Thursday, December 31, 2020

This Is What Happens When Students (and Their Teachers) Do Not Read Homer

 

There has been some recent controversy over attempts to remove books like Homer's Odyssey from school curricula to be replaced with more woke friendly material. In the Disrupt Texts Guide, they recommend the book Before the Ever After, which deals with CTE in professional athletes. I have not read the book so I have no position as to whether this book should be taught in schools. What struck me is the following comment from the guide: "In a capitalist society, the allure of fame and fortune connected with the pro sports world seduces many into risking their lives or long-term futures for immediate rewards." 

It seems obvious that whoever wrote this has no understanding of human history in general and particularly has never read Homer. Ancient Greece was not a capitalist society yet the character of Achilles revolves around the idea that he would exchange a long life in return for long-lived glory. The search for glory is important for Odysseus as well. Glory, particularly of the military kind, is a distinctly uncapitalist concept. In fact, one of the virtues of capitalism has been precisely its ability to convince young men that success in business is an acceptable alternative to the glory of victory on the battlefield. Without this, you do not have a capitalist society. 

In truth, every human society in history has possessed some version of encouraging young people to risk their health and physical safety for some larger goal. By definition, society means people organizing around something that they value above their personal self-interest. This applied to ancient Greeks marching off to war, knowing that there is a good chance they will die, so that their families could be part of the small minority of people who got to lie on couches, being served meat and wine by slaves. It applies today with professional football players risking their health for fame and fortune. It also applies to BLM protesters taking to the streets even though they would be personally better off staying home and letting someone else do the hard work of building a more woke society.    


Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Is Hogwarts Actually a Good School?


I have been reading the Harry Potter series with Kalman and homeschooling him through first grade. Reading Harry Potter as a parent and a teacher raises different issues from when I was in high school. Hagrid insists that Hogwarts is the best magic school in the world. We are told little about how other magic schools like Baubaxtons and Durmstrang operate. That being said, from an educational point of view, it is difficult to defend how Hogwarts teaches magic. 

Let us first agree to put aside the examples of Gilderoy Lockheart and Dolores Umbridge as they are meant to be bad teachers. Let us also put aside the slightly less obvious example of Severus Snape, who is a case of a very smart and knowledgeable person who should never be allowed near children. He is a bully and his classes are not teaching but child abuse. There is a more fundamental problem with the teaching at Hogwarts is it founded upon the assumption that all students with a baseline of magical ability can take their classes. Even if we assume that teachers can fill their students' heads with the information needed for regular topics, that would not work for many branches of magic. Magic is not simply an intellectual exercise but requires a metaphysical component as well. This means that for many classes, many if not most students can never truly learn the material and it is a waste of time or worse to encourage them to try. 

Imagine me attending a class on dunking a basketball. While I might benefit from learning about the physics and cultural history of dunking, it would be useless to try to teach me to dunk. This has nothing to do with how smart I am or my desire to dunk. The physical reality is that, as a non-athletic person of average height approaching middle age, I might be able to work on jumping higher but will never be capable of dunking on a regulation basketball hoop. It would be irresponsible if not outright fraud for a basketball program to try to teach me to dunk. Similarly, while it is an indisputable fact that my acceptance letter to Hogwarts never reached me due to a bureaucratic mishap, at this point I have to admit that it would be pointless to accept me as I clearly no longer have the knack for magic. I would argue, similarly, that much of Hogwarts' curriculum is wasted on the majority of students.  

One can divide the classes at Hogwarts into three types. First, there are the intellectual classes like potions, herbology, care of magical creatures, and the history of magic. In theory, at least, these do not require any magical abilities and could be taught even by muggles who are knowledgeable about magic as a theory even as they cannot perform magic in practice. What these classes require is the ability to absorb information and a willingness to closely follow instructions. We can grant, for the moment, that such classes might be taught to all students. 

Second, you have classes like transfiguration, charms, and defense against the dark arts that clearly require some magical ability. As students at Hogwarts are supposed to have some baseline magical ability, we are supposed to assume that everyone at Hogwarts meets this standard and can reasonably be expected to succeed. What abilities these classes require is not altogether clear. Despite the fact that Hermoine combines a bookish intelligence with a talent for charms and transfiguration, such classes do not seem to require you to absorb that much information. There are not that many spells to memorize and knowing the right Latin words is clearly not enough to succeed. This suggests that spells require a proper frame of mind in order to perform. Perhaps, it is like riding a bicycle, difficult to intellectualize but quite easy once you have a physical sense of the process.   

Third, you have those types of magic clearly inaccessible even to most wizards as they require something beyond the general ability to perform magic. In this category, you would have divination but also the patronus charm, occlumency, and the ability to resist the imperius curse. In the case of the patronus and occlumency, Harry is introduced to them through out-of-class tutoring from Remus Lupin and Snape, unsuccessfully in the latter case. The fake Madeye Moody teaches students about the imperius curse and performs it upon them to alert them to its existence not because he expects anyone to be able to resist it. Judging from the later books, Harry's ability to resist the imperius is more remarkable than his ability to produce a patronus as it is something that even most high-ranking members of the Ministry of Magic and the goblins of Gringotts cannot do.    

Divination is clearly a subject that few wizards, including the teacher, are capable of mastering. This raises a question as to why divination is taught as a class at all. It would be one thing if Dumbledore kept Trelawney at the school to tutor the once in a generation student with the gift. As it stands, the whole structure of the class is designed to encourage students to cheat and make up prophecies, a truly corrupting pedagogical exercise.   

Once we admit to the existence of a class like divination, where most students can never honestly succeed, we have to ask whether the problem also applies to the second category of classes. Do transfiguration, charms, and defense against the dark arts require something besides a general ability to perform magic, memorize spells, and personal discipline? Clearly, magical talent is not evenly distributed within the wizarding world and Dumbledore and Voldemort have something innately about them that other wizards could never hope to emulate much as the genes I was allotted at birth were never going to allow me to play in the NBA. It is not unreasonable to assume that Neville Longbottom was never going to succeed at transfiguration no matter how hard he tried and should never have been made to take it. This would free him to focus on herbology.

We can even work our way down to the first category and question whether certain students ever had the ability to succeed at such classes despite them not requiring magic. Snape basically makes this point when he compares the challenge of occlumency to that of potions. Harry struggles with both of them because he has little skill for making fine distinctions. This is an important part of his character. What makes him a successful hero is that he is a heart as opposed to a head sort of person. Harry is loyal to his friends and throws himself into danger to protect them. The flip side of this is that he has little talent for the details which is why he needs Hermoine. If this is the case, putting Harry in a potions class makes as much sense as trying to teach him occlumency. Instead, he should be focusing on defense against the dark arts.    

I am forced to conclude that if I were a wizarding parent, I would not want to send my kids to Hogwarts but would instead homeschool them or send them abroad to a different school. Putting Rowling's magical world aside, there is a serious question here about conventional schools. Are there classes that are the equivalents of divination or dunking a basketball that students are encouraged to take or even made mandatory despite the fact that many of them are unlikely to benefit from them? One might even go so far as to put the burden of proof on the school to show that a student would benefit from a class before allowing them to enroll. Does it make sense to pretend to offer special needs students "grade-level assignments?" For that matter, does it make sense to assign average students Shakespeare?  

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

How to Make Me Want to Convert to Calvinism: Make Me Listen to a Sermon By a Conservative Rabbi


Mackie's preschool is closed for the moment because a teacher was exposed to COVID-19. Hopefully, everyone will be well. In the meantime, both children are home in the morning. This past Friday, the preschool had a pre-shabbat zoom lesson from the transgender rabbi from the local Conservative temple. (Yes, it is supposed to be the Reform who have temples.) In case you were wondering if she had an agenda, the rabbi opened with modeh ani and then informed the children that there were a female and a non-binary version of the word. Keep in mind that we are talking about pre-schoolers here.  

