Amoral Logic

How does a utilitarian approach to morality lead to the Golden Rule?

Anyone who studies a little bit of game theory has to believe that “doing unto others as you would have them do unto you” is, at best, an occasional outcome.

In Judaism, our love of G-d, combined with belief that we are all created in G-d’s image (spiritually if not physically) provides that path. Do we always live by it? No. But the more we live in consistency with our values, the more we are driven to take care of each other.

Utilitarian morality, on the other hand, begins and ends with looking out for Number One. For me, that’s a recipe for dystopia.

Torah in the High Castle

“You may not understand this. I live by a 5,000 year-old book. I ask it questions as if it were alive. It IS alive. It tells me you have a purpose. It says a superior person in an inferior position, accepting a task graciously, brings good fortune to all.

We must all have faith in something, Miss Crain. We cannot see ahead alone.”

Nobosuke Tagomi
“The Man in the High Castle”

Facing Anger

On the eve of Yom Kippur, as I walked from my hotel to Beis Chabad, I felt the presence of Hashem in a remarkable way. I was filled with joy but not terribly surprised. It was, after all, Yom Kippur, the email flow had moderated to a tiny trickle, and it was a comfortable – if not glorious – Fall afternoon. I felt peace with Hashem and the universe, and nothing interfered with what felt like a direct signal to Him, though I could still feel a distance.

The feeling stayed with me until I was suddenly distracted by the driver of a large, luxurious BMW who had parked athwart the walkway in such a manner as to force me into dangerous traffic on my walk. I felt a shot of fury.

I quickly shook the fury off, but the connection with Hashem was no longer as clear.

It hurt. Almost physically.

The lesson could not have been more plain to me at that moment. We are instructed by Torah, the Sages, and the Chofetz Chayyim to refrain from speaking words of baseless hatred. But if we truly desire a connection with the Divine, we must recognize that angry thoughts, the very emotion of hatred, invites the yetzer hara and displaces the Holy Spirit.

Lesson learned. But it gets better.

Sitting in the Sukkah on the first night of Sukkoth, Rabbi Shimon Freundlich stood and gave a talk about anger. He said to us almost exactly what I felt on Erev Yom Kippur, but he went even further: when we get angry at our situation, we are fundamentally questioning the way G-d has made things to be. Anger is, therefore, is Chillul Hashem, a desecration of the name of Hashem.

The hair on the back of my neck stood up. There are, after all, no coincidences.

I felt the connection anew. And I heard the Admonishment of Heaven.

I’m heading back to my hotel now, and I’m going to spend some time this evening studying the story of Moshe Rabbeinu striking a rock. Perhaps this is the lesson Hashem wishes me to learn this year.

Seven Reasons I’ll Be On Trump’s Muslim Registry

Donald Trump’s policy advisers are discussing plans to establish a registry for Muslim immigrants in the US, a man believed to be a key member of the President-elect’s transition team has revealed.

Source: Donald Trump team ‘discussing plans for Muslim registration system’ | The Independent

If the president-elect goes ahead with this plan, we must each choose how to address it. Some will support it, and in the case of some, their reasons will be both understandable and rational. Others, including myself, will resist it in different ways. We could send our checks to the ACLU, but I think that this sort of thing demands more than a well-funded court battle: it demands a bit of moral sabotage.

As a Jew, I will be placing my name on that registry, as, I think, should every clear-thinking descendant of Abraham in the United States.  I will do it:

  1. To remember the Holocaust. We will not feed our fellow Americans into that same kind of nightmare.
  2. To remember all of the brave souls who, at the risk of their position or their lives, resisted Nazi oppression to help save Jews from the Holocaust.
  3. As an act of peace toward all Muslims everywhere, to show that whatever our disagreements, we are all brothers.
  4. Because in doing so we openly defy a government act that is at odds with the Constitution.
  5. Because I need to show my son that we are never powerless in the face of injustice.
  6. Because if we don’t, we’re next.
  7. Because G-d is Great.

