Monday, May 31, 2010

A Regional Recipe for Creating Radical Movements




Those attempting to understand what is coming out of Iran today need to appreciate the extent of which the region of Persia has served to foster militaristic messianic movements. It is actually not just Islamic movements. In terms of Jewish history, this region gave us Abu Isa in the eighth century and David Alroy in the twelfth century. In many respects Persia can be seen as the Islamic world's equivalent of medieval Provence and Italy, regions beloved by modern medievalists for their tendency to do fun things like produce heretical movements and popular revolts. In trying to wrap my head around Persian history (both in terms of my modern interests and in trying to understand the context for the Jewish messianic movements in this region) there seems to be a number of factors that parallel the Southern European situation and have helped contribute to this state of affairs. I am mainly interested in medieval Persia, but these things seem to continue to be relevant to modern Iran.

  1. The ghost of an ancient advanced culture.
    Italy and Provence were the parts of Western Europe in which the Roman Empire exercised the strongest influence. In many respects, even after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, the symbols of the Roman Empire did not go away, particularly in terms of physical monuments. Besides for centralized government bureaucracy, the other thing that the Romans did better than anyone else in pre-modern history was to build. One of the things that have struck me about Ahmadinejad of Iran is the close personal connection he feels to ancient Persia. This is perfectly understandable. The papacy still claims the title of Pontifex Maximus, high priest of the ancient Roman pagan religion. Persia was certainly a culture equal to Rome. The Parthian Empire was, for the most part, more than a match for Rome militarily. Do not underestimate our Iranians; they are a very sophisticated people, just the right amount to be both intellectually and militarily dangerous.
     

  2. The absence of a strong government.
    Medieval Italy was a collection of city-states. There was no unified Italy until the nineteenth century, a galling reality for classical republicans like Machiavelli, with dreams of reconstituting the Roman republic. Provence was outside the authority of the French monarchy until the thirteenth century. Not unsurprisingly, Provence was brought into the orbit of the French monarchy due to the Albigensian Crusade, when French forces came south to eliminate members of the Gnostic Albigensian sect, branded heretics by the Church and the original targets of the Inquisition.
    Since the downfall of the Sassanids up until modern times, Iran has had periods of strong centralized rule, for example the Safavids in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. That being said, the dominant narrative is one of a region outside of the major centers of power. While Iran converted to Islam, it successfully resisted Arabization, maintaining a Persian culture. (The number one thing I repeat over and over again to my students is that Iranians are not Arabs. They do not speak Arabic, they speak Farsi.) Furthermore Persia managed, in the long run, to resist Arab military control. The Umayyads and later the Abbasids were never able to establish a firm control over the region. Unlike almost the entire Arab world, Persia managed to resist Ottoman control. This left Persia as a haven not just for Twelver Shiism which eventually became the dominant mode of Islam, but also numerous other brands of Shiism for Zoroastrianism, which survived the Islamic conquest. In terms of Jewish history, Persia was a major center of Karaism.

In creating radical societies, such as medieval Italy and Provence and Iran down to modern times, we are looking at two contradictory forces. While we want a history of an advanced society, with a legacy of strong government, that strong government should be lacking in the present day reality. We need to be far enough from established centers of political authority to avoid notice. This creates the sort of power vacuum that allows radical movements to flourish in the first place and not get crushed. But it is precisely these contrasting forces that allow for radicalism to work. While the lack of centralized rule on the ground allows for radicalism in practice, it is precisely this history of strong centralized government that forms the ideological basis for such radicalism. Here political history serves as the perfect State, all the more convenient for it being a non-existent State, open to be claimed by anyone willing to use it.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Jack Bauer’s Last Hobbesian Battle: Some Final Thoughts on 24 and its Politics




I must admit that I did not particularly care for this last season of 24. Looking back, I wish the show had ended with season five (seasons one, three and four are the truly brilliant ones). Seasons six and seven, to say nothing of the truly horrendous made for TV movie, lacked the energy and the writing to keep them interesting. 24 may not be a well written show in the conventional sense, but at its best it stands as the most truly addictive show in the history of television. This came from a manic intensity and the show's utter unpredictability. As the perfect show for our ADHD generation, it was always who is going to get killed next, when is the next bomb going to go off, and who is going to be the next person to be revealed as a double agent? At the center of this was Kiefer Sutherland's Jack Bauer. Sutherland brought an aggressive power to this role, tempered by a humanity that makes Bauer the secret agent/cop hero against which all future such roles will be judged. The last few seasons descended to parodies of 24 as the same plotlines were recycled with utter predictability, the writers followed by the actors just going through the motions.

Season eight of 24 was, for the first two thirds of the season, running steady for being the worst season of the series. Then a sniper took out Jack's love interest, Renee Walker, and Jack went off the deep end. This, in of itself, is fairly standard 24 fare. Added to the mix, though, was the reintroduction of the Nixonian former president Charles Logan. (Jack took him down in season five for his part in the conspiracy to take down the beloved President of the early seasons, David Palmer.) Logan manages to worm his way into the confidence of President Allison Taylor and convinces her to cover up evidence that the Russians were behind the events of the first part of the season (including the assassination of the president of a foreign country and a dirty bomb nearly going off in New York) in the hopes of keeping them at the peace table.

President Taylor might never have been the moral rock that President Palmer was, but she was decent enough. Her corruption is rendered plausible since it is the capitulation to that basic politician's conceit that what they do, the deals they negotiate and the pieces of paper they sign, are actually what matter and not the military reality on the ground. This sort of politician's conceit has played itself out tragically in real life with the British government covering up from the public the fact that Germany was rearming out of the fear that the public would force a war. The British eventually signed the Munich agreement to bring "peace in our time." Similarly the Israeli government signed the Oslo accords with Yasser Arafat. Throughout the peace process, whenever things broke down the reaction of the political class was that the parties needed to come back together to negotiate another round of accords, regardless of whether Arafat could be trusted to keep it. The dictum "war is politics by other means" has it backwards. Politics is warfare by other means. The natural state of affairs is for nations to wage wars of destruction with each other. Peace treaties are our attempt to find a better solution. No one has an innate right to live in peace. You earn the right to live in peace by convincing others that you can be trusted and that it is their interest to let you live. I support peace in the Middle East, even land for peace and a Palestinian State. These things will only happen when the Palestinians and the Arab world at large believe that the choices are either peace and acceptance of Israel or the destruction of their cities and countries as was done to Germany and Japan. (My brother refers to my politics as "Liberal Machiavellianism.")

Jack reacts to President Taylor's betrayal by going on a killing spree, taking down the people involved one by one, carving out the guts of one Russian operative and impaling the Russian ambassador. This climaxes in the final episode with Jack putting Logan and President Suvarov of Russia in the scope of a sniper rifle. I find Jack's actions to be perfectly morally defensible. Even to the question of whether assassinating the president of Russia will lead to war, I would respond that an international politics with leaders who initiate assassinations of other leaders and WMD attacks on other countries in order to scuttle legitimate peace treaties, is going to lead to a major war anyway. Better take your chances with attempting to remove such leaders. For treaties to mean something then those who would violate them must not be allowed to benefit from them. I was actually hoping that Jack would kill President Taylor. Governments are based on treaties with their citizens, no different than the treaties between nations. The treaty is that citizens should obey their leaders and not murder them and leaders agree to follow their own laws. Taylor violated that treaty and therefore undermined the very legitimacy of her government. She even went so far as to implicitly allow for Jack to be killed. This leaves only Hobbesian war and Jack is certainly someone capable of waging such a war. Jack could even be excused for the innocent civilians that get hurt or killed along the way. Taylor allowed herself the moral license to allow civilians to be hurt. Jack, in order to fight this Hobbesian war, has no choice but to arm himself with the same moral license. This is the reason why one needs to keep treaties. Treaties only mean something when the consequences of breaking them become too horrifying to contemplate.

