Monday, August 31, 2009

Method Thinking or How not to Play Sports


I was never particular good at sports. The only thing I that I did even somewhat well was playing defense in street hockey. That is a position that does not require much in the way of skill but a willingness to throw your body around, put yourself in the way of people and the ball, take a hit and hit back. I never had much in the way of talent, to this day I have remarkably poor hand and eye coordination, but I always played with a lot of heart and did my best. As such I took it as a personal offense to see kids who were not trying and who even just sat there staring off into space with their hands in their pockets. In sports there are no guarantees to win. There is certainly no way to always stop your opponent from scoring. Your opponent will score and will win games. A team that can win two thirds of their games over a season is an elite team. That being said there are ways to maximize the chances of winning. It does not take any great sports wisdom to understand that to succeed, whether at soccer or at other sports, one needs to play with all of one’s heart, do one’s utmost to get in the way of the opposition and stop them from scoring and on the flip side to go after the ball and try to score for oneself. This may not be enough to win, but it is better than the alternative of staring off into space with one’s hands pocketed. Staring off into space with one’s hands pocketed is not an “alternative” style of playing, it is not playing at all, not even if you come up with clever philosophical arguments to prove that your opponent’s goals are nothing artificial intellectual constructs.

As a historian I engage in method thinking. I know that I do not have a sure path to being right. In fact I will be wrong quite often. That being said I know that the historical method allows one to maximize the chances of being right about past historical events and that it is far superior to any of the alternatives to such an extent that the alternatives cannot be seen as playing the game at all. As a historian I know to rely on written documents, particularly internal documents such as private letters and diaries. I know to be suspicious of the memory of individuals and to show no faith in oral traditions. Either you have written texts or you go home. I know how to critically interrogate texts, to look for contradictions, biases and narrative constructions. This allows me not only to spot a falsehood but also to form hypotheses that are remarkably close to the truth. Cherry picking sources to find things that one wants to hear or employing radical skepticism to throw out all source readings, leaving one to believe whatever one wants, does not. Such a method may sometimes get things right, even some things that the historical method gets wrong. In the long run, though, it cannot compete. Furthermore even when the historical method makes a “mistake” it still has the internal mechanism to eventually correct itself. The “alternatives” have no such mechanism.

As a follower of the historical method I am not afraid to be wrong and accept that I will quite often be wrong. I am not omniscient; the study of history often forces me to make guesses based on incomplete evidence to almost no evidence. As a person I have my biases and will misread sources. While I may be biased and flawed and the sources I work with are certainly that, the historical method has no such weaknesses. I will therefore rely wholeheartedly on the historical method, win or lose. I would rather be wrong following the historical method than be right following an “alternative.”

Friday, August 28, 2009

Whig Propaganda Coming Soon to a Theater near You



Lionel Spiegel has tipped me off to the coming movie Agora, starring Rachel Weisz. It tells the story of the late antique pagan female philosopher Hypatia, who was murdered by a Christian mob. Judging from the preview, the film seems to hit the basic Whig and feminist talking points. The fourth century is the downfall of civilization with the coming of fanatical misogynistic Christianity, who also burn down the Great Library at Alexandria. Might it be too much to ask that the movie actually give some context to these events and actually deal with some of the complexities of the political situation beyond pagans are good and tolerant and Christians are nasty and intolerant. And they have the nerve to call this a true story.

Hypatia was not a modern scientist nor was she a modern feminist. She was a Platonist philosopher who lived in the period of late antiquity. Of course this would actually require some actual background on philosophy in late antiquity. The moment you treat her as anything besides for this you have are no longer dealing with history but with fiction. Any attempt to consciously pass off such fiction as history is to engage in falsehood.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Harry Potter in the Dragon Age

I am in middle of reading Dragonseed, the newest book in James Maxey’s Dragon Age series. It is about a post apocalyptic age in which humans are ruled by dragons. (This is one of those story ideas that sound absolutely lame, but somehow, due to some brilliant writing and character development, manages to work.) In the beginning of Dragonseed, two characters, Shay and Jandra, find a cache of old books, dating from before the time of the dragons, among which is Harry Potter:

Shay let out a grasp. Jandra looked at him. He was in front of the bookshelf.
“By the bones!” said Shay. “He has all seven!”
“All seven what?”
“The Potter biographies! The College of Spires only had five of the volumes… four now, since I stole one.”
“What’s so special about these books?” She picked up one of the fat tomes and flipped it open.
“Potter was a member of a race of wizards who lived in the last days of the human age,” said Shay.
Jandra frowned as she flipped through the pages. “Are you certain this isn’t fiction?” she asked.
“The books are presented as fiction,” said Shay. “However, there are other artifacts that reveal the actual reality. I wouldn’t expect you to know about photographs, but-“
“I know what a photograph is,” she said. …
“Photographs recorded the physical world, and a handful of photographs of this famous wizard still survive. Some show him in flight on his …” His voice trailed off. He turned toward Jandra, studying her face carefully. …
“How did Potter control his magic?”
“With a wand and words. Is this how you control your magic?”
Jandra was intrigued. Her genie could take on any shape she desired. Why not the form of a wand? Of course, she’d never needed any magic words – the genie responded to her thoughts. Still … could this Potter have been a nanotechnician? (Dragonseed pg. 78-80.)

As a historian, I find this passage to be of interest. This is a version of a scenario that I often play with my students; imagine a future historian, who knows nothing about our time period trying to make sense of a given document and constructing a historical narrative based on it. The secular version of this involves audio recordings of the Rush Limbaugh show. The Jewish version involves a stack of Yated Neeman newspapers. I have actually used the example of Potter when dealing with narrative construction. If I were J. K. Rowling and I wished to write a series of books about a boy named Harry Potter that was going to sell millions of copies, what would I put into it? I would stick things in that were out of the ordinary like magic and a world full of wizards. But beyond the obvious issue of magic there are a host other more subtle devices. To keep the story interesting the stakes most always be maximized. Harry must constantly find himself in mortal peril with the fate of the entire wizarding world in the balance; mere detention just will not do. The story should be fairly neat with a clear beginning and end. Harry should escape from the Dursleys and get to Hogwarts. Once he gets to Hogwarts he should sniff out some evidence of a foul plot. After spending the main part of the book investigating matters, Harry should walk right into the villain’s clutches, setting off a rousing climax and a happy ending. There should be a fairly limited number of characters. All the important actions in the story should be carried out by a select group of people, who the reader is already familiar with. There should not be random characters coming into the story, performing crucial actions and then disappearing. Furthermore, in order to maintain an orderly plot, there should be clear cut heroes and villains. The audience should be cheering for Harry Potter to defeat Lord Voldemort. There is no need to give Lord Voldemort a fair hearing and allow him to explain his side of the story.

In addition to the structure of the plot, there is a need for a certain amount of story logic to move things along. For example it is necessary that top secret objects be hidden in maximum security facilities that are nothing more than obstacle courses to be traversed by a group of eleven year olds. Schools like Hogwarts need to stay open despite the fact that there are mythical monsters on the loose and not act like real schools, which close down for any two bit bomb threat. Villains need to suffer from excess monologuing, thus allowing Potter to constantly not get killed. The teachers at school should be incredibly powerful to allow for any necessary dues ex machina actions and yet either be less capable of dealing with the yearly acts of villainy than a group of pre-adolescents or have the eccentric pedagogic theory that allowing children to end up in extreme mortal peril is something to be recommended. (The lack of any functional child services is also a necessary plot element.) With all due respect to Harold Bloom, this is not a weakness of the Potter series. Potter, at its heart, is an attempt to graft the hero story onto a school setting. More importantly, like almost any work of fiction, Potter operates on its own logic, which needs to be accepted on its own terms as part of a suspension of disbelief.

These elements, far more so than claims of magic, serve to tag Potter as a work of fiction. Potter engages in narrative and story logic in order to craft a story that someone would actually wish to read. The historian, as part of his arsenal, can think counter narratively. Any narrative that contains things like an organized plot, clear heroes and villains and relies on certain leaps of logic to move along can be viewed as a created narrative, as fiction. Shay and Jandra are trained to think like scientists, but not like historians. They therefore have nothing to protect themselves with once a narrative moves past some theoretical baseline of physical plausibility.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Putting the History into “Natural History:” A Proposal to Shift the Debate over Evolution

Evolution can be divided into what I would like to refer to as theoretical evolution and practical evolution. There is the theory of evolution that species can evolve over time, most likely through some variation of Darwinian natural selection. The truth of this claim can easily be demonstrated scientifically in that operating on the assumption that evolution is true allows us to make certain successful predictions as to what will take place in the world. For example the whole process of proscribing antibiotics relies on the assumption that the bacteria in question will evolve. Evolutionary theory even allows us to predict precisely how bacteria will evolve. (Yes evolution is a theory, but so is gravity. All you anti-evolutionists out there please get over it.) This theory of evolution, though, is a different from practical evolution, which I would like to deal with here. For evolution to hold, one needs to be able to go from saying that evolution is physically possible to saying that it actually happened and that it accounts for the diversity of life on earth.