 

Beyond History

A rejoinder I frequently offer to those who would discredit our faith on the basis of a perceived conflict between religion and science:

Speaking for Judaism, the truth in Torah lies at levels far deeper than its objective historicity.

Thirteen Petals in Autumn

Doing some reading before shul on the High Holy Days, I set aside the Torah a bit to start Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz’s seminal gateway to the Zohar, The Thirteen Petaled Rose. Let me qualify the following by saying that this was the first reading of any kind I had done on Kabbalah aside from some rather removed and clinical introductions.

Rabbi Dov Muchnik, schlicha of Chabad of Oxnard, spoke on Rosh Hashanah about R. Steinsaltz, and I renewed my resolve to delve into the works of that great master of Torah. The Thirteen Petaled Rose was my first stop.

I had always believed that for a person like myself – born into a barely observant Reform household and not even Halachically Jewish, Zohar would be like jumping into medical school without studying biology. And, to be truthful, I remain unconvinced that I’m wrong in this.

Rabbi Steinsaltz does a superior job at making the essence of Kabbalah clear to the tyro. But on every page, in every paragraph, even as I felt awed and uplifted by the profundity of the truths, I heard a patient but insistent voice inside my head calling me back to Torah and Talmud.

I reached page 10, unable to continue. I was overwhelmed not so much by an inability to comprehend, but of a sense of deep spiritual inadequacy.

“You have just restarted your journey of learning and teshuvah,” I audibly reminded myself. “Don’t make the same mistakes you made last time and place yourself on the path of ba’al teshuvah syndrome.”

The great work was returned to its honored place on the shelf, and, awe still with me, I picked up my Machzor, my tallis, and my kittel, and walked the rest of the way to shul, head, heart, and spirit swimming, but, B”H, not drowning.

America’s Choice

My wife and my 14 year-old son were discussing the election yesterday. And my wife said that this proves that we cannot put our faith in man or in Earthly institutions. We must put our faith in Hashem. 

She’s right. And it reminded me of a passage from the Tachanun:

And David said to Gad, “I am exceedingly distressed. Let us fall into Hashem’s hand, for His mercies are abundant, but let me not fall into human hands.”

We can trust people to represent us, but we cannot trust them to always have our best interests at heart, and, indeed, about all we can expect is for them to operate in the self-centered manner that economists call “rational.”

Do not put your faith in your leaders, elected or otherwise. Grant them a highly conditional trust at the very most.

Teshuvah and Joni Mitchell

“We are stardust
We are golden
And we’ve got to get ourselves
Back to the Garden.”

— Joni Mitchell, “Woodstock”

Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock” has been covered by many artists at different times, but to me there is no more moving rendition than the one sung by Joni herself on the remastered version of her “Ladies of the Canyon” album.

It’s just Joni and an electric piano, and it’s played slow, with the gentle insertion of backup singers. Listen to it with headphones on and in the dark. Joni’s notes are sheer beauty, and you will never hear the song the same way again.

Stunning.

Professor Shai Cherry credits the beautiful lyrics of the song to “Rabbi Joni Mitchell.” It’s tongue-in-cheek, naturally, but he invokes Joni in a discussion about teshuvah. She captures in a few words, he notes, the essence of the modern interpretation of teshuvah as framed by Rav Kook (Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak HaKohen Kuk). We are an essential part of the universe, we are made in the image of Hashem, and our lives are built around bringing ourselves closer to Hashem.

Yes, we need to get back to the garden. Which garden is Joni singing about? And which one should we be seeking? Those thoughts stopped my brain literally in midair (flying between Los Angeles and Tokyo).

One other thing did occur to me as I listened to the song again on a quiet Beijing morning.

Mitchell’s tone in the song, the downbeat tempo, the simple delivery (instead of a wall of sound) conveyed a sense of mourning. I could not help but hear something deeper in her delivery. Was Joni singing a lament to the failure of the 1960s to bring us back to the garden? Was Woodstock simply the climax of a sort of secular spiritualism that shattered just months later? And is the song somehow an acknowledgement that the true path back to the garden lay on more ancient stones?