The main lesson was about the upcoming Torah reading, Toldot. This deals with the story of Jacob and Esau. Jacob disguises himself as his hairy older brother and tricks their blind father, Isaac, into giving him the blessing meant for the firstborn. As someone who grew up believing that God made a mistake by not making me the oldest child, I empathize with Jacob. With my own children, I have emphasized Isaac's line of "the voice is the voice of Jacob but the hands are the hands of Esau." A Jew's superpower is in his voice, which he can use to pray and study Torah. We do not have big muscles and it is not our place to go around beating people up.    

What the rabbi wanted the children to take from the story was that you are supposed to be yourself. In a sane world, anyone who feels that they needed to use chemicals and surgery to make radical changes to their body would think twice about preaching self-acceptance. Regardless of your gender identity, any teacher who subscribes to the Disney/Mr. Rogers Rousseauean school of self-esteem that children should be accepted for who they are (as opposed to the Nathaniel Branden Aristotelian version of self-esteem) renders themselves unfit to educate children. 

I love Mackie. Those who know him will agree that he is a delightful child. That being said, he is illiterate and still in diapers. In essence, he is par for being three years old. I send him to school and work on him as his father precisely because I do not accept him for who he is. He needs to change to become someone else. For example, I insist that he become the kind of person who reads books and uses the potty.

Keep in mind that reading and using the potty are not just utilitarian skills. They involve fundamental shifts in how one perceives the world. To become literate means to confront the authority of texts through time and space as a counterweight to one's personal feelings. Using the potty means recognizing that there is something unclean within you that needs to be expelled in set places through a process of rigid bodily control. Critical to both activities is a recognition of your own limits as a person and the submission to an authority outside yourself. There is nothing natural about reading and potty training as evolution did not provide us with these skills. These are the products of the discipline of civilization. At its root, civilization is about a decision to reject your natural self, the savage.   

Telling children that they are fine the way that they are and do not need to change is a terrible lie when mixed with on Torah portion of the year but to bring in the story of Jacob and Esau to make this point requires satanically perverse exegetical skills. There is a case to be made that Jacob's suffers from a mimetic need to have what rightfully belonged to Esau, culminating in dressing up like Esau to steal his blessing. This is still not a lesson in being yourself. It is a lesson in not trying to be like bad people. We try to be like the biblical patriarchs and not stay true to ourselves because they were better and holier people than us. In terms of being oneself, if there was anyone in the biblical narrative who needed to be himself less, it was Esau. He was set aside from the womb to be Jacob's antagonist. In essence, Esau was literally “born to be bad.” 

Within Calvinist thought, Esau serves, along with Pharaoh, as proof for predestination. Do you have free will or did God decide, even before creation, who would be the righteous saved and who would be the sinful unsaved? In the case of Esau, it is hard to escape the conclusion that God's plan required Esau to be wicked and so God made Esau that way. Despite the fact that Esau never had a choice in the matter, God still hated him. It may have been God who created Esau as the embodiment of wickedness, but that is what Esau was and, as such, it was logically necessary for God, who is righteousness, to hate him. 

If you are not a Calvinist you might say that Esau was the exception to prove the rule. Esau was chosen for evil but regular people are not so we, unlike Esau, have the ability to choose the right path and can be held responsible for failing to do so. Alternatively, you can make the case that Esau was more nuanced than a straightforward villain. Esau honored his father and, in the end, made peace with Jacob. If Esau was capable of good deeds, perhaps he was capable of going against his divinely ordained role in more profound ways. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks of blessed memory made a powerful case for Esau not being completely rejected from the covenant.

Nevertheless, one needs to admit that the Calvinists have a legitimate point in regards to Esau and, in arguing against them, one is fighting an uphill battle. You throw away all credibility when you pretend that there was never anything fundamentally wrong with Esau in his very being. The one thing that Esau needed was to not be himself. 

I want Mackie to embrace the voice of Jacob and not the hands of Esau. This is not something natural that Mackie can achieve simply by being himself. It will happen because he has parents and teachers who will not let him be himself but will insist that he become something better.  


Sunday, November 22, 2020

Tocqueville on the Post-Religious Moment

 

For Alexis de Tocqueville, religion is important for liberty as an extension of society. What keeps a government in check, particularly a democratically elected government that can plausibly claim to represent the "people," is the existence of a distinct social sphere. Religion protects the social sphere by granting a moral authority that the government lacks. The opposite is also true that government needs to keep religion hemmed in within the social sphere so that it evolves to focus on the non-physical and that clergymen learn to value the respect they gain precisely by not being tainted by politics more than the power they could gain through politics. From this perspective, religion and politics, while maintaining their separate spheres can have a positive influence on each other. Religion keeps government away from society and the government keeps religion out of politics. Hence government and religion render each other suitable for liberty.

Removing religion from the equation would start an avalanche that would eliminate reason and ultimately liberty. According to Tocqueville:

When religion is destroyed among a people, doubt takes hold of the highest portions of the intellect and half paralyzes all the others. Each person gets accustomed to having only confused and changing notions about the matters that most interest his fellows and himself. You defend your opinions badly or you abandon them, and, since you despair of being able, by yourself, to solve the greatest problems that human destiny presents, you are reduced like a coward to not thinking about them.

What I find fascinating about this passage is how well Tocqueville diagnosed the post-modern condition. Following Kant famous dictum of sapere aude (dare to know), we tend to think of reason as something done by individuals without any reference to tradition. In truth, even as individuals are the only meaningful moral unit, reason is fundamentally a social activity that works across generations through the process of tradition.

The reason for this should be obvious to anyone familiar with the free-market tradition. Individuals by themselves are not capable of doing much beyond eking out a mere hunter-gatherer subsistence existence. Economic production and ultimately civilization is only possible through large scale cooperation. If individuals are so lacking in economic wisdom, how much more so must it be when it comes to the higher truths of the world such as morality and the meaning of life.

Just as we cannot expect people to literally reinvent the wheel or the lightbulb (contrary to Ayn Rand's hero in Anthem), we should not expect people to construct their own philosophies from scratch without reference to tradition. For example, I can accept the Euclidean geometry is TRUE even as my understanding of mathematics is rather rudimentary. Whether or not Euclid or other mathematical claims can be considered objective facts at the end of the day, the critical issue is whether they have greater authority than my personal "lived experience" of oppression. I live my life under the assumption that there are things outside of me that are objectively TRUE and, unlike divine revelation, knowable to human beings regardless of their time, place, race, or religion. 

It is a fair question as to whether or not the truths of reason, such as mathematics, can offer transcendent meaning. My suspicion is that any attempt to do so is going to eventually start to look a lot like a religion. (One thinks of the example of the Pythagoreans.) What happens to someone stripped of transcendent meaning transmitted through society and ultimately tradition? They will have to retreat into their own heads, a place too small for either faith or reason.

This has implications for democratic government. Democracy is not a license for people to do whatever they want. On the contrary, democracy requires great personal discipline. This is possible if there exists an independent society outside of politics and backed by religion to train people to stand on their own feet. The moment a person starts to ask "who will feed me" they are already are slaves in their hearts even before any master shows up and one certainly will.

What happens when people lose their religion? Tocqueville anticipates Hannah Arendt in predicting that an atomized nihilistic society would be ripe for totalitarianism.  

Such a state cannot fail to enervate souls; it slackens the motivating forces of will and prepares citizens for servitude. Then not only does it happen that the latter allow their liberty to be taken, but they often give it up.

When authority no longer exists in religious matters, any more than in political matters, men are soon frightened by the sight of this limitless independence. This perpetual agitation and this continual mutation of all things disturbs and exhausts them. Since everything shifts in the intellectual world, they at least want everything to be firm and stable in the material order, and, no longer able to recapture their ancient beliefs, they give themselves a master.

