Friday, September 26, 2008

Amazing Grace: Eighteenth Century Evangelical Protestantism in its Proper Context

A few years ago I was privileged to attend Rabbi Aryeh Klapper’s Summer Beit Midrash program in Cambridge MA. It is a combination of a traditional yeshiva and a think tank on matters of Jewish law. Rabbi Klapper encourages his students, at least in the narrow theoretical framework of his program, to come up with creative approaches to Jewish law based on a critical analysis of textual sources. Each summer is devoted to one specific topic. During my summer with him we dealt with the issue of divorce and the legitimacy of the argument that a marriage was entered into on false premises and if one of the parties had known the truth they would not have agreed to wed. A topic that he did in a subsequent summer was on the status of Christianity in Judaism, particularly Christian holy places and Christian hymns. One of issues that he had his fellows write on was whether it is permissible to sing Amazing Grace. The fellows had to do some research into the back story of the song. It was written by John Newton, an ex slave ship captain turned Anglican preacher and abolitionist. Another issue that his fellows had to confront is what does the word “grace” mean in the context of the song. Take the hymns famous opening stanza:

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound
That sav’d a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.

From a Jewish perspective there does not seem to be anything wrong with these words nor with any of the subsequent stanzas. There is no mention of Jesus or the Trinity. The problem begins once you have to define what grace means. If grace simply refers to a general sense of mercy or favor, which is how most people think of the word, then there is not a problem. The problem is that we are dealing with an Evangelical Protestant and in Evangelical Protestantism grace means something very specific. There are the saved, who have been granted grace as a free gift from heaven, and the unsaved, who do not have grace and are therefore condemned. One cannot earn grace. Grace is simply something granted by heaven to an elect few. Grace, understood in these terms, becomes a highly problematic issue, one that most Jews could not accept.

This hymn, and the story behind it, plays an important role in a recent film, appropriately titled Amazing Grace. The film focuses on someone whom John Newton mentored both as a Christian and as an abolitionist, William Wilberforce. It was Wilberforce, a close friend of William Pitt the younger, who led the fight in the British Parliament to ban slavery, a struggle that took decades and took an incredible physical and emotional toll on him.

In a sense the film also has its struggle with how to understand grace and to place it within its Evangelical context. It would have been very easy and tempting for the filmmakers to have turned William Wilberforce into a modern liberal. He was a social crusader for all the “right” things; in addition to his opposition against slavery, he pushed for free education and fought against cruelty to animals. He was a gentlemen botanist, who took an active interest in studying the natural world. The film, though, does not pull any punches when it comes to Wilberforce’s evangelical beliefs and places it at the front and center of his struggle against slavery.

The film does a wonderful job at capturing the mindset of eighteenth century radical Protestantism, which Wilberforce is an example of. We are at the dawning of a new age of enlightenment in which mankind shall gain knowledge that would have astounded earlier generations. Since one is taking part in this new era of enlightenment it is only natural that one takes an interest in, one, the natural sciences and, two, in the creation of a new and more just society. The reason for all of this is that, through grace, one has come to know Jesus and accept him as the one and only true savior. It is Jesus who is revealing all of this new knowledge to mankind and it is Jesus who is opening the eyes of all believers and is guiding them to create a new godly society worthy of his grace. The kingdom of God is coming and everyone has best be ready. Slavery is not just a bad thing it is an affront to God and it is holding back his kingdom. Slaveholders are not just sinners they are enemies of God and are going straight to Hell. Fighting slavery is not just a fine moral thing it is a necessity in order to achieve the salvation of a person’s immortal soul. This is not modern liberalism. On the other hand, though, this is not modern Evangelical Christianity. Modern Evangelical Christianity is as much of a product of modernity as modern secularism. Eighteenth century Evangelical Christianity is something that existed in its own time and place and most be understood on its own terms. It had the luxury of the naive optimism of not fully appreciating the consequences of what they were about to unleash.

Now, as moderns, we know that in the end Wilberforce’s brand of social activism will create modern secular liberalism. We know that Wilberforce’s brand of nature study is going to lead to modern secular science. We as moderns can appreciate how all this could so easily turn into modern secularism. All one has to do is take away the parts about Jesus, the kingdom of God and all stuff about hellfire and the salvation of one’s immortal soul. We understand how easily eighteenth century natural theology could be stripped of its religious moorings and become secular naturalism once one is willing to contemplate the possibility that nature does not require a metaphysical first cause. It would be so tempting to turn the people in the film into moderns, to have them be aware of where things were heading and make them more like us. Thankfully the filmmakers resisted this temptation and kept everyone in period not just in costume but in thought as well.

What we have here is a film that is not only an exquisite piece of work in terms of its acting, writing and costumes. This film is an example of responsible historical thinking. While the film takes its fictional liberties, something that is necessary given the demands of trying to create an engaging coherent film that is less than two hours, the film remains true to the spirit of the times. It neatly captures the mindset of eighteenth century England, how its distinct brand of religious fundamentalism came oppose slavery and eventually brought it down. It is willing to face up to what grace truly meant to those who first sang Amazing Grace.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

A Gift for Rosh Hashana (Part II)

(Part I)

As I have mentioned in previous posts, this past summer I underwent a very difficult breakup with someone whom I loved completely and whom I thought I would marry and spend the rest of my life with. She was everything that I could have dreamed of; she was smart, well read and had a spunky personality. She was someone whom I could talk to for hours on end. She brought something out in me. She helped me become a more outgoing person and to open myself to the world. If nothing else I will always be grateful to her for that.

Because of my Asperger syndrome it is difficult for me to tell if people are upset with me or if a relationship is going south. I suspect, though, that even a neuro-typical would have been caught off guard in my situation. Last I checked if your girlfriend suddenly gets over her aversion to having you spend money on her, asks you to buy a plane ticket to visit her, has you take her to see a Broadway musical and gleefully tells you that if you were not religious you would so be getting laid then one assumes that things are in good shape. Be that as it may she dumped me. She asked if we could still be friends and I agreed. I was angry and hurt but I sucked in my pride. I knew that she was going through some difficult times. She needed to simplify her life and I am what she simplified. She was having me pay the price for her mental stability but I agreed. If she needed me I would be there for her.

This “friendship” lasted for two weeks until suddenly she did the one thing that I had many times begged her never to do to me because it would put me in a dangerous depressive spiral; without any warning she cut off all contact with me. Because of my Asperger syndrome I am not good at dealing with issues up in the air; I need things said straight out. Because of my depression I am very vulnerable to anything that hints of abandonment. (See here) For the next two weeks I lived on the edge. Had she done this one thing that she knew could hurt me? Was she just busy? Was she just upset at me over something or did she decide she needed a bit of a breather from me? I did not want to bother her. By the end of this time period my depression had caught up with me and I crashed for several days. I tried to talking to other people, but the person I really needed to speak to was her. The fact that I needed to speak to her but seemed unable to do so made everything all the worse. I ended up putting myself into the emergency room. Throughout my worst bouts of depression in high school I had never once had to be put in a hospital. I tried getting in touch with her directly. That failed. I tried through intermediaries but to no avail. My rabbi even called her but she flipped him off as well.

Now Rosh Hashana is coming. I admit that I am tempted to pray that my girlfriend should take me back or that she should be run over by a truck. (I know that these represent opposite extremes, but that is the nature of love.) What I want for Rosh Hashana is just a chance to speak to her one more time so that I can forgive and be forgiven.

