Monday, May 31, 2010

The ice of the blackest soul melts

A passage that caught my attention:

* * *
        I remember myself a boy of nine entering my first library; it was quite a small one, but seemed very big to me then. Behind a tall barrier, under paraffin lamp, stood a smooth-haired woman in spectacles wearing a black dress with a white collar. The barrier was so high — at least to me — and the lady in black so forbidding that I all but turned tail. In a voice overloud through shyness I reported that I had already turned nine and was therefore entitled to become a card holder. The forbidding lady laughed and bending over the barrier the better to see the new reader retorted that she had heard of no such rule.
        In the end, though, I managed to join the library, and the time flew so quickly in reading that one day I discovered with surprise that the barrier was not all that high, nor the lady as forbidding as I had first thought.
        This was the first library in which I felt at home, and ever since then I have always had this feeling when coming into a house, large or small, in which there are bookshelves along the walls and people standing by them thinking only one thing — that these books were there to be read. So it was in childhood. And so it was in youth, with long hours spent in the vast Shchedrin public library in Leningrad. Working in the Archives Department, I penetrated into the very heart of the temple of temples. Raising my eyes — tired, because reading manuscripts makes them tire quickly — I watched the noiseless work of the librarians and experienced again and again a feeling of gratitude. That feeling has remained for a lifetime. Wherever I go, to whatever place fate brings me, I always ask first thing, “Is there a library here?” And when I am told, “There is”, that town or township, farm or village, becomes closer, as if irradiating a warm, unexpected light.
        In Schwarz’s play “The Snow Queen”, the privy councillor, a dour individual who deals in ice, asks the storyteller whether there are any children in the house, and on learning that there are, he shudders, because at the sound of children’s voices the ice of the blackest soul melts. So does a house in which there are books differ from those in which there are none.
        The best writers can be compared to scouts into the future, to those brave explorers of new and unknown spaces, of whom Fridtjof Nansen, the famous Norwegian explorer, wrote: “Let us follow the narrow tracks of the sled runners and those little black dots laying a railway, as it were, into the heart of the unknown. The wind howls and sweeps across these tracks leading into the snowy wastes. Soon they will disappear, but a trail has been blazed, we have acquired a new banner, and this deed will shine forever through the ages.”

(Veniamin Kaverin, preface to Two Captains)

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Achdus farbrengen by Rabbi Paltiel

Regarding the talmidim of Rabbi Akiva

Capitalism hurts children

See here.

The Golden Rule

Wittgenstein argued that one cannot have a private language. And by “private language”, I don’t think he meant a language that only one person knew. Tolkien invented an Elven language. (Actually, he invented two such languages.) Before he shared them with the others, he was the only one who knew them, the original speakers having died thousands of years ago...
— Roderick Long, The Moral Standpoint (video)

 I was thinking today about how people misuse the so-called Golden Rule of ethics.
        The Golden Rule states: don’t do to others what you don’t want done to yourself. But a question can be asked: why not? What would motivate me not to? As Roderick Long puts it, “what is the force of that statement?” Oftentimes, when the atheist moralists try to explain this rule, they say: the more you do X, the more likely it becomes for X to be done to yourself. E.g., if you murder, you make the society more murderous and increase the probability of someone murdering you.
        Of course, that’s nonsense. Statistically, it works out on the level of a small community, but in a large community because I once steal someone’s wallet, the probability of my wallet being stolen will not increase visibly. Furthermore, what if I do my immoral act in a way that nobody knows about it (and such that it will not leak out). Or, if I am sure that the same thing that I am doing will never be done to me. Just because a Roman senator used slaves didn’t mean that he made it more likely for himself to become a slave. (Also, interestingly enough, when the Africans who had been slaves were freed or escaped from the slavery, when given a chance, they would enslave other Africans. Such way was the nation of Liberia founded — by former American slaves coming to Africa and enslaving Africans from other tribes.)
        Plus, such a definition of morality goes against the common perception of what morality is and against the definition of absolute morality. Such a “morality” is nothing but self-preservation. What atheists usually answer is: “Well, there is no such thing as absolute morality.” I think, again, that answer is nonsensical. Morality has to be absolute. One could say that there is no morality. But they are afraid to go out and say it in such an obvious way (partially because they do not instinctively believe that themselves).

I think on the emotional level, the Golden Rule works by allowing you to imagine what it would be like for you to be at the receiving end of your act. And by feeling emotionally disgusted by it, you can also feel emotionally disgusted to do the same act to others. But, in my opinion, the emotions are not a very solid foundation for morality.
        Just because you feel a certain emotion, does it mean everyone should feel it? Even if everyone feels it but one person — so, why should everyone judge this person for not feeling some emotion? With the emotions being subjective reactions, how can they be a basis for proclaiming something to be objectively moral or immoral? I dislike cockroaches. I find the idea of eating cockroaches disgusting. But do I find it immoral, kashrus and vegetarian issues aside?
        Although, actually, let’s not put them aside. Many people feel (specifically feel) that it is immoral to eat animals. They are disgusted by the idea of a human being eating another living being when he has a choice to eat plants. But many others don’t find eating animals disgusting in any way. (I, by the way, find the idea of eating very intelligent animals such as dolphins, whales or apes disgusting.)
        The same goes with experimentation on animals. Even when the animals are treated humanely (even using the strictest definition of that word) — these people believe that killing animals to find cure for cancer or schizophrenia (one of which I am partially involved in right now) is as immoral as killing people to find cure for cancer. But others don’t feel that way; in fact, they feel that not killing animals to save human lives is immoral. Are the people who feel a certain emotion superior to those who don’t? How do we figure out which of the emotions is right? (Is there even such a thing as a “right” emotion?)
        What if I said that I feel disgusted by the idea of robbing one group of people to help another group out? Many people certainly feel disgusted by this (even though they believe in private, voluntary charity). But many people feel disgusted by the government not robbing rich people to help the poor — in fact, some of these people feel disgusted by the idea that there are rich and poor at all and feel that the rich should be made equally poor, like it was done in Russia. Others find the idea of a bunch of thugs taking away one’s savings that he worked hard all his life to accumulate even more disturbing.
        What are we to do with all these conflicting emotions? Let’s imagine a person incapable of feeling emotions (who agrees that he is deficient in this way, but honestly tries to figure out what is the moral thing to do in each situation — let’s imagine he has enough emotions to care). How is he to figure out what the right thing is? Should he take a poll?

I think the proper application of the Golden Rule is as follows. Suppose one already, for whatever reason, believed in the existence of absolute morality. I.e., he believed there is such a thing as good and evil. And not necessarily as a result of believing in G-d; libertarians, for example, claim to believe in absolute morality — they don’t deny the existence of G-d, but they don’t base their beliefs in morality based on G-d necessarily. (By the way, I think, whatever one says, most people’s view of morality is still absolute — at least in the Western world. Of course, it could be because of the cultural influence of Christianity.) This idea also exists in Judaism — that regarding some (or all) issues of morality, people should be able to figure what is moral and what is not without G-d telling us.
        So, in that case, one could say: what is good for you is also good for me. (Not at the same time. Meaning, if being healthy is a good thing for you, then being healthy is a good thing for me too. Not that being healthy for you is also automatically bringing me good.) So, a simple way to figure out whether something is good is to try it on yourself. If you know that it is something that you would define as something bad for yourself, then it’s also something bad for someone else, unless you can demonstrate that there is an objective difference between you. (E.g., eating peanuts may be a bad thing for me if I am allergic to them, but not for you if you’re not. Of course, then you could abstract and say: if having an allergic reaction is bad for me, it’s also a bad thing for you.)
        Notice that in this case I am not using emotions to justify morality. I already know (from whatever source — again, I am not clear on this) that there is such a thing as good and evil, and both good and evil can be absolute (or, as the philosophers would say, agent-neutral, such as with non-private languages). Emotions merely help me to identify some particular event or object as good or evil. It’s the same as being able to tell whether fish has gone bad by smelling it. What if someone doesn’t have a good sense of smell? Well, he can still agree that there is such a thing as fish going bad; he just can’t use his nose to identify that happening. The same way, a psychopath could still agree to the idea of good and evil; he just couldn’t use Golden Rule for an easy identification of what they were. (Although, a psychopath probably knows when something is bad for him — so, he could still maybe use the Golden Rule in such a case. Of course, his problem might be that even if he knew something was evil, he just wouldn’t care.)

