Tag Archives: choices

self knowledge

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I was thinking of a title for this post, and remembered a common saying in Hebrew, but couldn’t think of how to say it in English. So I went to Google Translate and wrote it in the Hebrew window, expecting to find my title in translation. But what I got was: “He who own imperfection invalidates”. Well, that wouldn’t work, so I’ll translate it myself: He who invalidates another, points to his own imperfection. It comes from a volume in the Talmud which deals with problems of government. What it means is that when we want to disqualify someone, the first flaw that we’ll notice is a flaw we have ourselves. That happens because we are most familiar with our own flaws, and we recognize them quickly when looking at others.

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I had an old pair of eye glasses which were meant for working on the computer and for reading books on paper. They were bifocals, so they enabled me to see everything close, as well as little print. For instance, if I wanted to check the ingredients in a box or can of prepared food. But over the years my eyes grew weaker, and it got to the point where I had to make a real effort to read, and when it came to the little letters I’d have to use a magnifying glass. Finally, one of the handles of my glasses broke, and I went to the optometrist.

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Strangely enough, standing at the counter, when asked by my amiable and smiling optometrist how he could help me, I told him that the frame of my glasses had broken, and it was time for another set. I’d be satisfied, I said, if he just copied the prescription onto a new set and put them in a frame I could wear. He looked at his records to check how long it had been since my the previous prescription, and since it had been some time, suggested a free examination. I agreed. We went to the back room and it took a little while. But it wasn’t a disagreeable experience. He’s a bright young man, and I even enjoyed a bit of conversation while reading the same line from different distances as he placed varying lenses in a frame designed for such examinations. And when he finished, he assured me I’d really enjoy the new glasses once they were ready.

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And so I did. When I put on these new glasses, I was just amazed at all the details I saw. And after trying them with my desktop, my laptop, and reading a book, it seemed to me that the quality of my life had just improved greatly. I thought about all the time I had endured visual difficulties without doing anything to ease the problem. The stress of sitting in just the right position so as to be able to read from the computer screen. I know I’m a self indulgent person. But self indulgence could mean running to the optometrist as soon as I had difficulties reading, instead of avoiding the act because I don’t like stores, and don’t like the help of doctors and such.

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This is just one of my idiosyncrasies. There are many things in life that I don’t care for much, and I just avoid them. This is made possible by some very dear friends who are willing to take the trouble so as to make life a bit easier for me. But there are some things I have to do myself. Like buying a hat… or a camera…or going to see a doctor. In those cases, when I have to do something that is to my own advantage, but that I don’t like to do, I put it off indefinitely. Which is in sharp contrast to my normal behavior. I’m a punctual person. When going someplace to meet someone, I’m usually there between 15 minutes and a half an hour before the designated time (with a book in my backpack, so as not to waste time). When I was in business, if I promised a job for a certain date, I was never late.

I am reminded of a comic sequence by Lenny Bruce in which he berated the police of Los Angeles for hiding in public restrooms and watching through a spy hole to catch homosexuals doing something nasty in the toilet. And then as an aside, he said, ‘I don’t know about you guys, but when I go into a public restroom the only thing I’m thinking about is how to get back out as fast as possible’. That’s the way I am when I go into a store.

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But still, looking at myself critically, I just couldn’t excuse the discomfort I had imposed upon myself just because I don’t like shopping. And as I contemplated this defect of mine, it suddenly occurred to me that this was one of the things I most dislike about my country. As I have often complained to my friends, it’s exasperating to watch the way the government will let a problem grow and grow until it’s unbearable before doing anything about it. For example, Jerusalem used to be a very nice, comfortable little city. When I was a young man I used to go almost everywhere on foot. But over the years the city grew; the population grew much greater; and it seemed as if everyone got a private vehicle. The streets bore more and more traffic until they choked up with gridlock. Bicycles would speed past us as we in cars moved at a speed of two kilometers per hour, before they finally decided to improve public transport. Take another example from five years ago, when the ‘militants’ of Gaza started shooting rockets at towns and cities in the south. At first they just shot a few to see how we’d react. We condemned the rocket attacks. So they figured it was safe, and shot hundreds of them. Our citizens kept running to the shelters, and we would shoot back now and then… but still, it took more than a year till we realized it was war.

