Sunday, January 31, 2010
Last night I received an email response to my post on the Protocols of the Elders of Zion:
At the Library of Congress is an obscure book by Samuel Igra which makes the case that "The Protocols...Zion" was actually written by George Bernard Shaw. I don't remember the title, but I read a portion in DC when I was researching another book by Igra and I remember thinking at the time that his case seemed quite plausible, though I don't remember the details now.
It is common knowledge that Shaw was a close friend of the homosexual poet Bruce Douglas, the "translator" of the Protocols.
Dr. Scott Lively
Scott Lively (I am willing to assume this email is genuine and really does come from him.) is the head of Abiding Truths Ministry and Defend the Family. He has a doctorate in theology from the School of Bible Theology Seminary and University (Take a look at the website for yourself and decide for yourselves if you feel comfortable with referring to Lively as a doctor. He has a law degree from Trinity Law School and apparently is licensed to practice law in California. Finally he has a Certificate from the Institute of International Human Rights in Strasbourg France. (I always wondered how one becames an official human rights activist.) It is in his capacity as human rights activist that Lively has taken his most important role recently with his involvement with the Uganda gay laws. Lively seems to have managed to get the Ugandan government to abandon the death penalty for homosexuals and to opt for treatment.
Doing a bit of background research on Lively certainly clarified this email a bit, explaining who he was and why he would be interested in making the connection between homosexuality and anti-Semitism. Lively is even the author of a book, the Pink Swastika, which argues that the Nazis were a homosexual movement.
Samuel Igra, Lively's source, seems to have been one of the main originators of this Nazism and homosexuality link with his 1945 book, Germany's National Vice. According to Igra, Hitler was a homosexual prostitute in Vienna and then in Munich from 1907-1914. (See Gregory Woods A History of Gay Literature: the Male Tradition pg. 251-53.) Obviously, there were Nazis who were homosexuals. The most famous example was Ernst Rohm of the SD. While an early member of the party, Rohm was killed off in the infamous "Night of the Long Knives" in 1934. Considering the very real persecution of homosexuals under the Nazi regime, saying that Nazism was a homosexual movement (as opposed to individual Nazis being homosexual) strikes me as the height of perversity.
Bruce Douglas was the young lover of Oscar Wilde's, whose father got into a libel suit with Wilde, which eventually brought about the downfall of Wilde in English society. Douglas did do one of the first English translations of the Protocols in 1919, nearly twenty years after it was first written. The Protocols came out of Russia, and while it was plagiarized from many sources, including one French anti-Semitic tract, it is clearly a product of reactionary Russian circles. Personally I find the idea that George Bernard Shaw would have written the Protocols to be offensive. I would have no problem accepting Shaw as an anti-Semite along the lines of T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. But to think that Shaw would have written such a piece of garbage as the Protocols, boggles the mind. If Shaw had wanted to write a book about Jews plotting to rule the world, this book would have been a model of wit and would have me convinced to become an Elder.
I guess I should be grateful that Christians like Lively are concerned about anti-Semitism. All I can say is that with friends like these who needs enemies.
The Yated Ne'eman, run in the States by Pinchos Lipshutz (who, I am informed, I may actually be related to), is usually one of the best representatives of what is wrong with the Haredi world. I do not deem fit to call it a newspaper. It is a propaganda reel that uses a newspaper format. I mean this quite seriously. They allow organizations to write articles about themselves and then publish them as news articles. They used to not have an official website. There was the Dei'ah veDibur site, which posted Yated articles. Now, I am informed there is an official site. How this works with the newest round of bans specifically for Haredi sites is anyone's guess. Recently I came across an article in this paper that took my breath away for being both well written, correct, and about Jewish history. The article was by Avrohom Birnbaum and titled "The 'Der Heim' Myth."
Birnbaum sets out to refute the common Haredi belief, preached by all the major Haredi news outlets and "history" books (with the Yated taking a leading role), that Eastern European Jewish life was some sort of religious utopia, full of pious learned Jews, untroubled by the temptations of modernity. Birnbaum quotes a Holocaust survivor as saying:
This view [of Eastern European Jewish life] is an outright lie. They are romanticizing one of the most terrible periods in our history. From what I remember, in addition to the terrible poverty, there was great spiritual poverty. People were leaving Yiddishkeit [Judaism]; falling like flies. One could almost say that 'ein bayis asher ein shom meis' [there was no house (in Egypt) in which there was no dead] – no house was without a meis, a spiritual causality, and in some homes it was 'ein bayis asher yeish bo chai' [there was no house in which there was life] – every one of the children was lost to Yiddishkei. Youth were rebelling against the old order, attracted by virtually every new ideology except Torah.
Birnbaum, himself, points out: "The greatest talmidei chachomim [Torah scholars] in the Mirrer Yeshiva of Poland … could not find shidduchim [marriage partners]. At the outbreak of the war, many were well into their thirties and still not married" because there was no supply of educated religious girls to marry.
This was such a wonderful article that I expect that by next week the editorial staff will print a retraction and Birnbaum will apologize for the article. The hordes of angry Haredi readers will be assured that no religious Jew would ever dare imply that Eastern European Jewry was anything less than a bastion of religious observance.
The reason for this is that the "Der Heim" myth is at the foundation of Haredi self understanding. Haredim see themselves as defending and continuing the legacy of Eastern Europe. Regardless of whether this is true or not, there is the issue of should we be trying to perpetuate Eastern Europe. The moment we turn Eastern Europe from a Haredi version of Fiddler on the Roof to a hellhole of assimilation then the answer would appear to be negative. Why should I try to maintain the Orthodoxy of bubbe and zeidy if I am not certain that bubbe and zeidy were all that Orthodox to begin with? (I often like to ask people who they think their bubbies were sleeping with that they have such European features.) More importantly there is the issue of leadership. How do we continue to look up to rabbis like Rabbi Yisroel Meir Kagan (the Chofetz Chaim) or Rav Chaim of Brisk once we recognize that they stood host to a spiritual holocaust and proved incapable of stopping it? The only person and system that was in any meaningful way successful at turning out religious Jews from one generation to the next was the Torah im Derech Eretz of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch. Therefore the only Jewish tradition that should have any credibility today among Ashkenazic Jews today should by Hirschian Torah im Derech Eretz. The rabbis of Eastern Europe would be left somewhere between Nero fiddling while Fiddler on the Roof burned and hapless King Lear. (Rabbi Kagan, to his credit, did help create the Bais Yaakov girls school system. This was, in essence, a Hirschian project, designed precisely to create educated religious brides for the thirty year old rabbinical students in the Mir.)
Friday, January 29, 2010
As readers of this blog know, I have a particular interest in the Haredi charity organization Kupat Ha'ir. It makes outlandish and theologically dubious claims about rabbis having supernatural power to aid people who give to their charity. It also publishes almost comical offers for segulot (special signs) that take on an air of "buy one get one free" salesmanship. A dear colleague sent me a pair of Hebrew ads mocking Kupat Ha'ir with fake Kupat Ha'ir style ads. The person noted:
For those who feel that it might be in poor taste to be so cynical: refer to RSRH's [Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch] comments to this week's parashah (14:11 – s.v. ha'mibli ein kevarim] – The sharp irony, even at this time of unmatched fear and despair, demonstrates the sense of humor that is a typical trait of the clear headed tribe of Yaakov."
My only problem is that these ads are only slightly more ridiculous than the regular Kupat Ha'ir ads.
For an offering of 90 Shekels (approximately $25), Torah scholars will hand out, on your behalf, kosher bread to birds; on the afternoon of the Holy Sabbath of the Torah Portion of Bishalach from midday until sunset.
