Monday, December 31, 2007

Great Books That Do Not Have Harry Potter as Part of Their Titles

This year will forever be remembered by fantasy readers as the year in which the final Harry Potter came out. I do not expect, in my lifetime, to see the Potter phenomenon repeated. I suspect that, for better or for worse Potter will remain the pink elephant in the room whenever people talk about fantasy. In this spirit, here are some other notable pieces of fantasy literature that came out this past year. Some of these books have been discussed before on this blog, others have not.

Lady Friday: This is the fifth book in Garth Nix’s Keys to the Kingdom series. This series is, without doubt, the greatest work of allegorical fiction in modern times. And when I say this I am including Narnia. Nix has completely reinvented the traditional morality play. You will never think of the Seven Deadly Sins the same way again.

Eclipse: This is the third book in Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series. I have already devoted several long posts to these books. (See here and here) These books have, deservedly, become major bestsellers. More than any other series of books being printed right now, these have the ability to repeat Potter’s success. Meyer has not said how many books she intends to write. She is set to come out with a fourth book in the series, Breaking Dawn, this summer. Let us see what kind of publicity gets generated.

The Sweet Far Thing: This is the third and final book of Libba Bray’s Reader’s Circle series. It just came out last week. I am actually in middle of it right now. I read the first two books at the end of the summer. I had decided to wait until I have finished this one in order to write a post on the series as a whole. Stay tuned.

Fatal Revenant: This is the second book of the Final Chronicles of Thomas Covenant and the eighth book overall of the Covenant series. (See here and here for my review)

Name of the Wind: This is the first book of Patrick Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Chronicles. I saved this one for last. Fantasy, unlike science fiction, does not have a Hugo or a Nebula award for best book of the year. If it did, Name of the Wind would certainly have my vote. (See here for my review) I feel a need to say more about this work. I will probably simply wait until book two, Wiseman’s Fear, comes out.

Well I am looking forward to a wonderful year of fantasy. Considering that all but one of these books have sequels coming out, there definitely is much to be waiting in giddy anticipation for.

Joe's Response to Some Good Christmas Tolerance I

Here is another response to my post, Some Good Christmas Tolerance. As with Tobie, Joe makes some good points and at the end of the day I, for the most part, agree with him. That being said, he is still is unable to think outside of the basic liberal talking points. He just assumes that they are self evidently true.

Your Christmas blog struck me as interesting. You expressed some interesting views that I have heard in very few places. I would quibble with your descriptions of liberals, though. You use a very large brush to paint them and come off to me as missing the mark for a great many of us that call ourselves liberal. Some liberals do think as you suggest, but a great many have a more nuanced and thoughtful view than you portray.

For instance, in many cases, the argument that the majority should be tolerant of minorities has nothing to do with needing a free exchange of ideas. It does have a very great deal to do with the idealized concept of freedom. Our country is founded upon the principle of freedom for all (I realize this concept is rather abstract and not completely held in truth by our founders in that they wanted freedom for themselves and not so much for others oftentimes, but bear with me in the idealized version). To wit, there can be no true freedom for anyone so long as some are not free. Part of that freedom means being able to hold various religious beliefs without the government putting forth its own interpretation of the correct religion. As such, having the government support Christian displays of Christmas without also equally supporting other religious displays is hypocrisy and inhibiting the freedom of all of us.

I am a Christian, yet I do not support government sponsored religious statements as that infringes on the freedoms of all Americans. Now, if a government sponsored an event welcoming input from all religions, I would support that, but thus far, I have yet to see an event that did more than give lip service to tolerance of other faiths in this country by our government and that to me, is against the very principles upon which we as Americans should stand.


My Response: I do not see myself as attacking liberalism. I see myself as a liberal, albeit a 19th century one. As to your statement that "can be no true freedom for anyone so long as some are not free." In ancient Greece and in the ante-bellum south there existed free people and slaves. Are you suggesting that those so called “free people” were not free? I am a Jew. Seeing a Christmas tree on state property does not in any way bother me and in no way gets in the way of my freedom of religion. My father is a rabbi and I grew up studying Jewish law. I have yet to come across a single Jewish practice that is violated by gentile officials of a gentile government putting up a Christmas tree.

