Wednesday, June 23, 2010

politics replaces scholarship in academia

Although almost 15 years old, this article is as timely now as it was then. And the same vice is epidemic in the theory of evolution:

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What the Sokal Hoax Ought to Teach Us

The pernicious consequences and internal contradictions of "postmodernist" relativism

Paul A. Boghossian

From the Times Literary Supplement, Commentary.
December 13, 1996, pp.14-15

In the autumn of 1994, New York University theoretical physicist, Alan Sokal, submitted an essay to Social Text, the leading journal in the field of cultural studies. Entitled "Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity," it purported to be a scholarly article about the "postmodern" philosophical and political implications of twentieth century physical theories. However, as the author himself later revealed in the journal Lingua Franca, his essay was merely a farrago of deliberately concocted solecisms, howlers and non-sequiturs, stitched together so as to look good and to flatter the ideological preconceptions of the editors. After review by five members of Social Text's editorial board, Sokal's parody was accepted for publication as a serious piece of scholarship. It appeared in April 1996, in a special double issue of the journal devoted to rebutting the charge that cultural studies critiques of science tend to be riddled with incompetence.

Sokal's hoax is fast acquiring the status of a classic succes de scandale, with extensive press coverage in the United States and to a growing extent in Europe and Latin America. In the United States, over twenty public forums devoted to the topic have either taken place or are scheduled, including packed sessions at Princeton, Duke, The University of Michigan, and New York University. But what exactly should it be taken to show?

I believe it shows three important things. First, that dubiously coherent relativistic views about the concepts of truth and evidence really have gained wide acceptance within the contemporary academy, just as it has often seemed. Second, that this has had precisely the sorts of pernicious consequence for standards of scholarship and intellectual responsibility that one would expect it to have. Finally, that neither of the preceding two claims need reflect a particular political point of view, least of all a conservative one.

It's impossible to do justice to the egregiousness of Sokal's essay without quoting it more or less in its entirety; what follows is a tiny sampling. Sokal starts off by establishing his postmodernist credentials: he derides scientists for continuing to cling to the "dogma imposed by the long post-Enlightenment hegemony over the Western intellectual outlook," that there exists an external world, whose properties are independent of human beings, and that human beings can obtain reliable, if imperfect and tentative knowledge of these properties "by hewing to the 'objective' procedures and epistemological strictures prescribed by the (so-called) scientific method." He asserts that this 'dogma' has already been thoroughly undermined by the theories of general relativity and quantum mechanics, and that physical reality has been shown to be "at bottom a social and linguistic construct." In support of this he adduces nothing more than a couple of pronouncements from physicists Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg, pronouncements that have been shown to be naive by sophisticated discussions in the philosophy of science over the past fifty years.

Sokal then picks up steam, moving to his central thesis that recent developments within quantum gravity -- an emerging and still-speculative physical theory -- go much further, substantiating not only postmodern denials of the objectivity of truth, but also the beginnings of a kind of physics that would be truly "liberatory," of genuine service to progressive political causes. Here his `reasoning' becomes truly venturesome, as he contrives to generate political and cultural conclusions from the physics of the very, very small. His inferences are mediated by nothing more than a hazy patchwork of puns (especially on the words 'linear' and 'discontinuous'), strained analogies, bald assertions and what can only be described as non-sequiturs of numbing grossness (to use a phrase that Peter Strawson applied to the far less deserving Immanuel Kant). For example, he moves immediately from Bohr's observation that in quantum mechanics "a complete elucidation of one and the same object may require diverse points of view" to:

In such a situation, how can a self-perpetuating secular priesthood of credentialed "scientists" purport to maintain a monopoly on the production of scientific knowledge? 'The content and methodology of postmodern science thus provide powerful intellectual support for the progressive political project, understood in its broadest sense: the transgressing of boundaries, the breaking down of barriers, the radical democratization of all aspects of social, economic, political and cultural life.
He concludes by calling for the development of a correspondingly emancipated mathematics, one that, by not being based on standard (Zermelo-Fraenkel) set theory, would no longer constrain the progressive and postmodern ambitions of emerging physical science.

As if all this weren't enough, en passant, Sokal peppers his piece with as many smaller bits of transparent nonsense as could be made to fit on any given page. Some of these are of a purely mathematical or scientific nature -- that the well-known geometrical constant pi is a variable, that complex number theory, which dates from the nineteenth century and is taught to schoolchildren, is a new and speculative branch of mathematical physics, that the crackpot New Age fantasy of a 'morphogenetic field' constitutes a leading theory of quantum gravity. Others have to do with the alleged philosophical or political implications of basic science -- that quantum field theory confirms Lacan's psychoanalytic speculations about the nature of the neurotic subject, that fuzzy logic is better suited to leftist political causes than classical logic, that Bell's theorem, a technical result in the foundations of quantum mechanics, supports a claimed linkage between quantum theory and "industrial discipline in the early bourgeois epoch." Throughout, Sokal quotes liberally and approvingly from the writings of leading postmodern theorists, including several editors of Social Text, passages that are often breathtaking in their combination of self-confidence and absurdity.

Commentators have made much of the scientific, mathematical and philosophical illiteracy that an acceptance of Sokal's ingeniously contrived gibberish would appear to betray. But talk about illiteracy elides an important distinction between two different explanations of what might have led the editors to decide to publish Sokal's piece. One is that, although they understood perfectly well what the various sentences of his article actually mean, they found them plausible, whereas he, along with practically everybody else, doesn't. This might brand them as kooky, but wouldn't impugn their motives. The other hypothesis is that they actually had very little idea what many of the sentences mean, and so were not in a position to evaluate them for plausibility in the first place. The plausibility, or even the intelligibility, of Sokal's arguments just didn't enter into their deliberations.

