Sago Boulevard

Monday, November 28, 2005

"Matters of the Greatest Importance"

Bill Vallicella has some important things to say about what things are worth a philosopher's attention and how to recognize them. I would summarize but it's late and you should read the whole post anyway.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Pahad Yitshak On Hanukkah I

As I mentioned, I'm learning Rav Hutner's Pahad Yitshak on the upcoming holiday of Hanukkah. This is the first of what I hope to be a series of posts devoted to the subject.

Rav Hutner begins by noting that Hanukkah has no scriptural basis and therefore belongs in the category of those aspects of the Oral Torah not fit to be written down. In one sense, this is understandable as the events of Hanukkah have no connection to biblical events. Yet, R. Hutner illustrates a greater significance to this fact.

From a prophesy in Hosea, we see a connection between the actual writing of the Torah and the brit (convenant) between God and Israel. This brit is established on 2 Sivan (R. Hutner derives this from the Gra's explanation of the two birkot haTorah). What's significant here is that the brit precedes the giving of the Torah itself. R. Hutner suggests that the prohibition of writing the Oral Torah is part of this initial brit and thus, precedes the Torah as well. He gives the following explanation for this.

The Oral Torah, once it was committed to writing, lacks an authoritative text (i.e. "hisurei mehsera", "ein seder lamishnah"). We see from here that even when writing is ultimately permitted, the Oral Torah continues to have an oral quality. If the initial prohibition of writing the Oral Torah were a din perati, merely one law among many, we would not be justified in overriding it for the sake of a great communal need. It makes more sense to assume that the prohibition refers to the entity of the of Torah itself, rather than the laws within it.*

This distinction between the generalities of the brit and the laws themselves manifests itself in the din of mesirat nefesh, martyrdom. There is a mitsvah of mesirat nefesh for the three sins of murder, idolatry, and sexual immorality (meaning, one must give up his life rather than transgress). There is an additional mitsvah of mesirat nefesh that applies to all aspects of Torah at a time when Judaism itself is in danger. The first kind of mesirat nefesh is simply a exception to the norm of pikuah nefesh, while the second kind refers to the brit in toto.

It is this second kind of mesirat nefesh that is championed by the Hashmona'im in the story of Hanukkah. Their sacrifice is one prompted by the threat of annihilation and their triumph is a victory for the continuity of the brit itself. The fact that Hanukkah has no mention in Tanakh takes on an added significance. Rather than focusing on one specific aspect of our brit, Hanukkah is about sacrificing ourselves in defending that very brit.

*I don't fully understand R. Hutner's derivation here. I think he is playing off the idea that the Oral Torah was written down in response to a national crisis. This is typically not done for individual laws explicitly in the text. The fact that it was in fact done, indicates that it isn't such a law.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Introducing Category Tags

As you may notice, I have now category tags at the end of my posts which link to, well, a list of all my posts in that category. This is thanks to two helpful blogs that offer advice on how to use tags and the code to actually do it. As far as updating old posts to fit in the new categories, I will probably only go back to tag the more important ones.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Discussion Post: Israel

Thoughts on the recent political events in the Holy Land? Predictions?

Monday, November 21, 2005

Making Sense Of Israeli Politics

I think Americans are spoiled by our relatively easy-to-understand system of government. Following the recent political news from the Holy Land is incredibly confusing. Imagine President Bush leaving the Republican Party. Sounds weird, right? Well, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is forming a new party while somehow staying in power. With Sharon no longer head of the party he helped create, seven people have already announced their candidacy to replace him. Meanwhile, Israel's left-wing Labor Party has a completely new leadership and its former leaders, most notably Shimon Perez, may join Sharon. Confused yet? Shmuel Rosner provides "an abbreviated guide to the perplexed".

Sunday, November 20, 2005

"In God We Trust"

Having failed to ban reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools, Michael Newdow is now trying to remove the phrase "In God We Trust" from our currency. Newdow's explanation as to why is, I think, particularly telling.
"The key principle is that we're supposed to treat everybody equally especially in terms of religious belief," Newdow told KWTV in Oklahoma City. "Clearly it's not treating atheists equal with people who believe in God when you say 'In God We Trust' or we are a 'nation under God."

There are at least two issues that we should be careful not to conflate. One is whether or not "In God We Trust" belongs on our currency. The other is whether or not it is constitutionally permitted to have it on our currency. Obviously, if we say that it is indeed unconstitutional, it follows that we should remove it from our currency. But it doesn't work the other way around. Saying that "In God We Trust" doesn't belong on our currency isn't an argument for its unconstitutionality.

