Wednesday, September 20, 2017

An Apology for Adelai: Why Malcolm Reynolds Should Have Stolen the Medicine


(Recently, I have been taking part in an online discussion group devoted to Firefly and Libertarianism, which served to inspire this piece.)

Part of the charm of Firefly for Libertarians is its rather nuanced take on the Alliance government. As the central villain of the series, it would have been easy for Joss Whedon to have turned the Alliance into something sinister akin to the Empire of Star Wars. Yet, throughout the series, we are never really given a reason to question the fact that the Alliance is competent and, in general, improves the lives of its citizens. Yes, they kidnap children and operate on them. Yes, they employ secretive and spooky agents. That being said, it is only with the discovery of Miranda at the end of the Serenity movie that we are given an example where it can be said that the Alliance messed up. Everything else is easy to defend on utilitarian grounds that the galaxy is left a better place. And even Miranda is hardly something to delegitimize the Alliance (even as it does convert the Operative). Sure the Alliance exposed people to chemicals that turned them into the zombie space barbarian Reavers. But they meant well and is this really worse than all the times the United States has armed different groups with unexpected consequences. The fact that the Alliance is a pretty good government, forces Malcolm Reynolds and his friends to fall back on principles to defend their refusal to bow to the Alliance. Having no empirical grounds for claiming that they have a plan for a better galaxy (or any plan at all), all they can demand is their right to go their own way regardless of the consequences.

One of the chief examples on the show where the Alliance comes across in a positive light is the "Train Job" episode. Here, Mal is hired by the brutal crime boss Adelai Niska to steal a crate of goods from an Alliance train. When it turns out that the crate contains needed medicine for the local townspeople of Paradiso, Mal returns the goods, giving up a valuable payday and making himself a dangerous enemy. In keeping with the theme of valuing libertarian principles over pragmatic utilitarianism, I wish to offer a defense of Niska stealing the medicine and an argument as to why Mal should not have given it back.

I assume most viewers support Mal's decision to take the job in the first place when the crate was simply some unnamed goods (perhaps the newest iPhone to be sold to the town's wealthy). As an enemy of the Alliance and a soldier in a war against them, Mal has no social contract with the Alliance that would prohibit him from robbing them. It is irrelevant that the Alliance won the war and now possesses a very real monopoly on violence throughout known space. On the contrary, the Alliance's possession of such power simply demonstrates that they are the aggressors and not Mal. Mal is justified in stealing from the Alliance despite the fact that, from a galactic utilitarian view, Mal's theft is harmful. He is not producing any goods. Once he has finished with his theft, the galactic economy will be left with the same goods minus the cost of the crew of Serenity's time and effort along with the damage done to the train and injuries to soldiers.

If you are willing to support Mal when we assumed it was just luxury goods for the rich being stolen, you should logically be willing to follow this position when it is a little less favorable to Mal. What if the crate contained aid for the poor people not immediately threatened with death? Here we have the literary example of Ragnar Danneskjold, the anti-Robin Hood privateer of Atlas Shrugged. Ragnar makes a point of only attacking government aid ships. His reasoning is that the goods have been stolen from hard working capitalists and are being used to prop up socialist regimes that will further oppress people. By robbing aid ships he is helping to bring down socialism and repay capitalists like Hank Rearden what the government stole from him in taxes. The fact that there are people who need these goods far more than Rearden does is irrelevant to Rand's philosophy.

The Alliance has stolen the goods from hard working productive individuals like Niska. We can assume that Niska is productive as people clearly want to do business with him so badly that they are willing to step outside the law and become criminals to do so. (See Defending the Undefendable by Walter Block.) We can assume that an intelligent man like Niska manages to avoid paying taxes to the Alliance. That being said, Niska indirectly pays a hefty price for being on the wrong side of Alliance law in that he is left without a suitable court to settle business disagreements. This leaves him with no choice but brutally torture people to death whenever they fail him.

In general, it is irrational to kill people as it is economically inefficient. Standard economics and Occam's Razor force us to assume that Niska is rational and is only killing people because the Alliance makes him do it and not because he is a psychopath. Even if Niska was a psychopath, his actions would still be the Alliance's fault as they made otherwise legitimate businesses illegal, creating a market that psychopaths could easily take over and become rich and powerful instead of falling to the power of the free market, which punishes people for irrational behavior far more effectively than government ever would. It should be noted that, at the end of the episode, Mal knocks one of Niska's henchmen into a spaceship engine while the later is tied up and defenseless. If you are willing to accept such cold-blooded murder as necessary under the circumstances then you should, at least hypothetically, be willing to accept that Niska needs to kill people sometimes simply to make a point and maintain his reputation.

While the residents of the town could use the aid, they never had a right to it. I assume we can accept that it would be immoral for them to turn to piracy to get their needs even if they were stealing from people who could easily spare the goods. Furthermore, it would be justifiable to respond to such piracy with deadly force. Therefore it is immoral for the town to have the Alliance use legal theft to supply the aid. There is a larger issue at stake here in that giving aid is a major propaganda boost, making the case that the Alliance really is making the galaxy a better place. This would be the same problem as accepting a donation from the Mafia no matter how noble the cause.

Now we come to the really tricky matter where, in fact, Mal is not stealing luxuries from rich or even needed aid for the poor but medical supplies, without which people are going to die. Keep in mind that we have already surrendered any claim to utility and are solely concerned with the principle of liberty. Now we should consider why Niska might have wanted to steal the medicine in the first place and what he might want to do with it. The most logical thing would be to immediately sell the medicine back to the town at an exorbitant price. Presumably, the Alliance would have to step in and come up with the money. In this case, we would be back to the first scenario where it would be no different than if the crate had been full of money. One can go so far as to argue that even if Niska was not planning on doing this, Mal would be justified in assuming that was his intention and wash his hands of the affair.   

It is possible that Niska is planning on selling the medicine to other miners who need it to live. If this were the case then Mal would be justified as the lives of Niska's people are not less valuable than that of the Alliance's. On the contrary, Niska's people have clearly committed less aggression.

What if Niska was planning on simply using the medicine to make a face cream for a celebrity or simply destroy it out of spite? Valuing silly luxuries for celebrities over medicine for poor people is something that society does every day when people throw money away on movie tickets instead of giving to charity. (Clearly, the world have Firefly still has movie theaters as Shepherd Book reserves a special place in Hell for people who talk in them.) In this case, Niska can hardly be blamed for following the same logic to its extreme conclusion. Destroying the medicine could also be seen as a worthwhile deed as it would humiliate the Alliance and demonstrate that they are not as all-powerful as most people think. This would help undermine the Alliance, which might not actually improve anyone's existence but would still be consistent with advancing liberty.

It should be understood that my entire argument rests on the assumption that it was ok for Mal to steal from the Alliance in the first place even if it was just luxury goods for the rich. This would require us to reject the Alliance's moral authority as well as any claims to utilitarian benefit. Once we start down this path than very quickly we find ourselves with a license to let people die from lack of medicine.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Homo Deus and Ontological Naturalism



A fundamental concept in understanding the relationship between religion and science is the distinction between methodological naturalism and ontological naturalism. Methodological naturalism means that one operates as if there is no supernatural. Ontological naturalism is the actual belief that there really is nothing outside of nature. Methodological rationalist fields such as science and history must operate according to methodological naturalism for the simple reason that beings like God, while they may exist, cannot be analyzed using such methods. Now it is important to realize that this is not atheism or some kind of trick to smuggle in atheism. On the contrary, methodological naturalism stands as a major stumbling block to atheism as it requires us to acknowledge that science is totally inadequate for directly telling us if there is a God or not.

This is not mere theist apologetics. There is often incredible value to analytical statements that are not actually true but help us understand a field. A great example of this is the Smithian Man (Homo Economicus). Contrary to stock criticisms of economics, no economist, not even Adam Smith, actually believes that there are such super-rational and all knowing humans such as Smithian Men. That being said, imagining that such a being exists and asking how he might respond to particular situations has proven to be a productive starting point for economics.

