Sunday, August 31, 2008

This November Expect the Unexpected

The race for the White House is in full bloom. The Democrats have had their nomination and Barack Obama has chosen Joe Biden as his vice-president. The Republicans are about to have their nomination and John McCain has pulled his surprise move and nominated Sarah Palin. So who is going to win in November? Here is my prediction for the coming election; more so than any election in recent times, the polls, one way or another, are going to be off. There are too many x factors in this election, too many things no pollster can predict.

Let us start with Barack Obama. His chief strength is his popularity amongst blacks and young voters (ages 18-22), two groups that are notorious for not voting. Will Obama’s popularity bring them to out to vote or will they stay home like they usually do? Obama is the first black candidate nominated by a major party. How many Democratic voters are there out there who, in the privacy of the voting booth, will find themselves unable to turn the level for a black man? I believe that there are still real racists in this country and not all of them are Republicans.

As for John McCain. He is unpopular amongst both evangelicals and economic conservatives. How many of them, come Election Day, will stay home? There are many women out there upset about the fact that Hillary Rodham Clinton not getting the nomination. How many of them, in the privacy of the voting booth, will find themselves unable to vote against a female vice-president.

With the possible exception of evangelicals and McCain, these are all things that are by definition unpollable. How do you poll if someone will actually go and vote instead of just saying that they will? How do you poll what someone will do in the privacy of the voting booth as opposed to what they will say to a pollster? Who is going to win? I have no idea and neither does anyone else.

Friday, August 29, 2008

From Texts to Narrative: a Review of Jewish Questions

(Just so there should be no undeclared conflict of interest, Matt Goldish is my advisor, my mentor and I also like to think of him as a personal friend.)

There are three parts to the study of history. There is the gathering of historical evidence, usually written texts, the analysis of the evidence and finally one hopes to be able to create a coherent narrative from this evidence. The most important part and the part that most historians primarily deal with is the second part, taking pieces of historical evidence, primarily written texts, and analyzing it to see what sort of conclusions it will lead to. One of the problems with trying to educate the public about history is that when most people think about history they think of it in terms of the third part, the creation of a narrative. Because they do not see what actually goes into the study of history, people tend to think that history is simply a bunch of people giving their own highly biased opinions about the past. Why, if this is the case, is there any need for the professional historian? Anyone could write history. People need to see not just the surface of history but the whole intellectual process that goes on below the surface that is heart and soul of history.

Matt Goldish has done an admirable job in this regard with his new book, Jewish Questions: Responsa on Sephardic Life in the Early Modern Period. While the book deals with a very specific subject, Sephardic (North African and Middle Eastern) Jewish life in the early modern period (1492-1750), this book would benefit anyone seeking to understand the historical method of reading texts and how it is used to create a broader story. This book is a collection of primary sources, in this particular case responsa, questions posed to various rabbis. (It should be noted that rabbis sometimes wrote their own questions as a set up for a given discussion.) As Dr. Goldish shows, these responsa contain stories behind them and these stories tell us things not only about the individuals who asked the question but also about Sephardic Jews as a whole. Through these responsa, we are introduced to merchants, moneylenders, soldiers, housewives, widows and conversos. Each responsa is prefaced by Dr. Goldish, who explains the significance of the text in question and how it sheds light on the larger narrative.

At the beginning of the book Dr. Goldish offers an introduction where he talks about the use of responsa and gives the reader some general background information about the history of Jews in Spain up until the time they were expelled in 1492 and how this created the world revealed by the responsa he uses. Finally Dr. Goldish offers a series of brief bios of the rabbis to whom the responsa questions were written. While a good overview, I cannot say that I cared much for Dr. Goldish’s reference to the “superstitions of the populace” (pg. xxi) when talking about the attacks of 1391.

All in all this is a remarkable book that will be useful not just as a textbook for classes on early modern Sephardim but also for those who wish to understand what history is really all about. With this book, Dr. Goldish demonstrates that he is not only a highly gifted historian but also a master pedagogue, who has done a valuable service advancing the public understanding of history.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

An Introduction to the Academic Study of Kabbalah

For anyone interested in the field of Kabbalah, Hava Tirosh-Rothschild (now Tirosh-Samuelson) has a useful review essay, “Continuity and Revision in the Study of Kabbalah.” (AJS Review 16: pg. 161-92) Tirosh-Rothchild focuses on the two leading figures in modern Kabbalah studies Gershom Scholem (1897 – 1982) and Moshe Idel. This is a thirty page review of Idel’s Kabbalah: New Perspectives that puts Idel’s work within the larger context of Kabbalah studies, particularly the work of Scholem, Idel’s main target, who Tirosh-Rothschild devotes the first part of the essay to.

(The link to the essay is through JSTOR, which you will need to have membership in order to access. Most university computer systems are linked to it.)

Response to Staying in the Haredi World

Miss Shona posted the following comment:

After googling Rodney Stark, I can see that I would be one of his problem students if I ever had him as a professor. I do not know if in the year 2008, the policy of applying the laws of economics to people's choice of religion totally flys (although I can understand the logic).

I was not born or raised anything close to I will not even pretend to sympathize with feelings of the fear leaving the Haredi world along with the implications of that choice. I did grow up in a dual culture of sorts though. My Grandparents who raised me where super conservative and old-fashioned when it came to sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll (yeah, I couldn't even LOOK at boys, much less have one call the house!). My parents, who I had a good amount of contact with, were quite opposite. My father, being the conventional Jamaican man would have two (or more?) girlfriends simultaneously. My mother knows about more rap music than I ever knew existed really and would be visibly embarrassed by my clueless regarding the latest fashion trends and slang. But in the end, it leaves me to wonder...what in the world is the big deal? Why is sex placed on this high pedestal? Is it the aura of mystery that surrounds sex or something? I am not trying to minimize the effects of very human, natural feelings. But I think that sex is dangerously glorified...even within the frum world.I guess this is where the secular education comes in.