There is a Jewish tradition of putting out food for the birds before this particularly Sabbath because we read in the Bible from the Book of Exodus about how the birds ate the Manna. I was thinking that we could ambush such rabbis by dropping in Mary Poppins to sing "Feed the Birds," sending them running with their hands over their ears.
מבצע מיוחד לתורמי קופת העיר
ביום ט"ו בשבט ראש השנה לאילנות היום המסוגל לישועה, יתפללו מנין ת"ח חכמים בעשרה
גני חיות (הנקרא ז"ו בלע"ז) בארץ הקודש, ויאמרו פרק שירה עם כל חיה ועוף בנפרד, כל
חיה והפסוק שלה, מילה במילה, י"ג פעמים (כמנין ז"ו). בפה מלא ובשפתים דולקות.
ודבר זה ידוע כסגולה בדוקה ומנוסה, כמבואר בסה"ק. וידוע כחם של חיות הקודש ובפרט
בשבת שירה. ובפרט בשנה זו שט"ו בשבט חל ביום שבת קודש, שמצטרף קדושת השבת
לקדושת היום. וידוע מה שאמר הרה"ק ר' בער מחאנדעלינסק זצוקלל"ה וזי"ע ועכי"א, שטוב
צפצוף א' של עוף בתמימות, מכל התורה והתפלות שאינם בתמימות.
:בשעת נתינת המעות יכונו הת"ח בשמות הללו
ארי"ה ,בגי' גבור"ה, להמתיק הגבורות העליונות ,בסוד מיתוק הפירות. והוא גי' ג"פ ע"ב דויסע ויבא ויט. וגי' ג"פ חסד. וגי' (ג"פ גלגול, ויכוין לינצל מג' גלגולים, בסוד פעמים שלש עם גבר. (ומסוגל מאוד לתיקון עוון גילוי אריות
.ג'רפ"ה, לתקון הרפ"ח ניצוצין. גם יכוין ג'ירפה ביו"ד שהיא בגימ' רחמי"ם
.היפופוט"ם, בגי' רע"ו, לתיקון עץ הדעת טוב ור"ע. בסוד ר"ה לאילנות
.שוע"ל, היוצא מס"ת הפסוק "בפועל כפיו נוקש רשע". והוא כמנין מצורע. לתיקון השועל של הס"א היוצא מבית קדה"ק
"וביציאתם מגן החיות יכונו הת"ח בכלליות בסוד "וכל בהמתם" שעולה "מרדכי גרוס". וכן עולה "אני עמכם בקרי
התלמידי חכמים ישבתו כ"א במקומו כבר מערב שבת. שלא נבוא לחילול שבת ח"ו. ורק אצל
חיות שומרות שבת, עפ"י פיקוח ועד משמרת השבת. ורק חיות אשר אינם גולשות רח"ל
במקומות האסורים, עפ"י הוראות ועד הרבנים לעניני תקשורת ואינטערנעט. וכ"ז בשיתוף עם
הועד לעניני מקומות הקדושים. ונדפס על נייר בלא חשש גניזה וחילול שבת ושביעית. ללא
.היתר מכירה ופירות נכרים ופיאות של ע"ז
ולאחר התפלה ואמירת הפסוקים יתקיים סעודת פירות ברוב עם, כפי מנהג ישראל בחצרות
הקודש מקדמת דנא, עם ל' מיני פירות מיוחדים מהאיים הרחוקים, שרידים מוצלים מהרעש
.הנורא שפקד את מדינת 'האיטי' אשר בחצי הכדור התחתון ממש
:תרום י"ג פ' ט"ו ₪ בא' מהמוקדים הידועים, ותמלא את הפתקא המצורפת
!!!הזדמנות של פעם בחיים
שלש סגולות במחיר אחד
!גם ט"ו בשבט
!וגם גן חיות
שם הבע"ח שברצונך שיתתפלל
שם אמו של הבע"ח_______
ועוד ע"י עשרה מנינים של תלמידי חכמים מובהקים
שנבחרו אחד אחד ע"י ועד הרבנים לעניני זאאולאגיע שע"י
המרכז הזואולוגי העולמי
SPECIAL OPPORTUNITY FOR CONTRIBUTORS TO KUPAT HA-IR
On Tu b'Shvat, the New Year for Trees, the day that is a segulah for salvation, a minyan of talmidei chachamim will pray in ten zoos throughout the Holy Land. They will recite perek Shirah with each animal and bird separately, each animal with the appropriate verse, word by word, thirteen times [the gematria of the Hebrew letters zayin and vav – zoo] with great intent.
This act is known as a proven and oft used segulah as is explained in the holy sefarim. The powers of the holy animals are well known – especially on Shabbos Shirah, and especially this year when Tu b'Shvat and Shabbos Shirah coincide, when the kedushah of Shabbos is co-joined with the kedushah of the day. It is well known that the holy rabbi, R. Ber of Chondalinsk" zt' l, may his merits protect us, was wont to say: "The pure chirping of a bird is preferable to all Torah and prayer that are not pure."
Once the monies are given [to the Kupah], the talmidei chachamim will have the following kavanos:
Lion [Hebrew aryeh] which in gematria equals gevurah [strength] – to sweeten the heavenly gevuros – that are contained within the secret of the sweetness of the fruit … and this is especially effective in the tikkun of the sins of gilui arayos.
Giraffe – [Hebrew gimmel, resh, peh, heh] – a tikkun for the 288 [resh, peh, heh] sparks – they will also have kavanah for the name giraffe with the addition of a yud [between the gimmel and resh] which in gematria equals the word rachamim – mercy.
Hippopotamuses [Hebrew hippipotamim]- 276 [heh, peh,yud, peh, vav, tes, mem, yud, mem] in gematria to bring tikkun to the eating of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge [tov vera - vera in gematria is 276] that is part of the mystical meaning of the New year for trees.
Fox [Hebrew shu'al] which is alluded to in the last letters of the passuk: b'poel kapov nokesh resha [lamed, vav, shin,ayin] – which is equivalent to the gematria of metzora, which is a tikkun of the fox of the sitra achra who emerges from the Holy of Holies.
When they depart from the zoos, the talmidei chachamim will reflect on the secret of the words v'chol b'hemtom which is equivalent to the gematria of [the name] Mordechai Gross and the words ani imachem b'keri.
Each talmid chacham will be in his selected spot already on erev Shabbos so that we not, chas veshalom, come to violate the Shabbos and they will only select animals who are shomer Shabbos under the supervision of the Committee for Shmiras Shabbos. The animals will also only be those who do not surf, Heaven forbid, in forbidden places, according to the instructions of the Rabbinical Committee Regarding Communications and the Internet. All of these [arrangements] are in co-operation with the Committee for the Holy Places. [The announcements] are printed on paper [produced] without any fear of chilul Shabbos or requiring genizah or that is [produce] of the seventh year, without relying on the heter mechirah, produce of non-Jews or wigs [made of hair] offered to idols.
After the prayers and recital of the pesukim, a public seudah of fruit will be held as is the custom of Jews in the Holy Halls [of the chassidim] with thirty special fruits brought from distant islands, remnants of those saved from the terrible earthquake that struck Haiti which is located on the bottom half of the globe.
Contribute thirteen times fifteen [tes, vav] at one of the known sites and fill out the attached form.
A ONCE IN A LIFETIME OPPORTUNITY!
DON'T MISS OUT!
THREE SEGULOS FOR ONE PRICE:
(Not my translation)
(Insert and bottom, my translation)
Name of the Mother _
Donation Amount _
Type of salvation _
Name of the Wild Animal That You Wish Prayed Upon _
Name of the Mother of the Wild Animal _
Furthermore this is being done by ten groups of knowledgeable Torah Scholars, each one chosen by the Rabbinic Committee for Zoological Matters of the Global Zoological Center.
