Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Thirteen Principles of Faith for When I Take Over Judaism

Chris Smith of Mild-Mannered Musings tagged me to list ten random things that I believe. I have decided to take advantage of the opportunity to turn this into something slightly different that I had been intending to write about. Maimonides famously lists his thirteen principles of the Jewish faith. If I were to take over Judaism and construct my own list of doctrines here is what would be on it. These are actually fairly similar to Maimonides’ own list of doctrines with some of the more radical implications of Maimonides’ thought made more explicit. 

I believe with perfect faith in one God, who is the ultimate cause of the universe and everything in it. He acts through the laws of nature that he put in place such as Newtonian mechanics and Darwinian evolution 

I believe with perfect faith that God is not a physical being nor should he be described in physical terms. This includes not only a physical body (hands, feet etc.), but also terms such as “true,” “just” or “kind” unless they are meant in the negative sense to deny that God possesses any of the human deprivations included in their opposites. 

I believe with perfect faith that God, as the ultimate intelligence who is outside the physical universe, is omniscient and omnipotent. This does not mean that he is actively aware of individual human beings and their actions or that he is likely to involve himself in specific human affairs, only that all life is within the scope of his knowledge and his will. 

I believe with perfect faith in the value of prayer and that God is the only being to be prayed to. It is permitted to pray in the general direction of a physical object like a Torah scroll and meditate upon it as long as one acknowledges that such objects have no actual power. Similarly, one can consult with knowledgeable people such as rebbes and ask for spiritual advice. To go to a rebbe for anything beyond this is prayer and hence idolatry. Prayer to God serves not as magic or as a mechanism to affect God’s will, but as a means for human beings to reach a greater understanding of God and align their will with his. 

I believe with perfect faith that God is the source of the moral law written in our hearts and that he has done so in order that we become moral beings in his image. God would never command us to do something immoral like massacre innocent unbelieving women and children simply to demonstrate our faith in him. 

I believe with perfect faith in human reason as God’s law written into our heads as a means for us to come to know of him. This includes logic, the scientific method, and the historical method. God wishes us to value all conclusions that come from the use of these methods and would never ask us to go contrary to them on a leap of faith. 

I believe with perfect faith in human prophecy. As God does not speak, prophecy does not involve God actively communicating with man but man coming to an understanding of God and his law. 

I believe with perfect faith in the Torah (Old Testament), the Oral Law (Talmud) and those elements of Jewish tradition that do not explicitly go against monotheistic belief as the word of God in that they are valid expressions of God’s will put into human terms. By following these things I come to a greater understanding of God’s law than I would if I were to pursue the matter merely through my own intelligence. 

I believe with perfect faith in the value of ritual practice as a means of teaching about God’s law, creating a community of believers, and transferring spiritual experiences from one generation to the next. 

I believe with perfect faith that God is an unchanging being and that his will does not change. Our understanding of him and his will is part of an ongoing process in which every generation brings its own experiences to a conversation that spans the ages. Since we are including past generations as part of our faith community, the past maintains a powerful veto over all decisions. 

I believe with perfect faith in the value of other cultures and systems of belief even those that go against our own. I, therefore, strive to respect all beliefs and the people who hold them as beings created in the image of God even as I strive to advance my own beliefs as doing more to advance man in its knowledge of God. 

I believe with perfect faith that human beings are responsible for each other’s welfare. This includes social justice for those living today as well as caring for the environment for the sake of those generations yet to be born. 

I believe with perfect faith in the continuing progress of mankind in its knowledge of God and that one day all mankind will openly acknowledge God. 

The practical implications of an Orthodox Judaism run along these principles would be Modern Orthodox Judaism opening up its doors to traditionally observant Conservative Jews while kicking out Haredim. Essentially it would become ok to take a liberal stance on the divine authorship of the Bible, but the moment you imply anything physical about God or that you can go to rebbes for blessings or gain specific benefits from kissing a Torah scroll you are out. 

For example, I know a Haredi rabbi with a long beard who, in a story-tape for children, told a story about the Baal Shem Tov trying to get to Israel where the Baal Shem Tov attempts to sacrifice his daughter to the angel of the sea in exchange for safe passage. This rabbi was implicitly endorsing the notion that human sacrifice to angels is permitted. In a Judaism run by me this rabbi would suffer a worse fate than even if he had snuck into his story “hey kids the Baal Shem Tov, having nowhere else to turn, went and accepted Jesus as his personal savior.” In order to ever be allowed into a synagogue again, this rabbi would have to publically recant his words and do penance. No matter what this rabbi would never be allowed into a position of authority again. I would not trust him not to spread his heresy among children. 

There is a prominent Haredi charity called Kupat Hair, which claims that rabbis such Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky will bless donors with all manner of physical benefits. This would count as heresy and the donors and the rabbis who have endorsed this would be out of Judaism. Rabbi Kanievsky is also likely a supporter of at least softcore geocentrism. Since support of the use of reason, including the scientific method, is an article of faith, this would also now be not just bad science, but heresy. 

