Thursday, July 31, 2008

Of Prostitutes and Jewish Usurers: a Case of Medieval Christian Tolerance

Analogies were often drawn between the toleration of Jewish lending and the toleration of prostitution, which, by confining sin within limits and subjecting it to public control, helped to guarantee good order by preventing the seduction of innocent and respectable women at the hands of lecherous men. As Saint Augustine had written in his early treatise, De ordine, of the late fourth century, “ What can be called more filthy, more worthless, more wicked and dishonorable than whores, pimps and other such baneful creatures? But take away harlots from human affairs and you will trouble everything with unbridled lust and passion.” Sisto Medici seized on the parallel and concluded, after elaboration on Augustine and on the principle of the lesser evil, that “the wickedness of usury should therefore be permitted, no less than the brothels of harlots. … However, infidel women cannot be so generally or properly licensed to commit such fornication lest by their beauty the captivated souls of the faithful be seduced into infidelity, a danger which does not occur where usury is concerned.” (Brian Pullan, Jewish Banks and Monti di Pieta” pg. 71. The Jews of Early Modern Venice. Ed. Robert Davis and Benjamin Ravid.)

You have to give the medieval Church credit. They were very rational and logical in their own pragmatic way. The Church in Italy was remarkably tolerant of prostitution. The reason for this was that they believed that, if they banned prostitutes, men would be more likely to satisfy their lusts with other men. Better to tolerate prostitution then to tolerate homosexuality. As for the argument that if men went to non Christian prostitutes they would be lead to heresy; the rabbis in Spain thought along similar lines and argued that it was better to have Jewish prostitutes then have Jewish men going to non Jewish prostitutes. (See David Nirenberg, Communities of Violence pg. 135-36)

This is also a very good example of a situation where hatred and tolerance could co-exist. Just because you hate someone does not mean that you are going to severally persecute them and you can like someone and still persecute them. The important thing is whether it is in your self interest to tolerate somone or not. When trying to understand why Jews were tolerated in some places and persecuted in others the important issue not whether certain places or rulers were “open minded,” “enlightened” or “tolerant.” What really mattered was whether or not someone thought it was in their interest, or in the interest of society at large, to have a Jewish presence. If having Jews around served a constructive purpose then just as one tolerated the existence of other undesirables, such as prostitutes, one also tolerated Jews.

As an interesting side note, there is a connection here that Pullan does not mention. It was Augustine, who Pullan brings down as arguing for the toleration of prostitution, who formulated the famous “witness doctrine,” which became the basis for the toleration of Jews in medieval Christian thought. (We will be discussing this in detail in later posts. Stay tuned!)

Monday, July 28, 2008

The Whig Narrative of History: Secular Creationism (Part III)

(This is the continuation of a series of posts. See here and here.)

If all that was at stake with the Whig narrative was how one understood the Middle Ages and the rise of the modern world then the Whig narrative could be pushed off as just an esoteric issue for historians to discuss with no relevance to the world as we live in it. While I, as with most historians, am not a believer in the notion that history can give us direct answers to modern day problems, the Whig narrative has direct implications for how we live today. It forms the cornerstone for the secular narrative for today’s world. The modern day secularist sees himself as walking in the footsteps of the likes of Galileo, Isaac Newton, Voltaire and Benjamin Franklin. He fights on the side of reason, tolerance and freedom against the intolerant religious fundamentalist, who is the heir to the medieval Church. At stake is the very future of humanity. Either we will march on to a new, even greater, age of Enlightenment or we shall sink into a new dark age.

While narratives are not logical arguments, they create an overarching structure that link specific issues together and lend them a moral force that otherwise would not exist. For example there are many specific fronts in the religious versus secular culture conflict such as abortion, prayer in public schools, evolution and sex education. These are all very specific issues with many technical elements and which there are many possible positions that intelligent people of good will might take. In addition each side has its underlying narrative. For religious conservatives that narrative is that they are the defenders of traditional values and of a religious tradition now under assault by a secular atheist materialist culture. For those on the secular side the narrative is, as I pointed out, that they are fighting for reason against oppression.

These narratives have little to do with the particular issues in questions and therefore to refute the narrative of one side or the other would hardly mean the end of our culture war. It would, though, undermine the overarching moral structure that lends authority to a given side. What I say should not be taken as support for the conservative narrative, though for now my focus is on the secular narrative. As I see it, a major weakness of the secular position, one that people of faith have yet to properly exploit, is that the secular narrative is dependent on the Whig narrative of history. Remove the Whig narrative and the secular narrative collapses.