Wednesday, January 27, 2010
Where does this leave sex? We must accept an almost Pauline position of seeing all sex as morally problematic. Sex is in a category of its own because it requires you to physically take hold of someone and use them for your own benefit, violating the categorical imperative in an inescapably literal way. Furthermore, this categorical imperative would forbid us, to a lesser extent, from touching anyone in a sexual manner or even look at someone dressed in a sexually provocative manner. How can you indulge, through touch and sight, in the use of someone else's body as a means to your own pleasure? If it were possible we would ban sex and have everyone live in celibacy. (Catholic Church 1, Jewish outreach specialists who like to attack straw-man versions of Catholic sexuality 0) Since there is a need to procreate to create more rational beings with inherent value, we require some system that gives us at least some plausible ethical cover. The solution thought of by almost all societies is to have sexual activity take place within the context of some relationship. So I go over to a woman (this could also plausibly work for homosexual relationships) and say to her: "I desire to establish a special relationship with you that will allow us numerous opportunities to engage in ethical actions, live according to universal categorical imperatives and even bring into this world and raise up rational beings capable of engaging in ethical actions of their own." Since this woman is equally concerned about living according to categorical imperatives, she swoons at my pick-up line and immediately agrees to consummate this special relationship by having sex with me. Now societies, out of their desire to encourage such ethical behavior, have created various formal activates to make this official; we tend to call it marriage.
I grant that it is possible for a couple to be engaged in a meaningful relationship without it formally being a marriage with a marriage license. Furthermore, there are plenty of sham marriages out there that are simply cover for sexual activity, regardless of a signed piece of paper. For the purposes of this discussion of marriage, the former type of relationship counts as marriage. This is the sort of marriage found among primitive tribes and the biblical patriarchs. That being said, the society at large needs to ask some questions about such a couple. Why would such a couple, living in a civilization that possesses formal marriage and stigmatizes those who do not take advantage of it, choose to live without formal marriage? The most obvious explanation would be that such a couple was not serious about their relationship and were simply engaging in a mutually parasitical set of sexual acts. Thus, such couples must be presumed guilty until proven innocent of being unethical and placed under public scorn.
There are a few other alternatives that would be relevant, in theory at least, to some people. Members of Plato's philosopher's republic are not being immoral when they engage in free love. This society is built around the absolute sacrifice for the common good. Within this context, the sexual act itself becomes one more act of absolute submission as the person surrenders all claim to power over another, even a wife and children. (This is to say nothing about the feasibility or advisability of Communism.) This would require a person to be a great philosopher and have a commitment to principles to compare with the religious fanatic. Just being a casual hippie is not going to be enough to get you through the gates of this republic. Great philosopher artists like Goethe and his Faust could engage in sex outside of marriage as part of a bildung process. A great philosopher like Faust, whose genius benefits all mankind, needs to go out and physically come to terms with the world around him in order to fulfill his mission as a philosopher. He is allowed to sell his soul to Mephistopheles in order to pursue this goal and he is allowed to seduce young Gretchen. (We could possibly fault Faust for putting himself as a stumbling block, causing an innocent non-philosopher to engage in unethical behavior.) Gretchen's subsequent pregnancy and her arrest for attempting to kill her fetus are a tragic accident for which Faust is not to blame. Faust is not motivated by any base desire and he has no intention of using Gretchen; she is an incidental participant in his great project. While common artists may not be at the level to truly engage in such Faustian activity, it is reasonable to allow them a greater license in terms of what they can touch or see. For example, I fully accept that nudity has artistic value and should, therefore, be allowed within the confines of artistic circles. Since all societies in history have been built around people who are distinctively not great philosophers (at best people working on becoming them), we cannot make calculations based on great philosophers. This leaves us, as a society, having to insist that everyone make at least an outward show of only engaging in sexual activity within the context of marriage.
I believe in creating an ethical society where all humans are recognized as rational beings with inherent value, not to be used simply to serve some other purpose. This means a society that rejects racism and all forms of bigotry as a violation of the categorical imperative to recognize the inherent value of all rational beings as ends in themselves. This also means that in our day to day personal relationships we must treat people as beings of value in of themselves. We dare not, in any way, indulge in another person's body simply to serve our own pleasure by engaging in sexual activity, even to touch or look at someone in a sexual manner. Through societal pressure we have managed, in only a few decades, to remove at least the outward manifestations of racism from the public sphere. Through similar efforts, we can do the same with human sexuality. I look forward to the day when we take the bulk of our generation's movies and televisions shows, which implicitly or explicitly endorse the legitimacy of sexual activity outside of marriage, and put them next to Birth of a Nation and Triumph of the Will as immoral works, serving to promote unethical behavior and mindsets.
Tuesday, January 26, 2010
Ever since the sixties, those of us who profess an opposition to sexual activity outside of marriage have been on the defensive. Sex outside of marriage has always been common, but now those of us who actually live up to this standard seem to now be in a heavy minority. Those of us pushing abstinence education are in a difficult position. We cannot directly use religious arguments to make our case so we resorted to making it a health issue. The problem with this is that, by the normal standards of safety, sex done in the manner prescribed by social progressives, with condoms and birth-control pills, is not physically particularly dangerous; certainly no more so than skiing or teenage driving. There is a heavy stench of dishonesty hanging over this whole issue. The reason why conservatives want to spend millions of dollars promoting abstinence programs in schools is not because they are in a panic about STDs. It is because religious Christians believe that pre-marital sex is a sin and they do not want teenagers engaging in it. Conservatives have fumbled the ball and left the moral case wide open for the liberal side. Within the context of the sixties narrative, liberals have been able to make the moral argument that conservatives, by focusing on sex and ignoring the racism of the culture around them, were the immoral ones. From this perspective, any act of "sexual liberation" becomes not only morally acceptable but a moral positive. This argument has been updated in recent years to include homosexuality. With all this under consideration, I do believe it is possible to formulate an argument against extra-marital sex meaningful to the most ardent secularist, one that could justify moderate government interference to discourage students from engaging in such behavior. The argument I offer is no less than sex outside of marriage is fundamentally unethical.
When most people hear about the immorality of sex they conjure images of repressed hypocritical Victorians. Therefore it is all the more important to define what we mean by sex outside of marriage being unethical. Sexual activity is problematic in that the action itself, by definition, involves physically using another person's very body as a means for gaining pleasure for one's self. This is a very basic violation of Kant's categorical imperative that all humans must be treated as ends and not as means. (Kant even took this to the extreme position of saying that masturbation was unethical because it involved using yourself as a means.)
To put this into concrete terms, you go off to a bar, pick up a girl, take her home, sleep with her and then send on her way. You have taken another human being and used them as a means to procure your own pleasure. Now you have to ask why she agreed to do this. Is it not possible that she did this because she believed that she could get you to agree to a long-term relationship and there was even falsehood and manipulation involved? This would still be an issue even when both sides have made it clear that this is supposed to only be a one night stand. Two wrongs do not make a right; two unethical people objectifying each other and using each other as a means to give themselves pleasure is simply double the unethical behavior. Furthermore, maybe one of the parties merely said this because they believed that with their talent and personality they would be able to convince the other to stay on. (You see a similar line of logic in regards to gambling. There are many rabbinic authorities who argue that gambling is a form of theft because the losing party only made the bet on the assumption that he would win. So to take the money from him involves taking something of his against his will.)
This is not just some ethereal issue, only relevant to students of Kantian thought; it is the foundation of all intellectually honest liberalism, explaining why all forms of tyranny are inherently unethical. Any system that views individual people as simply means to serve the larger good or the good of the elites is unethical. Ask a liberal why slavery and segregation are by definition wrong and even evil. If that liberal is a Kantian he can explain that these institutions violate a categorical imperative; it places blacks in situations where they cease to have inherent value as beings in an ongoing process of becoming more rational and only serve to benefit whites. Without this Kantian imperative, we are left with vague mutterings of taste and personal feelings. If my arguments against white supremacists carry the same universal validity as my arguments against their stylistic choices in neckties then I have lost the debate.
