Friday, July 30, 2010

Scott Lively Defends America Against the Threat of Gay Nazis on the Daily Show




Yesterday my roommate showed me a clip from Jon Stewart's Daily Show about an anti-homosexual pastor, arguing that homosexuals are exceptionally brutal since they lack any self control.

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I had an even bigger laugh since this pastor was none other than Scott Lively, with whom I had a long series of exchanges several months ago on this very blog. My responses to Lively were more substantive, but not nearly as devastating as what Jason Jones does to him.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Ungodly Words: Toward a Political Philosophy of Heresy (Part V)



(Part I, II, III, IV)




The Community Model leads to a number of interesting possibilities as to how heresy functions on a day-to-day basis. For instance, since the Community Model does not require a text to objectively be in contradiction of a statement of dogma, it would be feasible to claim that something could be completely true and at the same time be completely heretical without in any way denying the legitimacy of a statement of dogma. Take the issue of evolution for example. As most of my readers would surely agree it is theoretically possible to reconcile the claims of evolution with the opening chapters of Genesis, but one, with some legitimacy, could argue that even though the theory of evolution may not really contradict the Bible and may even be true; still the Jewish community cannot afford to ever officially admit that possibility. The problem for the Jewish community in doing so is that we would be admitting that the biblical text can and should be reinterpreted in light of the findings of modern science. This fact, while arguably true, opens up a Pandora's Box. What is to happen when Zayd wakes up tomorrow and decides that he is a "homosexual?" He will come to the conclusion that since science has shown that the creation story does not really mean what he was taught it meant in heder (religious primary school), maybe those verses in Leviticus do not actually mean what he was always taught they meant, now that modern psychiatry has "demonstrated" that homosexuality is not an illness, but a "perfectly normal" style of behavior. (Note that the concepts of mental "illness" and "normal" behavior are value judgments and thus outside of any empirical proof or demonstration.) In light of this "scientific" discovery Zayd could claim that it should be assumed that the verse "thou shall not lie with a man in the manner one lies with a woman, it is an abomination," (Leviticus 18:22) is not meant to ban "healthy," "loving" relationships between homosexual men, who technically speaking are not anyway carrying out relations with each other in the same manner as a man and a woman. (See Michael Lerner's Jewish Renewal pg. 324-327.) Rather the text is only meant to ban homosexual men from claiming that their relationships are equivalent to heterosexual marriage. Personally I think it is far more dangerous for Zayd to think that Judaism is against science than for Zayd to become an active Orthodox homosexual, but that is just me.

The central issue for me surrounding the Community Model is that if we were to accept this notion that texts should be defined as being heretical based on the decision of the community then the whole notion of heresy becomes tied to the issue of defining community. Without a clearly defined community structure there can be no heretical texts. For example one could argue that we, in this post-Enlightenment world of ours, cannot with any legitimacy speak of a Jewish community. While a Jew may belong to a synagogue, only associate with other Jews, and live his life according to Jewish Law, none of these things have any innate authority over him, as they once did. Any authority that these things do have comes from the willingness of the individual to defer to them. So in fact when the individual follows rabbinic authority or the standards of his "community," he is merely following the dictates of his own conscience. If this is the case then heresy becomes the broken staff of a deposed king. The fact that this staff is still being waved encapsulates in of itself the very nature of the power structure that wields it. It has ceased to exist yet it still thinks that it does, which following Cartesian logic confers its own form of existence upon it.

So I put the challenge to my readers. What would you do if you saw your fellow Jew reading a book titled: "There is No God. If There Was One He Would Be Four Beings, Physical, Not Eternal, Not Worth Praying To and Not a Talker to Prophets Nor a Giver of Torahs. If He Would Have Given a Torah He Would Have Changed it and He Would Never Have Bothered With Anything So Foolish as Reward and Punishment, a Messiah or the Revival of the Dead?" Would you try to explain to this Jew that such a book is dangerous and if so who is it dangerous to? Would you attempt to confiscate this book; if so, by what means and by what authority? Would you claim that this Jew is actually committing a sin by continuing to read that book and if so what sin has he committed?


Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Ungodly Words: Toward a Political Philosophy of Heresy (Part IV)




(Part I, II, III)


The Historical Model would have us ignore the question of what the author did or did not intend and instead have us look at how a text has historically been interpreted. The advantage this model possesses over the previous two models is that it forces us to evaluate texts within the context of the real world, not just the imagination of individuals. The Historical Model becomes problematic though once we consider the issue of whose opinions exactly are we supposed to view as relevant. If we were serious about following this model we would have to declare parts of the bible to be heretical because there are numerous passages in the bible that Christians have interpreted as being in support of their beliefs. Take the Suffering Servant passage of Isaiah 53 for example. Christians have claimed since the Book of Acts that Isaiah was prophesying that the Messiah was going to allow himself to be murdered in an excruciating fashion and thereby atone for the sins of all mankind. If we are to take the Historical Model for evaluating heresy then it should be irrelevant that Christians have grossly misinterpreted this passage. The fact that they have understood this passage in the manner that they do and that they so greatly outnumber us should force us to admit that, no matter what Isaiah may have meant, today, in the twenty-first century, Isaiah's suffering servant refers to Jesus and must be removed from our Bibles. I alluded, earlier in this essay, to Strauss' view that Maimonides held secret beliefs that most Orthodox Jews would classify as heretical. If we were to follow the Historical Model we would have to at the very least suspect that maybe, in the fifty years since Strauss made this claim, enough Jewish Studies Professors have bought into Strauss' claim to form a critical mass, making the Guide forbidden to read. It does not stop there because Strauss also claimed that Maimonides wrote the Mishnah Torah as part of his cover so we would also potentially have to throw out the Mishnah Torah as well.

As I mentioned there is something going in favor of the Historical Model in that it makes as its primary issue a text's functioning in the real world. I would only modify the Historical Model to limit who has a say in what a text means. I would say that first of all, for the purposes of a given community, this conversation is limited to what members of that community have been saying about a text
and even furthermore that the power to define texts as heretical resides not within individuals but within in the body of the formal community itself. In this Community Model, the community, or the people who lead the community, come to the understanding that allowing a certain text to be freely circulated through the community would be detrimental to the community's ongoing health or that to allow an idea to take a legitimate place within the public discourse would prove harmful. The community therefore takes action and physically rids itself of the offending text making it impossible for certain ideas to enter the public discourse.

For practical purposes it is not possible for the Jewish community to allow Zayd to wake up one morning and think to himself: "Maybe Jesus is my Lord and Savior. Let me read this book the gentiles call 'the New Testament' to help me come to some conclusions." The problem is not just that Zayd might actually come to conclusions that the community would not approve of, but even if the proper conclusions were to be reached the mere fact that such an issue could be put on the table undermines the community by making it possible to challenge it foundations. (I am not saying that such an attitude is necessarily wrong per se or bad for the individual. I am simply saying that such an attitude works against the interests of the community and it is in the interests of the community itself to guard against such attitudes.) If community spokesperson, Umar, makes a statement of dogma then ideally it would be in the best interests of the community for Zayd to accept that dogma out of the belief that since a statement of dogma is in accordance with the absolute rules of the community and the community cannot be wrong therefore a statement of dogma itself cannot be wrong. More than that, it is important that Zayd not even seriously ask the question: "could it be otherwise?" Once we have Zayd choosing to follow a statement of dogma because he understands that the statement of dogma is in accordance with the rules of the community which he, at present, is choosing to accept as an absolute then both the dogma and the rules of the community cease to be absolutes. The reason for this is that, even though Zayd in either case may end up doing the same action, the reasoning in the latter case, unlike the former, has Zayd following the dictates of the community because it is in keeping with the dictates of his own beliefs. In this situation the de facto decider of any issue is not the community, but Zayd.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Ungodly Words: Toward a Political Philosophy of Heresy (Part III)




