Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Staying in the Fold: Does Belief Actually Matter?

Rabbi Yakov Horowitz is in the process of writing about keeping Jewish children "on the Derech" (in the fold). So far he has written a top ten list of things parents can do to have a decent chance of being able to pass on their values to their children.

1. Belong to a kehila [community] with a Rov [rabbi] who can guide you, and live spiritual, meaningful and inspired lives where you are true role models for your children.
2. Create a happy and nurturing home environment; avoid corporal punishment and refrain from sending them to settings where it is condoned.
3. Spend quality time and nurture your relationships with your children and seek help should you find yourself exuding negative energy with them.
4. Be flexible – treat them as individuals and allow them to chart their own course in life.
5. Protect them from abuse and molestation.
6. Live in a forbearing community where the members have good Torah values and guide your children to develop friendships with peers who have good middos [character traits] and share those values.
7. Provide them with a good and broad-based education – in Judaic and general studies.
8. "Stay in the Game" – never give up on them no matter how bumpy the road educationally or socially, and professionally identify and address any learning disabilities.
9. See to it that your values and those of their schools are consistent and maintain congruence between your words and deeds.
10. See that they exercise (very) often and have varied hobbies and interests.
And … always and above all, daven [pray] to Hashem [God] for siyata dishmaya [heavenly assistance].

These are things that apply to any faith. I do not think the fundamental issues of passing Judaism along to children in this country are really that different from parents trying to pass along Christianity or Islam. What is of particular interest to me here is that nowhere on this list does Rabbi Horowitz say anything about belief, sitting down with your kids and convincing them with "powerful" arguments that certain things, like God's existence and the Exodus from Egypt, are True.

This illustrates a basic problem with how our society engages the question of religious belief. Both sides, religious and secular, like to maintain that religion is about belief. Both sides make the pretense of fealty to this myth because each side finds it useful. Religious people would have us believe that they are religious because they believe specific claims while secular people claim, as rational people, to have refuted such claims and moved beyond them. Can we be honest with ourselves that the decision to follow a religion or abandon it has nothing to do with belief? How many people have actually become atheists from reading Spinoza or even Richard Dawkins? Religion is a way of living and a society in which one chooses to live. If you wish to pursue a certain way of life and live in a certain society then you will "believe" in the accessory religion. If not then you will not "believe" and find yourself another way of life, another society and accept their "beliefs."

Now the issue is muddled by the fact that religious people claim to believe things and secular people claim to not believe certain things and, in a certain surface sense, this is true; most religious people and their secular counterparts, in their own minds, honestly do see themselves respectively as believers and non-believers. The question is what is the basis for such beliefs. To put it simply, most people are social thinkers, not idea thinkers. Abstract ideas such as universal principles of right, wrong, true and false are not real to them and, therefore, have no meaning. What is real and meaningful to most people are relationships; you live in a specific society according to a specific code of conduct. One does not "believe" or "disbelieve" in God; one believes in parents, siblings, friends, Saturday morning Kiddush or the Sunday church social. There are no "big questions" to be answered; people need to be born, become adults, married and put in the ground with due ceremony and reverence. Once the decision to "believe" is made, it simply becomes its own reality, true by definition. If it so happens that this reality is challenged then arguments will be mustered in a fixed game of formulating arguments to suit a given conclusion; in essence drawing targets around the arrows. Since most people do not have a concept of universal principles, they cannot be tied by any notion that arguments have consequences; that accepting an argument means accepting its underlying principles and their potentially undesirable conclusions when applied in other places. (See My Search for Meaning.)

Would it really be so bad if we could be honest and straightforward about things and take belief out of the picture? In the case of Orthodox Judaism, this would mean Judaism as envisioned by Moses Mendelssohn. If you are willing to make an honest effort to keep halakhah (both as to pertains to human beings and to God) you can be part of the Orthodox community. For practical arguments sake, I will even throw in a general belief in God and divine providence.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Haveil Havalim #282

Founded by Soccer Dad, Haveil Havalim is a carnival of Jewish blogs -- a weekly collection of Jewish and Israeli blog highlights, tidbits and points of interest collected from blogs all around the world. It's hosted by different bloggers each week and coordinated by Jack. The term "Haveil Havalim," which means "Vanity of Vanities," is from Qoheleth, (Ecclesiastes) which was written by King Solomon. King Solomon built the Holy Temple in Jerusalem and later on got all bogged down in materialism and other "excesses" and realized that it was nothing but "hevel" (or in English, "vanity").

Welcome to the August 29, 2010 edition of Haveil Havalim. For those of you visiting for the first time, Izgad is a wide ranging blog dealing with issues from Judaism, Asperger syndrome, to medieval and early modern history with regular side trips to the world of science fiction and fantasy. The underlying theme behind all of this (beside for me being able talk about whatever interests me) is a desire to transcend the regular dead end debates between left and right, religious and secular, and seek out alternative frameworks. (See Introduction and a Word of Explanation.) With this in mind, as host, I have been somewhat selective in which submissions to accept for this carnival. I rejected pieces that I found to be simple tirades from either the left or right. If there is going to be a link to something on Izgad it should be because there is actually something, whether I agree with it or not, that is the product of some serious thought and adds to the conversation I am trying to have here and to which I invite all of you to take part in.

I would like to begin with the posts that really struck a chord with me personally, not to denigrate the other quality posts.

Elise/ Independent Patriot presents a Guide to the Perplexed for those struggling with raising children on the autism spectrum and talks about her experience with her atheist Asperger son. Posted at Raising Asperger's Kids.

As an Asperger, I was delighted to see a post about Asperger syndrome and Judaism. Elise's discussion of her son reminds me of C. S. Lewis talking about how when he was an atheist he spent a lot of time not believing in God and being angry at him for not existing. This post also talks about The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Hitchhiker, Maimonides and Asperger syndrome, what could be better!

 Rabbi Mordechai Torczyner reflects on the upcoming crop of rabbinical students and on the spiritual demands of blowing the Shofar. Posted at The Rebbetzin's Husband.

I found both pieces particularly touching. The former because, as someone heading toward thirty and who teaches high school and college students, I am beginning to realize that there is a generation gap between my students and me. God help me, I am one of the adults. As for the latter, I am the son of a rabbi, who always blew Shofar, but was never any good at it myself.

Getting Ready for the High Holidays

David Tzohar attempts to understand the inner meaning of Jewish prayer. Posted at Tzohar LaTeiva.

