Thursday, September 28, 2006


“The Black and Silver secondary will dictate and dominate.” So stammered Lester Hayes, in a deep, menacing voice. Lester, for those of you who are either (a) very young (congratulations!) or (b) ignorant about the most popular spectator sport in America (my condolences), was a Raider. Actually, he won the Super Bowl as both an Oakland and Los Angeles Raider, but at the time when he was feeling particularly invincible and he uttered the above words, his team played in Tinsel Town.

Lester was part of the greatest tandem of cornerbacks who ever played, and he and his running mate Michael Haynes were largely responsible for the destruction of the Washington Redskins 38-9 in Super Bowl XVIII. He was also the namesake of the rule permanently banning NFL players from wearing stickum. Lester, you see, couldn’t catch a ball without glue on his hands. But he could still intimidate opposing wide receivers. He would push them, he would shove them, and only if necessary would he run with them. The Smurf-like sprinters who he’d guard rarely stood a chance.

I bring up Lester because he was a stud on one of football’s most dominant and macho franchises. And yet, it’s also a franchise that teaches us a valuable lesson: dictation and domination are indeed short-lived. The Raiduhs, as they are called (based on the Brooklyn roots of their owner), are also known today as the “Once Proud” Raiders. In the last three years, they’ve won 13 games and lost 35. Frankly, they’re no better now at dictation than Napoleon or Genghis Kahn.

To follow the rise and fall of the Raiders is to understand the vicissitudes of power. But apparently, such is not the case with being a Zionist -- or at least it wasn’t the case with the Israeli Government and some of its American supporters. And that’s what need to be discussed.

Now first, let me introduce my biases: I proudly count myself as a member of the American Zionist community. Admittedly, I stand firmly at the edge of that community. I’d be willing to give up all the settlements, concede all the Occupied Territories (and even use that term for the West Bank/Gaza Strip), and even make Jerusalem an international city. Yet I hope never to relinquish the dream of seeing a democracy with a perpetually Jewish majority occupying much of the present state of Israel, that is secure and at peace with its neighbors. The world is surely big enough to allow such a nation to exist.

But it is one thing to announce one’s goals, and something very different to know how to reach them. And it’s with the means to the ends that I am most confused. My only point of clarity is this: we can’t reach any peaceful solution as long as we think the claims of Israel’s neighbors can be subdued with force alone. I should think Hezbollah proved that on the battle field. What is mystifying is that the Israeli army gave them the opportunity.

I was riveted when I came home one night and saw a message from Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the head of the national Union for Reform Judaism. Talking about the recent fighting in Lebanon, his message included the following categorical statement, which was set apart as a paragraph onto itself: This is a war in which the rights and wrongs are beyond all doubt.” (The emphasis was mine.)

Rabbi Yoffie was, of course, intending to refer simply to the fighting that was sparked by Hezbollah’s capture of three Israeli soldiers. And presumably, he meant that Israeli had a right to do something in return to deter such conduct. Lord knows that proposition is difficult to dispute.

But look more closely at his word choice in the sentence at issue. He didn’t say Israeli’s right to defend itself is beyond all doubt. He said the rights and wrongs of the war are beyond all doubt. And that’s the problem, isn’t it? This is a war between two groups of aggrieved peoples – the Jews and the Arabs – who are fighting over land that was colonized by Europeans and partitioned by the United Nations without the approval of all the people who live on the land. The rights and wrongs of this larger war couldn’t be more confusing, and any attempt by one side to pulverize the other will be met with the most passionate and resolute resistance imaginable.

Indeed, even the recent month-long fighting in Lebanon is fraught with ambiguities and moral dilemmas. Rabbi Yoffie went on to defend not only Israel’s right to take limited reprisals, but to justify its destroying much of Lebanon’s infrastructure and killing many Lebanese civilians. Was the counter-attack sensible? Did it accomplish its goals? Or was it, as many impartial observers claim, extremely “disproportionate” and foolhardy? Indeed, switching from our left hands to our right, couldn’t it be argued that the only way to have made this counter-attack effective was to commit huge numbers of ground troops and create a battle royal, at tremendous cost to both sides, until finally the Hezbollah cried uncle?

In short, if Israel hopes to defeat the Arabs with air power alone, they will simply replicate the Mess-opotamia, recruiting more and more enemy cells while failing to destroy its nucleus. And I’m not just talking about enemies. I’m talking about passionate, indignant, violent, ends-justify-the-means enemies. If Israel thinks it can win that war, it had better bring more than the old Black and Silver secondary. It would need the vaunted 49ers receivers, the Steel Curtain defensive line, the Dolphins running backs, the Broncos offensive line, the Giants linebackers, and the Vikings’ Fran Tarkenton at quarterback scrambling around using every possible weapon at his disposal. Was Israel willing to use every weapon? If not, what kind of hubris led it to think it could dictate or dominate to a well-armed guerilla force fighting in its own terrain?

War is hell. For both sides. We mustn’t let anyone forget that. And while we’re at it, let’s also remember that when it comes to war, the “rights” and “wrongs” of the matter are rarely as clear as crystal.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006


Every now and then it’s good to look back at watershed events in our nation’s history. If we don’t, we fail to learn from them – we keep repeating idiocies of the past (like the Vietnam War), and prevent ourselves from duplicating our previous successes.

When speaking of successes, most of us like to hearken back to the days of Jefferson and Washington. We treat those men and their comrades almost like Biblical patriarchs, which isn’t hard to do, considering that they lived in a by-gone era of horses and buggies. The “Founding Fathers” could refer to the men of the Bible, but they refer instead to a band of brothers who declared independence from a traditional world power, successfully defended our turf against that power, and then drafted a Constitution so incredibly prescient that it now seems like the product of divine intervention. Abraham? No, Madison. But they’re both great, so you’ll pardon us if we confuse them from time to time.

Greatness is rarely a word that you see used to refer to events of the recent past. It’s rarer still when you see the word used by an unabashed liberal to refer to the product of right-wing minds. Still, 12 years is enough time for someone like me to step back and glance at a moment in time with some dispassion. When I look back 12 years, I cannot help but marvel at what I see. As a model of how to use a common set of ideas to seize legislative power, I’ve never seen anything half as effective as what we witnessed in 1994. It makes me wonder why that model can’t be replicated again – only this time, from the opposing point of view.

The summer of 1994 was an ugly year for us liberals. It was particularly ugly for the liberal baseball fan. You might recall that in 1994, the players went on strike, and the World Series was cancelled for the first time in 90 years. But in the place of sports, we were given politics – lots and lots of politics. And as political battles go, that “series” was clearly over in four games.

The then-minority party had a plan, you see, and stuck to that plan like glue. It was associated with the representatives of our Government’s most representative branch, but the truth is that it enjoyed the support of the entire party, and practically all its adherents. Their coalition building was a thing of beauty.

They called their plan the “Contract for America.” Their opponents would come to ridicule the plan as the “Contract on America,” but just like America loves a good mob movie, they didn’t seem to find this Contract terribly off-putting. The party who proposed the Contract won at the polls by an incredible landslide. On Capitol Hill, that party hasn’t looked back since. Coincidence? I doubt it.

The Contract originated at a right-wing think tank called the Heritage Foundation. This is a place where well-funded intellectuals get together with a single purpose in mind: to formulate, disseminate and ensure the hegemony of conservative ideas. Heritage Fellows don’t need to feign objectivity, balance, open-mindedness, or any of the other characteristics that liberal thinkers take as their bone fides for entry into the realm of intellectuality. Heritage Fellows are there to ensure that their side wins at the polls, and wins convincingly. In 1994, they saw their work bear incredible fruit.

The Contract didn’t deal with every issue. Certain hot-button topics like abortion were left for future battles – such as the battle for President in 2004, which was also won by the party who drew up the Contract. Instead of focusing on social issues, where there was some split inside the ranks, the Contract concentrated on tried-and-true conservative shibboleths that appealed to virtually all members of the then-minority party.

-- Shrinking the size of Government.

-- Placing the Government at the service of the private sector, not itself.