Newdow often intersperses his constitutional argument with a public policy one because, frankly, he needs to. Regarding the phrase's constitutionality, Newdow invokes the Establishment Clause. But what religion is the phrase "In God We Trust" endorsing? Is the phrase taken from any sacred scripture or part of a particular religious tradition? As Bill Vallicella correctly notes:
The exceedingly vague phrase "In God We Trust" does not have the power to establish any religion as the state religion... The vague theism/deism suggested by 'God' in the sentence in question... is not a specific religion. And note that the vagueness is very significant. 'God' can and does mean different things to different people. For the pantheistically inclined, God is nature. For some deists, God is nothing but a cosmic starter-upper. Or 'God' might be a way of referring to ethical ideals.

I'll even go a step further. "In God We Trust" need not be about God at all. It may merely express that the United States sees itself as responding to some great calling. Similarly, the phrase "God only knows", when used to express utter cluelessness is hardly an affirmation of an all-knowing divine being.

As to whether or not "In God We Trust" belongs on our pennies as a matter of public policy is a different issue. Despite the vagueness of the phrase, many may still feel excluded on account of their differing beliefs. If that's the case, a bill ought to be proposed to remove it and the Democracy will rule. But it has nothing to do with the Establishment Clause.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Imposing Values

In a comment to Jewish Atheist's post, Esther writes:
I don't understand why religous fundamentalists feel the need to impose their beliefs on other people.

Eric adds:
I've asked that same question on my blog, and I've yet to hear an explanation that wasn't rooted in a religous tautology. The most frequent answer I've heard to your question is that your 'sin' affects others. The fallacy of this argument is that it's one religon's belief that sin affects others. Deriving laws based on that belief flies in the face of the establishment clause.

This subtle dismissal of religion and religious beliefs is common and I don't mean to pick on either Esther and Eric. It's just the most recent place I've seen this kind of argument. I say, "subtle dismissal" because neither of them say outright that they think religion is garbage and ought not to be taken seriously. Instead, the claim is simply that one should neither "impose" his or her beliefs on others nor "deriv[e] laws based on that belief".

But why not? Every political group, by its nature, seeks to impose its set of values on everybody else. Feminists want to impose the ideal of equality between the sexes on others and support legislation to do so. Environmentalists want the law to prevent others from poluting and legislation to teach about Earth Day in schools. Abolitionists wanted to impose their value that blacks are in fact people. Civil rights activists, a century later, tried to get the law to require everybody to embrace that value.

In suggesting that religious individuals kindly keep their values to themselves, you imply that somehow religion isn't worthy of the consideration we afford other ideologies. Of course, you may in fact think the religion is wrong, harmful, and stupid but it's a step further to suggest that their opinion isn't welcome in public.

Many may respond as Eric did, that "deriving laws based on that belief flies in the face of the establishment clause." This is entirely wrong. We're talking about specific religious positions, not religious institutions. The Constitution protects against the government recognizing religion as having any authoritative power. So arguments along the lines of "well, the Pope said so" don't belong in government. But, "well, the Pope said so and it's a good idea for reasons x, y, and z" is perfectly acceptable. What's unacceptable is, "why can't you religious people just keep your opinions to yourself". And that's what Eirc and Esther mean.

Rav Hutner On Hanukkah

In light of the upcoming holiday (Dec. 26-Jan. 2), I decided to go through Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner's Pahad Yitshak on Hanukkah. I plan on devoting a series of posts to explaining Rav Hutner's ideas. As I realize that my readers vary in terms of fluency and comfort level with classical Jewish texts, please don't shy from asking questions of clarification in the comments. I'll do my best to be clear.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Weekend Reading

Krauthammer's column on "intelligent design" pretty much says what I've been thinking. Godol Hador is never quite ready to leave. Mavin Yavin continues to put out some good stuff. Eugene Volokh prompts an important discussion on Holocaust denial.

Shabbat Shalom and have a good weekend.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Right To Privacy

Dan Savage suggests we give up arguing about whether or not privacy is protected by the Constitution and just stick it in there ourselves. What do you think?

Judaism and Morality

I want to take up a question brought up by lamedzayin in a post at the newly formed (and high recommended) Maven Yavin. He's asks "Does yahadut [Judaism], if practiced according to the rules, imply morality?" Obviously, this is a very complex issue with far more implications than I could cover in a blog post. That said, I want to suggest what I think is clear from Jewish sources and may thus serve as a starting point.

The closest thing Judaism has to a "definition" or a summary of God, if you will, is the 13 Attributes (Ex. 34:6-7). Hazal and the Rishonim (especially Rambam) understand God's essential qualities as ethical models. With this in mind, consider that Hazal also understand Torah and mitsvot as either a manifestation or reflection of God's will. If God is essentially good, then it is reasonable to conclude that His mitsvot reflect this goodness.

