Friday, April 29, 2011

At the Calvin College Symposium on Religion and Politics

I am writing to all my readers from Grand Rapids MI (my first overnight stay in the "State up North") where I am attending a symposium on religion and politics hosted by Calvin College's Paul B. Henry Institute. So to get some random thoughts in before Shabbos:

I got a ride up to the conference with another Ohio State student. I can't think of many other times where I talked to someone for nearly five hours straight, the entire car trip. He played Carl Reiner to my libertarian historian Mel Brooks. This was the perfect sort of conversation for me. I got to talk about the things that interest me such as the historical method and libertarianism and challenged by an intelligent person who disagrees with me and asks good questions leading to a conversation that I had not previously worked through every move for both sides in my head. Not that I mind questioning other people. The only problem is that I tend to turn more inquisitorial than most people would like. Not that it is personal; on the contrary, I do not care about people's lives, but only their views of life and whether they are coherent and consistent. Though failure to do so is something I take personally.

I gave a presentation this morning of a draft of my dissertation chapter on Joachim of Fiore and Isaac Abarbanel. Where else but a Protestant institution should a Jew go to talk about Catholics (as well as Jews)? I was the odd man out in my discussion panel in that I was not talking about Thomas Hobbes. (Who could resist at an institution named Calvin?) In general, this has been a very political science conference so it was probably the perfect place to announce to political science people that the study of political history is a political act in that it makes politics relevant and so historians like me are needed to make their academic lives meaningful. Then again perhaps my work will convince some of these political science people to not despair that even though the apocalypse might come, ushering in the end of earthly politics, their studies might still yet not have been in vain. 

At one of the sessions, there were two presentations that were open Christian apologetics. The first argued against non-theistic understandings of the moral imperative to obey authority figures. The second was a defense of Jonathan Edwards' understanding of Original Sin. Edwards argued that if every being was born independently and untainted by Original Sin then every person would be the equivalent of the prelapsarian Adam. Adam as an innocent being in total communion with God was incapable of having any knowledge of sin and evil. Because of this he could not identify evil and resist it. This leads to a cosmology of consistent decay where every person falls from grace when confronted with sin just like Adam. In the Edwardian cosmology, everyone is corrupt from the beginning, but we can then take a more upwards view of things as people at least try to improve themselves. 

This was my first conference hosted by a religious institution so maybe it should have been expected. As a historian, though, I take for granted the fact that my job is to describe "who," "what," "when," "where" and "why," but not "should." I write about messianism, but there is nothing in what I do that can suggest one way or another whether a messiah might be coming or when. My Carl Reiner friend pointed out that coming from a political science perspective there may not be such a simple bifurcation. That is an interesting point; does political science force one out of the neutrality of mere description and into actual advocacy?   

Have a good Shabbos everyone.   

Thursday, April 28, 2011

History 111: How to Start Your Own Religion (Part II)

(Part I)

Having decided to begin my long and difficult task of telling over my divine revelation to the world from the comfort of a Starbucks, I must first recruit for myself followers. Such a task requires a charismatic personality. You see, most graduate students would not be cut out for being the Messiah as they are unable to keep the attention of a crowd of undergraduates even when backed by the force of course requirements and grades. How can they expect to hold the attention of people walking across the campus oval with just threats of hellfire?

Now one might think that the best place for the Messiah to go in order to spread his message is to established houses of worship, doing a weekend run of mosques on Fridays, synagogues on Saturday and churches on Sunday. One assumes that these houses of worship are filled with people who believe in God and desire to hear God's message for them. The problem with this strategy is that such people can be presumed to be satisfied with their religion and are unlikely to be looking to exchange theirs for a new model.

It is the practice of Jewish Alcoholics, Chemically Dependents and Significant Others (JACS), a support group for Jews struggling with addiction, to offer, during their weekend gatherings, in addition to the variety of different denominational services, a session titled "Why I am not in synagogue." Rabbis attending these gatherings are often advised to attend those sessions because it gives them a chance to hear from the very people they would not normally hear from, those not in synagogue.

What is good advice for rabbis is also good for the Messiah. I need to find and reach out precisely to the people who might want to attend an establishment religious service but are not made welcome because they are not "respectable." They might be addicts, prostitutes, homosexuals, just plain liberal or simply too poor to afford special clothing for weekly services.

To reach out to such people requires a message that vindicates them as outsiders. "Listen up all you people not in services, God sees into your hearts and hears your prayers. Do you think God can be worshipped in gilded churches built on stolen money, with hands dripping the blood of the innocent? God knows that unlike all those people who pretend to believe in him and haughtily call out to him, it is among you, the dispossessed, that he is truly loved. God has therefore sent you, the true believers, Rev. BZ Messiah to receive his message."

Having vindicated these outsiders, it is important to offer them hope of a future world order in which the establishment will be overturned and your followers will assume their rightful places, which they have been wrongfully usurped from them in this world. "Behold days are coming, says the Lord, when I shall shatter the idols on all foreign built cars. Those who awaken late to sip their non-Starbucks fair-trade coffee shall find that the whip cream has run out. The barren ones who mourn for not being able to get married shall dance through the street."

As part of my war against the establishment, it is only reasonable that I denounce the government, which is a bastion of the established religions and refuses to grant me tax exempt status. Thus Rev. BZ Messiah says: "God damn America, the nipple-ring of Satan's wardrobe malfunction, for it has robbed the Lord's house to fund its dominion over the Earth."