-- Reducing the burden of taxes.

-- Assisting that true American hero: the entrepreneur.

-- Eliminating the culture of dependency that results from our welfare system.

-- Protecting businesses from vexatious lawsuits and excessive judgments.

The Contract, then, had many objectives, but they all had a common theme: to return the United States to its people and not to the professional politicians and lawyers who seek to strangle initiative, decrease incentives for hard work, and bolster their own power. To an entire political party, this was the most beautiful music since Mozart.

The Contract wasn’t just about themes and overarching principles. It was about practical suggestions. The designers, you see, recognized that they had to come across as serious men who were mad as hell and weren’t going to see their country hijacked any more. The people deserved better. They deserved specific, workable proposals that could immediately change the culture in Washington and usher in a new business-friendly economy.

Here was the promise. On day one, if the minority party ascended to power in the House of Representatives, they would vote on the eight different government reforms. These proposed laws, if passed, would: require all laws that apply outside of Congress to apply to Congress as well; audit Congress itself for potential fraud or abuse; sharply reduce the number of House committees and their staffers; prevent Representatives from voting by proxies at committee; cut the terms of committee chairs; require committee meetings to be held in public; require a 3/5th vote to pass tax increases; and mandate a zero baseline for the federal budget process.

Eight proposals, then, would come to a vote on Day One. But that was just the start. The Contractors also promised that during the next 100 days, bills would be sent up on a wide variety of major public policy areas aside from government reform. These included tax cuts for individuals and business entities, legislative term limits, and pro-business reforms in the areas of social security, tort law, and the welfare system.

The Contractors had it all – a wellspring of ideas from which to draw; enough discipline to emphasize only those ideas that could support a broad coalition; and the wisdom to speak in terms of feasible suggestions for change, rather than broad slogans. You’ll also note that the Contractors didn’t merely bash the party in power. They advanced an agenda that was both concrete and visionary. They came across as people who wanted to govern, not merely to win an election. And this only makes sense, given that they were espousing the ideas of intellectuals who were not themselves professional politicians but merely citizens devoted to a common political philosophy.

So here’s my question, which by now should be quite obvious: if the GOP could pull this off in 1994, why couldn’t the Democrats have pulled it off in 2006? Surely, the party of the donkey can agree on some broad themes other than that “Bush is bad” and “We want to win.” Right? Well … maybe I’m speaking too quickly. When I reflect on what the Democrats would accomplish if they controlled the House or the Senate, I find myself quite confused. What votes would the Democrats send to the floor on Day One? What bills involving important public policy issues would the Democrats propose by Day 100? Truly, I don’t have a clue.

I’m not sure my Party has one either. Recently, I received in the mail a form letter from Al Gore asking me to give money to the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee. Rather than talking about what the Senate would accomplish if the Democrats regained power, Gore talked about what the Senate would accomplish if the Republicans retained power. “A free pass on Iraq … More damage to the environment … More right wing judges … An all-out assault on Social Security … More tax cuts for the wealthy … No fix for Medicare … More jobs sent overseas …”

In short, his message was very clear: “Be afraid. Be very afraid. Vote for us, or suffer the consequences.”

Is that really the best we Democrats can do? Even Republicans who care about living in a vibrant democracy would have to shudder at what has become of our new minority party. Ideas? Try having one idea. Just one. But make it an affirmative idea – not just that the other guys are evil. As they say in the Red states, that dog couldn’t hunt in 2004. It won’t hunt in 2006 or 2008 either.

Sunday, September 24, 2006


I’ve always believed in having goals and am hardly alone in that regard. For some people, the goal involves some sort of career success – like being able to call your colleagues “partners” instead of just “colleagues” (or worse yet, “supervisors”). For others, it involves money – like having a million bucks in the bank, or a $250,000 salary. Still others set goals based on their kids’ achievements – “my daughter goes to Hahvahd, isn’t that special?”

My dad had a goal: to reach age 90. I heard him mention that goal for years when I was growing up, and it thrilled me to no end to see him reach such a milestone. At his 90th birthday party, we bought him a cake that bore the words “Happy Bar Mitzvah Irving.” My dad didn’t get the joke at first – his name was Julius, not Irving – but then we explained that Edith Bunker brought home a similar cake to her husband Archie, the Jew hater, in a classic episode of All in the Family. The cake made him laugh. Then, a few minutes later, watching his two granddaughters sing a song to him made him cry. That was May 2002. That October, I didn’t so much cry as keen – my father, you see, never reached 91. But at least he reached his goal.

Those who know me best realize that I obtained virtually my entire philosophy of life from my father. My values. My sensibilities. You can pretty much name it – he inspired them. And that includes my goal.

So as not to be a mere clone, however, I’ve always adjusted my father’s ideas just enough to be able to consider them my own. That applies to my goal as well. I would like someday to celebrate my 60th wedding anniversary. Today, September 24, 2006, I can happily report that I have exactly 42 years to go.

I can’t remember how old I was when I decided someday to get married, but I couldn’t have been more than ten. It’s not that my parents’ marriage was so idyllic; they did more than their share of fighting. But they persevered through each and every battle, and continued deeply to love each other, even when it appeared that they didn’t like each other. I knew, as a boy, that if they – Ali and Frazier -- could stay together through thick and thin, there must be something very special about this institution called marriage. I understood, in other words, that all I had to do was meet one person with compatible values, compatible chemistry, and an ample capacity for tolerance, and I would have found the closest possible thing to earthly salvation.

As a post-adolescent, I would meet a few people who made me wonder could this be the one? Then one thing or another would go wrong, and I would go into a deep depression – at least until it was time to start studying for Finals. (I guess those Nazi bastards were wise when they inscribed on the gate at Auschwitz the words “Work shall set you free.”) Finally, in my 27th year, I saw an old friend from law school whom I had never dated but always liked very much. It probably took me all of an hour to realize that my search was over. I also realized that if luck would have it, we could someday celebrate our 60th anniversary. Today, we could still realize that goal without reaching my father’s favorite milestone – we’d both have to come close but wouldn’t quite have to get there.

I place my wedding day as the greatest in my life, greater even than the birth of my daughters. Without the first, you see, the latter days would never have occurred. I’ve never seen anything nearly as beautiful as the face of my then-fiancĂ© who walked down the aisle. For I was smart -- I made sure that neither of us saw each other’s face prior to that moment during the day of the wedding.

Today, 18 years later, I am happy to say that while we argue occasionally – mostly about child rearing philosophies – we’re happier together than ever. Based on any objective standard, my marriage is by far the best thing in my life. And for that, I am eternally grateful.

In light of the above, it should not surprise you that I value deeply marriage as an institution. I value the idea that a teenager, smitten with infatuation, only to learn a bit later that the infatuation was unrequited, can contemplate the fact that an institution exists that will support his ability to find someone, someday whom he can count on for a love that is permanent. I value the idea that a young adult, whose work-ethic is exceeded only by her loneliness, can someday stop counting on her technocratic job for emotional fulfillment but find it instead in the adoring smile of her husband. I value the idea that a student of philosophy who learns that enlightenment stems from expanding the concept of “self” from one’s pitiful little ego to the universe as a whole, can realize that a wonderful first stage in this progression is to get married. His old self will then vanish, and in its wake he will find the knowledge of what it is like to love “the other” as much as the “self” and, in fact, to transcend the opposition between the two. In a good marriage, you see, two people come before their friends and, if applicable, their God, and take advantage of the opportunity to double their metaphysical size. Strike that – I meant to say that a bride or groom can more than double their own metaphysical size, because never has the phrase “the whole is greater than the sum of the parts” applied better than in the case of a successful marriage. Perhaps that’s why we call it holy matrimony – holiness resides in harmonious unions.

With that as introduction, perhaps I should realize for the first time why so many voters in 2004 felt the need to go to the ballot box and safeguard the institution of marriage by voting Republican. It’s not that the Democratic candidates – Kerry, Dean and Edwards – came out in support of same-sex marriage. Lord knows, they “couldn’t” do that without committing “political suicide.” But it was clear that in opposing gay marriage, the Democrats didn’t have their hearts in their work. They couldn’t figure out how to invoke the traditional values of the Democratic party in a way that would permit them to wax eloquent about the threat to the institution that is posed by two men or two women tying the knot. Only a Republican could explain the threat in a way that truly comes from the heart.