A number of problems can be pointed out. For instance, if I am running for a political office, I wouldn’t like to lose an election. And neither would the person I am running against. So, should I just let him win? If you don’t like the idea of political elections (a libertarian could argue that the situation of majority oppressing the minority through political means is immoral; just like the idea of Windows users forcing Apple users to “come to the light” and start using the PCs would be immoral — why can’t there be multiple law systems in the society just like there are multiple OSs?), you can use the idea of competing for market. I certainly wouldn’t want people to stop buying my product when a newer and a better product is introduced to the market. So, if I can introduce a better product, which will reduce the amount of business for someone supplying an older product, is that immoral?
        Of course, one could answer that the amount of good I do by supplying the product well outweighs the amount of bad I do, but this is already a utilitarian approach which cannot work for praxeological reasons as well as the reason of definition of absolute morality (if killing one person benefits a million people, or if exterminating one particular ethnicity benefits all the others, should we do it?).

So, I suppose I am still thinking about it. One answer could be that the Golden Rule is after all not such a useful rule.
        Alternatively, one could say (again, quoting Roderick Long) that “if I consider my pursuit of my well being as legitimate for me, I have to view your pursuit of your well being as legitimate for you”, and that there is a difference between me pursuing my well being without actively trying to harm you (which may happen if we are pursuing well being competing for the same scarce resources) and me trying to actively harm you.
        Meaning, importantly, that both rules (about legitimacy of my pursuit of well being and of your pursuit of well being) are true true at the same time — and therefore cannot be placed in contradiction of each other. It is ethically permissible for myself to pursue my well being, but not in such a way that will harm your pursuit of your well being.
        How to deal with the situations when the are seemingly in contradiction is what the libertarian view on ethics deals with by basing ethics on the concept of property rights: I don’t have a right to take what’s already yours, but I do have a right to take something which doesn’t belong to you, even though by doing so I am precluding you to use it for yourself. Of course, this leads to a conflict of rights, but since one of us has to win — since both of us cannot use the same object at the same time (i.e., the object is scarce) — let it be the one who homesteaded the object first. But in the cases when there is no scarcity (such as, in the case of intellectual “property”) it is immoral for me to use force to preclude you from using the said non-scarce resource, since it goes against your legitimate right of pursuit of your well being (which, in this case, is not in contradiction with my rights).

Saturday, May 29, 2010


I thought it would be nice to re-post this. I liked this part of the book very much because it reflected my own experiences (the first part) at the local minyan.


An excerpt from Making of Chassidim about a chossid of Ba’al Shem Tov observing other Jews davening:

Reb Mordechai also recited Tikkun Chatzos along with several other Jews who had assembled for that purpose. When they finished reciting Tikkun Chatzos, it was already broad daylight, for it was at the beginning of Tammuz, [when the sun rises early]. Members of the chevrah Tehillim began to assemble; these were Jews who gathered in the beis hamedrash each day at three o’clock in the morning to recite Tehillim. Most of these Jews were tradesmen: tailors, cobblers, butchers, coachmen, and other village workmen.

When a few minyonim of Jews had assembled, one of the chevrah Tehillim members began reciting: “Fortunate is the man who does not follow the counsel of the wicked.” The others immediately began following along, with such delight and devotion that Reb Mordechai envied their staunch innocence and sincerity.

The facial expressions of the each of the Tehillim sayers reflected an innocent charm, and an inner devotion to what they were reciting. From time to time the tone of the sayers’ voices changed: now prayerful, now hopeful, now broken. One could tell by their faces that they were aware of, and understood, what they were saying.

Reb Mordechai was quite moved by these Tehillim sayers, and yet there was one thing he could not tolerate: the frigid and lifeless manner of these people. Their frigid and lifeless movements and sounds made a gloomy impression upon him.

“This is what misnagdim are like”, thought Reb Mordechai. “They are good Jews, pious and precious, but also frigid and lifeless. Buried within these Jews lies the untapped timeless treasure to which the Rebbe the Baal Shem Tov applied the verse, ‘For you will be [G-d’s] treasured land’; but they remain misnagdim all the same.”

But then Reb Mordechai thought to himself, “What about me, what am I? I myself am nothing but a dead herring!” He had once imagined himself to be the Holy One’s confederate, and expected that any day that the prophet Eliyahu would reveal himself to him.

The only difference was that G-d, blessed be He, had taken pity upon him, and caused events to evolve in such a way that he had ended up in a far-away land where he was privileged to meet the Baal Shem Tov. Within two years’ time he had rid himself of the coarse impurities in his character.

These frigid, lifeless, stiff Jews, along with their emaciated porush could also be saved by the Baal Shem Tov. The Rebbe, with his path of Divine service actually resurrected the dead; he turned cold into warm, and brought the dead to life. Compare, for example, [these Jews] with those simple Jews whom Reb Mordechai had seen in the village of Zaslov, where he had first heard the Baal Shem Tov’s name.

He remembered the faces of those Jews — those Tehillim sayers were also cobblers, tailors, coachmen, and butchers. But those Jews were alive, happy, reciting Tehillim with joy, davening with gladness, doing favors for one another with relish. Their ahavas Yisrael made them into one big family. True, their respect for the Torah was somewhat lacking — they were quite capable of addressing a Torah scholar by name, without adding the title Moreinu, and they might even address him using the familiar pronoun “du”, but nonetheless, they were truly cherished Jews.

Reb Mordechai davening himself, having mentally reviewed a teaching of Ba’al Shem Tov:

Each repetition of this teaching awoke within him a willingness and desire to engage in the avodah of prayer. So it was on the present occasion too. After Reb Mordechai returned from the stream where he had immersed himself, he began his preparations for davening. He repeated the Rebbe's teaching several times, and meditated deeply about it. Then, he commenced his davening.
        At about ten o’clock in the morning, the city dignitaries began to assemble in the grave diggers’ shul for a meeting of the chevrah kadishah. A prominent and wealthy citizen of the town had just died (may we be spared). They had to decide what plot he was to be buried in, the price the chevrah kadishah was to charge for the grave, and on what civic improvements this money should be spent. The meeting lasted for several hours, and there was much shouting and screaming. But Reb Mordechai remained seated in the southwestern corner of the shul, completely oblivious to what was happening.
        One of the men attending the meeting happened to notice the stranger sitting in tallis and tefillin, his eyes open, his face flushed, muttering a few words from time to time. His words were whispered, and it was difficult to make out what he was saying. Right in the middle, he would break into some kind of song with an unfamiliar melody. The one who first noticed it told several others, and soon all the men were staring at him, wondering who this stranger might be.
Just then, a few of the assistant grave diggers came, to ask the gabbai where they should dig the grave for the deceased. One of the grave diggers had been present the previous day between Minchah and Maariv, when Reb Mordechai had related that in Vohlynia-Podolia there lived a great gaon and tzaddik, a miracle-worker known throughout the region as the Baal Shem Tov.
        The assembled dignitaries listened to the grave digger’s report with open mouths, as they remained sitting in the beis hamedrash gazing at the unknown Jew.
        How strange! At twelve o’clock noon, a Jew sits in tallis and tefillin, apparently still davening! Hours passed, and these Jews still had not had their fill of watching the strange Jew daven. At last they heard the sounds of the funeral procession, and they left to join it.
        As they marched along, they told the story of the unknown Jew who was sitting in the grave diggers’ shul and davening. The listeners were skeptical, so when they returned from the cemetery (Reb Mordechai was then up to Kerias Shema), a large crowd gathered to watch him daven. When Reb Mordechai finished davening, he removed a piece of bread from his bag, washed his hands, and ate the bread with some water. After this meal, he lay down on a bench to rest.

