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!

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Israel's Lethal Arrogance

"It's clear that the equipment for crowd dispersal with which they [Israeli commandos] were issued was insufficient," IDF Chief of General Staff Lieutenant General Gabi Ashkenazi commented after the recent flotilla fiasco. The commander of the soldiers who boarded the flotilla commented, "We did not expect such resistance from the group's activists as we were talking about a humanitarian aid group."

This reminded me of Bar-Ilan University professor Efraim Inbar's observation regarding Israel's performance in the Second Lebanon War:

Israel's highest political and military echelons committed serious strategic errors in preparation for, during execution, and in the aftermath of the 2006 Lebanon campaign. Together, these errors enabled Hezbollah to persevere against the larger, better-equipped Israeli military and emerge as perhaps an even greater threat.

Israeli historian Benny Morris has noted regarding Egypt and Syria's joint attack on Israel in the 1973 Yom Kippur War:

The Arabs' success in springing this strategic surprise--a feat that has taken its place in military history alongside Hitler's invasion of Russia and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor--owed much to the Israeli perception of the Arab forces as inherently incompetent, weak, and incapable of mounting such a deception. Zvi Zamir, then director of the Mossad, explained: "We simply did not believe that they could do it...We scorned them."

Israel probably has the second or third most sophisticated military in the world; but it has a sickening habit of jeopardizing citizens' lives due to this pattern of arrogance. Or is it as much ineptitude?

Monday, April 19, 2010

Israelis, Stop Benching Like Americans

I’ve joked to my neighbors that Israel is Americanized in the wrong ways and not Americanized in the right ways. Since making aliya on November 3, I’ve trained in two Israeli gyms, both of which contain a form of negative Americanization.

Guys like to bench press, and Israeli guys are no exception. This isn’t inherently bad, although most guys bench with shoulder-wrecking form and don’t approach the bench as a technical lift to start with. Retired elite powerlifter Dave Tate gives an overview of how much technique the bench press involves:

Furthermore, benching without overhead pressing (standing, of course) and back exercises in equal volume is a recipe for shoulder problems and results in a heinous lack of balanced strength. Yes, heinous, because a healthy guy should be able to stand on his feet and deadlift twice his body weight. He should be able to clean or unrack two-thirds of his body weight and press it overhead. (That’s press, not push-press.)

The press can be especially tough in the most constructive sense. Mark Rippetoe has called the press “the soul of the sport of barbell exercise” and observes in Strong Enough?:

The press is hard. You won’t be able to press what you can bench. You have to support with your whole body what the bench supports when you lay down to press. So you are doing all the work instead of letting the bench do some of it, supporting, balancing, and manhandling the whole load. This is how strength was, and is, built.

Because of its standing nature, the press is immune from an inane—no, infernal—phenomenon: the two-man bench press. Anyone who has spent some time in the free weights area of a gym knows what I’m talking about. A guy starts to strain during a set, and bar speed slows down. Then the spotter starts “conducting the bar” by placing his hands under the bar to help lift the weight. Rip discusses the rudeness of such behavior:

But sometimes the two-man bench press is consensual, which is to say requested. Hell, the other day I saw a guy doing cable crossovers with someone assisting on the final reps. This is depraved stuff, right up there with the ghoulish Wall Street type guys in the end of Requiem for a Dream.

Barbell training is an individual endeavor. Training partners can be great, but we are alone under the bar. When a spotter participates in a lift, he subverts how we develop strength and distorts how we measure strength. As Rip writes in Starting Strength, “No rep counts that is touched by anybody other than the lifter. No spotter touches any bar that is still moving up.”

In Judaism, we are taught that "Derech eretz kadma l'Torah." (Good manners precede Torah observance.) To my new countrymen, I say: Do not be a rude spotter or an accomplice to stupidity. Stop emulating the wrong Americans, and start lifting like Jews.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Breaking Down the Walls

"The end of a matter is better than its beginning," King Solomon observes in Ecclesiastes. On April 10, my friend Eric Talmant broke through a major barrier after two years of effort.

Eric is a top powerlifter in the 165 lb. weight class and the founder and director of the Raw Unity Meet. ("Raw" powerlifting doesn't use equipment like squat suits and bench press shirts. In the RUM, knee wraps also aren't allowed.) At the first Raw Unity Meet in January 2008, Eric deadlifted 622 pounds for a personal record:

He deadlifted 635 pounds a few months later:

At the second Raw Unity Meet, Eric attempted to deadlift 639 pounds and missed it at his knees. The third Raw Unity Meet this January had huge interest, and Eric accumulated an immense amount of fatigue going into the competition. He pulled 639 past his knees and was approaching lockout when his body shut down:

Missing a deadlift can mess with a lifter's head. Missing the same deadlift twice can really mess with a lifter's head. And passing out during a deadlift can rattle a lifter that much more.

Eric did not get rattled.

On April 10 at the R.A.W. United Beau Moore Classic, Eric set personal records on his squat and bench press before deadlifting. On his second attempt deadlift, 640 pounds went up with amazing speed:

Then Eric did something even more amazing on his third attempt:

Eric totaled 1435 pounds, which is the second highest raw total in the country for the 165s. His 650 lb. deadlift is number one.

Eric is usually reserved on the platform, but after deadlift PRs he often shows justified exhilaration. After he deadlifted 650, what struck me was the look of profound peace, awe, and gratitude toward his Creator.

I am honored to have a role in Eric's latest achievements. In December, Eric and his head coach David Bates brought me aboard as his technique coach. Using Mark Rippetoe's mechanical model along with my own concepts, I identified inefficiencies in Eric's lifts that I felt were blocking PRs. Eric adapted the model and concepts to his style, and the results speak for themselves.

