Friday, October 30, 2009

Articles of Interest

Mike Adams wishes to recruit animal rights groups for his new proposal to protest women's study centers that support abortion. Hint, it involves kitty stew.

The article I mentioned last week about Orthodox Jews leaving observance behind while in college has generated a number of responses. Divrei Chaim gives a Haredi cry of triumph. Josh Waxman offers a sober look at the actual study. Garnel Ironheart offers a needed dose of reality, as someone who has actually been on a college campus, as to what campus life is really like. My personal experience matches Garnel's. I went to Ohio State for three years and for some strange reason not a single half-naked non-Jewish girl tried to sit on my lap. I guess I was just not looking in the right places.

Cory Driver discusses Menachem Kellner, responds to my principles of faith post and ends off discussing Galatians. There are some things better left for Christians to say.

Orson Scott Card is in middle of a series of articles discussing Rodney Stark and his sociology of religion. Stark uses the Mormons as his main focus and Card offers a Mormon response.

Julia Baird, in Newsweek, refers to C. S. Lewis' Screwtape Letters as she discusses the value of silence and of getting rid of cell phones.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Howard Sachar – Current Israeli Myths and Realities: the Way to Peace

I was privileged to attend the closing of the DCJCC's Jewish literary festival to hear Dr. Howard Sachar speak. Here are my notes of the event and my comments. As usual, all mistakes are mine.

Before I was a historian I was prevailed upon not to be an academician, but to go to law school like a good Jewish boy. This lasted for about six weeks. I took several exams, but ended up the subject of a parody by a professor as to how not to take an exam.
Real Zionism is not just about funding lectures but in a willingness to allow one's children to go live there. Part of the challenge of living in Israel is the willingness to accept is that it is not perfect. The Orthodox are a heavy millstone around the neck of Israel. That being said, it should be noted that the first people to return to Israel were not the Zionists but Ultra-Orthodox messianists. We have the example of the followers of Rabbi Yehudah Ha-Hasid. (It should be noted that he was a Sabbatian so not exactly what you or I would consider Orthodox. Far better examples would be that of the Hasidim and followers of the Vilna Gaon who traveled to Palestine in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.) They traveled by mules and wagons to a desert land. They were not productive. They suffered and lost hundreds of people every year to cholera. They were the "sleeping settlement." My grandmother was one of three out of eleven children in a family to grow up to adulthood. That was the culture in which she grew up in.
Haskalah, Jewish humanism, under the influence of European nationalism, would lead to further migration to Palestine, for better or for worse. These points were made at a center of a recent conference to argue for the legitimacy of Jews living in Palestine. This is not the whole truth. By World War I there were only 80,000 Jews in Palestine and over fifty thousand of them were these Orthodox messianists. As late as 1917, the majority of Jews in Russia were members of the Bund. Why did they not come to Palestine? Most Jews who left Russia went to America. More Jews went to racist South Africa than Palestine. What changed was something eccentric and tragic. The eccentric was the Balfour Declaration of November 2, 1917, which proved to provide a compelling increase. This was brought about by British self interest. That year was the worst for the Allies. The French army mutinied. The Italians nearly collapsed. Russia was tottering. It was important that America be brought in. Lloyd George believed that Jewish opinion could be rallied in the United States and Russia. No need to go into the tragic part. The new countries, fashioned in the wake of World War I, saw their Jewish minority as a threat to their new found freedom. This prefigured the anti-Semitism of Nazi Germany. Those Jews who survived the Holocaust were left homeless. No western country wanted to take them in so an alternative had to be given. Russia and France wanted to expel Britain from the Middle East. Truman did not want too many Jews in New York. This took the Zionists by surprise. They were content asking for 100,000 DPs.
Israel once again has to face how it will protect itself. They are in the dilemma of being a small state. Seven years ago Colin Powel said it was no interested in forcing a peace. More recently Secretary Clinton said she wished to encourage both sides to reach an agreement. If this is the case than we are at an impasse. No small state has managed to negotiate boundaries by itself without the interference of a great power. This goes for the Treaty of Westphalia and the Treaty of Paris. Do great powers have the celestial right to enforce their vision on to others? At the Paris conference many of the new countries protested and the borders they were being given. Lloyd George commented that had it not been for the battlefield casualties suffered by the major allied powers this whole issue would be mute. He also noted that their hatred threatened to suck Europe into another war.
I have given testimony on the matter before the Senate and have seen Israel activists, many in black kippot, and I knew that they would not be happy with what I am saying. It was the victorious allies that set forth the Arab mandates and created the State of Israel. Each Arab Israeli war threatens to expand into a larger conflict. Now there is the threat of weapons of mass destruction. There is a need for great powers today to not just serve as mediators but to actively enforce a solution, one that is supported by the silent majority of both sides. This conclusion was reached by Sharon when he pulled out. Ben-Gurion also understood this. After the sixty-seven war he said celebrate, take a few things needed for security, but from everything else we must pull out. We cannot put ourselves as an occupation. He was not listened to and we have seen the results. Fortunately Israel has pushed through and survived even with their bloated defense and settlement budgets. What is now needed is for the great powers to tell the Israelis and the Palestinians what is going to be the final decision about boundaries. This would allow the leaders on both sides to stand up to their own fanatics. Everyone will see that their hands are tied and that the leaders have no choice but to give in.

