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Isn't it pretty?

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Ethics, Morality and Religion (or Not)

There has been a lot of talk in the Blogosphere lately about whether morality is necessarily based on the existence of a God and whether atheists can have a moral code without it. I'm going to jump on the bandwagon here (as much as I make attempts not to) and write a post of my own on the topic. Because I haven't managed to actually read all the posts out there about the topic, I'm not going to argue with anyone or rebut anyone else's point. I'm just going to try to figure out my own.

My undergrad program required each student to take an ethics class. I learned a TON in my ethics class; the phrase categorical imperative still haunts me and the thought of Hobbes' philosophy of humans being in a natural state of war still fills me with dread and sadness. Even more, the memory of being one of only two people in my class arguing that people want to do good to others, unselfishly, still manages to deflate my idealistic bubble just a bit.

The instructor of my class happened to be the best professor I have ever had, and I had taken a class with him previously and gotten to be friendly with him outside of class. Unbeknownst to the rest of the class, my professor was an atheist. He was also one of the most moral people I have known, and while we certainly differed on our views of the origin of the world, we agreed on a lot.

Being an ethical atheist can't be easy. And while he strived to do the right thing, he messed up sometimes, even making big mistakes that he really regretted. But you know what? We all make mistakes; I honestly don't believe it has anything to do with our belief or disbelief in God.

What I think was different about this professor was that he really thought about what was right or wrong; he didn't defer to a Higher Authority, or someone interpreting the words of a Higher Authority. He looked inside himself and asked whether his actions were going to hurt another person; he took full responsibility for his decisions, good or bad.

And that's a big part of what bothers me about religious people claiming that there are no morals or ethics without religion. The people saying it, often haven't really thought about their morals and ethics - they have learned what their Holy Book and Higher Authority say they should do and they accept it. And many times they use these Holy Books and Higher Authority to justify what, if you take the categorical imperative, or often just your common sense, says is wrong. From killing and stealing, to evading taxes and the laws of the country you live in, various very "religious" people use what they claim to be God's laws to justify and rationalize behavior that, if others did unto to them (aka the Golden Rule), they would be very upset about.

Do atheists need a God to justify their actions - to lie, cheat, steal? No. And in some ways, I think it's a nobler take on things, because they have no creed or Authority to blame their actions upon - they have only to take the blame themselves. They can say they don't think their negative actions are wrong, and pay the consequences just as we all do, but they don't fall back on anyone else.

I'm not saying that I think all religious people are bad, nor do I think they are all immoral. But I honestly don't think that religion is necessarily a moral motivator. I think people have within themselves to do right or wrong. What religion does, sometimes, is give a framework for fear of punishment for doing the acts that the specific religion one follows is deemed wrong. And that's not all bad; it probably does keep a lot of people from doing a lot of bad things. But I also think we've seen what happens, over and over throughout history, when religion goes wrong, and people kill and harm in the name of God.

So, I think we should all think more before claiming that atheists are immoral and can't possibly be ethical. I learned more about ethics from an atheist than almost anyone else I've known. It takes thought and care to be moral, and if a person desires to do so within the framework of a religion, then all the more power to him. But if not within that framework, then from within yourself.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Haveil Havalim #91 - Extra Hour Edition

Even with the extra hour the end of Daylight Savings Time has afforded me, I still didn't manage to round up all the posts I would have liked. There are just SO many interesting and thought-provoking posts in the J-Blogosphere, that it would be impossible to list them all. I've tried to cover a good number, and I whole-heartedly apologize to any that were not included. (I also apolgize if you submitted anything that wasn't included - I'm still no expert with Gmail, and it's possible something got lost - it was not intentional if it did happen.)

Most editions of HH manage to be organized, but anyone who knows me well, knows that organization and categorization is not my strong suit, so here it is, in no particular order - Haveil Havalim #91!

Yitzchak Goodman at JudeoPundit comments on the illiteracy of American Jews.

Mensa Barbie (who gets huge points for such a cool blog name) posts about Russia stating the Hezbollah is Unlikely to Disarm (not news to most of us).

