Friday, July 21, 2017

Polemic or Scholarship: A Historian's Choice

Before I begin, let me confess to having attended several conferences hosted by the Institute for Humane Studies (IHS), a group funded by the Koch brothers. I had a great time listening to lectures, I met scholars such as Michael Munger, Steve Horwitz, and Phil Magness, drank beer and had late night philosophical discussions with other graduate students from around the world. I strongly deny ever being present for any sessions outlining a plot to overthrow American democracy. In all seriousness, there was shockingly little discussion of practical policy or political strategy at all. Most of us were there because we had some kind of affection for libertarian philosophy and we engaged in a lot of talk (including disagreement) about theory. So much for there being some kind of plan, Koch hatched or otherwise.  

A basic feature scholarship is a need for a clear line to be drawn between the gathering of information and what implications might be drawn from it. This is most obvious in the realm of public policy. For example, if you were an analyst working for the Bush administration in the lead up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq on the question of whether Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, you could not be in any way connected to making the argument that the United States should invade. The moment it is established that you believed in the invasion, any evidence you produced in favor of there being weapons of mass destruction must be discounted. It should be assumed that you came into your research with the agenda of making a case for invasion and therefore, perhaps even unconsciously, you fell into the trap of confirmation bias. Instead of seriously considering the possibility that there might not be weapons of mass destruction, you assumed that there were, interpreted everything in that light and came to believe that the evidence for such weapons was overwhelming. Much can be made of the fact that the Bush administration did not take such intellectual precautions and was surprised when it turned out that the weapons did not exist.           

As historians, we may have our ideological preferences but our credibility as historians requires that we submit ourselves to a historical methodology designed to keep our biases in check. It is not that upon becoming historians we stop being biased, but the method is designed to produce something close to an unbiased result from the mass work of biased people. This is much the same way as Adam Smith's hidden hand produces social good from the mass labor of selfish individuals. As with other forms of scholarship, we need to distance the gathering of facts from their implications. First, we need to recognize that we are not going to achieve any great knockout blow for our cause. Second, if we do find a text that supports our cause, we must bend over backward to read it in a fashion favorable to the other side, forsaking any advantage for our own cause. Ultimately, ideological polemic and history are distinct fields and you can only engage in one of them at a time.  

This brings us to the recent uproar over Prof. Nancy MacLean. Over the past few weeks, a guilty pleasure of mine has been following the controversy over MacLean's book, Democracy in Chains. I have not read the book (I am waiting for it to go on sale on Audible) so I will refrain from making any judgments on the book itself and restrict myself to the discussion surrounding it. What strikes me as interesting is that MacLean is plainly trying to be both a polemicist and a historian. She is a self-conscious progressive, who rejects libertarianism intellectually on its merits and, at the same time, claims to have unearthed documents that are damaging to the credibility of a particular libertarian, the late economist James M. Buchanan. It is important here to recognize that I am not attacking either MacLean's progressivism nor her evidence against Buchanan. On the contrary, for the purposes of this post, I am willing to assume that both are correct. She may be right in terms of facts but her willingness to be both polemicist and historian destroys her credibility to be the latter. 

Let us give MacLean the benefit of the doubt. Let us imagine that she snuck into the late Prof. Buchanan's office and discovered the secret protocols of the Elders of Wichita along with Buchanan's KKK membership card. While we are at it, let us throw in a letter stating: 

Dear James Kilpatrick,

John C. Calhoun is my intellectual lodestar. The southern agrarian poets are the greatest. I find myself really inspired by Donald Davidson. I never realized that Hobbes' Leviathan could be the federal government. Brown vs. Board of Education is the worst. I hate n******. I want to keep them from voting so we can overthrow democracy and put Donald Trump (our own August Pinochet) into power. MAGA

Heil Hitler, 

James M. Buchanan

P. S. Did you get the suitcase full of cash from the Koch brothers?

Assuming all of this were true, MacLean, as a historian, would have two options. The first would be to publish this information in the most charitable way possible. Perhaps Buchanan had a strange sense of humor or was an informant for the FBI. It would make sense to walk across campus to present the evidence to Michael Munger or any of the other prominent public choice theorists at Duke to get their interpretation. Under no circumstance should she imply that this evidence challenges libertarians. If other people wish to try to use this information in a polemical fashion, that is their issue. This way, despite her progressive beliefs, her scholarship would be beyond reproach. 

There could be a second option if MacLean was a supporter of public choice theory. As an admirer of Buchanan's work, she could acknowledge that she discovered a dark side to him, mainly that he was a racist, who plotted to overthrow democracy. On a serious note, as a libertarian, I readily acknowledge the existence of a dark side to libertarianism. This ranges from the personal issues of Ayn Rand to the white nationalist outreach of the paleo-libertarians. While I do not think that Murray Rothbard and Ron Paul were racists, they were certainly willing to associate with actual racists as part of a strategy of allying themselves to anyone openly hostile to the federal government. This is a problem that libertarians need to face, particularly as it led to a failure on the part of many libertarians to actively oppose Trump. Very well, Buchanan might have been of a similar stripe or worse. I am not about to reject such a position a priori.   

Understand that I can say these things about libertarianism precisely because, as part of the libertarian family, I am not trying to score ideological points. I am criticizing myself as much as anyone. These same words coming from an outsider are going to come across very differently and perhaps should not be said. This is not different from how there may be very real problems in the black community but I, as a white person, should not be the person to talk about them no matter how right I might be. No matter how good my intentions, my words are going to sound wrong and prove counter-productive. Let me address the problems of my community (libertarian, Jewish or otherwise) and leave it to others to address the problems in theirs.

If MacLean wants to engage in polemics against libertarians in her free time, in addition to her scholarship, that is fine. One can do legitimate research and have an ideology at the same time as long as they are no obvious connections. A reader should be able to buy into your scholarship completely without there being any expectation that your work will affect what they do inside a voting booth. With MacLean, not only are there obvious ideological implications, she eagerly connects her book to the ideological clashes of today all while using her status as a historian to bolster the legitimacy of her own progressive views. For example, in defending herself, she doubles down on the idea that she is the victim of a Koch attack. If she was serious about defending the integrity of her scholarship, she should have avoided any mention of ideology. She could have just explained how her critics were factually incorrect and left it at that. Let other people try to fathom the larger implications of her work; she is just a humble scholar wanting to be left alone to do research with no expectation that it should be of interest to a wider world.   

There is a place for research into the history of libertarianism, even when it turns up problematic material, and there is a place for polemics against libertarianism. I welcome both but they need to be kept in distinct spheres and carried out by different people. The moment that line is crossed, the research is tainted and must be dismissed. It is quite possible that MacLean is correct and she has real dirt on Buchanan. If that is the case, let another scholar not contaminated by progressive activism go back through her sources and write another book confirming her thesis. In the meantime, I have no choice but to reject her as an illegitimate historian who fails to follow the historical method.  