Returning to lamedzayin's question, the answer is that it has too. How exactly this works out is, of course, the subject of centuries of debate. But the basic principle remains. Any imitation of God (which we understand to be a mitsvah) must include an imitation of His attributes of goodness. We are, after all, commanded to imitate He who is "compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abundant in kindness, and truth".

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Military Strategy From Jack Handy

If you're in a war, instead of throwing a hand grenade at the enemy, throw one of those small pumpkins. Maybe it'll make everyone think about how stupid war is, and while they are thinking, you can throw a real grenade at them.

Good idea, don't you think? Maybe we should try that in Iraq.

Pointing Out Antisemitism Wherever It Crops Up

Kudos to Seth Chalmer for, once again, drawing our attention to subtle and often not-so-subtle manifestations of antisemitism. This time in France, of all places. It turns out (anybody surprised?) that there's an antisemitic undertone to the French Muslim riots.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

From This Week's New York Magazine

To the Editor:

I thought I had few illusions about doctors, but I was shocked to read that New York’s practice of publicizing the mortality rates of its heart surgeons has led “surgeons to turn their backs on the sickest patients in order to prop up their personal success records” [“Heartless,” by Robert Kolker, October 24]. Surgeons who put their own professional status above patients’ lives should go into another line of work. Maybe mine: No one is more status-conscious than academic philosophers, but at least philosophers’ obsession with their departments’ national rankings has never killed anyone.

—Felicia Nimue Ackerman, Department of Philosophy, Brown University

"Fossils and Faith"

I spent a good part of Shabbat reading Nathan Aviezer's Fossils and Faith: Understanding Torah and Science. I had heard good things about Aviezer from my roommate in yeshivah, who actually made an appointment to meet with him. Like Stephen Barr, he doesn't shy away from approaching the hard questions. What I appreciate most about Aviezer's book is his excellent use of analogies in drawing important parallels between Torah and science.

Before you jump on me for supporting Aviezer, let me say that I'm really in no position to discuss the fine points of his argument. Being neither a physicist nor a biologist, I won't claim to fully understand scientific implications of the anthropic principle or quantam mechanics. Read it and decide for yourself.

Friday, November 11, 2005

New Face of Israeli Labor

Amir Peretz is elected Labor Party Chairmain. Shimon Peres and Old Guard of Israel's Labor Party are finally out of a job. I'm not sure what I think about this yet. I'll save my commentary for a future post.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Halakhah and Originalism

In light of my previous post, I want to distinguish between what I identified as "God's intention" from the so-called originalist theory of constitutional interpretation. I agree with Nephtuli that there are significant differences but I would go even a step further. The Torah itself is God's message to humanity and thus, interpreting the Torah is inextricably tied to interpreting God's will or intention. Consider an analogy: Somebody writes you a rather vague letter. In trying to make sense of the letter itself, you're also trying to figure out what the author had in mind while writing it. You can't separate those two tasks.

The Constitution, on the other hand, is not simply the will of James Madison or of the members of Constitutional Convention. The relationship of Madison's intention with the text of the Constitution is incidental. The goal of constitutional interpretation is to interpret the Constitution. Madison's intention or that of any of the Founding Fathers is useful only insofar as it helps illuminate the text.

Lo Bashamayim Hi

The famous story of the oven of achnai (Bava Metsia 59b) is one of the important sources demonstrating the significance and theological implications of halakhic deliberations in Judaism. As Rav Soloveitchik writes:
The strange Aggadic stories... about R. Joshua b. Chanania's rejecting a Divine decision which favored a minority opinion over that of the majority [is] characteristic of the intimate Halakhic-covenantal relationship prevailing between man and God. (The Lonely Man of Faith)

The biblical verse used to justify R. Joshua's rejection of the bat kol is similarly famous: "Lo Bashamayim Hi" - It is not in heaven. The context of the verse is also important, though:
This commandment that I command you today - it is not hidden from you and it is not distant. It is not in heaven [for you] to say "Who can ascend to the heaven for us and take it for us..." Nor is it across the sea, [for you] to say "Who can cross to the other side of the sea for us..." Rather the matter is very near to you. (Deut. 30:11-14)

Richard Silverstein understands this gemara as saying:
The Talmudic rabbis do not view Jewish law as divine per se. It is not fixed in its meaning as revealed at Sinai. It is alive. Jews may even interpret the law wrongly and God has no power to correct them because the sole interpretive responsibility is theirs.

In his comment to Nephtuli's post, he writes:
I do not believe that the rabbis in the Talmud story "ignored" God's "intent." I believe they prob. took that into acct. in their deliberations & decided against Him nevertheless. After all, doesn't God make pretty crystal clear that his original intent sides with R. Eliezer?

