Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Appearances deceive

The picture above is a good illustration of the concept that unless you know the deep meaning and context of a situation, you may misunderstand it. For most people in the West, this picture looks very strange: a few officially-dressed men staring intensely and what looks like a bunch of pebbles lying on a block of wood. In fact, of course, these are top players of the deep strategic board game of Go analyzing a situation.

The same goes for frum Jews in general and Chabad in particular. 99% of people (Jews and non-Jews) think that Chabad is just a very large soup kitchen with missionary inclinations. In reality, Chabad is all about making this world into a dwelling for its Creator. The soup kitchen is just one way to achieve this.

The British are coming

Robert Murphy comments on Facebook:
Now people are arguing with me about whether the government has plans on how it would implement martial law, if it had to. Of *course* they have such plans. They developed a plan for taking out Great Britain. That's what these people think their *job* is. Don't you people watch movies?
War Plan Red

My thoughts:

There was once a point when having heard something conspiracy-like about USA being an evil empire (whether from crazy American liberals or Russians or Soviet books), I would roll my eyes. "Sure, it's not perfect, but..."

Then came a point when I realized that all those cynical things being said about the USA being a wannabe policeman of the world for the purpose of fulfilling the interests of a few major corporations may not be so crazy after all.

I guess I have passed that point by now. When I read about US having had a secret plan of fighting the British Empire, I am not even surprised...

I mean, look at these. There is a Russian obscene joke about a little boy looking through a keyhole into his parents' bedroom and exclaiming: "And they tell me not to pick my nose!" American presidents talk about international threats to peace, while USA probably at this point has a contingency plan of taking over the moon.

Martial law? Meh...

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Is price gouging evil?

A really nice article about how price gouging in extreme situations plays an important social role. (And making price gouging illegal does the opposite.)

Simply put, price gouging separates luxuries from necessities. imagine someone raises the price for a bag of ice from $4 to $15. Now, the first few lucky people coming into the store aren't going to buy up 10 bags each (leaving the rest of the people who need bags with empty hands). They will think: 'Do we really need so many bags?'

Even for each individual bag, each person will ask: 'Do I simply need it as a luxury, or do I have something really important I am trying to keep on ice?'

The people for whom it's really important will pay the $15 for a bag. The people for whom it's merely a luxury (e.g., they want to have some vodka on the rocks while they are waiting the storm out) will mumble something about those 'damn capitalist pigs' and go away.

This way the resources are 'rationed' appropriately throughout the society.

As the article mentions, it may be that a given store may set the price too high or too low. Well, that's why there is competition on the market. The stores that set their prices too high will have bags left over (since people will go to their competitors), and people who set their prices too low will be quickly sold out, not getting the 'right' amount of the capital for the merchandise.

If you're interested, read on: 'Price Gouging Saves Lives in a Hurricane'.

On a related topic, if you want to know how speculation can play a positive role in the society, watch this video by Bob Murphy:

P.S. By the way, the fact that New Jersey's governor made a warning against price gouging shows once again that though the Conservatives may talk about being friends of the free market, they are not. And they are as ignorant of how free markets work as the Liberals.

Too much information

I was just reading a quite well-written book about baby brain development: Brain Rules for Baby by John Medina. I like the book for the most part, but this little bit annoyed me:

In the chapter where he talks about relationship between the parents, the author discusses how having frequent fights between the parents is bad for the baby's brain development. In passing, he mentions that epinephrine and cortisol are secreted as a part of the 'fight-or-flight' reflex.

And that's it. He sort of just mentions them and then says that if the brain is 'cooked' in the appropriate set of hormones, it grows up healthy, but if not, then it grows up not as well developed.

I really hate when people do that: mention some facts of physiology or anatomy without explaining their relevance. It smacks of a cheap parlor trick. It's almost as if they were doing that to impress the audience with their knowledge of biology or somehow use the biological 'illustration' to give greater credence to their (often non-biological) argument.

I once saw a textbook of Psychology that had a picture of the map of Vienna at the beginning of the chapter on sexual behavior. The caption under the picture said something like the following: 'Many psychology textbooks have pictures of reproductive organs in the chapters on sexual behavior. The authors of this textbook are not sure what the relevance of those pictures is. That is why we included the map of Vienna — while equally irrelevant, it may be more entertaining.' When I read this caption, I thought it made an excellent point.

