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Ben Chorin



Ramblings of a post-denominational frummer yid. Comments to benchorin613@yahoo.com



Updated: 2017-03-28T22:02:37.464+03:00

 



6 Comments

2011-10-19T10:13:11.970+03:00

To the Arabs, one Jew is worth 1027 Arabs.

To the Jews, one loud homecoming is worth 100 quiet funerals.



5 Comments

2011-07-03T20:11:08.906+03:00

Every now and then, I get to teach a fun course that's far from the mainstream in my field. I just finished teaching a course on Talmudic Probability. Here is the final I gave on Friday. Feel free to give it a shot. 1. ארבעה נשים הביאו 2, 4, 5, ו-8 קיני חובה, בהתאמה. כל הגוזלות התערבבו והכהן הקריב חצי מהם כעולות וחצי כחטאות. לפי הכלל הגלום במשנה קינים ג:ב, כמה מהעולות כשרות? מה הכלל? 2. לפי תוספות הכלל "אין ספק מוציא מידי ודאי" חל גם בספק "הרגיל". מהו ספק הרגיל (במונחים של האינטרפרטציות השונות של הסתברות)? מדוע אין הבנתו של תוספות סותרת את הכלל "רובא וחזקה רובא עדיף"? 3. יש מכונת מכירה אוטומטית המציעה שלש אפשריות זהות, שתים כשרות ואחת לא כשרה. שלש האפשרויות מסומנות "כשר" או "לא כשר". בכל אחד משלשה התרחישים הבאים, תקבע איזה כלל הכרעה תלמודי רלבנטי: (א) למרגלות המכונה נמצא פריט לא מסומן שיצא מהמכונה. (ב) יש במכונה כפתור מיוחד "רנדומייזר" שבוחר באקראי אחת מהאפשרויות (בלי להודיע איזו בחר). בחרנו ברנדומייזר וקבלנו פריט. (ג) קיבלנו פריט אחד מכל אחת מהאפשרויות ושלשה הפריטים התערבבו (בטעות). האם נוכל לאכול אחד מהם? שנים? שלשה? 4. באופן כללי, אין מתירים על-פי ספק ספקא כאשר באחד מהספקות יש רוב ברור לצד איסור. אולם, אנו מכריעים ש"שליה" אינה של בכור בטענה שאולי אינה של זכר וגם אם משל זכר אולי היתה חסרת צורה (דבר מאד נדיר). מדוע מקילים במקרה של "שליה", בניגוד למקרים רגילים של ספק ספקא לא סימטריים (לפי הריב"ש או על פי סברא שלך)? 5. מתושלח נפטר בשיבה טובה והשאיר אחריו 250,000 ₪. הוא חייב 100,000 ₪ לגרשום, 200,000 ₪ לקהת ו-50,000 ₪ למררי. לפי פירושו של אומן למשנה בכתובות, כמה יקבל כל אחד מבעל החוב?[...]



9 Comments

2011-05-29T09:00:54.914+03:00

It seems that some people have a hard time understanding what was so problematic about Obama's speech. This is especially the case of Jews committed to the Democratic Party (or, more precisely, committed to a particular self-image) at all costs. In order to explain the point succinctly, it is necessary to say explicitly something that Israeli politicians generally talk their way around.

There will be no peace with the Palestinians and the Arab world. They want us dead. We engage in sham "negotiations" with them only because of the high diplomatic, economic and political price of not doing so.

In order to maintain the appearance of negotiating, we need to state positions on the central issues. There are two tactics with regard to this. One is to offer concessions that are limited enough -- either territorially or functionally -- to do little harm in the event that they ever need to actually be paid. This is a fool's game because the amount we can profitably concede in the face of continuing hostility is so limited as to not even constitute the appearance of negotiating. The second tactic is to condition any concessions on corresponding Arab concessions that they are unlikely to ever pay. At the moment, requiring cessation of claims on the part of the Arabs is a sufficiently high bar, though not without risk.

What Obama did in his speech (and what Europeans have been doing for years) was to counter both tactics simultaneously. First, he demands concessions (the 1949 armistice lines as the default in the absence of agreement on swaps and no Israeli military positions in the conceded territory) that are indefensible in the absence of genuine stable peace. Second, he demands these concessions prior to cessation of claims by the Arabs (refugees and Jerusalem to be negotiated after borders).

There is a point at which the price of participating in these sham negotiations becomes higher than the price of not participating in them.



6 Comments

2011-05-19T21:01:35.613+03:00

Now that I've finished my series, I'm going to occasionally take the liberty to comment on current events. So let me explain what Obama just said and did not say about his vision of a "peace" agreement:

1. The borders will be based on the '67 lines with swaps. (That's the part the headline writers seized upon.)

2. Israel must withdraw the IDF fully from the areas to be handed to the Palestinians. His words: "The full and phased withdrawal of Israeli military forces should be coordinated with the assumption of Palestinian security responsibility in a sovereign, non-militarized state." This contradicts one of Israel's main demands, namely, that the IDF remain in the Jordan valley.

3. He pointedly did not insist that Palestinian refugees be resettled in the Palestinian state, as opposed to in Israel. His words: "Two wrenching and emotional issues remain: the future of Jerusalem, and the fate of Palestinian refugees. But moving forward now on the basis of territory and security provides a foundation to resolve those two issues in a way that is just and fair..."

In short, we got some bla bla about the right to security and the right not to be isolated in the UN, but he sided with our enemies on all the substance.



8 Comments

2011-05-11T17:39:35.076+03:00

By popular (?) demand, I'm posting all the posts in the series in natural order (oldest first). Other than a random change here or there, these are the unedited original posts. I'm planning to now rewrite the whole thing as a coherent essay, which I hope to publish. I'd be very grateful for editorial comments.Thursday, October 07, 2010 Before we ask if and how a Jewish state is good for the Jews, we need to figure out what it means for anything to be good for the Jews. For this we need to deal with very fundamental questions concerning Judaism, specifically with regard to halacha, belief, morality and nationhood. We'll also need to deal with basic economic and political questions concerning the proper role of the state in organizing human affairs. (Foreshadowing: I hate the way I used the word "proper" in the previous sentence. When we get there, I'll be very clear about what I actually mean.) My neighbor will remind me that oceans of ink and rainforests of paper have been spent (wasted?) on such grandiose topics and I'm probably biting off orders of magnitude more than I can chew. I concede his point. But I'm up for a good fight. What's the worst that can happen? In order to prevent this discussion from degenerating into platitudinous claims about what is or isn't ethical or moral grandstanding or partisan political posturing, I'm committing myself to some ground rules in advance. First, I will avoid naked normative claims. Rather than saying that X is right or wrong, I'll say that X will lead to some consequence that I'll stipulate is desirable or undesirable. (I understand that this just shifts the stipulation down one step, but it has the merit of preventing is-ought confusion. I won't be sneaking moral claims past you without sending up a flare.) Second, despite the fact that I'll be discussing political philosophy and religion, I won't use any of the standard labels, like 'religious', 'secular', 'left', 'right', 'liberal', 'conservative', etc. Like most labels, these are often useful shorthands for referring to groups of people who share a variety of views regarding public affairs. Unfortunately, however, they straitjacket discussions by bundling views across issues that are not inherently determinative of one another. When we contrast liberals with conservatives, for example, we bundle views on security and welfare that are indeed empirically correlated, but we pay a price: we become blind to the possibility of decoupling these issues. In short, such labels invite stereotypical thinking; I want to pop open these packages and consider new ways of bundling their contents that might better capture our situation. In fact, while I'm avoiding labels, I'll try to avoid fancy jargon as well. (Yes, one person's fancy jargon is another person's indispensable every-day term; I'll try to be reasonable.) I have a special allergy to Frenchie jargon (which has nothing to do with using French terms but rather with the propensity to make absurdly general and vague claims about capitalized big stuff like Art and Science). Third, I'll avoid appeals to authority. If I'm talking about the limits of state power, for example, it would be dumb not to refer to, say, Mill or to Rawls, who are identified with views that are central to pretty much all contemporary discussion of the topic. But, to the extent that I refer to their views, I'll take them out of the package and be clear about exactly which specific views I mean and I won't make any presumptions about their correctness. And if I cite somebody as a tanna demesaya, it isn't for the purpose of adding weight to my side of the scale, but rather to give credit to someone who stated my own view better than I can. Finally, I won't preach to the choir. My intention is not to let off steam, but rather to persuade people who don't already share my views. Monday, October 11, 2010 If you’re reading this, you presumably understand English. So suppose I asked you to charact[...]



