Thursday, December 31, 2009
We are finishing off the third complete year of Izgad. This year saw two hundred posts (counting this one). There were over eighteen thousand unique visits. (This was due, in large part, to one particular post.) I know that is not a lot compared to some other sites, but it marks a major step forward for me. To my loyal readers, your comments are appreciated particularly when you disagree with me. In case you missed it, here are some of the highlights.
I taught two quarters of History 112, Modern European History, for Ohio State. This gave cause for numerous discourses about the nature of history and the historical method. There was my presentation on Wikipedia and why it is not a legitimate source. This would later lead to a letter published in the Columbus Dispatch. In my classes I did not hold back from issues like slavery, absolutism and the denial of equal rights to women even at the risk of going against politically correct orthodoxy. I am now teaching at the Hebrew Academy where I have had the opportunity to defend Martin Luther.
I posted my notes of a presentation given by noted atheist biologist P. Z. Myers. This turned out to be my must successful post to date in terms of hits and comments when Myers kindly put up a link. This led to several fruitful exchanges with readers of Myers' Pharyngula, who proved to be quite respectful.
My fantasy series, Asael, is beginning to take shape. For those of you who have not been following the story there are two narratives about two different Asaels. Asael bar Serariah lives in a monastery library and is studying for the priesthood while trying to come to terms with a series of dreams involving a creature named Vorn and the legacy of his grandfather General Serariah Dolstoy. Decades earlier, Asael's uncle, Asael Dolstoy, has found himself taking a front seat to a game of scacordus and history as his father, Professor Serariah Dolstoy, takes his first steps to becoming the future legend. Both Asaels, in their own ways, must face their world's equivalent of the Enlightenment. So polish your musket, sharpen your bayonet and your Talmudic skills for things are about to get really interesting (and violent). Already there is one well toasted corpse left by an alter of a religious sanctuary, courtesy of an enforcer angel with a flaming sword.
The battle is never finished when you fighting neurotypical bigots. Unfortunately I also had to confront zealots from my own side. My problem is that when I talk about rights and liberty I actually mean very specific things. These are not catch phrases that you can slap on to whatever cause you wish to support at the moment. Despite my best intentions, I do seem to manage to get myself into trouble.
There were book reviews and discussions on both works of fiction and non-fiction. Christine Garwood took on flat earthers and creationists to boot. Frank Schaeffer was patient with God. (I would later lose patience with Schaeffer.) Jesus became a good Aryan Nazi. Europe lost its military culture. Harry Potter became a historical source. Did Charles Dickens have a mind controlling beetle up his skull?
In the world of film, the Book of Esther managed to be butchered despite having some of the best talent Lord of the Rings had to offer. Transformer robots wiped Israel off the map. My favorite neighborhood vampires are starting to prove sparkly and dull, but I still love them and will defend them from the vampires of my past. Avatar might not be as liberal as many of its supporters and detractors believe.
Traveling to the very bowels of the Haredi world yielded numerous interesting conversations and tell us much about what is really going on in that world. I will not back down from exposing the followers of the late Rabbi Avigdor Miller and their apologists. You can blame me if Hershey Park gets banned. On this blog we engaged in some friendly clashes with Bray of the Fundie over articles of faith and moral principles. At least Bray is not Authentic Judaism.
The summer trip to England yielded numerous adventures and mishaps. From my headquarters next door to Animal Farm, I hung out at Oxford and pursued acts of pilgrimage to shrines of C. S. Lewis, including a pint at his favorite pub. Burning heretics at the stake can be a worthwhile activity as long as it is done in a tolerant and ecumenical fashion. The Chabad couple in Oxford was really nice. I am not sure though if they would want me back anytime soon.
I presented papers at three different conferences. That brings my total of conference presentations up to three. At Purdue I presented on David Reubeni and his use of violence. At Leeds I presented on Jewish attacks on philosophy in fifteenth century Spain. Finally at West Georgia I presented on Orson Scott Card and the historical method.
My politics are a blend of my rationalist theism and my Libertarianism, which gives me the opportunity to make all sorts of fun arguments. Children should be given political and religious labels. People should be allowed to practice medicine without a license. We should seriously consider giving children the right to vote (and drafting them into the military).
See you all in 2010.
Wednesday, December 30, 2009
I went to see James Cameron's new science-fiction extravaganza, Avatar, last night. Let me say, right from the beginning, that I loved the movie. In terms of story, acting to say nothing of the special effects this movie must be judged as a full success. Particular mention should be made of the climatic air battle between the human invaders and the native Na'vi of the moon Pandora. It also should be said that not since Emperor Palpatine's finest Imperial Stormtroopers were routed by the koala bears of Endor in Return of the Jedi has modern armor and lazar guns proven to be so ineffective against Stone Age technology. Liberals correctly criticized the Bush administration for their failure to provide armored vehicles to protect our soldiers against road side ambushes in Iraq. What are citizens of Cameron's future universe to think of their soldiers going into battle in vehicles whose windshields are not even arrow proof? Perhaps in the deleted scenes on the DVD we will find out that Cheney and Rumsfeld were transported to the future to lose this war for the humans. This brings me to the main point of what I wish to discuss here, the movie's politics. Conservatives have been up in arms in attacking this movie, accusing it of being liberal propaganda. There are good reasons for this. This is a movie made for over two-hundred million dollars about an evil imperial corporation (somehow this is not a contradiction) out to destroy a pristine native culture in the service of their greed for unobtainum (yes it sounds as corny as it looks). I believe this is a mistake, one that hides the true dark side of the film's message. When Cameron and other members of the Hollywood left attack free enterprise corporations and venerate hunter-gatherer cultures, they are not being liberal. On the contrary, they set the stage for the destruction of liberalism, for fascism.
For all of their moral flaws, corporations are built around individual freedom. People, of their own free will, choose to work for these corporations and people freely choose to purchase the goods and services provided by them. No physical coercion is used. (Corporations wielding heavy armaments designed for use in offensive warfare are no longer private businesses, but governments. So, when properly understood, Avatar is a story about big government oppression, despite the corporate label.) In stark contrast to this is the hunter-gatherer society, living close to a state of nature. Life in all observed hunter-gatherer societies here on earth is proverbially "nasty, brutish and short." Considering the Skull island quality of the natural life on Pandora, life would be nastier, more brutish and shorter. A society living under such conditions would need to devote itself nonstop to providing food and fending off enemies, creating a militarized leadership. Everyone must carry out their assigned tasks and live their lives according to the decisions made by the leadership. All forms of deviance are, by definition, acts of treason and punishable by death. In other words, this is the conservative society par excellence and one that is inimical to liberty. One might even be tempted to call it primitive Fascism. This is not as absurd as it sounds when you consider that, in the western tradition, it was the same Rousseau, who idealized man in a state of nature and also venerated the Spartan model of society. In the end, Rousseau even denied the notion of personal freedom, choosing to define freedom in terms of subservience to a people. Ironically enough, while the non-evil human protagonists are capable of making individual choices and turn against the evil militarized corporation, the Na'vi are defined by their lack of significant individual choices. (Yes the Na'vi girl makes out with the main character.) We are told that these aliens have no interest in human goods, medicine or technology (though they do speak English at a level far outstripping many Hispanic immigrants and Haredim). We are to believe that not a single member of the Na'vi species, not even their teenagers, can be tempted by fast food, antibiotics or even a ride on a starship, the things that could make liberty meaningful, to vote for selling out on their pantheist religion and their mother trees. Abstract moral choices are only possible in minds educated at above subsidence levels. Only a mind raised on the luxuries of eating every day and effective medicine that will allow it to live to die of old age can worry about things like rights for a less fortunate group or protecting the environment; all these being necessary tools for a Na'vi resistance in the first place. Of course, none of the Na'vi are attracted to human ways, desire to live past thirty and travel to the stars, just as all Palestinians only desire to shed their blood in their nationalist cause of war with Israel, without any coercion or brainwashing.
