Thursday, November 24, 2005

From Thanksgiving To Chanukah

Here is the ultimate moment for a practicing author/editor who works mostly on projects that do not bear his name. That is, when he can publish a review on the very book he edited. Here is such a review, headed for publication in a prominent Jewish magazine:

A sort of orthodoxy of superficiality has long predominated in the public perception of Chanukah.

The narrative is simple enough: bad Greeks came and tried to stop Jews from being Jewish until a small heroic army known as the Maccabees fought back and won against overwhelming odds. They then entered the Temple in Jerusalem to restore Jewish sovereignty. There they found that the supplies had been raided and damaged by the Greeks to the point where there was not even oil with which to light the candelabra. They first thought it would be necessary to wait eight days until a delegation could travel to the olive-producing region, prepare new oil and return. Suddenly they managed to find a tiny flask that contained one day’s oil. They decided to light it, if only as a symbolic gesture for that day’s victory. Instead, the oil burned for eight solid days, which they took to be a miracle. We celebrate the victory by being happy and having parties with special foods; we celebrate the miracle of the lights by lighting candles.

Perhaps it was inevitable that a winter holiday, practiced at home after a full day’s work, would tend to drift toward the boisterous and rambunctious and away from the analytical and intellectual. And arguably the Jewish People has benefited from this shallowness: more Jews observe Chanukah than any other holiday and it has a wonderful effect of affirming a sense of positive Jewish identity. But now, in our era of unparalleled renaissance of Jewish scholarship, that will simply not do anymore. As Patrick Henry might say were he alive today: ‘Give me liberty and give me depth’.

Pinchos Stolper has undertaken to fill this void with his newest tour-de-force, HIDDEN LIGHTS: Chanukah and the Jewish/Greek Conflict. (Full disclosure: I worked as an editor on the project.) This is a book whose target is truth, no matter how many feathers get ruffled in the process.

Some ruffling may be inevitable. There are some very powerful historical premises that may be uncomfortable for people to face. Firstly, he makes the claim that the majority of Jews had given up the practice of Judaism in favor of the Greek lifestyle. Contemporaneous historical sources are cited to support that contention, then he follows up by proving that many recent scholars, such as Rabbi Jacob Kamenecki and Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, believed this to be the case. He also maintains that Rabbi Isaac Hutner seems to share that view, although Rabbi Hutner’s language on the subject is less than explicit.

Stolper even considers the far more shocking view that most of the oppression enacted against Jews during that period was the work of Hellenized Jews rather than the Greeks themselves. Once again, he quotes both Rabbi Kamenecki and Rabbi Soloveitchik at some length to establish that they held this opinion. In fact, they seem to believe that most of the Al Hanissim prayer recited on Chanukah is referring to victories achieved by the Jews against the Jews, and when they are celebrated as victories against the “evil Greek Kingdom” this is intended as a euphemism for turncoat Jewish Hellenists.

However, it is clear that Rabbi Hutner never accepts that conclusion: to him, the “Greek Exile” and the “Greek Redemption” are too bound up in the national history of the Jews struggling against the Four Kingdoms. The concept of the Four Kingdoms imposing Four Exiles is ubiquitous in the Midrash and to a thinker like Rabbi Hutner it is inconceivable to assert that the Hellenists made the exile happen. No, the Greeks made it happen and the Hellenists were their agents, sometimes voluntarily, sometimes involuntarily, sometimes eagerly and sometimes regretfully. Still, the presence of Jews in a significant role as proxies of the oppressor is treated in Rabbi Hutner’s work as a very important aspect of the theology of the Greek challenge to Israel.

Stolper is never more incisive than when he follows the trails laid out by Rabbi Hutner’s philosophical discourses. (It is noteworthy that Hidden Lights is being published simultaneously with Chanukah In a New Light, Stolper’s translation of the Pachad Yitzchok on Chanukah. This is the second in a series of translations by Stolper of Rabbi Hutner’s set of Pachad Yitzchok, volumes of theological/philosophical essays on the Jewish holidays.)

