Monthly Archives: June 2010

Will return next week

Unfortunately, I do not have enough bandwidth in the overseas cities that I am visiting.Therefore I cannot post the guest posts.
I will return by July 3rd and then I will post the guest posts.

Hukkat, Noam Elimelech and Levinas

Here is an interesting Dvar Torah by a classmate of mine from YU. In it, he juxtaposes Noam Elimelech and Levinas on distance bring one closer to God (and in the full version explians why it is different than Rabbi Soloveitchik who accepts distance as the normal state of things). This is clearly drush, in an oral style, in which I do not expect the details to sustain close scrutiny. But it would be nice to hear more derashot that attempt to bring in contemporary thought. Anyone has any good sermons to report? Can the community sustain such homiletic devices? My Christain readers- heard any good philosophic sermons lately?

Hukkat: The Red Heifer Ritual- Distance Bringing You Closer

The ceremony, in days when the Temple stood, involved the ashes of a red heifer, which were reconstituted by the priest with purified water and sprinkled upon the individual or object that needed purification.
This ceremony is uniquely bizarre and the Torah itself identifies it as such, in the opening verse of the section, labeling the ceremony as a Hukka, traditionally translated as a “law which is beyond any kind of sense or interpretation”

The early Hassidic master Noam Elimelech, R. Elimelech of Lizensk suggests that the word hukka does not mean a law that is inexplicable, as commonly translated, but in fact the term is derived from a different etymology entirely, from the homonymous verb, lahkok, which means to engrave; that is, performance of this ritual causes a message to be engraved upon ones heart. That message which must be engraved upon ones heart is not, however, specified in that particular teaching.

The NE notes that the phrase distance appears in other texts dealing with sublime spiritual moments, for example, in the episode of the binding of Isaac, we are told that at the third day, at the height of the spiritual challenge, Abraham sees the place from a distance. Thus there is implied a connection between distance and the spiritual.

The NE suggests that the red heifer text is really about teshuva, repentance, the coming closer to Gd. It is the nature of the dialectic of coming close, that nearness so often reveals distancing. When one makes the effort to come closer, to abrogate past spiritual failings (the contact with death signifying the ultimate cessation of the spiritual in this worldly affairs), then Gd draws the individual closer in a reciprocated move. However, once one attains such heights of spiritual insight one then realizes how far the individual is from Gd in every way. This distance does not imply a rebuff on the part of Gd, in fact, the opening of this divide is meant as an invitation to cross over to an even higher spiritual understanding, which by the nature of these things would lead to an even more humbling recognition of the chasm in between, which, one presumes, would continue infinitely, sort of like the differential in calculus.

I was startled by the similarity between the Hassidic paradox of distance and the summation of Levinas’ work Totality and Infinity. The “infinity” referred to in the title is the endless number of worlds, of possibilities one can achieve when one begins to perceive of the Other as entirely different from oneself. Levinas then defines:

This distance is then the route to which endless possibilities of human existence present themselves Distance with regard to being, by which the existent exists in truth, is produced as time and as consciousness, or again, as anticipation of the possible. The structure of consciousness or of temporality-of distance and truth-results from an elementary gesture of the being that refuses totalization. In fecundity (to Levinas, the ultimate Othering which is transformative of the self, when being open to all the possibilities one opens towards the future, is that of the relation of parent and child, which he labels fecundity) distance with regard to being is not only provided in the real; it consists in a distance with regard to the present itself. The discontinuous time of fecundity makes possible an absolute youth and recommencement. This recommencement of the instant, this triumph of the time of fecundity over the beginning of the mortal and aging being, is a pardon, the very work of time.

Note the introduction of the concept of pardon, which plays a role similar to that of teshuva in the Noam Elimelech. Pardon acts as a retroaction, an ability to redetermine the meaning of the past in such a way as to open whole new futures. In fact, contra Heidegger, death is not the finitude of being that constitutes the essence of time but rather is an unknown, which is, in a sense, transcended by fecundity-
…the fact and the justification of time consist in the recommencement it makes possible in the resurrection, across fecundity, of all the compossibles sacrificed in the present.
Thus we see a structural similarity, whereby the act of achieving pardon, helps transcends the gap of Otherness which in turn opens up a whole realm of new possibilities of being. It is the experience of the distances themselves which bring about this transformation. What appears to be a distance actually grounds the closest truth to ones own being, in Levinas labelled “fecundity”.
These are the hukkot, the inexplicable distances, reehuk, we experience, that leave their traces at the most intimate, the most close, or in the words of Chazel, that chakaku, engrave themselves upon our hearts.
Mark H. Kirschbaum, MD, Dept of Hematology and Stem Cell Transplantation, City of Hope National Cancer Center, Duarte, CA,
Read the whole version here.

Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz on avoiding harm

I am teaching Jewish ethics next semester and am now on the lookout for all things pertaining to the topic. So be prepared for some of the recent books on the topic to show up here- Elliott Dorff, Jonathan Sacks, Jill Jacobs and adaptations of Levinas. I am finding little meta-ethical discussion that has been written since the early 1980s. Everything has been denominational biased professional topics like medical “ethics”. There was no response to Rawls and Sandel the way there was a response to Kant, Gustafson, and Hare in the 1970’s and early 1980’s. So expect me to discuss, time permitting, some Hilary Putnam, Appiah, and Zygmunt Bauman.
In the mean time, here is another op-ed by Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz. This time he has a nice use of WD Ross on pluralistic deontology (Wurzburger would be proud) and a nice understanding of rule deontology, which make a nice rubric for dealing with Rabbinic ethics. I wish the article had been titled Jewish ethics and not Jewish law because the supply side and libertarian readings of halakhah are not rule-deontology. The op-ed gets in a nice swipe at ascribing teleology to situations that call for responsibility and there is a virtue ethic yearning for articulation between the lines of the op-ed. Thoughts? more successful than last week? And interconnectedness of all beings is a different line of thought than deontology-are they able to be combined?

The BP Oil Spill, Personal Responsibility and Jewish Law
Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz

The Jewish concept relating to a case of mass public damage is “harkhakat nezikin” – the requirement that one not partake in any activities that might cause damage to other people or their property. A primary argument that emerges from the halakhic commentators (Shulkhan Arukh 155:33) is whether one is culpable when he or she indirectly causes a single accident (gerama) after following the correct safety procedures in the same way that one who continuously causes direct damage is liable.

Religion, at its worst, can be used to eliminate human agency and responsibility. Texas Governor Rick Perry invoked a morally deficient appeal to religious language last month when he called the Gulf oil spill “an act of G-d.” While we can debate G-d’s presence in the world, we need not debate the issue of human responsibility and culpability.

A primary charge of the Jewish social justice tradition is the demand that we learn both how to limit our damage and how to hold ourselves and others who cause damage accountable. Religious life, lived at its best, shapes a discourse of public responsibility and calls on us to pay close attention to public policy as well as our everyday spills.

Prior to our question of maximizing the good, we must be concerned with avoiding harm. “Sur mei’rah v’aseh tov” – the Jewish antidote is to turn from evil and then do good. This is what the philosopher W.D. Ross in his “pluralistic deontology” calls a “duty of beneficence” (to help others) and a “duty of non-maleficence” (to avoid harming others). These duties to prevent indirect damage are also present in everyday activities that we might not contextualize as being moral issues.

The Talmud (Shabbat 54b) teaches that anyone who can protest a wrong in one’s home, one’s city, or in the world and does not do so is held accountable for that wrong as well.

Full version Here.

Is God a Delusion? A Reply to Religion’s Cultured Despisers

The books by the new atheists were widely read and eye opening for those raised in the prior decades of religious certainty but they garnered little praise from professional philosophers. Everyone has heard the arguments before in Bertram Russel’s “Why I am not a Christian” Tom Paine’s delightful Age of Reason, and the Joseph Lewis’ less delightful The Bible Unmasked. Most of the cultured responses were snarky or dismissive to the atheists as not knowing the history of ideas.

But now we have an interesting new volume that answers the new atheists as part of a book designed for an undergraduate introduction to philosophy course or introduction to religion, God a Delusion? A Reply to Religion’s Cultured Despisers by Eric Reitan. The book won an award as an outstanding academic work. It does not refute the atheists as much as use them to open the discussion about Anselm, Aquinas, and Schleiermacher. I am always on the lookout for good “teaching” books. This one looks like it would be appropriate for the right class, bothered by these problems. It would be a good introduction for those who only know the popular literature. It would also be useful for someone trying to explain Saadya and Maimonidean theism to a contemporary fideist.

Is God a Delusion? A Reply to Religion’s Cultured Despisers

Eric Reitan’s latest book, Is God a Delusion? A Reply to Religion’s Cultured Despisers was named an Outstanding Academic Title of 2009. Here he tells us how he was motivated to write the book partly in response to the misrepresentations of religious thought he discovered in Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, but also by a very personal desire to reconcile his deep intuitions about ultimate reality with open intellectual inquiry.