I have recently given a talk on the role of DNA methylation in late brain development. I had a slide in which I showed a figure from a study that showed that blocking DNA methylation affected long-term potentiation; I also wrote on the slide that 'a number of genes were upregulated'. My advisor asked me if I was planning to discuss or list those genes. I answered 'no'; I didn't think it was relevant, and the authors of that study had only provided a table of genes without discussing them much themselves. My advisor said: 'In that case, don't mention them at all.'

Again, I thought this was an excellent advice. If you're not going to explain how something fits into the puzzle, don't have it lying around, just for decoration. People have limited attention, and, more importantly, everything thing you say must make a point.

So... how could the author have made a better point with the mentioning of cortisol, etc.? Well, as it turns out, the function of cortisol is to draw glucose from most cells of the body towards muscle cells. Basically, when you see a lion and need to run away from it, your body needs quickly to raise energy 'currency' to supply your muscle cells. Release of cortisol does exactly that. And it makes sense to do that in a short term. As Robert Sapolski (an expert on the biology of stress) once put, 'Run away from the lion first; ovulate later.'

Imagine, however, if this process goes on for days or weeks or months! Your cells being constantly depleted of their energy resources. That will create energy crisis in most tissues of your body (except the muscles) and the long-term effects will be disastrous: the lining of your stomach will develop ulcers, your reproductive system will lose ability to perform well, and your brain cells will suffer damage (first, ability to make plastic changes in connectivity is diminished; next, dendritic complexity is reduced; finally, even cell loss -- the irreversible change -- can take place).

Now, if you think about the developing baby brain undergoing energy crisis, it makes sense that exposure to stress can be detrimental to brain development.

I am sure a writer as talented as John Medina could put the above into fewer words. Then, his mentioning of cortisol and epinephrine would be relevant to the discussion of the baby brain.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

False sense of safety


The worst invention in the Western Civilization's recent history was a result of Americans' attempt to reduce fatalities from road accidents. They introduced the inflatable airbag into the cars. Now the passengers drive, having a sense of safety.

If I were trying to reduce the accidents, I would put a sharp knife in the middle of the steering wheel. And that would reduce the accidents, because, by G-d, people would be driving carefully now.

-- Hugh Hendry, British hedge funds manager (and a famous critic of the government's attempts to manage the economy)

The point of the above quote is that by creating agencies that manage our safety for us, without our choice, the government makes us less safe. First, the agencies like FDA are extremely inefficient and in general bad at what they're trying to do, as a result of being monopolies. But more severely, they prevent us from caring for our own lives and safety.

As a result, you have attempts at logical arguments that state that without FDA, unsafe drugs and food would fill the markets, because the people wouldn't have anyone watching out for them (while the businesses would of course care more about selling the drugs and not about the safety of their customers). The people who make them cannot imagine that someone might want to care for his own safety, relying (if necessary) on private inspection agencies whose reputation he would keep an eye on.

And I think, in the end, that is the worst result of socialism: it changes the culture. It creates a nation of slaves, of people who are similar to a 30-year-old who lives with his parents and is unable to make a decision himself about his life. (As I have written before, studies show that children who were given some small allowances and allowed to manage their purchases themselves grew up to be more responsible adults.)

This is the worst result of American and European governments' policies. We see this culture of dependent junkies in Greece today. When their government attempts to cut down on spending, they come out to streets and protest, since they are not getting the free pie.

The same thing happened in the Roman Empire: in an attempt to please the public and win popularity, the government created welfare programs, feeding and entertaining the masses for free (the source of the 'bread and circuses' expression). Unfortunately, this could not be sustained forever. In an attempt to pay for the ever-increasing demands of the public, Roman government debased the currency, creating massive economic crisis that spanned the centuries and was one of the reasons for the downfall of the Empire.

In my opinion, unless drastic change of course is undertaken (by the people themselves -- for the government will never change itself for the better), both American and European societies are headed the same way. They will destroy themselves from the inside, degenerating socially, economically, and culturally.

* source of image

The axis of weevils

It seems that the axis of evil now includes:

(Not North Korea)
Some random African countries
Switzerland (they get the money of those who didn't want to pay taxes to US gov't)
New Zealand (now that Peter Jackson is filming another movie, they need no aid)

But, on a serious note, one good thing about the picture above is that the French do not get my tax dollars.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Shooting oneself in one's foot

"Our target is communism"
— Motto written on one Soviet nuclear missile facility

Saw this picture on the Facebook:

It's nice to know Obama Administration cares about the common folk and not those 'rich bastards'.

