Monday, August 2, 2021

Ben, Jerry, and Julia: The Last Sadductions

(crosspost from Times of Israel)

Maimonides once commented that the Sadducees’ ostensible professed commitment to the apparent literal directives of the Written Torah to the exclusion of any oral tradition was essentially a complete ruse: they didn’t actually believe in either Torah; it was just a convenient vehicle to express their opposition to any tradition.

Recent events have highlighted how certain Jews prominent in pop culture have adopted a version of this Sadducean option: professing a “commitment” to Judaism while publicly and shamelessly working to undermine authentic Jewish prerogatives.  The difference this time is that they are guilty of especially bad timing along with public perfidy, and the Jewish community at large has justifiably decided to make examples out of them as a warning to raise the price of all Jewish antisemitism.


Bennett Cohen and Jerry Greenfield have long incorporated a strain of progressive activism into their iconic ice cream product; when their company was bought out by Unilever.  As with most contemporary progressivism, there has been a hostility to Zionism that was somewhat muted until recently likely due to corporate considerations, but became inevitably expressed following the recent conflagration with Hamas when their board decided to stop selling their product in the “occupied territories”.   


Disingenuous claims that this move was not technically “BDS” was belied at the very least by the company’s long history of hard left activism, including major support for the antiwar, terrorist-sympathizing collective ANSWER as far back as 2003; the fact that the current chairman of the board has written glowingly about Hamas and Hezbollah; and that the company would have pulled out of Israel entirely but was prevented from doing so by their corporate overlords at Unilever.  


Following an international backlash of unexpected intensity that galvanized most segments of the Jewish community save for the usual pockets of doctrinaire “Jewish” progressives, Messrs. Cohen and Greenfield took to the pages of the New York Times to proclaim their fealty to Israel whilst decrying the occupation, giving lip service to their record of activism while eliding the fact that they’ve partnered with antisemitic bigots both inside and outside their company.  


This time, fewer people are buying their explanations, just as fewer people are going to buying and stocking their ice cream.


In a similar vein, the designer Julia Haart—formerly known as Rebbetzin Talia Hendler, a popular Orthodox Jewish educator—recently came to pop culture prominence with her Netflix reality show “My Unorthodox Life”, essentially inexorably tying her branding efforts with her implacable opposition to what she perceives to be the “fundamentalist” form of Judaism.   In other words, her success and striving are all about her leaving Orthodoxy.


Like Ben and Jerry, who thought that their timing was propitious owing to progressive agitation following the most recent Hamas aggression only to find that the Jewish community finally had enough, “Rebbetzin” Haart incurred the wrath of a large segment of  Orthodox community for a multitude of offenses, also in part due to the fact that she seemed to be engaging in the crudest sort of ethnic stereotyping at a time when the targets off her ire have faced heightened mortal threats as their appearance makes them very easy targets; in fact, this possibility was acknowledged by a fashion writer from Glamour magazine with no otherwise obvious connection to Orthodox Judaism.


One could make a list of Haart’s offenses that would be long and still not exhaustive; in fact, while certainly the claims of her very public violations of Jewish law which she celebrates are certainly accurate from that point of view; they’re also somewhat tautological: it certainly wouldn’t be something she or her supporters care about.  And while those countering with #myorthodoxlife hashtags also provide at least a decent counterargument to Haart’s freikeit, they also only go so far: one can detect a slight element of defensiveness and/or an attempt to turn the fallout from the show into a “kiruv” moment.  Again, those are fine on their terms, but they do not deal with the main issue with a show like this, and why attempt should be made to make Netflix and the producers feel enough pain so that they reconsider trying to mount a similar production again.


The main thrust of attacking the show should be narrowed to three specific issues: false advertising regarding her background; group defamation using the distortion of insider knowledge from her time the community; and her concomitant  abandonment of almost any social boundaries to he point that she nearly forfeits her fitness as a parent.


It has been noticed Haart is seriously dissembling about her own former background and how that relates to how Orthodoxy really works, no matter how traumatic her experiences may have been; her own former students have remarked how “with it” she was for a Orthodox teacher, and even a few of her old lectures that still remain up on the web indicate her even-then easy familiarity with pop culture.  So, in this case, irrespective of what issues there might be with the treatment of women in Orthodoxy—and they certainly do exist—not only is Haart a poor messenger because of credibility issues, but she will make it more difficult for those working for change within the system who don’t consider leaving an option.