To be clear, science may play an indirect role in promoting atheism. A universe in which the methodological naturalism of science did not offer adequate explanations for observable phenomenon (imagine if there really was something in biology that was irreducibly complex) would have a lot more theists. By contrasts, if methodological naturalism really allowed us to understand everything about nature, leaving no more questions, then atheists would have good ground to argue that methodological naturalism offers powerful reasons for taking the philosophical position of ontological naturalism. God would then follow fairies as a being that we have no reason to hypothesize about and come to ignore.  

Keep this in mind and you can dismiss most polemics from either the theist or atheist sides as nonsense. This brings me to Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow by the Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari. In most respects, this is an insightful book if it were not marred by the author's willingness to engage in crude atheist polemics that casually jump between methodological and ontological naturalism.

According to Harari, evolution refutes the existence of the soul. Evolution is a gradual step-by-step process while the soul, for some reason, must be indivisible.

Unfortunately, the theory of evolution rejects the ideas that my true self is some indivisible, immutable and potentially eternal essence. ... Elephants and cells have evolved gradually, as a result of new combinations and splits. Something that cannot be divided or changed cannot have come into existence through natural selection.

... the theory of evolution cannot accept the idea of souls, at least if by 'soul' we mean something indivisible, immutable and potentially eternal. Such an entity cannot possibly result from a step-by-step evolution. natural selection could produce a human eye, because the eye has parts. But the soul has no parts. If the Sapiens soul evolved step by step from the Erectus soul, what exactly were these steps? Is there some part of the soul that is more developed in Sapiens than in Erectus? But the soul has no parts.

You might argue that human souls did not evolve, but appeared one bright day in the fullness of their glory. But when exactly was that bright day? ... biology cannot explain the birth of a baby possessing an eternal soul from parents who did not have even a shred of a soul. (pg. 104-06.)

It should be noted that if we are to take Harari seriously, we should reject the foundation of classical liberalism that individuals exist. We all might just be soulless byproducts of evolution but I would hope our collections of DNA and cells can count as distinct persons with rights. It is certainly not the place of science to say otherwise. As for the soul, any person of faith, who is already comfortable with the notion of evolution should also be open to the idea that souls might exist on some kind of continuum between animals and the divine. Alternatively, why not imagine that some kind of Adam with a soul arose at some point of history born to philosophical zombie parents. Like most religious people, I treat the soul as a black box and do not have strong opinions one way or another about its precise nature (beyond rejecting on monotheist grounds the notion that the soul can, in any way, be a part of God). The idea that science should have some kind of opinion on the matter strikes me as a bad joke on par with creation science.

The bad theology and even worse science continue with Harari attempting to prove that God does not disapprove of homosexuality. Following Sam Harris, Harari wants to turn statements of ethics or religion into factual claims, which science can then weigh-in upon. We are offered the example of the Donation of Constantine, which was used to make the religious claim that the Church was the sovereign authority over Western Europe. In the fifteenth-century, Lorenzo Valla, using historical scholarship and linguistic analysis, demonstrated that this document was a medieval forgery. So, according to Harari, Valla used science to refute a religious claim. Of course, neither history nor linguistics are sciences and their claims are far more tentative. Even if one accepts, as I do, that the Donation was a forgery. This is a relatively minor blow against a belief system that was likely based upon the normative position that the Church should have sovereign power. So some anonymous scribe had Constantine say words that are spiritual facts that he clearly believed in. Why should this affect anyone's simple faith in the Church's supremacy?

Harari applies this same logic to homosexuality. The ethical position that humans should obey God hides the "factual" claim that, 3,000 years ago, God wrote a book denouncing homosexuality, leading to the practical guideline that humans should not practice homosexuality. Harari then brings out the "science" of Bible criticism to demonstrate that this opposition to homosexuality is the product of priests and rabbis rather than the almighty. Harari ends with the retort that: "If Ugandan politicians think that the power that created the cosmos, the galaxies and the black holes becomes terribly upset whenever two Homo sapiens males have a bit of fun together, then science can help disabuse them of this rather bizarre notion." (pg. 196.)

Textual criticism is not a science and any conclusions it comes to are going to be highly tentative (like any study of ancient history). Science and textual criticism can tell us nothing about the mind of God whether, assuming he was inclined to write a book, he might write the book at once while making it look like it was assembled over a period of time. Alternatively, divine providence might have manifested itself through a historical process of bringing together and redacting different documents. Taking this logic a step further, the history of religion itself might plausibly be a divine revelation allowing man to evolve into something more godly. Whether such spiritually enlightened beings will allow gay marriage or hunt gays for sport is something beyond the boundaries of science.

The problem of how a creator God can actually care about human beings at all let alone their ritual practices (whether gay sex or pig eating) has haunted monotheism from the beginning. Much like the problem of evil, science has been able to add little to what was already a serious problem. Keep in mind that, contrary to the Whig nonsense about there being a Copernican revolution to teach man that he was not the center of the universe, pre-modern Judeo-Christian Islamic theology already taught that man was not that important in the scheme of things. If several thousand years of theology has not made religious fundamentalists, whether in Uganda or in the Bible Belt, cautious about drawing straight lines between God's will and public policy, they are unlikely to listen to scientists.  

     

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

The Mises Institute as a Religion: A Heretical Libertarian's Response


Recently, there has been some controversy over an essay by Jeff Deist of the Mises Institute over his use of the term "blood and soil." This term has Nazi associations though I do not think anyone is actually accusing the Mises Institute of being a Nazi or otherwise white supremacist organization. I would even be open to a charitable reading of Deist as describing the reality on the ground of people being concerned with blood and soil if it were not for the fact that Deist is an exercise in totally uncharitable readings of other libertarians. What is certainly a real issue, particularly in this age of Trump, is a willingness of even elements within the libertarian movement to tolerate bigotry. This is the inheritance of a mistaken Rothbardian strategy that imagines that white men angry over desegregation and immigration are going to, somehow, turn into friends of the free market and of liberty.

I would like to call attention to another issue in the essay. At the very beginning of the piece, Deist states:  

Thanks to the great thinkers who came before us, and still among us, we don’t have to do the hard work — which is good news, because not many of us are smart enough to come up with new theory! We can all very happily serve as second-hand dealers in ideas.

This is followed by an attack on libertarians for falling in the "modernity trap" and imagining that technology might render government obsolete. To my mind, this sounds as if the Mises Institue is now treating the works of Ludwig von Mises and Murray Rothbard as religious holy texts, "capital T truths" that must be submitted to without question. 

The essential features of a canonized religious text are that one cannot disagree with it and it must be viewed as essential to being part of the group. This serves to draw a line to establish who is a true believer in the group. For example, I consider Jesus to be a great Jewish teacher. What makes me not a Christian is that, despite my high opinion of Jesus, he does not play an essential role in my relationship with God. This renders the entire New Testament to be of historical and spiritual interest but ultimately of marginal value. One can be a good Jew and certainly a good monotheist without ever reading it. In a sense, I am worse than a heretic. It is not as if I actively reject Christianity as much as I am indifferent to it. Raised as a Jew, I never developed any emotional attachment to Christian ritual nor did I ever develop a deep seated psychological fear of burning in Hell for all eternity for rejecting it. (Haredi Hell, on the other hand, does keep me up at night.) 

As with Christianity, I would argue that Chabad, at this point, should be viewed as a separate religion from Judaism. Chabad views its texts, such as Tanya and the sichas of the late rebbe, not just as one legitimate interpretation of Judaism among many but as the True Judaism. Without the teachings of Chabad chasidus, one cannot be a truly "complete" Jew. 

To be clear, as a traditionally observant Maimonidean Jew, I do not completely reject the notion of religious texts. It is important to draw lines and establish signaling devices to decide who is in and who is out. I am not a fundamentalist and my relationship to my God and my holy books is one more of arguing than submission. That being said, just as Christians are right to reject me as a Christian for my indifference to the New Testament, I am justified in rejecting, as a theological Jew (distinct from a biological/halakhic Jew), any person who is indifferent to the Talmud and the Bible. (Like Chabad, Karaite Judaism should be seen as a related but still distinct religion from Judaism.)      