Probably the most significant premise laid out in Rabbi Hutner’s work on Chanukah, which he attributes to the Maharal of Prague, is that the physical conflict against the Greeks is secondary to the spiritual conflict. Or, more specifically, the intellectual conflict. The Jews are seen as the first people who created a complete system for living based on a set of intellectual principles. Although the Torah adds some elements of faith that go beyond the intellect, its foundation is set in reason. First the independent reason of Abraham, then the revealed reason of prophecy and ultimately the revealed reason of Torah at Sinai. The Greeks, as the first nation to found a national culture built around an independent system of reasoned principles – or at least facts derived through scientific investigation – become unalterably opposed to the idea that Torah constitutes a higher form of reason designed to connect the mind of man to the mind of God.

This sets up a new paradigm for conflict. Rather than wars designed for building power and wealth per se, we have wars to promote ideology and alter cultures. The Greeks are actually exporting a lifestyle, which they are delivering from the barrel of a gun – or the blade of a sword, as the case may be. Every other nation in the world, when Alexander of Macedonia comes sweeping through to establish dominion, finds that the physical requirements are very liberal. The conquest is not about slavery and taxation but about creating a universal lifestyle, moving civilizations and economies forward from the primitive to the sophisticated; from the mundane to the mondaine. Realizing this, the cultures of the occupied nations prove to be tractable and accommodating. Only the Jew fights back.

Thus the ultimate test of the Greek intellectual system, culture and lifestyle is their ability to compete with their Jewish counterparts. The initial foray to achieve cultural dominion involved the physical invasion of the land of Israel and a cultural outreach effort which seduced many Jews into subordinating themselves to that culture: this movement of Jews produced the Hellenists. Not satisfied with the results of this hard-fight soft-sell two-step, the Greeks (often with the enthusiastic support of their Jewish fellow travelers) laid it all on the line by initiating laws forbidding the study of Torah and the performance of various key Mitzvos.

The happy ending was provided by the Maccabees deciding that enough was enough and undertaking a campaign of guerilla warfare that ultimately enabled the Torah-observant Jews to regain control of the centers of political power and culture. This vision of the primary war as intellectual/cultural and the secondary war as military infuses this book with a rich texture. The military details are very well-covered, too. The result is a multi-tiered appreciation of Chanukah as something with more resonance than a crisp latke and more nuance than a spinning dreidel.

And to the question, "Did I edit the companion volume of translations as well?", the answer is "Yes". And I can tell you all this because the author/translator chose to acknowledge my work. The choice was his, however; had he preferred to hide my role I would have to remain mum.

Machina Ex Deus

In honor of Thanksgiving, I wrote a few words at The American Spectator about a matter that I revisit as often as possible in speeches and essays: namely, our regrettable tendency to thank God for sunsets and watermelons but not for automobiles and computers.

Here's a taste:

Let's start with electricity to power our homes. This was not imported from another galaxy, it was something built into the fabric of our world. Yet it hovered beyond our reach for over five thousand years of recorded history. All the great men of history, all of our ancestors, all the people who brought us to where we are today, did it without the benefit of a heater in winter and an air conditioner in summer. They spent many an exertive hour flailing at frozen trees with hatchets for a few cords of firewood or hacking at frozen lakes to dislodge blocks of ice for cooling.

Our mothers lost so much of their lives in the arduous painstaking tasks of washing dishes and clothing by hand. Without washing machines and dryers, without dishwashers, every speck of grime on a dish or a cloth exacted a toll in strenuous labor. And time, always time, as great lives ticked away with hands elbow-deep in murky water. We are gifted with a great bounty of hours freed from bondage, open for creativity. Pieces of our lives have already experienced their Exodus and their Messiah; no woman should ever again have to lose an afternoon churning butter.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

"The Age of Unreason"

In a fascinating and insightful article in the current issue of the Spectator (UK), "The Age of Unreason," Frank Furedi points out that people today willingly turn over increasing amounts of authority to other individuals, a group of lifestyle gurus who teach us how to do everyhing from cooking to raising our children to how to shop:

To this day I am astonished when I hear that sensible, biologically mature adults allow themselves to be treated as if they were incompetent dimwits by a new army of professional surrogate parents. In days of old, traditional authority figures, like priests, instructed us how to behave in public and told us which rules to observe. Today’s experts are even freer with their advice. They do not simply tell us what to do and think, but also how to feel. A new army of life coaches, lifestyle gurus, professional celebrities, parenting coaches, super-nannies, makeover experts, healers, facilitators, mentors and guides regularly lecture us about the most intimate details of our existence. They are not simply interested in monitoring public behaviour but in colonising our internal life.

