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Thursday, September 29, 2005

Habib's DVD review: Monsoon Wedding 

(Caution: spoilers).

These days, Habib finds himself without a TV set. I can't in all honesty say that my lack of a television set is motivated by religious ideology, but more a combination of space, the economics of pay television, and time (ie tv would waste an unacceptable portion of it. Especially if I had the history channel).

Anyway... what I do have is a computer, that can play DVDs, and I've had the chance to see a few movies anyway. Last week I saw the French film "Dieu est grand et je suis toute petite", about a non-Jewish girl who flits from one spiritual fad to another, but meets a Jewish man and decides to convert, even though he is assimilated and not so interested. A shame, because I so often like French movies. French comedies, especially, seem to be able to combine involve without losing their humour, and low brow without becoming crass and stupid. Some of my favourites have included Apres Vous, the Dinner Game, Ridicule, and the fantastic La Verite si je mens.

I have been struggling to find a copy of the sequel . I tried a new video shop this time, but was again disappointed. While in the foregin aisle, I saw Monsoon Wedding. I have long had a weakness for Bollywood music, so I decided to give it a try.

You may think that writing a review of a four year old movie is pointless. On the other hand, I'm sure there are many of you out in the blogosphere who have not seen it, and may be interested in the opinion of this particular semite (I may be wrong, of course, on that count).

My impressions are that the real star of the film is India; the juxtaposition of poverty amid the booming high-tech economy is poignant but in a sense hopeful. This country is becoming a superpower, and a force to be reckoned with in the economic sphere. Expect that to be followed in the cultural sphere.

(*Spoiler alert*). I was impressed with the courage of the scriptwriter to portray a message that is so contrary to the Hollywood ethos: in this film, the traditional structures -- here, arranged marriage -- were seen as correct, and successful. In the end, western romantic love did not conquer all.

The music and dancing scenes were, of course, delightful. There really is something in that Punjabi music, an amazing energy. I think the sub-plot of the romance between shifty event planner Dubey and demure servant-girl Alice was beautifully played. The portrait of troubled family head Lalit was also a skilfully painted one.

However, there were some serious weaknesses in the script. The agon, of how Lalit was to deal with benevolent and generous, but child-molesting, Uncle Tej, was perhaps signalled with too little subtlety from the beginning. Also, the not-quite-over love affair between bride-to-be Aditi and her former boyfriend Vikram is superficially left behind, without any real resolution.

But all in all, a wonderful story, with colour and style.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

More from the Jewish National and University Library 

If there were to be a Jewish Bollywood film made any time soon, this would definitely be on the soundtrack. A Sukkot song from the Baghdadi community of Bombay. Very cool.

It's coming up to Rosh Hashana, so... 

I am going to talk about Pesah. Not so much about the festival, but some obscure music connected with it. When I was looking for an MP3 recording of "Ben Adam" before, I found a sample on the website of the Jewish National and University Library.

There are some other wonderful things there. Sadly, with the upheavels of the last century, assimilation, the collection of Jews into larger communities, and the relentless (and unfortunate) process of homogenisation of Jewry (Chabad and Artscroll for Ashkenazim, R' Ovadiah and the Yeha-ve Da'at siddur for Mizrahiim), many of the idiosyncratic and unique customs, traditions, foods and prayers of the multitude of communities that used to make up the Jewish world are vanishing.

Song and music are vital components of these diverse communities. Therefore, it is vital to record these songs while people who grew up in these communities, and were shaped by the special conditions and values that were contained there, are still alive.

Anyway, on to Pesah. The library has an MP3 collection of various versions of the popular song "Ehad mi yodea" (who knows one?). Versions from Hungary, the Netherlands, Persia, Corfu, among others. The best, in my opinion, is this one from Tetouan, in Morocco. Most of the words are in Haketia, a form of Ladino (Judeo-Spanish) spoken in northern Morocco. The most interesting part is at the end of each verse. After saying "One is God in Heaven and the Earth", it finishes "la illa ill'Allah".

Interesting. Similar to a phrase I have heard others say.

But remember, Musa is the Rasool.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

The Days of Awe approach 

Rosh Hashana is coming: just over a week away. The year 5766 is about to be upon us. Traditionally, this is a time of reflection. Last Saturday night, many of us commenced saying selihot, the penitential prayers. However, our Sefardi brethren have been arising early (or staying up late) to say their selihot since the beginning of the month.

