A reflected light from the nations

I was putting off commenting on this, and wondering whether I had any value to add. But a reader pointed me to Noah Feldman's Orthodox paradox, a piece in The New York Times Magazine where the author, a young Harvard law professor, reflects on his journey from the Modern Orthodox subculture into the wider world. The whole piece is worth reading. There is a problem in these sorts of articles insofar as Feldman is such an "insider," while most of the readers are such "outsiders," that one is totally dependent on the author for context and situation. For example, most gentiles have difficultly distinguishing between Reconstructionist, Reform, Conservative and Orthodox movements in the United States, let along the distinction between Modern Orthodoxy, and less modern Orthodox movements, the latter of whom are divided between the Hasidic and non-Hasidic. My own impression is that there isn't a hard & fast line between Modern Orthodox and non-Modern Orthodox. I've had friends who call themselves "Conservadox," and it is no surprise that the Conservative movement has had problems because of this broad scope. To illustrate this I know someone whose Conservative synagogue became a Reconstructionist synagogue, which might seem strange when you know that on the spectrum of religious ideals Reform probably sits somewhere in the middle between Conservative and Reconstructionism. But historically Reconstructionism emerged out of the Conservative movement, not the Reform one, so that makes the jump a bit more intelligible. In any case, the point is that though Feldman's piece has broad and general relevance to the human condition, there are precise contextual details and differences of interpretation in regards to his narrative which are probably important to keep in mind before making sweeping generalizations.

With that in mind, let's move to the sweeping generalizations. This section of Feldman's piece was illustrative of the tensions and dynamics at work within Orthodox Judaism, and humankind in general:

This appealing sentiment did not go unchallenged. One of my teachers rose to suggest that the doctor's attitude was putting him in danger of violating the Torah. The teacher reported that he had himself heard from his own rabbi, a leading modern-Orthodox Talmudist associated with Yeshiva University, that in violating the Sabbath to treat a non-Jew, intention was absolutely crucial. If you intended to save the patient's life so as to facilitate good relations between Jews and non-Jews, your actions were permissible. But if, to the contrary, you intended to save the patient out of universal morality, then you were in fact guilty of violating the Sabbath, because the motive for acting was not the motive on the basis of which the rabbis allowed the Sabbath violation to occur.

Later, in class, the teacher apologized to us students for what he said to the doctor. His comments, he said, were inappropriate -- not because they were wrongheaded, but because non-Jews were present in the audience when he made them. The double standard of Jews and non-Jews, in other words, was for him truly irreducible: it was not just about noting that only Jewish lives merited violation of the Sabbath, but also about keeping the secret of why non-Jewish lives might be saved. To accept this version of the tradition would be to accept that the modern Orthodox project of engagement with the world could not proceed in good faith.

For anyone with a deep interest in Judaism the fact that there is a double standard in regards to the worth of life the Jew vs. the non-Jew should not surprise, Jewish law is littered with references which dehumanize gentiles and treat them as little better than animals (though there are certainly other thinkers who contradict or ameliorate some of the harsher sentiments). Obviously a critical aspect of Judaism is it is understood is that the Jewish people are the Chosen of the One True God, and as such their lives of far greater worth than those of the gentiles in the eyes of many Jews. Though clearly most Jews do not take these general principles to their reductio ad absurdum, enough do to have material impacts on the world. For example, the author of the above piece notes that Baruch Goldstein, the American-born physician who perpetrated the Cave of the Patriarchs massacre had a reputation for not wanting to treat gentiles. As a matter of fact when Goldstein was stationed in Lebanon two Druze members of the first unit in which he was stationed approached their commanding officer and asked that he be transfered. Their reason was that they were worried that Goldstein would not treat them if they were injured during action. Note, these were not enemy soldiers, they were men in his own unit. Ultimately the situation was resolved when Goldstein was transfered to an all-Jewish unit.

Goldstein and his fellow travelers are extreme cases; but, they are illustrative of a trend and tendency, which I believe does seep into the self-perception, unconscious or conscious, of many Jews. When I was in college my friend who was self-identified as Conservadox asked me in an offhand manner once if I was jealous that she was one of the Chosen People. Of course, she knew I was an atheist, and I laughed it off because I didn't even believe in her God let alone her innate Chosenness, but her tone did suggest to me that she was conscious of her special standing within the broad sweep of the human race. Later on I recall her commenting that she could care less if I fucked a donkey, I was after all a gentile (we were talking about the morality of homosexuality). Only later did I find out that some Jewish literature does imply that gentiles are as bestial as donkeys, so the choice of animal might not have been a coincidence. This is not to say that I perceived or believe that my friend was a Jewish chauvinist in any deep manner, she married a gentile man (who did convert to Judaism) and was proactive in establishing friendships with Arab Muslims when she spent a summer in Jerusalem (to the horror and distaste of her relatives). Nevertheless, she had internalized some of the esprit which comes with being one of the Chosen People. Later on my deeper study of Talmudic traditions and the history of the Jewish people since the rise of Christianity made some of the behavior patterns and comments that some of my friends made more intelligible.

Some might be a bit uncomfortable at this point. After all, the text above indicates that many Jews barely view gentiles as human beings. The facts above can be easily confirmed; but google searches will yield an enormous number of anti-Semitic websites which chronicle Judeo-chauvinism. One could take the special history of the Jewish people, and their own self-perceptions & conceits, as well as the extant literature which makes it clear that a non-trivial strain of Jewish thought takes a purely instrumental attitude toward gentiles (that is, gentile lives are simply a means toward fulfilling the ends of Jews), and construct a narrative of Jewish evil throughout history. Just as Jews perceive themselves as God's Chosen People, so the most extreme anti-Semites invert the narrative and turn them into Satan's Chosen instruments. Both camps tend to accept the assumption that Jews are a special people; I disagree with this assessment, rather, I see in Jews quantitative exaggerations of some universal human tendencies, and these exaggerations probably have historically contingent roots. In other words, there is no essential Jew, but a situational and contextual Jew; there is, on the other hand, a universal and essential human which is modulated and reshaped by particular specific parameters.