The Jewish Blogmeister discusses the kashrut status of Campbell's Soup - very important this time of year as it's getting cold. The Blogmeister also points out a new kashrut search engine, along with beginning his own round-ups - I thought he was going to take over my job for a second!

My Right Word talks about the latest fashion trent - swastikas - nice (not!!).

Batya at Shiloh Musings discusses attitudes towards settlers in Israel.

Israel Matzav reports on the South African reported who is banned because she's Jewish, along with other posts about Egypt deploying troops to Philadelphi and why voluntary transfer of Palestineans is a good idea.

MordyS, guest-posting at Serandez, posted about the unique qualities of Jews in Israel and why he loves it there.

Ezzie himself posted about the Waterbury yeshiva and the controversy(?) over their housing and how, maybe, it's a positive thing and he also has started a series on the economic difficulties of being frum, which is a topic that most people seem able to relate to.

Esser Agaroth (two cents) discusses Jewish labor in Israel, and whether Israel has a racist system.

The Elder of Ziyon discusses the "evil settlers" and their "horrendous crimes" of, oh yeah, helping out their neighbors, the Palestineans. Horrible, awful people.

Bagel Blogger, who has very cute graphics all over his blog, discusses the ongoing controversy of a boy, his troubling bris and Bar Mitzvah and the broohaha surrounding it.

Baleboosteh has the first pics of Madonna's new baby, David, along with updates from Down Under about the apprehension of those who attacked an Orthodox Jew.

Jonathan Rosenblum, over at Cross-Currents, writes about the "miracles" of charitable organizations and their success.

The Town Crier reminds us all to be aware of October. He also notes the appearance of an Orthodox Jewish woman who swaps households with a Southern Christian one on the TV show "Trading Spouses." One of my co-workers actually told me about the show, said it was fascinating.

Over at Campus J, Perel Skier draws our attention to Daniel Kurtzer's call for withdrawal from Iraq.

Joshua Waxman, at ParshaBlog, is brave, posting videos (not just photos) of his divrei Torah for parshas Noach. Warning - not for watching on Shabbos!

BeyondBT offers a number of thought-provoking posts this week, including one from Neil Harris, also of Modern Uberdox, about Hebrew names and their significance, a post from David Linn entitled "A Succos Reawakening" and Akiva draws our attention to "A Touchy Subject."

Irina, who I had the opportunity to meet last week, responds to a post by Ezzie about the Democratic ad campaign, and also posts about the need for domestic violence shelters for Jewish women in the United States.

Rafi G, at Life in Israel, has a number of good posts this week, including an "Only in Israel" story (which I am a big fan of), a post about not letting people put you in boxes, and warning against getting the flu shot.

Yitz, at Heichal HeNegina, writes about The Rhiziner and his stories, and the Piaseczno Rebbe. Neil from Modern Uberdox and BeyondBT also posts about the yahrzeit of Harav Kalonymous Kalman Shapiro, zt"l

Bec writes about how cooking is classified by neighborhood and how she can't wait to cook like an Israeli.

Mottel, over at Letters of Thought, writes a post about nothing, kinda reminiscent of Seinfeld.

Israel at Level Ground posts a podcast about the basketball championship that played out the same time that the Gaza pullout did.

West Bank Mama blogs about her 1-year blogging anniversary! Yasher Koach - and many more years to come!

Avromi at DafNotes tells us about the purpose for the mechitzah and why we center the bima in shul.

Jack, one of the most prolific bloggers around, posts about the proposed eruv around the beaches in LA. He also posts an incredibly touching post about his dreams for his children.

A Simple Jew mentions the random passing of two bloggers in the night - no official meet and greet, but they were both there. Who knows how many bloggers you pass on a daily basis, without even knowing it? I actually got the fortune to meet two bloggers this week - who did you meet?

Daled Amos points out the difference between Saudi Arabia and New Jersey. Phew! I though for a second that there was none!

SimplyJews points out that kidnappers don't care what race or nationality the journalist is - they are equal opportunity when it comes to kidnapping. Glad to know they don't discriminate. They also offer a couple posts about the BBC.

Soccer Dad has a post by Daled Amos about hate crimes statistics

Failed Messiah has had a number of very good posts lately. I was particularly impressed and touched by this one about the right form of kiruv.