As the Messiah and only bringer of God's message to Earth, it is only natural that I assume a prominent role in my religion way above that of other religious leaders. I will tell my followers where to live and whom to marry and, the moment that any of them dare to challenge a single whim of mine, I will cast them out. Some outsiders might object and call me a cult leader, but they are missing the point; it is all about me. I am the entire religion so it is only logical that the religion moves and breathes in tune with my every personal quirk. Of course, these outsiders are irrelevant; they are too much part of the establishment to ever consider joining my religion anyway. All I care about is my small band of dedicated followers and making sure they are willing to die for me (or at least live with the day to day scorn of the unbelievers who make up the establishment).

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

History 111: Under the Black Flag

For our next book the class picked Under the Black Flag: The Romance and the Reality of Life Among the Pirates by David Cordingly. The golden age of piracy crosses over into the eighteenth century, my cut off line for 111, and largely was acted out in the Caribbean and along the North American coast. That being said piracy in this period, even if it took place outside of European waters, was an extension of European politics, particularly the Dutch and English challenge to the decaying Spanish empire. Furthermore, in this period of transition from pre-modern to modern politics, pirates present a mix of both the pre-modern and the modern. One the one hand piracy is the product of the absence of State power and established navies and as such representative of a time before the modern State. On the other hand pirates represent the break down of established authority, whether political or religious, so critical for modernity. (See also "Catholic Pirates and Greek Merchants.")

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Ayn Rand as Inverse Marxism

Over on Newsweek, Jonathan Chait attacks Rep. Paul Ryan for "waging war on the weak" with his budget plan and for his allegiance to the philosophy of Ayn Rand. As Chait summarizes Rand:

[She] was a kind of politicized L. Ron Hubbard—a novelist-philosopher who inspired a cult of acolytes who deem her the greatest human being who ever lived. The enduring heart of Rand’s totalistic philosophy was Marxism flipped upside down. Rand viewed the capitalists, not the workers, as the producers of all wealth, and the workers, not the capitalists, as useless parasites.

John Galt, the protagonist of her iconic novel Atlas Shrugged, expressed Rand’s inverted Marxism: “The man at the top of the intellectual pyramid contributes the most to all those below him, but gets nothing except his material payment, receiving no intellectual bonus from others to add to the value of his time. The man at the bottom who, left to himself, would starve in his hopeless ineptitude, contributes nothing to those above him, but receives the bonus of all of their brains.”

The misinterpretation of Rand here is astonishing. I bring it up less out of a desire to defend Rand, but as an example of the unfair treatment liberals usually hand libertarians, throwing out nonsensical arguments designed to ignore the very real objections that libertarians have in reverse.

Workers are not the villains in Rand's novels. Those tend to be politicians, union bosses, public intellectuals, and "capitalists," who desire government handouts. In fact, for Rand, there is no worker vs. capitalist conflict in the first place. The conflict is between people who produce, whether the janitor sweeping the floor for dollars an hour or the visionary businessman with his millions, and those who do not produce and feel their lack of actual production gives them some sort of moral right to take from the producers in the name of some "public good." Finally, this entire comparison with Marx ignores the very simple fact that Rand's entire philosophy was built around the rejection of violence and coercion as opposed to Marx who was an apostle of violent revolution and coercive State action. This is not hair splitting when you consider the fact that the Marxist support for violence directly led to Communist governments killing millions of their own people. Until someone can come up with a plausible scenario in which an Objectivist government could plot the deaths of millions of people, any comparison of Rand and Marx must be rendered libel.

Chait's attacks on Rand demonstrate a number of liberal blind spots, allowing him to stand in judgment on the morals of libertarians while at the same not being able to even understand how a libertarian might see him as morally objectionable. Chait is clearly unable to think outside of the framework of class conflict. If someone is pro-capitalism then they must be anti-worker. The very possibility that someone might think that Chait is the villain for not even producing useful ideas and attempting to take other people's money is never raised. This leads us to the biggest liberal moral blind spot. Chait is incapable of conceiving that someone could morally object to government taking money and see it as a form of coercion.

I may have my objections to Ayn Rand's moral philosophy, particularly as she applied it to her own life, but she did not support violence or attempt to coerce money from others. This alone made her far more moral than any liberal on the planet (or conservative for that matter), who allows the government to coercively take money from people.        

Friday, April 22, 2011

George R. R. Martin on Fantasy and Historical Fiction

James Poniewozik of Time blog has a long interview with fantasy novelist George R. R. Martin, whose Game of Thrones is now being made into an HBO show. Martin discusses his view of J. R. R. Tolkien, balancing his respect for him with not slavishly imitating him. He makes the interesting point that when fantasy writers try imitating Tolkien what usually happens is that they simply pick up on the worst elements of his writing. Martin's favorite Tolkien character is Boromir so it is probably not a coincidence that they got Sean Bean, who played Boromir in the movie, for Game of Thrones.  

As a medieval historian I often struggle with political fantasy, finding it implausible. I can easily suspend disbelief when it comes to magic, but your political structure has to be coherent. The problem is that most writers do not understand the inner dynamics of a pre-modern society. Worse, coming to the issue loaded down with modern liberal biases, they either turn to polemics against the pre-modern society they are writing about or try to eliminate the most troublesome elements to the modern mind, without taking into consideration the logical underpinnings of the society.