Why did you decide to write Is God a Delusion?
Eric Reitan: One day a few years ago, a colleague of mine handed me a photocopied page from a book, without any identifying information, and asked me to evaluate it as I would a student paper. On that page the unknown author attempted to summarize and then critique the first three of Aquinas’ “Five Ways” for proving God’s existence. I say “attempted” because the author got the arguments wrong and then critiqued them at precisely the points of misunderstanding.

As it turns out, that page was taken from Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion. And so I became curious about the book and bought a copy. By the time I was finished I found myself thinking, “You know, I could write an entire introduction to the philosophy of religion just by noting what Dawkins has to say about classic questions in the field, pointing out his oversights and errors, and then introducing the reader to the more developed ideas of great thinkers.

What’s the central concern of the book, and why is it important?
ER: Is God a Delusion? addresses the range of new atheist challenges to religion, not for the purely negative aim of exposing their shortcomings, but for the more productive purpose of trying to identify the parameters within which religion can be both intellectually respectable and morally benign. I’m surprised at how often the book has been mistakenly dubbed an apologetic response to the new atheists…and then criticized as a poor example of apologetics because it fails to defend the kind of religion that the new atheists are attacking. But my aim in the book was never to defend what the new atheists attack, but rather to show that their objections to theistic religion are not as sweeping as the new atheists present them as being. That is, there is a way to believe in God, a way to live a life of religious faith, that does not fall prey to new atheist objections.

To a lesser extent, I also wanted to explore where and how religion goes wrong. Why is it that religion as we encounter it in the world so regularly strays outside the parameters of reasonableness and moral decency? Unlike the new atheists, I don’t think the answer lies in something essential to religion itself. Rather, I think it is the result of certain common human failings—such things as the need for certainty even where certainty can’t be had, and the propensity to find meaning and self-worth through membership in groups that define themselves against opposing groups.

And what is it that draws you to this topic?
This juxtaposition led me on a personal struggle of sorts—the struggle to find religion characterized not only by a sincere desire to live in connection with the transcendent but also by the values I couldn’t set aside: intellectual openness and honesty, compassion, and a respect for fellow humanity that reaches across the differences that so often separate us. My search for the former brought me first into a deep flirtation with modes of religion that challenged the latter—which isn’t surprising, since my most powerful religious influence during childhood had been my mother’s father, with whom I shared a special bond but who was a preacher in a tradition that tended towards exclusivism and suspicion of free thought.

In any event, that personal struggle has made me deeply interested in the issues I explore in the book. I’ve experienced first hand and struggled personally with the notion, so characteristic of much of the contemporary public discourse on religion, that we must choose between masters: religion or science, faith or reason, God or our fallible human conscience. In my personal life I traced out in intuitive terms a path between these false dichotomies. In Is God a Delusion?, my aim is to trace out that same path on a more intellectual level.
What sort of reaction do you hope it will get?

ER: At this point, it’s hard to separate my hopes from the actual reactions the book has already generated. I was deeply gratified, of course, that Is God a Delusion? was named a Choice Outstanding Academic Title of 2009, and I’ve been thrilled every time a philosopher or theologian in some other part of the world contacted me to express appreciation for the book. This kind of response from the academic world is in many ways more than I could have hoped for.

The response from atheist readers has been mixed, but in many ways pretty well tracks what I was hoping to do with the book in relation to that audience. Some atheist readers have found in the book a development of a species of religion they can respect even if they don’t agree with it—and then engaged me in stimulating discussions about key points of disagreement.

What sort of audience did you have in mind when you wrote it?
But I also hope that the book can be profitably used in undergraduate philosophy of religion courses. Although it’s no longer the introduction to the philosophy of religion I had originally intended to write, much of that original idea still shapes the book. I suspect that philosophy of religion teachers will notice very quickly that the topics I cover are some of the staple issues in the field, as are many of the thinkers I discuss. In fact, in my own philosophy of religion course I’ve been pairing my book with The God Delusion and a traditional philosophy of religion anthology, basically with the aim of doing what I’d originally thought to do in the book—and it has proved to be very successful in getting students to see the relevance of philosophical work to issues of contemporary significance. Also, it just makes the course more fun.
Is there another book you wish you could claim credit for?
I also find so much to admire in Charles Taylor’s short and accessible treatment of William James’ religious thought, Varieties of Religion Today, that I’d love to claim credit for it.

Read the whole interview here.