Rachel Barenblat writes about the concept of tikkun ha-sulamRepairing the ladder, and its connection to the month of Elul. Posted at Velveteen Rabbi.

Minnesota Mamaleh gets ready for the High Holidays with the help of her family's new puppy. Posted at TC Jewfolk.

Elianah-Sharon talks about the song "Seasons of Love" from Rent in Things You Need To Know About Me - Jewels of Elul (The Thing That Changed My Life). Posted at Irresistably Me.

This post is not really connected to Judaism, but I love Rent. I cannot resist any story that is tragic, depressive, kills off main characters and has the humanism to transcend it all. My personal favorite song is "One Song Glory."

Rivster presents Thrilling Dissonance about singing the passage from Jeremiah "zacharti loch chesed niuriach," used in the High Holiday services. Posted at Frume Sarah's World.

I also have a thing for this passage. Unfortunately most people forget what comes two verses after it.


Avital Pinnick, in Henna by Sienna, talks about Noam Sienna and his efforts to preserve Jewish henna traditions. Posted at This and That

Harry talks about attending a production of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night in Jerusalem. Posted at Israelity.

Risa writes about her recent trip to Tel Aviv and offers pictures in Tel Aviv - Revisited and the Klezmer Music in The Abuhav Synagogue in Tzfat. Posted at Isramom.

Thought & Practice

Rabbi Josh Yuter responds to R. Broyde's recent post opposing women leading Kabbalat Shabbat. While not disagreeing with R. Broyde's decision as a matter of policy, R. Yuter addresses the question of communal confusion in the decision making process. Posted at YUTOPIA.

Hadassah Sabo Milner presents The Art of Beginning Again – Spiritual Waters | In the Pink about her experiences using the mikvah. Posted at In the Pink.

Chaviva presents Taking the (Hair) Plunge about her decision to start wearing a sheitel. Posted at Just call me Chaviva.

Susan Barnes has a pair of posts on being part of a Jewish burial society, Chevra Kadisha Seminar - The Experience and Chevra Kadisha Seminar - The Knowledge. Posted at To Kiss A Mezuzah.


David Levy presents Roast Chicken Surprise, A Rosh Hashanah Recipe. Not that I recommend that anyone try this at home, but the post is funny. He also has Confessions of a Yom Kippur Slacker: I Never Fast. Posted at JewishBoston.com.

Batya presents f2f With A JBlogger about her recent dining experience. Posted at me-ander.

Mirjam Weiss presents You Say It's Your Birthday. Posted at Miriyummy.


SnoopyTheGoon has an essay defending the theory of relativity from the charge that it promotes relativism. Posted at SimplyJews.

That concludes this edition. Submit your blog article to the next edition of Haveil Havalim using our carnival submission form. Past posts and future hosts can be found on our blog carnival index page.



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Thursday, August 26, 2010

From Rabbi Marc Angel: Kupat Ha’ir is Religious Charlatanism

Several months ago I posted about Rabbi Marc Angel (one of our last best hopes for sanity in Orthodox Judaism) and his denunciation of the Haredi charity organization Kupat Ha'ir. This week, in his newsletter on the Torah portion, (hat tip to Ms. S.) he is back on the topic, arguing that Kupat Ha'ir is an example of religious charlatanism.

I (like so many others) regularly receive glossy pamphlets from an organization asking us to give charity to their cause. This group must be spending a considerable amount of money to produce these glossy advertisements, filled with pictures of "saintly" looking rabbis and sages. The recent brochure tells us on the front page, in bold letters, that if we contribute to their charity, we are ASSURED of blessings. All contributors to their charity "are assured that they will merit a good, sweet year with no distress or serious ailments." The message is that those "sages" who run this charity have a direct line to God, and can give God exact orders as to who to bless and who not to bless--based, of course, on whether people contribute to this charity.  This type of solicitation of funds is a reflection of charlatanism, a profound degradation of Torah.  It astounds me how anyone would want to lend his name to such a solicitation, or would want to contribute to such a group.

 In this week's Torah portion, we read of blessings and curses--that are dispensed by God, and God alone. No human being has the right to presume that he/she knows and can control the eternal and infinite God. 

 Genuine religion rests on a foundation of humility and a sincere striving to come closer to God. It calls on us to take responsibility for our spiritual lives. Charlatanism rests on a foundation of spiritual arrogance i.e. that some few "sages" can manipulate God and guarantee how God will act. Charlatanism tries to reduce us spiritually, and to make us dependent on an inner clique of wonder workers.

So who is with me? I am very serious. Let the RCA take a break from Rabbi Avi Weiss and excommunicate all those behind Kupat Ha'ir as well as any rabbi who allows their name to be used by them. I do not care how big a Torah scholar they are. Spinoza was an up and coming Torah scholar and that did not save him. Personally I think Kupat Ha'ir is far more dangerous to Judaism than anything Spinoza thought up.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Dishware Baptizing and Tree Hugging: My Vermont Vacation

Last week I took a vacation from my summer dissertation writing vacation to go with my girlfriend and some friends to Vermont. We did lots of healthy nature things like hiking and visiting Ben & Jerry's.

Jews have a practice called "toveling," dipping new dishware in a body of water. Think of it as baptizing the dishware so at least they can get into heaven.

As an early modernist, I would point out that this practice among Culinary Jews has been the subject of heating theological debate, wars and even a defenestration of some dishware in Prague. Catholic Culinary Jews believe that the act of baptism alone can save new dishware from hellfire without the owner having faith in being able to eat from them in heaven provided that they are graced by a priest, using it to eat matzo and drink Manischewitz. Lutheran Culinary Jews believe that dishware may be saved through baptism combined with the faith of the owner followed by it being graced by any lay believer eating brisket or kugel and washing to down with some hearty beer. Calvinist Culinary Jews believe that, regardless of whether dishware is baptized, only an elect few will be saved so owners might as well stop worrying and just eat from them (or become bi-polar depressive and just eat). Anabaptist Culinary Jews believe that owners should be allowed a grace period with their dishware before baptism to eat with them so they can make an informed decision as to whether the set has the right pattern for dining in heaven.

I will say this about my girlfriend; she is assertive, intelligent and liberal. This liberalism may be rubbing off on me. Hiking up a mountain, she paused to refute intelligent design, pointing out that any intelligent designer would have had the good sense to move a tree just a few feet over and not stick it right on top of a rock.