Monday, July 17, 2017

How to Teach the Story of Balak and Bilam to Kalman

video



In addition to anything involving kitty, my three-year old son, Kalman, has become fascinated with the story of Balak and Bilam and regularly asks either my wife or me to tell it. This story presents a number of challenges to someone of my particular political theology. That being said, challenges also offer opportunities to make it clear to Kalman that his Abba is a libertarian monotheist. Government is a form of idolatry that believes it is a moral/legal authority that can demand absolute loyalty and obedience. A monotheist knows that Hashem is the only true power and the only one you should listen to no matter how hard the government tries to trick or threaten you to believe otherwise. (Mommy gets hung up on fewer political theological issues and is, therefore, a more interesting story teller.)

Balak was the king of Moab. As their government, he was an evil mass murderer and also very foolish. He wanted to destroy Bnai Yisroel but, because he did not believe in Hashem, he was very superstitious and believed in magic. He believed that a sorcerer named Bilam actually had the power to "curse" people and cause bad things to happen to them just with words. So Balak sent messengers to Bilam with money, hoping that he would curse Bnai Yisroel for him.

Bilam was a wicked man who liked to convince people not to trust in Hashem so he could trick them into paying him money to do his fake magic. Hashem told Bilam not to go but, when Bilam insisted on going, Hashem gave him permission but warned him that he would only be allowed to do as Hashem commanded. Bilam was so excited to do an avairah that he got up first thing in the morning to saddle his donkey. Bilam's mind was so caught up in the money he was going to swindle out of Balak that he did not see a messenger of Hashem standing on the road with a sword. (As an alternative to the word angel, messenger is a legitimate translation of malach and, for now, I see no reason to confuse my child with talk of supernatural beings that are not God. Unfortunately, my wife disagrees and now Kalman is quite taken with the "A word.") The donkey tried to get off the road but Bilam got angry and began to hit the donkey. To demonstrate to Bilam what a fool he was to pursue gold and silver instead of listening to Hashem, Hashem did a miracle and caused the donkey to speak and ask Bilam why he was hitting him. Bilam refused to learn his lesson and continued with his scheme.

When Bilam arrived in Moab, he got on top of a mountain and tried to curse Bnai Yisroel. If Bilam had been able to say a curse, even though curses are useless people might think that curses have power. They would simply fall for the post hoc fallacy and assume that anything bad that happens afterward was due to the power of Bilam's curse. So Hashem only allowed Bilam to bless Bnai Yisroel. So now everyone could see that Bilam was a lying crook with no magic powers. Without Hashem, Bilam could not even say a curse, let alone cause it to come true.

King Balak was so angry that he wasted his money. Scared that Balak would kill him (as killing people is what governments do), Bilam told Balak a secret how to harm Bnai Yisroel. If they could convince the Bnai Yisroel to stop listening to Hashem, then they could be harmed. So Balak sent beautiful women carrying idols of puppy and making peepee on them. There was an Israelite government politician named Zimri. He took a poll and realized that women peeing on puppies were now more popular than serving Hashem so he decided to jump on the bandwagon. Pinchus saved Bnai Yisroel from puppy, pee and politicians. Rather than listen to any government law, Pinchus listened to Hashem and grabbed a spear and killed Zimri along with the woman who was helping him pee on puppy.

We learn from this story that you should only believe in Hashem and not in government nor in magic. Following Hashem means being kind to all creatures including animals, but it is ok to kill people who are trying to hurt you or otherwise in government.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Sunshine: A Miami Boys Choir Vampire Musical (Part II)


(Part I)

The counter to the Jews' naive hopes for the future is revealed in the song "Klal Yisroel Together," which takes the perspective of a new Jewish vampire. 

Quiet shul a foreign land
sits and davans an older man

What kind of shul is quiet with no talking? This must be a shul in which vampires gather to listen to their gadol hador. The vampires take the words of their sages very seriously and kill anyone who defiles the sanctity of their synagogue. In this context, davaning does not mean praying, but preying. An "older man" is a vampire, who is older than mortal men.

You're amazed at his life of simplicity

A vampire's life of drinking blood is very simple (besides for the fancy clothes and seducing women). This makes a vampire much holier than those "fake tzadikim," who need extravagant luxuries like bread and salt.

How his words reach you with sensitivity
And your eyes recognize as never before
That the dream that he preys for is yours

The newborn vampire is struck by the telepathic communications he is receiving from the vampire collective. He suddenly realizes that he too dreams of preying upon humans and drinking them dry.

Miles apart 
Close at heart
Feel the bound as one from the start
All the mountains and oceans are in our way
We are joined from the time of that wondrous day
When at Sinai we learned the path we would take
That the chains of our past will never break

Through the power of the hive mind, vampires can feel as bound and close at heart even from miles away. Mountains and oceans do not matter because vampires are joined by the day they were converted. Furthermore, antinomian Jews look to the gathering of Sinai when they worshiped the Golden Calf. It takes a very special kind of Torah scholar to hear "I am the Lord your God" and conclude that one should bow down to an idol. (If you donate gold to our charity, tzadikim will melt it into a calf and worship it for three weeks straight over the course of the auspicious time between the 17th of Tammuz and the 9th of Av. This proves that, in fact, we do believe in one God, money.) By rendering themselves immortal, these Jews are guaranteed protection against the threat of modernity as they will have no need to try passing on their values to the next generation.  

Together we dance together we sing
Throughout the world how our achdus does ring
Klal Yisroel together today
Even though we seem so far away
Together we cry we hope and we prey
Let's bring each other closer each day
Klal Yisrael sharing the dream
Sheves achim gam yachad

Because of their hivemind, the vampires are the masters of achdus (unity). Unity is an intrinsically vampire doctrine as what it really means is that I will bite you and you will now do things my way. This is how Jews can be brought closer each day until all Jews can become brothers of one blood, together as one mind. 

All assembled dressed in white
With awe and fear this Kol Nidre night

Kol Nidre is a highly antinomian concept in which a person is released from their vows. The antinomian is freed from his promise to refrain from biting pigs and save them from the forces of the klipot. The vampire is freed from his promise to not bite people and save them from the Angel of Death.    

There is a feeling here 
When Neilah is near
That we'll all be inscribed with another year

A vampire can very confident at the end of every Yom Kippur that he will still be alive the following year. 

And when Simchas Torah brings that joyful harmony
We are ever bound in stronger unity

If regular Jews got the idea that the point of Simchas Torah was to get drunk, you can hardly blame vampire Jews for turning Simchas Torah into a joyful feeding frenzy that brings new converts in harmony with the hive mind. 


It will now be revealed that the rebbe, who taught the class the "Torah Today" song is actually the "older man," one of the head vampires. He has been priming his students to accept vampirism, the true message of his song.

(To be continued ...)

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Sunshine: A Miami Boys Choir Vampire Musical (Part I)


For the past forty years, Yerachmiel Begun has led the Miami Boys Choir, one of the most successful musical groups in the Orthodox world. It will come as a shock that all of this has been cover for Begun's lifelong dream to write a vampire musical. Many of his beloved songs have really been describing scenes for this musical. The key for reading these songs has been to recognize that references to the night are really about vampires and daylight has been the rejection of vampirism in favor of a non-antinomian Torah lifestyle.   