But it is not only her revisionist personal history that impact said credibility.  Even the title of the show gives the game away: Haart, a former educator, generalizes her pedagogical skills in a campaign of anti-kiruv; or, to steal back a term she uses, she engages in ardent counterfundamentalism.  She has made her media brand now about maligning anything that has to do with Orthodox Judaism as she has defined it, using enough of the insider knowledge to distort certain concepts/precepts beyond recognition and presenting them as the linchpins of all Orthodox life.  Essentially, she prosletyzes hard for freikeit as much as she might have done once upon a time for frumkeit: either they have to be right or she has to be, and to prove her own rectitude, she has to drag everyone else along.  Meanwhile, even other ex-Orthodox have noticed how her approach is more than misleading.


Especially since it becomes apparent in many scenes during the show that Haart’s parenting and mentoring style becomes more cringeworthy than her fashion.  It’s not only the recent 16 year old runaway from Orthodoxy who seek her out for advice and basically ends up getting something akin to training for sex work; it’s that Haart ends up intruding on her children’s social AND sex lives in a way that should incur interest from social workers and family service agencies.  Haart’s commitment to “freedom” at all costs places her somewhere between Alex Portnoy’s mother and Simone de Beauvoir, who essentially became Sartre’s procurer in their later years.


The reaction to these miscreants should be fierce and unyielding.  The opprobrium leveled at them should be withering to the point that ad hominem attacks are legitimate, as they have tied their personal brands with attacks on Jews and Judaism while maintaining that they are engaged in legitimate Jewish expressions.   One might claim that such a response is disproportionate to the actual offenses committed; while such an argument might be made on the direct merits, the timing of these events in the current zeitgeist of heightened antisemitism and media driven Judeomisia, those who cross over while pretending to communitarianism at such a time need to be made to pay an unpayable price.   


It is often asked why the pig  comes in for such ignominy ignominy in classic Jewish literature; the most oft-given answer is given that the pig sticks out his cloven hooves in an attempt to appear kosher.   This porcine paradigm provides a useful template for indelibly branding them as the modern Sadducees they are.

Friday, July 16, 2021

Bar Kamtza deserved it

The guy who threw Bar Kamtza out of his party and ostensibly set off the chain of events that led to the destruction of the Second Temple and our current ongoing galus gets a bad rap.

In fact, the educational taking point most often promulgated—that this incident of public shaming was the paradigm of the sinat chinam [baseless hatred] that was the primary sin for which the Churban was the punishment—is, to my mind, overemphasized, particularly light of the subsequent events in the Churban narrative in TB Gittin 55-58. 


For one thing, Bar Kamtza clearly was a Bad Jew (never mind not a nice guy).  One could surmise that he knew he was going where he was not wanted, and still felt entitled to be there, based on the fact that he was likely rich (hence his offer to pay for everyone at the party—why couldn’t he just leave quietly?  In fact, maybe one should praise the host for sticking to his principles and not taking Bar Kamtza’s bribe); furthermore, he was apparently connected (how else would he have so quickly obtained an audience with a Roman procurator and convinced him that the Jews were rebelling?), and—like some of today’s progressive asajews—he knew enough minimal Jewish law and ethics to use against his own people.


One possible other Biblical parallel gives a hint to Bar Kamtza’s character: while the Talmud hints that G-d destroyed his Temple on account of Bar Kamtza’s humiliation, elsewhere the Talmud notes that Bilaam’s talking donkey was slain by the angel after she had repeatedly humiliated Bilaam in front of Balak’s advisers.  One can draw a parallel between Bilaam and Bar Kamtza especially since the destruction wrought by Bar Kamtza would likely have made Bilaam proud (and might further explain why Bilaam’s spirit, enduring the eternal torment of boiling in a pot of semen, makes a cameo appearance in TB Gittin’s Churban narrative).


