Sunday, June 29, 2008

Jonathan Rosenblum on Hirsch: the Op-ed Version

Jonathan Rosenblum just published an op-ed version of the speech he gave at KAJ. What I find interesting about the written version is that Rosenblum has removed all criticism of the Haredi leadership, the Gedolim, that permeated the KAJ speech. The closest he comes to criticizing the Gedolim is when he says:

His [R’ Hirsch’s] writings are filled with an enormous confidence in the power of Torah to uplift and transform every period of history. Accordingly, he addressed the entirety of German Jewry on a monthly basis on the major issues of the day. No Torah scholar of comparable stature fills that role today.

Gone is any discussion of the need for a Torah world that values all sorts of people, not just people who sit and study all day. Rosenblum also omitted his talk about the spiritual value of living in the world and going out and earning a livelihood on a day to day basis.

To me this says two things about Rosenblum. One, that, when he spoke at KAJ, there was no mistake; he did not simply sound like he was being critical of the Haredi leadership. If did not mean to say anything serious or controversial by what he said at KAJ then there would have been no need censor himself for a general audience. Two, that Rosenblum lacks the spine to stand up for his beliefs and accept the real live consequences of those beliefs. Ultimately Rosenblum wants to be able to maintain his belief in dealing with the modern world, a belief necessary in order to justify his continued relevance, while still maintaining himself as a part of the Haredi world.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Jonathan Rosenblum’s Non Haredi Defense of Haredism

Jonathan Rosenblum is a highly gifted speaker and writer and is without question one of the most effective apologists the Haredi community possesses. There is a certain irony to this when considering Rosenblum’s background and mode of thinking. This is made all the more poignant in light of his recent speech at KAJ. As I will demonstrate, the fact that the Haredi community relies on someone like Rosenblum highlights a fundamental weakness within Haredi ideology.

In many respects Rosenblum’s case parallels that of R’ Yakov Horowitz of Project YES, a Haredi organization that works with at risk teenagers. As I have already discussed, in earlier posts, R’ Horowitz’s analysis of the problems in the Haredi community and his recommended solutions are insightful and to be admired. The problem is that, in practice, they go against the very basic fundamentals of the Haredi worldview; if the Haredi community was to seriously implement what R’ Horowitz suggests they would be finished. Rosenblum is, if anything, a more extreme example.

Rosenblum is effective as a Haredi advocate precisely because he is not a product of the Haredi world and is someone who, by definition, could never have been produced by that world. He did not grow up Haredi, in fact he did not grow up Orthodox at all, but only became religious as an adult. Rosenblum is not a product of Mir or Lakewood but of the University of Chicago and Yale. Rosenblum’s background is important to understanding his work. If Rosenblum had grown up Haredi and had gone onto the University of Chicago and Yale he would have been cast out. More importantly, when reading Rosenblum’s work you find an American conservative, not all that different from William Kristol or David Brooks. Like them he is a product of American academia, who rebelled against its liberal culture. While Rosenblum is not a secular Jew and has made common cause with Haredim, his mode of doing so is a product not of the Haredi community but of American conservatism.

Because Rosenblum’s mode of thinking is distinctively non Haredi it should not surprise anyone that his beliefs are somewhat different from what one would expect to find in the Haredi community. His speech at KAJ is an excellent example of this. Judging from his speech, Rosenblum is a Hirschian; he assumes that Hirsch’s methodology is legitimate in of itself and not simply as a tool to hook people into Judaism. This is not a position acceptable to the Haredi community in terms of what matters most, as a position to be accepted internally within the community. I would love to see him try to give the same speech at an Agudath Yisroel convention.

Rosenblum, because of the situation that he is in, seems to twist himself into all sorts of interesting positions. For example, during his speech, he talked about his teacher, the late R’ Nachman Bulman, how Rabbi Bulman, a Gerrer Hasid, was a supporter of R’ Hirsch. After the speech, R’ Yosef Blau pointed out to me that Rosenblum was being somewhat disingenuous when he referred to Rabbi Bulman as being a Gerrer Hasid. Rabbi Bulman might have come from a Gerrer family and maintained contacts with Gerrer all his life but he also went to Yeshiva University and, unlike many others, he never denied it. So while Rabbi Bulman might have been a devoted follower of R’ Samson Raphael Hirsch, he was hardly a representative figure of the Haredi community and he did not pick up his Hirschian ideals from them.

