Thursday, November 29, 2007

McCain vs. Romney on Torture

It's amazing how eloquent and sincere one can be when he's on the right side of an issue:

Romney just comes off as a weasel.

I don't understand why McCain isn't doing better in the polls. He comes off as honest and decent. Although he's not a religious fanatic, he is a mostly consistent conservative, unlike Rudy and Romney. Huckabee also strikes me as honest and decent, and he's an ordained minister! Does Romney have anything besides looks and money? Does Rudy have anything besides 9/11?

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

The Assumptions We Make

One of my best friends went to yeshiva in Israel for two years after high school and came back looking and talking like a rabbi. It was interesting how people responded to him. He told me that a lot of the more "modern" modern Orthodox people he knew as well as some non-Orthodox Jews would out of nowhere act defensive around him or even launch what he took to be a preemptive strike. "Why do you need to wear a black hat? What's the matter with the way you were raised?"

In a way, his very appearance and demeanor was of course an implicit critique of their religiosity, just as my leaving Orthodoxy is an implicit critique of Orthodoxy. I think, though, that a lot of their reactions were due to assumptions they were making about his beliefs that may not have been quite fair to him, or actually true.

I know this because I'm now one of those non-Orthodox people who gets instinctively defensive around some Orthodox folks. I went to an Orthodox wedding recently and although I wore a kippah out of respect, my non-Orthodoxy was obvious in my answers to the most mundane questions. (e.g. Where are you living? Not near an Orthodox shul.) I winced inwardly every time I answered such a question, sure that they were judging me negatively.

But every single one of them was nothing but kind and friendly and completely non-judgmental, at least outwardly. This was as true for the ultra-Orthodox people from Monsey as it was for the most modern Orthodox.

I just realized today that maybe they weren't all judging me negatively internally. I have no evidence that they were. Maybe they were just regular people trying to catch up. They happen to be Orthodox, and the probably think that's the best way to be, but they don't necessarily judge me negatively for choosing a different path.

I once told that same friend, who was now a rabbi in fact as well as appearance, that I was moving in with my girlfriend. Preemptively, I told him, "I'm sure you don't approve." He kind of laughed and said, "You didn't ask me." At the time, I took that as an implicit criticism, but I think I have to reinterpret it now. Now I think he really wasn't judging. If I had asked, he probably would have told me that (obviously) he wouldn't live with a woman before marriage, but that's not the same thing as judging me negatively for doing that same thing.

So now I'm going to be more careful about my assumptions.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Happy Thanksgiving!!

Wishing all who celebrate a happy Thanksgiving!

To answer the question I get every year, I think you can be thankful without being thankful to someone.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Update: Richard Paey Pardoned

Richard Paey has finally been pardoned. (Previously: 1, 2.)
In October of this year, Florida Gov. Charlie Crist signed a pardon for Richard Paey, a paraplegic with multiple sclerosis who had served nearly four years of a 25-year prison sentence for drug trafficking. Paey, who requires high-dose opioid therapy to treat pain brought on by his MS, a car accident, and a botched back surgery, was convicted of trafficking despite concessions from prosecutors that there was no evidence the painkillers in his possession were for anything other than his own use. When police came to arrest the wheel-chair bound Paey, they came with a full-on SWAT team, battering down the door and rushing into the home of the wheelchair-bound Paey, his optometrist wife, and their two schoolage children.

Prosecutors offered Paey a plea bargain, but he refused, insisting that he’d done nothing wrong, and that he shouldn’t have to plead guilty to a felony for treating his own pain. Paey was tried, convicted, and given a 25-year mandatory minimum sentence. While in prison, the state of Florida paid for a morphine pump that administered painkillers to Paey at rates higher than what the state convicted him of for possessing in the first place.

Crist and Florida’s pardon board issued Paey’s pardon after heavy media coverage of his case, including by 60 Minutes, and the New York Times, as well as by reason’s own Jacob Sullum and Radley Balko.