I think it's very clear, and very important, that it's the second hypothesis that's true. To see why consider, by way of example, the following passage from Sokal's essay:

Just as liberal feminists are frequently content with a minimal agenda of legal and social equality for women and are "pro-choice," so liberal (and even some socialist) mathematicians are often content to work within the hegemonic Zermelo-Fraenkel framework (which, reflecting its nineteenth-century origins, already incorporates the axiom of equality) supplemented only by the axiom of choice. But this framework is grossly insufficient for a liberatory mathematics, as was proven long ago by Cohen 1966.
It's very hard to believe that an editor who knew what the various ingredient terms actually mean would not have raised an eyebrow at this passage. For the axiom of equality in set theory simply provides a definition of when it is that two sets are the same set, namely, when they have the same members; obviously, this has nothing to do with liberalism, or, indeed, with a political philosophy of any stripe. Similarly, the axiom of choice simply says that, given any collection of mutually exclusive sets, there is always a set consisting of exactly one member from each of those sets. Again, this clearly has nothing to do with the issue of choice in the abortion debate. But even if one were somehow able to see one's way clear -- I can't -- to explaining this first quoted sentence in terms of the postmodern love for puns and wordplay, what would explain the subsequent sentence? Paul Cohen's 1966 proves that the question whether or not there is a number between two other particular (transfinite cardinal) numbers isn't settled by the axioms of Zermelo-Fraenkel set theory. How could this conceivably count as a proof that Zermelo-Fraenkel set theory is inadequate for the purposes of a "liberatory mathematics," whatever precisely that is supposed to be. Wouldn't any editor who knew what Paul Cohen had actually proved in 1966 have required just a little more by way of explanation here, in order to make the connection just a bit more perspicuous?

Since one could cite dozens of similar passages -- Sokal goes out of his way to leave telltale clues as to his true intent -- the conclusion is inescapable that the editors of Social Text didn't know what many of the sentences in Sokal's essay actually meant; and that they just didn't care. How could a group of scholars, editing what is supposed to be the leading journal in a given field, allow themselves such a sublime indifference to the content, truth and plausibility of a scholarly submission accepted for publication?

By way of explanation, coeditors Andrew Ross and Bruce Robbins have said that as "a non-refereed journal of political opinion and cultural analysis produced by an editorial collective" Social Text has always seen itself in the `little magazine' tradition of the independent left as much as in the academic domain." But it's hard to see this as an adequate explanation; presumably, even a journal of political opinion should care whether what it publishes is intelligible.

What Ross and Co. should have said, it seems to me, is that Social Text is a political magazine in a deeper and more radical sense: under appropriate circumstances, it is prepared to let agreement with its ideological orientation trump every other criterion for publication, including something as basic as sheer intelligibility. The prospect of being able to display in their pages a natural scientist -- a physicist, no less -- throwing the full weight of his authority behind their cause was compelling enough for them to overlook the fact that they didn't have much of a clue exactly what sort of support they were being offered. And this, it seems to me, is what's at the heart of the issue raised by Sokal's hoax: not the mere existence of incompetence within the academy, but rather that specific form of it that arises from allowing ideological criteria to displace standards of scholarship so completely that not even considerations of intelligibility are seen as relevant to an argument's acceptability. How, given the recent and sorry history of ideologically motivated conceptions of knowledge -- Lysenkoism in Stalin's Soviet Union, for example, or Nazi critiques of `Jewish science' -- could it again have become acceptable to behave in this way?

The complete historical answer is a long story, but there can be little doubt that one of its crucial components is the brush-fire spread, within vast sectors of the humanities and social sciences, of the cluster of simple-minded relativistic views about truth and evidence that are commonly identified as `postmodernist'. These views license, and on the most popular versions insist upon, the substitution of political and ideological criteria for the historically more familiar assessment in terms of truth, evidence and argument.

Most philosophers accept the claim that there is no such thing as a totally disinterested inquirer, one who approaches his or her topic utterly devoid of any prior assumptions, values or biases. Postmodernism goes well beyond this historicist observation, as feminist scholar Linda Nicholson explains (without necessarily endorsing):

The traditional historicist claim that all inquiry is inevitably influenced by the values of the inquirer provides a very weak counter to the norm of objectivity" [T]he more radical move in the postmodern turn was to claim that the very criteria demarcating the true and the false, as well as such related distinctions as science and myth or fact and superstition, were internal to the traditions of modernity and could not be legitimized outside of those traditions. Moreover, it was argued that the very development and use of such criteria, as well as their extension to ever wider domains, had to be described as representing the growth and development of `specific regimes of power.'
(From the "Introduction" to her anthology, Feminism and Postmodernism)

As Nicholson sees, historicism, however broadly understood, doesn't entail that there is no such thing as objective truth. To concede that no one ever believes something solely because it's true is not to deny that anything is objectively true. Furthermore, the concession that no inquirer or inquiry is fully bias-free doesn't entail that they can't be more or less bias-free, or that their biases can't be more or less damaging. To concede that the truth is never the only thing that someone is tracking isn't to deny that some people or methods are better than others at staying on its track.
Historicism leaves intact, then, both the claim that one's aim should be to arrive at conclusions that are objectively true and justified, independently of any particular perspective, and that science is the best idea that anyone has had about how to satisfy that aim. Postmodernism, in seeking to demote science from the privileged epistemic position it has come to occupy, and thereby to blur the distinction between it and `other ways of knowing, -- myth and superstition, for example -- needs to go much further than historicism, all the way to the denial that objective truth is a coherent aim that inquiry may have. Indeed, according to postmodernism, the very development and use of the rhetoric of objectivity, far from embodying a serious metaphysics and epistemology of truth and evidence, represents a mere play for power, a way of silencing these `other ways of knowing'. It follows, given this standpoint, that the struggle against the rhetoric of objectivity isn't primarily an intellectual matter, but a political one: the rhetoric needs to be defeated, rather than just refuted. Against this backdrop, it becomes very easy to explain the behavior of the editors of Social Text.