The musical opens with the singing of "V'he Shamadah" in the background as the narrator explains that the great enemy of the Jewish people has always been the vampires, who, as immortal beings, have been able to survive from generation to generation to try to destroy us. This war goes back to vampire Laban, the Aramean who "destroyed" our father Jacob by turning him into a creature of the night. This, though, was part of the divine plan to allow Jacob to survive the bite of vampire Esau. Jacob's neck became sparkly rock hard (like a Twilight vampire) and cracked Esau's fangs. The righteous Jacob was unique in history in being able to become a vampire and not lose his soul. (He did not even need a gypsy curse to put it back.) This is indicated by Rashi's comment that Jacob lived the life of a vampire like Laban, but still kept the commandments. Jacob survived as a vampire, which explains the rabbinic statement that "Jacob never died." Who else, besides for a vampire, does not die even after they are buried?   

Down through the centuries, Jacob has guided his children in fighting vampires. The vampires, seeking revenge against Jacob, have waged a never-ending campaign to destroy the Jewish people by inventing anti-Semitism. It was a vampire intelligence that came up with the idea that Jews need blood for their matzah. The vampires' efforts culminated in the Holocaust. (As we know from the novels of Dan Simmons and Guillermo del Toro, the vampires were allied with the Nazis.) 

With the defeat of the Nazis and the near destruction of the vampires, the Jewish people appeared safe. The following decades saw enormous growth within the religious community. Unfortunately, a new phase of the vampire campaign was about to arise as the vampires realized that contrary to their original experience with Jacob, Jews made particularly effective vampires. For one thing, Jews are immune to crosses. (See the example of vampire Fagan in the novel Artful.) 

These sentiments are expressed in the song "Torah Today." A rebbe leads his class in this song of Jewish success, but, in an ironic foreshadowing of the horrors to be revealed, their statements hint at the true connection between Judaism, antinomianism, and vampirism. The fact that the children do not appreciate the true meaning of what they are saying demonstrates how spiritually unprepared they are for the vampire onslaught.      


Distant memories of a time not long ago
Vibrant shadows of an era we would want to know
In our minds an image glowing true tzadikim in every town
And the sounds of learning were ever growing 
All has vanished never to be found
Somehow slowly the sun is rising once again
Building boldly can we recapture what was then

The Jews in this period of vampire free sun rejoice even as they mourn the loss of pre-war Europe. What they fail to understand was that, even then, there existed the spiritual rot of antinomianism indicated by the term "true tzadikim." Whenever you see a seemingly superfluous adjective in front of some virtuous position, you know that you are dealing not with the virtue but with its antinomian rejection. For example, why would anyone use the term "social justice?" Is there a kind of justice that is not social? The reality is that justice, with its claims of property and individual rights, often does not satisfy certain people as it does not allow them to redistribute property as they see fit and force people to comply with their utopian blueprints. The solution is to reject justice in the name of a higher ideal of doing whatever you happen to feel is right at the moment. Advocates of social justice believe that the only way to truly be just is to commit injustice and reject individual liberty. From their perspective, they are the ones who are truly just and defenders of justice are really the ones who are unjust.   

Similarly, how can you talk about a "true tzadik?" Is there a "fake tzadik?" As with social justice, a conventional tzadik is held back by keeping to the letter of Jewish law. A "true tzadik" understands that Torah itself holds up the world and negates the actual practice of halakha. So the only "true" way to learn Torah is to do so while eating a ham sandwich. Such learning makes a particular sound that grows as the tzadik takes pleasure in contemplating this righteous paradox. Any Torah scholar who balks at such a "holy" deed is simply a "fake tzadik."  

These secretly antinomian Torah scholars so beloved by the Jewish people, realizing what lay behind the Nazis, embraced the vampire ideology as the true fulfillment of everything they ever wanted to get out of Judaism, power, and immortality (in this world no less). This explains why their bodies vanished and were never found. These rabbis, having come to their vampire maturity, are now set to bring about their version of the messianic End of Days by turning the Jewish people into a vampire army and destroy the world. This is indicated by the lines:        

We've set our hearts to form a plan  
Unrelenting so much to regain
Can see the future from where we stand
Let's move closer we can build the flame

Who but a vampire can be unrelenting in plotting for the future? 

In describing the transition from rabbi to vampire we are told:

Their life is learning they strive with great intensity
Others advancing each day a daf devotedly 
On that night they gathered to show what matters
The Torah world stood as one with pride
In silent reflection with one direction
We could feel that time was on our side 

These antinomian rabbis in life only cared about Torah and not about morality. In fact, rejecting morality served to demonstrate their superior commitment to Torah. So, on a certain night, they gathered together to reject morality in the clearest way possible and became vampires. This allowed them to stand together with a unified hive mind knowing that, being immortal, time was on their side and they will be able to take over the world. 

(To be continued ...)  



Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Is Someone in Chabad Trying to Smuggle in Evolution?

The following comic comes from the Chabad children's magazine, the Moshiach Times.



What can the line that turtles "lost their teeth a long time ago" mean besides for evolution? Obviously, the individual turtle today did not lose his teeth due to cavities. That would eliminate the entire joke of the strip. Long ago must mean that there used to be turtles with teeth and, for some reason, turtles lost their teeth. My understanding of Chabad theology is that it is hypothetically willing to accept evolution as long as it can be placed into a young Earth. Perhaps, before the flood, turtles needed teeth to fend off the T-Rex after it abandoned vegetarianism at the time of Adam's expulsion from Eden. After all the evil T-Rexes were drowned in the flood, turtles lost their need for teeth and, quicker than a koala bear marching to Australia, evolved into the toothless turtles of today.    

Friday, June 2, 2017

Vowing to God

I wrote a post over at the Modern Torah Leadership blog on the travails of my son, Mackie, from a Maimonidean perspective. I even managed to work in antinomianism.

I thank my mother-in-law, my sisters-in-law and modern medicine that my son is still alive. Hopefully, soon I will be able to report that he is out of all danger.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Kidnapping Kalman: A Lesson in the Exodus


This past Monday, Miriam and I hosted a kiddush in honor of Kalman's third birthday. This came with speaking privileges, which I decided to take advantage of. 





Do you see this Kalman here?  I am sure many of you would like to kidnap him. How would you go about doing it? On the surface, it would seem to be a simple task. Pick the boy up and walk out. Now here is where things get tricky. You see, even though Kalman is small, he can kick, scream and he really likes Mommy. So brute force would not actually practical for more than a brief period of time. What is needed is would be to keep Kalman from realizing that he is being kidnapped for as long a possible. Tell him: "Let me help you find your parents. ... Your parents asked me to look after you for a little bit. ... I will take you home in the morning." Eventually, Kalman will realize that you are lying to him. (He is a very smart boy.) That being said, if you keep control of him long enough, you will eventually be able to make the case that he has been abandoned and that no one loves him anymore. He has no one but you so he might as well make the best of the situation. It should be noted in the case of most kidnapping cases that go on for years that the victims come to engage in behavior that appears from the outside to be compliance with the captor and even downright acceptance of their situation. 

