Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Posts tagged ‘Judaism’

The Shabbat automobile (and other regulatory subterfuges)

It reminds me of the questions that folklorist Alan Dundes raised in his book The Shabbat Elevator and other Sabbath Subterfuges: Why do Orthodox Jews adopt enormously rigid strictures on every element of their lives, and then devote enormous energy and creativity to evading them, as when they tie a string around a whole neighbourhood to make an eruv, defined to be a single residence for purposes of the law that bans carrying objects in a public domain.

One could well ask, if a set of customs is deemed overly oppressive, why not simply repeal or ignore them?

At least they can argue that repeal isn’t really an option when you’re talking about divine law. But what about automobile pollution regulations?

Amid all the attention focused on Volkswagen’s bizarre cheating on diesel emissions tests — which ought to, but probably won’t, lead to multiple executives spending long terms in prison — some interesting lessons about the general nature of regulations and testing threaten to be submerged. As many have pointed out, real diesel emissions are many times higher than those permitted by regulations. The tests are routinely evaded, if not always as creatively as Volkswagen has done. Some examples: (more…)

Condorcet method for choosing a religion

Making choices is hard! Particularly when there are multiple possibilities, differing in multiple dimensions. Like choosing the best religion.

There are many possible methods, leading to a variety of outcomes. The 18th century French mathematician Marie Jean Antoine Nicolas Caritat, the Marquis de Condorcet, advocated privileging methods of deciding elections that will always grant victory to a candidate who would win one-on-one against each other candidate individually. (Of course, there need not be such a candidate.) Such methods are referred to as “Condorcet methods”.

I’ve just been reading The Jews of Khazaria, about the seventh to tenth-century kingdom in central Asia that converted to Judaism around the middle of the ninth century.

According to the Reply of King Joseph to Hasdai ibn Shaprut, one of the few surviving contemporaneous texts to describe the internal workings of the Khazar kingdom,

Each of the three theological leaders tried to explain the benefits of his own system of belief to King Bulan. There were significant disagreements between the debaters, so Bulan went a step farther by asking the Christian and Muslim representatives which of the other two religions they believed to be superior. The Christian priest preferred Judaism over Islam, and likewise the Muslim mullah preferred Judaism over Christianity. Bulan therefore saw that Judaism was the root of the other two major monotheistic religions and adopted it for himself and his people.

Plaque assay

I was just in Paris for a few days. Walking past the Lycée Simone Weil, in the 3rd arrondissement, I noticed a plaque, such as one sees quite commonly on public institutions:

À la mémoire des jeunes filles, élèves de cet établissement, autrefois école de couture die la ville de Paris, déportées et assassinées de 1942 à 1944 parce qu’elles étaient nées juives, victimes innocentes de la barbarie nazie avec la complicité active du gouvernement de Vichy.

Plus de 11400 enfants furent déportés de France dont plus de 500 vivaient dans le 3ème art de Paris.

Ils furent exterminés dans les camps de la mort.

Les élèves du Lycée Simone Weil ne les oublieront jamais.

[To the memory of the girls, pupils of this establishment, which was then the Paris School of Dressmaking, deported and murdered from 1942 to 1944 because they were born Jewish, innocent victims of the Nazi barbarism with the active complicity of the Vichy government.

More than 11400 children were deported from France, of whom more than 500 lived in the 3rd arrondissement of Paris.

They were exterminated in the death camps.

The pupils of the Lycée Simone Weil will never forget them.]

As I read it, the formulation seemed to me strikingly perfect. The text avoids all the pitfalls that similar texts have been criticised for, whereby they seemed to either be minimising the horror, or pushing away blame, or somehow alienating the victims. The victims were “jeunes filles”, “innocent victims”, “murdered because they were born Jewish” (thus emphasising that it was a purely racist crime. They were “exterminated”, they lived right here, and then this somewhat wishful phrase at the end, usually attached to heroic martyrs, “The pupils will never forget them.” Most striking was the attribution of responsibility to “Nazi barbarism with the active complicity of the Vichy government.” They clearly were concerned to make absolutely unambiguous that they were not minimising French responsibility. Not just “complicity”, but “active complicity”. (Though it wasn’t the “French government”, but only the “Vichy government”.)

I was impressed first, then irritated. Precisely because they managed to tick every box and engrave such a perfect text on the plaque, it made it clear what a formulaic activity it is. (Perhaps the final sentence, unassailably high-minded just as it is clearly not true in any meaningful sense, also drove that point home.) It’s not that they did anything wrong, and I’m glad that they put all these plaques up. There’s just a limit to what you can achieve with a plaque, and perfecting the art of the memorial plaque in some ways undermines the spirit that it is meant to express.