Despite the Orthodox bashing, I actually liked the speech and think that Dr. Sachar made some valuable points. I found it interesting that Dr. Sachar did not go into detail as to how a "great power," assumingly the United States, would force through some sort of decision. During the question and answer section I asked him how he would avoid turning his own argument into an apology for imperialism and how he would put such a policy into action without putting soldiers on the ground. He proceeded to give the examples of Northern Ireland, how they needed the threat of Great Britain to make peace, and the Czech Republic, how they allowed Slovakia to secede. While both of these things strengthen his original argument, he still completely ignored my question. I am willing to accept his argument, but the obvious implications are unsettling even for someone like me. Do we have no choice but to throw ourselves into another, Iraq, Afghanistan or a Lebanon? I suspect that the implications may be so unsettling for people of a more liberal disposition that they would simply block out the whole issue.

A Game of Chess with Satan

The story of modernity, including the rise of science, is one of deeply religious people attempting to find solid ground for their beliefs and facing some unforeseen consequences. An example of this can be seen in the work of Thomas Browne (1605-82), an English Baconian philosopher.

“More of these no man hath known than myself, which I confess I conquered, not in a martial posture, but on my knees.” Amongst these are such questions as, how did the creatures from the Ark, starting as they did from Mount Ararat, get disseminated over all the countries of the world, in spite of the estranging seas? Gold does not turn to powder under high temperatures, so how can Moses have calcined the Golden Calf? Manna is an actual plant, flourishing in Calabria and formerly gathered in Arabia; where then was the miracle in the days of Moses?” Similarly, there is such a thing as “Secret Sympathy”, and may not the Brazen Serpent of Moses have healed the people thus, without a miracle? And might not Elijah have kindled the fire on God’s altar by means of naphtha – “for that inflammable substance yields not easily unto Water, but flames in the Arms of its Antagonist”? In this manner Satan “takes a hint of infidelity from our studies, and by demonstrating a naturality in one way, makes us mistrust a miracle in another”.

“Thus the Devil played at Chess with me, and yielding a Pawn, thought to gain a Queen of me, taking advantage of my honest endeavours; whilst I labored to raise the structure of my Reason, he strived to undermine the edifice of my Faith.” (Basil Willey, The Seventeenth Century Background pg. 65-66)

Friday, October 23, 2009

Articles of Interest

Micheline Maynard has an article in the New York Times about Americans choosing to go car free. As a green libertarian, I look forward to the day that the government cuts off all funding for housing, roads and gas subsidies, eliminating American suburbia and the American car.

Also in the New York Times, Ralph Blumenthal discusses a new documentary dealing with the controversial figure of Rudolf Kastner. Kastner negotiated with the Nazis on behalf of the Zionist government and saved the lives of over 1600 Jews, ironically enough including the Satmar rebbe. Kastner was latter murdered by another Jew on the charge that he collaborated with the Nazis in the destruction of Hungarian Jewry.

As the deadline for college applications draws nearer for my students I offer Rabbi Reuven Spolter, who makes the argument against going to a secular college. I disagree with Rabbi Spolter but I think he does an effective job in making his case and is therefore useful food for thought.

More on the topic of college as Ofri Ilani of Haaretz writes about the growth of Haredi colleges in Israel with the daughter of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef playing a leading role. I tend to be very skeptical about the very concept of a Haredi college. For me an education means a math, a science or something in the humanities. All of these fields require the mastery of specific methods of thinking. Haredi institutions do not focus on any of these fields. Instead they teach utilitarian occupations such as physical therapy and psychology. I see this as an attempt to allow people access to jobs while avoiding giving them an actual education and risking allowing people to engage in actual serious thinking. In essence such institutions offer fake educations.

Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein offers a Hirschian critique of Haredi society for its willingness to ignore larger society issues. For a critique of this article see Not Brisker Yeshivish. I found this Haredi response telling in that it completely ignores the issue.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Lunchtime Book Recommendations: An Idea as to How to Create Must Read Books