Paey's story is straight out of Kafka. Convicted for possession of drugs that he needed to treat his pain, he was given higher doses in prison by the government than he was convicted for possessing.

Kudos to Governor Crist for finally making it right. Jeb Bush had refused to do so.

Read the whole story, which includes an interview.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

This Just In: Herman Melville is God

It's true. I didn't want to believe it either, but the Moby Dick codes have proven it conclusively.

Via an anonymous commentator at DovBear's.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Colin Powell: Iran is Far From a Nuke

Good news all around:

KUWAIT CITY (AP) — Iran is far from acquiring a nuclear weapon, and despite U.S. fears about its atomic intentions, an American military strike against the Islamic Republic is unlikely, former Secretary of State Colin Powell said Sunday.

Let's hope he's right, on both counts.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Links for the Day

Monday, November 12, 2007

The Two Belief Systems of Modern Orthodox Judaism, or Chizuk for XGH

(This post loosely based on XGH's Looking for Chizuk in all the Wrong Places.)

It seems to me that Modern Orthodoxy contains two separate belief systems: the one you pretend to believe (the Nominal Belief System) and the one you really believe (the Actual Belief Systems.) The NBS is absurd and contrary to all fact, but it has the virtue of connecting Modern Orthodoxy to traditional Orthodoxy. The ABSes do not have to be counterfactual, but supply enough meaning for people to stick around.

I think that a lot of people who have trouble with the NBS are simply uncomfortable with the tension between the NBS and the ABSes. Many, if not most, Modern Orthodox Jews do not actually believe the NBS, but have private ABSes. For whatever reason, this does not bother them. Either they don't really care that much about what's true or they've made a conscious or unconscious decision that it's worth keeping their ABS to themselves in order to remain in the community.

Here's my advice for the frum skeptics who want to remain frum: start to see the NBS as just a ritual that connects to the past, a shared lie the community has agreed to tell itself in order to maintain the lifestyle they call home. You are one of those who sees clearly that the NBS is false, but you have failed to see that many people don't really care if it's true or not; they just care that it lets them live the life they want to live.

Those of us who have realized that the NBS is not true have congratulated ourselves on our clear thinking and lack of bias. Perhaps we should also recognize that we have had an unclear perspective on the purpose of the NBS. For many or most Modern Orthodox people, it does not matter if it's true or not. If you want to leave, leave, but if you want to stay, stop being such a stickler for the truth.

H.L. Mencken wrote, "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." I think you need to expand that to your own religion. Believe it in the sense that you believe your wife is beautiful. You don't need to search for empirical studies demonstrating your wife's beauty, and you don't need to provide a sound philosophical treatise on why it's really inner beauty that matters. Just say that she's beautiful and recognize that she's beautiful to you and quit worrying so much about what's "really" true.

UFO Sightings and Religious Testimony

Dennis Kucinich's UFO sighting:

In Shirley MacLaine's new book, the actress and longtime friend of Dennis Kucinich makes an interesting claim: During a visit to her home in Washington state, Kucinich said he saw a UFO and heard messages from it.

"Dennis found his encounter extremely moving," MacLaine writes. "The smell of roses drew him out to my balcony where, when he looked up, he saw a gigantic triangular craft, silent, and observing him.

"It hovered, soundless, for 10 minutes or so, and sped away with a speed he couldn't comprehend. He said he felt a connection in his heart and heard directions in his mind."

Tim Russert asked Kucinich during the last Democratic debate if he had seen a UFO and Kucinich answered:
Uh, I did. And the rest of the account. It was an unidentified flying object, OK? It's like, it's unidentified. I saw something. Now, to answer your question. I'm moving my, and I'm also going to move my campaign office to Roswell, New Mexico, and another one in Exeter, New Hampshire, OK? And also, you have to keep in mind that Jimmy Carter saw a UFO, and also that more people in this country have seen UFOs than I think approve of George Bush's presidency.

Here we have a very successful politician, who is quirky to be sure but not obviously insane or prone to hallucinations, testifying that he saw a UFO. To be fair, he didn't clearly admit to Russert anything else that MacLaine said, but neither did he really deny it.