For me, I doubt that man can ever bear complete religious independence and full political liberty at the same time; and I am led to think that, if he does not have faith, he must serve, and, if he is free, he must believe.

Just as reason requires a sense of being part of a larger tradition such as a religion, so does liberty. A person without religion who retreats into their own head without any sense that there are larger truths beyond his personal feelings will also not be able to justify standing up for liberty. If man cannot engage in higher truths such as reason, what does he need liberty for? If the truths of mathematics cannot stand against one's personal feelings then it will also fail to stand against the physical reality of th

Friday, October 30, 2020

The American God Abraham Lincoln: A Dispatch From a Time-Traveling Anthropologist From Ancient Greece

 


A useful thought experiment for historians is to imagine the kinds of mistakes that someone writing from a different time and place could fall into when attempting to describe our society, particularly if they are already beginning with limited sources of information. This serves to open the historian to the possibility that, as an outsider writing with limited information, he is making equally egregious mistakes about past societies. An example I recently gave some of my students was to imagine what a time-traveling anthropologist from ancient Greece might write about the Lincoln Memorial. It would be obvious to him that the Lincoln Memorial is based on a Greek temple. This resemblance, though, could all too easily become a trap. 

Abraham Lincoln came from humble origins. He gained the presidency out of nowhere without any significant political experience. He then held the nation together through a bloody civil war, only to die tragically soon after victory was won. In looking back at his achievements, it became clear to the American people that Lincoln was really a god who had come down in human form among them to preserve their nation in difficult times. As such, the American people built a temple in Lincoln's honor. Like most civilized temples, the Lincoln Memorial Temple consists of columns to allow for open space with a statue of the god looking out. Above the god's statue is a sign telling everyone that this is a temple. Every year, tens of thousands of Americans visit this shrine to pay homage to this god by reading selections of his speeches placed on the walls of the temple.

When I enquired about their god Lincoln, many Americans objected, finding the use of the term "god" offensive. Americans claim to practice monotheism, the worship of only one god. This position stops Americans from openly worshipping the variety of powers manifest in nature. As it is only natural, for people to worship the gods they see around them, Americans are forced to pretend to only worship their supreme god Jesus while labeling their other gods as founding fathers, saints, or celebrities. On top of this, Americans pretend that their politics are secular, divorced from the worship even of their Jesus god. As if it were possible to separate the actions of a government from the veneration of the gods. Why would anyone obey rulers who did not have the blessing of the gods?    

To be clear, Americans do not place Lincoln on par with Jesus. That being said, both Lincoln and Jesus have their birthdays celebrated as national holidays. Lincoln has the advantage that he is a native god as opposed to Jesus who first arose among Middle Eastern Jews. Since the United States is a young country, there is a shortage of native gods to worship. As such, Americans are eager for gods of their own to replace the foreign gods that have been brought to their shores. 

Recent years have seen the rise of a new cult of Wokism to challenge the traditional American gods. This new Woke cult has been driven by people who, until a few decades ago, were largely shut out of political life though receives much support from the children of the establishment. Since practitioners of this cult deny the validity of American political traditions and wish to replace them, it can only be expected that they also replace America's gods and their rites with new ones. Hence the Wokists have worked hard to replace Abraham Lincoln and other similar gods like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Christopher Columbus with the god Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and a god they have imported from Cuba known as Che Guevara. This process has involved the ritual defacing of the statues of traditional gods. Anyone who doubts whether Americans really believe in the importance of venerating statues to the gods should ask themselves why the Wokists are so keen to eliminate the statues of America's gods and why traditionalists want to protect them. It is clear that if the Wokists succeed America's gods will abandon them and the traditionalists will have no choice but to accept the protection of the new Woke gods.   

Laughter aside, it is hardly obvious why our Greek anthropologist is wrong in his interpretation of the Lincoln Memorial. I put it to readers to offer their own responses. As I see it, the primary weakness of our anthropologist is that he approaches American civics with categories and questions from ancient Greece. In his framework, great men naturally flow into minor gods worthy of veneration and divine worship is an extension of politics. An implication of the latter is that he does not think in terms of private religion unrelated to politics. As such, he cannot imagine any freedom of religion any more than most people are able to imagine the freedom to commit treason in the privacy of your own home. 

In of itself, this is not a bad thing. Alexis de Tocqueville understood America through the lens of France with the implicit question of why was it that it was the American Revolution and not the French Revolution that succeeded. Tocqueville's outsider's perspective offered useful insights into American democracy. There is certainly a value in Americans being willing to question their willingness to craft neat categories of secular and religious, something that would not have been obvious to a pre-modern. For those without the privilege of talking to a time-traveling Greek anthropologist, the next best thing is reading what Greeks actually wrote about politics and religion.  

The problem with our Greek anthropologist is that he is a little too insistent on his framework. When faced with the reality that Americans do not think in his terms, he is unable to ask the truly interesting question of why Americans think differently from him. Instead, he falls back on insisting that his framework is superior and that Americans simply do not understand how religion and politics function. 

I am reminded of something that Prof. Peter Boettke told a class regarding James Buchanan. To make sense of Buchanan you need to understand how he was influenced by Frank Knight. Nancy Maclean came to Buchanan without this Knight context and simply filled in her blanks with critical theory, turning Buchanan into a segregation supporting, democracy hating white supremacist. Maclean's failure to understanding Buchanan is far more egregious than our Greek anthropologist's in regarding Abraham Lincoln. He does not make the mistake of claiming that Americans consciously conspire to cover up their polytheism. 

Analyzing people who think in different frameworks is a major challenge for historians, anthropologists, and anyone else in the social sciences as such people are, almost by definition, academics and most people are not. Someone becomes a historian not just because it seems like a nice job but because they think differently from other people. This means that a historian is a double outsider. Not only does he study people who think differently because they are from a different time and place; he is also presumably studying normal non-academic people. For someone on the autism spectrum like me, there is a third level of outsiderness in that most people are neurotypicals. The fact that I naturally think in terms of clearly defined consistent rules may make me a better historian but it only further alienates me from neurotypicals who can be defined precisely by their disinclination to operate under such rules. Yes, I like to believe that I can offer valuable insights into how human societies function but it will always be as an outsider.   


Friday, October 23, 2020

The Classical Liberalism of Wheelock's Latin



Here is my copy of the sixth edition of Wheelock's Latin textbook that I used in Professor Louis Feldman of blessed memory's class as a Yeshiva University undergraduate during the 2003-04 school year. If you want to get a sense as to how long Feldman had been teaching Latin to nice Jewish boys at YU, the introduction to the second edition thanks "Louis H. Feldman of Yeshiva College." Here is a sample of the kinds of sentences you have to translate in Wheelock, parsing Latin's beautifully intricate logical and maddeningly difficult grammar (answers at the bottom of the post)):

Officium liberos viros semper vocabat.

Pericula belli non sunt parva, sed patria tua te vocabit et agricolae adiuvabunt.

Propter culpas malorum patria nostra non valebit. 

Sine multa pecunia et multis donis tyrannus satiare populum Romanum poterit.

Ratio me ducet, non fortuna.

Bonum virum nature, non ordo, facit.

Reges Romam a principio habuerunt; libertatem Lucius Brutus Romanis dedit.

Iste unus tyrannus se semper laudabat.

Civitas nostra libertatem et iura civius conservabat.

I cannot say I ever came close to competency with my Latin but I still learned loads of important things like how to properly play the frack, marry, or kill game. You frack Lesbia, marry the patria and kill Catiline. All joking aside, what did I really get out of Latin? I cannot, over the years of my education, think of a textbook, not even in American History, that was so unapologetic in its classical liberalism. I would be tempted to count the Hertz Chumash but it was never used in any of my classes. 