Before I knew it I was hugging trees and concerning myself with soil erosion.

If I am not careful she might have me supporting same-sex marriage and female clergy. I will call in the RCA to find out which is a greater threat and get me least thrown out for. Well, at least my dishware will be saved.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Libertarian Yamukah

(Start at 7:58)

Neuroscientist James Fallon suggests that libertarians might have highly developed dorsolateral prefrontal cortexes. This part of the brain is connected to rationality and it may possibly help compensate for the poor development in parts of the brain dealing with empathy. Check out how he describes the top of the brain.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Rabbi Dovid Orlofsky and the Wisdom of Asking For Sources

Quite a number of bloggers have already discussed the audio clip of Rabbi Dovid Orlofsky of the Haredi outreach yeshiva Ohr Somayach attacking Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb of the Orthodox Union. I would like to add my thoughts to the matter, particularly on the matter of asking for sources. The essence of Orlofsky's tirade against Weinreb is that Weinreb apparently bothered to ask someone if he knew whether Rabbi Moshe Shapiro said anything of use in talking about a natural disaster such as the Tsunami. This qualifies Weinreb, in Orlofsky's eyes, as an idiot.

Coming from the academic world, asking other people for primary and secondary sources to follow up on for your research is expected. Academics hold conferences simply to allow scholars to present research in progress to other scholars in related fields and get feedback. No matter how great you are, you want to hear from other people, get their criticism and yes hear if they know of sources that you do not. I have been working on a doctorate on Jewish Messianism for the past several years; I make no claim to knowing everything on the topic. In fact, it is likely that you, my reader, know something about this topic that I do not. I encourage you, if you know of a book or have a thought that might be of interest, please contact me.

One of the greatest scholars that I have had the privilege to study with is Professor Louis Feldman, the Classics professor at Yeshiva University. Professor Feldman is a man who quite literally has Greco-Roman literature and the Church fathers at his fingertips. He has the practice of asking his undergraduate students to hand in paper topics and then gives them back page long single-spaced small print typed lists of source material to look at. Any issue that you can think to write about, Feldman can give you sources until they are coming out of your ears. Now Feldman, of all people, used joke with us that the problem with scholarship today is that there is too much being written and that we should pay people not to write. Even someone like Feldman, who comes closer than anyone I know to knowing everything, could still feel overwhelmed at times as to what is out there that he does not know.

In reading rabbinic letters, particularly from pre-modern times, one of the major themes that consistently come up is the need for books. "Do you have a copy of this book; can you send it to me?" This was only natural in a world where books were rare and expensive. Yes, even the greatest scholars in Jewish history did not know everything and had to ask their colleagues for help. How does someone like Rabbi Orlofsky deal with this? He probably lives in Artscroll hagiography land where every rabbi knew the entire Talmud by the age of five regardless of whether they lived within a hundred miles of a full set of it.

One of the most basic things about knowledge is that it is so vast that no single person could ever hope to master it; forget about knowing everything, even individual fields are too broad for the individual. Because of this, the pursuit of knowledge is, by definition, a collaborative effort. This leads to a collaborative view as to the nature of truth. I do not know everything. I know a few bits and pieces about something. I will, therefore, seek out other people, even and particularly people that I strongly disagree with and engage in a dialogue with them. Not because I have some Truth to convince them of, but because I believe that they have something to teach me. Whatever views of theirs I may strongly disagree with, I assume they came to those views honestly, through knowledge that I do not have. Put our two sets of knowledge together and, hopefully, we will produce something better than either of us could produce on our own.

I wonder what it does to someone to follow a fundamentalist view of religion, where there is direct divine revelation, preferably in the form of a holy book, understandable to man. Once you have this revelation you have the Truth and there is now no more need for questions; if the process of questions and answers are still used it is merely to demonstrate that all questions have been answered and are unnecessary. Such knowledge would require no collaboration; there is the Truth known to a few privileged men, everything else is error and heresy to be uprooted. In an odd twist on Nietzsche, this mode of thinking requires both that God be made human enough for his wisdom to fit into the human mind and there must be human beings godlike enough to know God and serve as purveyors of the Truth. God is thus abandoned and men, otherwise known as gedolim, are worshipped in his place. (See Rabbi Marc Angel Takes on Kupat Ha'ir.)

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Da’as Torah and the Settler Movement

Da’as Torah is the notion that Jewish religious authorities have special even supernatural knowledge, giving them insight not only into the practice of Judaism, but also everyday life as well. For example, what job to pursue or what policies the government should follow. This concept is usually associated with Haredi Orthodox Judaism. Dr. Samuel Heilman, in discussing the rise of Da’as Torah in modern times, takes it as a given that this applies not only to Haredim, but to the settler movement as well. According to Heilman.  

Da'as Torah evolved into charisma and merged the scholar rabbi with the Hasidic rebbe. In spite of the efforts of the yeshiva world, particularly in its Lithuanian tradition, to remove these associations, the rebbeization of the scholars continued. Scholars became saints, or at least saintly rabbis. Thus Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook, head of the Merkaz Harav yeshiva in Jerusalem, and Rabbi Eliezer Schach, yeshiva head at Ponovezh in B'nai B'rak, became for their students no less charismatic figures than the Lubavitcher rebbe or the Belzer rebbe were for their Hasidic disciples. Among the Gush Emunim, some of this has transformed yeshiva heads and scholars into partisan commanders. (Samuel Heilman, “The Vision from the Madrasa and Bes Medrash: Some Parallels between Islam and Judaism” Bulletin of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Vol. 49, No. 4 (Jan., 1996), pg. 24.)

This statement struck me as odd as I am used to thinking of the settler movement as a form of modern orthodoxy. Granted, the settler movement is strongly messianic and even apocalyptic, but I have never seen any tendency to venerate their leaders. It would be one thing for settlers to disobey the Israeli government under orders from their leaders because they believed that Jewish law forbade them to give up land or because intellectually they believed that giving up land was bad policy. But when have settlers claimed that their leaders were, in opposing the government, acting under direct divine inspiration? I am putting a shout out to my readers, some of whom I presume are more knowledgeable about the settler movement than I am. Do you see the settlers as venerating their leaders as a form of Da’as Torah or is Heilman simply talking nonsense here?   

