Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The Emperor's New Cloths: the Atheist Version

By way of Underverse, I just came across an interesting defense of Richard Dawkins, written a few years ago, by PZ Myers of Pharyngula, titled the courtier’s reply.

Myers retells the story of the Emperor's New Cloths in the following fashion:

I have considered the impudent accusations of Mr Dawkins with exasperation at his lack of serious scholarship. He has apparently not read the detailed discourses of Count Roderigo of Seville on the exquisite and exotic leathers of the Emperor's boots, nor does he give a moment's consideration to Bellini's masterwork, On the Luminescence of the Emperor's Feathered Hat. We have entire schools dedicated to writing learned treatises on the beauty of the Emperor's raiment, and every major newspaper runs a section dedicated to imperial fashion; Dawkins cavalierly dismisses them all. He even laughs at the highly popular and most persuasive arguments of his fellow countryman, Lord D. T. Mawkscribbler, who famously pointed out that the Emperor would not wear common cotton, nor uncomfortable polyester, but must, I say must, wear undergarments of the finest silk.
Dawkins arrogantly ignores all these deep philosophical ponderings to crudely accuse the Emperor of nudity.
Personally, I suspect that perhaps the Emperor might not be fully clothed — how else to explain the apparent sloth of the staff at the palace laundry — but, well, everyone else does seem to go on about his clothes, and this Dawkins fellow is such a rude upstart who lacks the wit of my elegant circumlocutions, that, while unable to deal with the substance of his accusations, I should at least chide him for his very bad form.

Until Dawkins has trained in the shops of Paris and Milan, until he has learned to tell the difference between a ruffled flounce and a puffy pantaloon, we should all pretend he has not spoken out against the Emperor's taste. His training in biology may give him the ability to recognize dangling genitalia when he sees it, but it has not taught him the proper appreciation of Imaginary Fabrics.

While this argument should give one pause before replying to Dawkins type attacks on theology with a simple” how dare he,” I think Myers, like Dawkins, misses the point. It is one thing to attack theism; intelligent people acting in good faith are going to have different opinions as to the validity of the cosmological, the teleological, the ontological and other such arguments for the existence of God. Apart from this, there is also the separate issue of how one treats the various theologians throughout history, who have argued for the existence of God and have built systems of thought around the hypothesis that there is a God. One can reject the claim that God exists, yet still treat those who believed in God with respect.

As a historian it is of the upmost importance to me that we treat that we study with respect. This applies even to people whose values we disagree with. I do a lot of work dealing on medieval and Early Modern Christian mysticism and scholarship. I have no interest in attacking mystics such as Bridget of Sweden and Teresa de Avila or scholars such as Adrian Reland and Johannes Meyer. Nor do I have any interest in explaining them away through some cheap patronizing form psychological analysis. I want to understand them on their own terms and I will always treat them respectfully as equals. If I believed anything less about them I would not be studying this field.

In this respect Dawkins is a threat not just to theism but to any form of credible intellectual history. Like the clergyman who believes that his high school science education qualifies him to talk about science, Dawkins seems to believe that his high school history education qualifies him to talk about history.

I would recommend to Myers and to the rest of Dawkins’ followers that they read the late J.L Mackie’s the Miracle of Theism. Mackie was an atheist and this book is a scholarly attack on traditional arguments for the existence of God. That being said Mackie treats the thinkers that he attacks, from Anselm to Aquinas to Maimonides to Hans Kung, with respect.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Humans Battling Mind Controlling Aliens: a Struggle of Cardian Proportions (Part II)

(This is a continuation of an earlier post. For Part I see here.)


Stephenie Meyer’s the Host has been advertised and hailed as a story about the triumph of the human spirit. This would be in keeping with the impression that one would get just from glancing at the book jacket. The humans are going to defeat the aliens, right? Wanderer is going to be won over by the individualism of the free humans and reject the communal structure of the Souls, right? The truth is that Meyer has something very different in mind. Rather than a simple freedom triumphing over slavery story, the Host is a tale about society building and of conflicting societies.


