Hatuna Shava logoA radio campaign called Hatuna Shava – a play on the Hebrew for a wedding that is both egalitarian and “worthwhile” – has been running over the past month in Israel. The radio spot urges young couples to get married, but to keep the Israeli Chief Rabbinate out of it.

Hatuna Shava is a collaboration between the Reform and Masorti (Conservative) movements in Israel and the Israel Hofsheet – Be Free Israel – organization.

The campaign aims to build on a growing trend where one out of every five marriages in Israel today now bypasses the rabbinate. That includes not just same sex or mixed faith couples who cannot get married according to Jewish Law, but liberal Orthodox Jews who are fed up with what they see as the corruption and insensitivity of Israel’s religious establishment.

This is not just a theoretical issue for our family. My daughter is getting married in the fall and she and her fiancé have to decide what kind of wedding they want.

Keeping the rabbinate away from the nuptials means the couple won’t be listed as married in the Israeli population registry, and they might miss out on some tax benefits, but any children that come out of the union would be fine. (They wouldn’t be classified as mamzerim – bastards – under halacha.)

Hatuna Shava would like couples getting married to use a non-Orthodox rabbi affiliated with one of the sponsors’ organization. But I’d go one step further. Why bother with a rabbi at all?

My respect for religious leadership in Israel – never particularly high – has been battered in the last month.

First it was the Supreme Rabbinical Court’s rejection of a conversion performed by Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, a prominent modern Orthodox rabbi in the U.S., despite protests led by Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky and backed up by Education Minister Naftali Bennett.

Then there was the revelation that incoming IDF Chief Rabbi Eyal Karim had in the past made disparaging statements against women, gay people and non-Jews.

Karim implied that it is permissible for IDF soldiers to rape non-Jewish women during wartime, that women should not fill combat roles in the army, and that gay people should be treated as “sick or disabled.” Karim has since backtracked, but the damage was done.

A few days later, another army-related religious leader, Rabbi Yigal Levinstein, who co-founded and heads the Bnei David pre-military religious academy in the West Bank settlement of Eli, repeatedly referred to gays as “perverts.” While he was roundly condemned by many public figures, 350 rabbis subsequently signed a letter supporting Levinstein.

These kinds of outrageous statements by religious leaders are nothing new – shortly after I first arrived in Israel in 1985, then Minister of the Interior Yitzhak Peretz placed the blame for a horrendous train accident that killed 22 junior high school students on the fact that a movie theater was allowed to remain open on Shabbat.

It’s not my intention to paint every religious leader with the same black brush. There are many rabbis who do excellent work. But every time I hear another inflammatory, racist, homophobic or misogynist statement coming from the religious right, I ask myself, why not abolish the whole institution?

What do we need rabbis for anyway? We don’t actually need them to perform a wedding – for that you just need a couple of witnesses, a ketuba (marriage contract) and a short ceremony involving an object of value (usually a ring).

There are Orthodox synagogues that don’t have a rabbi but rather a ritual committee that decides matters of Jewish practice for the community.

Kashrut doesn’t need rabbis either. The Hashgacha Pratit initiative was spurred by several Jerusalem restaurant owners who were fed up paying money to the Chief Rabbinate for kashrut inspectors who showed up for all of a couple of minutes a month yet still demanded their full payment.

Hashgacha Pratit creates a multi-sided learning compact where a restaurant’s staff is trained in what it takes to keep kosher and then signs a “contract of faith” which requires “total transparency toward the customers.” The responsibility for kashrut rests primarily with the restaurateur and its patrons, rather than outside rabbis. (A recent court ruling prevents Hashgacha Pratit from actually using the word “kosher.”)

Why not extend this do-it-yourself approach to all aspects of Jewish life?

After all, Judaism is supposed to be built as a community of scholars; of serious men and women who study Torah. Why can’t we decide on issues ourselves and jettison the crooked temptations that come with coupling a restaurant’s kashrut to a particular type of lettuce or the sanctity of a wedding to the color of the rabbi’s kippa?

Now, I know that what I’m proposing would probably lead to chaos and anarchy. You’d have two Jews, three synagogues and no one would agree to anything. How could we eat in each other’s homes?