I will start from a predictable point of comparison, Islam. As I noted before, Judeo-Christian is in my opinion an empirical mirage, and Islam resembles Rabbinical ("Orthodox") Judaism far more than Christianity. There are many anti-Semitic Muslim sites which reproduce excerpts from the Talmud which denigrate gentiles, but of course there is plenty of documentation that Muslims have traditionally held cognate attitudes toward non-Muslims. In my own life I was raised in a Muslim family, and in a semi-Muslim milieu, though I myself was never a believer, and I've noted some recurring patterns. Since I am South Asian most of the Muslims I have encountered in my life were South Asian, and so Hinduism was a point of comparison. Several generalizations came up over and over in regards to Hindus: they were dirty, they were immoral, they were stingy. Now, the problem that I had with these generalizations was this: I knew Hindus because my family socialized with them. They didn't seem dirty, immoral or stingy. The last time I was in Bangladesh I recall one of my uncles talking about how wasteful Hindus were in Indian (which had recently visited), for example they threw away excess rice on their plates. When I was in college a young man from Dubai (of Lebanese background) told me how dirty the Hindu students at his high school were (as opposed to the clean Muslims). I once had a Saudi man tell me how Bangaldeshis were clean, but the Hindu Indians and Christian Filipinos were dirty. Now, I tend to take people at face value and assume they aren't making things up, and when people notice trends I don't automatically discount them. But you know, I've known Filipinos and been in their houses, and they weren't noticeably dirty. Similarly, I assume my family didn't really believe that Hindus were that dirty when we went to parties where Hindus were making all the food (and none of the kids I played with seemed particularly unkempt). Ironically the young Arab man telling me how dirty Hindus were had a cascade of dandruff showering down from his greasy and unattended hair.

I've a big fan of the ethnographic literature, and one thing I've noticed is that many groups characterize their neighbors and rivals as "dirty." Additionally, around the world people have purification ceremonies which are not necessarily the most practical in terms of "cleansing" one from dirt, sweat and such. Obviously purity isn't just a matter of empirical reality, the psychologist Paul Bloom notes that subjects are reluctant to drink out of glasses which originally had a dead cockroach in it even after watching it being scoured with bleach. In other words, there are deep cognitive "purity" schemas which were likely used as rough & ready heuristics in our ancestral environments. But, as a species capable of abstraction I suspect that these purity schemes have been extrapolated toward other situations and circumstances. Though the Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan was a "dirty" Hindu, he was quite shocked that the British gentry with which he began to socialize with once in England only bathed once a day. The Hindu caste system is in large part predicated on purity taboos, and Brahmins are often valued as cooks because all groups will consume food touched by the priestly caste. In contrast, many Brahmins will bar their lower caste servants from even entering their kitchens because of their fear of pollution. It is inferred that one reason Jews were accepted into Indian society with a rather high status in Cochin was that the local upper caste Hindus felt kindred spirits in regards to the newcomers' emphasis on ritual purity. For human beings symbolism is often as important as the concrete. For example, Muslims must engage in ritual ablution prior to prayer, and if they pass gas between their ablution and prayer they must clean themselves once again. But, I did note that thy don't clean their assholes which are no doubt covered with fecal particles, rather, they wash their hands, forearms and feet again. As an unbeliever I found this nonsensical, but it is intelligible if one understands that the cleanliness is symbolic as much as reality (if there isn't water available one can use sand or even go through the motions in the air).

Though I have focused on purity, I think one may do the same with many "special" characteristics of Jews and see them manifest in other groups. Many Salafi thinkers produce legal injunctions which give the more radical Jews a run for their money in terms of dehumanizing the Other, and of course Jews are a primary category of the Other. Jews, Muslims and Christians have all engaged in slavery of those outside their own faith, but recall that the pagan Aristotle also reflected that non-Greeks have natures fit for slavery. Some interpretations of the Hindu religion imply that lower castes are there to serve the twice-born in terms of carrying out degrading tasks. The practice of dehumanizing and enslaving members of other tribes is not surprising, and the fact that "primitive" tribes often refer to their own group as humans and classify other tribes as animals is a common cliche, though with a grounding in reality. The 9/11 terrorists in their private correspondence referred to their potential victims, men, women and children, as "animals." Slavery by Christian Europeans upon black Africans was justified because of the latter's putative bestial nature (and pagan status). To this day many groups in the Sahel have "traditional" servile/slave client ethnicities.

A graded sense of empathy and association is the normal state of affairs in our species. It should not shock us when particular groups mark a clear and distinct boundary between themselves and the rest of society. We naturally assume that one will have a special affinity for one's near kin, mother, father, sibling, etc. And we also expect that this affinity will drop off proportionally. This gradation in feeling according to blood relation is naturally intelligible as a manifestation of kin selective dynamics. But the culturally conditioned barriers are different, because while genetic relationship tends to drop off through a series of steps, self-conscious cultural groups tend to enforce a sharp and crisp demarcation of identity boundaries. In Rabbinical Judaism one is a Jew by descent if one's mother is a Jew. If one's mother is a gentile then one is not a Jew. Of course genetically there is no great difference if one's father or mother is a Jew excepting that one has "Jewish" mtDNA or Y chromosomal lineages; but the cultural dynamics seem to favor crisp boundaries and so one will see these artificialities. Genetic studies have shown that the Beta Israel people of Ethiopia who have immigrated to Israel are genetically closely related to the African peoples amongst whom they lived, but the state of Israel accepts them as full Jews and descendants of the tribe of Dan. When Beta Israel soldiers fight side by side with the descendants of European and Middle Eastern Jews against the Palestinians they are the genetic outgroup (and some Jewish groups, like the Jews of Yemen, seem nearly as close to the Palestinian groups as they do to European derived Jews).

Genetic evolution is far more tractable than cultural evolution in terms of analytical ease. In the former case you actually have the atomic units of analysis, the replicator in Dawkinsian speak, the base pairs of DNA. This is not to say that it doesn't get more complex than this, as the discussions about group level selection might imply, but at least one starts with a clear and distinct basis. In regards to cultural evolution the building blocks are far more diffuse and more vaguely characterized. That is one reason memetics has been relatively unfruitful, there are vehicles (individuals, populations, civilizations, etc.), but the replicators are constrained by only imperfectly understood neurological and psychological parameters. Nevertheless, I think it is critical to highlight the importance of these parameters and their foundational importance in generating the extent of cultural variation we see around us.

