Friday, April 30, 2010

The Napoleonic Sanhedrin Theory of Equal Rights (Part II)




(Part I)


What does it mean to be a citizen? To put it simply it is the obligation to obey the law and the promise to not use the instruments of government to advance any private interests. A Jew who becomes a citizen of his host country agrees to place the interests of this country and his loyalty to it above the interests of Jews in other countries. In the most extreme case, if the United States were to go to war against Canada, the American government could draft me and put me in the front lines. If I see a Jewish soldier, with a beard and side-locks, charging at my unit, I am obligated to kill this Jew in order to save the life of my Christian comrades. Keep in mind that my American Christian comrades are being asked to make the same decision regarding Canadian Christians. If I refuse to do my duty I have every reason to assume that my Christian comrades will in turn refuse to do their duty. They could easily decide to join forces with their Christian brothers to the north of the border to kill me in the cause of creating the United Christian States of North America. By agreeing to pull the trigger I am protecting my life and the lives of all Jews back home. It is certainly unlikely that this Canadian scenario would ever happen, but that is not the point. This system of tolerance relies on the implicit assumption of my willingness to carry through with all my obligations even to the point of killing. (It should be pointed out that American Muslim soldiers serving in Iraq and Afghanistan are actually in this situation. Their loyalty is under question and their willingness to fulfill their duty, even to the point of killing fellow Muslims, will affect how Muslims in this country will be treated.)

Having never killed another Jew in defense of this country, my fellow non-Jewish Americans are going to judge me based on more prosaic issues. It is here that Napoleon's questions become relevant and force some difficult answers. Take, for example, the issue of intermarriage. After saving my Christian comrade, he decides that I am the perfect good American for his sister to marry. What is he to make of the fact that I would not even consider the possibility, but would consider the sister of the Jew I killed? It should be noted that Orthodox Judaism's taboo against intermarriage goes way beyond what even conservative Christians have in place. We are telling American non-Jews that we are willing to kill other Jews in their defense, but we are not willing to marry their sisters. And they are supposed to believe us?

I am not suggesting that Jews should accept intermarriage. The forcefulness of the taboo, though, requires some rethinking. I can manage, with a straight face, to tell American non-Jews that I am willing to kill, even other Jews, for them, because Judaism accepts the concept of war. Just as Christianity allows Christians to be loyal citizens of the earthly State, serve in its military and even kill other Christians, Jewish law allows me to kill other Jews in war. No Jew during World War I was refused entrance in a synagogue for shooting at other Jews. I wish to have a Jewish home and raise my children as Jews. The best way to do that is to marry someone is Jewish, not that there is anything wrong with non-Jews. This is a far cry from "intermarriage is treason to the Jewish people, if you intermarry we will consider you a dead person and not let you set foot in a synagogue." To use Catholic terminology, intermarriage must be viewed as a venial, but not a mortal sin.

What do Jews believe about non-Jews? If I believe that my Christian neighbors are satanic enemies of God, doomed to everlasting hellfire if they do not recognize my one true faith then I could hardly expect citizenship. "You Christians are evil sinners, hateful to God, but trust me to be on your side." On the contrary, I have to believe that Christians are moral God-fearing people, whom I may have certain minor theological disagreements with. This would mean that the doctrine of eternal damnation, in all its forms, is out. This also strengthens the limitations to objecting to intermarriage. Again, if Christians are so wonderful that I would want to join with them in citizenship then why should I object to marrying them or of having any of my fellow Jews doing so. I would also add here the issue of conversion. If there is nothing really so bad about Christianity why should I object if one of my children wishes to become one? Would I disinherit my child for voting for Obama to be president? Why should I object if my child votes for Jesus as his personal savior?

I was once told by a Haredi young man that he believed, and was taught by his teachers, that non-Jews were not truly of the same species to such an extent that you cannot rely on the medical studies done on non-Jews for making medical decisions about Jews. Forget about the scientific absurdity of this; let us consider the political implications. This Haredi is basically saying: "you goyim are a bunch of animals, who are not even human, but I view you as my equals and have your best interests at heart." You non-Jews believe him? He is making a mockery of you. There is no reason for you to tolerate him. Strip him of his citizenship or even throw him out of the country. If you were to go so far as to stick him into a gas chamber, I would have no grounds to object or complain.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Jewish Justice for Sholom Rubashkin





As with many people in the Orthodox community, I have recently been getting inundated with emails asking for aid for Sholom Rubashkin. For those of you unfamiliar with the case, Rubashkin is the former head of the infamous Rubashkin slaughtering plant in Postville Iowa. Last year it was subject to a major federal raid over the use of illegal immigrants. Now Rubashkin is up on charges of fraud and apparently the prosecution is trying to put him away for life. Rubashkin certainly makes for a funny cause célèbre for the Orthodox community to get behind, particularly as there does not seem to be much question that he is guilty of at least some of the charges. The response to this seems to boil down to saying "what Rubashkin did was wrong, but the punishment he faces does not fit the crime." Added to this are the insinuations that Rubashkin is the victim of an anti-Semitic legal system willing to go to any lengths to discredit the practice of kosher food. Thus Rubashkin enters the company of that other great Jewish "hero," Jonathan Pollard.

Not that I understand the full details of the case, but life does sound extreme to me. The thing is that I have a hard time getting worked up about or feeling sorry for Rubashkin. For years now Rubashkin has been a running disgrace of God's name and to Orthodox Jews. I lost any sympathy for him once the scandal of the video of the cow getting its lungs ripped out hit the web. By the time the government decided to raid the plant, I could only wonder why this did not happen sooner. There is no law in American jurisprudence against making Jews look bad. Judaism itself, while it exhorts its members to sanctify God's name, does not have any specific punishment for desecrating it. That being said there are Jewish sources, such as the biblical case of Phineas, that support the extra-judicial execution of those who bring disgrace to God's name. Furthermore there are sources, such as the biblical case of King Saul, to justify suicide in order to avoid the desecration of God's name.

I am not suggesting that anyone harm Rubashkin. As American citizens we are bound to respect American law and do our utmost to ensure that he receives American justice. Rubashkin's crimes are against the United States and the United States government's right to punish him comes before any theoretical Jewish justice. Furthermore, as a committed law and order person, I fear the prospect of vigilante justice as a path toward chaos.  But if I had Rubashkin to myself in a place in a place where no government authority applied (say in certain parts of Africa or Antarctica), I would take a leaf from Japanese honor culture, hand him a knife and ask him to do the right thing. If he refused then I would take out a gun and pull the trigger.

While I will have to hold off on any Jewish justice fantasies with Rubashkin, I am free not to feel bad for Rubashkin. Furthermore, I am free to actively rejoice at the prospect that he will get at least a fraction of what he deserves. We Jews should not be berating the prosecution for their supposed anti-Semitism. On the contrary, we should be thanking them for carrying out God's will and saving us from the legal and moral quagmire of Jewish justice.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Does Michael Makovi Support Anat Kamm?




Recently there has been a controversial case in Israel involving a woman named Anat Kamm. While serving in the IDF, she downloaded sensitive documents, which she handed over to Haaretz. Think of this as Israel's version of Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers. (If you are wondering how a common soldier could I have access to sensitive material, as the book Start-Up Nation point out, the Israeli army operates with a shortage of officers, placing unheard of responsibility and power into the hands of regular soldiers.) Reading the weekly Torah Mitzion newsletter this past Shabbos, I found an intriguing denunciation of Kamm by the editor, Eliad Avruch.