What we have is an entire secular establishment dependent upon a narrative of history that has been rejected by the historical community for the better part of a century. I believe that this is something that is important and that it offers an opportunity to change the dynamics of the religious versus secular conflict. In future posts I hope to offer some practical suggestions as to how to successfully use this issue within the public sphere. As part of this effort I also intend to go into some depth to explain, as a historian, what is so problematic about the Whig narrative; why someone who holds it cannot be viewed as a legitimate historian, but most be viewed as either ignorant or as an ideologue trying to push his views under the veneer of history. Finally, as it is my particular field of study, at some point down the line I intend to explore the Whig narrative in terms of how it has affected the study of Jewish history.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

And Now For Something Completely Different: An Asperger with a British Sense of Humor

I co-chair a book club geared to those with Asperger Syndrome or otherwise on the high end of the autism spectrum. We meet every Thursday night at eight P.M at the Barnes and Noble on the Ohio State campus. This past week we finished Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. I had read Good Omens once before, but, like most books by either Gaiman or Pratchett, it was worth reading a second time. Good Omens is a hilarious romp through the apocalypse featuring an angel and a demon who conspire together to save humanity from the forces of both Heaven and Hell. This is top of the line British humor, my favorite kind. British humor, though, is not something that can be appreciated by everyone. The reactions of the group were mixed. As I see it, British humor reflects on different elements of the Asperger mindset and, depending on the person and circumstance, can either work very well for those with Asperger Syndrome or can utterly fail.

British humor, as exemplified by Monty Python, Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett, entails manic insanity mixed with running gag references that span the cultural gambit and is usually quite dark. (For example Douglas Adams has the Earth blown to bits by aliens, building an interstellar freeway, in the first few chapters of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.) Good Omens deals with the world coming to an end next Saturday afternoon. Heaven and Hell are preparing for a final showdown in which, no matter who wins, humanity will lose. Unfortunately, due to an error on the part of a satanic nun, the anti-Christ has gone missing. Out to save the day are the unlikely pair of Aziraphale and Crowly; an angel and a demon who are in fact good friends and who rather like the earth as it is. To those of you who are befuddled by this, not to worry; things only get more absurd as the book moves along. What keeps this all afloat is the fact that Good Omens is a satire on Paradise Lost and Revelations. It also makes fun of the Screwtape Letters, Star Wars, Doctor Who, televangelists, seventeenth century prophecies, witch-hunts, and James Bond just to name a few things.

British humor inundates the audience with strings of information, but revels in absolute absurdity. People with Asperger Syndrome are particularly suited to handling strings of information but are ill equipped to handle things that make no sense. British humor can be effective for such people if they have the necessary background to understand the references and if they can get past the fact that nothing makes any sense. One can then revel in how a given piece of British humor spits out information and how it follows its own innate logic off a cliff into perfectly “logical” absurdity. If the person with Asperger Syndrome does not pick up on the references, though, everything will backfire. All that would be left is a something that is all over the place and utterly overwhelming; in other words the sort of thing that those with Asperger Syndrome are woefully ill equipped to deal with.

The traditional assumption is that people with Asperger Syndrome have, in general, a difficult time dealing with humor. Humor is not logical and requires a certain flexibility in how one understands things. While this is particularly true in regards to British humor, British humor, because of how it uses strings of information, can, under the right circumstances, work very well for those with Asperger Syndrome.

Our next book is going to be Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. This book also fits into the model of British humor. We shall see how the group deals with this one.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Escape from Satmar

New York Magazine has an article, Escape From the Holy Shtetl, about a woman who abandoned the Satmar community of Kiryas Joel. It is an interesting counter-kiruv story; Gitty Grunwald grew up in Kiryas Joel, the daughter of a baalas teshuva, who rejected the lifestyle of her secular parents. Gitty, in turn, turned her back on her mother and now embraces the secular values of her grandparents, thus completing the circle.

I find myself in difficult position in regards to this article. This was an excellent piece of journalism and it is not as if I disagree with the essential points that it was trying to make. I oppose Satmar and its insular vision of Judaism. I agree with Rabbi Moshe Tendler that they are not in fact Jews, but members of their own religion. This article is an exhibition on why closing people off from the world does not work and can backfire and should be required reading for all Haredi parents and educators. With all this being said, I still found the article problematic in that the author, Mark Jacobson, failed to handle his source material in a critical manner.

To Jacobson’s credit, he did not write a polemic against Satmar, Haredim or Orthodox Jewry; he could have written a much more polemical piece. That being said, he is too willing to go along with Gitty’s narrative and fails to ask the sort of tough questions that a journalist should. For example, a major focus of the article is on Gitty’s struggle to gain custodial rights over her daughter, who remains in Kiryas Joel with Gitty’s ex-husband. Early in the article we are told how Gitty’s daughter was snatched from her by masked men soon after she left Kiryas Joel. Toward the end of the article, though, it is mentioned in passing that Gitty failed a drug test and because of this failed, in a secular court, to win back her daughter. This fact is pushed aside as part of the husband’s “plan” to keep control over his daughter.

For some strange reason, Jacobson remains on Gitty’s side despite the fact that she is a confirmed drug user. Her history of drug use should have brought down the very foundation of her case. No one “robbed” her of her daughter. Religious or non-religious, since her ex-husband is not a known drug user he should have custody over his daughter. For that matter those who snatched the daughter, in the first place, were justified; they were taking a girl away from a mother who used drugs. They did a good thing, which benefited both the girl and society.