(Part I, II)

At the same time that I am marching into Jewish homes confiscating all Uncle Moishy tapes for their Pantheist heresies, I could also be going around putting a Hechser (kosher symbol) on all sorts of "dangerous" texts. In dealing with the Gospels one could argue make a plausible argument that the writers of Matthew, Mark, Luke and possibly even John did not believe that Jesus was part of a divine Trinity but simply believed that Jesus was the Messiah and the physical embodiment of the Law. This in fact was the view of the great medieval Jewish apologist Profiat Duran. Duran in fact goes so far as to call Jesus a "pious fool." Duran believed that the early Christians were good pious Jews, who were mistaken in certain matters. (See "Toward Formulating a Jewish View of Jesus.") Imagine for a second that Christianity had remained and died as an obscure first century Jewish sect leaving nothing behind for us except the Gospels. Would we view them as "the New Testament?" More likely we would see them as the harmless writings of a group of Jews who lived a long time ago, who were followers of a Messiah who did not pan out, and got themselves into some heated verbal exchanges with the more mainstream rabbinate just like the Dead Sea Sect. In this scenario if Zayd were to be caught with a copy of the New Testament, cross on the cover and all, underneath his shtender (reading lectern) it is highly unlikely that he would be thrown out of Shul (synagogue) or that anyone would bother to even confiscate the book. If we view heresy strictly in terms of what is the most plausible interpretation of the text then we have license to ignore, in making our judgments, any considerations of the historical trappings that can come in a text's wake. In looking at the Gospels, the Council of Nicea, Christianity, and the past two-thousand years of anti-Semitism in the Western world would become irrelevant.

The Authorship Model would have us admit that we cannot reach any conclusions as to the heretical nature of a text simply from the text itself but that we must rather decide as to heretical nature of a text based on what the author intended his text to mean. If this is the case then the imperative question that one has to ask about any text is did the author intend by the text to make claims that are in contradiction to set Jewish dogmas. This would get us out of the Uncle Moishy problem because it would allow Suki and Ding, assuming we decided to believe their public statements, to declare that they do not have any Pantheist messages in their songs and that all they meant to say was that God's authority and awareness extends to all places.

The first issue in regards to the Authorship Model is that like the Interpretive Model it turns away from the issue of how a text has fared in the real world. In fact the Authorship Model would stick us into the mire even deeper because not only would it allow us to not take the issue into account, it would expressly forbid us from even considering it.

The second issue in regards to the Authorship Model is that one has to ask whether we are declaring any text written by a heretical author to be heretical or whether we are simply declaring only the texts of heretical authors that, in themselves, make heretical assumptions. Either way is problematic. If we are to say the former then we would have to conclude that any text that was written by someone who was not either an Orthodox Jew is heretical. This would mean that over 99.9% of all books in the world are heretical, including books on such subjects as mathematics, music, cooking and sewing. This I guess would make some in Haredi circles happy, except that this does not end there. We would have to continue and apply the same rules to the spoken word since direct speech is potentially at least as dangerous as the written text. This would mean that no Jewish school would be able to hire a teacher who was not an Orthodox Jew to teach anything, not even that the sky is blue, since that statement is part of a larger "body" of work that is heretical. To take the matter even further if your gentile neighbor tried to wish you "good morning" you would have to cover your ears and run away lest you be exposed to heresy. If we are to allow texts and statements of heretical authors to be read as long as the texts themselves do not contain heresy we would simply run into other problems. What is heretical about John 3:16? The text 'G-d,' 'so,' 'loved,' 'the,' 'world,' or 'Son.' We cannot possibly declare that the author meant to make heretical statements with individual words, but at what point are texts large enough that we can say that the author meant it something heretical by it; does a text have to be a complete sentence, paragraph or an entire book in order for it to be heretical? Where does one place the location of the author's heretical intentions?

The third issue that I would raise is the case where the author intended the text to mean something heretical but either was not trying to convince the reader to accept the heretical assumptions of the text or was even trying to refute the heretical assumptions of the text. Take Kierkegaard's Either/Or in which Kierkegaard wrote in the character of 'A' who is an aesthete. Now many of the aesthete's statements are intended to go against conventional dogmas but it was not Kierkegaard's intention to try to convince people to follow the aesthete's worldview; are we to say that Either/Or is still heretical? How for that matter are we to deal with a volume of Jewish anti-missionary literature? Are we to say that, because they quote texts that contradict set dogmas, they are heretical?

Monday, July 26, 2010

Ungodly Words: Toward a Political Philosophy of Heresy (Part II) – Is Uncle Moishy Kefira?


(Part I)

What does it mean when we say that a statement or even an entire work is heretical (kefira)? Examples of statements that have been, at one time or another, been declared heretical by Jews would be: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life," (John 3:16)  "Religion is the opiate of the masses," (Karl Marx “Critique of the Hegelian Philosophy of Right”)  "the Bible was formed from the documents J, P, E and D" and "man is descended from monkeys." How are we able to say that such statements, and by extension the books in which they are contained, are in contradiction of statements of dogma and therefore heretical? There are a number of possible models which one can use in order to tag a text as heretical. The most obvious way would be to interpret a text and decide if it contains any heretical assumptions; this can be referred to as the Interpretive Model. Another way to go about the task would be to decide if the author had intended the text to mean something that is heretical; this can be referred to as the Authorship Model. A third way with which one could decide the matter is to look at how the text has generally been interpreted; this can be referred to as the Historical Model. The final possibility is what I like to refer to as the Community Model in which we would assume that the communal body is licensed to eliminate ideas that it views as dangerous and as such the community has the right to, on a whim, declare texts to be heretical. As I will attempt to demonstrate, each of the first three views, taken to their practical applications, lead to extremely problematic situations where we would either have to declare "safe" texts to be heretical or not be able to justify, on a rational basis, declaring certain "dangerous" texts to be heretical.

The problem with the Interpretive Model is that, once you start putting texts under a theological microscope you can find heresy almost anywhere. Take something really innocent like an Uncle Moishy song, a major staple of my childhood. If you think about it, the lyrics: "Hashem is here, Hashem is there, Hashem is truly everywhere," taken in its literal sense, is highly heretical because it implies that Hashem (God) occupies space which could only be possible if God were a physical being or had some sort of physical element to him.

Everyone would agree that within the four-cubits which define "here" for me at the present there is a being named Benzion Noam Chinn, a desk, a computer, a copy of the 6th edition of Wheelock's Latin, sound waves which are coming together to form the First Movement of Beethoven's Third Symphony along with the trillions upon trillions of nitrogen and oxygen atoms which make up the air that I am at present breathing. It would seem that Uncle Moishy and by extension my supposedly Orthodox parents would have had me believe that in addition to the list of things that I have just mentioned there is an omnipotent, omniscient, being better known as Hashem taking up space in the "here." Now in regards to things that are not physical we do not deal with them in terms of space or of "here" or "there." For example we do not, except in a poetic sense, talk about peace, love, happiness or the law of inertia being "here," "there" or occupying space. Just as the statement "the surface of the planet contains x amounts of love, or of Newtonian mechanics, per square cm" is meaningless, so to, for the purposes of all of us who believe that God is not a physical being, the statement "the surface of the planet contains y amounts of Deity Blessed be He per square cm has no meaning. Since it is no reasonable to assume that Uncle Moishy was singing gibberish, it would become conceivable that Uncle Moishy believes that God is in some form or fashion a physical entity pervading the entire universe. To be specific it could be assumed that Uncle Moishy believes in a Pantheistic conception of God, just as Baruch Spinoza did, or at the very least Panantheism, that God is in all things.