An example that I often present to my students is that of women's rights. In a militarized society, where the primary issue on everyone's mind is not suffering sudden violent death, and in which women did not actively fight in the same numbers as men (in other words every pre-modern society that has ever existed) not only would women not have equal rights, but the very thought would be absurd. Any woman who complained about her second class position and demanded to be treated as an equal to men would rightfully be laughed at, told to pick up a sword and, until she could do that, to shut her mouth, get back to cooking, cleaning and children and be grateful for having a man to protect her. It would make no sense for a fantasy novel to both maintain a pre-modern militarized society and either equality of the sexes or plucky heroines giving proto-feminist speeches. (See "Toilet Training.")
I was glad therefore to see Martin confront this issue of plausible pre-modern societies

And then there are some things that are just don't square with history. In some sense I'm trying to respond to that. [For example] the arranged marriage, which you see constantly in the historical fiction and television show, almost always when there's an arranged marriage, the girl doesn't want it and rejects it and she runs off with the stable boy instead. This never fucking happened. It just didn't. There were thousands, tens of thousand, perhaps hundreds of thousands of arranged marriages in the nobility through the thousand years of Middle Ages and people went through with them. That's how you did it. It wasn't questioned. Yeah, occasionally you would want someone else, but you wouldn't run off with the stable boy.

And that's another of my pet peeves about fantasies. The bad authors adopt the class structures of the Middle Ages; where you had the royalty and then you had the nobility and you had the merchant class and then you have the peasants and so forth. But they don't' seem to realize what it actually meant. They have scenes where the spunky peasant girl tells off the pretty prince. The pretty prince would have raped the spunky peasant girl. He would have put her in the stocks and then had garbage thrown at her. You know.

I mean, the class structures in places like this had teeth. They had consequences. And people were brought up from their childhood to know their place and to know that duties of their class and the privileges of their class. It was always a source of friction when someone got outside of that thing. And I tried to reflect that.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Sucker Punch: Too Smart for its Own Good

A few weeks ago I attended a free screening of the movie Sucker Punch. As luck would have it I ended up sitting right behind Kevin Grimm the editor of Melt, a local free magazine, who was hosting the event. So taking the opportunity to engage in shameless self promotion I decided to introduce myself as a blogger and ask if he was looking for a writer. He took me up on the offer and asked me to write a review. I sat down to write a review and, as those here already familiar with my style of writing can well imagine, it quickly went off track from being a formal review to me engaging in some larger issues of our popular culture. Kevin was kind enough to simply let the piece run despite it being much longer than what he wanted.

The piece is finally out and I get to link to a real flesh and blood print piece of mine. Hopefully this could be the start of bigger and better things.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Of Jews and Prussians

(Werner Klemperer was a German Jew, who fled the Nazis in his youth and went on to play the the Nazi Colonel Klink to comic hilarity in Hogan's Heroes. Apparently he got the job due to his ability to do an over the top Prussian Junker.)

When I first was accepted to Ohio State and came for orientation I managed to make my advisor rather nervous when, in response to a girl telling me that her family originated from Prussia, I responded jokingly by asking her if she kept a pair of jack-boots. In my defense I would point out that this girl, a historian no less, specifically mentioned Prussia, that small State in northern German that took over the rest of Germany in the nineteenth century, creating the modern German State, and not Germany. Prussian militarism is cute, inoffensive and therefore a legitimate subject of humor, particularly among professional historians, that small minority of the population who have actually heard of Prussia.

Jews and Prussians are not known for having much in common. Sure they both wear funny hats and are stiff, legalistic and wish to take over the world. Prussians were interested in literal global power, backed by their unique genius for building armies, the statecraft to support them and the international diplomacy to reap the benefits of their military. Jews are more interested in banks and Hollywood.

And then one reads the following about the eighteenth century Prussian court:

A visitor from Saxony who resided in Berlin for several months during 1723 recalled that the great festivities of the courtly season were held ‘according to the Jewish manner’ with the women separated from the men, and observed with surprise that there were many dinners at court at which no women appeared at all. (The Iron Kingdom kindle 1844-45.)

I must admit to finding this piece intriguing as evidence of European Jews segregating by gender at public events and not just during prayer services to the extent that such practices would be labeled as “Jewish” as opposed to say "Prussian."

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Book Review Blog Carnival

Welcome to the April 17, 2011 edition of book review blog carnival.

Let me start with a pair of reviews of books that are of particular interest to me.

Zohar of Man of la Book presents Book Review: The Instructions by Adam Levin, about a ten year old Messiah. The post also includes a video of an awesome 80s Israeli rock song. I am actually in middle of writing a dissertation on Jewish messianism and plotting my own mock messianic movement on this blog.

Jeanne presents In the Basement of the Ivory Tower posted at Necromancy Never Pays. This book attacks the present day mass college education system and asks if all the people who are admitted to college should be there. I teach a basic history course at Ohio State and often struggle with how to reach students or even whether all of my students should really be in my class in the first place.

Now to some of the other submissions.

Jim Murdoch presents Smoke Portrait by Trilby Kent posted at The Truth About Lies. Set in 1936 Smoke Portrait traces the development of an unlikely friendship between a young Belgian teenager who pretends he is a POW and a young English woman in her twenties. As their correspondence evolves, they both assume identities that, while false in many respects, remain true to their own selves in other ways. Gradually they come to depend on each other, and their pen friendship proves to be crucial when events in their real lives take on a darker, more threatening significance in the shadow of the impending world war.

Cheyenne presents Book Review: Delirium at The Chey Show. This book deals with a future dystopian America.