Opponents of evolution are fond of arguing that evolution is not a science. In a sense they have a point, evolution, at least as a something that has happened in the past, is not subject to scientific analysis. Opponents of evolution will take this line of argument further and challenge evolutionists to prove that the conditions of life on earth were not radically different and that scientific laws were not different then. This speaks to a major limitation of the scientific method. The scientific method requires one to be able to make future predictions. All the demonstrations of scientific principles working in the here and now will not demonstrate that things were not different in the past. If this is a weakness of science I would point out that this also illustrates the hypocrisy of anti-evolutionists, particularly those who are religious fundamentalists, to engage in such a naked display of selective self serving empiricism.

I am not troubled by this challenge to evolution because, as a historian, I deal with things that are outside of the scientific method and do not yield future predictions on a daily basis. For example, as a historian, I accept the existence of Napoleon Bonaparte as a historical fact. This is the case despite the fact that there is no scientific experiment that can confirm this; there is no future event that I can predict based on my acceptance of the Napoleon “theory.” I believe that Napoleon was a real person and that he led France during the Napoleonic wars because there are literally warehouses of documents from all over the world that, when interpreted through the lens of the historical method, say that he did. It would have required that the entire human race conspired to invent such a character or for some alien power to come and brainwash all humans for us to come up with a different solution. I cannot “prove” that a worldwide conspiracy or an alien brainwashing did not take place, but I am required by the principle of Ockham’s razor to accept the simplest interpretation of these warehouses of evidence that Napoleon really did exist. Anyone who doubts the existence of Napoleon or who wishes to consider “alternative” theories deserves a one way ticket to a padded cell, a straight jacket and a lifetime supply of happy pills.

This notion of historical fact suggests an obvious response to the argument that evolution is not a science; agreed that practical evolution is not a science, it is history. The evidence for evolution having happened is of the same nature as the evidence for any historical event. No historian has personally witnessed the rise of ancient civilizations, the move from hunter gatherer societies, to agricultural societies, to urban cities, the change from bronze work to iron, or the invention of the wheel. The historian is faced with layers of archeological evidence; he sees the remains of more complex cultures situated above the remains of less complex ones and sees that the former has a carbon dating that points to a later time. The simplest narrative that can be constructed from this, in terms of Ockham’s razor, is of the evolution of civilizations from hunter gatherer societies all the way through urban iron making societies with complex governments and not any Garden of Eden, flood or tower of Babylon dispersion narratives. The historian therefore comes to accept the evolution of civilization narrative despite the fact that these events cannot be reproduced in a laboratory nor can they enable one to successfully predict any future phenomenon. Similarly with evolution, we are called to interpret a body of evidence consisting of different organisms in different strata of rock. The simplest narrative that we can fit the evidence into is not some supernatural being bringing all creation into existence in a matter of days but of different organisms existing during different periods over the course of hundreds of millions of years. We therefore assume the later. From science we already know of the theory of evolution via natural selection and its extreme plausibility. We therefore take evolution via natural selection as our vehicle to get us from earlier organisms to later ones.

To move away from theory, this understanding of evolution, as a type of history, should have practical implications. May I suggest that evolution be taught not as science but as history? The study of nature as a historical field already exists and is known as environmental history. Examples of this type of history are Fernand Braudel’s The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II and, on a more popular level, Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel. Ohio State has Professor John L. Brooke working in environmental history. (He guest lectured once in my historiography class where he devoted himself to attacking Diamond.) This growing field should be expanded by placing those who deal with practical evolution in this field with the title of natural historian. The fact that this newly expanded field would require people with strong scientific backgrounds need not make it any less a historical endeavor. Historians who deal with firearms during the Napoleonic wars need to know something about physics in order to understand the practical implications of different gun designs.

This could make for an excellent opportunity to increase the public awareness of evolution. Just as schools teach American and European history, they should also have to teach natural history. This would be the grand narrative of evolution. Rather than a decrease in the amount of time devoted to teaching students about science, this would, in practice, serve to increase the amount of science as more time could be devoted in science classes to actual science, including the theory of evolution. Finally it should be said that this plan holds within it the seed for a new form of environmental conscious-raising. Just as traditional history is useful, for better or worse, for strengthening the student’s willingness to identify with the state, natural history could be useful in getting students to identify themselves with the planet. We are part of this grand narrative of the evolution of life on earth. This story began millions of years before we were born and hopefully will continue for millions of years after we die. Let us make us make sure that we do something positive with this small role of ours.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Asael X

This is part of my ongoing novel. Think of it as Killer Angels taking place in a musket and magic fantasy world with characters that combine the religious sensibilities of American revivalism with Beowulf-like blood feuds. All this while engaging in Talmudic style dialectics. “Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition” is about to take on a whole new meaning.

Introduction, A Note from the Author, Prologue, I, II, III,IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX

Asael turned to Sion and grinned. “You are in luck; she was muttering about killing what you brought home.” Upon saying that, curiosity got the better of him. “What exactly did you bring home to turn Ima to murder?” Sion turned her eyes upward innocently and clutched the basket to her chest. “Give that to me,” said Asael as he grabbed the basket from her.

“Give kitty back!”

Sion squinted her eyes and puffed out her cheeks in preparation to wail, but Asael gave her a glare that silenced her. “Shut it.” Asael opened the basket to find a kitten, barely six weeks old, inside. It was grey with black stripes across its back and long narrow ears that curved at the top. The kitten, upon seeing Asael, put its front paws on the front of the basket and sniffed upward in the direction of Asael’s fingers.

“Isn’t she beautiful Asa.” Asael lifted the kitten out of the basket to inspect it. “You know you cannot keep this thing. What do you even know about taking care of animals; you can barely dress yourself.” Sion snatched the kitten and hugged it in a way that Asael was certain could not be good for it and started chanting “my kitty!”

“And it is going to be your kitty for about five minutes before Abba comes out and makes you give it back to Qirqisani. That is if Ima does not kill it first herself.”

“We just need to give her a name.”

“Well it is a cat so call it Shunra.” Sion seemed pleased with that suggestion. “That is a nice name.”

“Sion! That is not a name, it just means cat.”

Sion began stroking the kitten from its head to its shoulders as she called to it. “Hey Shunra.”

Asael clutched his hands in exacerbation. “You might as well call it Kitty Stew for all the good it is going to do you.”

Sion’s eyes lit up and Asael realized that he had forgotten to whom he was speaking and had said the worst thing possible. “Kitty Stew Shunra, Kitty Stew Shunra,” she shouted out with delight as she swung her newly named pet around. Kitty Stew Shunra let out a “Meeeeow!” that was impossibly loud for her small size.

Accepting defeat, Asael returned to the business at hand and put his ear back to the cylinder. His parents were still speaking. Apparently they had either not heard Sion’s prancing or had taken it as a matter of course.

“There was one final thing I think I should mention, said Serariah.” Hasan wanted me to get in touch with Tishbi.”

“As in Zichri and Tishbi? I remember you mentioning them to me, but I got the impression that you had not seen hair nor hide of them since you were a boy.”

“Zichri is a jabbering lunatic while Tishbi is a highly articulate one. I honestly have no idea where they are and I have no reason to assume that they particularly want to be found, least of all by anyone from the military, but I fear I owe it to Hasan to make the attempt.”

“Personally I could not give a fig, one way or another, what Hasan thinks or wants. Your friends are your own business Serariah. What is one more scoundrel friend of yours to me?”

“You may not have the luxury of such contempt.”

Hefzibah looked at her husband. His face told her that something was truly wrong. Whatever it was, this matter scared him.

“Hasan gave me some reading material that he thought might be of interest. It was a series of murder reports. Three of them were from Khazaria, others were from Aspamia and Ghassani. There were more than a score over the past year.”

“And why would the military see acts of murder as a cause for concern?”

“The victims were all knacks.”

“Is this government work or are we just dealing with private witch hunters?”

“I only wish we were. All the victims had significant loss of blood, usually with their throats slit.”

“Having one’s throat slit would result in significant loss of blood.”

“The requisite amounts of blood were not found in the surrounding areas!”

It was beginning to dawn on Hefzibah the true gravity of the situation. “What sort of person would do this?”

“At least four were shot through both kneecaps before being killed. Whoever did this likes to incapacitate their victims before getting down to business. Thorough job, we have not recovered any of the projectiles. ”

“You are saying that they did not use bullets.”

“They might have used some type of bullet. All we can say is that the wounds do not match a musket ball, a rifled bullet or any dart or arrow. Whatever it was, it is a lot more destructive than our bullets. This is not an iron ball that enters and you take out with forceps. This gets in and it explodes, making a mess of anything inside.”

“So these killers are soul-men from across the Gaps then.”

“A reasonable conclusion.”