The Host starts off as being a society building story about Wanderer and Melanie. They are two strangers thrown together by chance and forced to share not a piece of land but a single body. They have every reason to hate one another. For Melanie, Wanderer is a parasite, who has stolen her body and her life. For Wanderer, Melanie is a voice in her head that should not be there and is unneeded and potentially dangerous complication in her life. That being said Wanderer develops a strange affection for Melanie even to the point of protecting her from her fellow Souls. Wanderer covers up the full extent of the problem so that the Souls do not simply take her out of Melanie’s body and kill Melanie. In essence Wanderer chooses her troubled, schizophrenic existence with Melanie over a less problematic existence in some other body. Not only does Wanderer accept Melanie as a part of her life, she risks her life in an attempt to find Melanie’s family, a task which has no possible good ending for her. Tracking off into the desert lands of Northern Arizona might get her killed. If the Souls find her they will view her as a traitor. If she succeeds and finds the group of free humans, that she is looking for, the humans will take her what she is, a hostile enemy and a threat.


Wanderer’s search for the free human hideout is only the prelude to the main part of the story. Not to give too much away but she finds them (they actually find her) by page 117. (This is a 619 page novel.) The rest of the book is devoted to Wanderer’s struggle to become part of this free human society and how she comes to relate to the various residents of this society. Meyer puts Wanderer into a Stephen Donaldson type dilemma. Wanderer cannot use play her most valuable card to protect herself, to tell any of these humans the truth that Melanie is still alive and well inside her own head. This society survives on the belief that those humans taken by the Souls are gone; that the Hosts are no longer human and that there is no hope of bringing them back, no matter how much they would want to believe otherwise. If Wanderer were to tell the truth they would believe that she was lying to them by playing on what they would most desperately want to believe and kill her. Therefore she must lie and hide the truth even from the people she loves most in the world, Melanie’s younger brother Jamie and her boyfriend Jared.

The free humans are led by Melanie’s Uncle Jeb. He rules this society as a benevolent dictator. The caves, they are living, in are his house and therefore he makes the rules. He knows what Wanderer is yet he stops his people from killing her not because he has any delusions that the person he sees is in any way his niece but because he wants to get to understand these alien life forms that they now have to share the earth with. From this perspective Jeb and, later, other characters, come to form their own bound to Wanderer, or Wanda as she comes to be called, even though she is and remains the physical embodiment of everything they hate.

This society that Jeb is running is up of people thrown together by the fact that they are amongst the last humans not taken by the Souls. These people do not necessarily like each other nor are they particularly virtuous. Furthermore they are riding against the tide of history; the war is long over and the Souls won while hardly even having to fire a shot. Parallel to this small gritty, problematic free human society is the society that the Souls have created. The Souls are also part of this societal building narrative; they are also thrown together by events and most form bonds with people they have no particular reason to care about. In the beginning of the novel Wanderer meets one of the first Souls to come to Earth. She and another Soul took the bodies of people who were husband and wife. These two souls, despite the fact that they had no previous connection to each other took on the relationship of their hosts and fell in love with each other in a very human sense. Later in the novel Wanderer sees a couple who are Souls with small children who are clearly not occupied. So you have Souls with human children, created through the agency of their hosts, and who have taken on human connections to their own human children and have therefore kept them human.


In this tale of society building Wanderer must choose the society in whose building she will take part in. Neither society is good or bad; if anything it is the Souls who have the moral edge. Wanderer, though, chooses her flawed humans over her own kind. Wanderer’s reason for this is emblematic of this whole notion of society building. The bonds that she forms with the free humans have meaning precisely because they came out of an active choice, made by people who had every logical reason to turn her away. The Souls are beings who love naturally. While they may lack the flaws of human beings and their society may be a lot more moral and less problematic, their bonds are meaningless as it was something never came out of any active choice.

Monday, May 19, 2008

The Haredi World and Asperger Syndrome

Mishpacha, a Haredi magazine, published an article on Asperger Syndrome. It is sympathetic, if a bit patronizing, and it manages to convey the basics about Asperger Syndrome and how it is relevant to the Haredi community.

