Thursday, March 27, 2008

"Questions I Was Too Scared To Ask"

Once, when I was teenager, my grandfather asked me if I wanted to go hear a lecture at our synagogue. When you’re a teenager, going to hear a lecture at the synagogue with your grandfather is hardly a “Top-Ten” priority. I told my grandfather I was watching hockey. My grandfather went without me.

The man I missed hearing that night was a visiting rabbi named Abraham Heschel. I know who he is now. I read a book of his and my breath was taken away by the wisdom. On Google, Heschel’s described as “The most important Jewish thinker of the modern period.” The Google entry also mentions that in 1965, Rabbi Heschel marched with Dr. King in Selma. When asked why he was there instead of ensconcing himself comfortably in the ivory towers of New York, Rabbi Heschel replied, “When I march in Selma, my feet are praying.”

I learned my lesson. Nowadays, when somebody’s speaking that I need to see, I go. Not that there are a lot of Heschels around; mostly, it’s Larry King, who I don’t go see, but that’s, generally, who’s speaking.

“Sioux Saint Marie. Hello!”

I like to know stuff. Not all stuff. I don’t seem to like to know scientific stuff. I take the long view on science. I like to let the conflicting scientific theories duke it out for a few hundred years, at which point I accept the winner’s position. I’m pretty much “down” with gravity. On the other hand, I remember this guy in the Eighties railing on The Tonight Show about overpopulation and our imminent running out of food. There’s still elbow room and we’re still eating.

Salt’s good for you, then salt’s bad for you, then salt’s not that terrible for you. It’s like “paper or plastic” at the supermarket. First, it was “plastic”. Then, it was “paper”; now, it’s “plastic” again. Or is it those canvas tote things you’re supposed to buy.

Scientific theories, to me, are like wet paint. I like to give them time to dry.

Generally thinking, science simply doesn’t hold my interest. Nor does math. After, counting, I don’t see the purpose of math. Measuring, that’s good too. But what else do you need? I know this is ignorant on my part. No, it’s more than ignorant; it’s stupid. The difference between “ignorant” and ‘stupid”, in my view?

“Ignorant” means, “I don’t know.”

“Stupid” means, I don’t want to know.”

When it comes to science and math, I admit, with a modicum maybe a modicum and a half of shame, I’m just plain stupid. You can’t know, or even want to know everything, I suppose, but that’s pretty much an excuse.

And it’s not that I think the people who are committed to science and math are throwing their lives away. I have a friend named David who engages in advanced mathematical activities, and I like him enormously. He’s smart and he’s funny and a loving and wonderful spirit. But when he talks about the math thing he’s working on, though I try my best to stay with it, not only do my eyes glaze over, my normally engaged brain cells simply up and quit on me. It’s like a brain rebellion. They refuse to want to know.

What I like are ideas. What people think and why they decided to think that way. On both sides, not just the side I agree with; I’m a fair guy. When I don’t agree, I need to know, “What is it in the way that guy’s thinking that leads him to come to that really wrong conclusion?”

I think thinking is important. It’s no accident that this blog is called Just Thinking.

I try to think whenever I can. As I wrote in a recent posting on our daughter’s birthday, when I’m driving, I have been known to slow down to think. This qualifies me as an active thinker. A thinker you never want to drive behind.

Why do I value thinking so highly? Well, it may not be the fact that I value thinking so highly as the fact that I have a deep and visceral fear of ignorance. Why?

In 1965, the Toronto Maple Leafs won the Stanley Cup, which is the Superbowl of hockey. I ran into the kitchen and screamed, “Mom, the Leafs just won the Stanley Cup!” Without batting at eye, my mother replied,

“Is that good for the Jews?”

Ignorance and the prejudice resulting from ignorance have never been good for the Jews.

So I go to these lectures, to find stuff out. The last couple involved two lawyers, a rabbi and an atheist. Sounds like the setup for a joke, but it isn’t. It’s just the rundown of the people I bought tickets to see.

These events weren’t actually lectures, they were “live” appearances, with a moderator asking questions and the featured guests responding to them. The evenings invariably ended with a question period, where the attenders have the opportunity go up to a microphone and question the guests themselves.

I never go up.

It’s not that I don’t have questions; I always have questions. I’m just afraid to ask them. What if my question’s stupid and the audience groans? What if it’s perceived by the guest as a hostile attack, and they respond by cutting me to ribbons? What if I get tongue-tied, or I’m not well-enough prepared and my question comes out long-winded or vague? What if they “boo” me? What if my fly is open? What if I talk and I spit?

Why do I need that kind of aggravation?