I do not understand what I have done to cause her to do this to me, but I assume there must be something. I do not believe that I am a saint; the fact that I have Asperger syndrome makes it quite likely that I did something hurtful without intending to. Strangely enough I find the thought that I have wronged her to be comforting. If I have done something wrong then I can try to make it up to her; at the very least I could hope to ask her to forgive me and that she will consent. It is better than the alternative that I am the innocent victim of her malice. If she is simply a horrible evil person, who maliciously tried to hurt me, than I am stuck at a dead end. Being the completely righteous one may be empowering but it is rather lonely. What comfort is there in being justified in shaking your fist at the world?

Living in doubt, wondering if I had potentially done something wrong, though, is particularly debilitating for me. Am I such a monster that someone would find themselves unable to speak to me? I must be because otherwise she would have spoken to me; at the very least she would have sent me a message telling me that she was breaking off contact. But, if I am a monster, what is my crime? Is she afraid of me? When have I ever given her reason to think that I would hurt her? I am left with the specter of potential sins, which I cannot identify and therefore cannot banish, leaving them to haunt me.

In addition to being forgiven, I also want to forgive. Soon after I was cut off, I wrote a “J Accuse” letter, which set forth in very specific detail my case against her and how she “wronged” me. I was sorely tempted to post it, but I refrained from doing so. It would have been difficult to defend in terms of loshon hara, gossip, but what really stopped me was the realization that I would be defining myself in terms of hate and I would be stuck with that. I do not want the burden of carrying all this hate no matter how dearly I earned the right to carry them. It does not matter how right I am; this is a poison and I want nothing of it. I have no particular desire to remain part of her life. For all I care she can go her way. I do wish, though, that we can go our separate ways as friends.

On Rosh Hashana there is a custom called tashlich where we go to a body of water and cast bread crumbs into the water. This is to symbolize that our sins have been thrown away. I do not want to carry my sins and the sins of others against me. To the person whom I speak of, if you are reading this (I like to flatter myself that you might still actually read this blog) please understand. I do not want to fight you. I do not want to yell at you. I am not trying to convince you to come back to me or even to continue talking to me. All I want is to know is that you do not hate me that you forgive me for anything that I have done to you. I want to be free of my own anger against you, to say to you that I forgive you and mean it with all of my heart. Can we do a tashlich together? You can cast away all your claims against me and I can cast away all claims against you. And we can just let all of this float away so that all that would remain are the many happy memories that we shared. You could then go your way and I could go mine. We need never see or speak to each other again, but we would still be friends.

This Rosh Hashana all I want is to be forgiven and to forgive.

Bureaucratic Evil

Tobie has an excellent piece discussing the nature of evil in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials and C. S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters and That Hideous Strength. The Magisterium of His Dark Materials, the forces of Hell in the Screwtape Letters and the N.I.C.E. of That Hideous Strength are all evil forces that are notably bureaucratic. From my perspective, what I find so compelling about Screwtape as a character is that, while he may Hell’s Undersecretary of Temptation and is devoted to ensnaring souls for “our father down below,” the fact that he is a bureaucrat puts a human touch to him. He is not “evil” in the sense of having horns and a tail and gleefully plotting the destruction of the world; he is someone who goes about his job and does it with absolute efficiency. One can easily imagine Screwtape as a mid level manager of a firm, a company man; the sort of fellow who might strike one as a bit standoffish, but is a model employee who claims the respect of all who know him. This human portrayal of demons is a part of Lewis’ notion of the fallen state of man. If a fallen angel such as Screwtape is really not all that different from your average company man, doing their job without any particular moral concern, then your average company is also not really that different from a fallen angel and is walking down a path straight to Hell. When he gets there he will fit right in.

Friday, September 19, 2008

A Gift for Rosh Hashana (Part I)

We are now approaching Rosh Hashana , the Jewish New Year. Like the secular New Year Rosh Hashana is about taking stock of one’s actions and making resolutions for the upcoming year. Unlike the secular New Year, though, Rosh Hashana is also the first half of the Day of Judgment. In Jewish tradition, on Rosh Hashana God’s decrees are written and on Yom Kippur they are sealed. The resolutions that one makes take place within the context of this Day of Judgment. While it may be out of fashion today, Judaism does believe in a judging God. We are the religion of the Old Testament. The God we believe in has very specific ideas about right and wrong and about sin. Each individual is responsible for his actions and there are penalties for failing to live up to one’s responsibilities. The classic Christian trope is to create this bifurcation between the judging God of the Old Testament and the loving forgiving God of the New Testament. For me the notion of a loving and forgiving God only makes sense within the context of a God of judgment. If sin means nothing then what is there to judge and if there is nothing to judge what is there to forgive and what need is there for love? It is only once we acknowledge the reality of sin and that we are being rightfully judged for it that we can even begin to talk about forgiveness and love.

Of course just because sin and judgment are real it does not mean that love and forgiveness are also real. Sin and judgment allow there to be love and forgiveness but it leaves them as faint echoes, incredible rumors that come from far away. Is it really possible that this whisper from a far away land can stand against the concrete reality of sin and judgment? This is something that so defies the mind that Christianity needed to come up with the claim that God himself came down in human form and allowed himself to be crucified so that they could justify believing in it.

The Jewish belief is far more radical. We believe that the same wrathful judging God is willing to forgive us. We believe that this wrathful judging God is sitting there and waiting for us to come and ask him to forgive us. This is something that is completely absurd and that requires absolute gall. What right do we have to be forgiven? How dare we ask for forgiveness? Judaism asks us to take a leap into the absurd far more radical than any Christian claim of incarnation or vicarious atonement. We are asking our rational God to do something that transcends the bounds of reason.

This brings us to the second aspect of this Day of Judgment, your fellow man. On Rosh Hashana we also ask those we have wronged to forgive us. In fact our sins against people are the more serious concern on this Day of Judgment. God can only forgive those sins that we commit against him. That which we do against our fellow man can only be forgiven by those whom we have sinned against.

So we ask both God and man to forgive us at the same time. These two actions are connected to each other and, in a sense, it is a blessing that these are being done simultaneously for the later can help us believe in the former. The act of people seeking forgiveness from other people helps us to believe in the reality of forgiveness. There are two parts to forgiveness, asking for forgiveness and granting it. Yes, there is a miracle in finding forgiveness in the eyes of others, but the true experience of the miracle comes in forgiving. How does it happen that one knows that they are in the right and yet somehow decides to let go of that right. For me this is particularly difficult to fathom. As my father used to tell me: “You would rather be right than be happy.” Forgiveness is not one of my natural virtues and I often struggle to find it in me to forgive others even when I want to yet I have experienced moments where, for some unfathomable reason, I find myself able to just take my pain, hurt, anger and sense of my being right and just let it float away. This is nothing less than the miracle of Grace. This miracle allows me to believe in other miracles. Because I have experienced this miracle of my being able to forgive I can also believe in the miracle of others forgiving me and I can even believe in that ultimate miracle, that God can forgive me.

(To be continued …)

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Stanley Fish and the Wine Hoax

I consider Stanley Fish to be one of the great public intellectuals of our day. I may not always agree with him, but I have great respect for him. He is one of the world’s foremost scholars on John Milton and he also manages to be a highly coherent and readable political thinker. He might be one of the leading advocates of post modernism, but he is the sort of post modernist that I can accept. He is someone who uses post modernism as an analytical tool and not something to be worshipped for its own sake.

