Seven Words for Life

One for each branch

On seven words will I base the rest of my life:

  • Creation
  • Appreciation
  • Curation
  • Torah
  • Avodah
  • Gemilut Chasadim

(And not necessarily in that order)


Fundamentalism and Abrahamic Faith

Despite the fervent hopes of some of the more radical atheists, if “bronze-age religions” were really in danger of dying, none of the Four Horsemen (Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennet, and Sam Harris) would have expended so much passion in their crusades against those faiths. The fear among the more vocal of the New Atheists seems to be quite the opposite: that somehow fundamentalism in the Abrahamic creeds are threatening to throw the “Enlightenment” into reverse.

What this implicit fear obscures are the voices of moderation within each of the faiths that quietly fulminate against the social destructiveness of fundamentalism. I see Jewish thinkers like Jonathan Sacks and Joseph Telushkin (and the late Lubavitcher Rebbe) waging a gentle war of wisdom against religious extremism within my faith. There are Christians and Muslims engaged in the same effort.

A theologian explained to me once that “religion is man’s response to his ultimate concern.” That places a burden of relevance upon all faiths that demands their evolution or their extinction. Regressive forces like fundamentalism inveigh against evolution.

Yeah, My Religion is Bronze-Age. So What?

Atheists love to deride Abrahamic faiths as “Bronze-age religious,” a if the very oldness  of a faith ipso facto discredits it.
Would you discredit reason because of its roots in ancient Greece? Or writing because cuneiform is SO not cool? Are our bodies disgusting and outmoded because their general shapes are over 70,000 years old? Was your father wrong about drinking and driving because he was older than you?
The attack is a logical fallacy, an ad homonym at best.
If you want to fence with me about my religion, en garde. But please show up with something better than “ooh, you’re old.” That’s drunken frat boy logic.

Recognizing the Limits of Reason

Brooks may overpraise British Enlightenment thinkers—who include Jeremy Bentham, the founder of utilitarianism and a thoroughgoing rationalist—but he is right in noting that the Enlightenment has not entirely neglected the limits of reason. Regarded by many as the supreme Enlightenment philosopher, Immanuel Kant was quite explicit in stating that there are questions that human reason cannot answer. One could go back further and note that Aristotle—commonly regarded as one of the greatest Western rationalists—insisted that virtuous conduct was a matter of habit and character just as much as rational deliberation.

John Gray
“Review: Mr. Brooks’ Miracle Elixir”
The National Interest

Prodded perhaps by its headlong rush to liquidate religion, modern science conveniently forgets that there are limits to the powers of reason and observation. That this truth is espoused by two of the Enlightenment’s shining stars can come as no comfort.

Whether Kant and Aristotle genuinely apprehended the possibility that there was in fact something higher than rationality, logic, and observation is hard to say. But they had the humility, imagination, and intellectual honesty to acknowledge that there were walls beyond which we cannot peer with the tools available to our limited intellects.

Rules and Virtue

Unlike Kant, the emblematic modern who claimed that the rightness of our deeds is determined solely by reason, unsullied by need, desire or interest, Aristotle rooted his ethics in human nature, in the habits and practices, the dispositions and tendencies, that make us happy and enable our flourishing. And where Kant believed that morality consists of austere rules, imposing unconditional duties upon us and requiring our most strenuous sacrifice, Aristotle located the ethical life in the virtues. These are qualities or states, somewhere between reason and emotion but combining elements of both, that carry and convey us, by the gentlest and subtlest of means, to the outer hills of good conduct. Once there, we are inspired and equipped to scale these lower heights, whence we move onto the higher reaches. A person who acts virtuously develops a nature that wants and is able to act virtuously and that finds happiness in virtue. That coincidence of thought and feeling, reason and desire, is achieved over a lifetime of virtuous deeds. Virtue, in other words, is less a codex of rules, which must be observed in the face of the self’s most violent opposition, than it is the food and fiber, the grease and gasoline, of a properly functioning soul.

via Garbage and Gravitas | The Nation.

This is a fascinating discussion, and I have quoted this article elsewhere. Accepting the author’s précis of Kant and Aristotle at face value, one must ask a question: how do we get to that virtuous behavior unless we have a guide to what that behavior is? And how do we practice that behavior consistently without a codex of rules?

Man is neither automatically virtuous nor automatically vicious. Both instincts are inexorably intertwined. The pathway to the better angels of our nature is not the only logical path, nor is it the easiest. We need more than the beauty of the mountains of virtue to attract us to climb their heights.