That Gitty has used drugs is not allowed to interfere with the important storyline here, that Gitty is a brave soul, who freed herself from an oppressive society that demanded total obedience to a group of bearded old men and did not allow her to think for herself. The article is a bit vague on what Gitty has actually accomplished with her new found intellectual freedom. She now wears jeans and knows that Billie Holiday was a woman.

To be fair to Jacobson, the problems we are dealing with here are inherent in the very nature of human interest stories. He wrote about Gitty and her point of view and, for what it is worth, he has given us an insightful portrayal into the mindset of someone leaving Haredi Judaism. It would be nice, though, if he could, as a balancing act, do a story on Gitty’s baalas teshuva mother and why she joined Satmar. It might be beneficial to New York’s readership to get the other side of the story.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The Whig Narrative of History: Secular Creationism (Part II)

(This is the continuation of an earlier post. See here.)

This thousand year period of church darkness came to an end in the fifteenth century with the dawn of the Renaissance. In truth, even to use the word "Renaissance" bespeaks of a Whig bias. The word Renaissance means rebirth. In particular this is supposed to refer to the rebirth of classical culture, which had lain dormant for a thousand years. The person most responsible for the popular understanding of the Renaissance was the nineteenth century Swiss historian, Jacob Burckhardt. According to Burckhardt:

In the Middle Ages both sides of human consciousness – that which was turned within as that which was turned without – lay dreaming or half awake beneath a common veil. The veil was woven of faith, illusion and childish prepossession, through which the world and history were seen clad in strange hues. Man was conscious of himself only as a member of a race, people, party, family or corporation – only through some general category. In Italy this veil first melted into air; an objective treatment and consideration of the state and of all the things of this world became possible. (The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy. Part II chapter 1.)

For Burckhardt the Renaissance meant a rediscovery of the individual. Man became conscious of himself, and by extension the state, as works of art; which could be fashioned to suit the will of the individual. At a cultural level this led to the rise of Renaissance art with its increased emphasis on the human form, but it also, at a scholarly level, led to the rise of Humanism. Humanist scholars recovered many classical texts, which were unknown in the western world, hence widening the canon of texts. More importantly, Humanism, in defiance of the medieval Church, placed man at the center of the world.

The Church came under attack as new horizons, both literal and figurative, were opened. The invention of the printing press brought literacy to the masses. This opened up new horizons as people came to be able to read, and think for themselves. No longer were people enslaved to the Church and its interpretation of the Bible; now they could interpret the Bible for themselves. This led to the Reformation, in which Martin Luther broke away from the Catholic Church. Luther believed in the rights of the common man to read the Bible for himself. For that purpose he translated the Bible into German, overthrowing the Latin Vulgate.

Christopher Columbus literally opened up a new horizon with his discovery of the New World in 1492. The voyages of Columbus and those who followed in his wake demonstrated that the world was round and not flat as most Europeans had believed. Thus people’s eyes were opened to the fact that the Church and Aristotle were not infallible and that courageous individuals, unshackled by medieval dogma, could accomplish things that would have been unthinkable to earlier generations.

The Renaissance’s emphasis on man as an individual and its willingness to challenge Church dogma bore its ultimate fruit with the Scientific Revolution. Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo overturned the Ptolemaic view of the solar system, which placed the earth at the center of the universe, with the heliocentric view. Overturning Ptolemy meant a lot more than just a change in man’s view of the solar system; it also was the overthrow of Aristotelian thought and of the Church which had supported it. No longer would man live at the center of his tiny solar system, in which angels and even God lived right above the earth just out of reach. No longer could man view himself as the central character of a divine drama. Mankind now awakened to the fact that the Earth was just a tiny, and not particularly important, part of a much larger cosmos. Christianity’s man-centered narrative must now give way to the forces of science.

While the Church tried to hold back this tide of new knowledge by persecuting scientists such as Galileo, and putting books they disagreed with on the Index and forbidding people to read them, ultimately they failed. With the coming age of the Enlightenment the Church found itself more and more under attack as philosophes such as Voltaire not only challenged specific doctrines of Christianity but also came to openly reject it. This overthrow of Christianity also brought with it the overthrow of the medieval aristocracy. With the Church no longer powerful enough to protect it, the whole edifice of the medieval hierarchy came tumbling down in the wake of democratic revolutions, first in America and in France then across Europe. These democratic revolutions overthrew both the Church and the aristocracy and in its place established freedom of religion and the equality of all mankind.