“Hasan believes that Asael might be in danger?”

“I might be in danger too; thank you very much.”

Hefzibah patted her husband on the shoulder. “Yes, but you are a big boy and I can trust you to take care of yourself.” Hoping to make the best of the situation she added: “So there have only been three attacks in this country.”

“Three that we know off,” said Serariah gravely. “Unfortunately, since we lack any reliable information on our knack population, we have no way knowing for certain. A more accurate statement on my part would have been that we know that at least three knacks have been murdered by soul-men in this country.”

“Which is why you need Tishbi.”

“Tishbi keeps track of such things. Except that he is paranoid enough to reject our help. For God sakes, it is his people dying out there.”

“Maybe Tishbi is smart enough to realize that he cannot afford any free help from your military friends. I am sure he has, unlike some other people, asked himself what is in it for Hasan Kochba.”

“How about friendship to me. You may find this hard to believe but being associated with a knack, even in our day and age, does nothing to advance one’s career. If our son makes to eighteen without ending up in that file then it will be in no small part to Hasan’s credit.”

“I pray every night for the safety of our family and that we should be delivered in purity. It seems that Rachmana does not find us worthy of the latter.”

Friday, August 14, 2009

I am a Genius (the Street Sign Told me so)



Here are two Jerusalem street signs. The first is Ben-Zion St. The second street is Ha-Iluy, which is Hebrew for “the genius.” So there you have it, Ben-Zion the genius.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

A Trip to the Creation Museum

There is a wonderful series of videos over on Pharyngula from a recent trip of over two hundred secularists to the Creation Museum in Kentucky. The first video is the most interesting one so do try to see at least that. When it comes to attacking creationism I am with these people one hundred percent. The people who made the video did an excellent job, both in terms of the quality of the video and in terms of the fact that they were kind, courteous and professional to those they interacted with. Take a look at the material on displays at the museum and the patrons. Richard Dawkins and an army of atheist professors could not make a more effective argument for the non-existence of God than this museum.

Asael IX

This is part of my ongoing novel. Think of it as Killer Angels taking place in a musket and magic fantasy world with characters that combine the religious sensibilities of American revivalism with Beowulf-like blood feuds. All this while engaging in Talmudic style dialectics. Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition is about to take on a whole new meaning.

Introduction, A Note from the Author, Prologue, I, II, III,IV, V, VI, VII, VIII

The Dolstoy home was a modestly built two story stone house with red tile roofing. The bottom floor contained a kitchen and a side room that served as a reading room and Serariah’s study. The upstairs contained two bedrooms, the master bedroom and the other for Asael and Sion. There was also a cellar, underneath the house, used to store the produce of Hefzibah’s small vegetable garden and salted beef. The meat was mainly for Serariah. Hefzibah did not eat meat and would have forbidden it to her children. “The flesh of animals is bad for the body’s vital humors. It is also a corruptor of morals, increasing bodily lusts.” Serariah on the other hand was a follower of what, at the time, was beginning to be referred to as the "New Knowledge" and rejected the theory of animal vitality. Of course, Serariah like every self respecting Roai’ana, would never touch pig.

Asael took the opportunity of his father’s absence from the house and the fact that, because of his father, he had not had to go to school today in the first place to continue reading the novel he had tucked underneath his bed. It was an adventure story set in the early days of conquest when the newly converted Khazars fought against the pagan alliance of the Hussars and the Hurrians. The Khazars turned to the riders, men who fought in full plate armor and were armed with steel broad swords. This particular story was about the rider Kammunah bar Abuyah, who was right now being besieged by the Hussar emir in a castle deep in Hussar territory that Kammunah had just captured. His father would not have approved of such reading. Asael assumed that his mother was at least tolerant of it. His mother did clean the room on occasion and Asael was pretty certain that she would have checked under his bed and found the book. Asael glanced out the window and saw Sion in the garden. She was sitting in front of a covered basket and holding a bowl of milk to it.

Serariah came home about forty minutes later. Asael tucked the book back in its hiding place and went downstairs. Serariah was already reaching into a drawer in his desk, which he normally locked, and was pulling out one of his cigars. He looked up at Asael. “Boy,” he said and whisked his thumb in a backwards motion. Asael headed to the door. His parents usually kicked him out of the house whenever they wished to have a private discussion as it was next to impossible to speak in the house and not be overheard.

Without a word of complaint, Asael joined Sion and her basket in the garden. “Abba is back and is now speaking to Ima.” Sion clutched at her basket. “They are plotting how best to chop me up and boil me in a stew, right Asa.” Asael picked her up and carried her around to the other side of the house. There was a large iron pipe that served as a vent for the kitchen. Asael had placed a pair of cylinders attached by wire inside the pipe. This enabled him to hear what was being said inside. The only difficulty was that the second cylinder was on the inside the pipe above him. It was also too small for him to enter. To get the cylinder he needed to lift Sion up so she could get to the pipe, climb inside and throw down the cylinder. “Ok Sion. You know what I want you to do.” Sion was well practiced at this. She put her basked down and climbed on top of Asael shoulders, grabbed onto the edge of the pipe and disappeared. Her legs reappeared a few seconds later as she backed out of the pipe and dropped down into Asael’s arms with the cylinder. The front of Sion’s dress and her knees were covered in grease. Asael was not particularly concerned about his parents getting suspicious. This was Sion and she could be counted on to get full of muck of some sort one way or another.

Asael put a finger to his lips. “Now we can find out if they plan on using sage on you.”

“Just as long as they do not cook me with cucumbers and tomatoes.”

Asael could hear his father speaking inside. “It is my parental duty to introduce my son to the ways of the world.” Serariah put particular emphasis on the “my.”

“And next you are going to tell me that your parental duties include taking our son whoring. It is quite the common practice, you know, among members of the upper class. My father took my brothers when they turned fifteen.”

“Hasan is a whoremonger, not to be confused with an actual whore. I also readily grant you,” Serariah began ticking off on his fingers, “that he is a fornicator, certainly according to nature and I will keep my gentlemen’s silence about any unnatural fornication, a blasphemer, an eater of forbidden foods and a desecrator of the Lord’s Day besides for being the truest friend I ever had.”

“Personally I would not mind as much if you introduced our son to some actual whores. He could then appreciate the sort of harm people like Hasan do to real people.”

“If we are going to ban whoremongers and fornicators from our company I am afraid we will have to excuse ourselves from most of society including your father and both your brothers.”
“Just a call for consistency,” said Hefzibah ever so sweetly.

Asael gave Sion a thumb up. “So far so good for you; Ima has not mentioned your name yet.” Hefzibah’s voice came down the wire. “I went looking for you in the park because of Sion.”
Asael made a throat cutting gesture with his finger. “Not good for you. Ima has just put you on the top of her agenda list.”

“You see,” said Sion. “When I got home from my play date at Ya’qirq's farm down the road.”

“Sion you do not have play dates on Ya’qub Qirqisani’s farm, you just went there without permission.”

“Well anyway,” sniffed Sion, “Ima starting muttering ‘so help me I am going to kill that thing’ and she just walked back and forth like that until finally she dragged me off to you and Abba.”

Asael put his ear to the cylinder again to listen in. “As the man in the house I think it is only fair that you dispose the little package Sion managed to bring home.”

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Maimon on Hasidim: Are Haredim Capable of Acts of Virtue?

In earlier posts I discussed the importance of an ethical God as the basis for a truly monotheistic religion. I am not a big fan of Solomon Maimon. As with Voltaire, I find Maimon to have been a miserable excuse for a human being. His autobiography is useful mainly for its “how I became an apikores” and “how I gave my rebbe a heart attack” hilarity. In the following passage from his autobiography, though, he does say something of value.

But as these people [the Hasidim] have false ideas of religion itself and their virtue has as its basis merely the future rewards and punishments of an arbitrary tyrannical being who governs by mere caprice, their actions in point of fact flow from an impure source, namely the principle of interest. Moreover, in their case this interest rests merely on fancies; so that, in this respect, they are far below the grosses Epicureans, who have a low, to be sure, but nevertheless genuine interest as the end of their actions. Only when it is itself founded on the idea of virtue can religion yield a principle of virtue.

Haredi apologists, such as Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz of the Yated, often point to the willingness of individual members of their community to perform acts of kindness even to random strangers. Such things are obviously commendable and I acknowledge that the greatest strength of this community is the personal goodness of its individuals. That being said the source of such goodness makes any claim to virtue problematic. Haredim are very open about the fact that the source of their morality is their belief that they are commanded by God to behave in such a manner and that God will reward or punish them based on their actions. I do not challenge the proposition of divine reward and punishment either in this world or in some future world, but to have it as the primary motivation for ones actions negates any virtue.