One of the problems with canonized texts and authors, in the most fanatical sense, is that, because they cannot be argued with, one can never develop a mature relationship with them and never learn from them. For example, I can learn from Plato and Aristotle because I have never been tempted to treat them as articles of faith. There has never been any need to reinterpret them to suit my ideological preferences as I have always felt willing to say that I believed that they were wrong. Ironically, this has made it possible, over time, for me to become convinced of their wisdom. I admit that, in recent years, I have gained much respect for Aristotelian virtue ethics for its ability to deal with real human beings instead of theoretical abstractions.   

Like the Gospels, Deist offers us "good news." The truths of liberty have been revealed to us. Our job is now simply to spread these truths through the entire world. This is a simple task because there is now no need to argue with anyone. The Truth of Mises and Rothbard is so obvious that only the satanically perverse would ever question it. Hence, like a good Calvinist missionary, the purpose of spreading the libertarian gospel is not to actually argue with anyone and refute their beliefs but to demonstrate that opponents actively hate the truth and were never worth arguing with from the beginning.   

From the perspective of the Mises Institute, is it possible to be a good libertarian without an understanding of Mises? Speaking for myself, I came to libertarianism largely through the questioning of my own Republican orthodoxies. Hence, I was a libertarian before I read much of libertarian thought. It was because I was a libertarian that I discovered Milton Friedman's Free to Choose as a better articulation of what I was already trying to say and then later I became aware that there was something called Austrian economics. I confess that I only read Atlas Shrugged after several years of being a libertarian. I think that this was a healthy path to liberty, one that preserved my intellectual honesty from factional politics. I do not claim to be any expert on libertarianism; I am a mere student of liberty, humbly trying to put things together for myself. 

With the Mises Institute, particularly someone like Tom Woods, I can never escape having a clearer sense of how right they believe they are than what they are right about. It is like they have received a revelation that seems to boil down to them having received a revelation, its content being secondary to the fact that it is a revelation and they are right. Thus, revelation becomes, not a book to be read, but a heavy object to beat people over the head with and claim moral supremacy over.         

Mises was never Euclid, let alone Jesus. I have a hard time believing that anyone could read through a thousand pages of Human Action, understand it, and, in good faith, claim to agree with all of it. Furthermore, even Mises himself, if he were alive today, would, despite his genius, face a challenge in how to apply his own work. How much more so with us little minds. We who cannot comprehend every word of this brilliant mind and who might even find ourselves disagreeing with him and, thus, have no recourse but to cobble together our own understandings of liberty. Not only that but we must then face the very hard task of applying our theories of liberty to a rapidly changing world. Let us face it, our arguments could be logically unassailable and people will still ignore us if we cannot show, in concrete terms, how liberty will make their lives better. 

I support a big tent libertarianism. If you are acting in good faith to decrease the power of government and increase the autonomy of individuals over their own bodies then welcome to the club. As for the details, welcome to the debate, the most fun part of being a libertarian. If you wish to be an effective participant in this debate, I can suggest a reading list of material to get you up to speed. That being said, we are not a religion with sacred texts that you must accept. On the contrary, we invite you to create your own path to liberty. 

   

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Camp Chimerical Anti-Christianity: Facing the Consequences


A few years ago, for the fast day of Tisha B'Av, I wrote a hard hitting post, raising some uncomfortable questions about the Jewish community. As that is one of my personal favorites, I decided to follow it up for this Tisha B'Av. My purpose is not to attack anyone and, for that reason, I have avoided names. I hope that my ambiguous feelings about my camping experience rather than hatred should be clear. As is often the case with me, I am more interested in asking questions that I find myself struggling with than in offering solutions.    

When I attended Haredi summer camps, I once played a villainous Spanish Inquisitor in a play. While waving a torch, I gave a speech about Judas Iscariot as the model traitorous Jew, which included a joke reference to Shakespeare's Julius Caesar as well. I remember watching another play in which a priest murders the prince, who started asking difficult theological questions regarding Judaism, in order to set the Jews up for a blood libel. Both performances can be seen as anti-Christian. The difference between them is that while I expressed a "rational" opposition to Christianity, the other person made a chimerical assertion. Spanish inquisitors are historical facts. The figure of Judas did play an important role in medieval Christian anti-Jewish rhetoric. Even Christians would agree with me on this. By contrast, there is no evidence of Christian priests murdering Christian children in order to frame Jews just as there is no evidence of Jews murdering Christians for their blood. Christians can hope to negotiate with someone possessing a legitimate negative impression of historical Christians. Such a person can be convinced that modern day Christians are different and not a threat. A person with a chimerical opposition to Christianity will never be convinced that Christians are not a threat even by the evidence of his own eyes as he already believes things about them that he never had any evidence to begin with. Such a person will inevitably sink into the black hole of conspiracy theories to the point where the lack of evidence for his beliefs will simply prove to him that there is a vast cover up.

In regards to this story of a priest murdering a Christian to cover up the fact that Christianity is false, I am reminded of Israel Yuval's argument that Christians came to believe in the blood libel because they saw Jews kill their own children during the Crusades. If Jews would kill their own children so that they do not fall into the hands of Christians, might Jewish mothers poison their children's kugel if they thought they were attracted to Christianity? If Jews hated Christianity this much, surely Jews would gladly murder Christian children. Thus, Christians have no choice but to kill Jews in self-defense. Similarly, it would be reasonable for impressionable Jewish children in the audience, like myself, to conclude that if priests would kill Christian children to stop them from converting to Judaism, they would gladly kill Jewish children. The logical conclusion from this would be that, if we ever found ourselves in a position of power, we should kill Christians.

Let me be clear, this play about a murderous priest was in no way exceptional in how Christianity was portrayed at this Haredi camp. One of my favorite rebbes used to tell stories with his stock villain, "Father Shmutz" (dirt). When priests were not trying to start blood libels, they kidnapped Jewish children and held them in secret monasteries to try to convert them. In case you were wondering if this was just a matter of some over zealous teachers, the head-counselor of this camp used to have a radio show, "Children's Stories of Inspiration." In addition to blatantly idolatrous stories that endorsed human sacrifices to angels and a Satan capable of acting independently of God, one of his stories involved a Father Francois murdering a Christian child in order to start a blood libel. His plan was thwarted when he was forced to take hold of the hand of the dead victim, who then refused to  let go.

Installing the campers with a visceral hatred of Christianity as a religion and a fear of Christians as people were part of a conscious top down effort. I doubt the camp administration wanted us to actually go out and harm any Christians. That being said, their jobs depended on demonstrating to parents that their children were being protected from outside "negative" influences. In an exercise of concentrated benefits and diffuse costs, the fact that these administrators were, ever so slightly, putting every Jew on the planet in danger clearly took a back seat.

What are the consequences of this kind of education? When the Passion movie came out, I told my father that I could not call it anti-Semitic for the simple reason that its portrayal of Jews was not worse than the portrayal of Christians that I was regularly fed in camp. My father, the assistant-head counselor of that camp, agreed with me. On a more serious note, consider the role played by Islamist schools in installing a pathological hatred of Jews, directly leading to Jews dying in terrorist attacks.


      


It is clear to me that not considering the children in this video and certainly their teachers as legitimate military targets (the kids are even in uniform and practicing military maneuvers) will lead to dead Jews. The problem is that any non-Jew can respond that Jews also indoctrinate their kids to hate and I have simply too much personal experience to point-blank deny that fact. So the administrators of my camp have real Jewish blood on their hands. Their actions have made it harder to form the necessary alliances needed to fight Islamic terrorism and save Jewish lives.