Jameel over at the Muqata lists a number of inventions and innovations born in Israel - just a small number of the amazing things that come from the Holy Land.

Ricky Ricardo at Unenlightenment, from my favorite town, Baltimore, points out an article in the Baltimore Jewish Times about a miracle Bat Mitzvah.

PsychoToddler posts a pictoral journey from Milwaukee to New York via train, kids in tow. He's a brave man, or at least, he was 10 years ago when he braved such an adventure. He also writes the harrowing story of his car being vandalized.

Neo-Neocon posts about a trip to the Palais de Justice

House of Joy gives a touching account of the growth, in many ways, she did with her now husband.

Chaim at Life-of-Rubin writes a disturbing post about violence in Crown Heights - by children on children. Very scary.

AirTime discusses the kids' favorite Israeli treats (ok, he likes them too).

The Fancy Schmancy Anxiety Maven lets us know that Fraggle Rock is soon coming to a theater near you! Yay!

Finally, AbbaGav, and Ezzie, ask readers to weigh in on their favorite blog names. Go visit and vote for the most creative and funny ones.

Thank you very much to Soccer Dad, who organizes and maintains the Haveil Havalim, and sent me a number of great posts. Next week's HH is at Jerusalem Games. You can submit posts here. Have a great week!

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Friday, October 27, 2006

Don't forget HH!

Don't forget to submit your posts for Haveil Havalim #91 to me! You can click here or you can send me an e-mail with the link. Have a great Shabbos!

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Single-Sex Education

Via Lamed:

Interesting article from the NY Times about the federal government backing the establishment of more single-sex classes and schools.

Possibly surprisingly, I'm totally for it. I think non co-ed education is extremely beneficial for students, especially past elementary school age, and especially for girls. I didn't have this luxury (though I'm not complaining at all about my education, I received an excellent one), and I saw and personally experienced the detriment of being in a classroom with both girls and boys.

The truth is, for guys, I actually am not sure if it's beneficial to separate the sexes. From what many teachers have told me, all-male classes tend to be quite a bit rowdier, high-energy and more difficult to control than co-ed classes. Add a girl or two into the class and it magically transforms. Amazing how that works.

But for girls, and I speak from my own experience, I think the co-ed experience can be very harmful. Again, from what I went through, there is an implicit undercurrent that flows that females should not be smarter than males, especially in the math and science arena, but really all of them. And girls, if they care at all about being attractive to guys, don't want to seem too smart, because they quickly learn, all implicitly of course, that brains intimidate men. So they hide their brains. And teach themselves to act like airheads. And don't speak up in class.

I got hit with a double-whammy. I attended an accelerated program for high school. The truth is, there were a lot of very intelligent females there, and many of them were not ashamed to show their intelligence. But they also came off as the snobby intellectuals, and to anyone outside our school, they were viewed in a negative light. So I learned both to not act like an intellectual and to defer my intelligence to whatever male was around. Had the damsel in distress act down pretty well. And the airhead act.

But there was a point at which I realized that the acts were dumb, and not really me. And I realized that any guy who was intimidated by my natural intelligence wasn't the guy for me, that I want a guy who nurtures my intelligence, makes me think, and enjoys the fact that I do, rather than just wanting a girl he can feel superior to. (It's interesting that I realize that this change in my attitude came at a time when, educationally, I was lagging behind. Must have been some kind of compensation.)

Anyway, I digress. I really believe that single-sex education helps women nurture their intelligence and express is freely. I also think that it helps girls and guys focus on what they are learning, rather than the opposite gender, which I'm sure most people will admit is quite the distraction. So I think the establishment of single-sex educational institutions is a great one.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Home Sick :(

I'm home sick today :( It's a sentence that can only end in a frown. I am off to see a doctor later, which is something I rarely do, but I decided that there is a reason that I pay money for health insurance and I should make some use of it. I have to thank my very sweet friend for making me soup yesterday while we watched a video (she even sent me home with leftovers). While home today, I've decided that I am going to be productive and actually do homework before it's due. That way, I can justify sitting home all day, something I have trouble doing - it's just boring and a waste of time (and there is nothing good on TV during the day, though I will probably try to catch up on the stack of DVDs my father keeps sending me).