Furedi does not mention that religious bodies have long told people what to feel, but I think that this observation actually strengthens his argument:

Deference to the authority of the celebrity, makeover guru or healer is underwritten by the decline in the influence of conventional forms of authority. That is why the frequently asserted claim that we live in an age characterised by the ‘death of deference’ bears little relationship to reality. Yes, it has become fashionable to treat traditional forms of authority — monarchy, church, parliament — with derision. Criticism of traditional institutions has become so prevalent that it bears all the hallmarks of classical conformism. Scientists, doctors and other professionals have also experienced an erosion of authority. But the diminishing influence of conventional authority has been paralleled by the rise of a new ‘alternative’ one. We don’t trust politicians but we have faith in the pronouncements of celebrities. We are suspicious of medical doctors but we feel comfortable with healers who mumble on about being ‘holistic’ and ‘natural’. We certainly don’t trust scientists working for the pharmaceutical industry but we are happy to listen to the disinterested opinion of a herbalist. And, of course, alternative food and other consumer products gain our confidence because . . . they are alternative.

Furedi argues that the current rise of unreason involves a rejection of science in addition to a loss of traditional religion. Thus Furedi confirms G. K. Chesterton's observation that people who stop believing in God don't believe in nothing, they believe anything:

The cultural valuation of superstition over reason and the revival of ancient forms of mysticism testify to a profound crisis of meaning in contemporary society. . . . So how do we account for the ascendancy of the authority of the life expert and the mystical guru? Some argue that the rise of this authority is a response to the decline of religion and the rise of secularism. It is claimed that without clearly formulated moral signposts people are likely to be attracted to esoteric fads and therapies. However, it is important to remember that secularism and science have been around for a long time. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries society experienced phases of moral confusion. Nevertheless, people often gained a sense of direction from the guidance they received through secular and scientific authority. So it is not just the decline of religion but also of conventional forms of modern authority that distinguishes our times. In previous eras a loss of faith in religion was sometimes compensated for by the plausibility of science, a political ideology or the capacity of a public authority to act in the interests of all.

Furedi does not mention it, but the leveling of social authority probably has at least some roots in technological change. It strongly resembles the phenomenon of leveling of heirarchies in the workplace, where layers of management and authority are breaking down as technology makes it possible for individuals to manage their own work with increasing efficiency and effectiveness, without layers and layers of bosses in place to ensure that everyone does what they are needed to do. One sees a similar pattern in the media: in television, there were once three major voices, whereas now there are literally hundreds of choices. Each major city once had a few big newspapers, which fell to just one or two in most place in the past couple of decades, but with the internet as with cable and satellite TV, there are now a multitude of choices.

This leveling of authorities and media access allows people to rise quickly to public prominence, and those with charismatic personalities can easily spread plausible but wrong ideas widely and rapidly. That is the big danger in this great leveling, and the rise of the lifestyle guru is a powerful reminder that people do need authorities, and that when tried and tested authorities are undone, others will arise. In an antiauthoritarian society, however, these new authorities will have adherence but not legitimacy. Hence, people will continue to search for new authorities when these fail them, but the public will have to do so without sound principles to guide them in their quest:

A civilised and enlightened society requires institutions of legitimate authority, and public respect for them. That is why the attitude of the anti-authoritarian seldom conveys the spirit of critical thought. It is not criticism but uncritical criticism that motivates the current temper of cultural cynicism. The authority cultivated through human experience allows people to gain a measure of control over their destiny. Without such institutions to guide us people have no choice but to defer to Fate and its earthly representatives in the makeover industry.

