Archive for the 'Religion' Category

Jewish History – A Clarification

matzohIt’s Passover (woo hoo!) and Jews (and US Presidents) all over the world are sitting down to seders to commemorate the liberation of the ancient Israelites from slavery in Egypt.

This is a tradition that’s been passed down for millennia, but certain aspects of Passover aren’t quite as old as you’ve probably been led to believe.

Take the Afikoman, for example. Wikipedia describes it this way:

Afikoman… meaning “that which comes after” or “dessert”) is a half-piece of matzo which is broken in the early stages of the Passover Seder and set aside to be eaten as a dessert after the meal.

Based on the Mishnah in Pesahim 119a, the afikoman is a substitute for the Korban Pesach, which was the last thing eaten at the Passover Seder during the eras of the First and Second Temples and during the period of the Mishkan. The Gemara states that it is forbidden to eat any other food after eating the afikoman, in order to keep the taste of matzo in our mouths.

In some families, the head of the household hides the afikoman for the children to find. In other families, the children “steal” it and ask for a reward for its return. Either way, there is usually a gift of money or candy made to the children at the table before the seder continues.

Wikipedia is quite correct about how it’s actually done, but the etymology and history… not so much. Believe it or not, the tradition of the Afikoman only dates back about a century.

It was March 30, 1915, or if you prefer, the 15th day of Nisan, 5675 — the first night of Passover that year. The Cohen family of Williamsburg, Brooklyn (Moshe and Miriam, with their daughter Esther and sons Samuel, Alfred, and William) had traveled all the way to Coney Island to participate in a seder to be held at the home of Rabbi Leo Bronfman, the husband of Moshe’s eldest sister, Yetta.

The family crowded into the Bronfmans’ dining room and began the ceremonial meal. After the four questions were asked by young Alfie (who had until this point embarrassed his parents by fidgeting throughout the ritual), he asked if he could be excused to go to the bathroom.

And so, the gathered crowd of Bronfmans and Cohens waited. And waited…

Nearly half an hour passed, and finally Rabbi Bronfman threw up his hands and announced that they’d waited long enough, and young Alfie would simply have to miss out on his share of the last piece of matzoh. He got up to fetch the unleavened bread, but quickly returned, saying that it was gone. Alfie had stolen the last piece of matzoh!

Moshe Cohen leaped to his feet and headed to the bathroom, saying something about teaching that spoiled little thief why this night was different from any other night, but he returned without Alfie. Apparently, the boy had slipped out the window and run off.

It wasn’t until two hours later that Esther Cohen found her little brother sitting on a bench on the boardwalk. Reportedly, when she asked him why he’d run away, the boy replied that “Tante Yetta’s house was smelly.”

It didn’t take long before, despite Rabbi Bronfman’s efforts to silence the embarrassing story, the tale of Alfie Cohen the Matzoh Thief was featured in the Daily Forward. A song about Alfie was even a hit in the Yiddish theatres of the Lower East Side. You think Burt Bacharach wrote Alfie? Nope. All he did was slow down the tempo and change the lyrics.

I can’t find the song anywhere now, either in Yiddish or English, but I still remember a few lines my grandmother used to sing:

What’s going on, little Alfie?
Are you just living for the moment?
Why did you run away with the last matzoh?
I didn’t mean to be cruel
I don’t want to be a fool
But my auntie’s house is smelly, smelly, smelly
And I can’t eat in a smelly house.

It’s all true. I wouldn’t lie about something like this.

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Holy Fodder

Pope in condom capAlternate Title: Pope-phylactic

Alternate Alternate Title: Habemus Scumbag

So, our pal Pope B-B-B-B-B-Benedict XVI made his first visit to Africa since becoming the Big Catholic Cheese recently (note to Governor Palin: that’s Africa the continent, not the country). While he was in Cameroon, he made a statement about the use of condoms in the effort to slow the spread of HIV/AIDS. From an AP article:

Condoms are not the answer to Africa’s fight against HIV, Pope Benedict XVI said Tuesday as he began a weeklong trip to the continent. It was the pope’s first explicit statement on an issue that has divided even clergy working with AIDS patients.