One of the interesting questions in regards to the Exodus story is why bother going through the whole process of speaking to Pharoah, inflicting the Ten Plagues upon him and then baiting him into destroying his army at the Red Sea. With the might of God, Moses should have been able to march the Israelites right out of Egypt without even having to talk to Pharoah and get his permission. A way of thinking about it is to say that the real story was never really about getting Pharoah to let the Israelites go, but getting the Israelites to agree to leave. The Israelites loved their Egyptian masters and would have never agreed to leave on their own. Moses, therefore, needed Pharoah to order the Israelites to leave and to trick the Israelites into believing that they were just going for a few days to worship God. Hence, Moses only asked for a temporary leave and told the Israelites to borrow vessels from their neighbors. What kind of borrowing is it if you are never coming back? 

The Exodus did not free the Israelites. They were "kidnapped" from being Pharoah's slaves to God's. In this, the crossing of the Red Sea played a critical role. Once the Israelites saw Egyptians dead on the shore they knew that this was not some temporary outing, but that they were never going back. Pharoah was no longer their master, God was. Israel needed to accept that and make the best of the situation. 

Nearly six years ago, I came out to Pasadena for the summer. I somehow seem to find that I am still here with a wife and a Kalman. My parents have told her "no backsies." So I guess I am stuck; I might as well make the best of the situation. I love my wife and my Kalman and do not want to be free from them. 



Monday, March 20, 2017

Toward a Lockean Theory of Halakha


In the previous post, I argued that Haredi Judaism, to the extent that it accepted charismatic authority in the form of Gedolim, must be seen as an anti-Halakhic movement. Charismatic authority is implicitly antinomian in that the only way for someone to demonstrate their absolute loyalty to the charismatic authority figure, as opposed to some textual authority, is to violate the law as interpreted through text. For example, Sabbateans were known to secretly eat a cherry on the fast of Tisha B'Av to demonstrate that they did not really need to fast on account of the coming of Sabbatai Sevi. On the contrary, the way to now truly fulfill the commandment of fasting was to eat. The real purpose of fasting was to signify faith in the coming of Sabbatai, the Messiah. So by showing such faith in Sabbatai, as to do what might look like a sin, you are the one who is really fasting, as opposed to the fasting non-believers, who are really the ones eating. Similarly, if you believe that it is impossible to know the law through one's own intellectual efforts, but require the aid of Gedolim, then the logical way to demonstrate this faith is to commit a sin like taking a bite out of that traif sandwich at the command of the Gadol.

In a post-Enlightenment world, there are good reasons to be tempted by charismatic authority. It very neatly solves the challenge to authority both from potentially heterodox methods of interpreting the world (such as science) and, most importantly, from non-believing clergymen, working to bring down the faith from within. Charismatic authority, if we accept it, clearly trumps science and offers an a priori religious authority that makes liberal clergymen irrelevant. We see this logic at work within American Protestantism as well, where the Evangelical use of charismatic authority has beaten the text-based authority of the mainline denominations.

Let me suggest an approach to religious authority that might redeem text-based authority in the modern world, making use of John Locke style social contract theory in which everyone is free to follow their own understanding of Judaism and free to reject other opinions as demonstrating that the person is not serious about their Judaism, all the while being subject to everyone else having that same power. Here is another thought experiment. As a scholar of Jewish history, I have just made an important discovery in my university library, a set of Gemarah and Shulhan Arukh. Our parents and grandparents were all committed socialists, who raised us on kibbutzim. So despite the fact that we all strongly identify as Jews, none of us know anything about halakha. Even after we started believing in God again, we felt that there was something missing in our relationship to him. Observing the laws in these books look like the perfect solution we have been praying for.

We are going to start a club called the LOJS (Local Orthodox Jewish Synagogue). We will gather together on Saturdays to engage in Jewish worship as set forth in the books I found and listen to lectures on how to observe the many strange laws from the books in our homes. (Can you believe it, but we are going to have to baptize our dishes.) Sessions will be presided over by a Jewish studies professor, whom we will call a rabbi. There is nothing special about him and people should feel free to ignore him. It just makes sense to have someone in charge to be officially not obeyed.

Word of the LOJS club is spreading and soon we will have chapters in many different cities. Now, in trying to recreate some form of traditionally observant Judaism, we will face a number of challenges related to authority. We are trying to create a religion based on what we read in a set of books. These books say a lot of things, much of which is blatantly contradictory (do we listen to Bait Hillel or Beit Shammai) or simply difficult to understand, leaving a lot of room for interpretation and reasonable disagreement. So even if everyone was totally committed, we would have people wanting to practice different versions of Judaism. Since we are all baalai teshuva trying to figure things out, none of us carry any real authority that others should listen. To make matters worse, all sorts of people are applying to join our club with different levels of observance. Most people are more in the market for a few rituals to give some spirituality to their lives, but not to refashion themselves with a complete set of laws that must be accepted in totum. Furthermore, everyone is coming to Judaism with previous social and ideological commitments, which they are not about to give up now that they are joining their LOJS. For example, we have the nice gay couple who want to be married in the club, the feminist studying to be a rabbi, the libertarian-anarchist who has no intention of praying for the restoration of any Davidic monarchy and the Christian who believes that Jesus is his Jewish Lord and Savior. Different LOJS clubs are going to make their own decisions about where to draw the lines and who can be members, but no one is in a position to force their views on anyone else.

The sensible solution to these problems of authority would be for every individual person and LOJS club to proceed with creating their own standards all while showing the spirit of charity for all those other clubs setting their standards. God did not speak to me and I am not the heir of any special tradition. I am just a scholar trying to read and apply a manual like anybody else. Furthermore, we have to accept that everyone is coming to Judaism with some kind of previous ideological baggage, which sets boundaries on how they will interpret laws. For example, classical liberal Jews might refuse to kill homosexuals and Amalekite children. We have to accept this for the simple reason that we have no greater divine authority than they do. Just as we need our opponents to accept us even when they disagree with our interpretations and look askance at our ideological commitments so too must we be consistent and accept them despite our disagreements.