The Ambiguity of Science

If there are moral facts, the ethical ambiguity of science must be among the most important of them. It may be true that humans cannot flourish under tyranny, at least of a severe kind; but if the realistic alternative to such tyranny is anarchy, which also thwarts any prospect of human flourishing, there is a dilemma that no scientific advance can resolve.

John Gray
“Review: Mr. Brooks’ Miracle Elixir”
The National Interest

Afraid to be Right

But such confidence is not to our liking anymore. We believe that truth is a form of hegemony. We suspect that pluralism may require perspectivism, or at least a denial of the possibility of objectivity. We wish to be right without anybody else being wrong. We prefer questions. And we like commentaries to be comments.

Leon Weiseltier
“Comes the Comer”
The Jewish Review of Books

Has our desire to avoid hurting people’s feelings made us afraid to be right, afraid to assert our convictions in the face of what we know to be wrong? And if we are, what does that make us?

Logic and Truth

In the course of an absolutely stunning deconstruction of Ayn Rand libertarianism, the Nation strikes a bone-deep blow to the corpus of several schools of ethics, not least utilitarianism, that contend that logic and reason are adequate paths to a functioning moral code. (Emphasis mine)

Rand also liked to cite Aristotle’s law of identity or noncontradiction—the notion that everything is identical to itself, captured by the shorthand “A is A”—as the basis of her defense of selfishness, the free market and the limited state. That particular transport sent Rand’s admirers into rapture and drove her critics, even the friendliest, to distraction. Several months before his death in 2002, Harvard philosopher Robert Nozick, the most analytically sophisticated of twentieth-century libertarians, said that “the use that’s made by people in the Randian tradition of this principle of logic…is completely unjustified so far as I can see; it’s illegitimate.” In 1961 Sidney Hook wrote in the New York Times,

Since his baptism in medieval times, Aristotle has served many strange purposes. None have been odder than this sacramental alliance, so to speak, of Aristotle with Adam Smith. The extraordinary virtues Miss Rand finds in the law that A is A suggests that she is unaware that logical principles by themselves can test only consistency. They cannot establish truth…. Swearing fidelity to Aristotle, Miss Rand claims to deduce not only matters of fact from logic but, with as little warrant, ethical rules and economic truths as well. As she understands them, the laws of logic license her in proclaiming that “existence exists,” which is very much like saying that the law of gravitation is heavy and the formula of sugar sweet.

It goes without saying that this is also a gutting indictment of Objectivism.

Faith and Markets

“The attempt to domesticate the uncertainties of the future by turning them into calculable risks was discredited by the crash. A mode of thinking that was supposed to be supremely rational has proved in practice to be little more than an exercise in harebrained cleverness.”

Review: Mr. Brooks’s Miracle Elixir | The National Interest.

The next time a Bond Trader starts criticizing you about your faith, ask him to tell you what he thinks the cult of risk management is, if it is not a secular religion, complete with prophets, adherents, ritual, and holy wars.


Did Feldblum Really Say that Gay Dignity Trumps Religious Liberty

“But the bottom line for [Professor Chai] Feldblum is: ‘Sexual liberty should win in most cases. There can be a conflict between religious liberty and sexual liberty, but in almost all cases the sexual liberty should win because that’s the only way that the dignity of gay people can be affirmed in any realistic manner.'”

via National Review Online.

Did a member of the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the daughter of a Torah scholar really say this? Is affirming the dignity of gay people now officially more important than ensuring religious liberty? Has it now become binary? Has the conversation about finding a place where both can coexist ended? How can it be wrong for religious liberty to trump the dignity of LGBT people all the time, but okay for LGBT pride to trump religious liberty in all cases?

I am deeply, deeply troubled.

I would love to hear from some of the LGBT people who are also practicing Jews.

“Needs are looked upon today as if they were holy, as if they contained the totality of existence. Needs are our gods, and we toil and spare no effort to gratify them. Suppression of a desire is considered a sacrilege that must inevitably avenge itself in the form of some mental disorder.”

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel
Insecurity of Freedom

“It is customary to blame secular science and antireligious philosophy for the eclipse of religion in modern society. It would be more honest to blame religion for its own defeats. Religion declined not because it was refuted, but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid. When faith is completely replaced by creed, worship by discipline, love by habit; when the crisis of today is ignored because of the splendor of the past; when faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living fountain; when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion, its message becomes meaningless.”