The sexual experience involves many various ingredients, including physical involvement, psychological factors, personal libido and "talents", and chemical hormones thrown in the mix to keep things progressing. To think that all of those factors will be in tip-top condition -- as the movies and TV shows love to portray -- is so completely off base.The definite advantage that the Haredim do have (and I'm not quite sure if they even see this) is that they find a mate earlier as opposed to later which helps with the psychological factor (most of the time) in regards to developing a life/identity which includes their spouse. The unfortunate flip-side is that you get Haredi singles, who when they reach the ages of 25 and older, start freaking out and just stagnate until they find their bershert. And woe be the dear Rivkle or Shmuley who stays single...The labels on hashkafah may be black & white but we exist in an infinite spectrum of grays. As MO as I am, I can surely offer up my share of TV, sex, movies and surely explicit rap music (I would still need to hold onto the R&B and reggae however) to the lowest bidder. The main thing that concerns me is the needless guilt held by these haredim who secretly dip into these indulgences; as well as the let-down they may be in for if they discover that the coveted prize of losing their virginity earlier and within a proper timeframe was not really worth it in the end.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Leon Festinger's UFO Group and the Spreading of Whedon's Gospel

Leon Festinger’s When Prophecy Fails is the classic study on cognitive dissonance and its role in religious and apocalyptic thinking. The book is built around the study of a UFO group. The leader of the group claimed to be receiving revelations from aliens. According to these aliens, the Earth would soon be struck with a series of cataclysmic disasters. The aliens promised, though, that, before these cataclysms occurred, they would send a ship to save the members of the group, the true believers. Festinger had his students infiltrate the group to study the people involved. In particular, he was interested in seeing how these people would react as the predictions made by the group’s leadership failed to come to pass; which people would maintain their faith? What Festinger found was that, while those who were only marginally attached to the group abandoned their beliefs as they were refuted by the reality on the ground, the inner circle, those who had actually made serious sacrifices because of their beliefs, not only maintained their faith but became even more convinced in their beliefs.

Another thing that Festinger observed was that, while initially, the group had no interest in spreading their message to the outside world, once the final date for the group to be taken up in the alien spaceship had come and gone the remaining believers suddenly became very interested in spreading their message. While before they would not talk to reporters, now they eagerly sought the media to tell people that, while it might seem that they had been proven wrong by events, in truth what had happened was that earth had been given a second chance due, in large part to the group’s intercession with the aliens.

Based on his study, Festinger drew up a list of conditions for a person to believe in something despite it being refuted by empirical reality. This would have to be a belief built around the prediction of a clear-cut event in time, such a date upon which the alien spacecraft would appear. The person needed to have made real-life changes and sacrifices based on this belief such as losing a job. When the big event fails to happen, the person needs to be surrounded by a group of like-minded believers. The larger the group of likeminded believers the easier it is to maintain belief. This would explain the need to gain proselytes after the fact. If lots of people become believers after the fact then it would demonstrate that the belief really was true.

Festinger connected the actions of his UFO group to two groups in history, the original followers of Jesus and the Sabbatian movement. In theory, Jesus getting crucified should have been the end of Christianity. On the contrary, though, Jesus’ crucifixion inspired his apostles to preach the message to the entire world and created the world’s largest religion. Similarly, the conversion of Sabbatai Sevi to Islam should have been the end of the Sabbatian movement. Chased underground by the Jewish establishment, the Sabbatians continued in their belief, convinced that their messiah’s apostasy was a necessary act in the unfolding drama of redemption. Elisheva Carlebach, in fact, uses Festinger in her course on Sabbatai Sevi to explain why the movement failed to die even when its messiah converted to Islam.

I would connect Festinger’s theory of proselytizing to Joss Whedon’s Firefly and the dedication of its followers, known as Browncoats. The television show Firefly lasted a grand total of eleven episodes (fourteen were actually made) before Fox canceled it. Rather than take this as a defeat, Browncoats made it their mission to spread Firefly to whomever they could. Aided by the internet and DVDs they managed to make Firefly a major cultural phenomenon. They even succeeded in getting a Firefly movie made, though, like the television show, it failed to be a financial success. Earlier this month, cooped up in a hotel in Chicago for several days with my cousins, I brought along my Firefly DVDs and did my best to recruit new followers. Why would I be so loyal to this show, particularly as it was a failure? It is precisely because it failed. It is galling to watch a show as good as Firefly as it builds up its fantastic storyline only for it to end suddenly. It is like reading a good book only to find out that half of the book is missing and the book is out of print so you can never get a hold of another copy. One cannot just stand by and do nothing, one must act. The only thing that one can do is to spread the message wherever one can. The point is not even to bring Firefly back, highly unlikely at this point, but simply to show that Joss Whedon did not make a mistake. In decades to come when Firefly is listed as one of the greatest shows of the early twenty-first century no one is going to doubt Whedon’s vision.

On a side note, Firefly is now available to watch, legally, on Hulu. So now there is no excuse for anyone who claims to be a fan of science-fiction or to having a sense of humor not to have seen this show.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Battling Depression with Some Help from Harry Potter and Thomas Covenant

In the Harry Potter series, Harry has to battle creatures known as Dementors. Dementors are hooded corpse-like beings that guard the wizard prison, Azkaban. They attack their victims psychologically. The Dementors embody fear and make their victims confront their worst memories. Most of the prisoners in Azkaban eventually go insane from their torments. As their ultimate weapon, Dementors can even suck out the soul of their victim. J. K. Rowling is someone who has suffered from depression and I suspect that it may have influenced her description of Dementor attacks. It is a spot-on description of what an attack of depression is like. One is hit by this overwhelming wave of despair which ensnares you so that it is difficult to even move. All of your worst memories, everything that you fear, start playing over and over in your head. There is nothing you can do about it; you are completely helpless in front of it. Given enough time, depression can destroy your sanity and even drive you to suicide.

What do I fear? I fear that, despite all my charm and intelligence, I am ultimately unlovable and that people will simply use me for as long as it suits them and then toss me aside when I am no longer convenient. The fact that I have Asperger Syndrome and have a difficult time making and keeping social contacts obviously plays a role in this. I readily admit that none of this is rational. Intellectually, I know that people are not out to get me or hurt me, but that is of little use when facing an attack of depression. My depression feeds off of those moments in my life which seem to reflect this notion of people using me and abandoning me. In particular, what haunts my depressive phases are the various times when women in my life suddenly broke off, when I thought things were good, and would not even speak to me and explain why they were doing this. I have been left with things that I needed to say to them, but which they would not let no matter how much I begged. So I am left with these conversations in my head, where they go around and around, tormenting me. This again has a lot to do with Asperger Syndrome. I cannot deal with things being left hanging and I need things to be put in some sort of language format for it to be real to me.