(To be continued …)

Friday, July 18, 2008

Homosexual Orthodox Rabbis: a Medieval Perspective on a Modern Problem

Recently I had a conversation with an old friend of mine, Yekutiel Ish-Tob, whom I had not spoken to in a while. Ish-Tob is a poster child for Modern Orthodox Judaism; he is a deeply religious person, who is studying full time to become a rabbi, but who is also worldly and open-minded. I always thought of Ish-Tob as a fairly liberal person, so maybe this should not have come as a surprise, but I was still caught off guard when he told me that he supported the ordination of openly homosexual rabbis, even, in theory, those who were not celibate. I like to think of myself as a liberal as well when it comes to gay rights. I oppose anti-sodomy laws and all forms of legalized discrimination against homosexuals. I even support government sanctioned gay marriage, albeit not as a constitutional right. Nevertheless, I still view homosexual sex as a serious sin. Therefore I do not support the toleration of homosexual activity within the confines of the Orthodox community and would not condone allowing those who openly engage in such behavior to assume positions of leadership. I believe that those openly engaged in homosexual activity should be treated like those who openly engage in other sins, such as eating non-kosher food and violating the Sabbath. I admit, though, that there is an important difference when dealing with homosexuality, and in this sense Ish-Tob has a valid point, that, in this day and age, sexuality, unlike eating pork or driving on Saturday, is viewed as a basic right; therefore to deny people any form of sexual expression is to take away an essential part of their humanity.

I find myself in a funny situation, mainly because I spend so much time immersed in the world of medieval Christianity. My encounter with medieval Christianity makes me both less sympathetic and more sympathetic to Ish-Tob’s perspective. This medieval Christian world, that I live in, is full celibate priests and monks. (Yes I know that in practice many of them were not celibate.) This may sound funny coming from an Orthodox Jew, but I must admit that there is something attractive about monasticism and that the stereotypical Jewish polemical attacks are ineffective. Since I am willing to grant that celibacy is a legitimate lifestyle option, and possibly even one to be praised, I have a hard time understanding why one cannot simply tell people with homosexual orientations to either be celibate or leave the community. On the other hand I find myself very open to medieval Christian notions of sin. Particularly the notion that we are all hapless sinners and that there are certain sins that someone might be incapable of avoiding simply through an act of will. Since it is not the person’s fault, we can do nothing but offer God’s absolution. The logical conclusion from this is that, if a person acknowledges that, as a practicing homosexual, he is a sinner, we should still embrace him as part of our faith community and not expel him. We should even allow such a person to take on leadership roles, such as the rabbinate. Since we are a community of sinners we should not think it beneath ourselves to be lead by a sinner.

Whether or not the Orthodox community ordains homosexuals as rabbis, one must admit that we ignore homosexuals at our own peril. Approximately five to ten percent of any given population, including ours, is going to be oriented toward homosexuality. We cannot afford to simply write off such a percentage of our population. In this I fully agree with Ish-Tob.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

An Ode to Villainy and Joss Whedon

I have, in the past, made mention of Joss Whedon and his show Firefly. Firefly was probably the greatest television show to be canceled after only eleven episodes. Whedon also did Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, which I have a certain respect for and which were far greater commercial successes. What all of these shows have in common is Whedon’s ability to take B movie concepts and turn them into something special. With Buffy and Angel it was through satire; these were cheesy horror shows that spoofed cheesy horror shows, themselves included. Firefly was a sci-fi western that spoofed both science fiction and westerns aplenty, but managed to be so much more. It is a show that one cannot watch without getting attached and, upon getting to the end and realizing there is no more, finding oneself shaking ones fists at the universe demanding more. There is a reason why, despite the fact that the show failed, a movie version was made; the fans would not give up on it.

Whedon has established himself as one of the great outside the box thinkers in Hollywood, a talent on display in a short film, made for the internet, titled Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. Dr. Horrible is a musical send up to cheesy science fiction villains. The main character, Dr. Horrible, played to perfection by Neil Patrick Harris, is a lovable but hapless science geek, who yearns to become a great villain. He is in the process of trying to invent a freeze ray to aid him in his villainy and win the heart of the girl of his dreams. Standing in the way of this noble dream is Dr. Horrible’s tendency toward mishaps and his arch-nemesis, Captain Hammer, played by Nathan Fillion of Firefly fame.

Those familiar with my sense of humor will understand why I feel such a strong kinship with Dr. Horrible. I have a thing for high villainy and world domination. Add in some heartwarming melodies and it makes me want to rub my hands together in a Montgomery Burns sort of way. Excellent!

Act I of Dr. Horrible has already been posted and acts II and III will be coming up in the next few days. The film will be available to watch for free until July 20.

Monday, July 14, 2008

How I Won a Five Hundred Dollar Challenge and Helped Project YES

Jewish Philosopher is a Haredi blog which operates according to the apologetical methodology of the late Rabbi Avigdor Miller. This methodology is built around the following premises; firstly that the truth of Judaism is so patently obvious that no one but someone who is foolish, insane or wicked would ever deny it. Secondly that there is a war against “God, his Torah and his people” being waged by the majority of the world, who are foolish, insane or just plain wicked. The most prominent example of this is the modern scientific establishment, which seeks to advance an atheistic agenda under the cover of scientific objectivity. This is has mainly been conducted through the advocation of such patiently false claims as the theory of evolution. The obvious conclusion arising from these two premises is that Orthodox Jews, particular Haredi Jews, are morally superior to everyone else.

