Friday, September 23, 2011

Rampant Obesity and Celebrating Ten Years of Idolatry: Ami at a Crossroads (Part I)

In this month's edition of Ami magazine, Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein has an article, "Modern Orthodoxy at a Crossroads," on the challenge posed to Orthodoxy by Rabbi Avi Weiss and his attempt to ordain women. I respect Rabbi Adlerstein as a usually thoughtful Haredi perspective and he deserves credit for presenting Modern Orthodox Jews as human beings and serious Jews. That being said, this article is an exercise in the sort of self-congratulatory sanctimoniousness whose only purpose is to pat the author, and by extension the reader who agrees with him, on the back, while completely ignoring the issues at hand and inhibiting any actual discussion.

In Rabbi Adlerstein's narrative, a small click of supposedly "Orthodox" rabbis have conspired to undermine elements of Jewish tradition, such as having a solely male clergy and not calling women up to the Torah. These "extreme radical leftists" present themselves to the secular media as Orthodox mavericks challenging the status quo, putting pressure on more "moderate" Orthodox rabbis to go along.

As I have written previously, I am not interested in debating the issue of how Orthodoxy should respond to the social and political changes in the status women over the past century. I do not have a set solution to the problem. My concern is not over whether or not women will be ordained (I assume though that it will happen whether I like it or not) or what title they will be given. I only insist that whoever makes these decisions does so based both on traditional sources and an awareness of the social realities on the ground that brought these issues to the table. For example, it is a non-option to tell women to stick to children, kitchen and synagogue (behind the mechitza).

What concerns me about Rabbi Adlerstein is that he is someone involved in making these decisions yet he clearly does not grasp the social realities behind the issues. Just an example of how out of touch with reality he is. He dismisses the Los Angeles Jewish Journal as being "read almost exclusively by the non-Orthodox." I read it and know other Orthodox Jews who do. It should be axiomatic to him that the Jewish Journal's readers are precisely the people that Orthodoxy needs to reach out to; those Jews who care enough about Judaism to read a Jewish magazine, but for "some strange reason" are not reading Ami.  Nowhere in the article does Rabbi Adlerstein consider the possibility that his opponents, instead of "plotting" to hoist "politically correct" values on an unsuspecting Jewish community, are on the front lines of trying to save Orthodox Judaism and are having to make some hard decisions. The fact that Rabbi Adlerstein's community does not yet have to deal with these issues, should be cause for thanks to be expressed by thoughtful planning for the moment the crisis comes to have acceptable options. (I imagine that a Haredi leadership that spends the next twenty years convincing its own members that it honestly cares about women might be able to hold off on women rabbis when Haredi women decide they might want to be rabbis.) It should not be an opening for sanctimonious judgment as to who is "Orthodox."

Rabbi Adlerstein de facto eliminates any consideration of social issues by specifically knocking Modern Orthodox rabbis for their lack of source skills, while saying nothing about whether Haredi rabbis are qualified to comment about an issue regarding liberalism, without a deep understanding of liberalism and actual liberals. Education is a zero-sum game. You cannot talk about rabbis needing to be more knowledgeable about Jewish texts without also implicitly saying that they do not also need an understanding of political theory, history and a little bit about the sort of actual real life people they are going to be offering spiritual guidance to.

(To be continued ...)

Friday, September 16, 2011

Guidelines for Studying History

Clarissa recently put up some pointers for the study of history, things to remember and questions to ask:

Things to remember when reading, watching or researching history:

a. There can never be a fully objective account of history
b. Don’t read accounts of history to find out what happened. Read them to discover what their author says happened
c. Only by accessing and contrasting different accounts can we figure out what took place
d. Every account of history is always ideological
e. There is always a hidden reason for why a person writes about history

Questions to ask:

  1. Who is the author?
  2. What do I know about this author? Country of origin, political affiliation, profession, etc.
  3. How does this knowledge about the author change my understanding of his or her text?
  4. What is the goal the author is trying to achieve with this text?
  5. What kind of data is used to support the author’s conclusions?
  6. What kind of attitude does the author have towards the readers of the text?
  7. What are the central concepts that organize the author’s thinking about this subject?

My criticism: While one should initially focus on what the author says happened, the long term goal has to be to come to certain conclusions as to what really happened. All historical accounts are ideological only if you use ideology in its most general sense. Yes there is such a thing as responsible historiography even if the author is a capitalist, a communist, Jew, Christian or a goddess worshiping feminist. This is important as it gives us a standard from which to judge historians of all ideological persuasions and removes ideology as a fig leaf for poorly written history.