There is the classical Kantian quandary of if my friend is sick, do I visit him and why. If I am a Kantian then I must visit my friend in keeping with a universal ethical imperative, but if I act out of such a universal imperative I am not acting as a friend, out of any sense of emotional attachment. On the reverse side, if I go as a friend than I am not acting according to a universal imperative and am therefore as a Kantian. This requires one to redefine friendship as something apart from emotional attachment. I recognize that it is physically impossible to live up to the full extent of one’s ethical imperatives to the entire human race. For example, I could not possibly go visit every sick person in the world even though would all, in theory at least, be deserving of my attention. The solution is to pick a limited number of people and devote one’s efforts in fulfilling one’s ethical imperatives with them. These people are labeled friends. As an Asperger this understanding of friendship works perfectly for me and I have no problem understanding love I these terms.

If a Haredi person comes to visit me because I am sick, I have to assume that he is not doing it out of any actual concern for me or any desire to be virtuous. The only reason why he is visiting me is because he believes that he is earning points with his god, which can be cashed in for goodies in this world and in the next. If this Haredi person’s god, or whomever this Haredi person takes as speaking for god, tomorrow tells him to spit at me and laugh at the fact that I am incapacitated and that he will score special bonus points for doing so then I have every reason to assume that he would spit and laugh at me. In the end the only people who can be virtuous are those who act out of the principle that what they do has innate value as a virtuous action, regardless of any divine command, offer of reward or threat of punishment.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Fifteenth World Congress of Jewish Studies: Hebrew Bibliography in Early Modern Europe

Adam ShearReuchlin and the Categorization of Jewish Literature circa 1500

How did Early Modern Jews organize books? How did such categories affect how the books were treated? Such a study should reveal something about the mental framework of those who used them. One place to look are lists of books whether Jewish nor non-Jewish. These lists, though, are not divided by categories. Historians are left using modern categories. Using our modern categories can obscure the relationship between these books. All historical research involves translation, but there is still a need to understand things as people at the time understood them. The Christian Hebraist Johannes Reuchlin responded to Johannes Pfefferkorn, a convert from Judaism, who had told the emperor that Jewish literature contained damaging material to Christians. Reuchlin defended the Talmud and Jewish rights. According to Reuchlin, Jews had legal protection and that furthermore their works benefited Christians. Reuchlin offers the earliest bibliographical scheme for Jewish books, going from most authoritative to least authoritative.

Holy Scripture – This carries the highest authority.

Talmud – Reuchlin makes no mention of the Mishnah nor does mention the Oral Law. He simply views the Talmud as exegesis on the Bible. As a Christian he was not about to lend any extra authority to the Talmud as having any basis in a tradition. This stance, though, also helps when dealing with anti-Christian statements. Reuchlin could argue that such statements were not intrinsic to Judaism.

Kabbalah - This was not something that Pfefferkorn or the Cologne theologians were familiar with. This had more to do with Reuchlin’s interests.

Commentaries – These, Reuchlin points out, are not binding, like the Talmud.

Midrash and Sermons – Reuchlin removes Midrash as a category of series of authority and places it on the same level of medieval sermons. There is no mention of Jewish liturgy.

Philosophy

Poetry, fables – These are deemed by Reuchlin as whimsical. Even the Jews, he claims, do not take them seriously. Reuchlin places the Nizzahon and Toldot Yeshu in this category. He even makes the claim that the Jews forbid these books themselves. Reuchlin may have been a naive sap but a very canny lawyer.

As Yaacov Deutsch argues, this is a period in which Christians, particularly converts, begin to offer descriptions of what Jews do. There is a parallel to the Barcelona debate of 1263. Reuchlin seems to engage in both sides of the Barcelona Debate. Like Nachmonides he tried to limit authority of midrashic literature. On the other hand he wished to give a Christian interpretation of Jewish texts.

(Dr. Shear is the author of the Kuzari and the Shaping of Jewish Identity and the Tea, Lemon, Old Books.)


Stephen G. BurnettJean Plantavit de la Pause’s Bibliotheca Rabbinica (1645) and Seventeenth - Century Jewish Bibliography

The Christian Hebraist Jean Plantavit de la Pause’s (1576 – 1651) bibliography of Jewish books, Biblia Rabbinica, is often criticized for repeating the errors of Johannes Buxtorf and adding his own. Plantavit is still valuable as an example of this period where knowledge of Judaism growing because of converts and because of more Judaic libraries. Plantavit lead a dramatic life with two theological careers. He was born into a Hugonaut family and trained as a Protestant theologian. He converted to Catholicism after he already had a degree in theology. Interested in Hebrew, Plantavit studied with Leone Modena. Modena encouraged him to start his own Hebrew library. Modena may have done this out of self interest as he was a book seller. Plantavit also studied under Domenico Gerosolimitano, the converted Jew who served as the chief censor for the Catholic Church. (See Amnon Raz-Krakotzkin’s The Censor, the Editor, and the Text.)

Biblia Rabbinica was intended to replace Buxtorf’s work. Such a bibliography served a Catholic polemical purposes. In a post Index world, Catholics needed a guide as to what books were permitted to read and quote. Plantavit owned over one hundred and eighty books out of eight hundred books he listed. He also owned a copy of the Jerusalem Talmud, even though he does not list it. This book was banned; Plantavit was more interested in telling other people what to read than in following his own advice. While Plantavit had Buxtorf outnumbered by two to one, the younger Johannes Buxtorf put out an updated version of his father’s book five years earlier. This had over a thousand Hebrew books, making Plantavit’s book outdated from the start. Between the two of them, Buxtorf and Plantavit only listed about a quarter of the Hebrew books printed.

Fifteenth World Congress of Jewish Studies: Jewish Philosophy in the Middle Ages – Authority and Sources

Jonathan Dauber – Knowledge of God as a Religious Imperative in Early Kabbalah

Students of Isaac the Blind referred to themselves as Kabbalists. They developed their own traditions, combining many different elements. Kabbalah is not just the sum of existing traditions, it created something new. Why this impulse to fashion new traditions? One explanation is the coming of philosophy in the form of such thinkers as Abraham bar Hiyya, Abraham ibn Ezra and Maimonides and the translation of Greek philosophy from Arabic sources. Moshe Idel updates Heinrich Graetz who argued that Kabbalah was a reaction to philosophy. The Kabbalists were trying to set the record set. They saw themselves as the true interpretation of Judaism as opposed to philosophy. This first reaction does not preclude the possibility that Maimonides played a positive role in Kabbalistic thought.

The various philosophical works mentioned share the commonality that the study of philosophy could have religious value. Judah ibn Tibbon translated Bahya ibn Pekudah who believed that one had to “pursue this wisdom.” This is a philosophical turn that does not come from rabbinic thought. In his commentary on Song of Songs, Ezra of Gerona, a student of Isaac the Blind, argued that actively seeking out and gaining knowledge of God is the principle of everything. This is following Maimonides who held that the first commandment is to seek out the first cause. As Jacob Katz points out, Ezra of Gerona’s list of the commandments are close to Maimonides. Rabbi Ezra sees the source from Deuteronomy “and you should know today” and not the “I am the Lord thy God.” This is like ibn Pekudah.

Philosophy would say that one cannot actually study God, but only his actions. Ashur b. David saw the sephirot as God’s actions. Asher b. David was the nephew of Rabbi Isaac. His Sepher HaYichud presented Kabbalah in a popular manner. He uses “and you should know today.” As he explains, Moshe, the prophets and the Messiah charged us to investigate the Creator. This is identified as the catalyst for his work.

The Gerona Kabbalists, who came later, are more hostile to Maimonides than the Provencal Kabbalists. Early Kabbalah is open to a moderate Maimonides. We need a reverse of Menachem Kellner’s book on the influence of Kabbalah on Maimonides and talk about Maimonides’ influence on Kabbalah.


Arthur HymanMaimonides on Intellect and Imagination

Maimonides wrote the Guide to the Perplexed to offer a philosophical interpretation of the Torah. He never, though, provided the philosophy itself. Instead he relied on the Arabic books of his day. Leo Strauss, years ago, pointed this out that the Guide is not a work of philosophy. The main purpose of the Guide is to elucidate difficult points of the Law. It becomes the task of the interpreter to construct the background of Maimonides philosophy. Maimonides does not follow one Muslim philosopher consistently. He does not develop full theories of the intellect and the imagination. His interest in the intellect is largely psychological. With the imagination he is interested in the political, its role in prophecy and the creation of a society.

Maimonides attacked the Mutakalim because confuse the categories of the imagination with the intellect, assuming that anything that imaginable can exist. Maimonides is troubled by the Metukalim’s proof for God from creation. These are categories based on the imagination. All that could be pointed to from creation is that there are certain irregularities in the cosmos which imply the existence of God. Maimonides attacks Avicenna as well because he claimed that the intellect enters from without and can return there. Maimonides goes with the early Greek interpretation of Aristotle which claimed that the intellect is a material element that arises in the human being.