Friday, May 28, 2010

The immigration issue

Some interesting links:
The War on Immigration Will Fail
Upside-down Luddism: The Case of Immigration
A Pure Libertarian Theory of Immigration

From the first link:
Others have suggested throwing the employers in jail. This approach is particularly egregious. This employer may have done something illegal when he hired an illegal alien... but what has he done wrong? He has hurt no one. He has helped a person climb up out of poverty. He has done so without the aid of his fellow citizens and the immigrant has improved himself because of this one employer and his actions to meet a market demand. To deprive an entrepreneur of his liberty for doing nothing immoral is repugnant to me as a citizen.
        Besides, we would then be without whatever this person was producing. We would have to pay for his incarceration and possibly add the members of his family to the welfare rolls. This would be terribly expensive and the potential for abuse is enormous. What if I had a competitor that I knew was using illegal immigrants? Couldn't I turn him in to the authorities to eliminate the competition? That way I could jack my prices up without improving the product at all. The consumer would be forced to buy my higher-priced product. Does this really sound like a good idea?
        Let's look at government as we would look at any other supplier of services. If they don't do a good job, quit using them and go on to someone who is better equipped and has more incentive to get the job done right.
        If you took a broken chair to a wood shop to be repaired and it fell apart the first time you sat in it, would you go back to this same shop and insist the proprietor take more money from you to do the job right the next time? I doubt it. Yet this is exactly how we respond to government failure. When the schools do not educate we give them more money.
        If we continue to clamor for tougher enforcement of immigration laws, the politicians in Washington who always have a damp finger in the air to see which way the sheep would like to be led will certainly spend billions of your dollars in an attempt to do just that.
        When government fails, as it surely will, the politicians who pushed for this program will be enjoying a very lucrative retirement (at your expense) and a new crop of liars and thieves will be sitting on their perch at the helm of government arguing for more money, for better tools and training, more manpower, etc. But rest assured, this program will enjoy the same level of success as any previously mentioned attempt to thwart the market.
        If we truly want to solve the illegal immigration problem, we would do well to curb and abolish the regime-based reasons that immigration has become such a contentious issue.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

A priori penguins

Oftentimes when explaining how Math is very interesting in that we don’t derive the truths of Math from experience (you don’t need to “go out there” and see in the world that 2 + 2 = 4; you know this logically), I explain the difference between a priori and a posteriori statements and give the example of the sun rising from a certain direction. But yesterday I had a revelation that my example had been wrong. So, I will share my revelation with you. If you think what I am saying is banally simple, I don’t apologize.

So, is it an empirical question: does the sun always rise from the east on every planet? In order to answer this question, do you need to go out there and explore other planets, or can you answer it a priori — without any experience of the world?

Well, how do we know which side is east and which side is west on our planet? Or which side is north and south? Sure, for most civilized people, “north” is associated with “up there”, because most of us live in the northern hemisphere. But even though Australia is called “the land down under”, people living in Australia, surprisingly enough, don’t experience the world upside down. They can just as well think of the North Pole being “down there”.

If you think about it, it seems obvious that east and west (and, as a result, north and south) are just definitions — not definitions based on the particular physical parts of our planet, but definitions based on direction of the sun’s movement in the sky. Once we know what north and south are, based on that definition, we can figure out what is in our north and south: in the north, there is Greenland and Iceland and volcanoes and a bunch of socialist countries, and in the south there are penguins and a bunch of white racist landowners (I am talking about South Africa, not South Carolina).

Imagine that a couple of astronauts are sent by the Federal Government to another planet to figure out where the sun rises on that planet (it has to be Federal Government, since it would be the only one stupid enough to spend money on such a project). They arrive on the dark side of the planet and are waiting for the sunrise. Finally, they see the sun rising, and the following conversation happens:

— Nu?
— Nu what?
— Which side is the sun rising from?
— I dunno. Which side is that?
— Well, is that east or west?
— How can you tell?
— Well, ok, which way are the penguins?
— Actually, on this planet there are no penguins.
— No penguins? What a dump. What about socialists?
— Actually, this planet is inhabited by a much more advanced civilization than ours, and most people here are libertarians.
— OK, that’s it. I am getting out of here.
— What are we going to write in the report?
— “The study did not produce statistically significant results.”

Do you see the problem? With the planet being curved, there is no way to tell which way is objectively “up”. In fact, for ancient Jews, “up” was east. And “right” was south. That is why, the youngest son of Yakov Avinu, who was born in the South was called Binyomin — “son of the right hand”.

So, the sun always rises from the east — by definition. You don’t need to go “out there” and do any observations. You just know it. The same way that you know that all bachelors have no parents-in-law.

On the other hand, with the moon, it’s not so obvious. If you say “every planet which has life has a moon”, it’s an empirical statement. Even if you find one hundred planets that have life and a moon, you can’t be sure that one-hundred-first will definitely have a moon.

But with 2+2=4, you know it a priori. You don’t need to keep adding objects together to convince yourself of this. Any two objects and any two objects will add up to four objects — whatever the objects, the climate, or the political party in power.

Now, the question is: should economics be studied a priori, like Math, or a posteriori, like Natural Sciences? Is “all things being equal, instituting minimum-wage laws increases unemployment” an empirical statement that needs to be proven by observation, or is it a logical statement?

(To see why our moon is necessary for there to be life on our planet, read this post.)

Bella, ciao!

Since this song is stuck in my head, I will post this again, hoping that along the scheme of Mark Twain it will leave me and move to someone else.

It’s interesting to me how different Italian and Russian sound. I think most people can recognize when he switches to Russian (except the “bella, ciao” refrain) — to me, it almost sounds softer and more melodic than Italian.

One morning when I awakened
Oh beauty bye, beauty bye, beauty bye-bye-bye!
One morning when I awakened
I found invaders all around

Oh partisan, come take me with you
Oh beauty bye, beauty bye, beauty bye-bye-bye!
Oh partisan, come take me with you
Because I feel ready to die

If I die fighting as a partisan
Oh beauty bye, beauty bye, beauty bye-bye-bye!
If I die fighting as a partisan
You must come and bury me

Bury me there, up in the mountains
Oh beauty bye, beauty bye, beauty bye-bye-bye!
Bury me there, up in the mountains
Shade my grave with a lovely flower

So all the people who pass that way
Oh beauty bye, beauty bye, beauty bye-bye-bye!
So all the people who pass that way
Will say "Oh see that lovely flower! - "

"Ah that's the flower of the partisan fighter - "
Oh beauty bye, beauty bye, beauty bye-bye-bye!
"Ah that's the flower of the partisan fighter
who died for freedom's sake!"

Another version (women singing can be heard; I almost like this version of lyrics more):

In the mountains and foothills bloom edelweisses.
In the valley corncrake’s voice was heard.
We will soon see each other, we will be together
The road to you carries my song
We will soon see each other, we will be together
The road to you carries my song

Oh, Bella, Ciao, Bella, Ciao,
Oh, Bella, Ciao, Bella, Ciao, Bella, Ciao,
Oh, Bella, Ciao, Bella, Ciao,
Oh, Bella, Ciao, Bella, Ciao, Bella, Ciao, Ciao, Ciao.

Where brothers fell asleep forever under the earth,
Already the first shoots appear,
Sensing the sky and the smell of freedom.
There, the sun to you carries my song.
Sensing the sky and the smell of freedom.
There, the sun to you carries my song.

Oh, Bella, Ciao, Bella, Ciao,
Oh, Bella, Ciao, Bella, Ciao, Bella, Ciao,
Oh, Bella, Ciao, Bella, Ciao,
Oh, Bella, Ciao, Bella, Ciao, Bella, Ciao, Ciao, Ciao.

In the provinces that are small, in the homes of straw,
Where mills wave their wings
And women wave with their hands after us.
Their tenderness to you carries my song.
And women wave with their hands after us.
Their tenderness to you carries my song.

Oh, Bella, Ciao, Bella, Ciao,
Oh, Bella, Ciao, Bella, Ciao, Bella, Ciao,
Oh, Bella, Ciao, Bella, Ciao,
Oh, Bella, Ciao, Bella, Ciao, Bella, Ciao, Ciao, Ciao.

Smelling as fire thunderous storms
Already rage, rage away,
But their lights are not terrible, they shine on the road
The road that to you carries my song.
But their lights are not terrible, they shine on the road
The road that to you carries my song.

