Thursday, December 15, 2011

An Open Letter to President Obama

Dear President Obama,

I've written to you a few times before, and of course I realize my messages may not have actually made it past your staff. You must get thousands a day, and I imagine only the best or most important ones will make it directly to you. So to whomever might be screening this message on your behalf, I say this: If you love your country, please forward this message to the President. I beg you.

Like many Americans, I have been shocked and terrified that the only thing Congressional Republicans and Democrats seem to agree on is removing due process and habeas corpus from our legal system. As a legal scholar and a man of principle, Mr. President, I urge you in the strongest possible terms to veto the Defense Authorization Act. You took an oath to protect and defend the Constitution from all enemies, both foreign and domestic. There is no doubt this bill is a domestic threat to the Constitution.

I don't need to tell you that requiring a charge and a trial for all criminals is a foundation of both American law and universal human rights. I know you already know that. What I do want to tell you is that if you sign this bill, you'll be ushering in an era far worse than McCarthyism: an era in which all that has to happen for someone to be locked away forever with no legal recourse is to brand them a "terrorist suspect". Whether or not you would abuse this power, do you really trust all your successors not to?

If you sign this bill, this is no longer a free country... It's a police state. If you sign this bill, you're allowing Congress to gut the Bill of Rights. If you sign this bill, you'll be selling your country and all it's citizens down the river.

Most importantly, though, if you sign this bill you'll undoubtedly be remembered as one of the worst presidents we've ever had. This bill is so bad that signing it can literally erase all the good things you've accomplished. How can that really be what you want?

Please do the right thing and veto this bill. Or better yet, sign it, and then use your new powers to lock up everyone who voted for it as a national civics lesson. They and their disregard for the Constiution are the real domestic terrorists here; you know that as well as I do.

Please reconsider. Please don't betray us (and yourself). I still have faith in you... Please don't show me it was misplaced.

Jason Louis Feldstein
Pittsburgh, PA

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Kosher Jewish Magic (and Paganism!)

Everything You "Know" About Judaism is Wrong

There are a lot of things that "everyone knows" about Judaism. Everyone knows (or thinks they know) that Judaism is the first of the great monotheistic religions. While this is true, in ancient times it wasn't nearly so cut-and-dried. The reason so much of the Torah involves prophets and priests castigating the Israelites for being polytheists or planting Asherah trees is that these practices were commonplace. I might even go so far as to label them "ancient folk Judaism", in much the same way (for example) state-sponsored Shinto and folk Shinto vary widely from each other in both belief and practice.

In the text of Torah itself, the issue is also a bit muddled. Of the two most common names for God in the text, one (YHVH) is singular and the other (Elohim) is plural. Some commentators have distinguished passages written by an author called "the Yahwist" from others written by "the Elohist", the former presumably being a priest, while the latter probably fell more on the side of folk Judaism. Most scholars agree the Yahwist's writing is older, but that's hardly the point here. Taken as a whole rather than in parts, Torah is remarkably ambivalent about whether God is singular or plural... and that's exactly the point I'm making. (The rabbinic explanation is that Elohim is "like the royal 'we'", but to me that explanation falls a bit flat.)

But What About the Ten Commandments?

On its surface, the first and second of the Ten Commandments would seem to forbid any kind of polytheism. But one of the best pieces of advice a rabbi ever gave me is this: Don't read Torah like it's the newspaper. There are many levels of meaning to unravel.

What do the commandments actually say? The second is a specific prohibition on bowing down to idols or to any living thing; that seems pretty clear. But depending on what translation you look at, the first commandment forbids having any other gods "before me" or "beside me". Seems straightforward enough, until you consider the obvious question: What about "after me"?

It's a close reading, to be sure, and you might even say it's splitting hairs - but any rabbi will tell you Torah doesn't mince words. Every word in it should be taken as specifically chosen above all others for the meaning intended by God. So given that, it seems God doesn't have much of a problem with you dealing with other gods... as long as you never forget who's your daddy, so to speak. This approach to divinity is known as monolatry - the idea that God isn't the only god that's real, just the best one. (Or in these more enlightened times, the best one for you.)

This opens the way for someone be Jewish and pagan, within certain parameters. My own reading would be that beyond simply invoking YHVH first in ritual (as one would with a psychopomp such as Legba or Agni in other traditions), one must also honor YHVH highest at all times. That means Jewish rules and traditions should take precedence over those of your pagan path, and it's probably not good even to *like* another god more than you like the Big Guy, because that might make him angry. (If you're concerned about that sort of thing, of course. Some people definitely aren't.)

It's a tough line to walk, certainly, but as long as you can keep your paganism as more of a hobby than a primary path, you can (theoretically) be right with both Judaism and paganism simultaneously. This would mean, of course, that any god or goddess who might refuse to share you would be right out... unless you're deliberately trying to see which one wins. (My money is on the one whose chosen people are still alive, despite numerous attempts throughout the ages to eradicate them.)

For what it's worth, I personally choose to err on the side of caution on this issue. While I will on occasion work with non-Jewish entities, I do avoid gods associated with enemies of the Jews (Egyptian, Sumerian and other Near Eastern pantheons) since those are the ones we were specifically forbidden from dealing with in ancient times. And my worship is reserved for YHVH alone... other mostly-dead gods should be glad someone's speaking their name at all, even if they're not getting actual worship out of the deal. I do know Jewish pagans, though, and I think that much as it's good for me to know how being gay and Jewish can work halachically, it's important for them to know how being pagan and Jewish can likewise work within the context of Jewish law.