The Sefardi selihot tend to be less dour than their Ashkenazi counterparts, and are full of rousing melodies. While perhaps enjoying the penitential prayers too much defeats the purpose of reciting them, there is much scope to appreciate the meaning of the beautiful prayers. One of my favourite parts is the opening piyut (religious poem) with which the Sefardi selihot begin (my free translation). My favourite tune for this is the Moroccan one: at once serious and dignified, and haunting (listen to it on MP3 here). A fitting way to enter the penitential state of mind.

Unfortunately, I am not skilled enough to carry the rhyme and rhythm through the translation:
Ben Adam (son of man), why do you slumber?
Arise and call out in supplication.
Pour out speech, seek forgiveness;
from the Lord of Lords.

Run, and be purified, do not wait;
before your days run out.
And quickly, run for help;
from before He who dwells in Heaven.

And from sin, and wickedness;
flee and fear as from catastrophes.
Please hear those who know your Name;
the faithful of Israel.

For Yours, Lord, is justice.
And ours is to be shame-faced.

Stand up as a man, and overcome yourself;
that you may confess your sins.
Lord God seek, in dignified manner;
that he may forgive your transgressions.

For never is any secret hidden from You;
and everything that is said is heard before You.

The Merciful One, may he have mercy;
as a father has mercy on his children.

For Yours, Lord, is justice.
And ours is to be shame-faced.

Excerpts of the selihot in RealAudio format are available here (you can even buy the full CD!)

Monday, September 26, 2005

Ice Age Skeletons 

A fascinating discovery, on the banks of the Danube, in Austria -- the pefectly preserved corpses of two children that appear to be 27,000 years old.

As awful as it is to see the remains of children dying at such a young age, the findings could open a window on the lives and material culture of long-disappeared human groups.

The discovery of "Oetzi" in the Tyrolean Alps some years back was a landmark in our understanding of neolithic culture in Europe. Suggestions that Oetzi was murdered increased the popular dissemination of his finding.

But the new finding is approximately five times as old, and could help further scientific study (and, importantly, popular understanding for us lay-people) of paleolithic life in the same area of Europe.

A couple of points to ponder:
1. I hope that the archeological community, while utilising the findings to further knwoledge treat the remains with due respect; after all, they are dealing with human remains.
2. I am interested to see how hard-core Biblical literalists, such as those who attacked R' Natan Slifkin for his kefirah (heresy) in suggesting, inter alia, that the world is more than 5765 years old, would deal with the discovery of actual human remains that can be proved to be far older.

Friday, September 23, 2005

Our Shame, redux 

I posted recently about an inchoate, but still worrying, rise in Jewish violence against innocent Arabs and Muslims. I said then that the "privatisation of violence" was an incredibly dangerous thing.

Today's news reveals another instance in which we must hang our heads for what a fellow Jew has tried to do in our name. Earl Krugel was sentenced to 20 years imprisonment for a plot to detonate an expolosion at a mosque in California, and another at the office of Congressman Representative Darrell Issa (of Lebanese Christian extraction). Krugel's co-conspirator, Jewish Defence League leader Irv Rubin, committed suicide before trial.

What on Earth were these men thinking? The King Fahd mosque in Culver City was a Saudi-funded institution peddling Wahhabi Islam, including its odious political ideology. But any jihadi activity going on there should have been dealt with by the authorities. In what universe would blowing the mosque up have been justified?

With regard to Rep. Issa, what were they thinking? Yes, he was no friend of Israel, has spoken rather too kindly of Hezbollah, and has had dealings with shady characters. But an attempt to do violence with this democratically-elected official (a Republican, no less), is utterly beyond the pale.

What are Americans in general to think of Jews who plan attacks against places of worship and members of Congress?

If this represents the thinking of the JDL, then it is a terrorist organisation, and needs to be dealt with as such.

Good old clean, geeky fun 

Added a cool little thing to the sidebar -- a "Clustrmap", which tells me, and you, O Honoured visitor, from which countries traffic on this blog comes from.

The technology is brilliant, if a little scary.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Sanctity of Human Life and the New Barbarism, Part II 

I have blogged recently on the threat to that core value of civilisation, the sanctity of human life, posed by "ethicists" such as Peter Singer and his ilk.

An item in the New Zealand Herald struck me today. There has been an increased incidence of Down Syndrome in New Zealand. Some individuals in the health and fertility fields are blaming the lack of a cohesive screening programme.

My question is: who else sees this for what it is, and what it could lead to?

How long will it take for a "screening programme" (a euphemism for state-induced abortion of "imperfect" fetuses) to metamorphose into infanticide of born children (no doubt under some euphemism?

Humanity is imperfect. It always has been. People with Downs have a harder life, true. But they can grow into decent, achieving human beings; capable of giving and receiving love, and developing their talents and minds.