Haven't been writing much for several reasons - been really busy, haven't had much to say, and have had too much to say, but not things that I necessarily feel comfortable posting and/or are clear enough in my head to be written into a post.

Here's an excerpt from my not-so-clear thinking (which could also be influenced by the fact that I'm not feeling so well):

It just continues to amaze me how we relate differently to different people, and how our personalities can change from interaction to interaction. That's not to say that a person is schizophrenic, or not secure in who they are, or even mercurial to the point of putting on an act, trying to blend with the company they are in. But I find that certain people bring out certain things within us, and we react and respond differently in different situations. The core of who we are stays the same.

But...each individual's experience colors their perception of you, and your perception of them. We attribute things to people based on our own experience, rather than theirs. And vice versa. I've been finding this especially obvious in my group counseling class. Comments have been made by others that they assumed things about me that aren't true. And these assumptions are made based on their own lives, not mine. Things that I would never have assumed about others, because my experience is so different from those making the initial assumptions about me. Ok, that was probably really confusing, but I can't be more specific. But theh whole process has given me a lot of observational acuity, and an interesting birdseye-view perspective of how people observe each other that really blows me away. Our perceptions are so tainted, and it makes me wonder whether we can ever really see anyone else, or if we are so blinded by our own discoloration that it's impossible.

Anyway, deep thoughts not well-enough clarified while my brain isn't working so well. Sorry bout that.

Haveil Havalim #91 will be hosted here on Sunday - send your submissions to my e-mail address (it's up on the sidebar). Or you can submit them here.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

True Courage

Last night I attended an Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meeting. It was a fascinating experience, and I have to say that I learned a tremendous amount from it.

One of the big things going on in my life right now that I haven’t written much about is the fact that I am taking a group counseling class. I LOVE it. It is one of the most interesting classes I have ever taken and I have learned a tremendous amount in just a few short weeks. Going in, I had serious doubts about the efficacy of group counseling and the possible impact it could have on a person. I have totally changed my mind and think that the group dynamic is extremely powerful and a very strong agent for change. That being said, I haven’t written much about it because a lot of the work we do in the class is very personal and confidential. I could write a bit about it since no one who reads knows who is in the class, but I just don’t feel like its right.

Attending the AA meeting was an assignment for this class. I was required to either watch the movie “The Breakfast Club” (which of course I’ve seen numerous times, who hasn’t?) or to attend an AA meeting and write a paper on the therapeutic factors involved in such a group. Since I’ve seen “The Breakfast Club” before, I decided to do something different. I chose the AA meeting.

Last night, my recent views on the power of the group process were totally confirmed.

The meeting I attended was not far from where I live. On this yucky, rainy evening, approximately 15 men (yes, all men, I was the only woman there – so much for being inconspicuous) dragged themselves from their homes in order to come together to share and offer strength to each other. The men were from different ethnicities and ages, but they had one commonality that allowed them to easily relate to one another – they were all alcoholics.

The meeting began with reading a story from a fellow alcoholic. Then the men went around the room and got to share whatever they chose. Each man shared something, whether a little or a lot, of their struggle with alcohol and drugs. And each of them made mention of the fact that they were happy to be at that meeting.

You might wonder why anyone would be happy to be at an AA meeting. Well, I guess happy could be relative – it’s certainly better than being drunk and doing things in your life that are out of control. Some of the men discussed events that happened prior to their sobriety including drunk driving, being kicked out of restaurants and being so desperate for drugs that they would brave any weather or circumstances to get them.

And now, these men brave all kinds of weather and circumstances to attend AA meetings. To help one another. To face their demons and do battle with their temptations on a daily basis. Which is incredibly brave.

What I saw in those men last night was tremendous courage. Because they had to take a long, honest look at themselves at rock bottom. Then they had to accept their problems, take responsibility for them and do incredibly hard work to change. They don’t have to do it alone. That’s what the meetings are for – to support and be supported. But they have to put in the work and go the distance and fight the fight.

