Monthly Archives: June 2011

Michael Waltzer —“On Humanitarianism” and Maimonides

Michael Waltzer has an article in the current issue of Foreign Affairs that argues for humanitarian aid to other countries using Maimonides’ laws of tzedakah. He both using tzedakah as a model for international aid and as a casuistic model for deciding what to do. He makes a distinction in tzedakah between the coerced collection of the money and the effect in creating justice. This article contributes to Jewish ethical thought since we lack articles on contemporary issuesin Jewish philosophic ethics, which was a neglected topic for the last few decades of legal reasoning. Back in the 1960’s Prof Isadore Twersky wrote “Tzedakah: Some Aspects of the Jewish Attitude Toward the Welfare State” in Tradition 5 (1963) showing the Jewish support for the welfare state made a different distinction in Maimonides law of tzedakah distinguishing between the virtue of justice and the social effect of justice.
If we wanted to provide an alternative to Waltzer and they had to work with a Jewish text, would Rawls or Nozick read Maimonides differently or pick a different Jewish text to work with. Those who are now working with Levinas would not approach the topic via Maimonides.

On Humanitarianism

Individuals send contributions to charitable organizations when there is a humanitarian crisis, and then these organizations rush trained aid workers into the zone of danger and desperate need. But governments also send help, spending tax money that is coercively collected rather than freely given. Are individual citizens free not to give? Are governments free not to act? Does it matter whether the money is a gift or a tax?

I have been puzzling over these kinds of questions in the course of helping edit a volume in the series The Jewish Political Tradition, one dealing with, among other things, charity and taxation — giving and taking. It should be easy to distinguish the two, shouldn’t it? Individuals give, freely and spontaneously; the state takes, with threats and penalties. Yet it turns out that the distinction is not so easy to make. The difficulty is signaled by the Hebrew word tzedakah, which is commonly translated as “charity” but which comes from the same root as the word for “justice.” This suggests that charity is not only good but also right. The same message is conveyed by the Hebrew word mitzvah, which in the Bible means “commandment” but has come colloquially to mean “a good deed” or “an act of human kindness” — although still something that you have to do.

And so the medieval philosopher Maimonides argued, following Talmudic precedents, that insofar as Jewish communities in the Diaspora had coercive power, they could legitimately force their members to give tzedakah. The kahal, the autonomous or semiautonomous Diaspora community, could compel people to give what they were supposed to give freely, and it still counted as a charitable gift. It was distinct (although often hard to distinguish) from the taxes imposed, usually by the gentile overlord, which were levied on individuals by the Jewish rulers of the kahal, the tovei ha-ir (the good men of the city).

In the Jewish tradition, this view of tzedakah as an expression of justice was sometimes described in theological language. The idea is that God has heard and responded to the cries of the poor and, in principle at least, has given them what they need. You may possess some part of what they need, but you possess it only as an agent of God, and if you do not pass it on to the poor, if you do not contribute, say, to the communal charity fund, you are robbing the poor of what in fact already belongs to them. The negative act of not contributing is a positive theft. And since theft is unjust, you are acting not only uncharitably but also unjustly by not giving — which is why coerced tzedakah is legitimate. I called this a theological argument, but it is possible even for nonbelievers to accept that, in some sense, it is true and right. Or nonbelievers can translate the argument into secular language: some part of everyone’s wealth belongs to the political community, which makes economic activity and peaceful accumulation possible — and it can and should be used to promote the well-being of all the members of the community.

Fundraising in the contemporary Diaspora still partakes of this two-in-one character. I celebrated my bar mitzvah in 1948 in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. That year, my parents brought me with them, as a new member of the community, to the annual banquet of the United Jewish Appeal (UJA), the main fundraising event on the Johnstown Jewish calendar. The year 1948 was a critical one, and every Jew in town was there; no one really had a choice about whether or not to come. There was a speaker from New York who talked with great emotion about the founding of Israel, the war that was then going on, and the desperate needs of the refugees waiting in Europe. Pledge cards were distributed, filled out at the table, and then put in an envelope and passed to the head of the table. There sat the owner of one of the biggest stores in town — let’s call him Sam Shapiro. Sam knew everybody else’s business: who was doing well and who was not, who was paying college tuition for their children, who had a sick mother, who had recently made a loan to a bankrupt brother, who had money to spare. He opened each envelope, looked at the pledge, and if he thought that it was not enough, he tore the card in half and passed it back down the table. That is how the Jews of Johnstown raised money, without a Jewish state, without — or supposedly without — coercive power. Was that charity, or was it the functional equivalent of taxation? Was it giving, or was it taking? Tzedakah signals something of both.

But what should be done with the money collected? What does it mean to address the needs of the poor? This, too, is a question not only of charity but also of justice. Maimonides has a famous discussion of the eight levels of tzedakah, but only two need concern us here. The highest form of charitable giving, he wrote, is to set up a poor man in business or in work of some sort, to make him independent. This is the height of tzedakah because it recognizes and respects the dignity of the person who is being helped — which is also, obviously, a requirement of justice.


This is the context in which we have to think about humanitarianism, which cannot in the circumstances of statelessness be a freely chosen gift, which has to respond to urgency and need. It is like tzedakah: if it does not connect with justice, it will not be what it should be. Religious men and women can reasonably think that God has already determined what we owe to the global poor, and the sick, and the hungry, and that our task is just to figure it out. And secular men and women can acknowledge that whether or not God exists, this is not a bad way of thinking about these things.

But even when driven by religious motives, humanitarianism is a political project. And because it is, it carries risks with it that are not usually associated with charitable work. Indeed, recent literature on humanitarian aid suggests that the work can go very badly when its organizers are not politically informed, committed to justice, and ready to make prudential calculations. You can, for example, deliver aid in ways that bring in new predators to feed on the provisions and resources intended for the poor, or you can insist on the military or police forces necessary to keep the predators out. You can act through governments that are often corrupt, or you can send your own people into the zones of need and danger and work directly with local individuals and groups. These are choices that primarily involve calculations of effectiveness.

Opposition to all interventions is a mistake, although opposition to some is sure to be morally necessary.
In fact, there are actually many states in international society that are capable of acting as humanitarian agents. In contrast to ordinary individuals in domestic society, ordinary states, even those far from being great powers, can act effectively in crises because of their ability to collect taxes and recruit aid workers and soldiers.

Again, this dedication is not merely philanthropic. It arises also from a commitment to justice; like tzedakah, it is two in one. And a commitment to justice is not voluntary; it is a commitment that we are all bound to make, as individuals and as citizens, and that all states are bound to make. We are not in a position where we can let generosity and warm-heartedness determine what states do in international society. In the absence of a global welfare state, there are many things that individual states have to do. But here is the agency question again: Which states have to do what?

International humanitarianism is an imperfect duty. In any crisis situation, different states are capable of acting, but no single state is the designated actor. There is no established procedure that will tell us the proper name of the agent.

The same combination, two in one, should determine the character and purpose of aid and intervention. It is, of course, immediately necessary to feed the hungry, to stop the killing. Relief comes before repair, but repair, despite the risks it brings with it, should always be the long-term goal — so that crises do not become recurrent and routine. As with tzedakah according to Maimonides, aid workers and soldiers should do what they can, the best that they can, to promote the independence of individuals and states. In international society, this means building states that can defend the lives of their citizens and helping them help themselves. What must be avoided is enduring economic or political dependency — the creation of pauper populations or of satellite states and puppet governments.

