Monday, March 31, 2008

Interesting take on this week's Torah portion

Received this in an e-mail from The American Jewish World Service.

Parshat Tazria 5768
By Rabbi James Jacobson-Maisels
April 5, 2008

In this week's parshah, Tazria, we read about the disease tza'ra'at, commonly translated as leprosy. What is peculiar about this skin disease is that it not only afflicts humans but also clothing1 and houses.2 It is not only people's bodies that are struck with tza'ra'at, but also their possessions. What is the significance of this peculiar feature of tza'ra'at and what does it tell us about our society?

The rabbis understood tza'ra'at to be a punishment from God for various transgressions, including, most famously, wicked speech (lashon ha-ra), but also pride, deceit, false witness, bloodshed, wicked thoughts, pretending to have knowledge of Torah, causing discord, miserliness, announcing but not giving charitable donations, defamation of character, idol worship, blasphemy and robbing the public.3 Together these many sins point to a society that is falling apart: one filled with selfishness, deceit, disharmony and violence. Indeed, the theme of deceit, predominant in the above list of evils, strikes at the very core of what is essential for a society to function - namely our trust in our fellow citizens, leaders and social institutions.

The Sefat Emet, a Polish Hasidic Rebbe, takes the theme of wicked speech even further, indicating that the plague of tza'ra'at results not only from evil things one has said, but also from things one should have said but didn't.4 That is, it is not only that acts of evil are being committed, but as importantly, acts of good are being omitted. In particular, it is the failure to protest and oppose evil rampant in society that leads to the plague.

Tza'ra'at strikes beyond the body, then, because its causes and their effects are more than personal. Rather, these sins and crimes are profoundly destructive for the entire society in which they take place. Societies filled with deceit, discord and violence end up suffering from "plagues" that strike houses, clothes and bodies - symbolic representations of shelter, sustenance and healthcare. An effective and moral society, one that speaks out against injustice, will be a society in which each of these necessities is attainable by all people.

Indeed, the midrash makes clear the consequences of social and national destruction in its reading of this parshah, where it interprets the story of a house plagued with tza'ra'at as referring to the destruction of the Temple and the exile of the people.5 The sins of tza'ra'at, then, lead not only to personal and societal suffering, but also to national calamity.

Tza'ra'at, or forms of this "plague," exist today. In both the developing world and our own communities, people lack the most basic necessities, not as a result of natural forces but as a result of our failure as local and global citizens to create the social conditions necessary for providing these resources. In our own society, a society of great wealth and abundance, we fail to provide adequate housing and clothing to all, though the resources to do so are plentiful. More strikingly, of course, is that many Americans lack access to adequate healthcare. In the developing world, the provision of these resources is even more difficult. Yet on a global level, with our help, providing these basic elements of life is not impossible.

Despite the destruction we see in the world, salvation is possible. The midrash cited above does not end with exile and destruction. Rather, it concludes by interpreting the explanation of the rebuilding of the infected house ("and they shall take other stones, and put them in the place of those stones"6) as referring to the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the Temple and the return of the exiles. So too, the Sefat Emet tells us that the reason tza'ra'at spreads to our houses and clothes is to indicate to us that not only can they be afflicted, but they can also be sanctified. We can sanctify our houses, clothes and bodies by making sure that shelter, clothing and healthcare are available to all. We can help create societies that not only lack the destructive values of selfishness, deceit, discord and violence, but that also know when and how to speak the words that need to be spoken, to stand up and take action. Together, then, we can help create a global society of compassion, harmony and truth.

Rabbi James Jacobson-Maisels earned a Master's Degree in Modern Jewish Studies in England at the University of Oxford. He then went on to four years of yeshiva study in Israel culminating in rabbinic ordination from R. Daniel Landes at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies. He is currently pursuing a PhD in Jewish Studies specializing in Kabbalah and Hasidism at the University of Chicago, and teaching in a variety of settings in the U.S. and Israel on Judaism and Jewish mysticism. He hopes to integrate his study and practice and to help teach and live Judaism as a spiritual discipline. James can be reached at

1 Leviticus 13:47 and on
2 Leviticus 14:33-57
3 Leviticus Rabba 16:1, 5; 17:2, 3
4 Sefat Emet, Mezorah, on Leviticus 14:4
5 Leviticus Rabbah 17:7
6 Leviticus 14:42

©2007 American Jewish World Service. AJWS is committed to a pluralistic view of Judaism and honors the broadest spectrum of interpretation of our texts and traditions. The statements made and views expressed in this commentary are solely the responsibility of the author. The AJWS Torah Commentary series was made possible in part by funds granted by the Charles H. Revson Foundation.