I've read a fair amount of scholarly work from a Jewish perspective and I believe that it falls into the same traps and problems of anti-Semitic literature in assuming that Jews are sui generis. Of course, many Jews believe in a God who is guiding their history and shaping the course of events, so that is understandable. But from a secular perspective I think it is important to frankly disregard Jewish claims toward sui generis status and simply place them within their historical and cultural milieu and focus on the path dependence which resulted in the extant variation of modern Judaism. For example, in the classical period it seems that there were a number of Jewish groups, of whom Christians were originally one. But by the second half of the first millennium Rabbinical Judaism, the ancestor of was the only form of self-conscious Jewishness remaining in the stage of history. Obviously Jewish Christianity was going to be marginalized once Christianity became a gentile religion, but what happened to "Hellenistic Judaism"? I suspect, as do many scholars, that this form of Judaism was absorbed into Christianity, both demographically (via conversion) and intellectually. Rabbinical Judaism, with its emphasize on precisely demarcated and controlled relations with the gentile majority was more well situated to resist the absorption attempts of Christianity. Even today it is an empirical fact that the forms of Judaism most similar to Rabbinical Judaism yield the least number of converts to Christianity and other religions (though historically the more separatist forms of Judaism yielded many "converts" to the more assimilationist forms of Judaism). But why did Judaism survive in the West? After all, in China the Jews of Kaifeng were absorbed into the local substrate, and genetic data suggests that there are Jewish descended groups that have "gone native" in places as distant as Zimbabwe. I think that in the historical crystallization of Christianity as a religion which gives due reverence and respect to its Jewish roots served as a critical rationale for why some early Church thinkers, such as St. Augustine of Hippo, exempted the Jews from the overwhelming pressure to convert that was placed upon other groups (pagans, Manichaeans, and later heretics). Historically the worst pogroms were perpetrated by populist leaders in regions where the Church was weak, at least for the period. The fact that the Christian Church had a special role for the Jews in their system of belief, combined with the natural human hostility toward outsiders, resulted in the overall dynamic of Jewish minorities persisting in pockets across Europe in the face of an increasingly religiously homogeneous environment across much of Europe up to the Reformation. In short, there needs to be an average level of combined hostility and tolerance to generate the cultural forms typical of classical Judaism (obviously in some cases Jews were converted by force or exterminated, but in many case it seems that without the tension with a religion where Jews have a special historical role assimilation takes over as the barrier between Jew and non-Jew melts).

It was the Reformation which resulted in the breaking of the old order, and heralded ultimately the dissolution of the Rabbinical monopoly on Jewishness. Previously the choice was to be a Christian or a Jew as dictated by the respective powers that be. But with the profusion of various Christian sects, some of them explicitly Judaizing, other opportunities availed themselves. Baruch Spinoza was one of the pioneers, who rejected both Jewish and Christian religiosity. With the Jewish Enlightenment the Reform movement constructed new ways of being Jewish as the power of both the Christian clergy and Rabbinical authorities over the lives of Jews and Christians abated. Remember that for centuries Jewish eminences had the power of life and death and persecution over their "flock" to prevent "heresy." With the relaxation of this practice within the Christian world so of course the Jewish authorities lost their grip over the corporate institution of Rabbinical Judaism.

In other words, devout Jews believe in a God of history that has made them who they are as a people, but I believe that history and human nature have colluded to make Jews the "special people" that they are. Additionally, there are many peoples who exhibit some or most of the characteristics of Jews so as to make them less than special, after all, their sense of difference has been generally only in contrast with their Muslim and Christian neighbors (in China Jews had some difficulty in distinguishing themselves from Muslims). Jews, Zoroastrians and Hindus have all told me with a special pride that unlike "other religions" they do not attempt to convert people. Of course I smile, because "other religions" means simply Christians or Muslims. I recall a Sikh friend once telling me that one reason Sikhs dress as they do is so that anyone can recognize them and ask for aid when they are being persecuted, because the Sikh religion enjoins the believers to be exemplars of justice and moral virtue. There was a definite sense in his tone that he felt Sikhism was commendable because of its special emphasis on morality and ethics, and I left his illusions untouched.

Noah Feldman's piece illustrates the tendency of humans in the modern age to give lip service to universal human rights, while at the same time being embedded within groups which make a special claim toward identification. As an American who on occasion gives money to people in need on the street I am obviously neglecting the much greater squalor and poverty which the non-American poor generally live in. In welfare states we generally enter into transfer of wealth across citizens, from those who have to those who do not. Heads of state make specific and narrow appeal to their "fellow citizens," as if this abstract identification should supersede the universal identification with our fellow human. But of course nationality is only one of many identities. Many people have a transnational religious identity, as Christian evangelical concern about persecution of their co-religionists in Sudan or China shows. There is also ethnic identity, as illustrated by the Armenian American community's influence in funneling aid to the new nation of Armenia. There is class identity, which generally manifests in the capitalist elite constructing a set of institutions of transnational power which will buffet cyclical variations in the economic environment (e.g., the recurrent "bailouts" of nations in debt of course is good for the capital class who are the creditors). There are even peculiar identities such as the community of science, which even during Cold War persisted across ideological boundaries, though in many cases the respective scholars served the military-industrial complexes which faced off each other. As Noah Feldman implies, the Orthodox Jewish conundrum is the human conundrum, though with some shadings and lexical peculiarities.

The systematic and legalistic nature of Rabbinical Judaism makes the implicit assumptions shockingly explicit (e.g., "How many potential Jews in a collapsing building full of gentiles are necessary for you to risk your [Jewish] life to help?" Answer: "The ratio is critical...."). Similarly, the status in Islamic law of women in regards to their rights of inheritance or their capacity as witnesses in courts of law are precisely proportionate in relation to men in a ratio that explicitly makes clear the reality of patriarchy within Islamic societies and the fact that women are valued less as human beings. Additionally, in many Muslim nations the rights of non-Muslims are often severely curtailed as there is no pretense that all are equal before the law; Islamic accommodation of dhimmis is from a position of strength and dominion under the eye of the One True God who plays clear favorites. But of course the state of affairs in most Muslim nations has been the human norm since the rise of civilized states. The Code of Hammarubi establishes different blood prices and punishments in accordance with the status of the perpetrator and victim. As a Roman citizen St. Paul had the right to due process which non-citizens would not have had (which made crime and fraud perpetrated by Roman governors and citizens in provinces populated by non-citizens serious problems). In early Anglo-Saxon England the Germanic invaders established a system of blood price where native British (Celtic speakers) were devalued so as to be worth less. Within narrow parameters there have always been peers, but only relatively recently has the abstract idea of a universe populated only by peers in the eyes of law become normative. Even within the bounds of religious and ethnic uniformity one's sex and social status entered into the equation. At least for civilized people.