7 Comments

2011-05-05T01:26:40.079+03:00

Let's consider now what specific policy shifts might strengthen communities in Israel. A good starting point for our discussion might be a comparison of community-based charity and state-sponsored welfare. State-sponsored welfare has the obvious advantage of being distributed according to transparent and objective criteria, not according to the whim of askanim. Furthermore, states have tools at their disposal to coordinate and track disbursements to avoid duplication and waste. They also have enforcement mechanisms to punish and deter fraud. On the other hand, private charity, while subject to no small amount of arbitrariness and duplication, offers certain profound advantages. Those responsible for distributing community charities are familiar with their donors and their recipients. They can establish criteria for selecting recipients that don't encourage those who could be self-reliant to become dependent on charity and that motivate donors to wish to donate more. Charity within a community is often regarded by both donors and recipients as a form of good fellowship that, in other circumstances, might flow in the opposite direction. It strengthens communal bonds and increases aggregate social capital. State-sponsored welfare has mostly the opposite effect. States are too large and too committed to "neutral" policies to distribute entitlements according to criteria that might encourage self-reliance. On the contrary, the objective and static rules states must employ to distribute entitlements are easily gamed. They thus reward precisely those least loyal to the state and hence with the least compunctions about gaming the system. By rewarding the unemployed, such entitlements encourage unemployment; by rewarding those without families, they encourage the dissolution of families; by rewarding manipulators, they encourage manipulation. Furthermore, just as citizens learn to game the system of entitlements, politicians learn to exploit it to increase power. The result is a spiral of increasing tutelary power held by the state and diminishing social capital within communities. Israel's welfare policies seem particularly ill-suited to its demographic objectives. For example, child allowance payments in Israel are highly correlated with astronomic birth rates among Bedouin. Moreover, special entitlements granted to single mothers reward illegal polygamy, common among Muslims. Such counter-productiveness is even more conspicuous in Israel's policies with regard to those religious anti-nationalists committed to separatism. Consider the example of kollel stipends. Stipends for kollel students certainly make no less sense than stipends for students of literature or philosophy. They have the added important advantage of increasing the number of students studying Torah. But they have some unintended consequences as well. Obviously, they create dependency on the state. They also encourage administrators who wish to maximize their share of the available funds to use all manner of deceit to game the system. Finally, as we saw earlier, by lowering the cost of learning in kollel, they diminish the signaling value of learning in kollel. As a result, those who would actually prefer to leave and support their families are forced to remain in kollel longer to send a signal of equal value. Thus, the policy of subsidizing kollel study mainly harms those whom it is ostensibly helping. It is important to note that taking into account the dynamics of signaling in separatist communities does not always indicate the preferability of state non-intervention. Let's consider two examples where a small amount of state intervention actually serves the interests of all parties. One of the crucial ways a community preserves its independence is by controlling the content of its educational curriculum. States are often tempted to advance social policies by mandating curricula that they believe serve those polici[...]



7 Comments

2011-04-12T21:16:18.252+03:00

Can the state of Israel balance the need to carry out its functions as a state and preserve its Jewish character while at the same time limiting its involvement in matters better left to communities? I'll divide the discussion into three parts. The first involves diminishing the power and influence of unaffiliateds, the outsized influence of whom on Israeli policy has outlasted its actual support. The second involves defining the boundary between effective social policy and excessive nanny state intervention. The third involves the boundary between useful state involvement in religion and harmful interference in matters better handled by communities. Let's begin with entrenched powers. As we have seen, for secular nationalists, who constituted the bulk of the early Jewish pioneers in Israel, Israeli identity replaced Jewish identity. But statism is fundamentally different than commitment to a moral system. It leads inevitably to the faux moral system of unaffiliateds, which undermines patriotism and – in the name of universal fairness – seeks to push power upward to more global bodies. For some, the striving for universal equality assumes a millennial urgency: they are convinced that equality, and the universal peace that surely must attend it, are within reach. Their faith leads them to judge Israel's manifold enemies too favorably. The inevitable frustration of unaffiliateds' faith leads them to judge those heretics who don't share their naïve views too harshly. More moderate unaffiliateds don't necessarily harbor millennial faith. But, lacking sufficient alternative commitments that might provide them with an outside perch from which to judge the unaffiliated faith more realistically, they are suckers for the global unaffiliated narrative. This narrative demonizes those who make a credible attempt to balance fairness and virtue (most conspicuously, Israel and the U.S), idealizes "noble" savages while subtly belittling them as lacking free will, and aggrandizes international bodies that promote this narrative. Fewer and fewer Israelis actually still identify with these views; from election to election, the number of elected representatives espousing the unaffiliateds' narrative diminishes. Nevertheless, the influence of their views on policy is unabated. What mechanisms account for this "stickiness" of power? There are three influential bodies in Israel that see themselves as having interests opposed to those of Israel's elected representatives. These are the courts, the law enforcement agencies and the press. Individually and collectively, these bodies view themselves as "watchdogs" charged with protecting society from predators, prominent among whom are – in their view – politicians. Moreover, due to various inter-dependencies, these bodies are mutually reinforcing. The press whips up public sentiment that dictate law enforcement's targets and law enforcement agencies use leaks as leverage over the press. The courts educate the press in enlightened thought and the press provides ideological cover for the courts. Law enforcement provides indictments that allow the court to act and the courts reward congenial prosecutors with appointments to the bench. Politicians and other public servants have good reason to be intimidated by the collective power of these three bodies. Collectively, they have persuaded the public that most politicians are corrupt and are in need of adult supervision. Of the last eight Justice Ministers, four (Ne'eman, Hanegbi, Sheetrit and Ramon) were either indicted or threatened with indictment while in that office. Daniel Friedmann was made the object of incessant ridicule and deemed guilty by association with presumably corrupt politicians. Only benign friends of the court – Beilin, Lapid and Livni – got a pass. If the threat of a public trial were not enough to keep public officials in line, ministers are hamstru[...]



2 Comments

2011-03-30T19:20:27.508+03:00

We have seen that anti-religious nationalists, religious ant-nationalists and religious nationalists have all had their favored myths crash against the reality of the state of Israel. I don't lament this collective disillusionment but rather regard it as grounds for optimism. This is because this disillusionment acts principally as a centripetal force: those forced to abandon moribund ideologies shift mostly towards, rather than away from, each other. The descendants of anti-religious nationalists are, in large numbers, seeking ways to re-affiliate with Judaism. Religious anti-nationalists are seeking ways to integrate themselves into the state. Religious nationalists are seeking ways to maintain their commitments to both religion and the state without either commitment distorting the other. Of course, as members of each camp abandon its orthodoxies in the direction of the center, the remaining diehards are driven further away from the center. The diehard descendants of anti-religious nationalists follow the logic of unaffiliatedness to its logical conclusion and are now increasingly internationalist in orientation, despite the manifest dangers of such an ideology for Israel's survival. Diehard religious anti-nationalists are more aggressively hostile to Israel's politics and culture. Diehard religious nationalists are more earnestly devoted to evermore bizarre manifestations of mamlachti ideology. But the eye-catching nature of these phenomena should not divert our attention from the more significant phenomenon to which they are merely responses: a (very) slow migration towards a proper appreciation of the extent and limit of Israel's possible contribution to Jewish identity. To understand why I think this slight shift to common ground is so important, let's recall the notion of equilibrium in a moral system. Moral systems evolve through the interaction of members' moral instincts with an existing code, which itself reflects (possibly imperfectly) some prior consensus of members' moral instincts. Because of its cyclical nature, this process can either spiral towards some favorable equilibrium or it can spin out of control. Even slightly increasing differences between sub-groups within the system can trigger a bad spiral. As ideological differences between them grow more acute, such sub-groups engage in signaling wars that drive them even further apart. Each develops its own distinct code that is so skewed along critical dimensions (for example, particularity/universalism) that the moral instincts of those committed to such a code simply fail to function. Similarly, even slight decreases in variance can trigger a virtuous cycle in which increasing trust among groups leads to broader consensus and increasing willingness to rely on moral instincts. The consensus that slowly emerges from such reliance on moral instincts (as constrained by prior consensus) then itself serves as a more congenial basis for the exercise of moral instincts. By forcing collective action, the state of Israel has catalyzed a process of convergence. (Yes, the growing rifts among the diehards are more conspicuous, but think less about what you see in the press and more about what you see in your own everyday interactions.) Let me be a bit more specific about the kind of common ground we can expect to see specifically with regard to halacha. What I think I see developing in Israel (and I have no statistics to back me up, only my own lying eyes) is a tendency towards "normalcy" in halacha. In galus, many aspects of real life – defense, agriculture, art, music, literature, etc. – were not separable from a general culture which Jews wished to resist. Hence, halacha served to some extent to separate Jews from such real life concerns and, in some cases, to create a virtual world into which Jews could escape. Halacha was most effective at achieving that objec[...]