So maybe you could tell me that Suki and Ding, the makers of Uncle Moishy, only meant the song in a poetic sense. I would respond that first of all I never did see any notice on any Uncle Moishy tapes saying: "Warning, to all philosophically inclined children, this song should only be understand as a figure of speech and should not be taken in any way shape or form literally, Chas V'Shalom (God Forbid)." Even if such precautions had been taken it still would not allay the concern that the people behind Uncle Mosihy were covert Pantheists, trying to poison the minds of innocent children with their heresies, because I could argue that not only are they Pantheists but they are also Straussians. They very well may have read Leo Strauss' Persecution and the Art of Writing, in which he argued that various writers, such as Maimonides in particular, hid the heretical aspects of their beliefs by spouting the orthodox creeds that contradicted their real beliefs, in order to fool the cursory censor, and then inserted their real beliefs in a backhanded fashion. In this same vain any warning given by the producers of Uncle Moishy can be taken as mere cover for their real beliefs as stated in their songs. Particularly in this case since, let us face it, five year-olds as a whole do not read the warning labels on cassette tapes. Therefore the trick warning would never reach the eyes of the children and they would take in the real message of the song mainly that God is simply the physical spirit permeating all matter. In such a way a whole generation of Jewish children can be led astray and turned into Pantheists. For the purposes of the Interpretive Model, the fact that I might not be able to find a single person who has become a Pantheist through listening to Uncle Moishy songs is irrelevant. All that matters is what the song means to me, the Interpreter.

(Just to make you breathe easier, I do not actually believe that Uncle Moishy is the product of a Cabal of Straussian Pantheists. I do not consider to collective intelligence of the Jewish music industry to be high enough to actually know anything about Spinoza, Pantheism or Strauss let alone to be able to conspire to inculcate children to those ideas.)

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Intellectual Networks and the Internet




My friend Shana Carp has a laudatory post about me (which I, in no way deserve), discussing my recent back and forth with Dr. David Friedman. What particularly impressed Shana was the fact that the internet could afford the opportunity for me, a not very sociable lay person, to talk to a leading economist.

Apparently, on the internet, no one knows you are a _____________. BZ is the son and grandson of a pair of prominent rabbis who went to get a doctorate in history (not economics or political theory).  His biggest achievement right now is being almost done (and on time with the almost done) while being funded through the process.  His whole life is ahead of him.  And yet, apparently even he can make an impression on a really good economist.  He got the attention because he was smart and is using the internet to reach out.

It is a situation that can happen to anyone, with enough effort.  Expertise seems to be slowly shifting to those who will open themselves up as both being open to learn, open to criticism, and open to creating real resources for scholarship.  Further, it will both make scholarship communities both smaller (IE, Dr. Friedman and BZ talking about sci-fi) and larger (IE BZ is now connected, even if only peripherally, to mainstream Economics scholarship).  It means that the production of scholarly material will be produced by a mixture of experts, amateurs, and in betweeners, with a lot more community sorting taking place.  

 

I agree that one of the interesting aspects of the internet is its ability to "democratize" scholarship by offering a forum for lay people to participate. A good example of this is Wikipedia, which, for better or for worse, offers the collective knowledge of society by allowing anyone to edit and write encyclopedia articles. That being said, I see this less as something revolutionary than as a continuation of one of the major themes of Enlightenment modernity. The Enlightenment saw the empowerment of the public sphere in Western politics, exemplified by the rise of coffee houses in the eighteenth century. Coffee houses provided open forums for lay people to discuss the ideas of the day and even to meet with Enlightenment intellectuals. (Voltaire was an avid coffee drinker.) This led to a major shift in Western political thought with the notion that there existed a lay public with a political consciousness, setting the stage for the notion that governments are answerable to this "public." I find it ironic and I am not sure it is a complete coincidence that accompanying the internet revolution has been the rise of the Starbucks coffeehouse. Might I suggest that the internet is the Enlightenment 2.0, with the open discourse of the coffeehouse brought online? (See Jorgen Habermas on the transformation of the public sphere.) From this perspective it is hardly shocking that leading intellectuals will be found talking to educated lay people; what else would you expect from this new Enlightenment. (See A Confession of Personality.)

I would place my conversation with Dr. Friedman within a pyramid model of the flow of ideas. At the top are the experts, those with a comprehensive knowledge of the workings of their field. This allows them to not only understand their field but to be creative with it. Just below them are those people capable of understanding the technical literature of the given field. These are very narrow groups of people and in many fields it is quite plausible that together they consist of only a few hundred individuals. (Most academic books have print runs of only a few hundred copies.) Furthermore, while there can be exceptions to this rule, the very training and intelligence that allows the experts and their readers to be what they are ironically serves to isolate them from society at large. As such experts and their direct readers in of themselves would be useless unless there were some means of transposing their ideas to a wider audience. For this we need the next step down in the pyramid; these are the popularizers, writers of mainstream print books and articles as well as the advisors for politicians. Such people may lack the technical expertise to truly understand a topic from the inside, but they are capable of having it explained to them and, of the most crucial importance, they can impart that understanding to a wider audience. For example Voltaire lacked the mathematical training to read Newton for himself, but he had a mistress who could explain it to him and he in turn could pass on the main ideas to the wider public. This wider audience consists of educated lay people, who read non-fiction. One hopes to find at least the more sophisticated sort of politician in this category. One has to realize, though, that even with our educated lay people, we are only dealing with a percentage of the population ranging in the single digits. The vast majority of the population is incapable of reading and understanding material written for the "general public." Thus for ideas to become successful, we are going to need educated lay people, the "general public," to serve as the "Mavens" and "Connectors" to society at large by reaching out to their friends, family and acquaintances. (See my discussion of intellectual networks in Sabbatian Tipping Point.) Ironically this makes those people in the middle, the popularizers and educated laymen, the most critical people on the networks, more so maybe even than the experts who formulate ideas. The success or failure of an idea depends upon what happens when it reaches the populizers and educated laymen and how they receive it.

 

In this intellectual network pyramid, it is possible to occupy more than one position. I would see Dr. Friedman as an expert with the ability to serve as a popularizer. In terms of economics and political theory, I would see myself as a high end educated layperson, capable of engaging some of the academic literature. Thus we have a meeting along the network. Dr. Friedman, as an expert, is attempting to pass along the idea of anarcho-capitalism, that all government, even the police and the courts, should be privatized. I am familiar and interested enough in the issues to try reading Dr. Friedman and, as a libertarian, I am somewhat sympathetic to his ideas. If I could be converted then I could serve to reach out to people below me on the network, who might not be inclined to read Dr. Friedman, but do interact with me (either in person or through this blog). Such people might be open in turn to embrace anarcho-capitalism. Get several thousand small time popularizers and educated lay people on board with anarcho-capitalism and it is possible to form a serious movement capable gaining the attention of society at large. I have not been converted to anarcho-capitalism; thus what happened was a potential connection on the intellectual network that failed.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Ungodly Words: Toward a Political Philosophy of Heresy (Part I)




A cardinal principle of liberal society is that there is no such thing as heresy or heretics; that the notion of a thought crime is a contradiction in terms. That being said the issue of heresy remains a potent one even in the West, though its implications may be somewhat different then in earlier epochs. In the past when people spoke about heretics they generally were referring to one whose beliefs lie outside of a given framework and as such is brought into opposition with those whose beliefs lie within that framework. In the modern day situation more and more we see that people can come under fire not just for their lack of belief, but merely because they are open to an idea and take it seriously enough to raise it as a legitimate question. The sin here is not that they do not believe in a doctrine but that they choose to view it as a doctrine in the first place instead of as a necessary truth.

