July 31, 2007

(Reb Yudel)

Shalom, Carmy: A Confrontation

One must judge one's teachers on the balance of merit. So I can assume that Rabbi Shalom Carmy -- who I considered my rebbe when I was an undergraduate at Yeshiva College in the 1980s -- has decided to place his role of pedagogue before that of essayist, and has couched utter nonsense behind eloquent and nuanced words to test whether we are now, and have been, paying attention.

I refer to R' Carmy's comments on the Feldman affair; that is, the New York Times Magazine essay written by Noam Feldman concerning his  relationship to the modern Orthodoxy of his youth. It is an essay that clearly hit a sore spot in the Orthodox community, and is worth responding to on that basis. Such a response will have to wait; this is rather a reading and an analysis of R' Carmy's response.

After discussing the general question of graduates who embrace a different orientation than their alma mater might have preferred, R' Carmy engages in a halachic question raised by Feldman, namely, the propriety of violating the Sabbath to save the life of a gentile.

R' Carmy writes:

"Where people understand that religion may on occasion make life and death demands, the law that Shabbat is so important that it is overridden only for those who are members of the community that observes it is difficult but not scandalous. In our culture this understanding is lacking; thus the failure to treat Jews and Gentiles identically will be interpreted as indifference to the fate of the non-Jew, and will be perceived as tantamount to connivance in his death."

Clearly, R' Carmy is challenging us with the clear absurdity of that statement.

For one thing, our American culture (I assume this is the culture that our teacher refers to, in light of his use of recent American political history as a primary frame of reference in the essay's opening) indeed understands that religion makes life and death demands. (See, for example, the starving Pilgrims of the Mayflower Compact; Harriet Beecher Stowe's incitement against slavery; and Mohammad Atta's suicide flight.)

American culture does not lack understanding that religion may make life and death demands. In fact, American culture, rooted as it is in Christianity and its founding myths of crucifixition and martyrs, has deep sympathy with those who accept the demands of religion even unto death. What America does lack, of course, is sympathy with those who wish to kill others in the service of God.

R' Carmy's willful misreading of American religious sympathies serves to highlight how ridiculous this paragraph is. (That it is taken at face value by learned and knowledgable commentators such as Gil Student and Jefrey Woolf indicate either the pressures on bloggers to post without properly contemplating the contents of what they read or write, or, most likely, that R' Carmy has let them in on the joke.)

The sheer silliness of R' Carmy's statement, that is, the impossibility of taking it at face value, can be seen by translating it slightly from the point of reference generated by Noah Feldman to a historical Christian context:
"When people understand that religion may on occasion make life and death demands, the law that Jews and others who teach false doctrines must be put to death is difficult but not scandalous. In our culture this understanding is lacking; thus, the failure to treat Christians and heathens identically will be interpreted as indifference to the fate of the non-Christian, and will be perceived as tantamount to connivance in his death."

Is R' Carmy lamenting the fact that we no longer live in the culture of Inquisitions, Crusades and Dhimmihood? Is he -- less than a week after Tisha b'Av -- mourning the end of the medieval culture whose cruelties spawned so many kinnot?

Such an interpretation is impossible.

What we are to understand -- again, reading this section of the essay together with the essay's earlier references to "contemporary liberals" -- is that the core liberal values of modernity are not rebutted by the possible excesses of contemporary culture and contemporary liberalism. Where political standards and allegiances may waver, the modern universalism that demands that all be treated equally is a timeless corollary of humanity's genesis in the image of God. Through masterful indirection, R' Carmy warns us to resist the temptation, understandable in this contemporary world of narcisstic heiresses and corrupt government officials, to turn our back on the world and universalism. R' Carmy is reminding us of what his teacher (and ours) wrote in the essay "Confrontation":
"The Westernized Jew maintains that it is impossible to engage in both confrontations, the universal and the covenantal, which, in his opinion, are mutually exclusive."
But of course, Rav Soloveitchik z'l teaches, it is a mistake to think we have to choose between being human beings or Jews. Where others see contradiction or paradox, the Rav sees a dialectic and the acceptence of multiplicity. We are human beings (Adam I) and we are Jews (Adam II). The Rav implies that our contemporary engagement within the world is not a bidieved adjustment to the conditions of modernity; rather, our exclusion and ghettoization was a necessary, yet bidieved, adjustment to external oppression. (This thrust of "Confrontation," which we might characterize today as anti-Haredi, has been too little noted by polemicists on both sides of the Haredi/Modern-Orthodox divide.)