If I were telling the story of Avatar I would make the corporate hatchet man, Parker Selfridge (played by the talented, but underused Giovanni Ribisi) the hero of the story instead of a villain. He is a young man of enterprise, who, despite growing up in difficult circumstances, has become so rich that he can fund interstellar mining expeditions. His personal background has given him an appreciation for the abilities of other less fortunate people. Because of this, he is willing to make a woman his lead scientist, hire minorities and even a crippled ex-marine. Selfridge comes to Pandora without the backing of the military industrial complex government back on earth and their protection, confident that he can peacefully make a deal with the Na'vi. Instead of guns, he turns to new forms of science that allow him to send his loyal employees to the Na'vi in Na'vi bodies. Many of the Na'vi are eager to trade with Selfridge, allowing him to mine their land, and join him in created an economic paradise for all. The conservative Na'vi leadership, though, concerned about their hold on power, refuse to negotiate and attempt to drive the humans away by brute force. War seems inevitable, as Selfridge finds himself tempted to hire mercenaries and meet force with force, until the crippled ex-marine, Jake Sully, having fallen in love with Pandora's environment and a Na'vi girl manages to find a way that the precious unobtainum could be mined without causing too much permanent damage to the trees. Selfridge is initially skeptical about Sully's tree-hugging liberalism but agrees to go along even though it means making less money than he had initially hoped. Selfridge's employees defeat the conservative Na'vi leadership by demonstrating that they actually have a greater interest in protecting the environment than even the so-called earth lovers. Meanwhile, back on earth, word has spread to the government, about Selfridge's success and they demand that Selfridge pay special taxes and that the Na'vi submit to Earth as a colony. The Na'vi refuse and Selfridge and his employees find themselves agreeing to put their lives on the line to fight for what they have created. Selfridge calls in some favors with some smuggler contacts of his and manages to arm the Na'vi with at least some modern weapons. There is a climactic battle in the air over Pandora as the Na'vi heroically fight off the Earth armada, with Selfridge and his employees manning the front lines. In the end, the Earth military is defeated. Selfridge and his employees permanently join the Na'vi by taking on Na'vi bodies and help negotiate a trade deal with Earth, giving all Na'vians a life of luxury and freedom unimagined by their ancestors.
Now that would be a liberal story and I do not think it would take a Robert A. Heinlein or Ayn Rand to appreciate the dramatic possibilities of it.
Saturday, December 26, 2009
I spent this past Shabbos with some of my Haredi cousins in Monsey NY. Over the course of the Shabbos I got into a conversation with a Haredi individual (not a relative of mine) about the differences between law and public policy. I argued that beyond the simple legalist framework of permitted and forbidden there is the realm of policy where we decide how far we will go in enforcing a law either in encouraging what is permitted and discouraging what is forbidden. This is a realm in which one cannot hold onto straight legal categories and must begin to make ideological decisions. For example, traditional Jewish law has certain standards of dress for women and married women are supposed to cover their hair. Saying that married women should cover their hair, though, does not tell us how we should react to women who do not cover their hair. In theory, from a traditional Jewish perspective, one could justify responses ranging from "winking and nodding" to taking out a gun and blowing the woman's brains out. (This woman has "violated" the sanctity of the Jewish people and is tempting men into sinful actions which deserve of death.) Of course, the decision to wink or shoot is going to depend on one's personal meta-legal theology, philosophy, and moral values.
I challenged the person whether he would rather have improperly dressed women in the street or goon squads. In a secular free society, it is going to be difficult if not impossible to force women to cover their elbows or their hair even on a neighborhood level. If one wishes, at all costs, to be able to walk the street without "temptation" one is going to have to consent to extra legal forces like goon squads to "politely" "explain" to women why their mode of dress goes against Jewish law and that they should change their sinful ways. To my surprise, the person said he would rather have the goon squads. I then asked him how he would deal with problems raised by goon squads. Allowing the existence of goon squads challenges the very structure of Jewish law as we bring into play rule by goon squad in addition to rule by rabbinic authority. (I would see the concept of a goon squad acting under rabbinic supervision as a contradiction in terms.) In addition to that, there is also the problem of rioting, smashing street lights and burning trash cans that seem to naturally result from such a culture. (This is all besides for any harm to the woman, which we may or may not be of concern.) This person asked me in all seriousness what was wrong with smashing traffic lights and burning trash cans. I responded that it constituted an act of theft from the government. The person said that he was not sure there was anything wrong with stealing from the government.
For me, respect for the law and property are basic parts of my being. To hear someone talk about stealing from the government as something at least theoretically justifiable struck me as morally offensive. Whatever differences and disagreements I may have with my father, this is one thing that he deserves credit for. I know this person's parents; they are decent people. Where did he get such a concept in his head? I believe that this is important and not just a theoretical issue of maybe opposing something versus being completely disgusted by it. What will happen when this person is faced with the temptation when the money is on the table and he has to decide whether to take it or walk away? I would never wish to be put in the path of temptation and do not know ultimately if I would succeed. I am enough of a legalist to concoct all sorts of excuses if pushed to it. I believe, though, that I would pass. There is no way that this person would pass. If, when the issue is theoretical, you are already playing games of maybe then you will take the money when it becomes real. If I were to wave a cheeseburger at this person he would turn in horror. What if I stuck non-kosher money into his face and rustled the bills?
According to the rabbis when Joseph was tempted by the wife of Potiphar he was tempted to give in. He was saved by the vision of "the face of his father." If Joseph was a gunslinger from Stephen King's Dark Tower series we might say that he did not "forget the face of his father." I understand this idea in non-mystical terms. Normal people, no matter their theoretical principles, are not going to put themselves in danger in order to turn down an act of pleasure. It requires growing up in a home like Jacob's and being raised with a sense that there are certain things that you will not do no matter the consequences. It is not enough to just believe that certain things are wrong; it has to be something rooted in your very bones.
I fully expect to see this person, from a respectable Haredi family and educated in elite Haredi institutions, on the wrong end of some scandal within the next few decades, either beating up a woman for what she is wearing or "cutting some corners" in order to fund the Jewish institution of his choice. At the very least he will be one of the people turning a blind eye and winking and nodding at the whole affair. I was raised to not particularly concern myself with whether other people were dressed appropriately, but with an absolute horror at the prospect of taking money that did not belong to me. That is part of my meta-legal theology, philosophy, and moral values. What sort of moral values did the Haredi institutions that produced this person raise him with?
Wednesday, December 23, 2009
Articles of Interest (Harry Potter Economics, Asperger Vampires, Coming Back to Judaism, Jewish Gospel Music and Conservative Health Care)
The Economist has an article on Harry Potter, dealing with, with what else, the economic side of Potter. In particular, the article looks to the future of Potter now that the films are about to be finished. Are you looking forward to Harry Potter: The Theme Park? To the people at Bloomsbury and Scholastic, who were transformed into giants of the book publishing industry, may I humbly suggest a musket and magic fantasy series being written on a blog near you?
Speaking of novels being written on the blogosphere, Miss. S. has started posting her Eternal series. This is a story about vampires in the spirit of Twilight and True Blood. (She is another person that I converted to the Gospel According to Stephenie Meyer.) This is not a horror story; this is a story that has some great characters, some of whom happen to be vampires. (Do these vampires have Asperger syndrome?) I unashamedly admit that Miss. S. is the more polished writer than yours truly and I think she has a real shot at being able to turn this into a published novel. I would not solicit readers and comments for myself, though that would be nice too but please give Miss S. your support; she deserves it.
Kosher Academic has a guest post on In the Pink about being the child of a mother who converted out of Judaism and coming to Judaism as an adult. Steven Levitt of Freakonomics has a somewhat similar background. It is the subject of his book Turbulent Souls.
Kerri Macdonald writes, in the New York Times, about Joshua Nelson, a black Jewish gospel singer. No, he is not a convert. According to the article: "When he was growing up, Mr. Nelson and his family went to a black Orthodox synagogue in Brooklyn on holidays." I am curious if anyone knows what synagogue they are referring to.
David Brooks is one of my favorite columnists for his ability to make the case for conservative principles (something different from the Republican Party) and doing it in a judicious and moderate fashion. This is once again on display as he examines his mixed feelings about Health Care Reform. As a Libertarian, I do not support any government involvement in health care. I do not support Medicare; I do not even support a Food and Drug Administration. That being said if we are going to have government health care we might as well try to have good government health care. As of right now we already have government run health care. You will not be refused care in a hospital because you are not capable of paying for it. Our government health care system, though, is simply horrendous. The question for me is that, recognizing that the sort of Libertarian health care reforms I support are not going to happen, not even if Republicans get back into power, should I support President Obama's plan which is relatively sane and moderate as far as government health care plans go?