All that I have said above applies to the cultures and societies which arose with the mass societies that emerged after the Neolithic Revolution (agriculture, pottery, sedentarism, etc.). Surplus and wealth resulted in a far greater imbalance in status and resources across the society, and relatively mild hierarchies common within clans and tribes (elder to younger, good hunters and bad, etc.) became amplified. Culture as we understand in it all is baroque complexities and varieties arose during this period to grapple with the new problems, questions and intricate relations which arose from the marginal surplus societies defined by a pyramid shaped social structure; a broad mass of subsistence peasants, up through a small number of low level functionaries, a smaller number of nobles, and finally the paramount chief or potentate. But though on the macroscale societies were characterized by gross inequalities, quite often those in small villages, the vast majority of humans, would likely experience fewer inequalities. Therefore, the cognitive toolkit and social strategies of the bygone age of hunter-gatherers would still apply. In some cultures very powerful patrilineages arose which became a cover for fictive kinship structures, which likely co-opted preexistent adaptations which favored reciprocity toward putative kin. So even in the mass societies where hierarchy was steep, fixed and brutal, there often remained a countervailing tendency which attempted to establish the world of the primitive peers. Egalitarian religions and philosophies exploded on the scene repeatedly throughout multiple societies, from Rome to China. Often these systems of thought placed the idyllic paradise of peers beyond the grave. in heaven where all would be equal before the sight of God. In China a Confucian philosophy arose which acknowledged the critical role of kinship and the practical reality that love is not unweighted and universal, and yet still put the focus on the greatest good for the greatest number, and drafted the autocratic political system in the service of utilitarian ends.

It seems plausible to me that the swing toward a society of peers, a reversion to the hunter-gatherer state in terms of social relations, was heralded by the rise of the bourgeois and the transition from a pyramid social structure toward one in which middle class status is modal. Though the economic elite still owns a disproportionate amount of the capital and assets, the reality is that the subsistence Sword of Damocles is no more for those embedded within the consumer society. Even the poor live lives of absolute plentitude despite their relative want. Though class still matters, and the rich are quite different, the middle class wields power because it no longer lives on the margins, rather it has its own leisure, resources and organizational capabilities, and what it lacks in per capita punch it makes up for in mass mobilization. But in the process the cultural forms and structures adapted for the hierarchical mass societies are no longer appropriate for the society of peers. Arranged marriages, coercive priesthoods, religious monopolies, all of these arose and became normative (at least among elites) with the rise of the hierarchical mass society. But with the flattening of social structures and the emergence of the world of peers these relatively coarse cultural cartels lack their old relevance. The Roman Catholic Church has only of late made its peace with liberal democracy, and the reason is that it resisted the exile form its position at the commanding heights of the political superstructure. Even in societies where the Church was not a monopoly religion it insisted that its rightful role was as a representative for the interests of its believers. In 19th century America and Germany this caused serious problems. In America the Church lost, in Germany it arguably won. Today you have a world where "cafeteria Catholics" casually ignore many teachings of the Catholic faith which they profess because they have become consumers of religion, not followers. Similarly, the Orthodox Judaism of Noah Feldman arose in the gray time between the hunter-gatherers and the middle class society. The teachings of the rabbis had the force of law because the dominant Christian powers that be colluded with the Jewish clerical caste (yes, rabbis are not priests, but operationally their role is similar). Similarly the Muslim potentates dealt with the Jacobite Patriarchs as representatives of their flock, who collected taxes and enforced the laws. Even though the Patriarchs were representatives of a religion which was at disadvantage vis-a-vis Islam on a relative scale, in absolute terms they wielded power of the lives of millions. The same with local clan leaders on the Fujian coast, the Hindu Thakurs who were under Muslim dominion in early modern India, or the Jews under their exilarchs during the late Roman Empire.

So here we are today in a world of 6 billion girded by notional universal rights, but fragmented into hundreds of nations whose templates arose in the last 200 years in the wake of the French revolution, dominated by religions which arose in the 1,200 year period between 600 BCE and 600 CE. Not all loves are created equal, and not all prejudices are tolerated with the same latitude. Notionally we all reject racism though it is not uncommon for racism to manifest itself in modal human behavior and outlooks. Notionally a large percentage, but not necessarily the majority, accepts equality before the law for the sexes. The lower penetration of this "universal" value is exhibited by the fact that there are nations where women are treated operationally like chattel (Saudi Arabia) with relatively little protest in comparison to what would (and does) occur if such treatment were on the basis of race. Similarly, in much of the world religion is seen as a private affair subject primarily to personal choice and preference. But this idea has not penetrated into much of the Islamic world, and is still seen with suspicion in India, Russia and other nations where one particular religious tradition has a close association with national identity. In China religion is a personal concern, but particular religions are seen as politically subversive. The Orthodox Jew, and frankly the typical Muslim and Hindu, adhere to religious systems who bear the strong stamp of the hierarchical mass society dominated on the principle of a few top-down cultural cartels, a spiritual oligopoly if you will. Some Christian groups also bear this stamp of corporatism. In a society like the United States where the rhetoric and theory of a culture of peers dominated by individual choice and preference is normative this will result in serious problems. It resulted in such problems when the Roman Catholic Church demanded subsidies for their parallel school system. It has caused tension between Jews and non-Jews as they resent being the targets of pro-active proselytization at the hands of ardent Protestant fundamentalists who aim to save the souls of Jewish individuals and care not for the integrity of the Jewish people. It also causes problems for Muslims who are not raised to expect others to persuade them that their religion is a false one and that they are worshiping an idol. It seems hostile and disrespectful to Hindus who take offense and umbrage at the very idea that their souls need saving.