Although it may be hard to understand how anyone could actually hold views as extreme as these, their ubiquity these days is a distressingly familiar fact. A front-page article in the New York Times of October 22, 1996 provided a recent illustration. The article concerned the conflict between two views of where Native American populations originated -- the scientific archeological account, and the account offered by some Native American creation myths. According to the former extensively confirmed view, humans first entered the Americas from Asia, crossing the Bering Strait over 10,000 years ago. By contrast, some Native American creation accounts hold that native peoples have lived in the Americas ever since their ancestors first emerged onto the surface of the earth from a subterranean world of spirits. The Times noted that many archeologists, torn between their commitment to scientific method and their appreciation for native culture, "have been driven close to a postmodern relativism in which science is just one more belief system." Roger Anyon, a British archeologist who has worked for the Zuni people, was quoted as saying: "Science is just one of many ways of knowing the world".[The Zunis' world view is] just as valid as the archeological viewpoint of what prehistory is about."

How are we to make sense of this? (Sokal himself mentioned this example at a recent public forum in New York and was taken to task by Andrew Ross for putting Native Americans "on trial." But this issue isn't about Native American views; it's about postmodernism.) The claim that the Zuni myth can be "just as valid" as the archeological theory can be read in one of three different ways, between which postmodern theorists tend not to distinguish sufficiently: as a claim about truth, as a claim about justification, or as a claim about purpose. As we shall see, however, none of these claims is even remotely plausible.

Interpreted as a claim about truth, the suggestion would be that the Zuni and archeological views are equally true. On the face of it, though, this is impossible, since they contradict each other. One says, or implies, that the first humans in the Americas came from Asia; the other says, or implies, that they did not, that they came from somewhere else, a subterranean world of spirits. How could a claim and its denial both be true? If I say that the earth is flat, and you say that it's round, how could we both be right?

Postmodernists like to respond to this sort of point by saying that both claims can be true because both are true relative to some perspective or other, and there can be no question of truth outside of perspectives. Thus, according to the Zuni perspective, the first humans in the Americas came from a subterranean world; and according to the Western scientific perspective, the first humans came from Asia. Since both are true according to some perspective or other, both are true.

But to say that some claim is true according to some perspective sounds simply like a fancy way of saying that someone, or some group, believes it. The crucial question concerns what we are to say when what I believe -- what's true according to my perspective -- conflicts with what you believe -- with what's true according to your perspective? The one thing not to say, it seems to me, on pain of utter unintelligibility, is that both claims are true.

This should be obvious, but can also be seen by applying the view to itself. For consider: If a claim and its opposite can be equally true provided that there is some perspective relative to which each is true, then, since there is a perspective -- realism -- relative to which it's true that a claim and its opposite cannot both be true, postmodernism would have to admit that it itself is just as true as its opposite, realism. But postmodernism cannot afford to admit that: presumably, its whole point is that realism is false. Thus, we see that the very statement of postmodernism, construed as a view about truth, undermines itself: facts about truth independent of particular perspectives are presupposed by the view itself.

How does it fare when considered as a claim about evidence or justification? So construed, the suggestion comes to the claim that the Zuni story and the archeological theory are equally justified, given the available evidence. Now, in contrast with the case of truth, it is not incoherent for a claim and its negation to be equally justified, for instance, in cases where there is very little evidence for either side. But, prima facie, anyway, this isn't the sort of case that's at issue, for according to the available evidence, the archeological theory is far better confirmed than the Zuni myth.

To get the desired relativistic result, a postmodernist would have to claim that the two views are equally justified given their respective rules of evidence, and add that there is no objective fact of the matter which set of rules is to be preferred. Given this relativization of justification to the rules of evidence characteristic of a given perspective, the archeological theory would be justified relative to the rules of evidence of Western science, and the Zuni story would be justified relative to the rules of evidence employed by the relevant tradition of myth-making. Furthermore, since there are no perspective-independent rules of evidence that could adjudicate between these two sets of rules, both claims would be equally justified and there could be no choosing between them.

Once again, however, there is a problem not merely with plausibility, but with self-refutation. For suppose we grant that every rule of evidence is as good as any other. Then any claim could be made to count as justified simply by formulating an appropriate rule of evidence relative to which it is justified. Indeed, it would follow that we could justify the claim that not every rule of evidence is as good as any other, thereby forcing the postmodernist to concede that his views about truth and justification are just as justified as his opponent's. Presumably, however, the postmodernist needs to hold that his views are better than his opponent's; otherwise what's to recommend them? On the other hand, if some rules of evidence can be said to be better than others, then there must be perspective-independent facts about what makes them better and a thoroughgoing relativism about justification is false.