Monday, December 21, 2009
Sarah Palin is an Evita Peron Lipstick Fascist, Republicans Hate America and How Dare They Call us Names
Frank Schaeffer is a religious Christian and a member of the Greek Orthodox Church. As he often likes to point out, he is the son of the late Francis Schaeffer and helped create the modern religious right during the 1970s and early 1980s, before turning on the movement. He is a strong supporter of President Barack Obama and a vocal critic of Republicans, the religious right, Tea Baggers and Libertarians. He calls Sarah Palin "our home grown very own Evita Perón" and "the new face of Lipstick Fascism." The Republican Party is castigated for being "the enemy of America" and "an insurrection against law, living and love." According to Schaeffer, Jesus hates American Christians for their "war against the poor who have no health care" and for how they have treated "the downtrodden gays scorned and mocked by society." I am not here to criticize Frank Schaeffer's politics. I have no great love for the Republican Party, the religious right or for Sarah Palin. For my own part I fail to see how Libertarians fit into all of this and wish he would leave us alone. I see Sarah Palin as an inexperienced and naïve small time politician, who ended up, by circumstance, way over her head as governor of Alaska and then really over her head as a vice-presidential candidate. I certainly have no desire to see her in the White House in the near future.
I do believe that it is important to be open and honest about our political beliefs and that means being willing to pay the full consequences for what one believes. Unlike the parlor trick that politicians play when they talk about being for things (whether it is motherhood, apple pie, family values or a strong America), intellectual honesty requires the recognition of that everything comes at the expense of something else. This is most obvious in terms of finances (every dollar spent on health care is a dollar not being spent fighting the war in Iraq), but this also goes for ideology. Schaeffer expresses his horror that Christian opponents of Obama would wear t-shirts sporting Psalms 109:8: "May his days be few; may another take his office" as a "prayer" for Obama. The next verse is "May his children be fatherless and his wife a widow." Schaeffer is certainly justified when he wonders whether this is code for a call to assassination. My only request from Schaeffer is that he willingly turn the sniper-scope upon his own words.
What would it mean for us to take his very words about Palin and Republicans seriously? Forgive my Asperger syndrome, which causes me to read things very literally and matter of factly. Take the example of Sarah Palin; let us assume that Schaeffer is right and that she is a fascist and the tip of the iceberg of a vast conspiracy being hatched by Rupert Murdoch and Franklin Graham to take over the United States, subvert the democratic process and install a fascist theocracy. (In essence of having the bad manners of plotting to take over the world and not allowing Jews like me to be in on it.) If this is the case then clearly we have an emergency situation where the Constitution is under threat and extra constitutional measures become acceptable for its long term salvation. I would give the examples of Phineas in the book of Numbers, of Mathias in Maccabees and Jack Bauer in the television show 24. (We can debate the relative sacredness of each of these examples.) Frank Schaeffer! I am calling you because I have Sarah Palin in the crosshairs of my sniper-rifle and I wish to know whether I should pull the trigger or not. Can you give me a principled reason not to take the shot? By principled I mean to exclude all arguments from pragmatism. It means nothing if you tell me not to do it simply because I might get caught, this might embarrass the movement or that Palin can be defeated by less drastic measures. These arguments would rightfully be dismissed as dodging the real issue at hand, the morality and even the necessity of assassinating Sarah Palin in order to save American democracy. Either Frank Schaeffer is calling for the elimination of Sarah Palin or he is just mouthing off and defaming a politician above and beyond what she actually deserves.
This goes further. What can all those on the right, acting in good faith, assume about Frank Schaeffer and his president? Since Schaeffer has given a hit order against their leadership, while lacking the intellectual honesty to openly admit to what he has done, it would seem an act of necessary self defense to come after Schaeffer, his people and his president. Both sides can, in the hope of defending our constitutional process, abandon peaceful democratic elections and turn to civil war; just as long as we keep things civilized.
Just as Schaeffer is willing to implicitly approve of violence in the name of condemning violence from the other side, he brings in his own form of religious totalitarianism in the name of defeating the Christian right. As a libertarian, I believe in the importance of charity, to make sure that everyone has their basic needs, such as food and healthcare, taken care of. I believe that these things are handled best through private charity and not the government. Does this make me a bad "Christian?" (Besides for the fact that I am Jewish) Would someone with my political views be welcome into Frank Schaeffer's church? How is his willingness to turn health care into a religious issue not simply another type bringing religion into politics?
When I first found Schaeffer he seemed to me to be an interesting voice that could move beyond the traditional political lines. Since then he has clearly fallen to the temptations of the internet and the extremist rhetoric it encourages. The democratic process requires moderation and a willingness to give those in the opposition the benefit of the doubt. You cannot view the opposition as something satanic and still claim to work with them in a democratic system. Either you are lying or you lack the moral spine necessary to defend democracy in its time of crisis.
Sunday, December 20, 2009
Musing to myself about the recent passing away of Dr. Yosef H. Yerushalmi, I found myself flipping through his classic work From Spanish Court to Italian Ghetto - Isaac Cardoso: A Study in Seventeenth-Century Marranism and Jewish Apologetics and ran into something I thought was worth sharing.
During the messianic movement of Sabbatai Sevi in the seventeenth century Abraham Cardoso, a Sabbatian who grew up as a converso in Portugal and Spain, attacks his brother, Isaac Cardoso, and Isaac Orobio de Castro, another former converso, for their failure to accept Sabbatai as their messiah and savior. Abraham mocks them for their unwillingness to accept the notion of a suffering messiah:
Let us return to the aforementioned messiah of Doctor Cardoso and his capricious companions; he is neither Christian nor Jew, but imaginary; he must come casting rays of light … and then, all at once, in a twinkling, he has to ingather the tribes, and the wheat from the chaff; he must come on a cloud of sugar candy, his body of butter paste, his garment of soft bread. And for support they drag in the great Rabbi Moses of Egypt [Maimonides], whom they see but do not understand even in the light … (Yerushalmi, From Spanish Court to Italian Ghetto
So what have here are three Jewish former renegade Catholics, who never exactly got over the Catholic part. Once again we see how important Maimonides is saving Judaism from false messiahs. Also, now I understand what is wrong with Christianity; their messiah is cheap wine and crackers. We need a messiah who would be truly scrumptious to eat.
Friday, December 18, 2009
The New York Times features an excellent obituary for the late Dr. Yosef Yerushalmi. Yerushalmi was one of the leading scholars of early modern Jewish history. His passing marks the end of an era. See also Menachem Butler, who posts his own blog obituary.
John Elder Robison wonders why neutrotypicals, with their self proclaimed empathy, would casually dump someone they are dating without being able to offer a coherent reason. At least neurotypicals have enough empathy to know not to rob a convenience store. This has certainly been my experience. I understand not wanting to marry someone and therefore breaking up with them. That being said if someone is good enough to spend time and money on you, you owe it to that person to not simply abandon them and refuse to talk to them simply to make yourself feel better.
Thomas Friedman writes about Islamic fundamentalists using the internet. I have a suggestion; we should get radical Muslims to agree to swap leaders with Haredim, who will then ban Muslims from using the internet.
Aliza Hausman (aka. Jewminicana) has an article on the OU website defending her culinary preferences against Ashkenazi imperialism. I am guilty of being Ashkenazi, but as a Maimonidean, I really wish I could be Sephardi. Kind of like the little white girl in Secret Life of Bees who gets to live out her fantasy of living black.
My friend Mordechai Shinefield laments in Jewcy about the lack of Jewish emo music. Well at least we have emo sparkly fairy princess vampires.
Thursday, December 17, 2009
I am a big believer in the notion that politics and ideology are not linear, but circular or at least bend in a horseshoe shape. Those on the extremes are not nearly as far apart from each other as they would have us believe. Often they share almost identical foundational assumptions as to the nature of the world. Recently I got into another back and forth with Bray of the Fundie, a usually relatively sane Haredi blogger, over on his blog. Bray had resurrected an old post of his discussing what appears to be his favorite trump card against religious rationalists like me, a quote from Maimonides saying that religious knowledge is different from other forms of knowledge. According to Maimonides:
It behooves a person to contemplate the holy Torah’s laws and, as much as his faculties allow him, to know their ultimate purpose. (Still) a topic/concept for which he can find no reason nor any cause should not become lightly esteemed in his eyes. And he should not ‘violate the boundary’ to ascend to the Divine lest He (i.e. G-d) ‘break through’ to him. (An allusion to Shemos 19:24) and a person’s thoughts / intellectual approach to Torah ought not to be equivalent to his approach to other, mundane, matters.