As a final example of the incongruity of Rosenblum’s position I would point to a comment he was kind enough to write about my earlier post in which he defends Rabbi Mantel:

In any event, the central point that Rabbi Mantel made is, in my opinion, incontestable: no one should think that the Hirschian derech is one easily followed and unless one is vaccinated with Rav Hirsch's pure yiras shomayim [fear of heaven], it is fraught with danger. I felt that he offered a necessary corrective, or Hegelian antithesis, if you will, to some of my remarks.

First of all, Rabbi Mantel went much further than simply saying that to be a Hirschian one needs to truly be motivated by a fear of heaven; doctors, lawyers and professors can also fear heaven. Secondly, I would like to call attention to nature of the defense that Rosenblum uses, that there is a need for a Hegelian antithesis. Officially, in the Haredi community, one is not supposed be familiar with the thought of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) beyond what you need to pass the Regents exams in high school. My guess is that Rosenblum did not pick up his knowledge of Hegel in a Haredi yeshiva. More importantly the notion that a society needs to be balanced by contradictory viewpoints is a distinctively non Haredi idea. A Hirschian or a Modern Orthodox worldview can grant a legitimate place to its opponents, even to Haredim, but if you are going to be Haredi you have to assume that all other positions are inherently illegitimate; there is the opinion of the Gedolim and everything else must be rejected.

Ironically enough, while the Haredi community may reject Hirsch they need him, possibly even more than Modern Orthodox Jews do. Hirsch provides essential loin-cloth for Haredi outreach, because he can appeal to people outside the community. So, as with the theory of evolution, it is okay to accept Hirsch when you are trying to make people religious as long as you do not make the mistake of taking him too seriously and become a personal believer. Similarly the Haredi community requires people like Jonathan Rosenblum to defend them. Rosenblum is very effective at presenting a Haredi world that irreligious people can respect and appreciate. The problem, though, is that Rosenblum’s Haredi community has little to do with the Haredi community as it actually exists; if they were they would cease to be Haredim and become Hirschians instead.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

R’ Hayyim Vital and his Female Visionaries

In previous posts I have discussed the situation of female visionaries within Christian thought. I wish therefore to say something about the situation of female visionaries within Judaism. This tradition of female visionaries is noticeably lacking with Judaism. Why is an interesting question, one that does not have any clear cut answers. One is hard pressed to even talk about the existence of female visionaries. Gershom Scholem denied that there was such a thing as female mysticism within Kabblah. According to Scholem, Kabbalah is a masculine doctrine; it lacks Islam’s Rabia or Christianity’s Mechthild of Magdeburg, Julian of Norwich or Theresa de Avila. The reason why Scholem dismisses the notion of female Kabbalists is that there are no Kabbalistic texts written by women.

J. H. Chajes devotes a chapter in his book on Dybbuks to bringing women into the history Kabbalistic thought by considering a wider range of information beyond simple source texts, which formed the basis for Scholem’s work. While we do not have Kabbalistic works written by women, women do play a major role in Hayyim Vital’s mystical diary, Sefer ha-Hezyonot, book of visions. In this work we find Jewish women who operated in ways that closely parallel the cases of Christian female mystics.

Vital consulted various women for their skills in divination and contacting the dead. Early in his career he consulted with a woman named Sanadora. She, through her technique of gazing into droplets of olive oil, predicted that Vital would become a great Kabbalist. We find a reference to Francesa Sarah of Safed and the daughter of R’ Shlomo Alkabetz being present in the house of study while Vital lectured. It would seem that that rabbinate in Safed held Francesa’s powers in high regard and that she has a certain amount of power over them. When she predicted that a plague was going to strike Safed, the rabbis decreed a public fast.

The two most important female visionaries in Vital’s writing are the daughter of Raphael Anav and Rachel Aberlin. The Daughter of Raphael Anav, we do not even know her name, was originally possessed by a good spirit, which took on the name Hakham Piso, who entered her while he was doing penance on earth. This spirit was expelled but later this girl gained a reputation of being able to serve as a medium for all sorts of good angels and spirits. Because of this various rabbis came to consult with her. She denounced various prominent figures such as the poet R’ Israel Najara and R’ Jacob Abulafia, the head of the Spanish congregation in Damascus.

Rachel Aberlin was a wealthy widow, who operated together with the Anav girl for quite a number of years and mentored her; they show up in many of the same places. Rachel was a visionary in her own right. For example she had a vision of Vital with a pillar of fire over his head and being supported by Elijah the prophet. There was another vision in which she sees him eating lettuce and radishes. Chajes sees this as a mixture of praise and criticism.