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According to my favorite philosophical attitude towards initiating change, I would have to change myself before trying to change the country. I’m willing to give it a try. But I tell myself, I’m old. What’s the point? Change is so much work, and who knows how much longer I have to live anyway. Whereas the country is young. It has plenty of time to improve, and it would be such an improvement. But you know what they say about people who tell you, ‘don’t do as I do, do as I say’

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hindsight

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I recently reread Winston Churchill’s ‘The Second World War’ after which I reread Michael Bar Zohar’s biography of David Ben Gurion in Hebrew. Not the English translation which fits into 426 pages, but the 3 volume Hebrew edition which is 1604 pages long, not counting notes and bibliography. Both of the narratives are fascinating, and cover much of the same time frames from two very different perspectives. In another book I’d read on the politics of Israel at the beginning of the 20th century, there was a comparison of Ben Gurion to Churchill. Since I had read Churchill and learned to respect and admire the man, I thought long and hard about the comparison.

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There are two more or less accepted attitudes regarding the influence of individuals on history. The first is that there are certain unique individuals in history who are able, because of their brilliance or amazing talents… sometimes with the help of a charismatic personality, to rally together a great many other people and produce noteworthy changes in human society or change history by invention or war. The second attitude regards the individual as less important. The exponents of this theory see the progress of humanity as great collective social structures which reach certain strategic planes at which time the most fitting candidate takes the lead in the same way that a dominant lion becomes the leader of a pride. They believe that at any specific time, there are a number of candidates who could take it upon themselves to fill the same role.

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If we look at historical inventions, for instance, we can see that often the same inventions were created in different places at approximately the same time, without knowledge of one another. On the other hand, if we were to study the history of chess, we would see that throughout, there were always chess champions, but some of them were so much more imaginative, that they are thought to be the greatest of all time. When I looked at these two great men, one of whom led his people through a terrible challenge and saved his country from defeat and destruction, and the other who tried to save his people and failed, but who re-established a nation state that had been vanquished and dispersed two thousand years ago, I saw something that I had missed at first read; something they both had in common.

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Both had a vision at an early age and committed themselves to serving their nations in a great way, and they both prepared themselves for the job with severe self discipline. They were both very talented individuals, but more than anything else, they were professionals. That is to say, despite the righteousness of their cause, and their emotional dedication to their goals, they never lost sight of the practical limitations of the circumstances in which they operated. Both of them had to accept choices that were hard for them to live with. They had to be objective about what they could and couldn’t do. They had to accept defeat and continue onward.

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I mentioned in my blog of two weeks ago, after-ache, that I had been studying the beginnings of the modern Jewish State. Now there have always been Jews living in Israel, but it was only in the late 19th and the 20th century that relatively large groups started returning to our home country, the country in which we are the indigenous population. First Theodore Herzl, then Chaim Azriel Weizmann and David Ben Gurion worked to reestablish the state of Israel, and convince the nations of the world that we too deserved a homeland. Coming as I do from a minority group within the Jewish people, it was not that difficult for me to be objective about Ben Gurion, our first prime minister here in Israel, and to compare his vision to what we actually got. When I read that biography the first time, I thought he was a great man, but also made some big mistakes. Looking at him now, I am reminded of the many writers who claimed that after they’d created their characters, they just couldn’t force those characters to act in a certain way… the characters had a will of their own.

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I now believe that history as it unravels, in ever changing circumstances, has it’s own momentum that won’t be bent by man. We can make the most of circumstances, can use our talents to save a hedgehog or teach a kitten to climb a tree, but even with the help of all of mankind’s wisdom and talent, including the wondrous power of the computer, there’s just no way we can make a hedgehog or a kitten. There was no way he could make Israel the way he wanted and hoped it would be, but he had the capacity to understand what it had to be, and that in itself was a type of genius. He was a midwife to the rebirth of our country, and in my heart I believe there was no one else at the time that could have taken his place. There are many quotes by him to choose from, but here’s two that might be the keys to his success.

In Israel, in order to be a realist you must believe in miracles.

