Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Messianic Jews, The United States Military and The First Amendment.

Jews in Green recently reported that the U.S. military is requiring Messianic Jewish chaplains to wear on their uniforms crosses, the standard Christian symbol, rather than a small pair of tablets, the standard symbol for Jewish chaplains. The military has yet to issue an official statement. This report raises a variety of First Amendment issues.

A bit of background: Messianic Judaism is a movement composed of individuals who claim to be both practicing Jews while they accept Jesus as Messiah. While there is variety among the various Messianic groups, most have beliefs very similar to the beliefs found in Protestant Christianity. In particular, Messianic Jews emphasize the divinity of Jesus, not just his messiahood , and emphasize their acceptance of Jesus as their personal lord and savior. Additionally, many Messianic Jews (according to some sources, a majority) are not halachically Jewish and a substantial fraction have no actual Jewish heritage, but are Christians who have decided to identify as Messianic Jews for a variety of reasons. The Jewish element of Messianic Judaism comes from many of them keeping some degree of Kashrut and some Sabbath observance starting on Friday and ending Saturday night. Mainline Christian denominations, most evangelical Christians and almost all Jews consider Messianic Judaism to be a form of Christianity, not Judaism. There is a perception among many Jews and Christians that Messianic Jews have been deceptive in their proselytizing practices and have presented themselves as a standard form of Judaism, particularly to Jews who have little background in Jewish knowledge.[i]

Michael Hiles, a self-identified Messianic Jew, was training to become a Navy chaplain. He was informed that he would be required to wear the cross on his uniform rather than the small pair of tablets representing the Ten Commandments, which is the symbol for Jewish chaplains. Hiles objected , and, after unsuccessful appeals up the chain of command, ceased training to be a chaplain rather than comply.

These events raise a variety of questions. I will examine two of these and then propose a solution. First, is the Navy’s decision constitutional? Second, is the Navy’s decision, assuming it is constitutional, the best course as a matter of policy?

Does this Navy’s decision interfere with Hiles’s First Amendment rights? The Navy’s actions appear to be constitutional under existing precedent. However, it is plausible that, if the matter were to be litigated, the Navy’s treatment of Hiles might be declared unconstitutional. In 1986, Simcha Goldman, an Orthodox Jew and member of the U.S. Air Force, argued that Air Force uniform regulations prohibiting head coverings indoors violated his right to free expression of religion, given his need to wear a keepah. The Supreme Court decided 5-4 in Goldman v. Weinberger that Goldman’s rights were not violated. In particular, the Court noted the long-standing deference given to the military. Thus, the burden that the Air Force had to meet was very low. The four dissenters agreed with this premise but argued that the Air Force had failed to meet the low burden of rationality needed to justify its regulation preventing a religious airman from wearing a keepah[ii]

Goldman suggests that Hiles has no case. However, the Navy’s decision with Hiles is arguably a theological decision, i.e. Messianic Judaism is not a branch of Judaism. Hiles can argue that his rights under the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause rather than his rights under the Free Expression have been violated. Arguably, the Court should give less deference to the Navy when Establishment Clause issues are concerned. However, as I will discuss shortly, the Navy’s decision is pragmatically justifiable. Thus, even if the burden the Navy would face in a hypothetical court case is greater than the Air Force’s burden in Goldman, the Navy would likely be able to meet that burden.

Does the Navy’s decision as to Mr. Hiles make sense? Tentatively, I’d say yes. The accuracy of military uniforms and the perceived accuracy of military uniforms is important to morale. There is a serious potential to damage the morale and unit cohesion of soldiers who interact with a Messianic chaplain under the mistaken impression that the chaplain is Jewish. Such confusion can reduce respect for and reliability of the chaplaincy core as a whole. This is particularly likely given the history of Messianic Jews engaging in deceptive practices and the repeated problems of proselytizing by evangelical groups in the U.S. military.

However, there is another solution which is constitutionally and pragmatically preferable. The military should give all chaplains the same, religiously neutral, symbol rather than different symbols based on religious affiliation. One obvious possibility would be simply the letter “C”, denoting that the officer is chaplain without indicating his or her religious affiliation Since most duties of chaplains are identical, this approach keeps the military from having to make essentially theological decisions about which chaplains should be treated as members of which religions. This will not solve all the First Amendment problems presented by the chaplaincy. Some of these problems, such as the necessity of allocating chaplains by religion in large military bases, may be unresolvable. However, this approach – identifying all chaplains as such without specifying on their uniforms the religions to which they belong, will eliminate the problem posed by Mr. Hiles.