Benedict arrived in Yaounde, Cameroon’s capital, and was greeted by a crowd of flag-waving faithful and snapping cameras. The visit is his first pilgrimage as pontiff to Africa.

In his four years as pope, Benedict had never directly addressed condom use, although his stance is not new. His predecessor, Pope John Paul II, often said that sexual abstinence was the best way to prevent the spread of the disease.

Benedict also said the Roman Catholic Church was at the forefront of the battle against AIDS.

“You can’t resolve it with the distribution of condoms,” the pope said en route to Yaounde. “On the contrary, it increases the problem.”

Huh? Wha? Let’s start off with a look at the first, and arguably lesser, of the two utterly nutso statements at the end: the claim that the church is “at the forefront of the battle against AIDS.” Just what it is it the church does in the battle against AIDS? As far as I know, it insists that people refrain from sex outside marriage. It’s abstinence training.

And how well does abstinence training work?

The number of teenagers having babies rose for the second straight year in 2007, at a slower pace than the previous 12 months, a U.S. government report showed.

The birth rate for teens increased about 1 percent in 2007 from 2006, following a 2.8 percent rise in 2006, according to the report from the U.S. Centers of Disease Control and Prevention. The number of unmarried women having babies also rose, accounting for almost 40 percent of all births in 2007, the report said.

Babies born to teenage mothers are more likely to be premature and less healthy, according to the March of Dimes. Government and nonprofit programs work to provide education on contraception, encourage youth to postpone sexual relationships and promote abstinence to reduce the rate of teen births, which had declined for 14 years until 2006.

“It is clear here that one of the jobs at hand is to get back on track to where we were, and that is convincing more young people of the value of delaying sexual activity and convincing sexually active teens to use contraception consistently and carefully,” said Bill Albert, a spokesman for the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy in Washington.

The reasons behind the increase in teen births are unclear. Some policy experts attributed the rising pregnancies to a lack of education about contraception as the U.S. government focused on abstinence-only programs under former President George W. Bush. Others cited an ill-advised confidence after years of progress.

Or how about this article from late last year:

Teens who take virginity pledges are just as likely to have sex as teens who don’t make such promises — and they’re less likely to practice safe sex to prevent disease or pregnancy, a new study finds.

“Previous studies found that pledgers were more likely to delay having sex than non-pledgers,” said study author Janet E. Rosenbaum, a post doctoral fellow at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “I used the same data as previous studies but a different statistical method.”

This method allowed Rosenbaum to compare those who had taken a virginity pledge with similar teens who hadn’t taken a pledge but were likely to delay having sex, she said. She added that she didn’t include teens who were unlikely to take a pledge.

“Virginity pledgers and similar non-pledgers don’t differ in the rates of vaginal, oral or anal sex or any other sexual behavior,” Rosenbaum said. “Strikingly, pledgers are less likely than similar non-pledgers to use condoms and also less likely to use any form of birth control.”

OK, so abstinence is clearly the answer.

And what can we say about Bennie’s claim that condom distribution “increases the problem” of HIV? I’m at a loss to respond with anything more than a simple “what the fuck.”

By the way, while we’re on the subject of wacky papal pronouncements, I don’t want to leave out this gem:

Benedict said that while the Catholic church in Africa is the fastest growing in the world, it faces competition from increasingly popular evangelical movements and “the growing influence of superstitious forms of religion.”

Superstitious forms of religion. As opposed to the religions that are based on the scientific method. Yeah, we’ve really got to watch out for that stuff.

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Napolitano: From CB to DHS

Janet Napolitano and Johnette Napolitano

And you thought Al Franken had an unusual career path. He went from comic to comedy writer, satirist, left-wing radio personality, and perhaps to the Senate.