A real champion of academic freedom

I’ve commented before about the craven assault on academic freedom at the University of Southampton, which feigned concerns about “health and safety” to justify cancelling an uncomfortable conference on international law and the legitimacy of the state of Israel. But for me it’s mainly an abstract issue. I’m not involved in the conference, my political views lie messily between those of the conference organisers and their opponents, and it’s not a hugely important topic to me.

One name that I noticed, with interest, on the programme, was that of Geoffrey Alderman, professor of history at University of Buckingham. I know of him from his frequent contributions to the Jewish Chronicle, which I usually filed in the “staunch Zionist” column, with some of the blindspots typical of that worldview. I was impressed with his willingness to appear in such a forum, clearly slanted against his beliefs, both because of the discomfort that entails, and because of the danger that his ideological allies would see him as a traitor to the cause.

He has now written a letter to Times Higher Education, forthrightly condemning this triumph of obscurantism.

As a proud Jew and a proud Zionist, I am appalled. As a patron of the Council for Academic Freedom and Academic Standards, I am outraged. As someone who was to have presented a paper at the conference, I am horrified.

Academic freedom is indivisible. There is no subject that cannot be discussed in a university environment.

As a proud non-Zionist Jew, I am hugely impressed, and encouraged.

Dolchstosslegende à l’anglaise

Another Jew has stabbed us in the back, warns defence secretary Michael Fallon. This time, it’s Ed Miliband, who has shown himself an utter failure at trying to pass for a normal bacon-eating Brit, who is potentially going to leave us helpless, with barely a nuclear-armed submarine to protect us against the benefits scroungers. His choice of detail was fascinating: He wrote that Miliband

could not be trusted with the nation’s defences after he “stabbed his own brother in the back to become Labour leader”. In a Times article Fallon wrote: “Now he is willing to stab the United Kingdom in the back to become prime minister.”

Now, of course, we can’t be sure of the details until David Miliband’s body is found*, but so far as I am aware, they competed fairly for the leadership of Labour. Ed won. Doesn’t sound particularly nefarious to me. But then, I come from a religious tradition whose scripture celebrates younger brothers who stab the older ones in the back triumph over the disadvantages of their birth.

*Correction: It has already been found. It is in New York, directing the International Rescue Committee.

The Emancipation Haggadah [reprinted from last year]

A few years ago, in anticipation of the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, and because I was blown away by reading a couple of Frederick Douglass’s autobiographies, I had the inspiration to try to integrate the American slave experience with the traditional haggadah. In particular, I put in lots of quotes from Douglass about the nature of slavery and freedom — the amazing physicality and emotional presence — to supplement the traditional text of “hard labour, clay and bricks, and all the work of the fields”. I’ve always thought the main purpose of the seder is to remind children (and adults) to think again about the difference between freedom and slavery, and for that we need text that makes it fresh and real. Douglass does that.

I combined this with other favourite passages and the portions of the traditional haggadah that I like to include in my seders. Of course, for those of us who are not keen on stories of wandering Arameans and such, it’s very convenient to have your own haggadah with your own selection of material, to spare the annoyance of announcing page numbers.

The result is here, for anyone who wants to have a look.

The Pope’s Shluchim

I’ve just been reading Amir Alexander’s book Infinitesimal, about the intellectual struggle over the concepts of infinitesimals and the continuum in mathematics and science (and theology) in the 17th century. The early part of the book is a history of the Society of Jesus, presented as a ruthless and intellectually daring force for religious conservatism, strictly hierarchical, devoted to its holy founder, a thoroughly mystical movement that built its reputation and influence on educational outreach. And then it struck me: The Jesuits were just like Chabad-Lubavitch!