I’ve got three questions, questions that came to me during these events, but that I was too scared to ask. I’m going to ask them here, where it’s safe. If you’re a lawyer, a rabbi or an atheist, or you know a rabbi, a lawyer or an atheist, maybe you can offer up some answers. Don’t be shy. There’s no booing on the Internet.

Okay, here are the questions:

I went to an event featuring two famous criminal defense attorneys. If I’d been brave that night, this is what I would have asked them.

To the Defense Attorneys:

“Say, I’m on a jury, and I’m aware that it’s the sworn duty of the defense attorney to say whatever it takes to get their client set free. With this in mind, why should I, as a juror, believe anything a defense attorney tells me?”

I also went to an event billed as a debate between a rabbi and an atheist on the issue of the existence of God. Again, my courage was a “no-show”, but had it not been, I’d have walked to the microphone and said this:

“I have one question for each of you. To the atheist: What is the atheist’s proof for the certainty that God does not exist? And to the rabbi: Considering God’s performance during the Holocaust, what difference does it make whether God exists or not?”

These may not be profound questions. They may, in fact, be cliché questions, questions that have been asked and answered hundreds of times. I just haven’t been around when they were. I guess I was watching hockey.

You feel like helping me out?

Note: I know it’s Sault Ste. Marie, but I wanted to write it the way it’s pronounced. Call it “Phonetic Geography.”

Also, if you want to connect with me but don't want to appear in the "Comments" secti0n, you can reach my at


Veggie Gal said...

I'll step up to play for the atheist team. (I hope I don't spit.) My automatic response is that you cannot disprove a negative. I Googled for some back-up and found this by Craig Hawkins at "One cannot prove a negative claim or assumption, because there is no evidence with which to work with to prove it..." (That's a brain twister!)

If something doesn't exist, where are you supposed to search for proof of it--everywhere? Nowhere? As to the existence of God, I think the burden of proof is on the believers. They know God exists, so show us.

Can one prove God exists? Many believers have said that they go on faith. If that is the case is it fair to ask a non-believer for irrefutable evidence that God does not exist if the questioner's proof is limited to his faith? (Not that faith is in any way limiting, if that's your bag.)

Just thinking...

P.S. I'm a huge believer in "live and let live" and in the Golden Rule. I respect kind and decent people of all faiths, as well as kind and decent people of no faith. And I think that for every horrible thing in this world, there is something wonderful and good. That's life, and I'm happy to be here!

Earl Pomerantz said...

veggie girl,

Thanks for your thoughtfulness. I appreciate your taking the time, and I appreciate your thought-provoking replay. Sometimes, I write silly stuff, and sometimes I don't. And when I don't, it warms me to be taken seriously. Most writers of comedy aren't.

c. miller said...

I spent twenty minutes typing an erudite and entertaining response to the lawyer issue.
Then discovered that I hadn't enabled javascript.
Of course when I clicked "allow" my comment disappeared. C'est la vie.

I truly enjoy this blog.

c. miller

Earl Pomerantz said...

C. miller

I'm sorry your response didn't happen. I have no idea what javascript is, or, none of it. ButI wish I'd seen your answer. Maybe you can try again. I could offer you a quarter, if that would help.

Anyway,thanks for trying.


Anonymous said...

Okay- let me try the legal question.
I'm not an expert, but my understanding of the legal system is that a defense attorney is bound to give the best defense possible for his/her client. And the majority of lawyers are bound by an ethical code.
That means that they are required to tell the truth or get the witnesses to tell the truth. The balance to the system is the prosecuting attorney who is bound to get his or her client the legal end that they have required by bringing suit. If both lawyers are
lying then the hope is that they will cancel each other out. But I believe that, for the most part, practicing law on either side of the table requires truth to get more clients and stay out of trouble with the judge. I believe that lawyers can be disbarred if caught in deceit.
Hope that helps. I love your blog and look forward to reading it each day.

Anonymous said...

Regarding lawyers, there is no way to know if there telling the truth. But a juror should not trust what the defence or prosecution tells them. The evidence is what you base your judgement on and this is given by the witnesses. Even physical and forensic evidence is given by a witness. Now whether you believe the witnesses is up to you but don’t be fooled by listening to anything the lawyers say.

As to the existents and actions of God they are not stupid questions philosophers and theologians have been trying to answer them for more than two thousand years. In fact the job of a rabbi is mostly to try and understand the actions of god through knowledge of the law.

C. Miller said...

"I could offer you a quarter, if that would help."

Would that be Canadian quarter, or one of those cheap American quarters?

C. Miller

Anonymous said...

I don't mean to be argumentative, but I can't leave alone the comments made by anonymous regarding witnesses versus lawyers. I may be taking their comments too seriously. But... Lawyers study law and are supposed to be able to interpret and explain it to jurors. You have to be able to listen to lawyers because no witness is a law expert. And in my experience, if witnesses are anything like retail customers you cannot believe a word they say either. Well, that's a bit of an exaggeration, but just a bit.

