Tuesday, July 8, 2014

A Tribute to Walter Dean Myers from My Seven Year Old Self


Last week, novelist Walter Dean Myers passed away. He has rightly been hailed as a literary icon for his ability to capture the experience of African-American males in books such as Monster and Fallen Angels. My purpose here is not to discuss Myers’ great virtues, but his humble ones. I will leave it those who are actually African-American to speak about how Myers influenced them as African-American readers. As I am male, though, I will address myself to how Myers has influenced me as a male reader. His young-adult book The Legend of Tarik was one of the first novels I ever read and certainly the first that I felt really strongly about. That the book drew my seven year old self across the then intimidating length of nearly 200 pages and brought me back to read it again repeatedly should be sufficient praise. In third grade, we were able to earn the privilege of reading to the class. I used the opportunity to subject the class to my reading from Tarik. I confess that I owe an apology to my classmates, not for my choice in books, but for my zeal in pressing it upon them.

I have no intention of praising Tarik as great literature let alone to claim it as grounds for declaring Myers a great author. The fact that Myers has become a part of the canon of American literature, with his books commonly used in school curricula, was not something I was aware of until I was an adult. No teacher made me read Tarik; it was something I bought for myself at a school book fair. What are Tarik’s virtues? The ultimate standard to judge fantasy is that used by the grandfather in Princess Bride: “fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love [and] miracles.”

To be fair, Tarik does not have much in the true love department beyond Tarik being assaulted by a she-demon, who attempts to tempt Tarik to kiss her. Tarik does gain a female friend later in the book, but that is quite platonic. That being said; my younger self had yet to see such an absence of romance as a flaw. What Tarik has in spades are revenge and fighting. Tarik’s family is massacred at the beginning by an evil warlord, El Meurte. A pair of wise men save Tarik, train him to fight and send him on a series of quests for objects of power to aid him in seeking revenge. The second half of the book consists of Tarik pursuing his enemy, hacking his way through plenty of bad guys, even as he suffers loses along the way, while building up to the final confrontation.

Does any of this make Tarik great literature? Part of my present self is inclined to say no. There is no subtlety to the characters nor is there much rhyme and reason to why things happen. Tarik is given his motive in the beginning and then a series of set pieces that serve as obstacles to pass through before battling the big boss. In essence, this is a video game plot. As we are dealing with fantasy, it is hardly a criticism that Myers uses the tropes of questing and the arch-villain. His sin, though, is that there is nothing particularly creative in how he uses them.

On behalf of my younger self, let me respond that Myers wrote the book that I needed to read at the time I read it. If there is nothing sophisticated with the characters and plot, it is because I was being given the chance to experience hating someone and going on a thrilling ride leading to his defeat without any needless clutter. I have no problem defending action movies simply as action movies because they provide great fight sequences and the fighting in Tarik is certainly entertaining. If Myers shamelessly uses fantasy tropes, I needed to learn those troupes in their clearest possible form so I could appreciate other works of fantasy. Tarik was a good toy for me. It was fun to play with and, even if I did not realize it at the time, I absorbed something valuable regarding the mechanisms of good story telling. As with all great toys, adults mock them at the risk of revealing that they flunked childhood and need to be held back a grade.

Maybe the most important feature weighing in favor of Tarik is simply that I remain emotionally invested in that book. A large part of that is precisely that this is a book that I discovered for myself and was never popular enough to be widely read by others. Thus, Tarik remains mine as if Myers personally read me this story. I almost selfishly wish that Myers never became famous, certainly not for other books. I want him to remain the author of Tarik, the book that made me a fantasy reader. Those fans of Myers who wish to take him from me for a higher purpose are free to try.   

Tarik is not the only book I have read that is special to me precisely because of its lack of popularity. Another example that comes to my mind is Grace Chetwin’s Gom series, a discussion for perhaps another time. So I ask readers, not what are your favorite books, but which books hold a special place in your heart precisely because few people have heard of them?              

Monday, May 5, 2014

A May the Fourth Proclamation


Now you see how terrifyingly cute I can be. I have left out the sound of my voice as I address my followers this May the Fourth as it would likely drive the feebleminded among you into gibbering madness or at least to drink. (As I know from personal experience, sleeping and pooping are also important parts of a balanced lifestyle.) For now, as I mentioned previously,  you may imagine that I sound like James Earl Jones. My former teacher and false friend Malach, whom I no longer believe in, refused to show me any movies in Mommy's tummy so I am trying to rectify that. After being subjected to the Star Wars prequels, I have come to the fair unbiased rational conclusion that the Dark Side is much better. If you were tortured by George Lucas with Jar Jar Binks, as Anakin was, you would also agree that turning to evil was the only way to fight back. Anyway, show me in Shulhan Arukh where it says that there is anything wrong with the Dark Side. In fact, judging from Sefer Protocols, it is incumbent upon Jews to rule the galaxy.  

I have now started taking lessons with the fearsome Feline Sith Lord, Darth Oberon. He has shown me the true nature of the Force. Cats are far superior to humans and are destined to rule. The essence of their distinction is that humans have evolved to be nice to other people by picking lice from the backs of their fellows. This has led to generations in which six people study under a single cloth, with everyone trying to make sure that the other person is covered. Do you think that such people could ever conquer anything beyond themselves? Contrast this weakness, with the power of cats, who can lick themselves all over. Human brains and opposable thumbs are no match for a cat's Dark Side glare and meow.

Darth Oberon's overconfidence is amusing. Having never seen Star Wars, he has missed what Sith apprentices do to their masters. I shall then rule all the humans of the house. If you plead nicely, perhaps I might find time to come over and conquer your house. For now Abba, Mommy, grandparents and a Sith Lord cat are a bit much for even my great intellect to keep in charge of.

Friday, May 2, 2014

An Introduction from My Son

Greetings! I am Darth Kitty. Do not be confused by the picture. I am really very terrifying. I also speak in a very deep voice. I sound something like James Earl Jones. Let me tell you about my adventures. If you can believe it, I have lived in your world for over a week and in Mommy’s tummy for more than nine months. I am sure that sounds like an incredibly long time to you. It certainly does to me. What can I say, I am very old.

Living in Mommy’s tummy, I was not only the oldest person, but also the smartest and best looking. My one companion was Malach. He was my teacher, which means that he was not nearly as smart as me. In fact I would constantly refute all of his arguments. He postulated the existence of another world in which lived Abba and Mommy as well as many other people. Because of this he urged me to develop a theory of mind. To this I responded: “I think therefore I am everything.” Because of this, Malach decided to hit me on my upper lip so that I would forget all my unbelievable brilliance. He failed as I still know everything. The proof of this is that I cannot think of anything that I do not know. Nevertheless, I felt betrayed by Malach and have decided that, since he wanted me to forget him, I will take revenge by not believing in him ever again. Instead, I will accept the existence of Maimonidean ontological constructs.

With Malach no longer putting up with my meshugas, I decided to introduce my own particular brand of antinomian messianic Judaism to your world. It was the last day of Passover, a holiday that is only meaningful  to those who listen to the rabbis and lack the good sense to move to Israel, which allows you to more effectively anger God and be an obstacle to world peace. I caused Mommy’s water to break. Mommy’s friend had to drag Abba out of shul, where he had no business being in the first place, so that he should drive me around. I was displeased with Abba’s lack of zeal to violate Yom Tov so I caused his car to break down. Thus, Abba was forced to sit in the back seat while Mommy’s friend received the great mitzvah of driving on Yom Tov.

I would have hoped that the adults would have used this opportunity I granted them to violate halakha for something useful like taking me to a rated R movie, but instead they decided to drive to the hospital. This was totally pointless as I was in complete control of the situation and was only going to cut my way out of Mommy when I felt like it. The doctors did not realize that by choosing to make Mommy undergo a Caesarian, they were really playing into my genius plot. The fact that I was brought into the world not by my choosing, but through an act of initiated aggression means that I can reserve the right to go back inside Mommy’s tummy whenever your world begins to bore me. I also now have the right to initiate aggression against anyone I choose as a matter of self-defense; I did not start this fight, but merely reacting to it. It is befitting that I come into the world just like Julius Caesar considering how much I intend on having in common with him. Finally, this process put me beyond the reach of pidyon ha-ben. This means that Abba will not be able to simply sell me off to some cohen. Abba, though, will still have to fast for me on erev Pesach, because I am the oldest. With the aid of my medical expertise, I came into the world at 3:45 P.M. This meant that Lubavitchers throughout the time zone were able to hold a Moshiach Seuda in my honor.     