The first self-hating Jew

Binyamin Netanyahu’s application of the Book of Esther as a guide to negotiations with the Persian (sorry, Iranian) regime reminded me of this famous passage from Lucy Dawidowicz’s The War Against the Jews 1933-1945:

A line of anti-Semitic descent from Martin Luther to Adolf Hitler is easy to draw… To be sure, the similarities of Luther’s anti-Jewish exhortations with modern racial anti-Semitism and even with Hitler’s racial policies are not merely coincidental. They all derive from a common historic tradition of Jew-hatred, whose provenance can be traced back to Haman’s advice to Ahasuerus. But modern German anti-Semitism had more recent roots than Luther and grew out of a different soil…

It really needs to be emphasised that Haman is almost certainly a fictional character. What would it mean if this claim were true, that the tree of anti-Semitism has at its root a fictional text invented by a Jew? One presumes he was drawing on some genuine experience, but the brilliant rhetorical crystallisation — “There is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the people in all the provinces of thy kingdom; and their laws are different from other people; neither keep they the king’s laws: therefore it is not in the king’s interest to tolerate them” — is the invention of Esther‘s author.*

The Jews have shown a particular genius for telling their own story, to themselves and to the world. Maybe sometimes we are too effective for our own good.

* As a bonus, the Book of Esther includes a founding text of misogyny as well, put into the mouth of Memukhan (whom the Jewish sages identified with Haman):

Memukhan presented the king and vice-regents this answer: “Vashti the queen has wronged not only the king, but also all the officials and all the peoples in all the provinces of King Achashverosh; because this act of the queen’s will become known to all the women, who will then start showing disrespect toward their own husbands; … If it pleases his majesty, let him issue a royal decree — and let it be written as one of the laws of the Persians and Medes, which are irrevocable — that Vashti is never again to be admitted into the presence of King Achashverosh, and that the king give her royal position to someone better than she. When the edict made by the king is proclaimed throughout the length and breadth of the kingdom, then all wives will honor their husbands, whether great or small.”

Four quadrants of moral law

I commented last week about the fascinating panel discussion at the Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies that brought together rabbis from three different denominations — Reform, Masorti, and Modern Orthodox. All were insightful and eloquent advocates for their version of Judaism, and they responded creatively to a wide variety of questions. (Michael Harris, the Orthodox rabbi, had the hardest job, since a significant portion of his movement rejects the very notion of sharing a platform with rabbis from other denominations. I asked him whether, given that, it might not be misleading for progressive Jews to pay attention to what any Orthdox rabbi says who is willing to participate in such a panel, since they are then, inevitably, outliers. He responded graciously that, in this respect, British Orthodoxy is not representative of the movement worldwide, and he hoped that this insularity would decline.)

Someone asked the panel whether they thought that moral principles and values change over time. Reform Rabbi Jonathan Romain said, of course they do, citing slavery and other examples; Rabbi Harris said no, the core moral laws are eternal and unchanging.

That’s the way their sort are expected to answer. But that got me to thinking: Don’t they have it backwards?  Why is it that the people who declare that moral laws are external to human society and human choice tend to be the same ones who think that these laws were correctly formulated thousands of years ago? Consider two dimensions of beliefs about moral laws: X is the dimension of social construction, ranging from “Something humans make up completely arbitrarily”, to “law that we cannot influence, but can only know or not know”; Y is the dimension of permanence of our values, ranging from “constantly changing” to “fixed and unchanging”. It seems clear that all four quadrants are possible, but there is a rhetorical presumption in favour fo the main diagonal: upper right or lower left. Either socially constructed laws with mutable social values or external moral law with unchanging values.

Why is that? You wouldn’t expect someone to say, “I believe the laws governing the motions of falling bodies are facts external to human society. Therefore I object to any suggestion that we could improve upon Aristotle’s version.” (more…)

Correct me, Lord, but in moderation…

Jeremiah 10:24.

Accounts of error-correcting codes always start with the (3,1)-repetition code — transmit three copies of each bit, and let them vote, choosing the best two out of three when there is disagreement. Apparently this code has been in use for longer than anyone had realised, to judge by this passage from the Jerusalem Talmud:

Three scrolls [of the Torah] did they find in the Temple courtyard. In one of these scrolls they found it written “The eternal God is your dwelling place (maon)“. And in two of the scrolls it was written, “The eternal God is your dwelling place (meonah)”. They confirmed the reading found in the two and abrogated the other.

In one of them they found written “They sent the little ones of the people of Israel”. And in the two it was written, “They sent young men…”. They confirmed the two and abrogated the other.

In one of them they found written “he” [written in the feminine spelling] nine times, and in two they found it written that way eleven times. They confirmed the reading found in the two and abrogated the other. (tractate Ta’anit 4:2, trans. Jacob Neusner)

(h/t Masorti Rabbi Jeremy Gordon, who alluded to this passage in an inter-demominational panel discussion yesterday at the OCHJS. He was making a different point, which for some reason had very little to do with information theory.)

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