Maureen O'Danu presents Fantasy Book Club: Among Others-- A Book Lover's Stroll in the Dark Woods at the Edge of Town posted at Am I the Only One Dancing? This is a YA fantasy novel about a young Welsh girl who lives her life immersed in books, primarily science fiction and fantasy, and lives in a world where fairies exist and magic is real, with sometimes dire consequences.






Kevin presents What Investors Really Want: Book Review and Giveaway! posted at Invest It Wisely. Among other things the book discuss the differences between paternalistic approaches and libertarian approaches to government.


Clark Bjorke presents An Object of Beauty posted at I'll Never Forget the Day I Read a Book! This is a new novel by Steve Martin. Need one say anything more.

To end things off here is a recent post I did on the newly released Patrick Rothfuss novel, Wise Man's Fear, using the example of Harry Potter as a launching pad to analyze Rothfuss' style of writing.

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

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Friday, April 15, 2011

The Settler Movement, the Temple Mount and Leon Festinger

Yesterday Dr. Mordechai Inbari of the University of North Carolina at Pembroke spoke at Ohio State about the attitude of religious Zionists to the Temple Mount. This lecture caught my attention for two reasons. First, it was about religious apocalypticism and politics, my dissertation topic even if Dr. Inbari deals with modern movements while I focus on medieval and early modern ones. Second, he discussed Leon Festinger and his model of religious cognitive dissonance. (See "Leon Festinger's UFO Group and the Spreading of Whedon's Gospel.") Here are my notes for the lecture. As always all mistakes are mine.

The Temple Mount is the holiest site to Judaism and the third holiest site for Islam. For Judaism, the Temple Mount is the house of God. One can think of it as a heart with many layers. The deeper you go the holier it gets. Muslims also see this site as holy based on a story in the hadith where Mohammad journeys at night to a place called Al-Aqsa. Thus the Temple Mount became a major center of conflict in the Israeli-Arab war.

As a scholar, Dr. Inbari is interested in the notion of “when prophecy fails.” For this, you have to start with Leon Festinger’s book. This book was based on the study of a group of people who believed that aliens would come and take them away. As these expectations failed a certain dynamic developed within the group. Festinger called this process “cognitive dissonance. Rather than abandon their beliefs as its claims failed, members of the group became more convinced as to the truth of the claims and made a greater effort to proselytize outsiders. From studying the religious Zionists and the settler movement one can make a case for modifying Festinger's claims. Instead of trying to bring in more believers in response to failed messianic expectations, we see an intensifying of messianic zeal in order to prevent a complete collapse.

From the beginning of Zionism as a major political power within Judaism, Orthodoxy had a mixed relationship with it. Traditional Jews see themselves in exile both physically and spiritually ever since the destruction of the Second Temple. Since God destroyed his house only God can restore it. Therefore Zionism was looked at with suspicion. An example of this was the fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe who argued that Zionism was forcing the end and therefore must stop short of perfection.

Other voices were Rav Abraham Kook, a traditional European rabbi who joined the Zionist movement. According to Rav Kook, one should not judge Zionists based on their actions but on their intentions and even their hidden intentions. God started a human process with Zionism even if the Zionists seem to have rejected rabbinic authority. Once secular Zionists return to their faith the movement will move to a second phase with the restoration of the monarchy and the Temple. Rav Kook even started a yeshiva in 1921 to prepare students for Temple service. This did not mean that Rav Kook and his students were going on the Temple Mount. That would still require a red heifer. Also, it is not clear where the Temple was located.

Rav Kook was preparing for the Messiah, but he was not trying to force issues. The Six Day War changed the status quo in that for the first time in two thousand years Jews controlled the Temple Mount. Gen. Moshe Dayan decided to maintain Muslim authority. Non-Muslims can go as tourists, but only Muslims can pray, thus making the Temple Mount possibly the only place in the world in which Jews are not allowed to pray.

1973 saw the formation of Gush Emunim under the leadership of the son of Rav Kook, Rabbi Zvi Yehudah Kook (1891-1982). He believed that living in post-1967 meant that this was no longer preparing for redemption but now in the actual beginning of the redemption. That being said, the Chief rabbinate declared that one could not go on the Temple Mount until the Temple was built. Obviously, if Jews cannot go onto the Temple Mount until there is a Temple they cannot build one to allow them to go on in the first place. Rabbi Goren, the chief army chaplain, dissented; he went on the Temple Mount and ordered the engineering corps to map the Temple Mount.

The Oslo Accords brought a major crisis to religious Zionism. How do you explain Israeli withdrawal? If Jews controlling more land in Israel brings us closer to redemption does the fact that they now control less mean that we are further away from redemption? This is where cognitive dissonance comes in. Immediately after the signing of Oslo, there was a major shift among the settlers. You have Rabbi Dov Lior saying that the peace process was a punishment from God from delaying the building of the Temple. The conclusion, therefore, was that Jews should go on the Temple Mount. The Council of Yesha rabbis began to encourage Jews to go on the Temple Mount in 1996. The logic being that since Jews do not go on the site the Israeli government became convinced that it could be given away. Thus going on the Temple Mount, even if it violates Jewish law, is permitted due to the emergency nature of the situation.

From November 2003 – October 2004 70,000 Jews visited the mount. The site had been closed with the starting of the Second Intifada. Thus we see a major shift within religious Zionists with them doing something that had before been seen as a major prohibition. This is not religion influencing politics but politics influencing religion. This also serves as a case study of how flexible religion can be.

