Thursday, December 9, 2010

North Korea from a Torah Perspective

I recently saw the documentary Kimjongilia, which examines the totalitarian crime family that has enslaved North Korea since 1948. Early in the film, former victims of the regime state about "Eternal Leader" Kim Il Sung, who died in 1994:
  • "They had us all worship him as a god."
  • "Christians say grace before their meals. We said grace to Kim Il Sung."
  • "He was like a supreme being."
This is ghoulish by any reasonable perspective. Considered from a Judaic perspective, there is a very specific evil here.

Judaism does not threaten damnation for everyone who is not Jewish. On the contrary, righteous gentiles have a share in eternal life. The universal standards Judaism obligates gentiles to follow are called the Seven Noahide Laws. Among these laws are the prohibition of murder, theft, and idolatry.

For over half a century, the North Korean regime has perpetrated mass murder and plunder based on an idolatrous ideology (with racism a key element as well). It is no surprise to find North Korea arming Iran, enabling Syria's recent attempt at nuclear menace, and allied with the vicious anti-Semitic gerontocracy in Cuba.

They are a congregation of the wicked (Psalm 26:5) who cannot sleep without committing evil (Proverbs 4:16). These sadists and murderers have power for now, but the Bible is very clear on their ultimate fate (Psalms 11:5-6 and 92:8, Ecclesiastes 3:16-17).

Sunday, October 10, 2010

What Is Faith Without Study?

A central component of Judaism is Talmud Torah (Bible study). As Joshua 1:8 states:

This book of the Torah shall not leave your mouth; you shall meditate therein day and night, in order that you observe to do all that is written in it, for then will you succeed in all your ways and then will you prosper.

The Book of Psalms similarly begins:

Praiseworthy is the man who walked not in the counsel of the wicked, and stood not in the path of the sinful, and sat not in the session of scorners. But his desire is in the Torah of the Lord, and in his Torah he meditates day and night.

There is an extremely practical dimension to these teachings. As Moshe Rabbeinu instructs Israel in Deuteronomy 32:46-47:

Set your hearts to all of the words which I bear witness for you this day, so that you may command your children to observe to do all the words of this Torah. For it is not an empty thing for you, for it is your life...

If we do not study the words of the Almighty, how can we fulfill the will of the Almighty? How can we cultivate the midot (character traits) Biblically commanded of us if we do not immerse ourselves in the Bible on a daily basis? (Such immersion can take several forms including reading Tanakh, listening to shiurim, studying the Mishneh Torah, Chovot HaLevavot, etc.) As Rav David Bar-Hayim notes:

"The purpose of the Torah is not only that one know it but that it be internalized. In order for it to be has to be constantly dealing with it and learning it anew, even things that one has already learned."

Thus, just as Talmud Torah is a commandment, Jews are to avoid bitul Torah (wasting time from Torah study). For example, getting drunk at a bar and watching MMA fights doesn't exemplify a Judaic lifestyle.

In America today, religion is often about personal sentiment and preference instead of doctrine and obedience. The preacher Paul Washer has stated in this vein:
  • "When you take a look at American Christianity, it is based more upon a godless culture than it is upon the word of God."
  • "Most of our Christianity is based on cliches that we read on the back of Christian t-shirts. Most of our Christianity comes from songwriters and not the Bible. Most of what we believe to be true is dictated to us by our culture and not the Bible."
  • "What happened to our theology? What happened to our doctrine? What happened to our teaching? It went right out the window. No one wants to study doctrine anymore. They just want to listen to songs and read the back of Christian t-shirts."
These remarks are at 8:50, 22:00, and 38:25 of this link. Having spent ten years as a missionary in Peru and other countries like Nigeria where affirming Christianity can jeopardize one's life, Washer has earned his outrage. Theologian R.C. Sproul and author Stephen Mansfield similarly observe regarding contemporary American evangelical Christianity (at 9:10 and 9:55 of this link):
  • "We tell people they don't need to repent because God loves them just the way they are. And the only reason to come to Jesus is to have greater peace or greater happiness or a better 'trip' than they'll get from drugs. That's not the Gospel at all."
  • "The standard evangelistic approach is to tell non-believers, 'God loves you just the way you are.'...We've got to get rid of that kind of humanistic nonsense."
Perhaps anticipating such trends, George Orwell wrote in his 1935 novel A Clergyman's Daughter about one of the ways an English clergyman could keep his congregation:

" daringly modern and broad-minded and preach comforting sermons proving that there is no Hell and all good religions are the same."

