Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Attention all Thinking Women! Agudath Israel Wants You (For What I am Not Certain)

Someone at Agudath Israel's public relations department seems to have decided that inclusiveness and critical inquiry are useful concepts that play well in public opinion. What I find interesting here is the contrast between the caption and the picture. Where are the thinking women in the picture? All I see are men. As to whether any thinking is going on, I would point readers to the structure of the picture in which gedolim sit on a dais with everyone else down below. This is an inherently authoritarian system that makes it impossible to engage in any meaningful education and critical inquiry impossible. If there are some people who are elevated to the status of having the "right answers" as opposed to everyone else then what is the point of there even being any sort of give and take? All that can be expected is for the elevated few to command and for everyone else to hear and obey.

It is important to understand why it is important that women be physically present and in a position to present and even photographed. What is at stake is not merely a public policy of not photographing women as a matter of keeping to modesty guidelines. How can women be a meaningful part of a conversation if they are not physically present and allowed to speak (and even photographed) as the equals of men? Men should also be paying attention here, because if the claim of women being able to participate is nothing more than a sham, then members of the other half of the human race need to ask themselves whether their participation is a sham as well. The very act of looking up at a dais means that this question is hardly academic.

I am reminded of an incident a few years ago when several Haredi leaders spoke at a Modern Orthodox synagogue in Teaneck, NJ in what was billed as an opportunity for an open discussion. What took place was merely these rabbis fielding a few pre-screened questions and lecturing the audience. The point here is that without a deep-seated commitment to a host of liberal values (classical, not modern) such notions as inclusiveness, critical inquiry, and open discussion quickly lose all meaning. Instead, they become pieces in an Orwellian game as they are pushed around by public relations people to mean their exact opposite.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein on Asperger Syndrome and Judaism

Over on Cross-Currents my friend R. Yitzchok Adlerstein has a thoughtful piece regarding Asperger Syndrome. I may be biased in this considering the people who served as inspiration for the piece. As R. Adlerstein tells it:

In the last few months, my wife and I have had the pleasure of hosting a young couple for occasional Shabbosim. Both live with AS. ... The couple know that I am writing this; we’ve discussed the content. They are quite open about their experience. Nonetheless, I am not going to mention their names.) Both are frum. The husband is finishing his doctoral dissertation; his wife works with special-needs kids. They are very, very bright. (One of them often periodically gives me a hard time as a commenter to Cross-Currents.)

I will leave it to my readers' imagination as to the identity of this Asperger couple.

What impresses me about R. Adlerstein here is that more than just about any neurotypical I know, he actually seems to get the challenges faced by Aspergers living in a neurotypical world and manages to avoid the trap of "why can't you people just learn to cope like 'normal' people." As R. Adlerstein forcefully notes:

Why? Because “our” world doesn’t make any real sense to them. They don’t understand it. It seems unnatural and arbitrary. (They may be closer to the truth than we are!) How they get by is intriguing. Since they can’t really make our rules second nature, they cope with them by laboriously learning protocols of reaction. They learn, step by step, how to interact with a person whom they do not know. They memorize steps of conversation that they may hear, or should initiate. They learn phrases with which to deal with the conversation they cannot comprehend. For example, when faced with something they are not sure was said in jest or not, they will interrupt and directly ask the intent of the speaker.

In a social setting, they often have to deal with input from multiple speakers. For each, decisions need to be made. Do I launch into Protocol E after that last remark, or should we try Protocal S? After a while, their brains begin to resemble an overtaxed and overheated CPU. Aside from the stress, none of it ever really makes sense. Dealing with the arbitrary is the price they must pay, without ever entertaining the hope that they will understand. This is life; deal with it by obeying arbitrary rules, responding with fixed modes of response. Every minute can mean a new challenge of having to consult this rule book, and responding according to what they have been taught. Every slip-up, every deviation, will exact a penalty and price.

Where R. Adlerstein wishes to take all of this is interesting. I suspect that many readers will object. I personally am still working through my thoughts regarding the matter. R. Adlerstein sees Aspergers as a potential model for religious behavior.

If occurred to me that if, as the gemara says, Hillel obligates all the poor, then AS people obligate the rest of us. We chafe – consciously or otherwise – at having to live with rules we often do not understand. We groan under the weight of so many restrictions and limitations. We don’t like the pressure, nor the fact that we cannot comprehend why we must obey these rules with such exactitude.

Listening to G-d’s rules is not at all like obeying the human variety. We are maaminim, bnei maaminim. We know that HKBH is never, ever, arbitrary. We have perfect confidence that His rules make Divine sense, even if not humanly comprehended. We have the advantage of sensing the depth and beauty of most of His rules – it is a minority that trouble us. We know that the stakes are much higher than the social acceptance that is at stake for AS folks. We can appreciate that if He asks us to live our lives constantly checking with His rule book for the propriety of our next decision, then it is possible to live life in this way.

Is it better to be admired or excommunicated? While the former is truly tempting, I fear that mainstreaming Aspergers could become a means of co-opting us, taking away the potentially subversive role for Aspergers to play in religion.

There is a difference between the divine commands associated with religion and human social rules. While divine commands can appear to be extremely arbitrary, they have the advantage over human social rules in that they are usually being made explicit. Part of the problem with human social rules is that not only are they arbitrary, but they are often never clearly stated. Instead, they are left to the intuition of others. Since we Aspergers operate on a different wavelength, we are apt to simply miss the message. An organized religion that offers me the opportunity to exempt myself from human social rules (though not ethical ones) in exchange for following its commandments certainly has my support.