Muslim doctrine has also been evolving with an acceptance of a Hamas doctrine. Since Mohammad left Mecca on his journey to Jerusalem these two cities are two sides of the same coin; Jerusalem and Mecca are thus the same place and non-Muslims should be forbidden to enter at all.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

History 111: A Brief History of Robin Hood

For the second book of the quarter the class picked A Brief History of Robin Hood by Nigel Cawthorne. This looks like excellent opportunity to explore the relationship between history and mythology as it relates to the historical method. In keeping with my focus on the historical method my primary question for the class is how does one use the historical method to deal with a legend like Robin Hood and make valid historical claims. Granted that the Howard Pyle stories and its Errol Flynn film descendant (to say nothing of the dreadful Kevin Costner movie) are fiction. That being said the legend of Robin Hood can still prove useful in discussing late twelfth century England. And if that fails then we gain an even better tool for understanding the later English culture that down through the centuries crafted this legend.

Japan Jewish Relief: A Guest Post Plea

I was recently contacted by an old friend of mine from the Yeshiva Collage Dramatics Society, Felissa Elfenbein, (how a woman became a member of a guys theater group is a story for a different time). Felissa is working with Japan Jewish Relief and asked if I could help spread the word so I agreed to allow her to do a guest post.  

Benzion asked me how I became involved with helping Japan Jewish Relief as its Social Media Coordinator and I knew that the response would be more in depth then he expected.

From March 2007 until March 2008, I Iived in Hong Kong. Arriving at the end of March Pesach was fast approaching and I was still living in Corporate Housing waiting all of my stuff to arrive via cargo ship. With a kitchen the size of a closet in the US I knew that I needed to find somewhere to go for Pesach and that is when I met the amazing Chabad Rabbi in Hong Kong Rabbi Avzton. I spent Pesach Sedar at his family's table in Hong Kong.

I had to leave but I will never forget Hong Kong and would love to move back someday. To sort of stay connected I remained a member of their email list receiving all of their updates. Most are happy updates telling of special Shabbas Meals, Holiday Events, or Baby Births and Bar Mitzvahs. But there have been two series of updates that really impacted me they weren't the usual Shabbas emails. Rabbi Avtzon is the head Rabbi in Asia and the Far East. The first series of email was about the attack in Mumbai and specifically on the Chabad House there asking Jews around the world to unite in prayer for the family.

The second Series of email newsletters was about the Earthquake and Tsunami in Japan. I was already aware of the situation and helping to raise money so that Veterinarians could go over and help treat the animals that had survived, I write a Pet Blog so it made sense to join and post under the the Paws for Japan Campaign. I received the first email update from Rabbi Avzton in regards to Japan Jewish Relief on March 14th the day that Roy Somech with the help of Chabad of Asia and Tokyo had commissioned a Bakery in Sendai to bake bread for all of those who had no other source of food. I received several more updates always wanting to do something wishing I could go over to Japan to help. But the reality just out of reach as I don't speak Japanese. I read them all and kept blogging about the human animal bond in Japan about the hardships they were going through and what the rest of the world could do to help. Then the update arrived that was sent out on March 31st which ended with "Please read this update to see how we are responding and how you can help"

Obviously they were asking for money or a connection to supplies in Japan that would be cheaper to source or a delivery company that would deliver the goods at a discounted price so that they could feed more people with the money they were receiving. I don't have money to offer and certainly not in the amounts needed to help feed entire cities but I do have a pretty good grasp on Social Media and how to gain support from people all over the world who otherwise would not know about an organization. So I wrote an email to Rabbi Avzton without a second thought about how I could help develop a Social Media presence for Japan Jewish Relief. I set up the Facebook page and some "likes" started to trickle in. I went back to Rabbi Avtzon with an idea and by the next morning everything was in place for our $10,000 for 10,000 friends campaign. All it takes is a click of your computer mouse to make a major impact to help feed an entire city for a day.

Would you like to help Japan? A donor has stepped forward and promised to donate up to $10,000 dollars to Japan Jewish Relief if we can reach 10,000 Facebook fans! All you need to do is click the link and become a fan and ask your friends to become fans as well

There is a lot of work that remains to be done in Japan and it will take years for the country to rebuild but there are people who are hungry and in need of hope now. We are able to be on the ground in Japan when so many other organizations are being asked to wait until they can be self sustained in the most damaged areas they are trying to help. Our team is very small and everyone on the ground lives in Japan some like Roy are from Sendai and saw what an impact Japan Jewish Relief was making and asked to help and others are from the cities we are helping. We aren't using their meager and scare resources we are bringing them food and hope because they know that someone cares and wants to help from their hearts.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Averroes on Women

Neither Plato nor medieval Islamic philosopher are particularly known for their feminism, though apparently in the case of Averroes (Ibn Rushd), the two seem to have combined to serve such a cause. This is pointed out by E. I. J. Rosenthal in his work on Averroes’s theory of politics:

Ibn Rushd's critical attitude to State and Society of his time is also shown in his outspoken pronouncement on women and their status in contemporary Islam. It is also an interesting application of Plato's ideas about the equality of women as far as civic duties are concerned. The relevant passages are found in the first treatise of the Commentary (xxv, 6-10). It is for our purpose sufficient to quote paragraphs 9 and 10-Averroes' application to his own time and place:

Yet, in these states the ability of women is not known, only because they are being taken for procreation alone therein. They are therefore placed at the service of their husbands and [relegated] to the position of procreation, for rearing and [breast] feeding. But this undoes their [other] activities. Because women in these states are not being fitted for any of the human virtues it often happens that they resemble plants. That they are a burden upon the men in these states is one of the reasons for the poverty of these states. For, they are found in them in twice the number of men while at the same time they do not support any (or: carry on most) of the necessary [essential] activities, except for a few, which they undertake mostly at a time when they are obliged to make up their want of funds, like spinning and weaving. All this is self-evident.

