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.