50 Philosophy Blogs

Here is a nice list of 50 philosophy blogs. It has all the best ones Some are single author professional academics like the Leiter Report, others are multi-author academic like PEA soup, and Continental Philosophy blog is an essential bulletin board. Warning:Some of the blog have little patience for non-philosophers and some of them will eat a religious apologist alive. On the other hand, the Evangelical blogs are devoted to warrant to believe and justifying their epistemology.

oops – the links to the 15 dont work- so you have to go to the original source.
I dont have time to find the problem.

Here is the list of all 50 Philosophy Blogs.

Below are a sample of fifteen of them

1. Leiter Reports: A Philosophy Blog
Brian Leiter at the University of Chicago blogs frequently on subjects pertaining to philosophies – both the figures behind them and the people who enjoy spending time interpreting their meanings.
2. Experimental Philosophy
Read the ideologies and news stories behind experimental philosophy through the writings of a wonderful and diverse plethora of contributors.
3. Think Tonk
Clayton Littlejohn digs deeply into philosophy, politics, and how the 2 different subjects influence and come to be influenced by the other.
4. Continental Philosophy
Because “continental philosophy” covers ideologies from Europe (sans the British Isles), this blog and bulletin board provides diverse content from underneath that particular label.
5. Life in the Dream
Dr. Gregory Tucker blends Buddhism and other “Eastern” philosophies with traditional psychotherapy to present some very intriguing insights into the nature of reality, perception, and suffering.
7. Philosophy Talk
Philosophy Talk is a blog and a podcast for anyone who wants to try and make sense of how other people make sense of the world. They cover a wide spectrum of topics that illustrate philosophy’s role in human existence, including politics, business, social constructs, and more.
8. Philosophy’s Other: Theory on the Web
To borrow a phrase from Eugene Hütz, Philosophy’s Other could very well be considered the “super theory for supereverything.” It covers mankind’s perceptions of tops as diverse as architecture, psychology, and rhetoric in addition to discussing journal publications and conferences.
10. PEA Soup
Myriad diverse contributors gaze into how humanity processes the ins and outs of existence, ethics, and academia with the hopes of facilitating rewarding, intellectual discussions in its readers.
14. Thoughts Arguments and Rants
5 authors regularly weigh in on a variety of different philosophical topics, frequently looking into political and social issues along the way.
15. philosophy bites
David Edmonds and Nigel Warburton host a podcast and a blog emphasizing the ideas and movements supported by the biggest names in philosophy today..
21. Certain Doubts
Affiliated with Baylor University, the Certain Doubts blog concerns itself with any and all topics relating back to epistemology.
23. Epistemic Value
Anyone searching for knowledge regarding knowledge and meaning would do well to catch up with the writings (and events!) featured on this blog.
24. It’s Only A Theory
Science and philosophy aficionados must bookmark It’s Only A Theory to read up on all the latest news and views regarding how the two intertwine.
34. Larval Subjects
The concept behind this philosophy blog certainly piques a fair amount of interest. Rather than peering into and trying to make sense of the old, Larval Subjects seeks to explore and develop new philosophies from new, very small kernels of ideas..
41. The Prosblogion
All religious philosophies exist as some of the most controversial, subjective, and complex topics for debate, and The Prosblogion does not shy away from addressing any of the ones that ever have and ever will crop up.

Smashing the Idols- Jonathan Schorsch

The Kotzker Rebbe who pierced the falsehood of society and taught a path of individualism was the hero of existential hippie ethos of late 20th century. The Kotzker Rebbe asked: “why do we say ‘our God and God of our fathers,’ shouldn’t it be reversed to show reverence for the past before our selves? The Kotzker answered that we first have to make God our own and then we can appreciate the God of our fathers.

I think of that piece as I read the essay by Jonathan Schorsch about his smashing the idols of the prior generation and now how he finds his own children treating him as a Terah, just as he used to view the prior generation. Schorsch adds the sociological insight that this generational change is especially acute in America where every era is flabbergasted by the prior era.

Also note the issue of Neo-Hasidism – “the serious yet easygoing, communal, neo-hasidic Judaism that my wife and I had nurtured as haven and inspiration fit neither into proper conventional Judaism nor rational secularism.” Ah, if only the Kotzker were mainstream, but then it would not be Kotzk. The Kotzker once said: “I cannot believe in a God that every common yankel can believe in or understand.” The new coda of this quote would be that the next generation of 1880 would find their father neither conventional nor secular rational. So the Kotzker’s son imitated the conventional Ukrainian style of being a Rebbe, while much of the rest of Polish Jewry chose secular rationalism.

