Sunday, December 16, 2012

In Support of Horseback Riding: Another Perspective on Rabbi Anemer

A few years ago I posted my personal eulogy for Rabbi Gedaliah Anemer ztl in which I praised him for being a community rabbi, something very rare in the United States today. In this spirit I would like to share an email that was recently sent to me, which the sender has kindly allowed me to post (names and identifying information have been changed), regarding a personal experience with Rabbi Anemer:

Hi, My name is Rachel Klein and looking for an email where to write a thank you letter to Rabbi Anemer I came across your blog. Of course I can no longer write to Rabbi Anemer, and decided instead, based on your posting of April 15th , 2010 write to you instead and tell you
another side of Rabbi Anemer. A side that perhaps has been lost. Of course we all know that R. Anemer was Yeshivish Orthodox and all that is inferred from that. One might think that he had a one sides view of things. I have a different experience.
A few years ago I was working in a Haredi institution and having an interesting experience because I was the only woman employee. Everyone was nice and polite and I had no issues even when I was Modern Orthodox, and very modern by their standards. One day my co-workers found out that my then 10 year old daughter was riding horses after school , and you can imagine the disapproving comments I had to hear. So, in order to avoid any issues I went to Rabbi Anemer and
explained the situation. After hearing the whole story and meeting my daughter his suggestion was to let her ride until she was bat mitzvah, at which point  two things could happen; either she was going to lose interest or she would continue liking the animals. If she still liked them as a teenager, he said to let her do so and make sure that she won her competitions and that she was making a kiddush HaShem.
So time passed. We live in New Jersey now. My daughter finished 8th overall in the country last year in the Hunters and Equitation divisions. She is training now for the next Maccabi Games.
Rabbi Anemer took the time to listen to something perhaps superfluous like horseback riding in a life of a 10 year old. Today Deborah is the top Jewish rider in the country.
How is this for a Haredi Rabbi?
I wish I could go back and tell him the result of his counseling, but I can't.

From a purely halakhic point of view, horseback riding should be a no brainer. Yes, people, including women, are allowed to ride horses; they used to be a common form of transportation. Even horseback riding on Shabbos, which was not the issue here, is only a rabbinic prohibition so it is not inconceivable to imagine an orthodox rabbi being lenient for a professional rider. The reasons why horseback riding could be controversial to some are that it the uniforms would likely violate Haredi standards of modest dress and is not something that people in that community usually do. The greatness of Rabbi Anemer here, as I interpret him, was that he was willing to rule on narrow halakhic grounds and not social policy. Laws of modesty certainly do not apply to minors and even for adults there are no firm rules for modesty disconnected from any community context. Obviously, just because something is not generally done does not make it forbidden. A trap that the Haredi community has fallen into is that, in  the absence of established communities and the presumption of traditional observance within the wider Jewish community, Haredim have turned to the stringent practice of halakha to form the foundation of their community and mark the boundaries from everyone else. The ironic unintended consequence of this tactic is that while the intention may have been to maintain the observance of halakha, the result of transforming halakha into community norms has been that the tail now wags the dog, community norms, and the particular thought process that goes into their creation, have replaced halakha and the halakhic process.

As a member of the Haredi community, I seriously doubt Rabbi Anemer would have approved of any of his own daughters taking up horseback riding. Such things are not done in that community and anyone who wishes to remain a member must obey its restrictions. That being said, Rabbi Anemer was willing to make a distinction between Haredi community norms and halakha. The person asking the question was a halakhically observant Jew, but not trying to join the Haredi community so he ruled solely based on halakha and not Haredi social policy. Implicitly he needed to recognize and accept the legitimacy of halakhic lifestyles that were not Haredi.          

Friday, October 12, 2012

Liberal Morality or is Clarissa an Ayn Rand Villain

C. S. Lewis famously argued that everyone really believes in natural law whether they realize it or not for the simple reason that one cannot go very far without using a distinctly moral language, which presumes a higher natural law recognized by all participants. For example, to say that it is "wrong" to take something that belongs to someone else implies the existence of a code recognized and agreed upon even by the thief that has been violated. To assume otherwise is to turn the discussion into a matter of taste. I personally do not care for stealing, but you have different values so there is no reason for me to be talking so I better go and mind my own business. Thus, our moral relativist is left with the choice of either removing words like "right," "wrong" and "fair" from their dictionary or admit the existence of absolute truths.

In a recent discussion with Clarissa, I found myself faced with what I thought was a straw-man position that existed only in satire, the point-blank denial of morality. In response to my question as to what level of taxes are immoral, Clarissa responded:

Izgad, I'm sure you know enough about the Liberal way of thinking to realize that no true Liberal can rely upon the concept of morality as even marginally useful. Liberalism is profoundly secular in nature, which makes it a kind of ideology that recognizes everybody's individual right to form one's own morality. I don't believe in a single morality that is supposed to govern everybody's actions. I believe that there is a multitude of moralities that are all acceptable and that should all comply with a higher rule which is the law of the land. ... You are absolutely right: the very word "moral" is alien to any true Liberal. It is a word that comes from a vocabulary that a Liberal does not operate with. The very questions 'Is it moral?' is not a question I, as a Liberal, can answer. My only answer can be, "It might or might not be moral according to the system of values you operate with." I don't care two straws what people do or do not see as moral. I recognize the existence of different moralities that govern the existence of different kinds of human beings. But I expect the law of the land to govern those existences irrespective of that which individual moralities might command. This, I believe, is the only way to overcome the religious barbarity that commands people to possess barbaric moralities.

What I find interesting here is the presence of three seemingly incongruous concepts, moral relativism, the need to oppose "barbaric morality" and the necessity of submitting to government authority as the means of doing this. If there are no moral absolutes then how can any morality be deemed barbaric? Furthermore, why should government then become the new moral foundation? I can at least understand a conservative telling me that we must obey governments because they are ordained by God, but what business does any self-respecting liberal have for making a principle out of government obedience, particularly right after negating all moral principles. In Clarissa's specific case, I know she takes a strong stance in support of legal abortion. In her view, people who wish to ban abortion do not simply have another point of view nor are they even just mistaken. The strength of her language indicates that she views such people as either insane, wicked or otherwise ignorant. I would like to believe that Clarissa is simply engaging in rhetorical hyperbole when she denies morality. We can have a laugh and then get back to the serious business of hammering out moral principles as the basis of a political discourse. What frightens me, though, is that Clarissa, who has read Atlas Shrugged and seems to possess some limited degree of respect for Ayn Rand, uses a line of reasoning that closely mirrors that used by Ayn Rand villains, suggesting something darker than just rhetorical relativism.

When reading Rand it is important to look past the straw-man buffoonery of her villains to see the fundamental flaws in their reasoning; to understand not only that her villains are wrong in their beliefs, but also why. In an earlier post, I set forth some of the reasoning behind the villains and their use of morality and relativism as cover for their bid for power; I wish to further elaborate on this line of reasoning and the role it plays in the novel.

The villains of Atlas Shrugged present a mystery, which lies at the moral heart of the story. They seem to contradict themselves; how can one promote the moral principle of "need over greed" in one sentence and then declare in the next sentence that there is no such thing as a moral principle? In particular, this contradiction perplexes Hank Rearden, who cannot bring himself to take people, such as his mother, wife, brother and the "wet nurse" government agent sent to supervise him, seriously. They claim no absolutes, but how can anyone pour steel without them? If there are no absolutes, why are they so insistent that he obey the government?

