Monday, November 24, 2014

My D'var Torah for the Parshah is Up on the Modern Torah Leadership Blog

Rabbi Aryeh Klapper is one of my favorite people in the entire Jewish world. He combines a subversive sense of humor with scholarship and a deep commitment to the halakhic process. While Rabbi Klapper lives in Boston, I think he really needs to form an alliance with Rabbi Yonah Bookstein here in Los Angeles to either reform Orthodoxy or to blow it apart trying. About a decade ago, I spent the summer studying with Rabbi Klapper in his Beis Midrash Program. As an alumnus of the program, I was asked a few months ago to write a d'var Torah for its blog. Having a few months to write something meant that I was scratching my head what to say with the clock ticking down on me. Here is my post. For better or worse it had to be cut down for length and snark. Did God develop a temporary hankering for "crispy human flesh?" The piece plays on one of the central themes of my original dissertation project on Jewish messianism, being on the wrong side of history. My challenge to readers is whether Jacob managed to be the one really successful patriarch precisely by seeming to fail at everything?  

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Am I an Islamic Extremist?

Ben Shapiro uses a collection of polled responses to questions by Muslims to offer hard numbers on the percentage of Muslims, who are extremists. While I do see radical Islam as a major threat and, for example, am willing to support the Dresden style bombing of Gaza and the invasion of Saudi Arabia to remove the house of Saud, Shapiro harms his case by using a standard for extremism that is ridiculously elastic.

Consider some of the questions posed: Can terrorism, honor killings or attacks on civilians ever be justified? Do you wish Sharia be the law of your country? If you answer yes to any of these questions, you are an extremist. By this standard, I am an extremist. Ben Shapiro and most of you are also likely extremists. Notice the key word "ever." Any person with minimal training in philosophy should easily be able to construct a hypothetical scenario in which just about anything would be justified. For example, as a matter of general policy I would consider myself an opponent of slavery. That being said, I can easily imagine scenarios involving rescuing people from concentration camps in which slavery could be justified. For that matter, I am willing to defend the right of consenting adults to enter into slave contracts. Obviously, these cases do not apply to the vast majority of real slaves, who have lived throughout history. Thus, I certainly do not support any actual slave systems. Actual slaves were victims of injustice. That being said, I have been accused of being an advocate of slavery when I have tried to point out these important nuances. Do I support honor killings? Praised be the husband and father, who hacks his wife and daughter to pieces upon finding out that they are traitors to liberty, plotting to bring Communist or Nazi governments to power. Do I support terrorist attacks on civilians? Communism and Nazism are ideologies that reject the social contract distinction between military and civilian. Thus, an intellectually honest opponent must be willing to subject even civilian supporters of these ideologies to total Hobbesian warfare. Do I support Sharia? I perfectly understand how decent Muslims would wish to live under their religion and dream about a day when all of their countrymen freely agree to the same. Note that the question said nothing about the use of violence to impose that law upon others. I wish to live under halakha and hope that one day the United States will allow me to secede and form my own "Jewish State."

There are much better questions that could have been asked to see if someone is an Islamic extremist. In this day and age, do you support carrying out attacks against civilians on American soil? Would you agree to recognize Israel as a Jewish State and make peace with it, if it allowed Palestinians to form their own state and offered compensation to refugees? Do you support the death penalty, as practical and not just symbolic law, to be used against converts from Islam? I assume that the number of Muslims, who would answer yes to these questions will be frightening. Furthermore, I recognize that there are specific Islamic groups that should be placed in the same category as Communism and Nazism with the same bloody implications. That being said, this is a threat that is simply to important to exaggerate.   

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Not Advocating for Vaccination - And Will Still Not Love Rav Shmuel

My good friend Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein has written a piece "Why I Love Rav Shmuel - And Will Advocate Vaccination Nonetheless" in which he attempts to distinguish between his personal respect for Rabbi Shmuel Kamenetsky and his opposition to his recent comments opposing vaccinations. According to Rabbi Kamenetsky: “There is a doctor in Chicago who doesn’t vaccinate any of his patients and they have no problem at all. ... I see vaccinations as the problem. It’s a hoax. Even the Salk vaccine [against polio] is a hoax. It is just big business.” While I accept Rabbi Adlerstein's general premise of distinguishing between opposing specific ideas advocated by a person and rejecting the person as a whole, the serious problems raised by Rabbi Kamenetsky's position force the thoughtful person to take a harsher line and view his "sin" as not merely venial, but mortal.

An essential part of living in a society (particularly a liberal one that values diversity) is the ability to create two circles of opposition. One implies a narrow rejection of a particular belief or action while valuing the person's many other worthwhile attributes; the other places the person completely beyond the pale. For example, I recognize that many intelligent people of good support the expansion of government healthcare. I may oppose such a position, but my opposition, in no way, takes anything away from the positive opinion I hold of them in other fields. Thus, I would defend them to my fellow libertarians by saying: "you should ignore what they believe in regards to healthcare and just focus on the worthwhile things they have to say." Similarly, members of Hamas engage in social support programs within their community in addition to being terrorists. That being said, a critical part in recognizing Hamas as a terrorist organization is precisely that willingness to not draw a line between Hamas the social welfare organization and Hamas the terrorist organization. This would even apply to members of Hamas, who are solely involved with the social side. All must be condemned as terrorists without any account for any positive aspects. Hamas' "good" work does not lesson its evil. On the contrary, its evil is such that it makes it as if the good never happened. It is even possible that, under such circumstances, the good itself is transformed into evil as it serves to render the entire enterprise all the more perverse.

I must confess that I have yet to come up with an intellectually rigorous method for deciding who belongs in which circle. A step in the right direction would be to ask whether the problematic position directly affects other areas. For example, support for government does not directly connect to a person's personal charity. By contrast, Hamas' social welfare programs are all part of an ideology that seeks to destroy Israel. Furthermore, one should take into account the possibility of the positive being used as cover for their more problematic agenda. I am not worried that supporters of healthcare will use their personal charity as moral cover for their government agenda. By contrast, I do worry about Hamas using their social programs as moral cover.

Even if we lack clear lines, it is important that we recognize the existence of both people who must be tolerated despite their errors and those who must be rejected for them. There is not another person in the world that I agree with about everything. As my opinions on many issues have changed over the years, I do not even agree with my past selves. Thus, if I am going to live with other people and even with myself, I must be willing to tolerate the existence of at least certain types of errors. That being said, we live in a world in which there are truly dangerous people who mean us very real harm. Others possess radically different values and seek to build a society in their own image on the ruin of our society. Clearly, tolerance as a blank check that does not insist on something in return will quickly turn into a suicide pact that benefits only the least tolerant in our midst.       

In what circle should we classify Rabbi Kamenetsky? Let me admit that I take his comments personally on two accounts. As an Asperger, I have no wish for autism to be used in any campaign against the medical establishment. Why did Rav Shmuel have to walk shomer negiah arm in arm with Jenny McCarthy? Also, a number of years ago, I challenged Rabbi Kamenetsky on his willingness to offer approbations for works on Jewish history considering that he has no professional training in the field. I asked him if he would be willing to write an approbation to a medical book. He responded that he would not as he had no expertise in medicine. I tried to press him on why he did not hold himself to a similar standard regarding history. He did not give me a clear answer; I assume that, unlike medicine, he did not see history as a field operating based on clear rules to be mastered before wading into any discussions on the topic. The fact that Rabbi Kamenetsky has now placed himself in middle of a medical debate means that he lied to me regarding his belief as to his lack of qualification.

All that aside, there are good reasons to reject Rabbi Kamenetsky across the board simply for his comments as they directly relate to larger issues of scientific methodology and ultimately raise questions regarding his commitment to a halachic process. If you read Rabbi Kamenetsky carefully, you will see that he does not merely reject vaccinations, but the scientific method as well. I recognize that more knowledgeable people than me worry about the health risks of vaccines and that, in theory in least, one might be able to make a scientifically rigorous case against them. Like most people in the anti-vaccination movement, though, Rabbi Kamenetsky foregoes this debate in favor of claiming that the scientific establishment is not only wrong, but that they are engaged in a hoax, in essence that they are conspiring against the public. To claim conspiracy implies a rejection of the scientific method as anyone who accepts this method most also accept that it borders on the impossible for there ever to be a sustained conspiracy in science. Instead of science, Rabbi Kamenetsky, turns to the anecdotal evidence of an unnamed doctor in Chicago. Anecdotal evidence is among the most worthless kinds of evidence in existence. Scientific medicine requires double blind trials. Rabbi Kamenetsky clearly does not believe this and, if placed in charge of scientific establishment, would operate it in a very different fashion.