Monday loldog

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Saturday, March 29, 2008

"Earth Hour"


So the World Wildlife Fund started a thing last year where cities agree to turn off lights for one hour in an effort to reduce carbon emissions. It has continued this year with many more cities participating.

While I applaud the spirit with which this effort was launched, I think the very effort of conserving energy is a waste of the intellectual energy that could better be spent figuring out how to free ourselves from carbon-producing fossil fuels. In my personal opinion, which is heavily shaped by that of my life partner, who knows quite a bit about the subject, the only viable, green, clean, alternative to fossil fuels is nuclear power. I'm trying to get my partner to write some stuff for this blog about the environmentalist case for nuclear power, so you might see that here soon.

In any event, I do not believe that turning off the lights for one hour is going to make enough of a difference in carbon usage, even as a symbolic thing, to really accomplish much of anything. Conservation is only a tiny part of fixing global warming. The thing that will really make a difference is eliminating fossil fuels, enacting strict pollution controls, and working on a global basis to figure out how to live greener.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Kossack calls for re-regulation of business

Excellent diary about the failure of "self-regulation" within the business community, and the need for tighter regulations to tame the capitalist beast.

Would someone please tell me how this is legal?

SAPULPA -- Nearly a third of the inmates in the Creek County Jail were baptized Thursday night in a corrugated steel horse trough set up in the jail's kitchen.

I know it was done by a volunteer force, but:

Seventy men and 12 women were baptized Wednesday, the second time baptisms have occurred in the new jail, which opened nearly three years ago.

The Rev. Luis Torres, chaplain of the Creek County Jail and pastor of the First Assembly of God in Sand Springs, said a baptism was held in the old jail six years earlier.

I guess it depends on how "official" the event is, and whether Rev. Torres is being paid by the jail as a chaplain. I also wonder if non-Christians, or even Christians who don't follow the fundamentalist doctrine of the Assembly of God Church, have access to alternative chaplains. The bottom line is this: how are the inmates who don't participate in the baptism treated in an environment like this? How can true freedom of religion be guaranteed in a circumstance where no doubt enormous pressures are put to bear on inmates to convert?

This may be "technically" legal if it was done by volunteers and no prisoners were forced to do it, but I would still argue that it violates the spirit, if not the letter, of the 1st amendment.

Happy Friday

And now, another word from that adorable Executive Transvestite, Eddie Izzard:

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Sinister Radio

Ok, I'm going to try this - 10:00 PM. I'm calling in on a cell phone, but I've had pretty good luck with reception on this phone, so hopefully it'll sound ok.

You should be able to listen to the show by clicking the link on the left sidebar. I hope that works.

If you want to call in, please use this number: (646) 200-3304. It is NOT toll-free, so be aware that long-distance charges may apply.

We'll see how this works! :-)

Bill Nelson gets it

Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida has called for banning the electoral college and overhauling the current presidential primary system. I've been screaming this from the rooftops for years now. A lot of people have. Let's hope this goes somewhere.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

If I were a terrorist

Nicely put.

Tell the FEC not to let John McCain break the law

From an e-mail I received:

Dear Friend,

John McCain's campaign spending is breaking the law. He elected for public funding when his campaign was having trouble. But now that he is the presumptive nominee, he is, by his campaign's own admission, around $4 million over his legal spending limit.

I just did my part to stop McCain from breaking the law by signing the official FEC complaint against him.

Please help out by adding your name here:

Add your name!

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

New Feature: Sinister Radio

Sinister is going on the air with a new radio program every Thursday night at 10:00 PM Central Time. The first broadcast will be this Thursday the 27th. I've scheduled it to last about 15 minutes. I'll introduce myself, talk about the history of Sinister, how I came up with the name, and I'll try not to bore you or freak you out too much. You can even call in and talk to me if you want to. I'll give those details on Thursday. Warning: I do not censor myself, and I will not censor anyone who calls in, so if you're highly offended by graphic language, then I wonder why you're even reading this right now.

Life...don't talk to me about life...

Did you know that David Lynch almost directed Return of the Jedi? That would have been an odd film...Ewoks played by creepy looking little people and talking backwards, Darth Vader controlling the Death Star from inside of some weird soundproof velvet-draped room with a microphone hanging down from the middle of it, or something, the main characters changing randomly into other people, etc. I don't think that would have worked...

Me? Oh, I'm just livin' la vida loca. Got a 2nd job today - what with gas prices and such going the way they are, it'll be nice to have the extra income.