2 Comments

2011-03-16T23:13:02.144+03:00

Quick catch-up: I've been arguing that a Jewish state can serve as a catalyst for Jewish renewal, but that all of the dominant ideologies in Israel miss this point. We have seen that secular nationalists thought that the state could replace the Jewish community with a civil community and that religious anti-nationalist imagined that a Jewish state would have no effect – or negative effect – on Judaism. Now let's consider the case of religious nationalists. Religious nationalists had to contend above all with a proposition regarding which secular nationalists and religious anti-nationalists were in full agreement: that religion and nationalism were incompatible. In particular, as we have seen, the founding of a viable modern state would necessarily entail fundamental changes in the traditional Jewish ethos. Jews would need to assume more positive attitudes towards political authority and towards military culture and the scope of halakhah would need to expand to incorporate (at least some) national affairs. Early religious nationalists, such as Rav Yaakov Reines took a pragmatic approach to the opportunities and dangers: they considered the trade-offs and decided that, given the Jews' precarious political situation, the package was worthwhile. For most religious Jews who embraced the nationalist movement, however, the millennial significance of a return to Jewish sovereignty in Eretz Yisrael was too momentous an event to frame in terms of pragmatic trade-offs. To them, it seemed more appropriate to reinterpret the challenges presented by secular nationalism as essential components of a Grand Plan. Thus, the new definition of national power was embraced. The necessary tools of state-building – agriculture, military, industrial – were not simply necessary burdens but sacred endeavors worthy of the kind of veneration earlier reserved for matters of the spirit. Army uniforms were the new priestly garments. Furthermore, political subversiveness was replaced by its polar opposite, mamlachtiut: the doctrine that whatever apparent flaws the products of this redemptive process – the state and its institutions – might suffer from, they and their proximate agents should be regarded as endowed with a divine imprimatur. Finally, the state was designated as the appropriate authority for deciding and regulating religious matters. The state would appoint rabbanim, enforce religious legislation and fund religious services. Voluntary religious community organizations would be upgraded to state institutions. Secular officials, by virtue of being agents of the state and hence the bearers of profound religious longings of which they might be unaware, could be trusted to manage religious affairs. In this view, the anticipated Jewish state would not replace religion, as secular nationalists anticipated, but rather would upgrade and subsume it. This optimistic view envisioned a mythical state different than the one anticipated by the bulk of Israel's founders and, indeed, different than the one that actually exists. The actual state of Israel is a civil democracy in which political rights are grounded in citizenship, which is influenced by, but not determined by, ethnicity or religious commitment and in which laws are influenced by, but not determined by, Jewish tradition. To imagine that it could have been otherwise, that it is otherwise or that it will be otherwise in the foreseeable future is to live in a fantasy world. The inability or unwillingness to acknowledge the yawning gap between the mythical state envisioned by religious nationalists – the one that is yesod kisei hashem ba-olam – and the actual civil state – many of the institutions of which are structurally anti-religious – prevents religious nationalists from comprehending political events and, hence, from reacting to them in a rational ma[...]



3 Comments

2011-03-08T15:50:39.317+03:00

As we saw in my previous post, the secular Jewish nationalist movement of the late 19th century was revolutionary by its very nature. It sought to replace a Jewish identity rooted in religion with one rooted initially in ethnicity and ultimately in citizenship. While there were many who failed to appreciate the depth of this inherent conflict, there were others, especially among the rabbinic leadership, who did – and rejected the nationalist movement for precisely that reason. The growing visibility and popularity of secular nationalism could not leave traditional Judaism indifferent. Even if, as we have seen, secular nationalists rejected crucial elements of the traditional narrative, the fact was that the very return to Eretz Yisrael on a mass level did seem to be a manifestation of at least one crucial facet of the traditional narrative. But, ideological religious opponents of secular nationalism chose to attack exactly at the point of maximal resistance. Secular nationalism was rejected not only for undercutting the continuity of Jewish tradition, but also – indeed primarily – for undercutting the very aspect of the traditional narrative that it appeared to be upholding, namely, that of redemption from the diaspora and the return to Eretz Yisrael. The argument, easily grounded in traditional sources, was that attempts to force premature redemption would interfere with the authentic ultimate redemption and lead to nothing but catastrophe. Ideology notwithstanding, the history of the 20th century was such that the return of Jews – secular nationalists, religious anti-nationalists and others of various stripes – to Eretz Yisrael became an incontrovertible fact. Under these circumstances, religious objections to secular nationalism took on a more concrete and specific character. There were three aspects of traditional Judaism as it had been practiced in the diaspora that were under direct threat in a state run by Jews. First, in galuti Judaism, the life of the spirit had been paramount. Jews had redefined power in terms of cultural autonomy, the power to live their lives according to their own traditions and to pass on their cultural and intellectual legacy to their children. The power to move armies was not among their aspirations. Working the land or soldiering were regarded as unfortunate burdens and not acts of personal redemption. Second, the diaspora version of Judaism was wary of any political authority, if not downright subversive. This was both a matter of principle and a matter of bitter political experience. Third, halakhah in the diaspora had adapted itself to a lack of political, economic and judicial autonomy. It functioned reasonably well at the level of individuals or communities, but it had not been tested at the level of the state – and certainly not at the level of a modern state conceived in secular terms. For better or worse, all three of these crucial aspects of traditional Judaism were now being directly challenged. The response of traditionalist ant-nationalists, who wished to preserve the old model of Judaism despite the manifest change in circumstances, was to try to maintain maximal autonomy from the state. Either for lack of choice or for lack of imagination, they attempted to achieve this by subscribing to the myth that living in a state in Eretz Yisrael run by secular Jews was no different than living in a state in Europe run by goyim. But just as the central myth of secular nationalism – that a community based on citizenship alone is sustainable as a moral community – ultimately crashed against reality, so too the central myth of what I'll call "religious separatism" crashed against reality. As a result, religious separatists have failed completely at achieving their central goal, namely, autonomy. Seldom has a community been s[...]