I think this provides an interesting window into various religious apologetic arguments.

C.S. Lewis, for example, popularized the argument that because of the things Jesus said, he must have been either a liar, a lunatic, or indeed the Lord. If MacLaine is to be believed, then by Lewis's logic, Kucinich must be either a liar, a lunatic, or someone who actually had the experience MacLaine described.

The Bible-Science apologists would focus on the fact that, technically, a UFO is nothing extraordinary -- it's just a flying object that we can't identify. This seems to be the route Kucinich attempted at the debate. Just like the Biblical Flood might have been a more local flood, Kucinich's UFO might have just been a weather balloon or a stealth bomber.

The mythologists would claim that Kucinich didn't mean his story literally -- it was an allegory for the Iraq war, or something.

So what are we skeptics to believe? If MacLaine is telling the truth about what Kucinich told her, I'm actually kind of stumped. I see no motive for him to have fabricated the story. I suppose a hallucination is possible, although I would assume hallucinations of that magnitude don't happen to otherwise sane people, unless some sort of drugs are involved, and we have no evidence that Kucinich was on any drugs, either. Another obvious explanation is that MacLaine either made up the story or seriously embellished it, or that Kucinich lied to her or embellished it to her. But I don't find that explanation especially compelling, either, because if she had lied or embellished it, Kucinich should have denied it more strongly, and if he had lied or embellished it to her, I don't see why he wouldn't deny it to Russert or at least explain what he had done in some way. Finally, there's no reason UFO's -- in the alien craft sense -- couldn't exist, although it seems unlikely that they would do things like Kucinich described without doing enough to confirm to more than fourteen percent of Americans that they exist.

In the end, I guess I'd bet on Kucinich having had some sort of hallucination. That's also my guess about various religious people's personal testimonies of seeing God or having other "supernatural" experiences, whether it be Moses's burning bush or some random Christian seeing Jesus in his bedroom at 4 am. Religious people who take such testimony seriously while dismissing someone like Kucinich out of hand are clearly biased and should reconsider their thought processes. So should the apologists.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

What Do Orthodox Jews Really Believe III, and Why Don't They Speak Up?

(Previously: one, two.)

XGH, DovBear, and Ezzie all link approvingly to this answer from James Kugel about what the implications are to Orthodox Judaism if the Torah is not divine. The comments at XGH's are well worth reading, as well.

The question is in response to Kugel's recent book How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now. Kugel is a Biblical Scholar and a professor at Harvard, who believes in the Documentary Hypothesis but nevertheless considers himself an Orthodox Jew.

Anyway, here's the gist of the question:
I suppose I am writing to you to get your thoughts on how a religious person can maintain his/her faith and fealty in and to a rabbinic system that is so directly based on the belief of a Divine text and the “Four Assumptions”? I fully realize that I am asking this question to a Bible professor who happens to be observant rather than to a Rabbi - I am more interested in the former's response than the latter's.

And the answer in full:
Before getting to the specifics of your e-mail, I should say something exculpatory (I hope) about this book in general. It really is not addressed specifically to Orthodox Jews, or even to Jews as a whole. I think there’s been some confusion about this. I’m a Bible professor, and the purpose of this book is to teach something about the nature of modern biblical scholarship – something that the general public, and even quite a few modern scholars themselves, are largely unaware of (i.e., the great gap separating ancient and modern scholarship, and the crucial role of ancient interpreters in shaping the Bible’s message). It’s true that, in the last chapter, I also tried to offer some thoughts about how different groups, including what I called "traditional Judaism," might try to reckon with the insights of modern scholars, but if that were all I was out to do, the book could have been considerably shorter.