Courage is a special kind of knowledge: the knowledge of how to fear what ought to be feared and how not to fear what ought not to be feared.

little ones

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I’ve been working on a post, and just haven’t managed to complete it yet, so I’ll let it wait. Meantime, I’ll share a picture taken this week when some of the cubs joined the adult hyraxes at the park… or should I say manger?

I think it was last year… maybe two years ago; a little later in the year… at the end of summer. I watched the adults teach their cubs how to climb a tree. An adult would take a running start and sort of continue up the tree. The cubs tried, but they would fall down. This continued for a while till everyone was tired, so they had a bit to eat and went home. I wasn’t able to take a picture. I’d been sitting for a time with my back against a tree (which they studiously avoided), and I knew that if I raised the camera to take a shot, that would be the end of the exercise. So I just sat there and watched. This time, all they were interested in was the grass. And I did manage to get a shot for you. The cubs are so cute.

for better or worse

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We may have been born blind or ugly, with a twisted body. or a body that turns out too short, or too long, or with skin of the wrong color. We may develop disadvantageous habits such as eating too much or biting our fingernails. We may have some borderline personality disorder or be Bipolar or have one of the many different mental diseases that are still part of the human landscape. We could get some terrible illness like Degenerative Muscle Disease or Alzheimer’s Disease. Some of these disadvantages are a matter of luck. And others reflect on poor decisions, and choices. A person who drives a motor vehicle while drunk might pay for it with a lifetime as a cripple, much worse than any punishment the court would sentence. But that’s life. There isn’t much we can do about that.

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I could tell you about my own personal life, my bad luck, and my failures. But I’m a person who values privacy. When I go out into public, I prefer to be fully clothed. And when in social discussion, prefer to hear of what people enjoy eating and not about their bowel movements. But if I don’t mention them, it’s not because I want you to think that I don’t shit.

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We arrive here in this, our common world, each person with his own talents and limitations, and we have to make do with what we have. It’s our life, and it’s there for the taking from the time we reach maturity till our death. We can find inspiration in the choices of Helen Keller or Stephen Hawking who were able to overcome severe disabilities. We may read the thoughts of the great thinkers recorded in history since the invention of writing. But finally, it is up to us to find our own way and enjoy this period of time we have on earth.

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There was a time when I enjoyed mountain climbing, sleeping on the ground, eating minimal rations which I could carry on my back, and learning what I could about this world. I lived a good life… maybe even, a few good lives, from my perspective. But now, like Saul who put away his toys when he was grown, I’ve given up the pleasures of my earlier days, and have tried to enjoy the possibilities affordable to an oldster. I miss the libraries I used to visit, miss the high mountains, miss driving with all the windows open across the warm desert, picking a spot to make camp, and finding a universe hidden in the wide wild open. But the computer compensates somewhat for the loss of libraries, and I have the advantage of enjoying the parks, and the cozy corners of this city I live in. We even have islands in the midst of thoroughfares in which flower bushes, different greenery and vines are planted.

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Of course, in my city as in every city, there are better spots, and places which I try to avoid. Usually it’s a matter of choice. Even when I go from one place to another in this city, I don’t always travel the shortest distance. It’s important to me that I enjoy myself while traveling, even if it takes a little longer. I think, how good it is when it takes a little longer and I’m enjoying myself all the way there.

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When I hear the exploits of people richer than myself, how many cars and houses they have, airplanes and yachts, I’m happy for them. I wish them happiness and peace and satisfaction. I know it takes very little to live. And fortunately, I don’t see any hungry people here in the society around me. There are people driven by unquenched desires, but that isn’t hunger as I know it. When I see people living according to twisted values, what used to be called worshiping false gods, I know it’s not my place to steer them against their will towards the good. Everyone has to make their own choices. I tried to influence my own children, but I learned that those with the right stuff, eventually found the right way. And now I believe that it’s best only to give advice when you’re asked for it. Otherwise, it doesn’t usually help anyway.