The GOP message is straight from John Wayne, or if you prefer, Ward Cleaver: the strong, powerful, responsible father figure knows best. Daddy understands what paths in life are tried and true, and what paths are deviant and potentially dangerous. Daddy recognizes, as we should as well, that marriage has been associated in the past with the notion of a man and a woman joining together to have children who benefit from both a “male” and “female” role model. Why then mess with the formula by encouraging gay couples to get married and raise children? Seriously, if it isn’t broke, why fix it?

Daddy may be OK with the idea of a “civil union,” or with the notion that gay couples should have the same economic benefits as married couples. Daddy, you see, doesn’t like to think of himself as prejudiced against gay people. “Some of my best friends are gay,” he might say, while adding, “but we’re just friends, you understand?” (Pfew. For a minute there, I was worried.) “Civil unions” don’t threaten the institution that we consider holy. Nor will we as a society grant “holy” status to such a union. And we shouldn’t, daddy tells us, because Scripture – that ultimate arbiter of holiness – hardly blesses homosexuality. It’s one thing to accept it, much as we accept blindness or herpes, but it’s something else to actually encourage it, and allow it to enter the realm of holiness. That, daddy tells us, would be going way too far.

Personally, I don’t expect the “daddies” of the world – or their wives, bless their traditional hearts – to change their view of gay marriage over night. They, after all, are self-proclaimed “conservatives,” and it is hardly a conservative concept to see two men walk into a church in front of rabbi or priest, smooch for several seconds, and walk out of the building with wedding rings.

But what about the so-called “liberal” party? What about the Democrats? Should their leaders support gay marriage? I know a lot of Democrats who would analogize such support to committing hari-kari. “Think about it,” they’d say. “The Democrats lost the last election because they didn’t bash gay marriage enough. Now you’re talking about actively supporting it? Are you nuts?”

Perhaps. Then again, perhaps I’m just a long range thinker. I continue to believe that the three most important Presidential campaigns in my lifetime were those of Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and Barry Goldwater. Reagan told us that he would govern well to the right, and he honored his promise – the result has been called the Reagan “revolution” and that might indeed be an apt term, so powerful was his reign. Clinton, who came to power after the Reagan revolution was a man of unbridled ambition and highly bridled principles – so he decided to triangulate, and therefore served as an example of a “New Democrat”: a Democrat in name only. But Goldwater is the one I’d really like to think about as the model for the Democratic party today. In 1964, Goldwater’s party, the GOP, was at sea. The conservatives who controlled the party were confused, fractionalized, and accordingly, marginalized. So what did they do? They turned to a true believer and found their soul. Sure they lost that election, but they won nearly every election since.

The Democrats need a Goldwater – a serious person, someone with gravitas, but someone who is also beloved by the faithful. I’m talking about a person who can rally the troops from all wings of the party. And I’m talking about a person who has the stones to take on difficult issues in which the party’s core values demand that they announce a position that is not held by the majority of Americans.

Imagine that – the Democrats standing for something that most Americans disagree with. Imagine the Democrats standing for something like the right of two consenting adults to enter into wedlock regardless of their race, color, creed, or sexual preference. Imagine the Democrats wagging their finger at their opponent, asking who the heck are they to get the Government involved in telling a law-abiding, taxpaying adult whom he can marry and whom he can’t. Imagine the Democrats coming across as people who are willing to put principle over pragmatism if a core moral issue is involved. Imagine the Democrats fighting for the right of gay people to get married not because they’re moral relativists, but precisely because they believe in the absolute beauty of marriage. And imagine Democrats blasting the notion of a “civil union” as an alternative to marriage because they hold the unique spirituality of marriage – holy matrimony -- in such esteem.

I’m not sure John Kerry could imagine it, but I bet John Lennon could. And I can imagine my political party someday proposing a Presidential candidate whom John Lennon could respect as a fellow traveler.

Here’s to a liberal Barry Goldwater. And here’s to wedding anniversaries!

Friday, September 22, 2006


This is always one of my favorite times of year – and no, it’s not just because the pennant races are heading down the home stretch and the football season is beginning to take shape. For those of us who are Jewish, it is a time for reflection and a time for prayer.

Of course, it’s easy enough for me to reflect and pray all year around. I can do that by myself, or I can go to my synagogue on any given Friday evening and do it with several dozen others. But none of that compares to attending a temple during the High Holidays. I adore the sensation of looking around a room and seeing the better part of 1000 people chanting in unison their love for God or commitment to their fellow human beings.

Purportedly, the purpose of the High Holidays is to inscribe ourselves for a good year by sincerely atoning for all of our transgressions. We are required to apologize directly to those people who we’ve wronged, but for “sins against God,” we need only atone during the High Holidays and all is forgiven.

I don’t believe for a second that there exists some kind of super-mind who is judging our conduct and preparing to either reward or punish us depending upon the sincerity of our apologies. Then again, such a belief is hardly necessary to recognize the value of atonement or the virtue of expressing gratitude. Few activities are more beneficial than time spent taking stock of our successes and failures in practicing humanistic ethics. When we atone for our mistakes, we give ourselves a chance to avoid repeating them. When we express gratitude for that which makes life worth living, we remind ourselves that none of those things should ever be taken for granted.

It cheapens the value of the High Holidays to think of them primarily as opportunities for us as individuals to ask God for help. Prayer shouldn’t be about asking God to help us. Prayer should be about asking ourselves for inspiration to honor God – and that means to beautify God’s world, and ours. There are few places better able to generate such inspiration than a crowded synagogue during a High Holiday service.

Sometimes during the High Holidays, I permit myself a joyous thought at the idea that I live in a county that has so many Jewish residents that every public school child gets the High Holidays off. It’s not that I want every gentile to convert. Yet the fact remains that were it not for Hitler and his henchman, and were it not for legions of men who for centuries forced Jews to renounce their faith at the point of a sword, our globe would be populated by many, many more children of Jacob. To revel in the fact that I live in a community that is hospitable to Jews is simply to recognize that each of us who is proud to associate ourselves with this rich spiritual tradition is making the strongest possible statement against Nazism. Think what you want about us, but we survive! Baruch Hashem.

Thursday, September 21, 2006


I heard the line from an Orthodox rabbi 25 years ago. It sounded great, but I couldn’t believe that his community took it literally: “The Jew is supposed to wake up every morning questioning the existence of God.”

“Yeah right,” I said to myself. “I’m sure these people, whose entire culture, community and lives are predicated on the existence of the Biblical God are seriously going to start each day wondering if they should throw their God away.” For them, it would be like starting each day contemplating suicide. But for me, who at the time was still deciding whether to become a religious Jew, or just another Jew-by-culture, the rabbi’s principle was beautiful. It was an affirmation that religious Judaism and intellectuality are not mutually exclusive. No wait, let me make a stronger point – it was an affirmation that Judaism so venerates the search for truth for its own sake that even the Orthodox -- the Fundamentalists -- are in some respect disciples of Socrates as well as Moses.

With the help of such principles, I decided to become religious – not Orthodox, mind you, but religious in my own way. Do I question that choice? Heck yes. For what do I know about such things as the eternality of life, the immortality of the “soul,” the existence of fundamental unity in the cosmos, and other such matters? The first principle of philosophy is Socrates’s greatest truth: the world’s wisest man attains that status precisely because he knows that he knows nothing profound with complete certainty. OK. So perhaps that’s an exaggeration. As Descartes so eloquently discovered: we “think,” therefore we exist. I’ll grant that knowledge, but that’s as far as we can go … if what we seek is certainty.