In fact—as further evidence of of the tenuousness of the “embarrassed!!!” talking point—the Talmud rather cryptically states “Jerusalem was destroyed on account of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza”, but later in the same narrative it states rather unequivocally “Rabbi Yoḥanan says: the excessive humility of Rabbi Zekharya ben Avkolas destroyed our Temple, burned our Sanctuary, and exiled us from our land.”  Does anyone in chinuch teach that humility was the cause of the Churban?   Why isn’t there as much focus on the humility (vs humiliation) as having destroyed the Temple as the embarrassment resulting from a personal grudge?  


There’s another interesting hint in the narrative: “Bar Kamtza said to himself: Since the Sages were sitting there and did not protest the actions of the host, although they saw how he humiliated me, learn from it that they were content with what he did..”  Some commentators opine that the excessively humble Rabbi Zekharya ben Avkolas was one of said Sages: if in theory the excessive humility was justified [a minority defend him, even saying that Rabbi Yochanan’s ostensible condemnation was actually praise], why isn’t there an equal defense of the humiliation of Bar Kamtza?

Thursday, June 24, 2021

Korach and Bilaam: Critical Theorists, Intersectional Progressives…and One-Percenters


Scratch a (most likely) rich intersectional progressive who touts critical theory and is a purported MOT, and you’ve found a spiritual heir to both Korach and Bilaam.


Critical theorist and progressive attacks on Jews and Judaism go all the way back to the time of Moshe Rabbeinu.  In Korach, the parsha’s namesake launches his attack from within; in this week’s parsha, Balak, Bilaam attacks from without.


It has been posited in these pages that Korach was the first Stalinist: he appealed to the rest of Bnei Yisrael by pretending to be a “democrat” [“rav lachem”] and telling the other 250 top-line conspirators that they would share power; he also knew that if Moshe was right about the service with the machtos [pans] would kill anyone unworthy of performing it, and he was right about living to claim his share of power—based upon his near-prophetic visions—he would live and everyone else would die. The fact that he was willing to let everyone else die so that he could claim his prize—and that he thought that this would automatically be Divinely sanctioned—spoke volumes about his worthiness as any leader, let alone spiritual.


In addition to his progressive pretensions, Korach may also have been the first “critical theorist”: he attacks the credibility and authority of Mosaic law first through his cynical false analogy between the techelet thread and the all-blue tallis, and then by attacking the system of tithing as unfair taxation.  In other words, by the time he has managed to questions the very foundations of the Mosaic order, he has rallied a huge portion of B’nei Yisrael to his side—so much that even after the earth opens up and swallows him, so many still accuse Moses of having assassinated Korach that G-d inflicts a deadly plague upon the people.

(This might be vaguely reminiscent of both the “confessions” of old guard Bolshevik victims of the Stalinist purges of the 1930’s, and to a lesser extent, the increasing amount of abject public “apologies” and commitments to “do better” among celebrities and others who are otherwise ostensibly “woke”.)


It is in this vein that the same ostensible spiritual leader who writes “Korach is a classic demagogue…[h]e is not seeking more power for the people, just more for himself” can also force a Korachist moral/theological equivalence between the “obligation of learning about systemic racism and systems of oppression” and the obligation to tell the story of the Exodus on Passover—insisting that the one who refuses that obligation is akin to the “wicked child” at the Seder.  Like Korach, this spiritual leader starts out with a proclamation of “kulam kedoshim”—everyone is holy—while in effect, if not intent, the implication that Jewish theology must give way to a “higher consciousness” in the event of a clash between the two always lurks beneath the surface.  (Never mind that the movements so highly touted by this aforementioned spiritual leader are anti-Judaism, anti-holiness and antisemitic at their core, even more overtly so as of late.)


Korach isn’t hiding behind an “all lives matter” theology—adderabba: he insists that those in power must have ipso facto arranged to systemically arrogated themselves an outsized portion due to “supremacist” motions, and that certain subgroups are ipso facto being treated unfairly and therefore—by dint of their having been “oppressed”—automatically deserve a share of resources and power not necessarily proportionate to what has been earned. 