Curiously enough the article did not consider any of the specific difficulties that people with Asperger Syndrome face in trying to adapt to the Haredi world. I would see Asperger Syndrome as presenting a specific challenge for the Haredi community; in certain respects the Haredi educational system and Haredi society are particularly ill suited for handling children and adults with Asperger Syndrome. While those with Asperger Syndrome may, in theory at least, have a tremendous advantage over neuro-typicals when it comes to Talmud study, conforming to the dictates of the Haredi educational system and Haredi society is bound to prove problematic since they operate around very specific conventions and demand strict obedience their structure of authority.

Living in the Haredi world requires much more than ritual observance of Orthodox Jewish practice. For better or worse, to operate within the Haredi world one must be willing to conform oneself to a very specific lifestyle. The Haredi world, unlike the secular world, does not even have the pretense of valuing individualism. There is a very specific dress code. For boys it is a hat, a black velvet yalmukah, a jacket, dress pants and a button down shirt. Girls have to wear skirts below the knee and their shirt sleeves must go past their elbows. Depending on which sect of Haredi Judaism you belong to the dress code is going to be even more specific. Being in the Haredi world requires that one have very specific interests. For example, guy who is not particularly interested in the study of Talmud or who has other strong interests is going to clash with the system.

People with Asperger Syndrome have difficulty following even the conventions of a regular society, which is more flexible and has fewer penalties for failing to conform; how can one expect someone with Asperger Syndrome to handle a system with such specific requirements and where the penalty for failing to keep to these requirements is rejection not just by ones own peers, but by the authority system itself? In the secular world someone with an Asperger type focus on history, music, science or mathematics is not going to be faced with the sort of existential crisis that being in the Haredi world would inevitably bring about. People with Asperger Syndrome, by and large do not do well with authority figures. To ask someone living in their own heads and by their own rules to submit their will to an authority is to ask them to go against their very being. It is difficult enough when we are talking about a boss; how much more so when we are talking about a gadol, who, in theory, has a claim over every aspect of your life.

In dealing with members of their community with Asperger Syndrome, the Haredi world is up against a group whose very brains set them against the system. In a society that demands conformity to a very specific social pattern Asperger Syndrome presents a thought structure that is profoundly individualistic and that sets forth its own lifestyle.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Humans Battling Mind Controlling Aliens: a Struggle of Cardian Proportions (Part I)

A few months ago I did a series of posts on Orson Scott Card and his influence on Stephenie Meyer. (See posts I, II and III.) Their stories are built around the issue of society building; groups of people are thrown together, who may not have any particular love for each other, yet come to form a bond with one another and, from that bond, create a small society or even a family. This issue could have been explored further though I moved on to other things. Little did I know that Meyer would thrust me back into this issue by making her next book even more explicitly “Cardian” than even Twilight. There are things on the surface of Meyer’s new novel, the Host, which call attention to Card. This is a work of science fiction and the back cover of the book has a blurb from Card, praising Meyer. At a deeper level though Meyer has, once again, studied Card and has proven herself to be a most diligent and worthy student.

In what has now become her trademark, Meyer takes a stock horror story and fashions it as a charming and utterly captivating romance. The Host deals with an invasion of earth by aliens, known as Souls, which insert themselves into the bodies of human hosts and take control of them. This type of story has been done many times before. Such aliens have appeared as the villains in Robert A. Heinlein’s Puppet Masters and more recently the Animorphs series by K. A Applegate, to name some examples off the top of my head. For those of you who do not remember, the Animorphs was a series of children’s books that dominated the field of children’s literature back in the late nineties, before the rise of Harry Potter. In Meyer’s telling of the story these parasitical aliens are not evil beings out to conquer and enslave humanity. On the contrary they are creatures with highly developed moral sensibilities. They follow a strict code of Utilitarian ethics; their actions serve to create the greatest level of happiness for the greatest amount of beings. By taking over earth they have created a better, more ethical humanity in which people love one another and strive to serve the common good. The Souls, having conquered earth, have not destroyed human culture. On the contrary they continue to live as a human society, albeit a perfected one. Their hosts continue to live their human lives, holding down human jobs and raising human families.

