Friday, 28 December 2012

Where do *you* get your morality from?

I was recently made aware of the following "debate" between the Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks and Professor Richard Dawkins, and in particular the schoolboy's question at 59:07:

The question is not a new one, though at least more eloquently expressed than the usual "What's to stop atheists from having an intimate relationship with a 12-year-old?" (WARNING: links to Aish website). For those who can't or won't watch the video (I don't blame you), the question as put by the young man is as follows:
I wouldn't claim that belief in a deity is necessary to have morality, but what I would ask is, surely in the absence of a divine lawgiver, morality loses its intrinsic value - it's not written into the fabric of the universe. You cite the moral zeitgeist argument: surely that deprives morality of any philosophical legitimacy? It's merely a human construct. Why should I be altruistic? Why should I care about anyone else when fundamentally morality has no further value?
Dawkins gives a weary but serviceable answer, referring to the notion of collectively agreed social norms, after which Lord Sacks goes on to give his reply in which he drops a mere two names (very below-par for him - is he ill?) - Sir Bernard Williams and Alasdair MacIntyre.

But - as the questioner alludes - Dawkins has already made the convincing point earlier in his speech on "the moral zeitgeist argument", which can be found from about 32:00. The key argument he makes, which I think is hard to disagree with, is that morality changes broadly across society and a particular ethical stance can more easily be identified by era than by religion. As he summarises from 33:33:
There's far more in common between a liberal, enlightened Jew and a liberal enlightened atheist today, morally speaking, than there is between either of us and somebody two hundred years ago, or even one hundred years ago.  And so, the moral zeitgeist advances historically for non-religious reasons, and religious people and non-religious people advance hand-in-hand, from decade to decade; it's not to do with religion, it's to do with advances in moral philosophy and legal philosophy in the general discourse of society. That's what's changing, that's what gives us our moral values.
This, I think, nicely answers much of what The Chief (whom as a whole I quite like in this debate, if I'm honest) says about "Jewish values". I'm very happy for him to read in contemporary values and interpretations of the ancient texts, and he is right to bang on about subsequent commentaries which have mollified or otherwise transformed those Biblical stories or injunctions which Dawkins takes to be misogynistic, racist, infanticidal and so on. It does, however, seem clear to me that those messages are derived from modern moral norms, and then crowbarred into the Biblical text, rather than being inherent to them. As such, it is disingenuous to describe such values as "Jewish values", except insofar as they are values which (liberal (Liberal?) enlightened (Enlightened?)) Jews have, because they happen to live now and not then.

But as for the question of where moral authority comes from, I cannot understand why religious people - particularly Jews - think this argument helps them. If I follow it through (something they invariably fail to do), I can't help but arrive at a destruction of their belief system, rather than my own (which is too hazy and shapeshifting to destroy anyway, muhahaha).
  1. Let's accept the premise that morality without authority is no good. It changes with the times, it floats in the breeze, it can be changed and rewritten or even left up to individuals to decide for themselves. This would mean that we require an absolute morality, with divine authority, which (as the questioner quite poetically puts it) is "written into the fabric of the universe" (though what that could actually mean I'm not sure).
  2. This morality, then, must be either innate in us, as part of the universe, or communicated to us by its author or some enlightened party. Given that Orthodox Jews hold the Torah to be the absolute and true word of God, it must be the communication - the blueprint - by which we may know morality.
  3. Given that it is directly from God, any conflict between our understanding of morality and the Torah's prescription must indicate a defect in our innate morality
  4. This is troublesome inasmuch as we are created in the image of God, unless we think of our morality as being not innate but dictated by societal norms and pressures (which, according to our premise, is bad).
  5. And yet, any of the things which we consider moral truths are not only not derived from the Bible, but they actually contradict it. Abstract notions like "Love thy neighbour as thyself", or supposed "messages" such as "Don't sacrifice children", cited by The Chief are all well and good, but what about (and it's so obvious I'm almost annoyed that I have to bring it up) slavery? Courtship by rapeExecution for normal adolescent behaviour, genocide, blah blah, take your pick.
  6. So, as Dawkins invites us to ask, if you think those things are morally bad, where do these beliefs come from? You can kick the can down the road by saying that the Oral Law was given at the same time and therefore (in effect, though many would seek to deny this) has authority to overrule the Written Law.
  7. Ultimately, however, a Supreme Code, such as the Torah, is only as authoritative as its interpretation and application. Both of these have been subject to the very changes over time that the religious claim are the main flaw in atheism. Without concessions to those changes in morality over time, the moral standards of our distant (and in some cases not so distant) ancestors would be abhorrent to us all.
Where do theists get their morality from? The same place as the rest of us. The charade of reverse-engineering ancient texts to accommodate modern morality is a bit silly but ultimately no-one else's business. My annoyance is directed at two consequent claims.