To suggest that this is what Joni meant to say 40 years ago is stretching it. But those of us who watched the promises of the 1960s die, who continue to try and understand why, and who did discover that path of ancient stones, cannot help but hear, behind the Wurlitzer and the Canadian contralto, the echoes of a generation that lost its way for all the right reasons.

My Jewish No-Read Zone

B”H

I am, as I write this, 52 years old and, thank G-d, in good health. I estimate that, between work, family, scouts, writing, and sleep, I probably have time left to read about 1,000 books in my life, at the very most. Confronted with that figure and the realization that my library already has thousands of unread volumes, I have by necessity become quite picky about my reading.

One filter I have added to my quest for erudition has been the resolution to avoid writers who were openly anti-Semitic, or who had the reputation of being so in their private lives. For these reasons, I will not be spending any more of my increasingly precious hours reading the works of T.S. Eliot, Roald Dahl, Louis-Ferdinand Celine, Edith Wharton, Kingsley Amis, Ezra Pound, GK Chesterton, or others similarly biased.

People I respect tell me that in doing so, I am closing off a large and important swath of literature, and that is true, but only to a limited degree. When I was younger I read widely, and I spent time with the works of many of these authors. I’ve sampled the wares, as a good reader should, and I would never urge my son or any other student to shy away from any author because of their beliefs.

But the resurgence of anti-Semitism in the world today makes it necessary to filter out what I can. What is more, I am blessed in this age to have access to such a massive scope of works that I can readily go through life avoiding anti-Semitic writers (and any hatred that might seep into their words) and still have a full literary life.

And, oh, the choices make it simple. I shan’t miss GK Chesterton when I’ve yet to sample the oeuvre of Primo Levi. Why bother with Kingsley Amis when Bernard Malamud beckons? And do I need bother with Roald Dahl beyond Mr. Wonka when the late Elie Weisel’s Souls on Fire and Night both taunt me, unread, from my bookshelf?

And that’s before I even bring up Martin Buber, Adin Steinsalz, Abraham Joshua Heschel, and the raft of brilliant sages dating back to the Rambam, the Ramban, Rashi, and beyond.

You get the point. It is hard for a quinquagenerian Hebrew to justify spending time on anti-Semites when so many great Jewish authors and works lay waiting on the shelves.

Social Media Inventory, Part 1

Social Media Inventory, Part 1

First of two brilliant and thought-provoking posts by Rabbi Adar on ensuring that our behavior online is in keeping with Torah.

Coffee Shop Rabbi

Image: A checklist and tools. Photo by stevepb via pixabay.com.

How does my behavior online stack up against the values of Torah? This is an environment of words and images, and our tradition has a lot to say about the use of words and images. Take this inventory to do a personal review:

Nitai of Arbel says: “Distance [yourself] from a bad neighbor, do not befriend an evildoer and do not despair of punishment.” – Pirkei Avot 1:7

How do I spend my time online? Do I use this resource to learn and to converse with people who are a good influence on me? Or do I waste valuable time on worthless activities? Is there anything I do online that I feel I must keep secret? Is there anything I would be embarrassed to have come to light?

Every argument that is for [the sake of] heaven’s name, it is…

View original post 301 more words

Five Reasons that Stephen Fry is a Bad Atheist

Mr. Stephen Fry is an educated, erudite, intelligent and well-spoken man who has spent much of his time and treasure in the effort to better the world. He is also an atheist, one who proves by his deeds that one does not need to be religious in order to do good.

As Fry advances in years, though, he is becoming an increasingly prolific polemicist on the “evils” of religion. No person of faith – and especially no Jew – should fear or hate the atheist: they play an essential role in forcing us to see and acknowledge the problems with our beliefs, and in the case of Judaism, to dig deeper to find the source of those problems.