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Since I feel I’m talking to friends on this, my page on the internet, I feel free to offer a piece of advice here and there, You can read it or skip past to find something more interesting. Some people prefer to look at the pictures without struggling through the text. That’s fine too. As for myself, I make an effort to find those places in which I feel best. Even in my own home, there are more preferable places and less. Outside of the home, there’s a whole world to be found in the city in which I live.

D2715_06this is my home, with clouds above… the room that juts out, with wooden boards between the windows and the roof is my living room

The olive trees posted here are found in the liberty bell park. The park was named in honor of the USA because we admire their aspiration for freedom. Olive trees are native to our land, and there are many stories about them and their wonderful fruit. I’ll share just one that I particularly like. There were priests in the holy temple whose job it was to extract oil. They would squeeze each olive just one time, and the oil from that squeeze was gathered in a vessel. It was called ‘pure olive oil’ and was reserved for the eternal flame. The rest of the olive was used for all the regular needs, as food and oil.
Wishing everyone a very good weekend.

pets

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Nechama taking a walk

We were talking about mysticism, enlightenment, and understanding life itself, a conversation with a friend that stayed with me and accompanied me as I went out to take a walk the next day, Nechama with me, taking her own steps in the park behind our home. She’s never on a leash, but sometimes she walks with me, by my side. This time she was smelling the flowers and the leaves of the plant life in the garden. There were no dogs about, so she was quite relaxed, and it was early enough in the day for the weather to be pleasant. The very best of summer weather.

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Now and then, I would get too far ahead of her, and she would run to catch up. But when we got back to walking, it didn’t take much time till she was sidetracked again by the pleasures of nature.

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These two dimensional iron cat sculptures have been erected in back of a local Arab-Israeli school

I’d been thinking of writing about the experiences remembered in last night’s conversation, levels of consciousness and intuition, as I watched Nechama investigating the familiar plant life, knowing that she was sensitive to signs and history that I didn’t see, and it occurred to me that I had not yet shared with you the great respect I feel for friendship between human beings and members of other species.

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Maybe because I myself am a city boy, born and raised… and having lived almost all of my life in the city, there’s always been an underlying fear that we human beings have distanced ourselves from other forms of animal life, and have become more and more complacent within the human bubble, surrounding ourselves with man made inventions, and often preferring two dimensional fantasy to confrontation with nature.

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Usually when we think of pets, we think of the companionship that they provide. Sometimes even when locked in a cage, or swimming in a small body of water in an aquarium. But there is more to relating to an animal, and as one grows closer to the animal one learns to feel the joy and the pain of that other species… and there is always that chance of finding answers to the very questions we ask ourselves.

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I believe that the dog is the most popular pet in the world, and he is known as man’s best friend. In Hebrew, the very word ‘dog’ means ‘like a heart’ when literally translated into English. I had already lived a full life when I first became friends with a dog, and though I had always treasured my many meetings with different animals, both domestic and wild, I discovered a new (to me) level of communication with that bitch.

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the mature hyrax keeps an eye on the territory. the young one has an adventurous spirit

My first relationship with an animal began when a cat took interest in me, and initiated friendship. I was a small boy at the time, wary of all human company, and had taken a chair and a book to read in the shade of a tree. When the cat approached, I was too shy to even pet him, so we locked eyes and looked at one another for the longest time. And that cat made the moves. Since then I have had similar contacts with many different mammals and birds. It has often been an awesome experience. Occasionally there have been misunderstandings or severe differences. I have experienced happiness and sorrow. I’ve learned from animals so, so much, and the most I’ve learned from cats.

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a painting on the curb, between the street and the sidewalk

When reading Theodore Roosevelt’s autobiography, I came across a couple of bear stories, including one in which the bear almost did him in. While reading that book I felt love and respect for Roosevelt, and so it was almost painful for me that I was unable to share with him (he died before I was born) my own confrontation with a bear in which we eventually sat down face to face in a forest at night, and shared the space in peace. Of course, Roosevelt had been hunting at the time, and it’s hard to get on even footing with another living thing once you’ve been hunting him.