There are many interesting and enlightening details in Furedi's article, and I encourage you to read it.

Where the Rubber Meets the Road

Or for the want of one of the former, as the case may be:

NEW YORK (Reuters) - An unmarried teacher says she was discriminated against and fired from her job at a Roman Catholic school in New York for being pregnant and has filed a federal complaint.

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn said on Tuesday that McCusker's situation was difficult, but the Saint Rose of Lima School had had no choice but to follow the principles contained in its teachers' handbook dictating that "a teacher can not violate the tenets of Catholic morality."

McCusker, 26, was dismissed from the school after telling school administrators she was pregnant and did not plan to marry.

She and the New York Civil Liberties Union filed a wrongful dismissal complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on Monday asserting the firing was "intentional and unlawful discrimination based on McCusker's sex and pregnant status."

In a statement, McCusker said she did not "understand how a religion that prides itself on being forgiving and on valuing life" could fire her for choosing to have a baby.

In a termination letter to McCusker dated October 11, Theresa Andersen, the school's principal, cited the school handbook's provision on morality, but also praised McCusker's "high degree of professionalism."

© Reuters 2005. All Rights Reserved.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

I Like the Way This Guy Thinks

Matt Huisman has a few profound thoughts in comment world:

The tricky thing about moral condemnations is that you actually have to reference an agreed upon moral that has been violated. And the truth is that we’re not really capable of telling anyone that extra-marital sex is immoral anymore. We have developed the means to eliminate the physical harm - and why be upset with someone who has done no harm? What’s that? You say that some of us still slip up and make a mess? What a shame, but who can really blame someone for getting caught up in the moment and forgetting to take the necessary precautions – there but for the grace of God go I. Better make a note to redouble our appeals before the god of education, who is no doubt merciful and good, and able to save us from our current condition.

So where does this leave us as Christians? Should we be spitting fire and brimstone at those who scoff at their creator? Or do we simply need to recognize that the world has passed us (and God) by, and we’ve become irrelevant?

Neither. For while our compassion dictates that the church be useful to its fellow man as counselor, insurance policy and all-around handy man – it was never our central purpose.

General revelation is a good thing, and the world’s ever amassing competence and ability to overcome the obstacles that used to turn them to the divine will soon expose the hard reality of loneliness (or meaninglessness) that lurks behind every would-be panacea. Perhaps it is here where our efforts are best spent – where the real love of Jesus can best be understood.

We may be getting close to the time where ‘I told you so’ is no longer relevant as an introduction to the eternal – and that too is a good thing.

The Imminent Threat

Republicans and Democrats shouted, hurled insults and in the end gave new and ferocious meaning to partisanship. A debate over withdrawal from Iraq has descended into rancorous accusations that exemplify a nation divided.

As some noted, this is a replay of Vietnam, a war decided in the corridors of Congress rather than the Southeast Asian battlefield. Surely, the lessons of the past are not lost on al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations. They cannot defeat us in Iraq, but they can certainly test American fortitude.

Yet the ugly exchanges in the House of Representatives overlook critical dimensions of this war on terror, matters that have potentially catastrophic implications for the nation.

On November 5 the Global Islamic Media Front, a propaganda creation that disseminates al Zarqawi’s positions, announced a prize for the best proposed logo at its new website. The winner of the contest will be “privileged” to launch “three long range rockets against an American military base in Iraq (…the pressing of a button by a blessed hand.”

The announcement went on to note that Jaysh Al-Ta’ifa Al–Mansura, a radical Sunni Islamic organization composed of former military officers who served Saddam Hussein, has developed “a rocket, effective and precise, as we had promised you, using the highest level of technology …capable of launch from long range via remote control from anywhere in the world.” As these radicals note, they have the means – or claim to have the means – “to destroy the fortresses of polytheism and the infidels… .”

Whether this is merely an empty threat designed to appeal to adherents remains to be seen. However, it should be noted that this website has received more than 50,000 “hits.”

This website proposal is not unique. The Sunday Times of London reports that another al Qaeda website contains detailed instructions in Arabic on how to make nuclear, “dirty” and biological bombs. This site has 80 pages of instructions and pictures of kitchen bomb-making techniques.