This pronouncement runs counter to Islamic teaching and practice and is the more remarkable since it is made by an orthodox member of the Muslim community which was ruled by the amir al-mu'minin, and moreover by a practising lawyer steeped in fiqh. He openly attacks their way of life as the result of the official attitude. It is clear that Plato's ideas must have drawn Averroes' attention to the wastage of human labour so detrimental to the State, and led him to advocate a reversal of orthodox Muslim policy. (“The Place of Politics in the Thought of Ibn Rushd” pg. 251-252)

I would add that this view of women is distinct from that of the Jewish thinker Maimonides with whom Averroes is often compared. Throughout Maimonides' work he used women as a term of derision and he is a major source in Jewish law for stringencies on the role of women in public life. To be fair to Maimonides he, as with most "misogynistic" philosophers, possessed a general all round contempt for human beings as a whole. For Maimonides, women had all the flaws of the rest of the human race without the redeeming quality of having produced a least a few great rationalist thinkers. Averroes shared Maimonides' contempt for human beings and like him distinguished between the exoteric claims which can be revealed to the masses and the esoteric truths which can only be understood by the philosophical elites. In this they were both following the political philosophy of Plato's Republic. Yet Averroes supported women taking on public roles and believed them capable or rational. 
So what pushes a person to ideological misogyny?      

Monday, April 11, 2011

I Get Flack for My Blog Carnival

A few weeks ago, when I hosted the Haveil Havalim carnival, I made the decision to not include a significant number of posts. The biggest reason was simply a matter of quality. If someone came across like they had simply thrown something together in about the amount of time it took me to read the piece I turned them down. In a similiar vein, I also turned down posts that sounded like they came from an angry place. Writing should take more time than speaking as it serves as a means to refine the spoken word, allowing reason to temper anger. Finally, I turned down posts that openly called for violence outside of a State framework.

One would think these are fairly common sense points that people across the ideological spectrum could agree to. Apparently, though, my standards upset people. The host of the newest edition, Esser Agaroth, was someone whom I turned down because, whether or not he fits clauses one and two, he, writing from a blatently Kahanist perspective, certainly fits three. Esser Agaroth, as was his right as host, took the opportunity to respond to me indirectly, even as he was not willing offer me the good grace of being called out by name. Esser Agaroth lists what "offends" him:

I find it offensive when Jews confuse Western culture and sensibilities for Jewish ones. Whether we are talking about "innocent civilians" during a milhemeth misswah (obligatory war), turning Jews into non-Jewish authorities, or a[Italian] black hat, none of these are Jewish concepts.
I find it offensive when Jews accuse other Jews of suborning mass-murder, when murder is an act which may only take place between Jews (Mekhilta, Ramba"m, Sefer HaHinukh). "Killing" is universal; "murder" is not. Please get your terminology right.
I find it offensive when Jews distort the Torah according to their pre-established beliefs and [galuti/diasporan] feelings, like when a Jew quotes the Talmud Bavli...

...that to save a life, it is as if one has saved a world.

...and neglects to mention that HaZa"L was not talking about just any old life, but rather a Jewish one.

I fail to see how any non-Jew can read this and not feel threatened. Do not get me wrong I am willing to support aggressive responses by Israel, including the mass bombing of Palestinian cities in retaliation to terrorist attacks that target civilians. (See "My Government is Licensed to Kill.") I am even willing, in theory, to condone the torture of terror suspects and suspension of their legal rights. (See "Crimes of De-Citizenship.") Even if, as I suspect that many on the left would gladly place me in the same camp, there are some critical differences in that I value all human life, Jewish and non-Jewish, and place no place no virtue in turning toward violence; violence for me is simply an often pragmatic, if tragic, means to avoid becoming the victim of violence oneself.

As one of those Jews with an "inauthentic" Jewish ideology, I would argue that I have even more to fear. Not that my Jewish ideology is any more inauthentic than any other Jewish ideology; all Jewish ideologies are ultimately the product of several thousand years of Jews interacting with other cultures. I challenge anyone to speak for five minutes about Jewish ideology while only using terms found in biblical and rabbinic literature and using those terms in ways that might plausibly be in keeping with their original usage. (See "The Conservative Playbook.") Forget about putting someone in a blog carnival, by claiming for himself the mantel of "authentic Judaism," Esser Agaroth places all those who disagree with him outside of the Jewish religion. Now, what can we expect Esser Agaroth to do to Jewish "traitors" to the "true" spirit of the faith in between interacting with gentiles in such a way as to remove even the concept of "murder?"  

Thursday, April 7, 2011

History 111: How to Start Your Own Religion (Part I)

So I have decided to put my dissertation research to some practical use and will be starting my own messianic cult. I figure that, considering my knowledge of the history of religion I should be able to learn from the mistakes of other would be Messiahs and prophets. (Note to readers; being a Messiah is a difficult and dangerous task to be left to those with years of professional graduate school experience.)

Now in making claims of supernatural revelation there are three levels, forming a very wide pyramid. At the bottom of the pyramid are the hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of people, throughout history who claimed supernatural revelation. Such people stood around on street corners and were, for the most part, ignored. The more successful of them  might have been mocked by those passing by or even arrested by the Inquisition on charges of heresy. We tend to call such people cranks and lunatics. Obviously as a would be Messiah of my talent I think I can do significantly better than this.