What a great way for the show to go out for Jack to assassinate the President. Instead the show got cold feet and sold out. Jack does not even kill Suvarov and Logan. Instead he allows Chloe to talk him down to try to reveal the cover up. As part of the plan Jack orders Chloe to kill him, knowing that the government would never allow him to live. It would have been great if Chloe had followed through and the show could have gone out with the loyal Chloe killing Jack. Instead Chloe only shoots him in the shoulder. The plan fails, but the day is saved when Taylor repents her actions after seeing Jack's video where he explains his actions and refuses to go through with the treaty. The early seasons of 24 deserved something better for an ending.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Between Baron and Scholem




In his eulogistic review of Salo Baron, "The Last Jewish Generalist," Ismar Schorsch criticizes Baron and the last ten volumes of his eighteen volume Social and Religious History of the Jewish People for adopting an external view of Jewish existence, one that privileged sociology and economics, over an internal view of Jews, focusing on religious experience. According to Schorsch:

Ours is a politically secure generation hungry for the sacred. Its guide to the past is not Baron but Gershom Scholem, and its own historians tend to concentrate on subjects of religious import often studied from an exclusively internal perspective. If Scholem fertilized all sectors of Jewish thought with his lifelong study of kabbalah, contemporary scholarship is rediscovering the magic of midrash. The present temper prefers text to context, literature to history, meaning to significance, and regards Baron as the pinnacle of positivistic Wissenschaft.

For those of you familiar with the state of academic Jewish history, does Schorsch's declaration from 1993 still stand or was he crowing victory a little too soon? I find his declaration in favor of Scholem to be ironic, considering that, when he made it, Moshe Idel had already become the flag carrier for the revisionist movement in Kabbalah studies against Scholem, a trend that has only accelerated in the past seventeen years. Furthermore only several years ago Schorsch himself, when he stepped down from being the chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, delivering a "what is wrong with the Conservative movement" farewell address in which he lamented the fact that the Conservative movement had abandoned the sort of scholarship represented by, wait for it, Gershom Scholem.

In terms of general historiography, I am wondering as to what extent the trend Schorsch describes is representative of the study of European history in general. Baron can be seen as a Jewish version of the sort of socio-economic history represented by the likes of such early and mid-twentieth century historians as Marc Bloch and Fernand Braudel. So where are we historians at, dropping dry technical sociological studies in favor of a history of "meaning?"

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Jack’s Last Battle: Some Final Thoughts on Lost and C. S. Lewis




This past week saw the series finales of two of my long running favorite shows, Lost and 24. Without them I will probably get more work done. So here are some final thoughts of these two (usually) brilliant and revolutionary shows.

To deal with Lost first, I have long cherished the fact that they included C. S. Lewis in the guise of Charlotte Staples Lewis among the great philosophers such as Locke, Rousseau, and Hume to be named on the show. So I was particularly intrigued by the fact that they chose to pull off an ending reminiscent of how Lewis ended the Chronicles of Narnia with the Last Battle. Lewis famously (or infamously) had almost all the major human characters from the series killed off in a train accident and taken off to Aslan's kingdom where they all live happily ever after. Keep in mind that we are dealing with a series of kid's books. Most infamously of all, Lewis has Susan left behind, because she had abandoned "belief" in Narnia for her adult cares, mainly nylon stockings. Many have argued that nylons were meant as code for sex and that Lewis was telling kids that if they have pre-marital sex they will go to hell.

Anyone familiar with Lewis' wider body of work, not just Narnia, would tell you that, for Lewis, it really is about the small things, such as nylons, to such an extent that if Lewis had written that Susan was not going to be saved because of her sex life, sex is really code for all the petty vain things, like nylons, that are really at the heart of the matter. In Lewis' theology it is always the small sins that are important and which damn us. The big sins are merely the end result of all the small sins. For this reason, it is of little importance that, in Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Edmund betrays his siblings to the White Witch. The real issue at hand was Edmund's pride and jealously, present from the beginning of the story. A chastened humble Edmund is a savable Edmund, regardless of the consequences of his misdeeds. On the contrary, having to live with the consequences serves all the more as a chastisement to cure the original sin. The real problem with sex is not the act itself. The real issues (at least potentially) at hand are the pride that led one to think they are above conventional morality, the desire, not so much for physical pleasure, but to be part of the inner circle of people in the "know" and the rebellion against conventional morals. As Lewis points out in his essay, the Inner Ring:

Freud would say, no doubt, that the whole thing is a subterfuge of the sexual impulse. I wonder whether the shoe is not sometimes on the other foot. I wonder whether, in ages of promiscuity, many a virginity has not been lost less in obedience to Venus than in obedience to the lure of the caucus. For of course, when promiscuity is the fashion, the chaste are outsiders. They are ignorant of something that other people know. They are uninitiated. And as for lighter matters, the number of people who first smoked or first got drunk for a similar reason is probably very large.

 
A person could easily come to regret a sexual action, in of itself, and repent. It is not so simple to repent from the pride that led to it. Without facing the issue of pride there can be no meaningful repentance for sex and the deed will be repeated and worse things will follow.

The major mystery with Lost in the final season was what to make of the alternative parallel universe, populated by versions of the main characters, that came into existence, seemingly after Juliet Burke set off a nuclear bomb on the Island at the end of season five. I was hoping for Desmond Hume to bring back John Locke from the alternative universe to save the Island from the smoke monster, who had taken the form of Locke. (Hats off to Terry O'Quinn for the range he showed over the series, playing the noble John Locke with his struggles with faith in the Island for four seasons, the smoke monster pretending to be Locke for one season, and the utterly satanic yet chillingly charming smoke monster this last season. Whatever qualms I may have with the quality of the writing of this show at times, I cannot stress enough how talented a cast of actors Lost had.) The alternative universe Locke would be followed by the rest of the people in the alternative universe, who sacrifice themselves and the happier existences of the alternative universe to cross back over and save the Island.

I was always far more of a John Locke fan than a Jack Shephard fan. Shephard might be important as the political leader of the survivors, establishing a community, but it was Locke, who confronted the big questions of meaning and the purpose of the Island. I certainly could not care less about the Jack-Kate-Sawyer love triangle. I would compare the relationship between Shephard and Locke to the relationship, I once discussed, between Peter and Ender Wiggin in the Ender series. Instead of letting this play out, the writers decided to let Jack take on what should have been Locke's role as the faith leader to save the Island.

To top it all off, in the end the alternative universe ends up playing no role in the final conflict with the smoke monster. It is a gateway world where all the characters who died during the show along with the characters who survived but will one day die have been gathered together to fix their relationships before moving on together. The "Jew" Benjamin Linus is even given a truly moving repentance scene that Lewis would surely have approved of. Linus asks Locke for forgiveness for trying to kill him; the sin he focuses on is not murder, but the jealously that drove him to it. That being said, this gathering together was a cope out that dodged the major issues and failed to give six seasons of mystery the ending it deserved. Whatever else you can say about what Lewis did to Narnia in the Last Battle, and it certainly is the most difficult of the seven books, at least his narrative made sense.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Asperger Discrimination: Some Self Evaluation




One of my recent posts dealt with some of my reactions to being let go by the high school I was teaching at. I used an email sent by a member of the administration, which praised the job that I did for them even if I they would not be able to have me back as a launching pad to muse about the nature of discrimination and where one draws the line between saying that those with certain character traits are ineligible for a job and saying that members of certain minority groups are ineligible when the characteristic in question is closely related to a specific minority group. The example I gave was that of a black teacher. We need to be honest that integrating society and creating a more tolerant one is not a simple or painless task. Having a black teacher teach a white class is likely to create friction. A world in which blacks carry the burden of integration, of making sure that there is no friction and of having the right "touch" in dealing with students civil rights is one in which civil rights would never get off the ground. Every act of bigotry can be hid behind a smile and the claim that unfortunately the person fails to socially integrate himself. As an Asperger, I see myself as a member of a minority group and feel we should receive everything that society grants to other minority groups such as blacks and gays. Looking back at the post I can see how it could have been misread by people, not familiar with my thought processes, casually glancing at.