That being said, there is another side to all this that R. Adlerstein, for good reason, does not discuss. He simply starts from the assumption that we Aspergers accept neurotypical social rules and infers that one should show similar obedience to God. Now, what should we conclude from the fact Aspergers, such as myself, do not accept neurotypical rules? We may obey them out of practical necessity, but we mock them as arbitrary and unnecessary. In the end, we do not accept them as holding any legitimate moral authority over us. Having grown skeptical of the very concept of top-down authoritarian rule, how should we react to the notion of the top-down authoritarian rule of God?

I see nothing heretical in what I am saying. As a Jew, part of my religion is to argue with God. This coming Rosh Ha-Shanah, I will be acknowledging God as my king, who has absolute power over me. That being said, there is a whole other side to the High Holidays. Despite God's omnipotence, he is, by definition, unable to force our free acceptance of him as our moral authority to be obeyed. Like any politician, God must ask us to give our assent. We humans cannot let God off lightly. We have our demands for a sweet new year and complete pardon for all is only the beginning of that list. How could anyone have the chutzpah to treat God in such a manner and turn the tables on him? I guess one needs to have Asperger Syndrome or simply be Jewish.   

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Kickstarter Storybook Project

My very talented friend Oren Litwin, who recently wrote a collection of short stories on reforming government, has a kickstarter project for an illustrated storybook of a cute short story he wrote. The story deals with how a baker uses the power of Chanukah to save a princess and the land from a dragon.  Lovers of Hebrew will get a kick out of the dragon's name, which is revealed at the end. Oren has been kind enough to post the story for free. If you would like to see an illustrated version please donate to help with publication. He needs $5,000. If you donate $12 you will receive a copy of the book upon publication. You will only be charged if the necessary funds are raised.    

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Toward an Asperger Judaism or Why I, Under No Circumstances, Should Be Placed in a Position of Leadership

As readers of this blog know, I am an Orthodox Jew and I have Asperger’s Syndrome. As an Asperger, I tend to value abstract ideas over socially interacting with people. Ideas have the advantage of being clear, logical and consistent as opposed to people, who are ever-changing and are difficult to predict. While Asperger’s Syndrome is associated with autism, I, in no way, view it as a mental illness. On the contrary, I tend to see other people (neurotypicals) as suffering from a lack of consistent rationality. (Admittedly, marching to one’s own drumbeat and telling the rest of the world that they are the ones out of step likely counts as a form of insanity all of its own. I am not sure what the technical label for such an illness is, but I know that it is something distinct from Asperger’s Syndrome.) At the end of the day, I seek to pursue this peculiar mode and be granted tolerance in the same way as countless minority groups of various kinds.     
Being an Asperger and relating to ideas and socialization in a different manner has implications for how I approach Judaism in that Judaism consists of both a set of ideas and a social community. Judaism has its beliefs such as Maimonides’ Thirteen Principles of Faith. These tend to relate to the nature of God, the Torah, and future reward and punishment. That being said, Judaism is primarily about performing rituals as part of a community. At first glance, one might think that an Asperger like me would hate Judaism for all of its rules and demand for social conformity. The funny thing about Judaism is that it offers precisely the sort of socialization that is well suited for an Asperger like me. Judaism has clearly defined rules and which do not simply have to be intuited. If one follows these rules, one is a member of Jewish society in good standing. Ironically this serves to save a person from having to constantly engage in the sort of dances one has to within general society in which one’s social standing is always on the line. Ultimately with Judaism, I can pay any debts to society in advance and save myself unwanted social interactions in the long run.  
With Judaism, I can show up, perform the necessary halachic rituals and in return receive a basic social structure. For example, I can pray for two hours on Shabbos morning with a minyan. This is the perfect form of socialization for me as it does not require me to speak to any mortal human beings, but only to read a text and use it to contemplate the larger universe. Having paid my social dues, I can go home and be sociable with my books and my brain. The hope is that by paying these dues I will have a community of people to talk/argue with possibly over a meal after shul. Even I acknowledge that I need such a structure order to get by in this neurotypical world and, as an Asperger, I am particularly ill-equipped to find it by conventional means. 
Let me be clear, this is not some Orthoprax manifesto proclaiming the practical benefits of Judaism regardless of theology. On the contrary, I care tremendously about theology. Recall that, as an Asperger, it is precisely this realm of ideas that is real to me. Unfortunately, I long ago came to the conclusion that most Orthodox Jews, particularly Haredim, do not really care about theology. Instead, they engage in “social thinking” where theology serves merely as a mask to cover the principle of “we in the community are good and everyone else is not.” Or, to paraphrase Mel Brook’s 2,000 Year Old Man, let them all go to hell except cave 76. Ironically enough, a large part of what convinced me of this has been precisely the rise of the use of bans against supporters of potentially heterodox ideas within the Orthodox community itself. These bans seem remarkably selective and do not seem to cover principles that many in the Haredi community are guilty of violating. My concern here is not those who hold positions that I see as heretical. Obviously, they disagree with me and many of them are far more learned than me. My objection here is to people who acknowledge that these ideas are heretical or at least are willing to denounce them when they manifest themselves in other religions, but refrain from following through on their principles and place believers in these ideas outside the pale of Judaism.
My wife (also an Asperger, but who will like it noted that she disagrees with me) and I live in Pasadena, CA. As she notes, the biggest problem in our marriage is that the closest shul to where we live is a Chabad House 3.5 miles away and I have come to the conclusion that the rabbis there, though very nice people, are heretics. This has nothing to do with any of their messianic beliefs. The problem is that they view the Lubavitcher Rebbe as something more than just a great and wise Torah sage. Furthermore, they do not see Chabad as one of many legitimate interpretations of Judaism, but as the definitive version of Judaism. To be fair to Chabad, most of my objections to them apply at least to some degree to the Haredi community as a whole and I am therefore well on my way to declaring them to be heretics as well.   
On more than one occasion I have heard Haredi rabbis proclaim that “our gedolim are always right.” Now my Asperger brain takes statements like this in a very matter of fact fashion to their logical conclusions. Always being right implies omniscience. Only God can be omniscient. So any claim of omniscience is a claim of godhood. Thus any claim that the gedolim are always right is really a claim that they are gods or at least extensions of some sort of godhead. To the best of my knowledge, no one has been removed from a position of leadership for making such statements. Such people have not even been reprimanded for showing inappropriate zeal for God’s unity in making imprecise statements that could lead to misunderstandings by oddball Aspergers like me. Now there is no doubt in my mind that anyone who lectured on the efficiency of Catholic saints as manifestations of divine power on Earth would be thrown out of the Orthodox community. (Let me note for the sake of anyone who thinks that I am being too academic that, as an academic historian of medieval Jews, I need to be familiar with Catholic doctrine and formulate opinions as to its compatibility with monotheism so this is, after a fashion, a relevant issue to me.) It seems to me then that the problem most Jews have with Catholic saints is not some higher principle of God’s oneness, but the fact that these saints are Catholic. Judaism must be superior to Catholicism because we are Jews and we need to think well of ourselves. So we appeal to high-sounding theological principles which we, regardless of whether we actually believe in them, have no intention of sacrificing the community for their sake.
The practical manifestation of this doctrine of the power of gedolim is the organization Kupat Ha’ir. This group collects money on the promise of blessings from various gedolim, which are presumed to carry some sort of power. I once called Kupat Ha’ir’s hotline to ask them to explain the difference between their claims about Mother Rachel wanting to hear our prayers and Catholic veneration of the Virgin Mary. Needless to say, Kupat Ha’ir’s crack team of theologians manning their lines proved unprepared to handle such questions.
I am hardly original in opposing Kupat Ha’ir. The problem is that no one, besides for perhaps R. Marc Angel, seems willing to take action against them. I once heard a prominent rosh yeshiva denounce Kupat Ha’ir in very harsh terms. I asked him afterward whether he believed that rabbis associated with Kupat Ha’ir, such as R. Chaim Kanievsky, are heretics. His response was not to deny that Kupat Ha’ir is heresy, but simply that the people involved are gedolim so they cannot be guilty of heresy. I can only conclude from this that the rosh yeshiva, as great a scholar as he is, is trapped by his social thinking and is unable to follow through on a purely theoretical principle even if that principle is nothing less than belief in God. His sense of Judaism requires the acceptance of gedolim even more so than it does a clear and consistent sense of what it means to not have any intermediaries between man and God. As for me, I am first and foremost a Maimonidean style monotheist. If have to sacrifice the entire Jewish community for that belief I will. King Ahab, according to the Talmud, was a great Torah scholar and worshiped idols. I see nothing wrong with viewing the present Haredi leadership in the same manner. Admittedly this makes me a poor candidate for any position of authority but still leaves me eminently qualified for being a street corner or blogosphere crank. What else should you expect from someone with Asperger’s Syndrome?              
I have no objection to those who wish to take a Moses Mendelssohn position of a Judaism without dogma and create an intellectual free for all; your beliefs are consistent. Similarly, those committed to defending all of Maimonides’ principles are also consistent. To those who wish to take a hard-line on some of the later principles while taking it easy on the earlier ones, I have a question. Are you willing to let Christians off the hook as well? If no then you have to demonstrate how your beliefs differ in principle from what Christians claim. If you cannot answer that then this Asperger Jew, with all the power he has invested in himself, will declare you to be a heretic (or simply a neurotypical who cannot think past his social ideology).