Margaret Thatcher was wrong when she quipped that there was no such thing as society, only individuals and their families. Of course civil society is critical, and even the most "familialist" of cultures (e.g., southern Italy) has other institutions in which individuals and families are placed and to which they relate. Nevertheless, the reality is that the old dispensation is simply not appropriate for the consumer world where the mobilized middle classes call the shots through the democratic process, at least symbolically. Many of the older religions developed theories of human rights which were narrowly circumscribed within their purviews, the scope was their particular pyramid among the other pyramids which collaborated to maintain the social equilibrium. Today the world of the pyramids is simply no more, and institutions and philosophies which aim to transcend the corporeal and mundane need to move beyond the revelations which their gods handed down the heavens of the past.


More like this

In my post below I mooted the issue of conflating race & religion. There were many interesting comments, and Ruchira Paul has offered her own response. I would like to elucidate a few points here and frame the issues in their proper context (or at least the context in which I meant to explore…
I've always been ill at ease with the term "Judeo-Christian." As someone from a Muslim cultural background I was minimally familiar with the tenets and principles of the Islamic religion. As someone who was socialized with both Jews and Christians I was reasonably familiar with the outlines of…
One of my more quixotic quests has been to dispute the use of the term "Judeo-Christian" in normal conversation. Many people who use the term do so without much forethought, it's just one of the definitions you use to point to the bracketing of the two traditional religions of Western civilization…
This whole conversion story in Afghanistan has been in the news recently. The Christian Science Monitor attempts to put the issue of conversion from Islam to another religion in an international perspective. I am cautious about making large generalizations without qualifications, but I will…

In 2nd to last paragraph, I think that "if such treatment were on the basis on sex" should read "if such treatment were on the basis on race" - or did I absolutely fail to get it ?

Yeah. It's a terrible thing all this tribalism that's inspired by superstitious faith in non-existent supernatural entities.

But don't feel too guilty, believers. As a dead serious Darwinian, I would never risk my life for anyone who wasn't a close genetic relative. And this is 24/7 not just the Sabbath. So actually you are more inclusive than me.

By Daniel Dare (not verified) on 25 Jul 2007 #permalink

As a dead serious Darwinian, I would never risk my life for anyone who wasn't a close genetic relative. And this is 24/7 not just the Sabbath. So actually you are more inclusive than me.

of course in the proximate cases non-darwinian imperatives are pretty important. after all, most monozygotic twins wouldn't be sanguine if they were told that one of the pair would most certainly die in the next 5 years, and they personally could choose which one that would be.

one of the pair would most certainly die in the next 5 years, and they personally could choose which one that would be.

Games theorists would probably say flip a coin.

By Daniel Dare (not verified) on 25 Jul 2007 #permalink

.Games theorists would probably say flip a coin.

my point is genetically it doesn't make a difference if you stipulate that only one will survive and so be able to reproduce after the 5 year period. they replica copies. nevertheless, the psychology doesn't "see this" and obviously the outcome of the coin flip is not something that the twins will be bored by despite the fact that genetically the result will be the same in either case. over the long term genetic logic is powerful and definitive, but in the short term (which means our current lives) its import is less clear and definitive. many humans don't use genetic logic as a guide to determining who they bond with, and this has important consequences in the real world. additionally, most people who make an explicit nod to genetic logic due so because of their general intelligence and their values, so ultimately it is just another normative philosophical system, not something "natural" (which would imply a more reflexive proximate input-output).

so ultimately it is just another normative philosophical system

Absolutely. The decision to be guided as far as possible by reason is a self-imposed discipline. It is also an ethical choice: That living in harmony with empirical truth, approximated as closely as possible by current scientific knowledge, is the highest virtue.

By Daniel Dare (not verified) on 25 Jul 2007 #permalink

Of course, biological evolution does not generate clean, algorithmic behaviours. It generates a messy set of instincts and impulses, often contradictory with each other. These instincts and impulses can be arranged together and prioritised in many ways, which corresponds to what we call "cultures", in the sense of sets of traditions and moral rules. E.g. in all cultures, killing is generally "wrong" - with exceptions. The exceptions vary a lot from one culture to the other, from "death to the infidel" to the abolition of death penalty (but not of war). The instincts that lead us to violence are in contradiction with other instincts that lead us to humaneness (is that a word?), and different groups accomodate the "dispute" in different ways. These are self-reinforcing through the tutoring of children.

The Mosaic code, Aristotelian ethics and the many shades of modern liberalism all correspond to various "arrangements" of our underlying instinct sets. Each contains its own contradictions and frustations. The room for variation is clearly very large. Just how large, and whether the modern one is really more enduring in the long run, who knows. You seem to say that the old codes have to make way. No doubt the "end of history" types will agree. Will it turn out to be so, or will it be the other way round? Looks more like an open question than dead certainty.

You seem to say that the old codes have to make way.

one contention i'm making is that the middle class society is resurrecting the oldest codes. for example, in terms of pair bonding the american mating seems more similar to what you find in "primitive" small scale societies (writ large obviously) than the formalistic arranged models normative amongst the elites (and so emulated from below) of "traditional" cultures.

When Hindus, Jews and Zoroastrians boast that they don't "convert" (by the sword or sweet words), they forget to add that the generosity arises largely from snobbery. All three were the "original" religions in their own neck of the woods (though I read somewhere that Abraham may have come in contact with Zoroastrianism before becoming the pater familias of Judaism). The idea is that you are either born to these exalted groups (Chosen People) or you stay outside. Although one can convert to Judaism now, I doubt that converts feel as "natural" as the natural born Jews. I don't know for sure.

I am glad that Noah Feldman wrote the article. To the average American, religious obscurantism is defined by the Hindu caste system, Islamic radicalism and opposing the Theory of Evolution. That such stringent religiosity is practiced in Orthodox Jewish environs in places like Brooklyn, NY and Brookline, MA, will be news to some. I have known only a couple or three Orthodox Jews - one of them was from Israel. She did eat in my home (not meat) and she partook of more than just "greens." Once she had me cook some kosher chicken into a spicy Indian curry for her family because they could not eat at the local non-kosher Indian restaurants. I don't remember that she was too particular about the spices or the utensils I used. May be she wasn't too orthodox.