This conception of heresy is useful to explain the unfortunate fate of Lawrence Summers, the President of Harvard. He was attacked not for his belief that there are intrinsic genetic differences between men and women, but because he raised the issue as a question. In the eyes of the feminists who attacked Summers, his sin was not his lack of belief in the doctrine of the non-existence of intrinsic differences between men and woman. His sin was that he failed to see this doctrine as an obvious and necessary truth in the first place.

At the same time this was going on, half a world away, there was the parallel story of Rabbi Natan Slifkin, who was attacked by the Heredi rabbinical establishment for being pro-evolution and for reading rabbinic texts allegorically. What was interesting about the whole Slifkin affair was that the main thrust of his opponents' attacks was not against the truth of evolution, though they definitely viewed it as a falsehood. Rabbi Slifkin was not trying to convince anyone to accept the theory of evolution, who was not already persuaded by the scientific evidence. All he was doing was suggesting a method with which to deal with evolution within an orthodox framework. The real issue was whether or not there existed, as Rabbi Slifkin claimed, legitimate trends within rabbinic tradition that can be seen as being friendly to evolution. In essence the issue was whether one could, in the first place, take the notion that the theory of evolution is true seriously.

One is reminded of the Catholic Church's prosecution of Galileo in the seventeenth century. Contrary to common perception Galileo was put on trial less for his beliefs in heliocentrism than for his attempt to justify heliocentrism on biblical grounds (as well as some remarkably poor political judgment on his part). The Counter-Reformation Church was not particularly concerned with science; it was, though, at war with Protestantism. Holding beliefs about the natural world that went against Church teaching was a venial sin; attempting to support a belief contrary to Church teaching through an unorthodox interpretation of scripture was Protestantism. I might go so far as to suggest that Galileo's trial was not a remnant of medieval thinking, but the Catholic Church leading the way for a modern understanding of heresy.

I do not raise these issues in order to engage in pious liberal proclamations against the ever existing threats to the cause of free thought; though I personally would rather deal with heathens, who openly proclaim themselves as enemies of free thought as opposed to apostates, who have betrayed the tradition. I raise this issue because I believe that the notion of heresy is and will continue to be an important part of our political discourse. As long as groups are going to be formed around ideas then the paradigm of Us, who believe, versus that Other, who does not believe, will exist to some extent and as such there will be Believers and Heretics. As such I believe that it is prudent to come to an understanding as to the nature of heresy and its role in society. I am not interesting in defining heresy; rather I would like to engage in an exploration of the underlying rational that allows one to go from saying, on a theoretical level, that if a text were to advocate ideas that contradicted dogma then that text would be heretical to saying, on a practical level, that such and such a text actually does contradict statements of dogma and is therefore heretical. While in doing this I will be dealing with this issue within a Jewish context, though what I say should, in theory, apply to any system of thought.

(To be continued …)

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Dulce et Decorum est Pro Patria Mori




In my conversation with Dr. David Friedman, the main point I have been stressing is that part of what allows government to function is that it is perceived as having inherent authority. I can choose on a casual whim to be a consumer of Nike or Reebok sneakers. I do not sit around thinking whether or not I feel like submitting to the authority of the United States government. In this spirit I thought it worthwhile to share with you a quote from Benedict Anderson's Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism.

Dying for one's country, which usually one does not choose, assumes a moral grandeur which dying for the Labour Party, the American Medical Association, or perhaps even Amnesty International cannot rival, for these are all bodies one can join or leave at easy will. Dying for the revolution also draws its grandeur from the degree to which it is felt to be something pure. (If people imagined the proletariat merely as a group in hot pursuit of refrigerators, holidays, or power, how far would they, including members of the proletariat, be willing to die for it?) Ironically enough, it may be that to the extent that Marxist interpretations of history are felt (rather than intellected) as representations of ineluctable necessity, they also acquire an aura of purity and disinterestedness. (Pg. 144.)

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Why Christians Should Accept Me as an American Citizen


Whatever one might say about there being a First Amendment defending freedom of religion, to be able to enjoy any such rights in practice one is going to have to convince other people to go along with these principles and include you within them. As such one needs to be capable of articulating a case to others.

I stand before the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) establishment of the United States and ask for acceptance. I might not accept Jesus as my personal savior or believe in any Trinity, but I am a Bible-believing monotheist Jew. While I may not be a follower of the Christian religion, I am still culturally very Christian. I have studied Latin, read the New Testament and the works of many Christian thinkers. I even enjoy listening to Christian pop rock. While my academic work is technically speaking about Judaism, in practice it has largely been an education in Christianity and the different ways in which it has related to Judaism. While I do not deny that there are Christians with Jewish blood on their hands and am not about to ignore a history of some truly horrific things being done to Jews in the name of Christianity, I have a lot of respect for the Christian intellectual tradition. This even applies to people who were genuinely hostile to Jews such as Martin Luther. This is to say nothing of Christians like C. S. Lewis, who is a major influence on how I relate to God, and Augustine, my model for how to live in and even embrace a State not built around my faith. Unlike many Jews, I am not bothered by Christian symbols and images. I do not spit while passing churches. I can look at paintings of the crucifixion and even the Passion film as works of art, without getting caught up in whether Jews are being blamed for killing Jesus. I have even, on occasion, attended church services. My Judaism is one that consciously gives Christianity legitimacy and allows me to be citizens with Christians. I practice a similar code of morality. I am looking to engage in a heterosexual monogamous relationship. (Not that I am about to butt into the lives of anyone pursuing any alternative relationships in the privacy of their own homes.) I do not use drugs nor do I drink to excess. I am honest in my business dealings with everyone, whether they are Jewish or not. If you are going to accept non-Christians into your country, I am the sort you can hope to deal with.


In addition to my Christian values, I strongly identify with the American narrative. This goes for the Pilgrims, who saw themselves as the new Children of Israel building their godly society in the new "Promised Land," to the American Revolution, a model of moderate force backed by a formal government used to defend liberty. Furthermore the early United States offered a moderate version of the Enlightenment that was not out for war with religion and even capable of embracing it. It is from this perspective that I confront this country's very real flaws, particularly our history of slavery and racism. For me, following the American Christian abolitionist and civil rights traditions, slavery and racism are what idolatry was for the biblical Nation of Israel; a sin that challenged the very core of what we stood for and offering a narrative of salvation. Make no mistake, this country has paid a heavy price in blood for the sins of slavery and racism, but, as with King David repenting from his sin with Bethesda, the fact that a freedom loving country like the United States could struggle with intolerance offers hope to others that they do not have to be damned for their own intolerance.

Today the United States offers the best hope for the world for many of the values I hold dear. The United States, for all of its very real flaws, offers an alternative to theocracy on the one hand and anti-religious secularism on the other. Our political tradition offers the necessary level of government to allow for liberty without turning toward the tyranny of the State-run economy. If the United States were to disappear, I doubt that these values would have much hope flourishing throughout the rest of the world, leaving us to choose between the tyrannies of the left and the right, religious and secular.


As it should be clear from this, I am probably more of a Christian than the majority of people who claim to be. I also actively embrace being an American. This is the country that offered a home to my grandfather, an orphan of the Holocaust, and my grandmother, who fled Hungry during the 1956 Revolution. This is my country and I am not about to forget that; I am not about to simply use the privilege of citizenship to enrich myself with government handouts. It is reasonable for other people, even WASPs whose family history in this country goes back much further than mine, to take me at my word and accept me as an equal citizen.