That Noah Feldman's teacher at Maimonides -- whose status as "the Rav's school" grants it an importance in our communal conversation closer to Volozhin or Slobodka than an American out-of-town yeshiva high school -- failed to understand this clearly caused R' Carmy as much pain as it did Feldman. (Cf. Rabbi Gerald Blidstein's report that when the Rav was asked whether he was morally satisfied with the prudential mipnei eiva justification for saving a Gentile's life on the Sabbath, "he answered flatly 'no.' ")

Hashem emet ushmo emet, God is true and his name is Truth, so when R' Carmy resorts to dishonest weasel words, we are again challenged to read closely to find the true, perhaps even esoteric, meaning in the passage which I will repeat, only this time with the clues in bold:
"...the failure to treat Jews and Gentiles identically will be interpreted as indifference to the fate of the non-Jew, and will be perceived as tantamount to connivance in his death."

R' Carmy here is warning us strongly against the temptation to retreat into a defensive relativism. It is easy to ignore Rav Soloveitchik's teachings and barricade ourselves inside a parochial community where the cries of the Other are received by us only as "interpretations" and "perceptions." Ignoring what it means to worship a God whose name is Truth, we can fall prey to the temptation of the ad hominem fallacy, of dismissing a critique because of its source, whether it be a wounded Muslim, an existentialist Christian, or even an embittered alum.

We want to ignore the truth of criticism leveled against us, but particularly those coming from outside our comfortable circle of family, friends, and fellow travellers. Their objections, we are inclined to argue, are only the misguided "interpretations" and "perceptions" of an outsider; were he on the inside, he would understand the truth of our self-evident virtue and rightness. Wounded by criticism he fails -- to again borrow language from "Confrontation" -- to appreciate the ezer of the k'negdo.

For indeed, it is not just an "interpretation" and a "perception," but rather the obvious and correct truth that "the failure to treat Jews and Gentiles identically" (as regards Sabbath rescues) is "indifference to the fate of the non-Jew" and "tantamount to connivance in his death.

(One might be able to apply a more charitable interpretation to the Christian formulation I invented, as our Christian persecutors often claimed that their indifference to Jewish lives simply reflected their profound concern for the ultimate fate of Jewish souls.)

So R' Carmy clearly means for us to understand that we cannot hide behind fancy rhetoric or be distracted by "forced displays of cleverness and provocation" in confronting moral issues. Whatever the hermeneutical problems posed by saving a gentile on the Sabbath, the practical moral imperative to do so was equally clear to Hazal and contemporary poskim. (See blogger Menachem Mendel for a neat analysis; see also Gil Student's lengthy explication of relevant sources, an article alas deeply flawed because, no doubt to avoid self-promotion, he forgot to apply the complex of meta-halachic values summarized in the mitzvah of ve-asita ha-yasher v'hatov [on which see Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits z"l, Not in Heaven, p.26]).

The masters of mussar remind us that those who worry for their own souls and their neighbors' belly are righteous, while those who worry for their own belly and their neighbors' souls are wicked. One might question the logic of this; after all, a crass utilitarianism might suggest that since my neighbors' souls outnumber mine, I can do more ultimate good by improving their many souls than I can by fixing my lone soul. As framed by Rav Soloveitchik, this is no problem; because, ultimately, our "inner recesses" are locked in "ontological seclusion." Except insofar as we can form a true community of equals -- what a professor of English might be tempted to call "the marriage of true minds" -- the burdens of each other's souls, unlike the burdens of each other's bodies, cannot be understood, let alone shared.