The next level up were those who managed to form small groups of followers around themselves; in other words cult leaders. Such people are relatively more rare, perhaps a few thousand in all of history, as this actually requires, as we shall see, a very specific set of skills. Examples of such people would be David Koresh, Rev. Moon of the Unification Church, Hong Xiuquan from nineteenth century China, who claimed to be the brother of Jesus and started the Taiping rebellion which caused the deaths of some twenty million people and my beloved Sabbatai Sevi. Such a path, while offering minor celebrity status, carries with it serious risk of sudden violent death due to government officials not appreciating your message of peace, love and killing the unbeliever. Of course Sabbatai did leverage his messianic career into a nice honorary position in the Ottoman civil service.

At the top of the pyramid were those very rare individuals who, with a mixture of talent and the right historical circumstances, managed to become the heads of major religions, with millions, even billions, of followers willing to start wars in their name, billions of dollars, and massive houses of worship to gladden the heart of even the most humble Messiah. The all time most successful person in this elite group was Jesus, with some two billion Christians. With over a billion Muslims, Mohammad comes in second. Even I, in my great humility, do not believe I can play in the same league as Jesus or Mohammad, but perhaps I can match the founder of Mormonism, Joseph Smith, and create a religion with a few million followers and a Broadway show.

Entering this field is about as easy as becoming a struggling artist as it does not require any actual talent or job experience. All you need to do is claim a supernatural revelation, a visit from say God, the angel Gabriel, Elijah the Prophet, Jesus or the Virgin Mary, and a message, something about peace, God's love, his kingdom is coming and everyone is going to die unless they repent very soon. While it may require no talent, it is necessary for even the most talented Messiah to start at the bottom so the position is not to be mocked. Being a divine messenger has the advantage over being an artist in that, by virtue of just the job title, you can automatically catapult yourself over all those theologians with years of theoretical experience in the field; artists have to walk in the shadow of those more established in their field. Of course being an artist has the advantage of allowing you to sit around coffee shops, safe from the elements and the mob, instead of street corners. Note to self; make sure to do research into the feasibility of becoming the first Starbucks Messiah.     

(To be continued ...)

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

My Review of Catholic Pirates and Greek Merchants

Ehistory already has my review of Molly Greene's Catholic Pirates and Greek Merchants up on its site even though it is officially part of its June edition so go check it out.

Monday, April 4, 2011

The Goldstone Retraction: What was He Thinking in the First Place?

Recently Judge Richard Goldstone has came out with the stunning retraction of his earlier report on potential war crimes during Israel's invasion of Gaza. According to Goldstone:

If I had known then what I know now, the Goldstone Report would have been a different document.


Our report found evidence of potential war crimes and “possibly crimes against humanity” by both Israel and Hamas. That the crimes allegedly committed by Hamas were intentional goes without saying — its rockets were purposefully and indiscriminately aimed at civilian targets.

The allegations of intentionality by Israel were based on the deaths of and injuries to civilians in situations where our fact-finding mission had no evidence on which to draw any other reasonable conclusion. While the investigations published by the Israeli military and recognized in the U.N. committee’s report have established the validity of some incidents that we investigated in cases involving individual soldiers, they also indicate that civilians were not intentionally targeted as a matter of policy.

This is the type of apology that one rarely sees in today's spin politics and Judge Goldstone deserves to be commended for his willingness to own up to his own mistakes. That being said, I must admit to being bothered by this whole piece in that it fails to confront the basic problem of the entire enterprise of the Goldstone report to begin with.

When I first heard about Goldstone's investigation my reaction was that it was flawed from its very conception in that it placed Israel on par with Hamas in terms of both sides being subjected to this investigation. Hamas is an institution devoted to the delegitimization of the Jewish people and ultimately the violent destruction of the State of Israel. As such, it is impossible for Israel to ever engage in any form of official dialogue with Hamas. To do so would be to admit that there is some validity to their claims to the extent that these claims deserve to be placed before the forum of polite society for consideration. If such a discussion were ever to occur Israel would automatically come out the loser simply in terms of the fact that it would mean that Israel, unlike other countries, would be placed in the subservient position of having to defend its own legitimacy. This would be the case even of Israel actually were to win this debate.

Goldstone, by inviting both Israel and Hamas to participate in his investigation was essentially asking Israel to participate in a discussion with Hamas and accept Hamas as a legitimate member of the brotherhood of civilized people with legitimate opinions to be discussed such as the State of Israel is a criminal enterprise to be put down. Whether or not any Israeli official ever officially sat down with a member of Hamas, Israel would still be accepting that Hamas was a legitimate discussion partner that other legitimate forces might wish to talk to. Thus Goldstone placed Israel in the bind of either accepting the legitimacy of Hamas, the equivalent of Israel putting a gun to its head and pulling the trigger, or of not accepting the legitimacy of the entire Goldstone investigation and not cooperating. Israel obviously chose the latter option and waged a campaign to delegitimize Goldstone, a response that for some reason seems to have caught Goldstone by surprise.

If Goldstone had come back with the most pro-Israel report in the world, nominating the entire country for sainthood, it would not have changed this basic fact and Israel would have needed to reject Goldstone and his investigation. Even now that Goldstone is saying all the right things, I cannot bring myself to support him even though, in terms of content, I agree with him.