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Education as Sociability Versus Education as Regurgitating Information: An Asperger Dilemma

James Pate ran with my post on Asperger sociability, contrasting it with a valedictorian speech by Erica Goldson. Goldson expresses her own frustrations about being declared valedictorian by her school:

… in retrospect, I cannot say that I am any more intelligent than my peers. I can attest that I am only the best at doing what I am told and working the system. Yet, here I stand, and I am supposed to be proud that I have completed this period of indoctrination. I will leave in the fall to go on to the next phase expected of me, in order to receive a paper document that certifies that I am capable of work. But I contend that I am a human being, a thinker, an adventurer – not a worker. A worker is someone who is trapped within repetition – a slave of the system set up before him. But now, I have successfully shown that I was the best slave. I did what I was told to the extreme. While others sat in class and doodled to later become great artists, I sat in class to take notes and become a great test-taker. While others would come to class without their homework done because they were reading about an interest of theirs, I never missed an assignment. While others were creating music and writing lyrics, I decided to do extra credit, even though I never needed it. So, I wonder, why did I even want this position? Sure, I earned it, but what will come of it? When I leave educational institutionalism, will I be successful or forever lost? I have no clue about what I want to do with my life; I have no interests because I saw every subject of study as work, and I excelled at every subject just for the purpose of excelling, not learning. And quite frankly, now I'm scared.

Reflecting on this issue, James notes:

I like the idea of reading things outside of my school assignments, something that I didn't do too much until about three years ago. Yes, I think that I was right to go to school and learn stuff that didn't interest me. That's the case right now, for I need to know certain things that I consider boring in order to navigate my way through life effectively. But it's enjoyable to learn for the sake of learning.

At the same time, as a person with Asperger's (and there are people with Asperger's who may have different impressions on this), I enjoyed the structure of school. You study, learn facts, regurgitate them back to your teacher, and thereby succeed.

Like James, I have mixed feelings about education as a process of absorbing information and spitting it back out. Let me say right off that I do not endorse such a mode of education and, like most people, agree that, in of itself, such an education is pointless and only serves to teach children how to play the system and ultimately hate learning. That being said, my younger self did have a very high regard for this process and was quite good at it at least in so far as this information pertained to a field of interest, mainly history. My younger self saw knowledge as the ultimate good; the more information you had in your head the smarter you were and the closer you were to understanding reality. It was only when I got into college that I started to seriously think about the purpose of studying history and the underlying methods by which one does so. My view of knowledge shifted from knowledge as self-evident and objectively true facts to be passively received to methods of analysis to be used to make sense of subjective pieces of information, meaning nothing in of themselves. Today, the history courses I teach are less about historical facts than a method with which to analyze the period incidentally listed in the title of the course. (See The Challenge of Skeptical Relativism.)

Despite having moved away from my earlier attitude toward education I still have not completely rejected it. Even in retrospect, I do not see the time I spent memorizing historical facts as being wasted. On the contrary, I see it as a necessary stage in my intellectual development, without which I could not be the method thinker that I am today. It was in reading Daniel Willingham's Why Student's Don't Like School that the two sides of my thinking clicked together. Willingham offers a defense of rote learning, particularly in the early stages of education as a necessary foundation for any serious intellectual education. In any field, there are just certain things you are going to have to know cold before you move on and there is no way around simply having to grimace and swallow. A conversation about critically understanding the history of western civilization is going to mean nothing to people who lack a basic awareness of Caesar, Charlemagne, and Napoleon. (Unfortunately, this includes a fair number of college students who supposedly passed European history in high school.) So a process of memorizing and spitting back information does have its limited place. Think of it is capital to be earned and then spent in order to acquire a real education.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Does Support for Gay Rights Entail Discrimination against Aspergers?

Ultimately, I can accept the neurotypical status quo, despite its inconveniences, because even when it "discriminates" against me, in its "discrimination" there is a larger equality. Those in the majority are not truly discriminating against me as their actions are in keeping with universal law. In our society, each person is free to attempt to fashion society as they see fit. As such, I am equal in society, as an individual, to any neurotypical, with an equal vote; I am simply fated to lose this vote. That being said, nothing in this process necessitates an acknowledgment of the superiority of the neurotypical position. This is no different than in a political democracy where the passage of the liberal expansion of government in no way implies the superiority of liberal positions. (This is one of the advantages of democracy; one can "lose" while still maintaining one's legitimacy, thus eliminating the need to turn to violence.) Furthermore, as an Asperger, I am simply one of many outsiders to society with the exact same problem; as we live in a society not designed with us in mind we are all at the disadvantage of having to suffer daily reminders of that fact. Ironically enough, this is comforting because we are all equally disadvantaged. Of course, this position only works if all outside groups are truly equally disadvantaged. The moment one outsider group is protected and given, as a "civil right," the right not to feel like outsiders then this all collapses. Thus, any attempt to give one outsider group such "civil rights" is actually an act of discrimination against all other groups as it implies that one group is "more equal" than others in deserving such rights.

At its core, the gay rights movement is about defining civil rights not just as protection against direct physical harm, but also against indirect harm or anything that results in the placing of homosexuals as outsiders. For example to say that attempts to define marriage as something between a man and woman discriminates against homosexuals requires the assumption that civil rights do not just mean that homosexuals are to be protected against laws that say things like "only heterosexuals shall be allowed to marry," (see How to Practice Discrimination against Homosexuals) but also against anything that incidentally puts them at a disadvantage. It is plausible that one can support a traditional definition of marriage simply because, in one's own mind, one believes that marriages between men and women accomplish something specific of importance to society without ever intending alienate homosexuals. Heterosexual marriage long predates the rise of the gay rights movement just as neurotypical friendship long predates society's awareness of Asperger syndrome. This is in contrast to racial discrimination laws like separate water fountains which have only existed in the presence of a racial minority and with the explicit purpose of alienating such groups. It is irrelevant to the guy rights movement whether supporters of traditional marriage are consciously acting against homosexuals. The fact that such a definition of marriage de facto harms homosexuals automatically makes it discrimination.