Oh, Bella, Ciao, Bella, Ciao,
Oh, Bella, Ciao, Bella, Ciao, Bella, Ciao,
Oh, Bella, Ciao, Bella, Ciao,
Oh, Bella, Ciao, Bella, Ciao, Bella, Ciao, Ciao, Ciao.

So sleep, the brothers, under the black earth,
In the mountains bloom again, edelweisses!
And thunderstorms, burn! Knives, cut bread!
And women weep! And the sprouts shoot up!
Where tenderness and the sun, and the path and hope
All to you alone carry my song.

Oh, Bella, Ciao, Bella, Ciao,
Oh, Bella, Ciao, Bella, Ciao, Bella, Ciao,
Oh, Bella, Ciao, Bella, Ciao,
Oh, Bella, Ciao, Bella, Ciao, Bella, Ciao, Ciao, Ciao.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

False analogies

Pray for the welfare of the government, for without the government, people would eat each other alive.
— Pirkei Avos

My rabbi once told me that the worst thing is false analogies.

In the comment thread on the post on Liberia, one of the comments says:
Over Shabbos I was contemplating the two countries, and I came to the following conclusion: when Pirkei Avos said what it did about Government, it was talking about this situation. North Korea, for all its many evils, is at least a (semi) functioning country. It may be starving its citizens, but at least people there live slightly normal lives. Contrast this to Liberia, where without a government, people literally eat each other. It's crazy. They may be much more western in their outlook, but without government? It's horrific.
Well, admitedly, I don’t know what’s worse: to live in North Korea or in Liberia. I would say — North Korea, because in Liberia, you still have a chance to get out of poverty, even though it’s very difficult. And even though there was a good chance you could be killed and eaten during the civil war, if North Korea starts a war, there is a good chance one can get vaporized by a nuclear attack.

Also, as I said to someone else, however many people General Butt Naked killed and ate, Hitler, Stalin or Mao each killed many more.

But even if what the comment says is true, therefore what? It seems that the thesis is: without the government, in Liberia people literally eat each other; therefore, we need the government to provide law and order. (Again, in Liberia there is government, but never mind that.)

Well, if you watch the third video (graphic alert) in the post, you will see right at the beginning that Liberians living in Westpoint, the largest slum of their capital Monrovia, go to bathroom right on the beach in front of their houses since the sanitation system is broken. Actually, one of the Liberian journalists blames the government. In fact, the video begins with the journalists going to see “what the government and UN are doing to rebuild Liberia”. And “the government does nothing about the lack of sanitation. In fact, the Commissioner himself sometimes goes on the beach, squats and [...] together with the people.”

Now, following the logic of the comment, living in North Korea is better than in Liberia — at least you have toilets there (actually, I am not completely sure what they have in Korean villages). Yes, the government may be a necessary evil, but at least it’s necessary to provide us with the toilets. I mean, no way would the market be able to provide us with the sanitation system if not for the government.


Also, for instance, when the people of medieval Iceland decided to be independent from Norwegian king and formed a nearly-anarchic society (mind you, not completely anarchic), everybody just spontaneously started going to the bathroom to Greenland Sea or Atlantic Ocean, since the king wasn’t there to provide them with chamberpots (or law and order), right? (That is, when they weren’t busy eating each other.)

As I said, in my opinion, it has nothing to do with either anarchy or government. It has to do with the culture. For instance, when the hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, a lot of local residents were sitting on the roofs screaming, while one Russian journalist living in the area somehow managed to blog about what was going on around him, and when the water hit the attic of his house, he built a boat and just left (literally).

(There was another story of a couple with kids running out of gas in some forest in Oregon after taking a wrong turn. After about a week of waiting for the help to come, the father decided to go look for it by himself. He got lost and froze to death. All the time being a few miles away from civilization. The family was rescued. When my mother heard the story, she didn’t believe it. She couldn’t believe people could have so few survival skills. I mean, everybody knows, in such a situation, you just go up the hill to see better what’s around you.)

What is really wrong with socialism?

In his famous two essays on the anarchist model of law and defense, Robert Murphy gives a good summary of libertarian critique of socialism while also explaining not just the advantage but the necessity of capitalism:

* * *

The traditional opponents of socialism argued that it had insufficient incentives for the average worker; without tying pay to performance, people would shirk and output would be far lower than in a capitalist economy. Only if a new “Socialist Man” evolved, who enjoyed working for his comrades as much as for himself, could a socialist system succeed.
     Although valid, this criticism misses the essence of the problem. It took Ludwig von Mises to explain, in a 1920 paper, the true flaw with socialism: Without market prices for the means of production, government planners cannot engage in economic calculation, and so literally have no idea if they are using society’s resources efficiently. Consequently, socialism suffers not only from a problem of incentives, but also from a problem of knowledge. To match the performance of a market economy, socialist planners would not need to be merely angels, committed to the commonweal—they would also need to be gods, capable of superhuman calculations.
     At any time, there is only a limited supply of labor, raw materials, and capital resources that can be combined in various ways to create output goods. A primary function of an economic system is to determine which goods should be produced, in what quantities and in what manner, from these limited resources. The market economy solves this problem through the institution of private property, which implies free enterprise and freely floating prices.
     The owners of labor, capital, and natural resources—the “means of production”—are free to sell their property to the highest bidder. The entrepreneurs are free to produce and sell whatever goods they wish. The ultimate test of profit and loss imposes order on this seeming chaos: If a producer consistently spends more on his inputs than he earns from selling his output, he will go bankrupt and no longer have any influence on the manner in which society’s resources are used.
     On the other hand, the successful producer creates value for consumers, by purchasing resources at a certain price and transforming them into goods that fetch a higher price. In the market economy, such behavior is rewarded with profits, which allow the producer in question to have a greater say in the use of society’s scarce resources.

None of this is true in the socialist state. Even if they truly intended the happiness of their subjects, the government planners would squander the resources at their disposal. With no test of profit and loss, the planners would have no feedback and would thus be operating in the dark. A decision to produce more shoes and fewer shirts, or vice versa, would be largely arbitrary. Furthermore, the individuals to ultimately decide the fate of society’s resources would be selected through the political process, not through the meritocracy of the market. [Ad kan.]

* * *
Sometimes people blame the failure of socialism in Russia on the dictators. But what did the violation of human rights have to do with the economy (besides the fact that they had to force people into socialism, just like today in the US people are forced into being taxed, so that US auto industry can be bailed out)? Killing off the intelligentsia did not cause the great famines of 1920’s and 30’s. Collectivization of the farms did. Suppressing freedom of speech was terrible, but it wasn’t the reason why the Soviet Union had to import grain from Canada after the Virgin Lands disaster (and other similar campaigns).
One adviser to Khrushchev was Trofim Lysenko, who promised greatly increased production with minimal investment. Such schemes were attractive to Khrushchev, who ordered them implemented. Lysenko managed to maintain his influence under Khrushchev despite repeated failures; as each proposal failed, he advocated another. Lysenko's influence greatly retarded the development of genetic science in the Soviet Union. In 1959, Khrushchev announced a goal of overtaking the United States in production of milk, meat, and butter. Local officials, with Khrushchev's encouragement, made unrealistic pledges of production. These goals were met by forcing farmers to slaughter their breeding herds and by purchasing meat at state stores, then reselling it back to the government, artificially increasing recorded production.

In June 1962, food prices were raised, particularly on meat and butter (by 25-30%). This caused public discontent. In the southern Russian city of Novocherkassk (Rostov Region) this discontent escalated to a strike and a revolt against the authorities. The revolt was put down by the military who opened fire on unarmed demonstrators. According to Soviet official accounts, 22 people were killed and 87 wounded. In addition, 116 demonstrators were convicted of involvement and seven of them executed. Information about the revolt and the massacre was completely suppressed in the USSR, but spread through Samizdat and damaged Khrushchev's reputation in the West.

Drought struck the Soviet Union in 1963; the harvest of 107,500,000 short tons (97,500,000 t) of grain was down from a peak of 134,700,000 short tons (122,200,000 t) in 1958. The shortages resulted in bread lines, a fact at first kept from Khrushchev. Reluctant to purchase food in the West, but faced with the alternative of widespread hunger, Khrushchev exhausted the nation's hard currency reserves and expended part of its gold stockpile in the purchase of grain and other foodstuffs.

