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.” Continue reading “Four quadrants of moral law”

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.)

Operetta diplomacy

I was somewhere between amused and frightened in skimming Netanyahu’s speech to the US Congress, finding this passage:

We’re an ancient people. In our nearly 4,000 years of history, many have tried repeatedly to destroy the Jewish people. Tomorrow night, on the Jewish holiday of Purim, we’ll read the Book of Esther. We’ll read of a powerful Persian viceroy named Haman, who plotted to destroy the Jewish people some 2,500 years ago. But a courageous Jewish woman, Queen Esther, exposed the plot and gave for the Jewish people the right to defend themselves against their enemies.

The plot was foiled. Our people were saved.


Today the Jewish people face another attempt by yet another Persian potentate to destroy us.

SPOILER ALERT! How are you going to get people to come to hear the whole megillah in synagogue if you just give away the ending? I love the fact that everyone applauded “The plot was foiled.” And what’s with this “Persian potentate” stuff? I thought the Iranians were supposed to be Islamo-fascists.

Seriously, though, if you’re an Israeli prime minister with a reputation for telling tall tales about your neighbours’ military plans and capacities, and you’re trying to make the case that this time it’s really really serious, maybe you don’t want to reveal right up front that your diplomatic calculations are heavily influenced by a 2500 year old fairy tale with as much inherent plausibility as the plot of HMS Pinafore.

Come home to Israel…

Binyamin Netanyahu is back to grandstanding as king of the Jews — just days after announcing that he would be speaking to the US Congress as “a representative of the entire Jewish people” — telling European Jews that they will always be victimised by non-Jews as long as they stay in Europe, so they should move to Israel, where they can be victimised by fellow Jews instead. But at least in Israel Jews can pray in peace without armed police protecting them; because in Israel the armed police will break up their prayer sessions and arrest them (if they’re women and not Orthodox).

Odium ex nihilo

The Guardian quotes actress Maureen Lipman saying that the recent attacks in Paris have her thinking of leaving London for the US, where you can be shot to death in a supermarket in an entirely nondiscriminatory and racially neutral way. (Israel was also on her list of destinations, because it is a place where Jews are famously safe from terrorist attacks.) But I was struck by this comment:

When the economy dries up, then they turn on the usual scapegoat: the usual suspect –the Jew. There is one school of thought that says it’s because of Israeli policies in the West Bank, it isn’t. There’s been antisemitism for the past 4,000 years.

It is common to link modern antisemitism to trends since the middle ages. Some say nothing has really changed since Tiberius. Some go back even to the Hellenistic period. Lipman almost doubles that history.

Some people have remarked on the weird persistence of antisemitism in places like Poland despite the absence of any significant numbers of remaining Jews. Lipman’s bracing theory is that antisemitism also pre-existed the Jews. As the prayerbook says, וְהוּא הָיָה וְהוּא הֹוֶה ,וְהוּא יִהְיֶה בְּתִפְאָרָה: It was, it is, and it ever will be.

Perhaps, just as some say that antisemitism maintained the Jews as a distinct people through the Middle Ages, pre-existing antisemitism actually called the Jewish people into existence. As Sartre famously said,

Loin que l’expérience engendre la notion de Juif, c’est celle-ci qui éclaire l’expérience au contraire ; si le Juif n’existait pas, l’antisémite l’inventerait.

The concept of the Jew does not arise from experience, but rather the Jew serves as a pretext to explain [the anti-Semite’s] experience. If the Jew did not exist, the anti-Semite would invent him.

Leonard the Priest

I’m just listening to the newest Leonard Cohen album, Popular Problems. I’m fascinated by the idiosyncratic Jewish imagery that runs through his career, but increasing in recent years. For instance, in this new song “Almost Like the Blues”:

I let my heart get frozen
To keep away the rot.
My father says I’m chosen.
My mother says I’m not.
I listened to their stories
of the Gypsies and the Jews.
It was good, it wasn’t boring.
It was almost like the blues.

One thing that immediately stood out for me was this (I think) entirely original poetic trick of using “the Gypsies and the Jews” to signify the Holocaust. It works, because what else do Gypsies and Jews have in common, but it’s also an intriguingly oblique way of referencing it. And that leads into what feels like an allusion to the function of Holocaust stories to arouse feelings of pathos and high seriousness, but fundamentally serving as a kind of perverse entertainment. (To get the full impact you need to hear the leer that creeps into his voice on “It was good”; a good example of how performed poetry can go beyond the written word. And given the limited range of Cohen’s voice, never very flexible even in his salad days, this really is performed poetry more than singing.)

Jews and evolution

Salon has published an interesting interview with former Commonwealth Chief Rabbi of the soi-disant Orthodox Jonathan Sacks about his new book about the relationship between science and religion. The man who did as much as anyone in recent years to break down cooperation and mutual respect between Orthodox and progressive streams of Judaism in the UK has rediscovered the virtues of mutual respect and toleration since stepping down last year from his post as Orthodox Chief Rabbi. At least, he believes strongly that atheists should respect him more.