Now it needs to be said, that the people I am talking about are warm wonderful people that I gained much from. These are not anyone's stereotypes of hate mongers. I loved camp and many of my fondest memories come from there.  Coincidently, the staff member who played the murderous priest later became my tenth grade English teacher at Yeshiva Torah Vodaas and taught me Julius Caesar (he was even good at his job). At the time, I did not see myself as being indoctrinated to hate and I still have my doubts as to calling this hate. Everything was framed in such a positive and loving way, which may have made it all the more insidious. There was much good to my camp; that being said, beyond the fun times and spiritual growth lay a dark side that needs to be faced.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

History as Autobiography: The Example of Louis H. Feldman


Previously, when discussing the historical method, I argued that a historian, like any academic scholar, needs to be able to distinguish between scholarship and polemic. Scholars are allowed to have ideological beliefs but they are not allowed to use their scholarship to buttress their ideology. Once a clear connection appears between an individual's scholarship and their ideology to the point that the ideology becomes the inevitable conclusion of the scholarship that scholarship becomes tainted and opponents are allowed to point blank ignore it. This raises a serious challenge in that it is simply not possible for a scholar to spend years of their lives on an arcane topic that few other people are ever going to understand unless they feel an intense personal connection to the material that is likely to border on the ideological. How can one delve into material that has real ideological implications without becoming tainted? If all history is autobiography, how do we avoid dismissing it as such?

In my own personal life, the example of the late Prof. Louis H. Feldman is useful. Feldman's claim to fame lay in being, perhaps, the leading Josephus scholar of his generation. It does not take a psychologist to posit why Feldman devoted so many of his ninety years on this Earth to Josephus. To begin with, growing into adulthood as an Orthodox Jew in 1940s America could not have been an easy task for anyone living outside of New York, in Hartford CT as Feldman did. I cannot imagine what it must have been like for him to have pursued a doctorate in Classics at Harvard. What sort of nice Jewish boy studies Greek and Latin? This basic challenge did not go away as he spent his teaching career at Yeshiva University lecturing to classes of one or two students. In retrospect, one can say in Feldman's defense that he was like the 1970s rock band the Velvet Underground. They may have only sold thirty-thousand copies but everyone who bought one went out and started their own rock band. If Feldman only had a few dozen students, each of them went out and became a Jewish leader. Consider that his close students included people like Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, Prof. Shaye J. D. Cohen, and David Berger.

At an intellectual level, Feldman's academic work was implicitly an apology for him being a religious Jew, who loved Hellenism. He crafted an ideological genealogy for himself and, by extension, for Modern Orthodox Judaism. If there was a running theme in Feldman's work it was Jews, such as Philo and Josephus, making their case to the wider Greco-Roman world that Judaism deserved a place in that culture. This covers everything from Feldman's big narrative work, Jew and Gentile in the Ancient World, to his close analysis of how Philo and Josephus used the Bible for Jewish apologetics. Jews arguing, two thousand years ago,  for their legitimacy became Feldman's defense, in the twentieth century, of his own legitimacy as their heir. For Modern Orthodox Jews, there are serious implications for Feldman's work. In essence, Feldman can be read as a playbook for how Jews can thrive in a larger world that appears hostile to it. I can easily imagine assigning selections from Feldman in a class on Modern Orthodox ideology.

With all of that being said, this is the same Feldman that devoted an entire class to subjecting Josephus' autobiography to a line by line reading to make the point to us that you cannot trust what Josephus says about himself; there are just too many times that he contradicts himself. As Feldman told us: "I would not buy a used chariot from the man." If we are to say that Feldman had an ideological agenda, we must admit that Feldman was willing to fire a torpedo at this same agenda when textual analysis demanded it.

This leads me to my second point. For all that I have just written about the very real ideological implications of Feldman's work, I wish to make it clear how absent all of that was from his books and his classes. He did not preach to us about the virtues of Modern Orthodoxy. He argued from the fact that opponents of the Jews like Manetho did not point blank deny the Exodus story that Egyptian sources for the event must have existed as late as classical times. That being said, he never tried a "Josephus proves that Torah is true." If it happened that Feldman was a positive influence on his students in their Judaism, it was because his very persona testified that a living intellectually serious Judaism was possible and not just for rabbis. In this, his kindness and integrity mattered even more than his prodigious intellect.

Above everything else, a Feldman class was about reading texts and he, more than any other professor, taught me how to think critically like a historian and not just to be an encyclopedia of historical information. As a classical historian, Feldman had an advantage in this. It is hard to study ancient history avoid questions of historical epistemology. He forced us to confront the fact that major claims about the period were dependent on a few lines of text. He would often respond to questions that he wished he could answer it but that there simply was no evidence to go on. This prepared us for the task of reading texts and building a narrative from the ground up.

Every Hannukah, Feldman would give a public lecture on classical history as his "eulogy for the Greeks." Feldman had the sense of humor and the intellectual integrity to acknowledge a tension in his beliefs. Whether I always agreed with Feldman or not (and he very often disagreed with himself), Feldman was a model academic scholar. He humbly taught in his chalk covered jacket and sneakers and churned out books and articles on obscure issues of interest to almost no one. It turned out, in retrospect, that Feldman produced something of importance beyond the narrow scope of his field. His greatest accomplishment though was that, for generations of students, he was a living embodiment of what it meant to think like a historian.            

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Breaking the Goldwater Rule: A Betrayal of Methodological Rationalism


A useful example of an academic field creating a wall between the field itself and the politics of its members is the Goldwater Rule that psychiatrists are not supposed to publically comment on the mental stability of politicians. It is named after Senator Barry Goldwater, who objected to psychiatrists calling him mentally unfit to be president during the 1964 campaign. Goldwater made the very reasonable argument that those psychiatrists had violated their own professional standards by claiming to reach some kind of professional opinion about him despite the fact that none of them had ever met him in person let alone actually been his therapist. The Goldwater Rule protects psychiatrists by keeping them out of politics. Psychiatry may be very valuable in helping people but there is nothing in psychiatry that can tell you who you should vote for. Even if it turned out that psychiatrists were the most liberal people in the world, conservatives could still accept the legitimacy of their field as it has no direct bearing on politics.

This is why I find it amazing that anyone would want to eliminate the Goldwater Rule to better allow psychiatrists to attack Trump in their capacity as psychiatrists. To be clear, I oppose Trump, believe that he is a major threat to this country, and accept that he is most probably mentally unstable. That being said, I fail to understand how allowing psychiatrists to use their professional stations against Trump will actually benefit the opposition. How many people who currently believe that Trump is sane and support him will be convinced by psychiatrists otherwise? What is more likely is that Trump supporters will become more convinced than ever that psychiatry is a conspiracy designed to advance a liberal agenda. This is much the same as how many secularists are convinced that organized religion is simply a conspiracy designed to uphold conservatism. (Both of these groups may very well be correct.)

Critical to Trump's success has been a form of relativism. Beyond the specifics of any particular policy such as environmental control, Trump's supporters do not believe that there really is such a thing as an expert. This creates a world in which there are simply contending teams (warring religions if you will) with their contending sets of values. If this is the case then I want my side to win and can safely ignore any argument from the opposition. They are not arguing in good faith and any factual arguments they raise can be dismissed as distortions. Furthermore, there is no reason to ever question my own tendency to argue from values instead of facts. The other side is clearly worse so anyone trying to judge me must be trying to cover for their team. 

The best refutation for this line of thinking is the mere existence methodological rationalism such as the scientific or historical method. There exist systems of thought that transcend personal values. Professionals trained in these methods, despite their prejudices, can be trusted to follow them even to conclusions that are inconvenient. This allows academic fields to function with people of greatly differing belief systems. If I believe that there are such things as standards and experts then Trump's main appeal falls away. Whatever flaws the establishment has and whatever need for reform, Trump does not make himself subservient to any rationalist methodology. Thus, anyone who supports methodological rationalism has some hard questions to answer if they wish to support Trump. (Not that this implies that the alternative is better.) 

To the extent that Trump gives the impression that he rejects methodological rationalism, those in his camp have to consider whether their continued support implies that they are willing to reject methodology for short term partisan gain. This decision will be made in the knowledge that they will be judged by their ideological opponents, who will have to decide whether they are willing to accept them. Ideological opponents of Trump, whether liberals or libertarians, have the ability to judge which Trump supporters can still be considered methodological rationalists but open themselves, in turn, to the counter judgment that they are the ones betraying methodological rationalism for partisan gain.   