In this spirit, Jewish Philosopher, recently put up a post, Who is like your people Israel, a unique nation on Earth; it was a YouTube clip of a person talking about being sexually abused by his father. Jewish Philosopher challenged his readers: “Can anyone familiar with us imagine a father in the Orthodox Jewish community treating his sons the way the father described in this video clip (5:38 point) treated his sons?” To which a number of readers responded with: yes they could imagine Orthodox Jews abusing their children. In response, Jewish Philosopher put out a challenge: “give [him] the name of one American Orthodox Jew ever convicted of murder, forcible rape or armed robbery and you win $500.”

This seemed to me to be a pretty foolish challenge and I assumed that he was just talking hot air, but I thought it would be fun to call him on it. I just happen to be close to the Isaacs, an Orthodox couple in Columbus, who both work for the Ohio Department of Corrections. So I asked them if they could name someone. They came up with the name of an Orthodox Jew from Cleveland, who served time from 1985 – 2003 for “accidentally” shooting his father-in-law seven times in “self defense.” I presented this to Jewish Philosopher. At first he was skeptical that this person was an Orthodox Jew at the time that he committed his crime so he contacted the Isaacs and then he even got in touch with the person.


To my surprise, not only did Jewish Philosopher concede that I had successfully fulfilled the requirements of his challenge, but he also offered to pay up the $500 he had wagered. Instead of taking the money, I suggested that he donate it to Project YES, an organization that works with at-risk teens in the Orthodox community. The head of this organization, Rabbi Yakov Horowitz, has been a leader in discussing problems within the Orthodox community, particularly abuse. He is the sort of person that if Jewish Philosopher had bothered to read he might not have made the sort of outlandish claims that got him into this situation in the first place.


Jewish Philosopher made the donation and even posted the reply from the website.I must say, though, that I was really impressed that Jewish Philosopher actually kept his word and paid, not many people would. Of course not many people would have gotten themselves into such trouble in the first place by making the sort of claims that he did. In a sense Jewish Philosopher is a very good representative of the Haredi world. He is personally honest even if he is intellectually very dishonest. He may live in a fantasy-land, but he seems to be a good person.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Guillermo del Toro and Lord of the Rings

I just got back from Hellboy II: the Golden Army. Once you get past the ridiculous plot, it is an excellent film. The actors do a remarkable job creating characters that seem real, even if the story does not, and which you can actually care about. The star of the film, though, is, without question, Guillermo del Toro and his film work and special effects. Del Toro channels the work that he did in Pan’s Labyrinth into Hellboy II, many of the creatures that he uses are quite similar, creating visual effects that are not just spectacular, but stand on their own as works of art.

In certain respects del Toro exceeds even Peter Jackson in his ability to use special effects in such a way as to add life and personality to film instead of taking it away. So it is befitting that del Toro is now working with Peter Jackson on a film version of the Hobbit, the prequel to Lord of the Rings. Watching Hellboy II, I was struck by how del Toro, even in this film, tipped his hand toward the Lord of the Rings as if he were already preparing for it. In the opening scene of the film there is a flashback to a battle from “mythological” times between men and elves. This battle sequence, artfully rendered by del Toro with stick figures, closely mimics the opening battle sequence in Lord of the Rings. The plot of Hellboy II, or the nonsensical dribble that takes its place, is very similar to Lord of the Rings. It involves elves and a dark object of power, in this case a gold crown that can be used to summon and control an indestructible golden army of robots. This golden army is a force of such destruction, that the elves that had it made in order to fight humanity, shrank back from it and hide it away. The villain, Prince Nuada, an elf sporting some wicked blades and some Matrix-like moves, wishes to gain control of the crown and take revenge on behalf of his people against the entire human race and it is the task of Hellboy and company to stop him. Luke Gross, who plays Prince Nuada, to his credit, manages to actually give some nuances to his character; he is probably among the most decent screen villains, out to destroy the world, that you will ever meet.

Lord of the Rings fans take heart; the Hobbit is in good hands and, if you are in need of a Lord of the Rings fix, I heartily recommend getting over to see Hellboy II.

Friday, July 11, 2008

The Whig Narrative of History: Secular Creationism (Part I)

One of the continuing influences on how the general public understands Western History is the Whig narrative. This view of History was supported by such figures as the eighteenth century historian Edward Gibbon, in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and twentieth century historians such as Will and Ariel Durant, in their eleven volume Story of Civilization. Since the mid 20th century, though, this view has been rejected by the historical community. Nevertheless this narrative continues to be put forward, in various forms, in our popular culture, in textbooks and in classrooms. I would argue that the reason for the continued tolerance the Whig narrative is that it benefits secularism. In a sense, the Whig narrative is secularism’s own creation myth; it explains the creation of modern secularism in such a way as to ensconce the secularist as the hero of the narrative and those opposed to secularism as the villains.