If you took over and were made pope of your religion what doctrines would you put in place that those who went against them would be expelled from the religion? I tag Miss S., Bray of the Fundie, E-Kvetcher and Cory Driver.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Rabbi Yissocher Frand on Shabbos and Repentance

This past evening Rabbi Yissocher Frand spoke in Silver Spring at one of the local congregations, Shomrei Emunah. I went, not expecting much, simply to fill in as a neighborly blogger, reporting on the important events of in the community. To my surprise, Rabbi Frand managed to exceed expectations (granted that is quite easy when you have expectations as low as mine). There was nothing seriously offensive and nothing particularly heretical in his speech. Rabbi Frand even brought down a story by Rabbi Yosef Ber Soloveitchik. Here are my notes. As usual, any mistakes are mine. Since this blog is read by a wide variety of people, I have taken the liberty of translating many of the Hebrew terms Rabbi Frand’s uses.

There is a tendency to relapse back to undesirable behavior. Even if we actually repent we slip back and our efforts go for not. This is one of the main impediments to repentance. Repentance is like dieting. We might lose a few pounds but we know that we will get it back. I speak from personal experience. In past years I have suggested numerous things. This year I would like to suggest a new approach. This does not involve taking on something new. My suggestion is to keep Shabbos. Most of you have kept Shabbos all of your lives without the intended result. What does Shabbos have to do with repentance? There is a story about a person who was involved in five accidents. It was shown that four were not his fault. The insurance company still wanted to drop him because of “bad karma.” Rabbi Weinberg advised this man that these accidents were a form of stoning because of violating Shabbos. This was a Shabbos observing family so what does it mean that they violated Shabbos. Rabbi Weinberg asked what the household looked like before Shabbos. It was chaotic and the man’s wife often lit candles less than eighteen minutes before Shabbos. This was changed and the policy was reinstated now that the “religious problem” was taken care of. (I have a problem with anything that implies that God is likely to directly interfere in the lives of lay individuals to punish them. It smacks too much of an arbitrary father in the sky, landlord deity. Insurance companies deal with odds. They of all people should understand that, statistically, you will get people who have five accidents and most of them not their fault. If the people who are supposed to understand statistics are failing in the defense of reason then we are in serious trouble.)

What does Shabbos have to do with repentance? We know the story of Cain and Abel. God curses Cain and Cain exclaims that he could not bear the punishment. God puts a mark so that no one would harm Cain. Cain goes out from God. According to the Midrash, Adam asked Cain what happened and Cain said that he repented and that God forgave him. Adam exclaimed how great repentance was and sang the song of Shabbos (Psalms 92). Adam did not know about repentance? Why is his reaction to sing about Shabbos? According to the Nesivos Shalom (Rabbi Sholom Noach Berezovsky, the previous Slonimer Rebbe), Cain was not just worried about his physical being, Cain was worried about his soul. Cain was being banished to a world of temptation and he knew that he could not survive that. God made a sign. That sign was Shabbos, which is called a sign. God was offering a solution to Cain, that he could keep Shabbos and save himself. This was what excited Adam. He knew about repentance but never connected Shabbos to repentance. (My father is a big fan of Nesivos Shalom as is my thesis advisor.) Sin does something to someone’s soul, just like a stroke affects a person’s mind, cutting off the connection between the brain and the rest of the body. Shabbos is the spiritual therapy that restores the damaged connection to God. We are constantly assaulted in this world. But as the Zohar says, Shabbos is the day the soul is restored.

Rabbi Yosef Ber Soloveitchik, in one of his sermons on repentance, told over how, as a child, he used to go to a Modzitz shtiebel (small synagogue). The Hasidism would sing into the evening because they did not want Shabbos to end. There was a porter there whom he knew from his weekday work. Rabbi Soloveitchik could not recognize the man’s regal bearing on Shabbos. Rabbi Soloveitchik, as the Litvak (Lithuanian), asked when the evening services were. The man responded: “are you so impatient for Shabbos to end?”

Back in the old times, when it was still okay to go to movies, they would show newsreels. In 1933 the Munkatcher rebbe’s daughter got married and this got onto the newsreels. You can check this on Youtube. (There is a group of little boys and girls singing Hatikvah and a large group of older children engaged in mixed dancing.) It was a major event. The Rebbe got the chance to speak to Jews in America and he told them to keep Shabbos. The Rebbe, who did not like pictures, agreed to be in a movie so he could speak to American Jews and tell them about Shabbos.

I am not a Hasid; my parents were German Jews. I eat gabruchts (wet matza) on Passover and put tefillin on during Chol HaMoed with a bracha (blessing). There is one thing that I envy about Hasidim, Shabbos. Go to New Square for Shabbos, go to Belz. The better the Shabbos you have the better your soul will be and this will help repentance last. It will allow us to stave of what the world throws against us. If Shabbos is merely a day to crash it will not have the desired effect. There is a program called “Turn Friday Night Into Shabbos.” We need a program to turn Shabbos into Shabbos.