I plan to start a podcast here soon - stay tuned.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Rally notes

I'd say there were about 25-30 people present. Several colorful characters, including a woman in a clown suit with a sign that said, "Stop clowning around! End the war!" (approximately), and a woman in a polar bear suit trying to draw attention to Inhofe's idiocy regarding global warming. A lot of different messages - ending the war primarily, of course, but impeachment was another huge issue. I was a little disappointed that this year there wasn't like one huge well-publicized protest like there was last year. There is apparently another rally at Veteran's Park, but last year there was the huge rally at the Unitarian Church.

I took a lot of pics with my camera phone because like an idiot I forgot the digital camera. Then, like an idiot, I realized that the only way to transfer the photos from my phone would be to e-mail them to myself, which is time-consuming and expensive. Nevertheless, here are two pictures from the rally:

5 years too many

It's midnight, so here's a preliminary anti-war post to commemorate the 5th anniversary, in keeping with the March 19th Iraq War Blogstorm.

I will be attending a peace & impeachment vigil at Jim Inhofe's office. Info here.

It's time to bring the troops home. Every dollar we spend, every soldier that dies, serves as a national black eye.

5 years is enough. Bring them home now.

Here's an interesting perspective on Jewish law as it relates to war. Notably:

From Deuteronomy 20:19 we derive the law that not only are we required to protect against reckless harm to human life in war, but we are even obligated not to willfully destroy the land and agriculture of our enemies, or anything necessary for the redevelopment of post-war civilian life.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Update on Obama speech

Swirling around the blogosphere is the claim that Obama wrote today's speech himself.

One Kossack waxed prophetic about that idea. I have to admit, it's an impressive notion. It was quite a speech, and if Obama did write it himself, that says a lot about him. After 7 years of a President who can neither talk about nor wipe his own ass properly, having a president who can actually write rhetorically incisive speeches would be a nice change.

RIP Arthur C. Clarke

That's sad. He was one of the greatest minds in all of science fiction. He will be missed.

Vote for new Oklahoma license plate

I don't know how official this poll is, but it's interesting to see the new designs that have been proposed. I voted for #3.

Transcript of Obama speech

I watched the speech. I have to admit, the guy can talk a good game. He's insightful, intelligent, articulate, and charismatic. Several lines in the speech could really become part of the "great American quote book," notably:

But I have asserted a firm conviction -- a conviction rooted in my faith in God and my faith in the American people -- that working together we can move beyond some of our old racial wounds, and that in fact we have no choice is we are to continue on the path of a more perfect union

I'm becoming more and more convinced that Obama will be a good candidate in November. A damned good candidate. And I think this speech will help to convince a lot of other people of the same thing.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Darrell Gilbert

We have a Democratic candidate running against Sullivan for Congressional District 1. I don't know a thing about this guy, but he's not Sullivan, so he'll get my vote.

A little musical education

Mahler's 5th Symphony. Please note that the embedded video is approximately 72 minutes long, as it encompasses all five movements of the symphony. Please note also that I don't know a thing about the orchestra performing the piece, so I can't vouch for the quality of the performance.

My partner and I attended the Tulsa premiere of this symphony on Saturday. It's a stunningly complex, emotional, vibrant, contradictory piece of music.

Learn about Mahler here.

Learn about Mahler's 5th here.

Monday Loldog

I for one am not wearing green today. As a Jew, I find it a little odd to celebrate a holiday that is all about getting drunk because some guy converted Ireland to Christianity.

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Friday, March 14, 2008

Kossack details alarming economic picture

Daily Kos diarist worked very hard on several very alarming and depressing spreadsheets detailing our economic woes.

Happy Friday

And now, a quick video from Britain's preeminent executive transvestite, Eddie Izzard.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Thursday open thread

Looks like we might get thunderstorms tonight. That'll be exciting. Sometimes I really think I should have been a meteorologist. I was really close to it, had a scholarship offer to OU and everything, but then I decided I didn't want to attempt 5 years worth of math in 4 years. Yeesh. So what did I do? I got a flippin' useless liberal arts degree, and look at me now. Ah well, such is life. I can tell you all about the political situation in Europe, but nobody will pay me to do it.

I dunno.

Anything on anybody's mind?

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

KO Eats Hillary and Ferraro's Heads

The Tulsa World eats Sally Kern's head

Nice editorial trashing Sally Kern for her racist, homophobic, hate-filled rant.

Equating sexual orientation with knocking down the World Trade Center is divisive and dangerous, not to mention dumb.

