The Jewish Journalism of Joel Shurkin

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

If we replaced Jewish princesses with concubines, would it help?

It is one of the superstitions of the human mind to have imagined that virginity could be a virtue--
Voltaire meet the Bush Administration. In its non-ending war on science, the Bushies attacked a meeting of the Centers for Disease Control on sexually transmitted disease just concluded. The conference was to discuss how the promotion of abstinence-only sex education could undermine the fight against STDs by reducing or eliminating the time spent discussing other forms of protection, particularly condoms. The list of speakers went through the usual peer review, and included at least one outspoken opponent of abstinence-only education. When the political appointees at CDC were done, that speaker was eliminated and two proponents were added. The moderator also was changed and the symposium, a respected international meeting, had a title change. It went from "Are Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage Programs a Threat to Public Health?" to"Public Health Strategies of Abstinence Programs for Youth." The Christianists in the Bush Administration are spending hundreds of millions of dollars on these programs. ("Christianists" is a wonderful new word to describe those who push Christianity into government.) If they won't believe scientists, would they believe rabbis? Read on. It's not just their mishegas.

Abstinence, of course, is complicated. If young people all kept their virginity until marriage it is absolutely true that STDs would disappear. Unfortunately, the world and youthful hormones don't work that way. Study after study has shown that most kids who make those pledges don't keep the promise or at best delay the first sexual encounter a year or so and then just do it.

According to a study just published, [not yet posted] in the American Journal of Public Health, Janet Rosenbaum, a doctoral student at Harvard, found that more than half the kids who take the vows deny they did so a year later, usually after they have become sexually active. And of course, there is the 10% who lie. They had, in fact, been screwing around, claimed they were still virgins and would not do whatever it was they said they never did. It reminds one of Oscar Levant's line that he knew Doris Day before she was a virgin. According to the Washington Post:
Rosenbaum said her study shows that efforts to evaluate such programs' effectiveness is complicated by teenagers' reports of behavior that may be influenced by religious or social factors. "Whatever environment you're in, you're more likely to conform," Rosenbaum said.
Additionally, teens have redefined virginity to include the usual act of a penis in a vagina and but exclude oral and anal sex, which has their own dangers. (The Jewish comedian Sarah Silverman once said: "I didn't lose my virginity until I was twenty-six. Nineteen vaginally, but twenty-six what my boyfriend calls 'the real way.'" Whatever.) One might also suggest that the wedding night is about the last night you want to learn what the hell to do with that other body in bed, but that's another argument.

In some Christian circles, the hymenally challenged have become something of a fetish. The hilarious San Francisco columnist Mark Morford describes Purity Balls, where dad dresses up in a rented tuxedo and his little girl (sometimes as young as 7) dresses in the latest creation from J.C. Penny and they head off to the nearest Marriott or Holiday Inn ballroom. They dance and then:
It begins. At some point the daughter stands up, her pale arms wrapped around her daddy, and reads aloud a formal pledge that she will remain forever pure and virginal and sex-free until she is handed over, by her dad (who is actually called the "high priest" of the home), like some sort of sad hymenic gift, to her husband, who will receive her like the sanitized and overprotected and libidinously inept servant she so very much is. Praise!
The High Priest then responds by pledging that he will protect his daughter's virginity at all costs, so help him God. I don't think this will replace the bat mitzvah in Jewish communities.

So, we get to the Jewish angle and boy, do we have a solution for you! Yes, premarital sex is forbidden by all streams except the left wing of Reform. Birth control is fine except for the right wing of Orthodoxy. In Orthodox Judaism there even is a rule against using a condom or any birth control if you are married and still childless, it being a mitzvah to have children (fruitfulling and multiplying and all that). One consequence is that young Jews are getting married later so that they will, they feel, be ready when the babies come. They are up against the rule on birth control. In a meeting in Jerusalem this week, Modern Orthodox rabbis (those are the guys not wearing black hats) suggested that perhaps the rule ought to be bended rather than have people delay marriage. But one guy came up with a killer of an idea. According to the Talmud, says Rabbi Tzvi Zohar, horny young people can be accomodated: concubines. A single man and a single woman can be assigned to each other to do each other. As long as the women goes into a mikvah, a ritual bath, before she services the guy, she is not commiting a sin.