This reminds me of FDR's efforts to keep food prices high (presumably to stimulate the economy by stimulating the food industry) by paying farmers to slaughter livestock while people were starving.

So, I know: how about we confiscate all gasoline imported to the USA and burn half of it?.. That should make the economy better, eh?

I thought we were fighting a war on (the concept of) terror? Yet, our government is doing a good job of aiding our presumed enemies... maybe it can declare itself an enemy of the state and sequester itself into Guantanamo Bay?.. (I won't make suggestive jokes about drones, so as not to excite too much the CIA agents reading this blog.)

Monday, October 22, 2012

Gifts from jellyfish and pond scum

Dr. Michael Häusser of University College London speaks about new tools neuroscientists use to study neural circuits:

Friday, October 19, 2012

What makes us overeat?

I'd like to advertise my father-in-law's blog which discusses the above question. He is a professional psychologist helping people overcome eating problems and is in the process of writing a book about emotional eating disorders (when people over-eat to overcome an emotional struggle).

The blog is interesting not only to those who may have such a problem, but also to those who are interested in the question of motivation, willpower, and self-control. At the center of his ideas is the hypothesis about emotional eating and loss of self-control. One school of thought looks at self-control as a 'mental muscle' which gets tired after too much exercise (hence the slips in self-control). He looks at a loss of self-control differently: in his opinion, it is not a loss at all, but rather an attempt for someone to regain control over his life (or at least demonstrate to himself that he is control) when he feels that he is losing it.

So, for instance, if your boss makes you do a project you hate, your wife makes you wash the dishes when you want to watch a game on TV, and your kids force you to take them to a park, you may have an urge to demonstrate to yourself that you're in control of your life by doing something forbidden -- something you know you're not supposed to do. Emotional overeating is one such behavior.

If you're interested, read When Willpower is Not Enough.

More on the topic of self-control, as it pertains to my thoughts on economics and politics:
Time Preference and the Wealth (or Poverty) of Nations

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Do libertarians lack the concept of tzibbur?

A friend of mine has recently asserted, in his critique of libertarians, that they lack the concept of tzibbur: a community. As a result, he said, they think about everything in terms of individual rights and responsibilities, but they don't conceive of the 'community' owning things or having rights and the individuals owing to the community.

I disagree with my friend. First of all, without the concept of a tzibbur, libertarians would not have rights. Yes, rights are centered on the individual, but the purpose of the rights is for the individual to live in a community, at peace with others.

But I agree with my friend that there is a concept that libertarian lack. And that is (for better or for worse) the concept of slavery. Here is my response to my friend:
I think you're wrong that libertarianism doesn't acknowledge the existence of tzibbur: both as a psychological need (or reality) and as a metaphysical concept of co-existence of individuals. There is a lot of evidence that it does. For instance, see this article: 
But I would say that libertarianism doesn't acknowledge that tzibbur can hold individuals as slaves. (And that is because, according to libertarianism, slavery is praxeologically impossible. It is impossible for me to be mafkir of my will. I can never let go of it in order to transfer it. One can certainly 'let go' of his will by committing a suicide, chv"sh, but in that case the transfer is impossible; the same goes for lobotomy -- in other words, as long as a will is really a will, it belongs to only one person, and nobody else can own it or take possession of it.) 
So, while I can belong to a tzibbur, I must be free to choose a different tzibbur. For instance, if I don't like A's minyan, I can join B's minyan. Just because I am a Jew, or a social being, and, as a result, I have to be a part of the tzibbur, I still should be able to choose the particular tzibbur that I am going to be a part of. 
Even if, as you say, a person finds himself automatically belonging to a tzibbur, as you describe it ('a person never thinks of himself only as an individual -- he always thinks of himself as both an individual and a part of a tzibbur'), it doesn't mean he must remain beholden to the particular tzibbur into which he was born. (Such a situation would be absurd for many Lubavitchers, ba'alei teshuva, de novo Chassidim, etc.)