I often eat lunch in the Hebrew Academy lunchroom during the same time as some of the elementary school grades. The other day, I was in the lunchroom when I saw one of the teachers do something very interesting. Towards the end of the half hour period, when students were beginning to finish, she took the microphone and asked if any students would be interested in coming up to tell everyone about a book they recently read and would recommend. The teacher then asked for a show of hands as to who has read the book. A young friend of mine recommended Diary of a Wimpy Kid. It seems that the vast majority of the kids have read the series. I am not familiar with these books but they clearly seem to be very popular. Another kid came to the floor carrying a copy of Garth Nix’s Lirael and suggested the first book in the series, Sabriel. When asked what he liked about the books the kid did not say anything so I shouted out “Mogget.” Mogget is a cat shaped spirit, who likes sleep and fish and will kill you if you take his collar of. His main role in the series is to be the sardonic voice of reason, saying “this is stupid and we are all going to die.” I raised my hand, but was not called upon. I wanted to recommend Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games. This is a teenage book about a reality show in which twenty-four kids are thrown in a giant arena; the last one alive wins a life of fortune and fame. Think of it as Theseus meets Lord of the Flies with a totally awesome heroine armed with a bow and arrow.
This whole idea of allowing kids to come up and make book recommendations is an excellent exercise in controlled chaos. We are handing a microphone over to kids without any prescreening and they get pitch any book they so wish. I also think it is a brilliant way to sell reading to kids. One of the advantages that movies and television have over books is that they start with a wider audience and there are fewer of them to compete for an audience. This allows for the creation of a “must see” factor; people will watch films and television shows, regardless of their actual merit, simply because they know that other people are watching these things and they do not want to be left out when these things are being discussed say around the office water-cooler. The model here is for committed individuals to take an interest in something. Once a critical mass is reached, these individuals become a group and the object of their interest becomes a lightning-rod for others to bring them into the group. A larger and larger group of people will “tune in” to find out what the whole fuss is about.

It is certainly possible for books to do this. Harry Potter and Twilight are proof. In both cases, Goblet of Fire for Potter and Breaking Dawn for Twilight, these series had a moment where they went from just being very successfully books to being “cultural phenomenon.” The key to this was that these books became big enough to catch the attention of the media. The media, true to its fashion, made these books front page news as they “examined” the phenomena. Of course being front page news sold more copies of these books, bringing more “examinations” and continuing the cycle. Potter and Twilight succeed through a bit of luck and because they possessed certain qualities to give them mass appeal. The question becomes, how do you create a dozen Potters and Twilights? Take Nix’s Abhorsen series mentioned earlier, these are the sort of books that have the right mixture of in theory being for children while having more adult content to appeal to a mass audience. All that is needed is that bit of luck to create the needed critical mass in order to attract media attention and make them “must read” books.

Having kids come up and recommend books to their peers in a public forum allows for the creation of small groups around a book. I get up and recommend a book. Someone else raises their hand to show that they read it. Now I have something to go over to that person with in order to talk to them. A third person in the audience in the crowd sees that two people have read this book and are excited about it. This person then goes and reads the book. Now you have three people interested in something. Interest gathers interest and before you know it you have chain reaction of people reading the book to find out what everyone else is talking about. And you have it, Must Read Books!

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

A Sabbatian Credo

In a recent post I discussed the issue of principles of faith within Judaism. I offered my own formulation of them. Since then Bray of the Fundie has kindly offered his own list of principles. I just came across a list principles of faith for the Sabbatian sect of the Donmeh. The Donmeh were Jews who converted to Islam in the seventeenth century, following in the footsteps of the apostate messiah Sabbatai Sevi. As with many Sabbatian groups, the Donmeh practiced a radical form of antinomianism, the ritual violation of religious taboos. For example they believed in ritualized wife swapping. (And people think that religion is prudish and boring.)

I believe with perfect faith in the faith of the God of truth, the God of Israel who dwells in [the sefirah] tiferet, the “glory of Israel,” the three knots of faith which are one.

(This is a common theme within Gnostic thought. There is the lower creator God and the true God revealed to the initiates of the group.)

I believe with perfect faith that Sabbatai Zevi is the true King Messiah.

I believe with perfect faith that the Torah, which was given through our teacher Moses placed before Israel, as ordered by God through Moses. It is a Tree of Life to them that hold fast to it and its supporters will be happy … [here follow several biblical verses extolling the Torah].

I believe with perfect faith that this Torah cannot be exchanged and that there will be no other Torah; only the commandments have been abolished, but the Torah remains binding forever and to all eternities.

I believe with perfect faith that Sabbatai Zevi, may his majesty be exalted, is the true Messiah and that he will gather together the dispersed of Israel from the four corners of the earth.

I believe with perfect faith in the resurrection of the dead, that the dead shall live and shall arise from the dust of the earth.

I believe with perfect faith that the God of truth, the God of Israel, will send the rebuilt sanctuary from above down to us [on earth] beneath, as it is said: Unless God buld the house, those that build it labor in vain. May our eyes see and our heart rejoice and our soul sing for joy, speedily in our days. Amen.

I believe with perfect faith that the God of truth, the God of Israel will reveal Himself in this [earthly] world [called] tevel, as it is said: And the glory of God will be revealed and all flesh shall see it, for the mouth of the Lord has promised it.