Like Korach, Bilaam also has prophetic abilities—however marginal—that let him lead himself to believe that his progressive and critical theorist approaches to life ostensibly had Divine sanction.  The very name “Bilaam” has been seen as a mashup of “b’lo ‘am”, an early version of “open borders”, which especially in Bilaam’s case also meant “no boundaries”, both in his private life—the less said about his “nightly consort”, the better—and public, where he not only gives wanton lasciviousness a public sanction it hasn’t had in centuries to that point, but he also weaponizes it based on the spiritual tools he does possess.    Korach and Bilaam used spirituality—an ostensibly Jewish, if distorted, kind—to antagonize Jews, as evidenced by current groups like JVP and INN.  Bilaam took it a step further by using his ”open borders” philosophy to unite disparate factions against all Jews.


The aforementioned spiritual leader also mentions that “unless a lie begins with a little bit of truth, it will not be believed (Rashi, Num. 13:27)”. Both Korach and Bilaam—despite the fact they suffer eternal punishment as per the Talmud—do speak and possess some level of spiritual truths: there is a train of thought—predominantly Chassidic—that Korach will serve as Kohen Gadol in the Messianic era, and Bilaam’s (however forced) visions and proclamations were former codified in the Torah and are part of the daily liturgy.   However, both are indicative of how each were forced to repudiate their ostensibly progressive tenets: Bilaam when he couldn’t curse the Jews no matter how hard he tried and ended up blessing them, and Korach when forced to say “Moses and his Torah are true, but they [Korah's company] are liars [e]very thirty days [while] turn[ed] back like meat in a pot”.


In fact, the true common thread between Korach, Bilaam and critical theory might be envy on steroids: Korach’s entire trigger was based on the fact that Moses and Aaron’s lineage was ostensibly else prestigious than his, and because of that he was willing to go as far as upending the entire Mosaic system;  Bilaam, during one of his visions, states “Let me die the death of the righteous, and let mine end be like his” (Num. 23:10), all while machinating just how to get rid of as many of them as he possibly could.   


Korach and Bilaam's intersectional penchants also did incalculable damage to women and families: Korach took a disparate coalition of ostensibly aggrieved groups with nothing in common other than that they wanted to dislodge Moshe, to the point that they made Moshe a target of South warnings: break up your own family to prove a point.   Bilaam was the outgrowth of the Rashi/Medrash that pointed out that Moav and Midian had hated each other for centuries but “made peace” to fight the Jews, and then Bilaam had both of them sell out their women in a program of nationalized weaponized prostitution to defeat Israel.


Another commonality: Korach and Bilaam—men of the people—were one-percenters.


Korach was incredibly rich: the midrash details how much he owned and how much effort it took for him to get his riches out of Egypt. Also he may have been as assimilated as Dasan and Aviram: he was reputed to have been a chief financier of Pharaoh, which was where he got a lot of his money.  Meaning he took advantage of his Levite status—they weren’t enslaved—in ways that Moshe and Aharon didn’t [Moshe went to be “be among his brethren”] and only now suddenly did he ”get religion”, which is why it might not have been so difficult for him to deny Mosaic law.


Bilaam’s riches aren’t as directly spelled out in the literature, but his status as the premier “curser” of his era indicated that he was very much in demand at the highest levels of power for his talent, which means that he likely could command astronomical fees for his services.   This might be further indicated by his negotiating tactics at the beginning of the parsha which are couched in religious terms [“if Balak will give me a full house of silver and gold”].   While “b’lo am” Bilaam held himself out as a “no borders” guy, all it meant in his case was that he was as ideologically promiscuous as he was personally.  If one needed to find a possible modern day parallel to Bilaam it might be Julian Assange, a red diaper baby now in command of a multimillion dollar operation with pretensions to “openness” but who has proven to be as ideologically promiscuous as he is personally (and the “Ass” in “Assange” might indicate another sort of kinship with Bilaam.)


In fact, where you might have met a cross-section of Korachist and BIlaamist types were in the groups that defended Zimri and attacked Pinchas after Pinchas killed Zimri, when they hailed Zimri as the “Prince in Israel” who was murdered by someone whose grandfather “fattened calves for idolatry”.  You can picture the spiritual descendants of these rabble rousers saying Kaddish for Hamas and running around with signs saying “Zimrey Epstein didn’t kill himself”, to possibly better their chances of assignations with foreign women [as per TB Sanhedrin: “he wants what we want”.]  