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on my way to take the bus

I know that too from my own experience, though I never hunted an animal with a gun. But when I was still a very young man, I met a buck deer in the forest once. He was very cautious at first, but satisfied himself that I was not going to do him any harm. And so we stood there for a while, about two meters separating us in this small clearing. He might have been interested in food, but I offered him none. And then when I’d gotten pretty relaxed and figured he felt the same, I reached for my camera, and lifted it in front of my eyes. It was at that moment that he lunged forward and kicked me in the chest with one of his legs before running away. He knocked me down. I’ve been a little more cautious about photographing without permission since.

a commentator on the affairs of man

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Nechama and Shimon

A couple of weeks ago, on June 21, Charles Krauthammer, an American commentator and syndicated columnist died at the age of 68. In his senior year at McGill University he was editor of the school newspaper, the McGill Daily and this led him to define his political and social attitudes. He wrote that he disliked the politics of certainty and the politics of the extreme (Maoism was quite popular there in the 60s) and as an editor, decided to go the way of pluralism, which was not so popular then. After completing his studies he went on to Oxford, studying political philosophy. He later wrote, ‘…my muse for this prudential view of the possibilities of politics: John Stuart Mill, whose On Liberty is the foundational document of classical liberalism’.

Krauthammer continued studying, becoming a doctor of medicine at Harvard, and afterwards specialized in psychiatry. His first introduction to real life politics was when he went to Washington, D.C., to direct planning in psychiatric research under the Carter administration. In 1980 He began work as a commentator, and joined the Washington Post in ’84 where he worked as a regular columnist till his death.

Though I was not a follower of his, and read only a few of his columns through the years, I was impressed by his rationality and his humor, and bought his book, ‘Things that Matter’, which is an autobiographical study of his thoughts and ideas through his working life. Though he has been labeled a conservative, or neoconservative, by my standards he seemed a liberal. He explained the seeming contradiction himself when speaking of his hero. ‘Mill held that truth emerges from an unfettered competition of ideas and that individual character is most improved when allowed to find its own way uncoerced’. That was the liberal view in the 19th century. But in the 20th century, ‘Modern liberalism’s perfectionist ambitions seek to harness the power of government, the mystique of science and the rule of experts to shape both society and citizen and bring them both, willing or not, to a higher state of being’.

While still a student, he deliberated whether to make his career in science or in medicine. ‘I had long preferred the graceful lines of physics to the ragged edges of biology. But at 16, I’d come to the realization that I didn’t have what it took to do important work in theoretical physics, namely genius. I chose medicine. I have no regrets. It was challenging and enlarging. I absorbed more knowledge in those seven years than at any other time in my life’. After that, as a commentator, he discussed a great many of the issues that confront contemporary man, and western society with a very open minded and self revealing attitude.

He criticized culture and art; the morality of stem cell research and genetic engineering; the Me Generation, the cult of the body, family and children; gender issues and abortion. He considered religion, and the religious characteristics found in idealistic secularism. In writing about individual and collective guilt, individual and collective punishment, he argued well against the conventional attitude towards collective punishment. He discussed the existential anxiety of man alone in the universe. He examined change and revolution, and the influence of technology on our common culture. He scrutinized racism, both in its classical forms and its derivatives in our society. He studied the problem of gun control. Through his running commentary of the philosophical problems confronting us because of social changes and technological and scientific progress he was aware of the irony that the arts, physics, music, mathematics and other manifestations of human genius are dependent on politics. As he said: ‘Because if we don’t get politics right, everything else risks extinction’.

Regarding stories in the media about the personalities of politicians and social leaders, he wrote: ‘As a former psychiatrist, I know how difficult it is to try to understand the soul of even someone you have spent hundreds of hours alone with in therapy. To think that one can decipher the inner life of some distant public figure is folly. “Know thyself” is a highly overrated piece of wisdom. As for knowing the self of others, forget it. Know what they do and judge them by their works’.

He recognized that violence has become a serious threat to the well being of society, pointing out possible causes. ‘We live in an entertainment culture soaked in graphic, often sadistic, violence. Older folks find themselves stunned by what a desensitized youth finds routine, often amusing. It’s not just movies. Young men sit for hours pulling video-game triggers, mowing down human beings en masse without pain or consequence. And we profess shock when a small cadre of unstable, deeply deranged, dangerously isolated young men go out and enact the overlearned narrative’.