With all due respect to Fish, though, he suffers from an inability to get over the fact that he was connected, if only tangentially, to the Sokal Hoax. The Sokal Hoax has become a legend among critics of post modernism as the moment that post modernism was called out as an emperor with no cloths. Here is what happened. In 1996 Alan Sokal, a professor of physics at NYU, sent a paper titled “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity” to Social Text, a journal published by Duke University and considered to be one of the main organs of post modern thought in America. This paper was full of post modernist jargon and not something that could be easily understood by members of the lay public. Apparently the editors of Social Text could not understand Sokal either or were just too lazy to bother so they simply published the article, relying on the fact that Sokal had a PHD and his article sounded good. Once the article was published Sokal revealed to the public what his article was actually about; it argued that the laws of physics and mathematics were cultural constructs, with no inherent validity. While it would seem that Fish was not involved with the publishing of Sokal’s essay, he taught at Duke at the time. Fish has never gotten over this embarrassment and has repeatedly inveighed against Sokal for the “unfairness” of it all and declaring that it proves nothing.

Recently Fish returned, once again, to this issue, responding to a similar hoax played on the magazine Wine Spectator by critic Robin Goldstein. Goldstein created a wine list for a completely fictitious restaurant, Osteria L’Intrepido, and managed to get a rating from the magazine. Fish brings down Wine Spectator’s Executive Editor Thomas Matthews’ response that yes his magazine was taken in by a hoax, but that it was a very elaborate hoax. Goldstein went through the trouble of providing them with an address and phone number and even went so far as to create a website for his nonexistent restaurant. As far as Matthews is concerned it is unreasonable that the readers of his magazine should expect them to actually go to the restaurant and see if they actually have the wines they claim to have.

Fish sees a parallel between what happened to Wine Spectator and what happened to Social Text. They both accepted submissions on good faith, which turned out to be hoaxes. For Fish this says nothing about the intellectual legitimacy of either institution. They operate on the assumption that those who submit things to them are acting on good faith. For support Fish refers to Simon Blackburn, who, in response to Sokal, argued that, as someone whose expertise is in philosophy, he could not be expected to judge the historical validity of articles submitted to him. The example he gives is of someone sending him an article arguing that Thomas Hobbes’ political philosophy was influenced by his experience in Venice.

With all due respect for such eminent scholars as Fish and Blackburn, this is nothing less than an apology for intellectual laziness. Part of being an academic is that you are not inclined to take things on good faith. The whole point of academic publishing is that a book or article is to be peer reviewed and not simply one person’s opinion. When I, the reader, pick up a piece of published academic literature I am supposed to assume that not only is it the work of an accredited academic scholar but also that it was read by other accredited scholars, capable of judging the piece, and that these scholars, at the very least, found no reason to object to it. I, the reader, am the supposed to take what I am reading on good faith, but the only reason why I can do that is because I am taking it on good faith that those who screened what I am reading were not talking the author on good faith.

Off of the top of my head I would not be able to tell you if Hobbes was ever in Venice or not. I do know that he spent a significant amount of time on the continent after he fled England due to the English Civil War and the execution of Charles I. If a paper came across my desk, something maybe written by a student, with the thesis that Hobbes was influenced by his experience in Venice I would bother to actually check if Hobbes was ever actually there. If do not readily find such information and the student proves incapable of producing it then that student will fail.

I am about to take my general exams. The people on my committee will demand that I not only sound like I know what I am talking about but will also insist that I actually know what I am talking about and will call me on it if there is any hint that I am bluffing. When I write my dissertation I will have to defend what I write in the face of knowledgeable scholars, who will have no hesitation in taking what I have written, ripping it up in my face and telling me that my work is garbage. I do not claim to be perfect, but I do hold myself to a certain standards and there are people who will hold me to those standards.

This is what academic scholarship is about. We are supposed to demand a high standard of ourselves and if we are not qualified to comment on something we should excuse ourselves and remain silent. This is what separates us from the rest of society and this is what gives us our authority. While it may be perfectly acceptable for Rush Limbaugh or Matt Drudge to simply pass on any bit of information that supports their cause without careful investigation, academics, if they wish to claim greater legitimacy than Limbaugh and Drudge, must make it obvious to everyone that they operate on a higher standard. This is particularly true for those who are in the humanities. Since we do not deal in hard empirical facts our very legitimacy rests on the unchallengeable quality of our scholarship. People may disagree with our conclusions but they must never have the grounds to challenge the intellectual process that have gone into our conclusions. If we cannot live up to this goal than there is no point to our enterprise.

The people who read Sokal’s essay and agreed to publish it are a disgrace. They should have all been fired from their possessions and never allowed to work as academics again. Their incompetence endangers not only post modernism but all academic scholarship. Sending hoax articles to journals should be a common occurrence in order to keep people honest. Those in the lofty position of editing journals should have to be on their guard. Allow a hoax to be published on your watch and your reputation and your career will be at an end.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

The Return of Martin Guerre and the Feminist Fantasies of Natalie Davis

(Since, in my last post, I talked about Natalie Zemon Davis and her book, the Return of Martin Guerre, I thought to share with you a review I wrote a few years ago, while I was still an undergraduate at Yeshiva University, on the book. We were assigned the book in class and, as an assignment, had to write a review of it. To the professor's surprise most of the papers were very hostile; a good example of how different the Yeshiva University student body is from a normal college campus. My review was one of the more hostile ones. Back then I was much more the fighting conservative than I am today. If I were to rewrite this I would probably tone it down a bit. It definitely is a great book, despite its flaws, and I have every intention of using it when I have students of my own.)

The integrity of the field of history rests upon the assumption that the writing of history is a fundamentally different sort of undertaking then the writing of historical fiction. While even the most rigorous historian inevitably colors the facts with his own speculations, (Ranke is a prime example of this) history is supposed to about the interpretation of past events through the lens of documentary evidence. The writing of historical fiction on the other hand[1] is centered upon the attempts of an author to speculate upon the hidden stories and motivations that lie outside the realm of documentary evidence. While the art of historical fiction may be of value to the historian, it is not history. To blur this line is a disservice to the field in that it renders the study of history as mere partisan propaganda. This is so particularly when such writings are done in support of an ideology. If one is going to be a historian then one has to convince the reader that there has been a genuine attempt to check one’s ideology at the door.

An example of this issue can be seen in the Return of Martin Guerre by the noted feminist historian, Natalie Zemon Davis. To be sure, it should be noted, that whatever the book’s flaws, it is a fascinating and well crafted bit of writing. The stated facts of the case which Davis discusses are these: In mid 16th century France, Martin Guerre, a peasant of Basque descent, abandoned his wife, Bertrande, and child, Sanxi, over a fight he had with his father over some grain. Eight years later a man named Arnaud du Tilh came around, claiming to be Martin Guerre, and was initially accepted as such by Bertrande, the rest of the family, along with everyone else in the village. Doubts began to rise however and Martin Guerre’s uncle, Pierre Guerre, along with Bertrande, come to accuse Arnaud of being a fake. The case was resolved when the true Martin Guerre, after twelve years, came home, minus a leg that had been shot off by a cannonball in Flanders. Arnaud was hung, Martin Guerre resumed his proper place and Bertrande was absolved of having committed adultery, as the impression of the court was that she had been tricked into believing that Arnaud was her husband and was not a party to his fraud. These are the facts as the Parlement of Toulouse seemed to have understood them and according to the generally accepted rules of historical explanation, baring any evidence to the contrary, this version of events should stand; any attempt paint a different picture should carry the burden of proof upon it.