A country and society cannot function when everyone does whatever they feel like. It is true that democracy is rule by the people, but that does not mean that the every individual can act on every whim. If we want to have a functioning country and society, we must continue to strengthen government institutions, to which everyone – and this means every single person – is subordinate. Individualism is important, wonderful, and even necessary. But if everyone did whatever they wanted, the country would become simply a collection of individuals which would collapse with the speed of lightning.


The lines in this Kamm case are not just right versus left, Israel policy in the territories, is it legal and moral for Israel to assassinate wanted terrorists, but also, and more importantly, the right of individuals to break laws that they disagree with, even strongly disagree with. The fact that a spokesperson for the religious Zionism would come out in favor of submission to government authority in this case raises the question as to whether he is actually consistent and would support this same government authority when used against settlements.


Michael Makovi is certainly a supporter of the radical civil disobedience of individuals. He does not even believe that people should have to pay taxes that they themselves and through their specific elected representative support. As Makovi notes:


I've spoken to many Israelis, and nearly all of them have a peculiar belief that one is obligated to obey the elected government without exception, with no right of protest or disobedience. According to them, a democratically-elected government has an ontological significance and is beyond any accusations of wrongdoing, and it lacks any accountability or responsibility. According to them, citizens are only to vote and nothing else.

So if someone believes this, then he is personally and individually complicit in any wrong-doing of the Israeli government. If you believe you cannot protest against the government, and if you believe you must accept the government's actions as legitimate without exception - and many if not most Israelis hold this, according to my conversations with Israelis in Jerusalem and Petah Tiqwa and my reading Israeli newspapers - then one is personally culpable for all wrongdoing by the government.



Makovi supports the right of soldiers to refuse to evacuate settlements. He claims that "according to democracy, the government is a servant of the people. So if soldiers believe that expulsions are illegal and criminal and immoral, then it is democracy that grants them the right to protest and disobey orders." So I put the challenge to Makovi and other members of the Israeli right, can you accept the legitimacy of Kamm's actions, even if you disagree with them, as the actions of a person who had the courage to follow through with her convictions?


I would argue that when settlers and their supporters, like Makovi, build settlements deemed illegal by the government and refuse to evacuate them, at that same moment they are also with Kamm, downloading sensitive documents and handing them over to the press. In a universe in which both conservatives and liberals live in the same country, without waging violent civil war against each other, and meaningful political principles exist then liberals and conservatives can be expected to engage in action-reaction. If I, as a conservative, believe that I have the right to break laws that I disagree with then I can expect nothing less from liberals that they will, in turn, break the laws that they disagree with. Rather than denounce Kamm as guilty of treason, Israeli conservatives, if they actually have principles, should embrace their liberal sister (of course in a shomer negiah fashion), offer to share the guilt for her crime and her prison sentence.


Let me finish by saying that I am not opposed to all acts of civil disobedience even when they break laws. It is important, though, that it is limited in such ways as to maintain the overall integrity of the legal system. Civil disobedience must actively respect and even enhance the legitimacy of the overall government even if it disagrees with specific laws. Respecting overall government authority means accepting the legitimacy of the punishments given for breaking the law. If one is going to break the law, one must do nothing to avoid punishment (fines, jail, even death) for it, but must accept it as what he deserves for breaking the law. Remember, every act of civil disobedience and breaking the law is a free license for the other side to act in kind.

Friday, April 23, 2010

The Napoleonic Sanhedrin Theory of Equal Rights (Part I)




My previous post on the American flag received some strong reactions. At least one person questioned my loyalty to Judaism. I do not blame the person or think he is entirely wrong. I take my loyalty to the United States as a citizen very seriously. I am very open to the possibility that the requirements of citizenship violate the precepts of Judaism and that I have to choose between being a practicing Jew or an American. Part of what separates me from most people today is that I do not view citizenship and the benefits that come with it (voting, equal protection before the law, holding legal office etc.) as inherent rights, but as privileges, privileges that you pay for by taking on certain obligations. These obligations are not to be taken lightly and it is quite possible that the price is too high and one should turn citizenship down. I suspect this has a lot to do with the fact that today everyone is given full citizenship, men, women, white, black, Christians, Jews, atheists. Thus citizenship becomes the norm to be treated as a given, without any thought to any consequences. Contrast this with being a citizen of the Roman Empire.

My model for gaining equal rights and citizenship is a little known event, known as Napoleon's Sanhedrin. Before the French Revolution, Jews lived in semi-autonomous kehillot. They were not citizens of the countries in which they lived in, but were rather sometimes tolerated resident aliens. The French Revolutionary government was the first to grant Jews equal rights. It did this by disbanding the kehillot and making Jews, as individuals, French citizens. In the years 1806-07, when Napoleon was at the height of his power, he gathered together noted Jews from across the religious spectrum and put to them certain questions as to the ability of Jews to be citizens. Among these questions where:

May a Jewess marry a Christian, or a Jew a Christian woman or does Jewish law order that the Jews should only intermarry among themselves?

In the eyes of Jews are Frenchmen not of the Jewish religion considered as brethren or as strangers?

Do the Jews born in France, and treated by the law as French citizens, acknowledge France as their country? Are they bound to defend it? Are they bound to obey the laws and follow the directions of the civil code?

Does Jewish law forbid the Jews to take usury from their brethren?

Does it forbid, or does it allow, usury in dealings with strangers?


This whole affair collapsed into absurdity as members of this "Sanhedrin" attempted to balance Jewish tradition with giving Napoleon the answers he wanted to hear. Are Jews allowed to marry? Yes, sort of, not really, no, but we still are a loving tolerant religion. Today the incident is remembered simply as a historical oddity. That being said, this incident is critical in that it sets up many of the issues for modern Jewry as a good example of, what I like to call, the "Enlightenment bargain." Jews agree to make certain concessions to the surrounding culture and, in turn, they are given citizenship and equal rights. How far these concessions go is up for discussion. It could be anything from agreeing to speak the vernacular to being baptized. In essence all Jews, even the most extreme Haredim, have made some version of this bargain and have assimilated to some extent.
 In a larger sense, Napoleon's Sanhedrin is important in that it offers a different model of gaining equality from the one that modern liberalism is used to. In the modern liberal model, there are oppressed groups being denied what is rightfully theirs. Members of these groups decide to fight for these rights and, aligned with enlightened members of the general society, succeed in gaining equality for their people. For example, blacks in America were being denied the right to vote. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream and finally convinced white America that it was wrong to deny blacks equal rights. A properly chastised white America did a mea culpa and passed the Voting Rights Act of 1964.
The story of Napoleon's Sanhedrin is not one in which Christian Europe suddenly awoke to the fact that they had been mistreating Jews for a thousand years and finally decided that Jews really were just like everyone else and should be tolerated, given equal rights and ultimately made into citizens. On the contrary it is Jews being put on trial before European society and asked whether they are deserving of being given citizenship. Being a citizen means taking on certain responsibilities and being of a certain mindset to be able to function within society. Can you be trusted not to simply abuse citizenship for your own ends? If you cannot live up to this then no rights. This model puts the onus, not on the general society, but on the given minority group.


(To be continued …)

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Toward a Patriotic Celebration of Israel Independence Day




I am an American citizen and a Jew. I take both of these elements of myself very seriously. Not that this relationship is always perfectly smooth, but I strive to keep both of these parts in harmony and will even go so far as to say that each is enhanced by the other. As a Jew, I bring a minority outsider element to our culture. This goes above and beyond that of other minorities in that America was founded by Christians with a strong sense of themselves as being the heirs of the biblical Children of Israel. Other minority groups may have their legitimate complaints against the United States. As a Jew, I can be nothing but eternally grateful for what America has done for us. As an American, I bring to Judaism an experience and a comfort in living in a free society, peacefully with members of other creeds.