From this perspective, there is no need to consider any particular policy of Trump's (or even try to figure out what Trump holds from one minute to the next). Methodological rationalism requires the humility to recognize how little any individual really knows. It may be that Trump's policies are all going to be terrific; I lack that expertise to say otherwise. All this may be true but if they are not framed in terms recognizable to methodological rationalism, his claims must be ignored. 

I lack the psychiatric training to say that Trump is mentally unstable. As far as I can tell, any person in the position to rule on this issue is likely going to be barred from commenting by doctor/patient confidentiality. That being said, I believe in the legitimacy of a psychiatric method of thinking. To the extent that Trump demonstrates his own rejection of those standards, I am justified in not taking him seriously. I do not need to directly attack Trump and doing so will likely prove a distraction as it will open me up to the charge that I am more interested in attacking Trump than in defending methodological rationalism. The more we work on strengthening belief in methodological rationalism and do so for its own sake and not partisan gain, the more people, even conservatives, will reject Trump on their own.  

Friday, July 21, 2017

Polemic or Scholarship: A Historian's Choice

Before I begin, let me confess to having attended several conferences hosted by the Institute for Humane Studies (IHS), a group funded by the Koch brothers. I had a great time listening to lectures, I met scholars such as Michael Munger, Steve Horwitz, and Phil Magness, drank beer and had late night philosophical discussions with other graduate students from around the world. I strongly deny ever being present for any sessions outlining a plot to overthrow American democracy. In all seriousness, there was shockingly little discussion of practical policy or political strategy at all. Most of us were there because we had some kind of affection for libertarian philosophy and we engaged in a lot of talk (including disagreement) about theory. So much for there being some kind of plan, Koch hatched or otherwise.  

A basic feature scholarship is a need for a clear line to be drawn between the gathering of information and what implications might be drawn from it. This is most obvious in the realm of public policy. For example, if you were an analyst working for the Bush administration in the lead up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq on the question of whether Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, you could not be in any way connected to making the argument that the United States should invade. The moment it is established that you believed in the invasion, any evidence you produced in favor of there being weapons of mass destruction must be discounted. It should be assumed that you came into your research with the agenda of making a case for invasion and therefore, perhaps even unconsciously, you fell into the trap of confirmation bias. Instead of seriously considering the possibility that there might not be weapons of mass destruction, you assumed that there were, interpreted everything in that light and came to believe that the evidence for such weapons was overwhelming. Much can be made of the fact that the Bush administration did not take such intellectual precautions and was surprised when it turned out that the weapons did not exist.           

As historians, we may have our ideological preferences but our credibility as historians requires that we submit ourselves to a historical methodology designed to keep our biases in check. It is not that upon becoming historians we stop being biased, but the method is designed to produce something close to an unbiased result from the mass work of biased people. This is much the same way as Adam Smith's hidden hand produces social good from the mass labor of selfish individuals. As with other forms of scholarship, we need to distance the gathering of facts from their implications. First, we need to recognize that we are not going to achieve any great knockout blow for our cause. Second, if we do find a text that supports our cause, we must bend over backward to read it in a fashion favorable to the other side, forsaking any advantage for our own cause. Ultimately, ideological polemic and history are distinct fields and you can only engage in one of them at a time.  

This brings us to the recent uproar over Prof. Nancy MacLean. Over the past few weeks, a guilty pleasure of mine has been following the controversy over MacLean's book, Democracy in Chains. I have not read the book (I am waiting for it to go on sale on Audible) so I will refrain from making any judgments on the book itself and restrict myself to the discussion surrounding it. What strikes me as interesting is that MacLean is plainly trying to be both a polemicist and a historian. She is a self-conscious progressive, who rejects libertarianism intellectually on its merits and, at the same time, claims to have unearthed documents that are damaging to the credibility of a particular libertarian, the late economist James M. Buchanan. It is important here to recognize that I am not attacking either MacLean's progressivism nor her evidence against Buchanan. On the contrary, for the purposes of this post, I am willing to assume that both are correct. She may be right in terms of facts but her willingness to be both polemicist and historian destroys her credibility to be the latter. 

Let us give MacLean the benefit of the doubt. Let us imagine that she snuck into the late Prof. Buchanan's office and discovered the secret protocols of the Elders of Wichita along with Buchanan's KKK membership card. While we are at it, let us throw in a letter stating: 

Dear James Kilpatrick,

John C. Calhoun is my intellectual lodestar. The southern agrarian poets are the greatest. I find myself really inspired by Donald Davidson. I never realized that Hobbes' Leviathan could be the federal government. Brown vs. Board of Education is the worst. I hate n******. I want to keep them from voting so we can overthrow democracy and put Donald Trump (our own August Pinochet) into power. MAGA

Heil Hitler, 

James M. Buchanan

P. S. Did you get the suitcase full of cash from the Koch brothers?

Assuming all of this were true, MacLean, as a historian, would have two options. The first would be to publish this information in the most charitable way possible. Perhaps Buchanan had a strange sense of humor or was an informant for the FBI. It would make sense to walk across campus to present the evidence to Michael Munger or any of the other prominent public choice theorists at Duke to get their interpretation. Under no circumstance should she imply that this evidence challenges libertarians. If other people wish to try to use this information in a polemical fashion, that is their issue. This way, despite her progressive beliefs, her scholarship would be beyond reproach. 

There could be a second option if MacLean was a supporter of public choice theory. As an admirer of Buchanan's work, she could acknowledge that she discovered a dark side to him, mainly that he was a racist, who plotted to overthrow democracy. On a serious note, as a libertarian, I readily acknowledge the existence of a dark side to libertarianism. This ranges from the personal issues of Ayn Rand to the white nationalist outreach of the paleo-libertarians. While I do not think that Murray Rothbard and Ron Paul were racists, they were certainly willing to associate with actual racists as part of a strategy of allying themselves to anyone openly hostile to the federal government. This is a problem that libertarians need to face, particularly as it led to a failure on the part of many libertarians to actively oppose Trump. Very well, Buchanan might have been of a similar stripe or worse. I am not about to reject such a position a priori.   

Understand that I can say these things about libertarianism precisely because, as part of the libertarian family, I am not trying to score ideological points. I am criticizing myself as much as anyone. These same words coming from an outsider are going to come across very differently and perhaps should not be said. This is not different from how there may be very real problems in the black community but I, as a white person, should not be the person to talk about them no matter how right I might be. No matter how good my intentions, my words are going to sound wrong and prove counter-productive. Let me address the problems of my community (libertarian, Jewish or otherwise) and leave it to others to address the problems in theirs.

If MacLean wants to engage in polemics against libertarians in her free time, in addition to her scholarship, that is fine. One can do legitimate research and have an ideology at the same time as long as they are no obvious connections. A reader should be able to buy into your scholarship completely without there being any expectation that your work will affect what they do inside a voting booth. With MacLean, not only are there obvious ideological implications, she eagerly connects her book to the ideological clashes of today all while using her status as a historian to bolster the legitimacy of her own progressive views. For example, in defending herself, she doubles down on the idea that she is the victim of a Koch attack. If she was serious about defending the integrity of her scholarship, she should have avoided any mention of ideology. She could have just explained how her critics were factually incorrect and left it at that. Let other people try to fathom the larger implications of her work; she is just a humble scholar wanting to be left alone to do research with no expectation that it should be of interest to a wider world.   

There is a place for research into the history of libertarianism, even when it turns up problematic material, and there is a place for polemics against libertarianism. I welcome both but they need to be kept in distinct spheres and carried out by different people. The moment that line is crossed, the research is tainted and must be dismissed. It is quite possible that MacLean is correct and she has real dirt on Buchanan. If that is the case, let another scholar not contaminated by progressive activism go back through her sources and write another book confirming her thesis. In the meantime, I have no choice but to reject her as an illegitimate historian who fails to follow the historical method.  