4 Comments

2011-02-28T00:31:23.097+03:00

As had happened many times before in Jewish history, many European Jews in the late 19th century found themselves in a quandary. They no longer identified fully with the code and narrative of Judaism, some because the communities they belonged to were too provincial and others because the communities they belonged to were too acculturated. But, they felt themselves part of the Jewish nation and, in the spirit of the time, they had national aspirations that they sought to realize through the establishment of a Jewish state. For others, who did initially identify with Judaism as a moral system, nationalist yearnings drew them away from certain traditionalist attitudes. A nationalist awakening entailed overcoming traditions of quietism and passive forbearance. Inevitably, it replaced the authority of elders and sages with that of the young and vital who could tame the Land that they wished to redeem. They sought a new kind of power, political and physical, different than that which Jews had cultivated for almost two millennia. Nothing short of a rebellion would do. It wasn't only the code that had to change. The narrative had to change as well. Indeed, the young nationalists carried with them many elements of the classic Jewish narrative. They "recalled" a glorious Jewish past and they viewed the return to the Land to which they aspired in millennial terms. But the past glories which they wished to revive were defined in political terms, not moral terms. As a result, a critical link in the narrative was missing: the past glories and the anticipated future ones were not mediated by a continuous tradition, as they were in the traditionalist narrative. In the nationalist narrative, nothing short of revolutionary means could overcome thousands of years of history that were, by this account, essentially wasted. Some, following the ex-chassidic writer Micha Yosef Berdichevsky, saw Judaism as it had evolved in Europe as irredeemably desiccated. Ma tzarim oholecha Yaakov, mishkenotecha Yisrael, Berdichevsky railed. How narrow are your tents Jacob, your dwellings Israel. Others, following the ex-chassidic writer Ahad HaAm (Asher Ginsberg), held that the nationalist movement needed to maintain cultural continuity with contemporary Judaism, but needed to strip that culture of its specifically religious elements. The obvious question is whether a form of Judaism truncated to serve the, wholly or partially, revolutionary specifications of non-religious nationalism is sustainable in the long term. The best way to form an optimistic view on the matter is to read a writer like Berdichevsky. His masterful Hebrew, his command of rabbinic sources and ability to use them to undercut their own intended message testify to the astonishing creativity unleashed by the nationalist revolution. Unfortunately, while the creativity is genuine, the effect is like being whacked over the head by an optical illusion. This creativity is not a product of the culture created by the revolution but rather it is a product of the culture replaced by the revolution. To live in a world of tradition with few outlets for creativity is to be like a rubber band twisted tighter and tighter; to abandon that world is to convert all that potential energy into kinetic energy. The kinetic energy is dazzling, but it's non-transferable. Those who come after the revolution haven't stored enough potential energy to be very interesting. In any event, the generation that came of age in 1948 found its identity not in a truncated Judaism but rather in the newly-established state. The moral system to which they gave their sole allegiance was that of the laws of the state; the community membership they valued was citizenship. Citizenship in Israel is no trifling matter; it has always entailed significant commit[...]



1 Comments

2011-02-01T01:02:04.199+03:00

Until now I’ve been discussing states and communities in a somewhat general way. From this post on, I’ll focus specifically on Israel. One of the main questions I set out to answer when I embarked on this series is how exactly the existence of a Jewish state advances the interests of the Jewish people. Most of the various tangents I’ve indulged were intended to make possible a coherent answer to that question. Let’s review a bit. I defined Judaism as a moral system in which a community maintains and develops a code and a narrative and rules for deciding membership. For the system to survive, the code must correspond sufficiently to members’ moral instincts to encourage continued commitment to the received code as well as the application of those instincts to the code’s continued development. Similar constraints exist along the dimensions of narrative and membership. When the system works well, we say that it is in equilibrium. When I refer to the interests of the Jewish people, I mean the maintenance or restoration of equilibrium of the Jewish moral system. (Yes, not getting killed is also an interest of Jews, but – absent a specific interest in Jewish continuity – it need not be a collective interest of the Jews.) We have seen that the system is out of equilibrium when sub-communities drive the code in opposite directions, some emphasizing the universal and others emphasizing the community-specific. Similarly, sub-communities drive the narrative to opposite extremes, some thickening it to increase intensity, others watering it down to increase plausibility. Finally, signaling wars in which members of sub-communities do increasingly wasteful things to signal loyalty drive sub-communities further and further apart and make membership in any of them increasingly costly. If we think about what catalyzes these bad dynamics, we might begin to appreciate how a state might set us on the opposite course. The key factor undermining equilibrium is the inability to live by the community’s moral code in an instinctive manner. In terms of the analogy between morality and language drawn earlier, we might say that the problem is that the moral code is spoken self-consciously like a second language rather than instinctively and fluently like a first language. While we can instinctively chart a middle course between universality and particularism, reflection on the matter can leave us confused and tentative so that small social pressures can push us towards one extreme or the other. The interaction of many slightly off-center community members can lead to the emergence of distinct sub-communities drawing further and further apart. Such self-consciousness has the same bad effect on the narrative. As I pointed out earlier, the narrative functions best when it is experienced directly and instinctively, not when it is consciously articulated. In the latter case, we are drawn off-center on the substantiveness-plausibility continuum and similar bad dynamics ensue. Finally, when affiliation with the community is self-conscious rather than instinctive, members’ mutual recognition is not immediate and they are forced to resort to escalating signaling games to convince each of their loyalty. The connection between statehood and naturalness is not hard to see. A moral system both creates and responds to a moral environment. When a good part of that environment is immune to the effects of the moral system, members of the moral community are forced into self-consciousness. Jews in galut were dependent on others and vulnerable to ill-will by others. The public square in which they participated was largely shaped by the moral sensibilities (and depredations) of others. Even in ostensibly congenial countries, Jews who wished to get [...]



11 Comments

2011-01-23T23:15:11.816+03:00

Every now and then people who, in the grand scheme of things, look and sound more or less like me state opinions that leave me pinching myself to see if I haven’t been sucked through the rabbit hole. Often these have to do with freedoms they would like to sacrifice to government bureaucrats. One neighbor of mine told me that when friends abroad mention charity they donated to the poor, he responds that he gives much more charity than them because he pays income tax to the Israeli government. I suppose that if he finds subsidizing corrupt labor unions, paying Azmi Bishara’s pension and hiring foreign corporations to build decorative bridges from nowhere to nowhere as fulfilling as feeding widows and orphans, he’s absolutely right. Another time, in discussions about a constitutional proposal I was working on, someone insisted that I include that the government only appoint dayanim who are yirei shamayim. When I suggested that this kind of language was likely to prove ineffective in a constitutional context and that perhaps it would be better if dayanim weren’t appointed by the government at all, he looked at me like I was odd and asked, in all sincerity, who would pay for them, if not the government. In this post, I will try to explain the crucial idea that my interlocutors seem to have missed. (Why they missed it is also an interesting question and I hope to get to that in my next post.) As we have seen, a person can find identity and meaning through voluntary participation in a community of people that share a moral code and narrative. A state is not such a community. As the British philosopher Roger Scruton puts it: “Citizenship is precisely not a form of brotherhood, of the kind that follows from a shared act of heartfelt submission: it is a relation among strangers, a collective apartness, in which fulfillment and meaning are confined to the private sphere.” In the terms of Durkheim we considered earlier, the state is a kind of gesellschaft, not a gemeinschaft. The dynamics of moral communities are such that they always tend towards a certain degree of homogeneity. Individuals who don’t fit in are encouraged to leave and are generally happy to do so. When communities become too diverse, they split into sub-communities that are each more homogeneous. Citizenship, on the other hand, is based on territory and is often involuntary, so that the citizenry of a state tends to be heterogeneous. As we saw in my previous post, when there is little agreement within a state regarding moral matters, it is generally in everybody’s interest that the state be as neutral as possible on such matters. As a result, states are hardly likely to provide enough of a moral core for citizenship to constitute a “form of brotherhood”. Typically, therefore, communities and states co-exist, each providing some human needs. The point that is often under-appreciated is that states and communities are in competition. They compete for our allegiance. As a member of my community, I have special loyalty to fellow community members. The state requires, however, that, within those areas that are regulated by the state, I treat all citizens equally. As a member of my community, I have very specific ideas about what is right and what is wrong. The state requires that, within those areas subject to legislation, I obey the laws of the state, whether or not they coincide with my ideas of right and wrong. One of the ways that the state and communities compete for our allegiance is through the supply of services. Support for the poor can be provided through community-based charity or state allowances and welfare. Education can be provided either by communities in accord with the values and standards of the community[...]