This is interesting because it does not offer a mechanism for life after death. Did Maimonides believe in individual immortality or did he follow ibn Bajja and Averroes and believe in collective immortality? Maimonides actually quotes ibn Bajja in the guide. Samuel ibn Tibbon and Moshe Narboni along with more recent commentators such as Shlomo Pines believed the later. Alexander Altmann held the former. Is Maimonides even entitled to a view on life after death? According to Aristotle anything that comes into existence must cease to exist. Maimonides held certain exceptions, such as the world which will forever be maintained by a specific act of God’s will.

Maimonides believed that the masses understand the categories through their imagination while the elites understand through their intellects. Should the masses be enlightened? Averroes said no because it would lead them to unbelief. Maimonides disagreed at least in terms of teaching them that God has no attributes.

Imagination has a positive role to play, for Maimonides, in prophecy. A prophet needs to have imagination. A philosopher and a lawgiver could get by with just intellect. Following the platonic model of the philosopher returning to the cave, the imagination is required for the parables needed to convey ideas to the people.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Fifteenth World Congress of Jewish Studies: Enlightenment and Mysticism in Early Modernity

Matt GoldishHakham David Nieto’s Failed Skepticism in his Argument from Acoustic Delusion

David Nieto 1654-1728 was born to a Sephardic family in Venice and trained both as a rabbi and as a physician. He went to London in 1701 to assume a rabbinic post there. Upon arriving, he found a lot of religious skepticism. This was a community of former conversos skeptical of the Talmudic tradition and of the Oral Law. Nieto wrote a book titled the Kuzari HaSheni to defend the Talmud. Nieto often referred to science. As David Ruderman discusses, in this he was a parallel to the Newtonian physico-theologians.

In the fourth dialogue of his Kuzari, Nieto discusses the issue of acoustic delusions. People can be tricked into thinking they hear heavenly voices. This is Neito’s explanation of the story in the Talmud of the ovens where a heavenly voice comes out to defend Rabbi Eliezer and the rabbis still go against him. This is why Rabbi Joshua was right to reject the heavenly voice. To accept it would open one up to tricks by those with greater knowledge of technology. Nieto brings down various stories of tubes use to amplify the voice; there is one for example about a lord who watches his servant with a telescope and calls out with a voice tube, scaring the servant nearly to death. Where did these tales come from? Nieto was almost certainly familiar with the German theologian Athanasius Kircher. This line of work is part of a larger body of works, which attempted to use the new science of sound to explain ancient texts. These texts are often viewed as an embarrassment by modernists. They are in many respects closer to the magic of Robert Fludd and John Dee than to the science of Newton.

Despite Neito’s university education his sources were thirty to sixty years out of date. Nieto was interested in science but he was dealing with issues of a generation ago. He was still going up against the likes of Uriel de Costa, who challenged the Talmud. His congregants were dealing with Spinozism and radical skepticism, which point blank denied scripture. He kept to the role of a learned cleric devoted to dealing with the breaches that he could deal with.

Why was the Haskalah a German phenomenon? Nieto with his congregation of former conversos had the opportunity to do what many of his contemporary Christian clerics were doing to create a conservative Enlightenment. Why did Nieto not have followers like Mendelssohn? Nieto was just not a big enough guy. He stops sort of the big argument. Maybe he was acting as a provocateur? If the head of the Beit Din of Venice (Leone Modena) could be suspected of writing Kol Shakol maybe Nieto as well. Neito, though, seems to have been a very conservative person. That being said, we do have him early in his career saying that God is nature and that nature was God.


Sharon Flatto – Ecstatic Encounters on the Danube: Enlightenment and Mysticism

The maskil Moshe Kunits (1774-1837) writes of a mystical encounter on the river Danube where God tells him to write the biography of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. This becomes the book Ben Yochi. This work was supposed to offer the reader a mystical experience. This is not as strange as it might seem as many maskilim espoused Kabbalistic ideas. Moshe Maimon and Moshe Landeau followed a similar line.

It has generally been claimed that the haskalah and Kabbalah had nothing to do with each other. Isaiah Tishby and Gershom Scholem argue for this. Shaul Magid, today, also claims this. As Boaz Hoss, though, argues, the early maskilim did not always reject Kabbalah. This is in keeping with the work of David Sorkin and Shmuel Feiner who argue that the haskalah was actually not that radical. We have a poem by maskil Moses Mendel eulogizing Rabbi Ezekiel Landau that is built around the names of the sephirot. Contrary to Alexander Altmann, who argued that Mendelssohn banished mysticism from Judaism. Mendelssohn goes with the Kabbalists over Maimonides in regards to the principles of faith. Solomon Maimon talks about preferring Cordovarian Kabbalah over Lurianic Kabblah.

Scholem believed that Kabbalah served as a means to argue for Halachic reform. Jacob Katz disagreed. This talk plays to both views. Many of these maskilim were still committed to normative Jewish practice, but they were also committed to challenging the status quo. Kabbalah served both sides of this agenda.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Calvin and Hobbes the Documentary


One of the most influential forces in my childhood was the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson. Calvin and Hobbes is about the adventures of a six year old named Calvin and his stuffed tiger Hobbes. (Whether Hobbes is a real live tiger or only a figment of Calvin’s imagination is a matter left up to the reader.) Calvin and Hobbes was written in an era before Asperger syndrome was known in the United States and long before I was diagnosed. That being said I do see Calvin as a poster child for Asperger syndrome. He is someone with an adult processing system, even if he applies it to a six year old’s understanding of the world, who does not relate to others. Instead Calvin prefers to live in a world of his own creation full of tigers, superheroes and aliens. The other humans in the strip may see Calvin as a misbehaving child, who simply refuses to comply with what is expected of him. The reader, though, knows better; Calvin is special in his own right, who needs to be judged by a different standard.


Watterson retired from the strip in 1995 largely because he refused to commercialize his strip and allow for tie in products. The only tie in product he ever allowed was a limited edition textbook for special education children and that was because teachers begged him to allow them to formally use his work in their classrooms. There are not many people out there who can say that they turned their backs on millions of dollars over a matter of principle. Considering all this, there is a snowball’s chance in hell of there ever being a Calvin and Hobbes movie ever being made. A documentary on this strip, though, is now in the works, called Dear Mr. Watterson. It is a work by fans of the strip, talking about what Calvin and Hobbes means for them.



Teaser from DMW on Vimeo.

Fifteenth World Congress of Jewish Studies: The Temple in Second Temple and Rabbinic Literature

Louis H. FeldmanPhilo’s Attitude toward the Temple in Jerusalem

Despite the fact that Philo was so important in the political life of Alexandria, he says very little about himself. He had a brother, Lysimachus, whose son, Tiberius, left Judaism, become governor of Egypt and was a general in the war against Judea. We have more philosophical writings from Philo than anyone in the period. Josephus mentions him briefly. Jerome refers to him as a Christian monk in Alexandria. There is a legend that Philo met with Peter. In essence Philo was made a Christian in honoris causa.

Philo wanted to be a philosopher and a mystic rather than a communal leader. As a biblical commentator, he criticized both extremes in the literal versus inner meaning debate. This would destroy the sanctity of the Temple to just go with the inner meaning. This was certainly an issue of great importance to Philo as talks about personally going to the Temple. He also prominently discusses the attempt by Caligula to stick a statue of himself in the Temple. In the letter from Agrippa to Caligula, quoted by Philo, Agrippa talks about how the Temple is the most beautiful in the world and that he is proud to have it in his home city. Philo does not mention the temple of the Samaritans. For him the Temple in Jerusalem is the end point of heaven and earth. He is proud of the fact that money collected from Jews around the world goes to the Temple. According to Philo, there are two temples; the one in Jerusalem and that of the rational facilities.
(I asked Dr. Feldman about Philo’s Hebrew. It is generally acknowledge that Philo did not know Hebrew and that he was completely dependent on the Septuagint. If Philo loved the Temple so much why did he not bother to learn the language spoken in it. Feldman suggested that Philo may have been so devoted to the Bible and connecting it to Greek thought that he neglected other issues like the language of the Bible.)

Michael Tuval – From Temple to Torah: On the Development of Josephus’ Religion

Josephus went from Jerusalem to Rome and became a Roman citizenship. He changed as a person from a Jerusalem priest to a Diaspora intellectual. Diaspora Judaism was different in that it downplayed the role of the Temple. Instead it focused on synagogues and other communal institutions. For Jews in the Diaspora biblical heroes were better intercessors in heaven than earthly priests. For Judean Jews, Mosaic Law was the law of the land. For Diaspora Jews, Mosaic Law was something they kept as a matter of choice. Josephus places greater emphasis on Mosaic Law in his later work Antiquities than in the Jewish War. Jewish War can be seen as a theological text. God destroyed the Temple because of the sins of the Judeans. It had nothing to do with the strength of Rome. This is a Temple centered world view. By the time we reach the Antiquities he is a biblical expert. He is also takes a more favorable view of the Pharisees as interpreters of the Law.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Religion in America Blog

I would like to put the word out about a blog that I just came across called Religion in America. This site is run by Paul Matzko and Lincoln Mullen, who are graduate students in history. What makes this blog of particularly interest to me is the fact that Matzko and Mullen are both from Christian Evangelical backgrounds. Their site is largely about the confrontation between their academic selves and religious fundamentalism. As readers of this blog know, my confrontation with my own fundamentalist background is a major topic here. Matzko and Mullen deserve a lot of credit for the quality of their writing. Their work is sophisticated yet should be readable even by this that lack academic backgrounds. This blog is still fairly new, but I am looking forward to see what they do with it.