(To be continued …)
Sunday, January 24, 2010
Dr. Adam S. Ferziger is one of the leading minds in understanding Orthodox Jewry, both in the historical nineteenth century setting and in the modern context. He is the author of Exclusion and Hierarchy: Orthodoxy, Nonobservance, and the Emergence of Modern Jewish Identity, which deals with the creation of Orthodox Judaism in nineteenth century Germany in terms of its understanding of the dominant Reform movement. I actually met him once a few years ago when he spoke about breakaway synagogue in early eighteenth century London that was set up because the established synagogue was allowing Sabbath breakers to come up to the Torah. Ferziger points to this as an example of "proto-Orthodoxy." I ended up asking him about the converso background of this community which led into a discussion of Benzion Netanyahu and the debate over the Jewishness of conversos.
A few days ago I was reading his essay, "From Demonic Deviant to Drowning Brother: Reform Judaism in the Eyes of American Orthodoxy," (Jewish Social Studies: History, Culture, Society 15.3 (2009): pg. 56-88) which deals with the back and forth in recent decades within the Haredi community as to how to deal with Reform Jews. Are Reform Jews heretics, who must be rejected and ignored or are they lost Jews who must be saved through outreach? The heart of the essay is a discussion of Rabbi Yaakov Perlow (the Novominsker Rebbe) and his letter to the Jewish Observer in 1999, which took a positive attitude toward recent Reform efforts to bring in more ritual practice into the movement.
This is a wonderful essay, well worth your reading just for itself. I would, though, like to call your attention to footnotes 129 and 132: "Cited in Benzion N. Chinn, 'Towards One People in One World,' The Commentator, Dec. 31, 2002, http://www.yucommentator.com/." This refers to a book review I did for the Yeshiva University student newspaper on Ammiel Hirsch and Yaakov Yosef Reinman's One People, Two Worlds: A Reform Rabbi and an Orthodox Rabbi Explore the Issues That Divide Them where I attacked the Haredi establishment for doing a more effective job at refuting Reinman's claims of Orthodox tolerance than the Reform ever could. If academic prowess is measured Technorati style in footnotes in respectable publications, this marks an excellent first step.
Thursday, January 21, 2010
Rabbi Shalom Carmy once told me a story about a student who signed up for numerous courses with both him and Rabbi Moshe Tendler. It turns out that this student was interested in Rabbi Carmy because he wanted to start a "true" Zionist club at Yeshiva University and by this he meant a Kahanist club. He wanted Rabbi Tendler because he was looking for support for his vegetarianism. So we had a vegetarian Kahanist. Who knew that right wing nationalist politics could mix with liberal culinary tastes? Rabbi Carmy ended by noting that if only the student had switched and come to him for vegetarianism and Rabbi Tendler for Kahane. Rabbi Tendler actually spoke at Rabbi Meir Kahane's funeral.
Despite the fact that I am, at least in principle, sympathetic to many of Kahane's political policies, I view myself as a strong opponent of Kahanist ideology, particularly in its modern manifestations such as Moshe Feiglin. As a classical liberal/Libertarian, I have little patience with national identity politics, particularly if religion gets thrown into the mix, and if I might not join the modern left in point blank condemning it as racism and bigotry, I still see it as a well trod path to such a downfall. I am not against nation states nor am I opposed to political Zionism. As a minority group, Jews are unlikely to ever be on equal footing with the majority culture. Therefore it is a reasonable solution to suggest that Jews immigrate to one place where they can be the majority and set up their own Jewish society and State. I will take a Jewish State in Israel over one in Uganda. This is not really any different from the Free State movement amongst Libertarians, which argues that Libertarians should move to one small State, like New Hampshire. This would allow us to get the votes to enact libertarian policies and thus demonstrate that they work. This Jewish State, while giving equal rights to all, is allowed to wrap itself in Jewish religious and cultural symbols and take an active interest in protecting Jews around the world. It is free to offer a law of return to all Jews, allowing them to come to Israel at a moment's notice if they so choose. I have yet to take advantage of this offer, but I am certainly glad of having it. This is no different then Ireland being an Irish State and the Irish government deciding to take an interest in protecting Irish people, even those who live in Boston.
That being said, the moment you come out and declare the state to be primarily about the promotion of a religious nationalist ideology then you have crossed a line. You may claim to support liberal democracy and tolerate all beliefs and cultures, but what that can that mean if such principles become secondary to national identity? To be a supporter of the free society means that you are willing to support it at the expense of nationalist sentiment.
I just found an interesting blog by Michael Makovi, who coincidently, while now living in Petah Tiqwa in Israel, comes from Silver Spring MD where I live. Michael is a Libertarian, with some wonderful stuff on John Locke. He is a defender of Kahane and offers an eloquent defense of the compatibility of Kahanist ideology and democracy. A Libertarian Kahanist; who knew.
Wednesday, January 20, 2010
This is not just a matter of word games. The entire narrative of the abortion rights movement is built around the tribalism of men versus women and women as the oppressed victims of men. Libertarians recognize that for liberty to mean anything it must apply only to individuals. In order to gain rights as individuals, we must agree to surrender all extra ontological claims of group identity leaving just the individual identity.
Libertarians understand that the flip side of all rights is responsibility; I am allowed to do whatever I want to myself because I carry all the consequences. It is my right to eat all the fatty foods I like and smoke tobacco and marijuana because it is I who will have to pay for my own healthcare costs and am unable to force society to pay through any government subsidized healthcare. Feminists have no interest in paying for the consequences of their right to choose. If women have the right to choose whether to carry a fetus to term, without the interference of the biological father or the government, then they and only they are to bear the consequences, mainly child support. This would have potentially disastrous consequences for all women as men would become categorically exempt from ever paying child support. Every man would be able to claim that he never wanted the child in question to be born and that it was only the woman's choice. This would apply to one night stands as well as ten-year marriages. Every woman, before she brings a child to term, would need to get the father of the child to sign a legal document obligating himself to pay child support. As the law stands now, my theoretical girlfriend can lie to me about using birth control, get pregnant and force me to pay eighteen years of child support, hundreds of thousands of dollars. This is unjust and the Libertarian knows that the blame for this injustice lies at the feet of the morally self-satisfied feminist.
To finally get to the act of abortion itself, it is not obvious that abortion would be always legal even under libertarian law. The moment we acknowledge that fetuses are something above animals (Libertarianism would allow Michael Vick to run his dog fighting ring) and at the level of humans or near so then the right to choose goes out the window. Libertarians, despite their love of liberty, do not believe in a right to commit murder. On the contrary, our commitment to making sure that everyone can engage in all activities that do not cause direct physical harm to others is matched by our willingness to go after those who do cause direct physical harm. Furthermore, it might be theoretically plausible to assume some sort of direct state interest in the bearing of children, which might open the door to some sort of government interference. May I suggest that, considering that bodily rights are extensions of property rights, the government is allowed to interfere with the decisions of pregnant women to the same extent that they are allowed to interfere in the acquirement of oil and other natural resources found on private property?
Libertarians believe in the right to control one's own body. This would preclude a Libertarian becoming a conventional conservative pro-lifer. We have no interest in pushing our values on other people. Any attempt to force women to carry a child to term would mean that the government must also provide social services to support that child. We are trying to get rid of government welfare and will seek to find every excuse to avoid expanding it. That being said, a Libertarian is not likely to look favorably at the modern left and the pro-choice movement as it exists today as we would reject their premises as nearly as inimical to liberty as that of the right. If conservatives are heathens who do not understand the concept of rights then the modern left are apostate traitors who have sold out on human rights for petty tribalist gain. I would even go so far as to suggest that there may be grounds to reject the left's conclusions about abortion as well.