Rep. Kern may think she speaks only for herself but in the eyes of the nation her vitriol slops over on all Oklahomans.

Keith Olbermann set to dine on Hillary Clinton's head

KO is evidently going to unleash a Special Comment against Clinton tonight. Topics will no doubt include Geraldine Ferraro's shockingly stupid, racist comments about Obama, and the down and dirty, slash and burn politics that the Clinton campaign is waging in general.

Even though I voted for Clinton, I am not at all happy with how she's running her campaign right now. I'm disgusted by the whole thing. Obama has the momentum, the votes, the states, the delegates, and Clinton's still acting like the mythical front-runner. Such hubris is frankly stunning.

And I don't know WHAT we're gonna do about Florida and Michigan. This whole mess is going to tear the Democratic Party apart if we're not careful.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

This speaks for itself.

New report proves there was NO LINK between Sadaam and Al-Qaeda

The primary target, however, of Saddam's terror activities was not the United States, and not Israel. "The predominant targets of Iraqi state terror operations were Iraqi citizens, both inside and outside of Iraq." Saddam's primary aim was self preservation and the elimination of potential internal threats to his power.

Now can we get out of Iraq?

Monday, March 10, 2008

Monday loldog

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From the people who brought you, it's Since Mondays hurt ever so much, here's a little pick me up.

Things you didn't want to know about your favorite restaurant

The Tulsa World has a link to a page where you can access restaurant inspection results from 2004 to 2007. It's a little bit scary, especially when I looked up one of my favorite restaurants (where I had dinner last night, no less) and found that it had failed its last inspection. Sometimes you just don't want to know these things...

On another note, the first Monday after we spring forward for Daylight Savings Time hurts...

Friday, March 7, 2008

Friday fun post

It's been a long week. For your viewing pleasure, please enjoy one of the funniest bits ever performed in the history of the Universe:

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

It occurs to me

that things were a hell of a lot easier when I believed the two parties were equally bad and I always voted for minor parties. Back when I could say confidently, "Both Bush and Gore are capitalist bastards; I'm voting for David McReynolds." Back when I worked to bring McReynolds to Austin College to speak about how Socialism could be an American movement. Back when I was the only vote for McReynolds in Grayson County, Texas (but my vote was counted - I saw it on the election board's website.)

Being in that kind of bubble is so comforting, so satisfying, so self-reinforcing, but, also, alas, so wrong-headed and unrealistic. It's also much more difficult to justify such naivete now, because of what this country has been through over the past 8 years under Bush. To operate based on the realities of what's actually happening, and engage in the real battles of ideas currently taking place within and between the two major parties; that is the challenge today, and it's an very difficult place to be. To shove aside greater ideological questions in favor of fighting like hell for incremental change - to go from hardline Marxism to a kind of nebulous "progressivism" - that's the great intellectual leap I had to make, and it was always a tough sell.

But this election, and even the '04 election before it, is too important, and even the small questions seem huge. The differences between the parties are cavernous, and the dangers inherent in another Republican Presidency are enormous and terrifying. Even the most strident left-winger has a choice to make. Either join the battle where it is being waged, or go off and tilt at your own personal windmills. That's the choice I made in '04 when I backed Dean, and this election when I ultimately voted for Hillary, and in November when I'll vote for either Hillary or Obama.

The larger questions are always in the back of my mind, but political reality requires me to keep them there.


Alright, so. The math is such that it is extremely unlikely that either candidate will get the 2,025 delegates needed before the convention. Hillary is now hinting at the "Dream Ticket." The next major primary is in Pennsylvania in seven weeks. I see several possibilities emerging:

1) Clinton and Obama keep bashing at each other, giving more and more ammunition to McCain for the general election, ending in a contentious convention that is decided by superdelegates. This scenario is the most dangerous, and, frankly, stupid, for the Democratic Party.
2) One of them concedes in a grand gesture for party unity. This is very unlikely.
3) The two of them come together in a joint ticket. This possiblitiy raises two additional questions: a) When will this happen, and b) Who will be on top?

If #3 is to happen, it needs to happen soon, so that the party can come together around the ticket and minimize the damage that the two campaigns have done against each other thus far. I don't think it would be a good thing for this campaign to drag on till Pennsylvania, especially if the tone continues to be as negative as it has.