While I may be an American, I believe that the State of Israel has an important role to play for Jews. The State of Israel itself (to be differentiated from the land) may not have any religious significance to me, but I still support it on secular terms. Even Jews who do not live in Israel can hold their heads up and feel safer in their home countries knowing that there is a Jewish State to stand up for them. Furthermore, any Jewish spiritual renewal, whether Orthodox or otherwise, is likely to come from Israel. I do not live in Israel nor do I have Israeli citizenship, but it is something that I might consider in the future. This would in no way be a rejection of America. I would be following in the footsteps of Michael Oren, who had to be supported by friends as he gave up his American citizenship in order to become the Israeli ambassador to the United States. Ambassador Oren never stopped being a loyal American. He is loyal to the Jewish people and to the State of Israel as well and has acted to serve both the interests of the United States and Israel.

Even if the political State of Israel does not hold any religious significance, I still see the establishment of the State of Israel and its survival during the War of Independence to be of religious significance. After the Holocaust, the Jewish people needed something. Without Israel, I do not believe that any Jewish renewal, even in America, could have been possible and Judaism would have faded into oblivion. So Israel Independence Day should be celebrated by Jews as a secular community holiday and a religious one to thank God for being delivered.

I say all this to frame what I am about to say so I am not misunderstood. I do not wish to attack the notion of American Jews being attached to Israel and celebrating Israel Independence Day. That being said, there was something that happened yesterday at my school's Israel Independence Day celebration that bothered me. There was music and dancing in the gym. As can be expected the room was full of Israeli flags. There was, though, not a single American flag. If this would have been an informal thing with people bringing in flags, I would not have thought to make an issue of it, but the school had several representatives from the State of Israel, who came into the gym in their Israeli military uniforms and, with full ceremony, hoisted the Israeli flag, while everyone stood at attention.

According to article 7c of the American flag code:

No other flag or pennant should be placed above or, if on the same level, to the right of the flag of the United States of America, … No person shall display the flag of the United Nations or any other national or international flag equal, above, or in a position of superior prominence or honor to or in place of the flag of the United States or any Territory or possession thereof.


If it is considered a disgrace to the American flag to honor the flag of another country above it, it is certainly a disgrace to honor the flag of a foreign country, even to the extent of having foreign citizens dressed in the uniform of a foreign military standing on ceremony, without even having an American flag present.


I managed to pester a member of the administration to allow me to go over to the auditorium and bring over the American flag there so this event could be honored by the presence of an American flag as well.



For those of you who think that I am making a big deal out of nothing, I ask you: what line would you place for Israel Independence Day events? What would American Jews have to do in order for there to at least be the appearance of disloyalty to a country that they owe so much in gratitude to?


I was pleased to note the number of people who came over to me afterwards to tell me that they also were not comfortable with what was going on and thanking for doing something.

Monday, April 19, 2010

What is Wrong with a Little Spring Cleaning?




Garnel hit it right on the head yesterday when he commented on my last post: "And that's probably why no "orthodox" publisher would touch his stuff and why Cross Currents recently allowed a free-for-all attack on his latest essay without allowing comments to defend him." This was actually my planned continuation of the piece.

A few days ago, Rabbi Dovid Landesman put up another guest post over at Cross Currents, titled "Spring Cleaning." He uses, as his springboard, his mother-in-law's (my grandmother's) habitual rants about the Jerusalem Post's negative reporting about Haredim (I had the pleasure of reading it to my grandmother in person when she was over here.) to engage in some soul searching as to how the Haredi community reacts to negative news about them appearing in the press. Of concern to Rabbi Landesman it is not a matter of this or that scandal (there is plenty of that), but the attitude of the Haredi community to such reports. Rabbi Landesman cautions against a "marked tendency to mask many of the deficiencies that exist within our community by claiming that they are no more than the frightened ramblings of the leftist/secular world who live in trepidation of the demographics that might soon create a chareidi majority in Eretz Yisrael." Of concern here is a Haredi triumphalism that is incapable of seeing any meaningful wrongdoing in the community and reflexively delegitimizes any reports to the contrary and anyone daring to be the messenger.

 
The specific example that Rabbi Landesman offers is the ongoing case of the Emmanuel Bais Yaakov girls' school, charged with discriminating against girls of Sephardic descent. The basic story, so it seems, is that the school created a separate makeshift school for Ashkenazi girls so that they would not have to attend classes with Sephardi girls. (I am reminded of the Mississippi public school that allowed for there to be a separate prom to avoid allowing a lesbian girl to attend with her girlfriend.) Rabbi Landesman raises the challenge:


The Israeli Supreme Court has found the Bais Yaakov in Emmanuel to be in contempt of court for continuing to segregate Ashkenazi and Sefaradi girls in the school. Reportedly [and I use the word with forethought], Rav Elyashiv ruled that the court decision was "dreadful and should provoke a public outcry." Neither you nor I know what Rav Elyashiv actually said, nor am I certain how the facts of the case were presented to him. I will therefore refrain from commenting as to what I think the reply should be to the ruling of the bagatz. Rather, I want to focus on what our reaction should be to the situation itself. What will we do when the secular media takes this statement and uses it to stir up animosity against the chareidi world? Will it be sufficient to simply dismiss it as another example of their anti-religious agenda?

Note that the issue here is not whether the Bais Yaakov is actually guilty of anything. Personally I oppose all discrimination laws regarding
private institutions. (By private I mean not taking any government money. The moment you pocket a government check, you have sold them your soul and they have the right to use their money as leverage to their heart's content.) I see discrimination as a matter of private morality so I am hardly the sort of person, despite my personal opposition to racial discrimination, to defend governments trying to interfere in schools in the name of racial equality. The issue here is can we take the moment for some honest self reflection instead of simply thumping our chests, saying that we really are wonderful and it is just everyone else who are out to make us look bad?
In a sane world there would be nothing controversial about what Rabbi Landesman wrote. Sephardim are a minority in the Jewish community and as such they are subject to various levels of discrimination, particularly in insular communities like the Haredi one. Enter Rabbi Yaakov Menken. This is the same Rabbi Yaakov Menken, who censored my comments this past summer, simply because I dared to say something about Haredim besides for "these are people who regularly have non-Orthodox Jews, people they've never met before, as guests in their homes for Shabbos meals." Rabbi Menken denies the fact that there is any serious problem of self denial on the part of the Haredi community. Furthermore, he bristles at any accusations of Haredi triumphalism. Why you may ask, because, according to Rabbi Menken, these claims about how wonderful the Haredi community is (so wonderful that any honest study of the data would cause someone to run off and convert to Judaism) are all true. Rabbi Menken gleefully jumps on the fact that, yes, the account of what is actually going on in Emmanuel has been disputed. This, for Rabbi Menken, is evidence that this Emmanuel case really is a product of a sinister secular liberal media and legal system, which really is out to malign Haredim and people like Rabbi Landesman are dupes for taking them at their word. The attack parade continues with Eytan Kobre. Thankfully Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein stepped in with something resembling sanity, offering words of criticism to both sides.