Tuesday, January 19, 2010
Conservative professor Mike Adams views himself as a "Republican with libertarian leanings." In a recent article, he offers what he considers to be libertarian reasons to oppose abortion. According to Dr. Adams:
… abortion is fundamentally anti-choice because the decision to abort is only one choice. Whenever that choice is made a lifetime of choices are prevented. The average life is over 27,000 days long and we all make dozens of choices daily. Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that each abortion results in an average net loss of at least a million choices.
I find this line argument to be both a fundamental misunderstanding of Libertarianism and an excellent example of the sort of good intentions paved path to tyranny that libertarian thought is designed to avoid. Dr. Adams would bring in the hypothetical future choices of a fetus and grant them the legitimacy and power to stand against the direct physical choices of pregnant women. Libertarianism is the belief, as John Stuart Mill argued, that people have the legal and moral right to pursue their own good in their own way as long as they did not interfere with the liberties of others. The corollary of this is the necessity of drawing a distinction between direct physical harm and indirect nonphysical harm and willingness to, at all costs, take the latter off the table as a political issue relevant to the government. As long as the government is allowed to step in and protect people from indirect nonphysical harm it is impossible to offer a coherent consistent defense of civil liberties even in the face of the Spanish Inquisition. (The presence of Jews, Muslims, and heretics cause psychological suffering to good Catholics. Therefore the state has the right to take all possible action to remove the problem, plausibly even with the rack and stake.)
While I may disagree with Dr. Adams' argument, I do believe that there can be valid reasons for Libertarians to oppose abortion and declare themselves to be pro-life. First off we should consider the narrow self-serving use that the modern left has put the essentially libertarian concepts of the right to privacy and the right to control one's own body. Imagine that I am sitting in my basement with one of my theoretical girlfriends and, in order to convince her to engage in certain consensual actions, I offer her a birth control pill. Let us say that my theoretical girlfriend is so excited to engage in consensual activities with me that she ignores the pill and ends up pregnant. I, therefore, offer to put my licensed degree in medieval surgery to use to perform an abortion. The modern left, through Griswold vs. Connecticut and Roe vs. Wade, militantly supports the premise that the government cannot interfere and will come to the defense of my theoretical girlfriend and me. Now change the scenario a bit. Instead of offering my theoretical girlfriend a pill, I offer her a joint to help her get over her inhibitions. (My theoretical girlfriend comes from a fine Bais Yaakov Catholic school.) My theoretical girlfriend decides that she would like to be able to enjoy such wonderful inhibition removing herbs on a more regular basis so I offer to put my medieval surgery degree to use by removing one of her kidneys. Thus allowing her to sell it on the open market and afford to be uninhibited more often. The modern left, as a whole, is not prepared to lift a finger to stop the government from arresting my theoretical girlfriend and me and sending us off to serve years in prison on charges of drug use and organ trafficking. Let us acknowledge that the conversation about a right to privacy and to control one's body does not even begin until we acknowledge the right to use any drug of choice and sell any bodily organ. The modern left should be called out on this as hypocrites and any claim on their part to privacy should be summarily scorned and dismissed.
To be continued …
(I offered a version of this argument on Clarissa’s blog and she argued that women are not allowed to sell fetuses and she did not “think anybody prohibits you from cutting out any part of your body and throwing it away …” My response was that I would be interested to see how abortion rights activists would react if the government tried to stop a woman from selling her aborted fetus say to medical science. Also, we do see mothers “selling” their fetuses when they agree to carry the fetus to term and give it up for adoption in return for financial compensation.)
Today my Modern Jewish History students take their midterm exam. I wish them all best of luck. For an essay I have offered them the following question:
You have been hired by the new People's Democratic Multicultural Party of Tolerance government to construct a plan to destroy the Jewish community. As a civilized country we are only willing to engage in very moderate levels of violence and prefer that Jews simply assimilate out of their own free will. Based on what we have learned in class, what would you advise? Please give specific examples to your superiors who may not be as well versed in Jewish history as you are.
I throw open the question to member of classroom Izgad. How would you go about destroying Judaism?
Thursday, January 14, 2010
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, X, XI, XII, XIII, XIV, XV, XVI, XVII, XVIII
Forty six years earlier
The Dolstoys' third child was born in the fall of that fateful year, three months after the visit of Colonel Hasan bar Kochba and two weeks before Asael's thirteenth birthday, confirmation year for him. Serariah wanted his wife to go to the new hospital, but Hefzibah insisted on using, as with her two previous children, a cunning woman known as Savta Shifra. As usual they argued about it for several days. Serariah argued that the hospital was safer. Hefzibah objected to having a male doctor. Serariah objected to her objection, on grounds of reason and heresy, and said no to having spells said over his wife and child in his house. He declared, in no uncertain terms, that he would never allow "the stench of the ungodly to cross his threshold" up until the moment that Hefzibah went into labor before ordering Asael to get the woman.
Savta Shifra, upon arriving in tow with her grandniece Puah Ulrich, warded off Serariah's smoldering glare that came from behind the smoke of his cigar. She immediately shooed Sion and Shunra out of the room and locked the door. In only three months Shunra had grown to over ten pounds and Sion now needed all her upper body strength to lug the thing around. Shunra, despite her occasional flashes of agility, was not the sort of cat to deign to move a single muscle if it could help it.
Serariah herded his two children down into his study to wait out the delivery. This was Sion's first time allowed in. She lifted her eyes to marvel at all the books packed into this small space and promptly dropped Shunra on the books and paper cluttered desk to get a better look. Serariah gave the cat a wry smile, picked it up and deposited it on his lap. This no longer surprised Asael; he had become used to his father's affection for the cat, always on the side so Hefzibah could not see. He made sure to feed it and give it water when, as it happened so often, Sion forgot. He even went around the yard scooping up its droppings to forestall the potential complaint. Why his father had taken to Shunra remained a mystery. Asael suspected that this was his father's attempt to win over Sion's affection as part of the long struggle with his mother. Asael had long ago realized that he and his sister were peds in a scacordus match between his parents that served as the foundation of their marriage. He was his father's piece. Sion belonged to his mother and his father was trying to capture her. Serariah, now the military's new unofficial theoretician, was planning a long term campaign for this piece. Asael doubted if Sion possessed the long term memory to be captured in such a way. This theory gave Asael a sense of empowerment. If pieces could change sides then he could change sides for himself, thus to become a third player in his own right.
"Is Ima going to die," asked Sion? "No silly," said Asael. He grabbed her and swung her on his lap, sitting down opposite their father across his desk. Sion leaned forward toward Shunra, nosing in the air. Shunra reciprocated the gesture. "Dasiah lost her Ima last year. Babies die to you know. Abba, if you had to choose between Ima and the baby would you have Ima die?"
Serariah smiled at his daughter. "Nothing is going to happen to Ima. Do you know why? It is because we are going to pray. You have been a very good girl. Rachmana is looking down at this little girl that he loves as much as her Abba and her Ima do and he would never do something to hurt this family."
Asael wanted to ask his father: "But you do not believe that prayer actually works. That is why you wanted Ima to go to a hospital even though the hospital employs foreigners and unbelievers. You believe that Savta Shifra is a trickster if not a witch and heretic for her herbs, amulets and prayers."
Sion looked down reflectively at her knees. "But what if I have not been a good little girl?"
Asael cut off this line of thought immediately. He did need Sion to suddenly start confessing about their spying or about his hidden books in a fit of conscience. "So Sion what should we pray first?"
Sion's eyes brightened, thoughts of moral reflection gone from her nearly five year old mind. "Oh could we sing Modeh?"