Fifteenth World Congress of Jewish Studies: Reconsidering the Portuguese Jewish Nation

Yosef Kaplan – Building of Sephardic Communities in the “Confessionalization Era:” A Comparative Approach

Confessionalization has not paid attention to Jews. Few references to Jews refer them as a marginal group influenced by Calvinists and Catholics. Jews in fact did undergo their own Confessionalization process even though they had no legal force behind this move. Confessionalization can be seen as the process of creating barricades around different churches. (For example, over the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Western Europe became fractionalized into Catholic, Lutheran and Calvinist regions; each one committed maintaining their ideological distinctions even through force.) This model can be used to understand the western Sephardic Diaspora.

Sephardic Confessionalization, like the general European one, required the effort to consciously establish boundaries. Spokesmen used Manichean rhetoric of the struggle of the religion wars; Judaism gives eternal salvation versus Christianity which offers eternal damnation. (For a specific example of this see Marc Saperstein’s Exile in Amsterdam: Saul Levi Morteira’s Sermons to a Congregation of “New Jews.”) No state stood behind the “Nacion;” we are dealing with an ethnic group that possessed different faiths. Those who followed the banner of traditional Judaism wanted to affect a confessional migration away from lands where Judaism could not be practiced.

The Sephardic elites, backed by the secular authorities, used the power of medieval communities to their utmost. Isaac Cardoso, a converso who returned in Verona, based his ideal government on the model of the Nacion. According to Abraham Pereyra, governors are in charge but they must follow the guidance of the rabbis who are experts in Jewish law. This follows the model of Christian thought as to the relationship between rulers and clergy.

We do not have confession manuels for Sephardic communities. On the book shelf of our former Spanish and Portuguese conversos we find books on prayer and treasuries of commandments. Ceremonies of circumcision were particularly important for those coming from the peninsula. Shavuot became a central event. Proclamations of excommunication were given special pomp as well as the confessions of those who wished to return. This is a very confessional mode of thinking. Sephardic culture presented Judaism civilized and culture in keeping with European genteel culture. Architecture was keeping with confessionalization. We see church-like disciple and a demand for uniformity in dogma. Extensive social discipline was designed to ensure obedience to the ruling system and the unity of the congregation. (For more on this topic see Miriam Bodian’s Hebrews of the Portuguese Nation.)

This does not fit into the Jacob Katz model, which focused on Ashkenazic Jews. With Katz there is little effort to distinguish Jews from Christians in terms of doctrine. (See Tradition and Crisis) We have dozens of Sephardic anti-Christian polemics. For those who had left Christianity the debate with Christianity was an intrinsic part of their being.

(During the question and answer session someone asked about the lachrymose narrative. Kaplan made the interesting point that the main source of the lachrymose history today are general European history text books in which Jews do not exist unless as victims, being kicked out of England and from Spain. All this leading up to the Holocaust.)

Fifteenth World Congress of Jewish Studies: Teaching Jewish Thought

Jonathan CohenThe Concept of Responsibility in Levinas and Soloveitchik: Implications for Jewish Education

Emmanuel Levinas’ Totality and Infinity makes for an interesting comparison to Rabbi Yosef B. Soloveitchik. This should not be surprising as they both came from the Lithuanian tradition. Levinas has three different types of people. Soloveitchik, his essay “Confrontation” is similar. The first level for Soloveitchik is the natural man. Levinas, similarly, has the level of enjoyment. These are the unmediated imbibing of the environment. At this level there is no reflection. The next level for Soloveitchik is Adam the First; he is a dignified planner. For Soloveitchik there is no dignity without responsibility. One cannot assume responsibility as long as one cannot live up to his commitments. Levinas has man engaging in labor. He plans for the future and sets means and relations to ends. Soloveitchik’s Adam Two is devoted to total sacrifice to the other. Levinas has the man forced to sacrifice in the face of the other. For Soloveitchik, communication becomes a redemptive act while for Levinas one is commanded by the mere face of the other.

The major difference between Soloveitchik and Levinas is over the issue of responsibility. To be responsible, for Soloveitchik, is to take charge. For Levinas it is the readiness to respond to the other. This does not require power. On the contrary, human beings, by definition, are not powerful. This is the basis of Levinas’ attack on Paul and Christianity. As we fulfill commandments we take on more responsibilities so we can never fulfill them all. We are by definition inadequate; we are always late. This leaves us in a state of insomnia as we need to be in a state of perpetual readiness.

To apply this to education. Soloveitchik seems to follow the Dewy education system. Education should be a microcosm of the real world. If one wants a democratic system you have to bring democracy into the classroom and teach the students the sort of responsibility and restraint necessary for a democratic society. Levinas would need a different educational strategy. One that takes into account the perpetual debt to the other and perpetual guilt. This would require a system that works counter to what we want; much as art and sports education run counter to what we want. We want spontaneity, but to get that we need drill. For Levinas, we need to give students a sense of empowerment even though we intend to depose the ego.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Fifteenth World Congress of Jewish Studies - Jewish Thought: New Challenges

Alan Brill – Is There Still a Mystery to Mysticism after Modernity?

You can find the full lecture at Fordham. This is just a small piece that deals with Judaism. Today mysticism has dropped off the map. Instead we tend to use words that are more descriptive. There are five major schools in thinking about mysticism.

The first school treats mysticism as a series of texts that offers images. This is the view you can find in Bernard McGinn and the Chicago school. Michael Fishbane is a Jewish representative of this school. For him mystical texts are a continuation of midrashic interpretation. The second school focuses on the lack of divine presence. This is very useful for people who do not want to talk about God anymore. An example of this is Arthur Green. According to Green, God withdraws from a dimension and allow us to engage in our own interpretation. You can use god language without dealing with the implications of it. The third school is the political. I will not deal with it here, considering where we are. The fourth school sees mysticism as esoteric writing and knowledge. This covers a wide range of people. Moshe Idel, for example, treats Kabbalah as esoteric knowledge, a map that one becomes familiar with. The goal of Kabbalah is to unpack the text using a number of methods. He downplays negative theology and Neo-Platonism in Kabbalah. Moshe Halbertal now follows this. In a strange way the Kabbalah Center also works like this. They have hidden secrets, technology of sorts, to understand the universe. To go to the other extreme, Haredi Kabbalist Moshe Shapiro works within this school. This allows him to go against science. From his perspective, he knows the secrets of reality and you in the university are just grasping at it. The fifth school focuses on meditation. Mysticism is not secret but an open practice that one learns how to do. The Dalai Lama and Mary Carruthers of NYU operate within this model. Carruthers even looks at medieval texts like this.

Many of us are used to looking at the Zohar from twentieth century categories. The first model looks at the metaphors for their own sake. What do they mean? The second model would try to deflect the theist language. If God is a tree it is not as scary. The fourth wants to ask about how you go from the plain meaning to the esoteric. The final model looks at the pragmatic elements. In the last twelve years there has been a turn away from devekut. Texts have become resources in of themselves. To make the comparison of the spider and the silkworm. In the Ingmar Bergman film, Through a Glass Darkly, a woman sees God as a spider. In the Zohar God is a silkworm spinning the universe. In post modernism we are no longer interested in the experience but in the image itself, god as the spider, god as the silkworm.

(See here for a series of clips of Dr. Brill teaching meditation. I will leave it to the reader to come to their own conclusions as to where Dr. Brill stands in terms of the various models he outlined.)

Eric LaweeAdam’s Mating with Animals: New Data on Christian and Jewish Receptions of a Strange Midrash

And now for something completely different. According to the opinion of Rabbi Eliezer, Adam mated with every species of animal but was not satisfied until he mated with Eve. Midrashim can have an effect even centuries after it was written. Rashi modified the midrash, but did not view this as strange that the first man engaged in bestiality. It only becomes a problem once Christians pick up on it. In the thirteenth century this Midrash was used by Nicholas Donin to attack Jews. Pablo Santa Maria also used this Midrash to mock Judaism. One solution for Jews was to read this non-literarily. Shem Tov, for example, argued that one should interpret such things according to their allegorical meaning in the way of Maimonides. Moshe ibn Gabbai interpreted this Midrash as saying that Adam investigated every animal with his intellect.