Although we are often told that the state system must be transcended, sovereignty is in fact humanitarianism’s morally necessary end: a decent state, capable of providing security, welfare, economic management, and education for all its citizens. Then, the aid workers and the intervening armies can go home. If they have created the conditions for self-determination, we know that they have acted both charitably and justly.

Humanitarianism has to be an ongoing argument: What ought to be done right now? The answer to that question will change depending on the existing needs, the political circumstances, the resources that benevolence can provide, and the requirements of justice. But once we have figured out an answer, we can think of humanitarianism as the two-in-one enterprise that I have been describing. As individual men and women, as members of or contributors to nongovernmental organizations, as citizens of powerful states, it invites us to choose to do what we are absolutely bound to do. Read the rest here.

H/T WJD (I was there becuase they linked to my blog) and then EF on FB

AI software, the Bible and Belief.

Moish Koppel professor at Bar Ilan is famous for his being a real frum yid with a true sense of yiddishkeit, his Purim pashkevils and his generally great Purim latzanus. Today’s paper, announces that he and his team have created software to identify authors and applied it to the Bible. When asked about his faith, he sharply distinguished between his firm faith in the Divine source and the question of the text.

Software developed by an Israeli team is giving intriguing new hints about what researchers believe to be the multiple hands that wrote the Bible.

The new software analyzes style and word choices to distinguish parts of a single text written by different authors, and when applied to the Bible its algorithm teased out distinct writerly voices in the holy book.
Bible – AP – March 2011

The program, part of a sub-field of artificial intelligence studies known as authorship attribution, has a range of potential application – from helping law enforcement to developing new computer programs for writers. But the Bible provided a tempting test case for the algorithm’s creators

For millions of Jews and Christians, it’s a tenet of their faith that God is the author of the core text of the Hebrew Bible – the Torah, also known as the Pentateuch or the Five Books of Moses. But since the advent of modern biblical scholarship, academic researchers have believed the text was written by a number of different authors whose work could be identified by seemingly different ideological agendas and linguistic styles and the different names they used for God.

Today, scholars generally split the text into two main strands. One is believed to have been written by a figure or group known as the “priestly” author, because of apparent connections to the temple priests in Jerusalem. The rest is “non-priestly.” Scholars have meticulously gone over the text to ascertain which parts belong to which strand.

When the new software was run on the Pentateuch, it found the same division, separating the “priestly” and “non-priestly.” It matched up with the traditional academic division at a rate of 90 percent – effectively recreating years of work by multiple scholars in minutes, said Moshe Koppel of Bar Ilan University near Tel Aviv, the computer science professor who headed the research team.

The places in which the program disagreed with accepted scholarship might prove interesting leads for scholars. The first chapter of Genesis, for example, is usually thought to have been written by the “priestly” author, but the software indicated it was not.

Similarly, the book of Isaiah is largely thought to have been written by two distinct authors, with the second author taking over after Chapter 39. The software’s results agreed that the book might have two authors, but suggested the second author’s section actually began six chapters earlier, in Chapter 33.

The differences “have the potential to generate fruitful discussion among scholars,” said Michael Segal of Hebrew University’s Bible Department, who was not involved in the project.

Over the past decade, computer programs have increasingly been assisting Bible scholars in searching and comparing texts, but the novelty of the new software seems to be in its ability to take criteria developed by scholars and apply them through a technological tool more powerful in many respects than the human mind, Segal said.

Before applying the software to the Pentateuch and other books of the Bible, the researchers first needed a more objective test to prove the algorithm could correctly distinguish one author from another.

So they randomly jumbled the Hebrew Bible’s books of Ezekiel and Jeremiah into one text and ran the software. It sorted the mixed-up text into its component parts “almost perfectly,” the researchers announced.

What the algorithm won’t answer, say the researchers who created it, is the question of whether the Bible is human or divine. Three of the four scholars, including Koppel, are religious Jews who subscribe in some form to the belief that the Torah was dictated to Moses in its entirety by a single author: God.

For academic scholars, the existence of different stylistic threads in the Bible indicates human authorship. But the research team says in their paper they aren’t addressing “how or why such distinct threads exist.”

“Those for whom it is a matter of faith that the Pentateuch is not a composition of multiple writers can view the distinction investigated here as that of multiple styles,” they said.

In other words, there’s no reason why God could not write a book in different voices.

“No amount of research is going to resolve that issue,” said Koppel. Read Full version here

I guess this agrees with his famous pashkevil about the dangers of studying Navi.


Dante vs Violent Video Games

Interesting description of the role of pop culture contained in today’s US Supreme Court decision. Scalia said that there is no tradition in the US of shielding kids from violence and even the high culture is filled with it. He also said that the difference suggested by Alito between Dante and Violent Video Games is not relevant to law. When applied to Judaism, which rabbis and poskim would accept a distinction and which would not?

From Justice Scalia’s majority opinion in today’s case involving violent video games, Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Assn.:

California’s argument would fare better if there were a longstanding tradition in this country of specially restricting children’s access to depictions of violence, but there is none.  Certainly the books we give children to read — or read to them when they are younger — contain no shortage of gore.  Grimm’s Fairy Tales, for example, are grim indeed.  As her just deserts for trying to poison Snow White, the wicked queen is made to dance in red hot slippers “till she fell dead on the floor, a sad example of envy and jealousy.” . . . . Cinderella’s evil stepsisters have their eyes pecked out by doves.  And Hansel and Gretel (children!) kill their captor by baking her in an oven.

High-school reading lists are full of similar fare.  Homer’s Odysseus blinds Polyphemus the Cyclops by grinding out his eye with a heated stake . . . . In the Inferno, Dante and Virgil watch corrupt politicians struggle to stay submerged beneath a lake of boiling pitch, lest they be skewered by devils above the surface . . . . And Golding’s Lord of the Flies recounts how a schoolboy called Piggy is savagely murdered by other children while marooned on an island.  FN4

FN4: Justice Alito accuses us of pronouncing that playing violent video games “is not different in ‘kind'” from reading violent literature.  Well of course it is different in kind, but not in a way that causes the provision and viewing of violent video games, unlike the provision and reading of books, not to be expressive activity and hence not to enjoy First Amendment protection.  Reading Dante is unquestionably more cultured and intellectually edifying than playing Mortal Kombat.  But these cultural and intellectual differences are not constitutional ones.  Crudely violent video games, tawdry TV shows, and cheap novels and magazines are no less forms of speech than The Divine Comedy, and restrictions upon them must survive strict scrutiny[.]

H/t MOJ The Maximalist Uses of Dante

Shalhevet’s Modern Orthodox Education

I was attempting to Google to find an academic reference based on description of the book and this page came up.
It contained this curriculum from the Shalhevet High School in LA. At first, I could not figure out what it was. Then I saw that it is a new “Modern Orthodox education” created by the new YCT educated principal at the school. It is an interesting document. I dont want to get bogged down in the politics of the LA school or the nature of its graduates. The question is not what effect it has there or if it is a good school.

My question is what would happen if such a curriculum were tried here in NYC, with the potential for the best guest speakers? I do not agree with many of the choices but it certainly is interesting. In one of the first issues of Tradition, Eliezer Berkovits gave a vision of an ideal seminary that looked like this.It is also worth comparing to the Jewish Action article by Rabbi Riskin in the 1970’s about what an ideal High School curriculum would look like. is this the start of a good curriculum for our decade?