Monday, July 17, 2017

How to Teach the Story of Balak and Bilam to Kalman

video



In addition to anything involving kitty, my three-year old son, Kalman, has become fascinated with the story of Balak and Bilam and regularly asks either my wife or me to tell it. This story presents a number of challenges to someone of my particular political theology. That being said, challenges also offer opportunities to make it clear to Kalman that his Abba is a libertarian monotheist. Government is a form of idolatry that believes it is a moral/legal authority that can demand absolute loyalty and obedience. A monotheist knows that Hashem is the only true power and the only one you should listen to no matter how hard the government tries to trick or threaten you to believe otherwise. (Mommy gets hung up on fewer political theological issues and is, therefore, a more interesting story teller.)

Balak was the king of Moab. As their government, he was an evil mass murderer and also very foolish. He wanted to destroy Bnai Yisroel but, because he did not believe in Hashem, he was very superstitious and believed in magic. He believed that a sorcerer named Bilam actually had the power to "curse" people and cause bad things to happen to them just with words. So Balak sent messengers to Bilam with money, hoping that he would curse Bnai Yisroel for him.

Bilam was a wicked man who liked to convince people not to trust in Hashem so he could trick them into paying him money to do his fake magic. Hashem told Bilam not to go but, when Bilam insisted on going, Hashem gave him permission but warned him that he would only be allowed to do as Hashem commanded. Bilam was so excited to do an avairah that he got up first thing in the morning to saddle his donkey. Bilam's mind was so caught up in the money he was going to swindle out of Balak that he did not see a messenger of Hashem standing on the road with a sword. (As an alternative to the word angel, messenger is a legitimate translation of malach and, for now, I see no reason to confuse my child with talk of supernatural beings that are not God. Unfortunately, my wife disagrees and now Kalman is quite taken with the "A word.") The donkey tried to get off the road but Bilam got angry and began to hit the donkey. To demonstrate to Bilam what a fool he was to pursue gold and silver instead of listening to Hashem, Hashem did a miracle and caused the donkey to speak and ask Bilam why he was hitting him. Bilam refused to learn his lesson and continued with his scheme.

When Bilam arrived in Moab, he got on top of a mountain and tried to curse Bnai Yisroel. If Bilam had been able to say a curse, even though curses are useless people might think that curses have power. They would simply fall for the post hoc fallacy and assume that anything bad that happens afterward was due to the power of Bilam's curse. So Hashem only allowed Bilam to bless Bnai Yisroel. So now everyone could see that Bilam was a lying crook with no magic powers. Without Hashem, Bilam could not even say a curse, let alone cause it to come true.

King Balak was so angry that he wasted his money. Scared that Balak would kill him (as killing people is what governments do), Bilam told Balak a secret how to harm Bnai Yisroel. If they could convince the Bnai Yisroel to stop listening to Hashem, then they could be harmed. So Balak sent beautiful women carrying idols of puppy and making peepee on them. There was an Israelite government politician named Zimri. He took a poll and realized that women peeing on puppies were now more popular than serving Hashem so he decided to jump on the bandwagon. Pinchus saved Bnai Yisroel from puppy, pee and politicians. Rather than listen to any government law, Pinchus listened to Hashem and grabbed a spear and killed Zimri along with the woman who was helping him pee on puppy.

We learn from this story that you should only believe in Hashem and not in government nor in magic. Following Hashem means being kind to all creatures including animals, but it is ok to kill people who are trying to hurt you or otherwise in government.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Sunshine: A Miami Boys Choir Vampire Musical (Part II)


(Part I)

The counter to the Jews' naive hopes for the future is revealed in the song "Klal Yisroel Together," which takes the perspective of a new Jewish vampire. 

Quiet shul a foreign land
sits and davans an older man

What kind of shul is quiet with no talking? This must be a shul in which vampires gather to listen to their gadol hador. The vampires take the words of their sages very seriously and kill anyone who defiles the sanctity of their synagogue. In this context, davaning does not mean praying, but preying. An "older man" is a vampire, who is older than mortal men.

You're amazed at his life of simplicity

A vampire's life of drinking blood is very simple (besides for the fancy clothes and seducing women). This makes a vampire much holier than those "fake tzadikim," who need extravagant luxuries like bread and salt.

How his words reach you with sensitivity
And your eyes recognize as never before
That the dream that he preys for is yours

The newborn vampire is struck by the telepathic communications he is receiving from the vampire collective. He suddenly realizes that he too dreams of preying upon humans and drinking them dry.

Miles apart 
Close at heart
Feel the bound as one from the start
All the mountains and oceans are in our way
We are joined from the time of that wondrous day
When at Sinai we learned the path we would take
That the chains of our past will never break

Through the power of the hive mind, vampires can feel as bound and close at heart even from miles away. Mountains and oceans do not matter because vampires are joined by the day they were converted. Furthermore, antinomian Jews look to the gathering of Sinai when they worshiped the Golden Calf. It takes a very special kind of Torah scholar to hear "I am the Lord your God" and conclude that one should bow down to an idol. (If you donate gold to our charity, tzadikim will melt it into a calf and worship it for three weeks straight over the course of the auspicious time between the 17th of Tammuz and the 9th of Av. This proves that, in fact, we do believe in one God, money.) By rendering themselves immortal, these Jews are guaranteed protection against the threat of modernity as they will have no need to try passing on their values to the next generation.  

Together we dance together we sing
Throughout the world how our achdus does ring
Klal Yisroel together today
Even though we seem so far away
Together we cry we hope and we prey
Let's bring each other closer each day
Klal Yisrael sharing the dream
Sheves achim gam yachad

Because of their hivemind, the vampires are the masters of achdus (unity). Unity is an intrinsically vampire doctrine as what it really means is that I will bite you and you will now do things my way. This is how Jews can be brought closer each day until all Jews can become brothers of one blood, together as one mind. 

All assembled dressed in white
With awe and fear this Kol Nidre night

Kol Nidre is a highly antinomian concept in which a person is released from their vows. The antinomian is freed from his promise to refrain from biting pigs and save them from the forces of the klipot. The vampire is freed from his promise to not bite people and save them from the Angel of Death.    

There is a feeling here 
When Neilah is near
That we'll all be inscribed with another year

A vampire can very confident at the end of every Yom Kippur that he will still be alive the following year. 

And when Simchas Torah brings that joyful harmony
We are ever bound in stronger unity

If regular Jews got the idea that the point of Simchas Torah was to get drunk, you can hardly blame vampire Jews for turning Simchas Torah into a joyful feeding frenzy that brings new converts in harmony with the hive mind. 


It will now be revealed that the rebbe, who taught the class the "Torah Today" song is actually the "older man," one of the head vampires. He has been priming his students to accept vampirism, the true message of his song.

(To be continued ...)

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Sunshine: A Miami Boys Choir Vampire Musical (Part I)


For the past forty years, Yerachmiel Begun has led the Miami Boys Choir, one of the most successful musical groups in the Orthodox world. It will come as a shock that all of this has been cover for Begun's lifelong dream to write a vampire musical. Many of his beloved songs have really been describing scenes for this musical. The key for reading these songs has been to recognize that references to the night are really about vampires and daylight has been the rejection of vampirism in favor of a non-antinomian Torah lifestyle.   

The musical opens with the singing of "V'he Shamadah" in the background as the narrator explains that the great enemy of the Jewish people has always been the vampires, who, as immortal beings, have been able to survive from generation to generation to try to destroy us. This war goes back to vampire Laban, the Aramean who "destroyed" our father Jacob by turning him into a creature of the night. This, though, was part of the divine plan to allow Jacob to survive the bite of vampire Esau. Jacob's neck became sparkly rock hard (like a Twilight vampire) and cracked Esau's fangs. The righteous Jacob was unique in history in being able to become a vampire and not lose his soul. (He did not even need a gypsy curse to put it back.) This is indicated by Rashi's comment that Jacob lived the life of a vampire like Laban, but still kept the commandments. Jacob survived as a vampire, which explains the rabbinic statement that "Jacob never died." Who else, besides for a vampire, does not die even after they are buried?   