When Judge Walker decided that Proposition 8 discriminated against homosexuals, but left intact public school report cards and even government employee evaluations offering tangible physical rewards to those who "work well with others" (others, in this case, meaning neurotypicals), he denied my humanity and the humanity of every Asperger person. Somehow my suffering due to being forced to socialize and being penalized for failing to do so is not important, but the suffering of homosexuals in a traditional marriage society is. (Note that I am not denying the reality of homosexual suffering nor am I trivializing it.) The fact that Judge Walker likely never considered the issue of Asperger syndrome is irrelevant since he himself does not deem this to be relevant when applied to homosexuals. There are real consequences to this; homosexuals now have the force of law behind them as they negotiate with the rest of society. How can I claim to be different but equal if the government does not officially endorse that equality, particularly when the government is willing to endorse the equality of homosexuals? Clearly, unlike homosexuals whose alternative lifestyle is equally valid, the Asperger information based lifestyle is really a mental illness of not being able to relate to other people. As such, Aspergers must submit to the care of neurotypicals who clearly know better than they do and help "educate" and "cure" them. Those Aspergers who are stubborn and refuse to be "educated" and "cured" must suffer societal censure to make them see the error of their ways.

I have nothing against the practical objectives of the gay rights movement just as long as I get my "rights" as well. You want government endorsed gay marriage? I wish we could get rid of the concept of government endorsed marriage to begin with. People on the spectrum are statistically less likely to ever marry; thus, government marriage serves to place an undue tax burden on us as well as a means of alienating us by implying that our non-married lives are of less value. Perhaps we could have a form of "Asperger" marriage to acknowledge our special relationship to our fields of study. This could take the form of special tax breaks to help me complete my doctorate, discounts on museums, Renaissance fairs, and Comic-Con. You want to stick Heather has Two Mommies in public schools? Fine, I just want the entire concept of friendship and any other social relationship as an innate good removed from the curriculum. This is to say nothing of every other group of social outsiders, who must be given their "rightful" recognition. Anything less is bigotry.

I charge Judge Walker, the gay rights movement as well as their allies with the theft of the human rights of Aspergers as well as every outsider group. More importantly, I charge them with hypocrisy.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Social Relationships and Anti-Asperger Bigotry

Growing up as an Asperger was not easy; long before the concept of Asperger syndrome crossed my path I knew that I was different and that I lived in a society clearly not designed with me in mind. The fact that I stood out made me a target for bullying. More frustrating was the official bias inherent in the educational system. Consider the report card question of whether a child "plays well with others." Inherent in this question is the assumption that relating to other people is of great value. Our entire educational structure is premised far more on "socializing" than on the dissemination of information. Not that there is anything wrong with being social, but this approach to education is rooted in a neurotypical bias. My grade school report cards never asked if I was reading on my own for pleasure, if I pursued research into topics of interest outside of formal school assignment, or how well I critically analyzed texts. So while my neurotypical classmates never were faced with an existential crisis or even the friendly well-meaning suggestion that they attempt to operate in a more information based mode, I was plagued by the fact that I did not relate to people in the same way that others did. Was there something wrong with me because I was more interested in memorizing historical facts than with "playing well with others?" Was not the point of school to cram as much information into one's head as possible?

One could go so far as to say that any discussion of friendship reveals a neurotypical bias. My life would have been a lot easier if, in kindergarten, we would have been read, in addition to the books about friends, books about children who are happy doing stuff on their own, living in their own heads, and occasionally coming together with other children to achieve mutually beneficial results in keeping with ethical universal law. Perhaps the teacher could be sensitive when talking about friendship and point out to the class that this was one of many equally valid lifestyle choices.

I recognize that such "civil rights reforms" are unlikely to happen. It is not practical for society to rethink such basic features as social interactions just for my sake. Neurotypicals are not out to discriminate against me. The fact that I am, in a very real sense, harmed by the fact that our society was not constructed with someone like me in mind is incidental; you could say that I am collateral damage. Even if society wished to grant me such "civil rights" they would be unable to do so as they would then be faced with having to do the same for every other outsider group. Perhaps the deaf community would like to eliminate the societal veneration of speech and music as they implicitly relegate deaf people to an inferior status? How about eliminating sports such as basketball and football so as not to imply any lack of ability on the part of those in wheelchairs?

I have made my peace with making concessions to the values of neurotypical society even if I struggle precisely where to draw lines. One could say that I am engaged in a dialectical discourse with social relationships. I do actively seek out other people and attempt to form relationships with them. I am even now pursuing a romantic relationship. Granted, I tend to put a distinctively Asperger spin on these things, focusing on talking to people as opposed to hanging out with someone simply for the sake of being with them, though I am learning, bit by bit, to appreciate even the later. The one thing that I insistent on is that there is no inherent moral advantage to social relationships; the fact that I pursue these things is simply a matter of my personal convenience. In practice, this means that no has the right to criticize me for failing to act in accordance with neurotypical social standards or even for consciously ignoring them; if there is nothing inherently valuable about neurotypical social behavior then it is my right to follow it, not follow it or adapt it to suit my own purposes as I see fit. To say that neurotypical social behavior is somehow "better" than Asperger behavior would, of course, be bigotry.

I struggle with what I would do if I ever had a child on the spectrum; to what extent would I push such a child to be social? I think it would depend a lot on the social climate. I hope that my children will enter a world that is more accepting of Asperger behavior than the world that I grew up in; in such a world there would be less need to adapt to neurotypical standards. I suspect I will end up going through the motions of telling my children to be more sociable in such a way that they will feel free to ignore me as it suits them.

Monday, August 9, 2010

St. Augustine Teaches Rabbi Aharon Feldman Authentic Jewish History

I recently decided to spend part of the morning reading through Rabbi Aharon Feldman's The Eye of the Storm: A Calm View of Raging Issues, so brilliantly skewered by Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein. Part of the book deals with messianism so I had a good excuse. (It is sort of relevant to my dissertation so it counts as work.) Central to Rabbi Feldman's claims is that he offers a Judaism untainted by outside values; he is a believer in "authentic Judaism," so to speak. As such, I believe it is of interest to closely examine some of Rabbi Feldman's "authentic" Jewish beliefs.

In his discussion about messianism, Rabbi Feldman offers the following model of history:

The struggle of human history is the struggle over whether the glory of God or the glory of man will reign supreme. It is the struggle which began when the first man sinned. Adam Ha-Rishon was given the choice between serving God and making his own self "like God, who knows how to choose between good and evil." The choice which faced the first man was: Shall he worship God or shall he worship himself?

It is the struggle which took place between Yaakov and his brother Esav. Yaakov was "a man who sat in the tents [of Torah]," while Esav chose to sell his privilege of serving God in the Beis Hamikdash (the Holy Temple) for a pot of lentils.