But there are good atheists and there are bad atheists, and when I study Fry’s words I find five glaring failings that reveal that, while he is without doubt a good man, he is a fairly awful atheist.

  1. His understanding of the reasons to believe in G-d are at best simplistic, if not intentionally reductionist
  2. His attempt to critique religion as an undifferentiated whole completely ignores the distinctions between them.
  3. His understanding of the nature of the religious quest is incomplete at best.
  4. His constant use of the ad hominem fallacy in defending his beliefs undermines his best arguments.
  5. His apparent belief that to justify his ethos he must tear down en masse the entire edifice of theism makes him less an atheist than a crusading anti-theist.

This is someone whom I would have expected to have take the time to understand the belief systems (note the plural) that he opposes and to address them in detail. The fact that he has not speaks well neither for him nor for atheism generally.

It falls upon him to explain these failings, or at least to address them. Until then, his arguments invite not debate, but scorn, and not least from fellow atheists.

Malamud, Unforgotten

My ongoing subscription to The Library of America, started last summer, has thus far yielded primarily tomes relating to the American Revolution: Washington’s writings, Hamilton’s writings, the debate around the Constitution, and the like. But a few weeks ago, the first literary volume landed, a collection of Bernard Malamud’s novels of the 1960s. As I thumbed through the slipcased volume, bound in Library of America’s trademark format (which is as resilient as a hardcover yet as comfortable in the hand as a paperback), I was reminded of a highly entertaining 2008 essay for Commentary that drove me back into Bernard Malamud’s oeuvre. In that essay, “Why Malamud Faded,” Cheryl Miller of Doublethink Magazine wondered how Malamud disappeared so quickly from the American literary scene after a long, triumphant career.

Without seriously considering other possibilities, Miller posits that Malamud’s downfall can be traced to a 1974 essay written by Philip Roth in The New York Review of Books in which Roth accused Malamud of valorizing Jewish weakness and fetishizing Jewish pain. Roth didn’t like Jewish pain, preferred to write about Jewish pleasure (liver, anyone?), and laced into Malamud for his proclivities. Miller believes that the world agreed with this essay, and sentiment permanently turned against the scribe.

Sic Transit Gloria Monumenti

Doubtless it quietly thrills Miller, herself an essayist, to think that a single essay in a New York literary journal can change American tastes overnight. What she leaves out of her treatise, though, is an explanation of mechanism: how is it possible for a single essay (by a writer renowned for his insecurities) to sour the nation on a beloved literary icon? There are plentiful examples of astute essays in respected journals about iconic writers that did nothing to so damage their careers. Indeed, in the cases of John Steinbeck, Norman Mailer, and Roth himself, the best of those essays would fill volumes. With respect to Ms. Miller, I believe she overestimates the degree to which the book-buying public (as opposed to the clubby New York literary establishment) cares about the intramural bitch-fests of American letters.

I have an alternative explanation, one that William of Ockham would appreciate: Malamud faded because we all get old, we all get tired, and pretty soon our voices start sounding more like echoes than the lusty cries from a living throat.

Most of us who write, whether for love or money, at some point learn that we are most successful when we connect to an audience, and that we usually connect best with an audience we know well and understand. We know that the connection is dynamic, that it can be a spark or it can be the neuro-chemical equivalent of a fire. Writer and reader meld in shared discovery, shared understanding, and in the end know ourselves and each other better than when we started. Malamud, Saul Bellow, Neil Simon and Philip Roth all spoke to a generation of Jews who had won the right to their identity by fighting in World War Two, by being the brave remainder of a culled and bloodied nation, and by their willingness to shed in both life and work as much of what makes them different (i.e., Jewish) from mainstream America as possible.* The connection was intense, and it electrified a generation.

Malamud’s work addressed Jewish themes, even when not explicitly about Jews. In what has become in the 21st Century his best-known work, The Natural, Malamud tells the story of Roy Hobbs, a country boy baseball phenom rejected out of hand by a more sophisticated world, and just as he is about to succeed, has his opportunity for glory seemingly ripped from him by a chance encounter with death. But Hobbs has a gift, and returns in his thirties to claim his destiny, and in so doing purify the game he loves.