One particular exchange caught my attention:

Why do so few Jews take issue with the theory of evolution, while creationism is common among Christians?

I think Christians tended to think that religion and science were part of the same universe of discourse. So they assumed that the Bible was telling us scientific stuff, as well as moral and spiritual stuff. Whereas Jews don’t read the Bible that way.

It surprises me that the good Rabbi feels so confident accepting the premise of the question, that Orthodox Jews are hip to modern (i.e., post-medieval) science. It’s hard to believe that he has become so disengaged from the cause of Jewish education in Britain in the past year that he failed to note the scandal earlier this year, when a Jewish girls’ school in London (state-funded, natch!) was found to be removing questions from A-level biology exams “because they do not fit in with their beliefs.”

Fifty-two papers were altered by Yesodey Hatorah Senior Girls’ School to remove questions on evolution.

This being Britain, where everything is a sport, no one cared much at first about the children being taught bogus biology; they only cared about the game being fair:

The examinations body, OCR, says it was satisfied that the girls did not have an unfair advantage. It now plans to allow the practice, saying it has come to an agreement with the school to protect the future integrity of the exams.

On more mature reflection, the exam regulator Ofqual did decide that excising questions from exams would be deemed “malpractice”.

Until I read of this controversy, I would have felt confident agreeing with Lord Sacks that there is no Jewish tradition for rejecting scientific biology. Now I’m obviously not so sure. Perhaps this represents part of the harmonic convergence between Orthodox Jewry and American Evangelical Christianity — rather like the way they’ve come to a consensus on supporting Israel, even if the motives may be discordant — Jews wanting Israel as a place to live, Christians wanting it as a place to stage Armageddon.

Weird Ed

Thursday were elections — local council elections and European parliament. The European results are being held back until Sunday, when other countries will be voting, but the local results show what look like solid improvement for Labour, big losses for the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, and substantial increases for the anti-immigrant UKIP. (Substantial because they held only two council seats before, and now they have over 100.) So the main topics of the news coverage were, of course,

  1. Labour is floundering.
  2. UKIP expected to do very well, perhaps get the most votes, in the European elections.

The best I can understand, the opposition is expected to gain a protest vote against the government currently in power in non-national elections*, so the fact that much of the protest vote was soaked up by UKIP makes them look like losers, because their gains were less than expected (if you ignored UKIP). Except, that reasoning is odd: Labour didn’t do badly in an absolute sense; they didn’t do badly in a prognostic sense — the protest vote is fleeting anyway, and their ability to hold it against a clown parade like UKIP says little about their performance in a general election.

But really, this was just an occasion, however inappropriate, for some anonymous Labour grandees to gripe about Ed Miliband. In particular, The Times quoted one as saying Miliband

looks weird, sounds weird, is weird.

Continue reading “Weird Ed”

The Emancipation Haggadah

A couple of 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.

Tevye in the City

I recently read Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye stories (inspired by the wonderful book by Alisa Solomon, Wonder of Wonders: A cultural history of Fiddler on the Roof — they’re available now free from the Yiddish Book Center), and I was startled by several features. Tevye is a much more forward-looking figure than he appears in Fiddler on the Roof, which chose to emphasise the cultural divide between him and his daughters.

One thing that really caught my attention was that Tevye, before he got to marrying off his daughters, the travails of which are the basis for Fiddler on the Roof, lost all his savings in some vague financial schemes. The description is priceless, how his distant cousin Menachem Mendel

let me understand how he makes three rubles out of one, and from three — ten. First of all, he said, you invest a hundred rubles and then you order ten somethings — I’ve already forgotten what they’re called — to be bought for you; then you wait a few days until its price goes up. Then you send off a telegram somewhere with an order to sell, and with the money, to buy twice as much; then the price goes up again and you dispatch another telegram; this goes on until the hundred becomes two hundred, the two hundred — four hundred — eight, the eight — sixteen hundred, real “miracles and wonders”! There are people, he said, in Yehupetz, who just recently walked around barefoot, they were brokers, messengers, servants, today they live in their own brick houses, their wives complain of stomach ailments and go abroad for treatment. (Trans. Joseph Simon)

(Much of the imagery of the song “If I were a Rich Man” comes from this story.) As ever, finance was an extractive industry, fuelled by a steady stream of gullibility and greed, in varying proportions.

Anyway, this all reminded me, obliquely, that Tevye had an exact contemporary, who has recently been experiencing some great success on the small screen, having been updated and moved into modern London, namely Sherlock Holmes. I don’t mean to draw any comparison between the figures, but it seems to me that Tevye might do equally well in modern London. (Mad magazine moved him into the American suburbs in the 1970s, which was an obvious idea, but in some ways more foreign.) I could see him drudging away in a small hedge fund, trying to do the right thing, never getting to see his family, suffering with computer breakdowns, losing money through honest dealing, accepting the ups and downs of London real estate with his idiosyncratic proverbs, like

All life ends in death. We’ll all be dead some day, Golda. A man is like a carpenter: a carpenter lives and lives and dies, and a man lives and dies.