This is eugenics. It is an attempt to eliminate "imperfection" from inhumanity, and vet our reproduction to that end.

The belief that their genetic condition must be eradicated root and branch, and that fetuses diagnosed with Downs must be done away with is no less than a new barbarism.

But in secular, PC New Zealand -- where is the outcry?

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Come on Don! 



(thanks to Gordon at NZPundit).

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Politicised "war crimes" warrants -- a blot on British justice 

Major-General (ret.) Doron Almog was in charge of the IDF's southern command between 2000 and 2003. In that time, he earnt an impressive record in preventing breaches of the Gaza security fence by terrorists; he actually achieved ISO-9001 accreditation for the IDF's management of the sector (an achievement many businesses would find enviable).

Since retiring, he has headed a residential centre in the Negev for adults with severe physical and mental disabilities, a cause he became involved with as the father of a child who suffers from brain damage. He was to come to the UK to speak to an audience at a synagogue about his work.

But he could not do this. Major-General Almog had to cancel his trip, and return on the plane he came in on, because Metropolitan Police were waiting for him at Heathrow with an arrest warrant, issued by the Bow Street Magistrates' Court (incidentally, the same court that issued the warrant for Pinochet's arrest).

The charge? War crimes. Lawyers representing Gazan Palestinians claimed that General Almog ordered the destruction of 59 Palestinian homes.

Yet the reason these houses need to be demolished (and it is tragic that such actions need to be taken) is to save lives. Sourthen Command, without doubt, saved dozens, or hundreds of lives, by maintaining the security of the Gaza perimeter. Yes, it is a horrible thing, destroying a house. But it is property. It does not count as much as life and limb.

Let us think about what this means: a British court has taken it upon itself to hear charges against the army of a sovereign country for taking (non-lethal) actions to protect itself against a terrorist onslaught. If this is a precedent, then Israeli officers will need to think twice before taking any action to prevent terrorist murders, or else forfeit the ability to travel anywhere outside Israel.

If this is a precedent, the ability of sovereign nations to fight against threats to their civilian populations is greatly diminished. If it is not to be a precedent, and is a rule only for Israel, then it is evidence of the ludicrous singling out of the sole Jewish state for opprobrium that is sweeping the world.

This is an outrage, and rank hypocrisy (I'm not going to hold my breath to see the trial of the Metropolitan Police Commissioner for the brutal shooting of an unarmed Brazilian plumber).

Yes, war criminals should be tracked down and brought to justice, regardless of borders. But there is a world of difference between using poison gas on Halabja or using rape as a weapon of war in Srebrenica, and what General Almog is accused of.

This arrest warrant represents the politicisation of international law and judicial processes at its worst.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Katrina, Theodicy and Yosl Rakover 

The scale of the natural disaster visited on Louisiana and the surrounding states is terrible; both in the lives it has taken, and the communities it has destroyed.

When such events happen, people always ask how a God who we are taught is both kind and omnipotent can allow such things to happen. I realise that the pain of those who have been caught up in the tragedy must be unbearable and unknowable to those of us sitting in safety, but it is human nature to try and make sense out of such suffering.

Some blame God. Others refuse to believe him. And others still talk of punishment for sins. But what sins did the innocent of New Orleans commit? And is such a simple view of reward and punishment possible?

Embedded deeply in Jewish thought is the concept of hester panim -- God figuratively hides His face from humanity, and leaves His people to the cold forces of nature and human instinct. Hester panim is referred to by the Prophets as the reason for our exile and the reason for the ascendancy of evil in the world.

In the aftermath of the Shoah, Zvi Kolitz wrote a short story, Yosl Rakover Talks to God, an incredibly moving allegorical account of a Jew, in the last hours of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, confronting God, for his abandonment of the Jewish people to the demonic Germans. In the tradition of the forefathers, Yosl confronts God, and demands an answer:
Perhaps You are saying that it is not a question of sin and punishment now, but that it is always so when You veil Your face and leave mankind to its inner drives? But then, God, I wish to ask You, and this question burns in me like a consuming fire: What more, O tell us, what more must happen before You reveal Your face to the world again?

I wish to speak to You clearly and frankly, to say that now, more than at any previous stage on our endless road of suffering - we, the tormented, the reviled, the suffocated, the buried alive and burned alive, we, the humiliated, the mocked, the ridiculed, the slaughtered in our millions - now more than ever do we have the right to know: Where are the limits of Your patience?