Here are some selections from the bigger document here. What do you think?

Shalhevet’s Modern Orthodox education consists of the following goals:

Talmudic Jurisprudence (10th Grade)

As the foundational corpus of Jewish and rabbinic knowledge, the Talmud represents the launching point for understanding the role of Halacha in Jewish society. Through textual analysis, students will be introduced to the fundamental principles and ethics that guide the Jewish tradition. Critical attention will be placed on the development of rabbinic authority, the philosophy of Jewish law and practical application.

Major focus will be placed on the Babylonian Talmud and the most popular medieval commentators and codes of law (Maimonides’s Mishna Torah and Rabbi Joseph Karo’s Shulchan Aruch).

Students will also be exposed to the Twentieth Century’s most prominent theologians, philosophers and rabbis, including Professors Eliezer Berkowitz and Louis Jacobs as well as Rabbis Joseph B. Soloveitchik and Moses Feinstein. Additionally, students will explore classic Talmudic case law and precedential responsa. Students will also be responsible for integrative analysis of seminal US Supreme Court cases with Jewish law.

Contemporary Modern Orthodox Issues (11th Grade)
After having spent a year learning about the nature, function, process and procedure of Jewish Law, the students are now ready to investigate the rabbinic views on contemporary issues. Is religious Zionism sanctioned by our greatest scholars or is it condemned? What is the role of women in the modern age? How does Jewish Law react to modernity? As in the previous year’s Gemara class, the major focus will be on the Talmud Bavli and Rambam’s code of Jewish Law, the Mishnah Torah. With regard to religious Zionism, we will study the views of Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, Rabbi Avraham Isaac Hakohen Kook and the Satmar Rebbe. While examining the role of women in Halachic life, we will study prominent religious thinkers such as Rabbi Sperber, Rabbi Henkin, Rabbi Soloveitchik, Rabbi Berkowitz and Rabbi Meiselman.

Halacha Beyond High School: Hashkafah of Modern Orthodoxy (12th Grade)

In the first semester, we will survey, analyze and discuss seminal texts of the brightest thinkers of the Orthodox world from the past two centuries who have contributed to the self-generated definition of the “Modern Orthodox” community. We will investigate three major areas of Jewish thought: the interaction with western culture, Zionism, and women’s issues, through readings from Rav SRS Hirsch, Rav DZ Hoffman, Rav A Hildesheimr, Rav Y Kalischer, Rav S Moheliver, Rav Y Alkalai, Rav AY Kook, Rav YB Soloveitchik, Rav Y Amital and Rav A Lichtenstein, among others.

Biblical Exegesis (11th Grade)
In this advanced course on the study of the Hebrew Bible, students will study the tri-partite division of Tanach (Torah, Prophets and Scriptures) and reasons for inclusion in the Biblical canon. We will then investigate the various approaches of the yeshiva and the academy to Tanach study. This course will explore the issues of authorship and textual transmission through the lens of Professors Julius Wellhausen and Karl Heinrich Graf as well as Professors Umberto Cassuto and Kenneth Kitchen. Particular attention will be placed on the Documentary Hypothesis, scholarly responses to the Hypothesis and Orthodox Jewish homiletic responses. Additionally, we will study Ancient Near Eastern texts, such as the Laws of Eshnunna and the Code of Hammurabi, and compare and contrast them to Biblical narratives and law.

In addition to the above scholars, we will also expose the students to the philosophical thought of Jean Astruc, Jon Levenson and Louis Jacobs as well as Orthodox scholars, Rabbis Yoel Bin Nun, Hayyim Angel, Jeremy Wieder, Shubert Spero, Mordecai Breuer and Dr. Tamar Ross.

This course also will emphasize the medieval exegesis methodologies of the French school, Rashi and his grandson Rashbam, as well as the Spanish school, led by Avraham Ibn Ezra and Nachmanidies. The students will then take this knowledge and apply it to the study of a particular sefer from Nach.”

Political Theory of Modern Middle East (11th grade)
This course covers the political, philosophical and religious considerations that affect international Middle East policy. Students will study contemporary regional affairs and political theory through the lens of current events. Students will be exposed to influential thinkers including Ruth Gavison, Yoram Hazony, Sari Nusseibeh, Michael Melchior, Michael Oren, Dennis Ross and Edward Said.

Jewish Philosophy & Law (12th grade)

How does Judaism address the great existential questions of the human condition? Students will engage in a sophisticated dialectic that includes in-depth study of the philosophical works of Maimonides, Spinoza, Kant, Bentham, Kierkegaard, Hirsch, Kafka, Kook, Buber, Soloveitchik, Berkowitz and Sacks. In this course learners will confront such quintessential questions as creation, revelation, ethics and secular philosophy, the problem of free will, justice and the existence of evil. Upon completion of the course students will be able to articulate the ontological, epistemological and axiological foundations of Western thought and Modern Orthodoxy.

Sliding to the Left?

This post is FYI- so everyone can read this before it becomes the blog topic of Summer 2011.

Thirteen years ago Chaim Waxman as an Edah supporter wrote an article The Haredization of American Orthodox Jewry that the sky is falling with the impending Haredization of Orthodoxy and why Modern Orthodoxy is losing.

Now he goes the other direction and asks: Are we sliding to the left? It is a chatty article on the state of American Modern Orthodoxy created by interviewing more than fifty knowledgeable observers.
Yehuda Turetsky and Chaim I. Waxman, “Sliding to the Left? Contemporary American Modern Orthodoxy” Modern Judaism (2011) first published online May 25, 2011
Subscription Required: Here is the index page and here is the html.

Much of what he writes in the article is the stuff of recent blogs collated into a long op-ed, namely that we have just as much shifting to the left. His examples familiar to orthodox blog readers includes Prof. James Kugel at YU, Maharat, YCT, Hadar, JOFA, Kellner on Belief, reaction to Slifkin ban, IRF, conversion controversy, and the role of the web.
He finds more of a right-ward swing at YU than in actual pulpits. He gives a shout out to almost everything that could be found online so there will be something for everyone to discuss, argue with and pick at.

In addition, the article in its title and its content is a direct rejection of Heilman’s Sliding to the Right.
(Bear in mind that I do not like or use the entire right/ left language despite what a blog post by Eli Clark incorrectly reported and has not changed. Personally, I see both sides arguing over the same halakhot and as part of the same interpretive community.)

The question to the reader of the current article is: what happened to his data and sociology of thirteen years ago? Is this just a change of mood of the community? Of the author? If he had interviewed fifty people in the late 1990’s would the results have agreed with this article or the first one? Is this just a chance for Waxman to respond to the blogs in an organized fashion? More importantly, how much are the fifty people themselves just part of the echo chamber of people repeating what other people say on blogs?
It is also interesting for a sociologist whose academic work was specifically on the baby-boomers not to have any generational differentiation in the article.

In the past decade there has been a move to the right as reflected in many aspects of YU and communities such as Teaneck [NJ] and the Five Towns [NY]. At the same time, there has been a healthy willingness to experiment with new innovations such as yo’atzot … YCT and maybe even Yeshivat Hadar which, while not Orthodox-affiliated, attracts Orthodox students and teachers.

The “move to the right” is more pronounced at YU. I wonder if is true out there in most major shuls.