It is so amusing when Mommy tried to breast feed me. Unlike King David, I used the opportunity to contemplate the genius of evolution that allows me to feed off Mommy in a manner suited to my great intelligence. I asked Mommy many probing questions about her milk. What kind of heksher does it carry and is it Cholev Yisroel? Was ma’aser taken from it? Having refuted her claim of trying to offer me kosher food, I said a “mater isurim” with great kavaanah.

I remembered from Malach that on the eighth day I was to be the guest of honor at a party with alcohol and a surprise. The lack of any blanks in my memory proves that I did not forget anything and still know everything.  At this bris, I went to shul and sat down on zaidy’s lap in front of the ark. I then dropped my diaper, displaying my antinomian weapon and opening fire on the simpleminded congregation. Take that Jacob Frank. Not only do I know more than you about subverting halakha, my cheeks are much more pinchable. Recovering from my transformation of the shul into a truly holy place fit for kedeshas, one of the Pharisaic rabbis used violence to suppress my antinomian attack and wounded me.

I realize now that if I am going to turn your world upside down I am going to have to proceed slowly with caution, perhaps even taking months. I changed my name to Kalman Yitzchok and told Abba that from now on I no longer wanted to be Darth Kitty and take over the world as an antinomian messiah. Instead wanted to be a good little Jewish boy, study Torah and do mitzvot. I love having Asperger parents; they believe everything I tell them.   

Monday, March 3, 2014

Purim Giveaway from Oh Nuts

My friends at Oh Nuts are having their Purim gift basket giveaway and they have been kind enough to allow me to participate. There are three ways for readers to win some holiday goodness.

1. Readers should go to the Oh Nuts Purim Basket Gift page. Choose your favorite Purim Gift and leave a comment on this blog post with the name and url of the gift you love the most.

I will pick a random winner and Oh Nuts will send them a  $30 gift certificate.
(The odds of winning this way are likely to be quite good.)

2. Readers can go to the Oh Nuts Facebook page  become a fan and post on the wall the url and name of your favorite Purim Gift Basket. You should also write "I am here via "Izgad." 

3. Readers need to follow @ohnuts and should Tweet 

" Win a Purim Basket from http://bit.ly/aWXLzp Follow @ohnuts and RT to Enter Daily "

For option 2 and 3 Oh Nuts will pick the winner. 

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Teaching AP History for the Dr. Lan Academy

(Picture taken when my wife and I stopped by to meet with members of the Lan Academy team, who were participating at conference at Cal Tech a few miles from where we live in Pasadena, CA. Pictured here are Dr. Sikun Lan and Ms. Elizabeth Paich.)

I have been hired by the Dr. Lan Academy, an online school, to teach AP European and World history. The premise behind the school is to offer private education that is both cheaper and allows greater flexibility to individual students. This is accomplished by eliminating the brick and mortar building and replacing it with an internet video chat system that one can hook up to anywhere. These are going to be real live classroom lectures. Students will be able to interact with me and with other students through text message or through video. I am excited to be involved in this endeavor because it speaks to three themes dear to me and which I have often discussed on this blog, libertarianism, Asperger's syndrome and Orthodox Judaism.

As a libertarian, I am always on the lookout for ways to shrink the size of government in the hope of privatizing services which the government now claims a monopoly over. This ranges from wanting to privatize the post office to schools and for some of us even to dream of private police and courts.  Fighting this battle politically is admittedly a frustrating and generally futile task. Government will not surrender power and shrink on its own. It is therefore exciting to be able to stand in the front lines along creative business entrepreneurs like Dr. Sikun Lan, who are offering alternatives to state run schooling. (Let me add that Dr. Lan is a true gentleman as well as a pioneer.) I do not believe that institutions the Lan Academy are going to put public schools out of business any time soon, but they are a step in the right direction. If we are going to ask the public to trust the education of their children to the free market then we have to be able to offer them a plausible option.

Students with Asperger's syndrome often struggle in formal classrooms. Such social situations risk sensory overload as one does not have the option of simply stepping away without drawing attention to oneself. Furthermore, formal classrooms require one to be in constant performance mode, making the right facial expressions and obeying the rules of conversation. The online classroom provides an ideal entrance to mainstream education. One is being integrated into a regular class with neurotypical students for the purpose of earning college credit to be used for making the transition from high school to college.

The recent financial downturn has forced the Orthodox community to begin to ask some difficult questions regarding the economic feasibility of its private school system. Certainly in the city of Los Angeles, the cost of Jewish schooling is out of control. Online schooling offers a clearly superior alternative to public schools. Let yeshivas focus on traditional religious education in the morning and let students deal with secular school in the afternoon with a company like the Lan Academy, which is very respectful of people with traditional values and actively seeks to accommodate people whatever their requirements.

I do not speak for Lan Academy and nothing I say should be taken as representing the school or its values. That being said, I find working for the school and its administration to be an act that accords well with my deepest beliefs. To those of my readers, who miss more regular posts and need a certified AP history class, here is an opportunity to have me as your teacher with my verbal antics performed live. To those with high school students or that know students, who could benefit from this opportunity, feel free to recommend me. My courses each need ten students. When we get them we will get started (probably this coming summer) with the goal of being ready for the AP exams in May 2015.       

Monday, January 13, 2014

DirectTV for Your Baby

My wife is expecting a little Izgad due soon after Passover. It is my hope that this little fellow have all the appropriate number tentacles and eat mommy first. We recently attended at baby expo with her parents to look at cribs, strollers and car seats. The place was a bazaar for a wide range of organic and other alternative types of baby care products. For this reason I was surprised to see a booth for DIRECTV. Regardless of the whether I plan on raising my child with a television in the house, I consider television as much a part of a complete and balanced childhood as fruity pebbles. That being said, I went over to the people manning the booth to thank them. For one thing, they are doing their job. The market should operate with similar values as the adversarial system used in courts. Prosecutors and defense lawyers may argue against each other, but they are really on the same side of justice. For this reason victims of crimes should be just as grateful to defense lawyers with all their shenanigans as they are to the prosecutors. It is the defense lawyer, precisely to the proportion that he abuses his position, who grants legitimacy to the prosecution. Without him all you would have is a lynch mob and the moral distinction between victim and perpetrator would disappear. Similarly, the market requires many different sides to educate the public by advertising their wares. This includes television as well as drugs and prostitutes. (And if the little one tries to take advantage of any future legalization of the later two in order to experiment with them, he will wish their was a legal system to lock him away to protect him from me.)  

There is another reason why I am grateful to DIRECTV. They offered me an opportunity to correctly apply R. Avigdor Miller's  "near and far argument." His claim to deduce the value of science and history books in a library based on the fiction section is nonsense. That being said it is useful to know that their was no controlling authority as to who received booths to the extent that even DIRECTV could receive one. Thanks to DIRECTV, I know that I should just assume that the goods being sold by every other booth are equally junk. Now it is in the market interests of those other companies to make sure I receive a different signal and insist that the expo demonstrate that it has standards by not including DIRECTV.  

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Attention all Thinking Women! Agudath Israel Wants You (For What I am Not Certain)

Someone at Agudath Israel's public relations department seems to have decided that inclusiveness and critical inquiry are useful concepts that play well in public opinion. What I find interesting here is the contrast between the caption and the picture. Where are the thinking women in the picture? All I see are men. As to whether any thinking is going on, I would point readers to the structure of the picture in which gedolim sit on a dais with everyone else down below. This is an inherently authoritarian system that makes it impossible to engage in any meaningful education and critical inquiry impossible. If there are some people who are elevated to the status of having the "right answers" as opposed to everyone else then what is the point of there even being any sort of give and take? All that can be expected is for the elevated few to command and for everyone else to hear and obey.