It is sometimes suggested that the intended sense in which the Zuni myth is "just as valid" has nothing to do with truth or justification, but rather with the different purposes that the myth subserves, in contrast with those of science. According to this line of thought, science aims to give to give a descriptively accurate account of reality, whereas the Zuni myth belongs to the realm of religious practice and the constitution of cultural identity. It is to be regarded as having symbolic, emotional, and ritual purposes other than the mere description of reality. And as such, it may serve those purposes very well -- better, perhaps, than the archeologist's account.

The trouble with this as a reading of "just as valid" is not so much that it's false, but that it's irrelevant to the issue at hand: even if it were granted, it couldn't help advance the cause of postmodernism. For if the Zuni myth isn't taken to compete with the archeological theory, as a descriptively accurate account of prehistory, its existence has no prospect of casting any doubt on the objectivity of the account delivered by science. If I say that the earth is flat, and you make no assertion at all, but instead tell me an interesting story, that has no potential for raising deep issues about the objectivity of what either of us said or did.

Is there, perhaps, a weaker thesis that, while being more defensible than these simple-minded relativisms, would nevertheless yield an anti-objectivist result? It's hard to see what such a thesis would be. Stanley Fish, for example, in seeking to discredit Sokal's characterization of postmodernism, offers the following (Opinion piece, The New York Times):

What sociologists of science say is that of course the world is real and independent of our observations but that accounts of the world are produced by observers and are therefore relative to their capacities, education and training, etc. It is not the world or its properties but the vocabularies in whose terms we know them that are socially constructed"
The rest of Fish's discussion leaves it thoroughly unclear exactly what he thinks this observation shows; but claims similar to his are often presented by others as constituting yet another basis for arguing against the objectivity of science. The resultant arguments are unconvincing.

It goes without saying that the vocabularies with which we seek to know the world are socially constructed and that they therefore reflect various contingent aspects of our capacities, limitations and interests. But it doesn't follow that those vocabularies are therefore incapable of meeting the standards of adequacy relevant to the expression and discovery of objective truths.

We may illustrate why by using Fish's own example. There is no doubt that the game of baseball as we have it, with its particular conceptions of what counts as a `strike' and what counts as a `ball,' reflects various contingent facts about us as physical and social creatures. `Strike' and `ball' are socially constructed concepts, if anything is. However, once these concepts have been defined -- once the strike zone has been specified -- there are then perfectly objective facts about what counts as a strike and what counts as a ball. (The fact that the umpire is the court of last appeal doesn't mean that he can't make mistakes.)

Similarly, our choice of one conceptual scheme rather than another, for the purposes of doing science, probably reflects various contingent facts about our capacities and limitations, so that a thinker with different capacities and limitations, a Martian for example, might find it natural to employ a different scheme. This does nothing to show that our conceptual scheme is incapable of expressing objective truths. Realism is not committed to there being only one vocabulary in which objective truths might be expressed; all it's committed to is the weaker claim that, once a vocabulary is specified, it will then be an objective matter whether or not assertions couched in that vocabulary are true or false.

We are left with two puzzles. Given what the basic tenets of postmodernism are, how did they ever come to be identified with a progressive political outlook? And given how transparently refutable they are, how did they ever come to gain such widespread acceptance?

In the Unites States, postmodernism is closely linked to the movement known as multiculturalism, broadly conceived as the project of giving proper credit to the contributions of cultures and communities whose achievements have been historically neglected or undervalued. In this connection, it has come to appeal to certain progressive sensibilities because it supplies the philosophical resources with which to prevent anyone from accusing oppressed cultures of holding false or unjustified views.

Even on purely political grounds, however, it is difficult to understand how this could have come to seem a good way to conceive of multiculturalism. For if the powerful can't criticize the oppressed, because the central epistemological categories are inexorably tied to particular perspectives, it also follows that the oppressed can't criticize the powerful. The only remedy, so far as I can see, for what threatens to be a strongly conservative upshot, is to accept an overt double standard: allow a questionable idea to be criticized if it is held by those in a position of power -- Christian creationism -- for example, but not if it is held by those whom the powerful oppress -- Zuni creationism, for example. Familiar as this stratagem has recently become, how can it possibly appeal to anyone with the slightest degree of intellectual integrity; and how can it fail to seem anything other than deeply offensive to the progressive sensibilities whose cause it is supposed to further?

As for the second question, regarding widespread acceptance, the short answer is that questions about truth, meaning and objectivity are among the most difficult and thorny questions that philosophy confronts and so are very easily mishandled. A longer answer would involve explaining why analytic philosophy, the dominant tradition of philosophy in the English-speaking world, wasn't able to exert a more effective corrective influence. After all, analytic philosophy is primarily known for its detailed and subtle discussion of concepts in the philosophy of language and the theory of knowledge, the very concepts that postmodernism so badly misunderstands. Isn't it reasonable to expect it to have had a greater impact on the philosophical explorations of its intellectual neighbors? And if it hasn't, can that be because its reputation for insularity is at least partly deserved? Because philosophy concerns the most general categories of knowledge, categories that apply to any compartment of inquiry, it is inevitable that other disciplines will reflect on philosophical problems and develop philosophical positions. Analytic philosophy has a special responsibility to ensure that its insights on matters of broad intellectual interest are available widely, to more than a narrow class of insiders.

Whatever the correct explanation for the current malaise, Alan Sokal's hoax has served as a flashpoint for what has been a gathering storm of protest against the collapse in standards of scholarship and intellectual responsibility that vast sectors of the humanities and social sciences are currently afflicted with. Significantly, some of the most biting commentary has come from distinguished voices on the left, showing that when it comes to transgressions as basic as these, political alliances afford no protection. Anyone still inclined to doubt the seriousness of the problem has only to read Sokal's parody.