Another respondent opined that, “The number of people who feel that they are allowed to be a voice has expanded enormously. This is true in Halakhah, in meta-Halakhah, and in hashkafah [perspective].” This respondent suggested that the declining hierarchalism in Orthodoxy in general and Modern Orthodoxy in particular coincides with the passing of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, in 1986.

As indicated, very few of our interviewees perceive an exclusively right character to Modern Orthodoxy.

One possibility is that those who saw Modern Orthodoxy being overtaken by a rightward trend were incorrect. They may have been expressing their own fears without taking a broader view of what was actually happening. Also, they may have been looking at specific Orthodox localities from which, perhaps due to demographic change, more modern members may have moved away while those of a more haredi disposition have moved in. This, however, does not necessarily mean that American Modern Orthodoxy was moving to the right; only that some neighborhoods moved to the right while others, which previously may not have even been neighborhoods with an Orthodox Jewish population, now have Modern Orthodox communities.

We suggest that, though some aspects of the above may be the case, there has, in fact, been a real shift in American Modern Orthodoxy in recent years, and that this shift is the result of internal developments within Modern Orthodoxy itself as well as developments within the larger American society and culture. As discussed above, women’s prayer groups emerged in the 1960s and their numbers have grown since, indicating that the issue of women and the synagogue/prayer was a very real one

In 1997, JOFA and Edah were founded, and both held conferences which attracted wide interest. Two years later, in 1999, YCT established its rabbinical school and, despite predictions of its imminent demise, it has continued to grow.
That these communal outreach efforts have reportedly been successful suggests that there are receptive communities out there composed of varieties of perspectives, and that they have not all haredized. Indeed, this was suggested by the large number of attendees at the aforementioned JOFA and Edah conferences since their inceptions in 1997.

There are some scholars who have suggested that the “sliding to the left” in Modern Orthodoxy may result in the emergence of a new denomination, especially after the founding, in November 2009, of a new Orthodox rabbinical organization, the International Rabbinic Fellowship (IRF),

It was further empirically evident in the data amassed, in 2002, by Milton Heumann and David Rabinowitz in a Young Israel synagogue in the New York–New Jersey area, which found that a minority held “conservative” or “very conservative” perspectives on the eight issues presented, while an approximately two-thirds majority held “modern” to “very modern” perspectives. What has apparently changed is not so much the presence of significant numbers of Modern Orthodox with very modern values and perspectives but, rather, the readiness of those with less modern values and perspectives to engage with them.

Mei HaShiloah on Korach

Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner of Ishbitz (Izbica) d. 1851 wrote a few homilies on Korach that stand out for their uniqueness. I used to think about these positions. Now I return after a hiatus and ask: Why did he say them and to who? And what do we see in them?

In the first piece, we have Korach who is ordinarily seen as a bad guy, portrayed here as having a greater realization of the Divine will. Fear of God here mean attempting to see things from God’s perspective. The realization is that everything we do is God’s will. Saints and sinners, skeptics and heresy hunters, Roshei Yeshvia and those who text on Shabbos are all equally doing God’s will. The answer that he receives is that humans cannot live this way. We cannot deal with reality so we need the illusion that these differences matter. He then gives a second answer that God wants our worship and we would not engage it worship if it was all illusion.

I assume that he wants everyone to do doing God’s will because in some way he feels the hierarchy is not correct. But his Matrix type answer is not our instinctive desire to know true reality. Finally, his separation of Fear of God by knowing God’s will from the worship of mizvot is most intriguing. How does it sound to my readers?

“And Korach took…” [Num 16:1].
The midrash asks: “Why is the chapter of Korach adjacent to that of tzitzit? Because Korach took a tallit that was entirely blue and asked, “Is it exempt or is it required [to have tzitzit]?” (Numbers Rabbah 18.2)
The color blue (tekhelet) signifies fear.
Korach argued that since he understood the fear of God with great clarity realizing that all is in the hand of Heaven, even fear of God.
If so, how can a person do anything against God’s will, since [human] will and acts are all from God?
How then can he do anything against [Divine] will?
For this reason [Korach] argued that [his tallit] is exempt from tzitzit, because tzitzit serve to remind one of fear.

In truth, God’s will in this world is not visible to human eyes.
As stated in the Talmud (Hagiggah 13b), that Ezekiel prayed concerning the face of the ox, to turn it into a cherub. For the ox alludes to greatly clarified wisdom; in the depth
[of understanding] all is in the hands of Heaven, and man’s [free] choice is no thicker than a garlic skin, only according to his own perception.
For God has hidden His way from human beings, because He seeks man’s service, and if all were revealed to him, service could not flourish.
Mei ha- Shiloah (Korach Vol. I, p. 154)

The second one is a corollary from the first, if everybody is really doing God’s will then the true Jewish position is complete equality between Jews and the answer is that we will acknowledge this in the messianic age. So we have to be hierarchical until then but know that we really accept equality.
So if this an accepting of the hierarchical system or breaking out? Can we life in anticipation of the messianic age?

“The entire congregation is holy, and God is in their midst; why then do you lift yourselves up above the congregation of the Lord.” (Num 16:3).

Korach makes the claim that there is no hierarchy in Israel where one individual ought to be set higher than his fellow man, for God is in the midst of the entire congregation.
This is because God dwells within everyone equally, as it is written (TB, Taanit, 31a) “In the future, the Holy One Blessed Be He will make a dance for all the righteous.” “Dance” refers to a circle, in which no one is closer [to the center] than his fellow man. Korach claimed that this vision was already realized at the time.
Mei ha- Shiloah (Korach; Vol. I, p. 155)

How would you use it in a sermon today? What was the original meaning and would we be using it in the same sense?
I know what I wrote a decade ago. What does it mean now?

Half-Shabbos goes Viral for Real (Updated)

It took a while for the Federation paper geared at senior citizens to catch up with my original post last year on half Shabbos.

For those arriving from this half-journalist story based entirely on anecdotal evidence on half-shabbos, know that this is not a message board or chat room. (The older not-in touch author cannot tell the difference.) Comemnts are good, but please read the rules for comments.

An anecdotal article is not usually good journalism or even news, especially for a Federation secular and liberal readership. It may deserve a back article as human interest or as reporting a buzz, but without statistics it is not front page news. But this topic is perfect for a paper who editorial slant for a secular audience runs the gamut from right wing Conservative to left wing Modern Orthodoxy. In a prior article from this same author on the phenomena of Evangelical Orthodox rabbis- the author could not tell the difference between new age and Evangelical.

It seems I cannot live down that original short post and its sequel half-shabbos again?
In the meantime, it has been re-posted on over 1250 FB walls and many tweets. Let me know the best of what people are saying. Also for some we can see how people are using this as a Rorschach image.

In the meantime, I first noted the phenomena with the younger gen y/ millennials – those now 24-27 about 5 years ago. But they still kept it quiet and felt it was a deviance.
Not so, the younger gen z – those in HS now are those who cannot live without their phones.
We do need real studies but it does seem that a high % of mainstream Modern Orthodox FFB kids from committed families are texting on shabbos right now in 2011. This may be a short term blip. Statistics on BT’s, Public school youth, Bais Yakov and year in Israel may be different.
We need to note that it may be a passing wave. It may peak for a certain number of years and we cannot assume that current pre-teens will continue the trend.Without hard statistics it is hard to pin it down. Is it peaking now or getting worse? Many trends tend to be over by the time the media picks up on it.
We need an empirical quantified study if we want to talk about it as a social phenomena.