Because Rearden does not take such people seriously, he is willing to indulge them in a paternalistic fashion. He assumes that they are moral at heart, they sure talk a lot about morals, but that, like children, they have not fully considered the full consequences of what they are saying. If he continues to be supportive of them, they will eventually recognize that he too is a moral person and will finally come around to his way of thinking. This plan works with the wet nurse, who eventually ends up dying trying to defend Rearden's steel mills against rioting government workers, but not with his family.

As Francisco d'Anconia insists, there are no contradictions; if you think there are, you must recheck your premises. Rearden struggles to resolve the contradiction he sees in his family's moralism and relativism. Bits and pieces of the solution to this mystery are hidden throughout the novel, but it is finally brought together by John Galt in his sixty-page speech near the end of the book. Contrary to what one might expect, Galt's focus is less a defense of capitalism, but an admittedly dense discussion of epistemology. He builds a system of ethics from science and logic, insisting that one must never distort reality. By taking the villains' relativism as his starting point, Galt solves the contradiction in their ideology in a way that is truly frightening. If there are no objective measures of truth then there is no way to measure need. This need can be a limit on ten thousand copies of a book being sold in order that a less popular novelist can sell more books or that an incompetent steel manufacturer be kept afloat by penalizing his competitors. The moral claims of the "aristocracy of pull" become a facade for their bid for power. Their claim to be pragmatists not concerned with moral theory really means that they do not wish to be held to other people's values even as they use government to hold others to their true "values." As such there can be no negotiating with these people. Even the attempt to talk to them in a civilized manner plays into their hands by granting credibility to their pretense of morality when they are nothing but savages seeking to steal whatever they can lay their hands upon.

I would like to believe that Clarissa is, deep down, a moral person. Her concern with liberal causes such as abortion suggests that she is. Whatever our differences on practical public policy, we should be able to respect each other. What if I am wrong and this is all a deceitful ploy? Is Clarissa's defense of the needs of the poor really a demand for a cushy academic job for herself? She certainly does not believe that conservative government decisions should be respected. This leaves one to conclude that she has written herself a blank check for government decisions. Submission to the government in the absence of absolute values means submission to her. What adds teeth to this view is that Clarissa strongly denounces any attempt to analyze her as if there were something to hide regarding her motives. Furthermore, for a relativist, she seems oddly insistent on her own brilliance and is so willing to question the intelligence and even the basic moral decency of those she disagrees with. It is as if relativism stops by the gates of her "great brain" and all the rest of us mere mortals must acknowledge the limits of our mired in relativism intelligence and bow before her one true objective mind.

I enjoy talking to Clarissa precisely because her views are very different from mine. I am not a missionary trying to convert other people to my way of thinking. Rather I honestly seek to understand what motivates them. This means to discover what their underlying consistent moral principles are. If there do not appear to be any this does not mean that there are contradictions; it simply means that for some reason the person wishes to conceal their true values, perhaps even from themselves.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Balph Eubank and R. Eliyahu Dessler

This past Sabbath I found myself opening my copy of Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged and immediately finding myself getting pulled in. Despite the fact that I already read the book and had no immediate plans of rereading it, I ended up spending a large chunk of the day back in Rand's dystopian world. Despite Rand's very real flaws, this novel is even more important to civilization than Lord of the Rings. My wife, always concerned for the good of my soul, stopped me at one point in the afternoon and asked me to study an essay from R. Eliyahu Dessler's Strive for Truth. Maybe it was the leftover taste from my previous reading, but I could not help but feel that Dessler would have made a wonderful villain for the novel.

There is one particular scene I have in mind. It is a party attended by the leading establishment intellectuals. Rand goes back and forth between the various intellectuals as they regale their own little circle of fawning wealthy liberals with their philosophies. The novelist attacks the notion of plot and the composer attacks melody. These are meant as corollaries to the philosopher, who attacks reason. The conclusions they all take from this, which they offer their audience between mouthfuls of expensive foods and amidst all the glamor of the party, is that life is pointless, man is doomed to suffer and therefore the only thing he can do is submit to authority.

The intellectual scam they are pulling off is as follows. They start by claiming the moral high ground as spiritual men, who oppose greed and wish for everyone to work together for the common good. The fact that they can say this while enjoying the largess of a capitalist they despise fails to strike their audience as hypocritical. On the contrary, the fact that they present themselves as men of privilege, who attack their own class, demonstrates their sincerity. They then deny the existence of reason or any objective morality, denying any means by which they could be challenged. Next, they wash their hands of any responsibility to actually improve the world; their moral superiority resides solely upon the fact that they claim to desire to help people. Thus, not only have they removed any intellectual standards by which they can be judged, they also remove any objective empirical standard by which anyone could point out that their ideas fail. The end result is that humanity must not only physically submit to their authority, it must also spiritually do so, by acknowledging these intellectuals as the selfless morally superior heroes of mankind for agreeing to rule over them.

Dessler uses many of the same arguments. He attacks materiality and people's desire for physical goods. He makes no distinction between rich people and those struggling to make ends meet. In fact, it is critical for his argument, which denounces Jews as a nation, that this includes the vast majority of Jews not living in mansions or driving fancy cars. The next step is to declare that it is hopeless to pursue material things as it is man's lot to suffer. The only option, therefore, is to submit to the divine will and hope for the coming of the Messiah.

Forgive me for being cynical, but the same scam seems to be in play. Dessler grabs the moral high ground by denouncing material goods, all while having enjoyed modern conveniences such as a printing press to spread his writing. He then promises people nothing but disaster, removing any responsibility to actually produce a plan to improve anyone's lot in life. Finally, he has people submit to God, which for all intents and purposes means Dessler. Thus, he gets to rule over people and chastise them for failing to properly appreciate his moral superiority in doing this.

Just like Rand's liberals, Dessler attacks capitalism:        

There are some who take the maximum and give the minimum. These are the merchants and middlemen who take advantage of every opportunity for profit, without ever considering whether the effort and work they have invested really bear any relationship to the profits gained. When they bend their efforts to benefit from their neighbor's failures or take advantage of his ignorance, can this really be distinguished from plain, unvarnished deception? Not to speak of those who amass their fortune by usury, battening on other people's hard-won earnings, or who exploit their workers, paying them a pittance for hard and exacting toil, or who oppress whole nations, ruling them with a tyrant's hand (even though some incidental benefit may accrue to their people) - all these and their like are examples of "much taking and little giving." (Strive for Truth Vol. I, 121-22.)

Dessler's comments about usury really got to me. Was he not aware of the long history that the charge of excessive usury has played in anti-Semitism? Did he not know that while he lived in safety in England, the Nazis were slaughtering millions of those same "materialistic" Jews that he failed to save, using these same arguments? In truth, it is only through "greed" and "exploitation" by merchants and "middlemen" (in truth everyone from the miner taking iron from the earth to the housewife buying that iron in the form of pins is a middleman) that we make any progress. Suffering is caused by people like Dessler who condemned capitalism.

One cannot treat him charitably as someone who took a rhetorical misstep; on the contrary, the continued suffering of millions of Jews was a necessary part of a self-serving ideology that gave him a position of honor, respect, and power over others. He may have meant well, but then again just about every great crime in human history was committed by people who claimed and likely even believed that they acted for the "public good."

