I’m hoping to publish in another forum a more detailed review of Peter Boghossian’s A Manual for Creating Atheists, so my comments here will not be especially comprehensive. But I was, in some important ways, rather disappointed with the book, and I want to express a bit of that disappointment here.
(This is the first in a series of posts on my thoughts about pitching–both as a public proposition and in a more musical sense–Humanistic Judaism. This post will discuss what I think the challenge is Humanistic Judaism faces in gaining traction among American Jews. In the coming posts in the series, I’ll think a bit about how we might do that, and how we might pitch Humanistic Judaism outside our own circles–particularly since Americans don’t do doctrine much in their selection of a religious community.)
Last November (it seems like ages ago, so much has happened!) I went to a retreat for rabbinical students that was sponsored by Clal‘s Rabbis Without Borders. (Many thanks to Rabbi Chalom at IISHJ for encouraging me to go.) Students from various denominations and seminaries attended–Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (an “Open Orthodox” yeshiva), Jewish Theological Seminary and Ziegler (Conservative-affiliated schools), the Academy of Jewish Religion (nondenominational), HUC-JIR (Reform), RRC (Reconstructionist), ALEPH (Renewal) and IISHJ.
I’ve recently (as a birthday gift, and with thanks to Mrs. Secular Jew) come into possession the first volume of a new Torah commentary, Chumash Mesoras Ha-Rav, which is Hebrew Torah/English Translation + Targum Onkelos + Rashi + (and this is the selling point) a kind of cumulative and redacted commentary from the works and speeches of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik. Rabbi Soloveitchik was rosh yeshiva at Yeshiva University, among other things, and as much as modern Orthodox Judaism of the latter half of the 20th Century has had a central philosophical voice, that voice was his. (He’s known as “The Rav” in many Orthodox circles–hence Chumash Mesoras HaRav, or “The Chumash of the Rav’s Tradition.”)
The volume is nicely printed. The Hebrew and Aramaic texts are crisp and clear, including the Rashi script for Rashi’s commentary (clear Rashi script anywhere is greatly appreciated). It’s easier to use for a parshah-by-parshah study aid than as a continuous commentary, given how things are divided up; it’s easy to miss chapter divisions within the chapters of an individual parshah.
But on to the “good stuff.”
If you’ve been reading here for a bit, you know I’m not about to agree with everything Rabbi Soloveitchik had to say. Setting aside the differences I would obviously have with Rabbi Soloveitchik’s thought, I think the Chumash project here is interesting and worthwhile, but somewhat uneven. I think this is a function of the nature of the commentary, pieced together, as it is, from many, many different sources. An example suffices, I think, to get across my concerns.
Looking to Gen. 4 (most of the Hebrew in the volume is Ashkenazic yeshiva-style, so the book shows this as Bereishis), I started reading the story of Cain and Abel. Rabbi Soloveitchik’s commentary is…interesting. In one piece of commentary, we are told that “Abel’s very name implies vanity or foolishness,” as a non-firstborn that Abel’s role was to help Cain, and that Abel’s decision to become a shepherd was a violation of the social order. In another, we learn that Abel was weak because of his lifestyle–that is, he was unrooted and nomadic, and thus had no reciprocal relationship with the world upon which he could build and seek protection–and thus Cain was easily able to kill him. (Chumash Mesoras HaRav pp. 35-36.)
And this is where I think some of the unevenness lives. Naturally, the commentary goes on to acknowledge that Cain’s murder of Abel was a crime warranting punishment, and, as Rabbi Soloveitchik points out, that punishment–having the entire world, but no home–was apt for Cain, because it uprooted him from the strength he abused. (Chumash Mesoras HaRav pp. 36-37.) But, one has to ask: would Rabbi Soloveitchik, if personally pressed, have agreed that the commentary should be arranged so one very plausible interpretation of the comments together with the plain sense of the text was that Abel…well, sort of invited Cain’s treatment?
I’m not so sure of that. And I think the problem is that the first bit of commentary–about Abel’s voluntary disenfranchisement–is from a different source (presumably a bit of derasha given in Boston), at a different time (in 1972), than the second bit of commentary (from an article in a Yeshiva University journal in 1966).