May it be pleasing before Thee, God of truth, God of Israel who dwells in the “glory of Israel,” in the three knots of faith which are one, to send us the just Messiah, our Redeemer Sabbatai Zevi, speedily and in our days. Amen. (Gershom Scholem, The Messianic Idea in Judaism pg. 157)

For all you people in the market for a Jewish savior without the messiness of getting nailed to a piece of wood, may I suggest a nice Jewish boy from Turkey. You can acknowledge before him that you are a sinner and pray:

Sabetay Zevi, Sabetay Zevi,
No ai a utro como a ti
Sabetay Zevi, Sabetay Zevi
Esperamos a ti

(Sabbatai Sevi, Sabbatai Sevi
There is no other like you
Sabbatai Sevi, Sabbatai Sevi
We hope to you)

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Patience with Frank Schaeffer

In discussing Frank Schaeffer’s Crazy for God, James Pate suggested that I would be interested in Schaeffer’s upcoming book Patience with God: Faith for People Who Don’t Like Religion {or Atheism}, saying: “…it addresses people who aren't satisfied with fundamentalism or atheism. That kind of reminds me of what the top of your blog says: seeking a third path, other than secularism and religious fundamentalism.” I just got the book and read it over last night and this morning. I sincerely wished to like this book, since I see Schaeffer as being one of the people on “my” side. That being said, I found myself disappointed with the book as a whole, though there were parts that I found worthwhile. The fatal weakness of the book is that it lacks much in the way of a sustained argument. Rather it is a running meditation, one that fails to say anything that has not been said and better said in other places. This would not be considered a fault at all if this was a series of blog posts. If this was a blog I could just take it as is, the rambling chaff of an intelligent person written on the fly, which contains numerous valuable nuggets. I would like to pay my respects to those specific parts of the book worthy of consideration while acknowledging the larger failings.

The book opens with a beautiful prologue about Schaeffer feeling the need to pray upon holding his grandchild and a sober summation of the danger of our ghettoized media culture where everyone has created their own news and reality filters. The book itself is divided into two sections. The first part, containing the central thesis of the book, confronts both the New Atheists and Christian Fundamentalists, who Schaeffer sees as having a lot more in common with each other than they themselves would wish to admit. In particular, Schaeffer goes after Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens, on the atheist front, and Rick Warren and the authors of the Left Behind series, Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye, on the fundamentalist front. The chapters on atheism are the weaker ones. They certainly fail to match up to Terry Eagleton’s Ditchkins attack. Even here, Schaeffer has his moments. I particularly liked his comparison of Dawkins selling Scarlet A Letter pins to his mother’s Gospel Walnuts, which, much to Frank’s embarrassment, she used to start witnessing conversations with random strangers. “So Dawkins, it turns out, is my mother, circa 1959! Hi Mom!” (pg. 30) This illustrates an important thing about Schaeffer; he is strongest when talking about his personal life and experiences. There is also something to be said for Schaeffer’s discussion of Dennett, mainly because Schaeffer is actually quite positive about certain elements of Dennett’s thought even if he comes to different conclusions.

Patience takes an upward swing when Schaeffer turns to fundamentalism. Again, I think this is because Schaeffer is one of those writers who is best when there is something personal at stake. One may find it interesting that Schaeffer would target someone like Warren, who has risen to fame largely on his reputation for being a more “liberal,” social-action evangelical preacher. Schaeffer's main objection to Warren is that he sees Warren as an example of one of the principle weaknesses of the entire Protestant legacy, its lack of a tradition and the need, in the absence of such a tradition, to create larger than life cult-figures to stand in its place. This argument is one of Schaeffer’s valuable intellectual points and it is a pity that he, in both Patience and Crazy for God, does not delve more deeply into this issue. I would love to see Schaeffer do a book just on this point. It would make it even better if he did more to place this attack on Protestantism in the context of an explicitly Eastern Orthodox position. I suspect that Schaeffer fears, and probably rightfully so, that such a book would fail to reach a general audience. My thinking is that, in this religious climate, the most important thing for American Christians to see is a serious and vigorous Christianity, any Christianity, that is not Evangelicalism. Similarly, on my particular front of the religion wars, one of the key things to defeating Haredism is merely to show that such a thing as a serious non-Haredi Judaism even exists.

I loved the fact that Schaeffer discusses C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien and the fact that the same Christian colleges that adore them would never put up with their drinking and their theology. I must object, though, to Schaeffer’s categorization of Lewis as someone who “ruined what could have been a decent literary career by slavishly working Christian propaganda into his ‘novels,’ especially once he began to cater to the evangelical/fundamentalist subculture after he became a star.” (pg. 102-103) Lewis, to the end of his life, was a professor of literature, who incidentally wrote books on Christian apologetics and one of the best-selling series children’s books of all time. Lewis never tried to make a living from being a “star” on the Christian circuit. Even Lewis’ most propagandistic novels, the Chronicles of Narnia, are filled with elements from pagan mythology. Lewis, long after he became a "Christian star," wrote Till We Have Faces, a reworking of the Cupid and Psyche myth that remained explicitly pagan, and a Grief Observed, in which he muses over whether God is a cosmic sadist, torturing us for his own amusement. One of Lewis’ strengths was that he did not sell out; he was willing to put people out of their comfort zone. As a Tolkien fan, I will treasure Schaeffer’s description of one of his school teachers, Bubble:

Having Bubble for a master was something like having Gollum for a teacher. Only Bubble didn’t disgust us by gnawing raw fish. Rather, he revolted and riveted us by snorting huge quantities of filthy, face-staining snuff, he never bathed, and he smelled oddly of pepper and was clearly drunk at times, although he did know a lot about music and made science interesting. (pg. 132)

Schaeffer’s attack on LeHaye and Jenkins also deserves mention. Schaeffer remarks:

If I had to choose companions to take my chances with in a lifeboat, and the choice boiled down to picking Tim LaHaye, Jerry Jenkins, or Christopher Hitchens, I’d pick Hitchens in a heartbeat. At least he wouldn’t try to sink our boat so that Jesus would come back sooner. He might even bring along a case of wine. (pg. 109)

Schaeffer’s primary concern with LaHaye and Jenkins, though he knows them both and personally finds them to be decent people, is that they feed a radical element that could easily turn to violence in order to bring their particular version of the end about. Schaeffer again makes an important point about the religious right and its failings.

The words left behind are ironically what the books are about, but not in the way their authors intended. The evangelical/fundamentalists, from their crudest egocentric celebrities to their “intellectuals” touring college campuses trying to make evangelicalism respectable, have been left behind by modernity. They won’t change their literalistic anti-science, anti-education, anti-everything superstitions, so now they nurse a deep grievance against “the world.” (pg. 113-114)

The second half of Patience is largely a rehash of material from Crazy for God, with some more theology thrown in. At this point, it is still interesting to hear Schaeffer talk about his life, even if it is beginning to wear a little thin. This takes time away from talking about belief. All the pity, because it is precisely this element that could have used more elaboration. It is fair enough to say that belief is something that goes beyond reason, but if one is going to go this route one needs to make all the greater effort for clarity and, dare I say it, “rationality” in one’s writing in order to avoid the obvious counter-argument that one has lost the argument and is now trying to cover up that fact by hiding behind mystery. Every chapter of Patience is headed by a quotation from Soren Kierkegaard, the Christian thinker who best exemplifies this notion of faith as a leap into the absurd. It is unfortunate that Schaeffer did not make the effort to integrate Kierkegaard more into the book itself.

For those looking to understand how Kierkegaard can be made relevant to modern religious issues, Abraham Heschel wrote a book comparing Kierkegaard and Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk called a Passion for Truth. I would particularly recommend this book to readers of this blog. It is about analyzing a type of religious “fundamentalism” that instead of walking lock stock and barrel behind the establishment, attacks and ultimately rejects the religious establishment precisely because the establishment fails to live up to the true standards of the faith. This is the sort of thinking that tells you that anyone sporting clothing that costs thousands of dollars in a world in which children are starving is not a real Christian regardless of how “orthodox” the gospel he preaches sounds. On the topic of Jewish thinkers influenced by Kierkegaard, another person who comes to mind is Rabbi Josef Soloveitchik. I first learned about Kierkegaard from reading Rabbi Soloveitchik’s Lonely Man of Faith which discusses Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling.

Probably the greatest flaw in the book is the fact that it lacks any footnotes or even an index. For example, I would be interested in finding out Schaeffer’s source for Baruch Spinoza (yes Schaeffer refers to him as Baruch and not Benedict) being offered one thousand florins to remain within the Jewish community. Such a story smacks of legend to me. This indicates a book that was rushed to print without much thought or effort. In the end, in judging this book, I feel like I am in the position of a teacher being handed a B paper by a talented student, whom the teacher knows could have done an A paper if only he had put in the effort. My inclination would be to hand the paper back and say: “Please go back and write the paper that I know you can.” Mr. Schaeffer, you have written a mediocre book. From most people, I would accept this, but I know you can do better. You have the talent to write the sort of defense of non-fundamentalist religious beliefs that needs to be written. Could you please go back and write that book!

Friday, October 16, 2009

Articles of Interest

Linda Baker, in Scientific American, has an article about getting Americans to bike more as is common in most European cities. Her suggestion is to get more women involved.

Peter Stothard reviews, for the Times Literary Supplement, Robert Harris’ new novel, Lustrum, about the life of Cicero and exams how Harris uses ancient Rome to comment on modern British politics. I have read the first book in the series, Imperium, and cannot wait for the sequel to come out here in the States. Lustrum continues the story of the Catiline conspiracy. This was a much-beloved topic in the classics courses of Dr. Louis Feldman. Dr. Feldman felt that Catiline was unfairly maligned by Cicero, upon whom we are completely reliant for our information about these events. Harris follows Cicero and turns Catiline into one really scary villain. So far I love every minute of it.