And you implicitly agreed with the above when you said: 'America is a great country, where you can live in a state that suits your desires. If you want to work hard and live well as a result, you can move to Texas. If you want to be a couch potato, you move to California.' (Not that I agree with this logic completely.) 
But what libertarians are saying is that the same principle must be applied to all aspects of life, including protection and legal services, and cannot be tied to geography. I should be able to choose which socio-political tzibbur I belong to without having to move. (As I do with a shull or, lehavdil, a phone company.) 
One may say that it's utopian, since we need protection, and there is a free-rider problem, etc., etc. So, your objections are economic, not principled, and that's a separate discussion (whether private legal authorities and defense agencies would do as good a job as the government, and whether public good can be externalized).

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Scalia's mistake

3rd-rate minds are only happy when they are thinking with the majority. 2nd-rate minds are only happy when they are thinking with the minority. 1st-rate minds are only happy when they are thinking.
-- A.A. Miln (the author of Winnie the Pooh)

An exchange on Facebook:

UCS shared a link.

Scalia appeals to duel federalism in support of his case that some of the more controversial issues currently argued over at the Federal level are easy to deal with from a Supreme Court perspective. He argues they are matters to be dealt with by the individual states.



Scalia lives in this funny universe, where:

1) rights are created by the governments, no received naturally, at birth;
2) constitution must be defended, except when it comes to Justice Scalia's pet topics, inspired by his Catholic background (marijuana, gay rights, abortion, etc.); in those cases it's ok to use the same methods that his friends Ginzburg and Breyer use to defend their pet projects.


A, are you familiar with duel federalism?


I am familiar with the concept. Doesn't mean I like it (although it's obviously better than centralized power that Vladimir Put... I mean, Barack Obama would have). Doesn't mean I don't think that Scalia is a hypocrite.

The constitution has recognized people's natural rights. Just because the drafters and their contemporaries were hypocrites doesn't mean we have to follow their lead.

Look up Lysander Spooner's argument that slavery was unconstitutional (even before the 13th Amendment). E.g.:


It is a matter of who you want to 'define' your rights. In order to 'protect' your rights, they must be defined. We reject the incorporation doctrine, not because we think States should violate the rights of individuals, but because we don't trust a centralized power to be able to define our rights.

It is a curious position to distrust the federal government, but then want to use it to protect rights.

Also, do you agree that people disagree on what constitutes a right?

Why shouldn't this be left to local governing bodies?

Leaving it to local governments doesn't mean you condone any abuse of rights that may occur on the local level, it just means you don't trust a centralized power to be the arbiter of your rights.


Who should define what the word 'ostrich' means? Why shouldn't this left to the governing bodies? A better question is: why should it?

To leave anything to any kind of government, an institution founded on the concept of violence (of either majority at the hands of minority or vice versa), means to invite violence.

Why would you want something as precious as understanding and definition of our natural rights (the concept that binds us into a society) be left to a monopoly organization, however local? Obviously, it should be left to the people themselves -- and competing (on a free market) private legal authorities who codify the 'will of the people'.


If you are an anarchist it is even more of a curious position to want a central government to be the arbiter of your rights.


Obviously, I don't want the central gov't to be the arbiter.

My point was not that in an argument of how often to rape people -- once a week or once a month -- the first argument is right. My point was that rape is wrong.

The whole premise that natural rights need to be 'defined' by some governing body is wrong from the start. Natural rights need to be discovered and recognized. This is what Scalia is missing.

The question of which social mechanism is best for efficient and precise rights discovery (central gov't vs. local gov'ts vs. private 'authorities') is secondary (and, to some extent, not so much a legal or a political question, but an economic one).

So, when Texas says that sodomy should be illegal, Scalia finds nothing wrong with it. For Scalia, this is how Texas has 'defined' the right of having sex: 'as long as it's between a man and a woman'. But I say: in their (presumed) attempt at rights discovery, Texas made a mistake. Of course, I agree with Scalia that when the central gov't tells Texas that, the situation becomes even more dangerous in the long run.

Anyway, in my personal life, my rights are violated much more by the state I live in than by the federal gov't.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Democracy and the illusion of public ownership

Today, in a shower, I put a finger on what I subconsciously understood to be wrong with democracy. And so I hurry to share it with my (potential) faithful audience.

What's wrong with democracy is that it is an actualization of the legal fiction of public ownership. Let me explain what I mean.

Imagine that 500 people presumably own some public property: let's say, a central square. That's our premise.