We live in a democracy. We vote, either directly or through our elected representatives, on all sorts of things. When Democrats or Republicans lose, the government does things that they do not support but they can still go home and believe what they want. Why can't we vote on holiday decorations? So what if Christians win, I can still go home and live my life as I want.

(To be continued ...)

Sunday, December 30, 2007

SB's Response to Haredi Generation Gap

SB, who was one of the people I talked about in my post, Haredi Generation Gap, responded to me via email, which he was kind enough to allow me to publish here. I think it demonstrates my point wonderfully. Last I checked Yeshiva Torah Vodaath has no interest in producing graduates who have read Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America.


First, the nomenclature … of the word “haredi.” I don’t believe I heard the word until my late adolescence. The word is an Israeli term and indicates Israeli influence. We referred to ourselves as “yeshivish” or “litvish.” There was no term encompassing Chasidim and yeshivish people. This is not just a nitpicking point, since arguably yeshivish people moved to the right because it became de rigueur for guys to learn in Israel after high school.

When you stayed with us, I tried to expose you to the ideas of Rodney Stark regarding the sociology of religion. (I know that he has written several bad books recently, but that doesn’t negate the quality of his good works.) I believe that Stark has dealt only briefly with changes in Jewish life and not at all with changes in the orthodox community, but I believe that you have to take an “economic approach,” i.e., thinking about changes by looking at the alternatives available at the time. For instance, the orthodox world was much smaller then. Yeshivos were more tolerant because they were expected to take everyone. In contrast, in the current world, yeshivas can exclude anyone who has a tv at home.

Another change involves the economic concept of making tradeoffs. In my day, people went to Brooklyn College; now they go to Touro. I cannot comment much about the education at Touro, but I had several professors who were radical Marxists; I don’t think a Touro student is likely to have that exposure. Assume that a parent who went to Brooklyn is choosing a college for his son. He is very likely to be aware of the advantages of sending the son to Brooklyn, yet choose Touro because it will be easier for him to learn in yeshiva while going to Touro.

I don’t want to go through many examples, but in each case we can look at individual choices based on the “market,” i.e., the options available. In any case, what I want to stress is that rather than blaming my generation, you might want to consider how we got from the situation, say in 1969, when I started Torah Vodaath high school. You may not agree with my economic approach. That is ok. You may want to use Toqueville’s concept of the Unlimited Power of the Majority. But the point is, as an aspiring historian, you should try to understand historical changes, not bemoan them. While I threw out a few ideas, I cannot give you a complete explanation of the changes. That would require a book length treatment that I have no desire to complete, but I certainly would appreciate reading if you were to do so.
Lastly, the Unlimited Power of the Majority usually is not manifested by tarring and feathering, but by simple disapproval. The only negative consequence that I have experienced personally is that my daughter Dasi was rejected by Bais Yaakov of Brooklyn. However, that probably was the result of her behavior, not mine.

I hope that this email does not offend you, but encourages you to study contemporary Judaism as a historian. After all, Haym Soloveitchik did write a seminal article about contemporary orthodoxy, although as you know, I disagree with his interpretation.


My response: I use the world Haredi because unlike ultra-orthodox it has no negative connotations. I admit that, as with all human categories, it is flawed.I don't think we are disagreeing here. I was describing the situation that we have gotten ourselves into. You deal with how we have gotten there. Your economic explanation makes a lot of sense. I would love to hear you elaborate on it. (I guess I have to come visit you next time I am in New York.)Personally I tend to look at history more through the lens of intellectual history but that is just my personal taste. If I had to explain how we got here I would focus on 60's multiculturalism. Something for a future post, I guess.

Confessions of a Doubting Liberal

I have been having a discussion with my friend Tobie, a law student attending Bar Ilan University in Israel, on my recent post Some Good Christmas Tolerance. Tobie has strongly objected to my suggestion that minorities owe a debt to the society around them for putting up with them. Tobie’s essential argument, and it is one that most readers of this blog would probably agree with, is that one does not owe someone something merely for doing the right thing.

I thought that it would be useful to take this opportunity to explain something that underlies much of my thinking and that often leads me into lines of thinking, such as in this case, that may, at times, perplex and even disturb people. Ultimately, you are probably still not going to agree with me, but hopefully you will understand where I am coming from.