But even if this is a mere thought experiment, the very fact that at least some of you may be nodding your heads in agreement means it’s worth playing out on a small stage – like a wedding without the rabbinate.

As Yizhar Hess, executive director of the Masorti movement in Israel, and one of the backers of Hatuna Shava put it, “young couples are done with declarations and demonstrations. They are simply voting with their rings.”

I first proposed my thought experiment on abolishing the rabbis at The Jerusalem Post.

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Shir FriedmanShir Friedman calls me a care-nivore. “You’re someone who cares about not harming animals…but you still eat them,” she says with a smile.

Friedman wants to change all that. If Friedman’s new company takes off – and judging by the rapid response to their Indiegogo campaign, I have every expectation that it will – I may be able to save some of the 50 billion chickens that are slaughtered every year for meat, while still enjoying my Shabbat schnitzel.

The company is called SuperMeat and it’s part of a growing ecosystem of “cultured meat” technologies where meat, be it a chicken breast or a hamburger, can be grown from a stem cell without ever hurting the animal itself. There are a variety of techniques being studied, from purely test tube chicken to research into 3D printing of living tissues.

The big idea behind SuperMeat is to take cultured chicken mass market.

Using technology developed by Professor Yaakov Nahmias of the Hebrew University, SuperMeat is inventing a kind of “oven” that can cook up my schnitzel from scratch on the spot – in a restaurant, supermarket or even at home.

SuperMeat would manufacture the oven and sell a special serum, powder or capsule containing cell samples, which you would inject into the unit. (In that way, SuperMeat becomes the “SodaStream for cultured meat.”)

“The oven makes the cells believe they are still inside the animal’s body,” Friedman explains – that’s how they grow into real muscle tissue.

How long will it take to create my chicken dinner? Friedman couldn’t tell me. (Although she’s hoping for somewhere between ten and thirty minutes.)

You see, this is all still in the concept stage. SuperMeat launched a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo just last week to raise $100,000. In less than 24 hours, forty-one percent of the total had been raised. As of this week, it was up to $78,000.

That should be enough to get to a prototype in the next year and a half, Friedman says. The full mass-market device will take closer to 5 years and require lots more money – up to $2.5 million.

How can Friedman be so sure SuperMeat’s super oven will work? Because SuperMeat co-founder and chief science officer Prof. Nahmias has done this before – with human liver tissue. Commercializing the technology for your local Aroma or my kitchen was a logical next step.

The cultured meat business is still in its infancy. The first cultured burger was created and eaten only in 2013. Google co-founder Sergey Brin funded the research, making that perhaps the most expensive fast food meal in history.

Getting behind cultured chicken is important for a so-called care-nivore like me. (Brian Kateman, innovation manager at the Good Food Institute, might call me a “reducetarian” – a term he coined on the TED stage for someone who aspires to eat less meat.)

I abhor the way modern industrial farming treats animals and I’m well aware of the damage it does to the planet – in terms of water and land usage, not to mention the methane gas produced by those tens of billions of animals before they are brutally transformed into our dinners each year.

But despite my ideological affiliation, I just can’t bring myself to stop eating meat.

With a SuperMeat oven in my kitchen, I wouldn’t have to.

Israel has garnered a reputation lately as being a vegan hub. Tel Aviv has more vegans per capita than anywhere outside of India, Friedman claims.

Did that play a part in SuperMeat’s founding in the Holy Land?

Friedman says absolutely. In addition to there simply being more interest in meat alternatives in Israel – Friedman has been vegan for the last decade, company co-founder Koby Barak has eschewed meat for 15 years – there’s patriotism at play.

“Imagine reading a headline in the newspaper saying Israel is saving the world from hunger,” instead of what you usually read from the Middle East, she says.

SuperMeat is focusing on chicken for now simply because there are more individual animals eaten. “For every cow slaughtered, 100 chickens are killed,” Friedman explains.

Perhaps the most interesting question about cultured meat for Jewish consumers will be: is it kosher?