Related to this Biblically alienated approach, in a sermon on 1 Timothy 4:6 Washer addresses what he considers the deficient state of Bible study among American Christians. He states regarding Christian leadership and laity:
  • "The word of God is the only thing we have. You cannot lead your family, sir; you cannot do it apart from being constantly nourished on the words of the faith...You cannot be godly, you cannot be an instrument of God, you cannot grow. It is an absolute essential, but it is the very thing that we do not do."
  • "So many Christians struggle and suffer in so many areas of their life because of ignorance of God's word, direct disobedience to God's will. And it seems as though they're not even aware of it."
It's not hard to discern if someone's profession of faith is meaningful, because they tend to behave in certain ways. Consider three Christian verses:
  • "If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless." (James 1:26)
  • "For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted." (Luke 14:11)
  • "When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me." (1 Corinthians 13:11)
Someone who has studied these verses and internalized these verses probably won't talk about idle or immoral matters. He probably won't have a bumper sticker that says, "Not perfect, just forgiven." He probably won't talk about enabling two abortions for an ex-girlfriend in his youth and then say, "But Jesus forgave me for that." (The final example is something a Christian once told me.) In short, having taken to heart the ethics of his faith, he will act accordingly.

Likewise, a Jew who has taken Torah ethics to heart won't be a chatterbox (Proverbs 10:19), lust after wealth (Proverbs 23:4-5), boast about the future (Proverbs 27:1), or go shopping on the Sabbath (Exodus 20:8). But these ethics can't be taken to heart if one doesn't know them to begin with.

Alienation from scripture spawns all kinds of incoherence and arrogance. Daily, intense Biblical engagement promotes reason, humility, and adherence. For those who call themselves believers, the choice should be simple.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

"Get Your Technique Every Rep"

In 1981, Gary Heisey was 6'7" and weighed 198 in his mid 20s. In 1992, he deadlifted 925 pounds weighing 358, the 7th highest deadlift of all time. He states at 4:25 of this video on going for a PR deadlift after the fatigue of squatting and benching in a meet:

"The hardest part is keeping your form...If you train it in the gym to get your technique every rep, every rep during every set, it's a lot easier to focus..."

World Games gold medalist Mike Tuchscherer, who has deadlifted 826 in the 275 lb. weight class, similarly notes at 3:10 of a recent squat training video:

"From the time that you approach the bar from the time that you put the bar back into the rack, every movement is important, and everything has to be efficient."

And as Ernie Frantz put it in two of his "commandments" from The Ten Commandments of Powerlifting:
  • "Act like your light lifts are heavy, so your heavy lifts will feel light."
  • "Concentration separates the good from the best."

Saturday, September 18, 2010

James Toback on Spiritual Integrity

I recently re-watched parts of the documentary The Outsider, about the filmmaker James Toback. I find his movies to be hit or miss--or more precisely hit and miss in the same movie. The scene in Fingers between Harvey Keitel and Lenny Montana is a brilliant example of when he hits.

At one point in the documentary, Toback discusses the importance of defending oneself in relation to a scene from Bugsy (which he wrote) where the protagonist confronts someone who has stolen from him. Toback remarks:

"I think it's cowardly and weak and very bad for the soul to allow oneself to be violated. Directors who allow themselves to be bullied into doing what they know is dishonest and untrue cinematically--that is directly connected to in one's personal life allowing oneself to be violated...It ceases to be a practical consideration. It is one of personal honor, and that may be an outmoded concept. I think there are scores that must be settled, and I think people who make excuses for their own allowance of being violated do tremendous damage to their own spiritual integrity. They cannot in honesty feel good about themselves knowing that they allowed some vile scumbag to harm them or harm someone they cared about."