Harry uses a Patronus charm to ward off the Dementors. A Patronus is the manifestation of a happy memory and of joy. Harry’s Patronus takes the form of a stag. I have no Patronus to protect me from depression. What I do have is my sense of humor and my willingness to laugh at myself. I know that everything that I feel is just in my head and is not real. I know that all this is absurd. To refer to another dark creature from Harry Potter, the Boggart; Boggarts take the form of whatever the person fears. It can be defeated if its victim can find it absurd enough to laugh at. Similarly, the ability to see the absurdity of depression and laugh at it makes it powerless. This is, of course, easier said than done. The moments when I can just chase my depression back and beat it down are sweet but rare.

I live with my depression, keeping it at bay, in a similar fashion to how Thomas Covenant, the main character of Stephen Donaldson’s Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever deals with his leprosy. Covenant is able to survive as a leper, one, because he knows that it is not his fault and, two, because he accepts the fact that there is nothing he can do about it. This shields him from the full emotional impact of what has happened to him. Since he is not at fault, he cannot be blamed for what happened to him. His leprosy is not a punishment from God. His wife leaving him and taking their child away had nothing to do with him being a bad person. He did nothing to cause the people of the town to shun him and force him to live by himself. The fact that he is powerless to cure himself also shields him from blame. If he could cure himself then the fact that he did not means that he failed to do something and is, therefore, at fault.

I did nothing to bring about my depression; it is just a glitch in my brain chemistry. No one can blame me for it. They could have just as easily been afflicted with it, and with as good a reason, as me. Also, there is nothing I can do about it; there is no cure. Since there is no cure, I am not responsible for curing myself and the fact that I have not cured myself is not my fault. This creates a separation between me and my depression and keeps me from having to face its full torment, allowing me to live my life in some relative measure of peace.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

A Proper Jewish Education

David ibn Yahya (1465-1543) was a Spanish exile who went to Naples and served as a Talmud teacher. In addition to Talmud, he also taught a variety of other topics. He offered the following description of the curriculum he taught.

In addition, I studied with them a daily chapter of Talmud, and other subjects such as grammar and poetics and logic and [al-Ghazali’s] Intentions of the Philosophers and [Jediah Bedersi’s] Book of the Examination of the World. And on the Shabbaths [I would] sometimes teach [Judah ha-Levi’s] Kuzari and at times [Maimonides’] Guide for the Perplexed. And all this, even though I was only required to teach one Talmudic lesson every morning, in order that they should know what is required, and to rule on what they ask me each day. But in order to fulfil(l) what is required of me by heaven and by the people, I went beyond my [required] quota, with great effort and painful labor. (Robert Bonfil, Rabbis and Jewish Communities in Renaissance Italy pg. 148-49.)

Ibn Yahya viewed the teaching of philosophy as a requirement from heaven, alongside the teaching of Talmud. Not only that but the philosophers in his curriculum included not only Jewish philosophers like Judah ha-Levi, Maimonides and Jediah Bedersi, but also the Muslim philosopher al-Ghazali. Ibn Yahya’s use of al-Ghazali and his use of the Intentions of the Philosophers in particular was not an anomaly with the Spanish Jewish tradition; he formed a basic part of the Jewish philosophical educational system. (See Steven Harvey “Why Did Fourteenth-Century Jews Turn to AlGhazali’s Account of Natural Science?” JQR XCI(2001): pg. 359-76)

Monday, August 18, 2008

Staying in the Haredi World is Good for Your Sex Life (Part II)

I can easily imagine my own life and the paths I did not take. I grew up identifying myself as Haredi. I started high school in Yeshiva Torah Vodaath. Now even at this point, I was hardly a poster child for the Haredi world; I had a library card to the Brooklyn Public library and I read loads of secular literature. I also read R’ Avigdor Miller and listened to his tapes, but that was mainly to yell at him. In essence, I was, at that point, not that different from my two Haredi friends; I lived within the Haredi world and more or less behaved myself, though, on certain relatively minor matters, I bent the rules. Now over the course of my high school years, as I came to the realization that I was separated from the Haredi world, I made a decision to cease to identify with the Haredi world and to openly break with it. This is an ongoing process, one that, even today, I am still coming to terms with. (Much of my thinking can be classified in terms of I have rejected the Haredi world and now have to figure out where to go from here.)

I could have made a different decision. I could have, like my friends, continued to operate within the Haredi world, saying the right things and going through the right motions. I am certainly capable of living up to the Haredi lifestyle. Like my friends, I could have done all this while bending certain rules and continuing to read secular books to my heart’s content. My rebellion was very minor; it is not as if I was interested in watching explicit television shows and listening to rap music.

If had done this, come my early twenties, I would have been down in the Haredi matchmaking system as a nice smart yeshiva boy from a good family, a nice catch for any Haredi girl. The Haredi matchmaking system would have been particularly beneficial to me since it could have avoided the problems that arise due to my Asperger Syndrome. I am a smart, funny, and charming person, particularly over short periods of time. There is no reason why I could not have charmed a Haredi girl for a month or two, enough that she would have agreed to marry me. (What might have happened next is a different matter. She would have probably realized, after a few months of being married to me, that I did not relate to people in a normal fashion. At best I could hope that she would stick with the marriage as long as I never gave her a concrete reason to divorce me. As for me, one of the advantages of having Asperger Syndrome is that, while relationships are difficult for me, I do not need human relationships to the same extent that other people do. Admittedly, this would hardly be an ideal situation.)

I did not follow this path and I have paid a price for it. In another fifteen years, I can be the butt of the punch line of a certain film starring Steve Carrell. I do not regret the choices I have made. I wonder, though, if my teenage self would have made the same choice if he knew where it would lead. I have a hard time justifying telling moderately rebellious Haredi teenagers to disassociate themselves from the Haredi world and enter the nebulous world of the various Modern Orthodoxies; the price is simply too high.

If you think I am going over the top here, I will point out that the yeshivas themselves openly play on this. In high school, I constantly heard rabbis tell guys that if they learned and were good bnai Torah they would get a good shidduch, marriage match. Let us translate this phrase into teenage boy: play along with the system and do what you are told and we will help you get laid in a few years. For moderately rebellious teenagers, people doing things that outside of the Haredi world not even count as rebellion, this is a hard deal to turn down. Keep in mind that we are dealing with observant Jews here, who are not considering going outside of Orthodoxy, so their sexual opportunities are limited. If they leave the Haredi world then they are going to have to play by Modern Orthodox rules and that means that they are likely going to have to delay sexual gratification. Furthermore, we are likely going to be dealing with people who lack the social skills for conventional dating. I certainly did not have them. (I still do not have them, though I like to think that I am learning.)