John Elder Robison asks why the Autism community cannot just get along.

Jessica Bennett writes in Newsweek about how the city of Oakland is leading the way for the legalization of marijuana.

Clayton Neuman interviews Eoin Colfer about continuing Douglas Adam’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series. Colfer is best known for the Artemis Fowl series. Certainly not in Adam’s league, but he is talented enough that he should be able to produce a book that Hitchhiker fans can be proud of.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Christian von Dohm and Giving Equal Rights to Muslims

Today, in class, I was planning on talking about Christian von Dohm and his work “Concerning the Amelioration of the Civil Status of the Jews.” Dohm worked for the Prussian government and, as a member of the German Enlightenment, believed in granting Jews equal rights though with certain caveats. Dohm is certainly an interesting example of Enlightenment tolerance and its limitations. Considering, as my father pointed out, that my students were coming back from a break and therefore unlikely to be receptive to serious lecturing and that I, anyway, have been trying to stick more discussion into my classes, I decided to spend the day setting up the issue by posing to them the very modern question of giving Muslims equal rights and what such equal rights might mean. The issue is a difficult one that goes beyond the simplistic one-liners about the importance of having a tolerant free society.

Should the State allow Muslim women to wear headscarves? It is in the interest of the State and of society that everyone come together as one nation. For a group of people to decide to make themselves distinctive by wearing different clothing is to move away from that idea. Particularly in this case where the distinctive garment is meant as an active rejection of the mode of dress of the rest of society. By wearing her headscarf, a Muslim girl is saying to everyone else: “you are all dressed improperly and I reject your values.” This is not the sort of thing in keeping with a desire to be an equal member of society. Can an Imam tell his followers that they have the duty to kill Jews and Christians, including their Jewish and Christian neighbors? Can an Imam quote the passage from the Koran that compares Jews and Christians to monkeys? You cannot, in good faith, say that you want to be an equal citizen just like everyone else and then turn around and spit at people and call them monkeys. Perhaps it should be forbidden for Muslims to talk about this material unless they specifically point out that this does not apply to their modern day Jewish and Christian neighbors. Government officials should be assigned to major mosques to ensure that this is being carried out. (If you think this is funny you should know that the Prussian government, in the eighteenth century, sent Christian Hebraists to synagogues to make sure that Jews left out the line “for they bow to vanity and nothingness” which was deemed as a slight to Christianity.) If we assume that the Koran is teaching that Jews and Christians are monkeys who should be killed then does that make the Koran “hate literature?” Should we then ban its publication and distribution like many countries do with Mein Kampf? What about the Imam who tells his followers that they are not allowed to get a secular education? The men should learn in madrashas all day, supported by their wives, working at low paying jobs, and government welfare. Part of being an equal citizen means working for the benefit of society at large. It would seem that the government has some sort of legitimate interest in making sure that children grow up to be productive citizens. Can the government force Muslims to get a secular education up to a certain age and even to study potentially problematic fields such as literature and science? This might even apply to a libertarian government that is willing to allow non-productive members of society to starve to death on the streets. A libertarian government would have still have a legitimate interest in having children grow up so that they would know everything needed in order to serve as a drafted soldier. I was impressed with how many of my students picked up on how easily anything they suggested could be used to come after Jews.

On a similar line of discussion, Orson Scott Card makes the argument that Muslims, in order to maintain full constitutional protections, must accept that people have the right to convert out of Islam without any threats to their physical safety. Card, who is a Mormon, uses the example of what happened to Mormons in the United States to make his case. The American government forced the Mormon Church to give up polygamy by withholding certain Constitutional protections as long as Mormons continued to uphold polygamy.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Obama Winning the Noble Peace Prize: It is No Joke

Earlier this morning, a friend of mine sent me an email:

Did you hear about President Obama winning the Nobel Peace Prize? So far, I approve of Obama in general, but really, it's like awarding the prize in biology to SETI because, "Well, sure, there haven't been any results yet, but they might at some point."

I assumed that this was some sort of joke that I had missed the punch-line for. Just to be certain I did a search and lo and behold it was real and not even something out of the Onion. Now Obama can join Yasser Arafat, Al Gore and Jimmy Carter in making this an absolutely worthless prize. One can only imagine what was going through the minds of the committee: “We are sorry you did not get the Olympics. Would a Noble Prize make you feel better?” This actually hurts Obama because it plays into the right wing stereotype of liberal elites of the world just waiting to kiss his feet, making Obama look even more ridiculous. I have nothing against Obama. I did not vote for him and oppose his politics but I find him to be likable personally. He could make for a fine regular president if everyone agreed to stop making something historic out of him. Even his supporters have to agree that Obama has done nothing yet. He has not even pulled us out of Iraq and Afghanistan. He has not even made a serious attempt yet at bringing an end to the Palestinian conflict. I believe that Obama is smart enough and charismatic enough to do great things in this world and it would not shock me if, after serving two terms, he managed to do something that did deserve a peace prize. Now he will never get the chance.