For the sake of clarity, let me say that I take no scientific position regarding vaccines. I am not a scientist and, therefore, am not qualified to have an opinion. As a non-scientist, who accepts the scientific method, though, I am forced to operate with the current scientific consensus on the assumption that it is the product of the scientific method. This is the case even though, as a historian, I am aware that any scientific consensus is subject to change. Even if I thought that vaccines were a bad idea, I would still be willing to sacrifice the lives of thousands of children for the sake of defending the scientific method by upholding scientific consensus even when it is wrong.

If we accept my argument so far then we should reject Rabbi Kamenetsky's authority on all scientific issues. This would mean, not only evolution, but also anything regarding medicine. No religious believer in the scientific method can accept him as an impartial arbitrator as he operates under a clearly very different set of premises.

Let me take this a step further to argue that even those Jews with no particular allegiance to the scientific method should reject Rabbi Kamenetsky as a halachic authority as there is good reason to be suspicious of his allegiance to any consistent halachic methodology. We already know that Rabbi Kamenetsky has, at the very least, been passively tolerant of a trend within the Haredi world toward charismatic authority that certain specific individuals are subject to direct personal divine inspiration and should therefore be listened to. For one thing, this position makes a mockery of Rabbi Adlerstein's claim of the non-absolute nature of religious authority within the non-Hasid haredi world. Charismatic authority is as absolute as that of the almighty. Furthermore, charismatic authority is ultimately contrary to halachic authority (even if believers in charismatic authority might by observant in their day to day lives). The moment you grant the merest hint of legitimacy to charismatic authority then you open a Pandora's Box in which any illiterate child can trump the most learned rabbis and every line in the Talmud merely by claiming to have received divine inspiration.

Rabbi Kamenetsky's comments regarding vaccines are relevant here because they strongly suggest that, at least when it comes to science, he does not believe in following any clear principled method, but relies on charismatic authority. Where else does he get the idea to take it upon his shoulders to contradict mainstream science relying simply upon his own authority? (This would be consistent with the common Haredi acceptance of charismatic authority when applied to medicine. For example, the Chazon Ish is widely claimed to have been a great expert in medicine without ever having studied medicine.) Normally, the further one goes from one's field of professional expertise, the more important it is to consciously rely on clear methodology. The reason for this is that, without professional training, the field's methods will not have sunk to an unconscious level to allow a person to operate on their instincts. If Rabbi Kamenetsky is so contemptuous of any methodology as a matter of principle that he would forego them when it came to a field outside of his professional expertise then we should assume that he has written himself a large blank check to do whatever he wants and ignores methodology when it comes to halacha.

Consistency demands that Rabbi Adlerstein make a choice between defending not only the scientific method, but also the halachic process and sacrificing Rabbi Kamenetsky. Even though, I believe that Rabbi Adlerstein is mistaken in not rejecting Rabbi Kamenetsky, I still respect him. For one thing, the food and conversation at his house are simply too good. He is a wise man and worth listening to. One can even gain some valuable insights from analyzing his apologetics on behalf of Haredi religious authority figures.   


Monday, July 28, 2014

Hierarchy and Force in Teaching: Raising the White Flag

This post is an attempt to express my conflict over the hierarchal nature of teaching within the context of my own experience and to offer some theoretical context for it. I do not pretend to have a solution. It is likely that the principle of hierarchy is built into the relationship between teachers and students and we are left having to pay the price for that fact.

Human interactions can be divided into coercive and non-coercive ones. When we get our way with other people, it can be because we put a gun to someone’s head, broke their legs or otherwise threatened them with something truly unpleasant. Alternatively, people might choose to do what we want out of their own free will, because they like us or, perhaps, because we paid them. It is easy to understand the evil of coercion when on the receiving end of it. We have all sorts of words for other people wielding power over us, tyranny, injustice and oppression. Things are a little trickier when we are the ones a position of power. Our actions are always for the “benefit” of those in our charge or even for “humanity” at large. That our charges may not appreciate our “humanitarianism” simply demonstrates that they are “ungrateful” and “deserve” to be in a subordinated to our will. Even otherwise decent people are tempted to use force for no other reason than its mere simplicity. Picture any narrow problem involving other people and I challenge you to think of a more direct solution than to be in a position of power to threaten those who get in the way with physical harm for their continued defiance. The problem with such a view can only be perceived when taking a larger view that asks not how we can solve specific problems, but how to avoid oppositional relationships and create situations in which people have a reason to cooperate. Coercion will eliminate human obstacles, but it fails to turn those same obstacles into ladders that will allow us to rise.
This argument against hierarchical systems of power is most obviously relevant to politics. I am here interested in the question of teaching. If defenders of authoritarianism have, in the past, argued that a specific group was “like children” and, needed to be ruled over, teaching involves literal children, who presumably need to be kept in the care of adults. What I am attempting to grapple with here is not even the issue of corporal punishment. Modern education has eliminated corporal punishment, and I think that is a good thing. Regardless of whether there are cases where students truly deserve what is coming to them, such punishment corrupts the relationship between teachers and students by turning it into an oppositional one. This inhibits the larger project of transmitting values and methods of thinking that should be at the heart of education and are necessary for progress. That being said, even if teachers lost their paddles and yardsticks, teaching remains a fundamentally authoritarian process built around coercion. We still hold over students the threat of failing grades and by extension the long term likelihood of being denied a job and a ticket to prosperity. This power is strengthened by a presumed moral authority. Students know that they cannot touch us, but the school administration and even their own parents will support us if we act against them. Not only do we have the right to punish, but we will be affirmed as right in doing so. This authoritarian structure even manifests itself in the act of teaching in the form of the lecture. Such a system presumes the existence of a teacher in possession of the “right” answers and the masses of students in need of enlightenment. The teacher then stands in front and “transmits” knowledge from his mind to those of the students through speech or possibly visual aids. The logical corollary is that the teacher is in a position to stand in judgment, presumably through exams, as to how successful students have “absorbed” this knowledge and, therefore, has a moral right to reward or punish students with grades.      

A few years ago, I spent a year teaching high school history. I was fortunate in having a talented class. I remain in contact with several students, who continue to seek me out for whatever life or academic wisdom I can offer them. That being said, as with all human endeavors, there were regular conflicts of interest. At its most basic level, there was a conflict in the sense that students often wished to do other things than sit in class and listen to me. I am not a tyrannical person, greedy for power. On the contrary, I am an idealist, who believes in the cause of teaching. Furthermore, I felt pressure to justify the paycheck I received as a teacher by making sure I spent every moment doing things that an outside observer would recognize as productive teaching. Ironically, if I had cared less, I might have performed better. For example, I saw it as my responsibility to keep students in the classroom and refused to let more than one student out at a time to use the restroom. I even refused to let students leave, who I came to believe were abusing their privilege. I also objected to students doing work from other classes during my class. As I am sure readers would agree, when narrowly considered, everything that I did was in my rights. My mistake was that I perpetuated a mindset for myself and my students of confrontation in which it was me versus them. Perhaps the biggest sign of this was that it frustrated me when students did not do as I wished, which manifested in my doing a fair amount of yelling. Again, it is not a matter of whether I was in the right in specific cases. The very fact that I could get frustrated should have been a sign that I was not receiving something that I believed I had a right to and should have begged the question of whether these students owed me anything. For this reason, I owe all my students, particularly the “problematic” ones, an apology. That I was the true student, learning how to teach, may perhaps serve as a reason to treat my very real failings as a teacher with some charity.

This past year, I started tutoring a group of kids from a large family, ranging in age from toddler to teen, on a weekly basis. Needless to say, I do not work with all of these kids at the same time or on the same things. Theoretically, the first hour should consist of working with the younger set on their reading. The littlest ones should be able to pick out words in the story as I read to them. The bigger ones should be able to do some of the reading. The second hour should consist of me hosting a discussion about history and politics with the older set. Lessons rarely work out so neatly. Not all of the kids are interested in doing anything with me at a given time, and they are not always interested in the same things as another kid. In practice, I find myself jumping from kid to kid and vastly different topics with a fair amount of horseplay mixed in. My goal is not to control the situation, but to engage a few kids at a time for a brief period before moving on to something else.  