 
With all of this back and forth about Emmanuel going on, the main point of the article was quickly lost. Are people in the Haredi community too quick to criticize how they are portrayed in the media and are they doing this as a means to avoid any serious self-reflection? I do not expect any society to manage to rid itself of fanatics, kooks, and maniacs. On the flip side, every society will have its clear eyed reformers, willing to face up to what is wrong with that society. The real moral question in judging a society is how the silent majority are oriented? In many respects, this ultimately becomes a judgment of the "moderates." There are always going to be fanatics burning garbage or worse. What, though, is the reaction of the otherwise respectable and supposedly responsible people of influence like Rabbi Menken? Do they honestly come out in opposition or do they dismiss these people simply as a fringe element, get defensive about any indication that this is something more serious, while spouting rhetoric that de facto justifies the actions of the fanatics, in essence giving them a wink and a nod? These attacks on Rabbi Landesman are far stronger evidence for his case than any garbage burning mob.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

In Good Company With No Basketball Courts in Heaven




Rabbi Dovid Landesman recently came out with a book, There Are No Basketball Courts in Heaven. It is a collection of essays on various topics relating to Judaism. Many of the essays come from various guest posts he has done on blogs such as Cross Currents and Emes-Ve-Emunah. (For some strange reason, despite the fact that he is my uncle, he has yet to consent to guest post on this blog.) Admittedly there is a weakness in this in that the book has the feel of a random collection of essays. I could easily imagine myself at some point in the future attempting to take a collection of connected posts, such as the ones on the historical method and the Whig narrative, and use them as the base for a book. The slap-dash feel of the book is not enhanced by a childish cover and the fact that Rabbi Landesman was not able to get a mainstream publisher, even a Jewish publishing company such as Artscroll or Feldheim to put out the book. All of this contributes to the sense that this is a vanity project of no consequence. This may be true, but it is all the more the pity. Rabbi Landesman is a talented writer with a self-deprecating sense of humor, who deserves a larger hearing then just the Orthodox-blogosphere. His perspective and life experiences span the Orthodox world; thus allowing him to speak to both Haredim and the Modern Orthodox. Furthermore I believe his is a voice that both of these worlds need to hear as he offers plenty of tough love for both sides. The fact that Rabbi Landesman could not get a major publisher tells us less about his talent as a writer and more about the sad state of affairs we are in today.

The essays in the book are connected by three themes. The first are Rabbi Landesman's observations about Jewish education and teaching high school students. Closely connected to this theme is the second, what is wrong with the Modern Orthodox world, particularly its educational system. Rabbi Landesman was the Hebrew principal at the Modern Orthodox Yula high school in Los Angeles for a number of years up until a few years ago so he is speaking from practical experience. The problems as he sees them are mainly, a casual attitude toward Jewish law, particularly when it interferes with the desired teenage lifestyle and an obsession with getting into elite secular colleges and the whole buying into of secular definitions of success. Perhaps Rabbi Landesman's strongest words are reserved for Haredim, the third theme. Rabbi Landesman is the product of an older Haredi generation that to put it simplistically I would say was more "moderate." I think it is more accurate to say that they were still part of American society, held in check by it, and were not actively engaged in waging a war against it. It is this sort of world that could produce such a story as the adolescent Rabbi Landesman going to a Pirates (back when they were still worth watching) double-header against the Dodgers at Forbes field with Don Drysdale and Sandy Koufax pitching back to back and Rabbi Landesman praying that God not send the Messiah until after the second game. This sensibility was strongly enhanced by the fact that Rabbi Landesman grew up in McKeesport PA (where he literally married the girl next door, my father's older sister). His essays "Baruch Hashem, Nothing has Changed," "Yankel zt''l," and "The Day that Satmar Went Mainstream" are truly gut-wrenching. To top things off, Rabbi Landesman has plenty to denounce both sides with when it comes to crass materialism.

One thing that really struck me on a personal level when reading the book over Passover, (and it was certainly worth my while despite seeing the original posts and having read a rough draft a few months earlier) was the repeated theme that after all the years he spent teaching teenagers and having been one himself that he did not understand them. (See particularly "Get Plenty of Rest and a Daily Dose of Apathy.") Right before Passover I was informed by the administration of the Hebrew Academy that I was not going to be offered a job to come back to for the fall. They were impressed by my dedication and the high level and quality of the lectures I gave. That being said, they felt that I lacked the "right touch" for dealing with teenagers. I had walked into this school into a difficult if not impossible task that I, as a new teacher that students had no reason to respect, should teach a course that they had every reason to regard as a freebie to pass the time in their last year in school before going on to Israel and college and actually put together a meaningful course. I refused to take the easy way out and my reward was to be let go. I found reading No Basketball Courts to be a big comfort; rather than being someone fired from a job, I was being placed in good company, Rabbi Landesman's. Maybe in a few decades I will be as talented a writer and teacher as he is while still being let go by schools for not being the "proper fit."

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Rabbi Gedaliah Anemer ztl: A Community Rabbi




This morning, I was sitting in the teacher's lounge in the Hebrew Academy, looking at my email, when I saw a message from the school administration that Rabbi Gedaliah Anemer had passed away. The school placed classes on hold for several periods and put the tenth through twelfth grades on buses to go to the funeral services being held at the Young Israel. Anyone even slightly familiar with Silver Spring Jewish politics might be forgiven for being taken aback for a second at this. Rabbi Anemer was the head of the Yeshiva of Greater Washington, the "other school," a Haredi rabbi, who could hardly have been viewed as popular or beloved at the Modern Orthodox Hebrew Academy. It says something about Rabbi Anemer that he managed to cross the community divide to be the rabbi of the entire community. Most leaders gain universal acceptance by being passive and bland to such an extent that no one could have any cause to object. What made Rabbi Anemer special was that, as anyone who ever spent more than a few minutes could tell you, he was a personality to be dealt with, who made no concessions for the sake of popularity. I spent two years in his class, within smacking distance of him. I was far from his greatest student; I am not, in any way, qualified, to evaluate him. But if you permit me, here are some thoughts from this member of the "opposition."

Silver Spring is hardly a bastion of Haredism. Its Orthodoxy is distinctively Modern Orthodox. One would never accuse Silver Spring of trying to recreate European Jewish life, but in one sense, for the past fifty years, we have done so in a way not matched probably by any Jewish community in America, certainly not the Haredi enclaves of Borough Park and Lakewood; we had a community rabbi and his name was Rabbi Gedalia Anemer. As I already said, it cannot be said that Rabbi Anemer was ever a popular rabbi. The yeshiva community in Silver Spring has always been a minority and on the defensive. It is unlikely that it would even exist if it were not for Rabbi Anemer's force of will. We, in the Modern Orthodox community, might not have "liked" Rabbi Anemer. We likely disagreed with him more times then we agreed. That being said, there was never a question that he was the rabbi of the Greater Washington area, not just of the yeshiva community, but of the entire community. He was able to maintain this position, because regardless of what you may have thought about this or that policy of his, there was no doubting the man. Agree with him or disagree with him, he was a scholar of the first rank and a man of unchallengeable integrity.

There is a common attitude toward rabbinic leadership to look for gedolim, people with a claim of leadership over the entire Jewish world. No one who knew Rabbi Anemer could question the fact that he was a scholar deserving as any to be viewed as a gadol, a leader of the generation. Certainly he deserved the honor of sitting at the head table at the Shiyum Hashas and to address major conventions. If anyone had ever seriously questioned Rabbi Anemer's integrity (even the most sincere displays could just be an act), my response would have been that if Rabbi Anemer was ever really just out for himself then he would have been out of Silver Spring a long time ago. He would have moved to greener communities, where people would have given him the respect he actually deserved. He would have issued declarations on the issues of the day and made sure that his students would be out there to defend his honor and make sure that he was recognized as "the leader of the generation."