Now compare this to other individuals from minority backgrounds, who take the attitude that "they did not land on Plymouth Rock, Plymouth Rock landed on them." However justified there historical grievances might be, why should anyone listening to such a listing of grievances trust the plaintiff enough to turn around and offer tolerance and even citizenship. "You Americans are a bunch of racist imperialist baby killers and I want in. Trust me; I mean you no harm and would never think to abuse equal citizenship."

Monday, July 19, 2010

De-Citizenship Trials in Practice: Tolerating Fred Phelps




Vox Populi, a regular commentator on this blog, has just started a blog of his own where I have been going back and forth with him on the issue of tolerating Muslims. As I have argued here in the past, in addition to the usual restrictions on free speech such as the inability to "shout fire," incite to violence or be a public nuisance, one is also limited by inability to make statements, or even to hold beliefs, that challenge the legitimacy of the system. This disqualifies the beliefs of most extremists, whether from the left or the right, secular or religious, Christian, Muslim or Jewish. Such people would be outside the protection of the First Amendment and could be targeted by the government. In fact it may be necessary for the government to not allow such people the protection of the First Amendment.

To be clear, this does not limit normative disagreement, even very strong disagreement. I am allowed to believe that President Barack Obama's health care plan and stimulus package are mistakes that will bring disaster to this country and even cost lives. I can believe that both Christianity and Islam are not "True" religions and do not help their believers "get right" with God. I can believe these things as long as I accept that both Obama and my Christian and Muslims neighbors are basically decent people and patriotic citizens, who came by their mistaken beliefs honestly. This allows me to accept Obama as my legitimate president, as called for by the Constitution, and Christians and Muslims as fellow citizens.

What I would like to discuss here are the practical matters involved. How would we, in practice, go about stripping such people of their citizenship and avoid turning this into a tool of legitimate free speech suppression. Take the example of Fred Phelps, the minister of the infamous Westboro Baptist Church. Phelps believes that "God hates fags" and that American tolerance of homosexuality has caused the death of our soldiers in Iraq. To make his point, he and his followers have even taken to picketing the funerals of American soldiers.




To put this in context, this is the sort of anti-gay hate speech that even Ann Coulter denounces.

I do not care if Phelps is "intolerant" or engaging in "hate" speech. What is of concern is that fact that Phelps not only does not agree with American policy, but no longer accepts the legitimacy of the United State government. For example the Hebrew prophets, whom I presume Phelps looks to as his models, could denounce the individual sins of the people of Israel without ever questioning that they were people of God. In fact it was precisely because they were the people of God that the children of Israel had need of being rebuked. Elijah may have denounced King Ahab as an idolater and murder, whom God would punish, but he never challenged the fact that Ahab was a legitimate king. Phelps makes no such distinction. His world is one in which his small group are righteous and everyone else are wicked beyond redemption.

I see nothing objectionable with having the government sue Phelps, drag him into court and put to him some very simple questions: considering what he believes about the United States, does he consider himself an American citizen bound by American law, and if so how does he justify, not the belief in the iniquity of the United States, but his part in it as an American citizen? This exercise would be worth it just to make Phelps squirm, trying to answer these questions with a straight face. He would not have to convince any judge or jury to sympathize with his world view or even agree with how he rectifies this dilemma. All we are asking him to do is to convince a judge or jury that he believes his own answers and that, in his own mind, he is not trying to put one over them, secretly laughing at their gullibility. Failure to do this would result in his being stripped of his citizenship. He would still be allowed to live in this country; he would not be put in jail or even fined. All this would mean is that he would lose his ability to vote, access to government services and the ability to take part in public discourse.

It is important to understand that we would not be coming after Phelps for any of his beliefs per se. Our only objection to him is his breach of contract. In civil law if one signed a contract only to find out that the other person did not believe himself bound by this contract, one would be justified in suing for breach of contract and demand to be released by the court from this contract. In this case it would be irrelevant that the contract has yet to actually be broken. It is enough that the contract was not entered in good faith. Government is a contract signed between government and citizens. Before we can begin to talk about the parties fulfilling their parts of the contract (like the government protecting the free speech of citizens) all parties need to be acting in good faith and accept the legitimacy of the contract. If one of the parties, say Citizen Fred Phelps, is not acting in good faith then the contract is off. I am not about to lift a finger to protect his First Amendment rights unless I am convinced that he is willing to do the same for me. The Constitution is not a suicide pact.

The course of action I am outlying is not one of "I will only tolerate tolerant people." Such notions of tolerance are meaningless and can be dismissed as cover only people one agrees with as all beliefs imply some form of intolerance. I would be perfectly willing to accept Phelps as a citizen despite him being an "intolerant" person who believes in making homosexuality a crime. He can even believe that we are a sinful nation for tolerating homosexuality and that God is going to punish us as long as he believed that the United States had the "right" to make laws tolerating homosexuality and the United States government was still rightfully his government. To convince me that he holds this I would have to see him saying things like "Oh Lord! As Isaiah said: 'behold I am a man of unclean lips dwelling amongst a people of unclean lips.' This is a nation of homosexual tolerating sinners, but I pray that you forgive them for they have come to these sins in good faith seeking to follow a just Constitution. These are my people and as Moses prayed if the burden of their sin is to heavy 'remove me from your book' and let me be punished with them." Phelps would still be a bigot, but I could still accept him as a fellow citizen. Whatever else he might believe, I would know that he was on my side as an American.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Does the Stimulus Package Discriminate Against Aspergers?




In a recent article, David Brooks outlines two types of business people, princes and grinds.

Princes, who can be male or female, are senior executives at major corporations. They are almost always charming, smart and impressive. They've read interesting books. They've got well-rehearsed takes on the global situation. They can drop impressive names as they tell you about their visits to the White House, Moscow or Beijing. If you're having lunch or dinner with a prince, you're going to have a good time. Grinds, on the other hand, tend to have started their own company or their own hedge fund. They're often too awkward to work in a large organization and too intense to work for anybody but themselves. Over lunch, they can be socially inert. You try to draw them out by probing for one or two subjects of interest to them. But as often as not, you find yourself playing conversational ping-pong with a master of the monosyllabic response.
Every once in a while you'll run into one who can't help but let you know how much smarter he is than you or anybody else in the room. Sitting at this lunch is about as pleasant for him as watching a cockroach crawl up his arm. He'd much rather be back working in front of his computer screen.

 
Since the princes are nicer and more impressive, it is easy to be seduced into the belief that they also are more trustworthy. This is false. During the last few years, for example, the princes at Citigroup, Bear Stearns, Goldman Sachs and Lehman Brothers behaved with incredible stupidity while the hedge fund loners often behaved with impressive restraint.


Brooks goes on to note that, despite the failure of the "princes" in the recent economic downturn, it has been these same princes who have been the main beneficiaries of government largess in the various stimulus packages.

 
They [Grinds] need a wide-open economy with plenty of creative destruction. They need an atmosphere of general confidence, so bankers will feel secure enough to lend them money, so big companies will feel brave enough to acquire their start-ups, so they themselves will feel the time is ripe to take on their world and show their brilliance to all of humanity.

 
The princes can thrive while the government intervenes in the private sector. They've got the lobbyists and the connections. The grinds, needless to say, don't.

This is a basic principle well understood by libertarians that the very act of the government stepping in with rules and regulations benefits those who already are connected to the establishment and know how to work it at the expense of those who are not. As such the notion of the government doing anything to help the needy is a contradiction in terms. This is not to say that there should be no laws. I believe in government and that it should protect people from direct non-consensual physical harm caused by others. That being said, with any government aid program, the wrong thing you can be certain of is that, whatever else it does, it will not go to those who actually need the help.