Hat tip to Ed Brayton at Dispatches from the Culture Wars. Brayton’s blog entry has a long comments thread which discusses and raises some interesting points which I have not addressed here. For more information, one should also look at the entry at Jews in Green which gives further background of the Hiles incident.

[i] Although most Jews use the term “Messianic Judaism” and “Jews for Jesus” interchangeably, this is not accurate and most Messianic Jews strongly object to the grouping of the two. Jews for Jesus generally have even less Jewish content. Almost none keep kosher or keep Shabbat in any form.. Jews for Jesus also emphasizes Jewishness as an ethnic group and is much more explicit and blatant in their desire to evangelize to Jews. Jews for Jesus as an organization is a member of the World Evangelical Alliance and various other Christian evangelical organizations. As far as Jews (and almost all Christians) are concerned, Messianic Judaism and Jews for Jesus are both Christian. They both believe that Jesus is their personal lord and savior and that such belief, including the divinity of Jesus, is necessary to avoid eternal hellfire. They both believe in a standard Trinity. Thus, one should not mistakenly label the Messianics as somehow less Christian simply because the Jews for Jesus are even more blatantly evangelical.

[ii] I am simplifying the breakdown. There were 3 dissenting opinions and one concurring opinion. Also note that Goldman was subsequently overturned by legislation that "a member of the armed forces may wear an item of religious apparel while wearing the uniform" so long as the item is “neat and conservative” and does not interfere with the member’s ability to carry out his duties.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Critical Thinking and Popular Culture.

Many things reinforce our natural tendencies against critical thinking and skepticism.[i] These include human tendencies to see patterns, wishful thinking, and the presence of pre-existing irrational beliefs and superstitions. One often overlooked reinforcement mechanism is popular entertainment, where critical thinking and skepticism are portrayed as tendencies to be overcome. In television and movies, there is an emphasis on the need to have faith and the importance of belief. Moreover, skepticism is often caricatured as a stubborn refusal to acknowledge the supernatural in the face of overwhelming evidence.

This theme of skepticism as a problem is not new; some episodes of the original Twilight Zone included this theme. One modern television show which repeats this theme is The X-Files in which two FBI agents investigate paranormal activity. Mulder, the credulous agent with the slogan "I want to believe," is invariably correct about the existence of whatever paranormal phenomenon he is investigating while Scully, the skeptical agent, refuses to believe in the supernatural no matter how much evidence she has seen.

In The X-Files skepticism is not just incorrect, but pathologically false; the skeptics, represented by Scully, refuse to modify or reduce their skepticism in the face of clear evidence of the supernatural. In this case, skepticism is reduced to a caricature of people who simply refuse to believe despite evidence to the contrary.

This theme occurs not just in television, but across many genres of movie. In horror movies, this occurs almost every movie. [ii] A few examples from the last few years are “Gothika,” “White Noise” and “Darkness Falls.”

This theme is so common that the rare cases where there is a strong skeptical bent are noteworthy. Consider, for example, the original Scooby Doo. I am curious if readers can point to any others like Scooby Doo.

Moreover, in a handful of cases critical thinking is not just a barrier to be overcome, but actually causes death and destruction. One of the most extreme examples of this is an episode of Dark Visions, a recent Twilight Zone knockoff. In an episode entitled “Harmony”, a young man goes to a town where no one sings and the townspeople kill anyone in the town who tries to sing. The people believe if anyone in the town sings, some sort of supernatural creature will be woken up and it will then kill everyone. The end of the episode features a mob about to kill the young man and his friends. He gives a stirring speech that convinces the people that the only monster which exists is inside themselves,and that they are afraid of singing due to the emotion it brings. The entire town begins to sing "Amazing Grace". And then in the last 30 seconds of the episode, it turns out that the monster is real and that their singing has woken it up. The episode ends as the monster begins to destroy the town. The last note by the Rod Serling knock-off is a warning against questioning the beliefs of others. I’m hard pressed to imagine how one could send a message that was more anti-critical thinking.

There is one place where such messages are both particularly common and particularly nefarious in their impact: movies and television aimed at children. In such cases, even when there is a skeptical element, it becomes quickly watered down. For example, many of the sequels to Scooby Doo had supernatural elements.

A recent and glaring example is the charming movie “Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium”. The premise of the film is that there is a magical toy store powered by belief in magic. The new owner does not have sufficient belief and so the store's magic fails. However, the store’s magic begins to return when a child playing with a magnetic toy asks if the toy is magical and the shop owner replies that she believes it to be. According to “Magorium,” critical thinking is not just bad. Rather, one should actively convince oneself and others that well-understood phenomena are magic.