The same struggle was replayed was replayed in the wars between Rome and the Jewish people, which ended with the destruction of the Temple. Rome, who the Sages tell us were the descendents of Esav, saw Jerusalem as the antithesis of their world-view. To Rome, man was meant to conquer lands, develop commerce, build highways – in short, to glorify man and his power. For the Jew, man was meant to subordinate his appetites and his passion for conquest to the will of God. With their diametrically divergent world-views, the Romans and the Jews could not inhabit the same world: … "when one stands upright, the other most fall." (Pg. 168-69.)

Now for someone so concerned with offering authentic Jewish beliefs, Rabbi Feldman offers little in the way of sources for this idea so it is up to us to consider where such an understanding of history could come from.

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, in his Lonely Man of Faith, famously talked about the struggle between two types of Adam. Adam One is the man of this world who seeks to conquer it; Adam Two is the spiritual man alone in this world, seeking a relationship with God. Rabbi Soloveitchik was attempting to grant some legitimacy to the pursuit of the glory of man in the hope that the two Adams could be reconciled. So we could rest assured that Rabbi Feldman was not influenced by Rabbi Soloveitchik; if anything he is responding to and denouncing such Modern Orthodox views.

The real source for Rabbi Feldman's model of history was that great authentic Jewish thinker, St. Augustine of Hippo. According to Augustine:

… two cities have been formed by two loves: the earthly by the love of self, even to the contempt of God; the heavenly by the love of God, even to the contempt of self. The former, in a word, glories in itself, the latter in the Lord. For the one seeks glory from men; but the greatest glory of the other is God, the witness of conscience. The one lifts up its head in its own glory; the other says to its God, You are my glory, and the lifter up of mine head. In the one, the princes and the nations it subdues are ruled by the love of ruling; in the other, the princes and the subjects serve one another in love, the latter obeying, while the former take thought for all. The one delights in its own strength, represented in the persons of its rulers; the other says to its God, I will love You, O Lord, my strength. And therefore the wise men of the one city, living according to man, have sought for profit to their own bodies or souls, or both, and those who have known God glorified Him not as God, neither were thankful, but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened; professing themselves to be wise,— that is, glorying in their own wisdom, and being possessed by pride—they became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and four-footed beasts, and creeping things. For they were either leaders or followers of the people in adoring images, and worshipped and served the creature more than the Creator, who is blessed forever. (Romans 1:21-25) But in the other city there is no human wisdom, but only godliness, which offers due worship to the true God, and looks for its reward in the society of the saints, of holy angels as well as holy men, that God may be all in all. (1 Corinthians 15:28) (City of God Book XIV Chap. 28)

Thus Rabbi Feldman's understanding of history is about as Jewish as the Incarnation, Trinity, or, dare I say it, women's prayer groups. To be fair to Augustine, his view of the earthly city, as exemplified by the Roman Empire, was more nuanced than he is generally given credit for, much closer to Rabbi Soloveitchik's Adam One. I am interested in how Augustinian ideas of history entered Jewish thought. We see an example of this in the apocalypticism of Rabbi Abraham bar Hiyya, in the early twelfth century, and Isaac Abarbanel, in the fifteenth century, certainly read Augustine. If anyone knows anything about the issue please feel free to comment.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Doing What is Right in One’s Own Eyes: Yigal Amir and Judge Walker

As I am sure most of you know by now, last week Judge Vaughn Walker has overturned California's Proposition 8 ban on legalizing gay marriage. In terms of gay marriage itself, I have no objection. I am no more opposed to gay marriage than I am to changing the tax code or inheritance law; these are things that I have no personal stake in, do not really care about, and am perfectly willing to be convinced one way or another, particularly as part of a negotiated agreement to gain something that I actually do care about, say the destruction of the Food and Drug Administration and the Department of Education. If homosexuals are excited about a piece of paper from the government saying that they are married and gives them a tax break then I am hardly about to begrudge them it and wish them well.

Whatever my feelings about gay marriage, what I am truly concerned about is the larger picture of maintaining the covenant of law and order. A foundational principle of law is that we agree to submit ourselves to abstract universal laws even when and, in a sense, precisely when they cause harm in specific situations. You support law not because you believe that it will always offer beneficial or just results, it will most certainly not, but because you believe that whatever harm is caused by following the law pales in comparison to the overthrow of law. As such, one embraces the harm as simply the necessary price to be paid to live under Law.

Take the example of Yigal Amir. Contrary to what was generally reported about Amir, he was not some crazed fanatical settler, but a veteran paratrooper and law student, who decided that the Prime Minister of the State of Israel, Yitzchak Rabin, had engaged in an ill-considered course of foreign policy, the Oslo Accords, which had cost the lives of Israeli citizens. As such Amir deemed Rabin as a rodef, someone who was endangering the lives of others, and shot him. Now it would be absurd to respond to Amir's claim by arguing that Rabin's policy did not endanger Israeli lives because he and millions of people on the right believe it and are unlikely to change their minds. As long as the debate is about Oslo, Amir wins because we would be conceding to his cardinal premise that if a politician pursues a line of policy that costs the lives of citizens and if killing that politician will save lives that politician can be killed. Our argument has to be in support of abstract Law. Rabin, as the lawful head of government, had the legal right to sign the Oslo Accords regardless of the negative consequences and every Israeli citizen, including Amir, is obligated to accept that fact. Either there is a lawful Israeli government with power to sign peace accords and hand over territory that it is the sovereign power over or there is no Israeli government and every man has the right to do what is "right in his own eyes," including murdering any "prime ministers" as well as their neighbors.

What would Judge Walker say if tomorrow he is confronted by a sane rational philosophically inclined man with a gun who believes that Walker has done something so bad that he now deserves to die and even that there would be a utilitarian benefit to society to kill him? Obviously, it would be useless and counterproductive to debate our philosopher gunman about his fundamental premises. Clearly, he has thought these through and is not likely to be convinced and furthermore to even allow such a debate is a victory for his side. What Judge Walker would need to do is appeal to the man's sense of Law. He could start by telling the man about Hobbesian warfare, (see Jack Bauer's Last Hobbesian Battle) show him clips of the massacres in Bosnia and Rwanda and explain that whatever good he believes he is doing by committing murder will be outweighed by having the entire country following the same logic and turning into Bosnia and Rwanda (see Slouching to Bosnia). Next Judge Walker could speak of John Locke and how citizens sign contracts to form governments and follow the law. Finally, Judge Walker could introduce his assailant to Immanuel Kant and suggest that he submit himself to Universal Law. Our formally state of nature gunman would see the light, the possibility of living in a world where people of different races, creeds, and political ideologies live together without murdering each other. Now a believer the man throws away his gun and allows Judge Walker to take him by the hand as they both fall to their knees in submission to Universal Law (essentially the same thing as God, but do not let the atheists know), following by pledging allegiance to the flag of the manifestation of Universal Law in their geographic area, their sovereign State. Afterward, the cops could come to take the man away and put him in jail for several months for trespassing and threatening a judge, during which time the man could preach the gospel of Universal Law to his fellow prisoners.