Being a tutor, as opposed to a teacher, means no yearly contract. Thus, the parents can get rid of me anytime they choose. This reality increases the pressure to perform “teaching” actions. I have this dread that the parents will walk in and see one kid playing a game on my kindle, another reading a book while I have a light saber duel with a third and decide that it would be cheaper to simply hire a babysitter, disregarding the fact that I was explaining the importance of conflict in narrative. Oddly enough, what makes tutoring workable for me is that, unlike teaching, there is no temptation to believe that I have any authority. Recognizing and accepting this fact means I am less likely to attempt to exercise this non-existent authority. Lack of job security is scary and certainly makes me anxious to hear that the family likes what I am doing, but it is not something I can control. So I have no choice but to focus on what I can control, and that is being the best resource for the kids that I can in whatever form they choose to take it. Hopefully, they have learned at least half as much as I have learned from them.


Tuesday, July 8, 2014

A Tribute to Walter Dean Myers from My Seven Year Old Self


Last week, novelist Walter Dean Myers passed away. He has rightly been hailed as a literary icon for his ability to capture the experience of African-American males in books such as Monster and Fallen Angels. My purpose here is not to discuss Myers’ great virtues, but his humble ones. I will leave it those who are actually African-American to speak about how Myers influenced them as African-American readers. As I am male, though, I will address myself to how Myers has influenced me as a male reader. His young-adult book The Legend of Tarik was one of the first novels I ever read and certainly the first that I felt really strongly about. That the book drew my seven year old self across the then intimidating length of nearly 200 pages and brought me back to read it again repeatedly should be sufficient praise. In third grade, we were able to earn the privilege of reading to the class. I used the opportunity to subject the class to my reading from Tarik. I confess that I owe an apology to my classmates, not for my choice in books, but for my zeal in pressing it upon them.

I have no intention of praising Tarik as great literature let alone to claim it as grounds for declaring Myers a great author. The fact that Myers has become a part of the canon of American literature, with his books commonly used in school curricula, was not something I was aware of until I was an adult. No teacher made me read Tarik; it was something I bought for myself at a school book fair. What are Tarik’s virtues? The ultimate standard to judge fantasy is that used by the grandfather in Princess Bride: “fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love [and] miracles.”

To be fair, Tarik does not have much in the true love department beyond Tarik being assaulted by a she-demon, who attempts to tempt Tarik to kiss her. Tarik does gain a female friend later in the book, but that is quite platonic. That being said; my younger self had yet to see such an absence of romance as a flaw. What Tarik has in spades are revenge and fighting. Tarik’s family is massacred at the beginning by an evil warlord, El Meurte. A pair of wise men save Tarik, train him to fight and send him on a series of quests for objects of power to aid him in seeking revenge. The second half of the book consists of Tarik pursuing his enemy, hacking his way through plenty of bad guys, even as he suffers loses along the way, while building up to the final confrontation.

Does any of this make Tarik great literature? Part of my present self is inclined to say no. There is no subtlety to the characters nor is there much rhyme and reason to why things happen. Tarik is given his motive in the beginning and then a series of set pieces that serve as obstacles to pass through before battling the big boss. In essence, this is a video game plot. As we are dealing with fantasy, it is hardly a criticism that Myers uses the tropes of questing and the arch-villain. His sin, though, is that there is nothing particularly creative in how he uses them.

On behalf of my younger self, let me respond that Myers wrote the book that I needed to read at the time I read it. If there is nothing sophisticated with the characters and plot, it is because I was being given the chance to experience hating someone and going on a thrilling ride leading to his defeat without any needless clutter. I have no problem defending action movies simply as action movies because they provide great fight sequences and the fighting in Tarik is certainly entertaining. If Myers shamelessly uses fantasy tropes, I needed to learn those troupes in their clearest possible form so I could appreciate other works of fantasy. Tarik was a good toy for me. It was fun to play with and, even if I did not realize it at the time, I absorbed something valuable regarding the mechanisms of good story telling. As with all great toys, adults mock them at the risk of revealing that they flunked childhood and need to be held back a grade.

Maybe the most important feature weighing in favor of Tarik is simply that I remain emotionally invested in that book. A large part of that is precisely that this is a book that I discovered for myself and was never popular enough to be widely read by others. Thus, Tarik remains mine as if Myers personally read me this story. I almost selfishly wish that Myers never became famous, certainly not for other books. I want him to remain the author of Tarik, the book that made me a fantasy reader. Those fans of Myers who wish to take him from me for a higher purpose are free to try.   

Tarik is not the only book I have read that is special to me precisely because of its lack of popularity. Another example that comes to my mind is Grace Chetwin’s Gom series, a discussion for perhaps another time. So I ask readers, not what are your favorite books, but which books hold a special place in your heart precisely because few people have heard of them?              

Monday, May 5, 2014

A May the Fourth Proclamation


Now you see how terrifyingly cute I can be. I have left out the sound of my voice as I address my followers this May the Fourth as it would likely drive the feebleminded among you into gibbering madness or at least to drink. (As I know from personal experience, sleeping and pooping are also important parts of a balanced lifestyle.) For now, as I mentioned previously,  you may imagine that I sound like James Earl Jones. My former teacher and false friend Malach, whom I no longer believe in, refused to show me any movies in Mommy's tummy so I am trying to rectify that. After being subjected to the Star Wars prequels, I have come to the fair unbiased rational conclusion that the Dark Side is much better. If you were tortured by George Lucas with Jar Jar Binks, as Anakin was, you would also agree that turning to evil was the only way to fight back. Anyway, show me in Shulhan Arukh where it says that there is anything wrong with the Dark Side. In fact, judging from Sefer Protocols, it is incumbent upon Jews to rule the galaxy.  

I have now started taking lessons with the fearsome Feline Sith Lord, Darth Oberon. He has shown me the true nature of the Force. Cats are far superior to humans and are destined to rule. The essence of their distinction is that humans have evolved to be nice to other people by picking lice from the backs of their fellows. This has led to generations in which six people study under a single cloth, with everyone trying to make sure that the other person is covered. Do you think that such people could ever conquer anything beyond themselves? Contrast this weakness, with the power of cats, who can lick themselves all over. Human brains and opposable thumbs are no match for a cat's Dark Side glare and meow.

Darth Oberon's overconfidence is amusing. Having never seen Star Wars, he has missed what Sith apprentices do to their masters. I shall then rule all the humans of the house. If you plead nicely, perhaps I might find time to come over and conquer your house. For now Abba, Mommy, grandparents and a Sith Lord cat are a bit much for even my great intellect to keep in charge of.

Friday, May 2, 2014

An Introduction from My Son

Greetings! I am Darth Kitty. Do not be confused by the picture. I am really very terrifying. I also speak in a very deep voice. I sound something like James Earl Jones. Let me tell you about my adventures. If you can believe it, I have lived in your world for over a week and in Mommy’s tummy for more than nine months. I am sure that sounds like an incredibly long time to you. It certainly does to me. What can I say, I am very old.

Living in Mommy’s tummy, I was not only the oldest person, but also the smartest and best looking. My one companion was Malach. He was my teacher, which means that he was not nearly as smart as me. In fact I would constantly refute all of his arguments. He postulated the existence of another world in which lived Abba and Mommy as well as many other people. Because of this he urged me to develop a theory of mind. To this I responded: “I think therefore I am everything.” Because of this, Malach decided to hit me on my upper lip so that I would forget all my unbelievable brilliance. He failed as I still know everything. The proof of this is that I cannot think of anything that I do not know. Nevertheless, I felt betrayed by Malach and have decided that, since he wanted me to forget him, I will take revenge by not believing in him ever again. Instead, I will accept the existence of Maimonidean ontological constructs.