Despite what many people might think of me, I consider myself a liberal, or at the very least a part of the liberal tradition. My liberalism though is something that I actively came to through a process of doubting that closely parallels my journey through Judaism. I was interested in politics ever since I was a nine year old kid watching, from the comfort of my grandmother’s kitchen, Governor Bill Clinton run for president in the summer of 1992. Like my most people growing up in western society I believed absolutely in liberalism in its best sense, in freedom, democracy, equality and tolerance. It was not just that I believed in these things, I saw them as self evident truths that all people, not insane, stupid or just downright wicked, must accept.

In high school I read a book that changed my life. I am sure many of you have had, in your lives, such books. For me that book was J.S Mill’s On Liberty. Mill did two things to my thinking. The first is that, for the first time in my life I was exposed to an intelligent, well thought out attack on liberalism. For example Mill raised the issue that Democracy was not the same thing as liberty and in fact is likely to be a mortal threat to it. More important than any actual argument he offered was that he got me to doubt the tenants of liberalism. For the first time in my life I had to ask myself the question: maybe we would be better under an authoritarian form of government. The second thing was that Mill made me a believer in liberalism; specifically, that for all of its flaws, liberalism held out the best hope of building an intellectually open society. While it is this belief in a liberal society that has the most direct effect on my day to day political views, my thoughts on politics come out of this act of doubting liberalism and my struggle to overcome this doubt.

This struggle with doubting the tenants of liberalism has been made more acute by the nature of my field of historical inquiry. The thinkers that I deal with on a daily basis, such as Maimonides or Isaac Abarbanel, operated outside of the liberal framework, to say nothing of the modern liberal framework. As much as I may want to, I can’t take any of the easy ways out. I respect them too much to simply dismiss them as being closed minded, prejudiced and irrational or to patronize them by saying that they simply lived in a less enlightened times and did not know better. I have too much intellectual integrity to try to whitewash them and make them into something that my liberal sensibilities could be comfortable with. That leaves one option, to deal with them as they were and to come to terms with their political thought as they understood it. This means I spend much of my time exploring systems of thought that do not operate on liberal assumptions and in fact assume things that fly in the face of liberalism. I do not have the luxury of simply dismissing such thought; I have no other choice but take such views as serious intellectual options.

Because of this, I am constantly forced to confront the issue of what do I believe, why I believe it and am I justified in my beliefs. It is not that Mill made me doubt and then offered some nice clean solution to save me from doubt, like what one might expect from some religious outreach professional; I continue to doubt. Amongst many other things, I struggle with Mill himself. Was he himself too dismissive of his own questions? Do his answers really hold? While I believe in tolerance and all the other major tenants of traditional liberal thought, for me these are not givens. I follow these tenants for very specific reasons and that there is a price to be paid for those liberal beliefs; not everything is neat and clean. Other people, upon examining the issues, are likely find that price to be too high and seek alternatives to liberalism. By doing this they are not being close minded, prejudiced and irrational any more than the many great thinkers of the past, who also did not accept the basic tenants of liberalism.

To bring this all back to Tobie and my Christmas post, for me Jews being tolerated by American society is not something to be taken for granted as a basic level of morality. I recognize that there can be sane, rational and decent people that want a different sort of society than the one offered by liberalism. Furthermore, I recognize that it is possible that such a society might have little use for someone like me. At times I even suspect that such people might be correct in their rejection of liberalism. For me this is not an attack on liberalism but a reason why it is all the more urgent to defend it.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Horseshoe

This past week I took myself on a vacation to Los Angeles. I had never been to the west coast so I figured it counted as me expanding my horizons in ways that do not involve going to church or anything else that would raise my grandparent’s blood pressure. On both trips I had a stopover in Phoenix for an hour, another city that I had never been to. So I also got to see Phoenix, or at least the inside of the airport. Now you might say to me that it is only rational that someone living in Columbus OH would want to escape the Midwest December weather and head to Los Angeles.