Oh, wait a minute. Judge Walker does not believe in submitting himself to Universal Law. The people California decided to define the theoretical concept of marriage as something between members of the theoretical categories of men and women. They never claimed that homosexuals could not marry. Thus, their actions did not in of themselves discriminate against homosexuals. The fact that this de facto was something detrimental to homosexuals would have been a plausible reason to oppose it while it was being passed. Once passed, however flawed, it must be respected as in keeping with Universal Law. Judge Walker believes, though, that it is his duty, as a judge, to step in when following the law gives a "wrong" result and "correct" it thus he has betrayed Universal Law.

One wonders as to either his hypocrisy or naiveté. Is he unaware that he has handed a moral blank check to every private citizen with a gun? The fact that their "corrections" of the system might involve blood and bodies and not paper is a matter of little consequence. Gay marriage did not win the day; the real victors are the millions of potential Yigal Amirs, from both the left and the right, sane and intelligent people who make the reasonable calculation that they can advance their legitimate cause by committing crimes, even murder, for the sake of what they believe is right. (See Does Michaeli Makovi Support Anat Kamm?) Either everyone submits themselves to Law, particularly those laws they disagree with, or we will fall to Hobbesian war.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

“They Can Say It, We Cannot:” The Haredi Assault on Jewish Law and Jewish Thought

Rabbi Natan Slifkin has an essay "They Can Say It, We Cannot," which responds to an argument of Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv that certain beliefs, such as the Sages of the Talmud could be wrong about matters of science, could be heretical despite the fact that legitimate Jewish figures held them. Rav Elyashiv claims that these opinions were rejected by Jewish tradition and now we must follow the "majority." So people like Rabbi Abraham Maimonides could believe in rabbinic fallibility, but we cannot. I actually had a similar conversation with a Haredi uncle in Israel. He responded to my claim that I was free to reject non-legalist rabbinic statements (aggadita) because Isaac Abarbanel did it on a regular basis with a "he could do it, we cannot." To which asked whether there was a five hundred year limit on being a heretic.

One of the interesting things about present-day Haredi thought is that it lacks a distinction between law (halacha) and thought (hashkafa) to the extent that these terms might very well cease to be relevant. It would seem that they reject the key distinction between the two, mainly that thought deals with objective reality while law does not. Law goes based on what the established community decides. It is irrelevant if even God says a certain oven is pure or if objective reality says that Yom Kippur is on a certain day. Because of this, we are free to ignore objective reality in law. I can go to court with my walking stick and money belt on the day that "really" is Yom Kippur if the rabbinic establishment says Yom Kippur is on a different day. (Mishnah Rosh HaShana 2:10) I can walk away from the debate between Rashi and Rabbenu Tam over tefillin convinced that Rabbenu Tam was right and still have to put on Rashi tefillin in the morning. In halachic debates in the Talmud and amongst the rabbis of the Middle Ages there is no such thing as a "wrong" opinion; there are just opinions, some that we follow in practice and others that we do not. In terms of the science and Torah debate, this allows us to say, like Rabbi Isaac Herzog, that we still follow laws based on faulty science. We do not have to let Judaism collapse into schisms with every side not eating the homes of the other. Thought is clearly different as there are objective truths and no amount of rabbis saying otherwise can change it. Either God has a body or he does not. (Whether or not one is a heretic for holding either opinion is a separate issue.) King Ahab and his entire court did not have the power to overrule Elijah the Prophet as to the number of gods in existence.

This issue of objective reality is, of course, relevant in terms of one's ability to rule and expect other people to follow. Rabbinic authorities have the right to expect those under them to follow them in terms of law, precisely because it is irrelevant whether they are objectively "right." Even people who disagree with them are obligated to follow them on the presumption that, right or wrong, the "buck" has to stop somewhere. When it comes to thought, the issue of ruling is irrelevant because, by definition, if I believe that my rabbinic authority has made a mistake in his theology then he ceases to be my rabbinic authority and I am no longer even allowed to listen to him.

Haredim seem to want it both ways; that law deals with objective reality and those rabbinic authorities can rule on thought. They assume rabbinic infallibility. This turns every legal decision into a theological one. There is no cause to question my religious credentials if I believe that Rabbenu Tam had the better arguments when it came to tefillin. Haredim would challenge my religious credentials for even believing that Rav Elyashiv is "wrong" in his halachic decisions. On the flip side, they expect their opponents to accept their theology as if it were law.

Now, this brings me to a criticism I have of Rabbi Slifkin. He has been very careful to maintain a respectful stance in regards to the Haredi leadership despite their disrespectful treatment of him. It is an intellectually untenable position. I can never accept the legitimacy of anyone who sees me as illegitimate (i.e. not just wrong, but insane, wicked or otherwise ignorant). To do that would be to legitimize my own illegitimacy. The moment members of the Haredi community went from saying that Rabbi Slifkin was not only wrong but a heretic, there could be no more room for Eilu v'Eilu that both sides are the will of God. (See Rabbi Benjamin Hecht's series of articles on the topic.) Either we who support things like rabbinic fallibility and evolution are right or our opponents are right; there can be no middle ground. We need to be striking back. Anyone who denies evolution denies the righteousness of God, by assuming that God has conned humanity by planting the evidence for the express purpose of convincing us that evolution happened. Why should we treat this any differently from Jews who believe that God needed to send his son down to die for our sins? It would be one thing to give observant Jews the benefit of the doubt for the sake of Orthodox unity. But to allow such Jews to question our orthodoxy, that is unacceptable.

This would also be good political tactics. If the Haredi leadership knew that they were going to be destroying Orthodoxy by making evolution illegitimate maybe they would have held back. We can wash our hands of any responsibility of maintaining a unified Orthodox community. It is the Haredim who declared war on us in support of their heretical theology; they are the ones who bear the responsibility for the consequences.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Send Sholom Rubashkin to South Park: A Modest Proposal

The creators of South Park, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, are known for their often crude but spot-on parodies of public figures and the news of the day. Yesterday, with the input of a friend, I started to hash out an idea for what I think could make for an excellent episode, the Sholom Rubashkin case.