It would seem that Bertrande was a simple house-wife, whose main concern in life was trying to keep body and soul together, who, tragically, was abandoned by her husband and tricked into living with an impostor for four years. This interpretation of events evidentially does not suit Davis, not because she has contradictory evidence, but because such a picture does not take into account the feminist conscience that Bertrande “must” have had. As such Davis offers an alternative reading of the events, one that takes into account the fact that Bertrande possessed “a concern for her reputation as a woman, a stubborn independence, and a shrewd realism about how she could maneuver within the constraints placed upon her sex.”[2]

This rewriting of events begins even before the departure of Martin. Bertrande and Martin did not have a child for the first eight years, or so, of their marriage and it was assumed that the couple was under some curse, which prevented Martin from impregnating his wife. This “curse” was lifted, if we are to take the written accounts at their word, when, at the advice of a “wise woman.” Martin and Bertrande “had four masses said by priest and were given sacred hosts and special cakes to eat.”[3] This resulted in the birth of their son, Sanxi. To a historian still schooled in "outdated," "patriarchal," modes of study, it is not certain why Martin and Bertrande, unable to produce a child, still stayed together. This could have been for any number of plausible reasons; maybe the families would not have allowed it, Bertrande may have actually been in love with Martin or she might have been scared to death of what he would do to her if she left. For Davis the explanation for this is obvious; Bertrande, while not wanting to be married yet to Martin, did not wish to end up back under her father’s control. She thus, by allowing it to be claimed that Martin was cursed, manipulated the situation so she could be both outside of her father’s control and exempt from the normal duties of marriage. “Then when Bertrande was ready for it, the old woman ‘appeared suddenly as if from heaven’ and helped to lift the spell.”[4] (I.e. this was a scam worked out between Bertrande and the old woman.) Does Davis offer us a source that has someone, from that time, making the claim that Bertrande manipulated the situation? No. Does Davis even bother to bring down a case, from that time period, in which a woman played such a game and thus allow us to draw some sort of comparison? No.

Davis’ insinuations do not stop there. After Martin’s disappearance, Davis wonders if Bertrande was comforted in her solitude by that “wise woman who had counseled her during her bewitchment.”[5] This of course makes perfect sense as it is well known that woman, in 16th century France, were secretly organized under the banner of the female conscience and merely went “along with the system, passing it on through the deep tie and hidden complicity of mother and daughter.”[6] It would seem that the existence of such a secret system seems so obvious to Davis that she does not bother to offer us a single source as to the veracity of such a claim.
Davis’ most egregious claim is that, far from being duped by Arnaud, Bertrande was well aware, from the very beginning, that Arnaud was a fake and simply went along with the charade because she wanted a husband. Davis takes it as a given that “the obstinate and honorable Bertrande [was not] a woman so easily fooled, not even by a charmer like Pansette. By the time she had received him in her bed, she must have realized the difference.”[7] Now we know that Arnaud was slick enough to fool Martin’s own sisters, who knew Martin for longer than Bertrande did. The reason why it is unlikely that Arnaud fooled Bertrande, according to Davis, is that “as any wife of Artigat would have agreed, there is no mistaking ‘the touch of the man on the woman.’”[8] The most obvious problem with such claim is that it is not backed, as far as I can tell, by any sort of empirical data; I would love to see the study that a test group of blindfolded women could recognize a man based on how they were touched. Lacking that I can see no reason what so ever why this bit of folk wisdom would be relevant. (Imagine a conservative saying something like this and getting their book published by the Harvard University Press and being made the director of the Shelby Cullom Davis Center for Historical Study at Princeton University.) What is even more amusing is that Davis’ source for this, which she only indicates in her end notes, is a 17th century historical work[9] by Etienne Pasquier (1529-1615), titled Les Recherches de la France. I must say that there seems to me to be something just a bit disingenuous when someone, who has a consistent track record of treating folk wisdom about woman, written by men, with absolute scorn, turns around and builds a thesis around such folk wisdom merely when it suits their purpose.

Davis crosses a certain line here where her writing ceases to be a matter of putting objective facts, tied together with the writer’s speculations, on the table and instead becomes a forum for the writer to give her speculations, tied together with some historical facts. The challenge for Davis is to explain why her telling of the Martin Guerre case is intrinsically more deserving of the title History than a top of the line work of historical fiction such as the Killer Angels, by Michael Shaara. Killer Angels chronicles the events, in the form of a novel, of the battle of Gettysburg. This is a book that won the Pulitzer Prize, in 1974, and is considered a classic of American literature. No one, as far as I can tell, has ever offered a sustained attack on Shaara’s presentation of the battle of Gettysburg. Neverless no one would ever consider Killer Angels to be a history of the battle. The reason for this is that Michael Shaara in the end had the people involved in the battle say and do things that cannot be justified strictly in terms of documentary evidence. In truth, though, one could say that Shaara was simply trying to resurrect the style of historiography used in antiquity by Thucydides and Josephus.

In many respects Killer Angels is superior to Martin Guerre; it is demonstrably evident that Killer Angels is on far firmer grounds, factually, than Martin Guerre. By the standard of historical events, Gettysburg was a very well documented battle. We can track, down to the hour, what the major figures in this battle, such as Lee, Longstreet, Pickett, Hancock, Meade and Chamberlain, were doing. All of these people left numerous volumes in memoirs and correspondence discussing their actions and their motives, which Shaara put to good use; we can be fairly certain that whatever was really said at the battle of Gettysburg was not that far off from what Shaara had his characters say. This is in contrast to the events described in Martin Guerre. Neither Martin Guerre nor Beatrice nor Arnund actually left any written records. All that we have is a slim book written by the judge in that case, Jean de Coras, and also Gullaume Le Sueur’s Historia. We have little in the way of solid ground to portray their mindsets. As such anyone who would wish to tell their story is forced to rely on his or her own imagination.

To be fair to Davis, one could argue that unlike Killer Angels, Martin Guerre gives its sources and, unlike Shaara, Davis points out where historical evidence ends and her suppositions begin. My response would be that even if Shaara would have bothered to put out an annotated edition of his work, documenting his sources, pointing out to the reader where he had allowed his imagination to fill in the blanks and offering a defense of these intuitions, Killer Angels would still be considered historical fiction, albeit one that contained a useful “study guide” to the real events.

In the end Martin Guerre, while it may not fit in as history, cannot merely be pushed aside as historical fiction. Davis may take too many liberties for it to be considered history yet Martin Guerre is not structured like a novel, it is too self-conscious; most of the work contains Davis’ surmises upon the events. Rather than either of these two categories, Martin Guerre should be viewed as a running commentary to a work of either history or historical fiction that unfortunately does not, as of yet, exist. In this sense Davis has performed an admirable service for the student of history in that she has allowed the reader to get a glimpse into the thought processes of a genuinely talented historian and has offered an invaluable look at the thought processes, struggles and issues that go into writing genuine history.

