Monday, July 30, 2007

Am I a Person or a Jew?

dgordon left an interesting comment on my post Modern Orthodoxy's State of Denial:
There's a really basic conflict involved in the Feldman/Maimonides-School encounter. The Maimonides School, and by extension OJ in general, promotes a CORPORATE identity: a cardinal obligation of sb. who is born Jewish is to perpetuate the Jewish people by marrying sb. Jewish and raising Jewish children (esp., OJ argues, in the wake of such environing threats as anti-semitism and assimilation). Feldman, on the other hand, believes in INDIVIDUAL identity: the point of having any sort of religion at all is to explore and extend one's relationship w/ God or whoever/whatever may be out there (this as an aspect of self-fulfillment within a context of respect for others' choices). These two models comprise what sociologist Max Weber called a "clash of the value spheres"; they really can't be reconciled to each other...

In the wake of Feldman's admittedly uneven article (discussed here) I saw a lot of comments that I found mystifying. Boiled down, they essentially took Feldman's intermarriage as an affront to his school, his parents, and the Orthodox community in general, if not the entire Jewish people. They said things like his marriage was "a slap in the face" to his Jewish education and that he "turned his back on Judaism."

As I said, I was mystified. If I had a child, say, who married a rabbi or a Buddhist or even a Republican ;-) I might be concerned for them and perhaps express my doubts. But to take it as a personal insult? Of course not, unless they were literally doing it out of spite. I see parenting (and friendship and love) as something I choose to give freely, not something I'm doing because I expect something in return.

dgordon nailed it. Orthodox Jews see Feldman not as a human being who made what was probably a difficult life decision, but as a Jew who married out. In the same way, when I left Orthodox Judaism, my Orthodox friends and family didn't see it as me just making a choice they didn't agree with, but as an affront to my parents and community. Nobody wanted to know what made me do it or how I was handling the transition; if anything they wanted to know as little as possible about it.

My non-Orthodox friends and family, on the other hand, were genuinely curious about my life-change. They asked for my story, empathized with how hard it was for me, and accepted me for both who I had been and who I had become. Speaking to one Conservative (the Jewish denomination) father was particularly enlightening -- he told me that all he wanted from his children was that they were good people. People like him see major life choices as part of the human experience -- he would no more attempt to dictate his child's religion (even though they were active in their religious community) than he would force them to join a profession that they didn't care for.

I have honestly sought the truth in my life and that's a difficult thing which I think should be applauded, even if you don't agree with my conclusions. The common Orthodox view that they have a monopoly on truth and that those who leave or marry out are akin to traitors, is ludicrous and arrogant. Human beings are not the property of the community or of our parents. We owe our gratitude and respect to those who raised us, but no more.

We have no moral responsibility to make babies for your community or to adhere to your dogma. We do, however, have the responsibility to support and respect the difficult personal choices our loved ones make in their lifetimes, even when we don't agree with them, and so do you, or you're not worthy of the people you love.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Counterinsurgency Warfare as Military Malpractice

The best explanation I have seen for why we are not winning -- and cannot win -- the Iraq war.


We begin with some elementary observations. The armed forces of the most advanced countries, and certainly of the United States, all formidable against enemies assembled in conveniently targetable massed formations, are least effective in fighting insurgents. That was demonstrated in Vietnam in many different ways over many years, even as the occasional North Vietnamese regular unit that ventured to fight conventionally was efficiently destroyed. The same two-part proposition is unnecessarily being proven all over again in Iraq, damaging the reputation of the United States for wisdom and strength, misusing fine soldiers, wasting vast amounts of money on skillful but ineffectual air and ground operations, inflicting added suffering on Iraqis at large, and taking the lives of young Americans whose sacrifice, one fears, will be deemed futile.


But there is much more to it than that. Specifically, there is the matter of politics, on both sides. Unless insurgents confine their operations to thoroughly deserted areas where there is no one to observe them, they must have at least the passive cooperation of local inhabitants. Whether they fail to report the insurgents to the authorities out of sympathy for their cause or in terror of their vengeance is entirely irrelevant. In either case, the insurgents are in control of the population around them, and not the authorities. That essentially political advantage is enough to allow motivated insurgents to overcome all manner of tactical weaknesses in combat skills and weapons.

