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 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?


Monday, November 21, 2016

Tolerance for the Children of Gay Parents But Not for Orphans (or Contrarian Aspies)


As part of getting Kalman ready for pre-school, every other Friday, I take him to the Pajama Library Gan Katan at the Jewish Federation of San Gabriel and Pomona Vally. It is a great program and I love the people there. I am particularly grateful to the staff for going the extra mile to accommodate Kalman and me.  
This past meeting, I had an interesting exchange with one of the people running the program. In honor of the national holiday invented by Abraham Lincoln to drum up northern patriotism during the Civil War, we sang a lovely little thank you song.   
Baruch ata Adonai, thank you, God
Thank you for the candles
Thank you for the wine
Thank you for the challah
That always tastes so fine.
Thank you for my family
They love me when I’m happy
They love me when I’m sad.
Afterward, the group leader explained that originally the song said "thank you for my mommy, thank you for my dad," but they changed the lyrics to be more inclusive. I raised my hand and commented that "obviously, this was to be inclusive of orphans." The leader did not take kindly to this and said that this was not for orphans and asked me if I was being sarcastic. I responded that "as an aspie, I am incapable of sarcasm." I let the issue go and we actually had a much more pleasant conversation after group. 
To be clear, I strongly support tolerance for children raised by same-sex parents. It is not as if these children have violated any biblical commandments. I even support tolerance for homosexuals as I am morally opposed to initiating physical violence against anyone. Unlike the group leader, I also care at least as much about orphans, whom I am commanded by the Bible to not offend. I also care about people with sulfite allergies who cannot drink wine, people (like my step-mother) with celiac, who cannot eat challah and people who struggle with depression, who go through long periods of not being able to be happy without being actually being said. If we were to be logically consistent and apply the same standard as we would to not offending children from same-sex families, the entire song would have to go. When asked if I was serious in saying that I was more concerned about people with celiac than I was about homosexuals, I responded that "as  a classical liberal, I always place physical danger over non-physical danger. Since celiac itself presents an inherent physical danger while homosexuality does not, concerns about celiac should take precedence." 
Feel free to reject my conclusions, but note that I operate from a clear set of principles. If you want to disagree with me you are going to need to set forth your own principles and it will not be enough to say that you are tolerant as that just begs the question of whom. You cannot say that celiac patients should know that we love them and accept their challah-less lifestyles as it is equally reasonable to assume that children from gay families know that we accept them even with their two mommies or daddies.     
When it comes to not giving offense to homosexuals, there are two logically consistent positions. We can say that everyone, gay, straight or celiac, must be protected from offense. Alternatively, we can say that society has established certain codes of speech and behavior and these include not using exclusionary language against homosexuals. Not that homosexuals are inherently more deserving of protection than those with celiac, but we recognize that society cannot protect everyone and so we must accept that society, for whatever arbitrary reason, has chosen homosexuals. Note that saying that society is being arbitrary is a more  powerful reason than saying that it actually makes logical sense. I can always counter your logic. But if society is being arbitrary then I have no choice but to accept this as the price of membership. 
As it should be clear from the example of the song, total acceptance is not really possible. Whatever language you use, someone will always be excluded. This leaves the second option. If the group leader had rebuked me by saying that I was being impolite then she would have been on solid ground. Of course, there is a price to be paid for such a position in that it is a fundamentally a conservative position. If she did this, she would not be able to claim that she was being open and welcoming. Her argument would be as valid and morally useless as if she criticized my holding a fork and knife in the "wrong" way.
As an aspie, I get fearful whenever I hear liberals talking about acceptance that does not explicitly mention those on the autism spectrum. To not include those on the spectrum is to imply that we are not deserving of acceptance. I have no problem living in a society with arbitrary rules that I have to either take or leave as long as we are being honest about it. If we are going to talk about acceptance than I demand the right to be accepted as a highly contrarian aspie, who fulfills his state of being by attempting to elucidate the most logically consistent position he can, regardless of whether neurotypicals feel comfortable. Anything less does allow me to feel safe and accepted.     

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Whose Vote is Really a Vote For Trump (or Hillary)?