The problem with Shabbos is that it happens every week. We take it for granted. There was a rabbi who had a conversation with a Roman Catholic from Topeka Kansas on a plane. The Catholic asked the rabbi if he kept Shabbos like when the woman of the house, in her finest, lights candles and the family sits down to a meal with silverware and crystal. The Catholic had the advantage of only seeing one or two Shabbosim.

If you want to appreciate something invest in it; buy and read books on Shabbos. We need to stop doing certain things in regards to Shabbos. Try praying at a slower pace; try coming early and say Psalms. Limit your reading to things that are not secular, no newspaper, no sports, no business. The words “never mind Shabbos” should never cross our lips. You have to want Shabbos. Women have the advantage in that they already actively prepare for Shabbos. All they have to do is think about it. I have a letter from a woman who decided to accept Shabbos by midday on Friday. Is this woman crazy? She heard her daughter complain about it being Shabbos because Friday was such a tense time. Now her children come from school to a calm home. Now her children are used to her planning for Shabbos all week long because she cannot start planning Thursday at midnight. (I can easily see this only exacerbating the problem.)

Rabbi Mattisyahu Salomon writes that there is no better way to install faith in children than Shabbos. We all know the temptations that our children are up against. I tell my wife that I am glad that we are out of the child raising business. Let our children deal with it.

I would like to close with an atypical Holocaust story. Judith Novack wrote a book called The Lilac Bush about her experiences. In her town they would speak Hungarian during the week but only Yiddish on Shabbos. In 1944 when the Jews were deported, she was the only one to survive. After liberation she and other survivors got on a train to go back home. They hatched a plot to throw rocks at the synagogue to show how angry they were at God. When she picked up the rock she remembered her Shabbos table. She thought how she could not bear to live her life without Shabbos.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

What Sort of Respectable Person Would Write a Blog?

Writing a blog can be a tricky task. Over and over again I find myself faced with the fact that, when writing, one is judged not by what you intended to mean but by what someone else understood you to mean. This could be a manageable task where it not for the fact that people can be remarkably lazy readers and are often looking for something to complain about. There is no defense against someone who wishes to see you in a negative light. As someone with Asperger syndrome this is made all the more difficult as neurotypicals can be counted on to read a very different text from what I write, ignoring the very literal meaning of what I say in favor of some abstract relational construct beyond my grasp. (Of course there are times that even those who are on the spectrum also failed to understand me.)

My previous post managed to raise a few eyebrows. (I have since erased this post.) The question was raised to me whether it was appropriate for me to write about a student in school and whether as a teacher and as a representative of a school I should have shown more discretion. In regards to the first issue I would point out that I was praising the student. More importantly, this was a student who speaks publically about Asperger syndrome and his written about it. I wrote my post for the sole reason of putting up a link to this person’s work and encouraging people to read it. I never would have written such a piece for a private student and if I had made any mention of a student I would have been quick to change the name and details of the event. Anyone who writes for the public domain does so with the implicit assumption that people will read it and react to it. I would even go so far as to say that writing for the public domain is to send out a public invitation to everyone on the planet (without engaging in the spamming tactics of Authentic Judaism) to come read and comment. This includes praise, but also condemnations. For example, as the writer of this blog I have de facto handed all of you permission not only to read my work but also to comment on it in the comments section, to your friends and even on your own blogs. I have also given up any right to complain if I am attacked for what I write; this includes even personal attacks and insults. (You still cannot directly malign my character. For that you have to wait until I become a full public figure and do something like publish my novel, run for public office or go on a reality show.) As to what I said about this student and his struggles, this is the reality of teenage Asperger syndrome. There can be no meaningful discussion about Asperger syndrome that does not confront this. It would be like trying to hold a meaningful discourse about being black in America without talking about racism; this would make many white people sleep more easily, but it would not be a discourse at all.

I would like to turn to the second argument, which I think is the more telling one. Every time I write something, particularly if it involves a specific individual, I take a risk that something will backfire. And as it has been demonstrated repeatedly, even very innocent remarks can backfire. As a representative of a school, that school now shares in this risk. Despite the fact that whatever I write is my personal view and not that of the school’s, what I write reflects on them. Similarly, my brother, who has just started medical school, told me that at orientation a member of the administration gave a speech to the students about the need to be careful about their actions and consider how they might reflect on the school. In particular this administrator brought up the issue of blogs, which he viewed as childish tantrums. In an admittedly very perceptive piece, Dodi Lee Hecht of the Corner of Hollywood and Sinai makes the argument that blogs are an exercise in personal narcissism as opposed to means of reaching out and sharing ideas with the public.