Last Modified: 24 November 1997

another evolutionary blunder

Scientific American July 2010 Issue Highlights:

Winged Victory
Modern birds, long thought to have arisen only after the dinosaurs perished, turn out to have lived alongside them

Just thought you would like to know.....

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

grade inflation

Signs of the times - grade inflation in law schools:

Monday, June 21, 2010

"segregation" in Israel

The following article was authored by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman of Ohr Somayach and can be found at

Segregation Unity

From: Rachel

Dear Rabbi,

I am trying to withhold judgment over the latest controversy in Israel regarding “racial” segregation in the orthodox schools until I hear the “segregationists” point of view, which has been largely ignored by the general media. Would you be able to clarify for me what's going on from your point of view?

Dear Rachel,

I commend you for refraining from making a judgment based solely on the reports in Israel's general media. As is often the case, in order to deflect public attention from the ills

of secular Israel, ranging from severe charges of corruption in the highest echelons of the government to growing drug use, violence and intimate assault among the youth, and including a desire to mask the embarrassment over the recent military debacles, the media bashes the orthodox, grasping at straws to burn for a smoke screen.

But what's worse, the secular establishment of Israel itself is by no means free of this racism: consider that the very Supreme Court which accused the orthodox families of racism has itself only one Sefardi judge among 14 (7%). Similarly, the very self-righteous media, guilty of irresponsible and imbalanced coverage of orthodox racism, has itself not even one Sefardi in a prominent, public position.

That does not mean to say that there is no discrimination of Ashkenazim against Sefardim in the religious sector. Admittedly, such an attitude does, unfortunately, exist among some Ashkenazim. This phenomenon has to be addressed and corrected. But in this instance, the courts and the media omitted information and distorted facts while also reporting them out of context and out of proportion of what really happened.

For example, the school claims that the reason the other girls were not accepted is because their parents refused to accept a code designed to uphold a higher standard of religiosity [such codes usually address internet and cell phone use, mode of dress, recreational activities, etc.]. Those who accepted the code were accepted to the school, those who didn't were not, and it had nothing to do with ethnicity. In fact, a full quarter of the girls that were in the school are Sefardi [compare 25% of the girls to 7% of judges], and their fathers are in jail with the other fathers.

Why are these men in jail? In this particular case, because they demand the right to educate their children in a context consistent with their religious values, even if it means separating from those who don't share those values. (At one point, the parents moved their daughters to another, private school until the court questionably prohibited them from doing so). But also because, even in general, they believe that one is entitled to educate his children in a way that preserves his own family's or group's heritage. So what's this Jewish segregation all about?

As members of the “modern” world, we often ascribe to a melting pot mentality. The idea is to amalgamate disparate peoples and cultures into one united monolithic nation. The advantage is unity, stability and common purpose. The disadvantage is the disregard and disappearance of diversity in all spheres of life.

As in all matters, the Torah recommends a healthy fusion and balance between the two extremes. On the one hand, Judaism obviously dictates conformity of belief and law for a unified and stable national purpose. On the other hand, Judaism also celebrates and encourages the perpetuation of established familial and ethnical diversity and expression.

There are many examples of this in Judaism, but I'll mention several regarding the 12 Tribes of Israel, a motif which is central to the Jewish people's self and national perception and awareness:

The Midrash says that when the Jewish people departed Egypt and crossed the Reed Sea, they did not all cross together in the same path, but rather the sea split into 12 different tunnels for each Tribe who were separated one from the other by walls of water. Interestingly, the Sages note that the Tribes, though traveling separate but parallel routes, could still see each other through the walls of water. From this we see that despite the fact that the Jewish People were sharing a common experience and moving toward a common destiny, they were not merged into one singular mass, but rather maintained their diversity within the joint national venture of Redemption. As long as the Tribes were able to see each other through the walls of water [where water symbolizes Torah] this separation was not segregation but rather the celebration of diversity within the national experience.

Similarly, the Tribes maintained separate sections within the encampments of the Jewish People during their 40-year sojourn in the wilderness. And even after the conquest of the Land, it was divided into distinct, separate geographical areas for each Tribe. Biblical sources indicate that the different Tribes had distinct pronunciations, mannerisms and customs. This is not viewed as being undesirable or detrimental to national unity. On the contrary, each Tribe's particular strengths, talents and characteristics are celebrated within the People's national unity. In fact, according to mystical sources in Judaism, each Tribe had their own form of prayer which had its own unique access and effect on the spiritual realm.

It is in this light that we should view the separation between different groups in Judaism: Ashkenazim, with the sub-groups of Yeshivish and Chasidic and the sub- sub- groups within Chasidic; as well as Sefardim, with their sub-groups; and also the Yemenites. Every effort should be made to preserve the beauty and unique contribution of each of these very important and integral facets of the Jewish People. There is nothing wrong, then, with establishing schools and determining criteria designed to preserve the distinctiveness of these groups. The Sefardi rabbis also encourage the establishment of “Sefardi” schools in order to preserve and perpetuate their glorious and illustrious tradition.