Matt Goldish pointed out to me that the major difference between the women that Vital talks about and the women we find Christian mystical literature is that, while there are numerous examples of women in Christian mystical literature who take on very active roles and are treated as figures of authority in their own right, Vitals treats his women as passive ciphers. They have little intrinsic value in of themselves; they are vessels into which spirits used in order to aid Vital and other rabbis. One can easily imagine taking Vital’s narrative and turning it around to a feminine perspective. These women could be viewed as bearers of such tremendous spiritual power that holy spirits came to rest within them, something that even most great rabbis never merited. Even R’ Hayyim Vital had to go to these women and place himself under their authority in order to receive the instructions from heaven.

While there is such a thing, within traditional Jewish thought, as a female visionary, the fact that it does not play a major role within Jewish mysticism, nothing to compare with what we find in Christianity, means that we still have not gotten around the issue of the male centricity of Jewish mysticism. Why do we not hear more about female visionaries?

Monday, June 23, 2008

The Two-Hundredth Birthday of R’ Samson Raphael Hirsch: Celebrating his Life or Mourning his Death?

This past Shabbat I had the good fortune to be in Washington Heights and attend K’hal Adath Jeshurun’s (KAJ) celebration of the two-hundredth birthday of R’ Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-88). Hirsch is an important figure in my life. I do not exaggerate when I say that I remain an Orthodox Jew today in large part because of his writings. He was the leading figure of nineteenth-century Orthodox Jewry in Germany. He was famous both for his uncompromising defense of traditional Jewish practice and his willingness to incorporate secular knowledge into his thought. KAJ is essentially the congregation that Hirsch built, albeit transported to New York during the 1930s. At this event there were a number of interesting speakers and events, which, for better and for worse, are a reflection of the state of Hirschian thought today.

As a featured speaker KAJ brought in columnist Jonathan Rosenblum. Rosenblum spoke about the continued importance of Hirsch to today’s issues and what Hirsch can teach today’s rabbinic leadership. Unlike many rabbis today, Hirsch’s Judaism was not on the defensive; he did not simply bunker down and try to figure out more ways to “protect” his community from the dangers of the outside world. On the contrary Hirsch’s Judaism was on the offensive; he believed that traditional Judaism had a message for all Jews and for the entire world and that it could compete with the best of what the world had to offer. Hirsch saw Judaism as a community that encompassed many different types of people, from all walks of life. He offered a Judaism which also valued people who did not sit and study all day, but who lived in the world. Not only did Hirsch speak to the issues of the day, but he also spoke in a manner which people from all walks of life could comprehend.

Without actually naming anyone specifically, Jonathan Rosenblum had attacked the Haredi rabbinate for being out of touch. What followed can only be described as a farce. As if to prove Rosenblum’s point, after he was finished, KAJ’s rabbi, R’ Yisroel Mantel, promptly stood up and gave an impromptu speech, bemoaning the fact that we do not have Rav Hirsch anymore and that his doctrines have fallen into the hands of doctors, lawyers and professors, who use it to belittle Torah. In this day and age what we need to do is listen to the rabbis, the gedolim. In effect R’ Mantel attacked Jonathan Rosenblum, at an event honoring Hirsch, for defending the things that Hirsch stood for. In essence we have a Haredi rabbi who officially rejects the beliefs upon which his congregation was built upon yet, for some reason, stills holds his post. We have a congregation which has, by and large, abandoned the ideals that it was supposed to be the embodiment of.

This encapsulates what has happened to Hirsch and his theology; it failed to maintain itself as its own coherent movement; its inheritance has been split by Haredim and Modern Orthodoxy. The Hirschian movement has proven unable to stand up for its own ideals against the Haredi claim to Halachic authority. Those who were left, who did not go Haredi, were not able to justify maintaining itself as a separate movement outside of Modern Orthodoxy. An important voice in the Orthodox world, one that might have been able to transcend the divide between Modern Orthodox and Haredi, has been lost.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Preparing For Generals

I am in middle of enjoying a relaxing summer of preparing for my general examinations, which I hopefully will be taking sometime this coming fall. How this works is that I have a committee of four professors, two to represent my major field, Jewish History and two to represent my two minor fields, Medieval and Early Modern European History. The test consists of a serious of written tests followed by an oral examination. For the oral examination I will be put in a room with all four of the professors on the committee and for two hours they get to question me for two hours.