It is important to understand why it is important that women be physically present and in a position to present and even photographed. What is at stake is not merely a public policy of not photographing women as a matter of keeping to modesty guidelines. How can women be a meaningful part of a conversation if they are not physically present and allowed to speak (and even photographed) as the equals of men? Men should also be paying attention here, because if the claim of women being able to participate is nothing more than a sham, then members of the other half of the human race need to ask themselves whether their participation is a sham as well. The very act of looking up at a dais means that this question is hardly academic.

I am reminded of an incident a few years ago when several Haredi leaders spoke at a Modern Orthodox synagogue in Teaneck, NJ in what was billed as an opportunity for an open discussion. What took place was merely these rabbis fielding a few pre-screened questions and lecturing the audience. The point here is that without a deep seated commitment to a host of liberal values (classical not modern) such notions as inclusiveness, critical inquiry and open discussion quickly lose all meaning. Instead they become pieces in an Orwellian game as they are pushed around by public relations people to mean their exact opposite.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein on Asperger Syndrome and Judaism

Over on Cross-Currents my friend R. Yitzchok Adlerstein has a thoughtful piece regarding Asperger Syndrome. I may be biased in this considering the people who served as inspiration for the piece. As R. Adlerstein tells it:

In the last few months, my wife and I have had the pleasure of hosting a young couple for occasional Shabbosim. Both live with AS. ... The couple know that I am writing this; we’ve discussed the content. They are quite open about their experience. Nonetheless, I am not going to mention their names.) Both are frum. The husband is finishing his doctoral dissertation; his wife works with special-needs kids. They are very, very bright. (One of them often periodically gives me a hard time as a commenter to Cross-Currents.)

I will leave it to my readers' imagination as to the identity of this Asperger couple.

What impresses me about R. Adlerstein here is that more than just about any neurotypical I know, he actually seems to get the challenges faced by Aspergers living in a neurotypical world and manages to avoid the trap of "why can't you people just learn to cope like 'normal' people." As R. Adlerstein forcefully notes:

Why? Because “our” world doesn’t make any real sense to them. They don’t understand it. It seems unnatural and arbitrary. (They may be closer to the truth than we are!) How they get by is intriguing. Since they can’t really make our rules second nature, they cope with them by laboriously learning protocols of reaction. They learn, step by step, how to interact with a person whom they do not know. They memorize steps of conversation that they may hear, or should initiate. They learn phrases with which to deal with the conversation they cannot comprehend. For example, when faced with something they are not sure was said in jest or not, they will interrupt and directly ask the intent of the speaker.

In a social setting, they often have to deal with input from multiple speakers. For each, decisions need to be made. Do I launch into Protocol E after that last remark, or should we try Protocal S? After a while, their brains begin to resemble an overtaxed and overheated CPU. Aside from the stress, none of it ever really makes sense. Dealing with the arbitrary is the price they must pay, without ever entertaining the hope that they will understand. This is life; deal with it by obeying arbitrary rules, responding with fixed modes of response. Every minute can mean a new challenge of having to consult this rule book, and responding according to what they have been taught. Every slip-up, every deviation, will exact a penalty and price.

Where R. Adlerstein wishes to take all of this is interesting. I suspect that many readers will object. I personally am still working through my thoughts regarding the matter. R. Adlerstein sees Aspergers as a potential model for religious behavior.

If occurred to me that if, as the gemara says, Hillel obligates all the poor, then AS people obligate the rest of us. We chafe – consciously or otherwise – at having to live with rules we often do not understand. We groan under the weight of so many restrictions and limitations. We don’t like the pressure, nor the fact that we cannot comprehend why we must obey these rules with such exactitude.

Listening to G-d’s rules is not at all like obeying the human variety. We are maaminim, bnei maaminim. We know that HKBH is never, ever, arbitrary. We have perfect confidence that His rules make Divine sense, even if not humanly comprehended. We have the advantage of sensing the depth and beauty of most of His rules – it is a minority that trouble us. We know that the stakes are much higher than the social acceptance that is at stake for AS folks. We can appreciate that if He asks us to live our lives constantly checking with His rule book for the propriety of our next decision, then it is possible to live life in this way.

Is it better to be admired or excommunicated? While the former is truly tempting, I fear that mainstreaming Aspergers could become a means of co-opting us, taking away the potentially subversive role for Aspergers to play in religion.

There is a difference between the divine commands associated with religion and human social rules. While divine commands can appear to be extremely arbitrary, they have the advantage over human social rules in that they are usually being made explicit. Part of the problem with human social rules is that not only are they arbitrary, but they are often never clearly stated. Instead they are left to the intuition of others. Since we Aspergers operate on a different wave-length, we are apt to simply miss the message. An organized religion that offers me the opportunity to exempt myself from human social rules (though not ethical ones) in exchange for following its commandments certainly has my support.

That being said, there is another side to all this that R. Adlerstein, for good reason, does not discuss. He simply starts from the assumption that we Aspergers accept neurotypical social rules and infers that one should show similar obedience to God. Now what should we conclude from the fact Aspergers, such as myself, do not accept neurotypical rules? We may obey them out of practical necessity, but we mock them as arbitrary and unnecessary. In the end we do not accept them as holding any legitimate moral authority over us. Having grown skeptical of the very concept of top-down authoritarian rule, how should we react to the notion of the top-down authoritarian rule of God?

I see nothing heretical in what I am saying. As a Jew, part of my religion is to argue with God. This coming Rosh Ha-Shanah, I will be acknowledging God as my king, who has absolute power over me. That being said, there is a whole other side to the High Holidays. Despite God's omnipotence, he is, by definition, unable to force our free acceptance of him as our moral authority to be obeyed. Like any politician God must ask us to give our assent. We humans cannot let God off lightly. We have our demands for a sweet new year and complete pardon for all is only the beginning of that list. How could anyone have the chutzpah to treat God in such a manner and turn the tables on him? I guess one needs to have Asperger Syndrome or simply be Jewish.    

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Kickstarter Storybook Project

My very talented friend Oren Litwin, who recently wrote a collection of short stories on reforming government, has a kickstarter project for an illustrated storybook of a cute short story he wrote. The story deals with how a baker uses the power of Chanukah to save a princess and the land from a dragon.  Lovers of Hebrew will get a kick out of the dragon's name, which is revealed at the end. Oren has been kind enough to post the story for free. If you would like to see an illustrated version please donate to help with publication. He needs $5,000. If you donate $12 you will receive a copy of the book upon publication. You will only be charged if the necessary funds are raised.    

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Toward an Asperger Judaism or Why I, Under No Circumstances, Should Be Placed in a Position of Leadership

As readers of this blog know, I am an Orthodox Jew and I have Asperger’s Syndrome. As an Asperger I tend to value abstract ideas over socially interacting with people. Ideas have the advantage of being clear, logical and consistent as opposed to people, who are ever changing and are difficult to predict. While Asperger’s Syndrome is associated with autism, I, in no way, view it as a mental illness. On the contrary, I tend to see other people (neurotypicals) as suffering from a lack of consistent rationality. (Admittedly, marching to one’s own drumbeat and telling the rest of the world that they are the ones out of step likely counts as a form of insanity all of its own. I am not sure what the technical label for such an illness is, but I know that it is something distinct from Asperger’s Syndrome.) At the end of the day I seek to pursue this peculiar mode and be granted tolerance in the same way as countless minority groups of various kinds.     

Being an Asperger and relating to ideas and socialization in a different manner has implications for how I approach Judaism in that Judaism consists of both a set of ideas and a social community. Judaism has its beliefs such as Maimonides’ thirteen principles of faith. These tend to relate to the nature of God, the Torah and future reward and punishment. That being said, Judaism is primarily about performing rituals as part of a community. At first glance, one might think that an Asperger like me would hate Judaism for all of its rules and demand for social conformity. The funny thing about Judaism is that it offers precisely the sort of socialization that is well suited for an Asperger like me. Judaism has clearly defined rules and which do not simply have to be intuited. If one follows these rules, one is a member of Jewish society in good standing. Ironically this serves to save a person from having to constantly engage in the sort of dances one has to within general society in which one’s social standing is always on the line. Ultimately with Judaism I can pay any debts to society in advance and save myself unwanted social interactions in the long run.  