The main character of the novel, Wanderer, is a Soul inserted into a young woman named Melanie Stryder. This should have allowed Wanderer to live a perfectly happy life inside Melanie’s body and with Melanie’s knowledge and memories. The problem for Wanderer is that Melanie has refused to go away and continues to live on. Worse, Wanderer finds herself inundated with memories of Melanie’s former life particularly of her younger brother, Jamie, and the man she loved, Jared, both of whom are now living in one of the last hidden free human holdouts. Haunted by these memories, Wanderer finds herself taking on Melanie’s connection to them and searching for them.

In a sense this is a story about three different characters in one body. There is Wanderer, Melanie and Melanie’s body. The lines between these characters are blurred, creating a, fourth, completely different character. Wanderer is now living in Melanie’s body, but has to deal with Melanie speaking in her head, which of course used to be Melanie’s head. Furthermore Wanderer is affected by the fact that the body she lives in is Melanie’s. This places certain constraints on Wanderer; by taking on Melanie’s body she is no longer Wanderer as she was but another version of Melanie. The conqueror, by the very act of conquering, has been conquered.

(To be continued …)

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Toward Formulating a Jewish View of Jesus (Part II)

(This is a continuation of an earlier post.)

While all that I have said previously is true, it does not really address the core issue. The very question of what role does Jesus play within Judaism or how do Jews view Jesus is predicated on the assumption that Jesus plays some sort of role within Judaism. The truth of the matter is that Jesus, from a strictly theological perspective,[1] plays no role within Judaism. This, it should be pointed out, is different from Islam where Jesus, even though he is not viewed as divine, is venerated as a prophet.

While this notion that, from the perspective of Judaism, Jesus is irrelevant may seem to be almost a tautology, internalizing this concept, in practice, would require many Christians to rethink how they approach Judaism. Traditional Christian thought views Jews through the lens of their rejection of Jesus; Jews are people who do not accept Jesus and therefore continue to practice Mosaic Law. A more helpful way of looking at Judaism would be to say that Judaism believes in the Old Testament and Mosaic Law. This strict adherence to the Old Testament has had a profound effect on how Judaism has evolved; one such effect is that Jews do not accept the divinity of Jesus nor do they believe that he superseded the Law.

Viewing Judaism from the perspective of their rejection of Jesus makes it very difficult to understand Judaism as it forces one to always view Judaism within the context of Christianity. This leads to a rather unhelpful line of discourse. Why do Jews reject Jesus? Why would someone continue to practice Mosaic Law; don’t they know that it has already been fulfilled by Jesus? Don’t Jews know that the Old Testament predicted the coming of Jesus? How can Jews simply believe in the God of the Old Testament, who judges and punishes, and reject the love and forgiveness that is Jesus? This line of questioning ultimately leads to a caricature of Judaism as this inflexible, close-minded religion, built around law and judgment, with no sense of love and forgiveness.

In order to understand Judaism one must be willing to understand it on its own terms. In order to do this one must come with a very different set of questions. How do Jews read the Old Testament? What role does Mosaic Law play within Judaism? How do Jews understand God? What does Monotheism mean for the Judaism? How do Jews understand Messianism? Most importantly one has to ask the question: how have Jews throughout the ages understood their Judaism and how have they struggled with each other over this matter? Such a line of questions would allow a person to formulate a more nuanced view of Jews and Judaism. Judaism can become something more than just a straw-man for Christian polemicists, something that exists in its own right and has its own legitimacy.

An excellent example of such an enquiry is Judaism by Hans Kung. This book, by a Catholic theologian, has to be counted as one of the best one volume works about Judaism out there. As I Jew I must acknowledge that Kung treats Judaism with near perfect fairness. I challenge any Jew out there to write a book about Christianity that treats it with equal fairness. Kung wrote this book to teach Christians about Judaism in order to further the cause of ecumenical dialogue. He also wrote a book on Islam.

[1] The figure of Jesus has traditionally played a very important cultural role for European Jews. Many Jewish customs have elements in them that were meant as social polemics against Christianity.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Toward Formulating a Jewish View of Jesus (Part I)

A question that I am often asked by Christians is how do Jews view Jesus? This is a rather difficult question to answer. Not because the question itself is so difficult, but because this is one of those questions that is not really about the given question, but is about larger issues; to answer such a question one most first come to terms with the very framework from which it arose.