Friday, May 21, 2010


Some pretty graphic stuff. Don’t watch, oh you, faint of heart. (Seriously.)

I am trying to figure out whether this is a result of the State, of anarchy, or [censored].

“Liberia is civil war on steroids. Child soldiers smoking heroine. Cross-dressing cannibals. Systemic rape.”

The first video is more graphic.

After watching the third video, I started thinking it has nothing to do with either the State or anarchy.

I have to say, seeing the picture of Obama and “yes we can” just cracked me up. What an appropriate context.

You will learn for the State

Continued from the last post.

Interesting comments from YouTube:

2:56 --> ACK! It's like the Small World ride in Disney World! All animatronic puppets O_O
It's gonna be a great day and a sad, sad day when this oppressive sway over these people is finally broken. Great, because they will at last be free, but sad because the reality of their "great" country's true "standing" in the world, and the fact that no one outside North Korea holds their Dear Leader in any regard, will be a brutal slap in the face for them

The absolute LAST thing that South Korea wants is for North Korea to dismantle and go out of existence. That means they would have about 30+Million refugees flooding the south. The same thing happened when the wall fell in Germany. "You know why Chinese peple are so happy?!? They still have a wall" -Joke told to me by a German tour guide as we were on our way to Amsterdam, Holland.

The tea girl

“State” at its best.

From a bunch of undercover journalists filming the great successes of socialism in North Korea.

I like the song and the clip at the beginning, because it reminds me of Russia, except Asian communists are like Russians that had their souls sucked out of them. Actually, a bit like Germans. Russians were just a bunch of shlemazels who hated the fact that nobility oppressed the peasants. Asians took Marx and put him on the conveyor belt.

To me the above video represents the complete destruction of what human spirit is. But the thing is: the idea of doing what’s best for the society vs. individuals is that destruction.

The tea girl:

Luckily, playing ping pong is all that she has to do.

One comment on YouTube said:
God I feel like I'm being brainwashed just watching this. What an awful, awful country. I feel sorry for the people.

Now, this is absolutely my favorite episode. I think Barrage is the symbol of governmental involvement in the society.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Sunday, May 16, 2010

And now for something completely different

One of the greatest scenes in the history of cinematography.

A little less exciting:

Of course, Russian movies also had good stuff:

Disinclination to work

In the present instance, going back to the liver-pill circular, I had the symptoms, beyond all mistake, the chief among them being "a general disinclination to work of any kind." What I suffer in that way no tongue can tell. From my earliest infancy I have been a martyr to it. As a boy, the disease hardly ever left me for a day.
— Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men in a Boat

I know I am posting too many things at one time, but this bit that I have just read is too brilliant to pass by. The Conservatives and Classical Liberals are oftentimes accused of being heartless pigs who do not care for the poor. Figures are oftentimes cited to reveal the levels of unemployment and poverty. And the solution is more free soup, more governmental charities.
        In his book, The Worldy Philosophers (hardly a work of libertarian economic philosophy), Robert L. Heilbroner writes (p. 24 in the 7th ed.):
Sir William Petty, an astonishing seventeenth-century character (who was in his lifetime cabin boy, hawker, clothier, physician, professor of music, and founder of a school named Political Arithmetik), claimed that when wages were good, labor was “scarce to be had at all, so licentious are they who labor only to eat, or rather to drink”. And Sir William was not merely venting the bourgeois prejudices of his day. He was observing a fact that can still be remarked among the unindustrialized peoples of the world: a raw working force, unused to wagework, uncomfortable in factory life, unschooled to the idea of an ever-rising standard of living, will not work harder if wages rise; it will simply take more time off.
        The idea of gain, the idea that each working person not only may, but should, constantly strive to better his or her material lot, is an idea that was quite foreign to the great lower and middle strata of Egyptian, Greek, Roman, and medieval cultures, only scattered throughout Renaissance and Reformation times and largely absent in the majority of Eastern civilizations. As a ubiquitous characteristic of society, it is as modern an invention as printing.
        Not only is the idea of gain by no means as universal as we sometimes suppose, but the social sanction of gain is an even more modern and restricted development. In the Middle Ages, the Church taught that no Christian ought to be a merchant [good news for the Jews, eh?], and behind that teaching lay the thoughts that merchants were a disturbing yeast in the leaven of society. In Shakespeare’s time the object of life for the ordinary citizen, for everybody, in fact, except the gentility, was not to advance his station in life, but to maintain it. Even to our Pilgrim forefathers, the idea that gain might be tolerable — even a useful — goal in life would have appeared as nothing short of a doctrine of the devil.
Now, I must point out, from my experience of having lived in New Orleans for four years, that the attitude described in the first paragraph of the quote is not unique to the “unindustrialized people of the world” — it is prevalent among many sub-cultures of American society as well.
        I know a Jew from Manhattan who was in real estate business in New Orleans. He would buy apartment buildings and renovate them to rent out. He employed one man who, according to my friend, was a very talented craftsman. Gaining his services, however, was very difficult. First, to find him, one had to cross a bayou on a boat. Second, even if found, the guy was most of the times in a state of intoxication from various substances. Third, even if employed, he more often than not would not show up to work.
        Now, if one personally wishes to stay poor, that’s his business (and there is a difference between “advancing one’s station in life” to the point of being able to buy a yacht vs. to the point of being able to buy two pairs of tefillin for each son and send all children to good schools, and maybe buy some Jewish books and invite a few guests for Shabbos). But if he wishes to help other poor people, he must encourage them to help themselves and provide them with economic means to do so, not encourage the government to hand out free soup to keep the poor barely alive.

Two worlds

According to the explanation of Chabad Rebbeim, two ways of approaching the teachings of Baal Shem Tov exist — the emotional and the intellectual, Chagas and Chabad. Such a distinction does not imply that one lacks in intellect, while the other lacks in emotions, G-d forbid. Rather, it is a question of emphasis. One is the approach of a fiery explosion of longing. The other is the approach of internalization and direction.

To me personally, these two pieces of music (both of which I very much like) and manner of their execution by the musicians (both very famous in their respective musical worlds) illustrate these two approaches. I will not tell you which one is which, allowing you to guess for yourself. (Again, it’s not a question of liking or disliking; just the appreciation of different approaches.) Watch untill the end.

Keith Jarett, “Summertime”:

Vladimir Horowitz, Alexander Scriabin’s Etude Op. 8, no. 12:

The fourth approach (or, Tradition, tradition! (Part 6)

I am often accused of stereotyping, labeling, and general bigotry. Well, alright, not so often, from time to time, but in any event, I try to attend to the rebuke (why, incidentally, does the End button never work on Macs?) and correct myself.
     How much more depressing, therefore, when the members of the groups that I practice my bigotry against act to strengthen the basis for it! (My complaint is not dissimilar to that of Douglas Adams recalling the cases when one meets a German lacking sense of humor. Here you were, working on this stereotype that you had held the whole life, and then, when you feel you almost succeeded overcoming it, comes a German with a sense of humor similar to that of a cork. Anyway, this is actually a very serious post, so enough about humor.)
      In any event, over this Shabbos I started reading Maimonides: Torah and Philosophical Quest by David Hartman. The author starts discussing "what options are available to someone who, while living within [religious] tradition, is exposed to different world views" from the society (especially, its intellectual elements) around him. He provides four options:
  1. The way of insulation: ignoring that the secular views exist and thus not allowing them to contradict the tradition by submitting one's intellect to the tradition and community. "My thoughts are not your thoughts"; therefore, no contradiction can happen. "Thus has G-d spoken" and no other view can exist.
  2. The way of dualism: being a Jew on the street and an intellectual in private; i.e., behaving according to the tradition, but knowing, in the privacy of one's mind, that rationality disagrees with Torah. This, according to the author, is a way of elitism, of aristocracy. Those holding to it sacrifice their intellect to their body, and their body to the community.
  3. The way of rejection: unable to sacrifice one's mind, one rejects the community and the tradition (r"l).
  4. The way of integration: an attempt to integrate rationality and tradition into one whole.
     It is this last approach that I wish to quote verbatim from the book. Although I may be accused of stereotyping again, I should like to say that this approach -- and the agenda born of it -- is rather stereotypical of the approach I have seen from most members (that I have encountered) of the school of thought within Orthodox Judaism to which the author belongs. For myself, I shall not say that I believe this approach is treif gomur, but I do believe that it is treif v'toiv loi (I wonder how many people will get the pun). I quote, again, verbatim, only omitting certain passages and hyphenating G-d. At first it's all theory, but then the author gets to practice (if you wish to skip the theory -- although I advice against it -- see the label "practice").