So many of us have problems that we won’t face. That we hide behind and cower from. And many of those problems are not nearly as difficult as the ones I saw the men at that meeting had overcome.

The men at that meeting might have been alcoholics. But they were also amazingly strong, incredibly brave and fighting hard. And helping others do the same. I am in awe of them.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Going Home?

It's been a while, but I'm back at Beyond BT. Here's my latest. Enjoy.

Monday, October 09, 2006

The What-If Game

In leiu of studying for my test tomorrow, I've been relaxing and daydreaming a bit. And playing the "what-if game." You know the one - it starts out as "What if such and such never happened." And then you ponder the road that would have led up to today's date, but with a very divergent path. You can pick any event in your life - in the near or far past, signficant or not so much, it can be a particular person that you might never have met or you can even pick a historical figure to have never existed. The what-if game is lots of fun, and can occupy a person for hours, either alone or in the company of others.

So, my what-if is usually in the form of "What if I had never gone to Israel nine years ago? What would my life be like today? Where would I be and what would I be doing?"

I can pretty safely say that the landscape of my life would be tremendously different. I can't say for sure, but I am fairly certain I wouldn't be living in New Jersey. Most of my high school classmates, along with my brothers, stayed in Alabama. A lot of the Jewish kids moved away, but most of them not too far - to Atlanta, maybe North Carolina or Texas. But looking at the odds, I would probably still be in the South.

I honestly don't know if I would be pursuing a Master's degree. It's possible that I would. If I hadn't gone to Israel, I would probably have completed my Bachelor's degree right away and worked in a non-profit organization, most likely the one I interned in while I was in college, but if not that one, probably something similar. Maybe after a few years of working, I would have decided to go back to school, I was always a good student, just kinda burnt out by the time I hit college. But my parents are into education, so they would certainly have encouraged me. Though, parental encouragement has usually been swept to the wayside and led me down the opposite path, so there's no telling what I would be doing these days if I still lived close to my family.

Relationships - this is the part that gets complicated. I grew up with a very strong Jewish identity, though mainly a cultural, rather than a religious, one. When I was growing up, my parents strongly encouraged me to marry a Jewish guy. But that emphasis has faded over the years, and now my parents say they just want my brothers and I to marry good people, Jewish or otherwise. If I had stayed in Alabama, the likelihood of my finding someone Jewish would have been slim. I have no idea whether I would actually be married now or not. If I was, I have a feeling he wouldn't be Jewish.

And then I get stuck. Because in the what if game I'm playing, say I go down the road where there I am, married to a non-jewish man, living in Alabama, working for a non-profit organization, possibly with a Master's degree. Would I have children? Would I be close with my family? Would I own a house? Who would my friends be? It's such an incredibly different reality from what I know, that I have a hard time even imagining it, and I have a decent imagination. But I think imagination works better when you're dealing with fantasy, rather than what could have been reality.

Nine years ago, I took a trip that changed my life and put me on a road, maybe the road less traveled. And it certainly has made all the difference. What "what if" games do you play?

Friday, October 06, 2006

Exodus to Baltimore

In a few hours, I'll be headed to Baltimore, along with two of my friends from Passaic. Additionally, rumor has it that Ezzie (of course accompanied by the very lovely Serach and Elianna), the now-famous SaraK (from the erev-Shabbos adventure, let's hope we don't have a repeat of that one), and Josh Yuter from Yutopia will also be descending upon the city for Sukkot (plus quite a few other friends that don't make regular appearances in blog-land). Can Baltimore handle it? Of course!

I can't even contain my excitement to see everyone there and catch up with all the people I love there so much, including my first meeting with a friend's newest addition, and another meeting with the very cute daughter of other wonderful friends, who I'm sure has grown tremendously in the three months since I've seen her.

Anyway, I have a ton to do before I leave, so I just want to take this opportunity to wish everyone a wonderful, joy-filled Sukkot!