Now, by 'ownership' I mean 'legitimate control'. When I own something I can control it (and we agree that I am doing so legitimately): I can decide what its fate is: I can use it, leave it alone, allow others to use, or forbid others from using it (even if I am not using it at the moment myself). A funny counter-example is a story of Ludwig Wittgenstein who once told him that he would give me some trees growing nearby as a present, as long as the student agrees never to use or alter them in any way or prevent the previous owners from using them in whatever way they wish. The point was to illustrate what ownership is: it's legitimate ability to exercise control over something and prevent others from doing so. If you don't have that, then your "owning" of something is merely academic.

Next comes democracy.

People elect a mayor of the village who will decide what happens to the public square. 251 people vote for Bob, while 249 vote for Bill. Bob becomes the mayor and decides to plant a tree in the public square, against the wishes of 400 people. But, they can't do anything about it, because Bob was elected through a democratic process. 'Next time we will be wiser', say the 400 people (or, at least those that voted for Bob) and walk home.

Let's see what happened here. There were two acts of aggression:

1. When 251 people imposed Bob as the village mayor on the 249. The argument that had it been the reverse (with Bill becoming the mayor), it would be worse, may be true, but it doesn't refute that electing Bob was an act of violence.

2. When Bob decided to plant a tree against the people's wishes.

So, first we had an act of oppression of the minority at the hands of a majority (249 vs. 251), which in itself created the oppression of majority at the hands of a minority (the villagers vs. Bob). But since the first act is meaningless in and of itself (if by the village's constitution, Bob couldn't do anything, then his election would not be a meaningful act of any sort), the essence of representative democracy, as we have discovered, is the same old oppression of majorities at the hands of minorities, which we had back when we had monarchy.

The difference is that the majority of the people get to decide who the jerk on the throne is going to be*. The difference between monarchy and representative democracy is, therefore, what I call 'economic'. It's not a principled difference, it's a difference of the expected practical outcome. Sometimes the 'economic' expectation works out, sometimes it doesn't. (Certainly, publicly elected officials have done more damage than the kings, but perhaps that's because they had better technology and more people at their hands.)

The same goes for constitutional democracy: the basis for preferring it (an expectation that it would somehow curb the abuses of the elected 'jerk') is economic. Sometimes it proves to be true; sometimes it doesn't. Certainly American constitutional democracy has proven to be a failure to a large extent. Today, most people don't even understand what constitutionality means.

So what then? Direct democracy? Well, first of all, as all of you thought the moment you read these words, it's economically unfeasible for a large number of reasons. Second, it creates the same oppression of the minority at the hands of the majority (although, true, it doesn't create the second step of the new oppression of a new majority at the hands of elected minority).

So, at least under absolute monarchy, there are no illusions: the king owns the land, and he decides what happens on his property. End of story.

Of course, economically, it's better if there are many small private owners (each deciding what's going on on his property, and private competing judicial 'authorities' arbitrating arising disputes), but that's another discussion.

But this is what I thought about in the shower: what's particularly funny about the above situation with the villagers and the central square is that the whole time they are being oppressed (by either majorities or minorities) the people live under an illusion that they somehow own the public property. In reality, however, the elected official owns it, at least to the extent that the tolerance of the people will allow him (directly or through some constitutional mechanism).

Imagine the following scenario: a family of five decide to buy a dinner. They vote for milchiks vs. fleishigs, and four out five decide to get a pizza. The fifth person has to go along, and when they are eating the pie, he complains about the taste. One of the four looks at him and says: "Well, don't complain now -- you bought it!"
* A more sophisticated reader may point to the idea of government with consent. So, the difference between a democracy and a monarchy is that in the first case, people in charge govern with the consent of the majority. But that again is fallacious: how do you know that every decision is made with the public's consent? We don't make an argument that the king rules with the consent of the governed: we check it, through elections (and the elections show that it's difficult to predict, without actual verification through voting, whom the majority supports). But if we are going to verify through voting that the president and Congress have the consent of the majority for every law they pass, then we might as well have a direct democracy!

Otherwise, we are back to the situation where every time the government passes a law, it goes against public wishes (or at least without any evidence of public agreement) regarding what should be done with the public's presumed property.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Willows of the brook

And you shall take on the first day the fruit of a beautiful tree, branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the L-rd your G-d for seven days.
Vayikra, 23:40

Over the Yom Tov I read a beautiful sicho, in which the Rebbe's view of other Jews shines through.