1 Comments

2011-01-16T22:06:21.924+03:00

Let’s think about what legislating morality is likely to achieve. What are the costs and benefits of, for example, outlawing public indecency or selling chametz on Pesach in Israel? What are the costs and benefits of government non-recognition of same-sex unions or heterodox marriage and divorce? To repeat a point I’ve already made, I’m entirely unpersuaded by a priori normative arguments against (or for) such legislation. I don’t understand the difference between “public arguments” (good) and “comprehensive theories” (bad). Likewise, I don’t understand why arguments from religion are unacceptable, but arguments from other no-less-rigid ideologies (pick your favorite contemporary –ism) are fine. I don’t see why forbidding the sale of whale blubber on kashrus grounds is illegitimate but forbidding it on ecological grounds is praiseworthy. I also don’t understand how we might distinguish a priori between water pollution as a negative externality and indecency as a negative externality. Of course, I don’t understand all those things because I belong to a community and community-based ethics and divinity-based ethics are meaningful to me. If I were unaffiliated and understood only autonomy-based ethics, all the above distinctions would be obvious to me. None of which means that legislating morality is necessarily a good idea, even for those who are affiliated with a community. In this post, I’ll state the perfectly obvious idea that those who wish to strengthen Judaism as a community endeavor might find that the costs of such legislation outweigh the benefits. In the next post, I’ll explain why certain legislation will almost certainly weaken precisely the communities we wish to strengthen. Suppose we (whoever “we” happens to be) have the power to pass some legislation designed to anchor some moral principle in law, say, forbidding the sale of pork. Of course, the underlying moral principle in this case is meaningful to me but probably completely inaccessible to many other people. What are the benefits to me of such a law? Well, I’m likely to get a public square more to my taste. If the sight and smell of pork makes me ill the same way polluted air makes some people ill, such a law might help me avoid it. If seeing people blithely flouting our common heritage offends my moral sensibilities the same way that the sale of cat or dog meat might offend their sensibilities, such a law might spare me such offense. If I genuinely fear for the souls of sinners, such a law might save them from the fires of hell. Indeed, such a law might even help to strengthen national solidarity by contributing to a core of shared values. But what is the cost I incur from such a law? Well, obviously it can backfire. It might cause resentment among people who might otherwise have not had any particular interest in pork and result in more commerce in pork than there might otherwise have been. It might also increase divisiveness and weaken solidarity. But I think the main cost has to do with a very real “veil of ignorance”. We might have the power to pass some legislation today that pushes some moral principle that we believe in. But we are quite ignorant about how the chips of power might fall tomorrow or the day after. If we push through a ban on pork today, people with stricter sensibilities and sharper eyes might push through a ban on broccoli tomorrow and some tender souls might ban animal slaughter the day after that. It might be in our interest – indeed it might actually be in everyone’s interest – to call a truce on certain kinds of moral legislation simply to avoid mutual harassment. Now to be sure, it might not be in our interest to call a truc[...]



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2011-01-10T15:47:34.215+03:00

We’ve been considering how Jewish statehood can advance Jewish peoplehood and, in particular, whether this would be advanced or hindered by state involvement in redistribution and regulation and/or state involvement in legislating morality. Since I want to give nuanced answers to these questions, I first want to dispose of the approach that argues that questions concerning the desirability or effectiveness of state actions are rendered irrelevant by normative claims regarding what the state is forbidden or obligated to do. I’ll start the story with Jeremy Bentham, who argued that the state should act in such a way that would maximize the aggregate welfare of its citizens, roughly speaking, the sum of the utilities held by individual citizens. (For those who aren’t accustomed to the term, utility is an economics term that is not quite as objective as dollars (for example, your millionth dollar is of less marginal utility to you than your first dollar – the one that lets you buy a loaf of bread that you otherwise couldn’t afford), but is not quite as squishy as “happiness”.) It’s easy to see that this criterion, by itself, does not fit well with our moral intuitions. To take a notorious example, throwing gladiators into a ring to tear each other apart for the amusement of thousands of spectators might add to the sum of people’s happiness (thousands of people are entertained while only two suffer terribly), but still sounds like a bad idea. This example points up at least three problems with the utility maximization criterion. First, utilities are not really comparable: how does one compare the negative utility of being torn apart with the positive utility of being entertained. Second, in considering only aggregate utility, it fails to consider the distribution of that utility among individuals. Third, some things ought to be regarded as wrong, even if they do add to aggregate utility. These problems were addressed by many philosophers and economists over the years, none more thoroughly and influentially than the late Harvard philosopher, John Rawls. But before we get to Rawls, allow me to reminisce about some of the happier hours of my elementary school years. During recess we would often play punchball on West 89th Street between Riverside Drive and West End Avenue. Home plate was a manhole (we called it a “sewer”) and second base was the next manhole east of it (it never crossed our minds that a ball could be punched from east to west). First base and third base were specified by agreement on opposite sides of the street about midway between home plate and second base. Asphalt was fair territory and the sidewalk was foul. The problem was that cars might be parked on either side of the street or both (depending in part on which alternate side parking regulations were in effect). Which cars were fair and which foul and various other ground rules were subject to negotiations between team captains or general shouting by everybody. Since some players were power hitters while others were weaker but more accurate hitters, rules could be cherry-picked to advantage one team or another. A plausible meta-rule for ensuring fair rules would be that captains would determine the rules without taking into account which team they were on. This would ensure that ground rules would not be biased towards one strategy or another (they’d be fair by being neutral). Likewise, it would ensure that runs and opportunities to score runs would initially be equally distributed, so that, for example, last licks were guaranteed if the team batting second was trailing. (In practice, the rebbe (pronounced ‘rebbie’) would end recess at his whim, s[...]



2 Comments

2011-01-02T22:10:27.927+03:00

Garden variety discussions of what the state ought to do are inevitably frustrating and pointless. People assert, often with great passion, that the state is obligated to do such-and-such or that it has no right to do such-and-such. But these claims typically lack any content beyond a declaration of personal preference. Don’t get me wrong. I’m prepared to defend the view that people do have moral intuitions and that these intuitions are no less real than other forms of cognition. So I’m not afraid of normative claims. But moral intuitions are adequate only within the context of a particular moral tradition. Given a substantive body of moral traditions, our intuitions can help guide us along at forks in the road. But normative discussions regarding the roles of states generally take place across moral communities that lack sufficient common ground. Making normative assertions in such a context are like shouting directions on the basis of compass readings without benefit of a map. Now this hasn’t prevented libraries from filling up with tracts on political philosophy. In my next post, I hope to deal with some of the main ideas for regulating discourse across moral communities. But for now I want to discuss some ideas proposed by economists that actually have some analytic and empirical content. Economists ask which economic functions can be carried out more efficiently by the state than by free markets. (Of course, the word “efficiently” might very well be hiding some moral questions about which people might be disagree, but let’s elide that for the moment.) For this reason, I propose to begin this discussion from the economic point of view with an eye towards expanding out from there to broader moral questions. There are a number of economic roles that even the most determined free-marketeers are prepared to concede to the state. (The second chapter of Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom is as good a starting point as any for such a discussion.) First of all, for the market to work at all, property rights need to be protected. A police force, an army and a justice system are needed to ensure that property isn’t stolen or conquered and that contracts are honored. Second, there are certain kinds of goods and transactions for which the market is likely to fail. For example, some goods like roads or streetlamps are non-excludable; once someone supplies them everyone can use them and there is no mechanism for collecting compensation for that use. In such cases, nobody will be willing to provide the goods. (Of course, nowadays there are technologies for efficiently collecting tolls on roads with restricted entry and exit and indeed such roads are increasingly being privatized.) Similarly, there are actions that impose costs on others (negative externalities) but for which it is impossible to compensate them. For example, my car pollutes the air you breathe, an imposition for which you and I could probably agree on some compensation. But, there is no practical mechanism through which I could execute that transaction with you and the indeterminate group of others similarly affected. The government, acting as a proxy for you, can at least charge me for my free ride by, for example, taxing gasoline. Third, once we have conceded that the state needs to fulfill these roles, it must necessarily also establish the means and the mechanisms to do so. Broadly speaking, it needs to carry out some fiscal policy (setting taxation levels and spending levels and priorities), as well as some monetary policy (controlling money supply and setting interest rates). So much for the roles of the state that are gene[...]