I doubt Rabbi Anemer 's passing is going to make front page news in the Yated or Hamodia. I do not expect them to mourn his passing by calling him a gadol hador. I have no intention of correcting them; I am not going to cheapen Rabbi Anemer by calling him a gadol or even "a leader of the generation." There are already plenty of those. Instead I will praise him by calling him by what he deserved, the rabbi of a community, of Silver Spring and the greater Washington area.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

C. S. Lewis on the Implications of the Nazi Holocaust




In his essay "Willing Slaves of the Welfare State," C. S. Lewis took a view that most people would associate with Michel Foucault, in Discipline and Punish, as to the modern shift in regarding criminal punishment as no longer a debt paid to society as a matter of justice, but as a means of curing the patient of his pathological tendencies toward crime. Like Foucault, Lewis saw this shift in very negative terms as a direct assault on personal freedom, one that granted governments the power not only to enforce laws, but to reshape man in whatever image best suited to the interests of the State. Lewis goes further, by arguing that the modern view of crime was a necessary component in allowing the Holocaust to happen:

I will mention the trainloads of Jews delivered at the German gas-chambers. It seems shocking to suggest a common element, but I think one exists. On the humanitarian view all crime is pathological; it demands not retributive punishment but cure. This separates the criminal's treatment from the concepts of justice and desert; a 'just cure' is meaningless.

On the old view public opinion might protest against a punishment (it protested against our old penal code) as excessive, more than the man 'deserved'; an ethical question on which anyone might have an opinion. But a remedial treatment can be judged only by the probability of its success; a technical question on which only experts can speak.

Thus the criminal ceases to be a person, a subject of rights and duties, and becomes merely an object on which society can work. And this is, in principle, how Hitler treated the Jews. They were objects; killed not for ill desert but because, on his theories, they were a disease in society. If society can mend, remake, and unmake men at its pleasure, its pleasure may, of course, be humane or homicidal. The difference is important. But, either way, rulers have become owners. Observe how the 'humane' attitude to crime could operate. If crimes are diseases, why should diseases be treated differently from crimes? And who but the experts can define disease? One school of psychology regards my religion as a neurosis. If this neurosis ever becomes inconvenient to Government, what is to prevent my being subjected to a compulsory 'cure'? It may be painful; treatments sometimes are. But it will be no use asking, 'What have I done to deserve this?' The Straightener will reply: 'But, my dear fellow, no one's blaming you. We no longer believe in retributive justice. We're healing you.'

I take a similar attitude when teaching about the Nazis. The popular view of the Nazis as people motivated by hate, with the obvious liberal lesson of tolerance, misses the point. The Nazi leadership, by and large, particularly those directly involved in the Final Solution, was dominated by perfectly sane, reasonable and rational people. They simply believed that the world would be a better place without any Jews in it. The Jew was suffering from a disease; since the disease, in practice, could not be cured, Jews themselves would have to go. From their perspective, those who planned the Final Solution were humanitarians, taking upon themselves the morally difficult task that other people would be too squeamish to carry out themselves. Reading up on Adolf Eichmann for example, I never got the sense that he hated Jews in any conventional sense. Can anyone conceive of Eichmann losing control and going on a Hitler-like rant about the evils of the Jews? Eichmann was a highly intelligent, rational person, committed to duty, whose reading of the modern situation, Kant and Jewish literature led him to the conclusion that Jews needed to be removed, nothing personal.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Holocaust History Versus Holocaust Memorial




I must admit that I find Yom Ha-Shoah (Holocaust Memorial Day) to be very difficult. Obviously, this day is created for the benefit of those who have reason to find this day far more difficult and nothing that I say should be seen as a disparagement of them. God knows that they have certainly earned the right to have their day. I am the grandchild of Holocaust survivors and as a historian I have a greater appreciation than most as to the horrors of the Nazi regime. In truth, though, it is the historian in me that makes things difficult. For me, Holocaust Memorial Day, more than any other day of the year, serves to rub into my face the gap between history as I know it, study and love and the culture of memory that serves as history for most of the population. This gap is more than just an academic issue; it stands at the heart of much that is ill in the modern world. Thanksgiving or the Fourth of July would be obvious competition, but these, ironically enough, have been rendered so empty of historical content as to prove innocuous. True this has come about due to the de-historization of our society, brought about by modern liberalism. That being said, I sometimes feel, perhaps naively, that better no history than wrong history.

For me, history is the study of who, what, when, where and, most intriguingly, why. If human history is irrational, the study of history is a redemptive exercise in reason, purified from any modern polemics or judgment values. History does not include should or even right or wrong. As I often tell my students, there is nothing in my class to stop them from concluding that Hitler was a great leader and that the United States should follow in his footsteps by invading Canada and seizing its natural resources. I might personally disagree with such a position (and do society the favor of shooting them on the spot), but it is for reasons completely unrelated to history. Thus I take it personally to see the Holocaust used to teach "lessons" or to inspire a sense of Jewish identity. Do not get me wrong, I do see the Holocaust as one of the great evils of the twentieth century and fully support private, communal and religious memorials. I would willingly sign on for special prayers for the victims of the Holocaust and even for its own fast day. (Many Jewish communities in Europe maintained fast days, up until modern times for the Crusade massacres. Why should the Holocaust be any different?) Religious prayers, fasts and even secular commemoration vigils are distinct enough from history as to be unobjectionable. It is only when there is some pretense to history, that I am offended; if history is going to be taught then it should be taught properly by professional historians.

Perhaps the thing that most encapsulates this divide is the attitude toward survivor testimony. Holocaust Memorial Days focus on survivors and holding onto their memories. More and more this is taking on a frantic quality as we recognize that there are fewer and fewer survivors left and we are soon approaching the day when there will be no survivors. The non-historian wonders how we will respond to Holocaust deniers without the eye-witness testimony of survivors. For the historian, though, the truth of the Holocaust has never rested on eye-witness testimony, but on documents. The documents have been preserved and are not going anywhere. There are no participants of the French Revolution or the Civil War left. The last known World War I veteran recently passed away. I am not worried about these events being forgotten. If there are people who deny the Holocaust, there are also flat earthers, geocentrists and moon landing conspiracy theorists. These beliefs exist to the extent that we, as a society, fail to promote the systematic use of reason, underlying both the scientific and historical methods. As such, the failure to embrace the historical method at Holocaust Memorial Commemorations is itself furthering the cause of Holocaust denial.

There is no profession that makes one aware of one's own mortality as history. Historians every day are faced with the reality that not only will we be dead like those whom we study, but, like those whom we study, our culture will also die and this world will be left to those who will not even understand us and what we stood for. Worse, these people, out of their own self righteous sanctimonious ignorance, will think to judge us for our failings to live up to their standards and label us as "primitive." So God wills, the Holocaust generation will pass on, followed, in a few decades, by my generation. It is only the historical method that will allow us to be understood as we understand ourselves and thus be truly remembered.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Are Messianic Movements Doomed to Failure?




The apocalyptic understanding of the Messiah would seem to guarantee that all messianic movements would, by definition, fail. If the point of a Messiah is to overturn the natural order of things and bring about the kingdom of God, any Messiah who comes and leaves the natural order of things intact is, by definition, a failed Messiah, if not a false Messiah. This argument is articulated by Harris Lenowitz in his book, The Jewish Messiahs: From the Galilee to Crown Heights. Lenowitz argues that messianic movements are by definition doomed because they cannot fulfill the supernatural claims upon which they are built:

Despite the variety of details in the messiah's lives and circumstances, one concludes, after reading all the accounts of them in succession, that they possess at least one feature in common: the messiah's failure to achieve his stated promises; from the beginning of every account, disaster is present and only awaiting its turn to appear. … No messiah succeeds in leading his followers and the world to a harmonious existence – not on the political level, where independence and autonomy inside or outside Israel is not regained by the Jews; and certainly not on the cosmic plain, where disease, violence, and death endure as principal features of the human universe. No messiah is able to soften these perdurable actualities. The messiahs, during their lives, and the followers, after their leader's death, must push the successful fulfillment of their programs forward into the future in order to maintain themselves as microsocieties in the present, but their efforts merely inflect the unavoidable death of the messiah and the eventual collapse of his movement, leaving rationalizations on the ruins of the unattainable hopes they have raised.