R' Carmy alludes to this distinction, fundamental to a "grown-up" religious life, when he distinguishes between a law that is "difficult" and one that is "scandalous."

 When religious law prohibits me from taking an aspirin on the Sabbath, R' Carmy clearly means us to understand, that is indeed difficult, not scandalous. But when it prohibits me from offering you an aspirin -- that it is not difficult! Your headache does not disturb my Sabbath rest. Yet such a law is indeed scandalous, and woe to the culture that is not scandalized by such a law! (To those who would insist on taking the immature attitude toward the law, let me ask: When I fulfill a Divine command to refrain from saving someone else's life, how much of my Heavenly reward must I share with the gentile whose misfortune has enabled me to demonstrate my righteousness?) While I can well empathize with the youthful, immature desire to "transcend the ethical" as a self-styled "knight of faith," mature reflection makes clear that Emmanuel Levinas was correct to denounce "Kierkegaardian violence," with its violence, passion and amoralism.

R' Carmy's essay, therefore, has pointed us toward Levinas, and the understanding that the ethical must not be left behind in the religious life; rather, the ethical is sanctified. From a Jewish perspective, of course, the religious life is a halachic life, and here the teachings of R' Berkovits (as well as the Talmudic readings of Levinas) make clear that halacha comes to sanctify ethics.

One could indeed summarize this whole argument by noting that "Shalom" is a sacred name of God. (One naturally assumes that our teacher R' Carmy would have concluded his essay in such a fashion, were he not sensitive -- perhaps overly so -- to appearing self-serving with this declaration.)

The failure of Maimonides to teach this to Feldman -- the failure of the Rav's school to reflect the Rav's teachings -- shows that the issue at hand should not be Feldman's "Orthodox paradox"; rather, it is a very real Orthodox disgrace.

To sum up: It is not a "paradox" that Noam Feldman was taught this pernicious and false doctrine of letting the gentile die for the good of the Jew's soul; it is a disgrace. The failure of the Rav's school to embody the Rav's teachings is indeed the real scandal we need be concerned about, not the Stalinist actions of a petty editor with a trigger-happy finger on his airbrush. It is a disgrace that the fundamental teaching that "Shalom" is a sacred name of God was not at the forefront of the Maimonides curriculum in the 1980s. One can leave it to the professional educators to debate whether it should have been taught through the Talmudic sources; through Berkovits' meta-halachic legal analysis; or through a close reading of the Rav's profound, thoughtful essays. I suspect that all are necessary.

Meanwhile, we should all be grateful to Feldman for bringing this ubiquitous, shallow teaching to the forefront of our attention; indeed, this is the true scandal of Orthodox indifference. And we should be grateful as well for R' Carmy in resisting the temptation to come out and say so forthrightly, instead leaving us clues of fuzzy logic and vacuous reasoning designed to force us to conclude on our own -- not on appeal to his or other authority -- that there is ultimately no rational alternative to the understanding of halacha promoted by R' Berkvoits. In so doing, R' Carmy has not only proved that his writings demand a close reading; he has proven that my teacher's mastery of pedagogy has only redoubled since I had the privilege of sitting in his classroom many years ago.

July 16, 2007

(Reb Yudel)

Ronit Meroz teases out multiple authors in the Zohar

The inaugural issue of the Journal for the Study of Sephardic and Mizrahi Jewry Israeli features an article by Ronit Meroz entitled "The Middle Eastern Origins of Kabbalah" in which the Kabbalah scholar unearths old texts buried within the Zohar. The whole article is recommended reading. Here's the conclusion:

In conclusion, in this article we have identified the characteristics of a period of transition situated between the era of Heikhalot literature and the era of Kabbalah. We have defined two texts that belong to this transitional era – The Midrash of R. Isaac and the Babylonian stratum of the Book Bahir, both of which were probably written in the Moslem Middle East. We discovered no new texts, but we were able to identify existing texts as belonging to an era preceding the Kabbalah that were then assimilated into later works such as the Zohar and the Book Bahir. Consequently, if as we have claimed a bilingual unit of the Zohar was written in the 11th century, whereas most of the Zohar was written in the 13th, the thesis of multiple-authorship would be significantly strengthened. Moreover, by paying attention to the characteristics of these two texts – angelology, intense interest in the Shekhinah, special interest in the World to Come and a Gnostic view of Wisdom's fall (an idea found only in the
Babylonian branch) – we may identify the connection between these two eras and understand how Kabbalah, starting in the 12th century, grew out of this infrastructure. The 'subterranean levels' that constitute the origins of Kabbalah now seem to shine through from within the famous and known texts--like apples of gold in a filigree of silver.
Read the whole 18-page PDF here

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July 15, 2007

(Reb Yudel)

Two varieties of religious fanatic

Courtesy of the fine evolutionary biologists at Pharyngula, we present for your viewing pleasure two spieces of religious fanatic.

The first is Michael Korn. On his blog, he tells his story like this:

I was born in America, moved to Israel after graduating from Harvard, enlisted in the Ba'al Teshuva movement, and joined a Messianic Chassidic cult (Breslov) from 1990-1999.

So far, the story may sound familiar. An Ivy League grad Ba'al Teshuva, class of '83. Then the story takes a turn:
Through the help of South African missionaries, I came to see that Jesus is the Jewish Messiah and Saviour of the World. I was baptized in a natural spring in the Israeli Galilee outside of the famous mystical city of Safed on 20 June 2000, and now I seek to introduce Jewish people to Jesus Christ, their Messiah whom they don't yet know.

Given this turn, perhaps its no surprise that in three months of blog postings, he begins as staunchly anti-Zionist and pro-muslim -- blaming 9/11 on Zionists, and Zionism on kabbalah -- until he reads a book which convinces him that Zionism is indeed God's plan, and Islam is indeed the enemy.

Given his tendency toward rapid hair-pin theological turns, one might wonder how tightly his head is screwed on.

Not too tightly, if one is to believe the allegations in the Daily Colorodan tht Korn is the person who has been sending threatening letters to biologists at the University of Colorado in Denver.

According to the notes,

“every true Christian should be ready and willing to take up arms to kill the enemies of Christian society.”

“EBIO (evolutionary biology) professors are terrorists against America and -- intellectual and spiritual child abusers of their young and impressionable students -- the EBIO department not only blasphemes God, who is invisible, but it blasphemes His Only Begotten Son and our Messiah, Jesus Christ, which is more unforgivable -- for all these reason all God-fearing and Truth-loving persons must say, They must go!”

But if Korn is the off-the-wall-crackpot sort of religious fanatic, he has succeeded in bringing out a similar, yet more dangerous, type of religious fanaticism from the fraudulent fellows at the Discovery Institute.

This is the type when confronted with a fellow religious fanatic who actually imagines carrying their religious beliefs to their logical yet criminal conclusion simply denies that the crime occured.

We've seen that happen with the belief of Muslims that the 9/11 hijacking "must" have been carried out by Israelis, because Muslims would "never do such a thing."

And we've seen the revsionist accounts by Baruch Goldstein's admirers that he could not have been guilty of the massacre he committed.

And now, the Discovery Institute's Robert Crowther offers a rare opportunity to see this mentality in action:

Something just doesn't smell right about this story.

The Denver Post reports:

University of Colorado police are investigating a series of threatening messages and documents e-mailed to and slipped under the door of evolutionary biology labs on the Boulder campus.

If true, it is of course reprehensible. But where's the evidence that the perps are actually creationists, or religious at all?

According to Boulder Police:

"It basically said anybody who doesn't believe in our religious belief is wrong and should be taken care of."

As one colleague pointed out, that is hardly the way religious believers refer to their own belief system. Rarely do Christian groups refer to their own “religious beliefs” — it is mainly secularists who refer to beliefs with the modifier “religious.”