There is new data from the sixteenth century. This is the start of print and a wider diffusion of rabbinic writing among Christians. Sixtus of Siena, an apostate, used this Midrash. Johannes Reuchlin defended Rabbi Eliezer by saying that he only felt desire when he came to Eve. Rauchlin’s Jew, Simon, quotes Sefer Nizzahon (See David Berger’s Jewish-Christian Debate in the High Middle Ages.) arguing that Adam could not have had intercourse with insects. Censorship was one Christian solution for such a problem. In the third Bamberg edition we see a denuded Rashi that does not refer to this midrash.

In modern times we have Pastor Cohen G. Reckart in the role of Nicholas Donin for the internet age. He says about the Talmud that “No Christian could read this book in a true heart of faith in Jesus and not come away from a study of it shocked and alarmed.”Rabbi Shimon Schwab distinguished between higher order versus lower order animals. Adam might have had intercourse with high more human like animals. The Schottenstein Talmud goes in a different direction of earlier Artscroll references to Rabbi Eliezer, which acknowledged different opinions on the matter. The Schottenstein Talmud simply follows Maharal and says that this should not be taken literally.

Fifteenth World Congress of Jewish Studies: Religious Polemics and Conversion in the Middle Ages

Anastasia KeshmanSt. Stephen’s Hand in the Wrong Hands: On a Little-Known Anti-Jewish Account from Medieval France

We have an account of how the hand of St. Stephen came to Besancon in France. The purpose of this account was to justify the authenticity of the relic. St. Stephen’s relics were hidden until they were supposedly discovered in Jerusalem in the fifth century. Immediately after the hand was brought to France from Rome it was placed in a reliquary. This reflects the reality of twelfth century France when the story was written rather than the early Middle Ages when the event allegedly took place.

Jewish thieves stole the relic in the time of Protadius (seventh century) because they wanted the golden reliquary. They threw the hand into the river Dubius. This is a parallel to the original martyrdom of St. Stephen who was stoned by the Jews. A miracle happened and the river split, leaving the hand unharmed. Fishermen found the relic. The people of the church came to the river and brought it back in solemn ceremony. According to the account, the joy of the people was as if St. Stephen had come down from heaven.

Jews play a prominent role but this is not an anti-Jewish polemic. Rather it is a miracle story in which Jews play an incidental role. Jews are greedy for gold and driven by the Devil. They do not see or hear the truth. That being said, there is no physical description of Jews. They are not described as stinking or as big nosed. The St. Stephen text avoids abusive language of Jews. Unlike later medieval texts, there is no violence done to the Jews. The Jews in the text are transient, coming and going. This may be a reference to Jewish merchants passing through. As is often the case in Christian miracle stories, Jews know but do not believe. Thus, even though they do not accept Christ, they have access to particular knowledge that serves the Christian cause. For example, the Jew, Judas, finds the true cross for Queen Helena. The Host desecration miracle of the later Middle Ages also serves this purpose. Jews steal the Host and torture it. The Host then bleeds as in Paolo Uccelo’s Miracle of the Profaned Host painting.

The Jew serves to demonstrate the power of the holy object and set the miracle in motion.


Luis CortestIsidore of Seville, Thomas Aquinas, and Alonso de Cartagena on Forced Conversion.

One way to think of the Latin fathers is a period in which doctrine was established. You have history of events which also serve to establish doctrine. Few works can rival Augustine’s City of God. One of his goals was to explain the existence of Jews. According to Augustine, the Jewish Diaspora helps Christians. Jews need to be dispersed to serve as witnesses. Augustine’s was a policy of relative tolerance. Whether this position is true it is clear that there is an alternative that is far more hostile as in the case of the Visigoths. It was official policy to engage in forced conversion in the seventh century as was the case with Sisebut in 612.


Isidore of Seville was a contemporary of Sisebut. Besides for his etymology, Isidore also dabbled in the contra Judaeos genre. In this period conversion was a collective act not something for individuals. Baptism was considered the beginning of the road to becoming a Christian. There is a demise of the pagan intellectual elite. This created a need for a new line of apologetics to go after those who were only nominally Christian.

The thirteenth century has been viewed as a time of intense anti-Semitism. Jeremy Cohen connects this to the friars. Such leading members of the Dominican order as Raymond Martini and Raymond of Penafort wanted a lasting solution. In pursuit of this they created an organized mission to the Jews and used rabbinic texts. Thomas Aquinas wrote Summa Contra Gentiles as per request by Penafort. There is no call for forced conversion in Aquinas. Jews and heathens are not to be compelled to believe because they never received this belief. Those who received it, though, ought to be compelled to keep it. According to Aquinas, Jews ought to be able to practice their rites because it helps the Christian faith. Other religions carry no such benefit. Jewish children should not be baptized against their parents’ will. This would violate the rights of their parents. Also children might be persuaded later if only they could come to Christianity through reason; this opportunity would be lost if force were used. There is also the argument from natural law; according to natural law the child is connected to his parents until it comes to the use of reason. Clearly not all of the friars followed a fanatical line in regards to Jews.

Alonso de Cartagena was a converso and son of Pablo de Burgos. Cartagena defended the sincerity of the conversos. Norman Roth sees Cartagena as one of the key figures in establishing the Inquisition. He put through the decree from the Council of Basil banning the practice of Judaism by conversos. Forced conversion was a practice to be done in mass and not to individuals. This was something Torquemada would later fail to understand.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Fifteenth World Congress of Jewish Studies: What is Jewish (If Anything) in Isaiah Berlin’s Philosophy?

Dikla Sher – Isaiah Berlin vs. Hannah Arendt: Their Political Ideas through the Prism of their Jewish Identities

Isaiah Berlin and Hannah Arendt were very different thinkers. Berlin was quite open in his contempt for her. Much of their differences can be seen in their different experiences with totalitarianism and their criticism of Enlightenment. Berlin opposed the over-rationalism of the Enlightenment. The claim that human’s are the same everywhere and should have one reason. This comes from the Platonic ideal of one universal that applies everywhere. Such monism inevitably leads to totalitarianism. Arendt, coming from her personal experience with Nazi Germany, saw the failure of human rights as something beyond any government. Her criticism is political and not philosophical. For Arendt the most important right is to have rights. Such rights are based on societies and not, as Berlin argued, with individuals.
Berlin divided liberty into positive and negative liberty; he preferred negative liberty. True liberty requires examination, active decisions; to be free is to make an unforced choice. The attraction of totalitarianism is that it allows man to avoid action. Arendt distinguished freedom from liberty. True political freedom cannot be ownership but is part of man’s essence. To be free is to act. This action must take place in a shared public space.

Berlin acknowledged a value to nationalism in that it served the need for a common culture. Arendt’s community is not national; she opposed the nation state. In its place she supported a republican alternative. This is not the classic model of republicanism; Arendt went against Rousseau in that there, for her, is no giving up of individuality to the republican state. Instead one takes on an additional identity; thus making the individual life richer.

Neither Berlin nor Arendt believed that one had to be religious. They do not use Jewish sources. Their Jewish identities, though, were dominant. Berlin celebrated Jewish holidays as a way to identity with his community and heritage, which he wanted to continue. Arendt, writing to Scholem, said that she never felt that she had to identify herself as a Jew; being a Jew was a fact of life. Berlin was a strong supporter for Zionism from the beginning. Arendt saw the power of Zionism in terms of taking responsibility for Jewish problems. She turned against Zionism, though, when she found out that it would be a Jewish national state without cooperation with the Arabs. It was a forced solution after the social one had failed.


Joshua Laurence Cherniss – Judaism, Jewishness, and Liberalism in Isaiah Berlin’s Political Thought

There is a difference between Judaism and Jewishness. Judaism here can be taken to refer to a set of given beliefs. Jewishness is to be defined in terms of a culture that one is in dialogue with. In terms of Judaism there is not much there in Berlin. He did not use Jewish texts in his writing. Conditioned by his own views of Judaism as an intellectual position, he viewed Judaism as a series of claims that were outside of reason or ethics. A pivotal example of this is God commanding Abraham to sacrifice his son. Similar to Yeshayahu Leibowitz, Berlin saw this as a move against the ethical. For Berlin, to respect Judaism was to reject it.

Berlin was engaged in the situation of Jews in a post emancipation world. For Berlin this emancipation was a failure. This larger course of Jewish history comes from his experience with the Russian situation. There was more persecution, but Jewish life enjoyed a greater coherence and integrity. It was not surprising to Berlin that Zionism was more successful in Russia than in the West. Jews had a model in the Russian intelligentsia to imitate, which Berlin greatly admired this. Berlin also had his experience with British Jewry. They lacked persecution but suffered from a class conscious society. They were caught trying to fit into society that was not made for them, wearing clothes that did not fit. For Berlin liberty was a matter of choice. To be deprived of choice is to be denied the fundamental dignity of a human being. The tragedy of the Jew was that choices were not open to them.

(During the question and answer section there was some discussion of A. N. Wilson’s attack on Berlin as the “dictaphone don” in the Times Literary Supplement, which depicts Berlin in ways that were quite contrary to that of the panelists.)