Obviously, a Latin textbook is not a political manifesto and one could easily use Wheelock and be oblivious to its politics. That being said, Wheelock's reading and translation exercises took classical liberal assumptions as a given. Studying Latin with Wheelock meant entering a discourse on the relationship between liberty and moral discipline. Would a people love virtue enough that they would be willing to resist the temptation to sell their liberty for the promise of wealth and luxury? Reason is the ultimate virtue as it is what allows a person to control their passions. From this perspective, the state becomes a mirror that reflects its people. A virtuous people will keep their government in check. A people without virtue, who cannot rule themselves will be only too happy for someone to rule over them.  

What orients the free person is his love for the patria (fatherland). This is not fascism where whatever the government orders is, by definition, legal and moral. On the contrary, the patria is something that transcends the particular leaders who come to power at a given time and whatever laws they pass. Think of how the British monarch is supposed to be the head of state as opposed to the prime minister who is the head of the government. In the Aeneid, the mythological hero Aeneus turns down the opportunity to help Dido build Carthage. He might love Dido and Carthage might be a nice place to live but it is not Rome, a city destined by the gods to bring law to the world. Hic amor, haec patria est. (This is love, this is a fatherland.) Aenaeus is the perfect Roman precisely because his Romaness is not rooted in geography or time. He is the model of someone willing to subdue his passion in order fulfill his duty to Rome even though he was a Trojan and Rome would not exist for hundreds of years. 

When Marcus Brutus killed Julius Caesar, he was being a patriot. It did not matter that Caesar was the head of the Roman state and was backed by the majority of Romans. (For this reason, the conspirators declared that Caesar's social reform programs were legally binding even though, by their own logic, these programs should have been just as legal as Caesar making himself dictator for life.) Brutus, like his uncle Cato the Younger, obeyed the laws of the Roman patria, which was unchanging in its demand of sic semper tyrannis (always thus to tyrants).     

It is important to keep in mind Benjamin Constant's distinction between the liberty of the ancients and that of the moderns. From the perspective of the Romans, liberty meant that they were free men and not slaves. This was due to their Roman citizenship as opposed to universal principles. Because of this, the Romans, like many of the American founding fathers, saw no contradiction between republican government and the owning of slaves. Furthermore, the Roman model left no room for personal liberty. What makes you a free man and not a slave is your status as a Roman citizenship. To blaspheme against the Roman gods in the privacy of your home is not to practice your freedom but to undercut the very basis of what makes you a free man. I should also add that the Romans were not much into markets. In fact, one of the major motivations for Roman aristocrats to free their slaves was so that they could serve as fronts to operate businesses. Making money through trade was considered shameful and members of the Senate were forbidden from doing so. My praise of Rome is not for Rome as it was. I am simply enthralled as to certain aspects of Roman ideals, mainly its ability to reconcile liberty with personal discipline.   

Why are Wheelock's classical liberal values important and what are the consequences of the fact that this is not the norm among textbooks? C. S. Lewis had an essay where he asked readers to imagine what it might mean to live in a society where the literature was produced by people who took Hinduism as their starting assumption. The challenge of arguing with someone who holds the cultural high ground is that even the opponent is likely to still be under the sway of the dominant assumptions without even being aware of it. It gets even better if the opponent has managed to undergo the rigors of liberating their minds from cultural givens. Such action is almost guaranteed to alienate them from the public and render them unable to communicate their alternative ideas. Think of the libertarian argument that government is violence and that taxation is theft. The logic of it is unassailable. At the same time, it cuts against how we have been trained to think about government. Applying the same moral categories that we apply to individual humans to that of the government may be defensible in the abstract but does not reflect how people live their lives.    

Recently, my son's school had an online field trip to a museum devoted to the history of voting. The guide devoted almost his entire presentation to the United States' very real failings when it comes to women and blacks. What bothered me was less the history that he was presenting and more the simple fact that I never got the sense that this person was ever caught up in the romance of voting that you, the average citizen, and not the politicians should be in charge of this country. There is a moral drama at play. Will the citizen use his reason to research policy and act in a way worthy of a patria, those transcendent values that truly make up a nation, by rejecting both his personal interest and what is popular or will he fall to his passions and become a tool to be manipulated by those in power? 

What subconscious structural narrative do elementary school students pick up from how American history is taught? If the United States is a fundamentally racist endeavor that needs to be radically changed, as tolerant beings, students can consider themselves morally superior to the founding fathers. Thus, the American political tradition has nothing to teach them and they can feel free to promote whatever changes they wish. Such people are never going to develop the sensibility that politics is about making difficult moral decisions and to even get to the starting point they are going to need an incredible level of self-discipline. The recent leftist wave of iconocalsm is a physical manifestion of this thinking. If today's youth can topple the authority of traditional American heroes along with their statues and be hailed as civil rights activists for their actions then they can hope to create a blank slate upon which they can write themselves as the new moral authorities. Having never had to live up to the expectations of others, they can never be found unworthy.    

The United States, like ancient Rome, is a deeply flawed entity. That being said, these flaws can only properly be appreciated by someone immersed in its ideals. If the Roman republic was just another ancient civilization, there would be no sense of its tragic failure. It had its moment in the sun and then it passed on. But Rome was not just another civilization, it was the product of free men who submitted themselves to fulling their duty to their patria. This allowed Rome to conquer the Mediterranean world but also corrupted its people with heroic generals parading slaves and gold through the city. This killed the spirit of liberty and made the empire possible. I cannot say that we Americans are really better than the Romans but I am enthralled by the opportunity to attempt to prove myself worthy of liberty. 

Duty always calls free men.

The dangers of war are not small but your fatherland called you and the farmers will help.

Because of the faults of bad men, our fatherland will be not well.   

Without a lot of money and many gifts, the tyrant was not able to satisfy the Roman people.  

Reason leads me, not fortune.

Nature, not rank, makes a good man.

From the beginning, Rome had kings; Lucius Brutus gave to the Romans liberty.

That one tyrant used to always praise himself. 

Our state used to protect the liberty and rights of citizens.

Sunday, October 18, 2020

A Bill of Rights for Nazis

 

One of the challenges in promoting liberty is that defending liberty, in its truly principled sense, means defending the rights of not only the people you moderately dislike but those who you truly believe are a threat to society. Most people support rights for themselves and those within their rather narrow Overton Window. Modern leftism has only helped in this regard as it allows people to take this position and feel morally superior for doing so. From this perspective, there is no reason not to expand the definition of liberty to include not only negative rights like protection from physical violence but also positive liberty to make other people maintain your sense of dignity and not suffer any microaggressions. As long as it is only your side that has such a right to dignity, making such demands is simply playing with house money. There are few people willing to defend the rights of their enemies. For this reason, I have a suggestion that would greatly clarify discussions about liberty. When we say that people have rights, we mean Nazis. If you are not willing to defend Nazis enjoying a right, it is not really a right and should be disregarded. (If there are any actual Nazis reading this blog, feel free to substitute black gay Jews.) 

What might a bill of rights for Nazis look like? The foundation for all rights is property. Nazis have the right to own homes, with printing presses in their basements, which they can use to produce leaflets. By extension, they are allowed to own computers and make use of the internet to present their ideas to a wider audience and win converts to their ideology. They are allowed to enjoy such rights even when they are able to use them to make life less convenient for others. Protecting the right of Nazis to make anti-Semitic jokes in my presence is more important than my dignity.   

I accept that Nazis have the right to have an ideology, in this case racial supremacy. They can also believe in the inferiority of groups like blacks and Jews and oppose interracial mixing. They even have the right to raise their children in their ideology. While their ideology violates the Constitution and Nazis would be forbidden to enact their vision for society on a national level, this is no different from any other kind of religion. Most religious people recognize that liberal democracy involves a bargain. In exchange for surrendering the right to take over the country, they are promised the right to practice their religion and raise their children in it without interference from the government. In theory at least, there should be no difference between a Nazi believing in the inferiority of non-whites but that he is obligated to respect their political rights and the idea that unbelievers are doomed to Hell but Natural Law still obligates believers to accept the political authority of the ungodly. 