A second point is also worth mentioning – and this is a bit closer to the subject of your e-mail. Orthodox Jews (myself included) are, by definition, people who like to be told what to do. We accept eagerly the whole “prepared table” of Judaism – not just the idea of avodat H’, but all the detailed plan that goes with it. In fact, the general idea alone would not get us very far (this was the oft-repeated theme of my book “On Being a Jew”). And so, it is part of the whole posture of seeking to do God’s bidding that we absorb ourselves in the details of the traditional way of life, "davening three times a day" as you say, and kashrut and learning and Shabbat. We don’t take easily to going beyond this, looking up from those daily tasks to contemplate our Employer, that is to say, to think about the really basic issues of theology. In fact, to talk about such things even seems to us un-Jewish; it is neither a necessary nor a particularly comfortable activity for someone who has undertaken to live as an Orthodox Jew. If it ever does come to such basic questions, I think our preferred path is, as in the details of halakhah, to look to our classic texts to tell us what to think. I’m sure I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know.

The problem posed by modern biblical scholarship is that it calls into question some of the most basic teachings of Judaism, and, since it really is modern, its specific arguments are not addressed by our classical sources. So what should a Jew think about modern scholarship? As I said, I wrote this book for a broad audience from different religions, but as far as Jews are concerned, my purpose was certainly not to get them to incorporate into Judaism modern scholarship’s version of what the Torah is or where it came from. In fact, I think I recommended pretty clearly at the beginning of the book that people of traditional beliefs think twice about reading it, and at the end I said outright that modern biblical scholarship is altogether incompatible with traditional Jewish belief and
practice. In other words, I think that if you want to be an Orthodox Jew, the Documentary Hypothesis and the other insights of modern scholars can have no place in the way you study Torah. (This, by the way, puts me at odds not only with the stance of Conservative Judaism, but also with a fair number of biblical scholars who describe themselves as Orthodox.) I really don’t even buy the idea that you can go halfway down the modern path, adopting the linguistic or philological insights of modern scholars but not the rest. Ultimately, all roads lead to Wellhausen.

But the question I tried to address in that last chapter was: bedi’avad, what is someone who has heard or learned something of modern scholarship (and this includes an increasingly large number of Orthodox Jews) to think?

I know that the answer of some people, perhaps a great many people, is what your e-mail calls “burying their heads in the sand,” though perhaps we should rather call it: “trying to stick with Judaism’s traditional teachings by ignoring or dismissing what modern scholars say.” I really have nothing to say against such a stance. I know perfectly well how much is at stake for most people in adopting any other position. For the same reason, I feel pretty sure that most Orthodox Jews will continue to declare modern scholarship off-limits.

But I also know that this is not an adequate response for some people – not for you, according to your e-mail, and truthfully, not for me either. It just feels wrong to say about anything that really matters to you, “Well, I know that scholars have turned up a lot of disturbing facts, but I don’t want to know about them.” My impulse, anyway, is to face the truth as best it can be known and then try to make sense of what it is telling us.

In your e-mail you say that if modern scholars have proved that the Torah is not a "divine document," then our whole system of halakhah collapses. I don't think I'd ever accept that premise in the first place: modern scholars may have proven a lot of things, but I don't think they've ever tried to determine what is or is not divinely inspired, simply because there is no litmus test by which you can decide such a thing. Words are words, whether written by prophets or interpolators or editors, whether written in this particular set of circumstances or another; the words never carry little flags identifying some of them as divinely inspired and others and ordinarily human.

I believe what I just said is absolutely true, but I wouldn't want to use it as a cop-out to avoid addressing what seems to me to be the real issue. Modern scholars have said a lot of things that are indeed upsetting to traditional belief: they've cast doubt on the Torah's reliability as a historical account of things that actually happened, they've highlighted contradictions within the text, and so on and so forth. Doesn't this indeed undercut the Torah's standing as the basis of our whole way of life?

Forgive me if I restate some of the overall argument I made at the end of the book. (I know you didn't find it particularly convincing the first time around, but I'm hoping this time I may say it better.)