Goldstone's retraction reminds me a lot of the comments made by President Lee Bollinger of Columbia University (formally of Michigan, a school that as an Ohio State person can never accept as legitimate) in introducing President Ahmadinejad of Iran when he came to speak at Columbia.

When I first heard that Ahmadinejad was going to speak at a university like Columbia I was horrified. After seeing Bollinger's performance I was even more disturbed. Not that I disagreed with anything Bollinger said, on the contrary, he said everything I would have wanted to say in such a situation. Bollinger clearly had his mind in the right place. So why did he agree to grant Ahmadinejad the forum and the legitimacy in the first place? Either there not being gays in Iran and Israel should be destroyed are legitimate opinions to be discussed in polite society or Ahmadinejad is a rogue thug to be hunted down and shot like a rabid dog, not invited to speak at universities. Obviously, Bollinger did not believe the former, but because he could not support the latter position, for all intents and purposes, it was the former that he was agreeing to invite into our public discourse.

I do not see either Goldstone or Bollinger as anti-Semites who wish to see Israel destroyed. I see them as simply modern liberals unable to resist granting legitimacy to radical Islam even as this means asking first Israel and eventually the rest of western civilization to write its suicide note. If we in the West, including liberals, are going to survive it will because we understand the difference between those ideas which we can respectfully disagree with and tolerate and those ideas which, by definition, are declarations of war to be fought at all costs.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Jews and Art: Secret Transcripts

Today at the Jewish Community Center there was a day of learning featuring a variety of speakers on a range of topics for the community here in Columbus. Among the keynote presentations was Dr. Marc Michael Epstein’s “Jews and Art: Secret Transcripts.” Here are my notes. As always all mistakes are mine.

The title of this lecture includes the words “Jews” and “art.” This is a difficult task likely to prove dangerous to one’s health; much like a four day tour of seventeen countries. Furthermore, who is to say what “Jewish art” is? We have kitsch art and material goods. Art is notoriously problematic for Jews, not something for nice Jews to go into. Can you name one Jewish artist before Marc Chagall?

Every book about Jewish art begins be pointing to the second commandment. Jews are supposed to focus on the “word” as opposed to the image. So let us begin by looking at that infamous second commandment. Jews saw the Bible as a love letter from God. Traditional Jewish thought assumed that the prohibition was on making objects for oneself, but not for others, against three dimensional objects, but not against two-dimensional objects. Non Jews can make an image, even one intended for worship, and Jews can own it.

Jews in fact did make visual objects. We have actual fragments from the Second Temple. There were swastikas, an image of power in many ancient cultures. We see full narrative panels such as the Dura Europos, discovered in 1932. Dura Europos is special because even the walls survived, not just the floors. There was a downturn in Jewish art with the rise of Islam which tended to be hostile to images. Around the turn of the fourteenth century we see laminated manuscripts reaching out from monasteries to shops where anyone, with money, could purchase them.

The real problem surrounding Jewish art is not that it exists, but that it seems to mimic the art of the cultures around them. Angels in Judeo-Persian manuscripts look like Muslim angels. German Jewish angels look like Christian angels complete with ritual robes. Similar is not identical though. If Congress were to commission an eagle with an American flag for the capital and some kids in Spanish Harlem were to draw the same eagle with a flag would anyone think they were the same thing? One would symbolize the American dream, the other the American dream deferred.

The Golden Haggadah from fourteenth century Barcelona has often been described as being devoid of almost all but the most superficial Jewish elements. The pictures, mostly of scenes from Genesis and Exodus, look like Christian art. It very well might have been drawn by a Christian. The haggadah makes use of midrashic material. For example we see one giant frog spouting out smaller frogs from its posterior. It only makes sense that the work of any artist should reflect the wider culture. So yes Moses going to Egypt does look like the “holy family” of Joseph, Mary and Jesus traveling to Egypt. As is common in medieval art there is foreshadowing. Moses has a spear, foreshadowing the Israelites leaving Egypt armed.

Who commissioned this work? The Golden Haggadah depicts over forty women, including a depiction of Miriam leading a group of women in song. Women are often in the physical center of pictures. The midwives for example are in the center with Pharaoh and the baby to the side. Miriam leading the women is presented with no background thus with no context and rendered timeless. Women are placed in pictures were they are not needed. A woman is placed comforting Jacob even though no woman is placed here by the Bible.

A front page added several hundred years later says that the manuscript was owned by a Mistress Rosa. Perhaps this haggadah was passed down from mother to daughter. One might go further and say that the original woman for whom this haggadah was written was someone who had lost a child. We see depictions of the Midrash about babies being put into the bricks in Egypt. We see repeated depictions of women with babies. There is a woman with seven children, even more than the hyper fertility of six children per birth in Egypt.

Dr. Marc Michael Epstein is the author of the forthcoming book The Medieval Haggadah: Art, Narrative, and Religious Imagination.   

Friday, April 1, 2011

Izgad's New Mouth Piece

Yesterday my new computer arrived. It is a Lenovo T510. It is replacing my Lenovo Ideapad Y530, with which I have been typing most of these blog posts the past two years. The Thinkpad is a major step up in quality and hopefully will survive for longer than that. I have also been typing out a dissertation on the Ideapad which I hope to finish within a few months with the help of this new Thinkpad. Of course between this major investment and several years of graduate school life that are coming to an end, my ability to continue to blog in peace will likely be very much effected by my finding a job within the next few months. If any of my readers know of something that would be of interest to me and to which I can apply my talents I would be much obliged.