As someone who long since lost faith in the value of the Noble Prize for many of its decisions in years past, I wish I would be able to cheer and say “see I told you so.” The problem is that I know that there are people in religious fundamentalist circles who are doing the same thing. One of the key elements of the Rabbi Avigdor Miller style polemic is to delegitimize secular authority, from politics to literature, to science. Rabbi Miller was very open about this: “If you wish to know the value of the Nobel Prize awarded to a scientist for ‘discovering’ how the Universe began, then consider the Nobel Prize for Literature awarded to the writer of smutty Yiddish novels [Isaac Bashevis Singer]” (Awake my Glory pg. 108).

I am someone who is actively fighting the war against religious fundamentalism. This means not just writing polemics from afar to make me feel better about myself, but actually engaging those under the fundamentalist sway on a personal level in an effort to win hearts and minds. I am not sure to what extent this applies to other groups, but the religious fundamentalism of Haredim relies on a “great-men” model of authority. It builds up its leadership, gedolim, to an almost cult-like status. To reach out to Haredim it becomes important to build a counter edifice of great men. For me, this means not just non-Haredi rabbis, but secular politicians, writers, thinkers, and scientists. The moment that one’s list of heroes includes those “outside the faith,” one will have to formulate a theology under which this can be accomplished. This means the end for any religious fundamentalist system that operates on the model of saying that “we, by definition, have the truth, we are right and everyone else is walking in darkness." Whether I like them or not, I need for there to be secular institutions like the Noble Prize award to serve as models of excellence. Now that the Noble Prize has sold itself out for partisan politics, I all the poorer for it.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Why We Need to Ban Hershey Park on Chol Hamoed

Yesterday I went with some of my cousins to Hershey Park. Every year, during the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, Hershey Park is rented out for a day for the Jewish community. You have thousands of Jews from along the east coast in attendance. This is primarily a Haredi event, but you get people from across the spectrum coming. For me, it is worth it to go just to see who I might run into. I did run into a number of my students. (Now I know what they have been doing with their vacation time instead of studying.) Considering how successful and popular this event is I am shocked that, at least to the best of my knowledge, there has been no attempt to ban this event. At a loss to explain this lapse in judgment by radical Haredi vigilante activists, I have decided to help them out with some banning points of my own.

- It is not proper for men and women to share the same amusement park as this encourages mingling between the sexes. Instead, specific designated hours should be set up for men and women like in the supermarkets of all upstanding communities today.

- There is a danger that if a man and woman sit next to each other on a ride and the ride malfunctions, they might accidentally bump into each other.

- It is forbidden for women to ride on roller-coasters and bumper cars. These rides constitute a form of male behavior which women are forbidden to imitate. Waving your hands as you speed down a drop of multiple stories with the wind in your face and your stomach dropping from you is not something that the meek girls raised in our community should have any interest in. There is also a danger that a woman's skirt will fly up during the ride, posing a powerful temptation to any men on the ground with high powered cameras with telescopes. Bumper cars are a form of driving no different than a regular car. Since woman are forbidden to drive a male vehicle such as a car it behooves them not to even play at such a sin by driving toy cars. Women are allowed to ride the carousel and other rides for children if their children need them.

- Attendance at this park encourages women to dress in an immodest manner. (I discovered this with the help of the new Oz Vehadar Levusha application on my cell phone. It takes pictures of women and analyzes their clothing, giving out the relevant paragraphs of the book being violated.) These women serve as a stumbling block to the men who might look at them as well as the religious women who might think to sit down next to them on one of the park's benches.

- It is an absolute chilul Hashem (desecration of God's name) when Jewish children (obviously not from our community) are rude to the gentile workers in the park.

- It is an absolute chilul Hashem to see Jews being kind and in all ways too friendly with the gentile workers in the park.

- This is a park devoted to selling non chalov-yisroel (milk products not under rabbinic supervision) sweets, setting up a stumbling block for our children.

- This event causes men to engage bittul Torah (wasting time not engaged in religious studies).

- Going to this event causes proper Jews to be exposed to other Jews, even Jews who go to co-educational schools, and be influenced in their ways.

- Once we start allowing Jews to go to amusement parks they might be tempted to go these parks during the summer when it is not being rented out by Jews.

- Non-Jewish music like Avraham Fried was being played on the loudspeakers.

-There was a movie theater in operation and DVDs were being sold in front.

- And last but not least. This event is actually fun. The concept of fun does not exist in the Torah and therefore is absolutely forbidden.

Considering the Poe law, I suspect that before too long someone will come out with something along these lines and mean it with deadly seriousness.

