Monday, March 16, 2020

The Maimonidean Solution to Antinomianism

With the number of religious leaders caught in some kind of sexual impropriety, it should be clear that antinomianism stands as one of the major threats to religion today. Antinomianism provides a spiritual blank check to violate any religious practice and say that not only is it ok but that is a mitzvah. In this, antinomianism should be seen as a virus that turns sins into commandments, hijacking religious faith against itself. Since antinomianism is not a rejection of the faith but its very affirmation, antinomians can piously perform all other commandments. This makes them hard to catch and increases the scandal when they are.

Antinomianism does not require any conspiracies of underground sects with sex rites as in the case of the Frankists. The logic of antinomianism is simply too obvious to anyone who has seriously thought about monotheist religious practice. A perfect God has no need for to you to keep his commandments. (The commands of an imperfect God can be completely ignored.) If I ate the Ultimate Traif Sandwich, God would still be perfect. Furthermore, God could command me to eat such a sandwich without sacrificing an iota of his perfection.

Does God want me to eat kitty stew? The fact that Leviticus and Deuteronomy imply that it is a sin does little to help me. Retreating into legal formalism simply makes the matter worse as it concedes the theological high ground. Since God is infinitely beyond human comprehension, it is impossible to truly fulfill his will by keeping any commandment. In reality, all food is traif as no person could ever eat in a way that replicates God’s perfect will. By eating kitty stew one at least has the virtue of not committing the blasphemy of pretending to fulfill God’s will.

Either I do not understand God’s will or I do. If I admit that I do not understand God’s will than I must remain neutral as to his opinion on kitty stew. If I do understand God’s will than I must be some kind of divine being myself and could never be held to words on a scroll. For a being so divine as me, could we even call it eating? Should we not rather call it the releasing of sparks of holiness trapped in the kitty stew?

The Maimonidean solution is not to challenge these arguments but to change the question. Instead of asking what God wants, a question that no honest monotheist could ever answer, we can ask what actions will benefit Judaism. Assuming that it is a good thing that a Jewish nation and religion continue to exist as vehicles for less false ideas about God, does my eating kitty stew make it less likely that I will be able to pass Judaism on to Kalman and Mackie? Here we are no longer operating in the realm of the divine, but the very human field of sociology. Jewish history offers a fairly convincing case that a Judaism that does not take “kitchen Judaism” seriously will not survive long in a meaningful sense.

I can eat kitty stew and make bracha on it without it negatively impacting my theology. How could kitty stew be more likely to mislead me about the nature of God than some kosher salami? Both are manifestations of materialism and thus both must either inhibit godliness or provide a means to find godliness with equal likelihood. In fact, the kitty stew would more likely benefit me spiritually by helping me get past my concerns about what other people think about me as well as trying to earn brownie points with God so I can make it into his Good Place. The problem with such a religion is that, while it may be incredibly meaningful to an individual, there is no way to pass it on to one's children.

Kitty stew could only be spiritually valuable to someone imbued with a deep love of kosher. It is only someone who honestly believed that his salvation depended upon keeping kosher could, upon reaching a higher spiritual state, realize that it is the exact opposite and then force himself to eat what remains truly repugnant to him. For someone not raised with an absolute commitment to kosher, there is no struggle and no act of keeping kosher, whether in its traditional or antinomian forms. A child raised in such an environment and taught to scorn legalism might appear, at first glance, to be spiritually enlightened. On the contrary, he never even reached the level of keeping kosher let alone transcending it. Without a foundation in the physical law, talk of the spirit is meaningless. A "true antinomian" must struggle with his violation. Anything less is simply discarding the yolk of heaven. 

Much as Maimonideanism can neutralize an academic criticism of Judaism by absorbing its premises into itself, Maimonideanism can, similarly, counter antinomianism not be refuting it but by accepting its premises and offering a different conclusion. One can accept that God is not a being that you can score points with by trying to fulfill his will and still find spiritual fulfillment in Jewish practice enough to try to pass it along to the next generation. 

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Of Hobbits and Muggles: A Study in Fantastical Creatures

To Kalman and Mackie, my Wizard and Hobbit. 

J. R. R. Tolkien's Hobbit and J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter series both open by introducing us to a fantastical race of beings. Tolkien gives us Hobbits and Rowling gives us Muggles. One might respond, Hobbits are make-believe beings who live in the fantasy land of the Shire in Middle Earth. Muggles are simply humans who live on Earth so it is silly to compare them to Hobbits. On the contrary, the problem is comparing Hobbits to Muggles. One of Tolkien's chief virtues over Rowling is precisely that it is the Hobbits that are truly believable while it is Muggles who require the suspension of disbelief. What makes this possible is Tolkien's love for Hobbits in contrast to Rowling's contempt for Muggles.

"The Boy Who Lived" chapter is different from most of the rest of the Potter series in that most of it takes the perspective of Uncle Vernon. Baby Harry does not enter the stage until the very end. The rest of the series is told from Harry's point of view. Our knowledge of the Wizarding world is meant to closely match Harry's and much of the books' plots revolve around Harry trying to find things out. Vernon and the Dursleys are held out as the Muggles par excellence. They are a stereotype of 1950s bourgeois conformity who have somehow managed to survive into the 1990s. As with Dickens' villains, we can laugh at the absurdity of the Duriksleys and their cruelty but let us never confuse that with reality. Wizards are introduced to us as hippies, complete with eccentric tastes in clothes.

Mr. Dursley couldn't bear people who dressed in funny clothes - the getups you saw on young people! He supposed this was some stupid new fashion. ... his eyes fell on a huddle of these weirdos standing quite close by. ... Mr. Dursley was enraged to see that a couple of them weren't young at all; why, that man had to be older than he was, and wearing an emerald-green cloak! The nerve of him! (3)

Later, when Harry is living with the Dursleys, one of Vernon's main objections to him is his hair.