In essence the Whig narrative is as follows: there was the golden ages of Greece and Rome, during which philosophy, art and literature flourished. But, with the fall of the Roman Empire in 476, western civilization fell into a thousand year dark age, the Middle Ages. The chief cause of the downfall of the Roman Empire was the rise of Christianity, which undermined the Roman Empire from within as the barbarian invaders attacked from without.

The Middle Ages was a time when men lived under the physical tyranny of Feudalism and the spiritual tyranny of the Church. The Church and the aristocracy both supported each other. The Church told the populace that it was God’s will that they live under the rule of kings and noblemen and that any rebellion against the established order was a rebellion against the authority of God. In turn the feudal aristocracy supported the Church; bishops lived like noblemen, popes like kings. The feudal aristocracy made Christianity the official religion throughout Europe and persecuted all those who did not comply.

The Church kept the populace in its grip by playing on popular superstition and popular bigotry. Instead of looking toward science and reason to explain things, people resorted to supernatural explanations. The medieval world was populated by saints, angels and demons, who were viewed as the cause of things. In order to protect themselves, people, instead of turning to science, prayed to saints or resorted to the use of holy relics, which they believed possessed magical powers. If a plague struck it was due to the malevolence of witches or the Devil. This resulted in witch hunts and thousands of innocent people, mostly women, were executed as witches.

Like all tyrannical regimes, the Church used scapegoats in order to divert the attention of the populace and keep them compliant. The Church’s favorite scapegoat was the Jews. The Jews were accused of having committed the crime of deicide, the crucifixion of Jesus. Not only did Jews commit this act in the first century, but, according to the Church, Jews reenacted this crime every year on the holiday of Passover by murdering a Christian child and using the blood for their matzos. This accusation, known as the blood libel, caused the murder of hundreds of Jews. In addition Jews were often accused of desecrating the Eucharist, of worshipping the Devil and of poisoning the wells. Jews were forbidden from most trades and were forced to become moneylenders and were villainized for that as well.

While the Church preached that the Bible was the infallible word of God, it also turned to Greek philosophy, particularly the philosophy of Aristotle to support itself. While it might seem ironic that Christians would turn to a pagan such as Aristotle, the Church incorporated Aristotle into its tradition and just as it was forbidden to question the teachings of the Bible so to it became forbidden to question Aristotle. This held true even when the teachings of the Bible or of Aristotle contradicted the observation of nature. Medieval thought, Scholasticism, closed its eyes to the natural world around it. Scholastics believed that one could learn all one needed to know simply by looking in books, which contained the traditions of the ancients, which Scholastics took to be infallible truths.

Ultimately the medieval world was one dominated by religion. All the many horrible things that went on, during this dark and violent age, was the direct result of the Christian beliefs of the time. It was the Church that kept people oppressed under the chains of Feudalism; it was the Church that taught people to hate; it was the Church that opposed scientific inquiry.

(To be continued …)

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

The Fantastic Faith of Guillermo del Toro

USA Today has an article on director Guillermo del Toro about his upcoming film, Hellboy II: The Golden Army. While del Toro is best known to American audiences for such action movies as Hellboy and Blade II, he also directed the Spanish language film, Pan’s Labyrinth. To those of you who have not heard of this film or who might have been put off by the fact that it is in Spanish, Pan’s Labyrinth is probably the most religiously profound film to have come out in recent years. In certain respects it did a better job at channeling C. S. Lewis than even the recent Narnia films.

Del Toro seems to have a complicated relationship to religion. He was raised by a grandmother who was a deeply religious Catholic and rebelled against it. That being said his films have a deeply religious side to them as if they are attempts by del Toro to come to terms with his own faith or even to salvage it. In explaining the nature of his work, del Toro comments that: "The fantastic is the only tool we have nowadays to explain spirituality to a generation that refuses to believe in dogma or religion. Superhero movies create a kind of mythology. Creature movies, horror movies, create at least a belief in something beyond."

This should serve as a heads up to those who would diminish fantasy and fail to understand its importance to religion today. We do not live in a world in which one can demand belief, certainly not by mere authority. Fantasy is a useful spiritual outlet precisely because it does not demand belief; one is free to take it as it is, as a mere piece of fiction, to do with as one wills. Though, as Harry Potter demonstrated, such mere fiction has the ability to radically alter people’s lives, by awakening a longing for something outside of themselves. No religion can survive on authority alone. The Bible is meaningless simply as the word of a god, who will throw you in a lake of fire if you do not believe in him and his book. As a book which one is free to take nourishment as one wills, the Bible can sustain like no other. Yes, even more so than Harry Potter.

I look forward to seeing del Toro’s future projects, particularly his adaption of the Hobbit, which is slated to come out in 2011.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

The Struggle between Mysticism, Magic, Miracles and Religion

While we tend to think of mysticism, the claim to possess some sort of individual knowledge or relationship with a divine or metaphysical being, as being synonymous with religion, in truth mysticism poses a challenge to established religions that is actually quite similar to the challenge posed by science. While all religions rest upon mystical claims, such as Moses receiving the Ten Commandments, Jesus sitting at the right hand of the Father or Mohammed receiving the Koran, these are all things that supposedly happened far in the past and are divorced from reality as we know it today.