As in so many previous cases, in a manner abundantly familiar from previous insurgencies, that political situation is now playing out in Iraq, where insurgents live very safely in Sunni neighborhoods, towns, and villages, emerging to place bombs or launch attacks when and where it suits them before resuming innocuous civilian identities once again. Local insurgents may indeed pass unobserved by their neighbors when inactive, but not when they take up weapons and gather for operations, while the foreign volunteers among them necessarily attract attention even when they carry no weapons because of their distinct speech and manner. Many of the local inhabitants certainly know who the insurgents are and where they keep their stores of explosives and weapons, but they are not telling. That is why U.S. Army and Marine patrols cannot find insurgents unless they choose to reveal themselves by engaging in direct combat, which of course they rarely do, and only when they think that they have a great advantage. The mostly futile American patrols therefore expose soldiers to the mines, remote-controlled explosives, snipers, and mortar bombs that inflict daily casualties.

Naturally, every form of technical intelligence and every possible sensor is being employed to supplant the lack of very elementary but indispensable human intelligence, including synthetic-aperture radars aboard big four-engine aircraft and the infrared and video sensors of the latest targeting pods on two-seat heavyweight jet fighters. The expense of these flights alone is huge, amounting to hundreds of millions of dollars a month, but the results are very meager. The aim, of course, is to gather immediately actionable imagery, especially at night, showing such things as insurgents placing side bombs alongside U.S. patrol routes or approaching oil pipelines bearing explosives. Failing that, it is at least hoped that possible insurgent activities could be detected for further investigation; for example, people furtively bringing things to isolated buildings at night. But in practice, unless insurgents carry recognizable weapons, it is simply impossible to differentiate between them and innocent people going about their peaceful business. In the meantime, very elaborate equipment that is very costly to operate, and very effective in identifying armored vehicles, bunkers, missile launchers, and any other readily recognizable target of classic form, is still being employed every day in futile attempts to detect deliveries of a few dollars of food, or the emplacement of readily improvised explosive devices. This too is an aspect of the structural unsuitability of modern armed forces to fight elusive enemies that present no stable targets.

The essentially political advantage of the insurgents in commanding at least the silence of the local population cannot be overcome by technical means no matter how advanced. Nor can the better operational methods and tactics advocated in FM 3-24 DRAFT be of much help. So few of the insurgents ever engage in direct combat, so much of the insurgency takes covert forms, ranging from the infiltration of the government to bombings, sabotage, and assassinations, that the tactical defeats inflicted on the insurgents—including the killing of their top leaders and heroes—have no perceptible impact on the volume of the violence, and of its political consequences.


Perfectly ordinary regular armed forces, with no counterinsurgency doctrine or training whatever, have in the past regularly defeated insurgents, by using a number of well-proven methods. It is enough to consider these methods to see why the armed forces of the United States or of any other democratic country cannot possibly use them.

The simple starting point is that insurgents are not the only ones who can intimidate or terrorize civilians. For instance, whenever insurgents are believed to be present in a village, small town, or distinct city district—a very common occurrence in Iraq at present, as in other insurgency situations—the local notables can be compelled to surrender them to the authorities, under the threat of escalating punishments, all the way to mass executions. That is how the Ottoman Empire could control entire provinces with a few feared janissaries and a squadron or two of cavalry. The Turks were simply too few to hunt down hidden rebels, but they did not have to: they went to the village chiefs and town notables instead, to demand their surrender, or else. A massacre once in a while remained an effective warning for decades. So it was mostly by social pressure rather than brute force that the Ottomans preserved their rule: it was the leaders of each ethnic or religious group inclined to rebellion that did their best to keep things quiet, and if they failed, they were quite likely to tell the Turks where to find the rebels before more harm was done.


By contrast, the capacity of American armed forces to inflict collective punishments does not extend much beyond curfews and other such restrictions, inconvenient to be sure and perhaps sufficient to impose real hardship, but obviously insufficient to out-terrorize insurgents. Needless to say, this is not a political limitation that Americans would ever want their armed forces to overcome, but it does leave the insurgents in control of the population, the real “terrain” of any insurgency. Of course, the ordinary administrative functions of government can also be employed against the insurgents, less compellingly perhaps but without need of violence. Insurgents everywhere seek to prohibit any form of collaboration or contact with the authorities, but they cannot normally prevent civilians from entering government offices to apply for obligatory licenses, permits, travel documents, and such. That provides venues for intelligence officers on site to ask applicants to provide information on the insurgents, in exchange for the approval of their requests and perhaps other rewards. This effective and straightforward method has been widely used, and there is no ethical or legal reason why it should not be used by the armed forces of the United States as well. But it does require the apparatus of military government, complete with administrative services for civilians. During and after the Second World War, after very detailed preparations, the U.S. Army and Navy governed the American zone of Germany, all of Japan, and parts of Italy. Initially, U.S. officers were themselves the administrators, with such assistance from local officials they chose to re-employ. Since then, however, the United States has preferred both in Vietnam long ago and now in Iraq to leave government to the locals.