During these coming months, I will mostly be posting on the material I am studying. To give you all an idea of what goes into general examinations I have posted my reading list. I have already read most of the books listed, but there is still a fair amount that I have not read and there is a lot that I have read that I need to review. Also several of the books listed are in the 700+ page range. No I am not panicking yet. (That comes in September.)

You are all welcome to join me in this merry endeavor.


Jewish History: Dr. Matt Goldish & Dr. Daniel Frank

Anti-Semitism

Andrew Colin Gow
1. Red Jews: Antisemitism in an Apocalyptic Age 1200-1600.
R.I Moore
2. Formation of a Persecuting Society: Power and Deviance in Western Europe, 950-1250. Winter 2006
Joshua Trachtenberg
3. Devil and the Jews

Christianity
David Berger
4. Jewish Christian Debate in the High Middle Ages
Robert Chazan
5. Barcelona and Beyond; The Disputation of 1263 and its Aftermath
6. Dagger of Faith: Thirteenth Century Missionizing and Jewish Responses
7. Church, State and the Jew in the Middle Ages.
Jeremy Cohen
8. The Friars and the Jews
9. Living Letters of the Law
Shlomo Eidelberg
10. The Jews and the Crusades: The Hebrew Chronicles of the First and Second Crusades
Hyam Maccoby
11. Judaism on Trial: Jewish-Christian Disputations in the Middle Ages
James Parkes
12. The Conflict of the Church and the Synagogue

France and Germany

William Chester Jordan
13. The French Monarchy and the Jews
Guido Kisch
14. The Jews in Medieval Germany

Historiography
Gershon Cohen
15. Sefer Hakabbalah
Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi
16. Zakhor, Jewish History, and Jewish Memory.

Islam
Eliyahu Ashtor
17. Jews of Muslim Spain
Goitein
18. Jews and Arabs
Avigdor Levy
19. The Sephardim in the Ottoman Empire

Messianism

Harris Lenowitz
20. The Jewish Messiahs: From the Galilee to Crown Heights
Marc Saperstein
21. Essential Papers on Messianic Movements and Personalities in Jewish History.

Mysticism

J.H Chajes
22. Between Worlds: Dybbuks, Exorcist, and Early Modern Judaism.
Lawrence Fine
23. Physician of the Soul, Healer of the Cosmos: Isaac Luria and His Kabbalistic Fellowship.
Matt Goldish
“Halakhah, Kabbalah, and Heresy: A Controversy in Early Eighteenth Century Amsterdam.” JQR 2-3(1993-94): Pg. 153-76.
“Review Essay New Approaches to Jewish Messianism” AJS Review 25. Looks at Idel’s Messianic Mystics and Lenowitz’s book on Jewish Messiahs.
24. Sabbatean Prophets.
25. Judaism in the Theology of Isaac Newton.
Moshe Idel
26. Kabbalah: New Perspectives.
27. Messianic Mystics
Ephraim Kanarfogel
28. Peering through the Lattices: Mystical, Magical and Pietistic Dimensions in the Tosafist Period.
Ivan Marcus
29. Rituals of Childhood
Gershom Scholem
30. Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism
31. On the Kabbalah and its Symbolism
32. Origins of the Kabbalah
33. Sabbtai Sevi: The Mystical Messiah
Joseph Trachtenberg
34. Jewish Magic and Superstition
Elliot Wolfson
35. Through a Speculum that Shines

Philosophy

Isaac Barzilai
36. Between Reason and Faith: Anti-Rationalism in Italian Jewish Thought 1250-1650
Seymour Feldman
“Prophecy and Perception in Isaac Abravanel.” Perspectives on Jewish Thought and Mysticism. Ed. Alfred Ivry, Elliot Wolfson, and Allan Arkush.
“The end of the universe in medieval Jewish philosophy.” AJS 11(1986): pg. 53-77
37. Philosophy in a Time of Crisis: Don Isaac Abravanel: Defender of the Faith
Sarah Heller-Wilensky.
38. Isaac Arama in the Framework of Philonic Philosophy. (Hebrew) Jerusalem. 1956.
Menachem Kellner
39. Principles of Faith
40. Must a Jew Believe Anything?
41. Dogma in Medieval Jewish Thought: From Maimonides to Abravanel
Isaac Lawee
42. Abarbanel’s Stance toward Tradition
Daniel J. Lasker
43. Jewish Philosophical Polemics Against Christianity in the Middle Ages
Chaim Pearl
44. The Medieval Jewish Mind: the Religious Philosophy of Isaac Arama
Jospeh Sarachek
45. Faith and Reason: The Conflict Over the Rationalism of Maimonides. Hermon Press, New York. 1970.
Daniel Jeremy Silver
46. Maimonidean Criticism and the Maimonidean Controversy 1180-1240. Brill. 1965

Politics

Ruth Wisse
47. Jewish Power.