The Rebbe notes that al pi Halacha, three out of the four species that we take on Sukkos need to correspond to their description from Torah: the fruit needs to specifically esrog and the palm branches have to be from a palm (and the fruit has to be beautiful in appearance), and the 'boughs' have to be 'leafy' (they need to have at least three leaves growing from the stem).

But the branch of the willow does not have to come literally from a 'willow of a brook'. I.e., the willow tree from which we cut the branch does not have to grow by a waterway. Why is that?

It is well known that the four species represent four kinds of Jews: those that perform mitzvos, those that learn Torah, those that do both, and those that do neither; these four categories correspond to the species that have good taste, good smell, both, and neither. The willow branch belongs to the latter category.

The willow thus represents the Jew who neither learns nor performs mitzvos. And that is why the willow does not need to grow specifically by the river.

The other three species are characterized by their mitzvos and their Torah. For both mitzvos and Torah to be 'valid', they need to be connected to a tradition: we cannot perform a mitzva willy-nilly; we must have received a tradition from our ancestors as to how to perform it. The same goes for Torah learning, especially learning Halachos. While to a certain extent innovation in Torah learning is allowed and even encouraged (especially interpretation of what Chumash teaches us in avoida), even that must happen within the context of an already-existing mesoira.

That is why the species that represent the Jews whose 'claim to fame' is observance of mitzvos and learning of Torah must themselves be validated by a tradition: they must correspond to their description in Torah. (Also, for instance, our Rebbeim note that we need to have a tradition for a specific sub-species of esrog, just like we need a tradition for a species of a bird to be kosher. That is why the Lubavitchers only get Calabria esrogim from Italy or Kfar Chabad.)

But what about the fourth Jew? What's good about him? Certainly not his 'external' aspects -- he has nothing to be proud of in his service of Hashem. But we still love him, because Hashem loves him. Because he is a Jew. He has in him Essence of Hashem. And that comes to the fore when the external aspects are diminished.

That is why the willow branches do not have to be specifically from the willows that grow by the river. As long as we know that they originate from brook willows, that in their essence they belong to the species, no matter where they are right now, they can still be part of the avoida of Sukkos.

Lacanian psychoanalysis of Chabad and Modern Orthodox Judaism

(Slavoj Žižek, post-modernist troublemaker)

I am going to try to analyze Chabad and Modern Orthodoxy using the psychoanalytic approach of Lacanian triad: 'the imaginary, the symbolic, and the real' (I'll explain below).

I want to do this because I have for a long time thought about the dichotomy of the 'real' and the 'imaginary' in the MO world. In addition, recently, I have read Iraq: the Borrowed Kettle by Slavoj Žižek (pronounced as 'Slah-voy Zhih-zhek'), a Marxist philosopher-psychoanalyst. I obviously disagree with many of Žižek's ideas and conclusions about capitalism and the Western world, but I find his analytic methodology entertaining. (So, keep this in mind as you read the bits of this post about the Iraqi war. What matters is not the contents, but the analysis.)

In Iraq, Žižek analyzed the motivations for the 2003 invasion of Iraq using Lacanian psychoanalytic triad:

1. The imaginary: the purpose of the war was to spread the ideals and the benefits of the Western democracy. This was the official propaganda line fed to the masses in order to garner their support.

2. The symbolic: the purpose of the war was to spread American political hegemony. This level is called symbolic because the invasion of Iraq really served a 'symbolic' purpose in the international diplomatic stance of the USA: it strengthened its roles as the international policeman and 'paved the way' for the possibility and acceptability of now starting the war on the 'imaginary' grounds, without support of the UN, and in a form of preemptive strikes.

3. The real reason for the invasion, according to Žižek, was economic control over Iraqi oil and, more generally, strengthening of US dollar against the euro. (Perhaps one can tie in the Keynesian motive for mythical 'stimulus' of the economy through defense spending.) This is classical of Žižekian analysis of political events: he envisions a nation-state, a government, or a culture (e.g., the USA) as an individual, and applies to it Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis, showing that (in his opinion) the sub-conscious drive is the real one.