I certainly do not deny the validity of any of these arguments. I would though like to raise an issue for those wishing to piously sit by the sidelines, not writing for the public domain, and lecture those who do venture out in the public domain as to how they should be careful and even suggest that it might be better if they did not take the risk of damaging their reputations or the reputations of the institutions they represent. What would it mean if those who were “respectable” and represented “respectable” institutions did not venture into the public domain and did not blog? Take for example the students at my brother’s medical school. You have hundreds of young men and women with extensive knowledge about science and an understanding as to the implications of public policy on science particularly in such issues as abortion and stem cell research. What if they followed the advice of the administrator; what if every medical student followed this advice? What if every student studying science at a graduate level did this as well? Perfectly reasonable, why should anyone take a chance of besmirching their reputations and the reputations of their schools? What this means, though, is that our public conversation about science is now going to be held without them. The only voices that are going to be heard talking about science are precisely those who are not attached to any respectable scientific institution. In essence you are handing the dialogue over to precisely to anti-science radicals, to kooks. Now this administrator, I am sure meant well, but as with many high sounding principles there is a consequence. What he was really saying was not just that he did not want students writing blogs but that the blogosphere should be dominated by anti-science radicals. For one thing he gives up the right to complain about the tone of discourse on the internet. It might be that the price is worth it, but intellectual honesty requires that this price be acknowledge and that he take moral responsibility for what is being paid.

I like to think of myself as operating a quality blog. I do my best to avoid personal attacks. (This whole situation came about because I publically praised someone.) Readers of this blog will find that I do my best to articulate what I believe and why, not to catalogue insults. Admittedly I pay a price for this. Without a doubt I would have more readers if I were more offensive. Inevitably I will say something controversial. But if I am to be criticized for this I also request that I be given credit for what I do right. Readers will find on this blog a clearly articulated vision of what history is. They will also find a defense of Judaism. (The fact that these both exist in close proximity to each other is itself an important religious apologetic point.) To say that people like me with academic backgrounds and connections to Modern Orthodox institutions should not blog is to argue that the blogosphere should be the sounding board of those with no academic training and no connections to Modern Orthodoxy institutions.

I would even go so far as to argue that there is a particular necessity to have responses by people who are in the peculiar situation of balancing being connected to institutions, but not representing these institutions and even on occasion to go against these same institutions. The fact that I am connected to a Modern Orthodox institution gives me credibility as a defender of Modern Orthodoxy; I am no longer simply an eccentric on the side. On the other hand if I actually represented a Modern Orthodox institution I would have to act as an apologist for the institution. Anyone who never goes against an institution would simply be a de facto representative and apologist. This is one of the reasons why I would never wish to serve as a rabbi. It would mean that I would have to be the defender of Judaism at all times and at all costs. If you doubt how insidious this is I would ask that you consider the examples of Avi Shafran, Jonathan Rosenblum and Chaim Zweibel, all very intelligent men, who sold themselves out as Haredi apologists and have lost all credibility with precisely the sorts of people they were supposed to be reaching out to. Institutions will need representatives, whose job it is to make the case for the system, but these people are going to need others to give them the occasional reality check. May I suggest being in touch with a few intelligent bloggers?

Friday, September 11, 2009

Rabbi Avigdor Miller and the Neturei Karta

One of the issues that have come up with this discussion on Authentic Judaism is that of Rabbi Avigdor Miller and his role in influencing some of the more radical Haredi bloggers. I brought it up in passing and Parshablog has dealt with it in more detail. Whatever problems one may have with the late Rabbi Miller (and believe me I do) Rabbi Miller is of little value in of himself as a target. He is no longer alive and the Haredi world has by and large rejected his more radical views. Rabbi Miller is still useful for going after Haredim because, despite the fact that most would say that they disagree with him on specific points, they still revere him as a scholar. I see this as an intellectual dodge and a moral failure to treat certain issues with due responsibility. This was brought home to me when discussing the issue of Rabbi Miller with Not Brisk, who, while not wishing to defend Rabbi Miller outright, did not hesitate to try to interest me in some of Rabbi Miller’s less polemical work. According to Not Brisk, even I “who obviously can't swallow his [Rabbi Miller’s] world opinions, can still take the ‘good’”. I do not question Rabbi Miller’s intelligence and I have no problem acknowledging that he has written things that are better than his tapes and his books Rejoice O Youth and Awake My Glory. That being said, these things are the Rabbi Miller that I know and apparently this is the Rabbi Miller that bloggers like Authentic Judaism and Jewish Philosopher know. Nothing that Rabbi Miller said could change this.

Not Brisk would have me bifurcate between the populist Rabbi Miller and the scholarly Rabbi Miller. Do not get me wrong, I have no problem with having a disagreement with someone and taking what I like about them and discarding what I do not. There are two different types of opposition; there is the opposition where the opponent is still viewed as legitimate and then there is the opposition where the opponent is cast aside as something satanic without any legitimacy. For example, I accept that different people are going to have different views on the State of Israel. You may disagree with me about the army or about settlements but we can agree that we are all good Jews here. I will still give you an aliya in shul and agree to eat in your home. That being said, a Neturei Karta person, who believes that Israel should be destroyed, would not be legitimate. (The Neturei Karta are a small but highly visible group. You can often see them at Israel rallies in Hasidic garb and waving Palestinian flags. They also gained a lot of attention when members of their group attended the infamous Holocaust denial conference in Iran.) A member of the Neturei Karta could study Torah sixteen hours a day and be the nicest person you have ever met. All of that would mean nothing against the fact that this person has plotted with and aided those who wish to murder Jews. It is a moral stance for me precisely to not bifurcate between a Neturei Karta member’s actions as a member of the Neturei Karta and his actions when off duty. (Similarly, I would not say that someone is in the Ku Klux Klan but he is nice to his mother. A member of the Klan is a member of the Klan, no ands ifs or buts.) Anyone who simply says that they do not personally agree with the Neturei Karta but still wish to accept them as another Jewish opinion is taking a stance and is morally culpable in the continued existence of the Neturei Karta. (To their credit the Haredi community has been pretty good at expelling the Neturei Karta.)