I recognize, of course, that midrashic collections routinely mix and muddle approaches and intepretations. Taken in too unified a fashion, reading a classical work of commentary would likely result in some very wild results. But calling the commentary Mesoras HaRav – the tradition of the Rav–pushes this boundary a bit far. Perhaps it’s just a bit of bad billing; perhaps it should have been Mesoros HaRav–the traditions of the Rav? I’m not sure. As a lengthy meditation on sin, it’s certainly an interesting proposition–but it’s not a unifying one.
That said, would I recommend this? And will I continue to use it? Well, we’re fast approaching the end of the traditional reading cycle on Genesis, so if you’re looking to buy now, this is more a future than a present investment. As an entry into the sheer scope and variety of Soloveitchik’s work, it’s a good choice. But I’m not sure it would present a helpful, unified view of many of his philosophic works: the commentary grabs bits from not only articles and individual sermons, but also from book-length works of philosophical religious thought like Halakhic Man and The Lonely Man of Faith.
Put another way, I wouldn’t use this to teach a seminar on Soloveitchik’s thought. But for those already part of the “in” group–who have already read and are familiar with Rabbi Soloveitchik’s works, or who are accustomed to reading the variety of Torah commentaries as they are for what they are, it’s a useful source of insight in a form that can be routinely revisited over the years and with a more modern, worldly tone than many traditional commentaries. If only for that reason, it will likely find a spot in my messenger bag from time to time.
- A Chumash For All Times (jewishpress.com)
It’s been a while since I’ve done any significant ethical navel-gazing here, so the time seems ripe.
Actually, it’s not too navel-gaze-y.
Over at Kyriolexy, there’s a post about a supposed moral requirement that individuals be physically fit. The author points out that, broadly, society uses the sometimes-compatible languages of virtue and pathology to talk about physical fitness, and criticizes the combined use of that language because of how it intersects with how we also talk about (especially) perceived mental disability.
As the parent of an autistic child, I’m sympathetic with the author’s account. At age 9, we really don’t know where our son will end up, how, and even what his capabilities are now because of his limited speech and self-expression compared to his neurotypical peers. And so, we’re reluctant to put demands upon him when we don’t know what he is capable of.
I do differ from the Kyriolexy post as it relates to the virtue–talking in philosophical ethics mode, that is–of physical fitness. And I think that difference comes because I am the father of an autistic child. But I think my objection to the Kyriolexy post would exist even merely as a parent. But that difference led me to think about what it is, exactly, motivates ethics in humanism. I have long thought that the more Platonic views of ethics (e.g., Kant, or others who posit absolute universal duties, with or without certain requirements for intent along with the action) are troublesome because they posit universality–of both place and time–of things that are essentially contingent, that is, conduct in dependent upon places and times.
This is a roundabout way of saying that I think, from a humanist perspective, some combination of utilitarianism and virtue ethics is probably appropriate. And I would point to the physical fitness question as an example of this.
Do I think all persons at all times and in all circumstances must necessarily be (or endeavor to be as though it’s required of them) physically fit? No. I don’t even think that all persons who are physically capable of doing so must necessarily be or endeavor to be physically fit. That is, I don’t think there is an ethical duty to do this.
But I do think that doing so, if you can, is virtuous and maximizes utility. Virtuous because it has the capacity to make the person happier (in the philosophical ethics version of happiness). Maximizes utility because the costs of being unfit reduce one’s own happiness and also impose upon other persons more broadly the costs of being unfit.
We know, for example, that obesity is associated with widespread inflammatory processes, which appear at least to correlate with increased morbidity and mortality from medical conditions associated with inflammatory processes: heart disease, hypertension, some forms of cancer, diabetes, etc. In epidemic levels, obesity that results in increased morbidity and mortality from inflammatory process-related diseases imposes significant social costs. For those who can be physically fit, doing so reduces the imposition of the associated costs–in very incremental fashion–upon others. It also reduces the imposition of the associated harms upon oneself.
When one is a parent, the costs of unhealthiness are also imposed upon children who have no capacity to address the problem themselves. So, if a parent is capable of reducing her or his own level of unhealthiness and increasing her or his own level of fitness, doing so maximizes utility not only for society broadly in reduced cost, but children in terms of parents who are able to be around, on the whole, longer, provide better care, and provide examples of the sort that will encourage health among their children. That, in turn, can compound the benefits.