First, that society should thank religion for giving them the values which in fact religion derived from society.

Second, that atheists have no authority for their morality, even though religious people simply have (broadly speaking) the same morality, which they pretend came from God.

Sunday, 1 January 2012

"People might not be familiar with that history any more..." - Who Killed Jesus? Fox Wants To Know

You may already have seen the story that Fox in Latin America posted a Facebook poll for Christmas asking the following question, and providing the following possible answers:
Who do you think was responsible for the death of Christ?
A. Pontius Pilate
B. Jewish People
C. High Priests
The influx of complaints is obviously understandable, but one piece of analysis of this funny-but-sad screw-up was utterly ridiculous. It comes from The Young Turks, who uploaded this video:

Yes, you heard correctly.

On the calumny that the Jews killed Jesus, our pundits have the following to say (from 0:49 onwards):

Cenk Uygur:    "Number one, that's what's led to, um, massacres, and then eventually to a Holocaust - partly, not totally, right - but people said, "Ah, the Jews killed Christ". Now, people might not be familiar with that history any more, some people might not, right..." 
Ben Mankiewicz:    "It was like, it was like the main tact [sic] of antisemitism for... 3,000 years."
Here's my question: If I wanted to give Mankiewicz the benefit of the doubt, should I think that he doesn't know when Jesus lived, or that he doesn't understand that it isn't quite logically sound to think that Jews would be accused of killing him prior to that? It can't be that he's mathematically challenged, because he just has to subtract zero from 2011. 2011 - 0 = 2011. Not 3000.

As a helpful reminder to Mankiewicz (not to mention the other anchors), the Common Era is approximately based on Jesus' birth. So, as of today, it has been approximately 2012 years. Now, most (if not all) scholars agree that the projected date is incorrect, but I don't know if any of them think that it's out by 988 years (give or take).

I mean, he even takes a short pause before coming up with the number 3,000 (1:07). It's just so preposterous. And the other two just nod and continue. And I know I'm not crazy, because at the time of posting, there are at least eight YouTube comments picking up on the absurd error.

According to his
biography at the Huffington Post, Mankiewicz "attended Georgetown Day High School, Tufts University and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism". If they weren't going to teach him the most fundamental basics of chronology at such prestigious schools, surely at some point he would have learned the definition of the word "tact"? I assume he meant "tack", though I suppose it could have been "tactic".

Either way, this was an astonishing and embarrassing lapse. To quote Uygur's words at the end of the clip, "It's the most nonsensical thing I've ever heard in my life."

Monday, 19 December 2011

Fiddler on the Roof at Forty and Footnote (Spoilers)

As if my prolonged absence from Blogger and Twitter weren't already deserving of chest-beating enough, during that period of radio silence was a truly significant event that I had hoped to blog about - namely, the fortieth anniversary of the UK release of the film of Fiddler on the Roof (FotR) (December 8 1971). Now, I find most anniversaries and whatever quite silly and generally meaningless, but I was going to use it as a hook to introduce what will (assuming I actually write anything) be a significant part of this blog, i.e. writing about FotR, which I consider to be a true masterpiece, both cinematically/theatrically and Judaically.