About once a week, Uncle Vernon looked over the top of his newspaper and shouted that Harry needed a haircut. Harry must have had more haircuts than the rest of the boys in his class put together, but it made no difference, his hair simply grew that way - all over the place. (21)

As readers, we are never meant to identify with Muggles like the Dursleys. I do not know about you but I am not a Muggle. I am a Wizard who did not get his letter to Hogwarts when he turned eleven due to a bureaucratic snafu. I may be thirty-seven years old but I still am waiting for that letter that is rightfully mine and, when I do, everyone will finally realize how special I am. Here is where the series’ focus on Harry as the point of view character becomes important. Harry’s discovery of the Wizarding world becomes ours. Hagrid is showing up with our letter of acceptance and taking us to Diagon Alley. Potter's greatest strength was that it offered a magical world just out of reach that readers would desperately want to be a part of.

The dark side of this is a contempt for ordinary people, Muggles. We readers always knew we were different from the Muggles around us; we read books. We might not be able to tap the right brick to enter the Wizarding world but we can still look down upon the Muggles around us. This is ironic as the bad guys hate Muggles in general and Muggle-borns (Mudbloods) in particular. Were it not for the fact that the Death Eaters are clearly Nazis with their obsession with racial purity, readers could easily become confused as to whose side they should be on. (To Rowling's credit, the later books show a sophisticated understanding as to how a society could fall to Nazism.)

One of the advantages of being on the left is that you are granted a license to hate anyone who you decide is a racist. In practice, this means anyone not sufficiently on the left. This is not counted as hate. On the contrary, it is standing up for justice for all. This makes leftism the ultimate enabler of hate as a true leftist can never conceive of themselves as guilty of hate. In a similar vein, readers are never meant to question their hatred of the Dursleys even if Dudley finally shows some flicker of humanity in the end. On the contrary, we can take a righteous pleasure in our hatred; they deserve whatever pranks the Wizards pull on them. We are never meant to see any link between our response to the Dursleys and that of a Death Eater. 

It is worth noting that the recent Fantastic Beast films have introduced a positive Muggle character, Jacob Kowalski. What is so great about Kowalski and what makes him a necessary corrective for the series is that he is not simply a fall guy to get magical poop on his head. He is someone that the audience can deeply empathize with as well as a voice that the wizarding world needs. It is not for nothing, he gets the beautiful wizard girl in the end.

In recent years, there has been a lot of talk about how Potter has inspired a generation of young activists with its anti-authoritarianism. I never read Potter as truly subversive of authority considering how much of the story rides on our willingness to trust in Dumbledore's wisdom and goodness despite his numerous mistakes. (To be clear, I consider Dumbledore's flawed sainthood and the need of Harry to still believe in him to be one of the strong points of the series. Rowling, in the later books, chose to make a point of Dumbledore’s fallibility instead of covering it up. Contrast this with how Stars Wars handled Yoda even as Yoda is far more guilty in the creation of Darth Vader than Dumbledore is in creating Voldemort.) My less charitable interpretation of how Potter has inspired a generation of youth activism is that it trained children to believe that they were special and to be self-righteous about it. They are Wizards forced to live among horrible Muggles with nothing worthwhile to teach them. Through activism, their magic specialness will become manifest. To be fair to Rowling, she has been a brave voice of sanity on the left for her willingness to defend Israel, attack Jeremy Corbyn, and leave herself vulnerable to the malice of supporters of transgenderism. That being said, I cannot help but feel a slight twinge of schadenfreude for how she made Dumbledore gay after the series was finished.

At the beginning of The Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins is hardly more likable or open to magic than Vernon. Furthermore, it is not as if Bilbo does anything useful like run a drill company. Bilbo changes but it is not a matter of Gandalf convincing Bilbo to abandon his boring Hobbit ways to open his mind to adventure just like the more interesting Dwarves. On the contrary, Bilbo’s Hobbit love of the simple things of life like hearth and home plays a critical role in protecting him from the greed for treasure that consumes Thorin Oakenshield. Gandalf was not trying to convert a Hobbit; he was looking for a Hobbit because there is something incredible about Hobbits. Gandalf's greatness is that he can appreciate Hobbits. This sets up Lord of the Rings, where it is the Hobbits, Frodo and Sam, who save Middle Earth by carrying it to Mordor. Only a Hobbit could resist the temptation of using the Ring because Hobbits honestly would rather tend a garden with a beer and pipe of tobacco than to rule the world.

Belief requires something plausible that it might exist and something important enough to care. It is easy to believe in Hobbits. They are as perfectly ordinary as the corner grocery and should be as common. Tolkien's genius was to discover something incredible in this ordinariness. If Tolkien did not love Hobbits, Bilbo would have never become more than a comic foil for Gandalf and the Dwarves, nothing worth believing in.

It was with the Hobbits that Tolkien identified with as opposed to even the Elves despite the fact that the original purpose of Middle Earth was supposed to be for The Silmarillion, an epic about the Elves. Perhaps this is why Tolkien never finished it and it was only published posthumously. There is no doubt that if Tolkien could choose between being a Hobbit or an Elf, he would choose the Hobbit. Can you imagine, Rowling wanting to be a Muggle instead of a Wizard?

The believability of Hobbits is a challenge. Until my letter comes, my Wizarding career will have to stay on hold but I will still not be something so absurd as a Muggle. But maybe I could be a Hobbit, an ordinary hero. If I fail, it will not be because someone forgot to send me a letter but because I am not worthy of such a title.