As a skeptic, I go way past the great Spinoza. For it was he who uttered the following words to a former pupil named Albert Burgh:

“You seem to wish to employ reason, and ask me, ‘How I know that my philosophy is the best among all that have ever been taught, or ever will be taught?’ a question which I might with much greater right ask you; for I do not presume that I have found the best philosophy, I know that I understand the true philosophy. If you ask in what way I know it, I answer: In the same way as you know that the three angles of a triangle are equal to two right angles: that this is sufficient, will be denied by no one whose brain is sound, and who does not go dreaming of evil spirits inspiring us with false ideas like the true. For the truth is the index of itself and of what is false.”

That passage is near the top of the most regrettable passages that Spinoza ever wrote – right up there with his argument that women are not suitable to serve as government officials. Of course he didn’t “know” that his was “the true philosophy.” And I’ll show you the courtesy of not waste your time trying to spin that passage so as to distort its intended meaning, much like a rabbi would spin some antiquated provision of the Torah. Thankfully, Lady Philosophy doesn’t demand that all statements made by her disciples be deemed as “truth.”

So let us question early and let us question often. Let us question our friends – civilly, of course – and let us question ourselves. Most of all, let us question anyone who claims to know that they are right and you are wrong with certainty. But it is one thing to question, and yet another to doubt. As strongly as I affirm questioning, that’s how strongly I oppose doubting.

Yes, of course I know what you’re thinking. In the case of a student of philosophy, “to question” and “to doubt” are synonyms. So why is one so grand, and the other so dangerous? The answer depends on a semantic distinction, perhaps, but it’s one that carries tremendous power. Besides, isn’t that largely what philosophy is: the art of creating semantic distinctions, some of which can be very powerful for those who have taken the time to parse away.

It was the Jewish writer and maggid, Yitzhak Buxbaum, who inserted in my head the distinction between questioning and doubting. He claimed that it was understood and appreciated by the early Hasids, who I’ve always viewed as among the wisest people in Jewish history. Doubting, according to this distinction, refers to what some of us do when it’s time to focus on our own beliefs. As Spinoza recognized, “doubt” is but a softer word for vacillation, meaning a state of conflicting emotions. When we doubt a belief, we don’t simply question its veracity and raise the possibility that some day we will dislodge it from our minds. Instead, our emotional conflict saps us of holding a belief with passion and vigor. Indeed, such “doubt” can also immobilize us – just ask General George McClellan, who almost single handedly gave away the Civil War. \

Nothing is more enervating than doubt. Nothing else can so deter your willingness to fight hard for your chosen principles. Questioning, by contrast, merely makes you stronger. When you question, you consider additional arguments for and against your beliefs, and better arm yourselves to battle your ideological opponents. Who knows? You might even convince yourself that they were right all along.

When you’re consumed with doubt, it hardly matters what your beliefs are. I can almost guarantee that your actions – such as they are -- will be limited and ineffective.

Doubting, of course, is a natural human emotion. Perhaps it’s inevitable when our questioning tells us that an earlier belief was mistaken that we will go through an interim period of doubt. But let’s please not make that our customary state of being. As Marx taught, we followers of reason are needed not merely to interpret the world, but also to change it. That requires us to muster all our passion in support of our principles, whatever they may be. If it turns out that we were mistaken, so be it. Remember, it’s not like anyone else really knows the truth either.

Monday, September 18, 2006


Let us stipulate that large numbers of Jidahists would relish the opportunity to blow up tens of thousands, if not millions of Americans or Israelis, and are getting closer to having the wherewithal to do just that. Given this assumption, you might ask, do I support torturing captured enemy combatants from whom we might be able to obtain intelligence? And yes, I am defining “torture” expansively.

The answer is simple. Just look at the title of this Blog. Both words.

I would be willing to stipulate that we’re fighting a war of civilizations that could last for well into this new millennium. Still, once we condone behaving like the Jihadists, or for that matter, the Klingons, haven’t we already lost?

Sunday, September 17, 2006


Think of a grown up version of Farmer Ted, the character in Sixteen Candles played by Anthony Michael Hall. As a teenager he was the “king of the dorks,” and now he’s just as dorky, only older. You shake your head at his complete lack of social skills. You laugh at his seemingly infinite self confidence, combined with his total lack of charisma. You could easily picture that dude saying that he invented the Internet despite the fact that he’s never worked for a computer company. You could see him trying clumsily to communicate to the public, but unable to do so without sounding condescending (after all, most of them are no more intelligent than the characters played by Molly Ringwald). You could imagine him telling stories about his visits to Florida classrooms that are full of petty embellishments, with just enough hyperbole to make you wonder if the dork ever even visited a Florida classroom. You could even picture yourself shouting at the television, demanding that he stop trying to tell heart-warming stories about his own family tragedies when, in fact, he was incapable of telling any story without sounding more wooden than a sequoia.

Oh, the 2000 version of Al Gore was a dork, alright. Much dorkier than Farmer Ted. At least Farmer Ted knew what to do with a pair of girl’s underwear. To imagine old Al with Molly’s underwear … I just don’t want to think about it.

To a large segment of our country, Al Gore isn’t fully human. He’s “Algore,” the cyborg. Part human being, part mechanized buffoon. According to his detractors, Algore exemplifies what it means to be a loser. You give him the Vice Presidency, add a popular President willing to campaign on his behalf, throw in a thriving economy and a world at peace, and he’ll take all those things and figure out a way to lose nonetheless. Why? Because the American people are people, and Algore is a cyborg. And people don’t want to be lectured by anything mechanized, particularly one that constantly insults their intelligence. We may be flesh and blood, but we’re not stupid. Right?

Wrong. The reality is that Al Gore – memo to Rush Limbaugh: his name has two words, not one – is actually very much human. He screws up, like other people, and indeed he screwed up the campaign in 2000 by carrying himself like a dork’s dork. But if you’ve kept your eyes and your mind open since 2000, you would have seen an impressive metamorphosis. No, Al hasn’t transformed himself into Cary Grant or Harrison Ford, he’s still a bit of a dork. Yet he seems able now to laugh at his wooden exterior. And increasingly, he’s able to give us a hint at what lies inside. From what I can tell, it’s a man who has excellent judgment as to which causes our country needs to take on, and which ones it needs to avoid. The last I heard, that kind of judgment is what makes a top flight President – not the ability to come across on TV as a cool, charming, or fun guy.

As the United States was about to fall into the bottomless pit known as Iraq, where was Hillary? Or Edwards? Or Kerry? The last I checked, they were voting for the war – before they were against it. But not Al. He was one of the war’s very few early opponents – perhaps serving for eight years as Vice President actually taught the man something about foreign affairs.

But the new Al isn’t one to just say “I told you so.” He’s moved on to bigger and better things – like pointing out what could be even a greater threat to our country and our planet than international terrorism. I’m speaking, of course, about global warming.

Say what you want about An Inconvenient Truth. Point out that it exaggerates the dangers of global warming – identifying the worst case possibilities as if they are the likely scenarios. Point out that it spent an inordinate amount of time demonstrating that the problem of global warming exists, and precious little time talking about how to solve it. I accept those rebukes. But in the big scheme of things, they are quibbles. The fact is that Al’s movie fires a fatal shot to the positions held throughout Conservative America: a consensus has emerged within the scientific community – not the rhetorical community, but the scientific one – that global warming poses severe threats to humankind and must be addressed soon, before irreparable damage is done.

Some of my friends think the global warming scare is just hype – sort of the liberal analogue of “weapons of mass destruction.” Others tell me that it is the supreme threat facing our planet. Like Al, I tend to trust the scientific community to resolve this debate – since there truly is a near consensus among that community, shouldn’t that be cause enough for us to act?

I’d like to see Al Gore make a run for President. I think the judgment he’s exercised since he won the votes of the majority of Americans has been spot on. But first, I’d like to see America engage in a national debate about the fundamental questions raised by his movie: How do we as a nation figure out whether this global-warming threat is legitimate? And if we determine that it is, what in blazes do we do about it?

Politics aside, these are questions that must be answered today. What, in the name of science, are we waiting for?