To be clear, I was not arguing that I had been discriminated against. I specially pointed out that, even in my black teacher scenario, it is not clear to me that our black teacher would or should win. It would be touch and go. I practice, I suspect, it would come down to the school being able to demonstrate that they are acting in good faith in dealing with blacks and the struggle with students was not simply an excuse or a more politically correct way of framing discrimination. This piece was also not meant as an attack on the school for daring to fire a teacher as "talented" as me. I specially said that I was very grateful to the administration for the opportunity. My whole argument is dependent on the fact that it was very kind of them to write me this letter. A person is never truly in a position to evaluate himself so I have no desire to argue one way or another as to whether I am a "good" teacher or not. I took the stance that overall I did a good job on all things subject to empirical evaluation since that was the school's stance and because it sets up the whole theoretical issue, which I wished to discuss.

My evaluation of myself is pretty much in keeping with how I think the administration saw me. I have a very strong background in the material and I am a good lecturer. I still need to work on my back and forths with students and my tendency to just wind myself up and speak for forty-five minutes straight. My ability to control a classroom is a major problem. I may love teaching and honestly care about the students in my classroom, but I certainly do not have an easy time relating to them. I am brash, loud, and students often find me intimidating. This leads to situations where issues that should have been easily defused blow up into major issues and reach the attention of administrators, by definition a losing situation for me. If I were an administrator, I would have questions about rehiring me since I am one more thing to worry about and a parent brought lawsuit waiting to happen. In the end I think I am a very good teacher for certain types of students. My ideal teaching job would be what Dr. Louis Feldman has at Yeshiva University teaching Classics to two students. I could be the quirky teacher at some college off to the side with his pack of students. This sort of job, of course, is rare in this day and age and is unlikely to come my way.

Any final judgment of my teaching comes down to a question of values. What is the most important part of teaching, being a fountain of knowledge for students to tap or someone that students like and avoids trouble?

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Vote Cthulhu for Your Planet’s New Deity




I finally got around to reading Eoin Colfer's attempt to step into Douglas Adams' shoes, And Another Thing …. Those who are not already familiar with Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series, with its very British intellectual insanity, are not likely to understand nor appreciate this book and would be better served in starting from the beginning (when the Earth is blown to bits by the Vogans to make way for an interstellar highway). Hitchhiker fans are unlikely to go for this new entry either. It is not that Colfer is not capable of imitating Adams' particular manic writing style and his random storylines; Colfer can certainly effectively imitate Adams. The problem is one of Colfer being capable of resurrecting Adams in body, while ignoring the spirit. This may sound counter-initiative, but in a random absurdist story like Hitchhiker, character and plot matter all the more. However absurd Hitchhiker might become, we need to care about Arthur Dent and his travails. His relationships with Ford Prefect, Zaphod Beeblebrox, Marvin the depressed robot, and Trillian have to work on a very human level. The absurdity is not an excuse to ignore this; on the contrary, it makes it more important. If we have nothing else to hang on to that makes sense we need to be able to grab on to the characters. The other thing to consider is plot. Hitchhiker worked best when it had a plot, no matter how ridiculous, to guide the story. The reader needs to be heading to some recognizable destination whether it is finding the ultimate question (the answer to which is 42) or saving the universe from cricket playing assassin droids. Without a goal, the story descends into a random sequence of acid trip jottings. (Adams did claim to have conceived the whole idea for Hitchhiker while drunk.) In all fairness, not even Adams was capable of consistently living up to this standard. 

There was one short sequence that I found worthwhile and worth sharing. The planet Nano, and its leader Hillman Hunter, decide they are in need of a deity. They therefore turn to consider none other than H. P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu. (Do not bother trying to figure out how to pronounce it. It is not designed to be pronounced by human lips.) For those of you not familiar with Lovecraft, he specialized in macabre short stories and novelettes mainly about humans using science and dark magic to cut through the thin veil of their earthly reality. At which point they look out into a universe bereft of any benevolent deity, but instead populated by monstrous "ancient ones" like Cthulhu, a prospect that generally drives the unfortunate humans into insanity.


A huge anthropoid was seated uncomfortably in the interview room's office chair, its grotesque, scaled torso squirming in the confines of the small seat. Tentacles dripped from its chin like fleeing slugs, and hard black eyes glittered from the depth of a pulpy face.
Hillman Hunter shuffled the pages of the creature's resume.
"So, Mr. Cthulhu, is it?"
Hmmm," said the creature.
"Good," said Hillman. "A bit of the ineffable, I like that in a deity." He winked conspiratorially. "Still, it wouldn't be much of an in-depth interview if we couldn't get a few facts out of you, eh, Mr. Cthulhu?"
Cthulhu shrugged and dreamed of days of wanton genocide.


"I see here you were in people's minds a lot a few centuries ago thanks to Lovecraft. Not much since then?"Cthulhu spoke in a voice of meat and metal. "Well, you know. Science and all that. Put a bit of a kibosh on the god business." Clear gel dripped from his tentacles as he spoke. "I kicked around Asia Minor for a while, trying to drum u a little fear. But people have penicillin now, even poor people have reading material. What do they want gods for?"


"Next question. Our last god was a less is more kinda guy. Sent his son down, but didn't show up too often himself. I think, and no disrespect to the man himself, that was probably a mistake. I honestly believe that he would put his hand up to that himself now if we could ask him. What I'm asking you, Mr. Cthulhu, is: Are you going to be a hands-on god or an absentee landlord?"Cthulhu was ready for that one; he had been practicing his answer for that very question with Hastur the Unspeakable only the previous night.
"Oh, hand-on, absolutely," he said, leaning forward to make clear eye contact as Hastur had advised. "The days of blind faith are over. People need to know who is blighting their crops or demanding virgin sacrifice. And now I am going to look away, but only because prolonged eye contact will drive you insane."
Hillman shook the sudden torpor from his head. "Good. Good. Quite a stare you have there, Mr. Cthulhu. Handy weapon to have in the arsenal."
Cthulhu accepted the compliment with a flap of one prodigious tentacle.
"Let's move one, shall we? Where do you stand on the whole Babel fish argument? Proof denies faith and so forth."
"My subjects will have proof and faith," rasped Cthulhu agitatedly. "I will bind them to slavery and trample the weak underfoot."
"I seem to have hit a nerve there," chuckled Hillman. "Again, I think you're on the right track; maybe you might want to pull back a little on the slavery and the trampling. We have quite a lot of weak people here, but they are big supporters of the church, whatever church we eventually pledge to. …"
"So. An old standard next. Presuming your application is successful, where do you see yourself in five years' time?"
Cthulhu brightened. Thank you, Hastur, he beamed into space.
"In five year I will have razed this planet, eaten its young, and stacked your skulls high in my honor." He sat back satisfied. Succinct and informative, a textbook answer.
A spluttering cough blurted from Hillman's lips. "Skull stacking! Come on, Mr. Cthulhu. Really? Do you think that's what god do today? These are interstellar times we've got here. Space travel, time travel. What we need on Nano is what I like to call an Old Testament god. Strict, sure. Vengeful, fantastic. But indiscriminate eating of young? Those days are gone."
"Shows what you know," muttered Cthulhu, crossing his legs."