Down through the centuries, Jacob has guided his children in fighting vampires. The vampires, seeking revenge against Jacob, have waged a never-ending campaign to destroy the Jewish people by inventing anti-Semitism. It was a vampire intelligence that came up with the idea that Jews need blood for their matzah. The vampires' efforts culminated in the Holocaust. (As we know from the novels of Dan Simmons and Guillermo del Toro, the vampires were allied with the Nazis.) 

With the defeat of the Nazis and the near destruction of the vampires, the Jewish people appeared safe. The following decades saw enormous growth within the religious community. Unfortunately, a new phase of the vampire campaign was about to arise as the vampires realized that contrary to their original experience with Jacob, Jews made particularly effective vampires. For one thing, Jews are immune to crosses. (See the example of vampire Fagan in the novel Artful.) 

These sentiments are expressed in the song "Torah Today." A rebbe leads his class in this song of Jewish success, but, in an ironic foreshadowing of the horrors to be revealed, their statements hint at the true connection between Judaism, antinomianism, and vampirism. The fact that the children do not appreciate the true meaning of what they are saying demonstrates how spiritually unprepared they are for the vampire onslaught.      


Distant memories of a time not long ago
Vibrant shadows of an era we would want to know
In our minds an image glowing true tzadikim in every town
And the sounds of learning were ever growing 
All has vanished never to be found
Somehow slowly the sun is rising once again
Building boldly can we recapture what was then

The Jews in this period of vampire free sun rejoice even as they mourn the loss of pre-war Europe. What they fail to understand was that, even then, there existed the spiritual rot of antinomianism indicated by the term "true tzadikim." Whenever you see a seemingly superfluous adjective in front of some virtuous position, you know that you are dealing not with the virtue but with its antinomian rejection. For example, why would anyone use the term "social justice?" Is there a kind of justice that is not social? The reality is that justice, with its claims of property and individual rights, often does not satisfy certain people as it does not allow them to redistribute property as they see fit and force people to comply with their utopian blueprints. The solution is to reject justice in the name of a higher ideal of doing whatever you happen to feel is right at the moment. Advocates of social justice believe that the only way to truly be just is to commit injustice and reject individual liberty. From their perspective, they are the ones who are truly just and defenders of justice are really the ones who are unjust.   

Similarly, how can you talk about a "true tzadik?" Is there a "fake tzadik?" As with social justice, a conventional tzadik is held back by keeping to the letter of Jewish law. A "true tzadik" understands that Torah itself holds up the world and negates the actual practice of halakha. So the only "true" way to learn Torah is to do so while eating a ham sandwich. Such learning makes a particular sound that grows as the tzadik takes pleasure in contemplating this righteous paradox. Any Torah scholar who balks at such a "holy" deed is simply a "fake tzadik."  

These secretly antinomian Torah scholars so beloved by the Jewish people, realizing what lay behind the Nazis, embraced the vampire ideology as the true fulfillment of everything they ever wanted to get out of Judaism, power, and immortality (in this world no less). This explains why their bodies vanished and were never found. These rabbis, having come to their vampire maturity, are now set to bring about their version of the messianic End of Days by turning the Jewish people into a vampire army and destroy the world. This is indicated by the lines:        

We've set our hearts to form a plan  
Unrelenting so much to regain
Can see the future from where we stand
Let's move closer we can build the flame

Who but a vampire can be unrelenting in plotting for the future? 

In describing the transition from rabbi to vampire we are told:

Their life is learning they strive with great intensity
Others advancing each day a daf devotedly 
On that night they gathered to show what matters
The Torah world stood as one with pride
In silent reflection with one direction
We could feel that time was on our side 

These antinomian rabbis in life only cared about Torah and not about morality. In fact, rejecting morality served to demonstrate their superior commitment to Torah. So, on a certain night, they gathered together to reject morality in the clearest way possible and became vampires. This allowed them to stand together with a unified hive mind knowing that, being immortal, time was on their side and they will be able to take over the world. 

(To be continued ...)  



Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Is Someone in Chabad Trying to Smuggle in Evolution?

The following comic comes from the Chabad children's magazine, the Moshiach Times.



What can the line that turtles "lost their teeth a long time ago" mean besides for evolution? Obviously, the individual turtle today did not lose his teeth due to cavities. That would eliminate the entire joke of the strip. Long ago must mean that there used to be turtles with teeth and, for some reason, turtles lost their teeth. My understanding of Chabad theology is that it is hypothetically willing to accept evolution as long as it can be placed into a young Earth. Perhaps, before the flood, turtles needed teeth to fend off the T-Rex after it abandoned vegetarianism at the time of Adam's expulsion from Eden. After all the evil T-Rexes were drowned in the flood, turtles lost their need for teeth and, quicker than a koala bear marching to Australia, evolved into the toothless turtles of today.    

Friday, June 2, 2017

Vowing to God

I wrote a post over at the Modern Torah Leadership blog on the travails of my son, Mackie, from a Maimonidean perspective. I even managed to work in antinomianism.

I thank my mother-in-law, my sisters-in-law and modern medicine that my son is still alive. Hopefully, soon I will be able to report that he is out of all danger.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Kidnapping Kalman: A Lesson in the Exodus


This past Monday, Miriam and I hosted a kiddush in honor of Kalman's third birthday. This came with speaking privileges, which I decided to take advantage of. 





Do you see this Kalman here?  I am sure many of you would like to kidnap him. How would you go about doing it? On the surface, it would seem to be a simple task. Pick the boy up and walk out. Now here is where things get tricky. You see, even though Kalman is small, he can kick, scream and he really likes Mommy. So brute force would not actually practical for more than a brief period of time. What is needed is would be to keep Kalman from realizing that he is being kidnapped for as long a possible. Tell him: "Let me help you find your parents. ... Your parents asked me to look after you for a little bit. ... I will take you home in the morning." Eventually, Kalman will realize that you are lying to him. (He is a very smart boy.) That being said, if you keep control of him long enough, you will eventually be able to make the case that he has been abandoned and that no one loves him anymore. He has no one but you so he might as well make the best of the situation. It should be noted in the case of most kidnapping cases that go on for years that the victims come to engage in behavior that appears from the outside to be compliance with the captor and even downright acceptance of their situation. 

One of the interesting questions in regards to the Exodus story is why bother going through the whole process of speaking to Pharoah, inflicting the Ten Plagues upon him and then baiting him into destroying his army at the Red Sea. With the might of God, Moses should have been able to march the Israelites right out of Egypt without even having to talk to Pharoah and get his permission. A way of thinking about it is to say that the real story was never really about getting Pharoah to let the Israelites go, but getting the Israelites to agree to leave. The Israelites loved their Egyptian masters and would have never agreed to leave on their own. Moses, therefore, needed Pharoah to order the Israelites to leave and to trick the Israelites into believing that they were just going for a few days to worship God. Hence, Moses only asked for a temporary leave and told the Israelites to borrow vessels from their neighbors. What kind of borrowing is it if you are never coming back? 

The Exodus did not free the Israelites. They were "kidnapped" from being Pharoah's slaves to God's. In this, the crossing of the Red Sea played a critical role. Once the Israelites saw Egyptians dead on the shore they knew that this was not some temporary outing, but that they were never going back. Pharoah was no longer their master, God was. Israel needed to accept that and make the best of the situation. 

Nearly six years ago, I came out to Pasadena for the summer. I somehow seem to find that I am still here with a wife and a Kalman. My parents have told her "no backsies." So I guess I am stuck; I might as well make the best of the situation. I love my wife and my Kalman and do not want to be free from them. 