I believe that at his core, he was an optimist. He was constantly looking for solutions. He believed that America had become a democratic success because it aspired to the greatest possible freedom for the individual. Yet he realized that increasing public safety almost always means restricting liberties. In discussing the right of the citizen to carry weapons, he concluded by weighing the two alternatives, both of which were a loss of freedom. Which is better he asked, to outlaw weapons or to perform invasive searches on people going about their private business every time they enter an airport or a public building?

moral qualms

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We live in different countries, different cultures, speak different languages, but the spirit of the time, the zeitgeist affects us all. When I think back to the 60s, I remember the strong feeling I had then, that people were reexamining their values, and that the world would never again be as it was before. A conversation comes back to me from those days. I was sitting with my parents on their balcony and my father was discussing the similarity of scientific research on both sides of the iron curtain. Perhaps this was after Sputnik, that first venture into space. I remember saying something about changing attitudes, especially on college campuses. My mother turned to me and said, “Every generation thinks that they’re going to change the world.” I remember thinking, but this generation is really different, though I didn’t say it. I respected her perspective.

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Back then there were folks coming from all over Europe to volunteer on kibbutz. Young people were rejecting the crass commercialism of the 50s, and even in America, there were new experiments in communal living. Free speech was the battle cry of youth. Forward thinking people were building homes and public facilities based on geodesic engineering. But looking back, the effect of that cultural revolution was short lived. What remains of those bright eyed and long haired revolutionaries is not much more than the obsessive use of the word fuck in Hollywood movies.

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Here in our country, a new law is being discussed in parliament which is intends to put an end to prostitution. Any person caught hiring the services of a prostitute would be made to pay a sizeable fine. If caught a second time, he would pay double the fine. And after that, might face criminal prosecution. As expected, there were protests from the ‘working girls’, and a television program pointing out the advantages of such employment for handicapped people who might suffer were it not for the release provided by such service. But most of the progressive people in our society support the legislation. Women too. Our Minister of Justice is a fine, intelligent and serious thinker, and she was for the law. And the head of our socialist leftist party, also a woman, was pushing for it.

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When Israel achieved statehood after being a colony of Great Britain, we inherited an English law prohibiting homosexual activity. Though I am a religious Jew, and we believe that male homosexuality is a perversion and contrary to the injunctions of the bible, I supported the repeal of this law. Believing in ‘live and let live’, I don’t think the state should get involved with a person’s private life. On the subject of homosexuality, it is interesting to note that the Greeks and the Jews disputed this issue more than 2000 years ago. The Greek standpoint was that homosexual relations were on a higher level than heterosexual love, because they weren’t necessitated by self-perpetuation.

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Nowadays, there are many examples of the state’s involvement in the lives of citizens. Compulsory schooling is already taken for granted in all western countries. We have recently seen the heavy handed approach to smoking, while at the same time there is a growing tolerance of Marijuana. In the past, the US made a great effort to prohibit the imbibing of alcohol, which caused havoc and the loss of lives. But these days, the common attitude is to encourage individual liberties.

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Prostitution is an immoral act, and has become an allegory for a great variety of distasteful behavior, including the self promotion of politicians, journalists, and business men. But if two consenting adults agree to have sex in exchange for money, is it our business to interfere? What if a rich man or woman suggests a date with a younger indigent person? Will that too be against the law? Will we allow discrimination against the obese? Israel already has a law against pimping. The law hasn’t been very effective, especially since the arrival of the internet. Because women looking for that sort of business can advertise without an agent. If this new law will work, it’ll deprive a minority of their freedom. And if it doesn’t work, it’ll demean still further the respect of society for law and government.

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I believe its important that laws are made to protect the society within a framework representing consistent values. It is very sad to see the constant growth of laws and ordinances to the point where an individual is easily strangled by the heavy weight of never ending paperwork, and where changing fashions dictate the lives of all, including personal preferences. Appearing before a court is an expensive enterprise and we are becoming completely dependent on lawyers for dealing with the judicial system.

The photos on this post describe a visit to my favorite market, Machaneh Yehuday, and dinner at a restaurant there with my dear friend Noga.