Friday, July 18, 2014

Good piece - Why Good Societies Stigmatize Anti-Semitic Language

Why Good Societies Stigmatize Anti-Semitic Language
by Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry

Never heard of the journal or the author before, so I don't know if he's a loony... The piece starts slow and not so deep, but he hits his stride in the middle to the end and it is excellent. This line especially:
Taboos against using certain language against certain groups is always tied to the violence that has been exercised against these groups, because the language is seen, quite reasonably, as both symbolizing and facilitating that violence.

This is also good:
[The Holocaust] is unique, first of all, because it is unprecedented. The Holocaust was the first time that a genocide was designed and executed in a complete, systematic fashion, using scientific, innovative means of destruction. Its goals were universal. It mobilized all of the authorities, civil and military, of the regime, and indeed the whole society. The Armenian genocide sought to kill all Armenians in Turkey, not all Armenians on the planet. The Rwandan genocide did not deploy new founts of human ingenuity to the end of efficient, total massacre. While Communism killed more people, and was occasionally an instrument of racist (indeed, anti-Semitic) violence, its motivating principle was not the extermination of a certain group of people because of who they were. While slavery in the American South was fundamentally racist like Nazism, slavery was not a historically unprecedented event—indeed, slavery is present in the history of every civilization—nor was its goal genocide.

This combination of factors—fundamental racism, unprecedentedness, universality, scientificness, hellish ingenuity, totality of execution—is why the Holocaust justly stands in our collective imagination as unique among all instances of human evil.
A good read, and a good job.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Tractate Taanit Thoughts

We finished Taanit yesterday in this Daf Yomi cycle. I'm thinking I should write a post like this when we finish in order to get some of my notes down despite the breakneck speed that dafyomi compels me to follow. Sure, I should write these down on daf day, but I'm always behind...

I thought Beitza was an excellent masekhet: filled with important halakhic concepts. Rosh Hashanah was even better - most of the theological concepts of judgement which I expected with Yoma were analyzed in RH. The Mishna of RH is chock full of great things and the Gemara follows suit. Taanit, however, is a jarring reverse from those 2 in quality; it's beyond just not good, it's pretty scary bad. Why? Because the basic mitzvah is about how we need to fast during difficult times. But instead of the mature theodicy of RH which is about individual judgement and responsibility, Taanit is about a shallow theodicy that presumes God will reward and punish IMMEDIATELY based on clearly defined merits/demerits. This assumption is so dangerous; it's not upheld by (1) most grown-up theology, or (2) everyday observation, nor is it (3) consistent with most of our moral philosophy. Basically said, it is the mentality of Job's friends, and I think I can say confidently that his friends are supposed to be wrong.

All 3 problems are significant. (1) shows that there are opposing views, and that is how I deal with this masekhet. I imagine that the grown-ups left the room for Congressional recess, as it were, and the mystical clowns got ahold of the floor that day and included all this stuff. Or maybe the grown-ups felt that since many of these stories are part of the tradition, even though they disagree with it, they needed to be included somewhere, so might as well put it in this tractate which has the undercurrent of mystical magic.

(2) is a problem because many cases of "off the derech" for mature thinking adults are as a result of reacting to these types of childish, and UN-NECESSARY, theology. I have historical cases but I've also seen it in my own rabbinic counseling career. It's self-inflicted wounds.

(3) Because the stories are just horrible after horrible. They are such chillulei Hashem that I cannot even cite them in good conscience. These stories cannot be serious contenders in our moral philosophy, and this can be seen in the over-time effort put in by the Aggadah scholars, especially the Maharsha, who do their best to render these terrible stories anodyne.

Now, it's possible that I'm wrong about the inconsitancy of the theodicy presented in the story. Only recently did I hear a similar concept labeled in modern times as "hashgacha pratit" - which I thought just meant God's constant scrutiny, but which I've now heard means God will give immediate messages and reactions to an individual's behavior. HP isn't nearly as bad as what we see in Taanit (anybody saying something like the third chapter in Taanit would be laughed at and vilified) but HP suffers from the same 3 objections as above.

There are some redeeming qualities. Taanit has some interesting and even invaluable points about science and public policy - for the same reason we have all the stuff about theodicy, i.e. how to assess what is a public threat. So the set reaction - fasting - leads to the philosophy issues above, but the need to know what to react to requires knowledge of what is threatening to the public weal. So they need to define the 'rainy season' but also how crops grow and what rains are the best for each. They define the types of calamities which are 'normal' (wolves) and abnormal and thus indicative of Divine punishment. This latter category helps me understand the 'public health' knowledge of 1500 years ago, which is interesting to me as a historian and social scientist.

There's so much I have written in the margins of my gemara and it's not possible to deal with them all in the time frame I want to devote to this, sorry. One last brief point, the bad theology of this tractate reminds me of 'samurai morality' i.e. it reflects a culture of strict honor. This has implications on life-and-death questions, my bread and butter, so I may return to this further.

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

It's Been a While

As a person determined to stay both sane and un-angry, I stay away from the New York Times articles on Israel.  They are stupid and offensive, hallmarks of modern journalism.   But since there's a crisis in Israel, and I have the Times open in my browser, I see the front page headline: "Israel Steps Up Air Offensive in Gaza" with the sublede: "Israel on Tuesday bombed about 50 targets in airstrikes that Hamas’s military wing called “a serious escalation.”"

This level of bias is almost comical. Israel has been under constant rocket attack for the past few days from Hamas in Gaza. Rockets now have been able to hit Tel Aviv - which is the capital of Israel for those who reject Israel's right to exist. So how is this an offensive? It's clearly under the definition, of any normal dictionary, of 'defense.' Then the Times quotes a Hamas official?! Whaaaaat? Hamas is a terror organization that openly calls for Israel's destruction. How are they even credible?

And even with the NYT's shoddy journalism, I'd expect there to be 'the other side', i.e. from the Democratically elected Israeli government or something, but... nope. Maybe it's in the article, which I won't read because of the sane/angry thing. But according to the stupid journalism handbook, are you allowed to have both bits of data, the headline and the sublede, be of one "side"? Especially so when the one side is a criminal organization committed to mass murder, no?

Ah well. I do look forward to the day when these news agencies go back to the good side. But considering that there actually is no credentials, or training, necessary to be a journalist, I don't think that day will happen any time soon.