To clarify matters, I am not arguing that my Haredi friends stayed in the Haredi world simply for sex, though sex is a big enough issue that one cannot pretend innocence. Particularly, considering the tactics used by rabbis to keep people in line. I would see the issue of sex as simply one example of the Rodney Stark model of religion at work. A clearly defined society, such as the Haredi world, offers certain social advantages to those remaining in the fold that has nothing to do with ideology. To the extent that it might even be in one's interest to be part of such a society even if one is not a full believer.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Staying in the Haredi World is Good for Your Sex Life

Jewish Philosopher likes to argue that the reason why people leave Orthodox Judaism is because they have sexual desires which they are unable to pursue within the confines of Orthodox Judaism (See here and here). While one can challenge his generalizations about those who leave Orthodoxy, I would like to approach the issue from a different angle. While Jewish Philosopher’s arguments might have at least some grain of truth in many cases, this line of argument can also be turned around and used against those who remain within the Haredi world. One can make a very strong case that there are many people who remain within the Haredi world, in large part, because, by doing so, they are maximizing their opportunities for sex. This might sound counter-intuitive considering how constrictive Jewish law can be when it comes to sex. But consider that, while Orthodox Judaism strongly opposes pre-marital sex and is one of the few societies left in American culture in which there are real consequences for being caught fooling around, particularly for women, it is perfectly normal for Haredim to get married in their early twenties or even in their teens. Not only that but Haredim have a well-developed matchmaking system to help people get married.

In the spirit of Rodney Stark, who analyzes organized religions in terms of economics (People make religious choices based on their rational self-interest, and act so as to maximize their social resources.), I offer a curved model to describe one's sexual opportunities within Orthodox Judaism. We start with the Haredi world, in which one has a statistically high chance for sex. As we move toward the left one undergoes a statistical drop in one's opportunities for sex. This rises slightly once you get to the outer fringes of Modern Orthodoxy, where there is an increased tolerance for pre-marital sexual activity, and rises greatly once you get outside of Orthodox Judaism, where one is no longer beholden to Orthodox sexual mores.

While I do not have any hard statistics to back this theory up, it does confirm to my own anecdotal experience. To give two examples of this. Recently I got into a conversation with a Haredi woman about the television show the Tudors. I have not seen the show, but I was able to fill her in about sixteenth-century English history in general and Henry VIII in particular, which she was quite unfamiliar with. While her Haredi education left her ignorant of English history, it has not stopped her from watching television, even television shows that have graphic sexual content. In another conversation with a Haredi person, we shared our mutual love of Bernard Cornwell, a writer whose high adventure works of historical fiction are filled with blood, violence, and sex. I have previously listened to this person’s iPod, a banned object in his yeshiva, and found it full of secular music, much of it rap music with explicit lyrics.

I do not see these people as hypocrites for bending the rules and doing things that the Haredi world forbids. I would hope that this exposure to secular things, and the recognition of their own weaknesses will, in the long run, make them more tolerant and not lead them into becoming the sort of people who, due to their own insecurities about their lives, suspect everyone else and go around on witch-hunts to ferret out those who fail to live up to community standards. Their actions are not the momentary lapses of a people caught in the heat of the moment nor do they appear to be addicts. The only explanation left is that they are making fully rational decisions to go against Haredi norms; this must be viewed as part of an ideological disagreement. There is nothing wrong with this; it is perfectly normal for people to find the society that they best fit into and remain there despite minor disagreements.

My question to them, though, would be why they remain within the Haredi world. They could easily declare themselves to be Modern Orthodox and live exactly as they do now and no one would think twice about them. On the contrary, they would be viewed as deeply observant Jews. What have they gained by remaining in the Haredi world? Well, the girl, despite being a rebellious teenager, got married at the age of nineteen and now has several children. This past week I got to meet the boy’s fiancé. She is a cute little thing with the same name as a character from the musical Rent. That is not a bad deal for a young man in his early twenties.

(To be continued …)

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Judah Messer Leon on Kabbalah

The fifteenth century Italian scholar, Judah Messer Leon, in his Epistle to the Jews of Florence had this to say about the use of intermediaries in prayer and Kabbalah:

It is clear from the articles of Faith that anyone addressing his prayers to an intermediary between himself and the Creator is behaving in a false and evil manner. Shun, then, the tents of the Kabbalists, buried beneath the evil they do themselves by multiplying their invented attributes of God [a clear allusion to the Sefiroth], not hesitating in their ravings to attribute materiality, change, and multiplicity to the Creator, blessed may He be. They grope forward through the darkness of their misunderstanding of the purposes of the founders of their Doctrine, which, as far as I can see, is definitely in partial accord with the doctrine of the Platonists, a doctrine not of course without its sweetness. (Robert Bonfil, Jewish Life in Renaissance Italy pg. 182-83.)

For Messer Leon, the prohibition against praying to intermediaries is not something simply to denounce pagans or even the Catholic veneration of saints. It also applies to practices that are generally viewed as being within the boundaries of traditional Judaism. If one is going to accept Messer Leon then all Kabbalists that operate within the framework of Sefirot along with a hefty percentage of other traditional Jews are heretics. I have no problem with this, this would remove certain problematic elements from any sort of contention as Jewish authority figures. How many Haredim today would pass Messer Leon’s standard for being a believing Jew?