[1] The type at least that honestly engages the issues instead of merely using real events as a background for the author’s fantasies.
[2] Davis pg. 28
[3] Davis pg. 21
[4] Davis pg. 28-29
[5] ibid pg. 34
[6] ibid pg. 31
[7] ibid pg. 44
[8] ibid
[9] Pasquier actually put out numerous editions of this work throughout his lifetime. The first edition was put out in 1560, this was followed by editions in 1596, 1607 and 1611, in which the author added large amounts of information to. The one Davis makes use of was published in 1621. (See http://www.historians.org/info/AHA_History/nzdavis.htm)

Friday, September 12, 2008

A Dastardly Plot to Get Me a Bride

As those who know me personally and those reading between the lines of my blog posts know, my recent attempts to get married have failed. Many months invested in wooing a girl have come to naught and I am now back to square one. An anecdote, I recently read, gives me hope of an alternative.

The prospective groom, ignorant of Hebrew, asked his friend to repeat the ritual formula (harei ‘ath mekuddesheth li = behold, you are sanctified unto me) at the ceremony. The friend did so and, taking advantage of the situation (and the young lady), claimed the woman as his legal wife. The community was dumbfounded, yet the woman remained his wife for many years and bore him a family. (Steven Bowman, the Jews of Byzantium pg. 123)

The gears turn in my brain and my fingers twirl in a Monty Burns sort of way. Excellent!


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All kidding aside, this story of a guy stealing his friend’s bride from under the wedding canopy is an example of where it may be appropriate to apply the Natalie Zemon Davis principle of history. While men are likely to portray women as passive figures in events, one cannot take this at face value. Davis' book, the Return of Martin Guerre, is about a man, Martin Guerre, who disappeared and abandoned his wife for twelve years. Eight years into his absence another man came and claimed to be Martin Guerre. This man, at least initially, was accepted by the family and by the wife, who bore him a daughter, as Martin Guerre. (Keep in mind that this story happened in sixteenth century France. There were no photographs or dental records to go by.) Eventually some people in the family started to question whether this man was who he claimed to be and took him to court. During the court case, all of a sudden, the real Martin Guerre came back. The imposter was executed and Martin Guerre resumed his position as husband and even became the father of the daughter of the fake him. The wife in the story seems to be a completely passive figure. She gets abandoned by her husband. She gets taken in by the imposter and, in the end, she gets taken back by her husband. Davis tries to argue that in fact the wife was more proactive than the sources, written by men, might suggest. Davis speculates that the wife was in on the imposture’s scheme and even helped him pull it off by providing him with the necessary information. While I think that Davis, feeling the need to push her feminist ideology, overstates her case, this book does raise valid methodological issues, which historians, no matter what their politics, need to consider.

As in the Martin Guerre story, the girl in our story seems to be completely passive. She is about to be married off to one man, but all of a sudden someone pulls this trick and claims her instead and she seems to go along with it. The fact that this girl, as far as we can tell, did not fight the issue is telling. She could have claimed that she did not attend to marry the friend. If that failed she could have fought for a divorce. She chose not to pursue these options. The fact that she made a choice makes her an active participant. Maybe she really wanted to marry the friend, but was being pushed to marry the other person. So when she accepted she did so with the full intention of marrying the friend. She might have even been in on the scheme.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Going off to College with Asperger Syndrome

Our Asperger book club recently said farewell to one of our members, who is going off to college. People with Asperger syndrome have such a difficult time dealing with social situations and the absence of a stable structure to order their lives. So getting into college and being able to function in such an environment is a big deal and is something we actively work on. I am very proud of him and wish him success. Considering all this, it was big coincidence and a great delight to hear NPR’s All Things Considered doing a segment on people with Asperger syndrome going to college. The piece does a wonderful job going through the basic checklist of what parents and children have to deal with. This makes it useful not just for those dealing with Asperger syndrome but other disabilities as well. (Probably the most important thing to do is register yourself with your college's department of disabilities immediately. Do not wait until you actually have a problem.)

The subject of the piece is Roger Diehl. He is starting school at Wisconsin. I feel a particular kinship with Roger because, besides for Asperger syndrome, Roger also suffers from clinical depression. The piece has a really telling Asperger/depression anecdote where Roger, as a child, inquires of his parents as to what would be the most effective way to commit suicide. How long would it take to die if you held a bag over your head? If you opened the door of a speeding car and jumped out would you die? From the perspective of Asperger syndrome this makes perfect sense. Committing suicide is a line of inquiry that interests some people so it is perfectly reasonable that someone should desire to gain information about it. For a child the most obvious people to gain information from are ones parents. So it makes perfect sense for a child to go over to his parents and ask them how to commit suicide.

As an interesting side note, Roger speaks in a rather distinctive fashion. He emphasizes the ends of words and goes up and the end of words. I also speak like this and I have heard other people with Asperger syndrome or on the autism spectrum speak this way as well. I am curious if this is something particular to those on the autism spectrum.

(I would like to thank a friend of mine, who shares one of the graduate offices, here on campus, with me. He knows that I have Asperger syndrome so he was kind enough to tell me about this segment.)

Discrimination Against Blacks Practiced by Jews in Seventeenth-Century Amsterdam

Here is an interesting example of what one might see as Jewish “racism” within the Amsterdam Sephardic Jewish community in the seventeenth-century. According to Adam Sutcliffe:

The exclusion of non-whites from participation in the life of the Sefardic community took many forms. An ordinance of 1644 asserted, in protection of the “reputation and good government” of the community, that circumcised Black Jews could not be called to the Torah. In 1647, the Mahamad marked apart a separate, less prestigious area of the cemetery for the burial of Blacks and mulattos. In 1658, mulatto boys, as well as all other non-Sefardim, were excluded from study at the Amsterdam yeshivah, Ets Haim. An unmistakable strain of color-conscious racial prejudice is evident in these ordinances. (Adam Sutcliffe, “Regulating Sociability: Rabbinical Authority and Jewish-Christian Interaction in Seventeenth-Century Amsterdam.” Rabbinic Culture and Its Critics Ed. Daniel Frank and Matt Goldish pg. 306.)

Sutcliffe goes on to put this into context. It was not just Blacks that the Sephardic Jewish community looked down upon. They also had absolute contempt for Ashkenazic Jews (Jews from Germany and Eastern Europe). One wonders as to what extent this attitude toward Blacks and mulattos was a reflection of the Spanish and Portuguese cultures that these Jews had fled from. The Spanish created the most elaborate race code of any pre-nineteenth European culture and are the premier example of pre-modern racism. The Sephardic community in the Netherlands was made up conversos, people raised as Christians, and their descendents. We see many examples where, while they may have rejected Catholicism as a religion, they remained good Spanish Catholics to the core. This might be one of them.

I must say, this whole attempt to keep Blacks as lesser members of the Jewish community actually reminds me a lot of the Mormons. The Mormon Church, until the 1970s, did not allow Blacks into the priesthood. In theory they could be baptized but would always remain as outsiders to the group.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Abraham Yagel on Joan of Arc and Merlin

Abraham Yagel (1553-1623) was one of the great Jewish thinkers of the early modern period. In his discussion of prophecy in his book, Bat Rabim, he argued, contrary to the Kuzari, that non Jews could also be prophets. As evidence to this he uses the biblical example of Balaam, but he also brings down the cases Joan of Arc and Merlin. Yagel exerts the reader:

Observe what happened to the seventeen-year-old girl who was a shepherdess during the time of Charles VII, the king of France, who was surrounded by the armies of the English king, which almost took from him [Charles] his entire kingdom. But this young maiden arose, aroused herself from her slumber, gathered her strength, left her flock in the field, went to King Charles, and told him what she told him; the essence of her words was that she desired to lead his armies and to be victorious over his enemies. And the king trusted her word and placed her in charge of his army; and she girded her weaponry and fought the king’s enemies and was victorious over them with great honor. And the chroniclers of the time sang her praises as if she were skilled in war from her youth and knew her enemy’s strategy in war.