But Napolitano has now gone from “alternative” radio sweetheart (rumor has it Michael Stipe himself came up with the name “Concrete Blonde”. I wonder if he thought up the spelling of her name, too.) to Governor of Arizona, and now she’s on the verge of becoming Secretary of Homeland Security. And it looks like she’s keeping busy, too. Her MySpace blog indicates that she’ll be working with John Trudell on his next album starting after Christmas. I hope she can squeeze it in before she has to go to DC for her confirmation hearings.

Congratulations, Janet/Johnette!

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Viva Commerce! (#20)

Mercedes logoDear Mercedes-Benz,

Your latest spot for the C Class on the eye of hell opens with the following:

300 horsepower is fast.
400 will take your breath away.
That’s why we gave it 451.

Sorry, but I’ve just got to ask: why exactly did you give it 451?

Do you want me to lose control of the vehicle and get myself killed?

Are you trying to belittle me? Oooh, I don’t think you should buy this car. It’s much too powerful for little old you. You might hurt yourself.

Maybe it’s your idea of a dare: I just bet you can’t drive this car without killing somebody.

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Buzz Words

NosferatuI remember a day more than twenty years ago, back when I was a teaching assistant in a course on European cinema at a huge state university deep in the land of white bread and mayonnaise. The professor was lecturing on FW Murnau’s Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens.

I’m just paraphrasing here, but this is basically what he said:

Don’t think of the vampire as a literal monster who can turn into a bat and who sucks blood from his victims. Instead, think of the foreigner, the other, the stranger, the alien, the carrier of unfamiliar diseases and strange customs… the Jew.

I watched him make this statement, and saw that he was making an effort to look out over the entire lecture hall, but that as hard as he tried, by the time he got to the end of it, his eyes were focused right… on… me. All I could do was smile right back at him, and that was enough to jar him into averting his gaze.

I was reminded of that incident while watching the Republican convention last night. The major speakers didn’t bother with even a sliver of subtlety. They polished up their old culture war buzz words and held them up like they were eternal truths.

Mitt Romney jumped all over the “eastern elites,” and proclaimed that the sun was getting ready to rise in the west. He left out the fact that he holds two post-graduate degrees from Harvard University, that he’s a leader of the eastern financial elite, that he has homes in Massachusetts and New Hampshire in addition to Utah (and maybe a few places I’m not aware of), that he claimed in 1982 to be a moderate who hadn’t supported Reagan-Bush, and that his own father was born in Mexico because his family had lived there in exile for a few generations due to the fact that a major tenet of their religious beliefs was deemed alien, immoral, and illegal in the US.

Mike Huckabee warned us of “European ideas,” leaving out the fact that this nation was founded by idealists who hoped to build a nation based on the ideas of a couple of European philosophers.

And Rudy Giuliani, life-long New Yorker, adulterer and three-time groom, multi-millionaire orator and security consultant to folks like Abdallah bin Khalid al-Thani, a supporter of Khalid Sheikh Muhammad, further warned us that those bi-coastal elites — Hollywood and the East coast media — just don’t understand the real America.

And every time they mentioned the media, Europe, or Hollywood, I’d look in their faces and see that professor (who grew up in Los Angeles, by the way) who just couldn’t keep his eyes off the one Jew in the room when he talked about the Other.

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Blog Against Theocracy

There’s an Easter… um… Passover… well, call it “Spring” edition of one of my favorite swarms going on: Blog Against Theocracy. You should go check it out.

I’d have written an entry myself, but I’ve just been too busy procrastinating about work.

Blog Against Theocracy

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The Church Ladies

Guess where everyone’s favorite lying sack of shit was Sunday morning. While you’re at it, guess who was there with him. Yes, it’s true. Rudy, who considered the priesthood in his youth but apparently gave it up because he couldn’t stop thinking about super hot chicks (a problem we can only hope his third marriage will finally relieve), was at a church in Miami with Katherine Harris: the Hispanic evangelical El Rey Jesus church, to be precise.