From the beginning of this election, I supported Gary Johnson. I believed that there was a block of principled conservatives out there who would not support Donald Trump under any circumstances. Combine that with liberals seeking an honest anti-war candidate, armies of independents willing to go for something different and you get at least 20% of the vote. Maybe not enough to win, but respectable enough to make things interesting and create some momentum to push the cause of liberty forward. With Johnson polling at 5%, I recognize that he is not going to come anywhere close to winning. Thus I will be casting a protest vote. Many on the left will tell me that there is no such thing as a protest vote; a vote for Johnson is a vote for Trump. I find this argument to be very strange because, by the mere fact that they are agreeing to grant legitimacy to this election in the first place, liberals are the ones implicitly casting a vote for Trump.

I am a radical Lockean secessionist (to put in simplistic terms, an anarchist). Every property owner has the moral right to take their property and secede from their present country, forming their own new little state. I challenge anyone to come up with an argument against my position that could not have also been used by the British to invalidate the claims of the colonists during the American Revolution. One of the reasons why I am a secessionist is that I wish to avoid the conundrum of being morally compelled to do something immoral because it is the law. Read Henry David Thoreau's Civil Disobedience and you will see an explicitly anarchist text. It is ok and even commendable to break an immoral law because your conscious precedes the authority of the law. The law can only have authority over you if you personally consent to it. Therefore, if you do not consent to the law because you find it immoral, the law never had authority to begin with and you never had any obligation to follow it. I challenge you to take a principled stand in defense of breaking the law even through non-violent passive resistance that does not rely on such anarchist premises.

Imagine that Trump wins this coming Tuesday. Come January, he is going to start rounding up eleven million illegal immigrants. We know very well that there is no way that any such plan could be carried out without mass murder. Trump has promised to eliminate any soldier that does not agree to commit war crimes so any soldier left is a de facto war criminal. What would be an appropriate response? According to my political morality, I am not bound to recognize any such Trump government. It is my right to pursue passive resistance and even to follow the lead of those British citizens in 1775, who claimed that it was alright to kill British soldiers. If you are not a secessionist like me, on what grounds will you claim that it is alright to do anything but comply with the will of the "people" and their President Trump?

What if the United States had a strong Nazi party, one that had the support of even 10% of the population? Could you accept an election in which they were even allowed to take part, as opposed to them simply being granted them Idaho as an independent country or shipping them all to gas chambers? Even such a minority could easily leverage its support in exchange for the government having to agree to some seriously immoral compromises. Those familiar with the history of Weimar Germany know that during the 1920s the Nazis were a fringe party. Comes 1932 and there is the Great Depression so the Nazis get 33% of the vote. They then manage to pull a deal with the conservative parties to take power and once in power they do away with democratic elections. So instead of being in power for just a few months as an odd quirk in German history, the Nazis were able to stay on top for twelve years and start World War II. Most Germans never supported the Nazis, but the Nazis were able to manipulate a democratic system for their own ends. In essence, a fatal flaw of Weimar was that it allowed the Nazis to participate in the first place. Agreeing to be part of a liberal democracy in which Nazis took part meant accepting the Nazi takeover and everything that happened afterward.  

The United States is a vast and diverse country with over 300 million people, the vast majority of whom I have good reason to heap contempt upon both their intelligence and moral judgment. This includes white men without college degrees, who believe that Mexicans are rapists and Obama is a Kenyan Muslim. It is precisely such people who are largely responsible for turning Trump into something more than a reality TV star on a joyride. Even if, as I hope, Trump loses, those hordes of angry stupid white men will still be there and they will still be voting American citizens. At some point, perhaps with a candidate who can forge an alliance with another angry and stupid demographic (it is not as if white men have a monopoly on those things) these angry stupid white men will win. What do you plan on doing then? Accepting that they will one day win is the price of having the United States. So either you reject having the United States and instead attempt to build a mini-state with only intelligent and moral people or you implicitly agree to support Donald Trump.

Remember that when this day of Trump comes (and it will), conservatives and spineless liberals will tell you that, while you are free to wait four years and vote against Trump, in the meantime you need to respect the fact that the American people voted for bigotry and intolerance. You can prepare yourself starting from today. Put your hand over your heart and repeat after me: I do not pledge allegiance to any flag, nor to any republic that does not even obey its own constitution. I follow my own conscience from God (however I choose to define him/her) and pledge to work for liberty and justice for all. If you are not yet willing to take this step I understand (it took me years to get there). But please do not lecture me about how I am the one voting for Trump.

(To all the well-meaning conservatives out there, who reject Trump but feel that if they do not vote for him they are voting for Hillary, feel free to replace the name Trump with Hillary in this article. Rework my examples as you feel appropriate.)