Even though Nazis do not have the right to overthrow the Constitution or reinterpret it in keeping with their moral assumptions as a living document, Nazis should still have the right to form small enclave communities to practice their chosen lifestyle. Because of this, it should be legal for there to be Nazi towns in which discrimination is legal. (If this Nazi town wished to secede from the United States to form its own white supremacist country, I would say good riddance to them.)

You might be tempted to argue that Nazism inherently involves some kind of conspiracy to overthrow a free society and that the government has the right to take proactive actions to protect the public. The problem is that you have to realize that I already believe that socialism is an inherent conspiracy against the Constitution and a free society regardless of whether the word democratic is attached to it. Hence, I am very open to the idea of murdering socialists if given an excuse. If you wish to avoid a genocidal left vs. right civil war, you have no choice but to tolerate all non-violent Nazi activities even though their actions cause real psychological harm.  

The main limitation to these rights is the Non-Aggression-Principle. Nazis do not have the right to initiate acts of violence against their opponents. This includes conspiring to commit acts of violence. For example, while Nazis have the right to pass on their beliefs to their children, the moment a teacher actually tells Nazi children that Dylan Roof is a hero to be imitated, the lives of everyone in that school become forfeit. This would be no different from Israel having the right (distinct from being a good idea) to bomb a Hamas school. Alternatively, you can imagine the United States government having the right to bomb schools in Mexico that teach their students that Pancho Villa was a hero for raiding across the American border and killing American citizens. This is simply the logical conclusion of the right of self-defense enlarged to a national scale.  

One might be tempted to argue that Nazis are different from other groups in that they "hate." That is a misunderstanding. Nazis, like everyone else, have something that they love, like their mythical Aryan race. They fear that something, like Jews, threatens what they love and are willing to take action. By this definition of hatred, everyone is guilty, particularly those who believe that hatred is somehow a damaging charge unique to their opponents. What is relevant is whether or not someone is a party to a conspiracy to commit violence. From this perspective, charges of hatred are merely a distraction. You can choose to accuse someone of plotting to murder you, risking the possibility that people will think that you are mistaken and kill you in order to protect the social contract or you can shut your mouth learn to live with the fact that there are people out there who do not like you.   

I admit to being torn as to whether there is a constitutional right to march in the streets. As long as the government owns the streets we have to accept that they are going to be used to promote local prejudices. This is better than leaving roads in control of the federal government and the prejudices of whatever party is currently in power. Local prejudices are less of a problem as they can be countered by people moving. Let us be very clear, if you wish to claim that Nazis do not have a constitutional right to march through black or Jewish neighborhoods then you have to be consistent and admit that cities should have the theoretical right not to allow gay pride marches if it is deemed offensive to local sensibilities. 

Do you really want there to be laws against discrimination? If a company hired a person unaware that they were a Nazi and that person came to work with a swastika tattooed to their forehead, the company should have the right to fire the person on the spot. The same logic should apply to someone who gets a sex change operation without notifying a company about their orientation. Granted, I personally am not inclined to make an issue out of gender identity but that is my personal preference.

Saying that you only oppose discrimination for things that are intrinsic to someone and which they cannot control does not help you very much. It is not so obvious that Nazis are able to help themselves in their ideological preferences any more so than homosexuals. If you accept critical race theory assumptions regarding race, consistency would demand that you acknowledge that white people cannot stop themselves from becoming white supremacists and, therefore, cannot be held responsible for their actions. Furthermore, our society regularly discriminates based on things people cannot control. There is not a whole lot about intelligence that can be decoupled from a person's genetics or how they were raised yet college admissions still make use of academic test scores.   

It should be understood that the purpose of rights is not to create a truly just society. That is impossible and any attempt to do so will lead to mass murder. Part of the problem is that while we can easily imagine people wanting to kill us out of greed, we have a harder time imagining people who want to kill us because they honestly believe that we are maliciously standing in the way of making the world a better place. It is not even that such people are ignorant. On the contrary, the more they know about us, the more they might be likely to believe that we need to be eliminated. Do you really want to risk living under my version of a "just society" and accept what I might be willing to do to get there or do you say "over my dead body?" What you need to understand is that I am likely to want to lay down my life to stop your "just society" because I believe that yours might be paved with even more bodies. 

The real goal of acknowledging rights is to avoid full-on Hobbesian civil war where we burn down civilization in the hope of killing off the "bad guys" and being able to rebuild a better world from the ashes. (Think Germany or Japan in 1945.) The price you pay for leaving society standing is that there are going to be all kinds of pathologies that will never be rooted out. If you are not willing to kill a child over something you are not truly serious about solving it. 

How do you get as many people as possible to give up on attempting to create their version of a just society? Alternatively, how do you convince the losers of culture wars not to blackmail society by threatening that, if they are going to be defeated, they are going to go down fighting and trying to kill as many of their enemies as they can? You promise them that, in return, they will be able to live their lives and raise their children in peace from everyone else's "just society." Hence, the underlying philosophy of rights is to live and let live. Leave me alone and do not do anything that I might interpret as you plotting to kill me and I promise to not kill you to forestall any chance of you carrying out your plan.   

Whenever you demand protection for yourself as some kind of right, you open the door for your mortal enemies to claim that same right and use it against you. Therefore, it only makes sense to ask for the bare minimum of life, liberty, and property in order to allow yourself to stay alive and raise your children as you see fit. Make no mistake, the price you pay for these rights is obscenely high. It means that Nazis get to enjoy these same rights and use them to ruin any chance that we can have a society free of racism. Think of what they can do if allowed a more expansive set of rights.



Tuesday, October 13, 2020

I Am Traditionally Observant, Not Orthodox: My Religious Evolution (Part III)


As someone committed to traditional practice while still interacting with Western thought, it should come as no surprise that I would eventually find my way to Maimonides' Guide to the Perplexed. Taking Alan Brill's class on the Guide introduced me to the writings of Leo Strauss and the possibility of reading Maimonides in a highly "unorthodox" fashion. On the flip side, I came to recognize that, if we were to take Maimonides doctrinally seriously, we would have to condemn most Haredim as heretics. This, along with Marc Shapiro's Limits of Orthodox Theology got me to start questioning whether there was anything particularly authoritative about Orthodox beliefs. My high school self, if asked about Orthodox beliefs, would have recited Maimonides' Thirteen Principles as something accepted by all traditional Jews going back to the Bible. Now I had to consider the possibility that these were the creation of the Middle Ages and that Maimonides himself may not have believed them. 

The Slifkin affair helped give these issues practical weight. Much as with the Republican Party, I could identify as Haredi for a long time after it stopped making logical sense because I convinced myself that most Haredim were like me. For example, I assumed that most Haredim really were ok with evolution even if they liked to take potshots at it. Haredi outreach literature assured readers that evolution was not a problem for Judaism. The ban on Rabbi Natan Slifkin changed that. It quickly became clear that the opponents of Slifkin were not some fringe group but mainstream Haredi society itself. It was not just evolution at stake, what was being rejected was the entire Jewish rationalist tradition itself. In essence, either, over the course of less than a decade, Rabbi Avigdor Miller, reaching out from his grave, had taken over Haredi Judaism or had been deluding myself as to what Haredi Judaism was really about. 

As with my conservativism, leaving Yeshiva University for Ohio State in 2006 affected my Judaism. I was isolated without a strong sense of community. Living inside my head without the feeling of being answerable to anyone else, it could only be expected that I would put together a Judaism to suit me. Readers may be surprised to learn that I continued to wear a black hat and jacket through my first year at OSU. Even though it was several years since I had identified with the Haredi community, I continued to wear a black hat as a matter of habit. During the summer of 2007, I fractured my clavicle. For several weeks, it was not practical for me to wear a jacket. If I was not going to wear a jacket, I might as well not wear a hat either. Now that I had stopped, I had the perfect excuse not to take it back up again. 