Why do they do it?
1] Some are truly addicted to the dopamine of computer use, as are some adults. I was told that Rabbi Abraham Twerski has observations on that aspect.
2] For others, it is like telling them not to talk or communicate for 24 hours and they feel trapped. Many of general newspaper articles on teen’s today emphasize that aspect.
3] For a small percentage this is a rejection of shabbos and relgion. Some of it is permanent.
4] But for most they will outgrow it with time. Bear in mind that adolescent rebellion is normal.
5] For some it is peer pressure- all their friends are online. Personally I think this is the biggest group. It is like not being shomer negiah.
6] For others, this is no big deal. Either because the social media age is not in their hilkhot Shabbat books, so from an anthropology perspective it is not categorized. It is still neutral. Or because they consider it a small item. They already know that they are not following every detail in their hilkhot shabbat books.
7] For many this eases the burden or boredom of shabbat observance.
8]Finally, for some it is compulsion and escape. Kids need to contact their boyfriend or girlfriend, or escape the family by contacting those outside of the family.

In all of these, dont assume it is permanent. A kid may do it in 10th grade and then give it up by the end of 11th.

It is interesting that no parents were quoted in the article. Besides the fact, that the author of the article and editors dont have kids in HS anymore, what would be the parents perspective? Last decade they complained their kids were too frum. What are they saying now?

Other issues that thicken the plot:
1] Much of Centrist orthodoxy is based on popular culture, media, and social media.Even the youth group activity and outreach is media based.

2] Shabbos is just not exciting for them. An adult shabbos table with adult guests who whine about taxes or tuition is boring. And long Shabbos afternoons or late Friday nights are dreadful bondage in a parent’s home. Those who were attracted to Orthodoxy between ages 20-35 find community, warmth, and connection in the shabbos table and that was Orthodoxy’s success these past 30 years. But that is not fun for a hormonally raging teen.

And somehow the game of RISK is no longer in. There is less of go out and amuse yourself. All amusement is now bought, done via media, or designed by companies like Disney.

3] There really is a technology gap, in which books and study will all be done online before we know it. It needs to be solved ASAP. Someone will need to take Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach to a new level.

4] Currently, there is no Orthodox youth culture that can turn to something to make them superior to their parents. There is no new Hasidut, Mussar, new learning Style, or spirituality to serve as a goal. For many this seems like a problem of the religious coldness of the community.

5] The religiosity of the parents is not as “ideal halakhic” as the rabbis and ideologues want to make it. It is not the lax or indifferent parents but the average even in an above average community. Much of it with real or perceived justifications: I need it for work, I am ill, my case is special, I asked my pulpit rabbi, my youth adviser said it was OK 35 years ago, I read it somewhere in a book, the sale wont go through, i was hot so it was medically needed.

What did I miss? What are the comments of FB and twitter?

Final question:
For the dictionary- Is the correct spelling half-shabbos (with dash), halfshabbos (one word) or half shabbos(two words)?

Update- from the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education FB page

“Perhaps it would be valuable to teach the value of self-control in the context of smart phone usage. Kids would get that very quickly.”

Hasbara as kiruv

This was forwarded to me. Doing PR work for Israel’s poor attempts at hasbara is now formally defined as kiruv. What isn’t kiruv at this point? On the other hand, now kiruv can be separated from mizvot and be applied to AIPAC or ZOA work. Thoughts?

From the description of Yeshivat Torat Shraga

To this end, YTS provides many shiurim in these
areas, including a entitled “Kiruv Training Seminar”. This provides
the student with the background and ability to handle any and all
questions that the student may be faced with in the world outside the
Yeshiva, including the media’s portrayal of Israel.

Rabbi Ezriel Guenzig and the Sacred Books of the East

Ezriel Guenzig (1868-1931) was a Orthodox rabbi in Moravia and later, he became the head of the Mizrahi Tahkemoni School in Antwerp. In his time, as editor of the journal Ha-Eshkol, he was a conduit of Western and academic knowledge to his Hebrew reading rabbinic audience; unfortunately, he is remembered little today. Besides Hinduism, Guenzig wrote on Abulafia and other interesting topics. It seems he was influenced and even wrote a book about Fabius Mieses, the source for Rav Kook’s knowledge of modern philosophy. And his journal Ha-Eshkol is available as a free android app.

In 1900, he wrote an appreciation of the recently published works belonging to the series Sacred Books of the East edited under the direction of Max Muller. He compares the Hindu positively to Judaism, noting the similarities of the two religious worldviews Kabbalah and Hinduism, especially emanation, nirvana, eyn sof, sefirot, and theories of the soul. Guenzig’s approach consists of focusing on the Vendata philosophic works and the ancient Hindu scripture to formulate a Hindu monotheism, which he then connects to his own Perennialism. Mentions of Indian thought in Rabbinic thought in the first part of the 20th century proceed in a similar manner. Note his labeling monotheism as the “moral foundation” for humanity gained through cultural evolution.

In perusing these works we find many concepts and images, mores and customs, principles and many doctrines that also stand in the highs of our religion. We see astounding similarities in many ways between the faith of the Hindus and the faith of Israel, not just in details but even in the principles of purpose, their studies, and their opinions…Just as the Therapeutae in Egypt brought Neo-Platonism into Judaism, the Essenes in Judea brought the secrets of Buddhism- the masters of secrets in India- to the masters of secrets in Alexandria and other Jewish works who, in turn, brought these allusions in the secret of our holy writings.

The belief in the Oneness of the creator and the unity of existence is a sublime step in the cultural evolution of humanity, the moral foundation for all religions of Enlightened peoples.

Also the [Hindu] doctrine of the relationship of the individual soul to the universal soul and the spiritual perfection by cleaving to divinity, freed from all desire and physical lusts… is found in many Jewish believers and also is found by our ancient wise and the early kabbalists who followed them.

If a scholar delves into the Vedas will see that the early kabbalists, the fathers of the philosophic Kabbalah most of them followed the Hindus…

Ezriel Gruenzig, “Hindu Philosophy and Kabbalah” [Hebrew] Ha-Eshkol 3 (Cracow: 1900) 40-48.

Best Female Preacher- Can Orthodox version be far behind?

Think of the potential of using reality TV for Orthodox purposes.

from FaithWorld by Razak Ahmad
(“Solehah” hopeful Nur Shamseeda preaches during an audition for the new Islamic reality television show “Solehah” in Kuala Lumpur June 18, 2011/Bazuki Muhammad)

A forthcoming Islamic reality television show in Malaysia aims to find the best women preachers and change conservative mindsets on the role of women in Muslim societies. The 13-episode prime time program titled “Solehah,” an Arabic word meaning “pious female,” is a talent contest that will feature charismatic young Muslim women judged by clerics on their religious knowledge as well as their oratory skills and personality.

Although Islam allows both men and women to preach the religion to society, the field remains dominated by males in most Muslim countries, something the show’s producers in this mainly Muslim but multi-religious Southeast Asian country hope to change.

“If American Idol can help their contestants develop as singers, our show aims to help Muslim women develop as Islamic preachers,” said Zulkarnaen Mokhtar, brand manager at the private television station which produces the show. It will start airing in October and follows on the heels of the hit Islamic themed show “Imam Muda,” or Young Imam, which is shown on a rival TV station and seeks the best Imam or male Muslim leader. Imam Muda is set to enter its second season.

David Hartman Part III

Continues from Part I here and from Part II here.