Do I think that there are valid ethical claims upon me, as someone who is capable of being more fit, more healthy, and therefore less costly both to society and my son, to become healthy and/or fit? Yes, both from a utilitarian perspective and from a virtuous perspective. But I don’t accept that there is some universal maxim that imposes that upon me; I should do these things, but I need not.
Nevertheless, and pace Kyriolexy, I think there are some normative claims that can fairly be put upon some individuals to be more fit.
Discourse about that is another matter. I think the problem Kyriolexy addresses arises, in part, when we speak in unqualified fashion about things like not having an excuse for being unfit. It’s about broad social messaging; we speak in deontological terms, particularly in mass media but also in more individual-level discourse, and assume others to be similarly situated. I think, from the perspective of Kyriolexy’s hypotheticals, broad discourse fails to properly take into account exceptions and the very real limitations of each situation.
I’m not sure what the solution to that would be for the broader forms of discourse that trouble Kyriolexy. Clearly broad forms of discourse need to take into account the need not to shame, and they need also to be careful about what they convey about ability. Ideally, this would affect how individuals speak, too.
I’m not optimistic about the latter part. Because unless one very carefully and intentionally crafts their discourse, it will almost always be overbroad and transgressive. Most people–including Maria Kang, I suspect–don’t craft their discourse to exclude from its normative scope those individuals who, if pressed, the speaker would not have intended to include within the statement.
How do we fix that? I would turn to Greg Epstein’s book, Good without God, as a guide. Epstein’s view of ethics starts with the proposition that we should act from love–love for our fellow persons, in whatever their state. And I think that absolute moral propositions in the Platonic/deontological mode–which make sense when we talk about law–don’t proceed from love, but from judgment. And they largely fail to be persuasive as a result.
If you don’t listen to the New Books Network podcasts, you are really missing out. Get thee to thy preferred podcast app and subscribe!
One of my favorites from the network (and I subscribe to a bunch of these) is the New Books in Big Ideas podcast. The most recent of these is a conversation with A. David Redish, author of The Mind within the Brain, which discusses the various kinds of memory and cognition, decision-making processes, and the problems that may arise with all these.
During the podcast, he and the host, Marshall Poe, discussed procedural vs. deliberative (also known as declarative) cognition and how these affect decision-making processes and human behavior generally. Prof. Redish mentioned that you learn to do new things–basketball was the example, but there are others–through a process that initially engages the deliberative/declarative systems but then moves toward ingraining those things into the procedural systems of the mind.
It was a fascinating discussion, especially because I really have very little background in psychology. (Come on–I went to grad school for religion, law school, and worked in IT. Something had to give! I also know very little about art, for what it’s worth.) And it got me to thinking about what my misgivings and comfort levels are with traditional prayer in a less traditional Jewish context, and why halakhic observance (or heck, remembering that I don’t actually want to eat very much meat) is so difficult for newcomers.
One of the tricks of procedural memory/cognition is that it engages the dopamine feed into our brains, which is why athletes talk about disengaging your conscious thinking and talk about being “in the zone.” My experience with the traditional prayer services is like this–I can get “in the zone” where I’m executing (in a technical manner) and feel really comfortable. But that doesn’t happen when I stop and read the words.
Actually, it does–but it engages the “in the zone” feeling for reading and translating Hebrew, rather than the “in the zone” feeling for reciting the prayers. The problem, of course, is that when I’m in the Hebrew zone, I remember that I don’t actually agree with the contents of the prayers. And I think this explains why I and others sometimes feel uncomfortable with the different liturgical approach of Secular Humanistic Judaism. (In my rabbinical school class a couple of weeks ago, Rabbi Chalom explained this as we’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t–people don’t actually agree often with the content of the prayers, but they refuse to allow change.)
This actually has me feeling pretty optimistic about my own ability to adjust out of the unease I feel with some of the liturgical challenges of Humanistic Judaism. Eventually, I realize, I’ll “get there.” The challenge will be making myself practice differently until what is deliberative becomes procedural.
I think many of us approach Judaism this way generally. “Why do we do it this way?” “We’re used to it.” “That’s absurd, don’t you think?” “Sure, but it’s how we do it!”