(Eoin Colfer, And Another Thing … pg. 91-93.)

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Jewish Philosophy and Politics: A Challenge from Yitzhak Baer


Traditional liberal thought castigates its religious opposition as being superstitious and otherworldly. The idea being that the more rational one is the more one is going to consider problems of this world. This framework is translated into a framework of good guy philosophers who are liberal and tolerate and their close-minded religious opponents. The Jewish historian Yitzhak Baer (1888-1980) was famous for turning this framework on its head. His History of the Jews in Christian Spain heaps scorn on the Jewish courtier class, with their Averroism and Maimonidean philosophy, as people of weak faith, who undermined the Jewish community and abandoned the Jewish people at the first sign of danger. This is in contrast to the simple Jews and the anti-Maimonidean rabbis who exemplified the true spirit of the Jewish nation. In his short book, Galut, Baer challenges the political pretensions of Jewish philosophy. According to Baer:


Philosophical exegesis, when it does not lead to skepticism, occupies itself with the problem of the relationship between faith and knowledge, between Jewish and secular education, between Jewish and Christian doctrine. The contrast between the Jewish world and the larger world is reduced to scholastic problems of dogma. Jewish philosophy is helpless when it approaches the problems of political and historical life, while at the same time many Jews occupy the most prominent positions in the political and economic life of their countries. Here the gap between the religious-historical vocation and real life is widest. (Baer, Galut pg. 50)


So I put it to my readership, do you agree with Baer and what might the implications of this be for Jewish thought? Are all intellectual forms of Modern Orthodoxy doomed to an ivory tower?

Monday, May 17, 2010

Rabbi Yigal Sklarin’s Defense of Gershom Scholem


Prof. Gershom Scholem famously devoted a large portion of his nearly thousand page biography of Sabbatai Sevi to arguing that Lurianic Kabbalah in the sixteenth century led to Sabbatianism in the seventeenth. In Scholem's narrative, Isaac Luria revolutionized Jewish thought by fashioning a kabbalistic narrative focused on a process of metaphysical exile and redemption. The very act of creation caused the breaking of the divine vessels, causing the power of the divine light to fall into the hands of the forces of darkness, the klipot (shells). The practice of Jewish ritual, armed with the specific kabbalistic interpretations of Luria and specific penitential practices would lead to the redemption of the divine light and heal the cosmos. Scholem assumed that by the mid-seventeenth century, Lurianic Kabbalah had spread to all Jewish communities in Europe and the Near East. Hence by the time that Nathan of Gaza declared Sabbatai to be the Messiah in the spring of 1665, Jews everywhere were prepared to accept this radical Sabbatian messianism with its explicit antinomianism. When Sabbatai converted to Islam, Nathan was ready to explain away the action as the messiah descending into the forces of darkness to achieve the redemption of the divine light.

Prof. Moshe Idel, in his essay "'One from a Town, Two from a Clan': The Diffusion of Lurianic Kabbala and Sabbateanism," challenges this narrative. His main objection is this assumption of Lurianic Kabbalah becoming the dominant force within Judaism by the mid-seventeenth century. Idel argues that few people, even rabbis were in a position to understand Kabbalah and the Kabbalah that came through Europe was by and large not Lurianic, but that of Rabbi Moshe Codovero. Idel goes so far as to suggest that Scholem had his cause and effect backwards. Lurianism did not spread Sabbatianism; Sabbatians spread Luria. Finally, Idel argues that Scholem had overplayed the messianic elements within Lurianism. Those reading Luria in the seventeenth century would not have been jumping to some new radical form of messianism.

In a recent essay in the Bernard Revel journal, "In Defense of Scholem: A Re-evaluation of Idel's Historical Critiques," Rabbi Yigal Sklarin attempts to defend Scholem. Sklarin offers the case of R. Abraham Gombiner's Magan Avraham as an example of a popular work written before the outbreak of Sabbatianism that included distinctively Lurianic practices and concepts. Of particular interest to me is the fact that Sklarin attempts to use Gershon Cohen's theory of messianism to explain the popular spread of Sabbatianism. In "Messianic Postures of Ashkenazim and Sephardim (Prior to Sabbathai Zevi)," Cohen argued that Jews in Sephardic countries, unlike their Ashkenazi counterparts, were far more likely to start messianic movements due to the influence of philosophy. If the philosophical ideas current in rabbinic circles could gain popular currency and create a mass movement then why could not Luria have gone from rabbinic circles down to the masses to create Sabbatianism?


I am certainly intrigued by the prospect of rehabilitating the Luria-Sabbatianism connection. That being said, I find Sklarin's arguments against Idel to be very problematic. Yes Cohen argued that Spanish culture was more open to messianism and less open to martyrdom due to the influence of philosophy. If I understand Cohen correctly, this was not simply something within the rabbinic elites, but on a mass cultural level. Regular people (or at least the literate ones) had some awareness of philosophy, particularly of astrology, and were willing to therefore willing to engage in messianic calculations. With Lurianic Kabbalah, we agree that this was something reserved for the rabbinic elites, not something that the masses would have been directly aware of. I fail to therefore to see how the analogy holds up. Furthermore Sklarin seems to accept the premise that the Lurianic Kabbalah that reached our rabbinic elite was not the messianic Luria so how are the masses getting Lurianic messianism from the rabbis if even the rabbis are not getting that message? This leaves us with having to find some other solution besides for Lurianic Kabbalah to explain how Sabbatianism became a mass movement in the summer of 1665.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

I am a Good Goy Now; I Believe in Yoshke, Pray to Getchkas and Eat Chazor Traif


Here is a poem by the converso Anton de Montoro (1404-77):


O sad, bitter clothes-peddler
Who does not feel your sorrow!
Here you are, sixty years of age,
And have always said (to the Virgin):
"You remained immaculate,"
And have never sworn (directly) by the Creator.
I recite the credo, I worship
Pots full of greasy pork,
I eat bacon half-cooked,
Listen to Mass, cross myself
While touching holy waters –
And never could I kill
These traces of the confeso (pejorative for Converso)

With my knees bent
And in great devotion
In days set for holiness
I pray, rosary in hand,
Reciting the beads of the Passion,
Adoring the God-and-Man
As my highest Lord,
And because of the remnants of my guilt
I cannot lose the name
Of an old Jewish son of a whore (puto).

(Yirmiyahu Yovel, The Other Within: The Marranos - Split Identity and Emerging Modernity pg. 112)


So do we believe that this man was sincere in his profession of Catholicism; was he a secret Jew or just an all round religious cynic?

Friday, May 14, 2010

Columbus OH and Sabbatianism




I came across the following comment about the Rabbi Jekuthiel Greenwald ztl, who was the rabbi of Beth Jacob in Columbus OH, in the early twentieth century:

Rabbi Jekuthiel Judah (Leopold) Greenwald, a prolific and eclectic scholar, best known for his halakhic work on the laws of mourning, Kol Bo 'al Avelut, after emigrating from his native Sighet, Hungary [This is the same city that Elie Wiesel is from. Now it is part of Romania.] to the United States, served as orthodox rabbi of Columbus, Ohio. One of his many interests over the years was Sabbatianism. He published in Weitzen in 1912 a full-fledged work, Le-korot ha-Shabta'im be-Ungaria (Annals of the Sabbatians in Hungary). In his Sefer ha-Zikhronot (Book of Memoirs), published in Budapest in 1922, Greenwald recalls how as a soldier stationed in the Balkans during World War I, he stumbled on to the grave of Shabbetai Zevi in Albania.