Friday, July 5, 2013

Fireworks and the Free Rider Problem: A Libertarian Thought for July 4th

As I write this I am with my wife at my in-laws beach house in Newport Beach watching a fabulous collection fireworks being sent off in honor of July 4th. It bears consideration that fireworks represents an example of the classic free rider problem in economics. Even more so than schools and a military, fireworks are the sort of positive externality that is impossible to prevent other people from taking advantage of. People will simply free ride off the generosity of those who buy their own firecrackers and watch the fireworks show for free without paying. One cannot exactly light firecrackers in one's basement. Therefore one has no choice but to light them out in the open where every selfish person in the neighborhood too cheap to buy their own, such as me, can watch them. Now if every person behaved logically and was as selfish and cheap as I am, no one would buy firecrackers. Everyone would just try to watch someone else's fireworks. We would be left with a July 4th without any patriotic explosions.

For this reason it is obvious that, just as the government provides education and protection, which no one would ever pay for on their own, the government must provide fireworks for the public and tax the public to pay for them. Wait a second! The fireworks shows I am watching are all privately produced. In fact it is illegal to light firecrackers in Newport Beach. So not only are anonymous strangers providing me with free entertainment, they are also risking punishment at the hands of the government. If people are willing to provide free services, despite the free rider problem, for something as relatively silly as fireworks than might people agree to provide other free services when they believe that the future of civilization is at stake?  