4 Comments

2010-12-27T21:40:06.148+03:00

We have seen that Judaism can best be thought of as a process in which a community carries forward and develops a moral code and a narrative. The moral code itself involves expressions of national and ethnic solidarity, so that it is impossible to separate moral and ethnic commitments. Since membership in the community is itself determined by identification with the code and narrative, there is an inherent circularity to the process that makes it susceptible to disequilibria. In fact, from the mid-18th century to the mid-20th century, emancipation of the Jews and general secularization in parts of Europe combined with persecution of the Jews led to precisely the kind of disequilibrium I discussed in earlier posts. We find the bonds of tradition weakening for some, while for others tradition becomes more and more stringent and detailed. The restriction of outlets for Jewish creativity in political and economic spheres led to hyper-intellectualization of reality. At the apex of this process, Rav Chaim Brisker could find broad abstract structures in a haphazard mass of evolving traditions and the Sfas Emes could reduce the entire concrete world to an arbitrary and somewhat intrusive instantiation of the symbolic world. The need for the faithful to signal loyalty to ever narrower splinter group led to increasing emphasis on precisely those aspects of tradition that were obscure and unnatural and the lack of opportunity for constructive sacrifice led to socially costly signaling. As migration and emancipation in some places led to increasing encounters with others, the need for the faithful to affirm an articulated narrative became that much greater and the specificity of the narrative grew as well. Affirming belief in the genius of the sages, the powers of the righteous and the inevitable downfall of the wicked became a litmus test of loyalty in parallel with mass defection from traditional faith. Each was a reaction to the other and together they constituted a spiral driving further and further from equilibrium. It is easy to understand how the founding of a Jewish state could address these problems. A state would provide constructive outlets for creativity. Jewish traditions could be applied to whole areas of activity that had been off limits for centuries. The ingathering of exiles would focus attention on the common, more foundational, elements of Jewish tradition, rather than on the random details manifest in the particular codes of each sub-sub-community. Jews could signal loyalty to the community and to tradition by making socially constructive sacrifices on behalf of the general welfare. And the main elements of the narrative, the rewarding of the Jews’ loyalty to tradition by their return to former glories, would be affirmed before the eyes of the whole world. (To avoid giving the appearance of neglecting the obvious I should add that a Jewish state also held the crucial promise of increasing the security and prosperity of the Jews. But I regard this as subsumed in the above. Moreover, if the sole desiderata were security and prosperity and not the preservation of the process, assimilation might have been a better solution.) Now there are two ways of understanding how the founding of a state could address the problems enumerated above. In the first understanding, the role of the state is simply to create conditions that catalyze a return of Judaism towards equilibrium. It is sufficient that the state provides Jews with liberty, with an environment that reflects the values of a preponderantly Jewish population and with opportunities to express Jewish tradition creatively in many a[...]



10 Comments

2010-12-19T18:22:53.410+03:00

In the previous post, we made the acquaintance of my hypothetical unaffiliated neighbor. He’s basically a decent fellow whose moral commitments are focused on the only kind of morality he understands – fairness. The kinds of morality that flow from community affiliation – loyalty to a specific tradition and the bearers of that tradition – appear to him (as an outsider to all such traditions) as manifestations of clannishness and xenophobia. In the name of fairness, he seeks to at least level the playing field on which successful and unsuccessful communities compete by undermining successful communities. I find this objective malign enough, but in this post I’ll explain why the malignancy is compounded by the methods that flow naturally from the logic of unaffiliation.Recall how communities reach a collective decision regarding some issue. The starting point is the received wisdom regarding comparable issues. Multiple spontaneous individual decisions, as well as deliberate rulings by elders, ultimately coalesce into some sort of consensus that is incorporated into the received wisdom of the next generation. The process, like the community itself, is assumed to continue indefinitely. Now consider how the same issue might be resolved in the absence of a community. In such a case, received wisdom carries little weight. The role of elders is assumed by experts, whose job is not to interpret received wisdom but rather to design optimal solutions from scratch. And the relevant time horizon is short since decisions are not tentative steps in an open-ended process, but rather attempts to optimize something or other here and now.This approach to decision-making should frighten you. Decisions made by experts more inclined to defy tradition than to respect it are much more likely to lead to catastrophe than decisions that evolve naturally from time-tested traditions. This is all the more true if the objective of such decisions is to maximize something in the short term rather than to achieve some good enough result for now and allow the process to continue to creep in the right general direction. There might not be any very good solution in the short term to what ails us and the insistence on finding one is likely to wreak havoc.But let’s get back to my neighbor. He knows two things. He wants to bring successful communities down a few notches and he trusts experts, not elders, to figure out how to get things done. In other words, he is inclined towards policies that affect very many people (communities) that are crafted by very few people (experts). Not to put too fine a point on it, my neighbor’s view of the world – a view that follows logically from his lack of affiliation with any moral community – is one in which the consequences of decisions flow from the top down. He trusts experts to compute just how to redistribute and to diversify in the very best possible way. Do I need to explain how this takes us down the road to serfdom?When you have a hammer, the whole world is a nail. And when you trust experts to engineer societies, the world’s most pressing problems are bound to be the ones amenable to social engineering. Like Thomas Sowell’s “anointed”, my neighbor is well practiced at discovering crises that imperil cities, countries, preferably the cosmos itself, but to which the benighted masses are oblivious. The experts, however, know just what to do, namely, regulate the dangerous behavior of the masses.So, for example, I’m an agnostic on global warming (or whatever they call it these days), at least as far as the science goes. But as far as [...]



4 Comments

2010-12-13T14:47:50.491+03:00

So we have met the unaffiliateds and mused about their narrative and code. My actual neighbor says, perhaps somewhat wistfully, that unaffiliateds make good neighbors. I wonder about that. It is certainly true that an unaffiliated neighbor is unlikely to blow up my house while shouting “Allahu Akhbar!”. He’s also unlikely to care if I’m a Zali or an Aroini or a mamlachti or an anti-mamlachti. He just wants fairness and justice. What could be bad? The instinct for fairness is one of the three flavors of moral instinct that we considered earlier. Although it’s less community-dependent than the others, the fairness instinct is still a bit hard to pin down. We sense that it is connected to equality among people, but there are many versions of equality. Do we wish all goods to be distributed equally among individuals? Do we seek only equality of opportunity? Should only goods be equally distributed or perhaps also power? Brief reflection will lead to the conclusion that these possible interpretations of equality are not only incompatible but individually incoherent. If we insist on equal distribution of goods, we’d have to prevent commerce which would quickly lead to inequality. Moreover, assigning some people the power to ensure equal distribution of goods means that power is unequally distributed. Furthermore, the total amount of goods available is not fixed but rather dependent on production, which itself is a function of incentives that would be greatly diminished by guaranteed equality. Furthermore, the same goods have different utility for different people so equal distribution of goods does not imply equal distribution of utility. One can go on and on in this vein. What concerns me about my hypothetical unaffiliated neighbor is what kind of equality he intends to strive for. Since I’m familiar with the narrative of his quasi-community of unaffiliateds, I have some notion of what sort of equality might appeal to him. My neighbor can’t fail to note that members of communities attempt to balance fairness with community-based ethics like loyalty. But since to him loyalty has little value and fairness has infinite value, he regards moral communities as little more than mafias committed to their own good at the expense of others. He is doubly offended that there is blatant inequality among communities; some communities are materially successful, while others are poor. But worse than this, some seem to achieve some equilibrium in which the flavors of morality are plausibly balanced, while others abandon any pretense of substantive commitment either to loyalty to insiders or to fairness to outsiders. And in fact the two kinds of success, material and moral, seem to be correlated. (The reason for this correlation is that societies with a high degree of social trust are best able to do commerce, but this needn’t concern us here.) Such a community’s success is offensive to my neighbor’s sensibilities because, apart from its unfair success, such a community presumes to be something it cannot be – both cohesive and fair. The sort of fairness my neighbor will seek, then, is one that levels the playing field on which successful and unsuccessful communities compete. More precisely, he will seek to sabotage successful communities in the name of justice. The intermediate objectives will sound rather benign: redistribution and diversity. The rhetoric of redistribution will always emphasize the need to care for the sick and the elderly, but the logic of redistribution can’t be restricted to the level of individuals. Even if ea[...]