I think the suggestion that the rabbis somehow overruled divine authority by invoking "lo bashamayim hi" is seriously misguided. On theological grounds, the rabbis' job is to apply divine law to situations not explicit in the Torah and to make additional provisions to uphold its spirit. The entire corpus of halakhic literature is devoted to identifying and explaining God's intention in giving the Torah.

On texual grounds, that's simply not what the gemara is saying. The reason the bat kol is rejected is clear. The rabbis "give no credence to a bat kol". The heavenly voice is not permitted in the discussion because "lo bashamayim hi". We don't rely on prophetic means to interpret the Torah; we use only our faculties of reason.

But this is an epistemological point. The goal of deciding Halakhah is still to identify God's intention. The rabbis don't ignore God's will; they ignore the bat kol because they are called upon to identify God's will on their own. If we rely on a bat kol, then we indeed require someone to "ascend to the heaven for us". The Torah tells us that no, "lo bashamayim hi" - it is not in heaven. The bat kol has no weight in the halakhic discussion. We have to figure out what God would say on our own.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Feeling Patriotic

I voted this morning. Hopefully you did too.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

A Journalistic Bias On The Left

Yet another columnist laments the left wing bias in the media. The Monitor's Matthew Towery argues:
By looking through an elite pair of myopically focused glasses, these media movers deceive themselves that everything revolves around their own business and social circles in New York City and Washington, D.C.

Citing two of Bernard Goldberg's books, "Bias" and "Arrogance: Rescuing America from the Media Elite", Towery's suggests
moving some of the major national news broadcasts to new locations outside New York. How about the evening news from Topeka, Kan.; Dallas; or Jacksonville, Fla.? According to Goldberg, that would force talking-head superstars to interact with mainstream Americans. And why not the same prescription for Hollywood and Wall Street kingpins?

So many of these half-baked theories about media bias miss what strikes me as an obvious point. Maybe it's not so much that journalists have a liberal bias as it is liberals have a propensity for journalism. Journalism is the profession of whistle-blowers, a medium for challenging authority and advocating change. It's the kind of thing liberals drool over. The problem isn't that media outlets are based in New York instead of Topeka. It's that North Eastern Liberal types are the ones who want to be journalists. I think the same is true for liberal biases in Hollywood and sociology departments.

Think of it this way. Would anybody be surprised if I told you there's a conservative bias in the military, a libertarian bias on Wall Street, and a socialist bias among factory workers?

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Trail Markers And Design

I stumbled upon this post by William Vallicella while browsing around his archives. I have to think about it a little more carefully before passing judgment, though it's certainly a very interesting argument. What do you, my dear readers, think?

Alito Nomination Spurs Much Needed Debate

Obviously, George Will supports Alito. But whether or not you agree with him on the nomination, what he says about the implications of the upcoming debate is well taken.
The nation has long needed a serious debate about the proper nature of that [judicial] supervision. And the president needed both a chance to demonstrate his seriousness and an occasion to challenge his Democratic critics to demonstrate theirs in a momentous battle on terrain of his choosing. The Alito nomination begins that debate.

It should be noted, first of all, that Bush nominating a conservative, anti-Roe judge was to be expected. He campaigned on nominating a justice in the model of Scalia and Thomas. You could argue about secrecy surrounding many White House policies but Bush's judicial ideology was out in the open the whole time.

More importantly, Will correctly notes that the country needs a debate about the Constitution: what it means and how it's to be interpreted. It will divide, not unite, the country because serious debates like this one have serious and far-reaching consequences. But it's one we desperately need to have.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Discussion Post: Alito

What do you think of Judge Alito?

"Retelling The Story of Science"

About a month ago, Godol Hador directed me to this article by Stephen Barr on the so-called conflict between religion and science. I printed it out with the intention of reading it eventually. In part because of a conversation I had over the weekend, I finally sat down to read it. It's really an excellent article and it gets at some of the difficult yet important issues that many writers on the subject avoid. It also doesn't overstate its point. Barr knows what he can prove, what he can disprove, and what he can merely suggest. What he suggests is this:
After all the twists and turns of scientific history we look around and find ourselves in very familiar surroundings. We find ourselves in a universe that seems to have had a beginning. We find it governed by laws that have a grandeur and sublimity that bespeak design. We find many indications in those laws that we were built in from the beginning. We find that physical determinism is wrong. And we find that the deepest discoveries of modern physics and mathematics give hints, if not proof, that the mind of man has something about it that lies beyond the power of either physics or mathematics to describe.


Brandeis News

One of my favorite columnists, Tom Friedman (whom I don't as often since NYTimes.com became subscription) is teaching a course next year at Brandeis. I know I graduated already - but it's still exciting.