Under the heading of the Nuclear Bomb of Jihad are instructions on ways to enrich uranium as a gift to the commander of jihad fighters, Osama bin Laden. Readers are encouraged to look for materials such as radium, which it claims is an “effective alternative to uranium and available on the market.”

Quoting the Koran, the anonymous architect of the site notes, “Fight them so that Allah will punish them at your hands and will put them to shame and will give you victory over them.”

John Hassard, a physicist at Imperial College London, maintains that this website offers “a proper instruction manual” for would-be terrorists. “It is a very real threat and one we can’t afford to ignore,” he said.

If this website is to be taken seriously, al Qaeda is striving to move directly from a stage where weapons of mass destruction are obtained to one in which they are deployed. Moreover, these threats serve as a propaganda vehicle and a recruitment device.

While the Congress dithers over whether we should leave Iraq precipitously or remain, our enemy is building or attempting to build weapons of mass destruction. There can be little doubt that if fissionsable material is obtained and converted into a weapon, it will be used.

This threat must be taken seriously. If it requires preemption, then preemption we must have. If it requires enhanced counter intelligence, then we must put that in place. If it means draining the Middle East swamp of fanatical jihadists, then we must be prepared to do so.

The websites that call for attacks against the United States and its allies cannot be dismissed as sheer hyperbole. We are at war and our survival is at stake. Those in the Congress who cannot recognize that do not deserve to represent the American people.

The appeasers in our midst believe that if we keep on feeding the carnivores red meat, they will become vegetarians. But history teaches a very different lesson. Those who refuse to fight are likely to die with their hands in the air. History can be merciless to those who won’t defend themselves. That is a point that must be shouted on the House of Representatives floor.

Charm City Offensive

I'm going to have to stop making fun of Maryland politics. There's no sport in it anymore.

Earlier this week, Baltimore was honored with a top ten spot in Morgan Quitno's annual Most Dangerous City award, snagging the coveted number six from Washington DC, which fell to 13th this year. So of course the Baltimore City Council took swift action. Faced with evidence that their city continues to be plagued with failing schools, corrupt and incompetent police, and drug dealer turf wars, they suspended all regular business to....pass a resolution calling for immediate withdrawal of American troops from Iraq. One council member, Keiffer Mitchell, said he had been moved by "the deaths of soldiers from Baltimore and Maryland" to vote in favor of the motion.

Hold on there, Mr. Mitchell. If you want to protect the young men of the Old Line State, maybe you should leave them where they are. Since March 2003, there have been 1,647 US fatalities attributable to hostile action in the entire country of Iraq. During the same time, there have been 885 murders in Baltimore, a city with a total population of about 650,000.

I can understand if Baltimore wants some military assistance in dealing with the war-torn streets of Park Heights and Canton, but I think we could spare a few from Quantico or AP Hill; there's no need to bring them all the way back from Iraq.

Yes, I Do His Evil Bidding, Too!

TRC's founder, S.T. Karnick has a dizzying rapid-fire survey of the new fall shows out at NRO. For those who need to catch up on what used to be a little box and is now a rather large screen, check it out.

Happy 10th Birthday, Dayton Accords

Yes, as of this week, it's been 10 years since President Bill Clinton assured peace in our time by settling the Yugoslavian question with diplomacy and sealing it with a treaty signed in the Versailles of Ohio, Dayton. Sure, war and a bunch of death followed, but making peace stick is a bitch, ain't it? The original Treaty of Versailles wasn't realized all that smoothly, either.

Ah, we remember it all so clearly, n'est-ce pas? Clinton lied (exaggerated? misled? made an honest mistake?) about 100,000 "missing" victims of Milosevic, et al. But it was a good war, because Milo was unmistakably bad. The actual bodies were never actually found, although I'm sure we looked hard. Where were the Women & Men Deceased (WMDs) we were promised?

Now, although he lacked UN authorization (or even an act of his own Congress), Bill Clinton did what he thought was right, and I'm cool with that because the bad guys had it coming and no innocent dictators were framed. Even though by reliable accounts the NATO bombing got a bit too indiscriminate, some felt the price, to quote Madeleine Albright, was "worth it."