Truth is that the weather in Los Angeles was horrible for the entire week I was there except for Sunday, when I went to Disneyland. That was an interesting experience. It was the day before Christmas and they had a Christmas themed parade through the park complete with ice skating; all this in weather that, according to my Midwestern mind, should only exist in the summer. I have an idea; you should only be allowed to celebrate your version of the Judeo-Christian-Atheistic-Capitalistic-Gift Giving Season if you are in a place that actually has legitimate December weather. Otherwise it is not really the holiday season.

Well considering the nature of the weather one would have imagined that it would only be people from Columbus touring the west coast and not the other way around. But then again, I was just coming back to my apartment when a well dressed man stopped me and asked me if I could take a picture of him by the Ohio State sign. Turns out that this man was from Phoenix and he was here on a business trip. As a boy growing up on the west coast he used to watch OSU football; he was a big fan of Archie Griffen. To those of you who do not live in Columbus or who are not college football fans, Archie Griffen won two Heisman trophies, playing Running Back for OSU back in the 70s. So this man, as he was here, had decided to tour the campus. After getting his picture at the sign he then asked me for directions to the Horseshoe, our football stadium. I gave him the directions. Of course considering that the Horseshoe seats about 105,000 people (and it gets filled on game day particularly if the opponent is Michigan) it is pretty difficult to miss.

So to all of you who think that Columbus is just some dull Midwestern town. You see that even people on the west coast have heard of us and come to tour our city even in December.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Some Good Christmas Tolerance

It is Christmas again. To those of you who are unfamiliar with the holiday, Christmas is when Americans, across the political spectrum, get together to celebrate the cultural war and fight about the meaning of Church and State and tolerance. For me, the yearly attempt by the ACLU to ban crèches from state property and public schools and to replace Christmas trees with holiday trees is a perfect example of how modern liberals do not understand the concept of tolerance. Of course liberals will tell you that they are the tolerant ones and that their campaign is being waged in the name of tolerance. Our majority Christian culture needs to take into account the fact that not everyone in this country is a Christian; there are Jews, Muslims, and Hindus, not to mention deists, agnostics and atheists here in this country and they are good and loyal citizens. Therefore Christians have to be sensitive to the feelings of other groups and not do anything that might make them feel left out.

When it comes down to it, the liberal notion of tolerance is that the dominant culture/the culture that lacks favored minority status in the eyes of liberals must accommodate itself to “minority” cultures/cultures that possess favored minority status in the eyes of liberals. Read the material on tolerance put out by liberal groups such as the ACLU, NOW, the NAACP or People for the American Way, their narrative of tolerance is one in which the dominant culture makes accommodations to minority cultures, it is never the other way around. When do you ever hear it discussed as to what blacks owe white culture, what women owe men, or what homosexuals owe heterosexual society?

For me tolerance is about the dominant culture making allowances for minorities, but it is also about the debt owed by minorities to that dominant culture. I am a Jew who lives in the Christian country of the United States of America. Christians have no reason to tolerate me and every reason to resent me. American Christians do not owe Jews anything nor do we Jews have anything that they need. This is not the Middle-Ages; we are not needed as money lenders, tradesmen or doctors. I have no reason to doubt that, if the United States expelled its Jews, the country could continue to function without a hitch. In fact Christians pay a price for tolerating us. By tolerating us, Christians give up on having a Christian society. Now liberals would argue that society does benefit from tolerating minorities in that it allows for an open exchange of ideas. The problem with this is that you can get an open exchange of ideas simply through books, without the aid of people at all. If the United States were to expel its Jewish population, Americans would still have access to Jewish ideas. An American Christian could sit down and study the Talmud, Maimonides or Sigmund Freud without ever meeting an actual Jew. If he really felt the need to meet Jews first hand then he could always travel to a foreign country, such as Canada or Israel, to see them. He does not need to tolerate their presence in his own country.

American Christians have no reason to tolerate the presence of Jews yet they do it anyway and for that we Jews should be incredibly grateful. We owe American Christians a debt we could never repay. All we can do is to say thank you for the gift and try not to abuse it. For a Jew to raise his voice and complain about the public celebration of Christmas is to be ungrateful. Any Jew that tries, in any way, to stop or alter the celebration of the holiday needs to be smacked. The same thing applies to all minority groups living here. Tolerance is not a right that one can demand; it is a gift that a dominant culture gives.