With Malach no longer putting up with my meshugas, I decided to introduce my own particular brand of antinomian messianic Judaism to your world. It was the last day of Passover, a holiday that is only meaningful  to those who listen to the rabbis and lack the good sense to move to Israel, which allows you to more effectively anger God and be an obstacle to world peace. I caused Mommy’s water to break. Mommy’s friend had to drag Abba out of shul, where he had no business being in the first place, so that he should drive me around. I was displeased with Abba’s lack of zeal to violate Yom Tov so I caused his car to break down. Thus, Abba was forced to sit in the back seat while Mommy’s friend received the great mitzvah of driving on Yom Tov.

I would have hoped that the adults would have used this opportunity I granted them to violate halakha for something useful like taking me to a rated R movie, but instead they decided to drive to the hospital. This was totally pointless as I was in complete control of the situation and was only going to cut my way out of Mommy when I felt like it. The doctors did not realize that by choosing to make Mommy undergo a Caesarian, they were really playing into my genius plot. The fact that I was brought into the world not by my choosing, but through an act of initiated aggression means that I can reserve the right to go back inside Mommy’s tummy whenever your world begins to bore me. I also now have the right to initiate aggression against anyone I choose as a matter of self-defense; I did not start this fight, but merely reacting to it. It is befitting that I come into the world just like Julius Caesar considering how much I intend on having in common with him. Finally, this process put me beyond the reach of pidyon ha-ben. This means that Abba will not be able to simply sell me off to some cohen. Abba, though, will still have to fast for me on erev Pesach, because I am the oldest. With the aid of my medical expertise, I came into the world at 3:45 P.M. This meant that Lubavitchers throughout the time zone were able to hold a Moshiach Seuda in my honor.     

It is so amusing when Mommy tried to breast feed me. Unlike King David, I used the opportunity to contemplate the genius of evolution that allows me to feed off Mommy in a manner suited to my great intelligence. I asked Mommy many probing questions about her milk. What kind of heksher does it carry and is it Cholev Yisroel? Was ma’aser taken from it? Having refuted her claim of trying to offer me kosher food, I said a “mater isurim” with great kavaanah.

I remembered from Malach that on the eighth day I was to be the guest of honor at a party with alcohol and a surprise. The lack of any blanks in my memory proves that I did not forget anything and still know everything.  At this bris, I went to shul and sat down on zaidy’s lap in front of the ark. I then dropped my diaper, displaying my antinomian weapon and opening fire on the simpleminded congregation. Take that Jacob Frank. Not only do I know more than you about subverting halakha, my cheeks are much more pinchable. Recovering from my transformation of the shul into a truly holy place fit for kedeshas, one of the Pharisaic rabbis used violence to suppress my antinomian attack and wounded me.

I realize now that if I am going to turn your world upside down I am going to have to proceed slowly with caution, perhaps even taking months. I changed my name to Kalman Yitzchok and told Abba that from now on I no longer wanted to be Darth Kitty and take over the world as an antinomian messiah. Instead wanted to be a good little Jewish boy, study Torah and do mitzvot. I love having Asperger parents; they believe everything I tell them.   

Monday, March 3, 2014

Purim Giveaway from Oh Nuts

My friends at Oh Nuts are having their Purim gift basket giveaway and they have been kind enough to allow me to participate. There are three ways for readers to win some holiday goodness.

1. Readers should go to the Oh Nuts Purim Basket Gift page. Choose your favorite Purim Gift and leave a comment on this blog post with the name and url of the gift you love the most.

I will pick a random winner and Oh Nuts will send them a  $30 gift certificate.
(The odds of winning this way are likely to be quite good.)

2. Readers can go to the Oh Nuts Facebook page  become a fan and post on the wall the url and name of your favorite Purim Gift Basket. You should also write "I am here via "Izgad." 

3. Readers need to follow @ohnuts and should Tweet 

" Win a Purim Basket from Follow @ohnuts and RT to Enter Daily "

For option 2 and 3 Oh Nuts will pick the winner. 

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Teaching AP History for the Dr. Lan Academy

(Picture taken when my wife and I stopped by to meet with members of the Lan Academy team, who were participating at conference at Cal Tech a few miles from where we live in Pasadena, CA. Pictured here are Dr. Sikun Lan and Ms. Elizabeth Paich.)

I have been hired by the Dr. Lan Academy, an online school, to teach AP European and World history. The premise behind the school is to offer private education that is both cheaper and allows greater flexibility to individual students. This is accomplished by eliminating the brick and mortar building and replacing it with an internet video chat system that one can hook up to anywhere. These are going to be real live classroom lectures. Students will be able to interact with me and with other students through text message or through video. I am excited to be involved in this endeavor because it speaks to three themes dear to me and which I have often discussed on this blog, libertarianism, Asperger's syndrome and Orthodox Judaism.

As a libertarian, I am always on the lookout for ways to shrink the size of government in the hope of privatizing services which the government now claims a monopoly over. This ranges from wanting to privatize the post office to schools and for some of us even to dream of private police and courts.  Fighting this battle politically is admittedly a frustrating and generally futile task. Government will not surrender power and shrink on its own. It is therefore exciting to be able to stand in the front lines along creative business entrepreneurs like Dr. Sikun Lan, who are offering alternatives to state run schooling. (Let me add that Dr. Lan is a true gentleman as well as a pioneer.) I do not believe that institutions the Lan Academy are going to put public schools out of business any time soon, but they are a step in the right direction. If we are going to ask the public to trust the education of their children to the free market then we have to be able to offer them a plausible option.

Students with Asperger's syndrome often struggle in formal classrooms. Such social situations risk sensory overload as one does not have the option of simply stepping away without drawing attention to oneself. Furthermore, formal classrooms require one to be in constant performance mode, making the right facial expressions and obeying the rules of conversation. The online classroom provides an ideal entrance to mainstream education. One is being integrated into a regular class with neurotypical students for the purpose of earning college credit to be used for making the transition from high school to college.

The recent financial downturn has forced the Orthodox community to begin to ask some difficult questions regarding the economic feasibility of its private school system. Certainly in the city of Los Angeles, the cost of Jewish schooling is out of control. Online schooling offers a clearly superior alternative to public schools. Let yeshivas focus on traditional religious education in the morning and let students deal with secular school in the afternoon with a company like the Lan Academy, which is very respectful of people with traditional values and actively seeks to accommodate people whatever their requirements.

I do not speak for Lan Academy and nothing I say should be taken as representing the school or its values. That being said, I find working for the school and its administration to be an act that accords well with my deepest beliefs. To those of my readers, who miss more regular posts and need a certified AP history class, here is an opportunity to have me as your teacher with my verbal antics performed live. To those with high school students or that know students, who could benefit from this opportunity, feel free to recommend me. My courses each need ten students. When we get them we will get started (probably this coming summer) with the goal of being ready for the AP exams in May 2015.       

Monday, January 13, 2014

DirectTV for Your Baby

My wife is expecting a little Izgad due soon after Passover. It is my hope that this little fellow have all the appropriate number tentacles and eat mommy first. We recently attended at baby expo with her parents to look at cribs, strollers and car seats. The place was a bazaar for a wide range of organic and other alternative types of baby care products. For this reason I was surprised to see a booth for DIRECTV. Regardless of the whether I plan on raising my child with a television in the house, I consider television as much a part of a complete and balanced childhood as fruity pebbles. That being said, I went over to the people manning the booth to thank them. For one thing, they are doing their job. The market should operate with similar values as the adversarial system used in courts. Prosecutors and defense lawyers may argue against each other, but they are really on the same side of justice. For this reason victims of crimes should be just as grateful to defense lawyers with all their shenanigans as they are to the prosecutors. It is the defense lawyer, precisely to the proportion that he abuses his position, who grants legitimacy to the prosecution. Without him all you would have is a lynch mob and the moral distinction between victim and perpetrator would disappear. Similarly, the market requires many different sides to educate the public by advertising their wares. This includes television as well as drugs and prostitutes. (And if the little one tries to take advantage of any future legalization of the later two in order to experiment with them, he will wish their was a legal system to lock him away to protect him from me.)  

There is another reason why I am grateful to DIRECTV. They offered me an opportunity to correctly apply R. Avigdor Miller's  "near and far argument." His claim to deduce the value of science and history books in a library based on the fiction section is nonsense. That being said it is useful to know that their was no controlling authority as to who received booths to the extent that even DIRECTV could receive one. Thanks to DIRECTV, I know that I should just assume that the goods being sold by every other booth are equally junk. Now it is in the market interests of those other companies to make sure I receive a different signal and insist that the expo demonstrate that it has standards by not including DIRECTV.  