Friday, September 15, 2006


I can’t count the number of times I’ve sat in front of the TV hoping for a supernatural comedic spirit to descend upon a political debate or press conference and force a politician to speak what he’s really thinking, and not some pre-packaged BS. Praise God, that kind of moment took place on August 7th in Breaks, Virginia, a little hamlet near the Kentucky border. Senator George Allen was doing a meet and greet in front of his people, GOP partisans in a very Red corner of the universe, or should I say the Twilight Zone. The environment made him feel comfy. He felt compelled, as Madonna would say, to “express himself.”

Allen’s words have since become known to every political junkie in America. Allen had noticed in his presence a swarthy 20 year old man who worked for his Democratic opponent in Virginia’s Senate race and was regularly “tracking” Allen, a routine technique followed by both campaigns. That’s when the supernatural spirit – perhaps Rod Serling’s ghost – took over. “This fellow here, over here with the yellow shirt, Macaca, or whatever his name is, he’s with my opponent,” said George. “He’s following us around everywhere. And it’s just great. We’re going to places all over Virginia, and he’s having it on film, and it’s great to have you here, and you show it to your opponent because he’s never been there and probably never will come so it’s good for him to see what it’s like out here in the real world. [Laughter follows.] So welcome, let’s give a welcome to Macaca here! Welcome to America, and the real world of Virginia.”

Sweet stuff, isn’t it? Allen was finally able to cut loose on the campaign trail. And all the “real Americans” in the crowd were having a blast. Can you blame them? It’s tough, not being able to use the N word like you could in the good ol’ days. But now, thanks to a seasoned Presidential hopeful like George Allen, we don’t need the stinkin’ N word any more. We’ve got a new moniker for all the ugly, swarthy types who are threatening to destroy our country and our religion. Macaca!

Allen, you see, was the son of a woman who was raised in Tunisia, a country in which the word “Macaca” was a commonly used derogatory term for black people. It also means monkey. Sound familiar?

In this case, the object of Allen’s delightful humor wasn’t black, but nor was he one of the legion of white Christians who predominate the census in George Allen’s “real” America. Macaca’s name is Shekar Ramanuja Sidarth. You could call him by his preferred nickname, Sid, but that would make him sound too Jewish – Ashkenazic Jewish – and we Jews have all of a sudden become too popular among “real” Americans to be confused with Macaca. No sir, he’s a native Virginian of East Indian descent. As such, he belongs with the groups of people who walk into airports and cause “real” Americans to whisper (“crap, I sure hope that guy ain’t no terrorist”).

As you might have surmised my now, Macaca isn’t a Jihadist Muslim, but rather a Hindu. He’s also a brilliant student who not only participated on the It’s Academic team of a high school for the gifted and talented, but also played defensive end, tight end, punter and kicker on his high school football team.

I guess he’s a pretty talented monkey.

The truth is that according to politicians who appeal to “real” America, talent is of little relevance. But apparently, the same cannot be said for race, creed or color. The great thing about “Macaca” is that it can used to refer to multiple races. Arabs, Indians, Hispanics -- you name it. As long as they’re swarthy and display a coastal sensibility, they’re Macaca, not real Americans. Real Americans, unlike Sid, aren’t math-letes or chess club members. They don’t aspire, like he does, to become environmental lawyers – unless, of course, they decide to practice law against the cause of environmental protection. Real Americans are sick and tired of people of pigmentation who would dare question the establishment of Christianity as the national religion, or who would dare suggest that economic equity is a religious value. That’s just a bunch of Ma-caca, they tell us.

Politicians like George Allen know, however, that most real Americans would benefit, for example, from higher taxes for the very rich. But he dare not admit that, any more than the Czar of old Russia could come clean about economics to the peasants. The Czar gave his people pogroms against the Jews. And Allen gives his people coastal-bashing, racist Ma-caca. It’s funny how brilliant political minds think alike.

So now here we are, less than two months before the election, and little more than one month after the M word became heard ‘round the Commonwealth. Allen’s lead, which according to one early summer poll was 16 points has, according to that same poll, shrunk to four. Could Allen actually lose this race? Stay tuned – and find out if the Real Americans are correct that God truly is omni-benevolent.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006


Perhaps the highest compliment a sports fan can pay to an athlete is when you call a Hall of Fame player “underappreciated.” Baseball fans who are a bit older than I am swear that such a label applies to Stan “The Man” Musial. Given that he had seven batting titles, three rings, three MVP awards, 475 home runs, and that I, who loves baseball, wasn’t even sure how to the spell the guy’s name, I’d have to agree with them. Another underappreciated Hall of Famer is the old Patriots/Raiders cornerback, Mike Haynes. Haynes was as close as I’ve seen to the perfect role player in a team sport. People never talk about him today because all he did, game after game, was completely blanket whichever wide receiver he covered. Consequently, quarterbacks never threw in his direction, so he and his opposing receiver simply became invisible. Who wants to hype invisible players? Where are the ratings in that?

Another undeniably underappreciated “superstar” athlete is the “other” Babe -- Babe Didrikson. She was far and away the most accomplished woman in athletics, having reached the pinnacle at multiple sports, yet she’s rarely discussed as one of the best handful of athletes in the 20th century. I don’t get it. She dominated her gender, and her gender consists of more than half of the humanoids in the Galaxy, but she barely cracks ESPN’s top 10 – beaten by nine men, including multiple baseball players. Why then isn’t she up there in the pantheon with her male Babe analogue?

Then there’s Secretariat, an athlete that gets even less respect than the female Babe. But Secretariat was the best not only of his gender but his species, and no athlete has dominated a sport more than he. If you don’t believe me, check out the 1973 Belmont -- he looked like a rabbit running against a bunch of turtles. Secretariat’s problem, of course, is that he’s a horse, and the only horse we truly respect is Mr. Ed. We human beings think so highly of ourselves, in fact, that we’ve shaped our one and only god in our image. So how can we possibly give a horse his due when competing for the title of best athlete? “It” never had a shot.

Today, sports fans, we have another opportunity to witness underappreciated greatness. And get this – this guy is so amazing, that he’s considered the greatest talent in the history of his sport (like Secretariat) but remains underappreciated. His name is Eldrick Tiger Woods.

What? You don’t believe Tiger’s underappreciated? Think again. This guy is a golfer. Many people won’t even allow his game to be called a sport. Others are more gracious, but they refuse to admit that anyone in their right mind should watch that sport on TV. I can’t tell you how many people have rolled their eyes when I say that I watch it even though I don’t play it.

There is, of course, a group of people who fully appreciate Tiger – they’re called real golf fans. They all recognize Tiger’s excellence. Even some of my ultra-conservative friends who for years have sworn that there would never be another Jack Nicklaus are beginning to concede that the 30-year-old, self-proclaimed “Cablanasian” with the feline moniker appears to be even better than his ursine predecessor.

But how many of us are real golf fans? Excluding well-heeled, white Republicans, how many of us have consistently taken golf seriously as a spectator sport?

Pas moi. Yeah, I watched it a bit as a kid when Arnie, Jack and Lee Trevino played. But I hardly watched religiously -- not even close. And by the time I went off to college in 1977, I was about to embark on nearly two decades of golf-less life. The sport’s sole role for me was to supply humorous names: Kermit Zarley, Bert Yancey, Fuzzy Zoeller, Hubert “Huby” Green, Duffy Waldorf, Fred Funk, Gibby Gilbert. … Truly, those names seemed to be the “sport’s” only saving grace.

Then, one day, I learned about the existence of Mr. Woods. I was told that there was this kid who played golf for my alma mater and was both pigmented and precocious. I might have thought “pigmented” for a golfer meant that his family hailed from Spain or Northern Italy. But no – this dude actually had an African-American father and a Thai mother, and neither of them was wealthy. Those facts alone would have made me wish him well, but they might not have sufficed for me to take time out from my busy day to watch people walk around a country club. Candidly, it was the connection that I had with Tiger as a fellow Stanford Cardinal that persuaded me to sit my fanny down and watch him and his buddies play golf. The endless commercials about Viagra and investment funds were merely a fringe benefit.