What do Jews think of Jesus? As with most of Judaism, there is a wide spectrum of opinions. The Talmud, if we are to assume that the Yeshu that it speaks of is in fact Jesus, views him as a sorcerer and a heretic, who was justifiably executed by a Jewish court for his crimes and is now burning in excrement in hell. This view of Jesus finds its most coherent expression in an early medieval text known as Toldot Yeshu. Toldot Yeshu can be read as a Hebrew counter Gospel or even as a satire on the Gospel accounts. According to Toldot Yeshu Mary was a whore and Jesus was a bastard. In other words Toldot Yeshu is filled with the sorts of things that Christians today, unless they want to be accused of being Anti-Semitic, are not allowed to accuse Jews of believing. The fact that these accusations are grounded in Jewish sources is irrelevant; multiculturalism has nothing to do with telling the truth.

There are alternative Jewish views to this. Toldot Yeshu is hardly an authoritative source and there have been those, such of R’ Yechiel of Paris, who have denied that the Yeshu in the Talmud is Jesus. (See Hyam Maccoby, Judaism on Trial: Jewish-Christian Disputations in the Middle Ages.) The late fourteenth century commentator Profiat Duran referred to Jesus as a Hasid Sotah, a pious fool. Duran wrote a commentary, in Hebrew, on the New Testament, Kalyimot Hagoyim, offering a non Trinitarian reading of the New Testament and arguing that Jesus, the apostles and even Paul, for whatever faults they might have had, were good practicing Jews, who never intended to start another religion; it was their followers, who came afterward, who twisted their words and created Christianity. Moses Mendelssohn claimed to admire Jesus as a moral philosopher. This view was also shared by R’ Jacob Emden. (See Alexander Altman, Moses Mendelssohn: A Biographical Study pg. 204-05.)

Strictly speaking, from the standpoint of traditional Jewish thought, there is nothing to stop one from being a “believer” in Jesus. One can believe that Jesus was a righteous man; Judaism believes in the concept of righteous men. One can believe that Jesus performed miracles; Judaism believes that God will sometimes perform miracles, particularly if they are through the hands of a righteous person. One can even believe that Jesus was born of a virgin; a virgin birth is simply a type of miracle. In fact there is a tradition that Ben Sira was the son of Jeremiah’s daughter, born through a “virgin” birth. One can believe that Jesus was crucified; Judaism does not believe that righteous people are invulnerable. One can even believe that his death brought about some sort of atonement; there are Jewish sources that speak of God taking the righteous as atonement for sins of the world. One can believe that Jesus arouse from the dead and ascended to heaven alive; Judaism believes that Elijah the prophet and Enoch ascended to heaven alive and well as numerous other people. One can believe that Jesus sits at the “right hand” of God and is the fulfillment of Psalms 110; it is no different than saying that King David, Abraham or the Messiah sit at God’s right. Ultimately if one wants to one could say that the suffering servant passage of Isaiah 53 is about Jesus; it is no different than saying that the passage refers to Moses, Jeremiah or R’ Akiba. This may be pushing things, but, in theory, one could hold that Jesus was the Messiah provided that you define the Messiah simply as a mortal human being who is the subject of Isaiah 11; there are Jewish sources that say that this chapter refers to King Hezekiah.

There are really only three Christian beliefs that Judaism could never accept. One, that Jesus was, in some sense, God incarnate and part of some sort of Trinity. While in theory this belief might not be worse than the Kabbalistic notion of sephirot, any traditional notion of Trinity or an incarnated God is unlikely to pass through the strictures posed by the Jewish philosophical tradition, particularly as exemplified by Maimonides. From the perspective of Maimonides’ theology any discussion of divine attributes is problematic. Two, that Mosaic Law is no longer valid. Mosaic Law defines Judaism; if there is no Mosaic Law then Judaism ceases to exist. The final belief that Judaism could never accept is the idea that a belief in Jesus is somehow necessary for ones own personal salvation. Accepting such a claim would mean placing Jesus at the center of the religion and reorienting it around this singular concept.
(To be continued …)