When you actually consider Judaism as it is, the role of the Torah in it is really not what you say it is. Ultimately, Jews are not Torah-fundamentalists. On the contrary, our whole tradition is based on adding liberally to what the Torah says (despite Deut. 4:2), sometimes reading its words in a way out of keeping with their apparent meaning, and sometimes even distorting or disregarding its words entirely. (My book “The Bible As It Was” contains seven hundred pages of examples of how this all began.) What’s more, as everyone knows, much of what makes up the daily fabric of Jewish life has only a tenuous connection, or no connection at all, with what is actually written in the Torah. I mentioned such things as saying the Amidah three times a day, the berakhot that we recite before eating and on other occasions, netilat yadayim, many aspects of kashrut [e.g. basar vehalav], many of the particulars in the way we keep Shabbat and holidays, studying the Babylonian Talmud, and so on and so forth. Isn’t this an awful lot of what it means to lead a halakhic life? On the other hand, one might also mention such practices as mekhirat hametz, which on the face of it seem in fact to contradict what is written in the Torah, in this case, the prohibitions of bal yera’eh ubal yimmatze. And all these are really only the tip of the iceberg; you yourself could go into much greater detail on this theme.

So someone looking at this situation from afar would probably be reluctant to accept your assertion that the whole system of halakhah depends on the words of the Torah and their divine inspiration. (Of course I am aware that our Rabbis sought to find within the Torah itself the source of their own authority to add to or depart from the Torah’s own words, but I think our outside observer would rightly point out a certain circularity here: It is only the rabbis’ own, authoritative interpretation of a certain verse in the Torah that grants them the right of authoritative interpretation. In any case, this is a formalist argument, one that doesn't really speak to the larger issue.)

No, this observer would say, it is simply not true that the whole system of halakhah depends on the words of the Torah. Those words were the starting-point, but what has truly proven determinative in them (indeed, what was recognized as such from the start) was the general direction that those words point in and embody, and whose trajectory was then carried forward through the Mishnah and Gemara and all later writings. That "general direction" is the basic idea that Israel's connection to God is to be articulated through avodat H'. This is the whole substance of the Sinai revelation, and whether it took place at Sinai or somewhere else, biblical scholarship itself has highlighted the utter disconnectedness of this idea from all that preceded it. Before that moment, there was (for centuries) the God of Old, who appeared and disappeared; and there was the offering of sacrifices in the temple. Then, suddenly, the phrase la'avod 'et H' acquired a new meaning: it meant doing all these mitzvot. That changed forever the whole character of divine-human interaction, and it's that change that all later Judaism embodies.

As I said before, Jews generally don't like to think about such things, and talking about a "general direction" or overall character of the Sinai revelation is particularly disturbing for people who are otherwise so devoted to studying specific words and actual texts. But I think if you want to be absolutely accurate, you have to admit that, time and again, it's not a matter of the specific words, at least not if you try to see the big picture. What really underlies everything -- and what was the ongoing substance of the Sinai revelation -- was the revelation of a new way of being connected to God.

In the light of all this, I hinted at the very end of the book at what is called in German a “thought experiment.” What would happen if someone could demonstrate definitively that God had truly given only one commandment to Moshe at Mount Sinai, the one in Deuteronomy that says: “You shall serve the Lord your God with your whole heart and soul.” Then He said to Moshe: “Okay, you and the zeqenim and their later successors can work out the details.” Well, this is a somewhat jarring question, but please go along with it for a minute. In the end, I do not believe that this would, or could, invalidate our system of halakhah. Of course I do believe in nevu’ah, in divine revelation, and I don’t think that Israel got only that one commandment from God. Theoretically, however, I think it would be enough if that were all, since that would provide the firm basis for everything that followed -- Moshe's, or Rabbi Akiva's, elaboration of how this primal divine commandment is to be carried out. Because ultimately, any Jew must admit that at some point the divinely-given text leads to the human interpreter and the poseq, indeed, to this specific taqqanah and that specific gezerah shavah. And frankly, we don't really seem to all that aware of, or even care much about, where the dividing-line falls. This is our “prepared table,” the work of many hands. If someone wants a different table, let him go ahead – but this is the Jewish table, the way Jews serve God.

