa the buses and businesses are open during the Sabbath; in Jerusalem they are not. Now the status quo is not good enough for the ultra-Orthodox; they want to codify it into law. They want the Israeli Supreme Court to accept the status quo as axiomatic.

Other things I discovered after arriving in Israel were that Reform Judaism is just about the most despicable thing that exists, worthy only of being spit on or stoned, desirous of diluting the blood of the Jewish people, misleading them, and attracting believers away from Orthodoxy to Reform. Frequently, on slow news days, you’d hear reports of veiled or unveiled threats made over phone to Reform rabbis and cantors, stones thrown through Reform temple windows, and spray-painted slogans on temple walls. The police never found the perpetrators. I used to mention how I felt about it to my local friends, but I soon discovered a lack of empathy on that score. It appeared that even among traditional believers and non-believers, the ultra-Orthodox propaganda against Reform Jews was taken as in the case of “where there’s smoke there’s probably fire”. I learned to keep my particular brand of religion to myself.

As time went on I found my belief in Reform Judaism eroded, along with my belief in Judaism or any other religion. There are too many reasons to go into why it happened in this post; maybe another time.

This is just so that you will know where I’m coming from.

Reform Jews comprise roughly 80% of American Jewry; Conservatives roughly 15%; Orthodox the remainder. American Jews have been very generous and charitable, but Jewish American support (financial and political) for Israel has been declining over the years (1997 – 2017).

In spite of the fact that there are many reasons why Reform Jews around the world would rather not give their hard-earned charity and support to Israel or would prefer to redirect their funds and support to more democratic or pluralistic groups in Israel, Israel needs your support and funds now as much as ever. People outside the Middle East (including the Americans) seem to believe that Israel is invincible; after all, they have won every war since gaining their independence in 1948. Those same people don’t seem to realize just how close Israel came to losing the October War in 1973.

I appeal to your tolerant and liberal hearts to give what you can to support Israel as it is today, good, bad, and the ugly. If any enlightened, liberal, or tolerant voice is raised in Israel and it becomes known, hinted at, or public record that that voice received special funding from overseas, that voice will lose its legitimacy here.

I appeal to you to remember the words of Voltaire and take them to heart in our case: I [may] detest what you [say or do], but I would give my life to make it possible for you to continue to [say or do so]”.

According to Maimonides’ Eight Levels of Charity, “The greatest level (of charity), above which there is no greater, is to support a fellow Jew by endowing him with a gift or loan, or entering into a partnership with him, or finding employment for him, in order to strengthen his hand until he need no longer be dependent upon others”.

Mike Stone

Raanana Israel

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The Stone Conjecture

Today I was listening to my favorite Saturday morning radio broadcast, Dr. Yitzhak Noy reading and commenting on interesting newspaper articles from around the world. I had just come back from walking Daisy and tuned in to the tail end of an article he read about these strange bursts of radio energy and how some astronomers at Harvard had suggested they might be alien space travelers zipping around our galaxy at close to the speed of light.

Well, since I didn’t think Harvard was your usual source of unsubstantiated “Abducted by UFO” headlines, my curiosity was piqued and I Googled some key words and phrases I remembered from the article Dr. Noy had talked about and found Fast Radio Bursts Might Come From Nearby Stars from 2013 and then Harvard Scientists Theorize That Fast Radio Bursts Come From Alien Space Travel from a couple weeks ago (March 9, 2017).

Why was I intrigued? Although the conspiracy theories about incarcerating little green beings with elongated heads in Area 51 or UFOs coming to us from millions of light years away just to make crop circles, mess with our minds, and leave before we can talk to them may very well be true, I tend not to believe them because there seem to me to be many alternate explanations that could be offered that would be just as good if not better. Remember Occam’s Razor. The simplest explanation of those available to us is most probably the correct one. Here’s what intrigued me about the Fast Radio Bursts: since 2007 when they were first discovered by astronomers, nobody had ever come up with an explanation of how they could occur naturally. In other words, there were no other competing theories. The Harvard researchers went one step further and used currently accepted engineering principles to show how an alien technology could propel space craft weighing a million tons at 20% of the speed of light and be visible to us in the frequency and amplitude our radio telescopes recorded.

Anyway, I didn’t want to talk about this particular speculation about Fast Radio Bursts. If you want, you can read the articles yourselves. But the articles did get me thinking about what other kinds of conjectures might be made.