(With help from the Nadoff family)

Friday, October 2, 2009

Frank Schaeffer and the Humanities Question

I would like to thank James Pate for recommending Frank Schaeffer’s memoir Crazy for God: How I Grew Up as One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right, and Lived to Take All (or Almost All) of It Back. Frank Schaeffer is the son of the late Christian thinker Francis Schaeffer. Frank grew up in the shadow of his parents in a villa called L’Abri in Switzerland. One of the major themes of the book is the struggle between his parent’s deeply held evangelical beliefs and their love of art and literature. While Frank Schaeffer grew up in a very strict home, without movies, television and other “corruptions” of modern life, he was raised to love classical literature, music and art. Francis Schaeffer did not approve of rock music until the 1960s but he played classical music in his room every waking hour. The highlight of the year was vacationing in Italy where Frank was tutored in painting by a gay artist. On the one hand Francis was far more sheltered than his Evangelical peers in America yet he was also far worldlier. Frank explains the dilemma as follows:

We wanted nothing so much as the respect of the people who found our ideas backward and foolish. In a fantasy world of perfect outcomes, you would write a “Christian book” but have the New York Times declare it great literature, so great that the reviewer would say he was converting. And in the Style section, they would say that Edith Schaeffer [Frank’s mother] was the best-dressed woman in the world, so well dressed that this proved that no all fundamentalists were dowdy and that “we have all been wrong about you Christians.” And if those reporters visited L’Abri, they would say they had never been served so lovely a high tea, and that they had never heard such clever answers to their questions, and that because of the sandwiches, the real silver teaspoons, the beautifully cut skirt and jacket Mom was wearing, the kindness of the Schaeffer children, the fact Dad knew who Jackson Pollock was, meant that the Very Wealthy and Very Important people all over the world would not only come to Christ, but would, at last, admit that at least some real Christians (in other words, us) were even smarter and better-dressed than worldly people, and that you can believe Jesus rose from the dead, not drink or smoke or dance, and yet be even happier, even more cultured, better in every way!
What I never heard Mom or Dad explain was that if the world was so bad and lost, why did they spend so much time trying to imitate it and impress the lost? (pg. 52-53)

Frank Schaeffer has hit on one of the main challenges facing anyone attempting to build a religious movement that can stand its ground intellectually against the best of secular modernity. It is all too easy to make the pretense of being modern as a cover thus making the entire enterprise a scam. It is very easy to say the line that your religion works well with modernity. This goes for both the humanities and the sciences. Even Haredim have for decades now been in on the act, espousing what, in theory, is supposed to be Modern Orthodox rhetoric. Ask a Haredi person about the relationship between science and religion and they will be quick to give you the thirty second talking point about how science does not contradict religion and in fact supports it. It is only when you start to dig in that you will find that the person does not believe in evolution. The science they are talking about is creationism, likely even young earth creationism. It is this sort of thinking that allows a group like Chabad, which engages in soft-core denial of heliocentrism to publish its own “science” journal, B’or Ha’Torah, and claim that they support science. Following the same logic, fundamentalist Christians can create institutions like the Creation Museum in Kentucky to give a scientific veneer to their Christian missionizing. Haredim and fundamentalist Christians are similarly able to create their own micro artistic cultures, with books, music and movies. These are ultimately pale imitations of the secular culture and thus fail in their stated purpose to offer a counter to secular culture.

If you are only engaging in the sciences and the humanities as an act, without believing in what lies behind them, the act is going to wear thin very quickly. I would see this as the cause of the failure to building a serious religious intellectual culture beyond eccentric individuals. By all counts Frank Schaeffer’s parents were true believers in their humanities based Christianity. Yet they failed to bring that humanities element to the wider evangelical culture, which simply wished to use them as intellectual cover. This is best captured in the book when the Schaeffers are told by a Christian film producer that they needed to cut out a shot of Michelangelo’s David from a documentary about western art because it was male nudity.

This is a challenge that I face in my life. If I were debating me, the issue that I would go after is that I may be a smart religious guy, who values science and the humanities, but that I am just an individual who does not represent anyone. All I am doing is providing cover for those who do not really believe in science and the humanities and are just making the pretense of supporting these things to better advance their cause. The fact that I am a true believer in the sciences and the humanities makes the damage to these things all the greater. I would not be nearly as effective if I were simply pulling off an act like everyone else. I have a lot of sympathy for the Schaeffers. Like them I see my religious beliefs as a necessary underpinning for science and for the humanities, where I actually work. My faith serves as a tool which I use to interact with the culture around me, helping me to further the cause of what is best in that culture. I matured into this belief through the influence and example of people like Rabbi Shalom Carmy, Rabbi Moshe Tendler, Dr. Alan Brill and Dr. Louis Feldman during my years at Yeshiva University. In order to continue to operate within Orthodox Judaism I need to believe that such people are more than just eccentrics off to the side, but the elite representatives of a wider movement, a movement in which I am but a lowly foot soldier. I also need to believe that this movement has the potential to dominate Orthodox Judaism as a whole. As of now I do not believe that we even control Modern Orthodox Judaism let alone the Haredi world.