As one of our sages said: to what may the matter be compared? To a man who wished to see the King. So he went to the royal palace and stood outside and waited for the King to appear. After some hours, the King did come outside, and the man was thrilled. But soon the King went back inside the palace. The man returned the next day, and the next, and sometimes he did catch a glimpse of the King, but always only for a few seconds, and then his view would be blocked by someone, or the King would step behind a pillar or get into his carriage and ride off. What had at first been thrilling now became only frustrating.

Eventually, the king’s close advisor became aware of the presence of the man standing day after day outside the palace, and he approached him and said: “I know what you want, but you are going about it the wrong way. Go up to the palace door and ask to work inside – it doesn’t matter what: janitor, guard, woodcutter or water-drawer! Then you will enter the palace by right and see the King as a matter of course; indeed, He will recognize you and perhaps even call you by name.” And so the man did, and it was just as the King’s advisor had said: he saw the King up close every day, and the King called to him by name.

This is the whole idea of Judaism. If you want to come close to God, the only way is to become His employee. Understanding that avodat H' is the true foundation of our halakhah may not de-fang modern biblical scholarship; a lot of what it says will always be disturbing to Jews. But I think that modern scholarship does not, because it cannot, undermine the essence of Judaism or what Jews actually do in their lives; it cannot, as you suggest, cause the system to collapse.

That was not my whole purpose in writing this book, but it was one thing I wished to say, because I thought it might be of help to people like yourself. Of course I knew – I knew this even before I began writing – that some people would be upset by the book, and I knew that their natural reaction would be to attack me. I must tell you I really don’t mind. I know that for such people, even contemplating modern scholarship is off limits for an Orthodox Jew, so anyone who does so must be condemned. But after all is said and done and Kugel is long gone, the problems raised for Orthodox Jews by modern biblical scholarship will remain. My hope is that the response I’ve outlined here, which is really what I said in somewhat different terms in my book, will also be around for a while, and that it may help people like yourself to look squarely at those problems and at what seems to me to be their only truthful resolution.

In other words, it doesn't matter if the Torah came directly from God as told to Moses at Sinai, because the Torah itself isn't that central to Orthodox Judaism!

Now I agree with him that Orthodox halakha (law) is so far removed from the words of the Torah that the Torah itself is almost irrelevant. E.g., the Torah says not to cook a calf in its mother's milk and today's Orthodox Jews wait 1-6 hours after eating meat to eat milk, have separate dishes and silverware for milk and meat, and even sometimes separate dishwashers and ovens. The Torah says "an eye for an eye" and the Rabbis made it "compensation for an eye." The Torah says to bring sacrifices and the Rabbis turned it into saying prayers.

But as Kugel admits, "modern biblical scholarship is altogether incompatible with traditional Jewish belief and practice," so it strikes me as a strange leap to go from, "Oh, we've built so much on top of the Torah that it doesn't even matter if it turns out not to be from Sinai," as if the Torah were just a mold for the halakha that could be discarded once the halakha itself was built.

But yet he persists as an Orthodox Jew.

Many other Orthodox Jews no doubt would take issue with his self-identification with them, but I wonder how many others secretly agree, or have similar thought processes.

So far, we've seen in this What Do Orthodox Jews Really Believe series, that Jews who call themselves Orthodox might believe that the world is billions of years old, that Adam and Eve were mythological, that the Flood was either mythological or greatly exaggerated, that the Exodus was either mythological or greatly exaggerated, and now that the Torah itself very well might have been written by several different people and wasn't given at Sinai at all.

This doesn't give us any indication of how many Orthodox Jews believe these things, but it does give us an idea of the range of beliefs one can hold while still considering himself or herself Orthodox. There are X number of Orthodox Jews who believe that the earth is less than 6,000 years old and that Bilaam really had a talking donkey and then there are Y number of Orthodox Jews who believe that the Torah was written by men, albeit divinely inspired, and contains mythology, historical errors, and presumably other non-divine things, like maybe the whole idea about gay sex being an abomination. And, of course, there are Z number of Orthodox Jews who believe some combination of the above beliefs or any number of other ones and, perhaps the largest group of all, W number of people who are either incurious and simply take everything for granted or specifically avoid thinking about certain topics and dismiss out of hand any contrary arguments.