This was a subtly Jewish story, an allegory of the Jewish kid trying to make it in a world of Goyim and torn between the purity of his upbringing and the lure of doing what that world wants of him. More than just a multi-faceted morality tale, it was the story of the struggle endured by every Jew who has ever been tempted by assimilation. What made Malamud’s stories moving was how they spoke to and revealed something deeply Jewish, all while wrapping it in a quintessentially American story that made it broadly accessible. This was Malamud’s genre, and that of Bellow, Simon, and Wouk.

Their rejection of the strictures of their heritage made them darlings to a generation (of both Jews and non-Jews) bent on rebellion and an exploration of what our ancestors would have called the apikoros, the Epicurean lifestyle that raised the sensual over the spiritual. They thrilled non-Jews with their Jewishness, exotic yet accessible without the distasteful need to actually meet one. Malamud’s storytelling (and that of his peers) was earthier, more connected to something grounded, sensual, and elemental in each of us, much as Judaism represents for the Goy a kind of pure but forbidden paleo-Christianity. Malamud and his ilk excited Jews because we were proud to have Jews recognized as great men of words, to have our stories recognized as interesting and worthy, and we secretly hoped that if Jewish writers could be initiated into the literary salons of mainstream America while retaining even a shred of their Jewishness, there was still hope for the rest of us.

That thrilling moment passed, though, and the audience moved on. Malamud and his contemporaries had had a good run by the time their best work began finding its way onto movie screens, and a decade that took us from The Producers to Annie Hall to Brighton Beach made the exotic commonplace. A new generation of writers, spawned of the sixties and wielding their pens like hammers and protest signs, turned the literary adrenaline junkies to the New Journalism and to the first generation of post-modern novelists. Malamud would continue to write brilliantly, but our attention had been drawn by other voices.

Malamud and a New Generation

As had our values. First the Greatest Generation Jews and then the Jewish Boomers gave way to a new generation, with sensibilities that focused on forging their own rules rather than refighting their parents’ kulturkampf. Generation X Jews, finding little of pressing relevance to connect with in Malamud’s works, went looking elsewhere.

And why not? Is not Joan Didion more relevant to those of us seeking to understand life in California today than Gertrude Atherton or Helen Hunt Jackson? Young Jews today have different concerns than those of us born in the first two-thirds of the twentieth century. Some have rejected the bacon-cheeseburger impiety of their parents generation and sought a return to traditional observance, a world Malamud had explicitly rejected. Even more young Jews reconnected with Zionism or with a secular desire to improve the world. Malamud would have applauded their rejection of tradition, but would have been baffled by their embrace of unselfconscious crusading. And still more had tuned out Jewish voices entirely, unless a mainstream author happened to be Jewish.

So Malamud’s work passed from the literary scene not long after he passed, a writer who spoke to a a people who have evolved during a moment that had passed.

The Literary Cicada

But before we consign Malamud’s works to the Recycle bin, it is worth considering that literature is history’s plaything. Writers and stories once adored and thence discarded of often rise above their time to become granite pinnacles of the literary landscape. Jane Austen, Mark Twain, Edith Wharton, Raymond Chandler, and Evelyn Waugh are read today outside of classrooms, not because their characters or stories are about us, or because the lives they depict seem familiar, but because they offer both a window onto a certain place and time and a reflection of the timelessness of what it means to be human. When I watch my millennial son look up from The Natural with a thoughtful grin, I wonder if it is not unreasonable for us to expect that Malamud’s oeuvre is not dead, just hibernating.

One last thought.

Jewish history is neither linear nor cyclical, but a combination of both. The faith evolves along with the tribe as we each try, in our own way, to forge a better world – or at least a vine and fig tree under which to sit. And yet we appear locked into these long cycles of separation, assimilation, rejection, and persecution that has been our lot since, well, Genesis.