What's done was done. As Stan from South Park might say, what have we learned from all this?

"Julian Lindley-French of the Geneva Center for Security Policy in Switzerland says
that Dayton offered a two-phased approach to resolving the Bosnia conflict."

"It recognizes that conflicts of this variety have a short-term and a longer-term component," Lindley-French says. "The short-term is simply to end the hostilities and to end the threat with the threat of credible external coercion. But in the longer term, what it said was, 'Look, we are here, we are here to stay, and we are going to invest in you, and we are going to invest in you to help you reach a regional political settlement in which all parties who have influence or interest in this conflict feel that there is something to invest in.' That was the very strong message of Dayton 10 years ago."

Yah, that's about it, and we should trust anybody with "French" in his name, especially if he's in Switzerland. One does not create peace from whole cloth. One invests in it and holds on, even when its stock price goes up and down.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Shame, Shame

The idea that the irresponsible use of sex should carry some moral condemnation has been kicked around here lately. But how? Shunning?

Well, that might have been OK for the Bad Olde Days, but who can deny that there are no illegitimate children, only parents? Surely we wouldn't visit the sins of the parents on an innocent child. That happens all by itself.

And the pro-life crowd, to its credit, has realized that shaming unmarried mothers will only engender the Gordian Knot solution of abortion.

By coincidence, or perhaps not, my colleague Jay Homnick mentioned abstinence counselling below. Songs are (unfortunately) better at conveying emotions than ideas, even in the lyrics, but I haven't forgotten a word of this since I first heard it, perhaps the greatest lyric of the entire Motown era:

You think that I don’t feel love
But what I feel for you is real love
In other’s eyes I see reflected
A hurt, scorned, rejected

Love child, never meant to be
Love child, born in poverty
Love child, never meant to be
Love child, take a look at me

I started my life in an old, cold run down tenement slum
My father left, he never even married mom
I shared the guilt my mama knew
So afraid that others knew I had no name

This love we’re contemplating
Is worth the pain of waiting
We’ll only end up hating
The child we may be creating

Love child, never meant to be
Love child, (scorned by) society
Love child, always second best
Love child, different from the rest

Mm, baby (hold on, hold on, just a little bit)
Mm, baby (hold on, hold on, just a little bit)

I started school, in a worn, torn, dress that somebody threw out
I knew the way it felt to always live in doubt
To be without the simple things
So afraid my friends would see the guilt in me

Don’t think that I don’t need you
Don’t think I don’t wanna please you
But no child of mine’ll be bearing
The name of shame I’ve been wearing

Love child, love child, never quite as good
Afraid, ashamed, misunderstood

But I’ll always love you
I’ll always love you
I’ll always love you
I’ll always love you...

(Pam Sawyer/R. Dean Taylor/Frank Wilson/Deke Richards)

Even without any of us taking it upon ourselves to cast shame, the sins of the fathers visit themselves on their children, not just for the lack of his strong right arm, but for lack of what he alone can teach them.

In No Sense

The Sunday Miami Herald featured the following headline: Innocence Lost is Not Easily Restored.

I was curious to see what had suddenly led the Herald to take an interest in abstinence counseling. However, closer scrutiny revealed that this was an article about young Iraqi kids who have lost their innocence about violent death by being in a war zone.

In theory, such an article could have been sensible. But predictably, it was not.

Two examples:
1) One four year old has been affected by seeing beheadings on the Internet. Presumably, we are meant to sympathize. Hello-o?! That has nothing to do with being in a war zone. That has to do with having imbeciles for parents. Creepy imbeciles, too.

2) An example of the terribly traumatized children is cited: two kids are playing a game in which they pretend to shoot each other. Whoever kills the other, wins. Hello-o?! I grew up in Brooklyn and I played that game, too. Sometimes it was called Cowboys and Indians; sometimes Cops and Robbers.

Then again, maybe 1960s Brooklyn was a war zone.

Sunday, November 20, 2005