Friday, September 21, 2012

The Brute Reason of a Modern Liberal Feminist

Miriam of Brute Reason describes herself as someone who grew up politically conservative and then had her mind "opened up" in college. Now she uses the power of her reason to battle conservatives and other dimwitted minions of patriarchy. It is useful to examine her very sophisticated manner of arguing. In a recent post, she made the argument that feminists do in fact care about the rights of men. This struck as a point worth responding to since, as I see it, one of the weaknesses of modern feminism, rooted as it is in modern liberalism's turn from the universal to group identity, is that it fails to seriously take men into account. This discussion soon involved several other commentators and turned into a round of me being my libertarian self, wasting time better spent working on the dissertation. There was some name-calling as could be expected with modern liberals. They lack the theory of mind to recognize that someone could operate on a very different moral system; one that privileged physical harm over all psychological harm and that rejected the initiation of force, including that of the government. I made sure to be very respectful and not use swear words or question the intelligence of anyone involved. Then we got this gem.

Miriam on said:
Are you done fapping yet?

  • If you wish for me to stop commenting you can ask me nicely.

  • You can also just take your nonsense elsewhere without waiting to be asked.

  • Or you can treat me like a civilized human being the way I have treated you.

  • I haven’t treated you like a human being? Have I suggested you be caged like an animal? Forced to wear a leash and collar perhaps?

  • You have continued to insult me even when I have not insulted you. Ask me to leave nicely and I will do so and never come back.

  • Oh, now you’re trying to teach me manners? Fuck off.

  • Since you seem to have none, yes.

    No thank you. Fuck off.

    Oh, and also, I’m banning you because you’re a sanctimonious prick and you’re getting on my nerves.
    Coming on here to argue philosophy is fine. Coming on here to assert your moral superiority and try to teach me manners is not. Goodbye.

    I was wondering when I would get kicked off. Considering that the discussion involved rape, which I see as a form of physical assault and robbery, I must say I find it ironic that someone would suggest I go f--- off. The brute reason of a modern liberal feminist for you. Why someone like Miriam would believe that I would ever agree to participate in a democratic system with someone like her and allow her to use government to take my money is beyond me.  

    Sunday, September 16, 2012

    I Am Not Equal to Lebron James

    Learn Liberty has a contest to do a video response to the following video regarding equality.

    Here is my response, following up on the theme that we ordinary people are not equal to millionaire celebrities. My point is that this inequality goes all the way down to the genetic level. Lebron James is making millions more than I will ever make not because he is particularly hard working, but because he was born with a particular set of genetic traits that marked him even from childhood as an ideal basketball player.

    Milton Friedman made a similar argument years ago about genetic ability. His point was that there are no clear lines between people born into wealthy families, leading lives of luxury that most people can only dream of, and people born with certain talents, like being able to play the violin, that others will never be able to do.

    It is interesting to note that Adam Smith took it as a given that people were fundamentally equal in talent even in intelligence. Thus, if we were to remove aristocratic privileges, we would soon find a society where everyone was about equal in their economic circumstances. The only exception would be lottery winners; literal lottery winners as well as people who succeeded through equal dumb luck in business ventures or in becoming lawyers. The law of averages being what they are, even these distinctions would not hold for long. Smith lived before the industrial revolution and the new economic inequalities it created. He also lived before our celebrity culture, which pays millions to athletes and actors mainly for genetically based abilities. Finally Smith did not live in a world in which high IQ individuals could make millions creating companies like Microsoft, Apple and Facebook.

    Wednesday, September 5, 2012

    Trouble with My Wife

    My wife truly loves me. So much so that she tolerates my libertarian monologuing. She even reads books to better understand and contradict me. A while back I got her to listen to Walter Block's Defending the Undefendable. She then took the initiative of listening to Murray Rothbard's Libertarian Manifesto. A few days ago she downloaded Atlas Shrugged from Audible. All well and good, but she also downloaded Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations and has started to listen to it. She did this knowing full well that I have not actually read Smith myself. Her intention is to know more about libertarian thought than I do and being able to stick it to me. I have thus have had no choice but to start listening to Smith. (It is not as dry as I thought it would be. Smith actually was an engaging writer.)

    Having to read a book that I was planning on reading sometime before I died anyway, is a minor point. What happens when my wife decides that Smith's labor based monetary theory is totally inadequate to describe a post-industrial revolution economy and therefore converts to radical Austrianism? My wife is already the more religious one in my family. It would not be fair if she becomes a more fanatical libertarian than me. I will not be able to lecture random strangers about the innate illegitimacy of government for minutes on end until she drags me away because I will be too busy trying to stop her from lecturing people. I will have to apologize to statists, which will be totally embarrassing. What if my wife decides that her conscious cannot abide being a government employee, using special-ed children as means to defraud the public and resigns? I will actually need to go out and get a real job for the two of us as my wife stays home to dedicate herself to writing an anti-government blog.

    I married this woman on the assumption that she was an Obama voting California liberal. It says openly in our make believe social contract that her role in this marriage is to make me feel guilty about eliminating welfare and public schools so I could compromise with Milton Friedman moderate positions like negative income tax and school vouchers. It is just like my wife to be so dastardly and so wonderful as to make me read more books and push my libertarianism to the next level.

    I love my wife!

    Monday, September 3, 2012

    In Search of Serious Modern Orthodox Biblical Scholarship

    One of the things that I find fascinating about the present day Haredi world is that, despite its claims as to the brilliance of its leadership, with the exception of the Sefardi R. Ovadiah Yosef, I cannot think of a single Haredi leader today who gained his post by virtue of his published scholarly work. Instead, we have Hasidic rebbes, who inherited their posts, and Litvish Rosh Yeshivas, who gained their post through teaching and administrative work. This is particularly odd from an academic point of view because in academia publishing is everything. For example, I am in middle of writing my history dissertation, which is now at over 500 pages. When I finish writing, defending and finally publish it, I will become a credible historian, whose opinions should be taken seriously. Until then I am absolutely nobody, just a graduate student with a blog, and intelligent people have every right to simply dismiss me before I even open my mouth. The lesson I take from this is that the entire system of Haredi gedolim is a fraud populated by senior citizen celebrities and those who control them. This belief has only been strengthened by years of hearing preposterous statements made in their name regarding science, politics and society. (If any Haredi reader believes that their particular gadol should be viewed as an exception, they should point me to a book of theirs so I may read it and decide for myself.)