Rabbi Greenwald's son, a Denver advocate, informs me his father's literary estate contained no unpublished papers on the subject of Sabbatianism. Yet perhaps now that the Iron Curtain has been lowered in Eastern Europe, it will once again be possible for an enterprising researcher to have a look at the Sighet city archives. (Bezalel Naor, Post-Sabbatian Sabbatianism: Study of an Underground Movement pg. 107-08.)

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Asperger Discrimination




As I have mentioned previously, I was let go by the high school I was teaching over the fact that, while I was a good lecturer and put together intellectually stimulating classes, I failed to properly "connect" with students. One of the administrators was kind enough to send me an email, thanking me for what I had done for them, even if they could not bring me back:


Benzion—you have done a lot of good things this year.  The effort that you have put in to your classes and to the school has been nothing short of exemplary.  Your knowledge of the material is superb, your preparation for your classes (with the Powerpoint notes) was admirable, and the level at which you taught was sophisticated and challenging.  Your willingness to engage the students in questions and discussion improved over the course of the year, and while there is much growth still necessary on this front, I applaud your effort in making some positive changes.

All of that being said, your way of relating to kids made it a challenging learning environment for them and contributed greatly to the classroom management problems that existed all year.  Whether in comments on report cards or in class, there seemed to be a constant series of difficult interactions that helped to create a gap between you and the students.  You tried hard to overcome that gap, and worked very hard to become part of the greater fabric of the school, and you deserve a lot of credit for that effort.  Still, this gap remained and I believe will continue to be an obstacle for you in teaching this age of students.


You are very bright, thoughtful and knowledgeable and I believe that you have a bright future ahead of you, but I also believe that working in a university or an adult setting—people who will appreciate your expertise and your knowledge for their own sake—is one that is better suited for you.



You began to explain to me on Wednesday the challenges your Aspergers poses for you.  In many ways, I don't truly understand them--just as you probably don't truly understand the way that I see and read people--the difference being that you probably have thought a lot about these differences whereas I have not thought about them all that much.  Given what you describe, though, I can tell that you have worked very hard to overcome most of these challenges and probably are conscious of it every day. 

Over time, with experience and learning, you may well become a very good high school classroom teacher, but I still believe that your strengths would be better used either with adults or in a setting such as a library, where you can be extremely helpful to those who need it but would not need to worry as much about group dynamics and classroom management. 


I must admit that I was impressed by this administrator's willingness to take Asperger syndrome seriously as a legitimate way of viewing the world and not simply as a disability. As I have said before on this blog, I view myself, as an Asperger, as a member of a minority group.

Here is a thought experiment I offer readers to consider how to understand my situation. Imagine this school had a black teacher, who was very talented, but for some reason did not relate well to the students. This is perfectly reasonable; there likely would be a major gap in terms of style and personality between such a teacher and our white student body. Maybe he teaches history as if he were a black preacher, expecting "amen" responses and likes to stick it to students as he challenges them about "white privilege," precisely to make them uncomfortable? (I actually teach very much in a preacher mode. Usually the second thing people notice about my teaching is that, besides for being very smart, I am also very intense.) What if our administrator were to write this black teacher the letter he wrote me, saying good job but you lack the right "touch" with students? There is a good chance this teacher would sue the school for discrimination on the grounds that what was really meant was that he was black. It is not clear that this person would win, but the school would certainly be hard pressed to respond. Where does one draw the line between color and ethnic background and personal relations, particularly as it is precisely the person's color and ethnic background that is causing the difficulty with personal relations?

The opposition would argue that part of multiculturalism is that the school has to prepare students, as part of their education, to deal with all sorts of people even those they might not naturally feel comfortable with. How are the students going to be prepared to deal with black superiors unless they have had the experience of being taught by black teachers? Does the school simply assume that blacks cannot or should not be in positions of authority so students do not have to worry about it. The school would be challenged to distinguish between the administrator's actions and the white shoe law firms of early twentieth century America, who did not hire Jews on the grounds that they did not "fit" with their sort of clientele.

One of the great lessons of the civil rights movement, and a confirmation of an "Asperger" truth, was the necessity of judging people by hard empirical standards as these are the only kind that are actually meaningful. All vague claims of comfort or how someone affects group dynamics are meaningless; merely cover for those in power. What these claims really mean is that "the person is not like us so we do not want him."

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Place of the Personal in Law




With the recent Supreme Court nomination of Elena Kagan (See David Brooks for his very classy takedown of her unwillingness to go on the record with any controversial opinions.) we can expect another round of public debate over whether justices should rule simply according to the law or with the desire to see social justice on the ground. President Obama assumedly has nominated someone who shares his vision of judges having the proper "heart" and liberal values to rule in accordance with a "living Constitution." Needless to say I view such sentiments as a betrayal of law. Law can and must only deal with universal principles for it to mean anything. The submission to abstract laws is justice; the submission to the personal opinions of others is tyranny and sic semper tyrannis. This is not because I see the legal system simply as a set of rigid principles; on the contrary I see a lot of room for personal judgment, just not at the level of the Supreme Court. I would propose a sliding scale to law; the higher you are and the more power you have to make laws the more you are restricted in your ability to apply personal judgment. On the flip side those at the bottom of the legal system, who are not in a position to make laws, have full power to apply their judgment as to how the law is carried out.

The policeman on the street does not make laws. It is simply his job to enforce them and cite or arrest those who violate the law. As a libertarian, I personally am opposed to all drug laws. Rational adults should be allowed to put any substance they wish into their bodies. If I were to serve as a policeman I would have no control over the fact that marijuana is illegal to various extents throughout the country. That being said, I am not obligated to arrest every person I catch in possession of the substance. A neighborhood with me on patrol would have fewer drug arrests and more lectures to kids about not using drugs. The law recognizes the existence of my personal judgment and expects me not to willfully destroy the lives of teenagers for making just one mistake and taking a puff of a joint. I do not have to take down the local drug dealer knowing full well that he will be replaced by someone who sells to kids and laces his material with potentially poisonous substances.

When we move up the legal system to the DA and the local judge, we are in a similar position. These people do not make laws nor do they have control over who is arrested. They are left, though, to consider as to what extent they will throw the book at those in the dock. What kind of plea bargains and sentences will they offer? They may have the power to put minors behind bars for possession, but that does not mean that they should. At the top of this part of the system, governors and the President may not make laws either, but they have the power to grant pardons. If I were the Governor or the President I would declare an open house on all those arrested on drug charges and offer pardons.

As a member of Congress or a senator I would have the power to make laws. It would be my job, as entrusted to me by my constituents, to enact laws according to my personal opinion as I think best for the country. I would do my utmost to end the war on drugs and legalize them. That being said, my very office would bar me from having any control over how any of these laws are put into practice. I would have to make the best laws I know and trust others to use their best personal judgment in carrying them out.

The top of the legal system is the Supreme Court. They have the unchecked power to declare laws to be unconstitutional and there is no higher authority to appeal to. This greatest of all powers must place the greatest of all limitations. Not only do justices have no control over how laws are carried out, they should not even have the right to use their personal judgments. Their very power stems from the fact that they are perceived as ciphers for the principles contained in the Constitution. If were to go on the Supreme Court, I would lose the ability to fight against the drug war. There is nothing in the Constitution that says that the government cannot do foolish things like ban adults from engaging in actions that do not cause direct physical harm to others. Actually, since liberal justices were kind enough to invent a right to privacy, I would be free to apply this law across the board, including drugs, but that is a side issue.