The Fifteenth World Jewish Congress: Jewish Centers in Medieval Western Europe

Bernard Rosensweig – Did Rabbis Play a Central Role in the Ashkenazic Communities after the Black Death?

The Black Death more so than the Crusades was the turning point for German Jewry. Rabbi Jacob Weil divides the level of scholarship between before and after the decrees following the Black Death. Acts of violence, committed during this period had succeeded in eliminating many scholars and lowered the level of scholarship. New laws needed to be clarified. We have a rabbinic conference in Nuremburg in 1438 to deal with this breakdown in community. The creation of books of customs now became necessary as questions of daily routine now came to the fore.

In this period of confusion and chaos the rabbi stepped into the void and provided a singular kind of leadership, going beyond the individual community. The rabbi serves as a center of Jewish unity, providing continuity and structure. We can see this in the attempts by the civil authorities to impose the position of chief rabbi on communities. These attempts failed but they show how important the position was and that the authorities were aware of this. An example of this new kind of rabbi was Rabbi Jacob Weil, who represented the community of Augsburg in negotiating with the emperor and at Nuremburg. We may bemoan the abuse of authority by unsavory characters only goes to show a new found power to the rabbinate as the community is weakened.

Mordechai Breuer wished to show that the rabbinate as was on the decline and that rabbis were caught in the position of trying to stem the tide going against them. Rabbi Moshe Mintz was the only rabbi to put in ordinances based on his own authority. He did this in Bamberg. They are in the most obvious areas on religion. There is nothing on communal life like personal status and monetary issues. Mintz only recording some of his ordinances. In order to establish his authority he had to do so in the most obvious areas of Jewish life.

Rabbi Jacob Weil, when he came to Erfurt, found a community is disorder and put in ordinances to clarify basic matters of Jewish law. It is true that it was the parnaism who negotiated tax agreements and collected them from the community. Rabbis did, though, have a role in taxes. They helped set the ground rules for assessing taxes. Wealthy Jews tried to get special breaks, increasing the burden on the rest of the community. Rabbi Israel Isserlin declared that a practice had to done by the community three times in order to take effect.

In conclusion there are clear continuities after the Black Death. We see more of a professional rabbinate. This generation did produce a talented group of scholars and they launched a new school of scholarship that influenced Rabbi Moshe Isserles in the sixteenth century. There was a decline but it was not at the beginning but rather at the end of the fifteenth century as Israel Yuval argued.

(Dr. Haym Soloveitchik goes to the other extreme, arguing that Germanic Jewry was on the decline from the end of the thirteenth century due to the collapse of imperial authority during these decades, which resulted in the large scale massacre of Jews.)

Monday, August 3, 2009

Asael VIII

This is part of my ongoing novel. Think of it as Killer Angels taking place in a musket and magic fantasy world with characters that combine the religious sensibilities of American revivalism with Beowulf-like blood feuds. All this while they engage in Talmudic style dialectics. Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition is about to take on a whole new meaning.

Introduction, A Note from the Author, Prologue, I, II, III,IV, V, VI, VII

Serariah and Kochba had gone to the other side of a row of shoulder high bushes that marked the edge of the park when Asael saw his mother striding toward them. Hefzibah Dolstoy was a formidable creature even at less than three and a half amot. Her head and face were veiled in the traditional Khazar manner and a dark blue dress that came to her ankles. The dress outlined her swelling pregnant stomach, which, like the dress and the scarf on her head, miraculously seemed to fail to slow her or soften her movements. Trailing behind her, holding on to her hand and bouncing up to keep up was her four year old daughter Sion. Unlike Asael, this child was the spitting image of its father. “Hi Ima.” Asael dusted himself off and greeted his mother smartly. Hefzibah seemed to ignore him as she passed him by. Asael caught Sion on the bounce. “Hello Asa. Ima is planning is planning on chopping me into little bits.” Asael hugged his sister. "Not again."

"Yup," said Sion. "This time she really means it."

Kochba saw Hefzibah coming from over Serariah’s shoulder; for once he was glad to be nearly half an amah shorter than his friend and could hide in his hulking shadow. “How is it that your wife can be pregnant, be as beautiful as ever and look even more ferocious after more than fourteen years of me knowing her?” Serariah’s gaze darted around. With the methodical purposefulness of man thinking calmly under fire, Serarah grabbed Kochba by the neck and pushed him down behind the bushes below eyelevel.

Kochba let out a soft gurgle under the pressure of Serariah’s laborer's hands. “I have no intention of ever trying to sleep with the thing. Not even if you put a gun to my head. It sounds more reasonable to take my chances with a bullet.”Serariah’s fingers tightened either because of the comments or because his wife had now approached the hedge.

“A good afternoon Shapirta,[1]” Serariah greeted. “I am surprised to see you out and about.” Hefzibah, unable to look over the hedge, starred up at her husband and smiled. It was a romantic smile, the kind that spoke with eyes and teeth more than with lips. “Hasan Kochba you can stop servicing my husband and come out now.”

Serariah let go of Kochba’s throat. Kochba stood up coughing more strenuously than was strictly necessary. “I performed nothing unlawful. If I was of service it was in giving him my death.”

Hefzibah’s gaze continued to ignore Kochba. “And I am sure it was a very noble service indeed. My only regret is that your lips are still moving. Apparently my husband likes your lips more than mine.”

“Serariah is a brave man who insists on braving the jaws of only the most ferocious creatures, my lady.” That comment brought Serariah’s hands back around Kochba’s throat. “I think that is enough out of you for a day.”

Seeing the commotion, Asael joined his mother by the hedge, carrying Sion. “You see Sion; Ima wants to kill the nice Colonel even more than she wants to kill you and even if she did want to kill you she would not chop you up; she would just order Abba to do it.”

“Colonel” Hefzibah gasped. “And I was still waiting for someone to appoint you dog catcher.”

Sion struck a pose with hips and turned her head upward to Asael, scrunching her face in defiance. “Ima wants to chop me up into little pieces even more than she usually does and she now even has Colonel to eat on the side because I am not fat enough.”

Kochba’s face began to change color, which pleased Hefzibah. “You can let him go now.” Serariah retreated his hands into the fold of his jacket. Kochba, now free, slumped against the hedge, breathing in gasps. “That is the last time I try offering you a job.” He then hugged Serariah. “I miss getting strangled by you. Can you walk me back to my room? I would like to get a few miles before nightfall.”

Hefzibah shooed the two children away, leaving the two friends in peace. Walking home, Asael tried to quarry his mother about Colonel Kochba. “You don’t like Abba’s friend do you?”

Hefzibah picked up her pace, a usual sign of her not being pleased. “Colonel Hasan Kochba is a godless kofar with the forked tongue of a serpent.” Asael knew better than to walk this path, but in the few hours since he had met the Colonel he had come to think of him as a friend and this made his mother’s comment a personal matter. “You are just saying that because he is in the military.”

“An evil job will attract evil men like flies around a carcass. Asael, who is it that says things like ‘by the might of my hand?’ What sort of person calls to his horses chariots?”Asael had heard this line of argument before countless times and responded, matching verse with verse. “One who has no God and who worships a graven image, a creation of man.”

“So,” said Hefzibah, “someone who puts his faith in the weapons of man is no different than the idolater who prays to the statue he has created.”

“Silly people bow to statues,” chimed in Sion.

“That is right Sion,” said Hefzibah, clapping her daughter’s hands together. “Is Rachmana in a statue?”

“No Rachmana is there, there and there.” Sion pointed in different directions, very pleased with herself.

“You still have not told me what is particularly wrong with Colonel Kochba. I mean there lots of people in the military.”

“Because,” said Hefzibah breathing in deeply, “there are certain people whose actions go beyond the expected to such an extent that they become particularly noteworthy. Some sins are easily overlooked in a crowd of sinners. It needs just that one person to truly push the boundaries of sin for one to look back and see the sin for what it is.”

“I do not understand where you are going with this.”

“Let me put it too you straight. Hasan Kochba is the sort of godless man, who stands out among other godless men. Most godless people only want an excuse to sin. Kochba, at his very core, does not believe. He and others like him have replaced God with man.”

“But what does this have to do with the military?”

“People like Kochba are attracted to the military because, having turned themselves into gods, they wish to rule over others as gods. Look at other people and there might be some doubt. Rachmana therefore allowed for someone like Kochba to exist so that all can see the truth. He is a liar who will let other men die to serve his ambitions.”

“But Abba likes him.”

Hefzibah stopped walking. She took Sion down from Asael’s arms and grabbed him by the shoulder. If she was going to pick her words carefully on the topic of Kochba she was certainly be careful when it came to her husband. “Asael, one has to want to see in order to be shown. Your father walks in perilous places, but, Rachmana be blessed, has not been harmed. Your father may be a great man, but because his faith is so strong does not see the danger he is in nor can he see the danger to others of weaker faith.”

[1] Beautiful