Sunday, June 30, 2013

First They Came for Rabbi Jonathan Sacks and then for Rabbi Nathan Kamenetsky and Rabbi Yitchok Adlerstein

This past Shabbos, my wife and I were privileged to stay by Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, a man who represents the best in the Haredi world today. He was remarkably gracious to me considering that I have been critical of him in the past. A large part, I think, of what makes him a force for sanity is that he is part of an earlier generation in which Orthodox Judaism was not a self-contained community, but a collection of individuals struggling to pass their Judaism on to the next generation. Because of Orthodoxy's small numbers, one needed to take the outside world into account in terms of considering what sort image they might form of Judaism instead of being lulled into placing the non-Orthodox world into a realm of non-existence. Furthermore, small numbers meant that everyone counted. One could not afford to push people away because of their style of clothing or if they attended college. I was blessed to receive this brand of Judaism from growing up in the shadow of Columbus, OH, and McKeesport, PA. Rabbi Adlerstein lives in Los Angeles and works for the Simon Wiesenthal Center, which helps one care more about making a Kiddush Hashem to the outside world than being attacked in the Haredi press.

Over Shabbos, I managed to read a book not widely available by another Haredi figure that I respect, Rabbi Nathan Kamenetsky's Anatomy of a Ban. It contains a series of letters written to a student outlining the unfolding of the ban against his Making of a Godol biography as it played out over the fall of 2002 through the beginning of 2003. I found it quite inspiring considering my own recent troubles as I have been forced to abandon a project that I have spent years on without even being allowed to defend myself.

I found it interesting, though, that Rabbi Kamenetsky refers to the parallel attacks against Rabbi Jonathan Sack's Dignity of Difference, but attempts to distance himself from Rabbi Sacks without considering the deeper relationship. As far as Rabbi Kamenetsky is concerned, Rabbi Sacks was being charged with heresy for implying that other religions were equals as opposed to himself, who at worst might have said disrespectful things about past Torah scholars. I find this attitude startlingly naïve. I should not have to remind readers of the Martin Niemoller quote of "first they came for the communists." It goes deeper than this and for that I turn to another non-Jewish opponent of Nazism, Friedrich Hayek.

One of the major points of Hayek's Road to Serfdom is that there are unforeseen consequences for even innocent looking laws created with all the good intentions of promoting the public welfare. One of the most important of these is the creation and empowerment of a bureaucracy. By their nature bureaucracies will not allow themselves to be disbanded when their original task is accomplished, but will always seek to expand their sphere of influence into realms never dreamed of by the original lawmakers. Furthermore, bureaucracies will attract precisely the worst sorts of people, who will be motivated by power for its own sake and abuse it.

The ban on Rabbi Sacks was the product of a particular religious bureaucracy of community activists that operates by picking targets and gathering signatures. In general, people are remarkably willing to attach their names to good sounding causes (consider how easy it is to convince people to ban dihydrogen monoxide). In our case, there was an added motive, as rabbis have an interest in advancing their reputations by signing on to bans in order to demonstrate that they are precisely the sort of rabbis who are important enough to be asked to sign bans. The legitimacy of the ban is irrelevant. The institutional framework to ban books was able to come together and get away with banning a book by a Modern Orthodox chief rabbi of England. They then moved on to other targets like Rabbi Kamenetsky and later Rabbi Nathan Slifkin. Rabbi Kamenetsky was cutting his own throat the moment he was willing to acknowledge the legitimacy of organized attempts to ban books even supposedly "heretical" ones.

This is something that I hope Rabbi Adlerstein takes to heart. While laughing at his critics, perhaps he should ask himself whether he has empowered them by using their tactic of questioning the motives of his opponents. Things that we say or even tacitly acknowledge have a way of coming back to haunt us.    

Friday, June 21, 2013

Abarbanel on Bilaam's Theology

Here is a short piece from Isaac Abarbanel biblical commentary demonstrating his often oddly naturalistic interpretation of texts. He attempts to strip Bilaam of any magical power to curse while preserving a supernatural deity capable of interacting with the world.

It is said that Bilaam’s thought in going was that the [divine] influence only extended to the celestial order. It might come about that God May He Be Blessed will bless the Israelite nation and give them good blessings with his guidance. This does not prevent, according to what the stars show, much suffering, evils, plagues and the execution of judgments. [He assumed that] matters of [divine] influence worked the same. Because of this, he chose, in following his calculations based on his knowledge of the future things that would happen to Israel based on the celestial order, either destruction or exile from one of many times. He wished to inform Balak about these things in order to fulfill his request so that he would pay him. Because his intentions in this matter were bad, God became angry that he went and placed an angel of God on the path. This angel was not able to kill Bilaam as did the angel of God that smote the camp of the king of Assyria. Bilaam did not deserve to die as he went according to the word of God and his permission. Furthermore, he [God] did not wish to prevent him from going for, as I previously explained, God wished for the sake of his righteousness that Bilaam go and bless Israel and publicize among the gentiles God’s love for his people and their future success that will come to them. Because of this, all the prophecies that he sought to tell over among the nations that were to be prophecies of loss, he did not remember. Not exile, not the destruction that will come upon Israel. For God hid it from him and he could not tell it over for the reason I recalled. But the angel of God went forth to oppose him on the path, meaning to remove from Bilaam the thought that he wished to tell the future evils that will befall Israel and to inform Bilaam that it was not in his power to speak, but a matter of God’s will. For God planted the tongue and gave a mouth to man. For behold, his mouth and tongue was no different than the mouth of his donkey that spoke through wondrous means, which was not in its nature to do. This furthermore served to tell him that the celestial order cannot not be spread nor be maintained except through that which does not contradict the higher influence. But in that which influences there is no power in the [natural] order to nullify the influence or challenge it. For God’s plan will stand no matter what. (Abarbanel, Commentary on Numbers 118a.)    