That decision reflects another kind of politics, manifest in the ambivalence of a United States government that is willing to fight wars, that is willing to start wars because of future threats, that is willing to conquer territory or even entire countries, and yet is unwilling to govern what it conquers, even for a few years. Consequently, for all the real talent manifest in the writing of FM 3-24 DRAFT, its prescriptions are in the end of little or no use and amount to a kind of malpractice. All its best methods, all its clever tactics, all the treasure and blood that the United States has been willing to expend, cannot overcome the crippling ambivalence of occupiers who refuse to govern, and their principled and inevitable refusal to out-terrorize the insurgents, the necessary and sufficient condition of a tranquil occupation.

(Emphasis added. Hat tip to the brilliant and very unique Mencius Moldbug.)

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Atheist FAQ

Via the other Jewish Atheist, the Atheist Jew, an atheists' FAQ by the Friendly Atheist.

Why do you not believe in God?

Why do we believe anything? After much investigation and thought, the idea that there is no God strikes me as more plausible than the idea that there is one. (The two primary reasons for this are that nature and human history are "red in tooth and claw" and that the scientific method has explained more things more satisfactorily without resorting to "God" in a few hundred years than religion has done in a few thousand or more.)

Where do your morals come from?

From a sense of empathy, which itself is probably partly innate and partly cultural.

What is the meaning of life?

What is the meaning of a Wednesday morning? The question is nonsensical.

Is atheism a religion?

Not by any reasonable definition of "religion."

If you don’t pray, what do you do during troubling times?

I talk to friends, loved ones, and professional therapists; I write; and I eat too much.

Should atheists be trying to convince others to stop believing in God?

Define "should." Personally, I feel a need to explain myself, which is part of why I have a blog. I also enjoy debate. I don't think an atheist has any particular responsibility to Spread the Word or anything like that.

Weren’t some of the worst atrocities in the 20th century committed by atheists?

Yes, but I do not believe the link is causal.

How could billions of people be wrong when it comes to belief in God?

That billions of people are wrong there can be no doubt, since there are over two billion Christians and over one billion Muslims and billions of others and religions are for the most part mutually exclusive. How can so many people be wrong? Because it's human nature to believe things without adequate cause.

Why does the universe exist?

No idea.

How did life originate?

On Earth? Probably with the whole primordial soup thing, followed by descent with modification. If life exists elsewhere, I imagine it started the same way, although I imagine there are or will be plenty of forms of life that are created by intelligent lifeforms as well. It's also possible that there are forms of life we haven't yet imagined.

Is all religion harmful?

Like everything else, it has good and bad. Some forms of religion are much more harmful than others. On most issues, you'll find religious people on both sides, because religions are not well-defined. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Fred Phelps are/were both "Christian." I will say that most religions are harmful with regard to uncovering empirical truths.

What’s so bad about religious moderates?

Sometimes, they make it possible for religious extremists to do bad things. Other times, they themselves do some (usually lesser) bad things because they are religious.

Is there anything redeeming about religion?

Religious people have provided great things to the world as well as horrible things. I don't think it's possible to know whether the world would be better or worse without the influence of religion.

What if you’re wrong about God (and He does exist)?

If he's a reasonable bloke, I imagine we'll have a good laugh. If Pat Robertson is right, I'm going to burn.

Shouldn’t all religious beliefs be respected?

Mencken said it best: "We must respect the other fellow's religion, but only in the sense and to the extent that we respect his theory that his wife is beautiful and his children smart."

Are atheists smarter than theists?

According to studies, atheists in America have on average higher IQs and more education than theists. Whether that's the same thing as being "smarter" is left as an exercise for the reader.

How do you deal with the historical Jesus if you don’t believe in his divinity?

I haven't studied the subject much, but I suspect that there was a charismatic Jew named Jesus (Ίησους/יהושע/ישוע) around whom the mythology and religion of Christianity was later erected. I wouldn't be shocked, though, if it turned out "Jesus" is really a composite of several actual or mythological people or demigods.

Would the world be better off without any religion?

Impossible to know.

What happens when we die?

We decompose.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Clarification on Jewish-to-Gentile Organ Donation

A couple of times over the last couple of days, I've alluded to the notion that there is a halakhic question about whether an Orthodox Jew can donate (post-mortem*) an organ to a non-Jew. I've now become convinced that there is no question, at least in practice. The Halachic Organ Donor Society boasts a number of prominent rabbis as members and maintains that the religion (or lack thereof) of the organ recipient is irrelevant.