Nothing says critical theorist more than using literally G-d given gifts to bring His house down in service of a personal agenda.  


Nothing says intersectionality more than an ersatz universalism united only in its doctrinaire Judeomisia (as a treatment of the recent resurgence of antisemitism in the US put it, “they are ecumenical, these barbarians”).


And nothing says progressive more than one-percenters masquerading as men of the people.

Friday, August 21, 2020

Shoftim: More Police

Parshas Shoftim is bookended by the command at the beginning fo the parsha to appoint judges to decide the law and police to enforce it, and at the end by the mitzvah of egla arufa, the ceremony involving breaking the neck of an unyoked cow when a murder victim is discovered between municipalities and the guilty party has not yet been identified.

An indispensable element of the ritual is that the elders of the town measured to have been closest to the corpse are to wash their hands and declare “our hands did not spill this blood and our eyes did not see” [Dev. 21:7].


Essentially there are two angles to the import of this declaration, answering the possible question of why there is even a premise regarding the ostensible culpability of the leadership of the town: as delineated in M. Sotah 9:6: “Does it ever occur to us that the elders of the local court are murderers? … rather (they are declaring) that we were never approached by this individual and we never deliberately sent him away without food; we never saw him setting out on a journey and are not to be blamed for allowing him to travel without a protective entourage”.  This would seem to indicate that there was a chain of failures in the social order that led to this killing; in fact, one theory is that the person killed was a starving individual engaged in mugging a traveler who killed his attacker in self-defense.


Much is made of this social welfare talking point in chinuch and other circles, especially since it provides an invariable opportunity to instruct about how those “on a higher spiritual level should be acutely aware that their actions do not take place in a vacuum…The Darchei Mussar [says] that had the Elders been flawed in a way that faintly resembles murder, then there would have been a ripple effect to the other people in the city. This is because the behavior of the greatest people in a community filters down to everyone else. Had the elders had a minor flaw in their relating to the value of life then everyone else would also weaken in their respect for the value of life. This could affect those on the lowest level to the extent that it could even be possible that one of them stoop to the level of actually murdering a person.”


However, the emphasis on that mussar angle might possibly detract from the most basic lesson, one sorely in need of forceful repetition in a day and age where there are some who think ending policing is a good idea—nay, a righteous mandate.


Sforno sets it out: “we have not left a stone unturned in (making public) locating the murderer; we are certain that the murderer did not commit this act where he could be seen. Had he been seen, he would have been challenged and prevented from committing the deed. At the very least, such witnesses would have come forward.”  This implies that there is at least a semblance of a robust system of law enforcement, or at least that there is a desire to maintain same and to expend the effort to make it work.


That brings us back to the beginning of the parsha, where Ibn Ezra explains how far this system should extend: “Although you go three times a year to see the Kohanim who serve in the Sanctuary, there to ask them questions about our statutes and laws, you still do not fulfill your duty unless you have judges in each of your city gates…The judge dispenses justice, whereas the officer enforces it.”


One could also posit that egla arufa is a Divine recognition that any system of law enforcement—even a/the Divienly mandated one—is run by humans, and as a result will inevitably incur human failures, sometimes—if not often—with deadly results.  Yet this never is to lead one to believe that the cure is either doing away with the system entirely.  One Mishnah often cited by progressives is Makkos 1:10, where one finds the argument about a Sanhedrin that ostensibly executes even once too often: “A sanhedrin that executes once in seven years, is called murderous. Rabbi Eliezer b. Azariah Says: once in seventy years. Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Akiva say: “Had we been members of a sanhedrin, no person would ever be put to death.”  Progressive types never seem to quote the final clause of that same Mishnah: “Rabban Shimon ben Gamaliel remarked: “They would also multiply murderers…”


Avot 3:2 tells us: “pray for the welfare of the government, for were it not for the fear it inspires, every man would swallow his neighbor alive.”  It might seem incongruous that the Mishnah uses the term “shlomah” for welfare and then notes that the government in question needs to inspire “morah”, or fear.  And yet this is what we are precisely praying for: a stable system of law enforcement that inspires at least fear of the consequences of attempting to upend the social order.  It’s no accident that demographics who ostensibly have reason to fear overpolicing and inequitable policing still strongly desire that local police presence be maintained or even increased--by an overwhelming majority.