Obviously, I'm not suggesting there be no contact between groups. On the contrary, on the social, communal, political and economic levels there should be, and is, natural and mutually beneficial interaction. Nor am I saying that there must be separation in education. I'm just saying that there is nothing wrong with maintaining institutions designed to preserve a specific community's unique expression of Judaism. As long as the different groups see each other through the lens of Torah - by loving, respecting and celebrating each other's Torah based traditions, customs and practices - we can cross this divide of exile together toward Redemption.

animal non-intelligence

A really excellent book: Not a Chimp: The Hunt to Find the Genes that Make Us Human by Jeremy Taylor, published by Oxford. This ought to end the diehards who still think that chimps have anything within light-years of human intelligence. But it does more than that. A chapter on the intelligence of birds [ yes - birds!] which in some ways surpass chimps casts serious doubt on the thesis that intelligence in in the genes. After all, crows [the species most studied] supposedly diverged from our line much earlier than chimps, so we share relatively few genes with them, and yet their intelligence is at least as good as that of chimps in certain ways. My only reservation - in the last chapter he takes seriously the "just-so" stories of the evolution of intelligence. By the way, I do not think I have ever seen before this a book on current science written by a science film maker - not a researcher - published by Oxford. But it is very good. Also - there is a considerable amount of new evidence that so-called junk DNA is really functional.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Nechemiah 8:14

Hello Rabbi! How is everything? I really hope everything is going well with you and your family. I am emailing you regarding a few questions that have come up.

The Kuzari principle has probably been the strongest intellectual reason for me to believe anything the Torah says, but I have been revisiting it. I have also been reading up on the many kashas that are brought against it. I was wondering if you could elaborate on a few points I have found that seem to seriously challenge the principle, especially since I am heading back to America for the first time since I have become religious, and I think I’ll really need an intellectual approach to fall back on when things get difficult. Here [is a] few question:

1. The statement in Nechamia 8:14 And they found written in the law which the LORD had commanded by Moses, that the children of Israel should dwell in booths in the feast of the seventh month:

2. The statement in Nechamia: 8:17 And all the congregation of them that were come again out of the captivity made booths, and sat under the booths:for since the days of Jeshua the son of Nun unto that day had not the children of Israel done so. And there was very great gladness.

Do these statements not suggest a lack of awareness of the tradition of the exodus, plus an enormous power the rabbis had enabling them to institute such laws, that might have not come from Sinai? Wouldn’t this make the faith on my part have to rely on a much smaller number of people, the rabbis, instead of an entire nation’s claim?

Have an amazing week Rabbi!


Below I try to answer your question. It has been posed to me many times over the years, but your letter prompted me to analyze it in detail. As usual, the problem stems from reading without sufficient care and scholarship. I would be interested in hearing from you how the answer strikes you.

In context, those verses read:

8:14 And they found written in the law which the LORD had commanded by Moses, that the children of Israel should dwell in booths in the feast of the seventh month: 8:15 And that they should publish and proclaim in all their cities, and in Jerusalem, saying, Go forth unto the mount, and fetch olive branches, and pine branches, and myrtle branches, and palm branches, and branches of thick trees, to make booths, as it is written.
8:16 So the people went forth, and brought them, and made themselves booths, every one upon the roof of his house, and in their courts, and in the courts of the house of God, and in the street of the water gate, and in the street of the gate of Ephraim.
8:17 And all the congregation of them that were come again out of the captivity made booths, and sat under the booths: for since the days of Joshua the son of Nun unto that day had not the children of Israel done so. And there was very great gladness.
I suggest that the word “so” refers to the passages above in bold - it refers to the universality of performance, not the mere fact that it was performed. If that is even a possibly correct understanding, then there is no reason to say the text implies that the institution was forgotten.
Furthermore, the phraseology “since the days of ...” is found earlier, in the book of Kings:

2 Kings Chapter 23
1 And the king sent, and they gathered unto him all the elders of Judah and of Jerusalem. 2 And the king went up to the house of the LORD, and all the men of Judah and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem with him, and the priests, and the prophets, and all the people, both small and great; and he read in their ears all the words of the book of the covenant which was found in the house of the LORD. 3 And the king stood on the platform, and made a covenant before the LORD, to walk after the LORD, and to keep His commandments, and His testimonies, and His statutes, with all his heart, and all his soul, to confirm the words of this covenant that were written in this book; and all the people stood to the covenant. 4 And the king commanded Hilkiah the high priest, and the priests of the second order, and the keepers of the door, to bring forth out of the temple of the LORD all the vessels that were made for Baal, and for the Asherah, and for all the host of heaven; and he burned them without Jerusalem in the fields of Kidron, and carried the ashes of them unto Beth-el. 5 And he put down the idolatrous priests, whom the kings of Judah had ordained to offer in the high places in the cities of Judah, and in the places round about Jerusalem; them also that offered unto Baal, to the sun, and to the moon, and to the constellations, and to all the host of heaven. 6 And he brought out the Asherah from the house of the LORD, without Jerusalem, unto the brook Kidron, and burned it at the brook Kidron, and stamped it small to powder, and cast the powder thereof upon the graves of the common people. 7 And he broke down the houses of the sodomites, that were in the house of the LORD, where the women wove coverings for the Asherah. 8 And he brought all the priests out of the cities of Judah, and defiled the high places where the priests had made offerings, from Geba to Beer-sheba; and he broke down the high places of the gates that were at the entrance of the gate of Joshua the governor of the city, which were on a man’s left hand as he entered the gate of the city. 9 Nevertheless the priests of the high places came not up to the altar of the LORD in Jerusalem, but they did eat unleavened bread among their brethren. 10 And he defiled Topheth, which is in the valley of the son of Hinnom, that no man might make his son or his daughter to pass through the fire to Molech. 11 And he took away the horses that the kings of Judah had given to the sun, at the entrance of the house of the LORD, by the chamber of Nethan-melech the officer, which was in the precincts; and he burned the chariots of the sun with fire. 12 And the altars that were on the roof of the upper chamber of Ahaz, which the kings of Judah had made, and the altars which Manasseh had made in the two courts of the house of the LORD, did the king break down, and beat them down from thence, and cast the dust of them into the brook Kidron. 13 And the high places that were before Jerusalem, which were on the right hand of the mount of corruption, which Solomon the king of Israel had builded for Ashtoreth the detestation of the Zidonians, and for Chemosh the detestation of Moab, and for Milcom the abomination of the children of Ammon, did the king defile. 14 And he broke in pieces the pillars, and cut down the Asherim, and filled their places with the bones of men. 15 Moreover the altar that was at Beth-el, and the high place which Jeroboam the son of Nebat, who made Israel to sin, had made, even that altar and the high place he broke down; and he burned the high place and stamped it small to powder, and burned the Asherah. 16 And as Josiah turned himself, he spied the sepulchres that were there in the mount; and he sent, and took the bones out of the sepulchres, and burned them upon the altar, and defiled it, according to the word of the LORD which the man of God proclaimed, who proclaimed these things. 17 Then he said: ‘What monument is that which I see?’ And the men of the city told him: ‘It is the sepulchre of the man of God, who came from Judah, and proclaimed these things that thou hast done against the altar of Beth-el.’ 18 And he said: ‘Let him be; let no man move his bones.’ So they let his bones alone, with the bones of the prophet that came out of Samaria. 19 And all the houses also of the high places that were in the cities of Samaria, which the kings of Israel had made to provoke [the LORD], Josiah took away, and did to them according to all the acts that he had done in Beth-el. 20 And he slew all the priests of the high places that were there, upon the altars, and burned men’s bones upon them; and he returned to Jerusalem. 21 And the king commanded all the people, saying: ‘Keep the passover unto the LORD your God, as it is written in this book of the covenant.’ 22 For there was not kept such a passover from the days of the judges that judged Israel, nor in all the days of the kings of Israel, nor of the kings of Judah; 23 but in the eighteenth year of king Josiah was this passover kept to the LORD in Jerusalem. 24 Moreover them that divined by a ghost or a familiar spirit, and the teraphim, and the idols, and all the detestable things that were spied in the land of Judah and in Jerusalem, did Josiah put away, that he might confirm the words of the law which were written in the book that Hilkiah the priest found in the house of the LORD. 25 And like unto him was there no king before him, that turned to the LORD with all his heart, and with all his soul, and with all his might, according to all the law of Moses; neither after him arose there any like him.

And here too only a limited comparison is meant, words in bold. That is: the text does not say “there was no other Passover at all” but only “there was no other Passover like this one”. [The explanation may be, as the Malbim writes, that the destruction of idol worship accompanying the Pesach was unlike the previous generations - that is what v. 24 is explaining.] So too, in Nechemiah, only a limited comparison is meant.

Furthermore, Yeravam pretty clearly moves Succos from the seventh month to the eighth:
1 Kings Chapter 12

32 And Jeroboam ordained a feast in the eighth month, on the fifteenth day of the month, like unto the feast that is in Judah,
which means that at least at his time Succos was celebrated.

It remains only to explain the words And they found written in the law which the LORD had commanded by Moses - it sounds as if these words [and their content] are newly discovered. But let us compare that phrase with the similar phrase in the book of Esther:

Esther - Chapter 6

Chapter 6
1. On that night, the king’s sleep was disturbed, and he ordered to bring the book of the records, the chronicles, and they were read before the king. א.
2. And it was found written that Mordecai had reported about Bigthana and Teresh, two chamberlains of the king, of the guards of the threshold, who had sought to lay a hand on King Ahasuerus. ב.
3. And the king said, “What honor and greatness was done to Mordecai on that account?” And the king’s servants who minister before him said, “Nothing was done for him.”
Now since Mordechai’s report took place only four years before, this could not be the discovery of an unknown event. It seems that it was unexpected that it should be found now. Similarly in Nechemiah, “found” should mean “found unexpectedly in this context’, not “found when utterly unknown”.

Furthermore, it is very unclear exactly what they were reading when the text of Succos [which must be Vayikra 23 since that is the only place where the Torah prescribes living in booths. How did they get to that passage on the second day of Rosh Hashanna? [And what did they read on the first day - for half the day?] [And notice that it is the people who initiate the reading - they ask for the scroll to be brought and read.] So I do not understand the reading at all [nor does the critic understand it], and within that event I do not fully understand the “finding” of Succos. But a passage we do not understand does not provide a proof of anything.

Finally, I have trouble understanding the critic’s reading of the event. So the rabbis of the time invented Succos on the spot? But then what could it mean to say that there never was a performance of that holiday over the last 1200 years? That in the generation immediately following Moses the entire people stopped keeping the mitzva? That would be impossible to prove to their audience, and impossible to explain to them. And the prophets, who inveighed against all sorts of infractions, never mentioned it? It is a very peculiar reading of the event, I think.

“Do these statements not suggest a lack of awareness of the tradition of the exodus, plus an enormous power the rabbis had enabling them to institute such laws, that might have not come from Sinai? Wouldn’t this make the faith on my part have to rely on a much smaller number of people, the rabbis, instead of an entire nation’s claim? “
I hope you can see from the above that this conclusion does not follow.