Here is another post about the 1985 book A Living Covenant. I assume that I will receive the interview with Charlie Buckholtz soon, then and only then will I address the new book directly.
In the very friendly review of Hartman by David Ellenson of HUC in Modern Judaism, we learn that Ellenson finds Hartman as exemplar of what Orthodoxy, nay the entire modern rabbinate should be. And then Ellenson gives a few broad critiques. Why does Hartman base himself on Talmud and Rabbinics and not the Bible? What would compel the modern Jew to follow Hartman’s Talmudism? Important questions for the ex-Orthodox Ellenson who continuously looks to Orthodox Teshuvot for guidance.

This review by Neil Gilman of JTS. offers a strong contrast to the review of Landes and Elleenson.

Gilman pegs Hartman as a follower of the approach of Jacob Katz in which sociology changes halakhah. In that for Jacob Katz there is an “interpretive power of the community to interpret halakhah- based on what the community will accept. God’s Torah can be interpreted in a liberal way if the community accept it. [AB- but it is important to note that Hartman himself makes his argument from ethics, not from historical change.]
(Back in the 1960’s the Jewish Observer considered the use of Jacob Katz enough to make one Conservative, by the 1980’s there came to be a YU interpretative of Katz without the historic change or historicism.)

But Gilman asks is that enough or even justified. For Gilman there is a human role in the writings of the Torah. The Bible and the entire creation of Talmud as human documents. When Gilman quotes Hartman as saying that the debate over tanur shel achnui shows the potential of God’s word, Gilman adds [SIC] after Hartman’s mention of “God’s word” to demonstrative to his reader that – of course it is not God’s word. How could Hartman be so foolish to belief that?

For Gilman, to interpret means that it is a human product. He does not understand how for Hartman and Berkovits to reinterpret is a power of the Divine halakhah itself. For Gilman innovation means a human change from the past, not a continuation of the tradtional idea of chiddush (AB –catch that Hartman’s belief in Chiddush is not Maimonides and closer to what we consider Nahmanidean- see Halbertal on the topic of the continuous growth of halakhah.)

In this review, we see that the Orthodoxy of Berkovits and Hartman argues for ethical consciences: and pragmatics in the law. The Conservative approach of Gilman needs the Torah to be a human text, he needs a rejection of traditional theology, and historical/sociological argument.
On the question of Hartman’s relationship to Rav Soloveitchik in his writings. Landes – did not see any break. Depending on the topic, Hartman was closer to the Rav thought then was Landes. However, Gilman sees a break. I already have read the new 2011 book and in that one there is clearly a break.

When I first read the book in 85, then I just did not recognize the Rav Soloveitchik that I knew in the pages of Hartman’s Living Covenant Even though the Rav’s influence came out in Hartman’s public talks, I did not see it int he book. In the 1980’s Hartman would talk about how much therapy time he spend working through his relationship with Rav Soloveitchik, how he had an Oedipal relationship with the Rav. But at the time, I felt that Hartman’s presentation of Rav Soloveitchik’s creativity vs submission is not the same as the Rav’s own majesty and humility.I chalked it up to my youth and to maybe the 30 year difference in the Rav. And in those years, people were much more troubled by revisionism from the right since, at the time, it seemed a complete distortion.

Gilman review- he does not think that Hartman has a liberal enough theory of revelation, talks too much about God’s Torah, he wont win against rising Fundamentalism. But he likes his Zionist theology.

Alternatively, he could adopt a view of revelation that denies literal-ism in favor of acknowledging a more substantive human role in shaping the contents of Torah

But both of these positions would inevitably require Hartman to redefine what he means by mizvah and to reconsider the issue of the authority of Torah, thereby undermining the traditionalist cast of his entire study. (His subtitle is, after all, “The Innovative Spirit in Traditional Judaism”). In fact, under both of these models, the authority is transferred from God to the community. Both poles of the dialectic, the autonomous and the theonomous, become embodied within the community. But has not Hartman, himself, conceded this result in accepting Jacob Katz’s definition of the limits of interpretive freedom as “. . . what the community is in fact prepared to accept as Torah”?

On this issue, then, Hartman is in a bind. As a result, the issue is avoided and his covenantal anthropology, however acutely perceived, authentically rooted and programmatically desirable, floats in a theological vacuum.

In fact, A Living Covenant ends up as a much richer and more substantial version of Eliezer Berkovits’ Not in Heaven, with much the same shortcomings. Like Hartman, Berkovits argues for a more open recognition of the subjective, flexible, pluralistic understanding of the halakhic process as a legitimately human undertaking. Berkovits, too, plumbs the tanur shel akhnai anecdote which he interprets, much as Hartman does, as insisting on “the human share and responsibility in the interpretation and administration of the revealed Word of God (sic)”, and that “the affairs of men cannot be guided by absolute objectivity, but only by human objectivity.” Halakhah represents not “objective truth” but “pragmatic validity” (p.48). “Once a Jew accepts the Torah from Sinai, whatever it teaches him in his search for its meaning and message is the word of God for him” (p.51). Berkovits repeatedly invokes what he calls the “halakhic conscience” which he perceives as impelling the rabbis to limit the application of, or, at times, even render inoperative, a piece of biblical legislation which they find morally offensive (p.28). But, again, one searches in vain for a theology of revelation which might ground his understanding of the halakhic process.

While Berkovits limits his argument to the issue of halakhic development, Hartman’s canvass is much broader. It encompasses a phenomenology of much of Jewish religious life and teaching. The book remains, then, a passionately argued and authentically documented defense of a humanistic, pluralistic, flexible, and creative reading of traditional Judaism. Programmatically, then, it serves as an apologia for Modern or Centrist Orthodoxy. This position is clearly under siege today, both in Israel and in America. If anything, the current wave of fundamentalism in religion reflects a preference for the temper of submission and self-denial which Hartman rejects. This contemporary style in religion, together with Hartman’s critique of much of Soloveitchik’s theology, will unquestionably render this volume suspect in the eyes of precisely those of Hartman’s confreres who could benefit most from his inquiry. If this is, indeed, the outcome, the Jewish theologically concerned community as a whole will be the loser.

But, if for no other reason, this book should be studied and taught for its concluding chapter, “The Third Jewish Commonwealth.” Here, Hartman applies his reading of Judaism to the new challenges posed by the creation of the State of Israel. He insists that even if we reject, as he does, a simplistic reading of the rebirth of Israel in messianic terms as reflecting God’s overt intervention in history, this event can yet exert extraordinary religious influence on the life of the community. Economic, social, and political issues, the moral quality of the army, the exercise of power moderated by moral sensitivity, can all be brought under the purview of Torah.
In fact, Israel also exposes the moral and spiritual inadequacies in the Jewish tradition and can thus provide ” . . . unique conditions for a serious critique of Judaism as it is practiced by commited halakhic Jews” (p.294).

Not unexpectedly, then, Hartman calls for a thoroughgoing re-evaluation of the place of religion and halakhah in Israeli life. But even beyond this, the chapter provides the most compelling argument for the Jew’s throwing his lot in with Israel in a direct and personal way, not, as the usual Zionist rhetoric has it, because diaspora Judaism is doomed, but, rather, because Israel provides the broadest possible canvass for Judaism’s engagement with modernity.

From Neil Gilman, ” The exciting future of Jewish theology, Judaism, Spring 1990, Vol. 39, Issue 2.