Unlike Kabbalists, Messer Leon had a certain affection for Platonism. It would seem then that it would be better for a believing Jew to spend his time becoming a classicist and studying the work of thinkers like Plotinus than to learn in a Haredi yeshiva where one will certainly be exposed to heretics who parade themselves around in beards and black hats and call themselves religious Jews. While one will likely also be exposed to heresy while studying classics, since it is in Greek and Latin and written by gentiles, it is not nearly as dangerous. One is not likely to confuse Greco-Roman philosophy with Judaism.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Robert Bonfil on Jacob Burckhardt

In a previous post I talked about Jacob Burckhardt and the continued use of many of his concepts, despite their refutation. Robert Bonfil succinctly summarizes the problem as follows:

It is probably true that today, more than a hundred years after the appearance of Jacob Burckhardt’s Die Kultur der Renaissance in Italien, first published in Basel in 1860, a good proportion of the interpretative categories Burckhardt proposed have managed to survive the destructive criticism to which the book has since been subjected. It seems equally true, however, that our reliance upon these categories is no longer the same as it once was. On the one hand, the modern tendency to shy away from large syntheses, preferring instead detailed descriptions of very limited segments of the overall picture, using techniques of analysis previously unthinkable, has led to a curious situation: everything that is not the immediate object of such meticulous analyses is left to the old syntheses. The result is a persistence of terms and concepts difficult to characterize unless we call them “inertial.” On the other hand, the growing interest in the study of mental attitudes has led us to reevaluate the testimony of the people of the Renaissance and to discover in it points of contact with the old interpretative categories, which were based, more than those that came later, on that firsthand testimony. (Robert Bonfil, Jewish Life in Renaissance Italy pg. 3.)

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Coelho’s Counter Alchemist: A Review of Eleven Minutes

(I would like to thank Curious Jew for recommending this book to me.)

Paulo Coelho is best known for his book, the Alchemist, a spiritual fable about a Spanish shepherd boy’s journey of discovery, traveling to see the pyramids and find his treasure. Eleven Minutes can be seen as Coelho countering his own book and turning it on its head. The title, Eleven Minutes, is a reference to the amount of time it takes for the actual act of sex once one takes away everything that leads up to it. This is the story of Maria, a girl from a small rural Brazilian village, who becomes a prostitute in Geneva, Switzerland. Like Santiago, the hero of the Alchemist, Maria is also on a spiritual journey, with many different stops, which changes her and changes the people that she meets on the way. Coelho even engages in some self-parody in the book itself, noting that Maria had read by a “certain Brazilian author,” which talked about pursuing one's dreams.

Coelho is conscious of this turn about. He dedicates Eleven Minutes to an elderly fan, whom he met in France, right before the publication of the book. This man came over to Coelho and thanked him for his work and told him how “they make him dream.” This frightened Coelho, knowing that Eleven Minutes would likely offend this man. It would be very easy to accuse Coelho of selling out and writing a pornographic novel all for the sake of trying to shed his “clean-cut,” “wholesome” image and gain the respect of the literary establishment by writing something “daring” and “controversial.” Certainly, Coelho does not pull any punches here; Eleven Minutes is quite explicit and is not for everyone. With that being said, Eleven Minutes is a powerful spiritual work and a worthy companion to the Alchemist, which explores the distinction between love and sex and pleasure and pain by examining them as spiritual entities.

There is a long history of religious literature dealing with the theme of the redeemed prostitute. For example, there is the story of Thais. She was a prostitute who was converted by the church father Athanael. She then went off to a nunnery and, to repent for her sinning ways, lived in a box until the end of her life. Eleven Minutes can be seen as an heir to this sort of storyline. Not that Maria finds God or Jesus or the like. Coelho is too smart for that; he recognizes that to reach people, in this day and age, one cannot simply appeal to some religious structure. One needs to be able to go back to the basics and talk about spiritual values. For this reason, even though Coelho’s work is effused with Christianity and no one reading him would think that he is anything but a Christian, Coelho does not preach Christianity. This has helped Coelho reach people of all creeds.

Eleven Minutes is, in a sense, a traditional love story with a female character torn between two male characters and having to choose between them. The two men competing for Maria are Ralf Hart, an artist, and Terence, an English music executive. The twist here is that Maria’s relationships with these two men are distinctive for the lack of sex; she sleeps with lots of men so sex cannot define a relationship for her. Maria’s relationship with Terence is built around the exploration of pleasure through pain. Terence is a sadomasochist, who finds fulfillment through bondage and humiliation. Ralf is in love with Maria; he sees an inner light within her and desires for her to see that light. There are two climatic scenes in the book in which Maria “makes love” with the two male protagonists. With Terence, she undergoes a ritualized process of humiliation in order to achieve the spiritual high that Terence knows so well. With Ralf, she gets naked with him and the two of them close their eyes and start to feel each other in order to experience the other as they truly are. Both of these scenes are quite graphic, but in neither of these scenes is there any actual sex. This is the essential irony of the book. Sex is such a presence that its absence speaks volumes; sex is so important to this book yet its importance makes it irrelevant.

In Coelho’s hands, Maria’s two relationships come to symbolize two different forms of religious experience. Terence is the religious aesthetic, the flagellant, who embraces his own suffering. Ralf finds his spirituality through joy. Ultimately the book becomes a defense of the later and an attack on the former. Coelho’s argument, as counter-intuitive as it sounds, is that service through joy is the more authentic approach and hence more spiritual than service through suffering. Ralf’s love, which wins out, is the sort of Eros that C. S. Lewis talked about in Four Loves. He is in love with an idea of Maria and his greatest joy is to be able to think about her. He does not desire sex. In a sense, sex would take away from what he has. As Lewis noted this love, when seen in its true sense, is a profoundly spiritual love because there is no demand for physical pleasure. On the contrary, it often means the sacrifice of physical pleasure.

As I said earlier, Eleven Minutes is not for everyone. I would defiantly not recommend this for someone’s first foray into Coelho’s work. I would hope, though, that those already immersed in Coelho, will not hold themselves back from reading this book. I think that this book allows one to better appreciate Coelho’s other work. Coelho’s light shines all the better when seen in the darkness.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

The Story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza: A Tisha B’Av Lesson on the Historical Method

Since today is the fast day of Tisha B’Av, the ninth day of the month of Av, when Jews mourn the destruction of the two temples and a host of other tragedies, I decided to offer a brief lesson in the historical method using the destruction of the second temple. To explain why the temple was destroyed the Talmud tells the following story of Kamtz and Bar Kamtza.