Thursday, June 3, 2010

"peace convoy"

An important article by Daniel Gordis:

Facebook Meets the Flotilla May 31, 2010

Facebook Meets the Flotilla
An old high school friend, who's taken great exception to a couple of my most recent Jerusalem Post columns, has been telling me of late on my
Facebook page how out of touch with American Jewry I am. He let loose again today. Here's what he had to say:
Hey Danny....yet again a misguided Israeli political and military mission with regard to Gaza that American Jewry will be asked to stand by and support. All over the news Israel will be referred to as "the Jewish State" as worldwide condemnation will pour in. As a Jew I will be on the defensive despite the fact that I have no vote and no say in whatever the politicians in Israel decide. Again, you will no doubt ask for solidarity by Jewish folk worldwide and we will answer for Israeli decision-making. I love Israel as my religious base, but the policies do not reflect my peace loving values. I support Israel with bonds and donations and visits, but the thriving American Jewish experience is independent of it.
OK, there's a lot there, and most of it I won't respond to now. But this is one of those moments when I don't think we have the luxury of writing a column over days, printing it out and editing it, sleeping on it and editing it again. Too much is happening, and people are too hurting and too confused for something not to be said.
To be sure, there's much more that we don't know than we do. We'll learn a lot in the days and weeks to come. But we do know that this was a tragic day and an excruciatingly painful one in Israel. At the fruit market, and at the dry cleaners, I asked people working there how they were, and all I got was a sigh. And then, "Yom kasheh. A tough day. They're going to eat us alive."
They will, indeed, eat us alive. It's taken a full day for the Israeli government to say anything coherent at all, riots are breaking out in Israeli Arab towns, Israelis in Istanbul have been warned by the Foreign Ministry not to leave their hotel rooms, and the international community is raining down condemnation.
But I jump to conclusions very different than those of my high school friend, and I responded to him in language very close to this:
David - we couldn't disagree more strongly. Israel's actions were "misguided"? Let's take that first. Were there tragic outcomes? Obviously. But "misguided"? Gaza is under the malicious and cynical rule of a terror organization sworn on Israel's destruction, that is holding an Israeli soldier captive in contravention of all international treaties, and that oppresses its own population while even Palestinian witnesses there acknowledge that there is no food shortage. Given Hamas' military objectives, Israel would be crazy not to check what's going in. But Israel had already pledged to pass on any humanitarian goods after they were inspected, and told the boats the same thing. So, no, I don't think that the idea of stopping the boats was misguided.
What we know is that on five of the ships, the commandos (among them friends of our kids, by the way) boarded the boats, and there was no resistance and no fighting.
On one boat, however, the first soldiers to land on the boat were attacked with metal rods and knives. There's video of it. It's playing all over Israeli and all over the internet. In some cases, soldiers' weapons were stolen and used against them. One was stabbed, apparently in the abdomen. Another was tossed from a desk and trampled when he landed. There were a handful of commandos there, and 600 "peace activists." On Israeli news tonight, the soldiers on helicopters taking them to the hospital were interviewed. They descended the ropes, they said, planning to talk the "activists" into going to Ashdod. Their weapons were not in their hands, but strapped to their backs. "We went into war," one in his 30's said bitterly tonight, "and all we had were toys." They were beaten, trampled, shot (yes, there were bullet injuries) but only after forty minutes of combat did they resort to live five. They were going to get lynched if they didn't fight back, they said.
Was I there? No. Do I know what really happened? No. But do I trust these kids and their officers? Yes, I do.
As for "peace activists," David, how much do you know about the IHH? It's a terror support group, supported by Turkey (among others) and it was ent to provoke. If they just wanted the goods to get to Gaza, they could have agreed to transfer them to an Israeli ship, or to unload them in Ashdod, as the Navy personnel asked them to. But they didn't want that. They just wanted to break the blockade. Why? For food? Even a few Palestinian journalists with some guts are reporting that there's no humanitarian food crisis in Gaza. No, it wasn't about food. They want the blockade broken so that after that, non-humanitarian items (read weapons) could brought in. Why should Israel allow that? So that they can be better armed the next time we have to send our kids into Gaza?
As for "being on the defensive," you "will be on the defensive" only because you totally don't get it. For if you did get it, you wouldn't feel that way. There's only one country anywhere on the planet about which there's a conversation about whether it has a right to exist. Do you ever think about why that is? What, the fate of the Palestinians is worse than that of aborigines in Australia? Or people in the Congo, or Rwanda? Why all the attention on Israel? Do you really not get it? You think that New Zealand just coincidentally decided this week to make kosher slaughtering illegal? You think it's really about humanitarian commitments? Come on.
No, David, you really don't have to defend Israel. No one's asking you to. We know that it's too late to expect many Americans like you to assume we're right before you assume we're wrong. As we look out at Jews across the world, we're just assessing who gets Jewish history, and who's so thoroughly intellectually assimilated that they're actually embarrassed that that Jews don't have to continue to be victims. I'm horrified by what happened on the ship, and I'll be shocked if after all is in, we find that Israel made no mistakes. (This was pretty clearly an intelligence failure, at the very minimum, sending those soldiers into something for which they had not at all been prepared or armed.) But if that had been my kid on the ship, and he'd gone in to prevent the blockade from being broken, but had no intention of fighting, and had then been attacked, I'd want him to defend himself. No matter what. I'd want him to come home whole, because that's part of the new Jewish reality that this country is supposed to make possible.
The loss of life is tragic. So are the injuries to soldiers, including serious head wounds. But most tragic of all is that the world is so willing to be blinded to what's really going on here.
At the end of this excruciating day in Israel, at least given what I know at this moment, I'm saddened but not apologetic. I'm not surprised by most of the world's reactions. But I haven't lost sight of who provoked this, and why they did that. But you're a very smart guy. Why have you?