SuperMeat interviewed three Orthodox rabbis – Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, Rabbi Dov Lior and Rabbi Shlomo Aviner. In a video posted on SuperMeat’s Facebook page, all said that not only would cultured meat be kosher, it would be parve.

That is, because the process of creating meat in a SuperMeat oven would be so different than the traditional raising (and killing) of live animals, cultured meat wouldn’t be considered fleishik (Yiddish for “meat”). In the video, Cherlow compared it with “the manipulative system that is used to make gelatin even from animals that are completely impure.

From there, it gets even wilder: You could conceivably create cultured pork in a SuperMeat device and it would be kosher and parve too.

Which leads to the biggest question of all – can I have a kosher bacon double cheeseburger again? (It’s been 30 years, but my taste buds still remember.)

Although cultured pork would probably be banned due to its visual similarity with regular meat, from the point of view of Jewish Law, some liberal decisors might rule it OK.

Now that’s something to chew on while you’re making your donation to SuperMeat’s Indiegogo campaign.

Here’s a link to SuperMeat’s crowdfunding page.

I first contemplated a kosher cheeseburger at The Jerusalem Post.

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Thync_Wellness_CloseUpOver the last three weeks, I’ve been zapping my brain with small jolts of electricity. I bought a small device called a Thync. It’s a triangular piece of plastic that looks kind of like a thinner version of the fried potato hors d’oeuvres served at Israeli weddings, only in white matte rather than greasy golden brown.

You attach the Thync to your forehead, just above the right eyebrow, using the medical grade adhesives it comes with and pair it via Bluetooth with your iPhone. The Thync mobile app then delivers a patterned dose of electricity designed to either calm you down or pep you up, depending on the setting.

The Thync is the first attempt at taking what’s known as trans-cranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) mainstream. The Thync’s inventors say that it’s safe – they point to a wealth of scientific papers with titles like “Transdermal neuromodulation of noradrenergic activity” – and add that because the power is so low, the U.S. Federal Drug Administration isn’t even testing it. (It’s considered a “lifestyle product” rather than a mini-electroshock therapy kit.)

Still, administering electricity directly to my brain – am I crazy?

Well, not quite crazy, but sleep deprived for sure. I’ve suffered from chronic insomnia for more than a decade and can’t get to sleep without pills. So when I heard about the Thync, my own thinking went: if this can induce drowsiness without the side effects of Ambien or Lunesta, why not give it a try?

It’s not the first time I’ve veered into the fringes of alternative medicine to tweak my body. In 2010, I took a dose of helminths – a type of intestinal hookworm – after reading that these therapeutic parasites, which co-evolved with the human body over millions of years (and which we’ve flushed away – literally – with modern hygiene), could help with auto-immune disorders like ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s Disease.

The treatment didn’t seem to make much of a difference, but it set me on a course of being a bit of a medical daredevil.

Which is ironic given that, in general, I’m the biggest cynic on the block when it comes to most non-Western medicine. I’m a regular reader of Skeptic Magazine and I was furious at Steve Jobs for trying to treat his pancreatic cancer with fruit juices.

But then again, science is making some remarkable discoveries about the power of the placebo.

Jo Marchant is the author of Cure: A Journey into the Science of Mind over Body. Placebo painkillers, it turns out “can trigger the release of natural pain-relieving chemicals called endorphins,” she writes in Scientific American. “Patients with Parkinson’s disease respond to placebos with a flood of dopamine.” Fake oxygen seems to help with altitude sickness.

To be sure, placebos are not going to cure cancer or help with heart disease. But Marchant emphasizes that patients are not being “fooled” by placebos either. “These are real, biological changes…it’s not all in your imagination.”

Perhaps most surprising is that placebos seem to work even when recipients know. Ted Kaptchuk heads Harvard’s Center for Placebo Studies. In a recent study, he found that patients suffering from Irritable Bowel Syndrome who were told they were getting a sugar pill reported twice as much symptom relief as those in a no-treatment group.

Is that how my brain zapping Thync works too?

If so, then I must have a pretty high level of resistance. In my first few days using the “Good Night” mode, I didn’t feel any benefit. If anything, it was the opposite – when the Thync ramps up its 20-minute cycle of electro-pulses, I felt an intense itching on my forehead where the device was sitting and a heavy pressure that gave me a whopper of a headache.