TB Brachot 28b relates that when Rabbi Yoḥanan ben Zakkai was on his deathbed, his students asked him to bless them: “He said: May it be His will that the fear of Heaven shall be upon you like the fear of flesh and blood. His students were puzzled and said: To that point and not beyond? Shouldn’t one fear God more? He said to them: Would that a person achieve that level of fear…Know that when one commits a transgression, he says to himself: I hope that no man will see me.”  


We need to pray for that fear.  


We need more police.

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Tisha Ba'v: Kamtza/Bar Kamtza--Punk'd?

"A certain man had a friend named Kamtza and an enemy named Bar Kamtza. He made a banquet and asked his servant to invite Kamtza. The servant mistakenly invited Bar Kamtza" [TB Gittin 55b]

So begins the narrative about the Second Churban and the endless chinch talking points about sinas chinam and public shaming.

There comes a point where you wonder whether the the host's messenger didn't really make a mistake, but rather was punking both the host and Bar Kamtza, although to what end would be hard to fathom. 

Either way, one has to believe that Bar Kamtza was just looking for a pretext, and it was ostensibly handed to him: ultimately, his playing the victim leads to the belief that he gets off way too light both in his lifetime and in the narrative.

While the Gemara at the end of that part of the Churban narrative [57a] indicates that the proximate cause of the second Churban was the public shaming of Bar Kamtza, his obvious overreaction indicates several things about him:

  • he was as much a hater as the unnamed host;
  • he was an entitled whiner who had no compunction about going places where he wasn't welcome--probably because of his (subsequently revealed) position against both his own people and their leadership;
  • as he offered to pay for the whole mesiba in question, he clearly had ample means AND connections...you don't just gain an audience with the Emperor because someone tossed you out of a party, unless you have some kind of political cred;
  • while the Gemara indicates that HKBH Himself stood up for as it were for Bar Kamtza's shame, one should remember from Num. 22:33 that He spared Bilaam's shame as well by slaying the talking donkey.  A comparison between Bar Kamtza and Bilaam is not out of order, especially since--as I see it--way too much chinuch capital is spent on Bar Kamtza as a victim rather than analyzing his treachery. 

In fact the story of Bar Kamtza (and the other narrative paradigm of "libun berabim", the ma'aseh of Yehuda/Tamar) both indicate it might be that these cases of never being melaben your sworn enemies are the exceptions that prove the rule:

Haba lemelabenecha, hashkem lemelabno.

As much as BK's shame caused the Churban, R' Yochanan's declaration earlier in the narrative that ill-timed "humility...destroyed our Mikdash, burned our Heichal and exiled us from our land" indicates that pietist quietism was at least equally if not more responsible.

Bar Kamtzas need to be publicly called out.  

You know what they’ll do if they’re not.

Friday, January 24, 2020

Vaera: Lip Snip


Rav Aharon Lichtenstein has written: "Rambam conten[ds] (Guide 3:8) that the sanctity of Hebrew was either derived from or reflected in the paucity of its sexual vocabulary..."

This point can be illustrated in the enigmatic Mosaic self-referential phrase that appears twice in this weeks parsha, "'aral sefasayim", ostensibly translated literally as "uncircumcised [of] lips", but usually translated (by us) as "impeded speech", or (by others) as "faltering lips". 

Rashi on 6:12 provides a series of examples from throughout Tanach which indicate that the primary translation of the root ערל is, in fact, "obstruction", and, in line with the Maimonidean observation, "foreskin" is at best a secondary translation: the association of ערל with numerous parts of anatomy other than the membrum--hearts, ears, and even trees/plants--indicate that "foreskin" as the salient image might be counterintuitive.

Which is why Philologos' recent urgings that "the need to excise profanity from the Bible is fundamentally inane" when discussing how to translate mashtin b’kir; he much prefers the 1599 Geneva Bible's "pisseth against the wall" and Robert Alter's "pisser against the wall" as opposed to "other Bible translators and commentators[/]medieval rabbinic exegetes who have held that sacred scripture would never speak so profanely of the human body".