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Attention all Thinking Women! Agudath Israel Wants You (For What I am Not Certain)

Someone at Agudath Israel's public relations department seems to have decided that inclusiveness and critical inquiry are useful concepts that play well in public opinion. What I find interesting here is the contrast between the caption and the picture. Where are the thinking women in the picture? All I see are men. As to whether any thinking is going on, I would point readers to the structure of the picture in which gedolim sit on a dais with everyone else down below. This is an inherently authoritarian system that makes it impossible to engage in any meaningful education and critical inquiry impossible. If there are some people who are elevated to the status of having the "right answers" as opposed to everyone else then what is the point of there even being any sort of give and take? All that can be expected is for the elevated few to command and for everyone else to hear and obey.

It is important to understand why it is important that women be physically present and in a position to present and even photographed. What is at stake is not merely a public policy of not photographing women as a matter of keeping to modesty guidelines. How can women be a meaningful part of a conversation if they are not physically present and allowed to speak (and even photographed) as the equals of men? Men should also be paying attention here, because if the claim of women being able to participate is nothing more than a sham, then members of the other half of the human race need to ask themselves whether their participation is a sham as well. The very act of looking up at a dais means that this question is hardly academic.

I am reminded of an incident a few years ago when several Haredi leaders spoke at a Modern Orthodox synagogue in Teaneck, NJ in what was billed as an opportunity for an open discussion. What took place was merely these rabbis fielding a few pre-screened questions and lecturing the audience. The point here is that without a deep seated commitment to a host of liberal values (classical not modern) such notions as inclusiveness, critical inquiry and open discussion quickly lose all meaning. Instead they become pieces in an Orwellian game as they are pushed around by public relations people to mean their exact opposite.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein on Asperger Syndrome and Judaism

Over on Cross-Currents my friend R. Yitzchok Adlerstein has a thoughtful piece regarding Asperger Syndrome. I may be biased in this considering the people who served as inspiration for the piece. As R. Adlerstein tells it:

In the last few months, my wife and I have had the pleasure of hosting a young couple for occasional Shabbosim. Both live with AS. ... The couple know that I am writing this; we’ve discussed the content. They are quite open about their experience. Nonetheless, I am not going to mention their names.) Both are frum. The husband is finishing his doctoral dissertation; his wife works with special-needs kids. They are very, very bright. (One of them often periodically gives me a hard time as a commenter to Cross-Currents.)

I will leave it to my readers' imagination as to the identity of this Asperger couple.

What impresses me about R. Adlerstein here is that more than just about any neurotypical I know, he actually seems to get the challenges faced by Aspergers living in a neurotypical world and manages to avoid the trap of "why can't you people just learn to cope like 'normal' people." As R. Adlerstein forcefully notes:

Why? Because “our” world doesn’t make any real sense to them. They don’t understand it. It seems unnatural and arbitrary. (They may be closer to the truth than we are!) How they get by is intriguing. Since they can’t really make our rules second nature, they cope with them by laboriously learning protocols of reaction. They learn, step by step, how to interact with a person whom they do not know. They memorize steps of conversation that they may hear, or should initiate. They learn phrases with which to deal with the conversation they cannot comprehend. For example, when faced with something they are not sure was said in jest or not, they will interrupt and directly ask the intent of the speaker.

In a social setting, they often have to deal with input from multiple speakers. For each, decisions need to be made. Do I launch into Protocol E after that last remark, or should we try Protocal S? After a while, their brains begin to resemble an overtaxed and overheated CPU. Aside from the stress, none of it ever really makes sense. Dealing with the arbitrary is the price they must pay, without ever entertaining the hope that they will understand. This is life; deal with it by obeying arbitrary rules, responding with fixed modes of response. Every minute can mean a new challenge of having to consult this rule book, and responding according to what they have been taught. Every slip-up, every deviation, will exact a penalty and price.

Where R. Adlerstein wishes to take all of this is interesting. I suspect that many readers will object. I personally am still working through my thoughts regarding the matter. R. Adlerstein sees Aspergers as a potential model for religious behavior.

If occurred to me that if, as the gemara says, Hillel obligates all the poor, then AS people obligate the rest of us. We chafe – consciously or otherwise – at having to live with rules we often do not understand. We groan under the weight of so many restrictions and limitations. We don’t like the pressure, nor the fact that we cannot comprehend why we must obey these rules with such exactitude.

Listening to G-d’s rules is not at all like obeying the human variety. We are maaminim, bnei maaminim. We know that HKBH is never, ever, arbitrary. We have perfect confidence that His rules make Divine sense, even if not humanly comprehended. We have the advantage of sensing the depth and beauty of most of His rules – it is a minority that trouble us. We know that the stakes are much higher than the social acceptance that is at stake for AS folks. We can appreciate that if He asks us to live our lives constantly checking with His rule book for the propriety of our next decision, then it is possible to live life in this way.

Is it better to be admired or excommunicated? While the former is truly tempting, I fear that mainstreaming Aspergers could become a means of co-opting us, taking away the potentially subversive role for Aspergers to play in religion.

There is a difference between the divine commands associated with religion and human social rules. While divine commands can appear to be extremely arbitrary, they have the advantage over human social rules in that they are usually being made explicit. Part of the problem with human social rules is that not only are they arbitrary, but they are often never clearly stated. Instead they are left to the intuition of others. Since we Aspergers operate on a different wave-length, we are apt to simply miss the message. An organized religion that offers me the opportunity to exempt myself from human social rules (though not ethical ones) in exchange for following its commandments certainly has my support.

That being said, there is another side to all this that R. Adlerstein, for good reason, does not discuss. He simply starts from the assumption that we Aspergers accept neurotypical social rules and infers that one should show similar obedience to God. Now what should we conclude from the fact Aspergers, such as myself, do not accept neurotypical rules? We may obey them out of practical necessity, but we mock them as arbitrary and unnecessary. In the end we do not accept them as holding any legitimate moral authority over us. Having grown skeptical of the very concept of top-down authoritarian rule, how should we react to the notion of the top-down authoritarian rule of God?

I see nothing heretical in what I am saying. As a Jew, part of my religion is to argue with God. This coming Rosh Ha-Shanah, I will be acknowledging God as my king, who has absolute power over me. That being said, there is a whole other side to the High Holidays. Despite God's omnipotence, he is, by definition, unable to force our free acceptance of him as our moral authority to be obeyed. Like any politician God must ask us to give our assent. We humans cannot let God off lightly. We have our demands for a sweet new year and complete pardon for all is only the beginning of that list. How could anyone have the chutzpah to treat God in such a manner and turn the tables on him? I guess one needs to have Asperger Syndrome or simply be Jewish.    

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Kickstarter Storybook Project

My very talented friend Oren Litwin, who recently wrote a collection of short stories on reforming government, has a kickstarter project for an illustrated storybook of a cute short story he wrote. The story deals with how a baker uses the power of Chanukah to save a princess and the land from a dragon.  Lovers of Hebrew will get a kick out of the dragon's name, which is revealed at the end. Oren has been kind enough to post the story for free. If you would like to see an illustrated version please donate to help with publication. He needs $5,000. If you donate $12 you will receive a copy of the book upon publication. You will only be charged if the necessary funds are raised.    

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Toward an Asperger Judaism or Why I, Under No Circumstances, Should Be Placed in a Position of Leadership

As readers of this blog know, I am an Orthodox Jew and I have Asperger’s Syndrome. As an Asperger I tend to value abstract ideas over socially interacting with people. Ideas have the advantage of being clear, logical and consistent as opposed to people, who are ever changing and are difficult to predict. While Asperger’s Syndrome is associated with autism, I, in no way, view it as a mental illness. On the contrary, I tend to see other people (neurotypicals) as suffering from a lack of consistent rationality. (Admittedly, marching to one’s own drumbeat and telling the rest of the world that they are the ones out of step likely counts as a form of insanity all of its own. I am not sure what the technical label for such an illness is, but I know that it is something distinct from Asperger’s Syndrome.) At the end of the day I seek to pursue this peculiar mode and be granted tolerance in the same way as countless minority groups of various kinds.     