Friday, May 14, 2010

A little socialism never hurt anyone

You don’t say... (And if you tell me this could happen only in Russia and never in UK, Canada or US, I will answer that I saw similar things in public hospitals in Brooklyn, in Coney Island.)
I recall the case of a fourteen-year-old girl from my district who died of acute nephritis in a Moscow hospital. She died because a doctor decided that it was better to save "precious" X-ray film (imported by the Soviets for hard currency) instead of double-checking his diagnosis. These X-rays would have disproven his diagnosis of neuropathic pain.
Instead, the doctor treated the teenager with a heat compress, which killed her almost instantly. There was no legal remedy for the girl's parents and grandparents. By definition, a single-payer system cannot allow any such remedy. The girl's grandparents could not cope with this loss and they both died within six months. The doctor received no official reprimand.


The appalling quality of service is not simply characteristic of "barbarous" Russia and other Eastern European nations: it is a direct result of the government monopoly on healthcare and it can happen in any country. In "civilized" England, for example, the waiting list for surgeries is nearly 800,000 out of a population of 55 million. State-of-the-art equipment is nonexistent in most British hospitals. In England, only 10 percent of the healthcare spending is derived from private sources.

Britain pioneered in developing kidney-dialysis technology, and yet the country has one of the lowest dialysis rates in the world. The Brookings Institution (hardly a supporter of free markets) found that every year 7,000 Britons in need of hip replacements, between 4,000 and 20,000 in need of coronary bypass surgery, and some 10,000 to 15,000 in need of cancer chemotherapy are denied medical attention in Britain.

Age discrimination is particularly apparent in all government-run or heavily regulated systems of healthcare. In Russia, patients over 60 are considered worthless parasites and those over 70 are often denied even elementary forms of healthcare.

In the United Kingdom, in the treatment of chronic kidney failure, those who are 55 years old are refused treatment at 35 percent of dialysis centers. Forty-five percent of 65-year-old patients at the centers are denied treatment, while patients 75 or older rarely receive any medical attention at these centers.

In Canada, the population is divided into three age groups in terms of their access to healthcare: those below 45, those 45–65, and those over 65. Needless to say, the first group, who could be called the "active taxpayers," enjoys priority treatment.

Liberty and Charity

From here:
* * *

One of [the sneaky little hobbitses’] most effective weapons in swaying public opinion is the claim that people are selfish, so that charity requires government coercion. Some version of the “need” for mandatory charity underlies arguments on both sides of the fiscal ledger, from the innumerable free or heavily subsidized expenditure programs that exist (and the long list of new ones always being proposed), to estate taxes and progressive income taxes.

However, because the selfishness claim has been around a long time, it has also been effectively debunked. Unfortunately, most people are almost completely unaware of those arguments, because it is “history” whose relevance they fail to see. As a result, they continue to fall prey to specious arguments in this area.

That is why it merits revisiting the largely unknown “other side” to the coercive charity argument. And few have done that better than F.A. Harper, who Lew Rockwell called “one of the most important figures in the anarcho-capitalist wing of libertarianism” roughly half a century ago. Harper was a Cornell University professor and member of the Mont Pelerin Society, who helped start up the Foundation for Economic Education, co-directed the William Volker Fund and founded the Institute for Humane Studies. Chapter 4 of his 1949 book, Liberty: A Path to Its Recovery, titled “Liberty and Charity”, decimates the charity argument against liberty.

Consider an abbreviated version:

Dear Imperialist Swine

Why is this so difficult to understand? Anarchists are not against groups of people assembling together. They are against monopoly on law and order by one particular organization. Anarchists say: just like TV or Internet service can be provided by different private organizations competing for customers in a free-market environment, the same can be said about law and order. Private organization competing for customers can provide those in a free-market environment.

See this post for an explanation.

Yet, I suppose, yelling at a taxman is not the worst that people in the US have done. At least he wasn’t tarred and feathered (I won’t link to a particular clip from John Adams series).

Actually, following Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions, two lawyers sued the state of Georgia over a pre-Revolutionary bond in Supreme Court. (See Chisholm vs. Georgia.) Georgia argued that it was a sovereign state that could not be sued without its permission. Supreme Court supported the plaintiffs. The court of Georgia, however, found the decision unconstitutional; furthermore, the House passed the bill that “any federal agent attempting to execute the order would be guilty of felony and shall suffer death without benefit of closure by being hanged”. See 12:10 here.

(After which the 11th Amendment was passed making it unconstitutional to sue a state without its permission.)

Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul

Those of you who believe in intellectual property, don’t go here.

And don’t click here:

“Would you condemn Hamas?”

Interesting video.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Decisions, decisions...

Please answer the new two polls.

In the first poll, it’s very important to know that I am not talking about Halacha (of course, preserving your health is Halacha, but the question here is how to do it most effectively). For example, in many works of Chassidus it says that signal transduction between the brain and the foot takes no time. Modern science says that it does, and this has been shown beyond any shadow of doubt. If you have to make a decision (for yourself or others) between, say, two courses of treatment: one assuming that there is no time lag, and one assuming that there is, which one would you choose?

(If you don’t care about works of Chassidus, pick something in Gemara or something in the words of Rishoinim or Acharoinim, etc.)

In the second poll, I am asking for the deepest possible answer. Obviously, a person could have all four motivations in mind — I am asking which one is the most important. Also, when I say “it’s morally wrong”, I mean something which is objectively and naturally wrong — whether or not there was a gezeira from Hashem telling you it’s wrong (and whether or not you know that Hashem will be pleased, if such an arrangement is possible). And, I am asking you to give a realistic answer about yourself — i.e., what your motivation is. Not what it should be.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Prime Minister

So, UK and the Queen have a new Prime Minister who is a Tory. What can I say? Good for them.

I wonder if he's going to do the dance (some music and not necc. appropriate music, so keep it muted until the end) —

This reminds me. See this scene (frumkeit-friendly). Perhaps there were times when chivalry was in some currency. I have to say, I dislike Christian imagery, but the part with "Jerusalem has come" is quite impressive. (If you want to skip blood and gore, go to 5:13.)

This is also interesting. The concept of law (natural or otherwise) certainly differed between the ages.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Stephan Kinsella on Intellectual Property

Mr. Kinsella discusses the opposition to Intellectual Property from libertarian point of view and gives a general introduction of what Libertarianism is.

Ignore the anarchist vs. minirchist stuff. Focus on intellectual property argument. Hear him until the end. I genuinely believe he makes sense after having listened to his essay.

See also an excellent essay “Against Intellectual Property” by Mr. Kinsella (also available as a series of audio-lectures for those who don’t have time to read).

Brotherly love

(click on the image to enlarge)

There are many “modern” ways to read into the deeper meaning of this ancient, proud Slavic song, but we shall stick to the traditional interpretation: that cossacks valued friendship and a warrior’s duty over love (and I use the last word in a very general sense).

The song is sung in a slow or quick tempo (the translation is not the best, but it will do):

From beyond the wooded island
To the river wide and free
Proudly sailed the arrow-breasted
Ships of Cossack yeomanry.

On the first is Stenka Razin
With his princess by his side
Drunken holds in marriage revels
With his beauteous younger bride.

From behind there comes a murmur
"He has left his sword to woo;
One short night — and Stenka Razin
Has become a woman, too."

Stenka Razin hears the murmur
Of his discontented band
And his lovely Persian princess
He has circled with his hand.

His dark brows are drawn together
As the waves of anger rise;
And the blood comes rushing swiftly
To his piercing jet-black eyes.

"I will give you all you ask for
Head and heart and life and hand."
And his voice rolls out like thunder
Out across the distant land:

"Volga, Volga, Mother Volga
Wide and deep beneath the sun,
You have never seen such present
From the Cossacks of the Don.