There is one limitation I would place in order to keep everyone honest; we are free to reject anyone, who does not appear to us to be acting in good faith and seems to be using Judaism as cover for some other ideological agenda. A greater level of personal observance should be a cause to give the benefit of the doubt over those who are less observant. That being said, overzealousness in rejecting other LOJS clubs should serve as prima facia evidence of using Judaism as cover for another agenda, much as a lack of ritual observance would. For example, even as I, much like Chabad, welcome people who drive on the Sabbath, are intermarried or even gay, I would reject the membership applications of members of Jews for Jesus and Jewish Voices for Peace, finding that they perform little in the way of Jewish practice and their Judaism consists mostly of using their Judaism to castigate other Jews for failing to believe in Jesus or make suicidal concessions to the Palestinians. Clearly, their agenda is simply to call themselves Jews in order to convert us to their actual religion. Similarly, I might reject applications from Satmar on the grounds that despite their meticulous observance, their eagerness to denounce other Jews and place themselves on some kind of moral platform indicates that they are less interested in Judaism as a way of practice and to relate to God than they are in setting up an anti-modernist cult. In making these decisions, I recognize that I make myself vulnerable. Not only should I not expect any tolerance from those who I have rejected, reasonable people might come to question my motivations in the particular lines I draw and decide that they cannot accept me.

Clearly, there would be nothing to stop a Jews for Pork group beyond our ability to reject their application as a Jewish organization. (I would make a point in distinguishing Jews who incidentally did not practice kosher in their homes and ideological traif eaters.) That being said, we should be able to avoid the problem with antinomianism. There are no hard hierarchies let alone charismatic authorities so there is no reason why there should be any antinomians in our midsts, particularly if we do our job in rooting out those trying to use Judaism as cover for other agendas.

Social contract theory is often criticized for being ahistorical. There was never a moment when non-civilized men came together and agreed on any kind of social contract, whether the Hobbesian, Lockean, or Rousseauean versions. This criticism misses the point, that the social contract was never something that happened in history, but is happening every day. The United States government stands because every day the vast majority of Americans, not me, get up and agree that the government has moral authority over themselves and their neighbors even to the point of killing them. The moment that even a small percentage of the population begins to question this then you get the Bastille and the Berlin Wall.

Similarly, many people might question the applicability of my scenario as it lacks any FFBs (frum from birth). What you have are some Jewish Studies majors deciding that they are really interested in halakha and getting other people to listen to them. (Granted that no one would ever take us seriously.) For me, this is precisely the point. Living post enlightenment and emancipation, there are no people truly born religious. Being observant Jews is something that we decide every day. Furthermore, there is no power of tradition to give anyone any inherent authority over anyone else. My father might be an Orthodox rabbi, but I grew up in Columbus, OH as a product of American culture. Just as a genetic test would demonstrate my utter lack of racial purity, even a casual reading of this blog should be enough to demonstrate that my ideas are hardly pure of gentile influence. I do not claim to be anything more an American with classical liberal values and conservatives politics, who grabbed onto the Judaism he found around him, trying to give himself a community and some meaning to his life. I challenge anyone to demonstrate that their Judaism is any purer.

There are many Jews out there, who lack my Jewish education. I am not smarter or more virtuous than them and claim no intrinsic authority over them. I am sure, if they wish, they could study the same texts that I studied and surpass me. There are certainly many Jews who are more learned than me. I am sure that, if I applied myself, I could remedy that. Such people may be compared to my in-laws, brother-in-law, sister-in-law and younger brother, who all, unlike me, have medical degrees. It may be prudent that I take their medical advice seriously, but none of them can claim any kind of authority over me; I remain free to shop around for medical advice. Most importantly, I deny that any of them are intrinsically smarter or virtuous than me (besides for my mother-in-law). If I wanted to, I could go to medical school and become a doctor as well.

Let us do away with charismatic authority and even the hierarchy of tradition. Let us be the People of the Book.

Friday, March 17, 2017

The Antinomian Implications of Gedolim: Are You Willing to Put Your Traif Where Your Mouth Is?


A prominent feature of Haredi society today is the belief in the infallibility of their rabbinic leaders, the Gedolim. These Gedolim are supposed to be miracle workers, whose knowledge supersedes that of ordinary mortals like you and me. In essence, Haredim took halakhic Judaism, premised on textual authority, and replaced it with charismatic authority in which religious leaders are assumed to receive some kind of divine revelation. There was a good sociological reason for this. It was charismatic authority, ironically, that was best suited to defend religion against modernity's challenge to religious authority. As a simple Jew, why should I not listen to the Conservative rabbi, who says that it is ok to drive to a synagogue on Shabbat if I live far away and would otherwise not be able to celebrate Shabbat as part of a Jewish community? Even to make a halakhic argument against driving on Shabbat will be counter-productive. You might fail to convince me and I will, therefore, go drive. Even if you succeed this time, you will have implicitly conceded to me the premise that, in the absence of any religious authority with coercive powers, I am my own ultimate halakhic authority and am free to rule however I wish.

The Haredi solution was to declare that there was a body of men whose opinions, a priori, cannot be challenged. It is not just that these Gedolim are really smart and have good arguments for their positions. I like to think that I am a smart person too so tomorrow I will come back with even better arguments, at least to my mind. The Gedolim must not just be smarter than me, their intelligence must be of such a different kind that I could never imagine being in the right against them.

A large part of the Haredi success has been due to its ability to claim for itself the mandate of being the defenders of Jewish Law; are not Haredim the strictest in terms of religious observance? This is in large part due to the Haredi world's clear lines of authority. But as with any Faustian bargain, the price to be paid is high. Part of what of I find fascinating about the Haredi use of Gedolim is that their practical use in the defense of ritual orthodoxy does not change the fundamentally antinomian implications of charismatic authority and may come to serve as the perfect cover to destroy halakha.

For those who would defend the absolute authority of Gedolim and also claim to be loyal to halakha, I propose a thought experiment. Imagine that the Gedolim were to call you into a secret room and order you to eat the ultimate traif sandwich. Would you listen to the Gedolim or would you, in your "arrogance," dare to place your limited understanding that there is such a thing as kosher over their wisdom and refuse to eat it? Some simple Jew, who recalls that, according to Leviticus, a pig is not kosher as well as stories about Maccabean martyrs, is going to think he has the right to lecture the Gedolim about kosher and accuse them of not following the Torah? Does he not know that without the Gedolim we would all be lost like sheep without a shepherd, prey to Reform and Conservative Judaism with their women rabbis?

Note that there may be a very good reason for the Gedolim to want you to eat traif. Eating traif is a useful signaling device as to who really is loyal to  Haredi Judaism. A person who is not willing to listen to the Gedolim and eat traif, but prefers to follow his own understanding of Judaism today might turn around tomorrow and not accept that Judaism opposes women rabbis. Alternatively, a failure to eat traif on the command of the Gedolim might endanger Judaism by opening up the possibility that some Jews might, at some future point, question the rulings of the Gedolim regarding kosher and refuse to eat in the homes of other Haredi Jews. An Orthodox Judaism in which members are not united in eating each other's food is liable to fall apart. Such a divided community would lack the moral standing to defy the liberal denominations on women rabbis. Clearly, it is better to eat a pig than to accept women rabbis. (Or at least that is the impression I get from the OU.) We can even add "who made men and women in their places" in addition to the traditional blessing for traif: "who permits the forbidden." Only a godless heretic could be against saying more blessings when we all know that a single amen has the power to change worlds.