And who would believe the account of the child born in England named Merlin, who revealed future events and secret things and who transcribed in a document before the kings and nobles all that would happen to them in the end of days, in addition to all the incredible feats he accomplished in the days of his youth, which were recorded in the chronicles of that kingdom. (David Ruderman, Kabbalah, Magic and Science pg. 86)

During the sixteenth and seventeenth century there was a widespread interest in the prophecies of Merlin, particularly in England, and there were many supposed works by him in circulation. (See Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic.) The idea that a Jew would hold up a Christian visionary, who in modern times would be made into a saint, as a true prophet is interesting. For Yagel, as with many others during this time period, prophecy was something in nature, to be studied as any other natural phenomenon, and hence was universally applicable and could be achieved by anyone. (He obviously rejected the view of the Kuzari that prophecy was a genetic trait, which only Jews possessed.) This is not really that different from Pope Clement VII being willing to accept Shlomo Molcho as a prophet. It is all in keeping with the eclectic and often strangely ecumenical mystical theological scientific worldview of early modern Europe.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

A Blog to Take Over the World (Part II)

(Part I)

Take, for example, one of the more polemical posts I have written, my discussion of Rabbi Shmuel Kamenetsky and the speech he gave in honor of my grandfather, which some might see as contradicting my previously stated ethos. Admittedly I received a lot of criticism for that post from people who saw it as a personal attack on Rabbi Kamenetsky. That was not my intention. For one thing this was hardly a full on vitriolic, foaming at the mouth assault. I did not accuse him of being a child molester or of helping child molesters. I did not question his patriotism to this country or his love of the Jewish people and Israel. I even praised him as a good speaker. My only qualm with him was that I thought it was the wrong speech for the audience and it was delivered in a manner that was ill suited to the circumstances. In the end I questioned his ability to be a leader of the entire Jewish people. As far as I am concerned the last part was not even a criticism of him at all. He is the head of the Philadelphia yeshiva, a position he is well qualified for, and he is not trying to be anything else. For that matter I myself am not cut out to be a leader of the entire Jewish people and, while we are at it, I am also not qualified to be an Olympic athlete, an astronaut or the president of the United States. This is not an act of self criticism; it is simply a statement of fact. In the end, the real target of this post was not Rabbi Kamenetsky, but those who would seek to put him on some sort of pedestal and declare him to be the leader of the Jewish people.

In essence this post, like many others, was anti-Haredi. Haredim serve as a Demosthenes for me; they represent an ideology that I can counter. Also there is a personal element. Since I grew up connected to the Haredi world and to a certain extent I still am today, they are a major dialectical opposition. One of the major issues running through my blog is my attempt to answer the question, why am I not Haredi. (I also confront questions such as why am I not a secular materialist or why am I not a modern liberal.) As such it can only be expected that I would be less than supportive of a Haredi rabbi. That being said there is a very big difference between my "attacks" and the kind of attacks on Haredim you will find in DovBear and Failed Messiah. To put what I said in a different context, I treated Rabbi Kamenetsky more gently than I treated J. K. Rowling, Libba Bray and Stephenie Meyer when I felt the need to criticize them. Now all three of these authors are people whose work I actually admire. I see myself as advocating for them. I am an intellectually honest person, though, so I am also willing to call out those who I see as one of “my” people when they mess up. I do not see myself as being on Rabbi Kamenetsky’s side so it makes perfect sense that I would call him on it when he fails at something. At the end of the day, though, I kept my criticism of him at a civil and respectable level. Just because someone is not on your side does not mean that you do not respect him. In fact it is a healthy thing to respect ones opponents. It keeps you intellectually honest.

Here is to the Locke school of blogging. I have been blogging for nearly two years now. I may not have gained much popular traction, but I like to think that I have put out a quality product, albeit one that I am still working to improve on. I have done my best to keep the polemics and ad hominum attacks to a minimum. If nothing else I hope this blog can be something that people of all stripes, even those who may vehemently disagree with me, can read and respect. If anyone wants me to run for world leader, I am busy at the moment, maybe in two or three decades.

Monday, September 8, 2008

A Blog to Take Over the World (Part I)

In the novel Ender’s Game, while Ender Wiggin is away at Battle School, his siblings back on earth, Peter and Valentine Wiggin, become, in essence, bloggers as part of Peter’s plan to become a world leader. The idea being that on the net he can assume an identity of his own choosing and not be bound by the fact that he is only twelve years old. Through the net his ideas can reach anyone in the world. Thus he can become a person of influence, someone whom people across the world would willingly listen to. Orson Scott Card published Ender’s Game in 1985, before the rise of the internet so it truly was clairvoyant of him to appreciate how something like the internet could change how information is exchanged and how this could affect the discourse of power. The internet allows a person to reach everyone without any mediation, thus bypassing the traditional guardians of public discourse. The moment I have the internet to reach people with then I do not have to work for a major newspaper, hold public office or even hold an advanced degree and a tenured post at a prestigious university to be a major player in the public discourse. This makes me, a lone individual, powerful in ways that I could never have been before the internet.


Peter takes on the identity of Locke (a reference to the seventeenth century English political philosopher John Locke) and Valentine take on the identity of Demosthenes (the famous fifth century BCE Athenian orator). While one might expect someone with designs on taking over the world to become a rabble rouser, playing to the prejudices of the masses, Peter’s Locke does nothing of the sort. It is Valentine’s Demosthenes who is the rabble rouser. She plays a populist conservative, who whips up popular hysteria, particularly against Russia. In this role she serves as a foil for Locke, who is a voice of moderation and tolerance. In this capacity, Demosthenes is someone whom Locke can argue against, which is why Peter brought her into this project in the first place. Peter chooses not to play the role of the rabble rouser because he recognizes that, while such a position can easily lead to widespread popular support, it will close off any chance of gaining the respect of the intellectual and political elites, which is what Peter craves. (This is Card making fun of what he sees as the elitist liberal establishment. In reality they are just as prejudiced and open to manipulation as the populace they heap scorn upon; it is just requires a different and more subtle lever to push them.)


Initially, Demosthenes is much more successful than Locke at gaining popularity. This makes perfect sense considering the nature of their styles and whom they are trying to attract. Peter understood this going in, yet it still frustrates him. He preservers, though, and eventually succeeds. Over the course of the events narrated in the Shadow series, Peter rises to become the Hegemon and leads a united planet into a golden age of expansion into space.

Peter Wiggin is a model for me. Not that I really have any plans on taking over the world, though I do like to joke about that. I do wish to be Locke though. The internet is full of Demostheneses of both the liberal and conservative variety, spewing invective and playing to people’s passion. This goes to the very nature of the medium itself. In such a crowded marketplace the one who shouts the loudest gets heard. People like a spectacle and take a certain pleasure in beholding people saying extreme things. This is the secret to Ann Coulter’s success. I want to have a positive effect on the world. I believe that my background and my Asperger syndrome allow me to have a different perspective on things from most people and a message to give them. I do not see myself as trying to convince people to become more religious, less religious, liberal or secular. I see this blog as giving people an alternative vision of the world; one that transcends the categories that people are used to.

(To be continued ...)