There was a man who had a friend named Kamtza and an enemy named Bar Kamtza. This man made a feast and told his servant to bring Kamtza. The servant made a mistake and brought Bar Kamtza. The man found Bar Kamtza sitting at the feast and asked him to leave. Bar Kamtza offered to pay for his meal. The man refused. Bar Kamtza offered to pay for half of the entire feast, but the man still refused. Bar Kamtza finally offered to pay for the entire feast. The men would not even consent to this and threw Bar Kamtza out. Bar Kamtza decided that since the Rabbis were sitting there and did not protest they must have supported it. He decided to take revenge by libeling them before Ceasar. He went and told Caesar that the Jews were rebelling. Caesar asked him how he knew this. Bar Kamtza suggested that he send the Jews a sacrifice and see if they bring it. Caesar sent, in Bar Kamtza’s hands, a calf. Bar Kamtza took a needle and pierced the calf’s lip, thus making a blemish. Upon examining the calf, rabbis were uncertain as to how to respond. Some wanted to bring it in order to preserve peace with Rome. Rabbi Zachariah ben Avkulos, though, argued against this saying that people would come to think that it is permissible to bring blemished animals. The rabbis then suggested that they kill Bar Kamtza in order to silence him. Rabbi Zachariah ben Avkulos would not allow this either lest people think that bringing blemished animals carries the death penalty. The sacrifice was not brought and because of this Rome attacked Judea and destroyed the temple. (See Talmud Bavli Gittin 55b-56a.)

As a historian I am required to follow the historical method of examining texts. Amongst many other things, this method requires that one privilege texts written close to a given historical event and treat texts written long afterwards with extreme caution. Closely connected to this is the notion that written texts are to be privileged over oral traditions. The rule of thumb when dealing with oral traditions is that they have a shelf life of seventy years, beyond that they become legends. Even more important than what texts you read, is how you read them. Amongst other things, the historian needs to have a good sense as to how a literary narrative is likely to sound and how it differs from a historical narrative. For example, having a war break out because the queen of one country fell in love with the prince of another country makes for an exciting romantic story, but does not confirm very well to real life experience. For this reason Herodotus, who was willing to accept a lot of strange claims, thought the Homer’s explanation as to why the Trojan War started, Helen of Sparta running off with Paris of Troy, was unlikely.

This is not to say that texts written close to the event are true and those written later are false. I do not claim that accurate oral traditions cannot be transmitted over hundreds of years. Also, I readily admit that truth is often stranger than fiction and stories that sound like fiction may in fact be true. All that this means is that, as a historian, one cannot grant much authority to such types of evidence. As a former teacher of mine once said: history is not about the search for truth, it is about verifiability. One can think of history as intellectual game that we play in which we follow the historical method of analyzing evidence, mainly texts, and see what sorts of directions this evidence points to. Whether or not what comes out is in some objective sense the Truth, is a separate issue that has nothing to do with history; let philosophers and theologians worry about such things.

I make no claim as to whether the story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza actually happened or not. The historical method, though, does not allow me to give it much credence. The Talmud was written hundreds of years after the destruction of the Temple. Even more damning is the fact that this story has the ring of a fable to it. A man has a friend and an enemy whose names are almost identical and accidently invites the enemy instead of the friend. This enemy offers to pay the man a fortune in order to let him stay, but the man hates him so much that he refuses. This enemy becomes so bitter that he decides to take revenge against his entire people. To do this he travels from Judea to Rome, no small feat in the first century, and gets an audience with Caesar, also no small feat. Caesar, having nothing better to do than to listen to the ravings of a malcontent and conduct meaningless tests to discern the loyalty of a small province in the Middle East, decides to go along with what this man suggests. The plot works perfectly. The rabbis do not bring the sacrifice and Caesar, having nothing better to do with his legions, decides to launch a full scale invasion. A bunch of people decide to go to war and no one bothers to sit down, talk things over and negotiate. Is all of this quite possible? Certainly. But what does this story sound like? Does it sound like a real historical event or does it sound like the story that people, hundreds of years later, would tell about a historical event, dramatic with a nice moral lesson attached to it? As a historian, one must go with the later.

This has important implications as to how one looks at the history books put out by Haredi publishing houses such as Artscroll and Feldheim. When authors of Haredi history books report stories found in rabbinic literature as historical fact, such as the story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza, they are not simply offering their own interpretation of history, to be put alongside academic history as a legitimate alternative. They are not following the historical method. As such what they write is not history and these authors cannot be viewed as historians.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Bella’s Wedding, Bedding and Surprise: A Review of Breaking Dawn (Part II)

(For part I see here.)

Book one of Breaking Dawn deals Bella’s wedding, bedding, and the discovery that she, against all possibility is pregnant with Edward’s child. This book is 138 pages. In essence, Meyer took what should have been Breaking Dawn and lopped off the first three-hundred to four-hundred pages to get right to the chase. It skips the engagement and starts right before Bella’s and Edward’s wedding and goes through their honeymoon. I was looking forward to having Bella and Edward being engaged, planning their wedding and have Alice take everything over. We got a hint of that at the end of Eclipse, but I wanted more of that. Also, the lead up to the wedding is precisely the sort of “dramatic” tension that Meyer thrives at: is it a wedding or a funeral? By skipping over the lead up to the wedding, Meyer missed out on what could have been her finest hour.

Unlike Eclipse, which used Alice quite a bit, Breaking Dawn lets Alice slink off to the side. It skips out on Alice planning the wedding. Books two and three also reduce her to bit parts. She gets sidelined with headaches and then, when things get tough, she runs off with Jasper leaving the Cullens in the lurch. Granted this is all about her pulling a very Alice stunt, but I wanted Alice to be Alice at the center of the action. I can only take a certain amount of Bella and Edward. Bella having to go up against Alice balances things out.

As to the bedding part; Meyer has until now been able to succeed, despite her religious beliefs, at writing a love story because she has not needed to write any actual sex into it. She kept things at a place she was comfortable with, which allowed her to write effectively. With Breaking Dawn she has written herself into a corner; she is out of her comfort zone and seems like a deer caught in the headlights.

Book two deals with Bella’s pregnancy and comes out to 215 pages. This book is interesting because it switches perspective away from Bella, which is how, with the exception of the last chapter of Eclipse, the entire series has been written. Meyer turns to Jacob Black, the werewolf. This tactic manages to inject some life into the book and goes a fair way toward saving it. Jacob gets into an interesting and quite Cardian situation with his fellow werewolves, which Meyer handles effectively. The main issue of book two is Bella’s insistence on bringing her child to term, despite the fact that it is killing her. In this, she finds an unexpected ally in Rosalie, the one Cullen who has been against her. Obviously, there is a pretty strong pro-life message wrapped up in all of this. There was one thing that really upset me about this book. Edward, in an attempt to get Bella to give up the child, tells Jacob something that was just weird, really out of character and just plain wrong. I know that Edward is in panic mode, but still. This was just another example of Meyer not being able to handle sexuality past a certain point and getting herself stranded.