Bray wishes to use the “patron saint” of rationalist Judaism to argue that Judaism is above reason and that we should follow it (or its accepted representatives) even if it is not in keeping with our reason or even downright contrary to it.
I responded to Bray by drawing a distinction between knowing the rational behind something and believing that there is one even if it eludes you.
I believe in a universe that runs on rational laws. I do not, and neither does modern science, understand all of these laws and there is much that goes on in the universe that we do not understand. That being said, I still believe that those rational laws are out there and am committed to discovering them. I am not going to simply throw up my hands and say mystery/Flying Spaghetti Monster. Similarly with religion, the God I believe in is one that operates according to rational laws. He is neither capricious nor arbitrary. There is much in what he does and commands that I do not understand. That being said I still believe that there is a rational behind everything. When dealing with science and God I am willing to assume rationality to a far greater degree than with human beings. With human beings my starting assumption is that they are behaving rationally and I will try to find a rational behind everything that they do. (This is important to the sort of work I do in history.) That being said, if, at the end of the day, I cannot find a rational to their actions, I will throw up my hands and say they were irrational.
Bray responded, not by defending his position, but by insisting on his interpretation of Maimonides as “delineating a havdala between Qodesh/Torah as a discipline and khol/ all other branches of wisdom?”
I defended Maimonides by appealing once again to the model of science.
It is not a matter of some double standard in favor of Torah that allows you to fix the game in advance to come out in favor of God. What we have is a principled granting of the benefit of the doubt to specific systems which have already given good cause for it. To take a Thomas Kuhn approach, if you are a scientist developing a scientific theory that works in general you are not going to abandon it simply because you run into a small difficulty. If Kuhn was a yeshiva student he might say: “no one ever died from a kasha.”
It is at this point that Bray sprung a peculiar sounding argument coming from someone from the religious fundamentalist side. It was the sort of argument that one would have expected Richard Dawkins to use if he were debating me. Bray started listing elements of Judaism that should offend an ethical rationalist such as me:
Border dwelling pilgrims required to leave their property and families unprotected 3 times a year
Men may practice polygamy while women must be monogamous
Rapists must marry their victims if the victims agrees
Diverse capital punishments for adulterous bas kohens and their paramours
Monetary remuneration if an assailant dismembers his victim but flogging if he merely pinches him (and the aggregate 5 payments are less than a shava pruta)
Flogging for stealing back one's own stolen property
"Blood redeemers" vendetta killings either allowed or considered a mitzvah
Aunt-nephew marriages=incest while Uncle-niece marriages are allowed
Prohibited to remarry my own divorcee if she was lawfully wedded in-between but permitted to do so if she promiscuously slept around
House demolition mandated for certain discolorations in the plaster.
Perjured witnesses are punished in kind, unless of course the victim they framed has already been executed, in which case they walk off Scot free
No Divorce rights for women
A father being able to marry his daughter off to anyone he chooses while she is still a non-consenting minor
Genocide against seven indigenous Canaanite Nations and the Amalekites
Death by stoning for dropping a carrot into a pot of boiling water on Saturday
Incest allowed for brother sister converts (M'D'Oraysa)
Farmers required to leave their fields fallow for two consecutive years (years 49-50 in the Jubilee cycle)
Needless to say I reject Bray’s understanding of these laws. I am sure we could go back and forth about how to understand Jewish law, but I see that as beside the point. How is it that Bray comes to defend Judaism by engaging in the same caricature of Judaism that Dawkins uses to attack it? I have my understanding of Judaism that does not have me violating any of the ethical norms that have been at the foundation of all civilized peoples. My Judaism believes in justice for all and mercy for all the unfortunate. I may be mistaken in my understanding of Judaism. You may look over the sources and conclude that Dawkins and Bray are correct. I would still be a moral, if mistaken, person. Dawkins is certainly a moral person for rejecting Judaism as he understands it. But what can we say about Bray, who embraces what must be viewed, even from his perspective, as an immoral religion? He certainly cannot be viewed as moral; he is a nihilist who does not even believe in the concept of morality.
Bray likes to talk about the importance of separating between believers and unbelievers. I also believe in the importance of putting up some barriers. Every ideological act puts up a wall of separation against those who believe differently. I do hope, though, that every time my hands waves people away it is not so vigorous as to preclude waving them in to come closer. However much I must separate myself from intellectually honest and moral atheists, I will fight against those who blaspheme God by claiming to believe in him; those who hold up an idol and say that God is not all rational and not all moral and these things can be dispensed with.
Wednesday, December 16, 2009
The Moderate Palestinian (You Know the One Who Wants to Paint Himself Blue and Kill Zionists Like Mel Gibson Does in Braveheart)
Howard Schneider writes in the Washington Post about the Palestinians' opposite poles, comparing the lives of members of the same Palestinian family, the Barakats, living two starkly different lives in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Apparently, the members of the family living in the West Bank have enjoyed some remarkable economic benefits as of late in contrast to those in Gaza. It would have been nice for someone to ask the question how is it if Palestinian poverty is because of the Israeli occupation that Palestinians in Gaza, completely free of Zionist occupiers, are in so much worse shape. The article is a good example of the sort of personal human interest story that, while not anti-Israel in of itself, can be problematic on a large scale. It is not anti-Israel to show sympathy to the plight of Palestinians. For a news agency, though, to offer a constant stream of stories devoted to putting a human face on Palestinians in marked contrast with an unwillingness to do the same for Israelis is to create a bias against Israel.
I find it fascinating the ways in which Schneider is willing to pursue his narrative of moderate west loving Palestinians. He gushes over Odai who is leaving to study film at Eastern Mediterranean University in Cyprus:
Odai hopes to study film and then return to make his contribution to Palestinian society. It has nothing to do with reconquering land, he said, but reflects an idea taking root in the West Bank -- to help put a bandage on old wounds so they can heal and give rise to something new and durable.
"The first film I'll make will be about the Palestinian cause. I'll tell the story," he said, likening his vision to the movie "Braveheart" and its tale of Scotland's rise alongside England. The Scottish leader William Wallace was not trying to destroy the English, Odai pointed out, but was attempting to carve out a place for his people on land of their own.
I love Mel Gibson's Braveheart, despite its incredible historical inaccuracies and I do not begrudge Odai for liking the movie too. But the fact that he chooses to see the Palestinian conflict through the lens of Braveheart and not say Ben Kingsley's Oscar-winning portrayal of Gandhi says something contrary to our moderate peace-loving narrative.
Braveheart is a wonderful example of manufactured nationalism. There was no nationalism in thirteenth-century Scotland; there was no country Scotland in the modern nation-state sense. This was a feudal conflict in which Edward I (Longshanks) of England attempted to pursue a feudal claim against various Scottish noblemen. This had nothing to do with a crude desire to conquer other lands and subjugate other people. Scotland was a traditional ally of France so any attempt to strengthen their position in France required that England secure its northern border. Over the course of this complex conflict, many people changed sides at various points and it had nothing to do with them loving "Scotland" or "freedom" less. I can only imagine what this teaches a teenage member of a manufactured nationality attempting to restore a state that never existed in the first place.
The nineteenth-century style of nationalism of Braveheart equates itself with freedom. Considering the history of the twentieth century, with the horrors of Nazism, I would hope for just a bit skepticism to any such equation. Anyone willing to make such a point-blank equation between the nation and freedom can rightfully be suspected of Fascism (the Nazis were also believers in freedom if in a Rousseauian or Hegelian vein) or at least being highly at risk of Fascism. In essence, this is the sort of person in need of being put on an emergency life-support drip of John Locke, John Stuart Mill, and the American founding fathers. This is not the sort of person you can trust with a gun or a film camera.