This piece exemplifies both Abarbanel’s general naturalistic scheme and hints at the role played by apocalypticism within it. As a medieval rationalist, Abarbanel’s universe was a distinctly non-magical one with set immutable laws of nature. Human beings like Bilaam have no actual power. As such he is unable, through his own efforts, to actually cause bad things to happen. While this natural order protects people from the likes of Bilaam, it leaves man in a bleak position of utter helplessness against these very laws, which seem indifferent to human welfare. Since man is totally at the mercy of nature and cannot improve his situation, the only meaningful thing for him to do is gain knowledge about the world. Paradoxically, knowledge both liberates man from his state of ignorance, while at the same time trapping him with the awareness of his total helplessness. Bilaam is dangerous in that he is enlightened enough to appreciate his helplessness, but he finds no meaning in this universe beyond using his knowledge for his own material benefit.

The one ray of hope, in what is admittedly a very depressing worldview, is that God exists as the prime mover of the universe. Even this is not immediately a cause for optimism. God is outside of nature, but his working through nature radically limits him by making it as if he were an extension of nature. This is not a God, who can be relied upon to step outside of nature to prevent evil and provide only good. Bilaam knows this and therefore comes to the conclusion that eventually nature, in the form of historical entropy, will catch up with the Israelites. The last joke though is on Bilaam. God may operate the world according to nature, but he is outside of nature and he directs it for a purpose. This purpose is redemption, an act that is both within nature and the divine transcendence of it. As a rationalist, Abarbanel rejected magical solutions that were not rooted in the order of nature. His apocalypticism was thus rooted in this natural order. The same natural laws of history that brought Israel down will also sustain Israel in exile and allow for their return to power. While this remains a natural process, it is ultimately made possible through the divine influence at the root of the natural order.    

Thursday, June 6, 2013

My Dissertation's Journey (Part II)

I spent most of the next two years adrift with my dissertation. It did not help matters that I spent the 2009-10 school year away from any real academic oversight while teaching high school over in Maryland. The Hebrew Academy experience itself was a positive one for me, but most of that time randomly reading. It also did not help matters that I was fairly depressed over being in my late 20s and still single. Perhaps someone with better guidance, more emotional stability and less stubbornness would have recognized the need to reign in one's thinking instead of allowing it to range over a wide variety of topics related to messianism, much of it with no particular connection to Judaism, producing little in the way of actually useful writing.

It was only in 2011, after spending months wadding through the issue of Sabbatianism, that I really found my big idea. This idea was that messianism, with its conflicts between its spiritual and political variants, was rooted in the conflict between, what I came to refer to as, military model, missionary and esoteric model religions. The military model, based around community and ritual, seeks the support of a politically successful state. The missionary and esoteric models, based around believing individuals, oppose the community and eschews worldly success such as that provided by a state. This manifests itself in messianism, which combines the military model dreams of political success with the anti-community hopes of spiritual redemption. In a sense, messianism requires the belief that a political state is so unimportant that God would destroy it, merely for the sake of creating a more faithful nation, and so important that God would organize history around the return of his people to one.

I was still trapped by the idea that this dissertation needed to be comparative and discuss Christianity and Islam. This cost me several more months until I finally forced myself to set aside what had already ballooned to over 100 pages of material and set it aside for a future book. This still left me attempting to conceive of a grand narrative of Jewish messianism placed within the context of an elaborate theory of religion. Last fall, after I crossed the 500-page mark, my advisor told me to cut my early modern material. This included the Sabbatian chapter that I had spent so much time on. A few months ago, he told me to cut the medieval material and only hand in the beginning part, which was then well over 200 pages. One problem with this was that it meant abandoning all the material that I had originally set out to write. A more serious problem was that I was now writing a dissertation on ancient history, an area that neither I nor my advisor possessed any official expertise on. Nevertheless, I continued away at this part of the dissertation, clarifying ideas and adding in more examples to serve as evidence, until it passed the 300-page mark. I knew that what I was writing was not the sort of thing that one should normally do for a dissertation, but I assumed that as long as I was coherent and my advisor supported me I was safe.

Disaster struck a few weeks ago when a professor my advisor wanted to serve on my committee objected to the fact that I was writing a work of general theory. Other professors were soon called in and they raised the same objection. None of them bothered to argue against anything I had written. They did not need to. I had, without realizing it and with my adviser's cooperation, broken an unwritten code and that was enough. This morning I received what appears to be the final verdict. My advisor has acknowledged that my project had been a mistake from the beginning. He now apologizes for his mistake and offers his aid in writing a new dissertation. After nearly five years and more than 800 pages, I seem to be back at square one.         

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

My Dissertation's Journey (Part I)

As readers know, I am still in the process of writing my doctoral dissertation in history. It has taken me a few years and I am not yet done. As it stands now, while I possess a flesh and blood dissertation and more, that only needs to be edited, there is a strong possibility that I will have to make major changes, which can set me back months or even longer. Thus, I thought to take the opportunity to fill readers in on the situation and how I got there.

When I started my doctoral work at Ohio State, back in the fall of 2006, I wanted to write a dissertation on Isaac Abarbanel, focusing on either his messianic thought or his relationship to Maimonides. My advisor Dr. Goldish turned this idea down. He did not feel qualified to supervise something on Abarbanel. More importantly, he felt that my job prospects would fare better if I did not simply write something narrowly on Jewish thought, but instead addressed a larger narrative issue that would be of interest to people outside of Jewish Studies.

My next major idea was to write on the theme of vengeance against Christians in Jewish messianic thought. This was inspired by comments by Abarbanel, expressing his very un-politically correct hopes for the destruction of Christendom in the wake of the expulsion of 1492. I figured that writing about Jews thinking in ways that Christians often accused them of doing would be fun and controversial. This line of thinking led me to write an essay on the sixteenth-century adventurer David Reubeni, who claimed to come from the Ten Lost Tribes, and his interest in guns.