Full version- here

I was young once. By my teenage years, as far as I was concerned, I knew everything, what was right and what was wrong. Mine was the only authentic perspective, my perception the only one that saw things as they truly were.

Some time into my older children’s adolescence, I noticed a pain I could no longer conceal. Someone had entered my workshop and was busily chipping away at much of what I had loved, cared for, and spent so much time and energy building. It was my own children! They seem to have mistaken the treasures that my wife and I had built ourselves for idols: Our environmentally friendly, quasi-hippy ways were deemed aberrant and embarrassing, ineffective and silly; our critique of contemporary capitalism and governmental failures and our search for alternatives were considered cynical; our lack of a television and opposition to much of popular culture were causing our children’s mental and social debilitation. Worse still was the fact that the serious yet easygoing, communal, neo-hasidic Judaism that my wife and I had nurtured as haven and inspiration fit neither into proper conventional Judaism nor rational secularism. We were aberrations — stupid, backward, and superstitious; religious tyrants imposing groundless beliefs on those less powerful. Terachs, indeed.

Our domestic intergenerational conflicts evolved into a routine of sorts. I realized that it was not my idols (ideals) that were being smashed. It was me. I had become the idol; I had become the towering statue of a false and tyrannical dictator. My orientation, values, and beliefs could not be separated from my essence; they were me.

Becoming a parent had broken through my narcissistic blindness to perspectives other than my own childish one. My failures had kindled the intelligence of withholding judgment regarding the failures of others.

With great sadness, I see that the smashing of idols has itself become an idol. American pop culture, modernity in general — in some sense even certain ways of being Jewish — seem fixated on destroying parental idols and ideals, unable or unwilling to sift through what is handed down by previous generations for wisdom, intent on wholly remaking the world anew. The idols may well have deserved reshaping, and the truth is that not all parents parent well, but the conflict has left us a world littered with the shards of countless broken hearts. How difficult it can be to consider the pain we have caused, that has been caused to us, that we continue to cause — and to move forward still.

One day, I hope they will recognize, as I have come to learn from the revolving mirror of life in which I periodically glimpse myself — that the clay that forms these new idols and ideals comes from the dust of the shattered old ones, that our unknown inner powers were likely, as not, sown by our parents.

Jonathan Schorsch is associate professor in the department of religion at Columbia University

Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz replies


I’d like to share my appreciation with Professor Brill for posting this op-ed and to all the thoughtful commentators. I have a few replies here:

1. Gilgul’s implications for relationships between Jews & Non-Jews: This is exactly the kind of conversation I would like to further. I think that by embracing Sartre’s notion that “existence precedes essence” we can embrace a past soul’s existence (not essence) as a Hindu, for example, and we can do so without saying that our soul was essentially different. I’m suggesting that perhaps we can embrace gilgul and be post-essentialist. The soul has a universal nature which enters different cultural realties. What divides me between a Muslim or Buddhist is not our determinism but our freedom. Our choices and affiliations, not our essences, have more weight.

In Keriat Shema al Mita, we ask for forgiveness for our past gilgulim. We are, in fact, held accountable for those existences not because they have scarred the essences of our souls but because the free will (the real stuff of existence) has carried over into our next gilgul. Our decisions, in this life, have more weight and moral implication beyond this body.

2. I’m suggesting less of a metaphysical truth and more of a spiritual activity or a hermeneutic for human phenomenological encounter. I was surprised that someone was “put off” by my treating “this exercise as a thought experiment and temporary suspension of belief.” We live in an age of religious skepticism and I was merely stating the obvious here. Given the current epistemic foundations of Judaism (and religion), we can no longer state hard truths. What does this commentator propose as a different way of framing our theological discourse in a post-modern age (with certainty and perfect belief)?

3. “One could take the opposite tack and argue that a belief in gilgul allows people to work less hard in this life” – you’re right that someone could do that. But I think that our intentions when crafting our personal theologies are vital in religious life. I think we can embrace a more pragmatic consequentalist theology – one that works for us and that improves us. Is it wrong to embrace a theology that one believes to be true if it produces a racist or sexist culture? To have integrity in confirming one’s beliefs, one must embrace more comprehensive truths.” One who needs a personal G-d to feel connected religiously and spiritually engaged simply should not embrace Rambam’s theology even if they find it logically compelling. Maybe in the next gilgul they can embrace it, but this life demands more – it demands that their chosen hermeneutic actualizes them!

I look forward to replies.

B’Shalom, Shmuly Yanklowitz