This notion of princes and grinds also struck me as reflecting those on the spectrum and neurotypicals. Look again at the description of the princes and ask yourself how many of them are Aspergers? Now consider the grinds; these are people who do not do well in social situations, but carry a very narrowly focused intelligence. You can practically sign such people up on the spot. So who do you want to trust the economy to, neurotypical prince, whose talent is to game the system, or the Asperger grind, who may actually know something?



Thursday, July 15, 2010

Must History Destroy Tradition: Idel’s Response to Yerushalmi




The late Prof. Yosef Yerushalmi, in his classic book Zakhor, challenged the notion that history was something intrinsic to Judaism. He argued that, while history was important for the Bible, post-biblical Judaism consciously downplayed history to the extent that from Josephus, in the first century, up until the early modern period there is almost no Jewish historical writing. The sixteenth century saw a swath of Jewish histories in the wake of 1492, but it was post-emancipation Jewry that truly embraced historical study. Yerushalmi saw this as ironic since it was precisely such Jews who were in the process of assimilating. As such, Jewish history becomes the product not of Judaism, but of the abandonment of Judaism. I would add that at a basic level, history challenges traditional Judaism not just because it might contradiction traditional Jewish claims like the Exodus from Egypt, but because its methods are a direct rejection of traditional Jewish notions of remembrance.

I find Moshe Idel's response worth sharing:


I cannot dispute his [Yerushalmi's] own feeling that the career of a Jewish historian may represent an existential rupture, perhaps a tragic one, with traditional Judaism. … The stark opposition [though] between history and belief presupposes some form of religiosity that alone is conceived of as authentic and attributes to the corrosive acts of history an antireligious effect. By contrast, I would resort to a vision of a complex and multifaceted tradition in order to resolve what may be conceived of as a state of fall or of despair. (Idel, "Yosef H. Yerushalmi's Zakhor" JQR 97.4(2007) pg. 495)


On the reverse side, Orthodox Judaism, particularly Haredim, often create either or scenarios where one either accepts their understanding of Jewish tradition as THE Judaism or one is outside of the Jewish tradition. So I put the challenge to my readers of all faiths, how does the study of history, particularly the embracing of the historical method play itself out in your religious beliefs? If we were to bring in historians to construct a religion according to their tastes and sensibilities what sort of distinctive features might figure prominently?





Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Adam’s Rib and Anarchy: A Response to David Friedman




Previously I wrote about Milton Friedman of blessed memory and his documentaries "Free to Choose," done during the 1980s. John Stossel recently devoted an episode of his talk show to pay homage to "Free to Choose."






Milton Friedman's son, David Friedman, is also a libertarian economist. In The Machinery of Freedom: A Guide to Radical Capitalism (follow the link to read the book for free), though, he takes his libertarian logic to its anarchist extreme. After spending the first half of the book suggesting ways to sell off excess parts of government such as schools and roads (policies that I heartily support), Friedman turns to government itself and to how we might function without it. Friedman offers the following scenario:


Suppose, then, that at some future time there are no government police, but instead private protection agencies. These agencies sell the service of protecting their clients against crime. Perhaps they also guarantee performance by insuring their clients against losses resulting from criminal acts.


How might such protection agencies protect? That would be an economic decision, depending on the costs and effectiveness of different alternatives. On the one extreme, they might limit themselves to passive defenses, installing elaborate locks and alarms. Or they might take no preventive action at all, but make great efforts to hunt down criminals guilty of crimes against their clients. They might maintain foot patrols or squad cars, like our present government police, or they might rely on electronic substitutes. In any case, they would be selling a service to their customers and would have a strong incentive to provide as high a quality of service as possible, at the lowest possible cost. It is reasonable to suppose that the quality of service would be higher and the cost lower than with the present governmental protective system.


Friedman's system goes all the way up to having private court systems. When members of different systems come into conflict the protection agencies step in as arbitrators. In essence, instead of one giant nation-State, we would have numerous private States with no relation to boundaries, but simply personal choice. The advantage of this is that people would be free to choose their protection agencies and even to switch agencies as it suits their interests.


I admit that there is a certain elegance to David Friedman's suggestion and if I were to try putting together an anarchist system it would look something like Friedman's. What I particularly admire about Friedman is that he comes to his anarchism honestly, from a libertarian desire to avoid coercion, as opposed to most anarchists who come to their beliefs from a socialism based desire to use coercion to overthrow capitalism. The problem, as I see it, with Friedman's anarcho-capitalism is that it does not take into account the question of authority; mainly that States, in order for their authority to be meaningful, need their citizens to accept them as having a meta-legitimacy regardless of what they think of specific decisions. The State cannot simply be something that you accept or reject based on how you feel about it at the moment.


Take for example a woman whose husband cheats on her. To play out this alternative Adam's Rib scenario, our woman approaches the political establishment, headed by Spencer Tracy, to demand justice. Spencer Tracy, operating within the parameters of modern legal theory, suggests that this woman should be able to get a divorce on favorable terms and might be able to sue for emotional harm. Now if we are operating by standard government, the story ends here. Regardless of whether this woman believes that her honor has been violated and that it can only be redeemed if her husband and his mistress are given a more frontier form of justice, such as a bullet in the arm, she is held back by her "social contract" with the government. As long as the government protects her life, liberty and property, she is required to obey the law even when the results are not to her liking. Enter Friedman's anarcho-capitalism and all of a sudden we have an alternative to this woman going into therapy to get over her wounded sense of honor. She can break off services with Spencer Tracy's conventional modern justice protection agency and take up Katherine Hepburn's alternative protection agency, which offers its clients the option of choosing from its select line of vendetta specialists (otherwise known as hit-men) to bring them a more "personal" justice. Perhaps our woman can take a leaf from Shylock and prepare her scales to receive her pound of flesh and start sharpening her knife against her shoe. It is useless here to tell the woman that such actions are wrong, because she believes that, in this case, she is in the right, and now she has a justice system to give her what is "rightfully" hers.


Libertarianism relies on the fact that people are usually rational in their economic activities and can shrug off the exceptions. These principles break down when it comes to tort law, because it means handing decision making over to people who, in their current state, are, by definition, incapable of making rational decisions. Think of divorce cases with both parties engage in a mutually destructive conflict, consumed by a hatred for the other and egged on by their lawyers. Besides for being personal, divorce cases suffer from the fact that they lack clear expectations and rules of conduct. Allow someone to stew in their anger and they are likely to believe that they deserve nothing less than a pound of flesh and if their current venue does not give it to them, they will find one that will. Friedman's anarcho-capitalism would mean divorce style cases across the board with guns to boot.


I would also add a libertarian objection to Friedman's system. Libertarianism relies on a distinction between direct physical harm, which is the proper object of government intervention, and non-physical harm, which the government has no place in and which must be left to the individual to pursue privately through the social realm. (For example our woman might not be able to use the government to punish her cheating husband, but she can still have him publically humiliated by being thrown out of his church or synagogue.) Once we turn to anarcho-capitalism, there is no longer any distinction between the political and social; everything becomes social. As such the protection system, coming to replace the government, will no longer be bound by physical harm. People can pursue "justice" for the non-physical harm done to them and keep looking for a protection agency that gives it to them until they find one.


If I were to hone in on the difference between David Friedman and I it is that Friedman approaches the issue squarely from an economics prospective. He assumes rational behavior on the part of his participants as they pursue their monetary self interest. I come to the issue from political theory and therefore ask how it is that governments can carry innate authority. This is something outside of economics and outside of pure reason as the nature of the game is for everyone to buy into an illusion. This is strange because Friedman does not strike me as a narrow minded economist. For one thing, in addition to his father and Friedrich Hayek, he also dedicates his book to Robert A. Heinlein. Friedman has a strong interest in science-fiction and fantasy and has even written some; my challenge to him is why has he not allowed these things to come over into his political writing to transcend the mere economist in him?