At 387 pages, book three is by far the longest and comes close to matching the original Twilight novel in length. This book deals with the Volturi coming after Bella and Edward’s newborn child, claiming that it violates the rules and therefore must be eliminated. The Cullens, in a very Cardian maneuver, get help from the local werewolf population down at La Push but also reach out to every vampire they can get to come, not to fight the Volturi but to “witness” to them, that the Cullens have broken no law. The struggle with the Volturi comes right out of the society building story. The Cullens are a counter society and the Volturi, as the establishment, seek any excuse to eliminate them. This notion of the Cullens and their society-building story is neatly summed up in a little speech that Meyer gives to a vampire named Garrett:

I have witnessed the bonds within this family – I say family and not coven. These strange golden-eyed ones deny their very natures. But in return have they found something worth even more, perhaps, than mere gratification of desire? I’ve made a little study of them in my time here, and it seems to me that intrinsic to this intense family binding – which makes them possible at all – is the peaceful character of this life of sacrifice. There is no aggression here like we all saw in the large southern clans that grew and diminished so quickly in their wild feuds. There is no thought for domination. (Breaking Dawn pg. 717-18.)

Breaking Dawn has its moments and is definitely a worthwhile read, despite my criticisms. I did have high expectations for this book; I hoped that Meyer could accomplish what J. K Rowling did with Deathly Hallows. This was not to be. What we received were three abridged books in which much of what made the Twilight series so much fun had simply leaked out. I still enjoyed Breaking Dawn immensely. Even when she is not at her best, Meyer is still one of the most gifted people in the business and I eagerly await her future work. (Maybe she can do a spinoff about Alice.) This will probably, though, not go into my comfort pile, books, like Harry Potter and the rest of the Twilight series, that I go back to again and again whenever I need a smile.

Oh, and by the way, I am so naming my daughter after the Loch Ness Monster.

A Response to Homosexual Orthodox Rabbis

Miss Shona just posted a comment on my piece on homosexuals in the Orthodox community. I think it is instructive so I am posting it here.

I recently found out (via Facebook...of all means) that one of my study partners at Aish HaTorah is a lesbian. She is also FFB...and (from my perspective) seems to have no huge issues reconciling the fact ( she is a FFB who opts to daven with the Aish HaTorah center minyan...I do not see that as an issue...although I am sure some could or do). I honestly wish I could say I can understand where she is coming from...but I do not. And while she is happy with her status...I am actually pretty saddened by it.

The Torah offers us a guidebook to a more spiritually fulfilling life. Do we always understand the mitzvot? No way. I mean how exactly will eating chicken alfredo affect my quality of life (outside of the thousands of calories per serving)? Nonetheless, it all comes together to not only preserve Am Yisrael, but to gently direct the operation of all creation of HKBH. A frum Jew should understand that. No matter how tempting it may be to sleep with your sister's husband or anything else of the sort.(In all fairness, I realize that being a lesbian is somehow "not as bad" as being a gay man. But I do not know the official posek on this...other than lesbianism is also highly frowned upon.)

I am a human being, so my understanding of the world is surely limited...but I do not believe that the vast majority (like 90%) of homosexuals are "born that way". I have no "scientific" information on which to base my theory...but from what I have seen...knowing about 15+ gay individuals personally...they almost all have had some exposure or experience with abuse or dysfunction in their home life. Believe me, I do not believe that gay people need to be lectured to or anything like that; but I feel that it is similar to other indulgences such as overeating, or alcoholism or even bigotry. Yes, certain personality traits can lead you to be more prone to such behavior...but you can overcome it.It is hard to not marginalize people and also not condone whatever unacceptable activities they involve themselves in. I am just rambling really...

I have no answers. Heterosexual individuals have their battles with sexual deviance as well; including very religious heterosexuals. There are most certainly "frum" guys who are "players" at heart...but (hopefully) they don't give into it...because they hold a level of accountability to the community...if not their least. …

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Bella’s Wedding, Bedding and Surprise: A Review of Breaking Dawn (Part I)

A while back I came up with a theory as to what Stephenie Meyer would do with the Twilight series. Eclipse left us with Bella agreeing to marry the vampire love of her life, Edward, having survived three books still alive, human and, remarkably enough, still a virgin. I thought of Breaking Dawn as offering a checklist of getting Bella wedded and bedded and undead. My thinking was that instead of going with the obvious ending of having Bella being turned into a vampire, Meyer would go through with the wedding and the bedding, but then have Bella get pregnant, with a human child. (The books never said that vampires could not have children.) Since Edward and Bella are a unique couple, it is perfectly reasonable that the vampires would be unaware that such a thing could be possible. Having a child would change Bella’s priorities. Now she would be determined, one, to protect her child and keep it human and, two, to stay human for her child's sake. The child, once it is born, would be some sort of special genius capable of tipping the balance of power in the supernatural world, taking the series into serious Orson Scott Card territory. The Volturi, the vampire mafia, would come after Bella, her child, and the Cullens. They would be interested in the child and the fact that Bella would now have violated the terms of Alice’s agreement with them (Back in New Moon, Alice explained Bella’s presence with them by saying that the Cullens were planning on turning her.) would give them the perfect excuse. This would lead to the Cullens having to fight the Volturi. To do this they would have to form an alliance with the werewolves and various other friends such as the Danali and Jasper’s old comrades Peter and Charlotte. This would climax in a cataclysmic battle, which would take place, somewhere right outside Forks. I think it is important that an author has the spine to kill off major characters. Hopefully, Meyer would allow for some heavy casualties and kill off a few of the Cullens, Carlisle being a likely target. Meyer might even take out Edward or Bella.

I figured this storyline would take three books to tell. The first book would have Bella getting wedded, bedded and pregnant. It would also establish the Volturi as something far worse then what they seemed until now, some old friends of Carlisle, who went after humans but kept the vampire world under some form of control; a minor evil which stops an even greater evil. The second book would deal with Bella’s pregnancy, the birth of her child and would have the opening rounds with the Volturi, leading to some great crises. Killing off Carlisle, much as J. K. Rowling killed off Albus Dumbledore, would fit nicely. Finally, in the third book, we can wrap everything up with a grand royal rumble of supernatural creatures, with Bella ever in the center and commenting on it all in her unflappable straightforward fashion, which is what makes these books tick.