I was going to open the run with an examination of the musical's place in a more recent film, Footnote, a stunning piece of Israeli cinema of astonishing sophistication and depth. If you haven't seen the film yet, you may want to delay reading this until you've watched the film. Or just watch the film. I can't stress enough how important it is that you watch the film.

Anyway, FotR features in the film when the family goes to see the musical in Hebrew, and then Prof. Eliezer Schkolnik (the father), who at the beginning of the film had refused a lift in his son's car, happily gets in, humming one of the melodies from the show. I may be leaving myself open to the charge of over-analysing the film, but I believe this small vignette goes to the heart of the theme of academic and cultural worth expressed in the film.

Other critics have picked up on the inclusion of the FotR scene, but to my mind only scratch the surface of the many implications. Kurt Brokaw, it seems to me, is miles off the mark when he says: "there’s Tevye the milkman, striving to maintain a balance between tradition and change, struggling to love his children in a world he trudges into, heavy with doubt." Not only are the last two points, I would argue, complete nonsense (does Tevye struggle to love his children? is he heavy with doubt?) or at least gross simplifications, but I don't think he quite gets the point with his vague and platitudinous "balance between tradition and change". Certainly Footnote does deal with tradition and change, but Brokaw's subsequent points demonstrate that he doesn't understand how the FotR reference enhances it - or, to be less harsh, doesn't sufficiently explore the relevance.

Meanwhile, Niv Shtendel's (superior) article contains the following (excuse the shoddy translation, which is mine):

שנים אחר כך, בחזרה מטקס של האקדמיה למדעים, בוחר האב לחזור הביתה בגפו, בנפרד ממשפחתו. במקרה אחר, כשהמשפחה חוזרת מהצגת תיאטרון ("כנר על הגג" - ישן מפני חדש יוצא ואב שמפיל את סולם ערכיו בפני צאצאיו), סגור האב בתוך עצמו, מפזם לעצמו את אחד משירי ההצגה
Years later, when returning from the ceremony of the Academy of Sciences, the father chooses to return home by himself, separate from his family. On another occasion, when the family is returning from a theatre performance ("Fiddler on the Roof" - the old departs in the face of the new, and the father who drops his value system because of his children), the father shuts himself off, humming to himself one of the songs from the performance.
I absolutely agree with Shtendel here about the specific parallelism of the father forsaking his beliefs in light of his children's behaviour, and I'm amused to note that he picked up on the same echo as I did (from ceremony to performance), but I think he's interpreted the two occasions wrongly in understanding the father's behaviour as the same both times. To me it's clear that the first instance exhibits exactly the alienation and isolation that Shtendel identifies, but the second, surely, is meant to demonstrate a transition. Instead of frowning, he smiles; instead of walking, he rides. Rather than alone, he is squeezed into the car with his family.

For my interpretation, it is crucial to point out that FotR, when it first came out, was panned by high-brow critics for being sentimental and vulgar. Stephen J. Whitfield of Brandeis has compiled here quite a comprehensive list: Cynthia Ozick deemed it "naive [and] pre-modern"; Robert Brustein, in a metaphor of which Shkolnick Sr. might be proud, pronounced that the play "bears about the same relation to its source as unleavened cocktail wafers do to Passover matzoth"; to Irving Howe, it was a "tasteless jumble", which almost is the metaphor used by the older Shkolnick when describing his son's work.

We would expect Eliezer Shkolnick, the serious philologist, to despise FotR as a bastardisation of the original short stories of Sholom Aleichem, which were proper literature. FotR (he might think) is to those acclaimed Yiddish stories as Professor Uriel Shkolnick's (the son's) scholarship is to his father's work: dumbed down, generalised, popularised, smoothed out, spoon-fed.

But, like Tevye in FotR, the father of the Shkolnik family abandons his old belief that the Israel Prize is worthless, and takes on his son's belief that it is indeed a huge honour. Previously as intractable and stubborn as Tevye, he now, like Tevye at the end of FotR, accepts the supplanting of his own value system (you will remember that Tevye says, "And God be with you" to his daughter, despite claiming that she was dead to him).