That covers a wide range of issues; in the liberal Jewish movements, we all “know” that many of the biblical texts aren’t literally true. Yet Rabbi David Wolpe (a Conservative rabbi) got in some trouble at a Passover seder when he said something like, “The Exodus didn’t really happen,” and was upbraided not because the audience disagreed, but because they just didn’t want to hear it in context–like that’s dirty laundry we ignore in public.
So the challenge for many of us will be, in the future, shaking up that procedural memory. Seems like it will be an interesting challenge.
I’ve been reading Dr. Ron Wolfson’s Relational Judaism recently, and I was reminded of a trope I’ve heard from philosophers/theologians of liberal Judaism on several occasions (Neil Gillman is among them), as well as apologists for more traditional views of the divine.
That trope is: Atheists, humanists, agnostics, etc., don’t really not believe in a deity. It’s just that they don’t believe in the “Old Man in the White Robe with a Long Beard” version of God. Well, neither do we! And also, there are no atheists in foxholes.
It’s not that I think that we are all there is; it’s just that, absent knowledge that there is anything else, we are left to act as though we are all there is.
I also heard something like it just this morning during an interview with Mary Eberstadt on the New Books Network about a recent examination of the history of secularization. Eberstadt pegs secularization, in part, on disruptions to family structure and the cognitive results of that disruption upon the ability to “get” the traditional, paternal view of God in orthodox Christianity and “orthodox” Judaism. Eberstadt and the host of the podcast, Marshall Poe, take some shots at the New Atheists whom they, not without reason (see, e.g., Christopher Hitchens, whose writing I love but whose thought I often do not), accuse of not “getting” the communal values religious practice and community brings to the table.
So I want to take some time to state where it is, as a Humanistic Jew, I come from on these issues. And I want to start by making it very clear that I think the “there are no atheists in foxholes, and I also don’t believe in that kind of God” trope misses the point for me.
I don’t care that much about the question of whether there is a God. It’s an interesting philosophical question, but it’s not factually susceptible to proof.
More important is that the answer to that question is, essentially, irrelevant for me, because my observation of the world tells me that a view of God that places he/she/it directly active in history is something that I simply must reject. I cannot have faith in–that is, express allegiance and fealty to–a being that has power over the world and does not intervene in great trauma, causes trauma as a “test,” grants trauma to those who are able to “handle” it, is unable or unwilling to act to alleviate suffering, etc.
Proof, incidentally, is not citation to a tradition’s texts. It’s not showing me examples of how various traditions share common concepts. The “authoritative” text goes only so far as one accepts the authority of the text itself, which is why “John 3:16” signs don’t work for Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, etc. And the common concepts are great–except that there are plenty of common concepts that we reject.
I also cannot have faith in a being that we are told we cannot understand, can describe only in the negative, and yet to whom normative prescriptions are attributed, which normative prescriptions we must obey in order to be moral.
That’s a long way of saying: God’s existence cannot be proved, God’s intervention in the world cannot be proved, and God’s moral authority cannot be proved. Thus, the idea that individuals must have faith that the prior three things exist, pay fealty to that idea, and act in conformance with the moral codes that are set out in service of that faith is an idea I reject.
I’m not someone whose only encounter with concepts of God is the traditional version. I spent six years of my life studying religion directly, and will likely be spending significant portions of the next four years doing so as well. I’ve flirted with plenty of ideas and approaches to religion, to faith, and to God.
But I keep coming back to the fact that there’s no proof, empirically or philosophically, and that we’re left to figure this out on our own. It’s not that I’m rebelling against the old man, or that I’ve had prayers denied. It’s just that, when I look at the situation with my own eyes, I can’t accept the idea that we should cede our own power over the world to the non-provable.
It’s not that I think that we are all there is; it’s just that, absent knowledge that there is anything else, we are left to act as though we are all there is.
I read a thought-provoking (for me) letter to the editor in the September-October 2013 issue of The Humanist, the bi-monthly magazine from the American Humanist Association. The letter was in response to articles on whether it is ethical for humanists to eat meat; I’ll just repost the paragraph that interested me:
We may celebrate the slaughterhouse cow that runs for its life, but we also celebrate the image of a U.S. soldier carrying an infant pulled from the rubble of a city we’ve bombed. We’re sentimental more often than logical. Our ethics are as much about making ourselves feel like “good” people as anything else, and they inevitably involve compromise with the overwhelming reality of human and animal suffering that blankets this plant. But that’s a very difficult thing for us to be consistently honest about.