Once I took the time to witness the phenomenon that is Tiger Woods, I was hooked. I saw him dominate the Masters while barely old enough to drink. A few years later, I watched him hold all four major tournament trophies at the same time, a feat that had never been accomplished. And I saw him consistently stay ahead of Jack Nicklaus’s pace for winning major tournaments. He’s now up to 12, 2/3rds of the way to Nicklaus’s record. Not bad for a guy who is only just now beginning to enter the period of his life -- his 30s -- that traditionally is a golfer’s prime.

Nearly as importantly, I saw Tiger attain those milestones while comporting himself with dignity and class. He always seemed to know when to flash a smile, when to sound humble, and when to pat himself on the back. And he clearly was very devoted to his parents. For us Jewish guys, you earn a lot of points from that.

So, despite not being a true golf fan and despite my refusal to take up the game myself, I understand the argument that watching Tiger Woods compete is compelling television. But many of my friends remain holdouts. I’ve heard different excuses. Some friends tell me they’d rather watch paint dry. One makes a Woods-specific argument: he’s a right-wing Oreo cookie who once refused to attend an event held in Jackie Robinson’s honor. In each case, these statements were made by rabid sports fans. They still fail to recognize what I take as a near given: Tiger is providing the most amazing spectacles in sports today.

I won’t say this phenomenon is unprecedented. In fact, I’ve seen it once before: when Michael Jordan was ripping up the NBA in the early to mid 90s. Fortunately for sports fans everywhere, MJ played a sport that was universally respected, and as a result he was appreciated by fans of all stripes. But Tiger, being a golfer, doesn’t have that privilege, so his fan club is less ubiquitous -- such a pity for those who have yet to jump on the bandwagon.

Jordan, like Tiger, seemed able to win events merely by showing up. It’s not that their competitors always fell apart – Vijay Singh came up big at the recent Deutsche Bank tournament -- it’s just that, as MJ did before him, Tiger is now consistently playing at the level where he can summon whatever intensity, concentration, and skill are needed to post the winning score, no matter what that score might be. In a sport where greatness is exemplified by winning one golf tournament every five or six tries, Tiger has now won five tournaments in a row, and not for the first time.

Jordan and Woods also share the ability to excel at a sport without having it corrode their impeccable public image. It’s true that after Jordan had set all his records, the media tried to create a scandal from the fact that Air liked to gamble. Imagine that – a great gamesman who makes more money in a week than the rest of us make in a decade was “outed” because he enjoys spending a small fraction of that fortune on casino games. Mon Dieu! Thankfully, the public didn’t care, and why should they? Jordan has every right to walk down the street and throw out $200 million to random passersby. He made the money. And he’d still have hundreds of million of dollars left to do things that rich people are supposed to do with their money: like buy yachts, mansions, and – if it’s their preference -- mistresses.

That leads me to the other common critique of Jordan and Woods. Some naysayers decry that they’re not public-spirited enough. Even though Tiger has spent millions of dollars on programs for helping youth, he is challenged because he’s not as outspoken on public policy issues as, say, Susan Sarandon or Alec Baldwin.

Once again, I just have to laugh at the critique. Just as Air had every right to lose money at poker, Tiger has every right to avoid lecturing the nation on the Iraq War and to spend his spare time at Maples Pavilion celebrating the Cardinal beat the Arizona Wildcats at hoops. Let me spell this out: Tiger is an athlete, an entertainer and a corporate pitch man. He’s never claimed to be an intellectual, a political figure or a spiritual leader. Personally, I’d prefer it if he could turn into the next Gandhi or Martin Buber. But am I going to criticize him if he chooses to speak only with his swing and with his smile? Not this sports fan.

I feel quite sure that none other than Plato would agree with me in letting MJ be MJ and Tiger be Tiger and reveling in their accomplishments, rather than bemoaning their limitations. Plato divided the human soul into three faculties – the reasoning faculty, the spirited faculty (or “thymos”) and the appetitive faculty. Most of us, he says, are dominated by the third, and become laborers. Some of us are dominated by the faculty of reason, Plato said, and are suited to become philosopher kings. To be sure, Plato placed his beloved philosophers at the pinnacle of human existence, but he didn’t deny the need for, and beauty of, those who are dominated by their thymos. They become the great warriors – prideful people with a thirst for glory, an inner strength, and a passion to defeat obstacles. They deserve to be celebrated almost as much as the great sages. Without them, our society would surely be overrun by weakness, lethargy and, ultimately, foreign enemies.

No, I’m not prepared to advocate that Tiger Woods should be compared to the legendary soldiers of by-gone eras. His accomplishments hardly match their courage. But I am saying that this is a man whose superior thymos is on display whenever he competes. And that alone makes him worthy of being watched. For Tiger, as for Jordan, it’s the thymos that makes the crucial difference to his art – that’s why he doesn’t just win repeatedly, but wins at will. Athletes like that come around very, very rarely. If you’re capable of enjoying any sport, you surely owe yourself the treat of watching them play at whatever sport the Fates have assigned for them. The sport, you see, isn’t relevant. What’s relevant is the thymos.

I sometimes wish we could learn more about great feats of thymos on the part of modern day soldiers – real soldiers. But such isn’t the case. Our military successes are generally attributed to superior technological prowess, whereas the only soldiers whose successes we hear about today are terrorists, and I’m hardly recommending that we revel in their accomplishments.

For those who wish to appreciate the thymos, we’re left with our gladiators on the playing field. They allow us to witness the thymos with our eyes and vicariously experience the glory they attain after a fight well fought.

Maybe in a decade or two, another athlete will come around with Tiger’s competitive spirit who excels at a sport that is universally loved – like basketball, or soccer or baseball. But that’s not the situation. Today, our great competitor happens to wage war on a battlefield consisting of trees, grass, sand, ponds, and holes in the ground. So be it. It’s not exactly my ideal choice of venues, but I don’t get to choose how athletic genius is manifested. My job as a sports fan – I mean a fan of the thymos -- is simply to keep my eyes open for genius, and then sit back, grab a beer, and enjoy the spectacle.

Sunday, September 10, 2006


One of the questions I hear most from readers of The Creed Room is how much the character of Sam Kramer’s mother is based on my own. I answer that question as a general matter in the Interview that is linked to the Creed Room page of my web site. But let me take this moment to contrast the two women on a very specific point.

Ruth Kramer was, by design, a Jewish-mother stereotype in various respects. Among other things, she was quite materialistic. Ruth would surely deny that charge, saying that she doesn’t covet extreme wealth but only values financial security. While that may be true, the point remains that earning power is never too far from her mind.

Not so my mother. She has always taught me that plenty of things are more important than financial security. Integrity, intellectuality, kindness ... I could continue the list for a while, in fact, before I got to anything that is the least bit materialistic.

The best way to illustrate my mother’s values is to share a piece of advice she gave me when I was about to go off for college. “If I could select one class for you to take,” she asked,” what class do you think it would be?” I was shocked to hear her answer. And yet the older I get, the more I have come to appreciate it.

At the time I went off to college, the country was as obsessed about economic wealth as is it now, and that attitude has had a profound effect on our educational system. Specifically, it has caused certain subjects to be elevated in importance well above others.

Math? That’s considered a must – and not just math, but complex math that virtually none of us ever use in our lives. But that’s not the subject my mom was talking about.

Science? You bet that’s beloved by all the educational gurus. In fact, the scientific fields are even more honored in our society than math, for nothing is associated more with a country’s economic success than its proficiency in the sciences and technology. But my mom wasn’t talking about a science class.

How about literature or history? They might not be as high on the conventional pantheon as math or science, but they’re viewed as vital as well. People who don’t understand history are viewed as incapable of thinking sensibly about public policy, for history supplies an empirical training ground for all our ideas and philosophies. (Note the scientific bias again – history becomes a branch of science, albeit somewhat less “hard” than the natural sciences.) As for literature, we consider the study of the great works of fiction to be critical to developing our command of the English language. Only those who can write, read, and speak properly can ever “make it” in our society, and without training in literature, those skills are unlikely to be honed. That, at least, is what most educators will tell you, and they may well be right. But my mom didn’t have those subjects in mind either.