They offer 5 reasons why donating organs to the general population is okay according to halakha. The only one which is explicitly anti-racist is presented as a "could be:"
(1) [That the Torah considers the life of a non-Jew to be less valuable than that of a Jew] could be challenged on the Torah basis that "all of mankind was created in the image of God."

The other 4 are (I paraphrase): (2) that today's non-Jews, especially monotheistic ones, are not in the same category as the non-Jews referred to in the Talmud; (3) that we fear donating only to Jews would cause enmity between non-Jews and Jews; (4) that your organ could end up in a Jew; and (5) that by donating to a non-Jew, the Jews on the waiting list get bumped up.

(2) could be read as not being racist and, if you stretch, as not being anti-non-child-sacrificing-pagans, but 3-5 are really justifications for why one can donate even if the fact that the recipient(s) potential non-Jewishness is a problem. It seems clear to me from the Talmud cited that Orthodox Judaism does fundamentally find a non-Jewish life somehow less valuable, but that in practice, it does not rule that way. This speaks well of Orthodox Judaism as practiced, but should raise serious questions about the underlying dogma of OJ.

Kudos to HODS and the rabbis affiliated with it for taking such proactive action to save lives.

* What constitutes death for the purposes of organ donation is a matter of debate, with many rabbis holding a stricter view than does the medical establishment.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Modern Orthodoxy's State of Denial

I wasn't going to post about this article in the Times because I didn't think it would be very conducive to good conversation. But after being surprised by the responses to it by some Orthodox people I respect (Chana, Gil Student) as being generally tolerant and open-minded, I decided I have to.

The event which opens the piece is as follows:

Noah Feldman went to the Modern Orthodox high school Maimonides as a teen. As an adult, he is not Orthodox and has married a non-Jew, who is Korean-American. He brought his wife (then girlfriend) to his high school reunion. At the reunion, a class photo was taken. Later, the photo was sent out as part of an alumni newsletter. Except he and his girlfriend had been removed from the photo.

This story struck me as something out of Orwell, or from the former Soviet Union. Deciding not to publish the photograph, adding a disclaimer, or even attaching a letter from a Rabbi addressing why intermarriage is unacceptable would have been one thing, but falsifying a photo to pretend that a person doesn't even exist is dishonest and shameful.

It's also emblematic of the Modern Orthodox community's state of denial. Philosophically bound to the traditional Jewish rule of law, halakha, while at the same time overtly influenced by modernity, there are a few subjects they prefer to think about only in the abstract. It's easier to rail against the evils of intermarriage when you don't have to look Prof. Feldman in the face and tell him that he sinned by marrying his wife, that his family is somehow lesser than fully Jewish families. It's easier to maintain that the Torah is correct to call homosexual sex an abomination when you pretend that there are no gay people in your community.

I've seen this denial firsthand. I grew up in a very modern Modern Orthodox community. But what I experienced was not a community courageously combining modernity with its sacred beliefs, but one threatened by reality.

For example, I knew one family that refused to allow their future mother-in-law's live-in boyfriend into their home because they didn't want their younger children to think living together before marriage is normal. My Orthodox readers are probably thinking to themselves that that sounds perfectly reasonable. After all, they really don't want those kids growing up to think cohabitation is okay. But look how they're doing it! They're not having the couple over and then explaining afterwards to their children that it's not the halakhic way to act -- they're pretending the man does not exist because his very existence implies that there are alternatives to the halakhic way of life.

And what of all the debates that rage in the J-blogosphere about evolution and the Documentary Hypothesis and whether the Exodus actually happened? Do Modern Orthodox communities courageously address these issues, encouraging students to ask tough questions? Or do they largely pretend the issues don't exist, or are easily parried by answers like those of the Aish HaTorah crowd?

And what of those of us who simply decided we don't believe in Orthodoxy? Does the MO community honestly deal with the issue, saying that some people simply leave for any number of reasons? Or do they avoid talking about us when possible, pretending that leaving is simply not an alternative, and when the subject does come up, do they pretend that we all left because our daddies didn't love us enough or we couldn't resist the allure of drugs and sex?

Erasing people from a picture because they do not represent the ideal you wish to encourage is a cowardly act of denial. Noah Feldman didn't kill anyone, or commit a robbery, or even deliberately hurt anyone's feelings. He's simply a living example of a normal person who has made a choice that's made every day in this country. Rather than accepting the fact that it's possible to grow up Orthodox and go on to marry a non-Jew, this particular editor decided to pretend it didn't happen.