(The Humanist Sept. – Oct. 2013, p. 47.)
I think this accesses an important insight, but I’m not sure I share the author’s slightly critical edge.
I appreciate the concern that we’re often not really rational in our ethical judgment. We’re not. But I’m not sure that’s actually a problem.
I’ll use Kant’s treatment of lying as a straw man. (And I’m admitting straight up that it’s a straw man for me. But there’s a decent summary and critical look at the issue here.) Kant’s approach to ethics requires that any moral proposition, to be valid, be such that one would will all individuals to act in conformity with that proposition in all circumstances (remember “the categorical imperative?”). Kant asserts that lying is in all circumstances not in conformity with the categorical imperative, so even when a murder is at the door and you are concealing his intended victim, lying to protect the intended victim by making a false statement concerning the victim’s whereabouts is not, for Kant, ethical.
Yet most people cringe at the notion that dishonesty in this situation is not ethical. But that raises the issue: when it is permissible to lie? And when we make distinctions to allow lying in this situation, how do we know when that distinction wouldn’t permit lying in a more problematic situation?
I’m not convinced we can really fully address ethics rationally and systematically the way Kant would have us do–the results may strike us as repugnant, and it may be excessively difficult to draw lines around the exceptions we might want to create.
Where does this take us? I think, for humanist Jews, we need to look toward something like narrative ethics; often, we can reach the “truth” of a situation through story where we might find it difficult to do so through principled reasoning alone. This approach is consonant with both pieces of humanist Judaism. From a humanist perspective, valuing others means valuing and listening to their stories and learning from them. From a Jewish perspective, in a tradition defined in part by text and shared story, a narrative approach is almost a more natural fit than the systematic approach of the Western ethicist.
Importantly, a narrative approach allows us to recognize the values that lead to decisions that we may or may not agree with, but that often have their own reasoning to allow us to explore ethics further.
So, is it difficult for us to be consistently honest about how fractured our view of morality truly is? Of course, and it is especially so if we focus on forcing our ethics to be strictly rational and to conform to a coherent system. But inconsistency is not a vice if we adjust how we talk about ethics and recognize that our understandings of right and wrong and in and out (and morality is often about who is in or out based upon their conduct) may often be better expressed by exploring our shared stories.
And with that flippant little title, to serious business about language games.
I’ve recently begun listening to a podcast on Maimonides’s Mishneh Torah from the rabbi at the Pacific Jewish Center (which bills itself as “The Shul on the Beach”), and finally wandered over to the shul’s website and the rabbi’s blog when I had a little time before a hearing. The rabbi, Eliyahu Fink, seems at least somewhat on the not-so-right-wing-end of traditional Judaism.
(I don’t really like calling it “orthodox Judaism,” let alone “Orthodox” with a big O, as I don’t agree that there is specifically one form of “right belief.” Nor do I think orthopraxic is quite right–because, again, of the normative implications there. Flame away if you like–I’ll just moderate your comments–though to be fair, I don’t have a big audience.)
In any case, the Mishneh Torah podcasts are incredibly interesting, and Rabbi Fink’s blog posts are interesting as well. Reading that led me to Professor Alan Brill’s also-fascinating blog, “The Book of Doctrines and Opinions,” which posted an interview with Tamar Ross, who teaches Jewish philosophy at Bar-Ilan University. Professor Ross is working on a theological approach to allow traditional Jews, who ordinarily accept the idea of Torah mi-Sinai (“Torah from Sinai”) view of revelation of the written and oral Torahs, that will allow some…modification?…of the idea in light of the results of biblical criticism.
Part of Professor Ross’s discussion involves the idea of the language game in Wittgenstein’s work, part of it involves Maimonides’s discussion of religious language and Torah imagery as “necessary truths” to allow people to speak about God and Torah, and part of it involves Rabbi Avraham Kook’s idea of progressive revelation. It’s interesting.
It’s not necessarily convincing to me, however. I don’t agree with Rabbi Fink’s take on it, which is that it’s not particularly useful for many people–I think it fits rather nicely in the more traditional ends of the Conservative Movement, for example, though I do agree that it probably wouldn’t suit those farther down the spectrum.