Renaissance

Robert Bonfil
48. Rabbis and Jewish Communities in Renaissance Italy
49. Jewish Life in Renaissance Italy
David Ruderman
50. Jewish Thought and Scientific Discovery in Early Modern Europe
51. The World of a Renaissance Jew: The Life and Thought of Abraham b. Mordecai Farissol
Hava Tirosh-Samuelson
52. Between Worlds – The Life and Thought of Rabbi David ben Judah Messer Leon



Society
Ephraim Kanarfogel
53. Jewish Education and Society in the High Middle Ages
Jacob Katz
54. Tradition and Crisis: Jewish Society at the End of the Middle Ages
55. Exclusiveness and Tolerance: Jewish Gentile Relations in Medieval and Modern Times

Spain
Yitzchak Baer
56. Jews in Christian Spain (2 vol.)
H.H Ben Sasson
57. “Generation of the Spanish Exiles and its Fate.” Zion 26(1961): pg. 23-64.
Seymour Feldman
58. “1492: A House Divided.” Crisis and Creativity in the Sephardic World (1997): 38-58.
Mark Meyerson
59. A Jewish Renaissance in Fifteenth Century Spain.
Benzion Netanyahu
60. Don Isaac Abarbanel: Statesman and Philosopher
61. Origins of the Inquisition in Fifteenth Century Spain
62. The Marranos of Spain: From the Late 14th to the Early 16th Century, According to Contemporary Hebrew Sources
Norman Roth
63. Conversos, Inquisition, and the Expulsion of the Jews from Spain.
Yosef Yerushalmi
64. The Lisbon Massacre of 1506
Perez Zagorin
65. Ways of Lying: Dissimulation, Persecution and Conformity in Early Modern Europe.

Early Modern: Prof. Robert Davis

Magic

Stuart Clark
66. Thinking With Demons.
Keith Thomas
67. Religion and the Decline of Magic
Carlo Ginzburg
68. Night Battles
Guido Ruggiero
69. Binding Passions
Frances Yates
70. Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition
71. The Occult Philosophy in the Elizabethan Age
72. The Art of Memory
73. Rosicrucian Enlightenment

Religion

Elizabeth Rapley
74. The Devotes: Women and Church in Seventeenth Century France.
Anne Jacobson Schutte
75. Aspiring Saints: Pretense of holiness, inquisition and gender in the republic of Venice 1618-1750.
Marjorie Reeves
“Cadinal Egidio of Viterbo: a Prophetic Interpretation of History.”
76. Influence of prophecy in the later Middle Ages: A Study of Joachimism.

Richard Kagan
77. Lucrecia’s Dreams
Carlo Ginzburg
78. The Cheese and the Worm
Phyllis Mack (Rutgers)
79. Visionary Women: Ecstatic Prophecy in Seventeenth-Century England
John Headley
80. Tommaso Campanella and the Transformation of the World
B.S Capp
81. The Fifth Monarchy Men: A Study in Seventeenth-Century English Millenarianism
William Christian
82. Local Religion in Sixteenth Century Spain
Cynthia L. Polecritti
83. Preaching Peace in Renaissance Italy: Bernardino of Siena & His Audience

Violence

Steve Carroll
84. Blood and Violence in Early Modern France.
David Nirenberg
85. Communities of Violence: Persecution of Minorities in the Middle Ages.
Pieter Spierenburg
86. The Spectacle of Suffering: Executions and the Evolution of Repression: From a Preindustrial metropolis to the European Experience.