In the spirit of Sukkot, enjoy this video (the first video ever on my blog!):

On a completely unrelated note, check out this really, exciting post and share your well-wishes.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

You Never Know Your Effect

All the forgiveness and apologizing leading up to Yom Kippur got me to thinking a lot about the fact that, often, we have no idea how our words and actions affect other people. This is mainly due to past events that people aren't privy to. But it means that a lot of the time, we don't apologize to the people we should. Or that we just conjure up emotions in others and have absolutely no clue that we do so.

I have two illustrations from the recent past to illustrate this. The first is when someone I know came recently up to me and said something to me in front of other people. It wasn't necessarily a negative comment, but it wasn't incredibly positive either. Additionally, other people overheard and started asking questions about it; and it wasn't about a topic that I typically discuss openly with those I don't know.

The person who made this comment to me had no idea that I found her remark slightly offensive. I know that she didn't mean it that way, but the words she chose to express herself were, at least the way I took it, slightly belittling. She also had no idea that she was speaking about a matter that I hold personal; that I don't share with a lot of people. So she didn't have any way of knowing that I would be embarrassed to have her airing it in front of others. Regardless, I was a bit hurt and uncomfortable, and attempted to extricate myself from the conversation as quickly as possible, without even saying good-bye.

As I said, I know this person had no idea that what she said was hurtful, and I don't hold a grudge against her. But it was just ironic to me that she said it right before Yom Kippur, in the midst of so many people offering and receiving apologies for hurt done to others. It made me realize that those whom I was asking forgiveness were probably not the right ones.

The other incident has occurred over the last week or two. I have a client who is very friendly. He's just a nice guy, and I have to deal with him in a customer service capacity. And I really appreciate clients who are nice, because we have plenty who aren't, especially when we are messing up their accounts. He has gotten a bit familiar with me, and has starting calling me a nickname. Nothing inappropriate. But what he has no idea of is that nickname brings to mind someone from my past whose exit from my life caused a good deal of pain. And whenever I hear the nickname, that pain is remembered, just a bit.

This client has no clue about my past, has never even met me in person. He has no idea that him being friendly is the cause for slightly a sad reminiscence on my part. But again, it drives the point home to me that we never, ever know how we affect other people.

What can we do about this? I'm not sure there is much we can do, because there is no way for us to know the past history and sensitivities of others, especially those we don't know so well. But I think it can help us be more understanding of surprising reactions in others. Because we never know the whole story.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Yom Kippur Thoughts

I'm in a contemplative mood today, facing Yom Kippur this evening. I woke up to pouring rain, which just kind of set the stage. It's funny, because I remember that it also rained last year on Erev Yom Kippur. Guess it's a New Jersey tradition.

I'm thankful for the opportunity to start anew each year, but a bit troubled by the fact that the opportunity seems to go to waste. Each year, shiny, cleany and new, we set out for the year, cleansed of transgression. And each year, I fail once again. Don't worry, I'm not beating myself up profusely, I know that I'm human. But I guess I just wish I could look back and say, "Yes, I did a good job this year, I learned and was extremely careful not to hurt others." When the truth is, I wasn't so careful.

The Al Chet prayer, in which we pound our chests and ask for forgiveness from G-d, which we repeat numerous times during Yom Kippur, highlights many of these transgressions and mistakes:

"For the sin that we have sinned before you...
through harsh speech
through inner thoughts
through wronging a neighbor
through a session of vice
by showing contempt for parents and teachers
through desecration of the Name
through impure lips
through denial and false promises
with haughtiness
with the idle chatter of our lips
in judgment
with obstinacy
by gossip-mongering
through baseless hatred...

The list goes on and doesn't list nearly all the mistakes we commit during the year.

There's power in the fact that these transgressions are listed in the prayerbook - it makes you realize that you are not the only person who has faltered; and you are not the only one who is sorry. It forces you to focus and realize what needs to be worked on. And it forces you to take stock and realize that you are one among many. There is a collective consciousness that builds when a congregation comes together to confess these sins, and at the end of Yom Kippur, one hopefully finds the experience cleansing and walks away refreshed.

In the spirit of Yom Kippur, I sincerely apologize to anyone whom I might have offended or hurt through anything I have written on my blog. It was not my intention, and I am recalcitrant. Please forgive me

May everyone have an easy fast and a very meaningful Yom Kippur!

Update - please read this post.