But as I once wrote, after the meet is before the meet. We're already discussing future goals. Old walls have been broken down. Moving on to new ones...

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Discovering Creation in a Barbell

"Meditate, my brother, on the Creator's wisdom in structuring your body," Rabbi Bachya ben Yosef ibn Paquda advises in his classic book, Duties of the Heart. The Rambam likewise observes in his Epistle to Yemen:

"The inner parts of man are the true wonders that reveal the wisdom of the Creator: the nerves extending into the muscles which allow man to move his limbs at will; the attachment of ligaments, how they cling to bone, and the manner in which they grow; the connection of bones and joints; blood vessels that pulsate and those that do not and how they branch out; the placement of man's organs overlapping one another; how every part of the body has its proper composition form, and place."

The fundamental barbell exercises (squat, press, deadlift) are the weighted expression of this Divinely arranged physical structure. Consider the deadlift. On the surface, a deadlift is simply picking up a bar from the floor and standing up with it. (The "simply" part tends to disappear with a maximal weight.)

In fact, a deadlift contains an immense network of musculoskeletal coordination from the upper back down through the legs. Toward the end of my interview on the deadlift with Mark Rippetoe, Rip recounted how he discovered why the shoulder blades need to be aligned with the bar at the start of an efficient deadlift. I'll close this post with his reflections:

"Look at the anatomy of the traps and the rhomboids. Look at the position that the scapulas are in to receive the force transmitted up the spine. It’s right there in front of you. That is the structure that receives the force transmitted across those broad muscles isometrically and then down the arms to the bar...

The trapezius has the broadest muscle origin in the human body. It goes all the way from the base of the skull down to T12. It receives the force that the rigid spine transmits, the force generated by the muscles that open the knees and the hips. That force is then transmitted across the traps and the rhomboids to the scapulas. What hangs from the scapulas? The arms. And then if you’ll look at it, every single time you see somebody pulling a heavy bar off the floor—every single time—it’s the scapula that is plumb to the bar, not the arms. Why would that be? Because the scapula is the thing below which the bar hangs. The tensional force of the weight in the hands is transmitted between the scapulas and the grip by the muscles, ligaments, and tendons that anchor the bones in place isometrically. The traps and rhomboids transfer the force to the scapulas; the triceps, biceps, forearm muscles, grip muscles, and the ligaments and tendons form the chain from which the weight hangs; and the lats act on the humerus to keep the arms at the angle they have to be to place the load directly under the scapulas."

Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Cathy Chronicles

"The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows," Robert Frost once wrote. In the past year, my friend Cathy Cox has achieved amazing facts in the sport of powerlifting.

On March 14, 2009, Cathy deadlifted 240 pounds at her first meet, the R.A.W. United South Florida Open in Deerfield Beach, Florida. Her best deadlift before the meet was 215 pounds for three reps after training the deadlift for a few months:

On April 18, Cathy competed at the USAPL Europa Show of Champions in Orlando and deadlifted a new PR (personal record) of 253 pounds:

Cathy qualified for USAPL Raw Nationals in Charlottesville, Virginia at the Europa meet. On July 24 in Charlottesville, she increased her deadlift to 275 pounds:

I wrote about the courageous circumstances behind Cathy's 275 lb. deadlift in this article. She also totaled 540 pounds in Charlottesville. (In a powerlifting meet, a lifter receives three attempts in the squat, bench press, and deadlift. The sum of the best squat, bench, and deadlift attempts is the lifter's total.)

On Saturday, Cathy competed at Eric Talmant's Raw Unity Meet in Tampa. Her goals were to PR her total, deadlift double her body weight, and then deadlift over 300 pounds. Cathy weighed in at 137 pounds and PRed her total on her first deadlift:

Cathy deadlifted over double body weight on her second attempt:

Cathy's best deadlift in training before Raw Unity was a tough 300 pounds:

She selected 303 pounds for her third attempt and crushed it, increasing her PR total to 55 pounds:

"In something that you earn, there's a tremendous pleasure," Rabbi Eli Mansour observes in a lesson on The Path of the Just. Cathy earned everything she achieved on Saturday. She earned it at one of the most prestigious meets in our sport. And she's not finished.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Was Apollo Creed a Jew?

"Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring," King Solomon counsels in Proverbs 27:1. Did Apollo Creed study Proverbs before saying these classic words in Rocky III?

Perhaps more directly to King Solomon's message, powerlifting great Larry Pacifico recounts the mood before 1980's Men's National Powerlifting Championships in Champion of Champions:

"I remember several top lifters sitting around before the contest talking about what they would lift. After 6 or 7 made ambitious predictions someone asked Dave Waddington what he planned on lifting. He said he didn't make predictions but if he did he'd be saying only 'sh*t he could do' and not all this crap he's been hearing. He then got up and left."

Waddington placed second in the super heavyweight class. In 1981, he made history by breaking the 1,000 pound barrier in the squat.

Tommy Didn't Study His Bible

The other day I was studying Proverbs 26:27, where King Solomon observes, "He who digs a pit will fall into it." One of my favorite movies illustrates this wisdom:

"What is it, the first hole I dug?" Tommy says after murdering Spider. Fateful words given how he turned out:

The ArtScroll edition of Proverbs comments:

"R' Saadiah Gaon cites the case of King Darius's officials who were cast into the lion's den into which they had thrown Daniel. Perhaps the most prominent example of a man who 'dug his own grave' is Haman, who was hanged on the very gallows that he had built for Mordechai."

To express this theme in Hebrew, "Midah Keneged Midah" (
Measure for Measure).