So, without further ado …

The Stone Conjecture:

  1. Life is probably pretty common in a mature universe. The first generation of stars after the Big Bang were made of relatively simple elements, but subsequent generations of stars were composed of increasingly heavier elements in a variety of configurations. Atoms of various elements bound together into increasingly complex molecules, giving rise to organic molecules. When the circumstances proved adequate, organic molecules combined into organelles and cellular structures igniting the engine of life. Cells differentiated into colonies of specialized organs giving rise to plants and animals on our planet to adapt to its ecosystem. When the variety and complexity of these adaptive systems reached a critical mass, consciousness arose and then self-consciousness. The same kinds of processes probably happened with other kinds of systems in other kinds of ecosystems randomly occurring around our galaxy and others throughout the universe. A system beyond a certain level of quantity, variety, and complexity would be unlikely to remain integrated in a dynamically changing ecosystem over a certain period of time without developing self-consciousness. Entropy would cause the system to break down. This is what happens when we die.
  2. Given #1, self-conscious life that developed significantly before us would possibly be significantly more advanced than us. The stars in the center of our galaxy probably gave rise to civilizations far more advanced than civilizations in our solar system located pretty far out along an arm of our galaxy. Our local star was created long after the stars clustering around our galactic center. What I’m talking about is only orthogonal to the Kardashev scale.
  3. There may be more dimensions of space than the three we perceive. Given #2, an advanced civilization might know whether there are more than three dimensions and take advantage of those dimensions in traveling from one point to another or they would perceive only the three dimensions of space that we perceive.
  4. Given #3, if space spreads out over more than the three dimensions we perceive, then an advanced alien civilization would either know the short cuts through higher dimensions from one point to another or know how to warp one of the observable dimensions to access hyperspace.
  5. As far as we can see with our telescopes pointed in every direction from the vicinity of our planet, there is something: meteors, moons, planets, stars, and galaxies. What we can’t see is probably dark matter. These are all potential obstacles for us to travel in a single vector at or near the speed of light. In other words, in order to avoid running into these obstacles we’d probably have to slow down our speed significantly and jinx up, down, left, or right, to go around.
  6. If there are only the three dimensions we perceive, then traveling through the galaxy at close to the speed of light would require tunnels of emptiness through our galaxy. Tunnels of emptiness through our galaxy or any other would not appear naturally. It might be an indication that an advanced civilization had ploughed that tunnel to allow near light speed travel. Travel between galaxies at light speed could probably be made without tunnels because the space is mostly empty. Of course there is the issue of dark matter, but current theories posit that matter does not interact with dark matter. See Why Doesn’t Dark Matter Interact with Ordinary Matter.

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Roll Over Maslow

Some of you have heard of Maslow’s Pyramid, a diagram representing a man’s or woman’s hierarchy of needs. The pyramid is divided into five levels from the wide base to the narrow apex.

The first and lowest level at the base of the pyramid represents our Physiological needs: the physical requirements for human survival, air, water, and food. The inability to satisfy needs at this level means death for the individual.

The second level just above the first represents our Safety and Security needs: the absence of war, natural disaster, violence, abuse, and the requirements for personal security, financial security, health and well-being, and protection from the adverse impacts of accidents or illness. The inability to satisfy needs at this level can engender post-traumatic stress disorder and other extreme psychological coping mechanisms.

The third level represents our need for Love and Belonging: being part of a family, having friends, and having a significant Other with whom one can be intimate, both sexually and non-sexually. Not satisfying these needs can lead to loneliness, anxiety, or depression.

The fourth level represents our need for Esteem: status, recognition, fame, prestige, attention, strength, competence, mastery, self-confidence, independence, and freedom.

The fifth and highest level at the top of the pyramid represents our need for Self-Actualization: to become the most that one can be. Whatever one can do, one must do.

During Maslow’s final years, he posited a sixth level, above all the rest, which he called self-transcendence: giving oneself to some higher goal outside oneself, in altruism and spirituality, thinking about the ends rather than the means, to oneself, to significant Others, to all mankind, to other species, and to the Universe.

The most basic needs must be satisfied before the higher needs. Each level of needs depends on the satisfaction of the needs of the previous levels.

But then I thought about what an amazing species we really are and how there are those among us who could flip Maslow’s Pyramid over on its head, so that the highest levels become prerequisites, pre-conditions, for what were previously the lower levels, that our need for self-transcendence precedes and overrides our need for self-actualization, which overrides our need for esteem, which overrides our need for love and belonging, which overrides our need for safety and security, which overrides our physiological needs.

Yes, there are people like that.

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Message in a Bottle

Nothing is more desperate, more poignant, more romantic than a message in a bottle. You visualize a beautiful young woman or a handsome young man on a lost island writing a letter, possibly with a description of the constellations he sees in the night sky, tracking them in their arcs from sunset to sunrise, possibly including an inventory of the few remaining supplies, and possibly mentioning the young family waiting at home, the love that was abandoned or passed up, or the wrong which was never admitted.