This view of Messianism has come under heavy fire. For example, Marc Saperstein, in his review of Jewish Messiahs, commented that:

Using the tools of the anthropologist, he [Lenowitz] presents the messianic movement as a Sisyphean ritual, in which all the protagonists know from the outset how the drama will end. … History, for the participants if not always for the historians, is very different from Greek tragedy. The analysis of behavior, knowledge, and motivation from the perspective of what occurs at a later date is (to use Michael Bernstein's felicitous term) illegitimate "backshadowing." It is hard to imagine that the protagonists of a messianic movement genuinely believe that they are following a script with a tragic ending. For them there is an alternative script in which the ending is luminous. 

I propose here that this is another example where political messianism becomes useful. As long as messianism is tied to the supernatural then, yes, the success or failure of the movement can be judged solely on the basis of whether the natural order in both politics and the physical order have been overthrown. This, of course means, that every messianic movement in history, whether Jewish, Christian or Muslim, has failed. Thus messianism becomes a study in failure. The study of Islamic Mahdism, in this sense, is useful in that it give us a model of successful messianic movements that were apocalyptic. These movements simply shed their apocalyptic elements as they gained political power. If this process could work within Islam then in theory at least it could have worked for Judaism. Ultimately while messianic movements may be born out of Apocalypticism, they are not bound by them. They can transcend their apocalyptic origins and enter the political realm.

This allows us to look back at Jewish messianism as something other than a set up for failure. We may know the end of the story, that things will end in failure, but as long as there could have been a rationally plausible for any messianic movement to succeed then, as historians, we are required to put our knowledge of the end to one side and see the movement as those living in the moment would have seen it, with the possibility of success. Could Abu Isa and David Alroy have successfully led revolts and gained at least semi-autonomous Jewish States in northern Persia? Could David Reubeni, with the help of Shlomo Molcho, have continued the pretense of negotiating on behalf of a Jewish kingdom in the East long enough for Reubeni to have established himself as ruler of the Jews, making himself a force that no European power, not even Charles V, could simply ignore? Might the Ottoman Sultan have chosen to appoint Sabbatai Sevi as king of the Jews in a subject kingdom of Palestine, setting off a mass emigration of Western European Jews, bringing their technical skills to the new Sabbatian State? Would Jacob Frank have been able to carve at his niche in the political chaos of Poland and the religious chaos of the Jewish community to form his own power base? In many respects, barring more than a decade in prison, Frank actually did this and must therefore be viewed as a success.  

Thursday, April 8, 2010

My Ideal Job




As I mentioned earlier, I am not going to be back at the Hebrew Academy for the fall. The administration might have liked what I did, but they decided that they did not have anything to suit my particular skills. While this was going on, as a favor to the school librarian, Gila Suchter, who has been a very dear friend in letting me take over her library as my private office, I have been serving as a semi-official research paper guide for the elementary school students doing projects on the Holocaust. This has mostly consisted of me answering basic questions and gently angling them away from Wikipedia toward internet sources that end in .gov or .edu. If things go really well I try to get the student to open a printed book. While talking over my predicament with Mrs. Suchter, it hit me that this semi-official job would be the perfect official job for me. I could be the school's official research advisor.

To the best of my knowledge this is a job that I am making up, but there has to be someone out there who is already doing this at their own school; the need is just too obvious. Think about it; research projects, usually papers are something that all schools give out, starting at a young grade. All sorts of classes, science, English and history, assign research projects. It is a perfectly reasonable way to get students to apply what they have learned in class to a project of their own choosing and which they have to take responsibility for. The problem with an assignment that is so reasonable that every class would resort to it is that everyone knows that everyone else is doing it so no one feels any responsibility to teach research skills and it falls through the cracks. I am just as guilty as anyone of this; my students have had several months to do their research papers. Every once in a while I have opened the floor to questions about the paper, even allowing the majority of a class period for this, and am always available outside of class, in person, by phone or by e-mail , to talk. That being said, I do not formally teach research skills. Writing a paper is something from outside of class to be grafted on. Time must be made for it, but it is not an integral part of the class and as such it all too easily gets pushed aside in favor of official course material. (The Alfie Kohns of the world would use this to argue against research assignments and they may even have a valid point.) What is needed is someone to take on this job as an official responsibility. It is not enough for research skills to be a side thing that all teachers in theory teach. If no one is actively taking responsibility then it will not get done.

This does not need to be an official class. I could simply be on call a given number of hours a week in the library for students who need me and I could make my rounds to the various classrooms to give ten minute introductions advertising my services to students. This is not a writing center, though it could easily be incorporated into one even if I personally would prefer to work out of the library. In my experience, writing centers are run out of English departments and therefore focus on the technical mechanics of writing. If students ask for help in terms of research ideas, that is secondary. I am a historian; my primary training is not as a writer. Whatever skills I picked up in writing came on the side. (One of my justifications for this blog is that it serves as an ongoing exercise to help me become a better writer.) I can be useful, at a pragmatic level, for helping students formulate a thesis and getting evidence for it. If I actually know something about the topic, I can point you to something specific. Even if it is something that I really know nothing about, I have good enough instincts to usually be able guess where you might want to go with a topic and what some of the potential issues might be. Everyone needs an intelligent person to throw around ideas with, particularly in the beginning stages of research. In my own personal experience, not having someone usually leads to boredom and inefficiency.

This is the perfect job for me. It involves me doing what I love best, jumping around various ideas to see where they lead. It plays to my strengths, while avoiding my weaknesses. I get to be the intelligent, enthusiastic, likable person who actually cares about teaching students, while avoiding having to engage students, maintain classroom discipline and teach a specific course. Most importantly, it gives me an excuse to sit in the library every day and read. With this job, any book interesting enough for me to read is probably going to be something for me to recommend and therefore a necessary part of my job.

The administration loved the idea. They agreed that they could use someone to fill such a position and that I would be the perfect person for it. Unfortunately they do not have the budget to do it. If anyone out there is in a position of influence at an elementary or high school and likes this idea and would like having me on board to put it into practice, feel free to contact me. (Keep in mind that hiring me comes with the bonus of having me running around your school and all the unforeseen consequences that come with it.)

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Liar, Lunatic or Leader of the Generation: a Jewish Trilemma (Part II)




(Part I)


Let us dispense with the pretense that Rabbi Kamenetsky never actually called himself "the leader of the generation" or that he has never claimed absolute authority for himself. Rabbi Kamenetsky stood by and allowed himself to be referred to as "the leader of the generation" and, on a daily basis, he allows his proxies to defend him as a "gadol," whose comprehension is above that of mere mortals and can therefore never be challenged. There is a concept in Jewish law that "silence is like an admission." Rabbi Kamenetsky is, if nothing else, a mature adult capable of speaking his mind and, who therefore, can be held responsible for failing to do so. On numerous occasions I have been in situations where people referred to me as "Dr. Chinn" or as a "leading historian" and I very quickly corrected them. (My suspicion is that Haredim are particularly prone to this form of bombast and flattery and it comes from a lack of firm intellectual standards. For the study of Talmud there are at best vague informal standards and for secular study there is no such thing at all.) I might be working on my doctorate and hope to someday attain the title of doctor, but until I have finished that journey of writing a dissertation it would be a mockery of those who actually have already accomplished this feat for me to put myself at their level. If I was set to give a speech and someone introduced me as "the leader of the generation," I would abruptly turn and walk right out the door. I like to be honored as much as the next guy, perhaps even more so. As an academic I have essentially turned my back on ever becoming wealthy; the only earthly reward left is to be recognized by my peers and the general public as a leader in my field. That being said, there are certain types of honor I can do without; I am not about to carry the burdens that come with them.