Renaissance

Peter Burke
87. The Historical Anthropology of Early Modern Italy
Bruce Cole
88. The Renaissance Artist at Work
Elizabeth Eisenstein
89. The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe.
Lauro Martines
90. Power and Imagination: City States in Renaissance Italy
Edward Muir
91. Civic Ritual in Renaissance Venice
John Najemy
92. Italy in the Age of the Renaissance
Laurie Nussdorfer
93. Civic Politics in the Rome of Urban VIII

Jews

Robert Davis and Benjamin Ravid
94. The Jews of Early Modern Venice

Kenneth Stow (Haifa)
95. Jewish Life in Early Modern Rome: Challenge, Conversion and Private Life

Medieval: Prof. Daniel Hobbins

General

Malcolm Barber: (University of Reading) Expert on the Knights Templar.
96. The Two Cities: Medieval Europe 1050-1320.
Norman Cantor
97. The Civilization of the Middle Ages
R.W Southern (1912-2001) (Oxford)
98. The Making of the Middle Ages

Religion

Rudolph Bell
99. Holy Anorexia.
Renate Blumenfeld-Kosinski
100. Poets, Saints, and Visionaries of the Great Schism, 1378-1417.
Peter Brown
101. Cult of the Saints.
102. Augustine of Hippo
Caroline Walker Bynum
103. Holy Feat and Holy Fast: the Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women.
Nancy Caciola
104. Discerning Spirits: Divine and Demonic Possession in the Middle Ages.
John Coakley
105. Women, Men, and Spiritual Power: Female Saints and Their Male Collaborators
Dyan Elliott
106. Proving Woman: Female Spirituality and Inquisitional Culture in the Later Middle Ages.
Amos Funkenstein
107. Theology and the Scientific Imagination from the Middle Ages to the Seventeenth Century. Princeton University Press. 1986.
Dominique Iogna-Prat
108. Order & Exclusion: Cluny and Christendom Face Heresy, Judaism and Islam (1000-1500)
Jane Tibbetts Schulenburg
109. Forgetful of their Sex: Female Sanctity and Society C.A 500-1100.
Laura Ackerman Smoller
110. History, Prophecy, and the Stars: The Christian Astrology of Pierre D’Aillly
Rosalynn Voaden
111. God’s Word’s, Women’s Voices.

Medicine

Joan Cadden
112. The Meaning of Sex Difference in the Middle Ages.
Joseph Shatzmiller
113. Jews, Medicine, and Medieval Society. University of California Press. 1994
Nancy Siraisi
114. Medicine and the Italian Universities 1250-1600.

Literacy

Michael Clanchy
115. From Memory to Written Record.
Joyce Coleman
116. Public Reading and the Reading Public in Late Medieval England and France.

Universities

Hilde de Ridder-Symoens
117. A History of the University in Europe.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

The Society Building Story and its Implications for Individualism and Faith

I have written a number of posts dealing with Orson Scott Card, Stephenie Meyer and their use of society building stories in their fiction. Before leaving the issue (for now) I thought I should say a few words to wrap things up. In looking back at my posts on the topic I realized that I failed to adequately explain why I think this issue is so important. Stephenie Meyer’s decision to follow Card’s lead is not a matter of artistic copying but of a shared critique of modern individualism and a shared religious vision.

At its heart the society building story, in which a small group of individuals, with little reason to care for one another, are thrown together and attempt to build a society with one another, possesses an ambiguous relationship with individualism. If one wanted to be simplistic one could even accuse it of being anti-individualism. The characters start off as relatively independent individuals. The plot turns on their decision to surrender their independence and tie themselves down to the needs of the group. For example, in the Host, Wanderer surrenders herself to helping her community of free humans. With Ender, however strong he might be, he needs some sort of group to give himself up to. This is a far cry from the sort of do it alone heroic individualism at the heart of so much of modern fiction and of science fiction as well. This is not the work of Robert A. Heinlein; this is most definitely not Ayn Rand.

One could even link this to the religious beliefs of Card and Meyer. Card and Meyer are both Mormons, a religious group known for its strong sense of group discipline. Card and Meyer could therefore be read as anti-moderns, whose message is that, to find fulfillment, one must reject the individualism of modern secular society and submit oneself to the demands of the group; much in the same that Mormons and followers of other religions allow themselves to be controlled by the dictates of their group.

In a sense, though, the society building story used by Card and Meyer is strongly individualistic. The characters freely choose to bind themselves to their newly built society. So this act of society building is ironically very much the act of individuals; they could not have succeeded unless they were such strong individuals. Also this act of society building is done in defiance of some other society. Wanderer rejects the perfect society of the Souls. The Cullen family of Twilight, by their very existence, is a rejection of the Volturi and their value system. Ender’s Dragon army fights the system at the Battle School even as it plays its mock battles against other armies.