My objection is that it’s just too mushy. The position Professor Ross takes is, it seems, partially this: we have to respect the results of criticism, but what we’ll say is that scripture is revelation, just not actual speech–since, of course, we know from Maimonides that divine speech per se didn’t happpen–and so our subscription to faith is something of a language game. (This reminds me of MacIntyre’s choice of Thomist Aristotelianism because, eventually, you have to make a choice of some kind.)
But acknowledging that you’re playing the language game brings significant normative implications when you’re talking about a religious system.
Part of what comes with the language game is a claim about reality: the thing in itself has nothing to do, really, with the name we give it. So what does it mean if we say that we can play a language game with religious concepts like revelation? I’m not sure we can in the way Professor Ross wants to. Shifting the “meaning”–that is, the underlying concept to which the word “revelation” points–seems like a clever trick more than a real grapple with the underlying problem of what Torah mi-Sinai really means.
And it’s what Torah mi-Sinai really means that is the problem. Even supposing you shift the referent from literal spoken Torah to something like what Professor Ross is up to, you haven’t really addressed the problems posed by the old or the new referent, namely, that revelation (if it happened) didn’t happen that way.
What’s the normative implication of this? If you ground your notion of obligation to act upon the literal truth of a means of revelation, and that account is capable of being undermined, what portion of the obligations must you now consider optional? To the extent portions of your normative expectations depend upon material later determined to be compromised by scholarship, do those expectations fall away?
The problem, I think, is that you have to pick a version of scholarship to go with, and scholars can be wrong. Responsible scholars would likely acknowledge that nothing is certain–the explanations are simply the best ones they are able to offer.
That is, in the end, I think the problem is not scholarship–it’s revelation. But that’s a different matter altogether.
I’ve been intermittently reading Thomas Nagel’s book, Mind and Cosmos. Intermittently in part because, like, I have a life, in part because some of it’s dense and I’m not super-engaged in the materialist stuff Nagel critiques, in part because I’m busy reading lots of other stuff, in part because I’ve been brushing up on Hebrew a bit, and in part because I’ve got tests to write and work to grade.
I’m not coming at Nagel from any particular direction–I’m not one of the religious folks making common cause with him because of his critique of materialism as it exists on his (and their?) account, and I’m not on board with the folks Nagel is out to critique. I discovered the book after a retweet of a link to Leon Wieseltier’s discussion of the book on his blog with The New Republic.
But I do come at the book from an essentially humanist Jewish perspective, and I think Nagel’s critique captures a couple of important matters that we as humanists may miss from time to time. One of them is simply this: we don’t actually know everything, and it’s likely folly to think, however good our explanatory and exploratory tools, that our current methods for investigating the world are going to be the last word on any subject. The other is: as humanists and, frankly, rationalists, we err when we think that our rational apprehension of the world satisfies all.
Let me start from the second of those points. One of the things I think we miss out on when we are too humanist, too rational, is that religion serves a number of functions, and among those is a reflection of how peoples encounter the ineffable. (Note that I didn’t say the divine–what is sacred or profane is, I think, a matter of human definition.) Much of Nagel’s critique of both theism and materialism, it seems to me, is unsatisfying to his critics in part because it butts up against what religion has done so well–allow a path to speculate on the ineffable.
The reason, I think, Nagel has no firm or satisfying path forward is that we’re not at a point where we can rationally apprehend and discuss the zone of concerns that Nagel has about mind vs. brain. Might we in the future? Perhaps–but I don’t know, and neither, I suspect, do you. But that ineffable area of concern–we are remiss to disregard the role that religion plays in allowing us to apprehend and ease ourselves about that. (Not that this doesn’t get very, very out of hand at times–just that we are remiss when we disregard religious language as providing a set of tools to discuss that.)
That takes me back to the first point about explanatory paradigms. When I said “I don’t know, and neither, I suspect, do you,” I was thinking quite distinctly of a Kuhnian approach to science. Perhaps we will have a scientific advance that allows us to get at the brain vs. mind issues Nagel is concerned with–or maybe Nagel’s concerns are pointing up the kinds of problems that, on Kuhn’s account, lead to scientific revolutions.
In any case, don’t discount religion or Thomas Kuhn.