I think these are great points to make to students, where I would slightly differ with Clarissa is in the emphasis on the subjectivity. To be clear, we really can never actually reconstruct history "as it was" or make any claims with absolute certainty. That being said we have a historical method that allows us to recreate the past with a reasonable degree of accuracy. While moving students away from a model of "Gospel Truth," it is important not to overstate the subjectivity of historical study. Miguel Cervantes fighting at the Battle of Lepanto was real in ways his Don Quixote fighting windmills is not. To downplay the very real possibility of historical truth (lower case letters) only serves to leave the field open to the Gospel Truth crowd, which I know is the last thing that Clarissa wants. Perhaps part of the difference is one of history versus literature. With all due respect to Clarissa, as a historian it is important for me to be able to look down at literature scholars like her and thumb my nose; my field deals with objective reality and yours does not. Of course I imagine that science people thumb their noses at us historians for our lack objectivity and they in turn can be mocked by continental philosophers and analytic philosophers can feel superior to everyone.    

I would add: 

1. Figure out your source's agenda. Cross out anything that supports it and highlight everything that goes against it.
2.  Treat your sources as a police officer would a witness. You are going to wade through a lot of self serving nonsense,  but every once in a while you are going to strike gold. But even when you do not you can always count on a liar to tell the truth every once in a while if by accident. 
3. At the end of the day reasonable people are going to disagree about events and that is ok.      

Clarissa is teaching about Bartolome de Las Cases, a sixteenth century Spanish Dominican, who wrote about the Spanish conquest of the New World. Las Cases was horrified by the Spanish treatment of Native Americans, believing that such actions stood in the way of their conversion and the Second Coming. Las Cases' genuine concern for Native Americans led him to defend their rights, most famously in the Valladolid debates with Juan Gines de Sepulveda. The fact that Las Cases was a Spaniard eviscerating the Spanish, gives him a lot of credibility and I am willing to assume, based on Las Cases, that massacres of natives and their enslavement really did take place. The discovery of the New World was not just an exciting adventure in expanding human horizons. That being said I would also use Las Cases himself to paint a more nuanced picture of the Spanish. They were not all a bunch of greedy hypocritical religious bigots. Furthermore I would point to the example of Las Cases and other sixteenth century Spanish thinkers like Francisco de Vitoria, Juan de Mariana and Domingo de Soto. These were all in their own ways very "liberal" thinkers, who had all the basic "right" ideas about human rights and that non-Europeans were human beings too. They did influence Spanish policy, at least as far as Madrid was concerned, yet they ultimately failed to create the critical revolution in human thinking of the Enlightenment. This fell to seventeenth and eighteenth century thinkers in Holland, England and France. Why did all of this not happen in Spain?    


Sunday, September 4, 2011

Asperger/Autism Tutor

While I continue to work for Kline Books as their Judaica Cataloger and the writer for Tipsy, I am starting a second enterprise as a tutor for grade school and high school students with Asperger syndrome/autism. The idea is to help students on the autism spectrum navigate school, both academically and socially, and hopefully eventually prepare for college. In addition I would also serve as a bridge to negotiate between student, parents and teachers. The underlying assumption behind this is that there are a lot autistic students out there who could theoretically handle mainstream school if it were not for certain "buts." I can help pave over these "buts" by being there for students as a resource that they can talk through issues with, whether school papers or how to deal with other students and teachers.

This idea has been germinating in my mind over the past several years as it combines the different sides of my life. I taught high school and college level history, came to identify myself as an Asperger and by extension a member of the wider autistic community and served as a mentor for those following a similar path. One of the things that I took from my time with Aspirations and ASAN was the need to rethink autism from the ground up even to the point of creating a different language to discuss it from that of the medical establishment and special education.

Most of the focus on autism is on those who fit the "classic" model of autism. And there is certainly good reason for this. That being said this leaves a gap for those who do not fit the traditional model of autism, who in theory could make it in a regular school, but also need help in ways that are sometimes difficult to precisely identify. (Of course once one accepts the existence of autistics who can speak, read, write and even get a graduate degree one is forced to rethink the treatment process of those across the entire autism spectrum.) I take particular inspiration from the example of Ari Ne'eman and his successful campaign to place himself within a mainstream high school.

In a previous post I expressed some concern with emphasizing mainstream schools as the goal. I still stand by my earlier position. That being said, I do recognize that a mainstream school is preferable to any autism school based around a disability model. Schools like the Haugland Learning Center are an important step in the right direction, but it is unlikely that they could support more than a small fraction of autistic children. Even if they could, until we create an autistic version of Gallaudet University, getting autistic students ready for integration into mainstream colleges will have to be the goal even for schools like Haugland. So for now I feel perfectly comfortable in advocating for both separate and mainstream schools depending on the particular situation. Those autistics who wish to go to a mainstream school should receive the necessary help to get into and stay in one. Those who wish to go to a separate school will still need the skills to make mainstream school a viable option.

What attracts me to the idea of doing more work with autstic students, besides for allowing me to take my previous involvement with advocacy a step further, is that it fits my particular set of skills as a teacher. I relate much better to children than to adults. Children tend to like the fact that I am genuinely interested in them and do not speak down to them; furthermore they are not put off by my eccentricities. At the same time my manner of speaking is highly academic and even adults have a hard time understanding me. This could be the perfect boon to an Asperger with specific interests to have me in his life to engage in running discourses about whatever interests them.
So if anyone out there knows someone in the Los Angeles area who can use my services feel free to contact me.