Here's the juicy part: that last scene, where Tevye accepts Chava, is only in the stage and film adaptations. Sholom Aleichem's stories contain no such acceptance. That is, in fact, one of the key examples given by critics when slating the adaptation as a sentimentalisation and distortion of the source material. So the very parallelism between Eliezer's and Tevye's respective yieldings to the new world order exists only because of the transition that Sholom Aleichem's Tevye has undergone. This is a new Shkolnik, just as FotR portrays a new Tevye. His capitulation is encapsulated by his humming of the tune in the car, by his decision to get in the car rather than keep himself separate - by his preference of the easier mode of transport, riding over walking.

To conclude, the scenes involving FotR in Footnote are key to understanding Eliezer's character progression as a gradual selling out of his supposed principles, exposing the high-minded statements (especially as made to the journalist) as mere posturing. He has made the transition from Sholom Aleichem's Tevye to Broadway's Tevye, but shows no self-awareness regarding the change.

As further food for thought, mull over these quotations from FotR (which, may I remind you, I consider to be a spectacular work, and by far my favourite musical):

If I were rich, I'd have the time that I lack,
To sit in the synagogue and pray,
And maybe have a seat by the Eastern Wall
And I'd discuss the Holy Books with the learned men
Seven hours every day
And that would be the sweetest thing of all...

They would ask me to advise them,
Like Solomon the Wise
If you please Reb Tevye...
Pardon me, Reb Tevye...
Posing problems that would cross a rabbi's eyes!
And it won't make one bit of difference,
If I answer right or wrong:
When you're rich, they think you really know.

For Papa, make him a scholar,
For Mama, make him rich as a king...

Monday, 28 November 2011

The Definition of Censorship - Doublepluscharedi

There has been lots of discussion in the blogs and on Twitter recently of schools "not encouraging discretionary internet use" even for their students' parent, burning cell phones in a Chareidi Israeli yeshiva, and most recently the "war on technology" implied by some speakers at the Agudah convention.

In Britain, as reported by the Jewish Chronicle, the great organ of the British Jewish community, and as commented on by Geoffrey Alderman, the great organ of the Jewish Chronicle, the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations has published a dictionary that omits any problematic words. I hope to get access to the dictionary at some point, and write a fuller post on some of the words that are missing, but as Alderman notes, a child would look in vain for the words "homosexual" and "prostitute".

This is, quite simply, the most horrific story I've ever heard of coming out of the Charedi world. It's one thing to try to limit people's access to ideas and information, but as Orwell made abundantly clear in his masterpiece 1984, the truest form of censorship is when one seeks to limit the very vocabulary with which they can discuss and disseminate ideas and information. If one has no knowledge of the word "homosexual", it surely follows that one cannot be homosexual! (One can be "gay", but only in the way that is a mitzveh gedoileh.) No bochur will ever visit a prostitute again, because he won't even know that such a thing exists! This is as preposterous as it is disturbing.

This is surely the logical, indeed the inevitable result of the totalitarian trend within the Charedi world. And just as we are encouraged to do when reading 1984, and Brave New World, and Fahrenheit 451 (and so on), we have to stop and wonder exactly how the redactors (if that's not too dirty a word), the "team of Charedi rabbis" knew what to censor. To illustrate the point, and in conclusion, I will quote that great British Jew, Christopher Hitchens, who in a speech on free expression (with transcription, quoted below) related the following anecdote (often quoted, but here I think particularly apt):
About the censorious instinct: we basically know already what we need to know, and we’ve known it for a long time, it comes from an old story about another great Englishman – sorry to sound particular about that this evening – Dr Samuel Johnson, the great lexicographer, complier of the first great dictionary of the English language. When it was complete, Dr Johnson was waited upon by various delegations of people to congratulate him. Of the nobility, of equality, of the Commons, of the Lords and also by a delegation of respectable ladies of London who attended on him in his Fleet Street lodgings and congratulated him. 
"Dr Johnson," they said, "We are delighted to find that you’ve not included any indecent or obscene words in your dictionary." 
"Ladies," said Dr Johnson, "I congratulate you on being able to look them up."
Hat tip IfYouTickleUs, who has a photo of the back cover - particularly amusing is the claim that "Pronunciation guides show the correct way that words are to be spoken".