I don’t know how often Rudy normally attends services, but the Daily News pretty clearly implies that he’s not a regular churchgoer these days.

For the mayor – who as a young man considered the priesthood – it marked the sudden discovery of God on the campaign trail, with a speech that was part sermon and part political pitch.

In other words, he’s pandering! Not only that, but Mr. English Only was pandering at a bilingual church. It’s almost as good as Romney speaking out against layoffs.

Rudy Giuliani and Katherine Harris at a church

Rumor has it that later this week he’s going to get a handgun and stand outside a Planned Parenthood clinic threatening anyone who’s walking in. Then he’s going to get those two gay men he used to live with and lock them up with one of those ex-gay counselors until they’re just begging for Rudy’s sloppy seconds.

Hat tip to Crooks and Liars

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Romney’s Big Speech

Mitt Romney with haloIf you’re a regular reader here (as if) you know that I’ve got a bit of a problem with the strategy Mitt Romney is apparently using to deal with people who have a problem with the fact that he’s a Mormon. Basically, he’s stressing that he’s a person of faith, pointing out what he has in common with the majority of people. That would be more or less acceptable to me, but the rhetoric Romney uses very clearly alienates those of us who don’t adhere to any religious faith. I’ve written about this before.

Today, Romney gave a speech at the George Bush library at Texas A&M, the purpose of which was to assuage the fears of those who are worried about what it would mean to have a Mormon president — much like John Kennedy did in 1960, assuring people that as president, he wouldn’t be taking orders from the pope. You can read the entire transcript of the speech at the site of the Wall Street Journal, but I thought I’d give you my comments on a few excerpts. This is basically what I was shouting back at the eye of hell while Mitzi spoke.

Freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom.

So I take it that means that those of us who don’t have a religion aren’t free, or can’t be free. Why is that?

As a young man, Lincoln described what he called America’s ‘political religion’ – the commitment to defend the rule of law and the Constitution. When I place my hand on the Bible and take the oath of office, that oath becomes my highest promise to God. If I am fortunate to become your president, I will serve no one religion, no one group, no one cause, and no one interest. A President must serve only the common cause of the people of the United States.

This one’s a little odd. When Lincoln gave his Lyceum Speech on January 27, 1838 in Springfiield Illinois, his point was pretty much what Romney says: commitment to the rule of law. As such, it’s really got nothing to do with the real theme of Romney’s speech. It’s about faith in something strictly secular. Here’s an excerpt from Lincoln’s speech:

The question recurs, “how shall we fortify against [mob law]?” The answer is simple. Let every American, every lover of liberty, every well wisher to his posterity, swear by the blood of the Revolution, never to violate in the least particular, the laws of the country; and never to tolerate their violation by others. As the patriots of seventy-six did to the support of the Declaration of Independence, so to the support of the Constitution and Laws, let every American pledge his life, his property, and his sacred honor;–let every man remember that to violate the law, is to trample on the blood of his father, and to tear the character of his own, and his children’s liberty. Let reverence for the laws, be breathed by every American mother, to the lisping babe, that prattles on her lap–let it be taught in schools, in seminaries, and in colleges; let it be written in Primers, spelling books, and in Almanacs;–let it be preached from the pulpit, proclaimed in legislative halls, and enforced in courts of justice. And, in short, let it become the political religion of the nation; and let the old and the young, the rich and the poor, the grave and the gay, of all sexes and tongues, and colors and conditions, sacrifice unceasingly upon its altars.

Back to Romney:

Some believe that such a confession of my faith will sink my candidacy. If they are right, so be it. But I think they underestimate the American people. Americans do not respect believers of convenience.

Americans tire of those who would jettison their beliefs, even to gain the world.

I wonder if that includes all the beliefs he professed to the people of Massachusetts when he was running for office here.

There are some who would have a presidential candidate describe and explain his church’s distinctive doctrines. To do so would enable the very religious test the founders prohibited in the Constitution.

And yet he seems to be just fine with a more general religious test — if you adhere to a religion, you pass. If not, fuck off.