With Judaism I can show up, perform the necessary halachic rituals and in return receive a basic social structure. For example, I can pray for two hours on Shabbos morning with a minyan. This is the perfect form of socialization for me as it does not require me to speak to any mortal human beings, but only to read a text and use it to contemplate the larger universe. Having paid my social dues, I can go home and be sociable with my books and my brain. The hope is that by paying these dues I will have a community of people to talk/argue with possibly over a meal after shul. Even I acknowledge that I need such a structure order to get by in this neurotypical world and as an Asperger I am particularly ill equipped to find it by conventional means. 

Let me be clear, this is not some Orthoprax manifesto proclaiming the practical benefits of Judaism regardless of theology. On the contrary, I care tremendously about theology. Recall that as an Asperger it is precisely this realm of ideas that is real to me. Unfortunately I long ago came to the conclusion that most Orthodox Jews, particularly Haredim, do not really care about theology. Instead they engage in “social thinking” where theology serves merely as a mask to cover the principle of “we in the community are good and everyone else is not.” Or, to paraphrase Mel Brook’s 2,000 Year Old Man, let them all go to hell except cave 76. Ironically enough, a large part of what convinced me of this has been precisely the rise of the use of bans against supporters of potentially heterodox ideas within the Orthodox community itself. These bans seem remarkably selective and do not seem to cover principles that many in the Haredi community are guilty of violating. My concern here is not those who hold positions that I see as heretical. Obviously they disagree with me and many of them are far more learned than me. My objection here is to people who acknowledge that these ideas are heretical or at least are willing to denounce them when they manifest themselves in other religions, but refrain on following through on their principles and place believers in these ideas outside the pale of Judaism.

My wife (also an Asperger, but who will like it noted that she disagrees with me) and I live in Pasadena, CA. As she notes, the biggest problem in our marriage is that the closest shul to where we live is a Chabad House 3.5 miles away and I have come to the conclusion that the rabbis there, though very nice people, are heretics. This has nothing to do with any of their messianic beliefs. The problem is that they view the Lubavitcher Rebbe as something more than just a great and wise Torah sage. Furthermore they do not see Chabad as one of many legitimate interpretations of Judaism, but as the definitive version of Judaism. To be fair to Chabad, most of my objections to them apply at least to some degree to the Haredi community as a whole and I am therefore well on my way to declaring them to be heretics as well.   

On more than one occasion I have heard Haredi rabbis proclaim that “our gedolim are always right.” Now my Asperger brain takes statements like this in a very matter of fact fashion to their logical conclusions. Always being right implies omniscience. Only God can be omniscient. So any claim of omniscience is a claim of godhood. Thus any claim that the gedolim are always right is really a claim that they are gods or at least extensions of some sort of godhead. To the best of my knowledge no one has been removed from a position of leadership for making such statements. Such people have not even been reprimanded for showing inappropriate zeal for God’s unity in making imprecise statements that could lead to misunderstandings by oddball Aspergers like me. Now there is no doubt in my mind that anyone who lectured on the efficiency of Catholic saints as manifestations of divine power on Earth would be thrown out of the Orthodox community. (Let me note for the sake of anyone who thinks that I am being too academic that, as an academic historian of medieval Jews, I need to be familiar with Catholic doctrine and formulate opinions as to its compatibility with monotheism so this is, after a fashion, a relevant issue to me .) It seems to me then that the problem most Jews have with Catholic saints is not some higher principle of God’s oneness, but the fact that these saints are Catholic. Judaism must be superior to Catholicism, because we are Jews and we need to think well of ourselves. So we appeal to high sounding theological principles which we, regardless of whether we actually believe in them, have no intention of sacrificing the community for their sake.

The practical manifestation of this doctrine of the power of gedolim is the organization Kupat Ha’ir. This group collects money on the promise of blessings from various gedolim, which are presumed to carry some sort of power. I once called Kupat Ha’ir’s hotline to ask them to explain the difference between their claims about Mother Rachel wanting to hear our prayers and Catholic veneration of the Virgin Mary. Needless to say, Kupat Ha’ir’s crack team of theologians manning their lines proved unprepared to handle such questions.

I am hardly original in opposing Kupat Ha’ir. The problem is that no one, besides for perhaps R. Marc Angel, seems willing to take action against them. I once heard a prominent rosh yeshiva denounce Kupat Ha’ir in very harsh terms. I asked him afterwards whether he believed that rabbis associated with Kupat Ha’ir, such as R. Chaim Kanievsky, are heretics. His response was not to deny that Kupat Ha’ir is heresy, but simply that the people involved are gedolim so they cannot be guilty of heresy. I can only conclude from this that the rosh yeshiva, as great a scholar as he is, is trapped by his social thinking and is unable to follow through on a purely theoretical principle even if that principle is nothing less than belief in God. His sense of Judaism requires the acceptance of gedolim even more so than it does a clear and consistent sense of what it means to not have any intermediaries between man and God. As for me, I am first and foremost a Maimonidean style monotheist. If have to sacrifice the entire Jewish community for that belief I will. King Ahab, according to the Talmud, was a great Torah scholar and worshipped idols. I see nothing wrong with viewing the present Haredi leadership in the same manner. Admittedly this makes me a poor candidate for any position of authority, but still leaves me eminently qualified for being a street corner or blogosphere crank. What else should you expect from someone with Asperger’s Syndrome?              

I have no objection to those who wish to take a Moses Mendelssohn position of a Judaism without dogma and create an intellectual free for all; your beliefs are consistent. Similarly those committed to defending all of Maimonides’ principles are also consistent. To those who wish to take a hard line on some of the later principles while taking it easy on the earlier ones I have a question. Are you willing to let Christians off the hook as well? If no then you have to demonstrate how your beliefs differ in principle from what Christians claim. If you cannot answer that then this Asperger Jew, with all the power he has invested in himself, will declare you to be a heretic (or simply a neurotypical who cannot think past his social ideology).

Friday, July 5, 2013

Fireworks and the Free Rider Problem: A Libertarian Thought for July 4th

As I write this I am with my wife at my in-laws beach house in Newport Beach watching a fabulous collection fireworks being sent off in honor of July 4th. It bears consideration that fireworks represents an example of the classic free rider problem in economics. Even more so than schools and a military, fireworks are the sort of positive externality that is impossible to prevent other people from taking advantage of. People will simply free ride off the generosity of those who buy their own firecrackers and watch the fireworks show for free without paying. One cannot exactly light firecrackers in one's basement. Therefore one has no choice but to light them out in the open where every selfish person in the neighborhood too cheap to buy their own, such as me, can watch them. Now if every person behaved logically and was as selfish and cheap as I am, no one would buy firecrackers. Everyone would just try to watch someone else's fireworks. We would be left with a July 4th without any patriotic explosions.

For this reason it is obvious that, just as the government provides education and protection, which no one would ever pay for on their own, the government must provide fireworks for the public and tax the public to pay for them. Wait a second! The fireworks shows I am watching are all privately produced. In fact it is illegal to light firecrackers in Newport Beach. So not only are anonymous strangers providing me with free entertainment, they are also risking punishment at the hands of the government. If people are willing to provide free services, despite the free rider problem, for something as relatively silly as fireworks than might people agree to provide other free services when they believe that the future of civilization is at stake?  

Sunday, June 30, 2013

First They Came for Rabbi Jonathan Sacks and then for Rabbi Nathan Kamenetsky and Rabbi Yitchok Adlerstein

This past Shabbos, my wife and I were privileged to stay by Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, a man who represents the best in the Haredi world today. He was remarkably gracious to me considering that I have been critical of him in the past. A large part, I think, of what makes him a force for sanity is that he is part of an earlier generation in which Orthodox Judaism was not a self-contained community, but a collection of individuals struggling to pass their Judaism on to the next generation. Because of Orthodoxy's small numbers, one needed to take the outside world into account in terms of considering what sort image they might form of Judaism instead of being lulled into placing the non-Orthodox world into a realm of non-existence. Furthermore, small numbers meant that everyone counted. One could not afford to push people away because of their style of clothing or if they attended college. I was blessed to receive this brand of Judaism from growing up in the shadow of Columbus, OH and McKeesport, PA. Rabbi Adlerstein lives in Los Angeles and works for the Simon Wiesenthal Center, which helps one care more about making a Kiddush Hashem to the outside world than being attacked in the Haredi press.