As I have argued before, established religions are built not just around doctrinal claims, but also around traditions, which grant authority to established power structures. For example Judaism claims to be not just a true doctrine, but also to be the heir of the Mosaic tradition. This view is encapsulated in the opening of Ethics of the Fathers: “Moses received the Torah from Sinai and gave it to Joshua and Joshua to the Elders and the Elders to the Prophets and the Prophets gave it to the Men of the Great Assembly.” (Ethics of the Fathers 1:1) Similarly, replacement theology Christianity, which believes that Christianity is “Verus Israel,” the true Israel, claims to be the heirs of that same tradition, in addition to the New Testament tradition while Duel Covenant Christianity only claims to be the heirs the New Testament tradition. As with magic and miracles, mysticism is an end run around such traditions. The moment one can claim to receive information from a maggid, Elijah the prophet, the angel Gabriel or for that matter Jesus or the Virgin Mary then you no longer need to submit to any religious tradition and can stand in defiance against any priest, rabbi or imam. Because of this both Judaism and Christianity, while in theory being open to mystical claims, have, have in practice treated mystics with great suspicion.

What does this have to do with science; science makes empirical claims, subject to outside verification while the mystic’s claim is completely subjective? When dealing with science, the usual temptation is to focus on how scientific claims often contradict established religious doctrines. The problem with placing such emphasis on such a threat is that it ignores the history of theology and it fails to take into account the scope of different religious traditions.

The notion that a religion might be contradicted by outside forms of thought is hardly a product of the Scientific Revolution. Contrary to the traditional Whig narrative of medieval intellectually history, medieval thinkers were not simply devoted to reading the Bible literally and accepting Aristotle as the something infallible. Ever since Philo, Jews, Christians and, later, Muslims, have struggled to understand their respective faiths in light of the challenge posed by the Greek philosophical tradition. This, attempt to harmonize the Judeo-Christian and Islamic traditions with Greek philosophy, formed, as Harry A. Wolfson argued, the foundation of the medieval religious tradition.

There are many parts of the Bible that, from an Aristotelian point of view are problematic. So geologists, in the early nineteenth century, came along and showed that the Earth was millions of years old. According to how most medieval thinkers understood Aristotle, Aristotle believed that the universe was never created and always existed. So Copernicus and Galileo raised certain issues about how to understand the miracle in chapter ten of the book of Joshua, in which the sun stands still. In Aristotelian thought all miracles are problematic. If you assume that the universe has always existed then the laws of nature become logical necessities. This would mean that miracles do not just violate the physical laws of nature; they also violate the laws of logic as well. As such miracles are not just physically impossible but logically impossible as well.

Why is science threatening in ways that Aristotle never was? One possible explanation is that science forms its own authority structure, with its own traditions and, most importantly, its own “miracles.” The philosophy of Aristotle never claimed to perform miracles nor did it ever radically change people’s lives. This is not the case with science; we live in a world blessed by the creations of science, its “miracles.” In fact I am typing these words, at this very moment, on one of these “miracles” of science. These “miracles” of science, like the miracles of traditional religions, testify to the truth of science. They also create a system and tradition of authority to which one can appeal to. Even if science never made a heterodox claim, the mere fact that science can operate as a system and tradition of authority makes it a threat to any established religion.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Shivhei ha-Ari and the Decline of the Generations

One of foundations of Haredi ideology is the concept of yeridat ha-dorot, the decline of the generations. Every generation is inferior to the one that came before it. It is not just that the preceding generations were closer to biblical times, and therefore possessed a stronger tradition, or that we are bound by their precedent; Haredim believe that the people, particularly the rabbis, who lived in earlier generations were, in fact, superior to us. They were bigger, stronger, faster and, most importantly, they were smarter than us. This has many different ramifications, one of them being the authority of science when it comes into conflict with the rabbinic tradition. For Haredim, the view of Maimonides and his son, Avraham Maimuni, that the rabbis spoke based on their knowledge of the science of their day and that therefore, since science has advanced, we should reject the claims, found in rabbinic literature, that go against science as we understand it today, is unacceptable and downright heresy. As they see it, one most believe that the rabbis were smarter and knew more than any scientist alive today. If you are willing to accept the view of scientists over that of the rabbis then you have rejected Jewish tradition. The rejection of scientific claims, like the theory of evolution, becomes, therefore, an act of faith; one is willing to stand up for the tradition and for rabbinic authority even when faced with the full power of the modern scientific establishment. While there are many sources for this notion of a decline, I would like to point to a work that operates outside of this point of view, Shivhei ha-Ari.

