Monday, July 26, 2010
Ungodly Words: Toward a Political Philosophy of Heresy (Part II) – Is Uncle Moishy Kefira?
What does it mean when we say that a statement or even an entire work is heretical (kefira)? Examples of statements that have been, at one time or another, been declared heretical by Jews would be: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life," (John 3:16) "Religion is the opiate of the masses," (Karl Marx “Critique of the Hegelian Philosophy of Right”) "the Bible was formed from the documents J, P, E and D" and "man is descended from monkeys." How are we able to say that such statements, and by extension the books in which they are contained, are in contradiction of statements of dogma and therefore heretical? There are a number of possible models which one can use in order to tag a text as heretical. The most obvious way would be to interpret a text and decide if it contains any heretical assumptions; this can be referred to as the Interpretive Model. Another way to go about the task would be to decide if the author had intended the text to mean something that is heretical; this can be referred to as the Authorship Model. A third way with which one could decide the matter is to look at how the text has generally been interpreted; this can be referred to as the Historical Model. The final possibility is what I like to refer to as the Community Model in which we would assume that the communal body is licensed to eliminate ideas that it views as dangerous and as such the community has the right to, on a whim, declare texts to be heretical. As I will attempt to demonstrate, each of the first three views, taken to their practical applications, lead to extremely problematic situations where we would either have to declare "safe" texts to be heretical or not be able to justify, on a rational basis, declaring certain "dangerous" texts to be heretical.
The problem with the Interpretive Model is that, once you start putting texts under a theological microscope you can find heresy almost anywhere. Take something really innocent like an Uncle Moishy song, a major staple of my childhood. If you think about it, the lyrics: "Hashem is here, Hashem is there, Hashem is truly everywhere," taken in its literal sense, is highly heretical because it implies that Hashem (God) occupies space which could only be possible if God were a physical being or had some sort of physical element to him.
Everyone would agree that within the four-cubits which define "here" for me at the present there is a being named Benzion Noam Chinn, a desk, a computer, a copy of the 6th edition of Wheelock's Latin, sound waves which are coming together to form the First Movement of Beethoven's Third Symphony along with the trillions upon trillions of nitrogen and oxygen atoms which make up the air that I am at present breathing. It would seem that Uncle Moishy and by extension my supposedly Orthodox parents would have had me believe that in addition to the list of things that I have just mentioned there is an omnipotent, omniscient, being better known as Hashem taking up space in the "here." Now in regards to things that are not physical we do not deal with them in terms of space or of "here" or "there." For example we do not, except in a poetic sense, talk about peace, love, happiness or the law of inertia being "here," "there" or occupying space. Just as the statement "the surface of the planet contains x amounts of love, or of Newtonian mechanics, per square cm" is meaningless, so to, for the purposes of all of us who believe that God is not a physical being, the statement "the surface of the planet contains y amounts of Deity Blessed be He per square cm has no meaning. Since it is no reasonable to assume that Uncle Moishy was singing gibberish, it would become conceivable that Uncle Moishy believes that God is in some form or fashion a physical entity pervading the entire universe. To be specific it could be assumed that Uncle Moishy believes in a Pantheistic conception of God, just as Baruch Spinoza did, or at the very least Panantheism, that God is in all things.
So maybe you could tell me that Suki and Ding, the makers of Uncle Moishy, only meant the song in a poetic sense. I would respond that first of all I never did see any notice on any Uncle Moishy tapes saying: "Warning, to all philosophically inclined children, this song should only be understand as a figure of speech and should not be taken in any way shape or form literally, Chas V'Shalom (God Forbid)." Even if such precautions had been taken it still would not allay the concern that the people behind Uncle Mosihy were covert Pantheists, trying to poison the minds of innocent children with their heresies, because I could argue that not only are they Pantheists but they are also Straussians. They very well may have read Leo Strauss' Persecution and the Art of Writing, in which he argued that various writers, such as Maimonides in particular, hid the heretical aspects of their beliefs by spouting the orthodox creeds that contradicted their real beliefs, in order to fool the cursory censor, and then inserted their real beliefs in a backhanded fashion. In this same vain any warning given by the producers of Uncle Moishy can be taken as mere cover for their real beliefs as stated in their songs. Particularly in this case since, let us face it, five year-olds as a whole do not read the warning labels on cassette tapes. Therefore the trick warning would never reach the eyes of the children and they would take in the real message of the song mainly that God is simply the physical spirit permeating all matter. In such a way a whole generation of Jewish children can be led astray and turned into Pantheists. For the purposes of the Interpretive Model, the fact that I might not be able to find a single person who has become a Pantheist through listening to Uncle Moishy songs is irrelevant. All that matters is what the song means to me, the Interpreter.
(Just to make you breathe easier, I do not actually believe that Uncle Moishy is the product of a Cabal of Straussian Pantheists. I do not consider to collective intelligence of the Jewish music industry to be high enough to actually know anything about Spinoza, Pantheism or Strauss let alone to be able to conspire to inculcate children to those ideas.)