Thync’s literature says that’s normal. Still, why would I subject myself to that? My sleep didn’t seem to be improving.

It wasn’t until a few days later when, mid-afternoon, I tried the “Surge” setting – designed to provide “a rush of energy and motivation” – that I noticed a change. My mood felt brighter. I wasn’t tired. When I took the dog out for a walk, I had a desire to skip down the block, to sing and laugh.

Was this real or placebo?

Real, insists Thync co-founder Jamie Tyler. “Our brains already have the power to combat stress and achieve a calm state,” he says. Thync’s electrical neuro-signaling, simply “invokes these mechanisms on demand.”

Dr. Roy Hamilton directs the Lab for Cognition and Neural Stimulation at the University of Pennsylvania where he says he’s produced some intriguing results using electrodes to stimulate the brains of healthy people. In one study, patients became more creative. Another helped them quit smoking faster.

But Hamilton wouldn’t give the Thync two thumbs up just yet. “Your brain is not just one cognitive function,” he said on the podcast Note to Self. “It consists of circuits modulating circuits interacting with networks. It’s the most complex instrument in the known universe and we’re hitting it with electrical current in these pretty crude ways.”

That queued up a “surge” of a different kind – a return to my skeptical self. Sometimes you don’t want to be the first person beta testing an entirely new contraption.

I’ve got a few more days to try out my Thync (there’s a 30-day money back guarantee – helpful when you’re experimenting with your brain). I haven’t decided if I’ll keep it or not.

Ask me in the morning after a night of deep Thync.

I first shocked myself for journalism at The Jerusalem Post.

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“Can I ask your advice?” Shraga said on a sunny Shabbat afternoon a couple of weeks ago. “How do you make it work, religiously? You know, being in a mixed marriage?”

I was taken aback momentarily. I had never heard my marriage described that way although, on consideration, it was in fact accurate.

For years, the expression “mixed marriage” has been wielded like an angry bird battering away at the very foundation of Diaspora Jewish continuity.

In Israel these days, though, the term mixed marriage has taken on a new meaning: not two people of different religions but of different religious outlooks, where one person in the couple is observant and the other is not.

Frequently, that’s not the way the couple started out.

That’s been the story of my marriage. When Jody and I first met, we were both newly frum. Our love was forged on shared goals of building a religious household and raising religious children. A dozen years in, though, I began to change. Observance and belief dropped off and we found ourselves in crisis.

“You’re not the man I married!” Jody cried out at one point in the early days of trying to figure out what this all meant.

But figure it out we did and that’s why Shraga had turned to me. He’s been with his wife 10 years already and has a couple of kids, but he and his partner are no longer on the same page religiously. He will discretely start the air conditioner on Shabbat while his wife pretends to look the other way. She loves going to synagogue; he struggles to get there for Kiddush.

What are the keys to ensuring that a marriage like his – like mine – can survive, he needed to know?

Elliot MalametBefore I give you (and Shraga) my answer, I want to expand the dilemma beyond just the personal. On Shavuot this year, I attended a lecture by Dr. Elliot Malamet with the provocative title “The Torah vs. Me: Judaism and the Question of the Authentic Self.”

Malamet’s topic was, in many ways, my own life played out on a national, religious stage. What do you do, Malamet asked, when your sense of personal autonomy clashes with the foundations of something bigger – your marriage or, in this case, Jewish Law? Can you stay within tradition? Or must you squash your authenticity to adhere to the rules and norms of the religious system?

Malamet brought the example of the late Rabbi David Hartman who once had to decide whether to marry a couple named Peter and Susan. But there was a hitch. At the last moment, Peter discovered he was a Kohen – a member of the priestly class. And Susan was a convert. Jewish Law says the two are not allowed to marry.

God Who Hates LiesHartman wrote about the dilemma in his 2011 book The God Who Hates Lies. He noted that his teacher, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, faced a similar question and sided with the halacha. That couple was forced to seek happiness elsewhere. Rabbi Hartman couldn’t do that to Peter and Susan, though, and he agreed to marry them.