The English in the movie are portrayed as brutal oppressors on par with Nazis. There is not a single positive English character in the entire film. Edward attempts to eliminate the Scottish race by allowing noblemen to take "prima nocta" the bride on her wedding night. I certainly have no great love for the thirteenth century English or for Edward. Edward I expelled the Jews from England in 1290, just before the main events of the movie. That being said, any film that attempted such a hostile reductionist and one-sided treatment against a non-European group would correctly be labeled as racist. I can only imagine what the reaction would be if Palestinians were portrayed like this maybe in a really over the top version of Leon Uris' Exodus.
This brings us to the sort of resistance glorified by Gibson. William Wallace does not negotiate with the English or engage in passive resistance; he bashes their heads in with a mace and chain and decapitates them with his broadsword. Wallace does not just fight the English in Scotland. He sacks York and sends Edward the severed head of his nephew. Hardly what I would think of as live and let live sort of behavior.
So what are we to conclude about a Palestinian who views his situation in terms of the movie Braveheart? He sees the world largely through the lens of crude nationalism. His understanding of freedom is more in tune with Fascist totalitarianism than liberal democracy. He believes that Israelis are brutal monsters who wish to enslave his people and rape his women. As such, he believes that the best way to deal with Israelis is to kill them, not only in the West Bank and Gaza but in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv as well. With moderates such as these who needs fanatics.
Thursday, December 10, 2009
Today one of my students handed me an article from the Financial Times by Tony Judt. The student's father thought I would enjoy it as an example of leftist Israel bashing and was kind enough to have his son pass it along to me. The article is titled "Israel Must Unpick its Ethnic Myth." Judt takes as his starting point Shlomo Sand's The Invention of the Jewish People, which attacks the State of Israel and the Zionist enterprise as being based on the false notion of the existence of a Jewish ethnicity, and uses it to attack Israel's legitimacy as a Jewish state. Judt and Sand are a good example of the sort of selective anti-nationalism so effectively lambasted by Natan Sharansky in his book Defending Identity: its Indispensable Role in Protecting Democracy. Sharansky attacks Marxists and their ideological descendants in the modern left for being willing to accept nationalism when it served an ideologically expectable purpose such as fighting western capitalist imperialism and rejecting nationalism when it does not serve the cause. It is this sort of thinking that allows someone like Judt to ignore and even indulge Arab and Palestinian nationalism all while villainizing Israel for even the most moderate manifestations of the ideology.
To be clear I have no objection to anyone pointing out that Jewish ethnicity is an artificial construction. All ethnicities are artificial constructions. There is no such thing as a pure race, culture, nation or ethnic group. We are all of mixed stock. That being said this artificial construction of a nation exists, which gives it a political reality, and it is a major pillar of modern politics. It allows us to form the nation-state. Jews have a better claim than most to their nation construct. Jews did not forge their identity to benefit themselves, it was formed by others in order to isolate them and deny them the fruits of the Enlightenment and emancipation and finally to attempt to annihilate them in the Holocaust. Jews should only have to surrender their collective delusions of nationhood when everyone else, including the Palestinians, have done so as well.
What particularly caught my attention about Judt was his comment that "Egypt or Slovakia are not justified in international law by virtue of some theory of deep 'Egyptianness" or 'Slovakness.' Such states are recognized as international actors, with rights and status, simply by virtue of their existence and their capacity to maintain and protect themselves." For a historian Judt demonstrates a remarkable ignorance of history. Egypt existed as a province of the Ottoman Empire, before being a British protectorate and eventually given their independence. The history of Egypt for the past few hundred years does not make any sense unless one accepts the concept of an Egyptian national identity, even if it was an artificial construction of the Egyptians themselves. There were people living in Egypt who themselves as distinct from the people who ran the Ottoman and later the British Empire (I guess a language barrier, and in the case of Britain religion, helped) and wished to be independent. The situation in Slovakia is even better. From the end of World War I until 1992, with the interlude of Nazi rule, Slovakia was part of Czechoslovakia. In 1992 the people in Slovakia decided that, since they were "Slovaks," they wished to break away from the "Czechs" to the west of them and form their own country. The Czechs and the rest of the world went along with this and in 1993 there was the "Velvet Divorce" creating the Czech Republic and Slovakia. The legitimacy for all of this rests upon the willingness of everyone involved, particular the Czechs, to willingly participate in this collective delusion of nationhood and accept this artificial construct of a Slovakian people. So the existence of Egyptians or Slovakians is very relevant to the rights of these states to exist. The only difference between them and Israel is that no one is trying to destroy the states of Egypt and Slovakia and there are no academics like Judt to aid them in such a task by questioning the legitimacy of these states.
Wednesday, December 9, 2009
How the Mighty European Military State has Fallen: Jeff Sheehan – Where Have All the Soldiers Gone: The Transformation of Modern Europe
Ohio State's eHistory website has just put up my review of Jeff Sheehan's Where Have All the Soldiers Gone: The Transformation of Modern Europe. This is the second review I have done for them. Previously I reviewed Aryan Jesus on the site. Once again I owe a debt of gratitude to Dr. Steven Conn for giving me the opportunity to review the book and for being such a helpful editor. This one went through a long process. I read this book and wrote the first draft of the review last spring. Dr. Conn, correctly, pointed out that my review veered too much toward being an editorial and asked me to do a rewrite. I did not get back to him with a second version until after the summer, setting a rotten example for any of my students who may be reading this, one that they should most certainly not follow. You can follow the link above for the final version or you can continue reading below for my unedited slightly longer version.
Historical questions are often dictated by present-day concerns. For Jeff Sheehan of Stanford University and his two-hundred page tour of twentieth-century European history that question is how did it come to pass that Europeans would differ so strongly from Americans in regards to the War in Iraq and the question of Islamic terrorism. Modern questions are often a trap that professional historians are rightfully wary of. So it is to Sheehan's credit that what starts off as a modern question is allowed to flower into a judicious and unpolemical account of modern European history. Sheehan describes the evolution of European attitudes toward standing armies and to warfare, without coming down on side or the other. After a pleasurable afternoon of reading this book, I honestly have no idea if Sheehan supported the Iraq War or not. Thus Sheehan has provided what should be an enjoyable and enlightening read for those on the left and on the right.
American liberals, who opposed the war in Iraq, will rightfully object to Sheehan's generalized categorization of Americans as being pro-war and Europeans as anti-war. President Bush's low approval ratings and Senator John McCain's defeat by Barack Obama should demonstrate to anyone that there is more to American public opinion than simple war enthusiasm. (That is unless one accepts conservative rhetoric about there being "real Americans" as opposed to other people who just happen to live in the United State.) To be fair to Sheehan, I do not believe that he intended to make any categorical judgments about Americans. The question he is trying to come to terms with might be formulated as why was it that a neo-conservative movement flourished within American culture to such an extent that it could push publish policy into going to war but not in Europe.
It is against this backdrop that Sheehan offers this overview of modern European political history with a twist. Instead of focusing on World War I, World War II, the Cold War and how the political situations deteriorated in each case into these conflicts, Sheehan examines European attitudes toward the military and to warfare outside of the context of these conflicts. Thus the major conflicts of the twentieth century become the outliers, not what defines European society. From my perspective as a non-military historian, this is just delightfully subversive. I particularly admired the chapter dealing with peace efforts, most notably one by Czar Nicholas II, in the years leading up to the First World War. It serves as a useful counter to the traditional portrayal of bumbling superpowers with their ironclad systems of alliances crashing toward an unforeseen but inevitable war. I owe Sheehan a debt of thanks in that I will now have one good thing to say about Czar Nicholas II to tell my students to balance out the anti-Semitism and truly tragic incompetence.
Instead of a narrative of war, Sheehan offers a narrative of conflicting ideologies. On one side stands a proudly nationalist worldview, in which statehood was understood in terms of its military. Sheehan sees this worldview as a product of the desire by nineteenth-century states to create national identities. The military and making people serve in a national draft as a means of bringing the state into the lives of people living in provincial areas, who beforehand may have been outside of the authority of the centralized state. This was simply was the logical continuation of state-run school systems and other social services. In essence, for Sheehan, the liberal revolutionary tradition coming out of the French Revolution, with its secular state, led directly to European militarism. This militarist perspective comes to be increasingly challenged by a worldview skeptical of state power and the nationalist and militarist ideology needed to support it. In the end, according to Sheehan, World War II effectively eliminated the former view in the minds of the vast majority of Europeans, leaving the field to the later.