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Military Fiction: a Call for Help

In our book club we are finishing up Brave New World. It has taken us a lot longer than it should have as there were some delays. For our next book we are doing Twilight, which has me jumping for joy. I have wanted to do Twilight for a while now, but did not think I would get it, considering that the book club was mostly guys. I gave it to the chair of the book club and she fell in love with it and decided to push for it. It helped that two girls recently joined us, giving us more balance in terms of gender. While I am looking forward to several weeks of Twilight I am concerned about how it will play out with certain members of the group. One of the problems with choosing books is that we not only have a wide range of reading interests but also of reading ability. For example there are two people in the group, one of whom has since left for college, besides for me who have very strong backgrounds in science fiction and fantasy. We had a habit of going off on side tangents which no one else in the group understands. To add to this, all three of us can quote long sections of Monty Python at each other, much to the annoyance of everyone else. The ongoing process has been the chair leaning on me to lean on them to keep them in line and to keep the conversation to things that other people can understand and follow. As for reading ability. I am working on a PHD in history. There is another person in the group who is PHD student in English. The chair just got her PHD. But then we have people in the group for whom reading books is a struggle. One such person has little interest in reading anything except for novels about modern warfare. He is particularly fond of Tom Clancy. This is life in a group full of people with Asperger Syndrome.

It is about our Tom Clancy fan that I am writing. He is dead set on us reading a Tom Clancy novel or at least something along those lines. I and others in the group have no interest in reading Tom Clancy. Besides for the fact that Clancy’s books tend to be full of right wing cold war paranoia, they are also too long to work well for us. Every time we have voted on a book this person has dutifully posed a Clancy or something along those same lines and every time he has been voted down, much to his great frustration. I would like to help him out here so I am turning to you my readers. Can anyone recommend a novel about modern warfare (World War II to the present) that is not Tom Clancy or a Tom Clancy clone? It should have plenty of action, but still have useful discussion material and be less than five hundred pages.

I welcome any and all suggestions.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Abortion Rights Versus the Rights of Special Needs Children (and all Other Inconvenient Individuals)

Governor Sarah Palin, now John McCain’s vice presidential nominee, is the mother of a Down syndrome child, Trig. In keeping with her strong anti abortion beliefs, she carried that child to term and did not get an abortion even though she knew she was carrying a child with Down syndrome. In her recent speech at the Republican National Convention she spoke about her child and pledged herself to be an advocate for families of special needs children. One should not underestimate the value of such sentiments in terms its crossover appeal. There are liberal parents out there with special needs children to whom Palin may hold an appeal.

The issues of abortion and the rights of people with special needs are connected in ways that are problematic for those who support abortion rights. (A group that I count myself as part of even if only as a very moderate member.) In the case of Down syndrome it is now common practice to screen for it. As such future parents of Down syndrome children usually know beforehand and are left with a stark choice, to abort the fetus or take on a lifetime of special responsibilities. How many unborn children with Down syndrome are being aborted? I do not judge parents who make such a choice. That being said this sets a troubling precedent; it means that as a society we are willing to condone the removal of those who are inconvenient. To make matters more difficult, the more people decide to abort such inconveniences, the greater the burden will become for those who, like Palin, do not make such a choice. The fewer Down syndrome children out there the harder it will be to advocate for them. Also the stigma attached to them and their families will increase. This creates a cycle; as the challenges of being a Down syndrome parent increases more parents will opt out and abort which will in turn increase the challenges for the remaining parents and cause them to also opt out until there will be few to none willing to take on the burdens of being a parent of a Down syndrome child.

As technology advances we are likely going to find genetic markers for other inconveniences. This will create similar scenarios. What will happen if a genetic marker for autism is found and fetuses could be tested for it before they are born? What about Asperger syndrome? On a purely emotional level, my reaction to the notion that unborn children would be aborted because they have Asperger syndrome is that I would want those responsible, both the doctor and the mother, to be frog marched directly to jail to do hard time. There is no way I could allow myself to stand back and allow commit personality trait suicide. If there is going to be a future for people with Asperger syndrome then those with Asperger syndrome are going to need to be protected not just from birth but also from conception.

What would happen if they found a way to screen for homosexuality? Could the gay community stand back and allow themselves to be destroyed? Clearly they would have to fight back and this would put them up against feminists. So much for NOWs pretense that women’s rights and gay rights are one and the same thing.

Contrary to traditional pro choice rhetoric, there is more to abortion than a woman having control over her own body. There are many different things at stake amongst them is how, as a society, we are going to deal with people deemed inconvenient. In the end abortion has the potential to split apart the left and change liberalism as we know it.

The Democratic party has good reason to fear Sarah Palin.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

The “Immodesty” of Women Voting

During the early 1920s there was a major debate amongst the religious community in Israel as to whether women should be allowed to vote. Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook famously opposed it. One of the defenders of women’s suffrage was Rabbi Ben-Zion Hai Uziel, who would later go on to become the Sephardic chief Rabbi. In particular Uziel rejected the argument that we should be concerned lest women voting lead to increased intermingling between men and women and thus lead people to sin. Uziel challenged this premise:

What licentiousness can there be in each person going to the poll and entering a voting slip? If we start considering such activities as licentious, no creature would be able to survive! Women and men would be prohibited from walking in the street or from entering a shop together; it would be forbidden to negotiate in commerce with a woman, lest this lead to intimacy and hence to licentiousness. Such ideas have never been suggested by anyone. (The Jewish Political Tradition Vol. II pg. 204)

Looking back at this response, nearly a century later, one is struck by how naïve Uziel was. He obviously never had to deal with modern Israeli Haredim, who see any contact between unrelated men and women as inherently sinful and have no problem banning such activity. For example the recent campaign to have women sit at the back of buses. (See here) The irony here is that Haredim today allow their women to vote. Is it liberalism on their part or an unwillingness to commit political suicide? I suspect it is not the former.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

De Rossi Really Was Like Slifkin

During the campaign against R. Natan Slifkin one of the claims made by his opponents was the they were following in the footsteps of the rabbis in the sixteenth century who opposed Azariah de Rossi and his book the Meor Enayim. There may be more truth to this than Slifkin’s opponents would like particularly if one accepts the account of the early stages of the campaign against de Rossi offered by Robert Bonfil in his essay, “Some Reflections on the Place of Azariah de Rossi’s Meor Enayim in the Cultural Milieu of Italian Renaissance Jewery (Jewish Thought in the Sixteenth Century ed. Bernard Dov Cooperman pg. 23-48). Interestingly enough Bonfil wrote this essay in the early 1980s, two decades before this whole controversy.

According to Bonfil’s reconstruction of the event:

De Rossi’s real problem began once R. Isaac Foa of Reggio read the book. The old rabbi, whose intellectual energies seem to have been devoted entirely to Talmudic studies interspersed with mystical speculation, appears to have been shocked at the nonchalance with which de Rossi dealt with certain Aggadot believed by kabbalists to have great theosophical implications. For the likes of R. Foa, this was unthinkable. He dispatched an alarmed letter to Venice, where his son-in-law, R. Menahem Azariah da Fano, had been residing for some months. The letter has not been preserved, so wed do not know exactly what alarmed R. R. Foa. We do know, however, that the letter left a deep impression upon R. Samuel Judah Katzenellenbogen. This scholar, though a competent Talmudist, does not seem to have been distinguished either by his intellectual sensitivity or by his realism, and was, moreover, rather young at the time. He acted impulsively, apparently before he had even had a chance to read the Meor Enayim. In a circular letter addressed to the Italian Jewish communities, he summarized the warnings of R. Foa and appended to it the text of a manifesto against the book that he proposed for signature. The letter itself has not been preserved, and therefore we do not know whether R. Katzenellenbogen was any more specific in it than in his manifesto, where his charge against the book was rather vague, to say the least: “And there were some chapters,” he wrote, “of that third section, called Days of the World, full of new issues never dreamed of by our fathers.”