One might take support from the story in Rosh HaShanah in which R. Gamliel forced R. Joshuah to violate the day of Yom Kippur as he calculated it. Allowing there to be two Jewish calendars risked destroying the religion and needed to be stopped at all costs, even violating the religious consciousness of R. Joshuah. (Perhaps the Dead Sea Sect supported women rabbis in addition to their solar calendar.)  I should note a distinction between R. Joshua violating his Yom Kippur and our traif case. R. Joshuah had every reason to believe that R. Gamliel was acting in good halakhic faith, adhering to the principle that one is not allowed to travel with a stick and a money belt on Yom Kippur. R. Gamliel might be wrong in his astronomical calculations, but he made his mistake as part of a legitimate halakhic process based upon textual analysis and not charismatic authority. In our traif case, the Gedolim want you to eat what they acknowledge to be a pig on the assumption that they are not bound by any text-based halakhic process. In fact, their goal is to destroy the practice of text-based halakha as a heresy that would allow any person with a Judaica library to become their own halakhic authority.

A Judaism in which every person is free to do what is right in their own eyes as long as they can point to a Jewish source cannot be called Haredi. A Judaism in which it might be ok to eat traif, even in secret antinomian rituals, cannot be called Orthodox. Take your pick, text or charismatic authority. I vote for there to be such a thing called halakha even if that puts me in charge of my own religion.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Mormons Have Nothing to Fear From the Federal Government



(Start at about 3:50.)

Like Samantha Bee, I oppose Donald Trump. I believe it is particularly important for conservatives and libertarians to be out in front in denouncing Trump, because not only do Trump's policy go against conservative and libertarian values, there is a very real danger that our opponents will accuse us of supporting the very kinds of policies that we have long denounced. Think of the milage that liberals have gotten out of claiming that the "free market" policies of George W. Bush caused the financial collapse of 2008. It is important that this resistance to Trump be peaceful and should focus on not granting him any kind of respectability or moral authority. For example, journalists should not agree to interview him or his staff or even attend his press conferences. His rallies should not be covered. Entertainers should not agree to perform at his events. In this cause, conservatives and libertarians should be willing to reach out to liberals whenever they are willing to offer a big tent opposition (which the Woman's March was not).

While I believe that musicians, who played at Trump's inauguration concert should be denounced, I must admit to finding Bee's comments about the Mormon band Piano Guys to be disturbing. She mocks them saying: "You are four white Christian guys from Utah. Things are going to be ok for you." Her statement, reveals an incredible ignorance of history. There is no religion that the Federal government has worked harder to destroy than the LDS Church. This ranged from passively allowing Mormons (including their founder Joseph Smith)  to be murdered by mobs to actively seizing church property and mass arrests of Mormon polygamists. (Bee would be better served reading the Supreme Courts' 1878 Reynolds decision rather than make snide remarks about polygamy.)  Even after Utah became a state, Mormon Apostle Reed Smoot was not allowed to be seated as a Senator from 1903-07 because of his leadership position within the Church. (If only the Senate refused to seat him for being one of the worsts protectionists in American history.) So Mormons have good reason to fear the Federal government. It should be noted that government persecution of Mormons continues today. Mormons are very good at providing social services and keeping their needy off of welfare. So to make a Mormon pay taxes to fund social services on top of what they already donate to their Church's social programs is not only theft but a violation of their First Amendment rights. If we apply strict scrutiny, the government should not be allowed to pass a law that so blatantly harms a specific religious group, particularly one that the government has conspired in the past to harm.

Will Trump directly go after Mormons? I consider that unlikely, but then again I consider most of the liberal nightmare scenarios being thrown around to be unlikely. The danger of Trump is less what he might actually do in office and more the precedent he sets for someone with the intelligence and ideological willpower to do something truly terrible. This is in much the same way that Obama and Bush must carry a share of the blame for what Trump is going to do because they gave him the precedents in abusing executive power.

Bee's "hate speech" and "Mormonophobia" is a good example of the Left's hypocritical lack of universalism. They do not march to protect all groups. Some groups are "more equal than others." You only count as a minority group if you march in step with the liberal agenda. Get out of line and you will be transformed into "white Christians" and your history of persecution will be conveniently sent down the memory hole.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Religion Reading List


My Episcopalian aunt (she is married to my wife's step-uncle) works in her church's Sunday school and is interested in improving her religious education so she asked me for a suggested reading list. Here are my recommendations. My criteria were books that are intellectually sophisticated that avoided the obvious polemics from either an orthodox or anti-religious positions. I also made a point of including books dealing with Church attitudes towards Jews and women. I would be curious as to what other suggestions blog readers would make. 


Bible:

Rise and Fall of the Bible: The Unexpected History of an Accidental Book by Timothy Beal.

Prophets by Abraham Heschel.  

The Year of Living Biblically by A. J. Jacobs. 

In God's Shadow: Politics in the Hebrew Bible by Michael Walzer. 


Judaism:

Becoming Frum: How Newcomers Learn the Language and Culture of Orthodox Judaism by Sarah Bunin Benor. 

American Judaism: A History by Jonathan Sarna. 

The Limits of Orthodox Theology: Maimonides’ Thirteen Principles Reappraised by Marc B. Shapiro. 

This is My God by Herman Wouk. 


Jewish and Christian Relations:

Dying for God: Martyrdom and the Making of Christianity and Judaism by Daniel Boyarin 

Divided Souls: Converts from Judaism, 1500-1750 by Elisheva Carlebach.

Under Crescent and Cross: The Jews in the Middle Ages by Mark Cohen. 

Exclusiveness and Tolerance: Jewish Gentile Relations in Medieval and Modern Times by Jacob Katz.

Judaism on Trial: Jewish-Christian Disputations in the Middle Ages by Hyam Maccoby.  


Early Christianity:

Jesus, Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium by Bart D. Ehrman. 

When Prophecy Fails by Leon Festinger. 


Medieval Christianity:

Holy Feat and Holy Fast: the Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women by Caroline Walker Bynum. 

The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Messianism in Medieval and Reformation Europe and its Bearing on Modern Totalitarian Movements by Norman Cohn.  

Proving Woman: Female Spirituality and Inquisitional Culture in the Later Middle Ages by Dyan Elliott.

Formation of a Persecuting Society: Power and Deviance in Western Europe, 950-1250 by R. I. Moore. 


Modernity:

Theological Origins of Modernity by Michael Allen Gillespie. 

God is Back How the Global Revival of Faith is Changing the World by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge. 


Secular Age by Charles Taylor.

United States:


Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics by Ross Douthat. 

Damned Nation: Hell in America from the Revolution to Reconstruction by Kathryn Gin Lum.

Scandal of the Evangelical Mind by Mark Noll.  

Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know - And Doesn't by Stephen Prothero.

American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us by Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell. 

The Unlikely Disciple: a Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University by Kevin Roose. 

Crazy for God: How I Grew Up as One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right, and Lived to Take All (or Almost All) of it Back by Frank Schaeffer.


Psychology:

Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt.