As long as the entertainment industry continues to reinforce in the popular mind that critical thinking and skepticism are barriers to be overcome by unquestioning faith and magical thinking, the proponents of rationalism and reason will face uphill battles.

[i] The exact distinction between critical thinking and skepticism is not always clear. For purposes of this entry I will use the terms interchangeably.

[ii] This isn't strictly true. There are some movies such as “Unrest” that just take the spirit world's existence for granted with only token skepticism. In “Unrest” all the characters take for granted that souls and an afterlife exist. The character taking the most skeptical outlook believes in souls and an afterlife but does not believe in “corporeal manifestations.” This character pays for his attempt at rationality by suffering the loss of multiple limbs at the hands of a ghost.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Cantor, Infinite Sets and Cardinality

Many people from a young age are fascinated by the concept of infinity. This post will examine one way that the notion of infinity can be examined rigorously and compare different sizes of infinity.

When we look at finite sets, how can we tell if they are the same size without counting? Imagine a primitive tribe that determines social status based on who owns more goats, but no one in the tribe can count past 5. If two members of the tribe both own more than 5 goats , how can the tribe compare the total number of goats the two people own? One solution is they can take out pairs of goats with one goat from each person. When one of the two goat owners runs out of goats first, that person has fewer goats. If they run out at the same time, they have the same number of goats. (This goat analogy is a good analogy, but is not, as far as I am aware, frequently used to motivate what we are doing here. I'm not sure where I saw this analogy. If someone can point out where it comes from, I'd appreciate it.)

We wish to do the same thing with infinite sets. We are like the primitive tribe and we can only count finite numbers. So we say that two sets in general are the same size if there is a function which maps elements from one to the other with no overlap and no element missed. That is, if we have two sets A and B, if they are of the same size, then there is a function f from A to B such that for any b in B there is some a in A such that f(a)=b and for any x and y in A f(x)=f(y) if and only if x=y. A mathematician would call such a function a bijection or say that it is one-to-one and onto. Thus, for example the sets {a,b,c} and {cow, potato, glockenspiel} are the same size and we could define the function f by f(a)=cow, f(b)=potato and f(c)=glockenspiel. We can generalize this notion to sets that are not necessarily finite. We call this notion "cardinality". We say that |A|=|B| if A and B share a function like that above. We similarly say that |A|<|B| if there is no such function, but there is a subset C of B such that |A|=|C|. It is not hard to see that cardinality obeys the properties one would expect a notion of equal size to obey. For example, if |A|=|B| then |B|=|A|. Similarly, if |A|=|B| and |B|=|C| then |A|=|C|.

At first glance, cardinality leads to some strange results. For example, the positive even integers are the same cardinality as the positive integers. We can see this by setting f(n)=2n. So a set can be the same cardinality as a proper subset of itself. That's not intuitive. And if one plays around a bit, one will see that any infinite subset of the natural numbers is the same cardinality as the set of natural numbers.

One might tentatively conclude that all infinite sets are the same cardinality. In the 1870s, Cantor systematically examined infinite sets and first made the notion of cardinality precise. Cantor first showed that the natural numbers have the same cardinality as the rational numbers.

This is even more counterintuitive than the earlier results since the rationals are dense on the real line, but this result fits with our tentative conclusion that all infinite sets are the same cardinality.

There are a variety of proofs of Cantor’s result. One method is to show that N, the set of natural numbers, has the same cardinality as N x N, the set of ordered pairs of natural numbers. We can use the map (m,n) -> k = 2(m-1)(2n-1). Thus, for any positive natural number k, m determines the highest power of 2 that divides k and n determines the largest odd divisor. It is easy to see from that m and n uniquely determines k. From that result it is not hard to show that that the rationals and natural numbers have the same cardinality.

Then Cantor hit upon a surprising result. Cantor showed that there was no one-to-one and onto function from the natural numbers to the real numbers. Not all infinite sets are the same size. We shall discuss this and related results in a follow up blog entry.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The MBTA and Icehouse

Icehouse pieces are small colored plastic pyramids used in a variety of games.

(this image is in the public domain)

I recently had the pleasure of introducing one such game, Zendo, to the Boston University Hillel. Zendo is a game in which one player, the Master, makes a rule for which configurations of Icehouse pieces are valid and which are not. For example, a very simple rule might be "A valid configuration must contain a red piece." Other players then take turns presenting configurations of Icehouse pieces and find out if those configurations are valid or not. The goal of the game is to figure out the rule. When this game is generally played, the game terminology uses terms from Zen Buddhism. Thus, configurations are called "koans" which are described as having Buddha-nature or not. At the BU Hillel, this quickly mutated into whether or not configurations were kosher or treif.