Monday, July 12, 2010

Asperger Hiring




The Columbus Dispatch has an article today Asperger syndrome in the work place, "Young Adults with Asperger's Syndrome Struggle to Find Jobs." The article features my friend Dr. Tom Fish of Aspirations.

This discussion of adults on the spectrum needing jobs serves as a good illustration of the weakness of the child based cure model used by groups like Autism Speaks. Being able to diagnose autism at an early age and even being able to "cure" it does nothing for adults. All the autistic children out there are going to become autistic adults so what are we doing to help them?

The first step in solving this problem is to get out of the medical model of disability and move to a social model where people on the spectrum are viewed not as people who are disabled, but as members of a minority group. Businesses exist to make money; they are not going to hire charity cases. They can, though, be convinced to follow their own interests and hire and even go out of their way to make room for people who are unconventional and have unconventional skills.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Friedrich A. Hayek on the Fundamental Weaknesses of Conservatism




I was just reading Friedrich A. Hayek's essay "Why I am not a Conservative." It is an exemplary statement of the travails of someone who, having rejected modern liberalism, finds he is unable to stand with conservatives. There are a number of passages I thought worth sharing with readers. As Hayek sees it, the fundamental weakness of conservatism is that it is an intellectual non option.


[Conservatism] by its very nature … cannot offer an alternative to the direction in which we are moving. It may succeed by its resistance to current tendencies in slowing down undesirable developments, but, since it does not indicate another direction, it cannot prevent their continuance. It has, for this reason, invariably been the fate of conservatism to be dragged along a path not of its own choosing. The tug of war between conservatives and progressives can only affect the speed, not the direction, of contemporary developments. (The Constitution of Liberty pg. 398.)


The ideological bankruptcy of conservatism plays itself it in how it confronts new ideas.

Conservatives feel instinctively that it is new ideas more than anything else that cause change. But, from its point of view rightly, conservatism fears new ideas because it has no distinctive principles of its own to oppose to them; and, by its distrust of theory and its lack of imagination concerning anything except that which experience has already proved, it deprives itself of the weapons needed in the struggle of ideas. Unlike liberalism with its fundamental belief in the long-range power of ideas, conservatism is bound by the stock of ideas inherited at a given time. And since it does not really believe in the power of argument, its last resort is generally a claim to superior wisdom, based on some self-arrogated superior quality. (Pg. 404.)


Hayek specifically castigated conservatives for their lack of imagination concerning evolution:

I can have little patience with those who oppose, for instance, the theory of evolution or what are called "mechanistic" explanations of the phenomena of life simply because of certain moral consequences which at first seem to follow from these theories, and still less with those who regard it as irreverent or impious to ask certain questions at all. By refusing to face the facts, the conservative only weakens his own position. Frequently the conclusions which rationalist presumption draws from new scientific insights do not at all follow from them. But only by actively taking part in the elaboration of the consequences of new discoveries do we learn whether or not they fit into our world picture and, if so, how. (pg. 404-05.)


I find Hayek's call to take part in the intellectual discussion of the day particularly noteworthy. If you are not an active part of the discussion, offering serious alternatives, then you have no grounds to offer a word of criticism even to begin with.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

An Anthropologist Does ArtScroll: A Review of Orthodox by Design



I was really looking forward to reading Jeremy Stolow's Orthodox by Design: Judaism, Print Politics, and the ArtScroll Revolution, about the Haredi ArtScroll publishing company and its influence on Judaism today. Unfortunately the book is hamstrung, by a dreary anthropological style of writing, a failure to fully engage the material and needless padding in the attempt to create a short book out of what should have been a long article.

Stolow's argument is one that should be familiar to readers of this blog; Haredim, like any self-proclaimed conservative group bent on defending tradition, are trapped by the fact that their very attempt to defend tradition constitutes a change in of itself. ArtScroll is a textbook example of this. Its stated goals are twofold; first to present an "authentic" (i.e. Haredi) version of Judaism and, second, to make this Judaism accessible beyond the narrow enclaves of Haredi yeshiva schools. What the editors of Artscroll, Rabbis Nosson Scherman and Meir Zlotowitz, are not willing to face up to is the fact that such goals are mutually contradictory; the very act of attempting to make Judaism accessible to those raised in Western culture fundamentally changes it. Also of interest was Stolow's proposed attempt to look at ArtScroll as a mode of transporting authority from the Haredi leadership to people with only a tenuous connection to that world. (I have written about networks of authority mainly within the context of Sabbatianism.)

The fact that ArtScroll represents something different was something understood, I think, intuitively by all of us growing up in the yeshiva system. "Rabbi ArtScroll" constituted its own form of Judaism with only a formal connection to the Judaism we were studying. Looking at the issue from the perspective of John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge's God is Back the existence of this ArtScroll Judaism is simply the arrival of the American model of religion to Haredi Judaism. ArtScroll offers a surface traditionalism, supporting traditional doctrines and rejecting academic criticism, while at the same time supporting the latest in comfort living and self help. This goes a long way to explain the existence of Susie Fishbein's Kosher by Design series and Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski, about whom Stolow devotes full chapters.

Unfortunately this is not a line of inquiry that Stolow bothers to follow. Instead the author allows himself to get caught up in writing a work of anthropology, trying to apply Clifford Geertz's notions of "scripturalism" to Haredi Judaism and ArtScroll, "treating 'the written word' as a strategically decisive source of knowledge and source of religious authority." (Kindle 731) This issue has already been the subject of Dr. Haym Soloveitchik's stunning essay "Rupture and Reconstruction: The Transformation of Contemporary Orthodoxy." We would have been in Stolow's debt if he would have added depth to Dr. Soloveitchik's narrative. Instead Stolow seeks to take this issue of "scripturalism" and apply it to the physical process of book making and distribution, leading to the dullest parts of the book.

Part of Stolow's problem is that he is not a historian. He lacks the ability to analyze texts and formulate a narrative from that analysis. He could have written a history of ArtScroll, showing how the story of ArtScroll fits into the larger narrative of the rise of Haredi Orthodoxy in the later part of the twentieth century. This would have required an in depth knowledge of American Jewish history and the ability to confront texts. For example one could talk about the reinterpretive process undergone by Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, with his underlying asceticism, at the hands of Rabbi Twerski in order to fashion a Path of the Just comprehendible to a modern audience. This would require that one confront both Luzzatto's the Path of the Just and Rabbi Twerski as serious intellectual positions.

Stolow's approach seems designed to avoid engaging actual texts; this goes for traditional Jewish texts in Hebrew and Aramaic as well as the popular English texts of ArtScroll, supposedly his field of study. Instead Stolow comes to the field as an anthropologist; he talks to people, from the editors of ArtScroll down to lay users, looks at books as physical objects, outside of their actual content, and attempts to fit his observations within the general context of some theory, without a narrative or a serious intellectual engagement with the object of his inquiry. This serves to create a study with surface intellectual sophistication, but which actively avoids any such thing in practice. Instead of writing a book that was readable and advanced the discussion of modern Jewish, Stolow does neither.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The Military Mission of the Ottoman Empire




I previously discussed the difference between the military and missionary models of conversion as they relate to the Islamic and Christian traditions. The military model sees the conversion of the targeted population as a logical consequence of political rule, while the missionary model eschews politics, even to the point of accepting martyrdom, in the hope of converting the dominant society through argument and claims of miracles. I would like to point readers to an example of the military model as practiced under the Ottoman Empire in the seventeenth century.