I use Christmas as a time to reflect on how much I owe American Christians. As an expression of my appreciation, I make it a point to wish people a Merry Christmas. Here is my modest proposal. Instead of using Christmas season as the High Holidays of our cultural wars, let Christmas be a time that Jews and all other minority groups learn a lesson in tolerance and give our dominant Christian culture an earnest thank you.

Merry Christmas.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Haredi Generation Gap

In my last post I raised the question as to how someone like Rabbi Horowitz could justify remaining in the Haredi world considering his views on the internet. Rabbi Horowitz is not the only person in this predicament of viewing himself as Haredi depite being open to the world. My father sees himself as part of the Haredi world, despite the fact that many of his closest friends are reform and conservative rabbis. My cousin’s father-in-law has a PHD in history and teaches gemara at Bar-Ilan, but lives in Bnai Brak. SB, the father of a good friend of mine, strongly indentifies with his Torah V’daat education despite the fact that he has an apartment full of books on philosophy, politics and history.

Because of my father, I identified myself as being part of the Haredi world through high school. Growing up in Columbus OH, I assumed that Haredi meant people like my father; someone who meticulously kept Jewish Law. It was very easy to make this mistake since, as I was growing up in Columbus OH as the rabbi’s kid, my family was the most religious family that I knew. It never occured to me, for example, that there were Yeshivot out there who would have rejected me because my family owned a television.

I believe that what separates me from my father is the generation gap. My father and all the other people I mentioned were born before the late 1960s. Back then the Haredi world was much more of a big tent. Being part of the Haredi world meant you were deeply committed to practicing Jewish Law. It has nothing to do with not seriously studying secular subjects, banning television and banning the internet. Haredim before the late 1960s were still raised as relatively normal American kids, albeit with tzitzit and kipput. They followed sports, watched television and movies and got an education. In my experience when dealing with Haredim from that generation, even those who support not having anything to do with the secular world, if you scratch below the surface you will find that they do have a background in secular culture and that they got it honestly. The interesting thing is when you talk to their kids. The kids have no such background, at least not any that they got honestly. Do kids raised in Haredi homes know about secular things? Quite often yes. The thing is that they have gained it, usually from movies, by breaking the rules and engaging in behavior that they themselves see as wrong.

So my father was not deceiving me when he raised me to believe that being Haredi meant being meticulous with Jewish Law; that was the Haredi world he was raised in. The problem, though, is that my father’s Haredi Judaism has disappeared. What is left are eccentric intellectuals or, as in my father’s case, people who live outside of New York and therefore failed to get the message.

I have no such option available to me and it is my father's generation's fault. They failed to preserve a big tent for Orthodox Jews and my generation has to pay the price.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Can "Walmart" Destroy the Haredi World? II

(This is the conclusion of my earlier article, “Can Walmart Destroy the Haredi World?”)

The rise of the internet, and in particular the rise of the blogosphere, has created a modern incarnation of many aspects of the Enlightenment. In an earlier post I discussed how the act of blogging seemed to me to hearken back to the confessional style of autobiography exemplified most famously by Rousseau’s Confessions. A blogger puts forth his “private” thoughts before the public. This creates the persona of a unique self. By doing this the blogger is declaring that he is a own unique individual with his own vision of the world and that as such he has value in of himself without any recourse to any social institution or tradition.

This Enlightenment view of the individual was a direct challenge to traditional views and it can be seen as laying the groundwork for Kant. Once we have created the individual as something possessing its own authority then this individual, which we have now created, can turn around and challenge the traditional authority. The modern internet has repeated this same process. Ultimately the internet can be seen as Kant’s Enlightenment on steroids. The internet gives each individual the power to sit and judge traditional authority based on his own thoughts and understanding. The blogosphere is nothing if not precisely this. Now every Moshe David Jew, with a connection, has an open forum to criticize and judge the gedolim, religious sages, and be heard by people around the world.