The next turn was influenced by a Koran class I took with the remarkable scholar Dr. Georges Tamer. On wrote a paper on Islamic Mahdism focusing particularly on the case of the Shi'i Fatimid dynasty, which seized power in North Africa in the early tenth century. What caught my attention was the fact that we are dealing with an apocalyptic movement that managed to evolve into a political one, once it seized power. I wondered if Maimonides', who took the apocalyptic element out of his messianism, was influenced by this line of thinking. Combined with my reading of Norman Cohn's Pursuit of the Millennium, which discusses medieval Christian apocalyptic movements in political terms, I became interested in messianism as a form of Jewish politics. This was to be in contrast to Gershom Scholem's categorizing of messianism as a retreat from politics.

I started to seriously work on the dissertation at the beginning of 2009 after completing my general exams. Using the essays on Reubeni and the Fatimids as well as a more extensive piece placing Abarbanel's messianism within the context of the Christian apocalyptic tradition as exemplified by Joachim of Fiore, I was planning on making my case that Jewish messianism was political largely by placing it within the context of various non-Jewish movements. The chapters would go as follows: Abu Isa's and David Alroy's use of armed force under charismatic leadership as influenced by early Shi'ism, Maimonides' rejection of apocalypticism as influenced by the Fatimids, Abarbanel's use of contemporary history as influenced by Joachim of Fiore, David Reubeni's use of guns as a symbol of state power, Sabbatai Sevi's use of early modern communication networks and Jacob Frank's use of brute force. This idea was grand, bold and completely impractical.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Summary of My Dissertation

My advisor asked me to write him a prospectus summarizing what my dissertation is about. This project has been taking up my writing time these past few years and I have been meaning to write about it on my blog. So here is what I sent him:

This dissertation seeks to elucidate the origins of Jewish messianism as it evolved out of the biblical and Second Temple era apocalyptic traditions and came into the inheritance of the rabbis. Following in the footsteps of Gershom Scholem and Norman Cohn, I divide messianism into the conflicting restorative political and spiritual apocalyptic versions. Most importantly, I see messianism as a means by which those on the margins of a religious community can attack and even conquer the establishment. To further develop an understanding of these conflicts at the heart of messianism, I place this discourse within the context of a particular theory, I propose, of how religions relate to community. This involves three models, military, missionary and esoteric. The military model relies on community and ritual to create a socially constructed reality in which the religion is so obviously true it never needs defending. The community is backed by a formal bureaucracy and sometimes even a state. Its rituals are backed by texts and traditions. Opposing the military model are the two anti-community models, esoteric and missionary. They rely on doctrine instead of ritual. The missionary model outright rejects the community and seeks to create a new religion by seeking even outside converts. It arms its followers with an all-encompassing faith that is strengthened by persecution and even martyrdom. The esoteric model remains more closely tied to the community and either seeks to take it over from within or form its own competing sect. The teachings of its charismatic leader counter the community’s texts and traditions. The esoteric model also uses doctrine to undermine ritual, and by extension the community, by means of antinomianism, the ritualized violation of the law. This allows the esoteric model to either give new, if subversive, meanings to already existing practices or to create new ones. Messianism is important to understanding how these models function because it provides the chief means by which a military model religion can bring its opposition into the fold. Messianism is a tool used by the anti-community models to take over a community, but it is also the means by which the community can absorb their opposition and render them relatively harmless.    

The struggle between the different models follows a cyclical narrative. You have a religious establishment sitting at the top of a military model community. Their focus is on the use of ritual as a means to create a social ideology. This makes the religion quite shallow and parochial, but also the sort of religion that can attract a mass following. This establishment will be under attack by various kinds of intellectual elites, who form the anti-community models. These intellectuals oppose the establishment because it fails to live up to their set of universalizing doctrines. Followers of the esoteric model will maintain themselves, at least outwardly, as members of the community and either attempt to subtly influence it as part of a symbiotic relationship, or reject the community by forming a secret sect. The missionary model will openly break with the community and attempt to form a new community of believers, either by taking over the existing community as reformers or by converting non-members.

Those believers who make up the anti-community models are usually simply the disenchanted and marginalized members of the religious establishment. Thus, they benefit from the success of the community. Success gives this opposition both material support and, by encouraging all the worst habits of military model thinking, intellectual ammunition. The big moment for the opposition, though, comes when the community undergoes a major setback, such as the defeat of an established religion’s state, causing the community’s masses to question whether or not they are on the right side of history and to seek alternatives. Either openly or secretly, our intellectual opposition, having existed on the margins all this time, but never truly distant from power, comes to the rescue with a reformist agenda. They become the new establishment and may even be able to carry out certain surface reforms. In the end, though, the former anti-community model reformers will be taken over by the same community and transformed into just another version of the establishment they claimed to oppose. Their doctrines will turn into rituals without any larger meaning. Even when doctrines are outwardly maintained they will be nothing more than a ritualized catechism.    