Marc David Baer, in Honored by the Glory of Islam: Conversion and Conquest in Ottoman Europe, analyzes Ottoman conversionary tactics during the reign of Mehmed IV (1648-87). Mehmed IV is best known to Jewish history for being sultan during the outbreak of Sabbatai Sevi's messianic movement in 1665-66, to European history for presiding over the failed attempt to capture Vienna in 1683 and to Turkish history for being a pleasure seeking hunting enthusiast who allowed his empire to decline around him. Baer puts all three of these things together to knit an apology for Mehmed IV. Baer sees Mehmed IV's policies as being part of a consistent and remarkably successful plan of converting Christians, Jews and wayward Muslims. In this Mehmed IV was largely influenced by the conservative Kadizadeli movement, particularly the preacher Vani Mehmed Efendi. Instead of killing Sabbatai, the Ottomans hoped to use Sabbatai as a conversionary tool. Baer conclusively demonstrates how Sabbatai's conversion fit into a common pattern of ritualized conversions where Jews, Christians and heterodox Muslims would come before the court of the sultan to receive instruction in the faith, be dressed in new garments, and to be rewarded with a purse full of coins and a symbolic position at court. The failed siege of Vienna and the setbacks suffered at the end of Mehmed IV's reign, leading to his overthrow, should not detract from several decades of Ottoman military expansion, enlarging the sphere of Islamic power. This involved not just conquering territory, but the "Islamification" of the physical space under their control. This was also accomplished, in cases like the major fire in Istanbul, by not allowing Jews and Christians to rebuild and expelling them from specific neighborhoods thus turning former Jewish and Christian neighborhoods to Islamic spaces. Even Mehmed IV's love of hunting is seen as a means of projecting an image of the conquering Muslim warrior. Hunting served as a form of mock warfare where the sultan could demonstrate his personal bravery and command over other men. Furthermore the hunt served to allow Mehmed IV to travel around the empire and bring him in contact with his non-Muslim subjects and bring them to the faith.

What interests me about the conversion tactics described by Baer are that, while they bear a surface resemblance to the missionary model, they are still rooted primarily within the political and as such remains part of the military model. In our Ottoman scenario people might come to Islam out of their own free will. Even the accounts of Sabbatai's conversion, the major example in Baer's discussion of a forced conversion, carry the sense more of a gentlemen's agreement than brute force. The gist seems to be: "you Sabbatai are guilty of treason and should be put to death, but the sultan has nothing personal against you and is willing to call the whole thing off. He would just like you to do him a small favor, convert to Islam." Despite the absence of formal violence, though, the primary vehicle of conversion (for Sabbatai or anyone else) was the State and the realization that one could most effectively deal with this State by simply converting.

Such conversions lack drama and it was probably the point for it not to be dramatic. Jews and Christians are people of the book; they just need to accept the true conclusion of their faith and accept Islam, which should not be a big deal for them or require any sort of "rebirth." As such there is no need to use physical coercion. There is also no need for a sophisticated attempt to understand Judaism and Christianity and argue with their adherents on their own ground. There is something positive about this, in that Jews and Christians are not demonized; there is no need for them to be shown the "error" of their ways because they already know the truth and should be expected to readily convert. On the flip side, such a view does not take the opposition seriously even to the extent of acknowledging that the other side has opinions to be refuted. Christianity at least took Judaism seriously enough to polemicize against it. One is hard pressed to find an Islamic tradition of even achieving that baseline of respect.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Of Matisse, Skirt Lengths and Teaching Skills




In a recent essay in the Orthodox Journal Conversations, Esther Lapian attacks the Modern Orthodox Memlakhti-dati school system in Israel for caving in to Haredi standards in terms of girl's education. She tells the story of her daughter choosing the artist Henri Matisse as the topic for her school project and getting a poor grade on it despite the hard work she put in. What is interesting is the response Mrs. Lapian got from the teacher when asked for an explanation:


"Well," she said hesitating, "it was a bit skimpy." "Skimpy?!" I cried in disbelief. "She's in fifth grade. She could have chosen 'Water' or 'Color' or 'Why Is the Sky Blue?' Instead she picked a difficult topic and handed in work she did herself. What do you mean by skimpy? "Well," she said quietly, "the truth is … I have never heard of Matisse." ("When Worlds Collide: Why Observant Student Teachers Refuse to Teach in the Memlakhti-dati School System" Conversations Spring 2010 pg. 134)


Mrs. Lapian goes on to note that:

Part of the reason why the teacher in the Matisse story continues to teach in our schools is because she looks the part. She and hundreds like her are teaching in our schools, despite the fact that they may be inferior teachers, because her elbows are covered, her skirts are long, and in the case of married women, her head is covered.

Over the past 10 to 15 years, the dati-leumi establishment has become obsessed with the dress code of women. Prominent rabbis write outrageous articles measuring centimeters on the neck and on the arms. While the suitability of male teachers is measured in how much they know and the quality of their prayer, in the case of women, the skill of pious dressing can override the skills of good teaching. (pg. 138-39)


I would see this issue as a variant of the dress code challenge I raised previously. Every time one chooses to make an issue out of something, by implication one is also saying that other things are not important. Think of it as a point system in which you have a limited number of points to invest. Thus every point you invest in women's dress is a point you are not investing in women's learning or in male civility. To invest in something of minor importance is not just wasting a point it is the support of the negation of a virtue that has value. In our case of women's dress, one cannot play innocent in the statement being made. When you state that women have to be dressed a certain way you are also saying that women do not have to be well educated and that men do not have to respect them. The fact that you do not come out and explicitly say this is irrelevant; it only means that you also support mendacity as well.

It is very easy to say, as politicians regularly do, that you support certain values, whether they are long skirts, children, motherhood or apple pie. Because such support is so cheap, it is also irrelevant and meaningless. Values only mean something if you are willing to pay a price for them, particularly when that price is that of another value. In the real world values are going to clash with each other. They gain their meaning precisely when put up against the other and sacrificed for something higher. Do not tell me what values you support; tell me what price you will pay for them.


(For a different reaction to this article see QED.)

Monday, July 5, 2010

Happy Birthday to the American Messianic Dream




Solomon Schindler (1842-1915), a German Reform Rabbi who immigrated to the United States, ended his book on Messianism, Messianic Expectations and Modern Judaism, with the following declaration:

At the very moment when the old bellman's grandson shouted up the belfry, "Ring, ring, grandpa! Oh, ring for liberty!" and when the old state-house bell of Philadelphia spread with its metal tongue the news that the United States had declared their independence, the Messianic idea heaved its last sigh. At that auspicious moment its soul passed away, and what was left of it was a lifeless corpse, which has for some time lain in state, but which is buried for good.

Schindler would, at the end of his life, such views as he turned toward a more traditional brand of Judaism.

Much of my work with messianism can be seen as my attempt to come to terms, not only with the fact that such a view of modernity is flat out incorrect, but also why. This is the same American society that produced Levi Parsons and Pliny Fisk, a pair of Christian missionaries who traveled to Palestine, not only in hopes of converting the Jew, but of restoring him to his homeland in Palestine. A task which Parsons and Fisk believed was necessary for bringing about the Second Coming. Parsons and Fisk were pioneering figures in an Anglo-American Christian Zionism that continues to this day. Surely American messianism should take its place at the heart of the American narrative as part of what moves this country.

In looking out onto the world of the twenty-first century, one of the questions that has to top our minds is why has messianism, in all of its various forms, not died out. A good place to begin is precisely that Liberty Bell and the signing of the Declaration of Independence. The United States does not just represent the secularization of society or even the continuation of messianism by secular means, like Marxism; the United States represents a blending and reconciliation of religion and secularism and a means of bringing religious messianism into the realm of secular politics.