P.S. That Samuel Johnson story is all very witty, but on second thoughts I also want to repeat the classic (British?) joke about censorship and obscenity:

What is obscene?
Whatever gives the Rabbi Judge a hard-on.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Let whoever is without sin post the first video

Many Jewish blogs have been gleefully playing this clip of brawling Lebanese politicos:

...along with other videos of similar events in the past, presumably because they reckon it reveals a fundamental lack of civilisation among the Ayrabs, citing other similar occurrences. Notwithstanding the fact that similar political fights, in supposedly civilised contexts such as debates on television and in parliament, have broken out in the Ukraine, South Korea, Russia, Italy, India, Pakistan, Czech Republic, the United States of America and, of course, lest we forget, Israel, in this post I want to discuss some of the instances of Jewish and rabbinic violence that we know about, which might give some of these cheery gloaters some pause for thought.

There are a couple of examples of the stresses of Jewish communal life leading to an outbreak of violence, such as the scuffle that took place in Chicago in November 1903 due to tensions between Rabbis Album and Willowsky, or the one that necessitated summoning the police in Manhattan in 1906, surrounding the ambitions of Rabbi Weinberger (both reported in 'Orthodox Judaism in America: A Biographical Dictionary and Sourcebook'). And lest you think these fights are a thing of the past, almost exactly a year ago, a fight broke out in San Francisco between left-wing and right-wing Israel activists.

But what I want to talk about is the literary precedent for violence in the Jewish canon. The Biblical stories of Pinchas' vigilantism, the people's lynching of the Sabbath-stick-collector and so on provide plenty of examples of violence in the Bible where perhaps words might have been preferable (or, as in the case of Abram's and Leo's shepherds quarrelling, a parting of ways). But in the Talmud, surely, where discussion and debate are prized above all things, we wouldn't find such barbarism?

Would that it were so. One example of a crisis resolved by violence comes in b.Nedarim 23a:
R. Ishmael son of R. Jose had a vow for absolution. He went before the Rabbis, who asked him, ‘Did you vow bearing this in mind?’ ‘Even so,’ replied he. ‘Or this?’ ‘Yes.’ This was repeated several times. A fuller, seeing that he was paining the Rabbis, smote him with his basket.
In fact, the continuation of this passage implies that people who annoyed Rabbis ended up getting smitten on a fairly regular basis (in this case, it just so happened that the smitee was a Rabbi himself):
Said he, ‘I did not vow to be beaten by a fuller,’ and so he absolved himself. R. Aha of Difti objected to Rabina: But this was an unexpected fact, as it had not occurred to him that a fuller would smite him, and we learnt: An unexpected fact may not be given as an opening? — He replied: This is not unexpected, because scoffers are common who vex the Rabbis.*
*And as their adherents naturally try to punish them, the incident could have been anticipated, and therefore is not regarded as unexpected
(Soncino translation and notes)

Ah, but that wasn't a Rabbi doing the smiting, it was a fuller doing the smiting on the Rabbis' behalf! Alright, what about this cute little anecdote from b.Avodah Zarah 43a:
Rabbah b. Bar Hanah said in the name of R. Joshua b. Levi: I was once walking with the eminent R. Eleazar Hakkappar along the road, and he found a ring upon which was the figure of a dragon. There passed by a heathen child but he said nothing to him. Then there passed by an adult heathen and [R. Eleazar] said to him, ‘Annul it,’ but he refused to do so; and he struck him until he annulled it.
(Here's the context)