PHD grants- two former students and a third (non-student) that is an interesting topic

I am proud that two former students are finishing their PHD’s and are continuing as academics. Unfortunately, Modern Orthodox tends to confuse being a wonker or engaging in “hocking” about scholarship with actual academia. Ringel defends on June 30th. Congratulations.

Joseph Ringel, The Sephardic Rabbinate, Sephardic Yeshivot, and the Shas Educational System, Brandeis University (Near Eastern and Judaic Studies)
Joseph Ringel’s dissertation explores the debates over Sephardic identity by examining how Shas’ network of schools and Sepahrdic yeshivot transmit what they consider to be Sepahrdic values in the student body. This process of identity reconstruction includes the search for a usable past in order to confront the challenges modernity poses to the Sephardic religious tradition – this process has resulted in the preservation of certain religious practices and traditions, the creation of new customs and ideas through re-interpretation, and the misinterpretation and distortion of other elements of the Sephardic tradition. In exploring the debates within the Sephardic world surrounding Shas’ reconstruction of Sephardic identity, Ringel’s dissertation explores the complexities of connecting past experiences and traditions to current realities.

Joshua Z. Teplitsky, Between Court Jew and Jewish Court: David Oppenheim, the Prague Rabbinate, and eighteenth-century Jewish politics, New York University

David Oppenheim (1664-1736) was, among other things, the scion of a rabbinic family, the chief rabbi of Moravia and then of Prague and Bohemia, a legal authority, and a Talmudic commentator. Oppenheim’s various roles placed him at the crossroads of several important developments of the early modern period for both the history of Jewish political cultural development and the history of the Habsburg monarchy and its imperial politics. Joshua Teplitsky’s dissertation views the changes in the relationship between the Habsburg state and local Jewish communities in the early modern period through the lens of Oppenheim’s career.

Not a student but a relevant topic. It is on how the whole question of authority (serara) in the public sphere is an American Christian influence.
Caroline Block, The Spirit of Tradition and the Institution of Authority: Knowledge and Community in American Orthodox Women’s Talmud Programs, Johns Hopkins University (Anthropology)
Caroline Block notes that while these women are enrolled in postgraduate programs that are part of the Judaic tradition of preparing for rabbinic ordination through textual studies, they are also profoundly affected by the American practice of denominationalism, particularly due to the way in which the rabbinate in the U.S. has been influenced by the Protestant tradition, and “rabbi” has come to refer not to an academic distinction, but to a job in the public sphere. Block’s dissertation explores the tensions of American Jewish denominationalism and particularly how denominationalism relates to Modern Orthodoxy.

Synthesis vs Irreconcilable ? Modern Orthodox vs Modern and Orthodox

My recent post on the YCT graduation speech generated a large bevy of comments; go read them -many of them are excellent. But is seems to have hit a raw nerve with some readers of the blog. Was this nerve hidden until now?

The comments did not deal with the speech itself. The comments offered several detailed and well thought out comments on Modern Orthodoxy, way beyond what we are used to hearing. Go read them.

It seems to have revealed the live issue among the commenters. But what was the issue? What was the meta-issue at stake? There seems to be two clear sides with at least 6-7 on each side. Neither side was advocates of an intellectual ghetto and neither side wanted to relinquish Orthodoxy. Yet, half the commenters evoked a visceral reaction from the other half who called the first half negative or cynical. So what is the dividing line? Why so emotional?

One side wants to be Orthodox and read Hegel, Derrida, and Biblical criticism but does not work on resolving any problems. This position seems to strike the other side as a rejection of Modern Orthodoxy, as Neo-Haredi, as anti-Orthodox. Why? Is the other side clamoring for synthesis works? And why the emotions?

Is it that one side sees Orthodoxy as a social imaginary in the Charles Taylor sense, non-foundational and not subject to apologetics.

One side wants Torah uMadda volumes of apologetics that are comforting even if they don’t prove anything because maybe they do prove something? Or they show the strength of Orthodoxy to confront modernity.

Is it that one side wants truth claims even if apologetic and the other side relinquishes the need for truth?

Is it that one side thinks that one must be invested in a specific ideological project called Modern Orthodoxy and the other more loquacious side believes that one can be committed to Orthodoxy and Western culture without a specific ideological project, or to a specific project of synthesis?

Is it simply that one side has a double truth theory and the other side has a single truth theory. Why does the position of Averroes, Maimonides, Albalag, Narboni, Ibn Caspi or in modern times Krokhmal and Isaac Breuer seem to betray Orthodoxy to the other side?

Is this mid-brow vs high-brow?

And what about the struggle and angst? Do people on the synthesis side really think that everyone has to have it? Or is it just a need for confrontation of ideas and not necessary angst?

There are lots of good lines to quote in all the substantive comments but to give one:
Isaac- “Maybe the whole struggling trope is an existential answer to the contradictions of modernity and Orthodoxy, rather than a strategy for overcoming or resolving them.”

Deep struggle with ideas in graduate school in a chosen discipline makes sense after training a field for many years and where one knows the prior data and method. Then struggle can lead to new knowledge. But does intellectual struggle to achieve synthesis and confrontation mean something without training or enough prior mastery of the problem so that one can formulate something of significance? Is it important to struggle to go though open doors?

Bottom line- some blogs have their identity on a fault line of pro and con skepticism, others are pro and con feminism, it seems this topic is one of the live fault lines on this blog. So those of you who responded viscerally or felt that the anti-synthesis side is wrong. What is the issue?

So Nachum, Jon, Isaac – how do you explain the fault line? Even if you called the other side negative – what do you offer in its place that AS & EJ did not offer?

David Barton and Orthodox Historiography

I was out of town, but this past month David Barton was featured in the New York Times and on the John Stewart show. Barton is a Christian Conservative author who preaches a Christian view of the past, corresponding to the Jewish history as it should have been, Artscroll approach. He is a revisionist of the first order. What is interesting for me is that lesser authors are arguing with him about how he distorts the truth and is not academic. But the better reviews know right for the start that he is no doing anything corresponding to academic research, so they ask: what is his religious appeal? How does he come up with his opinions? They treat him as object, nor subject.

This had me thinking about the Modern Orthodox types who criticize Artscroll history, as if it was all about comparative methodology. They tend not to treat the Yeshivish versions of the past as object for study or beneath critique.

The debate around Barton opens up questions of how the Evangelical or Orthodox determine who gets to give a homily or write narratives about the past. What is an expert, degrees, and qualifications to write a religious narrative that is not academic? Why are bad credentials seen as good? The Evangelicals have many similar cases of a teacher in an Evangelical school paskening American history, preachers and roshei yeshiva who fracture history, or an implicit providential exceptionalism, which confuses the theological mesorah with the secular activity of the historian.

Actual scholars don’t care or don’t debate the views of Evangelicals on the Founding Fathers, nor do Jewish academics care to even refute Roshei Yeshivah about their views of Maimonides, Rabbi SR Hirsch or the Holocaust. They don’t refute them they are not historical- there is no philology, no historical context, no application of social sciences. They consider the relgious stories as products, manufactured accounts for a specific audience.

This first review is from a trained Evangelical historian Paul Harvey who works on the role of religion in American history, but he feels David Barton does not deserve to be called a historian. And that it does not pay to refute him because his audience wont care.