Monday, May 10, 2010

In Search of a Sense of Wonder in Fantasy: Some Thoughts on Lost and Not Found – Director’s Cut




Teel McClanahan III was kind enough to send me his novelette Lost and Not Found - Director's Cut. I read many novels and the occasional short story, but the hundred page novel is an experience in its own right that does not come around very often. This is certainly not an easy genre to work with. I can think of only one truly great short novel, Stephen King's Shawshank Redemption. The pitfall of writing at this length is that it is too long for the simple short story concept and not long enough to establish the character and plot of full length novels. This certainly applies to McClanahan's whimsical account of an unnamed former lost boy, who returns to Neverland as an adult and runs off with Tinkerbell. I was intrigued by the main character and some of the world's McClanahan describes, but there is no real plot or character development to allow for a meaningful story. While it might be acceptable to the world of post-modernism to eschew plot and character, as a reader of fantasy, I have distinctively old fashioned tastes and literary values. Most of all I desire from fantasy a sense of magic and wonder, something that establishment post-modernism can only look askance at.

McClanahan's attempt rethink the Peter Pan story has its parallel with the movie Hook and Dave Barry's Peter Pan prequels. His deconstruction of fantasy has its parallel in Neil Gaiman. Post-modernism and deconstructionism get a bad rap as a means for academic elites to sit on their thrones and arrogantly heap scorn over anything that does not fit in with their politically correct values and sense of what counts as literature. The thing that I admire so much about Gaiman, with his Sandman graphic novels and American Gods, is that while he is busy deconstructing mythology he does it from a perspective of love and admiration for it. One never gets the sense that he is talking down to his material. Rather it is his desire to find a way to make mythology meaningful in a post mythological age. I would contrast Gaiman with Gregory Maguire and his Wicked series. While I loved the musical version of Wicked, I find his books to be effused with this arrogant cynicism. His deconstruction of the Wicked Witch of the West seems to stem not just from an innocent desire to rethink the world of Oz, but as a put down to L. Frank Baum as a sexist male. To me, fantasy is about a sense of wonder. Even if we go into dark places; it should be as a sense of tragedy. If the hero is going to go down it should be in saving the world that he loves and that we the reader love in turn. A good example of this, again in a fantasy with a strong deconstructionist element, is Stephen Donaldson's Thomas Covenant series. Snarky moralist preaching of either the traditional or post-modern kind has no place in fantasy. While I love C. S. Lewis, this is the major weakness of the Narnia series. I think Lewis serves as a good lesson here, though, in that he can get you to overlook his Christian moralizing with the sheer sense of wonder he offers in Narnia. (That and a killer sense of satire that allows you to take his preaching with a wink and a nod.)

Lost and Not Found falls into the camp of Maguire. McClanahan walks into the world of Neverland not out of a childlike sense of wonder, but out of an adult's cynicism. I do not get this sense that he loves Neverland or Peter Pan. On the contrary, Peter is a contemptible child and Neverland, a child's world, is to be replaced by something more "adult" like Haven. The one thing about Neverland that he seems to like is Tinkerbell. If I were to sum up the novel it would be as his personal sexual fantasy with "Tink." (I assume it is not for nothing that the main character goes unnamed.) Not that McClanahan's love scenes, while numerous, are that graphic. That being said, they felt out of place and wrong and in that sense pornographic.

As a lover of fantasy literature, I look forward to the day when fantasy achieves the literary respect it deserves, when Lord of the Rings is seen as not just great fantasy, but one of the greatest works of twentieth century literature period. As much as I want this, I would not have it by selling out to post-modern deconstructionism. Fantasy should be the bastion to stand against such cynicism. If that means that we never get the respect of the "literary" types then so be it.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Frum Frankists




Here is the story of a Jewish family in Eastern Europe that you will not find in Artscroll:


["Old Elisha" of Rohatyn, Galicia,] led his numerous family-clan and a good many of Rohatyn's Jews into the Sect. … As an early follower of Frank, he [was] probably the cause's first martyr. He had suffered death in exile from the beatings administered by the Turks. His sons, Nathan (or perhaps Lipman) and Leib (Shprintses), were baptized as Michael … and Ludwik Wolowski. His daughter Haya was known for her zealous Sabbataianism, Cabalist erudition, and participation in the Sect's sex orgies. His son Lukasz Francisek (Luke Francis), originally Shloime (Solomon) of Rohtyn became the founder of the chief Wolowski clan. His son Franciszek, married to Barbara Lanckoronska, was the father of ten children. His home was, according to a contemporary, "decent and Godfearing [the Catholic kind]." (Abraham G. Duker, "Polish Frankism's Duration: From Cabbalistic Judaism to Roman Catholicism and from Jewishness to Polishness: A Preliminary Investigation." Jewish Social Studies 25.4(1963): pg. 317)

Friday, May 7, 2010

Crimes of De-Citizenship




As I am sure you are all aware, a Pakistani born American, Faisal Shahzad, has been arrested for his part in the Time Square bomb plot. An intriguing debate has arisen within conservative circles over the fact that Shahzad was read his Miranda rights. Glenn Beck, of all people, came out in defense of making sure that this Islamic terrorist received his full constitutional rights as an American citizen. Far be it from me to stand to the right of Glenn Beck on an issue, but please bear with me. First off there is my general objection to Miranda rights in that they are creation of an activist Supreme Court and should be overturned. Nowhere in the Constitution does it say or imply that the authorities need to inform people of their rights. It is the responsibility of each citizen to have a basic understanding of their own rights. (If Congress wishes to make such a law as to insist that police inform suspects of their rights I would be all for it.) Moving beyond that, I reject the assumption that Shahzad is an American citizen with constitutionally protected legal rights. I would argue that the very nature of his crime strips him of his citizenship and the legal rights that go with it.

I take it as a given that non-uniformed combatants, such as spies, saboteurs and terrorists, do not have legal rights. Because of this, I reject all legal objections to torture. The United States not only as the right to put Al Qaida combatants in Guantanamo without trial it would also have the right to chop their fingers off one by one, gouge their eyes out, hang they by piano wire and put it all on Youtube. These combatants would be in the Dred Scott situation, without the legal standing to sue the American government in the first place. Not that I think torture is, for the most part, a good idea or that I would wish for torture to be used. The maintenance of limits to war and the bare shred of human rights relies on the willingness to draw a distinction between civilian and military and to respect a certain code of behavior even in the treatment of the enemy. If there are no consequences to violating the laws of war then there is no reason to keep them. Thus not only can one disregard the human rights of those who do not respect them, one must disregard them. There is no moral difference between those who would piously offer rights to those who do not respect them and those who do not believe in them in the first place. Rights can only apply to those who believe in them and respect them in return.

Citizens obviously have rights that protect them. These rights apply even to criminals, from jay-walkers to sadistic murderers. If someone rapes and murders a child, he is still an American citizen and has rights. He cannot be tortured and has the right to a fair trial in front of a jury of his peers. Even if we apply the death penalty, up until the moment the State executes him, he is an American citizen and has the right to a humane death. The reason for this is that throughout this entire process this person has not acted to reject the authority of the State. Whatever sick desires he felt he must give into, he never challenged the right of the State to judge him. Shahzad did not just help park a vehicle full of explosives with the intention that it explode and cause major casualties for which we might wish to convict him of manslaughter, he plotted with a foreign entity to work to undermine this government. By making war against this government he committed treason and rejected the legitimacy of the government. Thus he surrendered his citizenship and all the privileges that come with it. The military has the practice of stripping soldiers of their rank when they commit certain crimes; I see no reason why civilians cannot be similarly stripped of citizenship. It turns out that that Senator Joseph Lieberman is actually sponsoring a bill to strip anyone involved with foreign terrorists of their citizenship. I would of course go so far as to say that as a traitor, a non-citizen and an out of uniformed combatant Shahzad would have no more legal rights and could be tortured and executed at will without a formal trial.

