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.

Monday, July 27, 2020

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

It should be understood that the fact that I was emotionally invested in Judaism did not mean that there was no intellectual component; there certainly was. It is just that I never would have developed that intellectual side unless I was already strongly motivated to do so. My high school self was influenced by the essays of Samson Raphael Hirsch, the Hertz Chumash, and the biblical commentary of Isaac Abarbanel. (The latter was due to the influence of Rabbi Aaron Lopiansky.) While I had no interest in studying Gemara, I was eager to study Tanach. If only I had a school system that replaced morning Gemara study with Tanach. 

The consistent thread between these religious interests of mine was that I wanted a religion that embraced classical liberalism and the encounter with the secular. Keep in mind that high school me, despite being more conservative than present me both politically and religiously, was someone who loved reading about the Civil War and World War II as well as large helpings of science fiction and fantasy. I supported democracy and not a theocracy. I had no intention of going into the rabbinate. I wanted to be a history professor. I needed a theology that validated interacting with the secular world. 

From Hirsch, I got Torah im Derech Eretz that to be a Mensch Yisroel was to be able to succeed in secular terms and to be an observant Jew. From the Hertz Chumash I took the notion that the Torah was the source of classical liberal values. It was the Torah that could save liberalism from decaying into the modern left. Abarbanel's life was a model (even if a tragic one) of a Jew who could succeed politically in the outside world. His commentary integrated the Jewish exegetical tradition with philosophy, offering a world in which they could co-exist. 

With this in mind, it should not be surprising that I read Tanach much in the way as early Americans. What I found was a source for a personal connection to God unconnected to the rabbis in school, most of whom I did not care for, as well as a model for politics that was infused with religious values while respecting individual liberty.    

If my father carries the blame for trapping me in a Haredi school like the Yeshiva of Greater Washington, he does deserve the credit for getting me into Yeshiva University. Several days before school started in the fall of 2001 (right before 9/11), I was back from Israel and floating from day to day. My father called a friend of his in admissions, drove me up to New York and I suddenly found myself accepted. My five years at YU were the best in my life. YU was a great place for me because over there I made sense. I was not just a weird kid hiding behind a pile of books but the embodiment of what the school stood for, embracing secular studies as a religious enterprise. 

Academically, I was privileged to study with Rabbi Shalom Carmy and Prof. Louis Feldman. I have written here before about Feldman. Carmy was the ultimate academic jack of all trades, teaching anything involving the bible or philosophy. (He also was the resident Jew on a Catholic think tank.) I believe it was Carmy who got me interested in the non-Narnia C. S. Lewis. The really great thing about being in Carmy's classes was that he would host his office ours in the cafeteria during lunch and students would gather around him and discussions would go all over the place. As a tutor, what I aspire to offer is some version of that experience with Carmy. I have read and comprehended only a small fraction of what was in Carmy's head but I do my best. 

At a social level, I benefited from being part of the YCDS theater group under the direction of Dr. Anthony Beukas. This gave me a group of cool kids who liked me and took an interest in my welfare. Theater is useful for the maturation of geeks as it offers a bridge to take the geek, with his ability to consume information, and turn that talent into a means of self-expression. I often advise students, going into college, to make sure that they are involved in some kind of a club like a theater group. The great challenge of college is that no one is looking after you. You can sleep all day and no one will lift a finger to stop you or tell you that you are doing anything wrong until the moment you discover that you have failed your classes. You need someone who is going to make a point to look after you and the best way to do that is to be involved in something they care about like their club.    

Beukas was the kind of teacher every student should have once in their life. More than once may be a little too much because, and let me be very clear about this, Beukas was an SOB. Now he may have been a perfect gentleman in his private life but, as a teacher, he subscribed to the drill sergeant/tiger mom method of teaching and it was frustrating and often downright emotionally abusive. Having said that, Beukas was certainly a great teacher and I am grateful for what he did for me. 

Beukas operated on the theory that we all suffered from what he liked to call "the yeshiva shuffle." In essence, we had gotten by with everyone thinking we were wonderful because we were nice and nothing more was ever expected from us. No one had ever demanded excellence from us. It was his job, even if he had to make himself the villain and cause us to hate him, to make us hold ourselves to a higher standard. One could respond that this is also the problem with modern liberal education. So what, Judaism should aspire to something higher. 

What Beukas offered was one of the most important critics of Orthodox Judaism I had ever encountered. Was Orthodoxy simply a deal in which one agreed to go along with the system and, in return, you can be considered a success without putting in a true effort? This was not something that could be countered through clever apologetics.


Monday, July 6, 2020

Imagine: The Nazi Version

I recently got into an argument regarding John Lennon's classic song, "Imagine."  Like most conservatives, I find the song to be dishonest precisely because it simply assumes that if we got rid of things like religion and property, society would become a happy place. What makes me a Burkean Conservative is that I can imagine very well what the world might look like if the song was ever carried out and it is a nightmare that terrifies me. The person could not imagine that I could find the song objectionable because it supported wonderful things like the end of greed and the brotherhood men.

 One of the tactical advantages that liberals have in the war on ideas is that they get to be judged on their good intentions and never their practical results. As if being an idealist was some kind of blank check to do whatever you want. As a satirical thought experiment, I decided to rewrite the lyrics for "Imagine" in a way that holds on to its dream for a better world. The song now simply serves a different ideology. 


Imagine there's no afterlife

It's easy if you try

No damnation below

Just the nation above

Imagine all the people embracing the common good


Imagine no rigged elections

It’s easy to do

No need to be divisive

And no more Jews

Imagine all the people embracing the common good


You may say I'm an idealist

But I'm not the only one

I know someday you'll join our party

And the leader will make us one


Imagine no individuality

I wonder if you can

No need to be selfish

A bond of blood and soil men

Imagine all the people working harmoniously

You may say I'm an idealist

But I'm not the only one

I know someday you'll join our party

And the leader will make us one


As I hope readers have figured out, my new version of the song is now Nazi, instead of socialist, propaganda. Since all that most people know about Nazism is a strawman caricature fed to them in school, it is easy to forget that the Nazis were idealists, motivated not by hatred for non-Aryans but love for the German race. As Hayek understood, it is precisely the people who believe that they are building a better world who are most likely to commit mass murder. If you honestly believed that all that was standing in the way of a better world were a million people acting out of spite and greed. The only truly humane thing to do would be to kill them. It would be the height of selfishness to let the world fall into darkness because you do not want to get your hands dirty.

The fact that I have included "no more Jews" should no more disqualify the song from being about peace and love than Lennon's "no religions too." It should be understood that by Jews I mean Zionists, capitalists, and communists. In truth, anyone who tries to oppress other people.

As my song proves, Nazism is about people coming to work together through their mutual love of the leader. The only reason why anyone could be against Nazism is that they are selfish and do not want to work for the common good. Alternatively, they are clinging to the superstition that there are such things as free will and morality. If you fail to understand this, it is probably because you are a hateful Jew. I am not asking you to accept that Nazism is true. I just want you to broaden your mind and imagine that Nazism is something wonderful.