Therein lay the disciplines viewed as most integral, most practical. But practical, materialistic minds love to supplement them with other staples. Foreign language courses are important, for example, if we hope to be able to converse – or do business – with people from different cultures. Economics or business courses are also popular vehicles for jump starting a professional career. Indeed, without a basic understanding of economics, how are we supposed to manage our own money, let alone contribute to a capitalist economy? Then there are the other social “sciences,” like political science or psychology. These courses are considered every bit as serious and intellectually challenging as any other discipline taught in college.

My mother, an economist by trade who is steeped in a broad range of social studies, clearly appreciates the importance of these latter disciplines. But the class she had in mind wasn’t among them.

In case you can’t tell by now, my mother was referring to a class that many people wouldn’t even deem “academic.” It’s supposed to be more of an “elective,” a time out from practicality where we get to let our brains relax and our hearts wander.

I’m not equipped to evaluate which courses require more intellectual rigor than others, but this much I can say: it’s impossible to fully appreciate any of the humanities without an appreciation for art history. And when I took my mother’s advice and enrolled in college art history class, she immeasurably increased my sensibilities as an observer of the human condition and a student of spirituality.

Working only a couple of blocks away from the National Gallery of Art, I’m amazed at the number of my co-workers who rarely if ever go to that museum during lunch or some other break in the day. Admission is free, and yet they don’t go. Perhaps they’ve never been taught what a treasure that place is. Perhaps when they were in college, they were too busy learning differential calculus, or the finer points of geology. No one can sensibly disparage those disciplines, but there’s more to life than they can offer.

The best artwork represents our species’ aspirations and ideas at their most beautiful. If we wish to ignore them when we attend college, we make the statement that “higher learning” and “beauty” need not be spoken in the same breath.

Thursday, September 07, 2006


If you haven’t read The Creed Room, you are undoubtedly wondering how this blog got its name. I’m willing to answer the question, but only up to a point.

The Creed Room is part story book, and part work of philosophy. As a novel, it focuses on a group of characters who are brought together by a man who refuses to reveal his identity. They come to know him as the “Benefactor” because he pays each of them tens of thousands of dollars and asks in return only that they meet once a week in his old Victorian house and work together to formulate a new creed for humankind. The book charts the lives of the “Creed Gang” both inside and outside of the Victorian until, eventually, it reveals the Benefactor’s identity, the hidden agenda that prompted him to sponsor the group, and the way that the Creed Gang -- quite unintentionally – changes history.

The Creed Room is also a vehicle to express a philosophy. That philosophy begins to emerge in the classroom of Sam Kramer, the book’s narrator and main character, who teaches history and philosophy in a public high school. It is reinforced through the action of the book, most of which teaches the reader lessons about the goals and consequences of human behavior. But most importantly, the book’s philosophy is expressed through the “creed” that is presented in the Victorian when the Benefactor finally shows his face to the group. The name of that creed, in case you can’t tell by now, is Empathic Rationalism.

Want to know more about it? Sorry. You’ll have to go to my webpage – – and click on The Creed Room page. You won’t find there an explicit definition of Empathic Rationalism, but if you look at the responses I gave to various interview questions, you’ll get a good sense of the book’s underlying philosophy. Who knows, perhaps you’ll even grow curious enough to pick up the book and discover the meaning of Empathic Rationalism for yourselves.

In this blog, I hope to remain consistent with the spirit of Empathic Rationalism. When I vary from it, I’ll try to let you know.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006


It grows tiresome to hear Democrats constantly praising Democrats, and Republicans constantly praising Lieberman, I mean Republicans. Seriously, isn’t it about time to give the Devil his due?

Faust did. And the result is some of the best literature in world history.

Personally, I like Faust, at least the Faust described by Goethe. Yes, he sold his soul for knowledge and power. But after experiencing years of demonically-inspired life in which he obtained whatever his heart desired, look what became of him? He decided that egoistic greatness is meaningless. He decided that true meaning lies in serving others – that is, in being charitable. He decided that supreme wisdom consists in the realization that “the man who earns his freedom every day alone deserves it, and no other does.” Accordingly, his one supreme moment, greater than anything the Devil could provide, was to envision clearing out a swamp to enable millions of people to live free, independent lives. And then he, Faust, would stand as but one of many – living cooperatively, peacefully, “on a free soil, with a free people.” Upon realizing the beauty of this image, Faust collapsed and was whisked off to the heavens.

Faust, ultimately, was a good man. And so, I believe, is John McCain.

Yes, I know. Right now, McCain gives the appearance of a man who would snuggle up with Goebbels if that’s what it took to advance his political aspirations. The Maverick McCain seemed rarely on the side of the Religious Right, but the New McCain can’t cozy up to them enough. The Maverick McCain was always pointing out the excesses and failures of the Republican establishment, but the New McCain can’t say enough about staying the course.

Let’s face it: after the Straight Talk Express was derailed in 2000, when McCain admitted that even the Maverick McCain told a few lies of expediency, he was merely foreshadowing things to come. The New McCain has obviously decided that nothing that comes out of his mouth can be taken seriously other than the words: “I want to be President and I’m willing to say and do whatever it takes to get the nomination and the Presidency.”

It’s ugly. But it doesn’t mean he’s forgotten the meaning of wisdom, or the ability to build coalitions if it served his needs to do so.

To those of you who’ve spent years insulting Bush for being elected President without paying his dues, look at it this way: John McCain has paid his dues as much as any American politician. To begin, he spent years in a Vietnam prison camp during which he was tortured – in Faust’s words, he more than earned his freedom every day! Then, after being elected to the United States Senate, he served for many years as a voice of reason who has worked as well with Democrats as with Republicans and has repeatedly told the truths that big lobbying firms and corporations were afraid to hear. That was the John McCain we all learned to respect, especially as it evolved into a Presidential run in 2000 that led to a victory in the Republican New Hampshire primary. That John McCain seemed to be the darling of all the truly “independent” political minds in the country. But then look what happened? His candidacy was destroyed practically overnight by the conservative establishment.

Methinks the dude learned a lesson about winning a Republican nomination.

Now I’m not condoning the way McCain has been conducting himself lately. I find it deeply troubling. Strike that, I find it depressing. But it hasn’t forced me to deny what the man has demonstrated for years: that he is a strong, courageous man whose political compass is essentially moderate. Apparently, you can add to that list that he has become so desperate to be elected that no liberal or moderate can possibly trust him if he is elected President. Then again, no reasonable person could ever trust Faust either when he sold his soul to the Devil. That didn’t change the fact that Faust was essentially a good man who ultimately decided that the Devil’s way was not his own.

I can’t see myself supporting the New McCain for President. But if he is elected – and I suspect his chance is as good as anyone’s – I’ll leave on the light of hope. Perhaps, once in power, he will decide that the time to suck up to Falwell is over, and the time to unify the country has begun. A moderate with McCain’s ambitions surely recognizes that goal as the height of political wisdom.

Monday, September 04, 2006


Let's drink to the hard working people
Let's drink to the lowly of birth
Raise your glass to the good and the evil
Let's drink to the salt of the earth
Say a prayer for the common foot soldier
Spare a thought for his back breaking work
Say a prayer for his wife and his children
Who burn the fires and who still till the earth

Those, of course, are the beginning lyrics of “Salt of the Earth,” by the Stones. Mick and Keith wrote that song nearly four decades ago when they were at the top of their powers. Now, their talents are dried up. But that doesn’t stop them from charging hundreds of dollars in admission fees for their concerts – clearly, the “salt of the earth” talk is just that. Today’s working man can no more afford to see those guys play than he can count on social security, health insurance, rising wages, or powerful unions.

Happy Labor Day, everybody!

