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.