You visualize these things written on a ragged scrap of parchment rolled into a cylinder, stuffed into a bottle, sealed with a cork, and cast in a long arc over the waves crashing against the beach, into waters moving in a deeper current away from the island toward someone also handsome or beautiful who will find the small bottle floating between the waves in the immenseness of the ocean stretching from horizon to horizon, someone who will be able to decipher the strange markings on the parchment, someone who will care enough to drop everything and change course, setting sail for the lost island where the desperate writer waits before it is too late.

And what is the Voyager 1 space probe, launched from Earth in 1977, reporting back to us all it sees until 2025 when it will continue its blind inertia towards the star Gliese 445 somewhere in the constellation Camelopardalis about 40,000 years from now, carrying a gold-plated audio-visual disc in the event that the spacecraft is ever found by intelligent life forms from other planetary systems, but a message in a bottle cast into the endless seas of space, even smaller and darker than a bottle floating between the waves on a moonless night?

But if it is found, the Voyager 1 that is, will the finders be smart enough to decipher our strange markings? Will they be kind enough to come rescue us from our loneliness and ourselves? Will they laugh at our primitive efforts or even recognize them as worthy of scrutiny? If they do come, will they come in peace or will they come as we do, wreaking havoc and extinction upon us? We are the most destructive species that has ever lived on our planet. Are we the norm in our galaxy or in our universe? If not, then how do we expect our alien rescuers to welcome us into the family of worlds? But if so, then we should cease shining our beacons at the stars and our explorations of distant worlds before they detect us and come to root out the risk to the universe while it is still small and confined.

Mike Stone

Raanana Israel

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An Interview with the Empty Chair of the British Labour Party

(Note: the incumbent chairman of the British Labour Party is Jeremy Corbyn, who has been accused by people of his own political party of being anti-Semitic, although he claims only to be anti-Zionist, for his comments likening Israel to ISIS. For context, please click on “Chief Rabbi condemns ‘offensive’ Corbyn anti-Semitism comments“. In another note, psychologists often encourage their patients to act out their feelings about certain people who have had a significantly negative impact on their lives by speaking to an empty chair opposite them as though that person were sitting in the chair. Therefore, you may glean from this that the interview is fictitious and has never, in fact, occurred.)

Mike: First of all, I would like to thank you, sir, for granting me an interview with you on such short notice.

Jeremy: (no response)

Mike: Your comment that “our Jewish friends are no more responsible for the actions of Israel or the Netanyahu government than our Muslim friends are for those various self-styled Islamic states or organisations” caused many people in your party and outside of it to believe that you equated Israel with ISIS, since the only self-styled Islamic state that is not in fact a state is ISIS. (Well, maybe also the West Bank, ruled by the Palestinian Authority, and Gaza, which is ruled by Hamas.) The former Chief Rabbi, Lord Jonathan Sacks, called your comparison a “demonisation of the highest order.”

Jeremy: (no response)

Mike: Would you like to hear what Member of the Israeli Knesset, Ms. Tzipi Livni, had to say about your comment? She said, “not all Brits are to blame for Corbyn.”

Jeremy: (no response)

Mike: If you don’t mind too much, sir, I would like to explore your difficulty in differentiating between Israel and ISIS.

Jeremy: (no response)

Mike: Would you be willing to grant an interview, as we are enjoying now, alone together without body guards, with a representative of ISIS? Would you be willing to travel to the headquarters of ISIS, I believe it is currently in Mosul Iraq, to sit down for a tête-à-tête with one of their esteemed representatives? How about coming to Israel, even though we don’t like you very much, not even our own Labour Party, for a tête-à-tête with one of our people?

Jeremy: (no response)

Mike: Yes, I said “we” and “our” because, in addition to my being an American, I am also a Jew and an Israeli. I can tell you honestly that nobody in the world wants peace more than Israel, nobody. A thought just occurred to me: have you ever wondered why those who support our sworn enemies press on us to offer land for peace, instead of peace for peace? Don’t our enemies want peace? Don’t the supporters of our enemies want peace for our enemies?

Jeremy: (no response)

Mike: It’s because the promise of peace is just a bunch of words, cheaply given and easily forgotten or misinterpreted, but land is survival. Land is defensible. Land is where you can live. We’ve tried many times to live in words, but we can’t. You, sir, should try living only in words. You’ll see that it is impossible. Please consider that when you try whittle down our small land to the point that it would be quite indefensible. I’ll admit that not everyone in Israel is willing to take another chance at peace. Have you heard what our enemies say they’d do to us, if they could? Oh, that’s right, you don’t speak their language.