If Y is a large number, though, I think what we have is an enormous sham. Kugel is open about his beliefs, and so is XGH, at least pseudonymously, but I have to guess that they are just the tip of the iceberg. There are tens of thousands of modern, intelligent, educated, and curious Orthodox Jews in America who must be asking themselves these questions and arriving at some pretty similar answers. Kugel put it perfectly: once you start asking, "all roads lead to Wellhausen."

Is there a vast well of Orthodox Jews who believe these things in private but are afraid to speak up?

Do they have a responsibility to speak up?

A whole generation of intelligent, curious teenagers are feeling ashamed and scared for having doubts and questions about Orthodoxy's legitimacy. A whole generation of adults is stressing out every day about following to the letter an increasingly stringent and incomprehensible set of laws. Families are divided when some of us go "off the derech" or, God-forbid, marry a non-Jew. A generation of Chareidi (ultra-Orthodox) youth, especially the girls, are being shortchanged in their secular educations and career prospects. A whole generation of Orthodox gay children are being raised with the belief that God considers gay sex an abomination and worthy of death, even if we no longer execute people for it.

How many Orthodox people lied to me, overtly or by omission, when I was a teenager wondering how people could really believe this stuff? How many betrayed the gay kids I went to school with by keeping silent when they were taught at every turn that their desires and feelings were wrong? Why are the fundamentalists the only ones talking honestly about their beliefs?

I think the other denominations of Judaism have a lot to do with people's reticence to speak up. If the modern Orthodox suddenly started talking openly about these beliefs, they would instantly create a new denomination, de facto if not de jure. They don't like what they see in Conservative, in Reform, in Reconstructionist, or in Humanistic. They desperately want the ultra-Orthodox to consider them Orthodox. They want to maintain Orthodoxy's retention rates. They want to keep Orthodoxy's strong communities. They think that they'll lose what they love about Orthodoxy if they admit what they really believe, and they're probably right.

These are just my guesses. I have no way of knowing how many people believe these things, because people aren't talking. Maybe the blogs will change all that. Maybe if people have a safe avenue to explore forbidden thoughts, something new and better will come out of it. Or maybe it will just be the end of Modern Orthodoxy. Or maybe nothing will change, because that's just how the world works.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Bush 41 on Torture and the American Ideal

He doesn't come out and say it, but I suspect, as does Andrew Sullivan, that his tears are for what his son has done to America's honor:

Chris Wallace: “The President remembered the courage and humanity of American soldiers and he grew emotional.”

Bush: “My favorite picture is a picture of American soldiers surrounding a guy who's been in a foxhole, Iraqi soldier, and the American guy says, we’re not going to harm you, we’re American soldiers.” (fights back tears)


Bush: “You see, that side of the war never got — the fact that we treated those people with respect in spite of the fact they were the enemy, it’s really good.

Watch the video. (Ignore the comments.)

Friday, November 02, 2007

Andrew Sullivan on Obama in The Atlantic Monthly

Of the viable national candidates, only Obama and possibly McCain have the potential to bridge this widening partisan gulf. Polling reveals Obama to be the favored Democrat among Republicans. McCain’s bipartisan appeal has receded in recent years, especially with his enthusiastic embrace of the latest phase of the Iraq War. And his personal history can only reinforce the Vietnam divide. But Obama’s reach outside his own ranks remains striking. Why? It’s a good question: How has a black, urban liberal gained far stronger support among Republicans than the made-over moderate Clinton or the southern charmer Edwards? Perhaps because the Republicans and independents who are open to an Obama candidacy see his primary advantage in prosecuting the war on Islamist terrorism. It isn’t about his policies as such; it is about his person. They are prepared to set their own ideological preferences to one side in favor of what Obama offers America in a critical moment in our dealings with the rest of the world. The war today matters enormously. The war of the last generation? Not so much. If you are an American who yearns to finally get beyond the symbolic battles of the Boomer generation and face today’s actual problems, Obama may be your man.