As I see it, the most likely scenario is for Obama to defer to Clinton, not the other way around. Clinton's campaign is almost pathologically stubborn, based on a grim determination to win. Obama's campaign, on the other hand, is, at least in theory, based on bringing people together in a broad coalition, and the energy is much more positively focused. It might, therefore, be an easier thing for him to accept a place as Clinton's VP than the other way around, and would allow the party faithful to rally around the ticket. The only problem is that then Clinton would have to do some major backpedaling and spinning to justify putting her bitter rival on the ticket after denouncing his inexperience over and over again.

Then again, as I write this, I'm second-guessing myself. Obama's campaign is also based on a fervent belief in Obama, and if he concedes to Clinton, it might disillusion some of his followers. Both campaigns are so entrenched, so dug in, that it will be a huge challenge for either of them to concede to the other, even if they end up sharing the ticket.

It's murky as hell right now, and I'm not happy about that. I was really hoping we'd have a nominee by this point...

We'll see what happens.

Ok, so I was wrong.

The race goes on. Hillary's now hinting that the "Dream Ticket" might happen, which is a real surprise.

One notable thing about last night. I crunched some Texas numbers. Take a look at this:

Total Democratic primary vote: 2,807,329
Total Republican primary vote: 1,317,008

Now, look at this:

Democratic primary vote for Obama: 1,354,553

Obama's vote, which represents roughly half of the Democratic primary vote, is larger than the entire Republican vote.

In Texas.

We're gonna kill 'em.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Clinton's Texas coordinator in her own words

The Clinton campaign's Texas coordinator uses right-wing smear language against Obama's followers (emphasis mine):

He's gotta show some ability to go beyond yuppies and latte drinkers and African-Americans and I haven't seen that happening in Texas yet."

First of all, Obama has shown a striking ability to reach across gender, racial, and income boundaries. His coalition is growing stronger and more diverse every day.

Secondly, this is the exact kind of language that Republicans used against Howard Dean in a notorious Club for Growth ad in '04. (I'll try to find the video for the Club for Growth ad and post it later.) Hillary's campaign should not be using the same language as those creeps.

Brattleboro, VT to vote on whether to indict Prez, Veep

Brattleboro, VT is going to vote today on whether to indict Bush & Cheney for war crimes and instruct the police force to arrest them if they come to town. Nice.

Did I go through a wormhole?

ABC news article about McCain mounting a 50-state campaign has this to say about California's voting history:

California has 55 electoral votes, far more than any other state. It has not gone Republican in a presidential election since George H.W. Bush defeated Walter Mondale in the Golden State in 1988.

So, did I go through a wormhole where Dukakis wasn't the Democratic nominee in 1988?

UPDATE: They fixed it.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Sinister radio

Click the link to be taken to the official radio station of Sinister. It's an eclectic mix of rock, jazz, spoken word, comedy, film & broadway soundtracks, classical, and other stuff. I've been building this station for several years now; I can't recommend Launchcast highly enough as an easy to customize, extremely versatile internet radio platform. Pay the extra $3.99 a month for a Plus! station - it's worth it.

Quick poll

I'd like everyone who reads Sinister to respond to the following poll. I just want to get an idea of where this blog is.


How often do you read Sinister?
Once a month
Once a week
Once a day
I check it obsessively to see if there are new posts
Every so often when I think about it
Other (explain)
Lemon curry? free polls

Tuesday election prediction

Sinister is going out on a limb here, and making the following prediction for tomorrow:

1) Obama wins Texas and gets close in Ohio.
2) Clinton refuses to drop out, and churns out the spin machine to make Obama look like the loser.
3) This thing drags on.

Sinister is also making the bold prediction that tomorrow will be the last time we hear from that folksy fascist, Mike Huckabee. And thank God for that.

Apparently I need to start watching "As the World Turns"

There's apparently a hot affair between two gay teen characters. I'm all about that. But the problem is that they haven't kissed on screen since September, so there's a letter writing campaign happening to demand the couple kiss on screen.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Food for thought

Linked is the text of HR 676, a bill that would create a single-payer, national health insurance program. I support this bill in theory, but I think it would be very complicated in its implementation. I was hoping the bill would have more detail about how it would handle the various types of doctors' offices, private hospitals, for-profit hospitals, and other facilities, some of which would probably not be able to afford to continue operating after the conversion to single-payer. The hospital where my partner works is a for-profit, doctor-operated specialty hospital. The mechanics of how it would convert to a national health insurance program would be very complex at best. The other concern is the fact that a lot of private insurers would go out of business, which would cost jobs. I didn't see that addressed very well in the bill.

Then again, we've gotta do something about the health care crisis in this country. If we can make single payer work with as little pain as possible, then I'm all for it.