Do you think that Feldman would have written this piece if his marriage outside the fold had not made him an "outcast?"

Razib mentioned Indian Jews. There are very few of them in India now (one of them is a non-observant cousin of mine). For those who may be interested, please see a book review about their history.

Of course, biological evolution does not generate clean, algorithmic behaviours.

The main reason I would argue that reason has to be imposed as a discipline, whether individually or collectively, is because full-blown scientific reason is such a recent discovery that there has been insignificant genetic adaptation yet to the fact that a real method of discovering objective truth now exists.

Our genes are still adapted to living in a pre-rational world where beliefs were arbitrary and their validity could only be decided by natural selection.

By Daniel Dare (not verified) on 25 Jul 2007 #permalink

When Hindus, Jews and Zoroastrians boast that they don't "convert" (by the sword or sweet words), they forget to add that the generosity arises largely from snobbery.

not just snobbery, but also historical circumstances. if jews tried to convert christian and muslims in the lands of where these religions were dominant it could result in retaliation against the whole community (jews were banned from owning christian slaves precisely because of the issue of conversion). the hasmonaeans forcibly converted many populations within the boundaries of their conquered lands. the situation was obviously the same with zoroastrians in the lands of islam, any conversion away from islam is met with extreme retaliation. in the case of zoroastrians who settled in india their intial colonization was predicated on an agreement that they not destabilize the local religious mix. over time parsis, indian zoroastrians, have probably also picked up the hindu idea that one is born into a religion (sassanid zoroastrianism was not nearly as proactive or encouraging toward conversion of non-iranian peoples aside from the armenians, but there are cases where turks converted to zoroastrianism in turan before the rise of islam). finally, with regards to hinduism, i think the conditioning under islam was important here: the historical dynamic was conversion away from hinduism to islam, and the muslim ruling caste would have reacted negatively toward any "back migration." hinduism was a missionary religion in southeast asia, and bali and the chams of vietnam attest to the hindu success there (as does the popularity of the ramayana in java). historically entire peoples have converted to hinduism, such as the central asian invaders during the 6th century, and the tibeto-burman ahoms in assam.

Interesting. I know about the spread of Hinduism in "Greater India" in the east. I didn't know that it was by missionary activities. I was under the impression that when the populations there came in contact with Hindus, mostly from southern India during trading activities, they picked up the religious lores and practices more in an organic way rather than by a formal "conversion."

I wonder how much of "back conversion" of Indian Muslims was prevented by the fear of punitive measures put in place by Islamic rulers and how much was due to the fact that they "could not" re-convert after eating beef or becoming "unclean" otherwise. There is some story about Kashmiri Muslims, most of whom where converts from Hinduism, wanting to re-convert en masse. They and the king sought permission from the pundits in Benares. Their request was turned down. Imagine if snobbery was not involved, what it would have meant for India's political peace today!

I know about the spread of Hinduism in "Greater India" in the east. I didn't know that it was by missionary activities. I was under the impression that when the populations there came in contact with Hindus, mostly from southern India during trading activities, they picked up the religious lores and practices more in an organic way rather than by a formal "conversion."

well...i guess it depends on how you define "missionary." you are totally correct that the catalyst was trade, piracy and conquest. but, these were not just traders, the presence of brahmins and their influence at the courts of aspiring rajahs certainly resulted in the diffusion of the hindu religion. the dynamic was pretty much the same in south india, where 'hinduiziation' (read: sanskritization) occurred as local kings patronized large coteries of brahmins in their courts and so on. there was no gregory the great sending st. augustine of kent in the indian narrative, but i think that the differences are smaller than one might assume (barbarian warlords in northern europe often invited christian priests to civilized their kingdom and give them the legitimacy as paramount kings). and of course, the spread of islam was exactly the same.

I wonder how much of "back conversion" of Indian Muslims was prevented by the fear of punitive measures put in place by Islamic rulers and how much was due to the fact that they "could not" re-convert after eating beef or becoming "unclean" otherwise.

it has to be some of both. i know that a tibetan conqueror of kashmir offered to convert to saivism and the brahmins rejected his offer. so he became an enthusiastic shia muslim. i know that an early vaishnava devotee in 16th century bengal was a convert from islam, and he was drowned on the order of the local ghazi because of his apostasy and refusal to recant. during the mopilla revolt of the 1920s some hindus were forcibly converted and then refused to enter temples due to their impurity in the eyes of orthodox hindus. arya samaj arrived on the scene and performed some "purifying" ceremonies.

p.s. the high purity barriers in regards to "back migration" might actually have been one reason most indians remained hindu: the transition to becoming a muslim would have resulted in cultural exile for individuals and so of course they did not convert unless the inducements were high, or their whole communities converted. the same probably applies to judaism. enormous erosion of jewish religious identity occurred precisely when a host of intermediate steps arose between orthodox judaism and full blown christianity. the step from orthodox to non-orthodox jew does not necessarily entail as sharp an outcaste status, while the step from non-orthodox jew to christian also likely does not entail as sharp an outcaste status (especially if the christian sects are relatively mild and lax, for example many jews converted to unitarianism and quakerism to "assimilate" before th contemporary period in the united states).

[i'm not going to be lectured to, feel free to post more comments and watch all the hard work be deleted. this isn't a legal forum where each side is a zealous advocate for their position. anyone who asserts that a large number of jews do not at least implicitly believe they are superior to non-jews, or that evangelical christians don't believe they are superior to non-evangelical christians, or that muslims don't believe they are superior to non-muslims, or brahmins don't believe they are superior to non-brahmins, is engaging is sophistry. there's no real point in discourse when no common assumptions exist. i see on your weblog that you accuse me of anti-semitism. i think there's really nothing to exchange when you start on that ground


I'd have to agree with you on the fact that most Christian nations didn't try to coerce the Jews to convert - except of course late medieval Catholic Spain - and they gave them more respect than other minority religions due to them being seen as the root of Christianity.

It's also interesting that in more enlightened places and eras, when there was less adversity to Judaism, Jews readily assimilated to the mainstream religion. Examples of this would be Prussia and the US today.