Among the many repulsive things in Rabbi Miller’s writing, Rabbi Miller took certain Neturei Karta type stances in regards to Israel. For example, Rabbi Miller has this to say about Zionism:

346. Let us see what they [the Zionists] have accomplished. They have succeeded in gaining for Jews the hostility of the entire Arab world and of most of the “Third World” nations. They have fomented bad relations with Russ and to some extent with France and Mexico. They have created animosity in the United States and elsewhere.
347. These achievements are of small benefit to Jews, but the Israelis and their Zionist proponents are persistent, because they hope to make all lands untenable for Jews (as they did in all Moslem countries) so that Jews be forced to settle in the State of Israel which is losing the population race against the local Arabs (one million Jewish babies have been slain by abortion in the State of Israel from 1948 to 1976, equal to the number of Jewish children slain by Hitler). (Awake My Glory pg. 104)

So according to Rabbi Miller, it is the fault of Zionism, not Arab anti-Semitism, for Arab hostility. It is Israel’s fault and not the Arabs that Sephardic and Yemenite Jews had to flee their homes. This is the classic Jews are responsible for anti-Semitism line. Finally, because Israel has legal abortion, the Israeli government is as bad as Hitler. Not surprisingly the Neturei Karta has made use of Rabbi Miller. Because of this, Rabbi Miller should be about as kosher as a bacon sandwich; not just some of the things that he said but everything. It is not good enough that the Haredi world accepts some things of his and ignores others.

When I was in the Yeshiva Torah Vodaath, one of the rabbis there recommended to me that I read Rabbi Miller as a good source on Jewish thought. (Little did he know that I was already a fan of listening to his tapes and yelling at them.) I am willing to give this rabbi the benefit of the doubt and imagine that if I were to show him the above passage he would be quick to say that he did not agree with it. That being said, the fact that, of all the people he could have told me to read, he sent me to Rabbi Miller raises certain questions. In a more liberal environment, where one comes expecting to be exposed to many different ideas, this would not have been such a problem. For example, someone coming to this blog has to understand that I love and value ideas for their own sake. They should not assume that just because I link to something and say that it is worthwhile to read that I agree with it. The yeshiva system, though, prides itself on the tight control it maintains on its students. These rabbis were, in essence, guaranteeing my father that they would not expose me to any questionable material. As such they cannot play innocent in exposing me to radical anti-Zionism. (This is why you never want to operate an authoritarian system. No one can live up to the implicit responsibility.) So what does it mean when this Haredi rabbi showed significantly less diligence in not exposing me to radical anti-Zionism than he did in not exposing me to say the writings of Rav Abraham Isaac Kook? (I am still waiting for it to be a common Haredi position to say that Rav Kook was a great Jewish thinker who everyone should read even though we may not accept some of his political positions.) I can only conclude that people like this Haredi rabbi do not really oppose Rabbi Miller’s position on Zionism, not in a meaningful way. Of course, when engaging in apologetics with outsiders it is important to deny this position. But, when in private, it can be tossed around as a perfectly legitimate option; something to keep in the bag for when the situation calls for some selective self-serving outrage against the Israeli government.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Pushing Authentic Judaism Down in the Google Rankings

Hirhurim has now taken up the issue of Rabbi Bearmant. Apparently Rabbi Gil Student has gotten multiple emails from him. I guess I have a new goal to reach, to be spammed multiple times by this blog hit whore. Rabbi Student offers a great way to respond: “Please link to this post and even put up a similar post of your own to push him down in the ranks. Feel free to copy this word-for-word if you want. And while you're at it, it might also help if you end every new post with the words ‘Authentic Judaism.’”

I see that Chaviva has already taken Rabbi Student up on this suggestion.

Monday, September 7, 2009

I got Spammed by Rabbi Raphael Bearmant of Authentic Judaism

Last week, Wolfish Musings posted on an unnamed Haredi blogger who sent him an email advertising his blog. Wolf refused to say who the blogger was. My guess was that it was Authentic Judaism. I ran into this blog recently as well. My reaction was “wow this guy makes Jewish Philosopher sound almost Modern Orthodox.” I think it is useful to notice the Rabbi Avigdor Miller playbook at work. We have a crude argument from design leading to the conclusion that Judaism must be the true religion followed by blanket condemnations of anyone who does to follow “authentic Judaism” and ad hominem attacks. I particularly found his swipe at Dr. Leiman amusing as I know him personally. It is comforting to know that I have never treated any Haredi godol as flippantly as he does a man who actually should be one of the people speaking for Orthodox Judaism.