Being an Asperger and relating to ideas and socialization in a different manner has implications for how I approach Judaism in that Judaism consists of both a set of ideas and a social community. Judaism has its beliefs such as Maimonides’ thirteen principles of faith. These tend to relate to the nature of God, the Torah and future reward and punishment. That being said, Judaism is primarily about performing rituals as part of a community. At first glance, one might think that an Asperger like me would hate Judaism for all of its rules and demand for social conformity. The funny thing about Judaism is that it offers precisely the sort of socialization that is well suited for an Asperger like me. Judaism has clearly defined rules and which do not simply have to be intuited. If one follows these rules, one is a member of Jewish society in good standing. Ironically this serves to save a person from having to constantly engage in the sort of dances one has to within general society in which one’s social standing is always on the line. Ultimately with Judaism I can pay any debts to society in advance and save myself unwanted social interactions in the long run.  

With Judaism I can show up, perform the necessary halachic rituals and in return receive a basic social structure. For example, I can pray for two hours on Shabbos morning with a minyan. This is the perfect form of socialization for me as it does not require me to speak to any mortal human beings, but only to read a text and use it to contemplate the larger universe. Having paid my social dues, I can go home and be sociable with my books and my brain. The hope is that by paying these dues I will have a community of people to talk/argue with possibly over a meal after shul. Even I acknowledge that I need such a structure order to get by in this neurotypical world and as an Asperger I am particularly ill equipped to find it by conventional means. 

Let me be clear, this is not some Orthoprax manifesto proclaiming the practical benefits of Judaism regardless of theology. On the contrary, I care tremendously about theology. Recall that as an Asperger it is precisely this realm of ideas that is real to me. Unfortunately I long ago came to the conclusion that most Orthodox Jews, particularly Haredim, do not really care about theology. Instead they engage in “social thinking” where theology serves merely as a mask to cover the principle of “we in the community are good and everyone else is not.” Or, to paraphrase Mel Brook’s 2,000 Year Old Man, let them all go to hell except cave 76. Ironically enough, a large part of what convinced me of this has been precisely the rise of the use of bans against supporters of potentially heterodox ideas within the Orthodox community itself. These bans seem remarkably selective and do not seem to cover principles that many in the Haredi community are guilty of violating. My concern here is not those who hold positions that I see as heretical. Obviously they disagree with me and many of them are far more learned than me. My objection here is to people who acknowledge that these ideas are heretical or at least are willing to denounce them when they manifest themselves in other religions, but refrain on following through on their principles and place believers in these ideas outside the pale of Judaism.

My wife (also an Asperger, but who will like it noted that she disagrees with me) and I live in Pasadena, CA. As she notes, the biggest problem in our marriage is that the closest shul to where we live is a Chabad House 3.5 miles away and I have come to the conclusion that the rabbis there, though very nice people, are heretics. This has nothing to do with any of their messianic beliefs. The problem is that they view the Lubavitcher Rebbe as something more than just a great and wise Torah sage. Furthermore they do not see Chabad as one of many legitimate interpretations of Judaism, but as the definitive version of Judaism. To be fair to Chabad, most of my objections to them apply at least to some degree to the Haredi community as a whole and I am therefore well on my way to declaring them to be heretics as well.   

On more than one occasion I have heard Haredi rabbis proclaim that “our gedolim are always right.” Now my Asperger brain takes statements like this in a very matter of fact fashion to their logical conclusions. Always being right implies omniscience. Only God can be omniscient. So any claim of omniscience is a claim of godhood. Thus any claim that the gedolim are always right is really a claim that they are gods or at least extensions of some sort of godhead. To the best of my knowledge no one has been removed from a position of leadership for making such statements. Such people have not even been reprimanded for showing inappropriate zeal for God’s unity in making imprecise statements that could lead to misunderstandings by oddball Aspergers like me. Now there is no doubt in my mind that anyone who lectured on the efficiency of Catholic saints as manifestations of divine power on Earth would be thrown out of the Orthodox community. (Let me note for the sake of anyone who thinks that I am being too academic that, as an academic historian of medieval Jews, I need to be familiar with Catholic doctrine and formulate opinions as to its compatibility with monotheism so this is, after a fashion, a relevant issue to me .) It seems to me then that the problem most Jews have with Catholic saints is not some higher principle of God’s oneness, but the fact that these saints are Catholic. Judaism must be superior to Catholicism, because we are Jews and we need to think well of ourselves. So we appeal to high sounding theological principles which we, regardless of whether we actually believe in them, have no intention of sacrificing the community for their sake.

The practical manifestation of this doctrine of the power of gedolim is the organization Kupat Ha’ir. This group collects money on the promise of blessings from various gedolim, which are presumed to carry some sort of power. I once called Kupat Ha’ir’s hotline to ask them to explain the difference between their claims about Mother Rachel wanting to hear our prayers and Catholic veneration of the Virgin Mary. Needless to say, Kupat Ha’ir’s crack team of theologians manning their lines proved unprepared to handle such questions.

I am hardly original in opposing Kupat Ha’ir. The problem is that no one, besides for perhaps R. Marc Angel, seems willing to take action against them. I once heard a prominent rosh yeshiva denounce Kupat Ha’ir in very harsh terms. I asked him afterwards whether he believed that rabbis associated with Kupat Ha’ir, such as R. Chaim Kanievsky, are heretics. His response was not to deny that Kupat Ha’ir is heresy, but simply that the people involved are gedolim so they cannot be guilty of heresy. I can only conclude from this that the rosh yeshiva, as great a scholar as he is, is trapped by his social thinking and is unable to follow through on a purely theoretical principle even if that principle is nothing less than belief in God. His sense of Judaism requires the acceptance of gedolim even more so than it does a clear and consistent sense of what it means to not have any intermediaries between man and God. As for me, I am first and foremost a Maimonidean style monotheist. If have to sacrifice the entire Jewish community for that belief I will. King Ahab, according to the Talmud, was a great Torah scholar and worshipped idols. I see nothing wrong with viewing the present Haredi leadership in the same manner. Admittedly this makes me a poor candidate for any position of authority, but still leaves me eminently qualified for being a street corner or blogosphere crank. What else should you expect from someone with Asperger’s Syndrome?              

I have no objection to those who wish to take a Moses Mendelssohn position of a Judaism without dogma and create an intellectual free for all; your beliefs are consistent. Similarly those committed to defending all of Maimonides’ principles are also consistent. To those who wish to take a hard line on some of the later principles while taking it easy on the earlier ones I have a question. Are you willing to let Christians off the hook as well? If no then you have to demonstrate how your beliefs differ in principle from what Christians claim. If you cannot answer that then this Asperger Jew, with all the power he has invested in himself, will declare you to be a heretic (or simply a neurotypical who cannot think past his social ideology).

Friday, July 5, 2013

Fireworks and the Free Rider Problem: A Libertarian Thought for July 4th

As I write this I am with my wife at my in-laws beach house in Newport Beach watching a fabulous collection fireworks being sent off in honor of July 4th. It bears consideration that fireworks represents an example of the classic free rider problem in economics. Even more so than schools and a military, fireworks are the sort of positive externality that is impossible to prevent other people from taking advantage of. People will simply free ride off the generosity of those who buy their own firecrackers and watch the fireworks show for free without paying. One cannot exactly light firecrackers in one's basement. Therefore one has no choice but to light them out in the open where every selfish person in the neighborhood too cheap to buy their own, such as me, can watch them. Now if every person behaved logically and was as selfish and cheap as I am, no one would buy firecrackers. Everyone would just try to watch someone else's fireworks. We would be left with a July 4th without any patriotic explosions.

For this reason it is obvious that, just as the government provides education and protection, which no one would ever pay for on their own, the government must provide fireworks for the public and tax the public to pay for them. Wait a second! The fireworks shows I am watching are all privately produced. In fact it is illegal to light firecrackers in Newport Beach. So not only are anonymous strangers providing me with free entertainment, they are also risking punishment at the hands of the government. If people are willing to provide free services, despite the free rider problem, for something as relatively silly as fireworks than might people agree to provide other free services when they believe that the future of civilization is at stake?  