One point of Sheehan's that I think is particularly noteworthy is the idea that Americans and Europeans speak very different languages when it comes to the issue of terrorism. When Americans, i.e. the American right, speak about terrorism they use the language of World War II. Islamic terrorists are Nazis and September 11 was Pearl Harbor. (Yes it was the Japanese who attacked us at Pearl Harbor; analogies do not have to be perfect.) I would point to the popularity of the term "Islamo-Fascism" within right-wing circles as a very good example of this. The implications of this should be fairly clear. If the task of the "greatest generation" that fought World War II was to stop a Nazi conquest of the world then the task of this present generation must be to do battle with the forces of radical Islam and stop them from taking over the world. In pursuit of the cause, one becomes justified in all sorts of actions. A trillion dollars fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq is not too high a cost to save the world. Four thousand dead in Iraq is nothing to lament when we lost more on Iwo Jima in one day. The dominant European culture views terrorism not as this Manichean struggle with the fate of the world at stake but as a simple policing problem, one that they have been facing for decades now. Such an attitude lends itself to a different set of conclusions. Rather than war the solution becomes better police protection and, at most, some international diplomacy through the European Union and the United Nations.
Sheehan does not discuss it, but this difference in thinking about terrorism also applies to Israel and its differences with the European community. If anything Israel, particularly the Israeli right, is even more entrenched in the language of World War II than even the United States. For Israel, their Islamic opponents are Nazis determined to finish off what Hitler started. In this narrative, the Oslo accords of 1993 become the Munich agreement of 1938 with Israel's security being sold out for a worthless promise, broken before the ink was even dry. From this perspective statements like Nasser's "drive Israel into the sea" or Ahmadinejad's "wipe Israel off the map" are not the blustering of politicians but literal plans of action to be carried out. I am not certain what Sheehan's views are in regards to the Mid-East conflict. He does refer to Yasser Arafat in passing as the "future leader of the Palestinian resistance to Israel" (pg. 169) and juxtaposes him with Nelson Mandela. This might be simple carelessness or a sign that Sheehan shares the European perspective on this, to look at this conflict through the lens of Colonialism.
If history means, in some sense, to apologize for the past, for those ideologies that have left the world stage, then Sheehan has offered an apology for late nineteenth and early twentieth-century nationalist ideologies and their implicit militarism. He connects them to the nineteenth liberal tradition and offers us an understanding as to why reasonable people believed that it would work. In the end, Sheehan raises some very provocative questions about the role of warfare in the making of a state. If states have traditionally defined themselves in terms of their militaries than what does it mean to be a demilitarized state? Can the European Union ever hope to compete with the United States as a global power if it defines itself as the non-military power?
What happened to Poland at the end of the eighteenth century and how did this affect Jews? (3 pts.)
How and why did Russian attitudes towards Jews differ from those found within western Christianity? (3 pts.)
How did the Russian government propose to deal with its Jewish problem? (Either give several examples or one in great detail) (4 pts.)
Bonus: Where is the city of Odessa located and why is it relevant to its role in the Russian Haskalah? (2 pts.)
- Poland is divided up in a series of three partitions at the hands of Russia, Prussia and Austria, culminating in 1795 with the elimination of Poland. This resulted in Russia, completely by accident, finding itself as the host of the world's largest Jewish population, something they never intended nor desired.
- Russia, as part of the Eastern Orthodox Church, did not have St. Augustine, the Latin church father par excellence, as part of their theological canon. This means no witness doctrine. As such Russia never had any reason to tolerate Jews to begin with. They never desired Jews nor did they ever invite Jews in. The Western Catholic Church could produce a Bernard of Clairvaux, who could preach a Crusade against Muslims while actively protecting Jews. Russian Orthodoxy, with the rare exception of a Leo Tolstoy, never produced any tradition of philo-Semitism at all.
- The Russian government created the Pale Settlement, essentially saying that Jews could live where they were already, but nowhere else. Even in the Pale Settlement there were limits as to where Jews could live. Czar Nicholas I created the Cantonist decrees, probably one of the most fiendishly clever devices to destroy Jewish life. Jews were to now be subject to the Russian draft instead of paying a tax. (The Russian draft was for twenty-five years. Imagine what the Vietnam War protests would have been like if we were drafting people for twenty-five years.) All groups in Russia could be drafted. Jews though were subject to a special "pre-draft" to get children ready for actual service. Thus the Russian government started grabbing children twelve and even younger to train them for service when they turned eighteen. The Jewish community itself would have to decide which kids went, ensuring that the establishment would protect their own children at the expense of those less fortunate, thus undermining the Jewish community.
Bonus: Odessa is a port city in the South of Russia on the Black Sea. Contrary to the usual stereotype of Russia as being cold and insular, Odessa is warm and quite cosmopolitan. It is not a coincidence therefore that Odessa would become a major center for the Russian Haskalah (Jewish Enlightenment).
One student wrote: "Claire was relevant because she is a main figure in the 'superhero' Enlightenment. Without her, there would be no cheerleader to save and furthermore, no world." Claire Bennett, from the show Heroes, comes from Odessa, TX. This was actually from a good student who was kind enough to indulge my sense of humor. I am a fan of the show, but still no bonus points though, just a smiley face.
Tuesday, December 8, 2009
In Brandon Sanderson's fantasy novel Mistborn we are introduced to a scholar or religion named Sazed, who serves as a guardian/advisor to the main character, a girl named Vin. Vin is a street urchin who possesses certain extreme powers and must take on the role of a noble born lady to aid in the coming rebellion against the empire. Along the way Sazed gives her an education as to the nature of religion as he subjects her to his unique brand of missionary work.
"I think I have the perfect religion for," Sazed said his normally stoic face revealing a glimmer of eagerness. "It is called 'Trelagism,' after the god Trell. Trell was worshipped by a group known as the Nelazan, a people who lived far to the north. In their land, the day and night cycle was very odd. During some months of the year, it was dark for most of the day. During the summer, however, it only grew dark for a few hours at a time.
The Nelazan believed that there was beauty in darkness, and that the daylight was more profane. They saw the stars as the Thousand Eyes of Trell watching them. The sun was the single, jealous eye of Trell's brother, Nalt. Since Nalt only had one eye, he made it blaze brightly to outshine his brother. The Nelzan, however, were not impressed, and preferred to worship the quiet Trell, who watched over them even when Nalt obscured the sky." …
"It really is a good religion, Mistress Vin," Sazed said. "Very gentle, yet very powerful. The Nelazan were not an advance people, but they were quite determined. They mapped the entire night sky, counting and placing every major star. Their ways suit you – especially their preference of the night. …"
"That's the fifth religion you've tried to convert me to, Saze. How many more can there be?"
"Five hundred and sixty two," Sazed said. "Or at least, that is the number of belief systems I know. There are, likely and unfortunately, others that have passed from this world without leaving traces for my people to collect."
Vin paused. "And you have all of these religions memorized?"
"As much as is possible," Sazed said. "Their prayers, their beliefs, their mythologies. Many are very similar – breakoffs or sects of one another." …
"But, what's the point?"
Sazed frowned. "The answer should be obvious, I think. People are valuable, Mistress Vin, and so – therefore – are their beliefs." (pg. 178-79)
"What was that?" Vin asked as he looked up again.
"A prayer," Sazed said. "A death chant of the Cazzi. It is meant to awaken the spirits of the dead and entice them free from their flesh so that they may return to the mountain of souls." He glanced at her. "I can teach you of the religion, if you wish, Mistress. The Cazzi were an interesting people – very familiar with death."
Vin shook her head. "Not right now. You said their prayer – is this the religion you believe in, then?"
"I believe in them all."
Vin frowned. "None of them contradict each other?"
Sazed smiled. "Oh, often and frequently they do. But, I respect the truths behind them all – and I believe in the need for each one to be remembered."
"Then, how did you decide which religion's prayer to use?" Vin asked.
"It just seemed … appropriate," Sazed said quietly, regarding the scene of shadowed death. (pg. 207-08)
This is the sort of intellectual terrorism I can sign up for. It eschews the stridency of religious fundamentalism and the triumphalism of secularism, all while maintaining a place for the scholarship of religion.