Now, let me say at once that I do not necessarily agree with the above analysis of Iraqi war. Or, rather, I neither agree nor disagree. It is certainly the case that the invasion has failed on all three accounts: it did not help with spreading of democracy, either in the region or in the world; it has ruined US political image and led to diplomatic and military backlash, and it had an adverse effect on US economy on multiple levels, including, in the long-term, the current Great Recession. Of course, that doesn't mean that Zizek is wrong in his analysis of motivations.

As Kelsey Wood notes in Žižek: A Reader's Guide:
Žižek is careful to point out that in this Lacanian triad of imaginary-symbolic-real, each of these three levels has some degree of autonomy, and none of the is simply a mere semblance (Iraq, p.4). For example, ideological fantasy produces effects in people's behavior, and has an impact on people's lives. This indicates how fantasy is constitutive of symbolic reality. But again, with regard to the triad of imaginary-symbolic-real, 'it is not that one is the "truth" of the others; the "truth" is, rather, the very shift of perspective between them' (Iraq, p.6).
Again, I do not care whether or not Zizek's analysis is true. I care about using this method to analyse both MO and Chabad branches of 'frum' Judaism.

Let me start with Chabad, using davening as an example (I am crediting my wife for giving me this idea):

1. The imaginary: on this level, we look at davening through 'general' Orthodox Judaism. I.e., all the halachos of davening, the nusach, what davening consists of (the parts of davening), the zmanim, etc. Also, the purpose of davening as interpreted by Alter Rebbe: connection to Hashem.

The 'imaginary' level can also be termed 'ideal' or 'formal'. In a chess game, the 'imaginary' dimension of a chess piece is the rules by which it moves. A synonymous expression for 'imaginary' is 'make-belief', and that applies to the religious application of the Lacanian triad: the 'imaginary' aspect is not something that is not real (G-d forbid), but it is something one must believe in, or at least it's not something accessible to one's immediate experience; it is both a foundation and a goal, both of which must exist on the level of emunah-like commitment (you can read here more about the distinction between emunah and da'as).

2. The symbolic: when looked at through Chabad Chassidus, davening is not simply carrying out of the halachic obligation, but a path of self-development, literally an avoida ('service'). Again, I am using the 'symbolic' as merely Lacanian jargon. In an abstract sense, the act of prayer itself (i.e., what is literally a supplication) is a 'symbol' (an excuse, if you wish) for improving oneself and establishing a relationship with Hashem.

For that purpose, one must daven at length, with great concentration (oftentimes outside of the minyan), and, most significantly, one must learn Chassidus before davening, so that one can be hisboinen (contemplative, meditative) of the learned concepts (comprising either haskallah, the intellectual concepts, or avoida, the concepts of self-service, of Chassidus, or both). This has effect on the interpretation of Halacha (the first level), since, to fulfill the 'symbolic' aspect of davening, we must be lax with the zmanim, allow eating before davening, etc.

3. The real. In reality, you can find Shachris minyanim in 770 going on until almost after shkiah. Not because some chassidim use this much time to learn Chassidus, but because davening late has become a 'reality' of Chabad culture, independently of its 'imaginary' and 'symbolic' counterparts. The same goes for eating before davening (sometimes eating a quite substantial meal), etc.

Don't get me wrong: I am not saying that this is what happens to most Lubavitchers. (In fact, I don't really know what the numbers are.) I am just saying that this phenomenon (almost unique to Chabad) exists, and that's what its nature is.

Of course, it is also true that davening has become a completely different experience ('reality') in Chabad circles, both for the newcomers and the 'balabatim'. Many people would describe davening at Chabad as a richer, deeper, more vibrant experience, albeit annoying to the Jews belonging to other branches of Orthodox Judaism, whose 'imaginary' and 'symbolic' (and, as a result, 'real') expectations of davening are somewhat different.

The same analysis can be applied to many other aspects of modern Chabad 'culture', both in terms of shlichus and the 'Crown Heights' velt. I think it can also be used in a positive sense. For example: a person is stopped on the street and asked to shake lulav and esrog:

1. The imaginary: the person does the mitzva of lulav and esrog, the formal obligation he has to G-d. G-d's Will is carried out in this world.

2. The symbolic: the act of doing the mitzva connects to the essence of his neshama, revealing it (potentially). The act of doing the mitzva is important not because of its dry obligatory context, but because of what it accomplishes: the unification of G-d with this world through the act of mitzva and the subsequent creation of dira b'tachtoinim (the dwelling place of G-d in the lower worlds). I.e., the mitzva is not just a dry fulfillment of a contract, but a vehicle (a 'symbol') for the essential purpose of creation and revelation.