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel
Insecurity of Freedom

“The members of the Sanhedrin were commanded not to let any science, whether real, imagined, or conventional, escape their knowledge. This included forms of magic and languages. How was it possible to find at all times seventy scholars of this level, unless learning was common among the people? If one elder died, another of the same stamp succeeded him. It could not be otherwise, as all branches of science are required for the application of Torah law.”

The Kuzari

“Modern man continues to ponder: What will I get out of life? What escapes his attention is the fundamental, yet forgotten question, What will life get out of me?”

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel
Insecurity of Freedom

“The Divine law does not impose asceticism upon us. It rather desires that we should keep the equipoise, and grant every mental and physical faculty its due, without excess, since excess in one faculty will come at the expense of another. A person who tends toward lust, blunts his mental faculty; and the opposite. A person who is inclined to violence, injures other faculties. Prolonged fasting is not an act of piety for a person who succeeded in checking his desires and is weak in body. For him, pleasure is a burden and self-denial. Neither is limiting one’s wealth an act of piety, if the wealth is gained in a lawful way, and if its acquisition does not interfere with study and good works.”

The Kuzari

Faith vs. Economics

Torah Judaism and economics are similar in that they both make assumptions about the nature of Man.

Marxist economics assumes that man is selfish, and builds a system designed to remove the virtue of selfishness

Liberal economics assumes that man is selfish, and builds a system designed make a virtue of selfishness.

Torah Judaism does not assume that man is selfish, but it builds a path for him to become more selfless.

Why The History of Religions Chart is Nonsense

The history of all religions explained in one fascinating graphic.
Jesus Diaz
8 October 2014

I have known some very tech-savvy rabbis, but with the exception of the one or two whose day jobs involve IT, I would not necessarily turn to them if I needed guidance on, say, upgrading my laptop from Ubuntu 12.04 to 14.04. Technology site Gizmodo, apparently, is similarly out of its depth when discussing religion. But that doesn’t keep them from trying.

Jesus Diaz points us to a poster of an infographic created by Simon E. Davies purporting to show the history of all of the world’s religions. It’s cute. It’s pretty. And it is, as you would expect, oversimplified to the point of obfuscation.

For example, suggesting as this graphic does that Judaism sprang whole-cloth from Middle Eastern Shamanism and Canaanite polytheism is downright deceptive, and you don’t have to be an historian or theologian to know it. Abrahamic monotheism was something utterly different from all that preceded it that it should be a branch of its own.

Of course, that would give credence to the concept of revelation, and the pseudo-scientists who look at this chart and nod their heads are likely unready to do that. It would make them sound like (gasp!) believers.

But what really set me off was Diaz’ final paragraph:

Ultimately, the lesson here is that high priests of every religion through the ages have been nothing more than unimaginative Hollywood movie producers with a taste for derivative material.

That flip remark may sound clever to Mr. Diaz and his editors, but it is unmitigated nonsense. I won’t speak for or about any other faith, but a simple perusal of the jacket copy of Thomas Cahill’s The Gifts of the Jews would put paid to any suggestion that all faiths are derivative material.

There are some things in life that fairly beg to be simplified. And there are others that defy simplification. Wisdom will tell the difference, and wisdom suggests that trying to turn a complex, nuanced subject like the history of religion and turning it into a wall chart is a bad idea.

Far worse, however, is admitting that you have taken theology classes and that you still find all religion unimaginative and derivative. It suggests either a poor school, a poor student, or both.

“Absorbed in the struggle for the emancipation of the individual we have concentrated our attention upon the idea of human rights and overlooked the importance of human obligations.”

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel
Insecurity of Freedom


“Scripture lays down the rule of ‘an eye for an eye’ (Exodus 21:24) and demands capital punishment for a range of offences; the Talmud refuses to countenance the literal interpretation of the phrase, and though retaining capital punishment in theory, limits its application to such an extent that it would be virtually impossible in practice (Bava Qama 83b).”

Norman Solomon
The Talmud: A Selection

“To be an iconoclast of idolized needs, to defy our own immoral interests, though they seem to be vital and have long been cherished, we must be able to say No to ourselves in the name of a higher Yes.”

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel
Insecurity of Freedom

“Religion has adjusted itself to the modern temper by proclaiming that it too is the satisfaction of a need. This conception, which is surely diametrically opposed to the prophetic attitude, has richly contributed to the misunderstanding and sterilization of religious thinking.”

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel
Insecurity of Freedom

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