Just as the traditional world of European Jewry proved ill equipped to take on the Haskalah of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; the modern Haredi world is ill equipped to take on the modern “Haskalah on Steroids.” It is not just that the internet gives people access to opinions that are “heretical” and people might become convinced by them. The very act of confronting a variety of opinions and choosing between them, even if one chooses the “right” one, is a sword to the very heart of the Haredi world view. For one is no longer submitting to received authority, but is placing oneself as the authority before which all traditional authority most bow.

The only traditional European Jewish community that had any real success at confronting the challenges of modernity was the Hirschian community in Germany. While most people, when reading Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch, focus on his willingness to incorporate secular learning within the rubric of Judaism, to me what is so crucial about Hirsch was how his vision of Judaism empowered the individual. For Hirsch Judaism was something a person chose out of something within himself. There is nothing in Hirsch about how you must listen to the gedolim, the gedolim are always right and if you do not listen to the gedolim God is going to throw you in Hell. For Hirsch the important question was how to take ones moral ideals theoretical beliefs in God and put them into something concrete. For Hirsch that vehicle was the performance of the Divine commandments found in the bible and Jewish law.

Hirschian Judaism could survive the Haskalah, because it did not run counter to Kant’s Enlightenment. On the contrary Hirschian Judaism was dependent upon it. It too believed in the in authority of the individual. While Kant’s enlightened individual challenged traditional society to justify itself before the authority of reason, Hirsch’s individual Man of Israel challenged the enlightened world to live up to its own ideals and put them in practice.

For all of its faults Modern Orthodoxy continues in this Hirschian tradition of individual authority. Modern Orthodoxy does not have authority figures which one must submit to without question. It has nothing to fear from the internet or any blogger. On the contrary the Modern Orthodox world can welcome all bloggers, even those who attack Modern Orthodoxy, as people who are taking up their rightful mantles as individuals. The Haredi world could never accept bloggers, particularly bloggers who criticize the Haredi world, because to do so mean accepting the fact that these people have legitimate authority as individuals and do not have to submit to Haredi authority.

In the end I do not understand how Rabbi Horowitz can speak of the Haredi world accommodating itself to the world of the internet. For the Haredi world to do this would mean that they would have to accept the notion of the individual being able to judge traditional authority instead of meekly submitting oneself to it. That would mean the end of the Haredi world and the triumph of Modern Orthodoxy. So what does Rabbi Horowitz believe? Does he really believe in the authority of individuals? If he does how can he still call himself part of the Haredi world?

Sunday, December 9, 2007

So this is what the Catholic League is so Scared of? a Review of the Golden Compass

As regular readers of this blog know, despite my loathing for Philip Pullman, I am a fan of his fantasy series, His Dark Materials. I have been waiting with anticipation for months now for the film adaption of the first part of the trilogy, the Golden Compass. The film of course has drawn its share of controversy with the Catholic League attempting to boycott the film. The mainstream media, true to form, is treating the protests from the religious community as attacks on freedom of expression against a work which only “supposedly is atheistic.” Of course anyone who actually bothered to read the books or to listen to Pullman before he tried to get the books made into films knows that His Dark Materials is not supposedly atheistic, it is straight atheism. Pullman wrote these books as a counter to Narnia and as a way to sell atheism to children. So when religious leaders complain about His Dark Materials they are not making things up or being paranoid. I still believe that a copy of His Dark Materials should be placed in the hands of every boy, girl and adult in this country, but then again I am strange.
So last night, with a friend from my building, who is also a fan of the books, in tow, I went off to see the Golden Compass. To keep things simple, the film was absolutely dreadful. Not even fighting polar bears could save this film. I found that I could not care less about any of the characters. None of them made any sense. Despite the fact that Tom Stoppard helped write it, the screenplay was a mess. It was a serious of tenuously held together events crashing into each other. I admit that the book was quite episodic itself, but you can get away with it much more easily in books than you can on film.
How does one go about taking one of the most original pieces of fantasy literature and reduce it to a pile of clichés? In the books alethiometers are rare and the Magisterium takes an active interest in them. In the movie, I guess feeling that they needed to raise the stakes to make the story more like the common stereotype people have of fantasy, they made Lyra’s alethiometer the last one in existence. In the books the members of the Magisterium maintain at least some semblance of being human. They are not evil per se but bureaucratic. In making the film someone must have decided that, being that is fantasy, the Magisterium needed more like traditional fantasy villains. "Fearing any truth that is not their own," they are out to catch Lyra and destroy her alethiometer. I was reminded a bit too strongly of how the Da Vinci Code film made Opus Dei even more over the top than the book did. One is left to wonder why anyone actually bothers to follower an organization that is as evil and incompetent as the Magisterium. For me the biggest crime against the books was the ending. Those who have read the books know that, at the end of the Golden Compass, Lord Asriel, Lyra’s uncle (really her father), murders her best friend Roger in order to use the energy released by Roger’s dying soul to open a gateway to another world. The movie decided to end before this point. Lyra and Roger are still traveling toward Lord Asriel and we are told that there is a prophecy about Lyra telling how she will decide the coming war.
His Dark Materials were books that purposely defied the traditional fantasy cliché in which the world is divided into neat categories of Good and Evil. Lord Asriel is one of the good guys. Lyra mother Mrs. Coulter is also, in her own way, on the good side, despite the fact that she also does some pretty horrible things. For the life of me I cannot understand why the writers of the film could not keep to this. Could it be that Pullman felt that he needed to simplify his atheistic message to make it more digestible to today’s TV addicted youth? And I thought that atheists were the smart ones.