Readers may be wondering what this has to do with the MBTA. A few days ago, I decided to purchase more Icehouse pieces since Zendo is hard to play with only a few pieces. After buying a new set of pieces I got onto the subway heading back to Kenmore Square. Icehouse pieces come in small, rectangular boxes of transparent plastic with pieces of different colors stacked up on top of each. The boxes are about 6 inches long with a 1 by 1 inch base (in metric that's around 15 cm long with a 2.5 by 2.5 cm base). One of the MBTA personnel stopped me and asked what I was carrying. I explained that they were plastic pieces for a game. The MBTA official said "Oh. Ok. You should put that in a bag. Someone might think that it's a weapon." I must confess that I was speechless. Considering the idiocy about such issues that Boston is known for, I should be happy I'm not in jail right now.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Wikipedia, Great Britain and Censorship

ISPs in Great Britain are censoring Wikipedia. From the Wikinews article:

Wikinews has learned that at least six of the United Kingdom's main Internet Service Providers (ISPs) have implemented monitoring and filtering mechanisms that are causing major problems for UK contributors on websites operated by the Wikimedia Foundation, amongst up to 1200 other websites. The filters appear to be applied because Wikimedia sites are hosting a Scorpions album cover which some call child pornography. The Scorpions are a German rock band who have used several controversial album covers and are perhaps best known for their song, "Rock You Like a Hurricane".
The evil wiki witch Durova already has an entry on this topic which I recommend reading. My own analysis follows.

While there has already been a large amount of reaction against this perceived censorship accompanied by cries that of course this image is not child porn, I can see how a reasonable individual might consider the image to be over the line. The image in question consists of a nude girl of about 11 years of age with an apparent lens crack over her genitalia. Moreover, the pose the girl is in is a pose which would arguably be sexual if that pose were done by an adult even if she were fully clothed. However, it is clear that the image is legal in the United States and the State of Florida where the Wikipedia servers reside.

The censorship has been done in a very hamfisted fashion. Among other consequences it forces the majority of people accessing Wikipedia in Great Britain to do so only through a handful of IP addresses. This is making it difficult for Wikipedia admins to deal with vandalism from anywhere in Great Britain and is making it difficult for people in Britain to edit Wikipedia in general.

There are two issues which I find particularly disturbing.

First, the ISPs made the decision after the Internet Watch Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to stoping child pornography on the internet, decided that the image was close enough to child porn to be included in their list. There's thus nothing even resembling an appeal process or any form of transparency about these decisions. Indeed, even now the IWF has not clarified whether any other pages on Wikipedia are being similarly censored.

Second, many of the people in Great Britain who have attempted to access the page have received a 404 error rather than be told that the content is being censored. If this occurs in less prominent cases people might not even realize there is censorship occurring and simply assume that the server in question is down or has some other problem. This is thus a subtle form of censorship which can be hard to detect.

Update: David Gerard appeared on the Today show to talk about this. He has a transcript of that appearance as well as his thoughts on the matter.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Israeli religious courts and precedent

In an earlier entry, I've discussed some of the oddities of the Israeli secular court system. I'd like in this entry to touch briefly upon a serious problem in the Israeli religious court system that is not widely discussed. I'm not going to discuss the weird way the religious courts interact with the secular courts and I'm not going to discuss the serious problems with having a theocracy. What I am going to discuss is an issue I only recently came across: there is close to no weight of precedent on the religious courts.

Here is an example given recently by Rabbi Chayim Tobasky at a talk at Boston University.

Consider the following hypothetical: A man and woman who get married, have a kid and then get divorced. She goes to a beit din (religious court) for child support. The court mandates some fraction of his income go to child support (say 60%). Now, the man remarries and has three kids with the new wife. She can go back to the beit din or to another beit din and get the arrangement reapportioned so that all kids can get at least the same amount from the father. But there's one snag: contractually obligated debts take precedence over child support. That means, for example, if the man had an obligation to pay off some debt accrued jointly with the first wife, that money could not be readjusted for the second. This leads to the following question: suppose that the husband and the first wife agreed that he pay the 60% for child support as part of the divorce settlement rather than as mandated by a beit din. Does this count as child support or as a debt? Apparently, every court in Israel rules that such a contract does not count as child support except the beit din in Rechovot. The Rechovot court has been repeatedly overruled and it continues to rule the same way, knowing that, if the case is appealed, it will be overruled.

Regardless of what one thinks of the religious court system in Israel, this is no way to run a judicial system. It is at best inefficient. It needlessly turns legal disputes into even more of chess games, and places unfair burdens on people with few resources.