Listen, if you want to be Modern and Orthodox, you're going to have to have a little more courage than pretending those of us who are living reminders that your path isn't for everyone don't exist. You're going to have to honestly address the challenges to traditional Judaism raised by physics, biology, cosmology, textual criticism, and ethics.

You should also consider the morality of what you do. Is it moral to shun a person for deciding that your religion isn't for them? To pretend that they never existed? People like Feldman and me are as worthy of love and respect as anyone else is. That our very existence is a threat to your worldview is no excuse for the way you treat us.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

It's Only Torture When They Do It

Oh, and extrajudicial wiretapping and lengthy pretrial detention are only bad when they do it, too.

Here's what Bush's State Department had to say about Russia's "Human Rights Practices" in 2001:
Government technical regulations that require Internet service providers and telecommunications companies to invest in equipment that enables the [Foreign Security Service] to monitor Internet traffic, telephone calls, and pagers without judicial approval caused serious concern... Lengthy pretrial detention remained a serious problem... According to Human Rights Watch's (HRW) report on torture in Russia released in November 1999, torture by police officers usually occurs within the first few hours or days of arrest and usually takes one of four forms: beatings with fists, batons, or other objects; asphyxiation using gas masks or bags (sometimes filled with mace); electric shocks; or suspension of body parts (e.g. suspending a victim from the wrists, which are tied together behind the back). Allegations of torture are difficult to substantiate because of lack of access by medical professionals and because the techniques used often leave few or no permanent physical traces.

I'm so glad we elected a leader with moral clarity.

Via Glenn Greenwald and Andrew Sullivan.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

I'm Back! Comments are Back

Missed you all. Feel free to leave comments f0r the last few posts.


Sunday, July 08, 2007

Gone Swimmin'

I'll be away until at least next Sunday. Comments will be closed while I'm gone, because I've learned my lesson. :-)

Powell Claims He Tried to Talk Bush out of Invading

Wow. Via Andrew Sullivan:

The former American secretary of state Colin Powell has revealed that he spent 2 and a half hours vainly trying to persuade President George W Bush not to invade Iraq and believes today’s conflict cannot be resolved by US forces.

"I tried to avoid this war," Powell said at the Aspen Ideas Festival in Colorado. "I took him through the consequences of going into an Arab country and becoming the occupiers."

Powell has become increasingly outspoken about the level of violence in Iraq, which he believes is in a state of civil war. "The civil war will ultimately be resolved by a test of arms," he said. "It's not going to be pretty to watch, but I don’t know any way to avoid it. It is happening now."

He added: "It is not a civil war that can be put down or solved by the armed forces of the United States." All the military could do, Powell suggested, was put "a heavier lid on this pot of boiling sectarian stew".

Prior to the Iraq fiasco, I had a lot of respect for Powell. I think a lot of people did. He seemed like a patriot and a rational man with integrity. I thought he would have trounced the field if he had run for president in 2000.

But when we needed him the most, he chickened out and did the wrong thing. He didn't just refrain from speaking out publicly, but went to bat for Bush at the U.N., lending his credibility to the case for war. His duty was to the country, not to George W. Bush. This isn't a freaking monarchy.

Noah's Ark vs. UFOs

This post by Stardust got me thinking about standards of evidence. From a purely objective standpoint, UFO abduction reports appear to be much more plausible than the story of Noah's Ark. UFO abductions would not have to violate any laws of physics, for example, while having two (or seven) animals from each species (or "kind") fit into a boat built by a man to survive a 40-day flood that covered the Earth would require a "miracle," or violation of the laws of physics (not to mention biology.)

There is no scientific reason whatsoever that there couldn't be intelligent life on other planets. There is no scientific reason that intelligent life from a relatively nearby planet couldn't fly their spacecraft here and abduct a person. They could plausibly even do it undetectably. If they are advanced enough, they might even be able to selectively modify a person's brain to do their bidding.

Don't get me wrong -- I don't believe that any UFO abductions have happened, because there is no good evidence that they have and I tend not to believe extraordinary claims without good evidence. But I can't see how they aren't infinitely more probable than the Noah's Ark story. (Or the talking donkey or Jesus's resurrection, etc.)

Just another example of how many religious people don't apply the same standards of evidence to religious claims as to merely extraordinary claims. I challenge my religious readers who believe the story of Noah is more or less literally true to explain why they believe in that but not in UFO abductions.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Chana's Post

Chana has a beautiful, wrenching post about her time in high school, how she was hurt by teachers purporting to be religious, and how she found her true Judaism in the works of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik.

As I wrote in the comments there, I wasn't hurt as she was, and I didn't leave for the reasons that might have caused her to leave, but it's compelling reading, a Howl against some of the idiocy in the Orthodox world.