In fact I attended my first bris - infant circumcision - a few weeks ago in Brooklyn, and was fascinated by the fact that the child's mother was a Conservative Jew and her husband - who had converted to Conservative Judaism - was the son of an immigrant Irish Catholic priest?! To make matters more interesting, when I spoke to the child's father I discovered he was actually a third cousin of mine!!!

and they gave them more respect than other minority religions due to them being seen as the root of Christianity.

generally there was no respect for other minority religions. there small communities of muslims in places like byzantine anatolia, but the exceptions that proved the rule. and large muslim communities like those in sicily which were conquered were invariably expelled (the elites) or assimilated (the masses).

You're a coward. Go ahead & delete this. I only want you to see it anyway which you will before you delete. You can spout all you want about Judaism but when a Jew tries to provide an authentic view of our religion fr. within rather than without as yr perspective is--then you press the delete button. Pathetic.

BTW, if you'd bother to spend more than 30 seconds at my blog you'd see that I wasn't calling YOU an anti-Semite. I was calling Ryan Kermode, who linked to your post in my comment thread, an anti-Semite. For someone who clearly finds himself very intelligent, you didn't read my comment thread very intelligently.

Now, go ahead--delete.

By Richard Silverstein (not verified) on 26 Jul 2007 #permalink

You can spout all you want about Judaism but when a Jew tries to provide an authentic view of our religion fr. within rather than without as yr perspective is-

there is no authentic view of a religion. all religions are man made constructs and what judaism is differs from person to person. it is likely you have a universalistic interpretation of judaism from what i can tell, and that is certainly as authentic as the orthodoxy feldman grew up with. but that is not the only face of judaism. as a matter of fact though historically rabbinical judaism did not have a flattering view of gentiles. the very fact that there had to be debates about whether to save the life of a gentile on the sabbath, but not of a jew, shows that there wasn't an ideal of equal and universal rights. i have already discussed at length the differences from my perspective between orthodox judaism and non-orthodox judaism, so i won't rehash that.

i retract the contention that you called me an anti-semitie...though have to say it wasn't clear to me on rereading it what your intent was. i.e., i don't think it was just a quick read, it is pretty ambiguous what you meant. someone sympathetic to your political persuasion emailed me to ask where you called me an anti-semite and i sent them the link, and they didn't correct me in further correspondence. so i'm not the only one that could have made that mistake.

I, for one, don't feel the need to apologize for the fact that Jews are human, and suffer from the usual human weaknesses - and strengths. However, for those readers that might not be familiar with the subject, I'd like to note a few things:

- The rabbinic literature in general, and the Talmud in specific are broad and wide enough that you can prove pretty much anything by selectively quoting from them.

- The fact that something is written in the Talmud does not imply that it's Jewish law: The Talmud records all arguments that were made on the issue under discussion (from a fly-on-the-wall perspective). Since there are usually more than two opinions recorded, that means that most of the Talmud records opinions that were NOT accepted. In addition a lot of the Talmud is non-legal in nature(aggada).

- Now I want to get to the core of this post - a careful reading of which will support my comment, but I want to emphasize it since some of the commenters clearly missed it - I think it's important to note that it's not hard to justify universal human rights from the perspective of Jewish law, and that Orthodox Jews who support that position (who are the vast majority, in my experience) are not ostracized by those who don't. Judaism is practice-based, not theory-based. As long as you do the right thing you're okay, and you get a pretty free reign regarding how you justify it*.

*As an aside, "intention" - mentioned in the article - is a grey area between practice and theory.

I, for one, don't feel the need to apologize for the fact that Jews are human, and suffer from the usual human weaknesses - and strengths.


Judaism is practice-based, not theory-based. As long as you do the right thing you're okay, and you get a pretty free reign regarding how you justify it*.

That seems to be putting the cart in front of the horse.

The rabbinic literature in general, and the Talmud in specific are broad and wide enough that you can prove pretty much anything by selectively quoting from them.

Same thing with the Bible of course, but I'll have to take your word for it. After hearing that the Talmud is some sort of intellectual masterpiece for about the tenth time, I thought I would check it out at the central library. They didn't have it! They had books with excerpts from it, but there is nothing like going to the source and I also wanted to get a sense of the size of it. Anyways, I came home and did a Google search for "unabridged Talmud". The first result was some anti-Semitic site demanding that the Talmud be put in all public libraries, which was rather apropos (try it yourself)! Meanwhile the Bible is in every hotel room and the people at freequran.org want to send me a free Koran (not that I expect there to be a freetalmud.org - the printing and shipping costs would be rather exorbitant :)).

Also, inspired by the Feldman article I googled for "Jewish intermarriage" to get a sense of how the community in general felt about the issue. After seeing the results, I wondered if other groups are also similarly concerned so I searched for just "intermarriage" and the results were practically the same! Again, I suggest you try it for yourself. The second result was particularly bad (the first was the Wikipedia article).

Bottom line - just as Islam has some questionable groups, so does Judaism, but when you try to whitewash an entire religion, you come across as disingenuous.

They had books with excerpts from it, but there is nothing like going to the source and I also wanted to get a sense of the size of it.

it's massive. so massive that errors in 'authoritative' printings have been perpetuated in part because of the expense of new typesetting, etc. ('errors' usually due to the necessity of changing particular passages or excising them because of censors).

I forwarded Razib's post to my co-blogger Anna Levine and also asked her to comment on Noah Feldman's article in the NYT. Anna's response was thoughtful and nuanced enough that I decided to post it here (with her permission of course). Of particular interest should be Schmuley Boteach's plea to Feldman that Anna links to.

I did catch the Noah Feldman piece when it came out. I think your assessment, "orthodox is orthodox" is the right one. In terms of the bigotry, I'd add the qualification that when you move into the realm of the ultra-orthodox, they become evangelical, and thus friendlier to outsiders. Thus, Schmuley Boteach's article, "Stop Ostracizing the Intermarried," sadly trying to welcome Noah and his wife back into the fold. Kind of unintentionally hilarious, actually. I can imagine poor Noah's wife saying, "thanks, but no thanks."