So that peace may reign forever
In this band so free and brave
Volga, Volga, Mother Volga
Make this lovely girl a grave."

Now, with one swift mighty motion
He has raised his bride on high
And has cast her where the waters
Of the Volga roll and sigh.

"Dance, you fools, and let's be merry
What is this that's in your eyes?
Let us thunder out a chantey
To the place where beauty lies."

From beyond the wooded island
To the river wide and free
Proudly sailed the arrow-breasted
Ships of Cossack yeomanry.

Now, amongst the historians there is a great degree of disagreement regarding the question of whether Stenka Razin really did drown the Persian princess (whom he held as a hostage) and if he did, what his reasons might have been. I have just perused a work analyzing this important chapter in Russian national history. It quotes different sources, going back to such authorities as Jan Jansen Streiss (1630–1694), Dutch “sailing master” working on a Russian ship, and Louis Fabricius (1648–1729), Dutch emissary to Persia. Let me tell you: the answer is not so simple.

Besides the traditional view presented in the mighty hymn above, another opinion says that she jumped herself after discovering that she was pregnant, but a careful analysis from military historians pointing at the time when the princess might have been captured debunks this view.

Some sources present a view that she was sacrificed to the cossack deity that was associated with either Caspian sea or Volga (like most Christians, the cossacks were rather liberal in their religious beliefs and were not bothered by the conflicts of mono- and polytheism; of course, when the time came to kill someone else for his religious beliefs, they became rather orthodox). You see, before the cossacks departed on a raiding expedition to Caspian sea (as all Russians know, river Volga flows into Caspian sea¹) they would bring sacrifices to both the river and the sea — oftentimes human ones. For Halachic reasons, I cannot tell you the name of their maritime deity, but what I can say is that it is also the name of one American hurricane of the past.

In any event, this wouldn’t be the first time someone sacrificed his (or her) family for religious beliefs. Although a counter-argument states that if Razin had a Persian princess as a newly-acquired captive, he would be sailing up river Volga, away from the Caspian sea and Persia, not towards them.

In reality, eastern Cossacks did capture Persian women and even settle in a colony called Persiánovka, where they started off families with their captives. Due to the mobile nature of their enterprise, however, the colony did not endure.

After the Shvuos, I will present, iyH, the different musical versions of the song.

¹ “And Volga flows into Caspian sea” is a Russian way of saying “duh” — i.e., stating an obvious (and sometimes useless) fact. This map confirms this fact. Also, it shows how long the river is: it starts north of Moscow and goes all the way to Caspian sea, north of Iran. Russia in general is known for its long rivers.

By the way, these cossacks were known as Don Cossacks, because the river Don was their main base of operation. Don and Volga are two of the three mighty Russian rivers (the third one is Dnepr). There is a place where Don and Volga come close to each other. It is a site of the city called today Volgograd, although back in the day it was called Stalingrad and was the place where one third of the whole Nazi army was encircled and destroyed by the Soviet forces.

(Of course, the three mighty rivers are those just on the European side. Siberia also sports quite a collection of long and wide waterways. One of them is called Lena and was the source of the nickname of the first leader of the Soviet Union.)

I actually wonder how a Russian version of Three Men in a Boat (telling of a journey up or down Volga, for instance) would look like.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Speak your own language

As everyone knows, the native language of all Ashkenazic Jews is Yiddish. It says that the source of Loshen Koidesh is Malchus of Atzilus. But the source of Yiddish is Malchus of Attik — even higher. (Incidentally, that is also the source of Moshiach.)

John Adams and George III

Very interesting scene. One of my favorite. Comments to follow tomorrow. But watch until the end — hear the hope that King George III expressed. How silly such a concern of his sounds now! Equally silly do the concerns about the desired lack of a strong government in the present times sound to those exposed to more enlightened ideas of the proper political structure of a secular society.

A great scene:

A good selection of scenes with Thomas Jefferson:

Letters between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson:

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Regarding Moshiach...

From Derech Mitzvosecho, Mitzvas Minui Melech, perek gimmel.

Tzemach Tzedek explained before that talmidei chochamim don’t really need a king, since the role of the king is to inspire the nation to be bottul to Hashem, and talmidei chochamim are already bottul to Hashem. So, the king is only for simple people, whose role in life is dealing with gashmius. Which is why Shmuel didn’t want the Jews to have a king, since he wanted them all to be on the level of talmidei chochamim.

This part explains why the Jews will need a king in the times of Moshiach, and why Moshiach will be called a king, if indeed the whole nation of Jews will be on the level of talmidei chochamim.

ג) אך עדיין צ"ל מהו שהמשיח ג"כ יהי' מלך דלפי משנת"ל פ"א קשה כי בזמן ביאת משיח בב"א יהיו כל בנ"י ת"ח כמ"ש ומלאה הארץ דעה את ה' (ישעי' י"א ט') וכתי' ולא ילמדו עוד איש את רעהו (ירמי' ל"א ל"ג) וא"כ למה צריכים למלך. וכן קשה על המצוה שבתורה למנות מלך בישראל והלא תורה א' לכולנו וא"כ גם ת"ח נצטוו בכך וא"כ קשה לפי משנת"ל פ"א. אך הענין דבאמת שייך בחי' מלוכה גם על ת"ח הגם שמשכילים בתורת ה' ואינן נצרכים להיות בבחי' ביטול כעבד ע"ד הנ"ל פ"א אלא שהיא בחי' מלוכה יותר נעלית
והענין כי התורה היא בחי' בלי גבול וכמאמר ילכו מחיל אל חיל (תלים פ"ד ח') שיש בחי' מדריגות אין קץ ותכלית הכל בבחי' עילוי אחר עילוי באופן השגת התורה, והנה לע"ל יהי' גילוי אלקות בהשגת פנימי' התורה והיינו ע"י משיח שהוא ילמוד פנימי' התורה לכל העם גם מה שהי' כעת בהעלם, אכן אעפ"כ בודאי הוא בעצמו יכיר יותר כי לא כל מה שמשיג בעצמו יכול לגלות וללמד לכל העם כי לא יוכלו להשיג והנה מחמת בחי' זו נק' מלך, דכמו ענין המלוכה שלמטה הוא רק בחי' הביטול היינו מה שהוא למעלה מהגבלת שכלו כי לדבר שמתיישב בשכלו בטוב טעם ודעת אין צריך ע"ז לפקודת המלך שהרי גם בלא מצותו נכון הדבר מצד עצמו וטוב הוא בעיניו אלא הפקודה הוא רק על דבר שהוא נגד שכלו והוא פלאי ממנו שאעפ"כ מצד הפקודה והגזירה מוכרח לקיים אותה ומבטל רצונו לרצון המלך כי אינו יודע לב המלך (וטעמו הכמוס) וה"ז בחי' ביטול לגבי למעלה מן החכמה שלו שאע"פ שאינו מתיישב בשכלו שומע לגזירת המלך שאצלו נכון הוא ויש לו טוב טעם

ועד"ז יובן ג"כ בענין התורה שיש בה מצות וחוקים המצות הם המושגים כמו ציצית ותפילין, והחוקים הם כמו פרה אדומה ושעטנז שצמר ופשתים כל חד לחודי' שרי וכן כל א' מהם עם משי רק צמר ופשתים יחדיו לא תלבש כו'. והנה טעמי תורה יתגלו לע"ל ע"י המשיח אכן לו בעצמו יתגלה הרבה יותר לאין קץ ותכלית ממה שיוכל הוא לגלות לעם וכמ"ש בו הנה ישכיל עבדי ירום ונשא וגבה מאד (ישעי' נ"ב י"ג) והם ה' עליות ישכיל מאברהם כו' וגבה מאד אותיות אדם שיהי' למעלה גם מאדה"ר שהוא ח"ע כי למשיח יתגלה יותר, ולכן יהי' משיח ג"כ מלך על ישראל הגם שיהיו אז כולם במדריגת ת"ח עד שגם טעמי התורה יתגלה להם מ"מ הרי לא כל מה שיתגלה למשיח יתגלה להם אלא יהא בחי' מקיף עליהם ומצד זה נק' בשם מלך עליהם שהמלוכה היא מה שלמעלה מן השכל של המקבל