Monday, March 20, 2017

Toward a Lockean Theory of Halakha


In the previous post, I argued that Haredi Judaism, to the extent that it accepted charismatic authority in the form of Gedolim, must be seen as an anti-Halakhic movement. Charismatic authority is implicitly antinomian in that the only way for someone to demonstrate their absolute loyalty to the charismatic authority figure, as opposed to some textual authority, is to violate the law as interpreted through text. For example, Sabbateans were known to secretly eat a cherry on the fast of Tisha B'Av to demonstrate that they did not really need to fast on account of the coming of Sabbatai Sevi. On the contrary, the way to now truly fulfill the commandment of fasting was to eat. The real purpose of fasting was to signify faith in the coming of Sabbatai, the Messiah. So by showing such faith in Sabbatai, as to do what might look like a sin, you are the one who is really fasting, as opposed to the fasting non-believers, who are really the ones eating. Similarly, if you believe that it is impossible to know the law through one's own intellectual efforts, but require the aid of Gedolim, then the logical way to demonstrate this faith is to commit a sin like taking a bite out of that traif sandwich at the command of the Gadol.

In a post-Enlightenment world, there are good reasons to be tempted by charismatic authority. It very neatly solves the challenge to authority both from potentially heterodox methods of interpreting the world (such as science) and, most importantly, from non-believing clergymen, working to bring down the faith from within. Charismatic authority, if we accept it, clearly trumps science and offers an a priori religious authority that makes liberal clergymen irrelevant. We see this logic at work within American Protestantism as well, where the Evangelical use of charismatic authority has beaten the text-based authority of the mainline denominations.

Let me suggest an approach to religious authority that might redeem text-based authority in the modern world, making use of John Locke style social contract theory in which everyone is free to follow their own understanding of Judaism and free to reject other opinions as demonstrating that the person is not serious about their Judaism, all the while being subject to everyone else having that same power. Here is another thought experiment. As a scholar of Jewish history, I have just made an important discovery in my university library, a set of Gemarah and Shulhan Arukh. Our parents and grandparents were all committed socialists, who raised us on kibbutzim. So despite the fact that we all strongly identify as Jews, none of us know anything about halakha. Even after we started believing in God again, we felt that there was something missing in our relationship to him. Observing the laws in these books look like the perfect solution we have been praying for.

We are going to start a club called the LOJS (Local Orthodox Jewish Synagogue). We will gather together on Saturdays to engage in Jewish worship as set forth in the books I found and listen to lectures on how to observe the many strange laws from the books in our homes. (Can you believe it, but we are going to have to baptize our dishes.) Sessions will be presided over by a Jewish studies professor, whom we will call a rabbi. There is nothing special about him and people should feel free to ignore him. It just makes sense to have someone in charge to be officially not obeyed.

Word of the LOJS club is spreading and soon we will have chapters in many different cities. Now, in trying to recreate some form of traditionally observant Judaism, we will face a number of challenges related to authority. We are trying to create a religion based on what we read in a set of books. These books say a lot of things, much of which is blatantly contradictory (do we listen to Bait Hillel or Beit Shammai) or simply difficult to understand, leaving a lot of room for interpretation and reasonable disagreement. So even if everyone was totally committed, we would have people wanting to practice different versions of Judaism. Since we are all baalai teshuva trying to figure things out, none of us carry any real authority that others should listen. To make matters worse, all sorts of people are applying to join our club with different levels of observance. Most people are more in the market for a few rituals to give some spirituality to their lives, but not to refashion themselves with a complete set of laws that must be accepted in totum. Furthermore, everyone is coming to Judaism with previous social and ideological commitments, which they are not about to give up now that they are joining their LOJS. For example, we have the nice gay couple who want to be married in the club, the feminist studying to be a rabbi, the libertarian-anarchist who has no intention of praying for the restoration of any Davidic monarchy and the Christian who believes that Jesus is his Jewish Lord and Savior. Different LOJS clubs are going to make their own decisions about where to draw the lines and who can be members, but no one is in a position to force their views on anyone else.

The sensible solution to these problems of authority would be for every individual person and LOJS club to proceed with creating their own standards all while showing the spirit of charity for all those other clubs setting their standards. God did not speak to me and I am not the heir of any special tradition. I am just a scholar trying to read and apply a manual like anybody else. Furthermore, we have to accept that everyone is coming to Judaism with some kind of previous ideological baggage, which sets boundaries on how they will interpret laws. For example, classical liberal Jews might refuse to kill homosexuals and Amalekite children. We have to accept this for the simple reason that we have no greater divine authority than they do. Just as we need our opponents to accept us even when they disagree with our interpretations and look askance at our ideological commitments so too must we be consistent and accept them despite our disagreements.

There is one limitation I would place in order to keep everyone honest; we are free to reject anyone, who does not appear to us to be acting in good faith and seems to be using Judaism as cover for some other ideological agenda. A greater level of personal observance should be a cause to give the benefit of the doubt over those who are less observant. That being said, overzealousness in rejecting other LOJS clubs should serve as prima facia evidence of using Judaism as cover for another agenda, much as a lack of ritual observance would. For example, even as I, much like Chabad, welcome people who drive on the Sabbath, are intermarried or even gay, I would reject the membership applications of members of Jews for Jesus and Jewish Voices for Peace, finding that they perform little in the way of Jewish practice and their Judaism consists mostly of using their Judaism to castigate other Jews for failing to believe in Jesus or make suicidal concessions to the Palestinians. Clearly, their agenda is simply to call themselves Jews in order to convert us to their actual religion. Similarly, I might reject applications from Satmar on the grounds that despite their meticulous observance, their eagerness to denounce other Jews and place themselves on some kind of moral platform indicates that they are less interested in Judaism as a way of practice and to relate to God than they are in setting up an anti-modernist cult. In making these decisions, I recognize that I make myself vulnerable. Not only should I not expect any tolerance from those who I have rejected, reasonable people might come to question my motivations in the particular lines I draw and decide that they cannot accept me.

Clearly, there would be nothing to stop a Jews for Pork group beyond our ability to reject their application as a Jewish organization. (I would make a point in distinguishing Jews who incidentally did not practice kosher in their homes and ideological traif eaters.) That being said, we should be able to avoid the problem with antinomianism. There are no hard hierarchies let alone charismatic authorities so there is no reason why there should be any antinomians in our midsts, particularly if we do our job in rooting out those trying to use Judaism as cover for other agendas.

Social contract theory is often criticized for being ahistorical. There was never a moment when non-civilized men came together and agreed on any kind of social contract, whether the Hobbesian, Lockean, or Rousseauean versions. This criticism misses the point, that the social contract was never something that happened in history, but is happening every day. The United States government stands because every day the vast majority of Americans, not me, get up and agree that the government has moral authority over themselves and their neighbors even to the point of killing them. The moment that even a small percentage of the population begins to question this then you get the Bastille and the Berlin Wall.

Similarly, many people might question the applicability of my scenario as it lacks any FFBs (frum from birth). What you have are some Jewish Studies majors deciding that they are really interested in halakha and getting other people to listen to them. (Granted that no one would ever take us seriously.) For me, this is precisely the point. Living post enlightenment and emancipation, there are no people truly born religious. Being observant Jews is something that we decide every day. Furthermore, there is no power of tradition to give anyone any inherent authority over anyone else. My father might be an Orthodox rabbi, but I grew up in Columbus, OH as a product of American culture. Just as a genetic test would demonstrate my utter lack of racial purity, even a casual reading of this blog should be enough to demonstrate that my ideas are hardly pure of gentile influence. I do not claim to be anything more an American with classical liberal values and conservatives politics, who grabbed onto the Judaism he found around him, trying to give himself a community and some meaning to his life. I challenge anyone to demonstrate that their Judaism is any purer.

There are many Jews out there, who lack my Jewish education. I am not smarter or more virtuous than them and claim no intrinsic authority over them. I am sure, if they wish, they could study the same texts that I studied and surpass me. There are certainly many Jews who are more learned than me. I am sure that, if I applied myself, I could remedy that. Such people may be compared to my in-laws, brother-in-law, sister-in-law and younger brother, who all, unlike me, have medical degrees. It may be prudent that I take their medical advice seriously, but none of them can claim any kind of authority over me; I remain free to shop around for medical advice. Most importantly, I deny that any of them are intrinsically smarter or virtuous than me (besides for my mother-in-law). If I wanted to, I could go to medical school and become a doctor as well.

Let us do away with charismatic authority and even the hierarchy of tradition. Let us be the People of the Book.