    This failure on the part of Haredim offers an opportunity for Modern Orthodoxy to step into the breach with its own scholarship and gain the respect of both secular academia and the Haredi world. (Scholars like Haym Soloveitchik and Shalom Carmy are certainly a good start.) Unfortunately, Modern Orthodoxy in practice has proven so far unable to produce much in the way of a written culture, whether at a popular or scholarly level.
    I was recently reading Torah MiEtzion: New Readings in Tanach – Devarim, a collection of short essays on different topics in the book of Deuteronomy produced by the esteemed Modern Orthodox Yeshivat Har Etzion. These essays were written by various people associated with the school as an attempt to offer a tangible demonstration of the quality of its scholarship. The intent may demonstrate the awareness of the need for a written culture of scholarship. The fact that this book recognizes the need for serious scholarship in fields other than Talmud is another plus. The way it has been carried through, though, demonstrates a failure to truly comprehend what is required. These essays are essentially summaries of select rabbinic commentaries such as Ibn Ezra, Maimonides, Nachmonides and Isaac Abarbanel. Nothing wrong with that and this book may prove useful as a basic introduction to the sources regarding the various topics in question. That being said the book fails to offer any larger arguments regarding the topics in question. Such arguments could become the basis for a larger view of the Bible and eventually even a Jewish theology.
    A good example of this is Mordechai Sabato’s essay “The Female Captive – What is the Torah Teaching Us?” on the laws regarding the Yifat Toar, a captive gentile woman whom the Israelite soldier can take as long as certain restrictions are adhered to. It summarizes different opinions on the matter from the Talmud, Midrash, and medieval commentators on the precise rules regarding the treatment of this woman. The only time Sabato’s voice as a reader of the Bible comes to the fore is his conclusion where he states:
    In effect, two ideals clash in the parasha; one is the moral concern for the woman captive; the other is the aversion to marriage to a non-Jewish woman which may, as we know, lead to moral decay. Halakha comes to establish the proper balance between these two ideals. (pg. 252)
    One gets the sense that the author understands that in the twenty-first century educated readers are likely to object to the legalized rape of women even in times of war. That being said, this is not something that particularly affects the writer beyond making the nod so that people will think he cares, allowing him to prove his "modernity." Thus, he never bothers to actually develop a theory as to how precisely the Bible protects women. He does not struggle with the fact that the Bible is willing to allow something so morally wrong. Furthermore, he is able to so casually place this issue as something to be balanced against an opposition to intermarriage.
    I would love to read some sophisticated commentary on the Bible that takes modern ethics seriously if only Yeshivat Har Etzion could offer it. I am certainly not waiting on the Haredim to provide it.                      

    Monday, August 6, 2012

    The Government Inspector: An Apology for a Liberal Reforming Authoritarian Czar

    When I was little, one of my favorite movies was The Inspector General, starring Danny Kaye. This work is based on a nineteenth-century Russian play, The Government Inspector, by Nikolai Gogol in which the corrupt officials of a town mistake a con-man for the feared secret inspector sent by the Czar to investigate corruption in the land. I loved Kaye's singing dancing and slapstick humor, but it was only as an adult that I could appreciate the work as political satire with its running gags on nepotism and bribery.

    Readers may find it ironic, but despite the play's lampooning of government, it managed to be produced in Czarist Russia with the open support of Nicholas I. This support makes sense if you consider that the off-screen hero of the story is none other than the Czar himself, who fights against the corruption of petty local politicians. The message of the story for nineteenth-century Russians was that the traditional local patronage-based system of government with its roots in the Boyar aristocracy was innately corrupt and it needed to be replaced with a strong national state under the control of the Czar. The Czar's chief virtue was that he was above politics and therefore beyond the corruption rampant with petty officials. In order to accomplish his task of creating a just Russia, the Czar must be above the law, with the power to arrest and execute people as he saw fit.

    Considering the history of twentieth-century totalitarianism, in which strong centralized authoritarian regimes went far beyond the sins of petty corruption into the realm of mass murder, I find this brand of liberalism both ironic and frightening. One can see Gogol as exemplifying a failure within the larger Russian intelligentsia (Leo Tolstoy being a prominent exception) that has haunted Russia for the past two centuries. In the absence of the strong individualist and rule of law traditions found in the Anglo-American tradition even reformers were trapped into simply choosing between various kinds of authoritarianism. One could hope to reform the Russian state along the lines of Prussia, with its combination of professional bureaucracy and authoritarian monarchy, one might choose to reform under the radically conservative lines of the Russian Orthodox Church or one might choose revolution under one of the various socialist and anarchist banners.

    Yesterday I went with Miriam to a production of an adaptation of The Government Inspector in Pasadena starring Star Trek alums John Billingsley and Alan Brooks. While wonderfully done and worth seeing, I was struck by the fact that the adaptation, instead of confronting head-on Gogol's apology for authoritarian rule, simply updated it to suit modern liberal sensibilities. The mayor and his cronies are straw-men Republicans, who talk about the need for deregulation as a means for granting favors to their friends in big business and how wonderful it is to have an economic recession to keep wages low. There is even a character modeled after Sarah Palin, both in her looks and her mixture of Christian conservatism and individualistic populism. Needless to say, the character is a religious hypocrite and a complete idiot. Not that I have anything against creating straw-men, it is a necessary feature of satire. That being said, such an attitude sets the stage for its own liberal version of Gogol’s reforming Czar.  

    If Gogol's off-screen hero was the Czar then this production's off-screen villain is big business. In both cases, the lesson is not that there is something innately corrupting about politics, but that specific politicians are incidentally corrupt. The solution is more government, whether a stronger Czar or more government regulations. That this increased government will have the same flaws as the government it is reforming and that its lack of any tie to formal law or tradition, powerful checks on abuse, will make things worse is never considered. On the contrary, being above the law is deemed a virtue in that it will somehow place government outside of politics. In truth it is only by embracing law can we hope to transcend politics and fight its innate corruption.   

    Friday, July 20, 2012

    Chicago Versus Austrian Libertarianism

    The following is in honor of my wife, who has undertaken the reading of Murray Rothbard’s For a New Liberty as means to better understand me, Mark Pelta, who got me going on this topic and Michael Makovi, who will likely disagree with everything I say here.

    Within libertarianism, there are two basic schools, the Chicago school, often associated with Milton Friedman, and the Austrian school, in its politically active form usually associated with Murray Rothbard. While they have their differences in terms of economic theory, particularly in regards to their understanding of money and the use of a Federal Reserve, I will focus here on the larger ideological question why be a libertarian and support free market policies over state solutions. I know I am being simplistic here, but I hope readers will bear with me. The Chicago school tends to argue for free market policies based on pragmatic arguments. The Austrian school tends to base itself around first principles. One starts with basic liberal principles, which people on the left claim to support, such as non-aggression, and then proceeds to argue that logical consistency demands that one accept libertarianism.
    Take, for example, the issue of welfare. A Chicago school libertarian will tell you that government sponsored welfare is a mistake precisely because it does not help poor people. Through the process of "rent seeking," the money will be squandered by bureaucrats or by people who learn to game the system, living off of welfare instead of working. Even the money that makes it into the hands of the truly needy will cause them more harm than good in the long one as they will become dependent upon government and lose the instinctual ability to work their way out of poverty. An Austrian does not care whether or not government welfare is an effective remedy for poverty. What matters is that private property is protected and no coercive force be initiated. Funding welfare requires tax dollars which come from private individuals. Money is personal property and no person can be made to part with it without their consent. Furthermore, government is a form of coercion as any time the government does something it is with the implied threat that if people do not comply they will be arrested and, if they go far enough in resisting, possibly killed. Thus, as Lysander Spooner famously argued, the government is essentially a highwayman, who refuses to leave you alone after he has taken your money, lectures you about how you should live your life and insists that you should be grateful for the service he is providing by “protecting” you. Thus, from an Austrian perspective, the issue is not whether he has a heart to help the poor; it is that those who claim to be fighting poverty through government are really little Torquemadas, who are destroying personal liberty.   