What led me to stop identifying even with the Modern Orthodox community was biblical criticism and women in the rabbinate. The funny thing about these issues is that I am actually pretty conservative on both of them. It is not as if I believe that biblical criticism refuted the Bible. I know enough Orthodox apologetics to defend against the obvious attacks. Furthermore, as a historian, I know to be skeptical as to what we can say for certainty about the ancient world as well as to the agendas that people bring to interpreting evidence. 

As with many religious scientists confronting evolution, I recognize a distinction between methodological and ontological naturalism. History and science are both games played by rules, one of which is to do research as if the supernatural does not exist. While this means that neither history nor science can ever be used to directly attack religion, it does force one to go about one's day to day studies sounding distinctly irreligious. 

That being said, as the historical method became critical to how I navigated the world, I felt I needed the freedom to go where the historical method might take me even when it might go against orthodoxy. There was a tipping point where I decided that I was not going to stretch orthodoxy just far enough to say that I was just ok but anyone to the left of me was a heretic. From this perspective, it no longer mattered if I had really crossed any lines or not. As long as I believed that one needed the moral legitimacy to do so, I might as well consider myself not Orthodox. 

My opinion as to women rabbis followed a similar course. I am of a very conservative sensibility. I believe that society benefits from having distinct concepts of men and women and can therefore accept that this can even spill over to men and women having distinct roles, including women being excluded from the rabbinate. If pressed, I might employ some version of G. K. Chesterton's anarchist argument against women's suffrage. The moment you give women the vote, you are admitting that government has full legitimate authority over them. As opposed to recognizing the existence of a women's sphere of existence which is outside of politics by virtue of the fact that women cannot vote. Similarly, putting women in the rabbinate means that rabbis are the only legitimate religious authorities. 

It is one thing to acknowledge that if it was up to me to vote on whether to have women rabbis, I might allow myself to get distracted by other issues that might assume greater importance. It is another matter entirely to make the essence of Judaism about opposing women rabbis to the extent that this would be an issue worth throwing people out. If you are putting more effort into denouncing women rabbis than Haredi claims about the power of gedolim, as exemplified by Kupat Ha'ir, then you clearly lack proper monotheist zeal and might even be an idolater. 

The reality of Orthodox Judaism today, including Modern Orthodoxy, is to denounce biblical criticism and women rabbis at the same time as it winks and nods at gedolim worship. That is not me. So I am ok with being considered not-Orthodox. It simplifies things for me not to be tied down by that label. I prefer to think of myself as a traditionally observant Maimonidean Jew. If there was an intellectually serious Conservative community in my area, committed to halakha and untainted by modern leftism or tikkun olam rhetoric, I would join them. I do not have that so I am stuck doing the best I can without a community in which I really feel comfortable in. 

People who have met me sometimes comment as to how shocked they are when they see how I look and live my life and hear what I sound like when I start talking about religion. One friend, after knowing me for several years, found out that my  father is an Orthodox rabbi and commented: "oh, that explains so much about you." Hopefully, these pieces I have written, will help readers confused about where to place me religiously and offer some context for understanding this blog. 


Thursday, October 1, 2020

Live Not By Godwin's Law: A Book Review

 

According to Godwin's Law, as an argument continues on the internet, it becomes inevitable that someone will accuse their opponent of being a Nazi. There are two important implications for this. The first is to recognize that the moment that reductio ad Hiterlum arguments are put into play, all hope for civilized discourse ends. One thinks of the infamous example of the William F. Buckley Gore Vidal exchange in 1968, decades before Godwin's Law or the internet. 


The second implication is that whoever makes the Nazi comparison first loses. This is a necessary outgrowth of the first principle. Once you recognize the destructive nature of implying that your opponent is a Nazi and how tempting it is, it becomes necessary to heavily penalize anyone who goes down this path.   

I bring up this issue because it gets at the problem of Rod Dreher's otherwise excellent new book, Live Not By Lies. Following up on his earlier work, The Benedict Option, Dreher continues to develop the idea that conservatives need to recognize that they have lost the culture war and that they face a society that is increasingly actively hostile to them even to the point of not being willing to show them traditional liberal tolerance. Dreher's particular concern is the potential for corporate soft totalitarianism. What is to stop corporations from using online data to create their own version of China's social credit system? One could imagine that the fact that I bought Dreher's book and listened to it in a day might put me on a blacklist. Amazon could send their information about me to my bank, which then drops my credit score. 

Under these circumstances, religious people, if they want to pass on their faith to their children, are going to need to form small close-knit communities with fellow believers. Voting Republican is not going to help as this corporate soft totalitarianism does not require government assistance.  Your local mega-church is also not going to save your children. On the contrary, it likely is already taken over by people under the influence of woke ideology and will cave the moment it finds itself under pressure. 

The problem with Dreher is that he allows himself to get trapped comparing this soft totalitarianism to the Soviet persecution of Christians. To be fair to Dreher, he acknowledges that these situations are not identical. His point is that there is a lot that Christians in the United States can learn from former Soviet dissidents. That being said, he is left in a bind. Without being willing to violate Godwin's Law, at least in spirit, the book loses its coherency. If Soviet persecution really was something different then there is little point in putting Soviet dissidents at the center of a book about contemporary leftist persecution. 

I feel that Dreher would have been better served writing one of two alternative books. He could have written primarily about Soviet dissidents based on his interviews. I certainly would have loved to hear more about reading Tolkien from behind the Iron Curtain. The fact that many of these interviewees believe that some form of leftist totalitarianism is coming to the United States should be left as a point to take seriously with readers asked to imagine how their local church might handle being declared a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, let alone if Soviet tanks drove into town. If nothing else, this should help Americans appreciate the truly impossible dilemmas that people under Soviet rule faced.  

The second book that Dreher could have written might have been about leftist soft totalitarianism. Instead of talking about Soviet dissidents, he could have used examples of people who stayed religious on college campuses by forming small social groups with fellow believers. The spiritual challenge of college for many people is that they arrive on campus at the age of eighteen and find themselves, for the first time, in a setting in which the basic assumptions of their faith community are not taken as a given. To survive, a student needs to find a network of fellow believers and be willing to be part of an underground counter-culture. If campus extremists have gone out into the world and taken over corporations, turning the entire country into a college campus, the solution is to imitate small campus fellowships.   

Even here, there is room to bring in the example of Communism. One of the major surprises in the recent collapse of conventional liberalism in the face of woke ideology has been the willingness of people to confess to the most absurd charges. One thinks of the recent example from my alma mater, Ohio State, where a professor apologized for writing positively about college football in a way that does recall Soviet-style confessions.

Why would someone confess to something that they knew was false? Perhaps they were threatened with torture and death. Another possibility is that they were trapped by the logic of their own belief. Imagine that you are a good believing communist who supports the party and Comrade Stalin. You are accused of treason. There are two possibilities. Either you are innocent and the party is really just a scam to allow men to seize power by falsely accusing their fellow comrades or you are guilty and the party is right. A true believer would accept that it is not possible for the party to be wrong even if that meant that he was guilty. It must be that he really committed treason, perhaps even just subconsciously by not submitting himself thoroughly enough to party discipline.  

I could imagine the professor who defended college football making a similar calculation. Here he is, a man who probably spent his life verbally supporting civil rights and denouncing racism. Now he finds himself in a situation where civil rights leaders are calling him racist. If he were not a true-believing leftist, it would be easy to ignore his accusers. He did not intend to suggest that blacks should be sacrificed for the entertainment of whites. Anyone who thinks otherwise should be locked away for psychiatric treatment, not given an apology. The problem is that this man probably is a true believer. Either he could admit that civil rights, despite its lofty moral goals, is a scam used to blackmail people and seize power or he could confess that he really is a racist. Perhaps he is not consciously racist but, by failing to sufficiently educate himself, he fell prey to his white privilege and subconsciously allowed himself to indulge his fantasy of sacrificing blacks for his own entertainment.