4 Comments

2010-12-19T18:24:07.379+03:00

We have seen that when unaffiliateds coalesce into a sort of non-community community, a narrative emerges according to which fairness is divine and the ethics of community and divinity are retrograde values that necessarily compromise fairness. Since this narrative does not grow organically from the full range of moral instincts but rather from their suppression, it might be more precise to refer to it as an ideology than as a narrative. Rather than emerging as a by-product of a code, this ideology invents a matching code. Let’s consider what such a code might look like. In Sefer Kedushah, the Rambam divides “holiness” into two main categories: those related to restrictions on sex (beeos assuros) and those related to restrictions on food (maachalos assuros). That’s a convenient framework in which to consider the code of the unaffiliated. Restrictions on sexual conduct such as bestiality, adultery, incest and homosexuality are common across cultures. For unaffiliateds, such restrictions can only be justified if they can somehow be translated into terms of fairness and avoidance of harm to others. Here’s an experiment you can try. Ask somebody if they regard incest as immoral. Because human beings are hard-wired to regard incest as immoral, they will say yes. Then ask them why it’s immoral. If they belong to any moral community in the world from Williamsburg to Tuvalu, they might mention God or the moral community they belong to or their internal moral compass, but in the end they will simply be communicating to you that they just know it’s wrong the same way they know the sky is blue. But if they subscribe to the faith of the unaffiliated, they will need to find some way to locate the problem in some harm that incest causes to others. So spin a yarn where such harm is precluded: full consent of both sides is given, precautions against pregnancy and disease have been taken, nobody will ever know about it. Try it (the experiment); it’s fun. (If you can’t be bothered, you can just read about the results of precisely that experiment here.) I want to emphasize that what we are discussing here is not whether the state should be involved in regulating sexual conduct. That is a separate question that I intend to discuss later. The point here is that among the unaffiliated, sex is amoralized. This is the result, first of all, of an unwillingness to recognize the types of morality that are community-dependent. But when this unwillingness hardens into an ideology, the amoralization of sex serves a secondary purpose: it corrodes family life that serves as the most effective vehicle for creating communal bonds. In short, the traditional family structure is the best guarantor of the continuity of mesorah; weakening it undermines mesorah. Now let’s consider restrictions on food. Here’s where something quite astonishing happens. As Mary Eberstadt points out, the very people who are licentious about sex have become puritanical about food, an example of the phenomenon Steven Pinker refers to as the Law of Conservation of Moralization. The consumption of meat, industrial breeding, genetically-enhanced produce, the use of pesticides, supersized portions, trans-fats and the transport of food have all been moralized by the unaffiliated. When I say they’ve been moralized, I mean specifically that unaffiliateds regard it as wrong for anyone to transgress in this area, not merely that they prefer to abstain. Of course, it is not difficult to translate all these transgressions into the language of fairness. It[...]



4 Comments

2010-11-23T12:49:13.197+03:00

In the next few posts, I’ll try to outline the creole moral system that emerges when people unaffiliated with any established moral community begin to form their own community. Since the type of moral principles that are inherently tied to a particular moral community are not accessible to the unaffiliateds, the delicate balance (described earlier) between fairness, the specifics of which are less tied to a particular culture, and ethics of community and divinity, the specifics of which are strongly tied to a particular culture, is resolved by granting primacy to the former in all cases. This single decision forms the basis of we might think of as a pseudo-religion, one complete with code, narrative and aggregation rules. I’ll start from the narrative, the doctrinal basis for this emergent system, for reasons that I hope will become clear. We saw earlier that when the Jewish narrative is made explicit, it consists of three main threads: a unique origin, reward for adherents, and an orientation towards redemption. Actually, most religious narratives can be made to neatly fit that paradigm and the emergent religion of the unaffiliated is no exception. The first article of faith is that all instantiations of the ethics of community and divinity are arbitrary social constructs but that the ethics of fairness/justice/equality are objective, self-evident and real. Members of the unaffiliated faith are moral absolutists with regard to the obligation to respect others’ rights, but moral relativists with regard to good and evil, insofar as good and evil can’t be translated into the language of rights. Once you are committed by lack of affiliation to the relativism of the kind of morality that requires a community, whatever morality is left looms large. It is but a short leap of faith to the conclusion that “rights” are woven into the very fabric of the universe. (In fact, we will see that Kant, and subsequently Rawls, explicitly defend the primacy of rights over goodness based on a conception of human beings in which membership in a moral community is a secondary and contingent aspect of human identity. That’s all tied up with powers of the state, so I’ll leave that discussion for when we get to the problem of statehood.) The second article of faith is that all narratives of moral communities are false and lead to ruin. (This narrative itself is exempted; the non-God of the unaffiliated is a jealous One.) In fact, there is a whole theology the sole object of which is to systematically demonstrate how every other narrative is designed for the sole purpose of subjugating victims to the whims of powerful insiders. It is instructive to compare this article of faith to that of traditional religions, which also regard other religions as false. It is often glibly said that the faith of the unaffiliated and the faith of the affiliated are very similar. The affiliated think that all moral communities but one are misguided and the unaffiliated only disagree about the one. This misses the point. I might regard the belief system of another community as bizarre, but I understand that I am viewing that belief system from the outside while a member of the other community is experiencing it from the inside. I understand this because I experience my own belief system from the inside. I might view the specifics of another community’s code as arbitrary, but I understand that the commitment of a member of that community to that code might nevertheless be authentic and not instrumental, be[...]



6 Comments

2010-11-17T12:08:49.809+03:00

If you’re anything like most people I know, you probably live in at least two different worlds. One of them is your religious community and the other is the company or institution where you work. And you probably relate to these in very different ways. Your religious is community is more central to your identity; it is one in which you are more emotionally invested and for which you are willing to make greater sacrifices. Your business relationships are essentially instrumental; they are characterized by self-interests that happen to intersect with those of others. When those interests don’t overlap, you’re unlikely to sacrifice your own for those of the company. The distinction between these two types of groups lies at the foundation of 19th century sociology. Since the early sociologists who first developed these ideas, Ferdinand Tonnies and Emil (Dovid ben HaRav Moshe) Durkheim, wrote in German, the two types are commonly referred to as Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft, respectively. The communities I discussed in previous posts that are defined by a process characterized by an evolving code, narrative and aggregation mechanisms correspond to Gemeinschaft. To avoid pretentiousness, and also because the sound of German creeps me out, I’ll just use the terms communities and corporations. Among the questions that most concerned Tonnies and Durkheim were what caused the shift in modern European societies from a prevalence of community relationships to a prevalence of corporate relationships and what were the consequences of this shift. As for the causes, the shift from an agrarian economy to an industrial economy resulted in urbanization and in division of labor, which necessitated some degree of business relationships among people from different communities. This readily explains the rise of corporate relationships. But the demise of communities requires a bit more explanation. As we’ve seen, communities are defined by processes that sometimes spin out of good equilibria. For the case of Jewish communities, we’ve looked at these disequilibria from three different perspectives, but our treatment thus far has been theoretical. Let’s now see how, as a matter of historical fact, Jewish communities did in fact spin out of equilibrium. When communities were ideologically and geographically tight-knit and opportunities for assimilation limited, the degree of trust among community members was high. A reasonable amount of signaling was thus adequate to maintain that trust. The weight that members assigned each other in attempting to anticipate consensus was thus fairly uniformly distributed, so that the moral consensus reflected the balance between universal morality and community-based morality that characterized the moral instincts of community members. The narrative settled in some sweet pot that balanced plausibility and compellingness according to the sensibilities of the community. (Ignore the fact that my little idyll describes a community that may never have existed.) Even subtle social changes could be sufficient to upset this delicate equilibrium. When opportunities for integration into industrial economies arose but were accompanied by pressure to conform to non-Jewish social norms, social trust within the Jewish community dropped, even if initially the drop was slight. The need for costly signals rose and the incentive to stay in the community was thus diminished. The urge to emphasize universal morality at the expense of community-base[...]