In many ways, the modern Jewish world, with its incessant back and forth between the individual and the system, has become the ultimate mixed marriage.

Too often, though, that’s presented as a binary, either-or conundrum. When confronted with change, you have to choose: in or out. There are movements within religious tradition towards embracing more modernity – the latest ordination of seven women as Orthodox rabbis in Jerusalem earlier this month is just one example – but it’s slow by design. Move too fast, and the whole scaffolding snaps. But move too slowly and people drop out.

“Nu,” Shraga demanded, impatient with my digression into issues that he didn’t see as necessarily helping with his personal puzzle. “How do you bridge the gap?”

What’s worked for my marriage, I told him, is being able to differentiate between core values and external actions. Because the latter – like everything in life – are always going to change, sometimes radically.

In a marriage, for example, you might marry someone working in hi-tech earning a certain salary and used to a certain lifestyle. Then your spouse changes careers and becomes a house painter.

If you get too attached to the external identity, that can precipitate a predicament. But if you know going into the marriage that many, maybe even most of the “actions” are going to change, you can identify and hold onto the personal qualities that brought you together in the first place.

That’s also the case with Judaism on the national scale. The actions – specific religious behaviors, customs and Jewish Law – are going to change in small and sometimes larger ways, but the core of what brings us together as a Jewish people (and I’ll let you fill in your own blanks here) remains.

The only surefire guarantee to breaking up a mixed marriage of either kind is to fight change, which, while clichéd, is indeed inevitable.

That doesn’t mean you can’t bend.

“Learning how to compromise is essential for a healthy relationship, although you sometimes have to be very creative,” said Nomi Raz, a Jerusalem-based couples counselor. In a mixed marriage, “the one who’s more religious becomes a bit less. The one who’s less observant needs to be more tolerant.”

“A big part of a relationship is spending time together and religious activities are one way partners do this,” a friend who’s in a mixed marriage told me. “It simply requires a little more resourcefulness in finding things to share.”

Jody and I have been able to find a balance between self-actualization and accommodation. I hope our experience will help Shraga stay true to himself and to his marriage.

Because if we can do it, then so can the Jewish world.

I first wrote about mixed marriages at The Jerusalem Post.

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As I was researching The aliyah premium – how much more does it really cost to live in Israel?, I quickly realized that the only fair way to deal with the wide variances in individual earnings and tax rates was to stick with official and presumably impartial government sources like the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics or the U.S. Census Bureau.

But real life rarely conforms to the averages you get from published data, as the hundreds of messages I received on social media made abundantly clear.

By focusing on “average household income,” my social media correspondents told me, I was missing out on the stories of the not-so-average families and individuals who chose to make aliyah and who – except for a relatively small demographic of hi-tech workers able to transition into well compensated employment in Israel – more often than not “traded down” career-wise.

Trading down happens in two ways. Either you earn significantly less after aliyah (think a doctor’s earnings in the old country vs. Israel) or you’re compelled to change careers entirely because the job you were doing isn’t available in Israel, requires language skills you’re missing, or entails a long and difficult process of certification.

Eve Jacobs with her business partner, Nadia Levene, in one of their Jerusalem Holiday HomesEve Jacobs worked as an elementary school teacher in the U.K., but says continuing in that field in Israel would have meant “retraining and living on very little pay” – a double whammy.

“As a doctor, my Israeli salary is 10-20 percent of what it was and the hours are 50 percent more,” one person wrote to me on Facebook.

“Talented hard-working people in business or the legal field can earn much more in the U.S.,” wrote another.

This is not unique to Israel, of course. People changing countries everywhere tend to trade down, with the usual justification that “we’re doing it for the children.”

“True, you’ll take a pay cut. But the trade off is you belong. You are the landlord and not the tenant here,” wrote a Facebook friend.

Why is it so hard for immigrants to make ends meet?

“When you leave your country of origin, you leave the connections and the subtle cultural understandings that give you an economic advantage,” wrote Brett Batzofin

Rachel Selby echoed that insight. “In the U.S. you are familiar with the system, you have a good education, you know the language with all the nuances, and you have family connections and a network of old friends.” You lose that edge when you move away.