What I find annoying is how tenaciously Noah clings to the importance of tradition and cultural interpretation in even its most ignorant and hateful forms. Not unlike Maalouf [Amin Maalouf, author of In the Name of Identity], he seems to want to be everyone's everything, and draws the line a little farther from "progress" than I can really accept. I mean, does the following passage imply that he takes the mixed-ethnicity children with him to synagogue in the same community that literally cut off their mother:

"With no danger of feeling owned, I haven't lost the wish to be treated like any other old member. From the standpoint of the religious community, of course, the preservation of collective mores requires sanctioning someone who chooses a different way of living. But I still have my own inward sense of unalienated connection to my past. In synagogue on Purim with my children reading the Book of Esther, the beloved ancient phrases give me a sense of joy that not even Baruch Goldstein can completely take away."

I would consider that child abuse. Perhaps he means that he's joined some more accepting synagogue. It's not impossible to find synagogues who use a traditional liturgy but have liberal politics. But it doesn't seem likely, since Noah seems to continue to see religious fundamentalism, rather than cultural or abstract philosophical identification, as the only legitimate form of Judaism, so that his only question is whether and how to incorporate fundamentalism into a life that includes the inevitable realities of scientific advances, multiculturalism, etc.: the orthodox paradox. I find his self-described soul-searching appealing, but on some level can't help but suspect that he's still, on some level, the arrogant bastard that his school trained him to be. Perhaps that's unfair bias, ingrained resentment at other orthodox folks who over the years have let me know that they consider themselves more Jewish than I am on their tautological equation of Judaism with religiosity, not to mention the Israelis who let me know they're more Jewish than I am on their tautological equation of Judaism and Zionism, etc.

I basically agree with Razib, and thought he was pretty clear is getting across that he was analyzing Judaism and Jewish orthodoxy as one face of a general human tendency toward exceptionalist thinking, where those outside the group are seen as dirty and inferior. While, as Razib himself notes,
the premise, "Judaism disdains non-Jews," is a pet subject of anti-Semites (a search for Noah's article last night turned up a slew of such folks excitedly embracing his article as evidence of the International Jewish Plot), it's a failure of logic to conclude that all those who accept this premise are anti-Semites. The vary existence of Yiddish / Hebrew terms like goyim, literally, "the nations," but very definitely pejorative (I would guess Ladino and other languages have equivalent expressions) tends to support the premise.

I disagree with the talmudic and biblical interpretations of Razib and the good doctor of Brookline, insofar as I can think of any number of Talmudic and Tanachic passages that exhort Jews to identify with others (the principle of compassion or rahamim) and treat others well, including non-Jews:

"To me, you are like the children of Ethiopians, O children of
Israel...True, I brought up Israel from the land of Egypt, but also
the Philistines from Kaftor and the Arameans from Kir." (Amos)

"You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers
in the land of Egypt."..."There shall be one law for the citizen and
for the stranger who dwells among you." (Exodus)

You have an obligation to feed and care even for enemies (Proverbs)

As right wing anti-Semites are also often quick to point out, such texts have served for some Jews as a cultural foundation for the radical universalism of Marxist ideology (the cultural debt of Marxism to certain strains of 19th C. Jewish thought has always struck me as pretty clear). I'm sure the frustration of some (I didn't read Richard's [Silverstein] post, so don't know his motivations) with Razib would be: you're letting the Orthodox win in claiming their interpretation as the authentic one.

Still, it's disingenuous to argue from how texts could be interpreted by universalists, to how they are in fact interpreted by the orthodox of a religion, or even in the religion's general ethos. I think the assimilated European Jews who embraced Marxism, sometimes consciously and sometimes not, were in rebellion against the mentality of the ghetto and shtetl, with its defensive sense of superiorty. As I thought Henri was apt in noting in the comments section of Razib's post, attempting to whitewash a whole religion is dishonest, and ultimately counterproductive to the progressive impulses that foster

Such a headache. Or maybe I just need to go to bed.

thanks ruchira for transcribing. a few minor points

1) i am aware of the range of the talmud, and am generally of the opinion that texts are highly plastic. i don't think there is anything determinative in the talmud which would render non-jews less than jews in a definitive manner. rather, my general sense is that those passages of the talmud which do lend credence to this view has been prominent in the thinking of jews in many times and places. in other words, i do think that it is not as important as what the talmud says, as opposed to what the rabbis would cite and argue as a matter of practice.

2) correct me if i'm wrong, but aren't your quotes from the bible, as opposed to the talmud? (this is a pedantic point)

3) finally: "you're letting the Orthodox win in claiming their interpretation as the authentic one." i can see how one would think that, but a long term reading of this weblog would show that i tend to balk at deeming any religious interpretation as "authentic." in my previous post objecting to the term 'judeo-christian' i highlighted what i believe to be critical differences between orthodox and non-orthodox judaism, and, i think the comments section made it obvious that i really don't see one or the other as more authentically jewish. it's all human constructs for me and only of academic interest. in regards to judaism:

a) between 800 and 1800 what we would term 'orthodox' judaism was judaism qua judaism (aside from a few groups like karaites, beta israel and bene irsael). so when talking about judaism in a historical context, there is going to be a natural tendency toward eliding the distinction between judaism and the orthodox stream.

b) there is the demographic reality that orthodox judaism tends to be the source of future generations of reform or conservative jews. this is due to both high birthrate and low out-conversion rate to non-jewish religions. so i find it easy to conceptualize a religious spectrum from non-jew to orthodox jew, not because i think orthodox judaism is more "jewish" (that argument is not important or interesting to me), but because of the sociological dynamics.

c) what we in the USA term orthodox judaism is of course simply religious judaism in most of the rest of the world (i.e., reform/liberal movements are pretty small or non-existent). this is still to a large part the case in israel, though i am to understand that reform and conservative jews are attempting to be recognized as religious jewish movements as well.

"I'd add the qualification that when you move into the realm of the ultra-orthodox, they become evangelical, and thus friendlier to outsiders."

This is perhaps true only of Chabad, a branch of the Lubavitcher chasidic sect which for the most part limits its "evangelical" activity to less-religious Jews. Other yeshivish orthodox and chasidim (e.g. the Satmars) are certainly not evangelical in orientation.

Little Dickie Richard Silverstein is to Islamofascist terrorists and jihadis as Monica was to Bill!!

By Sam Anarchism (not verified) on 12 Sep 2007 #permalink