It is becoming painfully evident that the twin events of the Shoah and the establishment of the modern state of Israel did not end history – it merely bought us 70 years to repair the damage wrought by the Nazi extermination machine. Just when we felt we had ameliorated the circumstances that took us to the gas chambers, we find ourselves on the brink of a new era that is seeing Judaism rejected by Europe, attacked by Islam, and assailed by the horned shoots of anti-Semitism rising from the furrows in the American soil.

As we are drawn again into the vortex of our historical cycle, we should make sure to preserve the works of Malamud and his contemporaries. Who knows? Perhaps one day, their stories of a battered people seeking wider acceptance will once again hearten a generation of Jews emerging from a dark night of persecution.

A Pause

I have of late (and all too frequently) found myself drawn in this space into impassioned posts concerning Israeli politics, the international relations of the Middle East, and anti-Semitism.

While these are issues of profound import to me, I have discovered that they draw me away from the core purposes of this blog. Worse, the frustration they incite frequently drags me into the gutter of rage.

There have also been times where I have believed that my learning and wisdom are so insignificant that I have no business addressing matters of Torah, and that I am better off fighting the political battles to which I am better qualified to speak.

I will, therefore, try to avoid such discussions going forward. Teshuvah is the light I wish to follow here, not anger.

I pray to Hashem that this is the correct path.

What about Justice for Jewish Refugees?

Some 900,000 Jews from Arab countries have fled their homelands since 1948; they left behind an estimated $30 billion in property, including buildings in dozens of Jewish communities.

Source: No solution for Palestinian refugees without justice for Jewish ones – Israel Opinion, Ynetnews

Lest we forget – this gigantic injustice has been ignored and buried for six decades.

Equally important – this is the treatment the Jews and Christians of Israel could expect if the “Palestinians” achieve their ultimate aim.

Daniel Trilling’s “In Weissensee” 

Ilya B., my great-grandfather, is buried in the Jewish cemetery at Weissensee in Berlin. He was born around 1880, into a middle-class family in Kiev, which was then part of the Russian Empire. Like many Jews in Kiev at the time, he spoke Russian, not Ukrainian. Russian was the language of power, essential for minorities […] — Daniel Trilling

Source: In Weissensee « LRB blog

A hauntingly beautiful essay.

Daniel Jackson on Belief and Rationality in Judaism

Although the challenges presented by the natural sciences have receded, fresh challenges have taken their place and seem to pose much harder and more far-reaching questions. The field of biblical criticism has unearthed a mass of evidence that the Torah is a composite document that reflects the prevailing ideas of other cultures contemporaneous with ancient Israel. How, in the light of such claims, can one adhere to the belief, required by Maimonides in his eighth principle of faith, that the Torah we have in our hands today is the very same Torah that was handed down by Moses, and that it is all of divine origin?

Torah min haShamayim: Conflicts Between Religious Belief and Scientific Thinking”
Dr. Daniel Jackson

TheTorah.com

The erudite polymath Daniel Jackson, whose day job is professor of computer science at MIT, delves into the heart of the Jewish struggle between the belief in Torah as the faithfully transcribed word of Hashem and the rational challenges posed by biblical criticism.

I read the article hoping that Jackson had discovered a Rambam-like balancing point, but that is as yet too much to ask for. Judaism has made its peace with science thanks to Maimonides, and more recently with Darwin. But while he offers no guide to the textually perplexed, he does end with a subtle reminder that there is a difference between doctrine and the mitzvot, and that while must observe the latter, our greatest danger is to base the edifice of our belief on the infallibility of every bit of our received doctrine.

I couldn’t agree more. I think it is possible to believe that Torah is the divine essence transcribed through the poor tools of human language, and that the very reason the Oral Law and the Rabbinic Writings are so important is that, in toto, they represent a quest for perfection of our understanding of the essence of Torah. The Pentateuch in our Seferim Torah is the heart, but the Oral Law and the Writings are the body, and neither can live without the other.