Rachel Berger, director of post-aliyah and employment at Nefesh B’Nefesh, sees the glass more half full.

“If you look around at the cities and neighborhoods where new immigrants have settled, you’ll see that people are not packing their bags and leaving,” Berger said. “People complain but, at the same time, we are seeing a lot of growth and development.”

Berger classifies those making aliyah into two categories: “professionals who are passionate about their trade and want to continue in it, and those who – after taking the leap of aliyah – also want to do a career leap and transition into something different.”

I found that in my Facebook comments too – a move beyond the negative towards reinvention. Many people were flourishing after making aliyah. The common denominator: being an immigrant had pushed them to embrace change and often to find an entrepreneurial spirit they didn’t know they had.

Eve Jacobs, the schoolteacher from the U.K., opened up Jerusalem Holiday Homes, which manages short-term holiday rentals. Business is booming.

“There is no way I could have lived as a single mother in Jerusalem on a teacher’s wage,” Jacobs said. On a good month, she says she is able to earn “more than three times as much as my previous salary.”

Shira Taylor Gura The Stuck MethodShira Gura trained in the U.S. as an occupational therapist but took time off to raise her children. She started writing a blog about how to get “unstuck.” It caught on. Her first book is due out later this month and she has launched a business involving coaching, workshops and retreats.

“I never would have dreamed I’d be an author, entrepreneur or anything other than a stay-at-home mom,” Gura said.

“When I first made aliyah in the 1970s I was a geneticist,” wrote Barak Tom Salakoff. He went back to university, got a degree in education, and has been “a teacher for over 40 years. Aliyah was good for me in so many ways.”

Then there’s Joel Haber who worked as a screenwriter before moving to Israel. He knew he wouldn’t be able to continue in the same profession in English, so he retrained and became a tour guide here. “My career life is way better for me than it was when I was in the States,” he said, adding that being willing to switch careers to something “that is needed here or that better fits one’s skillset” ensures “much greater chances of finding professional success.”

That might describe my own post-aliyah career trajectory, as well. I worked in hi-tech for many years before transitioning to freelance writing. I’m much happier even if my compensation has dropped.

I often wonder, though: if I’d stayed in the U.S., would I have gotten bit by the same entrepreneurial bug? Or would I have stayed the hi-tech course?

We can second-guess the choices we make forever. Still for me – and apparently quite a few other immigrants – aliyah has been anything but “trading down.”

I trade up to write for The Jerusalem Post! This article appeared there.

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Indie rock discoveries at the fringes of Jacob’s Ladder

May 30, 2016

I’m probably the worst person to review the annual Jacob’s Ladder folk music festival that took place last weekend on the grounds of Kibbutz Nof Ginosar on the Sea of Galilee. I’m generally not a big fan of folk unless it’s either prefixed with “indie” or has “rock” appended afterward. As a result, I spend […]

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The “aliyah premium” – how much more does it really cost to live in Israel?

May 23, 2016

It’s no secret that immigrants to Israel from North America take a financial hit. But as I finished up my U.S. taxes last month (as an Israeli with dual citizenship, I am required to file in both countries), I stopped for a moment to ponder exactly how big that hit has been. What is the […]

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Meditation intervention

April 28, 2016

“You’ll be staying in Building 3,” explained Danny, as we arrived at Kibbutz Ein Dor, where we were about to spend just under a week at the annual silent Jewish meditation retreat my wife and I have attended for the past several years. We had gotten to the retreat late this year – our son’s […]

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A Seder for Non Believers

April 15, 2016

Jewish tradition commands Pesach Seder participants to imagine that they themselves had been enslaved in Egypt and were redeemed through the Exodus. But what happens if you don’t believe that there were Israelites in Egypt or that the Exodus was a real historical occurrence? What do you do on Seder night if your personal take […]

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Why I’m voting for Donald Trump

April 1, 2016

Yes, you read that right. It’s taken a while, but I’ve finally come around. Republican presidential contender Donald Trump has won me over. And come November, if he’s still in the race (and if this election year has taught us anything, it’s that nothing is mandated from heaven), he’ll have my vote. He says he’s […]

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