    Both the Chicago and Austrian schools have their potential vulnerabilities. The pragmatism of the Chicago school leads it to make ideological compromises on liberty out of a belief that a specific government intervention will benefit the public or at least out of a hope that by going along with the program they can convince the politicians to go with a less damaging plan. Thus, for example, Milton Friedman advocated school vouchers and a negative income tax. Instead of public schools, parents would receive a voucher that would allow them to send their children to a private school of their choice. Instead of welfare, people would receive a guaranteed income. Friedman’s purpose with these plans was to eliminate the government bureaucracies associated with these institutions, which he saw as the main threat, while still offering protection for the poor. Such a position, though, fails to confront the essential problem for the Austrian, mainly that private citizens are still being coerced into paying taxes to support programs that are not even designed to benefit them, but are essentially forms of wealth redistribution in favor of those the government deems “more deserving.”

    In practice, we have seen over the past few decades Milton Friedman and his followers making a Faustian bargain with the Republican Party (to say nothing of dictators like General Augusto Pinochet of Chile). In exchange for serving as the intellectual front of the Republican Party, the GOP has rhetorically committed itself to the cause of “small government” and in practice has even attempted to at least slow the expansion of the welfare state. While allying with the Republican Party has given libertarians a voice within mainstream politics and may have even produced some positive policy results, the past few years have made it clear that the price paid for these gains has been high, perhaps a little too high. Libertarians have found themselves having to defend a Bush administration that was far from libertarian, making libertarians appear hypocritical. Furthermore, libertarians came to be associated with the non-libertarian excesses of the Republican Party, religious extremism, militarism and a vulnerability to the manipulations of big business. This has created a situation in which, at a time when it should be clear as to the limitations of government interventions in the housing market and on Wall Street, the left has been able to argue that the economic crisis was a product of deregulation.

    The Austrian school also has its vulnerabilities.  Instead of offering a list of policies that people can pick and choose from, depending on what strikes their fancy, it offers a single package as an all or nothing proposition based on a very specific ideology. It then seeks to convert people to this ideology without offering them a means by which they can come to it on their own. Part of the problem with distinct non-mainstream ideologies is that most people see themselves as “non-ideological.” What this usually means is that they are simply prejudiced to the dominant ideology. (Part of the advantage of being a dominant ideology is that you can claim to not be an ideology, but simple common sense. The disadvantage is that such an ideology cannot afford to create believers. A person who consciously believes in something is free from the delusion that he is not an ideologue.) Furthermore, most people are not particularly concerned with ideas but think in terms of relationships. One can wish all one likes to live in a country where people cared more about ideas, but one has to advance the cause of liberty with the people he has.

    As an ideology whose main claim to authority is its consistency, Austrian style libertarianism is vulnerable to extreme ethical dilemmas. For example if a million people were about to die unless they received a drug, whose supply was in the possession of one individual, who refused to sell, an Austrian libertarian would have to admit that the private property rights of the one should override the interests of the many and that a million people should die rather than have the government use force to expropriate the supply of drugs. When faced with the Austrian love for hypothetical things like liberty and private property over tangible utilitarian goods such as providing lifesaving medication to those who need it, most people are going to conclude that libertarians at best lack a firm grip on reality and at worst are heartless selfish people, who care nothing for others.

    This is not to say that either the Chicago or Austrian schools are wrong. Simply that each position carries a price, which must be weighed very carefully.

    Wednesday, June 13, 2012

    Eternal Damnation for Supply Siders (and Germans)

    In this hilarious skit, we have Brian Keith Dalton (Mr. Deity) explaining to a supply-sider why she deserves to be tortured by a sadistic Keynesian despite the fact that in all other aspects of her life she is an exemplary human being. The moral of the story, made explicit at the end, is that there is something inherently immoral about a deity that damns people for all eternity for their failure to believe the correct doctrines. Furthermore to be a believer means that one expects to spend eternity standing on the sidelines defending God to loved ones as they are tortured. Such a person is perhaps worse than the actual torturer.

    As a Jew, I feel little need to come to the defense of the doctrine of eternal damnation. Even the Christian tradition regarding eternal damnation is for more complex than Christian fundamentalists and their secular critics seem to realize. (Origen, for example, believed that everyone, even Satan, will eventually be saved.) That being said, I feel the need to respond in defense of the notion of eternal damnation for intellectual error.

    Is there an intellectual error that could justify eternal damnation? How about Nazism? We tend to associate Nazism with jackbooted mass murderers armed with gas chambers. The reality of Nazism was that it was enabled by millions of moral decent pious Germans (and later by people in occupied countries), who did nothing immoral themselves and might have even likely personally opposed the "excesses" of Nazism, but agreed to go along with the regime in some fashion. Some of them did so for pragmatic reasons such as rebuilding the German economy and stopping the very real threat of a Communist takeover. Others simply complied out of fear. It is certainly not my place to judge them; if I was in their place, I might not have done differently. The important thing is that we are dealing with people who we would deem good people, the kind we would want as our neighbors. Take for example Pope Benedict XVI, who by all accounts is a highly moral individual, but as a teenager was in the Hitler Youth.

    Now imagine Benedict XVI coming before the heavenly tribunal only to be told that despite the upstanding life he led on Earth, he was damned for putting on that Hitler Youth uniform. His one real test in life was to be confronted with the army of Satan demanding that he join them. He had the option of not putting on their uniform; they would have killed him, but like the early Christian martyrs he would have been guaranteed a place in heaven. He put that uniform on and saved his life, but by doing so threw his soul away. God now hates him for all eternity and says that Benedict XVI made his bed and can now lie in it for all eternity with all the other popes condemned by Dante. This may not be how I would judge souls, but I am not God. If God did operate like this, I would think he was being tough, but would still have to acknowledge that he was acting within the realm of justice.

    This brings us to the critical point of the position of the saved loved ones of the damned. In our German scenario that would be righteous Germans like Sophie Scholl and Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer. These people opposed the Nazi regime and paid the ultimate price for it. Could we hold it against them if, from their thrones of glory, they waved at all their friends, who chose to live long full lives by not opposing Nazism, saying: "see we told you so, now burn in Hell for all eternity." In particular in the case of Bonhoeffer, a critical part of his theology was the tremendous "cost of discipleship." One could not hope to get to heaven through "cheap grace," but only by taking up the cross and being willing to literally die for Christ. This was what motivated his path to martyrdom; he believed he had no other choice and that the salvation of his soul required it.

    I do not assume that Benedict XVI will burn in Hell for his Catholicism or even for being in the Hitler Youth. I certainly hope I will not burn for my sympathy with supply-side economics. That being said, the essential principle of eternal damnation for intellectual error is at least theoretically sound and in keeping with divine justice.

    Monday, February 27, 2012

    Oh Nuts Purim Giveaway

    Once again my good friends at Oh Nuts are offering readers a chance to win a gift certificate in honor of the holiday of Purim. I am proud to be a tool of this capitalist enterprise in its nefarious plot to trick you into buying their very reasonably priced gift baskets. No you do not have to be Jewish to enter this contest, though a love for chocolate helps.

    Last year I sent their tea set basket to a girl and for some strange reason I am now married to her. No I am not raffling off any wives this year, but you have three ways to win a gift certificate.

    1. Readers should go to the Oh Nuts Purim Basket Gift page, choose their favorite Purim Gift and leave a comment on this blog post with the name and url of the gift they love the most.

    I will pick a random winner and Oh Nuts will send them a $30 gift certificate.