I spoke about this issue with my grandmother and some of my cousins. After some back and forth they came to the conclusion that I was right (always a good thing to hear); the person who introduced Rabbi Kamenetsky should not have called him "the leader of the generation," but instead should have called him "a leader of the generation." Alternatively, if one wished to be specific, one could refer to him as "the leader of the Yeshiva community in America." This new classification raises new questions as it much more ambiguous. I fully recognize that Rabbi Kamenetsky is more than just the head of a yeshiva. He is certainly one of the leading figures of the Haredi community and, as such, is entitled to a great degree of respect. (This is of course dependent on whether one accepts the legitimacy of the Haredi community as monotheist Orthodox Jews in the first place, something that I certainly do not accept as a given.) The change from "the leader" to "a leader" could plausibly allow for disagreement. A member of one legitimate Orthodox community would not be expected to accept the authority of another legitimate Orthodox community. It would be absurd for a Polish rabbi to appoint himself as the rabbinical authority for Yemenite Jews. (This, of course, does not stop people from trying.) As a member of the Modern Orthodox community, I have my own legitimate Orthodox community with its own rabbinic leaders. While I might be expected to show respect for other communities and their leaders, I am free to follow the ways of my Orthodox community, free from any Haredi challenge.

My suspicion, though, is that this concession may not mean much for Modern Orthodox Jews. "A leader" could also mean one of a group of leaders, gedolim, who carry, as a group, absolute authority. One assumes that these gedolim are specifically Haredi gedolim. The implication of this is that Modern Orthodoxy does not constitute a legitimate Orthodox Jew community. As such Modern Orthodox Jews have no grounds to ever challenge Haredi policy, particularly when put forth by its leaders. We are simply erring Jews, like the Reform and Conservative, who need to get back in line with the true path. This simply multiplies the trilemma. No longer do we have to worry about the human perfection of just one bearded rabbi, but literally a whole body of bearded rabbis, who are either God's appointed agents on earth or minions of Satan to be fought to the last breath.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Conservative Judaism Has Gedolim

  One is used to Haredim speaking about their leaders, both past and present, otherwise known as the Gedolim, in ways that imply veneration if not downright idolatry, complete with acronyms or the titles of their books. Modern Orthodox Judaism has their particular thing with Rav Yosef B. Soloveitchik, the Rav. This is certainly not something that one would expect from the more liberal Jewish denominations. Joel L. Kraemer, in his biography of Maimonides, declares, while discussing Maimonides' view on women that Maimonides was largely operating within an Islamic framework of law, but that modern trends in Jewish law have taken the more liberal elements of Maimonides while discarding some of the particular claims troublesome to modern sensibilities:

In the modern period, the greatest Talmudist since the Gaon of Vilna, the Gaon Rabbi Saul (GeRaSH) Lieberman, an admirer of Maimonides, encouraged women to study Talmud and admitted them into his Talmud classes. (Maimonides: the Life and World of One of Civilization's Greatest Minds pg. 336.)

Rabbi Lieberman, who headed JTS' Talmud department and was the leading rabbinic figure of Conservative Judaism for much of the twentieth century, is certainly on my list of great rabbis and for more deserving of titles than just about any of the Haredi rabbis that I care to think of. For one thing Rabbi Lieberman was a legitimate scholar, whose published work truly did advance the field of Talmudic study, particularly in regards to the Jerusalem Talmud. Still I wonder what Rabbi Elijah of Vilna would think of the comparison.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Liar, Lunatic or Leader of the Generation: a Jewish Trilemma (Part I)




I spent the first days of Passover with my Haredi cousins in Toronto. This part of my family is very close to Rabbi Shmuel Kamenetsky, the head of the Philadelphia Yeshiva and one of the leading Haredi rabbinic figures; someone often referred to as a "gadol" or one of the "gadolim." Rabbi Kamenetsky, as per his usual custom, was in Toronto himself for the holiday. He was speaking at a synagogue nearby so I went along to hear him. The speech itself was an exercise in radical theodicy, predicated on the assumption of direct divine judgment as the cause of all things. I view any discussion of divine causation in this world that does not openly admit to the existence of universal physical laws and place them front and center to explain how this world works as not only engaging in the denial of science, but in heresy. It is not enough to acknowledge on the side that there is such a thing as divinely created nature. One does not get credit for admitting to what is right in front of their eyes. Science is the idea that the universe operates according to consistent laws, knowable to human intelligence. I see this ultimately as evidence of a universal lawgiver, whom I like to refer to as God, and a mark of godly perfection. A God who would operate according to arbitrary whims is less efficient and therefore, by definition, less intelligent and less perfect. As such anyone who postulates a God who fails to operate by simple universal laws denies God's perfection and is just as guilty of heresy as the Christians who would postulate complex schemes of salvation all centered on a nice Jewish boy be nailed to a piece of wood.

All this aside, what particularly caught my interest was the speaker who introduced Rabbi Kamenetsky introduced him as "the Manhig HaDor," the leader of the generation. Forgive my Asperger brain, but I take words very seriously and insist that they mean something. Carrying the unofficial title of "the leader of the generation" should imply certain privileges and burdens, not all that different than being an informal Jewish Pope. The leader of the generation deserves the utmost respect and may never be challenged or contradicted. Since the leader of the generation is the leader of all Orthodox Jews, anyone who disagrees with the leader is, by definition, outside of Orthodox Judaism. Since the leader represents Orthodox Judaism and Orthodox Judaism is always right, the leader must also be always right. Being the sum of human perfection carries a price, though, in that one has to be judged by the standard of human perfection.

C. S. Lewis, in Mere Christianity, famously attacked those who viewed Jesus simply as a great moral teacher. If Jesus claimed to be the Son of God then he was either telling the Truth or he was a liar or a lunatic; on no grounds can he be called a moral teacher. If Rabbi Kamenetsky were to lay claim to being the leader of the generation then he would either be, if not the Son of God, then at least God's representative on Earth and the embodiment of the Truth of Orthodox Judaism or a dangerous egomaniacal insane heretic attempting to take over Orthodox Judaism for his own purpose. There is not much room for a moderate opinion. In contrast, the head of the Philadelphia Yeshiva and even a highly venerated rabbi can afford the luxury of being human, having imperfections and even of being wrong on occasion, without losing any of the respect due to a head of a yeshiva and a venerated rabbi. Of course, on the flip side, one can never ask "how dare you go against such a wonderful rabbi who heads the Yeshiva of Philadelphia." I never went to his yeshiva and he never was my rabbi.

When I wrote about Rabbi Kamenetsky two years ago, in what I admit was one of my more polemical posts, I received a fair amount of criticism. I found this amusing since even my "criticism" of him could only be called criticism if we were to judge Rabbi Kamenetsky by communal leader standards. Obviously there can be no expectation that the head of the Philadelphia Yeshiva be able to address a general audience. Similarly, it would not be a criticism of me to say that I would not make a good grade school history teacher. I am a graduate student working in history and I tend to speak as if I were addressing other graduate students; there is nothing wrong with this. Of course I am not in the running to be anything else besides for being an academic historian still in graduate school, certainly not "Manhig HaHistorianim."