Shivhei ha-Ari (Praises of the Ari) is a collection of legends, dealing with Isaac Luria, written by Solomon Shlomiel of Dresnitz in the early seventeenth century and is one of the main traditional sources on the life of Luria. The basic premise underlying Shivhei ha-Ari is that Luria was not merely a link in a chain, going back all the way to Mount Sinai, passing on the work of his teachers. For Dresnitz, Luria was a messianic type figure, outside of this world and outside of the chain of tradition. Luria was placed here on earth in order to bring about the spiritual salvation of the world by repairing the damage down to the saphirot by creation and man’s subsequent sins. As befitting his savior status (one could almost view him as a Kabbalistic Jesus Christ) Luria was privileged to receive information straight from heaven:

He merited that every night his soul went up to the celestial realms. The ministering angels would come and escort him to the heavenly academy and ask him which school he desired to attend. Sometimes he said to the school of R’ Shimeon bar Yochai , or to the school of R’ Akiva, or to the school of R’ Eliezer the Great, or to the rest of the Tanaitic or Amoraic sages or to the prophets. (Chapter 2. All translations are mine.)

These nocturnal study sessions gave Luria knowledge of “secrets, mysteries and treasures of Torah that had never been heard and were unknown even to the Tanaitic sages.” (Ibid)

Shivhei ha-Ari makes Luria to be a greater figure then even R’ Shimeon bar Yochai, who, according to tradition was the author of the Zohar, the foundational text for Lurianic Kabbalah. Luria understood of the Zohar surpassed even that of its author because, in his youth angels, he was taught the Zohar by angels:

Sometimes they told him in a dream that he understood the book of the Zohar, and it was according to R’ Shimeon bar Yochai, but there was in it a secret beyond him. Sometimes they told him that his understanding was correct, but it was not the intention of R’ Shimeon bar Yochai because of the errors that fell into the book of the Zohar. (Ibid)

Luria is given the authority to overrule a rabbinic sage like R’ Shimeon bar Yochai. To the extent that, even when Luria misread the Zohar, his misreading was really the correct understanding and it was the Zohar that was wrong.

As we shall see , the mystic’s claim to divine illumination, outside of any religious tradition, is not that different from the scientist’s claim to be able to go outside of tradition. The line between mysticism, magic and science is much narrower than you might think; particularly if you know something about the history of science and the origins of the Scientific Revolution.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Sin, Safed and Lurianic Kabbalah.

Lawrence Fine’s Physician of the Soul Healer of the Cosmos: Isaac Luria and His Kabbalistic Fellowship is a sociological analysis of Isaac Luria (1534-72), the central figure of sixteenth century Kabbalah, and the circle that surrounded him. Fine is not particularly interested in the theology of Luria per se, that ground having already been thoroughly covered by Gershom Scholem. Instead Fine approaches Luria from the perspective of Luria’s distinct practices. Fine is less interested in Luria theology of exile and redemption than the sort of rituals that Luria and his followers engaged in order to bring about redemption. This sort of prax based approach is important when dealing with the Jewish History. Judaism is a highly prax based religion; everything has to make itself relevant in terms of ritual practice, halacha. Any discussion of Judaism that remains solely in the theoretical realm of theology is missing something. Fine is following Moshe Idel’s criticism of Scholem’ treatment of Kabbalah, as primarily a theology and as something separate from rabbinic Judaism. Fine’s treatment of Luria keeps him within the framework of rabbinic Judaism and of halacha.

What I found most interesting about this book was Fine’s discussion of the penances that Luria proscribed for various sins. Figuring prominently within the list of sins, we have from his student, Hayyim Vital, are drinking gentile wine, committing sins which require one of the four types of capital punishment, sexual relations with a menstruant, relations with an animal, sleeping with gentile women, adultery, sodomy and masturbation. According to Vital, he learned of Luria’s proscribed penance for homosexuality from three people who actually carried it out. Luria’s remedy was that a person should fast for 233 days, which is the numerical equivalent of the Hebrew word regel, foot. This denotes the part of the Ze’ir that the sin displaced the saphira of Yesod into

The fact that such emphasis was placed on how to repent from sexual transgressions raises some questions as to nature of the people living in Safed in the sixteenth century. If you read Haredi “history” books, all you will hear about sixteenth century Safed is that it was a holy city, full of holy people. In truth Safed was a much more interesting and dynamic place. Clearly the city contained people who had a lot more weighing on their consciousness then missing morning prayers every once in awhile. For one thing many of the people, who migrated to Safed, were ex-conversos, who had lived as Christians for significant parts of their lives. Many of them had left behind non Jewish wives and children. To say nothing of the sins that people committed while living in Safed. Safed was not Lakewood or the Mir; it was an openly dysfunctional place and that was the point of it.

This sinful side of Safed is important for understanding the community and Luria. More than any other movement within traditional Judaism, Lurianic Kabbalah confronted the reality of sin in this world. The goal of Lurianic Kabbalah was to bring about the redemption of the world by redeeming the divine sparks that trapped by the forces of darkness, which in the terminology of Lurianic Kabbalah is referred to as the qelippot, the shells. It is not enough to simply remove oneself from the world and be holy; one has to confront the forces of sin. In effect one tries to redeem even sin. This is not the theology of people convinced of their utter righteousness; this is the theology of people confronting their own sinfulness.