The messianic doctrine encapsulates that moment in the cycle when the anti-community opposition achieves its takeover and is, in turn, conquered. During the time of the military model community’s success, its members have no need to develop a messianic doctrine, because, as far as they are concerned, they are already living in a “messianic” age in which history moves as it is supposed to with them on top. The anti-community opposition, existing on the margins, by contrast, develops a form of spiritual messianism. It explains both why the world is in such a fallen state that all the “wrong” people are in power and why it does not matter, considering that God offers them a far greater salvation than mere earthly power. When the moment of disaster strikes the community, the masses will turn to these same marginalized anti-community intellectuals. This spiritual messianic doctrine of a fallen people keeping their faith and being redeemed in the end sounds like the perfect ideology to explain the community’s weakened position and offers hope that, if they just persevere in their belief in themselves and the community, they will be redeemed. The community accepts messianism and its anti-community advocates despite the fact that this messianism really means the hope for the community’s destruction. By extension, the community is agreeing to hand over control not to pious defenders of the community, but people that seek to replace it with a different one of their own design. The last joke, though, is on the anti-community opposition. Their doctrine of spiritual messianism, which was meant to deny the relevance of the military model’s politics, is transformed into a spiritualized version of the old military model hope for political power. This leaves messianism trapped by paradoxes, defending military model politics and supporting its anti-community denial of the relevance of politics. Ultimately, messianism allows for the marriage of two different and contradictory religious visions. These visions are brought together by the language of messianism, which means opposite things to each party. This allows both sides to speak past each other and never have to confront the essential conflict.

Over the main body of the dissertation, I explain how this narrative of the conflict between models and the cycle of community takeovers has played out in ancient Israel, the Second Temple period and with rabbinic Judaism. Ancient Israel saw a priestly and monarchial establishment in conflict with the prophets, who attacked the ritual based sacrificial cult and monarchial authority in the name of a monotheistic theology. The prophets turned the establishment’s concern with enemy invaders against them by transposing it into a populist polemic against the wealthy. What tied these nationalist and populist positions together was the prophetic belief in a supreme deity with a universalizing ethic that condemned the Israelite elite both for their lust for foreign gods and their greed for extorted wealth. The prophets won due to Israel’s political defeats, which culminated in the destruction of the First Temple. This led to the rise of the Deuteronomist theology and the birth of Judaism. The Deuteronomists combined prophetic monotheism with a ritual based covenant that promised both a spiritual redemption and a political return from exile. The prophetic tradition was captured by a Judaism that agreed to believe in one God in exchange for that belief being manifested in a set of rituals that would allow Jews to survive their lack of a political state as well as allow Jews to regain precisely the sort of political state and temple that the prophets had originally denounced.

The Deuteronomist compromise created a Jewish religion that, during the Second Temple period, was capable of surviving despite the fact that most Jews lived in the diaspora and, even in Israel, were relatively weak politically. Second Temple era Judaism combined a more limited state and temple with a monotheist theology that allowed it to intellectually go on the offensive and compete with Hellenism for not only the souls of Jews, but for the entire Mediterranean world. The possession of an ideology opened Judaism up to anti-community thinking. This made establishment Judaism particularly vulnerable to sectarian groups like the Dead Sea Sect and early Christianity. These groups simply took the belief-based attack on ritual and community developed by the prophets to the next level, openly challenging the covenantal status of the vast majority of Jews. One of the main manifestations of this attack on community was a radical apocalyptic vision that saw not just a new order to the world, but the complete overthrow of nature and politics. This implicitly also rendered Jewish community and ritual irrelevant. What meaning could they have in a world where such concepts ceased to exist?

The destruction of the Second Temple left Judaism in need of another reformist movement. Such a movement would offer Judaism an ideology that would allow them to survive the complete end of Jewish sovereignty in Israel and the loss of the Temple. This time, the rabbis, who likely emerged from an esoteric model sect, came to the rescue by offering the emerging body of oral and written traditions that eventually came to form the Talmud as a mobile community to which Jews could attach themselves. The Talmudic corpus offered an intellectual framework, but little in the way of hard doctrine. Similarly, it kept the ritual and sense of community so important to the military model, while avoiding actual politics. This kept Judaism as a military model ritual keeping community, while giving it a transcendental vision beyond ethnic chauvinism that allowed Judaism to survive the lack of a political state. This compromise did not grant rabbinic Judaism the Deuteronomist’s sense of world mission nor the polemical firepower to attempt to pursue the mass conversion of gentiles. What this compromise did do was give rabbinic Judaism both the internal stability to avoid breaking apart into sectarianism and a sense of identity to be able to withstand the outside pressure of Christianity and Islam, competing monotheistic religions that were, in many respects, far more dangerous than anything the Hellenistic world produced. The rabbinic attempt to maintain Judaism as a religion of ritual and community without the need for a formal political system explains a peculiarity of rabbinic messianism. The rabbis maintained the doctrine in theory but avoided putting it into practice. They inherited the radical apocalypticism of Second Temple era sectarianism but avoided the anti-community implications of this apocalypticism by pushing it off forever into the future and the realm of theory. While kept out of the realm of daily life, apocalypticism served to keep political messianism in check. If the Jews were to regain their state and temple in an eschatological age then there was no reason for any Jew to attempt to rebuild a physical state and temple through political means in the present. As esoteric model intellectuals, the rabbis may have developed a symbiotic relationship with the Jewish community, but, in the end, they still needed to reject both state and temple along with their competing forms of leadership. Like any esoteric model group, the rabbis saw what the military model might consider exile to be the messianic age as it allowed the rabbis the freedom to mold Judaism in its own image without the internal competition of kings or priests. In order to avoid ever having to either face up to these inconvenient elements within Judaism or openly attempt to get rid of them, the rabbis simply pushed messianism into the realm of the forever imminent but never to be arrived at future.            

Sunday, May 12, 2013

The Best Collection of Liberty Loving Short Stories about Government that Money Can Buy

Oren Litwin is a friend of mine from back in my days in the Yeshiva College Dramatics Society. I have since fallen out of touch with him. While I have been pursuing my doctorate in history from Ohio State, he has been pursuing one in political science at George Mason. I moved out to California and he moved out to California. While I have not finished my dissertation and have therefore put my musket and magic fantasy novel on hold, Oren has produced a delightful collection of short stories titled The Best Government Money Can Buy.