Like most of America, the town of South Park is in the grip of the economic downturn. To their rescue comes Sholom Rubashkin as the music man in a black hat and jacket. Hearing of South Park's famous cows, Rubashkin wishes to build a kosher slaughterhouse in town. The prospect of the new jobs sends the people of South Park into jubilation. They see that Rubashkin is such a moral person; he has a special needs son. Kyle goes to work training to be a shochet, a ritual slaughterer. Cartman and Kenny get jobs at the plant after telling Rubashkin that they are eighteen. The sight of so much meat makes Cartman temporarily take back everything nasty he has ever said about Jews, particularly after Rubashkin gives him control of a giant meat-hook crane and fails to notice how Cartman is using it to rip the lungs out of cows. Kenny falls into a meat grinder and becomes a kosher Kenny dog. Meanwhile, Stan, suspicious of some oddities he witnesses around the plant, begins to investigate. He sneaks in on a secret conversation and discovers that Rubashkin is an Elder of Zion James Bond villain planning to ship in unsuspecting illegal immigrant workers and slaughter them for cheap meat. Sneaking away, Stan finds Kyle and Cartman, the latter needing little convincing, and the three friends confront Rubashkin. Rubashkin is insulted: "How dare you accuse me of being an anti-Semitic caricature." To which Stan responds: "You are an anti-Semitic caricature." A chase ensues through the plant, but the children escape Rubashkin and his hench–Jews and inform the entire town. Kyle's father is outraged and immediately offers to defend Rubashkin pro bono. Kyle addresses his father and the town, telling them that it is fine to have religious ideals and to be careful with what you eat, but these ideals should be matched with a concern with the ethics involved in producing the food. The episode ends with Rubashkin in prison with his hench-Jews, carrying him around in a chair so he does not have to walk four cubits without tzitzit.

As this episode would in no way depict Mohammed nor offend Muslims there is no reason for Comedy Central to censure it.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Raymond Lull as a Model Turn of the Twentieth Century Protestant Missionary

Raymond Lull was a thirteenth century mystic and missionary, who ended his life attempting to preach Christianity to Muslims in Muslim controlled North Africa. Not surprisingly, he served as inspiration for Christian missionaries going into the Muslim world in the nineteenth and twentieth century. Lull's Christianity was doctrinally orthodox enough to be acceptable to Protestants yet radical enough for them to see him as a proto-Protestant. The missionary Samuel M. Zwemer spent most of his life preaching to Muslims and wrote a biography of Lull, Raymund Lull: First Missionary to the Moslems, published in 1902. The book carries an introduction by Robert E. Speer, one of the leading Presbyterian clergymen of early twentieth century America. Speer used Lull to advocate for a particular Christian mindset. Readers may find much of what Speer says familiar to them from contemporary Christian preachers yet it is mixed with a distinctively nineteenth century Whig perspective. While we are generally used to the Whig narrative being used by secularists, it is important to keep in mind that it was invented by Protestants. The Whig narrative allowed them to support religious tolerance, denouncing the coercive methods of medieval Catholicism, while preaching conservative Protestant doctrine.

Speer supported a form of religious tolerance, arguing that:

He [Lull] was a Christian of the modern spirit of Catholicity – neither Roman nor Protestant – a man of spiritual judgment, of divine love. He saw the futility of authority in matters of religion at the time that other were busy with the most devilish expression of belief in authority ever conceived – the Inquisition. (xi)

That being said, Speer saw Lull as a model for arguing from faith experience as opposed to reason and science.

It was in his inner experience of the glorified Christ that we are to look for the secret and source of Raymund Lull's doctrine and life: what he thought, what he was, what he suffered. And this must be true of all true missionaries. They do not go out to Asia and Africa to say, "This is the doctrine of the Christian Church," or "Your science is bad. Look through this microscope and see for yourselves and abandon such error," or "Compare your condition with that of America and see how much more socially beneficial Christianity is than Hinduism, or Confucianism, or fetichism, or Islam." Doubtless all this has its place: the argument from the coherence of Christianity with the facts of the universe, the argument from fruit. But it is also all secondary. The primary thing is personal testimony. "This I have felt. This Christ has done for me. I preach whom I know. …

The missionary who would do Paul's work or Lull's must be able to preach a living Christ, tested in experience, saved from all pantheistic error by the Incarnation and roots thus sunk in history, and by the Resurrection and the personality thus preserved in God above, but a Christ here and known, lived and ready to be given by life to death, that death may become life. (xiii-xv)

Finally, Lull's example is used to support a study of other religions, but one not grounded in any sort religious pluralism.

Lull had no idea that Christianity was not a complete and sufficient religion. He did not study other religions with the purpose of providing from them ideals which Christianity was supposed to lack. Nor did he propose to reduce out of all religions a common fund of general principles more or less to be found in all and regard these as the ultimate religion. He studied other religions to find out how better to reach the hearts of their adherents with the Gospel, itself perfect and complete, lacking nothing, needing nothing from any other doctrine. (xvii-xviii)

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Is Starbucks Kosher?

I am sitting here doing work at my local Starbucks (my way of taking a break from doing work in the library) and what do I find in my research, but a discussion about coffee. Apparently Rabbi David b. Solomon ibn Abi Zimra (Radbaz), living in sixteenth-century Egypt has one of the first references to coffee in halachic literature. He permitted the drinking of coffee, even if it was brewed by gentiles. That being said, he declared:

I do not consent to its being drunk at a meeting place [mesibbah] of non-Jews, for this has some undesirable consequences and the Jews are holy.... And, especially since that beverage has no [pleasing] taste nor odor nor appearance, if it is needed for medicinal purposes one may send for it and have it delivered home. This is done by their leading figures, who would be embarrassed to drink it at such establishment. (Rabbi David b. Solomon ibn Abi Zimra, Responsa 3:637 [Elliot Horowitz, "Coffee, Coffeehouses, and the Nocturnal Rituals of Early Modern Jewry" AJS Review, Vol. 14, No. 1 (Spring, 1989): pg. 22]).

So I guess this is reason to take my latte to go. For information on the kosher status of Starbucks products please see Kosher Starbucks.