I nixed this idea for two reasons. The first being that I checked one of the established Twilight websites and it specifically stated in its FAQs that vampires could not have children. I assumed that someone had posed this theory to Meyer and she downed it. The second thing was that I found out that Breaking Dawn was going to be the final Twilight book, so Meyer clearly planned to wrap everything up here and not open up a whole new storyline. While not to give too much away, as it turns out my theory, while not completely accurate, was quite close; so much for that website. As for this being a three-book storyline, Meyer took it and crammed it into one 754 page book. Curiously enough, unlike the previous books, Breaking Dawn is divided into three books, which follow the basic plot structure I outlined. Because of this, I intend to deal with Breaking Dawn as three separate books.

(To be continued …)

Monday, August 4, 2008

McCain Attack Ads

There has been a fair amount of controversy over a recent McCain ad which knocked Barack Obama as a celebrity. (See here.) What was controversial about the ad was that it linked Obama to celebrities such as Brittney Spears and Paris Hilton. To be fair to the McCain team, the ad, if you watch it, is not nearly as crude as it has been described. Yes, shots of Spears and Hilton make a passing appearance, but that is all. I still think this was a horrible advertisement. It was boring and, even worse, came across as the whining of a sore loser. Being popular is not a bad thing. McCain can only wish he were as popular as Obama. A far better McCain ad is the recently aired, The One. (See here.) This ad lambasts Obama for his messianic sense of self worth. It features a series of clips of Obama speaking in his savior mode. Obama’s style of speaking works very well in context, as sound bites it can look quite ludicrous. The ad ends with Charlton Heston’s Moses splitting the Red Sea.

The One works as an ad because it is actually funny, it makes Obama look stupid and it raises a legitimate issue. Obama is where he is now, the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, because he is black. Take this away from Obama and all that remains is a bright, articulate Harvard graduate in his forties, with no real political experience. Granted even this would be an improvement over the past eight years of having an inarticulate and mediocre former Governor of Texas for president. There are plenty of bright, articulate graduates from Harvard, who are white, whom no one ever thought to run for political office, let alone the presidency. The other thing that Obama has is that the far left has anointed him their savior. My impression of Obama, from reading Audacity of Hope, is that he is not a radical and, if elected, would govern from the center. Be that as it may, it is the far left that has pushed Obama to his current celebrity status, which poisons it. If Obama is a messianic savior here to change America then he must be the savior of the far left here to remake America over in its image. As this ad shows, McCain can turn Obama’s celebrity status against him by using it to question Obama’s ability and to connect him to the far left.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Fighting the Whig Narrative in the Classroom: A Modest Proposal

When we last talked about the Whig narrative, I said that attacking the Whig narrative could be useful as a way to fight secularism. I offer, here, a possible way to go about this.

Since the Whig narrative is a historical issue, the first and most obvious place to go after it is within the confines of history and how it is taught to the public, particularly in classrooms. Judging from my experience of talking to non-historians, the fact that historians as a whole have rejected the Whig narrative is not something most people are aware of. On the contrary, they take it as a given that the history that constitutes the Whig narrative is a fact. The blame for this must be placed on the doorstep of grade school history teachers and textbooks, the source of most people’s knowledge of history. When I was in school my teachers taught what essentially amounted to the Whig narrative and I went to religious schools. I remember one teacher in high school, and this was an otherwise excellent history teacher, openly connecting what she was teaching to her being a deist. I take it as an operational assumption that the situation in public schools is if anything worse; particularly considering the demand to teach multiculturalism and tolerance for which the Whig narrative and its whole line of reasoning are quite suitable.

This situation is analogous to that of evolution. Despite the fact that evolution is an accepted fact by the scientific community, including those scientists who are theists, evolution is not accepted by the general public to the same degree. One can still reject evolution in polite company without having one's sanity questioned. This situation was made manifest in the recent courtroom battle over Intelligent Design. The scientific community has made an effort to reach out and make its case to the public. I suggest that historians and those interested in history make a similar effort.

Secularists, joined by many people of faith, rightfully and successfully challenged the teaching of Creationism and Intelligent Design as a means of selling a religious ideology. I suggest that all people of faith follow this example and challenge the direct or indirect use of the Whig narrative in the teaching of history. The Whig narrative amounts to nothing more than the teaching of secular ideology and passing it off as history.

To give an example: when I was in fifth grade my teacher opened up her discussion of the Middle Ages by telling us: during the Middle Ages people decided that the Greeks had discovered everything that there was to know about the world and that no further study was needed; people, during the Middle Ages, were therefore content to simply study the works of the Greeks. At age eleven I was quite well-read in history and knew enough to realize that this teacher was not particularly qualified to teach history. I did not yet know enough, though, to challenge her on this particular issue.

As a parent, you could call such a teacher and, in a polite and friendly manner, ask her to explain how she could say such a thing in light of all the various attempts by the Church to crack down on Greek thought. What about the 1210 ban on various teachings of Aristotle, or Pope Gregory IX’s attempt to curtail the Aristotelian curriculum taught at the University of Paris? How about Bishop Etienne Tempier, who, in 1277, issued a condemnation of 219 Aristotelian theses? (We will deal with this in greater detail later.) You could then offer the teacher a way out by giving her the chance to correct herself in front of her students. Hopefully, you could leave this conversation on friendly terms. The teacher could acknowledge that she is ill-equipped to teach history. You could tell her that you do not hold it against her, considering all the other subjects she has to teach as well, and recommend a decent medievalist for her to read; maybe someone like Norman Cantor, whose work is quite accessible for a lay audience.

If the teacher chooses to be obstinate then the fun begins and we drag this teacher in front of a board and if that fails a courtroom, to have her fired. Contact a professional medieval historian; you should have no trouble finding someone willing and able to explain to a lay audience why this teacher is incompetent to teach history. Gather a large collection of statements by the teacher that are Whig in nature and historically incorrect. Hopefully, you will also manage to catch her pontificating to her students about her secular beliefs, which would allow you to place them side by side with her Whig statements. The most obvious way to do this would be to have your child take good notes and record her classes.

If, and this is quite likely, she was teaching based on a specific curriculum then we go after the curriculum. This is, of course, the real goal of such an exercise. While going after individual teachers may be fun, it is inefficient. The goal must be to change how history is taught right at the source, the curriculum. The Whig narrative can stand only through bureaucratic inertia. The moment the Whig narrative is hauled out to stand on its own merits it falls apart like rotten timber and not even the most ardent secularist can defend it.