One can safely assume that Philologos [and, by extension, Alter] doesn't take this approach to make the Bible accessible to those who would desacralize it, even if he does protest that "[a] book that is chock-full of stories about murder, rape, plunder, and assorted acts of human depravity cannot be deemed too dignified for coarse language", a statement which might betray a stunted understanding of Tanach beyond a superficial level.  However, the fact that even he notes that mashtin b’kir appears six times in Tanach, the other five times used by G-d himself in prophetic messages, further undermines his insistence: srely an "edge of vulgarity" doesn't need to be "perfectly right for G-d's anger", whether or not it was right for David's.

If you'll excuse the expression: it takes the piss out of Philologos' argument; rather, the real "inanity" is the compulsion to see vulgarity where there doesn't need to be.  (No matter how many times the word "ass" is used in no matter how many translations.)

Of course, this appraoch can be taken to an extreme, the best example being with the Artscroll translation of Shir HaShirim.  Rabbi Harry Maryles likely explains why better than most:

"Shir HaShirim is an instance where I believe the Charedi obsession with Tznius has lead them astray. Because of it they manage to completely ignore the actual words of Shir HaShirim in translation. Although they are upfront about it and say that it is not meant to be literal and that it is based on Rashi’s allegorical interpretation - I believe it undermines the author’s intent which is to convey God’s love of his people in an allegorically human way...It is one thing to say that Shir HaShirim is an allegory. It is. But to ignore the beauty of Shlomo HaMelech’s actual narrative in my view completely misunderstands why R’ Akiva thought this book is the holy of holies - and why it remained in the canon. Nowhere does it say that we are to distort the translation to fit the allegorical interpretation. And yet this is exactly what ArtScroll did."

Rabbi Aryeh Klapper and the Center for Modern Torah Leadership's translation of Shir HaShirim was developed in part to counter Artscroll's bowdlerization.

Which is also why Rabbi Efrem Goldberg's recent plea against what he calls "the growing problem of profanity" also misses a few crucial points leading one to believe the he doth protest too much.  

The first is that he repeatedly conflates vulgarity and obscenity, to the point that he feels it might be dangerous to listen to a speech delivered by the current President of the United States.  This inaccruate conflation has both cultural and halachic ramifications: the President can never curse on the air, so the notion is self contradictory.

The second is that he dismisses out of hand research he sites: "Shouldn’t we believe the research that says cursing has positive benefitsThe answer is no.  Giving in to the urge to use a profanity is to forfeit our very humanity and indulge an animal impulse."  This misses the opportunity for a foundational teachable moment: instead of decrying the effects of vulgarity/obscenity and insisting it can never be beneficial, rather employ the kosher food analog: "it might be tasty, but what can I do, I have been commanded to not partake."

The third point is that subjectivity is injected into what should be an objective analysis: "Whenever I hear someone curse to try to make a point, I can’t help but think if they were more intelligent they would find a more effective way to communicate that point without needing to distract with the shock value of using an obscenity.  I am always less impressed..."  Aside from the subjectivity, the goalposts have been moved: the standard is whether he will be impressed or not by the expletive.

The fact that there exists a "pi'el" and "pu'al" in Hebrew grammar indicates that sometimes there is a need for the emphatic, even if not necessarily the vulgar.

Or, as the eminent sportswriter Paul Zimmerman put it when explaining why NFL coaches swear:

"There's a big difference between an idiot and a @&$%ing idiot."

In fact, one might even ask if in some cases whether using "fighting words" might be appropriate as a matter of personal defense: it might serve to deter a potential attack, or might diffuse a phyiscal altercation into a verbal, an altogether better result.  The cases where such language may be used are likely very rare; but it should be looked into.

Where Rabbi Goldberg might have a salient point is if he feels that speakers feel the need to be vulgar, as if it was almost a "mitzvah" to both be vulgar and for an audience to be foreced to accept that vulgarity.  This would also seem to be the problem with the Philologos/Alter approach to mashtin b’kir:  that one almost must accept that David had to be vulgar in that situation and that the Bible would report it favorably.  If someone insists on vulgarity as a positive necessity--then you start asking questions about both the message and the messenger.

Would give a whole new meaning to "'aral sefasayim."