Acts of Faith: Explaining the Human Side of Religion by Rodney Stark and Roger Finke. 

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

2016 in Reading

Between my tutoring work and taking care of Kalman, I have not had time to blog much. As my tutoring has me driving into Los Angeles three time a week, I still get to listen to a lot of books. (God bless Audible.) As such, I would like to give a shoutout to some of my favorite books from the past year, books I would have loved to blog about if given the opportunity. None of these books are explicitly libertarian, but they are all worth the attention of lovers of liberty.  

For psychology there is Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts by Carol Tavris and  Elliot Aronson. As someone who likes being right, this humorous book sometimes cut a little too close for comfort. Considering how terrible humans are at admitting mistakes, one of the great virtues of the market is that it forces you to admit that you were wrong after a fashion. (It is called going bankrupt.) Can you trust a system like government designed to take people who are even worse than most at accepting blame and protect them from ever having to do so? The chapters on police interrogations and wrongful convictions are frightening. Has the art of criminal investigation really improved much since the Middle Ages?

Dr. Alan Brill used to tell us that people during the Middle Ages were not irrational. On the contrary, they would call us irrational. So for Judaism let me recommend his Judaism and Other Religions: Models of Understanding. In a post-Enlightenment multi-cultural world, the greatest challenge to any religion is how to grant legitimacy to other religions while still being able to justify the continued existence of yours. I greatly respect Brill for his ability to draw a line between offering textual background and advocacy for any particular solution. This book categorizes different Jewish stances regarding non-Jews ranging from saying that they are completely trapped in error to relativists positions where no one has any claim to objective religious truths. There is one point where Brill breaks his academic neutrality to acknowledge that a particular position is racist. Even this case serves demonstrates Brill's fairness as he does not attempt to sugarcoat Jewish tradition to make it palatable to moderns.    

Donald Trump's rise and electoral victory have drawn attention to the plight of white America. For this, I recommend Dreamland: The True Tale of America's Opiate Epidemic by Sam Quinones. This is top of the line journalistic history using a powerful narrative of nice Mexican boys dealing black tar heroin to white suburbanites in the midwest to make a general argument on how we need to rethink our conceptions of drug use and addiction. As this is a rare tale that takes us from Columbus, OH to Los Angeles, I feel a special connection to this book. Quinones is intent on blaming pharmaceutical companies for pushing painkillers ignoring their potential for addiction. I see a tale of moral hazard. The American government, with its regulation of the drug market, created a two-tier system of doctors prescribing legal drugs and a black market of drug dealers. This left Americans defenseless against the dangers of prescription drugs. My doctor with his lab coat and framed degree would never give me anything dangerous. He has nothing in common with the smelly villainous street corner dealer. We can see the problem even in our use of language as "drugs" have come to mean only the illegal kind, implying that there is a meaningful difference between them and the legal kind.  

For History, I recommend Imbeciles: the Supreme Court, American Eugenics and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck by Adam Cohen. Buck vs. Bell stands along with Dredd Scott as one of the greatest miscarriages of justice in American history. The State of Virginia conspired to have a perfectly ordinary woman declared to be mentally incompetent so she could be sterilized for the crime of being poor, uneducated and a rape victim. This is a kind of horror story for me as I can so easily imagine the government today using the same tactics to go after autistics. Just as the line between mental deficiency and being poor and never being allowed to finish grade school is easily blurred, so to can the lines between mental deficiency and not being able to function in a traditional classroom also be so easily ignored by those with an interest in doing so.

For fiction, my recommendations come from science-fiction. We have the Three Body Problem series by Cixin Liu. This Chinese mishmash of the Cultural Revolution and War of the Worlds is one of the most learned works of science-fiction I have ever encountered. As with anything by Neal Stephenson, it helps if you have a graduate level background in the history of science. This series competes well with Atlas Shrugged and Moon is a Harsh Mistress for being the greatest pro-liberty science-fiction story ever written. The heroes of this series are all fundamentally individualists, who act for their own personal human reasons as opposed to the large elaborate plans of governments.
    
Influx by Daniel Suarez is another highly intellectual novel in which the hero has to struggle against a vast bureaucracy staffed by people who act in the "public interest" to withhold advanced technology from the public. They have a complex argument, based on computer simulations, as to why they need to be in charge of all of humanity that could only be comprehended by a computer. There is a particularly harrowing torture sequence in which the hero faces off against a machine intelligence, who demands he cooperate with him in replicating human ingenuity. Failure to comply is met with the step by step destruction of his own personhood.  

It took awhile for me to get into the Red Rising series by Pierce Brown. I got that it was going to be Hunger Games on Mars. Young Adult dystopian novels were beginning to bore me. Then something happened that shocked me and this was not the early murder of Darrow's wife, which, while well handled, was hardly surprising. If Darrow draws parallels to Katniss, he is far more morally tainted. The second book pushes the series even further into Game of Thrones territory. Book three contains one of the best pro-capitalism speeches in all of fiction. It comes suddenly and from a character that you had not realized was one of the good guys.    

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Attack of the Yeshiva University Faculty


Recently, political commentator Ben Shapiro spoke at my alma mater, Yeshiva University. He mocked transgenders as "mentally ill." Shapiro came under attack by many faculty members in signed a letter to the YU Commentator. Among the signers were some people I respect such as Steven Fine and Elizabeth Stewart. In addition, R. Shalom Carmy, the man my younger brother predicted I would be in a few decades, wrote his own letter.

I have criticized Shapiro in the past over his treatment of Islam. In this case, I do not support treating transgenders as mentally ill for the simple reason that I find the entire notion of mental illness to be meaningless. There is no empirical basis for calling anyone mentally ill. The only difference between saying that transgenders are mentally ill and saying that they are just born that way or that they are pursuing an "alternative lifestyle" is a value judgment. If you think there is something inherently bad about a transgender lifestyle then transgenders must, by definition, be mentally ill to desire to pursue such destructive ends. If, as most westerners today, you find nothing problematic about transgenderism than transgenders are not mentally ill. There is no empirical fact that could change your mind in the absence of a value judgment. What remains of mental illness is the political category of people that cannot be trusted within the framework of the social contract. For example, I could not care less if the people who believe that I am the High Comrade of the Young Elders of Zion should be deemed "mentally ill."  They need to be locked up or preferably sent to gas chambers. Their belief presents an implicit threat to my safety and the only true solution is to eliminate such people. 

The fact that the very concept of mental illness is absurd makes the faculty letter, in turn, very problematic. The signers point out: "Shapiro is not an expert on transgender experience or mental health, and his opinion does not reflect the current understanding of these very serious issues, in which people’s lives are literally at stake." 

I agree that Shapiro is not an expert on transgenderism, but then again no one is. We are dealing with a non-empirical non-rationalist concept so no one can claim any kind of objective knowledge about it. Even transgenders themselves can only describe their own personal experiences, not the wider experience of "transgenderism." 
It is important to keep in mind that psychiatry is not a science. It does not make any empirically predictive claims nor is it united by any kind of consistent methodology. Take any side you wish on the question of the sanity of transgenders and try to construct a test that might even hypothetically be valid. Therefore, an expert psychiatrist is in the same category as an expert theologian. Anyone can claim to be an expert theologian. Therefore, there can be no expert theologians.   