How would this work in practice? Obviously there needs to be some sort of check in place to stop the government from simply accusing citizens of being terrorists and ignore the Constitution. My suggestion would be the following. Once the charge of terrorism went out against our Time Square bomber it immediately became a military operation. Once the authorities had their man they should only have had to offer the opportunity for civil rights groups to come to Shahzad's defense in the equivalent of a preliminary hearing. In the civilian world if a case gets past the preliminary hearing to a full trial the assumption is that the person is guilty. Because he is a citizen, though, he has the right to be presumed innocent until guilt is proven beyond all reasonable doubt. Such rights can be dispensed with for people outside the claims of citizenship of this or any other established state.

Understand this. If I believe that you, my neighbor, have rejected the contract of citizenship and are plotting against me, I can only be expected to reject my contract of citizenship as it applies to you and I will be trying to kill you as the only means left to be able to live in peace. This does not have to be beyond reasonable doubt; I only have to think it is likely and stop trusting you for this contract to break down.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Sabbatianism as a Political Movement




Gershom Scholem, while he focused on the Kabbalistic elements of Sabbatianism, still took Sabbatianism seriously as a political movement. Yehudah Liebes, though, argues that Sabbatianism lacked any serious political component and did not concern itself with the physical redemption of Israel.

Sabbetai Zevi's utmost concern was not the fate of the people but rather a spiritual realm the people count not reach, and he was profoundly alienated from the masses of his followers. Even Nathan of Gaza failed to understand him and was at times forced to take insult and abuse or to work strenuously to restore to the Messiah his faith in himself (it is indeed possible that Sabbetai Zevi's estrangement from public concerns and his immersion in the spiritual realm added to his messianic charm in the people's eyes). Sabbetai Zevi's messianism was directed upward, to his God, which was why he was always careful to refer to himself precisely as the Messiah of the God of Jacob, a title he did not approach as a metaphor. (Liebes, Studies in Jewish Myth and Messianism pg. 100.)

Nathan of Gaza also is seen as abandoning politics for a mystical war between good and evil. As a former converso, Abraham Cardozo's messianism focused on the redemption of the Jews from the sin of idolatry. The Messiah is a human being who seeks out and is enlightened as to the true nature of the divinity.

Needless to say the masses of Jews, who followed Sabbatai, did have an interest in a political redemption. They were expecting Sabbatai to literally overthrow the Ottoman Empire and for Sabbatai to rule in Israel and over the entire world as an earthly Messiah. The Jews, like Glukel of Hameln's father-in-law, who sold their possessions and waited by the docks for a boat to come to take them to Israel, were literally expecting to move to Israel. Liebes dismisses these people as being on the periphery of the movement. From Liebes' perspective, there were the real Sabbatians, consisting of a small elite, privy to Sabbatianism's esoteric antinomian theology. Such people did not abandon belief in the Messiah after his conversion, but accepted it as part of the divine plan for redemption. The mass of Sabbatian believers were not privy to this true understanding of the Messiah and quickly abandoned faith in him. Such people are, Liebes' perspective, irrelevant to understanding true Sabbatianism.

I find myself uncomfortable with the notion of a center and periphery in Sabbatianism as if the later is unimportant. I am certainly not on the side of Scholem, who depicted a seventeenth century Judaism overtaken by Lurianic Kabbalah and waiting for their Lurianic mystical Messiah. Very few Jews were in a position to understand Lurianic Kabbalah let alone the radical variant of it espoused by Nathan of Gaza. Nor am I willing to accept Scholem's premise that Sabbatianism broke the back of rabbinic authority, that the Jews had now experienced the reality of a redeemed world, would not accept going back to the old order and therefore turned to other forms of redemption such as the Enlightenment to bring forth their already redeemed world. The majority of Jews who turned to Sabbatianism in the summer and fall of 1665 were traditional Jews looking for a traditional Jewish Messiah. When Sabbatai converted to Islam in September of 1666, they remained traditional Jews. Does this mean that they were not real Sabbatians? In a sense they should be at the center of the story. Sabbatianism became a worldwide phenomenon not because it possessed a revolutionary theology, but because thousands of simple Jews accepted Sabbatai as a traditional Jewish Messiah, in complete ignorance of "true" Sabbatianism. Thus an understanding of Sabbatianism requires one to confront this "peripheral" Sabbatianism, which was certainly political.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

A Heart for Women Rabbis




Recently the issue of women rabbis in Orthodox Judaism has come to the fore. Rabbi Avi Weiss gave the title of Rabba to Sara Hurwitz. He was utterly condemned for this by the Haredi Agudah. He managed to reach a compromise with the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) that Ms. Hurwitz would only be given the title of maharat. Furthermore the RCA declared that under no uncertain terms would they be willing to except women rabbis. Yeshiva University's Rav Hershel Schachter has gone so far as to argue, based on the Avnei Nezer, that ordaining women as rabbis would constitute handing them power and that this is forbidden. Furthermore, since the ordination of women forms a central plank in the Reform and Conservative movements to "misrepresent" Judaism, one must be willing to "give one's life" into order to oppose it. I am not here to argue, one way or another, for or against women's ordination. I honestly do not know how I, if given the power to choose for Orthodoxy, would rule. I do not think the issue is as simple as freeing women from the "tyranny" of patriarchy. Women would pay a price for having the possibility of being ordained and would be rendered less capable of working outside the system. Also I do not think that Orthodoxy is prepared structurally for women rabbis. With this being noted, I find myself concerned about the RCA's response. I am not bothered by the fact that they came out against female ordination. What does concern me, though, is the process through which this decision was reached and what this might say about the mindsets of those in charge even of the Modern Orthodox community.

Dr. Haym Soloveitchik, in his essay "Religious Law and Change: the Medieval Ashkenazic Example," famously argued that the French Tosafists bent over backwards to justify committing suicide in situations of religious coercion in order to defend the legitimacy of those Jews who committed suicide and even murdered their own children during the Crusader attacks of 1096. The Tosafists turned to non-legal material from the Talmud, a story of four-hundred girls and four-hundred boys who throw themselves overboard and drowned in order to avoid being taken to Rome and sold into sexual slavery. The Tosafists recognized that they could not possibly say that those Jews who died during the Crusades were anything less than holy martyrs, who died sanctifying God's name. God forbid anyone should say that these people were murderers and suicides. Such a prospect would be unthinkable, so the discussion of suicide in cases of religious coercion, from the beginning becomes one of how do we justify it. Similarly, in my own experience when talking to Orthodox Jews about what constitutes idolatry and whether certain Haredi rabbis have crossed that line by endorsing the claims of Kupat Ha'ir, the response that I immediately get from most people is "these are holy people so what they are doing must be good." This is of course circular reasoning. If someone engages in idolatry then, by definition they are not holy no matter how pious or learned they might be. King Ahab, according to the Talmud, was a great Torah scholar, who honored the twenty-two letters Hebrew letters in which the Torah is written; that does not change the fact that he was an idolater and one of the great villains of the Bible. Simple cognitive dissonance sets in and the only conversation that is possible is how what Kupat Ha'ir does is okay or that the rabbis are not really behind it. The alternatives are simply too unfathomable for them
 Whatever is decided about women's ordination, I want the rabbis to come to the table with the understanding that claims that women cannot or should not wield political or religious power are non-options. I do not care if you can make an intellectually plausible case using a nineteenth century book on Jewish law, written by a Hasidic Rebbe. You should be finding every plausible way to justify having women in positions of authority. I do not care if you have to do like the Mormons and claim that God has now given a special command that we end our earlier discrimination. The alternatives should simply be too unfathomable.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Slouching Toward Bosnia