What does he offer? First and foremost: his face. Think of it as the most effective potential re-branding of the United States since Reagan. Such a re-branding is not trivial—it’s central to an effective war strategy. The war on Islamist terror, after all, is two-pronged: a function of both hard power and soft power. We have seen the potential of hard power in removing the Taliban and Saddam Hussein. We have also seen its inherent weaknesses in Iraq, and its profound limitations in winning a long war against radical Islam. The next president has to create a sophisticated and supple blend of soft and hard power to isolate the enemy, to fight where necessary, but also to create an ideological template that works to the West’s advantage over the long haul. There is simply no other candidate with the potential of Obama to do this. Which is where his face comes in.

Consider this hypothetical. It’s November 2008. A young Pakistani Muslim is watching television and sees that this man—Barack Hussein Obama—is the new face of America. In one simple image, America’s soft power has been ratcheted up not a notch, but a logarithm. A brown-skinned man whose father was an African, who grew up in Indonesia and Hawaii, who attended a majority-Muslim school as a boy, is now the alleged enemy. If you wanted the crudest but most effective weapon against the demonization of America that fuels Islamist ideology, Obama’s face gets close. It proves them wrong about what America is in ways no words can.

The other obvious advantage that Obama has in facing the world and our enemies is his record on the Iraq War. He is the only major candidate to have clearly opposed it from the start. Whoever is in office in January 2009 will be tasked with redeploying forces in and out of Iraq, negotiating with neighboring states, engaging America’s estranged allies, tamping down regional violence. Obama’s interlocutors in Iraq and the Middle East would know that he never had suspicious motives toward Iraq, has no interest in occupying it indefinitely, and foresaw more clearly than most Americans the baleful consequences of long-term occupation.

This latter point is the most salient. The act of picking the next president will be in some ways a statement of America’s view of Iraq. Clinton is running as a centrist Democrat—voting for war, accepting the need for an occupation at least through her first term, while attempting to do triage as practically as possible. Obama is running as the clearer antiwar candidate. At the same time, Obama’s candidacy cannot fairly be cast as a McGovernite revival in tone or substance. He is not opposed to war as such. He is not opposed to the use of unilateral force, either—as demonstrated by his willingness to target al-Qaeda in Pakistan over the objections of the Pakistani government. He does not oppose the idea of democratization in the Muslim world as a general principle or the concept of nation building as such. He is not an isolationist, as his support for the campaign in Afghanistan proves. It is worth recalling the key passages of the speech Obama gave in Chicago on October 2, 2002, five months before the war:

I don’t oppose all wars. And I know that in this crowd today, there is no shortage of patriots, or of patriotism. What I am opposed to is a dumb war. What I am opposed to is a rash war … I know that even a successful war against Iraq will require a U.S. occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences. I know that an invasion of Iraq without a clear rationale and without strong international support will only fan the flames of the Middle East, and encourage the worst, rather than best, impulses of the Arab world, and strengthen the recruitment arm of al-Qaeda. I am not opposed to all wars. I’m opposed to dumb wars.

The man who opposed the war for the right reasons is for that reason the potential president with the most flexibility in dealing with it. Clinton is hemmed in by her past and her generation. If she pulls out too quickly, she will fall prey to the usual browbeating from the right—the same theme that has played relentlessly since 1968. If she stays in too long, the antiwar base of her own party, already suspicious of her, will pounce. The Boomer legacy imprisons her—and so it may continue to imprison us. The debate about the war in the next four years needs to be about the practical and difficult choices ahead of us—not about the symbolism or whether it’s a second Vietnam.

It's the cover story. Read the whole thing.

Personally, I'm not so sure his face matters as much as Sullivan argues. His reasoned opposition to the war and ability to bridge the cultural divide? That matters.