I don’t question the necessity of pointing out Barton’s history of outright falsehoods, explaining the fallacies of his presentism (as in using a 1765 sermon or a 1792 congressional vote to show that the original intent of the founders was to oppose bailout and stimulus plans), and introducing to non-experts the abundant evidence calling his historical worldview of the Christian Founders into question. Yet while these kinds of refutations are necessary, they are not sufficient. That’s because Barton’s project is not fundamentally an historical one.

Barton v. the Historical Profession

That’s why historians’ takedown of his ahistorical approach ultimately won’t matter that much. Nor will historians’ explanations of his presentism, and his obvious and unapologetic ideological agenda (albeit considerably muted for his appearance on The Daily Show). While all the historians’ refutations are good and necessary, ultimately they won’t matter for the audience which exists in his alternate intellectual universe, one described in much greater detail in my colleague Randall Stephens’ forthcoming book The Anointed: Evangelical Experts in a Secular Age.

And it’s also why insinuations about his pedigree (a degree in education from Oral Roberts University) will only heighten his followers’ sense of the cultural elitism of his critics.

Ideas Packaged as Products

Some of that is because of the skill of Barton and his organization WallBuilders at ideological entrepreneurialism. Barton’s intent is not to produce “scholarship,” but to influence public policy. He simply is playing a different game than worrying about scholarly credibility, his protestations to the contrary notwithstanding. His game is to inundate public policy makers (including local and state education boards as well as Congress) with ideas packaged as products that will move policy.
Historical scholarship moves slowly and carefully, usually shunning the public arena; Barton’s proof-texting, by contrast, supplies ready-made (if sometimes made-up) quotations ready for use in the latest public policy debate, whether they involve school prayer, abortion, the wonders of supply-side economics, the Defense of Marriage Act, or the capital gains tax.

Besides this sort of organizational skill and personal charisma, however, Barton’s success at withstanding the phalanx of professional critics comes because he taps into a long history of “Christian Nation” providentialism.

A Manufactured “Debate”

The issue, then, is not Christian conservatives advocating their views in the public square. The problem, rather, is their claim (at least in places such as The Daily Show or the New York Times) that their Providentialist beliefs and readings of documents from the past represent a kind of legitimate scholarship that should have its place in the public “debate.”

Aside from its remarkable influence on the writing of American textbooks, perhaps the biggest success of the Christian nationalist intellectual ideological universe is to insert points of controversy where there aren’t any in actuality.
But the presentation of the American certificates of birth—the “short form” of the Declaration of Independence, and the “long form” of the Constitution—will not quiet the Christian Nation “debate.”

I use the term “debate” in quotes because it is fraudulent. Even advocates of the viewpoint of the “godless Constitution” (such as historians Isaac Kramnick and R. Laurence Moore) fully understand the religious base of American history. They suggest simply (as Jon Stewart was trying to get at) that the framers rather deliberately excluded religion, not because they sought an exclusion of religion from the public square, but simply to avoid any special privileges for it at the federal level. Eventually, those views were incorporated into state laws through the 14th Amendment, through the pluralization of American life in the twentieth century, and through the epochal court cases of the 1940s through the 1970s.

The Christian Nation “debate” is not really an intellectual contest between legitimate contending viewpoints. Instead, it is a manufactured “controversy”
On one side are purveyors of a rich and complex view of the past, including most historians who have written and debated fiercely about the founding era. The “other side” is a group of ideological entrepreneurs who have created an alternate intellectual universe based on a historical fundamentalism. In their drive to create a usable past, they show little respect for the past as a foreign country.

This next historian points out how Evangelicals don’t know there are other positions out there and they frame everything as “secular academics” vs Evangelicals. They don’t realize that there could be an Orthodox historian.

But I think what prevents me from doing so is the fact that there are many people out there–mostly evangelical Christians–who embrace Barton’s ideas because they are unaware that any other Christian position on this Christian nation debate exists. I have seen this first hand as I have traveled to churches and taught Sunday School classes. There are a lot of people who can’t imagine that a fellow evangelical could disagree with Barton. When evangelicals learn that such a position exists some of them are open to change.

Here is a major Clearinghouse page of the reviews and reactions to Barton.

My final quote is from the Atlantic
, written by a former Maimo Student of mine, Yoni Applebaum. He points out Evangelicals read history the same way the read Bible, directly from the text and without a sense of historical distance. One reads an Eighteenth century documents without philology or context and as having a message for today. How do Orthodox accounts of the past allow carry over their techniques from the beis medrash? Applebaum says that it is not about credentials, method, or peer review.His critics are barking up the wrong tree. It works because it is part of the same process of Evangelical reading of scripture by opening the text and laying on one’s heart. What is the Yeshivish process of history as a phenomena of modern popular relgion?

Barton’s errors, exaggerations, and elisions have been exhaustively cataloged; no credible historian defends his work or his conclusions. And yet millions continue to find his message compelling. Why do they trust him?

Barton himself provides an answer on his organization’s website:

The heart of our educational work, and that which makes WallBuilders so unique, is our library of rare books. We have collected thousands of first-edition works of our Founding Fathers — including their own handwritten documents — and it is primarily in these original sources that we conduct our research.

This emphasis on primary sources is the cornerstone of Barton’s pitch. He explained to Jon Stewart that he is in the business of “historical reclamation,” adding that he has “about a hundred thousand documents from before 1812.” He took the Times reporter on a tour of his library, showing off his volumes and their yellowed pages. And he uses these documents to brush aside complaints that he lacks any formal academic training in history. “I don’t have a doctorate in that, no,” he told Stewart. “I’ve got a lot of documents … and what I got taught and what I’ve seen in the actual documents aren’t the same thing.”

Perhaps most crucially, Barton insists that the meanings of these texts should require no additional context.

Barton’s focus on returning to the original text, and his pointed disdain for the scholars whom he accuses of distorting its plain meaning, seems to resonate with his largely evangelical audience. There is a reason for this. It echoes the general doctrine of sola scriptura, the bedrock of the Reformation, that the text of the Bible alone contains the knowledge necessary for salvation. It draws on the tradition of prooftexting, using verses lifted from a larger text to buttress specific points. And in particular, it mirrors the notion of the perspicuity of Scripture — that its essential teachings are sufficiently clear that “not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.”

In other words, Barton frames historical texts in the manner that his audience is accustomed to encountering the other texts that it routinely studies. He discards the accreted mass of scholarly interpretations, just as Reformation preachers jettisoned the layers of scholastic traditions. He selects key passages for use as texts, and constructs his historical sermons around them. And, perhaps most crucially, he insists that the meanings of these texts should require no additional context; that they are readily evident to all who have eyes to see, and a mind to understand and discern. He proclaims a professoriate of all believers.

When his critics insist that he subject his work to peer review, or disparage his credentials and his logic, they only reinforce the strength of his appeal to his target audience.

Ibn Ezra is not Modern Orthodox

This may be beating a dead horse already. But this past Shabbos, a older speaker who would be a self-described defender of an older Modern Orthodoxy was describing the Ibn Ezra as an ideal Modern Orthodox person. He knew Torah, and he also knew the sciences, poetry, Biblical commentary, grammar, linguistics, and philosophy. He was a rationalist and sought peshat.
In the middle of his presentation, the person sitting in front of me turned to me and whispered:

Ibn Ezra had difficulties earning a living, he was not so successful in business, and had no fixed income. Therefore he could not be Modern Orthodox. It costs a lot to be Modern Orthodox.

The person does not read my blog or my essays, so they are not parroting me. They earn a seven figure income.