Because we are not dealing with objective physical reality, but only with subjective personal feelings, lives, by definition, cannot "literally" be at stake. If a transgender person immediately walked out of Shapiro's speech went home and blew their brains out, Shapiro would not be responsible in the least. He did not physically cause the death nor is there any reason to assume he conspired to bring it about. If anything, the faculty is endangering Shapiro's life. It is plausible that the government will use this kind of argument to pursue ideological opponents. It should not be too difficult to find a case of someone committing suicide less than twenty-four hours after reading a Shapiro column, giving the government a pretext to arrest Shapiro for murder. (Of course, by this logic, professors can go to jail if a student commits suicide after failing a class.) It would not unreasonable to charge the signers of this letter with state collaboration and conspiracy to initiate violence. Such charges are not physical acts of violence but are violations of the social contract.  

I would like to conclude with a challenge to those who condemn Shapiro. If Shapiro had questioned the sanity of someone, who wanted their doctor to slice off their left pinky because they felt that they were really a "nine-fingered person," would you have denounced Shapiro with equal vehemence? From a purely logical point of view, there is no difference between someone whose happiness depends on surgically altering their hands or their privates to suit their subjective conceptions of themselves. Both cases would be irrational (as would any kind of plastic surgery). That being said, as a libertarian, I accept that humans are not beings of pure logic (more Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments than his Wealth of Nations) and it is their right to pursue their subjective desires as long as they do not initiate violence against anyone. By that same logic, I accept that people will have irrational distastes for certain behaviors and will express them through mockery.         

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Haredi Theology Making Itself Irrelevant: Some Thoughts on Gates of Emunah


As a Maimonidean, I do not just disagree with Haredi theology, I stopped, long ago, taking it seriously. Haredi theology can be divided into two schools; there are those Haredim who are blatantly idolatrous (Chabad) and then there are those, who really do not have any theology at all beyond a vague sense of tribal supremacy. God must exist and gave us the Torah, because if he did not, how can we turn our noses up and talk condescendingly about goyim.

A good example of this is Gates of Emunah - The Principles of Faith, based on the lectures of the late Rabbi Shimshon Dovid Pincus. I was struck by his opening chapter as to the extent that, for a work that is supposedly about theology, how little the writer cares about actually making arguments. For Pincus the arguments for Judaism are so obvious that they do not even need to be stated. Even a child should be able to figure them out. If you disagree with this then it can only be because you are spiritually tainted and maliciously desire to reject God. This leads to a counter-intuitive argument, but one that is distinctively Haredi: "Someone who studies the property laws of maseches Bava Basra is fulfilling the mitzvah of emunah because in this way he draws himself closer to Hashem. He becomes connected to Hashem, so he thereby attains emunah." (pg. 9) For Pincus, faith has nothing to do with abstract arguments or even clearly stating principles to believe in. Study the tort law from the Talmud, something that has nothing to do with God and you will have somehow believed; in what it is not at all clear. Of course, this line of thinking raises an interesting question; why should anyone, after reading this passage, bother to continue reading this book? You should immediately throw away the book as a waste of time and open a gemarah.

To be clear, I do not reject all arguments from subjective experience. I think that there is something to C. S. Lewis style apologetics where we believe in God because our world makes more sense with God in it. It is important to realize, though, that, for Lewis, this argument comes out of a dark and despairing place that recognizes that, at a shear intellectual level, the argument against God is quite powerful. For example, in the novel the Silver Chair, when the Lady of the Green Kirtle tries to seduce the children into believing that there is no world above, no sun and not even an Aslan, Puddlglum counters that it is amazing that they managed to somehow make up a better world to such an extent that he would rather die searching for their "childish fake" world above than continue to live in her "real" one.

Part of the irony here is that Puddlglum's argument gains it strength from the fact that logically the witch is right and that he seriously contemplates what it might mean to live in her Aslan-less world. The utter horror at this prospect suggests the faint possibility that perhaps there is something she has missed. It is important to keep in mind, though, that Puddlglum does not refute the witch. On the contrary, it is acknowledged that she has the better argument and that the evidence lies on her side.
It is sometimes easy to forget because we think of Lewis as a children's writer, how really dark Lewis could get. For Pincus to follow Lewis' path, would be to make his readers uncomfortable with themselves, which is the one thing his theology cannot allow him to do. His book exists not to convince his readers about what the right answers might be, but to reassure them that they already have the right answers and need to think no more about them.

While we usually refute arguments through contradictions or reductio ad absurdum, the proper approach here is to note that Pincus' theology makes itself irrelevant. I am reminded of Allan Bloom's argument against cultural relativism in his Closing of the American Mind. Imagine an idealistic college freshman sitting down for his first English class taught by a committed post-modernist relativist. If the teacher is effective at giving over the principles of post-modernism, our student should immediately abandon his English classes, go to business school and never open a book again. I would add that any intellectually honest relativist English teacher should immediately insist that their students go to business school, end the class and resign from their teaching post. At a practical level, one has to ask, why have elite universities been so ineffective at keeping their students out of the business world or keeping their schools from being turned into profit centers with students as mere customers? Perhaps students and administrators are learning the lessons of relativism a little too well and are better post-modernists than the professors running English departments.

If this Emunah book was honest, instead of Pincus' face, the cover should have a sign saying "do not waste your money buying this book or your time reading it." As with secular relativism, the consequences of taking this theology seriously go beyond financial bankruptcy for lecturers and book publishers. At the same time that Pincus claims that we do not need to study theology, he also laments the superficial nature of the observance of many Orthodox Jews. He blames secular influence but would it not make more sense to say that these Orthodox Jews have been influenced by the "theology" of writers like Pincus and reached the proper conclusions? Whether God really exists, there really is no reason to seriously think about it. Much better to study Talmudic business law, become a rich lawyer and a de-facto atheist. You should just practice Judaism because you like the community and being part of the chosen people helps your self-esteem. If you think about it, the commitments of Jewish ritual are not necessarily much greater than the cost most people pay to be part of a specific club. (Think of what students go through to enter fraternities.)

You might think that I am reading too deeply into things and that Pincus cannot really mean what I think he does. Except that, at the end of the first part of the book, Pincus openly comes out and informs us:

         If we were to speak of the ABCs of being a ben Torah, then the 'A' would be to grasp this point            of, "This is my God and I will glorify him." Someone who grasps this point no longer has to                study the Rambam's Moreh Nevuchim or the Sha'ar HaYichud section of Chovos HaLevavos.

Clearly, the only reason to study modern works of Jewish theology would be to understand the classics as the modern works might present material in a more accessible fashion. If there is no reason to read the classics, why should anyone waste their time with modern works like that of Pincus?