Asael shrugged his shoulders and began to lead Sion in the prayer for getting up in the morning, chanting in the Ashurit: "We praise thee O Lord in whose mercy our souls have been returned to us this day. We promise to honor this gift, this one day."
"First knowledge is fear the Lord," sang Sion, skipping to the end of the hymn. "The shining sun is calling children, listen what it says." Sion was now jumping to a vernacular hymn that she had learned in Lord's Day group. Asael tried to keep up with her. His first thought was that she had no idea what she was singing. But then he glanced down at her face, brimming with joy. "There is a power to her joy. She does not think, she just loves," thought Asael. Could it be that her raw unsullied faith could stand against the might of the New Knowledge and even scale the fortresses of heaven? Asael glanced at his father's books, his sacred books to one side and profane books, mostly written in Nephite, on history, mathematics and books on the New Knowledge on the other side. He then looked at his father, by now lost in a world to himself, his cigar in one hand. Asael closed his eyes and for a moment he saw his father as his mother did. There was an apple inside of his father in the place of a heart. Inside the apple was a worm with eyeglasses eating away at it. "The New Knowledge has eaten your soul until there is nothing left but a hollow shell. Now you would try to sacrifice your own daughter to this New Knowledge, the idol of your vanity," whispered Asael.
Asael could hear his father mumbling to himself in Nephite. From the smattering that he knew of the language, Asael could make out the lines "not for my sins" as his father repeated them over and over as a continuous refrain.
After half an hour Sion sang herself out of her fragments of at least a dozen songs and fell asleep against Asael's chin. Serariah continued in his dark mediations, his head bent forward on his hands, resting on his desk, seemingly unaware of Shunra, who had found a perch on one of his large shoulders. Asael leaned over and grabbed a book from the sacred shelf and began to read, trying to ignore the occasional shouts from above.
After three hours, there was a knock on the door. It was Puah, the helper girl, and she was smiling. Serariah shook himself alert and stood up, knocking Shunra, who had fallen asleep on top of him, to the ground. Asael picked up Sion, still asleep, and followed his father up the stairs. Sion began to stir as they entered the bedroom. Her eyes opened to Savta Shifra holding her baby brother, still crying. Sion jumped out of Asael's arms and ran to Savta Shifra and reached out her arms, crying out: "Mine!" Hefzibah nodded weakly to Savta Shifra to hand over the baby.
Tuesday, January 12, 2010
After learning that our lives if not our very souls may rest on our willingness to maintain pure Ashkenazi halakhah, Lionel Spiegel and I left Rabbi Binyamin Hamburger's lecture to Metro down to Washington DC to catch a performance of the Screwtape Letters. For those of you who are not familiar with it, the Screwtape Letters is a short novel by C. S. Lewis about the Undersecretary of Temptation, Screwtape, writing to his nephew, Wormwood, who is a field agent on earth, a junior tempter, and advising him as how to best keep his patient out of the hands of the "enemy" and deliver him to our "father down below." Basically this is a guide book how to spiritually destroy people. I consider it to be one of my all time favorite novels. Since I am not dating anyone at the moment, I decided, in the spirit of Prof. Henry Higgins, to take my best guy friend out. The tickets were out of my cheap Jewish graduate student price range so I opted to try to go for the $10 standing room only tickets. One more advantage of taking a guy out; you can get away with sitting around waiting to see if we could buy tickets to stand on our feet for an hour and a half. The theater only sold standing room tickets for sold out shows so we had some tense moments waiting. If only Screwtape would come out and offer to exchange a ticket for my soul; now that would have made things interesting. Thankfully we were able to get the standing room tickets and did not have to resort to any extreme measures.
Long ago I had this idea to adapt Screwtape for the stage of the Haredi summer camp I worked at. Obviously we would have needed to Jewify the whole thing or at least remove the explicitly Christian elements. (I can only be subversive up to a point.) We could update the story from bombs falling on England to terrorist attacks. I also had a more radical idea. The problem with presenting Screwtape in visual medium is the complete lack of action within the story. It is a demon sitting in his office writing off letters. How do you make that worth watching? I would have told the story from the perspective of Wormwood on earth interacting with his patient and the rest of the world much as Bruce Willis' character does in Sixth Sense. In between the main scenes, we would switch to Screwtape in his office dictating his advice and commenting on the situation. This would put an interesting twist on the climax. In the final letter Screwtape assails his nephew for his ultimate failure and prepares to eat him as the patient has come to see him and the role he plays in his life. In my play the patient was going to turn around and see Wormwood for the first time as the audience has seen him all along.
Max McLean's version of Screwtape also updates the story along the terrorist lines. What it does not change is the Screwtape focused story with all the difficulties that come with it. McLean, as Screwtape, is sitting around his comfy den in Hell in a red smoking jacket writing off letters. McLean's solution is to bring Screwtape's secretary, Toadpipe, into the story. While Screwtape has all the lines Toadpipe, hissing Gollum like, is at his side taking dictation, and acting out Screwtape's examples, whether as the patients mother or the different types of women that Hell has sought to encourage through their control of the fashions of the day. This is not enough to save the play from being an oral recitation of the novel. I am a big believer in the value of oral storytelling as a performance art. That being said McLean, while fun to watch, does not compare to John Cleese's turn as Screwtape for the audio book. (It seems that Andy Serkis recently performed as Screwtape for a BBC radio production. This I have to check out.) This show is certainly worth watching, particularly for fans of Lewis' work. I am still waiting for someone to take Lewis' more mature (non-Narnia) work and give it the stage or film production it deserves. McLean's company is working on a production of the Great Divorce. I will be waiting on the cheap tickets line for it.
Monday, January 11, 2010
Sunday afternoon, Lionel Spiegel and I went to hear Rabbi Binyamin Hamburger speak at the Yeshiva of Greater Washington. Rabbi Hamburger is a Haredi scholar from Israel who specializes in the culture of Ashkenazic (Germanic) Jews. This is part of a personal crusade of his to support the practice of Ashkenazic Judaism. Rabbi Hamburger has also written a book on Jewish false messiahs and their opponents. Rabbi Hamburger maintains the same sorts of biases that one usually finds in Haredi history writers. For example, his work on messianism is a rabbinic apology. The rabbis protected by their knowledge and faithfulness to Jewish tradition are capable of withstanding the siren's song of false messiahs. That being said, Rabbi Hamburger is capable of dealing with academic literature so he, while dangerous, can be interesting and worthwhile to listen to. Here are my notes from the lecture; as usual all mistakes are mine.
It is difficult to talk about Ashkenaz. German Jewry is the kernel of the vast majority of Jews in the world. Ponevezher Rav was once going to a non religious community to speak. He wanted to talk about Shabbos, Kosher, but was told that he could not speak about these things because many in the community were not religious. So he asked what he could speak about. He was told to speak about Judaism. We can start with the origins of Ashkenaz. We know that the two centers were Israel and Babylon. Babylonian Jews went to Spain and Israel Jews went to Italy. The two main cities were Bari and Trento. "Ki miBari tetzei Torah udevar Hashem me'Otranto" was what they said then. From there they went to Lucca. Here is where we get R. Moshe b. Kolonymous, who was brought by Charlemagne to Mainz. There were very few Jews during the early Middle Ages maybe 10,000-20,000. We consider Germany to be the biggest anti-Semites. In truth we never see a complete expulsion from Germany. Pockets of French Jewry had some influence on Eastern Europe and Central Europe, not the Rhineland.