(To be continued …)

Friday, April 2, 2010

Between Military and Missionary Models: Islam and Christianity

Islam historically has operated within an openly military political process where the faith is spread by direct military conquest. This likely is connected to the nature of Islam and its origins. Islam, unlike Christianity, spread by direct military conquest. In the course of a single century, between 632 and 732, Islam went from tribesmen in Arabia to Muslim armies marching into France. Thus the Islamic tradition inherited a different model of spreading itself from that of Christianity. To be fair to Muslims it should be noted that, while pagans had no choice but to convert or die, Jews and Christians were protected as “people of the book,” a relationship encoded into official policy by the pact of Umar in 637. History is certainly far more complex than fanatical barbarous Muslims putting all who would not embrace their faith to the sword and meek Christians converting through rational argument. Nevertheless, there are certain differences in how Muslims and Christians conceive of spreading their religions and this has practical ramifications.

Christianity was born out of the destruction of a failed political messianic movement. (Whether or not the historical Jesus intended to lead a political movement to physically overthrow the Romans in Palestine, even from the New Testament it is clear that his followers, particularly Simon Peter, thought that they taking part in a political movement.) Christianity went through the first several centuries of its existence as a persecuted minority. It was never in a position to spread itself through military conquest and thus developed an ideology that denigrated the military model. Instead Christianity developed a missionary model of spreading the faith. Here an individual or a small group would go out to a territory dominated by unbelievers and attempt to spread the faith by argument or displays of miracles. Crucial to this model is the fact that the missionary is not backed by physical arms and is not the one in the position of physical strength. On the contrary, there is every expectation that the missionary will be harassed, persecuted and even executed for his actions.

It is within this model that the concept of martyrdom could arise. The word “martyr” comes from the Greek word for “witness.” The martyr by willingly dying for his faith testifies to its truth even to non-believers. It is likely because martyrdom is the product of the missionary model that Islam never developed a concept of martyrdom in the classical sense. Yes Islamic thought, from the beginning, developed a concept of dying in battle with unbelievers in the cause of spreading the religion and those who did so could expect to be rewarded in the afterlife. What Islam never developed was a notion of dying for the cause in a situation where doing so would accomplish nothing beyond dying for dying’s sake. There is nothing in traditional Islamic Law about marching up to pagan or Christian authorities and saying “I am a Muslim,” refuse to drop a pinch of incense on an altar and willingly allow oneself to be executed or thrown to the lions. On the contrary, Islam, particularly Shi’i Islam developed a theology of dissimulation; that it could be acceptable and even laudable to lie to non-believers who would seek to kill you.

This is not to say that Christians are incapable of using armed force and military conquest to spread their beliefs nor that Muslims are incapable of trying to convince non-Muslims, through preaching, reasoned arguments and miracle claims, of the truth of Islam. Rather each of these religions developed a certain model and developed a theology around it and thus it becomes the primary go to model, regardless of the sort of pragmatic actions done on the ground in particular circumstances.

Take for example the two most prominent cases of the Christian use of armed force to spread their faith, the Crusades and the Spanish conquest of the New World. While in both these situations it cannot be denied that non-Christians were de facto led to the baptismal fonts by dint of Christian military conquest, neither case involved a specific plan of using military force as a conversion tool, drawing a direct line between Christians conquering a non-Christian area and these non-Christians accepting baptism either at the point of a sword or simply as a matter of accepting the new political reality of Christian rule. Pope Urban II, in preaching the Crusade on the fields of Clermont, did not argue for a Crusade as a means of converting Muslims. Rather his primary concerns were protecting Christians and Christian holy sites in the Holy Land. The Spanish conquest of the New World also operated, in practice according to a missionary model. Military conquest was closely followed by missionary preachers, particularly Franciscans. We are dealing once again with missionaries seeking places where the people “did not know Christ” and attempting to persuade them to accept baptism. Many of these Franciscans seem to have taken a particular tack of searching out the most isolated groups of natives and the ones most likely to bring about their martyrdom. It was certainly clear that military conquest would aid in conversion, but the scenario here is that of a military presence designed to protect the lives of missionaries and their converts.

Individual Muslims were certainly capable of writing missionary literature. The Jewish convert to Islam, Samual Ibn Abbas al-Magribi, wrote Silencing the Jews and the Christians through Rational Arguments. That being said, this is not the product of any large scale institutional thinking, plan or societal ideology. The Ismaili Shi’i, who laid the foundation for the Fatimid dynasty engaged in missionary work to prepare the groundwork for the coming Mahdi, but there is no question that once the Mahdi arrived he would triumph through military power as the underground network of believers rose up to join him and cast of the rule of the Sunni Caliphate.

Again it is critical to distinguish between a Christian or a Muslim engaging in activity that might be classified as using military force or missionary activity to spread their beliefs and the conscious decision to adopt such activities as part of a clearly laid out ideological program. Where are the medieval Islamic translation centers like Peter the Venerable’s Toledo, with Muslim scholars, with the possible help of some Jews, translating the Bible into Arabic in order to refute it or learning Latin in order to better debate Christians? Find me the Muslim Raymond Lull, crossing the Mediterranean, risking life and limb to preach the Koran to Christians? Where there Muslim children in sixteenth century North Africa, like the young St. Teresa de Avila and her brother, dreaming of crossing over to Spain to proclaim their faith and die at the hands of the Inquisition?

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Charles Darwin Meet Adam Smith

Kenneth R. Miller, in addition to defending evolution on religious grounds, makes the case for evolution to free market conservatives. Evolution is simply the free market acting in nature:

Capitalism, as conservatives never tire of pointing out, produces economic efficiency not by design from above, but from innovation, investment, and self interest from below. The ability of modern capitalism to invent, adapt, and prosper stands as dramatic testimony against those who would argue that complexity and efficiency cannot arise spontaneously, but must be planned into a system by a supervising authority. Charles Darwin would have loved it.

What impressed Darwin, as well as many others, about living things was how well-suited they are to their environments. Other naturalists could do no better than to attribute this to careful, centralized planning, but Darwin knew better. He supplemented his observations on natural systems with studies of the economic theories of Thomas Malthus and Adam Smith, whose work preceded him by a generation. From economics he gained one of the key insights of his theory: namely, that allowing individuals to struggle for personal gain helps weed out inefficiencies and produces a balanced system that ultimately benefits society as a whole.

In a certain sense Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection is unadulterated Adam Smith translated into the language of biology. The unthinking acts of individual organisms, seeking no more than survival and reproductive success, produce biological novelty just as surely as venture capitalists foster innovation.
The truth is that if Charles Darwin were to appear today in midtown Manhattan, I know exactly where I’d take him first. No, it wouldn’t be up to the Museum of Natural History, whose rich collections of fossils have so eloquently documented the historical details of evolutionary change. It wouldn’t even be to the great university laboratories, where studies of molecular genetics have provided the mechanisms to support his theories. It would be to a place where people would really understand him, a place where his theories are put into practice every day, a place where a true evolutionist can have a rip-roaring good time. I’d take him to Wall Street … (Kenneth R. Miller, Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America’s Soul pg. 203-04.)

So not only is intelligent design heresy, postulating a deity who constantly has to tinker with his creation instead of letting it run on natural laws, intelligent design is big government liberalism, postulating a society so complex that only through the direct intervention of a wise president and his allies could we ensure affordable health care to all. As believers in capitalism know, the free market is not some sort of cold ruthless Darwinian jungle where the strong few live in plenty while the rest are left to starve. The market is the story of reason and morality arising out of chaos to defeat Social Darwinism. For all of its limitations, the free market is the most powerful poverty elimination device ever conceived by man. Similarly, while evolution appears to be the story of a godless world ruled by chance and brute force, it is really about the rise of order from chaos and goodness from brute force. Survival of the fittest means the survival of the wise and moral and not simply the strong.  Like Professor Miller, I cannot help but find this spiritual moving, far more so than any fundamentalist harangue against evolution.