    2. Readers can go to the oh nuts facebook page become a fan and post on the wall the url and name of their favorite Purim Gift Basket . They should also write "I am here via Izgad."

    3. Readers can follow @ohnuts and should Tweet:

    "Win a Purim Basket from Follow @ohnuts and RT to Enter Daily."

    For option 2 and 3 Oh Nuts will pick the winner.

    On Board the Queen Mary with Jewlicious and Mayim Bialik

    When I first contacted Miriam a year ago, her first email to me was that she could not talk to me for the next few weeks because the Limmud LA conference and Jewlicious festival were just around the corner. So I was pleased to join Miriam in attending this year's Jewlicious 8.0 festival as her lawfully bagged, captured and tamed husband.

    The event was hosted on the Queen Mary liner, which is permanently parked in Long Beach, CA and operates as a museum and hotel. Stepping on board was enough to send me into libertarian seasteading fantasies of a privately owned miniature city floating out in international waters. Unfortunately, I later found out that, after it was retired, the Queen Mary was bought by the city of Long Beach, which was kind enough to add on a tourism tax on our room bill. So much for escaping big government. For those of you planning a kosher cruise for Passover, the Queen Mary was the first ship designed with a kosher kitchen; it even had its own line of specially designed kosher dishes.

    In addition to great food at Jewlicious 8.0, there was a parade of comic and musical performances Saturday night and Sunday. At the Sunday concert, I was privileged to finally hear a live performance by Seth Glass. I was familiar with Seth's work from a CD, "Question of Faith," I found at my father's house years ago. I listened to that CD to death, but unfortunately I never ran into anything else by Seth. When he started performing it all of a sudden struck me who he was and I surprised him by asking for "The King is in the Field," my favorite song from the CD. He is an extremely talented musician who never got the attention and fans he deserves. (Perhaps not unlike a certain blogger, but I digress.)

    Jewlicious is a non-denominational Jewish organization for young professionals in Los Angeles under the leadership of Rabbi Yonah Bookstein. In many respects, it represents where left-wing Orthodoxy and traditionalist Judaism, which make up the majority of Jewlicious' audience, may be heading. Jewlicious is nominally under Orthodox auspices, is strictly kosher and focuses on the study of texts as a vehicle for increased observance. Thus it could easily be tagged as an Orthodox outreach program. That being said, the primary ideology preached at Jewlicious seems to be one of Judaism as expressed through activism, mainly of a left-wing variety. For example, Rabbi Yonah spoke about his experiences with Occupy LA. (Unfortunately, I was not able to make it to this presentation as it conflicted with my talk about messianism.) There was also a panel of Jewish activists whose fields ranged from using Talmudic style dialectics to confront contemporary issues to saving the redwood trees and helping the homeless. There were a number of things conspicuously absent that would have certainly been present if this program were being run by traditional Orthodox outreach programs like Chabad or Aish. While Israel and Zionism were represented as an integral part of Jewish culture, there was little about Israeli politics and the Palestinian conflict. There was no Jewish theology in the sense of Maimonides' principles of faith that one must believe in. Also, there was no sense of halacha as something mandated by God. Instead, discussions of Jewish law were framed as something people choose to do as a means of leading a more meaningful and spiritual life.

    This particular brand of Judaism (call it neo-traditionalism or "modern frumkeit" if you like) was exemplified in the event's guest of honor, Mayim Bialik. For those of you not familiar with her, Mayim Bialik plays Amy Farrah Fowler on The Big Bang Theory, probably the most consistently modestly dressed character in the history of modern television. Before I say anything else, let me add that I found Mayim to be an exceptionally down to Earth and friendly person as well as a terrific speaker. What struck me about hearing her speak is that she came across as a very "frum" person with her discussion of her commitment to tzniut dress and learning. Forget about Modern Orthodoxy, Mayim, if she wanted to, could easily fit in with a Haredi community. Yet she referred to herself as "observantish," acknowledging that not everything in her life fits with Orthodoxy as traditionally defined. Her theology, to the extent that she spoke of it between her two public presentations, seems to rest on a strong belief in God as a creator and moral guide and a commitment to Jewish law as an ongoing process in which one strives to increase observance but is not an all or nothing deal.

    I found it particularly interesting that Mayim made use of the categories of observant and non-observant while seeming to acknowledge how poorly they applied to her. These categories were the creation of Orthodoxy to take Reform and Conservative Judaism out of the picture. Instead of different denominations, there are observant Jews who keep halacha and there are those non-observant Jews ensnared by assimilation, who need to be brought back into the fold through shabbos dinners and outreach programs. Of course, these categories could also be used to take the "dox" out of Orthodoxy and since no one is perfect even the most Orthodox is really only "observantish."

    The Orthodoxy in which I was raised would not have known what to do with Mayim. For that matter, I am not sure how well Orthodoxy is prepared for even the Orthodox members of Jewlicious. They seem comfortable in operating as Jews in a non-Orthodox environment, thus breaking down the lines between observant and non-observant and even Orthodox and Conservative. Such a Judaism, while formally halachic, effectively eliminates any need for an Orthodox community. On a practical level, these people do not live in a world of separated sexes so traditional taboos against touching a member of the opposite sex or for men to listen to women singing are non-existent. There is also little ingrained opposition to homosexuality.

    People in their 20s, particularly in this generation, are naturally in flux and in search of identity. However these participants evolve, it would seem that traditional Orthodoxy loses. Our Orthodox members of Jewlicious could follow the path toward non-observance, which according to the Orthodox narrative is the inevitable result of stepping outside the Orthodox social structure or they could evolve their own variation of traditional observance, which would be markedly different than common Orthodoxy and may even present a greater challenge to it. Due to its narrative, Orthodoxy is not equipped to respond to educated and committed Jews, who fall outside the Orthodox system.
    Arguably this model of neo-traditionalism I am outlining, with its non-interest in theology and commitment to a Jewish community that includes a range of observance levels, is more in tune with Judaism as it has historically existed than Orthodoxy. That could prove a powerful rhetorical weapon in the battle to define Orthodoxy in the next generation. Can Orthodoxy step in and provide a Judaism to accommodate members of the Jewlicious community? By this, I mean even those who identify as Orthodox. The choice may be between taking the initiative for making changes now while it still might be possible to maintain some say or sit back, pat oneself on the back for holding the line against change and surrendering all say in the Judaism that comes out of events like Jewlicious.

    Monday, February 6, 2012

    Body Language

    For the benefit of the neurotypicals in our lives, Miriam and I made videos of our typical body language in which the other narrated.

    Miriam is full of love for everyone and will put a knife through me if I do not eat my vegetables.

    How can I be bothered to worry about my physical health when I have such spiritual dilemmas to contend with such as how kitty stew and Sabbatai Sevi might save my soul and give me an excuse to procrastinate from finishing my dissertation?


    Bringing Abraham Heschel to Israel

    Haaretz has an article on Dror Bondi, who is writing his doctoral dissertation on Rabbi Abraham Heschel, on the challenges of applying Heschel's philosophy to the Israeli scene with its rigid lines of Haredi vs. secular and the challenges of the peace process:

    Why is Heschel so unknown in Israel?
    Bondi: "He's not known in Israel because here another God rules. A God we all believe in and deny. He has black clothing, a long white beard, he holds a book with small print, waves an Israeli flag up high. When Heschel speaks in the name of God, the secular person says, 'That's not for me, that's for the religious folks.' And the religious say, 'That's not my God.' In Israeli society, we're trying to solve our problems by means of the status quo. The religious have God, the secular have reality. Heschel upsets all that. He's not proposing religious liberalism or something milder than that. He wants to bring back God. The God who has died."