R. Moshe Isserles, living in sixteenth century Poland, in general goes with Ashkenazic customs, though at times he has more recent Polish customs. An example of the difference between Old Ashkenaz and New Ashkenaz is Shofar. Saadiah Gaon had a wavering tikiah. We have a straight tikiah, this comes from Spain. Old Ashkenaz has a circular shevarim. New Ashkenaz was influenced by other countries. There were pockets that held on to the Old Ashkenaz. Skver Hasidim still go with the Old Ashkenazic way. There was a major controversy over prayer in the eighteenth century. Hasidim brought in their own text based on Lurianic thought. Rabbi Ezekiel Landau attacked such changes. Many Hasidim, today, claim that they come from Spain. This is absurd. R. Judah the Pious claimed that people can die because they change a hymn even to change one hymn for another. There is a story among Vishnitz Hasidim that they yhey stopped saying piyyutim for a while. A plague broke out and they sought spiritual causes and decided to bring back piyyutim, based on the teachings about dangers of stopping/altering piyyutim. This was in the time of the 'Ahavas Yisroel' of Vizhnitz (past Rebbe). Worms had a custom not to eat dried fruit. They were concerned about worms. (No pun intended.)
Why is it important? There is a strong claim of tradition defended by rabbis from one generation to another. Even Maimonides, from Sephard, sticks up for Ashkenaz. He attacked the order of calling people up to the Torah. He notes that one would expect Sephardim to be messed up, but Ashkenazim should know better. Rabbeinu Ashur (Rosh) became a rabbi in Toledo after fleeing from Germany and influenced Sephardic Jewry. He attacked the traditions of Sephard and only trusted the tradition from Germany. Rabbi Yitzchak b. Moshe Or Zaruah was a leading sage in Central Europe. He was questioned as to why one should make Kiddush in shul Friday night. He defended this custom by appealing to Ashkenazic tradition of the Rhineland and attacking his opponent for daring to question that tradition.
The custom of cutting the hair of three year old boys comes from Arabs. It does not come to even the Hasidim until the twentieth century. We have evidence from the Middle Ages of cutting the hair after just a few weeks. Ashkenazim were never into beards but were very careful with peiyos. This is the exact opposite of Chabad. They were not so concerned about beards for people who were out in the world (as opposed to religious functionaries within the Jewish community). But they did have something with peiyos, see e.g. depictions of Wolf Heidenheim.
I asked Rabbi Hamburger about the debate between Dr. Avraham Grossman and Dr. Haym Soloveitchik about the origins of Ashkenaz. Dr. Soloveitchik argues that Ashkenaz from the beginning was Babylonian based. Rabbi Hamburger responded that Dr. Soloveitchik is a genius and that he has not seen his evidence. Perhaps if he saw this evidence he might be convinced. That being said everyone seems to assume that Ashkenaz comes from Israel. Dr. Soloveitchik might be a genius but the Rosh was pretty big too.
Sunday, January 10, 2010
Articles of Interest (My Captain, Hebrew Science Fiction, Conversion, Muslim Fathers, and Selling Out the Humanities)
My uncle, Rabbi Dovid Landesman, has another article, this time on Emes Ve-Emunah, on the concept daat Torah (religious authority). He has a great story about my late grandfather going to Rabbi Moshe Feinstein ztl about some issues with the mikvah (ritual bath) that he built in the side of his garage for his community in McKeesport PA.
Lavie Tidhar, an Israeli science fiction novelist, writes about the implications of writing science fiction in English as opposed to Hebrew. Apparently the slang term in Hebrew for science fiction is madab, short for mada bidyoni.
Rabbi Marc Angel, in the Forward, throws down the gauntlet against the Haredi rabbinic establishment in terms of handling conversions. He uses the example of Rabbi Ben-Zion Uziel, who argued for the legitimacy of converting people who were not yet ready to take on fully observant lifestyles.
Thomas Friedman writes about the father of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the attempted Christmas Day suicide bomber, who tried to warn authorities about his son. Friedman hits the nail right on the head when he writes:
Unless more Muslim parents, spiritual leaders, political leaders — the village — are ready to publicly denounce suicide bombing against innocent civilians — theirs and ours — this behavior will not stop. … Every faith has its violent extreme. The West is not immune. It's all about how the center deals with it. Does it tolerate it, isolate it or shame it?
This is a point I have tried to make in regards to the Haredi world. There is no moral difference between those who openly endorse extremist behavior and those who piously, with nods, excuses and winks, say it is wrong and then make excuses for it. If anything the latter is worse; at least those who do the former have the moral spine to openly say what they believe in their heads and their hearts.
Kate Zernike writes about attempts by colleges to make the humanities relevant to students and turn it into something that will help them get jobs. Allan Bloom must be turning in his grave at this sellout of classical education.
Then again maybe this is a vindication of his attack on the liberal university establishment? Our humanities departments are lining up and confessing that they have nothing of value to teach, no reason for students to come to them instead of going to business school. Thus they have no choice but to surrender and destroy their departments in all but name.
Saturday, January 9, 2010
My post about Rabbi Marc Angel and his criticism of Kupat Ha'ir drew a lot of reactions and sparked some good conversations. Thank you to Hirhurim and Luke Ford for putting up links to it. Not everyone was offended by my calling Haredim and Catholics idolaters. A good friend of, who is a self-declared pagan, opened his arms to these new potential brothers in arms and sent me the following IM message:
You and I will be in different hells, I hope. Mine will be full of Gods and impressively adorned priests, bishops, and bearded theologians arguing about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. I'm far too sympathetic with the Catholics and fundamentalists like the Haredim to agree with anything ever say. But I very much enjoyed reading your discussions about those things.
On a less positive note, another person, a complete stranger, sent me the following message on Facebook: "You are a hypocrite. You are as strange as any one man can be. Yet you are judgmental of others. I wish you failure in your life. Shame on you Benzion Chimp."
There is the obvious irony here; how is it not judgmental to send messages to people you have never met, call them hypocrite other rude names and wish them failure in life all without trying to get some word of explanation? (Note that in our post-modern world being judgmental has replaced being rude as the Original Sin.) I do take it as a compliment to be called "as strange as any one man can be." At least he got one thing right about me. I would wish to be able to say the following to this person:
My name is Benzion N. Chinn and I run the blog Izgad. I have lived my life with the awareness that I was different from other people. In more recent years that difference has been given a name, Asperger syndrome. Because I was different I have long been very sympathetic to those people who are different whose lifestyles are outside the mainstream. This goes for blacks, homosexuals, prostitutes, drug users, polygamists and even gun touting Confederate flag waving white males. As long as you are not causing direct physical harm to other people then the government should leave you to pursue your own good in your own way. In terms of society, I believe in cultivating a space for people I may disagree with, but who have something to contribute to the greater social discourse. A large part of my professional work deals with medieval Christian and Islamic thought. I may be a nice Jewish boy, but my soul is still fed by Augustine, Aquinas, Averroes, and Avicenna. My theology is more complex than simply saying there is the group of people who are like me and everyone else is walking in darkness on a path to eternal damnation. As someone who believes in creating a non-coercive social community around certain specific ideals, I have to be willing to put my foot down and say that those people who do not fulfill these ideals cannot be part of this social community. I have the right to say that you cannot be part of my club. God knows that I have been told many times by people that I was not welcome in their club. Also, there are people that I believe are not just wrong, but insane, wicked or otherwise ignorant. These are people who hold beliefs that, by definition, make it impossible to have any sort of meaningful and rational discussion with. For example, people who do not accept Occam's razor, the validity of the scientific and historical methods. I do not believe these people should in any way be harmed by the government, but I have no reason to take them seriously and allow them to take part in the discourse of the open society. If this makes me intolerant and judgmental then please provide me with the guidance of real live reasonable and rational people, living functional lives while being less judgmental of other people than I am.