To my surprise, I have just received the same email:

Dear Colleague,

I sincerely thought that the following new blog would be of interest to you:

Authentic Judaism

Please expect to be presented with some new ideas. I hope you are strong enough to rise above the mediocre thinking based on a materialistic world outlook and consider adopting an Authentic Jewish one.

Please forward the url of this blog to anyone you think could benefit from it.

We are proud to see that after much effort, this blog is number one on Google: Authentic Judaism Search on Google as well as Yahoo: Authentic Judaism Search on Yahoo

Rabbi Raphael Bearmant
(973) 910-0623

PS This is not spam or junk mail. This is a sincere endeavor to get this important information to as many people as possible. Don't worry, as long as our technology holds up, we will not be contacting you again.

I must be coming up in the blogging world if random lunatics are emailing me and asking for my help in promoting them. I do love that end part about this email not being spam. He calls me colleague, without bothering to stick my name at the top, so this is clearly a form letter. Then he tells us that he is relying on technology to send out these emails and make sure he does not repeat himself. That sounds like spam to me. We can conclude from this that, not only is Rabbi Bearmant a loudmouth Haredi clown, and a blog hit whore, he is a liar as well. As you can see, Rabbi Bearmant was nice enough to give out his phone number. The area code indicates that he lives in Northern New Jersey. Since he so freely gave his number to me even though I did nothing to ask for it, I see no problem in giving it out to anyone else who wants it. His email address is therabbi@authenticjudaism.org if you wish to spam him back along with ringing his phone off the hook at all hours of the night.

I understand Wolf’s wish to not grant this person any publicity. That being said, with all due respect to Wolf, I am posting this piece. I do have my own self-interest to think of. If Rabbi Bearmant and his blog are going to be such hot keywords I want to get in on the act. I may not be enough of a whore to send out mass mailings to random bloggers begging them to check out my blog, but I do like getting hits and comments. Also, I believe that publicizing lunatics like Rabbi Bearmant serves a constructive purpose. The existence of someone like him is a challenge to more “moderate” and “intellectual” Haredi bloggers like Freelance Kiruv Maniac, Daas Torah and Not Brisk by placing the burden of showing how they are not like him and that their positions do not inevitably lead to him. As someone who is trying to move Orthodox Judaism in a more liberal direction, I believe that it is important to raise the stacks and make it as damaging as possible to hold Haredi positions. Contrary to what Not Brisk might think, Rabbi Avigdor Miller was not all happiness and smiles. Authentic Judaism is an excellent demonstration of how there is nothing innocent about holding Haredi positions. Either you come out in the open to accept evolution and turn away from gedolim worship or you become complicit in fostering Rabbi Bearmant’s hateful ideology.

The Attack of Some Vampires from my Past

When I first posted on Twilight I mentioned a series of books called The Vampire Diaries L. J. Smith.

These books are very similar to Twilight. Vampire Diaries even has a werewolf making an appearance. It makes a very useful comparison in that the Vampire Diaries serves to demonstrate how easily Twilight could have gone wrong in the hands of a less talented author.

I read Vampire Diaries when I was in fifth grade. Like Twilight, Vampire Diaries is built on the premise of girl meets guy, girl falls in love with guy, guy falls in love with girl, guy just happens to be a vampire and stuff ensues from there. The Bella Swan character here is named Elena Gilbert and the role of Edward Cullen is taken up by Stefan Salvatore. Stefan, a vegetarian/black-ribbon vampire, comes from Renaissance Italy where he had a brother named Damon. Both he and Damon, while hating each other, fell in love with the same woman, Katherine, and asked her to choose between them. Katherine, unbeknownst to them, was a vampire and, unwilling to make a choice, decided to go with both of them. Stefan and Damon proved unwilling to live with the arrangement. Seeing this Katherine committed suicide by stepping out unprotected into sunlight. (The obvious plot twist does occur. We later find out that Katherine faked her suicide and shows up in the present.) Elena looks almost exactly like Katherine and, once Damon shows up, she becomes caught up in this centuries old brotherly war. Damon in the right hands could have been an interesting character along the lines of Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. He is the villain through the first two books, who becomes good, at least sort of, and provides the cynical commentary. As it plays out in the book though, Damon comes out as making no sense. When the books needed him as a villain they made him a villain and then make him one of the good guys once Stefan needs a brotherly sidekick.