Friday, December 4, 2009
Moment magazine has an article on converts to Judaism, in which Y-Love is featured.
Ashley Tedesco writes in Jewcy about attempting to be a Jewish studies major at a Catholic school like Fordham. Catholic schools actually often prove to be quite hospitable places for Orthodox Jews and many Yeshiva University people have specifically gone on to Fordham.
Left Brain Right Brain has Ari Ne'eman's testimony before the Equal Opportunity Commission. In the course of the conversation the issue of eliminating many of the specific autism groupings is raised.
I recently mentioned Malcolm Gladwell on this blog. For those of you who are not familiar with him, here is an article of his from a few months ago dealing with how "Davids" can defeat "Goliaths." This article ranges from military issues and Lawrence of Arabia to twelve year old girls playing basketball with a full court press.
Finally Garnel Ironheart offers a lament about the fact that Haredim can get away with knocking Modern Orthodox leaders, but it is expected as a matter of course that Modern Orthodox Jews will be respectful when it comes to Haredi leaders. In the comments section Rabbi Benjamin Hecht links to an old article of his that I read years ago and consider to be the best piece to come out of the whole Slifkin affair. The article challenges Haredim to justify, in terms of Jewish law and tradition, the claim that their rabbis are the de facto authorities over all Jews including those Jews who do not live in their communities or never learned in their schools. Rabbi Yosef Blau once said something similar, noting that, of all the rabbis who signed the Slifkin ban, there was no one, with the exception of Rav Elyashiv, that he would have ever thought to ask a question a question of Jewish to and even Rav Elyashiv he never would have asked something related to theology.
Thursday, December 3, 2009
I recently finished listening to the audio production of Drood by Dan Simmons. Drood is a fictionalized account of the last years of Charles Dickens' life as told by his friend and sometimes collaborator Willkie Collins. The title refers to Dickens' final unfinished novel, the Mystery of Edwin Drood. I was familiar with the story from the satirical musical version of the story, which has multiple possible ending voted on by the audience. The novel contains numerous running gags on Edwin Drood and other better known elements of the Dickens universe.
Dan Simmons is one of the greatest living science-fiction novelists. Simmons' work has a highly literate quality to it; things like a robot John Keats to having the gods hire classical scholars to report on the ongoing Trojan War. Drood is a literate, historical novel that often goes into the realm of the fantastic. The narrator, Willkie Collins, is an opium addict, who hallucinates. The novel dips in and out of the occult (Collins and Dickens may have mind controlling beetles stuck in their skulls, implanted by a criminal mastermind and Egyptian cult leader.) and we have no idea what is to be believed. Simmons needs to be congratulated for his ability to present the world of nineteenth century England where there is no aspirin or reconstructive surgery to deal with the aches and pains liable to accumulate in the body of a middle aged man. Hence opium. Think of Rush Limbaugh's addiction to Oxycodone just with hallucinations to make things more interesting.
For what it is worth, Guillermo Del Toro is down to direct a film version of Drood. My proposal would be to have Rowan Atkinson play Collins. Not that Atkinson looks like the real life Collins, but this is the sort of role that requires heavy doses of smug superiority even in the face of a contrary reality, something that Atkinson does better than just about anyone. Collins spends most of the novel venting his hatred of Dickens, gripping about the absurdities in Dickens' fiction and how he is truly the better writer. This is one of those characters who charms by simply being a horrible human being.
Monday, November 30, 2009
As I have mentioned previously, my political awakening came when I was nine years old during the summer of 1992, watching then Governor Bill Clinton run for the presidency. I saw Clinton in much the same way that many college students last year viewed "the second black president," Barack Obama. To me, Clinton was "change" and "hope." At that time this country faced a major crisis, a multi-trillion dollar deficit and I believed that Clinton was the man to do that; the Republicans had clearly failed after twelve years controlling the office of the president so it seemed reasonable to hope that Clinton could change this situation so I would not have to pay this debt when grew up. (We have failed miserably at this, but I will leave it to some other time to discuss who to blame for this.) I managed to impress my grandfather with my command of the issues and rallied my friends to support Clinton in an overwhelming victory in the mock elections held at school. Despite this, our legal system did not allow me to cast a vote in the actual election. I was not able to vote in 1996 nor was I allowed to vote in the closely contested election of 2000 despite the fact that I had skipped a grade and was therefore already out of high school as I was, frustratingly still just several months short of my eighteenth birthday. Readers are free to disagree with my reasons for supporting Clinton and I have certainly evolved in my political thinking over the past seventeen years. That being said, I clearly had achieved, by the age of nine, a certain baseline of political understanding where I was capable, regardless of whether I was right or not, of articulating political views in a coherent fashion. So I possessed a political consciousness roughly equal to that of the average college student yet I was not able to directly help put Clinton into office as they helped Obama.
I am not here to argue for children's suffrage, though I do not consider the whole notion as something absurd to be dismissed out of hand. I recognize that, by and large, most children do not possess the baseline of political consciousness necessary in order to take part in civic life. Most children are not economically self-sufficient nor do they pay taxes. They, therefore, have no stake in the system. Most children are under the thrall of their parents and would vote however they told them to. I accept these arguments, but I find it strange that any liberal accepts them because to do so a person has to accept as part of the foundation of their political thinking a premise that puts a knife through over a century of liberal thinking, which assumes that one must judge people as individuals and that any attempt to deal with people as a group is nothing but stereotyping and prejudice.
When the authors of the Constitution decided to not give people like my nine-year-old self a vote, a decision confirmed more recently when the voting age was brought down from twenty-one to eighteen, but not nine, they bought into the notion that, since most nine-year-olds lack the intelligence or the economic/social self-sufficiency to serve as citizens, all nine-year-olds were not to be given a vote even those nine-year-olds who did possess these things. Furthermore, they decided that, since most twenty-one/eighteen-year-olds are intelligent enough and are economically/socially self-sufficient enough to serve as citizens, all twenty-one/eighteen-year-olds were to be given a vote, even those who did not possess these things. So today, if you are eighteen years old or above, a citizen of this country, have not been convicted of any serious crimes and mentally competent enough to carry out the physical action of voting, you can vote. (Considering that we dropped the voting age to eighteen at about the same time as we brought in mass college education, I find the whole economic self-sufficiency argument to be laughable. If anything we should have gone the other way and pushed the voting age to twenty-two when most people leave college and start real jobs.) I wish we could scrap the age requirement and directly demand that people pass some sort of citizenship test, like the one we give immigrants, and report a certain level of income on tax returns in order to be allowed to vote. This would make the voting process much more difficult and expensive to boot so we take a shortcut and limit the vote to people of the age bracket of people who generally possess the needed qualities despite the fact that many worthy individuals are shafted by it.
At the heart of this disenfranchisement of children is the argument that it is acceptable to disenfranchise people who belong to a specific group, known for their inability to fulfill a necessary requirement for suffrage. Another way to put this is that if person x belongs to group y and z percentage of y lack characteristic a then it is acceptable to strip x of b regardless of whether x lacks a. I do not object to this, it is essentially an extension of the principle that law can only deal with generalities and not specifics, which Maimonides and the pre-modern legal tradition accepted. That being said, this should put a shiver down every one of your spines.
I can plausibly replace children, as the x in the equation with other groups. Take blacks or women in the nineteenth century for example. Were these groups as a whole, at that point in time, at some theoretical baseline of political consciousness and economic/social self-sufficiency to be allowed to vote? Need I point out that keeping them from voting was justified by comparing them to children? There would be nothing irrational or intolerant about saying that white males (or property-owning white males) as a group have reached this threshold and blacks and women have not and therefore voting should be restricted to white males. You can no longer argue that there are women and blacks who personally pass the necessary thresholds and white males who do not so one should not work with generalizations or stereotypes. We have already decided that it is okay to engage in generalizations and stereotypes when it comes to children. I do not know what sin the conservative who fought against women's and black suffrage, on the grounds of their fitness, committed; I do know that the non-child suffrage supporting liberal who chastises him for being prejudiced is a hypocrite.