6 Comments

2010-11-11T13:57:33.847+03:00

Let's start with a quick review. We have seen that Judaism is a process which evolves through the interaction of the moral instincts of individuals with established communal moral codes. Since such established codes are themselves the product of individuals' choices, the dynamics are non-linear and can be thrown out of equilibrium. We have seen how this can happen from two different perspectives. The code might lose the necessary balance between community-specific morality and universal morality, with different sub-communities pulling further and further in different directions. More recently we considered the case where a community's belief system – perhaps it would be better to think of it as the narrative a community tells about itself – fails to find a balance between compellingness and plausibility. Today I want to attack this from a third perspective, namely, the test of community membership. I've talked about individual moral decisions being aggregated into some communal code. That neatly elides a whole lot of funny business about how such codes are really established. Let's try to consider what happens in somewhat higher resolution. Imagine I've broken my leg and my parents have gotten me a Gramatron electric wheelchair to use on Shabbes. Some doubts have been raised about its permissibility on Shabbes, so I need to make a decision about whether to use it. There are various considerations tied to the specific circumstances of the case (respect for my parents, the extent to which I can manage without the chair) and other more general considerations (established principles of grama on Shabbes, etc.). After analyzing the matter, my instincts might nudge me in one direction or the other. But one extremely central consideration will be my estimate of what the, as yet undetermined, consensus of my community will be on the matter. (Ignore for the moment the question of whether my concern about the emerging consensus is itself a moral consideration or mere cravenness or something in between; we'll get to that.) How do I go about estimating such a consensus? Some of my friends and neighbors might have thought about the problem and I can canvas them. But I will surely not give them equal weight. Some are more likely than others to be reliable representatives of the emerging consensus. Some are more learned, some are more tuned in, some are more sincere, and some are simply more influential. I'll give these more weight than the others. Note the circularity here. I'm trying to estimate the consensus based on a sample of people who themselves are trying to estimate the consensus and miraculously a consensus actually emerges from this Keynesian beauty contest. Despite this circularity, I still have a fighting chance to correctly predict the consensus if I assign weights properly. For example, I can assign a great deal of weight to a prominent rov. There are several reasons why the rov's decision has a reasonable chance of predicting the consensus. The most generous explanation is as follows: there is a right answer out there and the consensus is likely to reach it (in accordance with Condorcet's Jury Theorem); similarly, the rov is knowledgeable and unbiased by personal considerations and he too is likely to reach the right answer. A considerably less generous explanation is that the Rov is simply very salient in the community (he is a Schelling point), so that most people are likely to follow his opinion and he will thus dete[...]



5 Comments

2010-11-02T04:58:33.252+03:00

It would never occur to us to ask someone to explain why he is an English speaker. It is evident that English serves a useful purpose for an English speaker. Nor does it seem incongruous for someone to speak more than one language. Each serves a purpose.Judaism is a process like English. Yet it seems evident that being a “speaker” of Jewish requires explanation and that being a member of one moral community precludes being a member of others. Why should this be so? The easy answer is that moral systems make claims about the world that we call “beliefs”, that these beliefs require defense, and that different moral systems have conflicting beliefs. The easy answer is way too easy; it’s not clear why any of the propositions in the previous sentence are true. Let’s try to do better.Just as one can speak a language fluently, one can “speak” a moral system fluently. Sometimes, when one speaks a moral system fluently, one can achieve a sense of transcendence, of being part of something larger than oneself, something directed, enduring and deeply meaningful. It is this fleeting sense that constitutes true belief.Precisely because this sense is so fleeting, we often feel the need to articulate it. Sometimes, we articulate it (or at least try to) in order to persuade others to stick with the system even in the absence of that sense of transcendence. Sometimes, we try to articulate it for ourselves, to keep that sense of transcendence in our pockets even when can’t actually experience it. But this attempt to articulate a sense inevitably cheapens that sense. Here’s how one wise man expressed it: The need to think about the whole God idea is just a comedown that’s necessary for people as a sort of cure. Denying it is an unfortunate prerequisite for the ultimate “high” in which there won’t be any need to think about the God idea because life itself will be “God’s Light”.(Can you guess who wrote that? The answer will be in the comments.) Let’s try to get a bit more specific about how such belief might be articulated in terms of specific claims. Think of it this way. If speaking Judaism fluently can (sometimes) give us the feeling that we are part of something uniquely directed, we want to concretize the claim that, as a process, Judaism is itself uniquely directed. Minimally, we’d capture this in the claims that the process evolved organically from some non-arbitrary point (let’s call that revelation at Sinai), that it is headed towards some non-arbitrary point (let’s call that the Messianic era) and that being part of it is uniquely rewarding (let’s call that sekhar ve-onesh). So you’re probably thinking that that’s too clever by half, that there is something cynical about determining proper beliefs according to the purpose they serve rather than according to the evidence for their truth. There is nothing cynical about it at all. Let’s digress a bit. Think about how science is done. We observe, say, that the sun has risen in the East many times and that there are no records of it ever having failed to do so, and so we propose that it is a law that the sun rises daily in the East, past, present and future. Our underlying assumption is that we are able to generalize from observations to laws. But how can we justify this assumption? It would be circular to justify it on grounds that we have observed that it works. While heroic attempts have been made to rescue th[...]



6 Comments

2010-10-26T21:01:55.666+03:00

If you’re like most people you probably find each of the following morally offensive: i)assaulting an innocent person, ii)mopping the floor with the national flag, iii)cannibalism. These examples correspond to three different flavors of moral instinct. (Before we get into the three flavors, a comment about dividing stuff into flavors: these things are pretty arbitrary. There are various methodologies for deciding whether two flavors of morality should be regarded as variations of the same flavor or two distinct flavors: do they share a single evolutionary explanation, do the same people worry about them, etc. But in the end it’s really a matter of expository convenience. Some list four moral flavors, others list five. I find it most convenient to list three.)Here’s a reasonable definition of three moral flavors corresponding to the three examples above (taken from Rozin et al.):1. [The ethics of Autonomy] Individual freedom/rights violations. In these cases an action is wrong because it directly hurts another person, or infringes upon his/her rights or freedoms as an individual. To decide if an action is wrong, you think about things like harm, rights, justice, freedom, fairness, individualism, and the importance of individual choice and liberty.2. [The ethics of Community] Community/hierarchy violations. In these cases an action is wrong because a person fails to carry out his or her duties within a community, or to the social hierarchy within the community. To decide if an action is wrong, you think about things like duty, role-obligation, respect for authority, loyalty, group honor, interdependence, and the preservation of the community.3. [The ethics of Divinity] Divinity/purity violations. In these cases a person disrespects the sacredness of God, or causes impurity or degradation to himself/herself, or to others. To decide if an action is wrong, you think about things like sin, the natural order of things, sanctity, and the protection of the soul or the world from degradation and spiritual defilement.Before we go any further, let’s note one important distinction between the first flavor of morality and the other two. Unlike the first flavor, the latter two depend rather overtly on membership in some community. What Rozin calls “the ethics of community” is plainly incoherent without a community. But even what he calls “the ethics of divinity” (what we might call “mitzvot bein adam lemakom”) are community-dependent. The idea of restrictions on what can be eaten where and when and with whom and where and when one can have sex crosses cultures. But the specifics of these restrictions are community-dependent. In some cultures, people don’t eat pig flesh; in others, they don’t eat cow flesh. In some cultures, people marry their nieces; in others, they regard that as incest.This distinction between what I’ll call universal morality (the first flavor) and community-based morality (the other two) will be crucial to the thesis that I’ll be developing in future posts.So our first order of business now is to undermine the distinction I just claimed is crucial. In fact, the three flavors of morality are deeply intertwined. Those who don’t respect the rights of others generally are ultimately unlikely to honor more profound obligations to those with whom they share a familial or communal bond. Those who don’t honor communal obligations are unlikely to ho[...]