Earl Pomerantz said...

to c. miller,

I love the feedback I'm getting on my questions. It's great for a writer of comedy to generate serious responses. I'll make the quarter Canadian. It has a Moose on the back, and the Queen on the front. Moose, of course,see it the other way.

Gimme what you got. And keep it coming.

C. Miller said...

OK. Fair enough. For the Moose, here goes:


". . . it’s the sworn duty of the defense attorney to say whatever it takes to get their client set free."

Well, no. It is the sworn duty of the defense attorney to zealously represent his client within the bounds of the law and ethics. A lawyer must put forth the most cogent defense available to his client while relying upon the facts in evidence and the law as it pertains to those facts.
The lawyer must also require the State to prove its case. One does so by carefully examining the statements of witnesses and demonstrating the untruth or the uncertainty of that evidence. One looks beyond the words spoken from the witness chair to determine, if possible, the bias or interest the witness may have in the outcome of the case. If the lawyer discovers such bias or interest, fair argument may be made to the judge or jury at the appropriate stage of the trial.
Legal arguments are made to the judge, usually out of the presence of the jury. Factual arguments are supposed to be made to the jury ONLY at the conclusion of the presentation of evidence by both sides, and are should rely ONLY on facts that are in evidence (Matlock notwithstanding).
"Whatever it takes" implies the lawyer may fudge the facts at his convenience. Don't forget that a prosecutor is listening to every word spoken by the defense lawyer, and will challenge any attempt at cheating.
Also, a standard jury instruction is one that says approximately, "nothing the attorneys say is evidence." The only evidence is that spoken by the sworn witness or that is in documentary form, and that sponsored either by a sworn witness, or as a matter of law.
As much as I love Messrs. Shatner and Spader, and all the old comedians from my youth who now occupy the benches in all the Boston court rooms, the truth is if a real life lawyer could carry on as they do, I wouldn't be retired now.


"With this in mind, why should I, as a juror, believe anything a defense attorney tells me?”

The lawyers - both sides - are allowed to speak directly to the jury only at certain times, and under strict conditions.

The attorneys, both prosecution and defense, are allowed to "tell" you in opening statements (known by various names from state to state), what they believe the evidence will be. In my experience, jurors are very good at holding the lawyers to the burden of presenting evidence that lives up to that opening statement. A lawyer would have no reason whatever to exaggerate or misrepresent his\her expectation of evidence. It would be fair to say though that lawyers are oft times surprised by what is actually said in contrast to what they believed would be said.

Closing arguments (summations in some venues) are for the purpose of making fair comment on the evidence. The jury is perceived as composed of reasonable persons who have the ability to listen to both sides argue, weigh those arguments in connection to their collective recollection of the testimony and personal review of documentary exhibits, and return a fair verdict. In other words, the defense attorney hasn't "told" you anything in way of evidentiary matter.. Only attempted to explain why the evidence favors his side - state or defendant.

If either side attempts to mislead the jury in either opening or closing, or in the presentation of evidence the other side will object. And, if the judge has been awake, he\she will rule on the objection.

Not worth a Moose, I know, but it has been fun to try to think like a lawyers again for this little while.

Thanks for the opportunity.

C. Miller

By the way, I rewrote this about five times, and if it were submitted to me by a lawyer (me=judge), I would send it back for extensive rewrites. (with notes)

Was the rewrite comment a callback?

again, thanks

Veggie Gal said...

Hi, Earl and C. Miller and Diane (and Anonymous!)--

This is fun. I've been enjoying everyone's participation. This is making me feel that I want to spend more time at dinner parties filled with interesting conversation and less time eating my salad alone in front of the computer. Look out, world!

Earl Pomerantz said...


I owe you a moose quarter. And I always pay off. Just tell me where to send it, or I could give it to a homeless person and say it's from you.

Here's my prejudice. The adversarial system. I have no idea what it has to do with the procurement of justice. To me, it's a gunfight with words.

I know adversarialism is distinctly American, and I'm not, but I believe a courtroom system could be devised that could nudge "winning and losing" the sidlines, and concentrate exclusively on uncovering the truth. I know other legal systems are different. I believe there are times in England, when attorneys are assigned cases, sometimes representing the defense and sometimes, the prosecution. I saw that on JAG too. The cases were assigned, and the goal, ostensibly was to do a conscientious job, not necessarily to emerge victorious.
I'm using up blog material here. But I appreciate you time and effort so much, that the only way I can say thank you is to blab endlessly on.

Thank you for your detailed response. And thanks to all my commenters. I'm proud to serve you.