But seriously, I was lamenting last week the fact that my children now have to start school in August. Cruel and unusual punishment, I thought. But then I realized a silver lining: today, those kids will wake up, recognize that they were permitted to sleep in, and tell themselves that the reason they’re not in school is because it’s Labor Day -- a day to celebrate labor. Sure, they might wonder for a moment why something as painful as the process of childbirth is worthy of a national holiday. But my daughters are smart. And it won’t take long before they realize that we’re not talking about that form of labor. We’re talking about celebrating the “working man” … and woman. Or perhaps, if they’re really smart, they’ll realize that we’re celebrating the working class. Those folks Jagger was talking about.

My question is why? Why should we celebrate the working class? After all, if they had paid more attention in school, many of them could have “lifted themselves up” and made “more of themselves.” Why should I, a member of the professional class, devote a whole day to them? Is it ‘cause they’re relatively poor? Well that can’t be the reason – otherwise we’d call it “Poverty Day” instead. Hmmm. Why then?

Well, maybe I’m wrong, but it could be that the so called “working class” do the dirty work that people like me wouldn’t want to do, but totally depend on for so many things that we take for granted -- like having clean streets, or roofs that don’t leak, or buildings that don’t fall apart, or food that’s fresh.

Does that mean I owe something to them -- other than a day named in their honor and an occasional word of thanks? Am I obliged to supplement what they’re paid by their bosses? Am I obliged to support their right to unionize so that they can bargain with their bosses on a more equal footing? Am I obliged to view the payment of taxes as a way to honor the “salt of the earth” and give them the same opportunity I have to pursue my happiness and realize my talents?

Are those the kind of thoughts we should be having on Labor Day?

I suppose that’s harmless enough. After all, people go to church once a week and they still forget the stuff about charity and brotherly love. So how much trouble can it be to spend one day a year thinking that sharing the wealth with the working stiff is not just an option, but an obligation.

Saturday, September 02, 2006


There is a certain complacency that arises from thinking of yourself as a moderate force in any field of human activity. Take politics for example. Apply a truth serum to a friend who fashions herself a political moderate, and you can’t help but hear their supreme self-confidence. Moderates equate their position with rationality, and contrast themselves to “extremists” on either side. Moderates assume that they and they alone are willing to entertain all valid arguments, whereas the others open their minds to but a single side of the issue. Moderates assure themselves that they will ultimately be vindicated, since compromise is the only alternative to a right-left tug of war resulting in divisiveness and resentment. In short, moderates view their position not only as being the most sensible but by far the most sane.

Now, let’s consider the domain of religion – and more specifically, Judaism. Here in America, we Jews have a veritable smorgasbord of alternatives from which to choose. On the right, we have Orthodoxy – Ultra-Orthodoxy, Modern-Orthodoxy … whatever you call it, it rests on the idea that God gave the Torah to Moses at Sinai and that we are bound to follow the commandments set forth in that book, as interpreted over the millennia by rabbis. On the left, we have what might be called “liberal” Judaism – Reform, Reconstructionist, Jewish Renewal, Jewish Humanism … what they have in common is the notion that the individual Jew chooses for herself which Jewish teachings to accept and which ones to ignore. In fact, they allow the individual Jew to ignore the source of the commandments, the Big Guy in the Sky. And indeed, many members of liberal Jewish congregations are, at bottom, atheists.

That brings me to that wonderful synthesis of liberal and Orthodox Judaism, Conservative Judaism. When I was a child, I thought of Conservative Judaism as the golden mean. And, in fact, I wasn’t alone. It was the most popular of the American Jewish sects. But that has changed, and its demise was chronicled well in an article by New York Times writer Samantha Shapiro that was published on August 28, 2006 by Shapiro focuses on the despair of Ismar Schorsh, the departing chancellor of New York’s Jewish Theological Seminary, the great rabbinical school of the Conservative movement. Schorsh is bemoaning the fact that his beloved Conservativism has been losing ground to sects on both the left and the right. Apparently, those who want “modernity” have been opting for Reform or other liberal groups, and those who want “tradition” are increasingly becoming Orthodox. So where’s the mandate for Conservatism? What role does it fulfill? Where, Schorsh asks, is the nerve of Conservative Rabbis to captivate those of us who wish to maintain the fragile balance between “truth” and “faith”?

In that last question, Schorsh puts his finger on exactly why Conservative Judaism is digging its own grave. In a time when many, if not most educated people are turned off by religion, why should we view “truth” and “faith” as opposing forces? Why should we, in other words, accept less truth in order to develop our faith? Liberals won’t, that’s for sure. And as for those who yearn above all else for the beauty and community of a life devoted to tradition, I can’t imagine why they couldn’t find an Orthodox community that best serves their needs.

Well strike that – there is one type of Conservative community I understand. It’s commonly known as “Conservadox,” and it is indistinguishable from Modern Orthodox except that it might allow complete equal rights for women and/or permit congregants to drive to synagogue on the Sabbath. To me, however, those communities are essentially Orthodox, and they are hardly comparable to the mainstream Conservative communities that came to dominate much of American Judaism throughout most of the 20th century. I’m more interested, for the moment, in that latter form of Judaism. Does it have a future?

One problem for the Conservatives is that certain communities on its left are becoming more and more observant. Reform Jews, for example, are increasingly incorporating Hebrew into their services, observing Jewish holidays, and avoiding unkosher food. As a result, mainstream Conservative synagogues are becoming virtually indistinguishable from today’s Reform in terms of Jewish practice, except there are no musical instruments in the sanctuary, the kiddies have to go to school an extra day during the week, and the adults may still spend marginally more time in synagogue during Jewish holidays. But Conservative Judaism as a movement continues to maintain that the Jewish laws arise from Sinai and God – and therein lies a distinction with a meaningful difference. In Reform Judaism, you see, congregants are taught that the reasons for Jewish rituals may or may not have anything to do with God’s will – that’s up to the individual to decide.

I’ll be honest. Even though I was raised with the Conservative prayer book, I see mainstream Conservative synagogues as merely a poor man’s alternative to modern Reform. Yes, my Conservative friends, you might get your grandfather’s aesthetics – no organ in the synagogue, damn it! – and yes you might get somewhat more Jewish training for children, but think what you lose? Your movement can’t decide whether to ordain gay rabbis. Your movement won’t accept the Judaism of children with Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers, even if these kids become a Bar Mitzvah or even a rabbi – so you see people who are surely more “Jewish” than you and your family in terms of learning, behavior, commitment, etc., and yet you’ve got to tell them that you’re the true Jew and they’re the fraud. Most importantly, your movement will ground you in cognitive dissonance: you’re told that the commandments in the Torah are divinely mandated, but you nevertheless find yourself and your community picking and choosing among them. In short, you have come to realize that the mainstream Conservative movement is neither fully committed to humanistic values nor intellectually honest about what is commanded, what is permitted and why. Ouch!

Seriously, if mainstream Conservatives truly believed that Jewish law came directly from God, as communicated to Moses on Sinai, don’t you think they’d be stricter in observing these laws as commandments, rather than guidelines to be balanced against the principle of convenience?

In her Slate article, Shapiro pines for a thriving Conservative Judaism that truly occupies the middle ground. She clearly recognizes the need for any moderate religious movement to have intellectual integrity. And yet, as she points out, “there is a sweetness, intensity and pleasure that comes from religious practice that isn’t wholly rational.”

Agreed. There is something beautiful about keeping kosher for its own sake, for example. But there is something ugly about picking and choosing which religious “commandments” to follow, while denying the Judaism of a Reform rabbi with a Jewish father simply because his mother is a gentile. And no religion worthy of its name can afford to be ugly.

In the end, mainstream Conservative Jews might recognize that the golden mean lies in joining a community that combines a commitment to Jewish ritualistic practices “for their own sake” with a philosophy that leaves it to the individual to decide whether supernatural forces exist or what, if any, role God has played in inspiring Jewish rituals. That seems to me to be an example of an approach that reconciles modernity and tradition. It also happens to be the cornerstone of Reconstructionist Judaism. And the Reform movement has finally realized that in such a path lies its own future as well.

Conservatives could have occupied that ground first, but they blew their chance. They were too busy looking to balance “truth” and “faith” that they forgot the real meaning of Judaism: truth is something that can never be sacrificed. Therein lies the supreme beauty of our faith.