Friday, December 7, 2007

The New York Times Does Asperger Syndrome

The New York Times has a story on Asperger Syndrome, Asperger’s Syndrome Gets a Very Public Face. The story focuses on Heather Kuzmich, who competed on the show America’s Top Model with much success and has now become a bit of a celebrity.
While overall the article took a positive stand to Aspies, the author, Tara Parker-Pope, still insisted on describing Asperger Syndrome as a “neurological disorder” and as a “disability.” This is a wonderful example of a journalist coming into a story with preconceived notions and holding onto them even when they fly in the face of the facts. Heather, as the article points out, is a talented art student, is on the edge high fashion and has a knack for connecting with the camera. She was voted favorite model eight weeks in a row. So what is Heather’s problem? She had difficulty relating to the other girl’s on the show, who were at times quite mean to her. But is that a problem with her or with the other girls on the show? Heather did nothing wrong, it was the other girls who mistreated her. It is they who have a problem; it is they who need to learn to be more tolerant and accepting of other people’s differences.
Aspies are not disabled in any way. It is not that we lack social skills it is just that we socialize in very different ways. For NTs (neuro-typicals) being sociable is an ends in of itself. For Aspies it is a means to achieve specific ends. It is no fault of Heather’s that she did not do much socializing. Why should she have needed to? Our way of dealing with the world may make us appear aloof and standoffish but it is also far more rational. It is not we who are disabled; we are the reasonable ones here. While Aspies, like everyone else, are not perfect, we have an advantage over NTs in that we are much better at thinking in terms of set rules. This gives us an edge in our moral reasoning. We live in a world dominated by True/False, Right/Wrong. Also, since we do not put such a high value on society, we are not so easily trapped into playing social power games and trying to knock other people down the social hierarchy ladder.
I am not saying the Aspies are better than NTs. That being said, do not dare to stand in judgment over us and cast dispersions as to our abilities lest we turn around and start judging you.
Congratulations Heather for showing the word what people with Asperger Syndrome can accomplish. If only the New York Times could catch on.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Can "Walmart" Destroy the Haredi World?