This professor was vulnerable the moment he accepted that campus civil rights activists had the legitimate right to judge him and that he needed to live up to their standards. Since these activists control the university system, he would have needed to accept the fact that the university, as a whole, no longer held any moral authority, undermining his own authority with it. Because of this, denouncing these activists was never an option. If they accused him of racism, it must be because he really is racist and should apologize. 

Religious people are going to have to be willing to avoid getting ensnared by this line of reasoning no matter the cost. I used to think that Haredi objections to college were absurd and hypocritical. What is the difference between going to a secular college and getting a job in the secular world? Furthermore, many Haredim go to night school to get a degree. As I have lost faith that our university system reflects even my secular values, I have come to realize that going to college, particularly pursuing elite schools as opposed to taking some classes to get a degree, implicitly grants moral authority to the system. You are saying that you care what they think about you and that they have the right to judge you. Do that and they already have your soul even before you walk on campus. Part of what makes the Haredi system effective is that it has its own standard of judgment that is not connected to getting a degree and a respectable job. The secular world has no ability to blackmail them into giving up their children freely. If you want those kids, you are going to have to send in the government to seize them. 

Friday, September 25, 2020

Don't Worry If You Are Saved, Just Do a Mitzvah: A Thought for the High Holidays

 

The following should be read less as an attack on Christianity than as a defense of prax-based religions. Much of what I say could be used by Muslims or even Catholics. It should be taken as a given that those better read in the intricacies of Christian theology should feel free to correct my explanations of how different Christians understand justification. 

One of the big surprises for me when I began to seriously study Christianity was the discovery that Christianity is actually a much more difficult and demanding religion than Judaism. Obviously, it is very easy to be a casual Christian. It is not a challenge to go to church for an hour a week and mumble platitudes about loving your neighbor. The picture changes once we start dealing with committed Christians. Catholicism does place serious demands upon the minority of its practitioners who take the Church's teachings as obligatory as opposed to mere suggestions. Where things get really interesting is when you turn to various branches of Protestantism, which is premised on the rejection of any demand for works and instead relies on faith. (The Armenian tradition within can be seen as an attempt to smuggle works back into Protestantism.)  

Eliminating works for faith does not make it easy to be an intellectually serious Protestant. On the contrary, not being able to point to ritual practices to demonstrate that you are a good Christian means that you are completely reliant on your ability to gain the precisely correct frame of mind in order to be saved. It seems simple to claim that all you need is to have faith. The problem is that faith, within Protestantism, does not only mean that you believe that Jesus is the Son of God and part of the Trinity. Having faith means that you believe that Jesus dying on the cross and nothing else is the only way you are saved. You cannot even believe that your good deeds play a role in salvation. Jesus is not going to say: that person performed a few meritorious actions and so I will save him as opposed to the really bad people in the world like the thieves crucified next to me. Everyone is completely depraved and unable to perform even the smallest act of righteousness by themselves. 

This sets up Martin Luther's contrast between faith and works. If you are going to believe that doing the right actions can save you, there is no end. No matter how much a person minimizes their pleasure, there is always a more extreme form of asceticism. What is really devious about this is that the more one practices asceticism the less one is thinking about God. The logical end of asceticism is for a person to turn themselves into an idol. Can you believe how righteous I am? For Luther, faith and works contradict each other. If you believe in works, even a little bit, then you do not have genuine faith. 

Keep in mind that Luther started off as a highly ascetic Augustinian frier before he left Catholicism for marriage, kids, and beer. More important than possibly nailing 95 theses to a church door was Luther's spiritual crisis as a frier. Did being a frier really save him? Did the fact that he had doubts about whether he was saved prove that he did not really believe and was therefore not saved. The human mind has a particular talent for turning in on itself. Do I really love God or do I just using him to get into heaven? Am I subconsciously trying to convince myself that I love God because I know that I could never fool God into believing that I am sincere? Luther may offer an effective counter to asceticism by eliminating works from the process of salvation but he only makes the problem of internal mind games worse.  

Luther's position is only going to drive believers into moderate levels of insanity. According to Luther faith in Jesus requires that you hold two conflicting beliefs at the same time. You must believe that you really are a totally depraved sinner incapable of doing any good deed and, at the same time, that it does not matter because Jesus is willing to save you as long as you have faith. You must simultaneously feel guilty for your sins and serenity for your salvation. Of course, how does a person stop himself from thinking, even subconsciously, that if Jesus is so willing to save him perhaps his sins are not so terrible and he can be saved through his own merits? On the other hand, if his sins really are so terrible, perhaps Jesus will not save him unless he earns his forgiveness with good deeds. If you ever step out of this Lutheran box, you lose your salvation and need to start over. The terrifying reality for Lutheranism is that even if you are saved now, you can lose everything in a few minutes with just the wrong thought. Lutheran religious practice is an ongoing exercise of using humility to constantly get back to that proper balance necessary for salvation and hope that you die at the right moment before you lose your faith again. 

All of this makes Calvinism look downright healthy by comparison. If you are willing to accept supralapsarian double predestination that God decided before creation who was going to be saved and who was going to be damned, the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints logically follows. This means that, if you are one of the lucky few elect, you cannot possibly lose your salvation and, therefore, do not have to worry. If you are not one of the elect, you also do not need to worry because it will not help. God decided even before you had a chance to sin to send you to Hell for all eternity.

I have recently learned how to descend to new levels of insanity with Protestantism. In his work Fear of God, John Bunyan (of Pilgrim's Progress fame) argues for the existence of two kinds of "ungodly fear of God." The first is that one believes that he is such a terrible sinner that Jesus would never agree to save him. In this, Bunyan's choice of emphasis differs from Luther. With Luther, the primary concern is that a person might believe that they are righteous enough that they do not really need Jesus. It is probably not a coincidence that Luther started off as a frier while Bunyan started off as a lay Christian who liked to have a good time on Sunday. 

So far so good. Bunyan's second kind of ungodly fear, though, is that, once you have accepted Jesus and have been saved, you might go back and question if your conversion was sincere and really valid. According to Bunyan, before a person is saved, he certainly needs to believe that he is not saved but after being saved one is not allowed to doubt their salvation. To do so commits the ultimate Protestant crime of not having faith. 

Imagine Bunyan's Christian. He realizes that he is a terrible sinner, who needs to accept Jesus as his savior. Christian prays to Jesus to save him, acknowledging that he has no other means of salvation, not even a lifetime of good deeds. Christian realizes that he is saved and rejoices in this knowledge. Five minutes later, though, Christian begins to think to himself: did I really accept Jesus as my only possible savior or, miserable sinner that I am, simply pretend to accept him? 

If Christian was not sincere the first time then he is obligated to question his salvation as he is not yet saved. But if he was sincere the first time, he is not allowed to question his salvation and, by doing so, has thrown himself back into the category of being unsaved. This would mean that Christian needs to accept Jesus a third time unless he was right the second time that this first time was not sincere. Clearly, a doctrine designed to stop people from obsessing too much about whether or not they are saved actually makes the problem even worse.   

From this perspective, Judaism is remarkably reasonable in that it avoids this agonizing over whether one is saved with the inevitable question of "are you really truly saved." Judaism can do this precisely because it embraces a doctrine of works wholeheartedly. Judaism does not ask "are you saved." Instead, Judaism asks what mitzvah can you do right now. It does not matter if you are righteous or wicked; there are always mitzvot to be performed. From this perspective, asking whether or not you are saved is a question that one has no business asking. It has nothing to do with fulfilling your purpose in this world so it wastes time better spent doing mitzvot. Since Protestantism does not have an endless stream of mitzvot to perform every minute of the day, committed Protestants have no choice but to spend their time thinking about their salvation until they drive themselves up a wall going in circles wondering if they really have faith.  