Magic vs. Miracles

It seems clear from the story of Moses facing off with Pharoah's magicians that in Torah, there's no qualitative difference between "magic" and "a miracle". It's just that "magic" is what foreign magicians do, while "a miracle" is what a prophet of God does. This illustrates that the most important thing that makes your magic kosher is its intent. In other words, it's not okay to murder someone or steal their stuff through magic, any more than it's okay to do it at knifepoint.

(The distinction between "magic" and "prayer" is a bit more grey, but I like to think of it like this: prayer is asking, while magic is telling / demanding. But that's probably a blog post unto itself.)

As the years went by, and our religion sadly became more and more corrupted by exposure to Christendom, the rabbis altered the Torah's definition of "magic" and "miracle" slightly. "Magic" became "that freaky stuff we don't like", and "miracle" became "that freaky stuff we do like". And since we don't have prophets anymore, all occultism became "magic" (often pronounced "practical kabbalah"). This was probably for the same reason the rabbinate excommunicated Spinoza over his pantheist views: better to condemn an unusual belief or practice than to have all Jews hunted down and killed by their Catholic temporal masters.

You might ask what Torah has to say on the subject of practicing "magic" or "witchcraft". Gershon Winkler handily answers this on p. 3 of Magic of the Ordinary: "The proscriptions in the Bible against divination and sorcery refer specifically to the kinds of sorcery practiced by specified cultures whose ways the Jews were forbidden to emulate. The Jewish scriptural verse [Exodus 22:17] for example, has for centuries been haphazardly translated as 'You shall not suffer a witch to live,' when literally it translates: 'You should not sustain a witch,' meaning don't get into the habit of supporting the livelihood of the village magician; don't let some guy with a lot of supernatural power drain you of your savings through fear and intimidation. Let him get a job like everybody else, and perform his magic out of the goodness of his heart and in recognition of the sacred gift he possesses. Another translation of the exact same Hebrew wording would be: 'From sorcery you should not live,' as in don't base your entire life and all of your affairs on the powers of sorcery, or, don't make a living from it."

Interestingly, the Talmud says rabbis should also get regular jobs, and should only get paid as a rabbi for the hours they have to miss from their "real job". Most rabbis I've met today conveniently seem to ignore this... and I've never been able to understand how they get around that whole working-on-Saturday prohibition either. But that, too, is probably a different rant altogether.

Kosher, Parve and Treif Magic

Up until the medieval period there were still plenty of Jews - even some rabbis - who felt practical kabbalah was nothing to be ashamed of. In their works, we find that "kosher magic" means magic that deals in three things - biblical verses, angelic names, and/or names of God. Intent is still important also, of course, but that's more of a prerequisite - an angel is not going to help you cheat or steal in the first place.

Un-kosher (treif) magic is the opposite: magic that involves foreign gods (except perhaps under the circumstances laid out above), "evil" spirits such as demons or shedim, or practices specifically forbidden by Torah - specific kinds of necromancy, divination, or temple prostitution, for example. I like to refer to all other magic as parve, which is to say "neither specifically kosher nor un-kosher". My personal favorite kind of parve magic is chaos magic, since it easily works without the use of gods, angels or demons of any kind, and since it can optionally involve invocation of fictional characters. Depending on focus and exactly how the rituals are written, though, ceremonial magic or wicca could also be considered parve magic. (Since many original members of the Golden Dawn and OTO were Jews, it's not too surprising that much of ceremonial magic is specifically kosher rather than parve - the Lesser Banishing Ritual of the Pentagram being the obvious example.)

A Selection of Online Kosher Jewish Magic Sources

Sefer Shimmush Tehillim - The Book of the Uses of the Psalms. Includes kosher uses (and some not-so-kosher ones, intent-wise) for every single one of the psalms.

Hebrew Names of God - Not sure who exactly this site belongs to, but his list is comprehensive and accurate.

Angel Names and Meanings - This site isn't bad, but "A Dictionary of Angels" (on the right, under "Books on Jewish Magic & Mysticism) is way better.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

A Brilliant Debt Solution

Update: Warren Buffet didn't write this plan, but I still think it would work.

*Congressional Reform Act of 2011*

1. No Tenure / No Pension.  A Congressman collects a salary while in office and receives no pay when they are out of office.

2.  Congress (past, present & future) participates in Social Security.  All funds in the Congressional retirement fund move to the Social Security system immediately. All future funds flow into the Social Security system, and Congress participates with the American people. It may not be used for any other purpose.

3. Congress can purchase their own retirement plan, just as all Americans do.

4. Congress will no longer vote  themselves a pay raise.  Congressional pay will rise by the lower of CPI or 3%.

5. Congress loses their current health care system and participates in the same health care system as the American people.

6. Congress must equally abide by all laws they impose on the American people.

7. All contracts with past and present Congressmen are void effective 1/1/12.  The American people did not make this contract with Congressmen. Congressmen made all these contracts for themselves. Serving in Congress is an honor, not a career. The Founding Fathers envisioned citizen legislators, so ours should serve their term(s), then go home and back to work.

If each person contacts a minimum of twenty people then it will only take three days for most people (in the U.S. ) to receive the message. Maybe it is time.