I think there's a lot of truth there.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Wyatt Earp's Judaic Temperament

I really like Lawrence Kasdan's 1994 film, Wyatt Earp, which I was watching again recently. In one scene, Earp orients Bat and Ed Masterson to law enforcement in Dodge City, Kansas. He asks them to disarm two drunks walking on the thoroughfare in violation of the city ordinance on carrying firearms. Ed engages them in prolonged conversation before Earp intervenes definitively. He comments:

"You talk too much, Ed."

This wasn't about a mere difference in style. It's revealed moments later that one of the men was reaching for a pocket pistol. In other words, Ed's excessive speech endangered himself and his peers.

Earp's approach might seem aloof or hostile in a logorrheic society. In fact, his comment to Ed Masterson has a strong Biblical foundation. Consider the holy words of King Solomon:
  • "In an abundance of words, offense will not be lacking, but one who restrains his lips is wise" (Proverbs 10:19).
  • "One who is sparing with his words knows knowledge, and a man with a spirit of understanding speaks sparingly" (Proverbs 17:27).
  • "Be not rash with your mouth..." (Ecclesiastes 5:1).
The ArtScroll edition of Proverbs notes regarding the second verse, "The Vilna Gaon understands the verse to refer to a person who values not only his speech but his thoughts, and doesn't waste them on worthless topics."

Excessive, idle talk is all about ego and arrogance--the antithesis of humility prescribed so often in the Torah. As the sage Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi summed up the matter:

"If a word is worth a coin, then silence is worth two."

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

We Age and Stay Strong

I grew up listening to classic rock groups like The Kinks and recently heard Terry Gross' interview with the lead singer from the band, Ray Davies. At 31:10, she plays the beginning of Davies' song "Run Away From Time" from his 2006 album, Other People's Lives. Two of the verses are:

And time is the avenger
But why should we just surrender to it?

This brings to mind masters powerlifters who maintain amazing levels of strength or grow even stronger. They exemplify King Solomon's holy counsel in Ecclesiastes: "Whatever you are able to do, do with all your might." Consider Brad Gillingham deadlifting a personal record of 881 pounds at 42 years old:

Or Sioux-z Hartwig-Gary winning her 15th national championship this year, setting PRs and world records at 41:

Or 50-year-old David Ricks winning the 198 lb. weight class at this year's Raw Unity Meet with a 716 lb. deadlift:

Or Larry Wallen and Bob Gaynor deadlifting 705 lbs. and 680 lbs. in their 60s:

Or Rick Melear deadlifting 589 lbs. at his first meet in 18 years:

Or former powerlifter Mark Rippetoe doing 18 real chin-ups in his 50s:

If you need added motivation to train, turn off the volume on whichever of those clips you like best, and pause to just before the lift begins. Then watch it while listening to the second verse quoted from "Run Away From Time."

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Gordon Gekko's 12th Century Source?

I'm reading Hillel Halkin's book on the 12th century Spanish-Hebrew poet Yehuda Halevi, who lived in cities including Córdoba. Halkin remarks on his time there:

In Córdoba he had many old friends and acquaintances. There was Avraham ibn Ezra, a ruefully witty and financially unsuccessful wanderer who once joked in a poem that if he were to go into the candle trade, the sun would never set, and that men would cease to die if he sold shrouds.

This reminded me of the scene in Wall Street where Bud Fox meets Gordon Gekko for the first time, and Gekko says about the CEO of Teldar Paper:

Why the hell is Cromwell giving a lecture tour when he's losing 60 million a quarter? Guess he's giving lectures in how to lose money. If this guy owned a funeral parlor, no one would die!