The founders proscribed the establishment of a state religion, but they did not countenance the elimination of religion from the public square. We are a nation ‘Under God’ and in God, we do indeed trust.

We should acknowledge the Creator as did the Founders – in ceremony and word. He should remain on our currency, in our pledge, in the teaching of our history, and during the holiday season, nativity scenes and menorahs should be welcome in our public places. Our greatness would not long endure without judges who respect the foundation of faith upon which our constitution rests. I will take care to separate the affairs of government from any religion, but I will not separate us from ‘the God who gave us liberty.’

Of course this is a reference to US currency and the pledge of allegiance, but “In God We Trust” was added to our money in 1864 and “under God” was added to the pledge in 1954, so this really has nothing at all to do with the Founders.

Nor would I separate us from our religious heritage. Perhaps the most important question to ask a person of faith who seeks a political office, is this: does he share these American values: the equality of human kind, the obligation to serve one another, and a steadfast commitment to liberty?

They are not unique to any one denomination. They belong to the great moral inheritance we hold in common. They are the firm ground on which Americans of different faiths meet and stand as a nation, united.

You wouldn’t ask those questions of a person who didn’t profess some faith? Why? Are you assuming the answers would be “no”?

These American values, this great moral heritage, is shared and lived in my religion as it is in yours.

Assuming you have one, that is. If not, fuck off.

In such a world, we can be deeply thankful that we live in a land where reason and religion are friends and allies in the cause of liberty, joined against the evils and dangers of the day. And you can be certain of this: Any believer in religious freedom, any person who has knelt in prayer to the Almighty, has a friend and ally in me. And so it is for hundreds of millions of our countrymen: we do not insist on a single strain of religion – rather, we welcome our nation’s symphony of faith.

I guess I need to break this one down a bit… “…we live in a land where reason and religion are friends and allies in the cause of liberty…” Well, in some aspects of the cause of liberty, I suppose, but not all. A lot of school boards want the liberty to teach intelligent design. Reason finds that concept either laughable or disgusting.

“Any believer in religious freedom, any person who has knelt in prayer to the Almighty, has a friend and ally in me.” If he means one has to be a member of both of those groups to be his ally, I guess that’s OK. But those could certainly be two separate groups, and the sentence doesn’t indicate to me that he’s saying one has to be in both groups. I think it would be fair to say that I believe in religious liberty, but I’m not seeking Mitt’s support for my views, and it’s pretty clear he wouldn’t support them. And there are certainly many people who have “knelt in prayer to the Almighty” but aren’t Mitt’s kind of people. Those folks for whom Mitt says he wants to double the size of Gitmo come to mind, for example.

“And so it is for hundreds of millions of our countrymen: we do not insist on a single strain of religion – rather, we welcome our nation’s symphony of faith.” We do not insist on a single strain of religion, but it appears we (that is, he and those to whom he’s pandering) do insist on some strain of religion. After all, in our nation’s symphony of faith, those of us who don’t have a faith don’t even get to sit with the orchestra.

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More Prayers to the Rain God of Dixie

Remember back in July, when Bob Riley, the governor of Alabammy, issued a proclamation calling for a week of prayer for rain? One could argue that it met with some degree of success. One would be wrong, but that never stopped anybody.

On Sunday, a series of strong thunderstorms brought torrential rain, flash floods and lightning to the area, but apparently not enough to bring much relief to the drought-stricken area.

“I don’t think it made a big dent,” said Patrick Gatlin with the National Weather Service’s Huntsville office. “… This is the most rain we’ve seen in quite some time but it definitely won’t get us back to normal.”

Sonny PerdueWith a record of success like that, it should come as no surprise that in Georgia, where they’re dealing with a drought of historic proportions, Governor Sonny Perdue would put that tried and true method to use:

Bowing his head outside the Georgia Capitol on Tuesday, Gov. Sonny Perdue cut a newly repentant figure as he publicly prayed for rain to end the region’s historic drought.