R. Katzenellenbogen did not claim any position of leadership for himself in the crusade he called for. Perhaps he thought, or hoped, that “the very excellent scholars of each and every city” would agree to sign the manifesto, especially since it merely sought to require that every Jew who wanted to read or own the book “obtain written permission from the rabbis of his city." …

Nonetheless, R. Katzenellenbogen’s initiative seems to have come as a major surprise. Those who heeded his call and signed with him in Venice were no outstanding scholars. Most of them were leaders of the Levantine community, recently settled in Venice; some are unfamiliar to us, and may have also been so to their contemporaries. … (pg. 26-27)


Bonfil brings the example of R. Abraham Manahem Porto ha-Cohen.

R. Porto had not read the book, but testified rather that “through hearsay I heard of him [de Rossi] having treated lightly the words of the Sages.” He had moreover, heard from de Rossi himself about his dangerously novel chronological theory. … R. Porto delivered before his flock a standard sermon on the prohibition of reading sfarim hitzoniyim, warned them of the potential harmful consequences of a practical nature that could result from de Rossi’s chronological reckonings, posted the manifesto in the synagogue without signing it, and stood by for clarifications. (pg. 28)

R. Porto would latter retract his ban after de Rossi agreed to make some editorial changes to the book, which did not include his acceptance of standard chronology.

So de Rossi was the victim of a bunch of little known rabbis, who went after him without having bothered to read his book and the issue cascaded from there. Rather than demonstrate the cohesiveness of the sixteenth century rabbinate the de Rossi affair shows a rabbinate that was in disarray and easily manipulated to suit the purposes of those pulling the strings. Does this remind you of anything?

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

To Whom May Quaker Women be Compared to?

Phyllis Mack’s book, Visionary Women: Ecstatic Prophecy in Seventeenth-Century England, is a study of female prophets and visionaries in seventeenth century England. The majority of the book focuses on the early Quaker movement in which women, such as Margaret Fell, played highly public roles. Mack was one of the pioneers of the modern study of prophetic figures. She is not concerned with such issues as whether the individuals she deals with were fakers or insane. Her focus is on placing the people she studies within their given social context; how did such people fit into society and how do they shed light on the world that they lived in.

Mack is also not particularly concerned with issues of feminism. Her book is not about whether these women were fighting patriarchy or submitting to it. Mack eschews such rigid bifurcations. She recognizes that these operated within a very specific context and used it for their own purpose. As such there is a give and take here. We are dealing with a traditional patriarchal society, but the discourse of this same patriarchal society could also be used to suit the purposes of women.

Mack compares her Quaker women to Orthodox Jews. “Like the orthodox matron presiding over her Sabbath table, their [the Quakers’] religious expressiveness emanated from a female identity that was both personalized and traditional.” (pg. 238) Just as Orthodox Jewish women are capable of using the context of a patriarchal religion such as Orthodox Judaism to fashion their own unique identity, outside of masculine control, so too did women in the early Quaker movement use the context of Seventeenth Century Christian thought to fashion an identity that was outside of masculine control.

Monday, September 1, 2008

To be Cyrano de Bergerac

This past evening I went to see a production of Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac, which was put on in Schiller Park here in Columbus. I was familiar with the play from seeing the film version, starring Gerard Depardieu, in high school. This was free theater so I did not have too high expectations. While most of the actors were fairly mediocre, John Beeker, who played the title role, was outstanding. I would definitely pay good money to see him perform. The music was also very good. (It was taken from Cirque du Soleil’s KA.)

Cyrano de Bergerac (a real historical figure) is about a swashbuckling seventeenth century swordsman (A character similar to Alexander Dumas’ three musketeers and, more recently, Arturo Perez-Reverte’s Captain Alatriste.) His sword is only matched by his wit and his skills as a poet, something he puts to good use in the play’s opening as he dispatches an opponent with his sword while composing a ballad to commemorate the occasion. Standing in Cyrano’s way are his tendency to speak his mind and thumb his nose at the rich and powerful, thus making for himself many enemies, and his literal long nose, which disfigures his face. Because of his nose Cyrano finds himself unable to pursue his love, his cousin Roxane, for fear that she will laugh at him. Instead of pursuing her directly, he comes to do so indirectly when he befriends Christian, a fellow soldier in his company, who has also fallen in love with Roxane. Christian has a beautiful face, but lacks the necessary skill with words to win Roxane. Enter Cyrano to fill the void; he writes the needed love letters and poems for Christian and even coaches him on what things to say to her. Cyrano and Christian make a perfect team; Christian provides the face and Cyrano provides the mouth. Unfortunately for Cyrano, though, it is Christian’s lips that get to kiss Roxane while he has to stand by as the loyal friend and watch.

As with most great characters, one comes to identify oneself with the Cyrano in a very personal way. I see a lot of myself in Cyrano or at least see in Cyrano something that I could and should be. Cyrano is highly intelligent, witty, charming and likeable individual, who tends to offend people. He is someone full of principles/pride and will sacrifice everything for them, though it is not always clear which one he is standing for. He is someone with a noble romantic soul with the capacity to love in ways that few can. Yet for all this he is doomed in love because of his deformity, his nose. Cyrano’s nose, though, is really a stand in for the injuries in Cyrano’s own mind. It is he who thinks of himself as ugly and incapable of pursuing love. While Cyrano’s nose holds him back it is also what allows him to love as intently as he does in the first place. One suspects that if Cyrano would not have become the gallant swordsman and romantic if he had been born with a regular nose. It is his nose that isolates him and makes him feel as intently as he does. Like Cyrano I am witty, intelligent and charming, though I do tend to put these gifts to use by thumbing my nose at convention and playing by my own rules. While I am likable, I do tend to offend people. I think in terms of duty and obligation; I believe that I owe people a debt for their friendship. I have learned the hard way, though, that other people do not think in terms of duty and obligation and therefore do not feel they owe me anything for my friendship. I have a pretty enough face, but in the end I am also scarred. Not by my nose but by my depression and Asperger Syndrome. These things have stopped me from finding love. It is a pattern that has repeated itself several times already, the last time just recently, where a woman has been attracted to me by my wit and charm only to flee as soon as she came to see my depression and Asperger Syndrome and how it affects my life. The irony here is that I owe the wit and charm that attracted them in the first place to the same depression and Asperger Syndrome that robs me in the end. My wit and charm is simply the light side of my depression and Asperger Syndrome and is as much a part of them as the dark side which people have no difficulty labeling as such. My depression and Asperger Syndrome isolate me and keep me away from love but my isolation serves also to make me acutely aware of love and my need for it. I look hungrily at all the normal people out there who seem to have little difficulty with love yet fail to truly appreciate it. I wonder what it would be like to be normal. Utterly boring, I suspect, though they do, by and large, seem to be happy.

At one point in the play Cyrano is challenged whether he is being Don Quixote, fighting windmills. I have, in my time, been faced with that challenge. As much as I may love the musical the Man of La Mancha, I have no wish to be Don Quixote. I will settle for being Cyrano de Bergerac.