    And how are you accepted in religious society?
    "It's easier for secular people to hear than it is for religious people. Often when I meet religious people, I get the feeling that they find Heschel threatening. There's an initial apprehension. I hope it will get through to them, though, because Heschel expresses what we've managed to forget. I have hope that Heschel will free them from so-called 'religious society.'"

    Bondi says he has trouble with the Israeli definition of the word 'religious.' "In English, when you say 'religious' you mean someone who has a connection with God in some way. In Israel a 'religious' person is someone who belongs to a sector that observes halakha. We've crowned halakha as the new god. This was a posttraumatic Haredi reaction, after the Enlightenment, after the Holocaust - come, let's focus on halakha. But it's not Jewish."

    The BZ and Miriam Wedding Skit

    Aspergers are often accused of suffering from "mind blindness" and lacking a "theory of mind," a notion that other people think differently. I see this as a more general problem with the human mind. Aspergers, having the misfortune of being born with minds that are more different than most, simply are likely to reach a crisis moment in their mind blindness far sooner than most. It is possible for the neurotypical mind to spend a lifetime with neurotypicals of similar economic and social class and of the same creed and never realize that in fact other people are different. It is easy to intellectually say the words "everyone is different," but to, at a subconscious level, believe it requires work. A simple test to see if you suffer from mind blindness is to ask yourself if you believe that you are capable of forming empathetic links with others. If you do so despite the fact that human beings lack the means of engaging in telepathic communication then you need help not just for mind blindness, but for a general lack of consistent rationalist thinking. If you recognize that your sense of other people's feelings is merely your fantasy of what other people might be feeling, albeit a socially useful fantasy, then you can congratulate yourself for your hard won rationalism in the face of societal superstition. (See Neurotypical Menetal and Emotional Handicaps.)

    I believe that everyone, Aspergers and neurotypicals, needs to work on their theory of mind skills. In addition to having logical and scientific reasoning integrated into one's daily life, another helpful method I have found is theater. In this I must admit a debt of gratitude to Dr. Anthony Beukas of the Yeshiva College Dramatics Society, from whom I learned this. There is something to be said about spending weeks and months in someone else's mind. You walk into the theater, from the moment you are first handed a script to the final curtain, you are someone else. Being a good actor does not just mean memorizing lines and blocking. The character needs to be a "real" person to you with a complete history full of thoughts, desires and motives that go beyond the script and inform every line spoken and every glance. To do this properly requires one to recognize and accept that the character being played is fundamentally different from oneself. One needs to take a step back and allow oneself to fade into the background to allow the character to come into existence as a true person.

    Despite the fact that Miriam and I both are Aspergers, we are both different people with different interests and ways of reacting to the world. What being Aspergers gives us is a sense of being different from others and a recognition of a common set of developed survival mechanisms. For example Miriam is much more socially outgoing than I am,  much better at starting conversations and making friends. Meeting Miriam forces you to discard the stereotypes of Aspergers as cold and anti-social; she is anything but that. While our outward methods of social interaction are different, we both consciously work from a mental checklist of lines to deliver to people. In a way social interaction for us is just another type of theater in which you play a part. Above all else what we have in common is that we both learned a long time ago that the only way we were going to survive navigating through society is if we verbally explained our thoughts to others, instead of just imagining they would intuitively understand us, and had others verbally explain their thought to us, instead of imagining we could intuitively understand them. Miriam and I have a good relationship and understand each other fairly well not because we are so much alike, but because we are good at talking to each other, particularly about our differences.

    Drawing from my theater experience, little game that I invented for us, as a means of thinking about our relationship and explaining how we relate to each other to others, is the BZ and Miriam skit. I play her and she plays me. She tends to play BZ as dour with a penchant for monologuing. I tend to play Miriam as jumpy and ecstatic with a touch more common sense than BZ. When we first gave a public performance of a BZ and Miriam skit at the kiddish her parents sponsored in our honor, BZ ended up lecturing the audience on the differences between ritual murder and blood libel charges with Miriam asking him if this made him happy and if he could please do the dishes while he talked.

    Here is the BZ and Miriam skit from our wedding on October 30, 2011. For some reason I failed to notice that the wedding was scheduled at the same time as the Pittsburgh Steelers were playing the New England Patriots. Even more mysterious is the fact that the sizable contingent of Steeler fans in my family came to the wedding and missed what was probably the highlight of the Steeler season. (Congratulation to New York Giant fans on beating the Patriots in the Super Bowl.)


    Tuesday, January 31, 2012

    Kosher Jesus' Lack of Historical Context (Part IV)

    (Part I, II, III)

    To turn to Rabbi Boteach's treatment of Christianity. Considering that this is a book that is about reconciling Jews and Christians, one would expect Rabbi Boteach to take a positive view of Jewish-Christian relations. And there is much within the Christian tradition to support such a view from Augustine's witness doctrine to the active philo-Semitism of early modern Protestant millenarians. This is not to let Christianity Pontius Pilate itself from numerous crimes against Jews, but there is certainly room, particularly for American Jews who have benefited so greatly from American Christian society, to be charitable to Christianity and see its crimes as crimes of Christians instead of Christianity. The account that Rabbi Boteach delivers is absolutely crude, in a sense even worse than his treatment of the Romans. For example he calls Augustine an anti-Semite. Calling John Chrysostom an anti-Semite is one thing as would calling the later writings of Martin Luther, but to accuse Augustine of anti-Semitism is to render the very term meaningless. By this logic any Christian who ever believed that Judaism is a historical relic and that Jews are better off simply converting to Christianity is an anti-Semite. That would render almost all Christians anti-Semites and leave any Christians not interested in making radical changes to his theology no reason to work with us. We would also be left with no word to describe those with a psychological obsession with Jews as incarnations of evil and wish to cause them physical harm.

    If we are to accept Rabbi Boteach's narrative of Jewish-Christian relations, it all started with a misunderstanding over who killed Jesus. Early Christians for political reasons decided to blame the Jews instead of the Romans. Christians soon came to believe their own nonsense and for nearly two-thousand years, before Vatican II and the publication of Kosher Jesus, have unfortunately hated and murdered Jews. Rabbi Boteach does not paint a clear picture of this history, something about Crusades, pogroms and Pope Pious XII working arm and arm with Hitler to carry out the Holocaust. It is like Rabbi Boteach is giving a summary of Rabbi Joshua Trachtenberg's Devil and the Jews, possibly through vague recollections of anti-Christian polemics heard in yeshiva, without any of the nuance, which Trachtenberg did not have much of in the first place.

    Now that the misunderstanding has been clarified, thanks to Rabbi Boteach's brilliant efforts, Jews and Christians can finally come together in the recognition of their common heritage. Jews should forgive Evangelical Christians because they support Israel and uphold traditional values in American society. What Rabbi Boteach likes about Evangelical Christians efforts to uphold traditional values is unclear, because he also attacks them for causing divisiveness and for focusing too much attention on gay marriage. So it is mainly for taking right wing positions on Israel I guess. Catholics are nice to mainly because, unlike Rabbi Boteach's Evangelical friends, they are not trying to convert us these days, passed Vatican II and the two recent pope have visited synagogues. Of the greatest importance, Rabbi Boteach has personally met with Pope Benedict XVI, shaken hands with him and can assure us that he is a really nice guy.                