Thursday, January 7, 2010
I often make the analogy between the sort of beginner lectures in history that I have taught these past few years and an introduction to wine tasting. I am not much of an expert on wine, but if I were to ever be put in charge of a wine tasting class I would center the curriculum on making the case for wine. If students come away with one thing it should be an understanding of why your basic five dollar bottle of Manischewitz or Kedem Cream Malaga is grape flavored cough syrup and not actual wine and that it is worthwhile ten or twenty dollars to purchase a basic Merlot or a Chardonnay wine.
Similarly with history, if my students, whether or not any of them become professional historians or even amateur enthusiasts, understand one thing it should be what a professional historian is and does and how this is different from the History Channel or Rabbi Berel Wein. My students may never actually practice history, but the will know what real history looks like and they will hopefully be willing to invest the extra time and money when confronted with a historical issue. This is important for the cause of reason and truth and also so that people like me can have jobs.
Previously I used Monty Python to teach us a lesson about historical thinking. Here John Cleese comes to serve as our Maimonides with his "Wine for the Confused" program. Gentiles seem to approach wine somewhat differently. Cleese has to defend himself more against the top to bottom attack and not the bottom up.
Wednesday, January 6, 2010
During my five years at Yeshiva University, one of my favorite teachers was Dr. Alan Brill. I took him for Philosophy of Maimonides. (So I guess he carries at least part of the blame for my bullheaded Maimonideanism.) His was the most rigorous class of my undergraduate career, with a final that was literally a two day affair. That being said he was also a remarkably generous grader. (This model of demanding course work coupled with a generosity in grading is something I seek to emulate in my teaching.) A. N. Wilson notoriously labeled the late Sir Isaiah Berlin as the "Dictaphone Don." By this Wilson meant to attack Berlin's willingness to create elaborate structures to categorize wide varieties of intellectual figures and his casual reductionist method of writing his way through intellectual history, a style of writing that brought him to the status of academic celebrity. Not to get into the justice of Wilson's claim, but this label would also suit Dr. Brill. In this I mean it in every positive sense. Dr. Brill brought to the table an overpowering command of the literature to the table, the likes that few of us undergraduates had ever seen. His class was a running meditation on everything from Greek philosophy to medieval Islamic thought (mostly consisting of thinkers that I, up to that point, had never heard of) to post-modern philosophy, presented in an intoxicating and exhilarating whirlwind. I doubt he seriously expected us to read let alone comprehend the vast amounts of material he assigned us. I suspect his motive was so that we could comprehend how much there was out there, how little we knew, and to what extent he was making a compromise in teaching non-specialists like us. Dr. Brill could engage in this method of teaching and make it work because he was also a master systemizer. There were the esoteric radicals like Averroes, Moshe Narboni and Leo Strauss. They are in conflict with divine supernaturalists like Isaac Abarbanel and Marvin Fox. Yes there was something reductionist about this style of teaching and Brill had a way of putting down and mocking various thinkers as it suited him. Particularly memorable was his "Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch is bourgeoisie Judaism." I suspect that this was done if for no other reason than to challenge a favored idol of his students. (In a Modern Orthodox school one is hard pressed to find a closer equivalent than Hirsch to patron saint.) It would not take too much of a stretch of the imagination to envision a group of self confident and self righteous undergraduates arrogantly mouthing off Brill's lines as Gospel truth and deciding that if Brill dismissed someone then one could afford to move on and not bother reading. For me Dr. Brill was just the opposite, a key into a world and a directive to go read. Yeshiva University in its great wisdom decided to not grant Dr. Brill tenure and let him go. He now teaches at Seton Hall.
Now Dr. Brill has graced us with a blog of his own so anyone with an internet connection can gain from him. I am particularly fond of his analysis of modern trends within Christian thinking and their implications for Orthodox Judaism. There is also his musings on the passing of John T. Elson and the rise of popular mysticism where he notes: "And finally we have a variety of Jewish based kitchen deities, where one prays for everyday miracles, prosperity, and that the kugel comes out OK."
Dr. Brill is still looking for a name for his blog. I am up for "Dictaphone Mystic." It would be really something if readers of Izgad could come up with a name.
Tuesday, January 5, 2010
The Protocols of the Elders of Zion is an anti-Semitic classic, dealing with a Jewish conspiracy to take over the world. It was endorsed by that great American hero Henry Ford, who helped publish a translation of the book in this country. More recently there was an excellent documentary, Protocols of Zion, by Marc Levin on the book and its continued influence, particularly in the Arab world. Levin was inspired to make this documentary after having an Egyptian taxi driver explain to him that the Jews were behind the 9/11 attacks.
I was perusing the Wheaton Public Library this evening through their Judaic section when, to my surprise, I came across a copy of the Protocols. Naturally I was greatly offended to see this compendium of falsehoods. Long ago I appointed myself, with unanimous approval, as High Comrade of the Young Elders of Zion and I can assure you that we are absolutely nothing like what you read about in the Protocols (and if we once were then we have certainly reformed our ways and eliminated all Protocol Jews.)
As you can see I do not have a bulbous hooked nose. Our organization offers nose jobs, as part of our health package, to all our Jewish employees. We are also far better dressed. Taking over the world, like mathematics, is a young man's game, no one older than thirty. We are not an exclusively Jewish organization; we have a proud gentile faction, the Shabbos Goys, for the gentiles who run around and do stuff for us in an unstoogelike fashion. It should be noted for the record that the Protocols is a Czarist forgery, plagiarized from several earlier anti-Semitic works.
All joking aside, the proposition of a public library openly having a copy of the Protocols on its shelves posed an interesting challenge to my liberalism. As a good old fashioned fighting nineteenth liberal, the notion of censorship is completely odious to me. I recognize the sort of Pandora's Box one opens with censorship. If I exercise my liberal indignation against the Protocols, other liberals might choose to come after Ann Coulter's books (not that I would consider this a bad thing). Next on the chopping block could be the Bell Curve, which argues that blacks really do have a problem when it comes to performing in standardized tests, and before long the mobs might be coming for this humble blog. As a historian, I see the Protocols as one of the most important primary source documents relating to modern anti-Semitism and the perfect history 101 lesson on how to turn texts against their authors. I wish for young aspiring historians to be able to easily be able to get a hold of this book. (Internet editions are also in abundance.)
That being said I recognize the danger of having this book on display as if it were just a regular book. By allowing this book on the shelf, the government of Montgomery County is saying that this is a book of opinions alongside other opinions. You can be pro health care or against it, pro the war in Iraq or against or believe that there is a secret cabal of Jews pulling the strings behind all of this. If I am to engage in the public discourse of free citizens then I need you to give me the benefit of the doubt about my beliefs and intentions. I may be wrong in my beliefs (As I tell my students, much of history is the story of very smart people with really bad ideas.) and it may be that what I propose will lead to utter disaster. You must still assume that, despite my wrong ideas, I came by them honestly and that I mean them for the best. I cannot prove that I am not part of some sort of dark conspiracy. You just have to give me the benefit of the doubt and let my ideas stand or fall in the free marketplace of ideas. At the very least hate literature like the Protocols should not be treated any better than pornography. If the library is not going to leave pornographic material out where the young and impressionable can easily find it and form their own opinions about it then they should not be leaving hate literature out on the open shelves.
I took this copy of the Protocols over to the two librarians at the side desk to show them what they had. The two ladies were very kind to me. To my shock, neither of them had ever heard of the Protocols. (I am not sure if this is a good or bad thing.) I politely explained to them that I was opposed to censorship and did not want the book removed. I suggested a number of possibilities. The book could be put on some sort of reserved section for anyone who specifically asks for it. (Much the same way that stores keep their pornography behind counters and people have to ask for it. No, I have never tried to ask for some.) Another idea would be to create a separate section for hate literature and put the Protocols there. (Whether this entire section should be behind lock and key is another issue.) It turns out that the book was cataloged under the Dewey decimal system under anti-Semitism and therefore ended up right next to Judaics.