This ambiguity about individualism is also at the core of work of Robert A. Heinlein, the father of heroic individualism within science fiction, as well. In certain respects Heinlein is a forerunner for both Card and Meyer. While Starship Troopers glorifies the individual soldier it is also a remarkable ode to duty and an indictment of modern society’s inability to install a sense of duty and responsibility within its members. Heinlein’s the Moon is a Harsh Mistress can be read as a society building novel itself. It is about a computer led rebellion by the residents of the Moon against the rule of Earth. The people living on Heinlein’s future Moon reject the paternal statism of the countries of Earth and strive to build their own libertarian state. The real struggle in the story is not over whether the people of the Moon can defeat the occupation forces from Earth but if such a diverse group of people can band together as one group.

Card and Meyer are hardly supporters of the sort of polyamorous marriages that Heinlein advocated. Card and Meyer belong to the mainstream Mormon Church, not to one of the polygamous sects, so they are not into alternative lifestyles. As I see it, their use of society building stories has a distinctively religious component to it. Any religious group operating in the western world today operates, to a certain extent, on a similar model as the societies found in the work of Card and Meyer. All religious groups are, in one way or another, counter-cultures. In a secular state the government cannot be used to advance the cause of any religious group. Even more importantly, in a secular society the very ethos of the society is contrary to the values of established religions. One can see communities of faith as collections of renegades from the general society who have been thrown together by circumstances other than their personal like for each other and most join together to form their own alternative society.

The society building story as it is used by Card and Meyer carries the distinct stamp of their Mormon faith. Mormonism is a religion organized in a highly authoritarian manner, but also one in which power is closely centered at the base. The Mormon religion does exert a tremendous amount of control over the day to day lives of its followers; members most give tithes to the Church and serve the Church in the field as missionaries. That being said the Church maintains no paid clergy; instead leading members volunteer to serve for a fixed period of time. What is truly fascinating about how Mormons operate is their system of wards. Wards are small chapters, usually encompassing a single city or neighborhood. For Mormons, wards operate as extension of the family; there are ward meeting and ward picnics. Mormons fall under the authority of a given ward simply by living in a given area. They do not get to choose who their fellow ward members are; if they do not get along with other members of their ward they do not have the option of breaking away and creating a new ward. (Considering all the fights and splits that go on in synagogues, I can see the advantages of such a system.) So an individual Mormon’s relationship to a ward runs in terms of a society building story. One is thrown in with a group of people that one has no particular reason to care for. In such a situation there is no other choice but to build for oneself, out of such material, a society and even a family.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Sex and the City and Feminist Hypocrisy

As I mentioned in my last post, I, along with a significant proportion of the male population, have never seen the show Sex and the City. I therefore have no opinion, good or ill, of the show and, as such, will not be commenting on it. What I do find interesting is the shows status as a major cultural phenomenon. Not to take anything away from what Dr. Lipstadt said about the shows emphasis on friendship, but most of what I have read about the show has dealt with it from the perspective of female empowerment.

Sex and the City (See also here.) starred four beautiful women, dressed in the latest fashions, who, when it came to men, possessed the upper hand and dealt with them on their own terms. Carrie and her friends went out with men, invited men back to their flats, they slept with them as they wished and sent these men off as it suited their fancy. This was seen by feminists as a form of virtue, something to be praised. Even if the world of Sex and the City had little to do with reality faced by ordinary women, it offered its female viewers a fantasy they could slip into for an hour.

Far be it from me to deny women such a fantasy. The male version of this fantasy, where immaculately dressed men get to sleep with beautiful women, who throw themselves at them, and leave these women as it suits their fancy, is a major pillar of western literature. This theme unites classical heroes, such as Odysseus and Aeneas, with modern action heroes, such as James Bond.

The problem, though, with this male fantasy is that, as modern feminism has taught us, it is sexist. Modern feminism teaches that such depictions of women as objects that can be used and tossed away at will are demeaning to women. It creates a social ideal in which women have no value outside of their bodies. These depictions of women encourage men, even subconsciously to view women as lesser beings. Worse, women themselves come to internalize such depictions of themselves and come to view themselves as lesser beings, without any intrinsic self-worth, fit only to be helpmates of their men. While I may gripe about this and think that the hunt for negative stereotypes throughout literature, at the heart of feminist deconstruction, is a bit of overkill, I am willing to concede that feminists have a valid point. As such I believe that I, as a classical liberal, committed to defending the intrinsic self worth of all human beings, must do my part to uproot sexism wherever I see it even to search into my own heart and ask some tough questions about the nature of my own biases, even unconscious ones.