ועפ"י הקבלה הוא כך כי הנבראים דבי"ע יש עליהם מלך תתאה מל' דאצילות שנעשה עתיק לבריאה והיינו בחי' עתיק הוא מה שלמעלה מהשכל מלשון המעתיק הרים (איוב ט' ה') שנעתק ונבדל מן השגת הנבראים שבג' עולמות בי"ע אלא הוא בבחי' מקיף עליהם כמשל גזירת המלך על העבד שהעבד מבטל רצונו כי הוא למעלה מהשגתו כו' ונק' זה בשם מל' דאצי' על בי"ע, אבל לגבי הנשמות דאצי' הנק' אחים לזו"נ אין זה בחי' מקיף והעלם כלל שהרי נק' אחים ממש להספי' כנ"ל ומ"מ הרי גם עליהם יש בחי' מקיף והוא מה שמל' דא"ק נעשה עתיק לאצילות פי' עתיק דאצי' מה שמתנשא מימות עולם הם יומי' עילאי' שהם מדות דאצי' ונעתק ונבדל מהם והגבה מאד נעלה מהשגתם הוא בחי' המל' דא"ק על אצילות

ושם יהי' שרש המשיח וזהו וגבה מא"ד שנאמר בו ועליו נאמר חיים שאל ממך נתתה לו (תלים כ"א ה') ולא כמו בדוד שהי' ממל' דאצי' שקבל חיים מאדה"ר והאבות שהם הספי' דאצילות כנ"ל פ"ב משא"כ במשיח נתת אתה הא"ס בעצמו כו' ומצד זה יהי' בחי' מלך על ישראל הגם שיהיו ת"ח והגם שיתגלו טעמי מצות אבל לא כל מה שיתגלה לו. ולכן נק' רב ומלך מפני מה שיגלה טעמי מצות בהשגה לישראל יהי' נק' רב ומפני מה שישאר בבחי' מקיף עליהם נק' מלך ועד"ז יובן ג"כ עוד ענין מל' דא"ס כתר לא"ק כו' והמ"י

The brief explanation is that although all Jews will be like talmidei chochamim, and the role of Melech HaMoshiach will be to teach the inner aspects of Torah and the reasons for mitzvos, the levels of Torah are infinite, and his knowledge will always remain greater than the knowledge of all the Jews, in the encompassing manner (makif), which is the essence of who a king is.

This shows that if you accept someone as a king, you follow his directions even if you don’t understand their true and complete motivation. Because you recognize that he, in relation to you, is on the level of makif — encompassing. If you were following his directives because they made sense, he would be on the level of a rav, a teacher (which will be one of the levels of Moshiach).

But if you accepted him as a king, you must do what he says regardless of your understanding — in fact, precisely because you do it with recognition that his understanding is above your understanding, and you’re obeying him just because he said so, you make him and recognize him as a king.

It also says that unlike Dovid HaMelech, who received (as Tzemach Tzedek previously explained) his life force from Adam HaRishoin, Avraham Avinu, Yakov Avinu and Yosef HaTzaddik (who constituted all various level of Atzilus, from Chochma to Yesoid), Moshiach will receive the life force from the Essence of Ein Soif — the Essence of G-d Himself.

[ǃɡx, ǃɡ͡ɣ, ǃɡʱ]

Someone asked me today what the last syllable of my first name sounds like. It’s actually an interesting philosophical question, which has to do with topics of religion, ethnohistoriography, nationalism, linguistics and epistemology. I won’t talk about any of these things now, however. Suffice it to say that a picture is worth a thousand words, and a moving picture is worth a thousand moving words.

One of the sounds pronounced in this short clip (~frumkeit friendly) is a part of my first name. Watch almost until the end (the whole clip is great, but the essence starts at 2:40):

(This is not to detract attention from my super-serious anarchist post. Please read that and comment.)

Is it immoral to break the law?

Oftentimes, I hear or read statements such as the following:
There should be an instinctive, irrational emotion of disgust to breaking the law of the country, even if it is not right.
What can I answer to that? First of all, I sympathize with the sentiment. I was raised believing the same, and it is still possibly the natural, irration, emotional response in me — a response which I believe, nevertheless, is not intellectually justified. I have a similar response of emotional respect to the "ways of the land", i.e., the customs and manners of the particular community. This is something completely different from the law, and I will not address it in the post, but suffice it to say that I am more sympathetic to such a sentiment.

Secondly, I believe that what, for the most part, determines something to be moral or immoral is G-d's Law, Halacha. Therefore, if something is against Halacha, it is considered to be immoral. I believe I can find sufficient sources (such as Tosfos) to back up my opinion that the halachic principle of dina d'malchusa dina ("the law of the land is the law") applies only to monetary issues. (And even then there are nuances, such as in the cases when the law is clearly unjust — as, one could argue, is the case with the majority of taxes.)

The possibility when something is not against Halacha but is conventionally or logically considered to be immoral is interesting to consider, but is outside the scope of this post. In here, I am going to argue, briefly (since I have devoted many posts to the topic already) that not only is going against the law of the land not immoral, but in fact, in most cases, the idea of the law of the land, as practiced today in most countries is by itself logically, naturally immoral.

Here is my response to the above statement:

* * *

Why should there be an immediate instinctive disgust to breaking the law of the country? I really don’t see it. I disrespect the idea of the government and the laws in general, unless they exist as an extension of people’s natural rights (e.g., to protect themselves — from which you get the government, whose function is to protect people, and the laws, whose goal is to protect people).

I naturally, instinctively, rationally, emotionally abhor tyranny and violation of privacy. I am disgusted by someone telling me whom I should do business with. It violates my natural, G-d–given rights (the idea upon which this country was founded, by the way — so, by supporting this idea, one goes against the fabric of this country’s society, as our current president’s goal is, according to one of his radio interviews from earlier days).

What separates me from anarchists is the belief that minimal government and enforcement (internal and external) are necessary to provide universal protection of the citizens of the society (the idea in support of which the Federalists argued in their Papers, defending Constitution; their opponents, by the way, argued that the Constitution would lead to the circus that exists nowadays, when we live under semi-camouflaged totalitarian regime).

In other words: what I personally disrespect is the idea that one adult can tell another adult how to live his life (unless these instructions come from G-d; but, we are operating outside of Halacha here, right?). Now, the only time that can be permissible is if the second adult is infringing upon the first adult’s rights. So, I don’t have a right to tell you how to dress. But I do have a right to tell you not to steal my pencil, please (that right extends from my right to my pencil). And since I have that right, I have a right to hire a guard who will keep an eye on my pencil to make sure you won’t steal it. If you try to steal it, the guard will prevent it. In this case, he is not telling you what to do with your own life, since you’re actually now infringing on my life.

Next step is both of us hiring the same guard and telling him to protect us from each other. That is the only function of the guard. Here be Rollo.

Now, imagine the guard starts suddenly telling us that we can’t wear clothes of the particular color. Or do business with someone? Or he will force us to educate our children certain way. Or, he will (by force) take money from us to give to someone else. What in the world? First of all, what right does he have? The only right he had to begin with to restrict you from stealing my pencil was my right to protect my pencil. I delegated my right to protect my property to the guard. But since neither I nor anyone else ever had a right to rob another person (or force him to do other things), nobody could delegate such a right to the guard. The guard cannot have such a right in principle. So, if he does any of the said activities, he is just a tyrant and a bully. And supporting him is immoral!

Note that I am not just saying: “eh, law, shmoh, who cares?” I am saying that following the law and government blindly is exactly opposite from a moral behavior.

I am hardly the first one to have such ideas*. There are whole schools out there which explain and defend these ideas, from philosophical to ethical to economic to historical points of view. See also this. [End of response.]

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Clicking on the label "libertarianism", one can open up many more posts that discuss this and other similar issues.

* In fact, apparently, this philosophy can be traced all the way to Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas. In recent times, it has been presented by a number of philosophers such as John Locke and really became the basis for the Declaration of Independence and Articles of Confederation, as well as the anti-Federalist (which was really federalist) sentiment in the US Constitution.