About Rationally Speaking
Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.
Sunday, July 22, 2007
And now one about Jewish Orthodoxy
A good starting point to appreciate the nonsense promulgated by “modern” (as opposed to the even worse “ultra”) Orthodox Judaism is a recent article by Noah Feldman in the New York Times. Feldman, who went to Maimonides School of Brookline, MA, for twelve years, begins his tale by recalling how he attended a school reunion with his girlfriend (whom he later married). During the event, an official photo was taken to be published in the school's newsletter, but when he got the newsletter, Feldman discovered that he and his girlfriend had literally been erased from the picture. After all, his girlfriend was Korean, and one cannot possibly be a good Jew and be too close to outsiders.
The fixation of even secular Jews – such as several of my friends – with adherence to downright silly rituals (usually in the form of complex and entirely arbitrary rules about food), and often with marrying only Jewish partners, is disconcerting. I mean, I make the best of my Italian heritage, especially when it comes to impressing friends and women by hinting that somehow I can take personal credit for the existence of the Colosseum, not to mention never ever denying the stereotypes that I can cook wonderful meals and that my sexual techniques are, as Woody Allen once put, astounding. But most of my friends aren't Italian, and I don't particularly look for Italians when pursuing a relationship. If I did so I would feel, well, racist.
One can argue that the propensity toward insularity of Jewish communities is a result of many centuries of persecution from the outside, except of course that it is historically more accurate to point out that Jews (like many other fundamentalist religious communities) have always drawn sharp boundaries with the outside world. Indeed, given the already strong propensity of human beings for being suspicious of – if not downright hostile toward – outgroups, it is easy to see how Jewish isolationism has in itself been part of the cause for the persecutions (before I get flooded with hate mail accusing me of justifying the Holocaust and other similar nonsense, let me remind the reader of the not-at-all subtle difference between understanding the causes of events and justifying the events themselves).
The most disturbing story in Feldman's article, however, goes beyond the silliness of Kosher diets, following 613 Biblical commandments (take that, supporters of merely Ten CC!), or the absolute prohibition against “nonprocreating seminal emissions” (which are not only fun, but good for the environment). If people wish to be silly, they have a right to do it (though the rest of us have the right to laugh at them). No, what is really disturbing is the tale of a physician addressing Feldman's school about the thorny issue of whether the Talmud authorizes one to operate on a patient during the Sabbath (when one isn't supposed to work – another of God's arbitrary commands). The answer, apparently, is that it is ok to violate the commandment in order to save a life, but there is an interesting and dark twist about motivations (which, according to Jewish legalism, are often more important than actions).
You see, technically a Jewish doctor is authorized only to save a Jew's life during the Sabbath. Non-Jews need not apply. Yet, the good doctor who lectured Feldman's class clearly rejected this outrageous distinction, and suggested the dangerous notion that all human beings have equal moral standing. A teacher present at the lecture objected, and explained that in practice the doctor was right: a Jew is in fact authorized to work on the Sabbath if this will save even a non-Jew's life. But there is a crucial question of motivation: the act is kosher only if it is done in order to improve relations between Jews and non-Jews, not for the simple sake of the non-Jew's life. Let me spell this out more clearly: the idea is that it is acceptable to save the life of an outsider during the silly “holy” day only if it is instrumental in furthering the political relations of Jews with the outside world. Otherwise, the non-Jew is on his own, humanitarian considerations and empathy for the suffering of others be damned.
Feldman, like so many others, honestly grapples with the perennial contradictions between the old traditions and a more enlightened, more egalitarian, modern world. My advice is simple: throw the old away, because it is nothing but the burden imposed by an ignorant and violent past. I'm “proud” of the Colosseum as a stupendous work of architecture, not of what the Romans where doing inside it. Come to think of it, how can anyone be proud (or, for that matter, ashamed) of what his ancestors did? It's hard enough to take responsibility for what we do during our own lifetime, “tradition” only gets in the way of an already exceedingly difficult task: to live a morally decent life.