In many respects this sort of tit for tat conflict, I described earlier, where each side is going to push the boundaries as to what is acceptable and justify it as simply doing to the other what is already being done to them is behind the deepening divisions in this country. Republicans maligned President Clinton, Democrats maligned George W. Bush in revenge and now Republicans seek to do the same to Obama. Democrats filibustered judicial nominations and now the Republicans are doing the same. Conservatives decided that the mainstream was not playing fair with the news so they created Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck. Liberals responded in kind by creating Rachel Maddow and Keith Olbermann. We are not shooting at each other yet. But we could all too easily, I fear, go from only accepting the media of our side as legitimate to following Michael Makovi and saying that we will only accept the legal authority of the people we support. This would mean that there would be Republican and Democrat police officers, judges and each side could have its own congress and president. At this point the best possible scenario would be secession as the country officially is broken up to accommodate all parties. If, as is likely the case, this is not practical in terms of territory and allotment of natural resources, we are left with war as each side attempts to subjugate the other to its will. (The Israelis and Palestinians are a good example of this. Neither side trusts the other to form a single country. There are no workable boundaries for two different States. Thus we are left with a state of war with both sides attempting to force a solution on the other.)

In British parliamentary culture there is what is known as a "shadow cabinet." The party out of power lists its leading members according to the positions they would have if they were in power. This speaks to one of my major objections to the parliamentary system and its lack of set elections; it creates a system where a large minority of the government is actively seeking to bring down the government and force new elections. As opposed to the American system where, in theory at least, Republicans, for example, are supposed to accept the fact that they were defeated by Barack Obama, that Obama is now the President and they are obliged to work with him for the next four years.

One of the virtues of the American two party system (and this maybe is what saves the British model as well) is that, regardless of what one might think of the many ideologically unsatisfying outcomes, it forces a certain level of moderation. Regardless of their party affiliation, I can count on the fact that elected officials on the one hand are not out to completely socialize the economy, but on the other support some sort of welfare state with at least some government health care. No one is going to support a religious theocracy, but on the other hand we retain a political rhetoric that acknowledges some sort of general divine providence. The military's dominating presence in the budget is not going to change anytime soon and neither is this country about to return to isolationism and stop interfering with other countries. I am not saying this is good or bad. Just that it provides a government that no one is going to feel pushed to such an extreme as launching an actual civil war.

In Orson Scott Card's two recent mediocre novels, Empire and Hidden Empire, he postulates a near future American civil war between the right and the left. (In truth it is more like secular leftist radicals, trying to destroy this country, going up against moderate patriotic Christians.) I can think of far more creative civil war scenarios. We can start with Evangelical Christians from rural Pennsylvania launching a tea-party with automatic weapons against Manhattan liberals. Manhattan liberals beg an Al Sharpton-like character to use his connections with black street gangs to save them. In a magnanimous gesture of tolerance, a Pat Robertson-like character visits a synagogue in the front lines of Brooklyn to meet with Israeli arms dealers and announces that Jews are not nearly as hated by God as Catholics. This causes a stir when it hits the internet, and the entrance of suburban New Jersey Catholics, armed with a papal indulgence for the sin of birth control for each slain Protestant. (I leave it to readers to continue the scenario.)

The point here is that government hangs on a very narrow thread as people decide whether to trust each other and whether their differences are not so large as to prevent their joining together in bounds of state-building. In many respects, functional governments are not the norm. Normal is Bosnia, Rwanda and Northern Ireland where neighbors kill each other over race, religion, culture or any other good excuse they can find on hand. The question we have to ask ourselves is why we are not in a Bosnia type situation now. There, if not by the grace of sensible moderates, go us.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

The Sabbatian Tipping Point


Malcolm Gladwell, in Tipping Point, makes the argument that major movements and changes in society come into being through small groups of individuals. Gladwell looks to three types of individuals necessary to create such changes, which he refers to as "Mavens," "Connectors" and "Salesmen." Mavens are recognized experts, often even lay experts. People are likely to pay close attention to them because they are in the "know." Connectors are people who know lots of people. They can spread a message to lot of people and even more importantly to lot of different types of people, crossing social and geographic lines. Salesmen are people enlisted to directly sell the message to others. On the one hand, because this group is most closely tied to spreading the message, they are most obviously in the front line in spreading the message. On the other hand this also makes them the most biased and therefore the least trusted type and thus the least effective.

The historical figure that Gladwell uses as his prototype Maven and Connector is Paul Revere. In April of 1775, when word got around that the British were planning to march on Concorde, numerous people set out to sound the alarm. Revere was the most successful, not because he was smarter, could shout louder or had a faster horse. Revere was a known respected figure in Boston society and in the opposition to Britain, someone that people would listen to. Also Revere simply knew lots of people along the way to Concorde. He knew which specific people he needed to talk to and was in a position to be able to talk to them. So on that night in April, Revere was not just some man on a horse shouting "the British are coming." He was the crucial piece of a large, if informal opposition to Britain that was quickly put into motion.

I find this discussion of tipping points, Mavens and Connectors to be a fruitful method to confront one of the great mysteries of Jewish Messianism, the Sabbatian movement. Here are the basic facts of the story. In May of 1665, Nathan of Gaza declared Sabbatai Sevi to be the Messiah. By September this message had spread from Palestine to every major Jewish community and had picked up followers. Jews in Amsterdam took to the streets in support of Sabbatai. As Scholem famously observed what is unique about the Sabbatian movement was that it is the one Jewish messianic movement (at least up until modern day Lubavitch Messianism) that managed to be a worldwide movement instead of simply a local affair.

In looking at the Early Modern version of Mavens and Connectors there is one common factor that is critical, mobility. The Early Modern period was an era of incredible mobility for a select few. Thus more than increased mobility, the Early Modern period saw an ever widening gap between those who did not travel and those who did. Being part of the mobile elite offered two critical advantages. It meant that you knew more people. More importantly, it means you knew many different people, who do not necessarily know each other. You are connected to many different groups and are likely one of the few connections between these groups, hence the perfect Connector. Being a member of the mobile elite offered one access to privileged knowledge. If you have been to far off places then you have firsthand experience and knowledge about something that most people do not know about and that people valued. If you are known to have this knowledge then people are likely to place you as the expert to be consulted on all such matters. This can range over many fields of knowledge. Having travel experience may give you knowledge of foreign places, peoples and politics. It might also give at least the impression of having special knowledge of foreign esoteric doctrines such as the various schools of Safed Kabbalah.

Mobility helps us explain, the importance of the land of Israel and why it was critical as a launching point of a mass messianic movement such as Sabbatianism. Despite the fact that Israel was in many respects a backwater Jewish community, it was a remarkably cosmopolitan with residents from other places and who would go on to other places. Students of Jewish history are already familiar with this phenomenon in terms of the failure of pre-modern "Zionist" movements. Getting Jews to move to Israel was one thing keeping them there was another. Ironically this inability to hold onto Jews, made Israel an ideal forge for churning out members of the mobile elite. The Jewish community in Israel was full of people from other places and communities across the Near East and Europe had people who were from Israel. The fact that they were from the Holy Land only served to enhance their status as Mavens to be put in positions of trust.

In our Sabbatian scenario of the summer and winter of 1665 there are many rumors spreading through far off Jewish communities about events unfolding in the Near East about a man named Sabbatai Sevi who may or may not be the Messiah. Ordinary individuals are not in a position to verify information on their own. As such they turn to the people viewed as having the necessary information, members of the mobile elite. And it is in this regard that the Sabbatians held the advantage over the Rabbinic establishment. The Sabbatian movement was a movement precisely of these mobile elites.