Is this a great religion or what!

[Illustration: "The Loss of Virginity" by Paul Gaugin]

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

The things that you're liable to read in the Bible, Methuselah lived 900 years.Oy, was he tired.

[And now for some of the stuff I didn’t get around to doing while I was earning a living]

Methuselah lived 900 years and posed a serious threat to the Social Security program. Okay, serious question: If Noah could live 950 years, Adam 930 and Methuselah almost 1,000, how come we can get to maybe 80 and croak? What did they know we don’t, or, more important, what was different then? Yes, I know, I’m taking those numbers literally and I don’t believe them any more than you do but, if you take the Bible literally, you do have a problem. They lived a lot longer than we do. And I won’t even mention Sarah having a baby (Isaac) when she was in her 90s. Even she laughed at that. A mathematician--and True Believer--has actually come up with a statistical explanation that to him, at least, makes sense. He is Arnold C. Mendez Jr, on Biblestudy.org, and I’m assuming he is a mathematician because he understands what a coefficient of determination is and I don’t. He is intrigued by the fact the great flood was something of a turning point and longevity was at its longest just before and after.
After the flood the earth was completely different than the earth before. There were widespread global differences. These would include changes in the climate, composition of the atmosphere, hydrologic cycle, geologic features, cosmic radiation reaching the earth, ozone concentration, ultra violet light, background radiation, genetics, diet, and a host of other subtle and/or profound chemical and physiological changes. These changes caused a rapid decline of the longevity of post flood humanity.

He came up with the formula: y=487.78exp(-0.0907x) where x represents the generation number. [I have absolutely what I have just pasted here and if it turns out to be obscene, forgive me]. After 20 generations, longevity matched reality and the decline perfectly--more or less--matched an exponential curve. He submits that’s a lot more mathematics than the alleged authors of the Bible could have known. Of course he also admits an 11% margin of error, but we’re talking metaphysics and statistics here. [And thanks to Laurie Snell and the good folks at Chance News at Dartmouth. May you live 546 years.]

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

We should be sending mohels to Zimbabwe to train the troops

I think I'll write this with my legs crossed. Wait. It's too late--The AIDS epidemic in Africa is not laughing matter, actually. Indeed, it is one of the worst medical calamities in history. One does feel a slightly warm feeling however that one way of helping control it may be a very very old religious practice--circumcision.

Several studies have shown that removing the foreskin cuts down on transmission as well as making you Jewish. OK, half right. One study in Brazil last year showed this was true and while the evidence is still underwhelming, physicians in Africa are so desperate they are not waiting for peer reviewed articles to show them the way. For $3, doctors in Zambia will do the surgery. Without the beard and the wine and the food. About 400 men a month are requesting the procedure, far more than the physicians--who are not nearly as fast as your average mohel--can handle. (A mohel--pronounced moy-el--is a rabbi specializing in circumcisions and generally takes less than 2 minutes to do the job. The actual surgery takes seconds and is done before the baby--8 day old boys--know what happened to him.) Swaziland also is beginning to look into the practice. The research seems to show that the procedure dramatically cuts transmission of the HIV virus both to and from the man. The theory is that the cells in the underneath part of the foreskin is very susceptible to the virus as are the inevitable cuts and abrasions.

One published journal article actually shows the opposite, that it makes men more likely to contract the virus, but that study seems to stand alone. Many physicians in Africa are waiting for the World Health Organization to make a decision, which it has yet to do, awaiting more definitive studies. Two such studies are underway in Kenya and Uganda and results are due next month. And things out there are fairly desperate.