I would not object if women had embraced this show as a satire on male chauvinism, viewing it, in the spirit of Lysistrata, as a reversal of the traditional dynamics of male/female relationships. When I embraced J.S Mill and the cause of women's equality I did not sign a blank check for anti-male sexism. One feels like the pious individual who followed the advice of his preacher and scaled back on his home improvements only to find his preacher moving into a multi-million dollar home in the suburbs; in other words betrayed and played for a fool.

If ever men and women in this society are going to achieve a healthy state of affairs in their relationship to each other there is going to need to be an honest discourse about gender. We need to move beyond feminists browbeating men for their sexism and how they must atone for it. If men and women are going to be equal members of society, than they have to take equal responsibility for that society and hold themselves to an equal standard. That means that women, as well as men, are going to have to examine their own biases and ask some difficult questions. Feminists are going to need to kneel at the altar of atonement and say: Forgive us Mother for we have sinned.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Deborah Lipstadt on Sex and the City and Friendship

Deborah Lipstadt is a personal hero of mine and a model for the sort of historian I want to be. Her book, History on Trial, chronicling her legal struggle with Holocaust denier David Irving is a must read for anyone who wants to understand what it means to be an objective historian. Recently, on her blog, she took a step away from her usual discussions of Holocaust denial, anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism to comment about the recently released Sex and the City film. She counts herself as one amongst the show’s legions of female fans. In particular she admires the show for the strong friendships it depicts amongst its lead characters. Having never seen the show or the film, I am neither for nor against it; it may be a brilliant show and, even if it is not, Dr. Lipstadt is entitled to her frivolous fun.

What I found disturbing about Dr. Lipstadt’s comments was that she then turned it into a feminist attack on men. According to Dr. Lipstadt: “Most men don't have friends like that. They may have sports or poker buddies but they don't have friends who understand them to the depths of their hearts.” Dr. Lipstadt goes on to attack how the media portrayed Sen. Hillary Clinton in her recent presidential campaign. Dr. Lipstadt remarks:

Just as men don't get the essence of friendship. The men just don't get how mad so many women are about the treatment meted out to Hillary Clinton. The comments about her whining, her shrillness, her pantsuits, her ankles, her voice, her laugh.... None of the things we have heard about male candidates. Does anyone know how Obama, McCain, or any of the other close to a dozen men laugh? What their ankles look like?

I see this as a excellent example of how the hypocrisy of modern feminism can poison people, who are, in all other respects, rational individuals. Maybe I missed something, but, from my reading of feminist literature and the tolerance seminar I was forced to take before coming to Ohio State, I was under the impression that it would be sexist, and therefore wrong, of me to say something like: "Women do not get the essence of friendship. All they have are people to shop and gossip with." Why are Dr. Lipstadt’s words not sexist as well?

If anyone is interested in learning more about this strange concept of male friendship, I would suggest that you read C.S Lewis' essay on friendship in his book the Four Loves. While you are on the subject, may I also recommend Cicero's famous work, De Amicitia. Over the past few thousand years of Western Civilization, a fair amount has been written on the topic of close male friendship. As a man I can point to the models of Achilles and Patrolocus from the Iliad, Roland and Oliver of the Song of Roland and Lord of the Rings’ Sam and Frodo as models of male friendship. Dr. Lipstadt holds up Carrie, Samantha, Miranda and Charlotte and seems to think that she has some sort of moral high ground. Something about that strikes me as off.

Just to be clear about this issue; the charge of sexism is not particularly important to me. What I care about are things like tribalism, to use Karl Popper’s term, and, most importantly, hypocrisy. Modern feminism, from what I have seen, seems to think that their standards only apply to men; there is no sense of self reflection. This is not very different from religious fundamentalists, who see themselves as the paragons of moral virtue sent to set the rest of the sinful society straight. At the very least our modern day Christian fundamentalists have the tradition of Paul, Augustine, Luther and Calvin to remind them of the utter sinfulness of all mankind, women as well, to keep them in line.

To turn the tables on Dr. Lipstadt, I would see her post is a good example of how many feminists seem to fail to understand what bothers so many men about Hillary and her campaign. As a man living in the early 21st century, I accept that sexism is wrong and that I need to think in larger terms than my male brotherhood. Not that men are perfect in this regard but at least they have a concept of not being sexist toward women.

John McCain and Barack Obama are not running as men. Hillary ran as a woman. Why should any man have trusted Hillary to think in larger terms than her female sisterhood? As long as women are not trained like men to avoid sexism and think outside of the tribalism of their female sisterhood than it is going to be very difficult to for women to be elected to public office.