Belief is still important to Judaism but you come to faith by performing mitzvot. They teach you what to believe and grace you with the ability to persevere in your belief. Furthermore, the very nature of mitzvot precludes radical asceticism. For example, you are obligated to eat a good meal on shabbat and are not allowed to fast. You must get married and have children. You are not allowed to practice celibacy. You are not allowed to give more than 20% of your wealth to charity so apostolic poverty is forbidden. Anyone who says otherwise is a heretic and can be ignored

It is Judaism's emphasis on ritual as opposed to theology that allows it to avoid the pitfalls that will send Christians, if they take their religion seriously, into either the insanities of asceticism or of trying to think their way to salvation. Jewish practice both protects it from trying to earn salvation through asceticism or of trying to simply gain the right beliefs ungrounded in deeds. As much as I find Chabad's theology objectionable, they do get one thing right. They do not care what kind of Jew you are. However religious or not religious you are Chabad will tell you that Hashem loves you so why not thank him by doing a mitzvah right now? 


Sunday, August 2, 2020

Boruch Learns His Brachos: A Horror Story


My kids love Boruch Learns His Brochos, the seemingly innocent tale of a little boy who, uncertain of what blessings to make on his sugar-heavy lunch, walks into a grocery store that mysteriously opens up across the street from him on the assumption that the owner knows something about what blessings to say. One might be forgiven for thinking that a story about ethnically diverse foods singing about what blessing to make on them is all good clean educational fun. That is until you think about the horrific implications of sentient food. When you eat food, it feels your teeth rip into it. The food is aware of itself dissolving in your stomach and cries out for revenge.  

What is really going on is that all the different foods have secretly taken over the store and are plotting to eat every human on Earth. The owner of the store, Tzvi, has kept himself alive by convincing the foods of a cargo-cult argument. Humans have power over food because they know how to make blessings. If the foods could figure out what blessing to make over humans, God would switch his allegiance to the foods and allow them to take over the world from the humans. Boruch enters the store, unaware that he is walking into a trap. As you can see, a gang of lip-smacking wine bottles is attempting to sneak up on Boruch while he talks on the phone. 



Having been raised as an Orthodox Jew, Boruch not only was never taught about diabetes but also never saw Saturday morning cartoons like Attack of the Killer Tomatoes. As such, he is unprepared for food that might try to eat him. 

Finding himself surrounded by killer food, Boruch uses his reason to figure out the proper blessings, tricking the food into believing that he has a magical protection against them. Unfortunately, Jake cannot remember his blessings and is consumed head-first by a vicious happy birthday cake.


After figuring out all the blessings, Boruch then challenges the food as to whether they know the blessing to say over humans. The foods are all ignorant of evolution so they fail to realize that the proper blessing is Shehakol. Utterly defeated, the foods agree to let Boruch go. Until they discover the secret of the proper blessing for humans, the foods will only prey on people who do not know their blessings. Since eating food without a blessing is like theft, it is clearly worse than extra-marital sex. Thus, people who forget their blessings are the legitimate prey for horror monsters.  

Before he leaves, Boruch reveals that he is really Boruch Spinoza. What other nice yeshiva boy could have defeated maneating food through nothing more than his reason? He explains that it really does not matter who eats whom as we are all part of the pantheist circle of life.  


Thursday, July 30, 2020

Mourning Over Spilled Milk: A Lesson From Inside Out


As a Maimonidean, I make no secret of the fact that I have no desire to resurrect a sacrificial cult. In this day and age, there are going to be few people who would spiritually benefit from the killing of animals. This does not mean that rebuilding the Temple has no value as a symbol of a spiritually renewed Jewish people nor does this mean we should not be sad on Tisha B'Av as we contemplate the fact that such renewal has not occurred this year. Every generation in which the Temple is not rebuilt it is like it is destroyed.

A reader recently asked me: "As a rationalist, what is the point of mourning? Instead of "crying over spilled milk", isn't a better use of our time to work on improving things?" This question gets at Zionism's fundamental critique of rabbinic Judaism. Rabbinic Judaism could cry over the Temple, wish for the Messiah and then do absolutely nothing for two-thousand years. Instead of attempting to restore Jewish power, the rabbis were content to live a Miss Havisham existence in the darkness of their study halls, brooding over the wrongs done to Jews as an excuse to never offer a positive program. I think there is an important distinction between a backward-looking mourning that uses mourning as an excuse not to get past itself and a forward-looking mourning that seeks to come to terms with something genuinely terrible happening precisely so that we can move forward. For this, I turn to Disney/Pixar's Inside Out.

Part of what is so impressive about Inside Out is that, like Lion King and Coco, it is one of Disney's few "conservative" films. The fundamental narrative of Disney is the main character being held back by their family and society and finding the courage to break away, be "true to themselves," and find happiness. There is even a trope in Disney where the characters sing about this precise dilemma. Think of Ariel breaking out into "Part of Your World" or Belle's "Provincial Life." If Inside Out stuck to the Disney script, Riley stealing from her parents to buy a bus ticket to run away back to Minnesota would be considered a good thing. Riley's primary duty is to herself to be happy. She would meet up with some funny hobo animal spirits (voiced by Eddie Murphy, Nathan Lane, and Billy Joel) who teach her to go her own way. Her parents would realize that it was wrong of them to move to San Francisco in order that the father could make more money. Instead, they would agree that Riley's happiness is more important and return to Minnesota so that by the time Riley's bus pulls up at her old house, her parents are there to greet her. I am sure this could have made for an entertaining movie and would have saved studio executives any sleepless nights trying to figure out how to make it work as a theme-park attraction.

What is really radical about Inside Out is that it is an apology for sadness. Joy wants Riley to be happy and she assumes that the best way to do that is to keep Sadness from infecting Riley. This makes logical sense. If happiness and sadness are opposites then the less sadness in Riley's life the happier she will be. This parallels the utilitarian dream to achieve the maximal preponderance of pleasure over pain. The problem is that Riley has real problems to deal with. The new house is a wreck, she is lonely and misses her old life. Joy is not able to change these facts. All that she can do is try to distract Riley, which only works for brief periods. The solution is to accept that Sadness has an important role to play that none of the other emotions can fulfill. Riley needs her moment to be openly sad so that she and her parents can be honest with the difficulties they are facing and do it together instead of slinking off to stew in their own heads.

It is important to note that Inside Out does not have a clear cut happy ending where the problems are solved. Instead, even after the truly poignant self-sacrifice of Riley's imaginary best friend, she is stuck in the difficult process of adjusting to living in a new city. But life moves on with new challenges and opportunities for joy.

Effective mourning benefits from strongly ritualized components. This accomplishes two things. First, it creates a space for other people to take part as they are able to recognize the motions of mourning and they can be given their particular parts to act out. Second, ritualized mourning has a set limit. There is going to be a time when, even though you can still be sad, you are expected to move on with your life.

Traditional Jewish mourning for the dead is a great example of this. Daily life does not prepare a person for the death of a loved one. How should one respond? There is no way to answer that question. In Judaism though, the moment a person dies, this detailed checklist kicks as to what their relatives should be doing over the next seven days. They sit shiva which demands certain moderate ascetic practices like tearing clothes even as it forbids extreme ones like cutting oneself. The community is brought in as people are supposed to visit and listen to the mourners talk about the deceased. Finally, mourning is supposed to end after a year. There is no playing Miss Havisham allowed.

Tisha B'Av is modeled after sitting shiva and it is our chance to mourn for Jewish History. This serves the purpose of not ignoring the real tragedies in our past. That being said, the purpose of mourning on Tisha B'Av is not to dwell in sadness for its own sake but to give it its place so that we can move forward. Parents know that it is frustrating when their children spill milk on the kitchen floor. One is allowed that sigh but then one needs to tell the kids that they need to own up to what they did and clean the mess they made.