Just to be clear, I do not consider Vampire Diaries to be worthwhile reading. They are like the Twilight series, but without the charm, Bella’s running straight-man commentary and the long supply of characters that one actually cares about. The quality writing is about the same as two better known young adult horror authors of that generation, R. L. Stine with his Fear Street series (This is before he turned to writing for pre-adolescents with the Goosebumps series.) and Christopher Pike. Smith is on the more chaste side of things, more Stine than Pike. I find it to be an interesting reflection on our society that Twilight has been controversial for its abstinence message. There is more sexual content in Twilight than Vampire Diaries. Vampire Diaries was written long ago in the early 90s when one could write young adult novels without any sex and no one would think twice. (One had to be careful on the off chance that ten-year old Orthodox boys might read them.) To be fair to Smith, I did read all four of the books in the series back then. (I have since found out that she has continued the series in recent years.) Despite the fact that I viewed the books then as trash and would likely have an even lower opinion now, there must have been something that drew me in. I even fantasized about being able to play Klaus, the “big bad” who appears in the fourth book as the vampire behind the scene pulling the strings of the story. I do think I would make a great vampire and would love to play one. Klaus, though, would be too head man Dracula vampire for me. I would be better off as the second-in-command vampire who gets to run around, kill people and laugh.

Soon after Twilight became really big with Breaking Dawn, I noticed Vampire Diaries on sale in a two-volume edition. I had a laugh at that; apparently Twilight was powerful enough to resurrect a book from the netherworld of used paperbacks. Now I find out that Vampire Diaries is being made into a television show by the CW. That counts as taking the desire for something Twilight-like to an extreme. Since the source material was mediocre at best and is being made, one assumes, because it is like Twilight, I do not expect the show to be any good nor do I expect it to last for more than a few weeks. I would like to say that will have the good sense to not bother watching it at all. I suspect, though, that I will find myself watching at least an episode for all time’s sake.

I would like to add a side note as to the nature of young adult/teenage fiction. As it should be clear from the post, I regularly read young adult fiction before I was a teenager when I was a pre-adolescent reading on a teenage level. I still read a fair amount of young adult material since I have a strong inner-child and like a good story no matter what age category. In this sense, I represent both ends of the market for young adult literature. This begs the question of is the audience for young adult literature really teenagers. The book reading population is quite small and those who do read are likely to be significantly above average readers. Teenagers who actually read books are likely to be at an adult reading level and therefore reading adult books. Pre-adolescent readers, though, are likely to be reading at a teenage level and will, therefore, turn to young adult books. On the flip side, there are also going to be adults who are going to be attracted to young adult fiction. Sean Jordan argues that since most adults are not capable of reading adult fiction there is a large market for children’s books that are mature enough to appeal to adults but are “childlike” enough for such people to read. He makes this argument in regards to Harry Potter. The model would also fit Twilight and to a large extent the Da Vinci Code (a young adult book openly marketed for adults from the beginning) as well. In the end audience for young adult books are not teenagers, but pre-adolescents and adults.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Luther Wanted to Burn down Synagogues but he was not an Anti-Semite

I spoke about Martin Luther the other day. I asked my Hebrew Academy students to define anti-Semitism and whether Luther was an anti-Semite. (As an early modernist, one of my personal goals is that after a year of my class my students, when they hear the name Martin Luther, should not think of a black preacher with a dream but a fat, beer-drinking German.) Almost every one of my students defined anti-Semitism as hating Jews. They also all saw Luther as an anti-Semite. I sympathize with my students’ feelings. When I was younger I agreed with my students. In my ninth grade history class, I called Luther a bum. The history teacher, Mr. Jesse, responded that he was a Lutheran. I guess you can say oops. (Mr. Jesse was the perfect middle school teacher. He was physically intimidating as in over six feet tall, built like a brick wall, yelled and threw stuff. He also had a basic command of the material, was a genuinely likable person and had a great sense of humor.)

There are certainly good reasons for viewing Luther as an anti-Semite. After taking a fairly positive attitude toward Jews early in his career, Luther turned on Jews with a vengeance in On the Jews and their Lies (1543). Luther advises :

First, to set fire to their synagogues or schools and to bury and cover with dirt whatever will not burn, so that no man will ever again see a stone or cinder of them. …
Second, I advise that their houses also be razed and destroyed. For they pursue in them the same aims as in their synagogues. Instead they might be lodged under a roof or in a barn, like the gypsies. …
Third, I advise that all their prayer books and Talmudic writings, in which such idolatry, lies, cursing, and blasphemy are taught, be taken from them.
Fourth, I advise that their rabbis be forbidden to teach henceforth on pain of loss of life and limb.
Fifth, I advise that safe-conduct on the highways be abolished completely for the Jews. For they have no business in the countryside, since they are not lords, officials, tradesmen, or the like.

While this aspect of Luther was mostly ignored until the twentieth century, the Nazis made use of Luther, viewing him as a precursor of theirs. The modern Lutheran Church has officially rejected all statements of Luther’s regarding Jews.