Each of these short stories is premised on a wild government reform and what it might mean if such policies ever were put into practice. Such reforms include direct elections for cabinet positions, private prisons that inmates pay to be sent to and lawsuits against corrupt politicians. Most of the stories seem to be of policies that Oren would like to see in practice. There is one story, though, about mandatory firearm ownership. Here the main point of the story is to imagine the commerce clause being turned against liberals. Instead of liberals being able to use the commerce clause to demand that citizens buy healthcare, conservatives get to demand that even liberal pacifists buy some sort of firearm, even a Taser. Liberals then wake up and discover the value of a limited government.

The stories, in general, have a libertarian bent, with running references to Milton Friedman and Murray Rothbard, without being explicitly so. There are stories about legalizing marijuana and privatizing social services, but if I were to put my finger on what precisely about these stories is libertarian I would say that the approach to reform that runs through these stories is not of specific laws, but of institutions and the incentives that motivate the people behind them. This is in keeping with one of the main contributions of thinkers like Adam Smith and Friedrich Hayek that the noblest best-intentioned plan in the world is worthless in the face of the flesh and blood humans, who will put that plan into practice and what their incentives might be. Also while these stories do not actually support anarchism as the government is left standing, there is something anarchistic in its spirit in that it approaches government as something that can be radically restructured at will. A government that can be refashioned at will is also a government that can be made to disappear. Even if government exists, it is placed on the dock as something that must justify itself in the face of the demand for personal liberty.

The story that intrigued me the most was the last one, which deals with a plan to crowdsource the paying of city taxes. If citizens in a town can raise a certain amount of money in a given year than they do not have to pay taxes. Instead, citizens would be able to decide which public works projects they would want their donations to go to. I am still mulling over whether such a plan would work. My concern would be special interests taking an expansive view of what counts as public works. For example, what if wealthy elites put together the necessary money to get out of taxes and then used their donations to fund the building of golf courses instead of schools. I will certainly have to reread the story to come to an opinion.      

Monday, May 6, 2013

Conference Presentations and Why I Now Hate Megabus

The past two weeks have been very exciting for me. I flew out to Grand Rapids, MI for a symposium on religion and politics at Calvin College. I spoke at this symposium two years ago on the topic of apocalypticism in Joachim of Fiore and Isaac Abarbanel. Back when I was more productive on this blog and less so on my actual dissertation, this was going to be a chapter for the dissertation. Since my dissertation writing has become more productive, it has changed its emphasis and so Fiore and Abarbanel will need to wait for a future book. This time I spoke about Max Weber and his influence on my understanding of religion. As a Jew and as a medieval historian I was certainly the odd man out at the symposium. I must say that the people there were once again very kind to me and did there best to try to make me feel right at home.

After the symposium, I took a Megabus to Pittsburgh (which unfortunately went through that den of iniquity known as Ann Arbor) to visit my Nadoff relatives. From Pittsburgh, I took another Megabus to Washington D.C. I got to spend several days with my parents, siblings and my very cute new nephew Boaz. (He was very sneaky managing to get himself born hours after my wife and I needed to fly back to Los Angeles this past January.) This past Thursday, I was supposed to take a Megabus from D.C. to Pittsburgh before transferring to Greyhound for the last leg of my trip to Columbus, OH. After having purchased my ticket weeks in advance, I showed up at the stop only to be informed that the bus had been canceled. I had to quickly run over to Greyhound and buy a ticket to keep all of my plans in line. Now the nerve of Megabus. It is one thing for there to be delays. It is something completely different to point blank decide not to run a scheduled bus line, not tell paying costumers and leave them stranded. Megabus refunded the $1.50 I paid for the fare. This is beside the point and an insult. The $1 fares are door busters meant to serve as a means of advertising and are covered by the majority of times one ends up paying a higher fare. I won a raffle for agreeing to trust Megabus enough to set my plans around them weeks in advance. They violated that trust and broke their contract. At the very least they should cover the $50 for the Greyhound ticket and maybe even throw in some vouchers for future tickets.  

When all is said and done, I got into Columbus on Friday morning. I spoke to the middle school and high school at the Haugland Learning Center, a school for children on the autism spectrum, about college and dating. In terms of college, I emphasized the great reward in store in being able to focus on a particular interest, but that this reward must be earned through the personal discipline of being responsible for one's own work and, by extension, one's own life. In terms of dating, I used a little Nassim Nicholas Taleb to argue that dating is a form of high-risk investment in which most attempts fail. This means that, on the one hand, they should expect most relationships to fail and recognize that there is nothing they can do about it. The positive side of this is the knowledge that failure in these circumstances is not really failure, because they are not the cause of their failure. At the end of the day, a long string of failures with one success at the end means that the entire endeavor, including the failures, was a success.

The Sabbath was spent walking many miles and socializing with old friends (both of which are marks of my wife's corrupting influence on me). Sunday was The Ohio State Graduation and President Obama spoke. While the president encouraged young impressionable college students to forsake the peaceful social cooperation of working in the private sector to join him in a life of crime in government, I was a few blocks away at Hillel speaking about Maimonides for a graduate Jewish Studies colloquium. Even while he attempted to sneak in philosophical ideas, I like to think that Maimonides' attitude toward community was more honest than Obama's. As with Abarbanel, the Maimonides material is also not going into my dissertation, but will hopefully make its way into a future book.

I am flying back to California today. I miss the weather, my kitty and my wife.