    I try to place myself in the place of Rabbi Boteach's assumed audience, Christians, and picture how I would react to this book if I were a Christian. I would be offended by the mere fact that someone from a different group has the nerve to tell me what to think about issues critical to my faith, attacks what I believe in ways that sound suspiciously like the pot calling the kettle black, and is dishonest enough to deny that he is even doing any of this. And this would be before I actually opened the book. At which point I would add that he has the hypocrisy to accuse me of blaming him for killing my Lord and the same time as he blames me for killing his grandparents. The fig leaf about not blaming people for the sins of their parents would not count for much as Rabbi Boteach himself clearly does not believe it as demonstrated by his obsessive insistence that Jews (the real ones and not the fake traitorous Jews, who obviously have no Jewish descendants alive today) did not kill Jesus. I would come away thinking that Jews are arrogant, self-righteous, think that the entire world runs around them and that only their interests matter. In other words what Aspergers are routinely accused of applied to form a mild anti-Semitic neurosis.

    What was Rabbi Boteach thinking when he wrote this book? From his presentation it is clear that he is an excellent public speaker and would make for an effective politician. Thinking of him as an entertainer with political ambitions, I think, explains a lot. He is not running for public office, (though he does want to be Chief Rabbi of England) but as the rabbi for Christians. In this it is only a relatively minor annoyance that the Jewish community has yet to accept him in this role just as long as non-Jews think that he represents Judaism or at least see him as representing what Judaism should be. It says something that Rabbi Boteach brags not just of meeting the pope, but of being good friends with Christian missionaries and of having spoken at missionary training schools. Tuvia Singer at least has to make up his Christian alter-ego to present Christian missionary tactics to Jewish audience. The fact that Rabbi Boteach wrote a book about Jesus for Christians instead of Jews also says a lot. Add to it the almost messianic tone in which he writes about this book as if he expects that this one book will change Jewish-Christian relations forever. Like a politician, Rabbi Boteach does not really think in terms of ideological positions to be supported, but in personal relationships to be maintained. Ideology is a role to play in order to get on stage. The point being to get on the public stage and secure the best possible position and ideology must not be allowed to get in the way. Now that Rabbi Boteach has his public role as the rabbi he is free to use his personal charisma to make as many friendships and gain as much influence as possible even from the people he is supposed to be in opposition to.

    Reading Kosher Jesus as a politician's speech explains why Rabbi Boteach thinks he can get away with offending both Jewish and Christian audiences. He had to know that Jews would be offended by the concept so he wrote a book that is in practice very Jewish in the hope that any Jewish readers would be assured of whose side he was on. On the other hand he hoped that Christians would just focus on the premise of a rabbi who likes Jesus. Like any good politician, Rabbi Boteach works in generalities in the hopes that each part of his audience will only hear the part they would already be inclined to hear. Keeping things as shallow as possible is critical, because it hinders anyone from taking him seriously intellectually and criticizing him. How can you criticize ideas that are not really there? It is the sentiments that count anyway and the beauty of sentiments is that, unlike ideas, they can contradict each other without there being a problem.

    Rabbi Boteach could have written a valuable book, making the case to Jews to rethink Jesus and by extension their Christian neighbors. To defend himself he could put in something above the grade school level of scholarship that he did and presented himself as just a humble representative of a tradition. Instead Rabbi Boteach needed to be the rabbi for Christians, something unique and incredible to match his inner vision of himself; in essence he needed to be his own Kosher Jesus.   

    Sunday, January 29, 2012

    Kosher Jesus' Lack of Historical Context (Part III)

    (Part I, II)

    To get back to Rabbi Boteach's view of the Romans, for an author asking readers to show some charity to Jews, Rabbi Boteach's attacks on the Romans are particularly shrill. In fact I would go so far as to say that Rabbi Boteach's statements against Rome compare to that of the most vitriolic Christian denunciations of Jews as deicides. If you think I am exaggerating, I would point out that Rabbi Boteach repeatably compares the Jewish situation under Roman rule to Jews living under Nazi occupied Poland. This is a complete distortion of the Roman record. Not to exonerate the Romans, but they were more than just oppressive conquerors, who held gladiatorial games. Far more than the power of its army, Rome succeeded because it possessed an effective bureaucracy and a legal system that others wanted to be ruled by. Rome did not just beat it's opponents into submission; it seduced them into willingly joining the empire. The same Philo and Josephus that Rabbi Boteach uses to show that Pilate committed atrocities were overall very positive about Roman rule, particularly about Augustus and Tiberius. We know from Roman sources that Julius Caesar was particularly popular with the Jews of Rome. Rabbi Boteach talks about Pompey desecrating the Temple, but somehow leaves out the fact that he was invited in by Jews to help out in a civil war. For all of Rabbi Boteach's talk about the Pharisees being Jewish patriots trying to lead their people to freedom, R. Yohanan b. Zakai smuggled himself out of the city and surrendered to Vespasian, who was such a heartless monster that he spared the city of Yavneh allowing for the survival of rabbinic Judaism. Even later generations of rabbis had a difficult time completely condemning the Romans and admitted that the Romans did benefit Israel through their building projects. Did the Romans kill many Jews? Yes. Were they great humanitarians? No. Were they the Nazis? No.

    Clearly Rabbi Boteach obsession with condemning the Romans, as can be seen from the book and how he answered my question, leads him to further misunderstandings of the nature of Roman rule. He uses the fact that the Romans do not play a larger role in the Gospel stories as evidence that the texts were edited to reflect a pro Roman bias. Obviously there was such a process, which has been obvious to scholars long before Rabbi Boteach, but that is beside the point. The Romans do not show up more because part of their not completely barbaric policy of occupation was to grant large measures of native self rule to provinces in the empire. It should be no more surprising that non-Jews do not play a larger role in the Gospels than it should surprise readers to not find many non-Jews in the American edition of the Yated. The lesson we should take from the relative absence of non-Jews is that the New Testament is, for the most part, a Jewish book written for Jews.

    Keeping the comparision with contemporary Jewish rhetoric is important in exonerating the New Testament from charges of anti-Semitism. Boteach claims to wish to do this, but in practice seems to do the opposite. Jesus and his followers were Jews. The books of the New Testament, for the most part, were written as Jewish books. It makes no more sense to call the New Testament anti-Semitic than it would be to call the Yated anti-Semitic for what it says about other Jews. For that matter I am sure Rabbi Boteach would not want to be called anti-Semitic for speaking out like he did against those within Chabad, who are denouncing him nor would he want his Jewish opponents labled as anti-Semites.   

    It is almost as if Rabbi Boteach has this fear that if his readers do not place all the blame on first century Romans they will blame twenty-first century Jews. This is a counter-productive attitude toward anti-Semitism as it makes our denial of responsibility a little too earnest, as if we have something to hide. Christians should not blame me for killing their Lord not because my ancestors were not shouting in the streets of Jerusalem for Jesus' blood to be on their hands and mine, but because I most certainly did not call for it and it should be obvious that I am the sort of person who never would think of doing so.