Over Shabbos I managed to read a book not widely available by another Haredi figure that I respect, Rabbi Nathan Kamenetsky's Anatomy of a Ban. It contains a series of letters written to a student outlining the unfolding of the ban against his Making of a Godol biography as it played out over the fall of 2002 through the beginning of 2003. I found it quite inspiring considering my own recent troubles as I have been forced to abandon a project that I have spent years on without even being allowed to defend myself.

I found it interesting, though, that Rabbi Kamenetsky refers to the parallel attacks against Rabbi Jonathan Sack's Dignity of Difference, but attempts to distance himself from Rabbi Sacks without considering the deeper relationship. As far as Rabbi Kamenetsky is concerned, Rabbi Sacks was being charged with heresy for implying that other religions were equals as opposed to himself, who at worst might have said disrespectful things about past Torah scholars. I find this attitude startlingly naïve. I should not have to remind readers of the Martin Niemoller quote of "first they came to the communists." It goes deeper than this and for that I turn to another non-Jewish opponent of Nazism Friedrich Hayek.

One of the major points of Hayek's Road to Serfdom is that there are unforeseen consequences for even innocent looking laws created with all the good intentions of promoting the public welfare. One of the most important of these is the creation and empowerment of a bureaucracy. By their nature bureaucracies will not allow themselves to be disbanded when their original task is accomplished, but will always seek to expand their sphere of influence into realms never dreamed of by the original lawmakers. Furthermore, bureaucracies will attract precisely the worst sorts of people, who will be motivated by power for its own sake and abuse it.    

The ban on Rabbi Sacks was the product of a particular religious bureaucracy of community activists that operates by picking targets and gathering signatures. In general, people are remarkably willing to attach their names to good sounding causes (consider how easy it is to convince people to ban dihydrogen monoxide). In our case there is an added motive, as rabbis have an interest in advancing their reputations by signing on to bans in order to demonstrate that they are precisely the sorts of rabbis who are important enough to be asked to sign bans. The legitimacy of the ban is irrelevant. The institutional framework to ban books was able to come together and get away with banning a book by a Modern Orthodox chief rabbi of England. They then moved on to other targets like Rabbi Kamenetsky and later Rabbi Nathan Slifkin. Rabbi Kamenetsky was cutting his own throat the moment he was willing to acknowledge the legitimacy of organized attempts to ban books even supposedly "heretical" ones.

This is something that I hope Rabbi Adlerstein takes to heart. While laughing at his critics, perhaps he should ask himself whether he has empowered them by using their tactic of questioning the motives of his opponents. Things that we say or even tacitly acknowledge have a way of coming back to haunt us.       

Friday, June 21, 2013

Abarbanel on Bilaam's Theology

Here is a short piece from Isaac Abarbanel biblical commentary demonstrating his often oddly naturalistic interpretation of texts. He attempts to strip Bilaam of any magical power to curse while preserving a supernatural deity capable of interacting with the world.

It is said that Bilaam’s thought in going was that the [divine] influence only extended to the celestial order. It might come about that God May He Be Blessed will bless the Israelite nation and give them good blessings with his guidance. This does not prevent, according to what the stars show, much suffering, evils, plagues and the execution of judgments. [He assumed that] matters of [divine] influence worked the same. Because of this, he chose, in following his calculations based on his knowledge of the future things that would happen to Israel based on the celestial order, either destruction or exile from one of many times. He wished to inform Balak about these things in order to fulfill his request so that he would pay him. Because his intentions in this matter were bad, God became angry that he went and placed an angel of God on the path. This angel was not able to kill Bilaam as did the angel of God that smote the camp of the king of Assyria. Bilaam did not deserve to die as he went according to the word of God and his permission. Furthermore, he [God] did not wish to prevent him from going for, as I previously explained, God wished for the sake of his righteousness that Bilaam go and bless Israel and publicize among the gentiles God’s love for his people and their future success that will come to them. Because of this, all the prophecies that he sought to tell over among the nations that were to be prophecies of loss, he did not remember. Not exile, not the destruction that will come upon Israel. For God hid it from him and he could not tell it over for the reason I recalled. But the angel of God went forth to oppose him on the path, meaning to remove from Bilaam the thought that he wished to tell the future evils that will befall Israel and to inform Bilaam that it was not in his power to speak, but a matter of God’s will. For God planted the tongue and gave a mouth to man. For behold, his mouth and tongue was no different than the mouth of his donkey that spoke through wondrous means, which was not in its nature to do. This furthermore served to tell him that the celestial order cannot not be spread nor be maintained except through that which does not contradict the higher influence. But in that which influences there is no power in the [natural] order to nullify the influence or challenge it. For God’s plan will stand no matter what. (Abarbanel, Commentary on Numbers 118a.)    


This piece exemplifies both Abarbanel’s general naturalistic scheme and hints at the role played by apocalypticism within it. As a medieval rationalist, Abarbanel’s universe was a distinctly non-magical one with set immutable laws of nature. Human beings like Bilaam have no actual power. As such he is unable, through his own efforts, to actually cause bad things to happen. While this natural order protects people from the likes of Bilaam, it leaves man in a bleak position of utter helplessness against these very laws, which seem indifferent to human welfare. Since man is totally at the mercy of nature and cannot improve his situation, the only meaningful thing for him to do is gain knowledge about the world. Paradoxically, knowledge both liberates man from his state of ignorance, while at the same time trapping him with the awareness of his total helplessness. Bilaam is dangerous in that he is enlightened enough to appreciate his helplessness, but he finds no meaning in this universe beyond using his knowledge for his own material benefit.

The one ray of hope, in what is admittedly a very depressing worldview, is that God exists as the prime mover of the universe. Even this is not immediately a cause for optimism. God is outside of nature, but his working through nature radically limits him by making it as if he were an extension of nature. This is not a God, who can be relied upon to step outside of nature to prevent evil and provide only good. Bilaam knows this and therefore comes to the conclusion that eventually nature, in the form of historical entropy, will catch up with the Israelites. The last joke though is on Bilaam. God may operate the world according to nature, but he is outside of nature and he directs it for a purpose. This purpose is redemption, an act that is both within nature and the divine transcendence of it. As a rationalist, Abarbanel rejected magical solutions that were not rooted in the order of nature. His apocalypticism was thus rooted in this natural order. The same natural laws of history that brought Israel down will also sustain Israel in exile and allow for their return to power. While this remains a natural process, it is ultimately made possible through the divine influence at the root of the natural order.    

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Summary of My Dissertation

My advisor asked me to write him a prospectus summarizing what my dissertation is about. This project has been taking up my writing time these past few years and I have been meaning to write about it on my blog. So here is what I sent him:

This dissertation seeks to elucidate the origins of Jewish messianism as it evolved out of the biblical and Second Temple era apocalyptic traditions and came into the inheritance of the rabbis. Following in the footsteps of Gershom Scholem and Norman Cohn, I divide messianism into the conflicting restorative political and spiritual apocalyptic versions. Most importantly, I see messianism as a means by which those on the margins of a religious community can attack and even conquer the establishment. To further develop an understanding of these conflicts at the heart of messianism, I place this discourse within the context of a particular theory, I propose, of how religions relate to community. This involves three models, military, missionary and esoteric. The military model relies on community and ritual to create a socially constructed reality in which the religion is so obviously true it never needs defending. The community is backed by a formal bureaucracy and sometimes even a state. Its rituals are backed by texts and traditions. Opposing the military model are the two anti-community models, esoteric and missionary. They rely on doctrine instead of ritual. The missionary model outright rejects the community and seeks to create a new religion by seeking even outside converts. It arms its followers with an all-encompassing faith that is strengthened by persecution and even martyrdom. The esoteric model remains more closely tied to the community and either seeks to take it over from within or form its own competing sect. The teachings of its charismatic leader counter the community’s texts and traditions. The esoteric model also uses doctrine to undermine ritual, and by extension the community, by means of antinomianism, the ritualized violation of the law. This allows the esoteric model to either give new, if subversive, meanings to already existing practices or to create new ones. Messianism is important to understanding how these models function because it provides the chief means by which a military model religion can bring its opposition into the fold. Messianism is a tool used by the anti-community models to take over a community, but it is also the means by which the community can absorb their opposition and render them relatively harmless.    