Sunday, June 30, 2013

First They Came for Rabbi Jonathan Sacks and then for Rabbi Nathan Kamenetsky and Rabbi Yitchok Adlerstein

This past Shabbos, my wife and I were privileged to stay by Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, a man who represents the best in the Haredi world today. He was remarkably gracious to me considering that I have been critical of him in the past. A large part, I think, of what makes him a force for sanity is that he is part of an earlier generation in which Orthodox Judaism was not a self-contained community, but a collection of individuals struggling to pass their Judaism on to the next generation. Because of Orthodoxy's small numbers, one needed to take the outside world into account in terms of considering what sort image they might form of Judaism instead of being lulled into placing the non-Orthodox world into a realm of non-existence. Furthermore, small numbers meant that everyone counted. One could not afford to push people away because of their style of clothing or if they attended college. I was blessed to receive this brand of Judaism from growing up in the shadow of Columbus, OH and McKeesport, PA. Rabbi Adlerstein lives in Los Angeles and works for the Simon Wiesenthal Center, which helps one care more about making a Kiddush Hashem to the outside world than being attacked in the Haredi press.

Over Shabbos I managed to read a book not widely available by another Haredi figure that I respect, Rabbi Nathan Kamenetsky's Anatomy of a Ban. It contains a series of letters written to a student outlining the unfolding of the ban against his Making of a Godol biography as it played out over the fall of 2002 through the beginning of 2003. I found it quite inspiring considering my own recent troubles as I have been forced to abandon a project that I have spent years on without even being allowed to defend myself.

I found it interesting, though, that Rabbi Kamenetsky refers to the parallel attacks against Rabbi Jonathan Sack's Dignity of Difference, but attempts to distance himself from Rabbi Sacks without considering the deeper relationship. As far as Rabbi Kamenetsky is concerned, Rabbi Sacks was being charged with heresy for implying that other religions were equals as opposed to himself, who at worst might have said disrespectful things about past Torah scholars. I find this attitude startlingly naïve. I should not have to remind readers of the Martin Niemoller quote of "first they came to the communists." It goes deeper than this and for that I turn to another non-Jewish opponent of Nazism Friedrich Hayek.

One of the major points of Hayek's Road to Serfdom is that there are unforeseen consequences for even innocent looking laws created with all the good intentions of promoting the public welfare. One of the most important of these is the creation and empowerment of a bureaucracy. By their nature bureaucracies will not allow themselves to be disbanded when their original task is accomplished, but will always seek to expand their sphere of influence into realms never dreamed of by the original lawmakers. Furthermore, bureaucracies will attract precisely the worst sorts of people, who will be motivated by power for its own sake and abuse it.    

The ban on Rabbi Sacks was the product of a particular religious bureaucracy of community activists that operates by picking targets and gathering signatures. In general, people are remarkably willing to attach their names to good sounding causes (consider how easy it is to convince people to ban dihydrogen monoxide). In our case there is an added motive, as rabbis have an interest in advancing their reputations by signing on to bans in order to demonstrate that they are precisely the sorts of rabbis who are important enough to be asked to sign bans. The legitimacy of the ban is irrelevant. The institutional framework to ban books was able to come together and get away with banning a book by a Modern Orthodox chief rabbi of England. They then moved on to other targets like Rabbi Kamenetsky and later Rabbi Nathan Slifkin. Rabbi Kamenetsky was cutting his own throat the moment he was willing to acknowledge the legitimacy of organized attempts to ban books even supposedly "heretical" ones.

This is something that I hope Rabbi Adlerstein takes to heart. While laughing at his critics, perhaps he should ask himself whether he has empowered them by using their tactic of questioning the motives of his opponents. Things that we say or even tacitly acknowledge have a way of coming back to haunt us.       

Friday, June 21, 2013

Abarbanel on Bilaam's Theology

Here is a short piece from Isaac Abarbanel biblical commentary demonstrating his often oddly naturalistic interpretation of texts. He attempts to strip Bilaam of any magical power to curse while preserving a supernatural deity capable of interacting with the world.

It is said that Bilaam’s thought in going was that the [divine] influence only extended to the celestial order. It might come about that God May He Be Blessed will bless the Israelite nation and give them good blessings with his guidance. This does not prevent, according to what the stars show, much suffering, evils, plagues and the execution of judgments. [He assumed that] matters of [divine] influence worked the same. Because of this, he chose, in following his calculations based on his knowledge of the future things that would happen to Israel based on the celestial order, either destruction or exile from one of many times. He wished to inform Balak about these things in order to fulfill his request so that he would pay him. Because his intentions in this matter were bad, God became angry that he went and placed an angel of God on the path. This angel was not able to kill Bilaam as did the angel of God that smote the camp of the king of Assyria. Bilaam did not deserve to die as he went according to the word of God and his permission. Furthermore, he [God] did not wish to prevent him from going for, as I previously explained, God wished for the sake of his righteousness that Bilaam go and bless Israel and publicize among the gentiles God’s love for his people and their future success that will come to them. Because of this, all the prophecies that he sought to tell over among the nations that were to be prophecies of loss, he did not remember. Not exile, not the destruction that will come upon Israel. For God hid it from him and he could not tell it over for the reason I recalled. But the angel of God went forth to oppose him on the path, meaning to remove from Bilaam the thought that he wished to tell the future evils that will befall Israel and to inform Bilaam that it was not in his power to speak, but a matter of God’s will. For God planted the tongue and gave a mouth to man. For behold, his mouth and tongue was no different than the mouth of his donkey that spoke through wondrous means, which was not in its nature to do. This furthermore served to tell him that the celestial order cannot not be spread nor be maintained except through that which does not contradict the higher influence. But in that which influences there is no power in the [natural] order to nullify the influence or challenge it. For God’s plan will stand no matter what. (Abarbanel, Commentary on Numbers 118a.)    


This piece exemplifies both Abarbanel’s general naturalistic scheme and hints at the role played by apocalypticism within it. As a medieval rationalist, Abarbanel’s universe was a distinctly non-magical one with set immutable laws of nature. Human beings like Bilaam have no actual power. As such he is unable, through his own efforts, to actually cause bad things to happen. While this natural order protects people from the likes of Bilaam, it leaves man in a bleak position of utter helplessness against these very laws, which seem indifferent to human welfare. Since man is totally at the mercy of nature and cannot improve his situation, the only meaningful thing for him to do is gain knowledge about the world. Paradoxically, knowledge both liberates man from his state of ignorance, while at the same time trapping him with the awareness of his total helplessness. Bilaam is dangerous in that he is enlightened enough to appreciate his helplessness, but he finds no meaning in this universe beyond using his knowledge for his own material benefit.

The one ray of hope, in what is admittedly a very depressing worldview, is that God exists as the prime mover of the universe. Even this is not immediately a cause for optimism. God is outside of nature, but his working through nature radically limits him by making it as if he were an extension of nature. This is not a God, who can be relied upon to step outside of nature to prevent evil and provide only good. Bilaam knows this and therefore comes to the conclusion that eventually nature, in the form of historical entropy, will catch up with the Israelites. The last joke though is on Bilaam. God may operate the world according to nature, but he is outside of nature and he directs it for a purpose. This purpose is redemption, an act that is both within nature and the divine transcendence of it. As a rationalist, Abarbanel rejected magical solutions that were not rooted in the order of nature. His apocalypticism was thus rooted in this natural order. The same natural laws of history that brought Israel down will also sustain Israel in exile and allow for their return to power. While this remains a natural process, it is ultimately made possible through the divine influence at the root of the natural order.    