Jeremy: (no response)

Mike: Thank you once again for this interview. It has cleared the air. If you don’t mind, I’ll just move your chair back to our dining room table where it belongs. We’re expecting guests soon.

Mike Stone

Raanana Israel

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The Chocolate Shop

“What? You don’t like chocolate anymore?” He asked them.

“No, Saba,” Tommy was pulling away. “I still like chocolate. It’s just that I don’t want to go here.”

The older man looked inside at the tables and chairs, the shelves of light and dark chocolates, the cloudy displays of ice creams and sherbets, and the nice looking young girl holding the menus standing in the open door way smiling at them. It looked like nothing had ever happened here. It looked like a perfect place to take his two grandkids for a holiday weekend.

Daniel was busy double-thumbing something on his smartphone and didn’t seem to notice where he was at the moment.

“Why, Tommy?” he asked.

“Because,” Tommy said.

Daniel stopped double-thumbing and explained, “He doesn’t want to go inside because this is where those terrorists came in and shot and killed those four people.”

Tommy nodded his head somberly, agreeing with his brother for a change.

“Oh,” the older man said, “I see.”

They walked over to the low wall surrounding the open square where kids were skating and riding their bikes. They all sat down facing the square with their backs to the chocolate shop only ten meters away.

“If the world is such a good place, why are there such bad people?” Tommy asked his Saba, which means “grampa” in our language.

“I ask myself that all the time,” he replied. “If the world is such a bad place, why are there such good people as you kids and your parents?”

“That’s not what he asked, Saba!” Daniel interjected. He was the wiser of the two brothers. He was going to be bar mitzvahed next month. A long time ago, when we lived in tents in the desert, that was when a boy became a man. He still felt like a kid though. “He said ‘if the world is such a good place …'”

“I know what he said, Daniel,” the older man smiled. “I just wanted to show you both that reversing what he asked was also an interesting question.”

Tommy said, “What I meant was why do bad things happen? Why can’t we be protected from them?”

“Your parents, your brother and sisters, your grandparents, and everyone else who loves you want more than anything in the world to protect you from bad things,” Saba said, “more than they would want to protect themselves.”

“But what happens if you are not with us?” Daniel asked.

“That’s why we try to keep you close to us when we go somewhere.”

“What if the bad people are stronger than you?”

“Love gives good people strength they didn’t know they had.”

“What if they shoot you?”

“There will be good people around you who will try to protect you.”

“What if they run away with their kids or what if they’ve been shot too?”

Saba was quiet for a few moments. He didn’t really believe in God but he didn’t want to weaken their confidence. Neither did he want to lie to them.

Daniel asked, “Why do bad people do bad things anyway? Don’t they know they’re not good?”

Saba was thankful to be rescued from the previous line of questioning. “I don’t believe they think they’re doing anything wrong. Nobody does anything wrong intentionally. Everyone believes what he’s doing is the right thing to do.”

“How can anyone think killing an innocent person is the right thing to do?”

“Maybe we killed an innocent person whom they loved very much, like we love you, and they wanted revenge for what we did.”

“Why would we do that? We don’t go around killing children, women, or old people. Sorry, Saba.”

“Maybe we killed an innocent person by accident when we were trying to kill terrorists.”

“But who started it?”

“Nobody remembers. Everyone believes his enemies started it.”

“But who really started it?”

“I don’t know. It depends on who’s doing the counting.”

“Don’t they know we wouldn’t kill innocent people on purpose?”

“They don’t care what we say or think. They just care about what we do, like us. We don’t care what they say or think either, just what they do.”

“Why do they think revenge is the right thing to do?”

“They think that revenge is a kind of justice, when no other form of justice is available to them, just like many of us do, and everyone believes that justice is the right thing to do.”

“I wanted revenge when one of my classmates said I was too short to play basketball at recess,” Tommy admitted.

“What did you do?”

“Well, at first, I wanted to punch him in the stomach.”

“So what did you do?”

“I threw the ball into the basket. Everybody laughed at that and he said I could be on his team if I wanted.”

“If only people could think of other things to do to get even, besides killing, that would be good,” Daniel raised his finger wisely.

“Anybody up for an ice cream,” Saba asked, standing up and stretching his arms and back, “somewhere else?”

“Yes!” they both answered.

The older man offered each his hand and they walked away from the chocolate shop on the square. He said a silent prayer to no one in particular that today wouldn’t be the day and this would not be the place.

Mike Stone

Raanana Israel

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23,447

The price of our freedom which is not guaranteed, the price of not going gently into that night: 23,447. Every year it goes up. Impossible to calculate. How many worlds does it take to save a world? How much longer will we be able to hear the names and stories of our fallen? When will enough be enough for all sides?

Mike Stone

Raanana Israel

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