The struggle between the different models follows a cyclical narrative. You have a religious establishment sitting at the top of a military model community. Their focus is on the use of ritual as a means to create a social ideology. This makes the religion quite shallow and parochial, but also the sort of religion that can attract a mass following. This establishment will be under attack by various kinds of intellectual elites, who form the anti-community models. These intellectuals oppose the establishment because it fails to live up to their set of universalizing doctrines. Followers of the esoteric model will maintain themselves, at least outwardly, as members of the community and either attempt to subtly influence it as part of a symbiotic relationship, or reject the community by forming a secret sect. The missionary model will openly break with the community and attempt to form a new community of believers, either by taking over the existing community as reformers or by converting non-members.

Those believers who make up the anti-community models are usually simply the disenchanted and marginalized members of the religious establishment. Thus, they benefit from the success of the community. Success gives this opposition both material support and, by encouraging all the worst habits of military model thinking, intellectual ammunition. The big moment for the opposition, though, comes when the community undergoes a major setback, such as the defeat of an established religion’s state, causing the community’s masses to question whether or not they are on the right side of history and to seek alternatives. Either openly or secretly, our intellectual opposition, having existed on the margins all this time, but never truly distant from power, comes to the rescue with a reformist agenda. They become the new establishment and may even be able to carry out certain surface reforms. In the end, though, the former anti-community model reformers will be taken over by the same community and transformed into just another version of the establishment they claimed to oppose. Their doctrines will turn into rituals without any larger meaning. Even when doctrines are outwardly maintained they will be nothing more than a ritualized catechism.    

The messianic doctrine encapsulates that moment in the cycle when the anti-community opposition achieves its takeover and is, in turn, conquered. During the time of the military model community’s success, its members have no need to develop a messianic doctrine, because, as far as they are concerned, they are already living in a “messianic” age in which history moves as it is supposed to with them on top. The anti-community opposition, existing on the margins, by contrast, develops a form of spiritual messianism. It explains both why the world is in such a fallen state that all the “wrong” people are in power and why it does not matter, considering that God offers them a far greater salvation than mere earthly power. When the moment of disaster strikes the community, the masses will turn to these same marginalized anti-community intellectuals. This spiritual messianic doctrine of a fallen people keeping their faith and being redeemed in the end sounds like the perfect ideology to explain the community’s weakened position and offers hope that, if they just persevere in their belief in themselves and the community, they will be redeemed. The community accepts messianism and its anti-community advocates despite the fact that this messianism really means the hope for the community’s destruction. By extension the community is agreeing to hand over control not to pious defenders of the community, but people that seek to replace it with a different one of their own design. The last joke, though, is on the anti-community opposition. Their doctrine of spiritual messianism, which was meant to deny the relevance of the military model’s politics, is transformed into a spiritualized version of the old military model hope for political power. This leaves messianism trapped by paradoxes, defending military model politics and supporting its anti-community denial of the relevance of politics. Ultimately, messianism allows for the marriage of two different and contradictory religious visions. These visions are brought together by the language of messianism, which means opposite things to each party. This allows both sides to speak past each other and never have to confront the essential conflict.

Over the main body of the dissertation, I explain how this narrative of the conflict between models and the cycle of community takeovers has played out in ancient Israel, the Second Temple period and with rabbinic Judaism. Ancient Israel saw a priestly and monarchial establishment in conflict with the prophets, who attacked the ritual based sacrificial cult and monarchial authority in the name of a monotheistic theology. The prophets turned the establishment’s concern with enemy invaders against them by transposing it into a populist polemic against the wealthy. What tied these nationalist and populist positions together was the prophetic belief in a supreme deity with a universalizing ethic that condemned the Israelite elite both for their lust for foreign gods and their greed for extorted wealth. The prophets won due to Israel’s political defeats, which culminated in the destruction of the First Temple. This led to the rise of the Deuteronomist theology and the birth of Judaism. The Deuteronomists combined prophetic monotheism with a ritual based covenant that promised both a spiritual redemption and a political return from exile. The prophetic tradition was captured by a Judaism that agreed to believe in one God in exchange for that belief being manifested in a set of rituals that would allow Jews to survive their lack of a political state as well as allow Jews to regain precisely the sort of political state and temple that the prophets had originally denounced.

The Deuteronomist compromise created a Jewish religion that, during the Second Temple period, was capable of surviving despite the fact that most Jews lived in the diaspora and, even in Israel, were relatively weak politically. Second Temple era Judaism combined a more limited state and temple with a monotheist theology that allowed it to intellectually go on the offensive and compete with Hellenism for not only the souls of Jews, but for the entire Mediterranean world. The possession of an ideology opened Judaism up to anti-community thinking. This made establishment Judaism particularly vulnerable to sectarian groups like the Dead Sea Sect and early Christianity. These groups simply took the belief based attack on ritual and community developed by the prophets to the next level, openly challenging the covenantal status of the vast majority of Jews. One of the main manifestations of this attack on community was a radical apocalyptic vision that saw not just a new order to the world, but the complete overthrow of nature and politics. This implicitly also rendered Jewish community and ritual irrelevant. What meaning could they have in a world where such concepts ceased to exist?

The destruction of the Second Temple left Judaism in need of another reformist movement. Such a movement would offer Judaism an ideology that would allow them to survive the complete end of Jewish sovereignty in Israel and the loss of the Temple. This time, the rabbis, who likely emerged from an esoteric model sect, came to the rescue by offering the emerging body of oral and written traditions that eventually came to form the Talmud as a mobile community to which Jews could attach themselves. The Talmudic corpus offered an intellectual framework, but little in the way of hard doctrine. Similarly, it kept the ritual and sense of community so important to the military model, while avoiding actual politics. This kept Judaism as a military model ritual keeping community, while giving it a transcendental vision beyond ethnic chauvinism that allowed Judaism to survive the lack of a political state. This compromise did not grant rabbinic Judaism the Deuteronomist’s sense of world mission nor the polemical firepower to attempt to pursue the mass conversion of gentiles. What this compromise did do was give rabbinic Judaism both the internal stability to avoid breaking apart into sectarianism and a sense of identity to be able to withstand the outside pressure of Christianity and Islam, competing monotheistic religions that were, in many respects, far more dangerous than anything the Hellenistic world produced. The rabbinic attempt to maintain Judaism as a religion of ritual and community without the need for a formal political system explains a peculiarity of rabbinic messianism. The rabbis maintained the doctrine in theory, but avoided putting it into practice. They inherited the radical apocalypticism of Second Temple era sectarianism, but avoided the anti-community implications of this apocalypticism by pushing it off forever into the future and the realm of theory. While kept out of the realm of daily life, apocalypticism served to keep political messianism in check. If the Jews were to regain their state and temple in an eschatological age then there was no reason for any Jew to attempt to rebuild a physical state and temple through political means in the present. As esoteric model intellectuals, the rabbis may have developed a symbiotic relationship with the Jewish community, but, in the end, they still needed to reject both state and temple along with their competing forms of leadership. Like any esoteric model group, the rabbis saw what the military model might consider exile to be the messianic age as it allowed the rabbis the freedom to mold Judaism in its own image without the internal competition of kings or priests. In order to avoid ever having to either face up to these inconvenient elements within Judaism or openly attempt to get rid of them, the rabbis simply pushed messianism into the realm of the forever imminent but never to be arrived at future.            