Rabbi Yakov Horowitz of Project YES has an interesting article, “Walmart is coming,” in which he uses the analogy of Walmart to describe the threat posed to the Haredi world by the internet. Walmart can provide a whole array of different products all at a cheap price. If you an owner of a mom and pop store in a small town, not used to any competition, Walmart is likely going to destroy you. The only way to survive is to innovate. You need to give people, who have Walmart to shop at, a reason to still shop by you. The internet is, as Rabbi Horowitz observes, “the Haskalah on Steroids.” It provides a world of options at the click of a button. The Haredi educational system is built around the mom and pop store model. It assumes that students do not have other options and that they will continue to accept what they are taught simply because that is the way things should be. Will the Haredi world learn to adept itself to this new world or will they go the way of thousands of small mom and pop stores around the country?
Rabbi Horowitz is without question the blogosphere’s favorite Haredi rabbi for his honest and insightful criticism’s of the Haredi world. What perplexes me, at times, about Rabbi Horowitz is how he still views himself as part of the Haredi world and has not declared himself Modern Orthodox. Many of the things that he criticizes Haredim for are not simply problems that the Haredi world has but things that by definition make the Haredi world what it is. This article on Walmart and the internet is an excellent example of this.
Rabbi Horowtiz talks about the internet as “the Haskalah on Steroids.” What made the original Haskalah so dangerous? One needs to understand that the Haredi world is built around a paradigm of obedience. A Haredi Jew submits himself to the authority of his community, the Gedolim and Chazal. There is no room of an individual, as an individual, to judge, let alone challenge, these institutions. The original Haskalah of two-hundred years ago built itself around a paradigm of the individual. As Immanuel Kant argued in his famous essay, “What is Enlightenment:” the enlightened individual is one who is not bound by the authority of tradition. Everything must be judged before the bar of reason. What is important here is not the acceptance or rejection of the claims made by traditional authorities, but the right of the individual to judge those traditional authorities. Once you admit that the individual can judge traditional authority than that traditional authority has already lost. It no longer has any real power and must bow before the feet of the individual. In a similar vein C.S Lewis, in his essay “God in the Dock,” argued there that the essential sift to modernity lay in how man viewed his relationship to God’s judgment. In the pre-modern world man viewed himself as standing in the dock, being judged by God. In the world of modernity the roles have been switched. It is no longer man being judged by God, but man judging God. God now stands in the dock and man sits in judgment.
I am not here to judge between these worldviews, that is a discussion for a different post. What is important here are the different worldviews and the stakes attached to them.
(To be continued …)

Sunday, December 2, 2007

What Church Services Have Taught Me About Prayer II: In response to some Questions

1)What benefit to you see in "ambushing" Christians? How is there any Kiddush Hashem in making them feel ignorant of their own religion? We as Jews should not be telling them how to worship any more than they should be telling us how to worship.

First of all, the people I talk to usually do not know that I am Jewish. More importantly, I do my best to do my “ambushing” in a friendly, non confrontational manner. For one thing I do not attack Christianity or any Christians. I do not see the world in terms of Jew vs. gentile. I see the world more in terms of people who believe in God in such a way that it affects their daily lives having to face off against the likes of Richard Dawkins and a highly sophisticated army of atheists. I believe that I am helping the cause of religion by pushing Christians to understand their own religion. I am not telling people what to believe. On the contrary I wish to strengthen their beliefs.

2) Why do you look to other religions for motivation? What do you perceive to be lacking your own religion? If you need motivation then leave Columbus and go to Eretz Yisroel or minimally the greater New York area.

I don’t see anything lacking in Judaism beyond the fact that religions are a lot nicer in theory than when you actually have flesh and blood human beings put them into practice. Studying Christianity helps me be careful not to take my Judaism for granted and it keeps me on my toes. As a Modern Orthodox Jew, a major part of my Judaism is my confrontation and dialectic with the world around me. Therefore, as a Jew living in 21st century America, I must come to terms with Christianity.
Judaism is my first concern. Believe me everything that I do to Christians on an occasional basis I do to Jews on a daily basis. And when I deal with Jews I get a lot more aggressive and less tolerant of foolishness. One should always be tougher on one’s own family and hold them to a higher standard.
Not having a large Jewish community is one the major drawbacks of Columbus though I do love the community here. I am actually planning on spending a year or two in Israel to finish off my degree.

3) How do you view the fact that you grew up in an "out-of-town" community such as Columbus and the education you received there as influencing your interest in Christianity?

The fact that I grew up in an “out of town” community has a lot to do with the kind of person I am today. It left me a lot freer to form my own understanding of Judaism than if I had grown up in New York. No one stuffed Judaism down my throat or threatened that I would go to Hell if I did not behave a certain way. I suspect that if I had grown up in a more “normal” Jewish community I would not be religious today.
I thank my father for raising me in Columbus it is one of the best decisions he ever made.
As to my interest in Christianity, probably the biggest factor was being a student of R’ Carmy at Yeshiva University. He got me into C.S Lewis.