Friday, December 20, 2019

Chanukah and Intersectionellenism



The late eminent atheist (and, as it turned out, genealogical Jew) Christopher Hitchens had a particularly nasty bug up his nose about Chanukah:

“When the fanatics of Palestine won that victory, and when Judaism repudiated Athens for Jerusalem, the development of the whole of humanity was terribly retarded…. The display of the menorah at this season…has a precise meaning and is an explicit celebration of the original victory of bloody-minded faith over enlightenment and reason.”

Give Hitchens some credit: while he ultimately blames the Jews and Judaism for all ostensible “faith oppression” (how very Voltairean of him, blaming the Jews and Judaism for all types of theocentrism) at the very least, he leveled equal opprobrium at all faiths, unlike many of his erstwhile liberal colleagues who never forgave him for siding with the GOP in the second Gulf War, or maybe even for pegging the beginning of the reign of Islamist terrorism to Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa on Salman Rushdie.  

However, while Hitchens’ aforementioned erstwhile comrades-in-arms never forgave him for his abandonment of progressive tenets vis-à-vis the obligation to grant succor to certain non-Western faith prerogatives no matter how reactionary or violent, they certainly have maintained agreement with his rather dire assessment of Jews and Judaism, especially the nominally Jewish progressives who would certainly find much in common with Hitchens’ Judeophobic sentiments.

Ironically, as Yoram Hazony details in his “The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture”, the “Athens” that Hitchens for all intents and purposes worships (despite—or perhaps because of—the near certainty that Hitchens himself would violently disagree with the characterization) held itself to be a genuine tradition with oracular foundations, while prophetic Judaism was disdained as overly tied to reasoned argument and insufficiently revelatory bases.  Thus, Hitchens and his cohorts find themselves in the unique position of being more self-righteous “religious” advocates than the ostensible theological reactionaries they decry, even if either too obtuse to realize it or too disingenuous to admit it.

Ergo, the Hellenizers of the Chanukah story, who are often viewed as more “open-minded” than their Maccabean counterparts, turn out to not only have been as imperialist as their newly found Greek allies and dually treasonous in both political and theological terms, but also similarly obtuse and/or disingenuous: either they were dumb enough to think that hybridizing Judaism and Hellenism was a salient option; or, more likely, they already knew that what their distortion was very much as faith based—if not more—than the faith of their fathers they felt compelled to abandon, but they needed a marketing ploy to convince some of their brethren to join them in their quislingery.

Unfortunately, it worked: Chanukah is as much a lament as a celebration, as it was the first Jewish civil war where the battles involved a sizable cohort of own openly joining up with our oppressors.  Recent current events indicate that this “tradition” persists, particularly with regard to those of our faith who either try to marry Judaism with progressive tenets which present as more “modern” or “advanced”, but which everyone knows are considered even more inviolate than the most reactionary catechisms by their adherents and promulgators. 

One need not list all the usual suspects of those professing to be of our faith whose primary allegiance until death (usually yours, not theirs) is ultimately intersectionality (they know who they are).  However, a few recent events illuminate the pattern, mostly involving pretending all antisemitism is right wing while either ignoring or allying with actual anti-Semites of the other wing.  In fact, one need not ignore the danger from the right or even downplay it to recognize that the threat from the left—especially the intersectional left—is more dangerous on several fronts, not least because it has culturally misappropriated and distorted otherwise sound Jewish principles and gaslit some otherwise good people into believing that they might be on the wrong side.  And make no mistake: they are more “religious” about intersectional “principles” than the most Ultra of the Orthodox.

Three recent events in the run up to Chanukah should serve as red lines vis a vis with-us-or-against-us, Jews or Intersectionellenists: finally including Jews under Title VI protections that didn’t cover them up to now; the UK’s resounding electoral repudiation of Jeremy Corbyn (and hopefully, his allies in the US); and the revelation of victim blaming from “civil rights” quarters where the terrorist perpetrators of the Jersey City massacre are excused for the atrocity.  The choice is certainly binary now, if it wasn’t before.

Oh, and Happy Chanukah, Mr. Hitchens.  

They probably told you in Hell the oil they boil you in lasts for only one day.  

It lasts for eight.