In all the years of the ongoing evolution debates, nothing like this has ever happened that I've heard of, at least not from creationists. When such things have happened in the past, it was a Darwinist who claimed to be physically attacked by creationists. Remember Paul Mirecki at University of Kansas? (Need to jog your memory? Here, here, and here.)

I suspect that if these guys are ever caught, they won't turn out be creationists, or even very religious people.

A couple of interesting pointers to the level of intellectual discourse promulgated by the Discovery Institute.

For one, Crowther relied on the language of the police summary of the letter, rather than the actual letter itself, to dismiss the possibility of it coming from someone sympathetic to his own anti-evolution agenda.

For another, as Pharyngula pointed out, the phrase "religious beliefs" is indeed used by religious groups... and in fact can be found on the Discovery Institute web site.

And finally, of course, is the fact that Cowther's speculations here turned out to be simply, and objectively, wrong.

July 6, 2007

(Reb Yudel)

Bush: With great irresponsibility and unpopularity comes great power

The Invincible President | The American Prospect

Bush, as has so often been remarked, is a uniter, not a divider. He has united the country against him. But he has found power in division, in lonesomeness, in unpopularity. He realized that a narrow loss in the 2000 election meant he didn't need to govern so as to retain a robust majority. He understood that legislation didn't need as many votes as possible, it merely required as many votes as necessary. And he figured out that a lame duck president who polls in the 20s need never make another compromise -- and so need never kowtow to a disagreeable electorate.

This will be his legacy, as it was, in the end, his genius. While Nixon famously pursued the Southern strategy because he realized that if he broke the country into pieces, his piece would be bigger, Bush broke the country into pieces, and embraced the smaller half, and then a mere quarter. He made the executive branch the minority party, and in doing, freed himself from many of the constraints of democracy. Truly, he has achieved a Machiavellian enlightenment, a state of perfect zen-like detachment from democracy.

July 5, 2007

(Reb Yudel)

The innocent people that Bush didn't pardon

Poor Scooter Libby. Caught in a perjury trap. He lied to protect his boss, and almost went to jail.

Oh, the sad lot of loyal Republicans.

Unfortunately, not everyone who needs a pardon from George W. Bush is a Republican operative. In fact, as Governor of Texas, Bush had the blood of innocents on his hands: People who the police came to believe were innocent.... but were among the 152 people executed by Gov. George Bush. Here are some of their stories, courtesy of Obsidian Wings:

Here's the short version: Serving twelve years for a rape that DNA testing shows you didn't commit does not get you a pardon. Being represented by a lawyer who slept through large chunks of the trial does not get you a pardon. Being convicted of murder in proceedings that a court-appointed special master describes as ""a breakdown of the adversarial process" caused by the incompetence of your lawyer does not get you a pardon, even when someone else confesses on tape to the murder you were convicted of. Likewise, when someone else confesses to the murder you were convicted of and you ask for a stay of execution in order to conduct tests that will establish your innocence, no dice. And when you are unquestionably incompetent to assist in your own defense but no one seems to take that fact into account, or tells the jury, that's just too bad. None of these sentences are in any way excessive, as far as George W. Bush is concerned.
That's the overview. And if you, like me, lacked the moral clarity to flee the country and stop paying Bush's salary, if you, like me, are partner in Bush's crimes through failure to water the tree of liberty as it needs to be watered in our day and age, then the least you can do is read the sad details of how much blood Bush had on his hands before moving to, and indelibly soiling, the White House.

(Reb Yudel)

Libby Pardon: Obstruction of Justice? Or simply typical Bush morality?

Go read Digby:

Like so many Republicans, Bush apparently lacks the capacity to think in the abstract. He only found the sentencing guideline "harsh" when it was someone he knew personally. The 152 people whose death warrants he gave a cursory glance to before signing off on the day of their execution weren't exactly members of his social circle, so why bother?

On the other hand, isn't it far more likely that what he spent weeks worrying about was how to keep skittish little Scooter from spilling his guts if he failed to beat the rap --- and the NY Times just regurgitated a huge bucket of spin? Yeah, I thought so too.