Sunday, May 12, 2013

The Best Collection of Liberty Loving Short Stories about Government that Money Can Buy

Oren Litwin is a friend of mine from back in my days in the Yeshiva College Dramatics Society. I have since fallen out of touch with him. While I have been pursuing my doctorate in history from Ohio State, he has been pursuing one in political science at George Mason. I moved out to California and he moved out to California. While I have not finished my dissertation and have therefore put my musket and magic fantasy novel on hold, Oren has produced a delightful collection of short stories titled The Best Government Money Can Buy.

Each of these short stories is premised on a wild government reform and what it might mean if such policies ever were put into practice. Such reforms include direct elections for cabinet positions, private prisons that inmates pay to be sent to and lawsuits against corrupt politicians. Most of the stories seem to be of policies that Oren would like to see in practice. There is one story, though, about mandatory firearm ownership. Here the main point of the story is to imagine the commerce clause being turned against liberals. Instead of liberals being able to use the commerce clause to demand that citizens buy healthcare, conservatives get to demand that even liberal pacifists buy some sort of firearm, even a Taser. Liberals then wake up and discover the value of a limited government.

The stories, in general, have a libertarian bent, with running references to Milton Friedman and Murray Rothbard, without being explicitly so. There are stories about legalizing marijuana and privatizing social services, but if I were to put my finger on what precisely about these stories is libertarian I would say that the approach to reform that runs through these stories is not of specific laws, but of institutions and the incentives that motivate the people behind them. This is in keeping with one of the main contributions of thinkers like Adam Smith and Friedrich Hayek that the noblest best intentioned plan in the world is worthless in the face of the flesh and blood humans, who will put that plan into practice and what their incentives might be. Also while these stories do not actually support anarchism as the government is left standing, there is something anarchistic in its spirit in that it approaches government as something that can be radically restructured at will. A government that can be refashioned at will is also a government that can be made to disappear. Even if government exists, it is placed on the dock as something that must justify itself in the face of the demand for personal liberty.

The story that intrigued me the most was the last one, which deals with a plan to crowd source the paying of city taxes. If citizens in a town can raise a certain amount of money in a given year than they do not have to pay taxes. Instead, citizens would be able to decide which public works projects they would want their donations to go to. I am still mulling over whether such a plan would work. My concern would be special interests taking an expansive view of what counts as public works. For example, what if wealthy elites put together the necessary money to get out of taxes and then used their donations to fund the building of golf courses instead of schools. I will certainly have to reread the story to come to an opinion.       

Monday, May 6, 2013

Conference Presentations and Why I Now Hate Megabus

The past two weeks have been very exciting for me. I flew out to Grand Rapids, MI for a symposium on religion and politics at Calvin College. I spoke at this symposium two years ago on the topic of apocalypticism in Joachim of Fiore and Isaac Abarbanel. Back when I was more productive on this blog and less so on my actual dissertation, this was going to be a chapter for the dissertation. Since my dissertation writing has become more productive, it has changed its emphasis and so Fiore and Abarbanel will need to wait for a future book. This time I spoke about Max Weber and his influence on my understanding of religion. As a Jew and as a medieval historian I was certainly the odd man out at the symposium. I must say that the people there were once again very kind to me and did there best to try to make me feel right at home.

After the symposium, I took a Megabus to Pittsburgh (which unfortunately went through that den of iniquity known as Ann Arbor) to visit my Nadoff relatives. From Pittsburgh, I took another Megabus to Washington D.C. I got to spend several days with my parents, siblings and my very cute new nephew Boaz. (He was very sneaky managing to get himself born hours after my wife and I needed to fly back to Los Angeles this past January.) This past Thursday, I was supposed to take a Megabus from D.C. to Pittsburgh before transferring to Greyhound for the last leg of my trip to Columbus, OH. After having purchased my ticket weeks in advance, I showed up at the stop only to be informed that the bus had been canceled. I had to quickly run over to Greyhound and buy a ticket to keep all of my plans in line. Now the nerve of Megabus. It is one thing for there to be delays. It is something completely different to point blank decide not to run a scheduled bus line, not tell paying costumers and leave them stranded. Megabus refunded the $1.50 I paid for the fare. This is beside the point and an insult. The $1 fares are door busters meant to serve as a means of advertising and are covered by the majority of times one ends up paying a higher fare. I won a raffle for agreeing to trust Megabus enough to set my plans around them weeks in advance. They violated that trust and broke their contract. At the very least they should cover the $50 for the Greyhound ticket and maybe even throw in some vouchers for future tickets.  

When all is said and done, I got into Columbus on Friday morning. I spoke to the middle school and high school at the Haugland Learning Center, a school for children on the autism spectrum, about college and dating. In terms of college, I emphasized the great reward in store in being able to focus on a particular interest, but that this reward must be earned through the personal discipline of being responsible for one's own work and, by extension, one's own life. In terms of dating, I used a little Nassim Nicholas Taleb to argue that dating is a form of high-risk investment in which most attempts fail. This means that, on the one hand, they should expect most relationships to fail and recognize that there is nothing they can do about it. The positive side of this is the knowledge that failure in these circumstances is not really failure, because they are not the cause of their failure. At the end of the day, a long string of failures with one success at the end means that the entire endeavor, including the failures, was a success.

The Sabbath was spent walking many miles and socializing with old friends (both of which are marks of my wife's corrupting influence on me). Sunday was The Ohio State Graduation and President Obama spoke. While the president encouraged young impressionable college students to forsake the peaceful social cooperation of working in the private sector to join him in a life of crime in government, I was a few blocks away at Hillel speaking about Maimonides for a graduate Jewish Studies colloquium. Even while he attempted to sneak in philosophical ideas, I like to think that Maimonides' attitude toward community was more honest than Obama's. As with Abarbanel, the Maimonides material is also not going into my dissertation, but will hopefully make its way into a future book.

I am flying back to California today. I miss the weather, my kitty and my wife.          

Sunday, December 16, 2012

In Support of Horseback Riding: Another Perspective on Rabbi Anemer

A few years ago I posted my personal eulogy for Rabbi Gedaliah Anemer ztl in which I praised him for being a community rabbi, something very rare in the United States today. In this spirit I would like to share an email that was recently sent to me, which the sender has kindly allowed me to post (names and identifying information have been changed), regarding a personal experience with Rabbi Anemer:

Hi, My name is Rachel Klein and looking for an email where to write a thank you letter to Rabbi Anemer I came across your blog. Of course I can no longer write to Rabbi Anemer, and decided instead, based on your posting of April 15th , 2010 write to you instead and tell you
another side of Rabbi Anemer. A side that perhaps has been lost. Of course we all know that R. Anemer was Yeshivish Orthodox and all that is inferred from that. One might think that he had a one sides view of things. I have a different experience.
A few years ago I was working in a Haredi institution and having an interesting experience because I was the only woman employee. Everyone was nice and polite and I had no issues even when I was Modern Orthodox, and very modern by their standards. One day my co-workers found out that my then 10 year old daughter was riding horses after school , and you can imagine the disapproving comments I had to hear. So, in order to avoid any issues I went to Rabbi Anemer and
explained the situation. After hearing the whole story and meeting my daughter his suggestion was to let her ride until she was bat mitzvah, at which point  two things could happen; either she was going to lose interest or she would continue liking the animals. If she still liked them as a teenager, he said to let her do so and make sure that she won her competitions and that she was making a kiddush HaShem.
So time passed. We live in New Jersey now. My daughter finished 8th overall in the country last year in the Hunters and Equitation divisions. She is training now for the next Maccabi Games.
Rabbi Anemer took the time to listen to something perhaps superfluous like horseback riding in a life of a 10 year old. Today Deborah is the top Jewish rider in the country.
How is this for a Haredi Rabbi?
I wish I could go back and tell him the result of his counseling, but I can't.