I believe that it is important that for anti-Semitism to mean something it has to mean something more than hating Jews. The English hate the French and vice versa. At Ohio State, we have a Hate Michigan Week every November. Pretty much every group on the planet has been hated by someone else, has been the subject of bigotry, discriminated against and even on occasion killed. Anti-Semitism is something beyond that. Jews are unique in the sort of hatred they have consistently evoked in so many different places and people. What other group of people has something to compare to the blood libel or the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, one of the best selling books of the twentieth century? The Nazis hated lots of different groups of people yet there was something about the Jews that made them a special target. For example, the German war effort in 1944 was literally sabotaged in order to massacre Hungarian Jewry. So anti-Semitism is not just people hating Jews but people having a pathological hatred of Jews, a hatred of Jews that goes beyond reason.

When dealing with Christian-Jewish relations it is important to distinguish between Christians who were hostile to Jews for what they were and a Christian hostility that went beyond all reality. Let us be clear, medieval Jews were heretics, unbelievers, and blasphemers, who hated Christians. Toldot Yeshu was accepted fact for Jews. They believed that their ancestors really did kill Jesus and were proud of it. To them, Jesus was a bastard, a heretic, and a magician while the Virgin Mary was a whore. From this perspective, Luther was being perfectly reasonable. All his accusations were things that Jews would have admitted to. Jews curse Christians, fact. When Jews, in the sixteenth century, said the curse for heretics in the eighteen benedictions they meant Christians. Jews refer to Christians as goyim, fact. Jews call Jesus the ‘hanged one,’ fact. Jews practice usury, fact. Luther refers to the blood libel accusations. He was agnostic about these charges but argued that Jews hated Christians enough to murder Christians. Again this was a very reasonable assumption.

Luther was a polemicist, who wrote in an aggressive manner; even by the standards of the day Luther’s universe was highly Manichean one, sharply divided between the saved and the unsaved with no grey area in between. It was not just Jews whom he believed to be satanic. He believed that the Catholic Church and even fellow Protestants who disagreed with him were also of the Devil and going straight to Hell. So there was nothing particularly anti-Jewish about his demonization of Jews. The fact that they were Jews was incidental to the fact that they were people who disagreed with him.

In the pre-modern period, all government authority was inherently religious. It was assumed that it was God’s will that a certain person rule. Because of this, there was, almost by definition, no such thing as a non-political religious claim. Every religious claim had political implications and anyone who went against the established religion was by definition engaging in political subversion. For example, if God is not a Catholic then God clearly would not want the Catholic Charles V to rule over his German people and take care of their spiritual welfare like he has the Pope look after their spiritual welfare. Therefore anyone who was not a Catholic in early sixteenth-century Germany was implicitly advocating for the overthrow of Charles V. Because of this it is impossible to ever accuse a pre-modern, Luther or anyone else, of being intolerant of other religions. Luther was perfectly in his rights to advocate the use of violence against Jews or any other religious subversives just as we accept the legitimacy of the use of violence even today against political traitors. And in fact, Jews got off much easier than Luther’s Christian opponents. Luther explicitly warned against directly harming Jews. The fact that Luther only wanted to destroy Jewish property, interfere with the ability of Jews to earn a livelihood and practice their religion while at the same time advocating physical violence against Catholics and Anabaptists begs the question not why Luther was hostile to Jews but why he was not more hostile to them. One suspects that it had something to do with his strong Augustinian leanings.

In conclusion, I do not think it is accurate or helpful to view Luther as an anti-Semite. He was an active opponent of Judaism which is nothing remarkable as to be a Christian, unless you are a very liberal one, requires that one be at least a passive opponent of Judaism, along with every other religion. Luther’s opposition to Judaism was internally consistent. His accusations against Jews are all grounded in solid fact; there is nothing fantastical about them. He took these things to their logical conclusion and endorsed a very reasonable sixteenth-century solution to the problem. Jews today do not have any legitimate grounds for any personal animosity against Luther himself let alone to use Luther as a polemical club against modern-day Lutherans.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

History Quiz

I gave a quiz today to my Modern Jewish history class at Hebrew Academy with two questions and a bonus.

1. How is the historical method different from the scientific method? Does this mean that historical claims are just random guesses or leaps of faith? (I cannot prove that Napoleon ever existed, but I believe in my heart that he did. Believing in the existence of Napoleon gives meaning to my life and makes me a better person. I therefore believe in him just like I believe in fairies, floating invisible teacups in outer space and flying spaghetti monsters.)

2. Name five prominent Jewish historians.

One bonus point for each historian that you can match with their choice for the starting point for modern Jewish historian.

For more detailed discussions of the historical method than I wanted from my students see the posts on Philosopher Football, Dragonseed, and evolution as history. As for the historians, the ones that I discussed in detail in class along with their views on modern Jewish history were Gershom Scholem (Sabbatai Sevi), Heinrich Graetz (Moses Mendelssohn), Shimon Dubnow (French Revolution), Isaac Jost (Frederick the Great), and Benzion Dinur (Yehudah Ha-Hasid). Other historians mentioned either in class or in my student’s readings were Josephus, Jacques Basnage (not Jewish but certainly a historian of Jews), Haim Hillel Ben-Sasson, Shmuel Ettinger, Michael Meyer, Salo Baron and Yosef Yerushalmi.