And I wish to say something more to You: You should not pull the rope too tight, because it might, heaven forbid, yet snap. The temptation into which You have led us is so grievous, so unbearably grievous, that You should, You must, forgive those of Your people who in their misery and anger have turned away from You.
But in the end, Yosl announces that in spite of the cruelty of hester panim, he will not give up on God, or the Torah and mitzvot that form the core of the Jew's life:
I believe in the God of Israel, even when He has done everything to make me cease to believe in Him. I believe in His laws even when I cannot justify His deeds. My relationship to Him is no longer that of a servant to his master, but of a student to his rabbi. I bow my head before His greatness, but I will not kiss the rod with which He chastises me. I love Him. But I love His Torah more. Even if I were disappointed in Him, I would still cherish His Torah. God commands religion, but His Torah commands a way of life - and the more we die for this way of life, the more immortal it is!
Yosl Rakover confronts the suffering that God allows to be visited -- and refuses to concede.

It is my prayer that the people of New Orleans -- strong in faith as I'm sure they are -- refuse to kiss the rod with which they have been so unjustly smitten, and that we all help them restore their lives and comfort them in their loss.

Friday, September 02, 2005

Peter Singer: Destroyer of Civilisation 

Peter Singer is Professor of Ethics at Princeton (in the US) and the University of Melbourne in Australia. Over the years, he has become a leading figure in the medical ethics movement.

Professor Singer subscribes to utilitarian philosophy, the heritage of J.S. Mill. Singer created waves a few years ago when the media relayed statements he made to the effect that an animal had more right to life than a disabled child (Singer is a militant vegan and a founder of the animal liberation movement), and advocating the euthanasia of severly disabled children.

The latest edition of Foreign Policy magazine carries a series of articles under the title "Here Today, Gone Tomorrow" about institutions and paradigms that are likely to disappear in the near future (such as the Euro and remaining monarchies). Singer writes that the principle of the sanctity of human life, which most take for granted as the core value of any civilisation, is on its way out. Singer states:
During the next 35 years, the traditional view of the sanctity of human life will collapse under pressure from scientific, technological, and demographic developments. By 2040, it may be that only a rump of hard-core, know-nothing religious fundamentalists will defend the view that every human life, from conception to death, is sacrosanct.

In retrospect, 2005 may be seen as the year in which that position became untenable....

When the traditional ethic of the sanctity of human life is proven indefensible at both the beginning and end of life, a new ethic will replace it. It will recognize that the concept of a person is distinct from that of a member of the species Homo sapiens, and that it is personhood, not species membership, that is most significant in determining when it is wrong to end a life. We will understand that even if the life of a human organism begins at conception, the life of a person—that is, at a minimum, a being with some level of self-awareness—does not begin so early. And we will respect the right of autonomous, competent people to choose when to live and when to die.

Why is it "untenable" to hold that human life is inherently valuable and worthy of protection? Singer cites some South Korean research that stem cells can be cloned by combining an unfertilised egg with an ordinary cell. Regardless of how the embryo is created, how does this affect the inherent worth or dignity of the resulting human being, even if he or she is the result of cloning rather than sexual reproduction?

(Incidentally, I am not arguing that the inviolability of human life begins at conception. I am not an anti-abortion absolutist, and the topic deserves wider discussion in another post).

As for demographic trends, Singer cites the greying populations of first world countries. The prospect of an young generation "euthanising" their parents to avoid the burden of supporting them and to inherent more quickly, is both morally terrifying and imminent.

It must be clear to all who have a modicum of perceptiveness that right-to-die cases are the thin end of the wedge. There will be an inevitable ratchet effect. Singer uses as his test the ability to suffer.

Let us put aside for the moment the practical concern of whether one can ever be sure, even in cases of apparent insensibility and comas, that the person is not suffering.

When doctors are permitted to kill severly disabled children, the boundaries will inevitably be pushed. There will be pressure to be rid of any humans who are considered a drain on others or insufficiently sentient. Note how vague Singer is about the distinction between a "person" and a mere member of species Homo Sapiens; self awareness is a "minimum"; therefore, human infants are not "people". Once this "utilitarian" logic is set in train, it won't be easily stopped. Remember who the first victims of the Nazis were.

The loss of our respect for the sanctity of human life is the loss of our humanity; it is the renunciation of civilisation, and its replacement with a vicious barbaric "utility". What has become of our society when a leading philosopher and "ethicist" would forbid the killing of a fish for food but assent to killing a human baby?

If Singer deems me a "know-nothing religious fundamentalist", then so be it. Those of us who believe in the dignity of the human and that we are all created in the image of God must fight Singer and his barbarism without cease.

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