Ah, but that was a Rabbi striking a heathen! You have to understand it in the context of the time, and so on. Presumably the same defence would stand even if the "heathen" in question wishes to become a proselyte, as does the chap in b.Shabbat 31a who ends up on the receiving end of Shammai's "builder's cubit". Very well, what about a Rabbi murdering another Rabbi, at b.Megillah 7b?
Rabbah and R. Zera joined together in a Purim feast. They became mellow, and Rabbah arose and cut R. Zera's throat. On the next day he prayed on his behalf and revived him. Next year he said, Will your honour come and we will have the Purim feast together. He replied: A miracle does not take place on every occasion.
(pdf this time)

Ah, but he was drunk! Haven't we all done things when drunk which we go on to regret and which make our friends less inclined to come drink with us? Rabbis are still human you know (although some of them do get resurrected)! I see you are a tricky customer. Perhaps this (Hagigah 3b) will set your teeth on edge:
Once R. Jose b. Durmaskith went to pay his respects to R. Eliezer at Lod. Said the latter to him: What new thing was taught in College today? He replied: They decided by vote that in Ammon and Moab the tithe of the poor should be given in the seventh year. Said [R. Eliezer] to him: Jose, stretch forth thine hands and lose thy sight. He stretched forth his hands and lost his sight.
 (Here's the Soncino (pdf), with some helpful notes)

Don't worry, R. Eliezer later has a change of heart and another miracle restores R. Jose's sight. More recently, R. Eliezer has been offered the position of Head of Campus Police at UC Davis. BOOM!

For an excellent and enlightening discussion of violence (mostly violent rhetoric) in the Babylonian Talmud, you could do a lot worse than to have a look at the chapter titled Violence in Jeffrey L. Rubenstein's 'The Culture of the Babylonian Talmud'.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011


To the reader from the United Arab Emirates. Please come again, and make sure to tell your friends.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Mosaic Economic Theory: Egypt, Newcastle, Owls and the Competitive Marketplace

תבן אתה מכניס לעפריים

‘Wouldst thou carry straw to Hafaraim?’*
* … Hafaraim was a town where apparently there was a plentiful supply of straw, and so it became proverbial to describe wasted efforts as ‘carrying straw to Hafaraim’.

So ask Pharaoh’s magicians, Johana and Mamre, to Moses according to b.Menachot 85a, thinking that he was another magician coming to flaunt his wares in a saturated market. This may call to mind the British expression (I don’t know whether those from elsewhere will be familiar with it) of sending “coals to Newcastle” (a parallel actually mentioned both in the Soncino notes and by James Kugel in Traditions of the Bible). Newcastle was until fairly recently (see: Billy Elliot) a huge producer and exporter of coal, hence the pointlessness of taking coal there.

There is also a Greek expression, “γλαῦκ' Ἀθήναζε, γλαῦκ' εἰς  Ἀθήνας”, which literally means “owls to Athens”, but is interestingly translated idiomatically by the lexicon Liddell and Scott as “carry coals to Newcastle”.  Apparently, there is furthermore an American version: selling ice to the Eskimos.  But Moses replies with an idiom of his own:
אמר להו אמרי אינשי למתא ירקא ירקא שקול
He answered them, ‘There is a common saying. "Bring herbs to Herbtown".’
This is a market metaphor – that is to say, it makes sense (says Moses) to take herbs to a place where herbs are sold, because (says Soncino) “all merchants flock there and the demand for herbs is great”, turning the original jibe on its head.  They say it’s stupid to take straw to Hafaraim, because there is no demand for straw there; Moses says the opposite, that the very fact that there is such a supply means that the demand will flock there.

To relate these proverbs to the actual situation, the magicians scoff at Moses for bringing more magic to a region full of magicians – Moses understands, however, that the implication of that is that there is a great demand for magic.  Unlike coal in Newcastle or straw in Hafaraim, magic is not a good that is exported from Egypt (in this case) but consumed in Egypt.  The fact that there is already a great deal of magic there means that Moses’ (apparent) utilisation of that form of communication is firstly a bid to engage his audience (Egyptians) on familiar cultural ground, and secondly a declaration of entry into the competitive marketplace, trusting in the superiority of his brand of “magic”.

If your ice is better quality, why not sell it to the Eskimos?