This notion of stripping groups of their right to vote can be brought up to date. Women have proven to be highly successful in terms of education and taking up active roles in the economy. I would say that women in the western world hit our theoretical threshold sometime during the late nineteenth century. Proof of this is the fact that it was at this point that we see a mass women's suffrage movement. This required large amounts of women with educations and who were outside of the social or economic control of any fathers or husbands. What about blacks and particularly black men, with their frustrating inability to become productive upwardly mobile members of society, today; have they achieved the necessary threshold? To use examples of some of my fellow bloggers, we could say that Miss S., a black woman, should be allowed to vote while MaNishtana, a black man, should not, regardless of their comparative merit. We could take down Malcolm Gladwell, a writer and thinker I am in awe of, because he is black, male and even has an afro to boot. We can say that Obama is not qualified to be president. Is it any fairer than banning me from being president just because I am not thirty-five years old? The argument for equality and against prejudice, so crucial to modern thinking, is nothing but a cheap clay idol packed with straw that fails to aid its believers when needed.
If we are to accept the legitimacy of generalizations then we can abandon any moral pretense of believing in literal equality as the whole discussion of civil rights is reduced to a cold calculus of what exactly is our theoretical threshold for citizenship and which groups as groups fulfill it. Admittedly the whole notion of group is arbitrary and any person can be tied to a group that does not pass the threshold and can, therefore, be disenfranchised. If someone wanted to they could try to disenfranchise my present self by arguing, that despite my graduate education, I still belong to the autism spectrum group. Since this group as a whole might not pass the necessary threshold, I, therefore, I should also lose my vote. Let us be clear, we are throwing around hand grenades and they can blow up in all sorts of unwanted places. The decision to put age into play as a relevant group is just as arbitrary as gender, color or even neurological state. It is simply a convenience that we, as a society indulge ourselves even at the expense of precocious nine-year-olds. Of course, if some groups can be made to pay the price then so can others; it is only fair.
Thursday, November 26, 2009
Renaissance Italy is usually a good place to look for precedents for liberal Jewish practices. In terms of Jewish education for women and women studying the Talmud Andree Aelion Brooks points out:
Shortly before Dona Gracia was born, a Talmud Torah for girls had opened in Rome; its women graduates emerged as poets, writers and patrons of the arts. A woman known as Pomona da Modena, living in Ferrara at the beginning of the century, was said to be as well versed in Talmud "as any man." Another member of Pomona's family, Fioretta, was constantly engaged in Hebrew and rabbinic learning. Others worked as scribes.
Then there was Bienvenida Abravanel, a niece of the famous Don Isaac Abravanel, the man who led the Jews out of Spain at the time of the Expulsion and later settled in Naples. Bienvenida was so smart and well educated that she became the tutor, and later advisor, to Leonora, daughter of the viceroy of Naples. When the Jews were expelled from Naples in 1530, it was Bienvenida who maneuvered through her court connections to have the order rescinded. After the death of Bienvenida's banker husband, Samuel, Bienvenida continued to run his banking business and use her wealth to ransom Jewish refugees captured by pirates. (Brooks, The Woman who Defied Kings pg. 27)
It should be noted that Isaac Abarbanel believed, in some sense, that women did not have souls and that only men possessed them. Having elite learned women does not mean that women as a group were educated. People who are wealthy and clearly intelligent are going to be allowed a fair degree of eccentric behavior no matter what society they live in and are going to be able to get away with breaking certain social taboos.
Tuesday, November 24, 2009
Defense of Reason has a series of posts dealing with a new billboard campaign with the message that children should not be labeled with the religion of their parents. This is an old argument used by Richard Dawkins. Dawkins argues that children are too young to have opinions about religion and, just as we would not label a child as liberal or conservative, since children do not have political opinions, we should not label children as being members of any specific religion regardless of what their parents believe. One should be clear as to the stakes here. The main targets of Dawkins and the New Atheist campaign are closeted atheists, humanists, and otherwise unconventional believers who maintain themselves as religious believers. Such people continue, for their own reasons, to operate within that structure even after they have made their intellectual breaks with it. It is people such as these who can be tempted into secularist social structures that imitate organized religions. Such people need to be told that, contrary to what they might believe, religion is actually harmful for morality and need a shot of self-pride to get them to come out of the closet as non-believes. Such people as these continue with their religions, in large part, because they were raised in them and their identities are encapsulated within them. If such people did not have strong religious identities to begin with then their trip out of religion could be that much easier thus allowing Dawkins and company to go home with their mission accomplished. On the flip side not allowing parents to label their children would create all sorts of problems for religious people. Can Christians and Jews baptize or circumcise their children? What kind of education are parents allowed to give their children? This becomes particularly scary if we assume that the government has some sort of stake in the matter. Would secularists wish for the government to stop parents from raising their children in their faith? Dawkins believes that scaring children about a physical hell constitutes child abuse. Would Dawkins send the police into the homes of literary minded Christians to confiscate their children to protect them from being exposed to Paradise Lost?
Beyond raising certain questions to Dawkins and company as to what their attentions might be if they ever got the chance to put their ideas into practice, I believe there are more direct objections to make; I will go so far as to go the other direction and say that parents should actively seek to install strong ideological values in their children both in terms of politics and in religion. For one thing I reject the notion that children are incapable of having opinions. I had strong political opinions by the time I was nine. The reason why it took so long was that my parents were fairly apathetic when it came to politics. As the son of a rabbi, I already developed opinions about religion certainly by the time I entered kindergarten. Yes my religious opinions were heavily influenced by my father. In an ideal world maybe you could get children interested in issues by being neutral. In practice though children are attracted to intensity; they will care about things that they see the adults in their lives are truly interested in. So the choice becomes one of raising ideological children or raising apathetic children.
Parents are an important check on society and allow for honest multiculturalism. A parent not raising their children with a strong ideology means that a child is going to be raised in the values of the dominant society. There is a limit to how many viewpoints can take a leading role in the public sphere and schools. (Two would be impressive.) There can be as many ideologies to raise children in as there are parents. One of the great things about the honest sort of multiculturalism is that has checks and balances built into its very nature. Every parent raising a child serves as a check on every other parent raising their children.
Most crucially for the child's own intellectual development, a label is a place to begin one's search and a lens with which to deal with the world. Growing up as a Jewish child meant that I came into the world not as a tabula rasa, but as a part of a developed intellectual tradition. This allowed me to learn this tradition, its questions and its answers. If I did not identify so strongly as a Jew as I do than there would be no personal stake in exploring this tradition and I may never have gotten into the habit of asking the big questions at all. Being born into a tradition does not mean that one has to be a slavish follower of this tradition. I am free to define my relationship to my tradition as I wish, even to reject it. But if I am to turn my back on Judaism, I would still be able to turn on Judaism as a Jew and thus embrace the label all the more. My father introduced me to Judaism and he has been a major influence. That being said he would be one of the first people to admit that my Judaism is very different from his.
There are limits to what parents can do to their children; I am not about to hand parents a blank check. I believe in practicing my brand of intellectual terrorism whenever I have the chance, with adults and with children. The more closed off the child the more eagerly I embrace the opportunity. The argument is sometimes put to me how dare I step on the prerogative of the parent and expose children to things that I know their parents do not wish them to be exposed to. My response is that parents do not have any intrinsic moral right to their children's minds. In theory I have an equal right to their children's minds to expose them to an ideology of my choice. Children, as beings without the full intellectual capabilities to take on the role of citizenship, are handed over to the physical control of adults, ideally the biological parents. Since the parent has authority over the child's body, he has an advantage when it comes to feeding his ideology to that child to such an extent that he can place whatever political or religious labels on the child he chooses. Since the government, the one body that can override the parent, is not allowed to have political or religious opinions it must turn a blind eye to the child's indoctrination. This, though, does not apply to individuals in society. A parent may be able to win out against society for the mind of his child, but it is at least going to be a fight.
I declare war against those parents who think that they can shut their children away and indoctrinate them as they so choose. I will carry out my moral duty to stand outside your doorstep and the moment your child steps out I will be after him. There is nothing you can do to stop me from talking to your children and giving out books and other forms of intellectual stimulation except to make an even greater effort to shut your child away to the extent that you would literally place your child in a locked cell until they are eighteen. This will also serve to raise the cost of your actions. I will make it so expensive that I will both intellectually and economically bankrupt you.