3. The real: it is possible that the person will become interested in Yiddishkeit and inquire about it (and, perhaps, about Chabad specifically) and this simple encounter will bring him 'back' (or, at least, closer) to frumkeit. In this, the circle of the purpose of mivtzoim is closed.

Now, let's use the same analysis in application to Modern Orthodoxy:

1. The imaginary: MO views itself as Orthodox Judaism. In fact, it does not view itself as a 'b'dieved Judaism', i.e., Judaism of a compromise. According to the MO philosophy, its path of Yiddishkeit is preferred. Torah is given to be lived, in this world. (Note that this is not the same as the Chabad concept of engaging 'der velt' in order to make dira b'tachtonim. For Chabad, 'der velt' is the goal. For MO, it's simply the status quo. When a Lubavitcher gets a job, he is being an idealist, at least as far as Chabad Chassidus is concerned. When a MO Jew gets a job, he is being a realist.)

Likewise, Torah is given to real human beings, with real desires and everyday circumstances; it was not given to the angels.

2. The symbolic: In order to accomplish the goal making Torah accessible to the modern mentality of the 'real, everyday' Jew living in the Western world in modern times, one must unite Torah with 'modernity'. Because this contemporary Jew is the one commanded with both performance of the mitzvos and learning of Torah, we must be able to interpret the meaning of the former and the content of the latter from today's, modern, perspective.

From here comes the MO view of Judaism. Mitzvos are patterns of behavior that bind us together in a Jewish community. Torah is G-d's revelation of His message of how to live a fulfilling and successful life in everyday world. The 'realism' of the mitzvos and of Torah is pushed to the shadows. It doesn't matter whether the world was created in Six Days, 5773 years ago. What matters is the message of the story to us, today. It doesn't matter whether I accomplish 'objectively' anything when I shake lulav and esrog. What matters is that that I feel and 'experience' something when I do it, that I focus on the symbolism of the act, in its historical and (constantly reinterpreted) everyday context.

3. The real: Having their significance reduced to merely symbolic context, mitzvos and Torah stop being religious phenomena and start being social ones. They are no longer an aspect of the Jew's (or the community's) relationship with G-d; they are an aspect of the Jew's relationship with other Jews and a way for him to see his own culture and self-identity on the national and international scale.

When a Chabad rabbi speaks before Musaf, he talks about avoidas Hashem and da'as Hashem. He uses some aspect of the parsha or the Yom Tov as an illustration of what our relationship with G-d must be, or how we can understand G-dliness -- G-d's revelation of Himself in the worlds, the purpose and design of His creation, etc.

When a MO rabbi speaks before Musaf, he talks about Israeli politics, using a symbolic interpretation of an aspect of the parsha (reduced almost to an anecdote). Or, perhaps, he talks about how we must approach our everyday work environment or a project: the parsha can teach us about successful interpersonal relationships or work ethic and give us peace of mind.

The interpretation of the mitzvos also suffers from the symbolic approach. Because hair covering is looked at from the symbolic point of view, not either strictly legal (as a Litvish Jew might look at it) or 'realistic' -- i.e., having a real, objective purpose outside of one's perception (a Chabad Jew's perspective), it is only important insofar as it binds a Jewish woman to a particular community of hair-covering women, or if it adds anything to her personal experience. Otherwise, it is discarded.

The same goes for many other mitzvos. The tendency of make Torah 'livable', armed with always-ready ability to assign a symbolic interpretation to a mitzva, allows one to be as meichel as one possibly can (or as Rav Moishe allows), and then perhaps some more.

In reality, therefore, MO Judaism is 'Orthodox' in name only. In practice, both its theoretical view of Judaism and its practical observance is almost closer to Conservative Judaism, from which, after all, it has evolved (as one MO rabbi said, a bit tongue-in-cheek, 'if the Hareidim build mechitza up to the ceiling, and the Conservative don't have a mechitza at all, the Modern Orthodox mechitza will be exactly half-way').

I don't know what my conclusion might be. Writing of this post was mostly self-therapeutic in nature and perhaps may be of some help to those whose encounters with MO Judaism (or Chabad, for that matter) were frustrating.

Next project: psychoanalysis of the 'yechi' culture. Just kidding!..