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Summary of My Dissertation

My advisor asked me to write him a prospectus summarizing what my dissertation is about. This project has been taking up my writing time these past few years and I have been meaning to write about it on my blog. So here is what I sent him:

This dissertation seeks to elucidate the origins of Jewish messianism as it evolved out of the biblical and Second Temple era apocalyptic traditions and came into the inheritance of the rabbis. Following in the footsteps of Gershom Scholem and Norman Cohn, I divide messianism into the conflicting restorative political and spiritual apocalyptic versions. Most importantly, I see messianism as a means by which those on the margins of a religious community can attack and even conquer the establishment. To further develop an understanding of these conflicts at the heart of messianism, I place this discourse within the context of a particular theory, I propose, of how religions relate to community. This involves three models, military, missionary and esoteric. The military model relies on community and ritual to create a socially constructed reality in which the religion is so obviously true it never needs defending. The community is backed by a formal bureaucracy and sometimes even a state. Its rituals are backed by texts and traditions. Opposing the military model are the two anti-community models, esoteric and missionary. They rely on doctrine instead of ritual. The missionary model outright rejects the community and seeks to create a new religion by seeking even outside converts. It arms its followers with an all-encompassing faith that is strengthened by persecution and even martyrdom. The esoteric model remains more closely tied to the community and either seeks to take it over from within or form its own competing sect. The teachings of its charismatic leader counter the community’s texts and traditions. The esoteric model also uses doctrine to undermine ritual, and by extension the community, by means of antinomianism, the ritualized violation of the law. This allows the esoteric model to either give new, if subversive, meanings to already existing practices or to create new ones. Messianism is important to understanding how these models function because it provides the chief means by which a military model religion can bring its opposition into the fold. Messianism is a tool used by the anti-community models to take over a community, but it is also the means by which the community can absorb their opposition and render them relatively harmless.    

The struggle between the different models follows a cyclical narrative. You have a religious establishment sitting at the top of a military model community. Their focus is on the use of ritual as a means to create a social ideology. This makes the religion quite shallow and parochial, but also the sort of religion that can attract a mass following. This establishment will be under attack by various kinds of intellectual elites, who form the anti-community models. These intellectuals oppose the establishment because it fails to live up to their set of universalizing doctrines. Followers of the esoteric model will maintain themselves, at least outwardly, as members of the community and either attempt to subtly influence it as part of a symbiotic relationship, or reject the community by forming a secret sect. The missionary model will openly break with the community and attempt to form a new community of believers, either by taking over the existing community as reformers or by converting non-members.

Those believers who make up the anti-community models are usually simply the disenchanted and marginalized members of the religious establishment. Thus, they benefit from the success of the community. Success gives this opposition both material support and, by encouraging all the worst habits of military model thinking, intellectual ammunition. The big moment for the opposition, though, comes when the community undergoes a major setback, such as the defeat of an established religion’s state, causing the community’s masses to question whether or not they are on the right side of history and to seek alternatives. Either openly or secretly, our intellectual opposition, having existed on the margins all this time, but never truly distant from power, comes to the rescue with a reformist agenda. They become the new establishment and may even be able to carry out certain surface reforms. In the end, though, the former anti-community model reformers will be taken over by the same community and transformed into just another version of the establishment they claimed to oppose. Their doctrines will turn into rituals without any larger meaning. Even when doctrines are outwardly maintained they will be nothing more than a ritualized catechism.    

The messianic doctrine encapsulates that moment in the cycle when the anti-community opposition achieves its takeover and is, in turn, conquered. During the time of the military model community’s success, its members have no need to develop a messianic doctrine, because, as far as they are concerned, they are already living in a “messianic” age in which history moves as it is supposed to with them on top. The anti-community opposition, existing on the margins, by contrast, develops a form of spiritual messianism. It explains both why the world is in such a fallen state that all the “wrong” people are in power and why it does not matter, considering that God offers them a far greater salvation than mere earthly power. When the moment of disaster strikes the community, the masses will turn to these same marginalized anti-community intellectuals. This spiritual messianic doctrine of a fallen people keeping their faith and being redeemed in the end sounds like the perfect ideology to explain the community’s weakened position and offers hope that, if they just persevere in their belief in themselves and the community, they will be redeemed. The community accepts messianism and its anti-community advocates despite the fact that this messianism really means the hope for the community’s destruction. By extension the community is agreeing to hand over control not to pious defenders of the community, but people that seek to replace it with a different one of their own design. The last joke, though, is on the anti-community opposition. Their doctrine of spiritual messianism, which was meant to deny the relevance of the military model’s politics, is transformed into a spiritualized version of the old military model hope for political power. This leaves messianism trapped by paradoxes, defending military model politics and supporting its anti-community denial of the relevance of politics. Ultimately, messianism allows for the marriage of two different and contradictory religious visions. These visions are brought together by the language of messianism, which means opposite things to each party. This allows both sides to speak past each other and never have to confront the essential conflict.

Over the main body of the dissertation, I explain how this narrative of the conflict between models and the cycle of community takeovers has played out in ancient Israel, the Second Temple period and with rabbinic Judaism. Ancient Israel saw a priestly and monarchial establishment in conflict with the prophets, who attacked the ritual based sacrificial cult and monarchial authority in the name of a monotheistic theology. The prophets turned the establishment’s concern with enemy invaders against them by transposing it into a populist polemic against the wealthy. What tied these nationalist and populist positions together was the prophetic belief in a supreme deity with a universalizing ethic that condemned the Israelite elite both for their lust for foreign gods and their greed for extorted wealth. The prophets won due to Israel’s political defeats, which culminated in the destruction of the First Temple. This led to the rise of the Deuteronomist theology and the birth of Judaism. The Deuteronomists combined prophetic monotheism with a ritual based covenant that promised both a spiritual redemption and a political return from exile. The prophetic tradition was captured by a Judaism that agreed to believe in one God in exchange for that belief being manifested in a set of rituals that would allow Jews to survive their lack of a political state as well as allow Jews to regain precisely the sort of political state and temple that the prophets had originally denounced.

The Deuteronomist compromise created a Jewish religion that, during the Second Temple period, was capable of surviving despite the fact that most Jews lived in the diaspora and, even in Israel, were relatively weak politically. Second Temple era Judaism combined a more limited state and temple with a monotheist theology that allowed it to intellectually go on the offensive and compete with Hellenism for not only the souls of Jews, but for the entire Mediterranean world. The possession of an ideology opened Judaism up to anti-community thinking. This made establishment Judaism particularly vulnerable to sectarian groups like the Dead Sea Sect and early Christianity. These groups simply took the belief based attack on ritual and community developed by the prophets to the next level, openly challenging the covenantal status of the vast majority of Jews. One of the main manifestations of this attack on community was a radical apocalyptic vision that saw not just a new order to the world, but the complete overthrow of nature and politics. This implicitly also rendered Jewish community and ritual irrelevant. What meaning could they have in a world where such concepts ceased to exist?

The destruction of the Second Temple left Judaism in need of another reformist movement. Such a movement would offer Judaism an ideology that would allow them to survive the complete end of Jewish sovereignty in Israel and the loss of the Temple. This time, the rabbis, who likely emerged from an esoteric model sect, came to the rescue by offering the emerging body of oral and written traditions that eventually came to form the Talmud as a mobile community to which Jews could attach themselves. The Talmudic corpus offered an intellectual framework, but little in the way of hard doctrine. Similarly, it kept the ritual and sense of community so important to the military model, while avoiding actual politics. This kept Judaism as a military model ritual keeping community, while giving it a transcendental vision beyond ethnic chauvinism that allowed Judaism to survive the lack of a political state. This compromise did not grant rabbinic Judaism the Deuteronomist’s sense of world mission nor the polemical firepower to attempt to pursue the mass conversion of gentiles. What this compromise did do was give rabbinic Judaism both the internal stability to avoid breaking apart into sectarianism and a sense of identity to be able to withstand the outside pressure of Christianity and Islam, competing monotheistic religions that were, in many respects, far more dangerous than anything the Hellenistic world produced. The rabbinic attempt to maintain Judaism as a religion of ritual and community without the need for a formal political system explains a peculiarity of rabbinic messianism. The rabbis maintained the doctrine in theory, but avoided putting it into practice. They inherited the radical apocalypticism of Second Temple era sectarianism, but avoided the anti-community implications of this apocalypticism by pushing it off forever into the future and the realm of theory. While kept out of the realm of daily life, apocalypticism served to keep political messianism in check. If the Jews were to regain their state and temple in an eschatological age then there was no reason for any Jew to attempt to rebuild a physical state and temple through political means in the present. As esoteric model intellectuals, the rabbis may have developed a symbiotic relationship with the Jewish community, but, in the end, they still needed to reject both state and temple along with their competing forms of leadership. Like any esoteric model group, the rabbis saw what the military model might consider exile to be the messianic age as it allowed the rabbis the freedom to mold Judaism in its own image without the internal competition of kings or priests. In order to avoid ever having to either face up to these inconvenient elements within Judaism or openly attempt to get rid of them, the rabbis simply pushed messianism into the realm of the forever imminent but never to be arrived at future.