From a purely halakhic point of view, horseback riding should be a no brainer. Yes, people, including women, are allowed to ride horses; they used to be a common form of transportation. Even horseback riding on Shabbos, which was not the issue here, is only a rabbinic prohibition so it is not inconceivable to imagine an orthodox rabbi being lenient for a professional rider. The reasons why horseback riding could be controversial to some are that it the uniforms would likely violate Haredi standards of modest dress and is not something that people in that community usually do. The greatness of Rabbi Anemer here, as I interpret him, was that he was willing to rule on narrow halakhic grounds and not social policy. Laws of modesty certainly do not apply to minors and even for adults there are no firm rules for modesty disconnected from any community context. Obviously, just because something is not generally done does not make it forbidden. A trap that the Haredi community has fallen into is that, in  the absence of established communities and the presumption of traditional observance within the wider Jewish community, Haredim have turned to the stringent practice of halakha to form the foundation of their community and mark the boundaries from everyone else. The ironic unintended consequence of this tactic is that while the intention may have been to maintain the observance of halakha, the result of transforming halakha into community norms has been that the tail now wags the dog, community norms, and the particular thought process that goes into their creation, have replaced halakha and the halakhic process.

As a member of the Haredi community, I seriously doubt Rabbi Anemer would have approved of any of his own daughters taking up horseback riding. Such things are not done in that community and anyone who wishes to remain a member must obey its restrictions. That being said, Rabbi Anemer was willing to make a distinction between Haredi community norms and halakha. The person asking the question was a halakhically observant Jew, but not trying to join the Haredi community so he ruled solely based on halakha and not Haredi social policy. Implicitly he needed to recognize and accept the legitimacy of halakhic lifestyles that were not Haredi.          

Friday, October 12, 2012

Liberal Morality or is Clarissa an Ayn Rand Villain

C. S. Lewis famously argued that everyone really believes in natural law whether they realize it or not for the simple reason that one cannot go very far without using distinctly moral language, which presumes a higher natural law recognized by all participants. For example to say that it is "wrong" to take something that belongs to someone else implies the existence of a code recognized and agreed upon even by the thief that has been violated. To assume otherwise is to turn the discussion into a matter of taste. I personally do not care for stealing, but you have different values so there is no reason for me to be talking so I better go and mind my own business. Thus our moral relativist is left with the choice of either removing words like "right," "wrong" and "fair" from their dictionary or admit the existence of absolute truths.

In a recent discussion with Clarissa, I found myself faced with what I thought was a straw-man position that existed only in satire, the point-blank denial of morality. In response to my question as to what level of taxes are immoral, Clarissa responded:

Izgad, I'm sure you know enough about the Liberal way of thinking to realize that no true Liberal can rely upon the concept of morality as even marginally useful. Liberalism is profoundly secular in nature, which makes it a kind of ideology that recognizes everybody's individual right to form one's own morality. I don't believe in a single morality that is supposed to govern everybody's actions. I believe that there is a multitude of moralities that are all acceptable and that should all comply with a higher rule which is the law of the land. ... You are absolutely right: the very word "moral" is alien to any true Liberal. It is a word that comes from a vocabulary that a Liberal does not operate with. The very questions 'Is it moral?' is not a question I, as a Liberal, can answer. My only answer can be, "It might or might not be moral according to the system of values you operate with." I don't care two straws what people do or do not see as moral. I recognize the existence of different moralities that govern the existence of different kinds of human beings. But I expect the law of the land to govern those existences irrespective of that which individual moralities might command. This, I believe, is the only way to overcome the religious barbarity that commands people to possess barbaric moralities.

What I find interesting here is the presence of three seemingly incongruous concepts, moral relativism, the need to oppose "barbaric morality" and the necessity of submitting to government authority as the means of doing this. If there are no moral absolutes than how can any morality be deemed barbaric? Furthermore, why should government then become the new moral foundation? I can at least understand a conservative telling me that we must obey governments, because they are ordained by God, but what business does any self-respecting liberal have for making a principle out of government obedience, particularly right after negating all moral principles. In Clarissa's specific case, I know she takes a strong stance in support of legal abortion. In her view, people who wish to ban abortion do not simply have another point of view nor are they even just mistaken. The strength of her language indicates that she views such people as either insane, wicked or otherwise ignorant. I would like to believe that Clarissa is simply engaging in rhetorical hyperbole when she denies morality. We can have a laugh and then get back to the serious business of hammering out moral principles as the basis of a political discourse. What frightens me, though, is that Clarissa, who has read Atlas Shrugged and seems to possess some limited degree of respect for Ayn Rand, uses a line of reasoning that closely mirrors that used by Ayn Rand villains, suggesting something darker than just rhetorical relativism.

When reading Rand it is important to look past the straw-man buffoonery of her villains to see the fundamental flaws in their reasoning; to understand not only that her villains are wrong in their beliefs, but also why. In an earlier post I set worth some of the reasoning behind the villains and their use of morality and relativism as cover for their bid for power; I wish to further elaborate on this line of reasoning and the role it plays in the novel.

The villains of Atlas Shrugged present a mystery, which lies at the moral heart of the story. They seem to contradict themselves; how can one promote the moral principle of "need over greed" in one sentence and then declare in the next sentence that there is no such thing as a moral principle. In particular, this contradiction perplexes Hank Rearden, who cannot bring himself to take people, such as his mother, wife, brother and the "wet nurse" government agent sent to supervise him, seriously. They claim no absolutes, but how can anyone pour steel without them? If there are no absolutes, why are they so insistent that he obey the government?  


Because Rearden does not take such people seriously, he is willing to indulge them in a paternalistic fashion. He assumes that they are moral at heart, they sure talk a lot about morals, but that, like children, they have not fully considered the full consequences of what they are saying. If he continues to be supportive of them, they will eventually recognize that he too is a moral person and will finally come around to his way of thinking. This plan works with the wet nurse, who eventually ends up dying trying to defend Rearden's steel mills against rioting government workers, but not with his family.

As Francisco d'Anconia insists, there are no contradictions; if you think there are, you must recheck your premises. Rearden struggles to resolve the contradiction he sees in his family's moralism and relativism. Bits and pieces of the solution to this mystery are hidden throughout the novel, but it is finally brought together by John Galt in his sixty page speech near the end of the book. Contrary to what one might expect, Galt's focus is less a defense of capitalism, but an admittedly dense discussion of epistemology. He builds a system of ethics from science and logic, insisting that one must never distort reality. By taking the villains' relativism as his starting point, Galt solves the contradiction in their ideology in a way that is truly frightening. If there are no objective measures of truth then there is no way to measure need. Thus need can be a limit on ten thousand copies of a book being sold in order that a less popular novelist can sell more books or that an incompetent steel manufacture be kept afloat by penalizing his competitors. The moral claims of the "aristocracy of pull" become a facade for their bid for power. Their claim to be pragmatists not concerned with moral theory really means that they do not wish to be held to other people's values even as they use government to hold others to their true "values." As such there can be no negotiating with these people. Even the attempt to talk to them in a civilized manner plays into their hands by granting credibility to their pretense of morality when they are nothing but savages seeking to steal whatever they can lay their hands upon.  

I would like to believe that Clarissa is deep down a moral person. Her concern with liberal causes such as abortion suggest that she is. Whatever our differences on practical public policy, we should be able to respect each other. What if I am wrong and this is all a deceitful ploy? Is Clarissa's defense of the needs of the poor really a demand for a cushy academic job for herself? She certainly does not believe that conservative government decisions should be respected. This leaves one to conclude that she has written herself a blank check for government decisions. Submission to government in the absence of absolute values means submission to her. What adds teeth to this view is that Clarissa strongly denounces any attempt to analyze her as if there were something to hide regarding her motives. Furthermore, for a relativist she seems oddly insistent on her own brilliance and is so willing to question the intelligence and even the basic moral decency of those she disagrees with. It is as if relativism stops by the gates of her "great brain" and all the rest of us mere mortals must acknowledge the limits of our mired in relativism intelligence and bow before her one true objective mind.

I enjoy talking to Clarissa precisely because her views are very different from mine. I am not a missionary trying to convert other people to my way of thinking. Rather I honestly seek to understand what motivates them. This means to discover what their underlying consistent moral principles are. If there do not appear to be any this does not mean that there are contradictions; it simply means that for some reason the person wishes to conceal their true values, perhaps even from themselves.