“Oh father, we acknowledge our wastefulness,” Perdue said. “But we’re doing better. And I thought it was time to acknowledge that to the creator, the provider of water and land, and to tell him that we will do better.”

Hundreds of Georgians — ministers and lawmakers, landscapers and office workers — gathered in downtown Atlanta for the prayer vigil. Some held bibles and crucifixes. Many swayed and linked arms as a choir sang “What a Mighty God We Serve” and “Amazing Grace.”

As Perdue described it, “We have come together, very simply, for one reason and one reason only: To very reverently and respectfully pray up a storm.”

And did the Rain God deliver?

Gov. Sonny Perdue said Thursday morning that he’s not gloating over the fact that it rained a day after he held a prayer vigil at the Capitol.

“This is hopefully the beginning of more,” Perdue said from Canada, where he is on a trade mission. “One rain won’t refill the reservoirs. It is great affirmation of what we asked for.”

Most of metro Atlanta got a little rain overnight ahead of a strong cold front that blew through North Georgia, and a wind advisory was in effect for gusty conditions behind the front on Thursday.

“As we do all we can from a conservation standpoint, virtually all of us know we are dependent on rain. I am just a person who believes it comes from God,” Perdue said.

While almost all of metro Atlanta got rain, most rainfall totals were only around a quarter-inch or less.

Overnight rainfall totals included .14 inch at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, .21 inch at DeKalb-Peachtree Airport and .28 inch at Dobbins Air Reserve Base.

The rain was a little heavier north of town, with Cartersville reporting .82 inch and Gainesville .75 inch.

The wind advisory for 20 mph winds gusting to 30 to 35 mph was in effect from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday, the National Weather Service said.

“Such strong winds may result in weak or small trees being blown down, some possibly onto power lines,” the Weather Service said. “Loose outdoor objects such as lawn furniture and garbage cans, should be secured or stored indoors.”

The forecast for metro Atlanta calls for sunny skies on Friday, with early-morning lows in the mid-30s and afternoon highs in the upper 50s.

Lows will be in the low 30s Friday night under mostly clear skies, forecasters said.

The weekend outlook is for mostly sunny skies Saturday and Sunday, with highs in the mid-60s and lows in the low 40s.

There is a 20 percent chance of rain Tuesday night into Wednesday, the Weather Service said.

Praise be.

While we’re on the subject, what’s the deal with the names of Southern politicians? You’ve got Sonny Perdue, Trent Lott, Saxby Chambliss, and I’m sure plenty of others. I’m guessing that Lott and Chambliss carry old family names that remind their constituents of the glory days of the region, kind of like the confederate flag.

Do you think anybody with a name like that could be taken seriously up here? I mean, “Trent Lott” sounds like a name Elvis would call out in the middle of a song to introduce a bass solo, and “Saxby Chambliss” has to be the sort of effete upper-class fellow Scarlett O’Hara’s family would have tried to marry her off to, but he just wasn’t manly enough for her.

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John McChrist

I used to have a decent amount of respect for John McCain. Back in 2000, he was a Republican I could have actually considered voting for. Of course, he was pushed out of the race by the kind of dirty tricks that would later be used against quite a few Democrats.

I lost a lot of respect for him when he strongly backed Bush in ’04. This was the guy whose people had used the religious right and ugly rumors to push him out of the way four years earlier. This time around, the Democratic nominee was one of his closest friends in the Senate. There was even talk of McCain as Kerry’s running mate. But McCain stuck with Bush, Bush’s war and Bush’s alliances, clearly hoping the party would view 2008 as McCain’s turn.

Since then he’s brown nosed the right, started talking nonsense in support of a nonsensical war, cozied up to the religious fanatics he’d previously attacked, and in general tried his damnest to be just like the jack-off who cheated him out of the nomination before. And now this.

Clearly, there’s a lot of editing in there, so maybe the context of what he’s saying here might allow one to see it in another light, but I kind of doubt it. Fuck him.

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