In the winter, we were discussing Rawls and the need for rational universals. Here is the major post on the topic. Back on January 31, I posted:
To continue the discussion of Rawls and the creation of a fair Judaism that does not deny the humanity of others, I will do some posts on Richard B. Miller, Terror, Religion, and Liberal Thought (Columbia UP 2010). So AS and EJ you can have a chance to read it before I post.
Now, I am finally getting to it. I hope they had a chance to read it. For advanced warning, I will be discussing later this summer Oliver Roy, Holy Ignorance: When Religion and Culture Part Ways
Miller’s agenda is how not to get caught up in multicultural relativism even as we argue for respect for relgions. How can we give room for religious beliefs and not justify killing, lying or stealing as condoned by a certain interpretation of religious law.
This topic is also important for all the events making the newspapers in our community. How should we tell someone in our community that theft from gentiles or cheating to make a living is inappropriate when there are minority voices allowing it. Or how to reject statements about not selling apartments to gentiles in Israel . Doesn’t multiculturalism mean that I cannot critique their religious view?
I am not interested in the gossip and scandal elements of the crimes and inappropriate statements. I am not looking for the hock or to necessarily criticize anyone.
I am interested in how to set up the ethical equation. My question is: How do we express an ethical position without having to give into the rampant religious relativism by those most religious? If someone says that a position that involves stealing or killing is the true halakhah, then how can we answer their claim that there is no outside vantage point to judge? Can we formulate halakhic responses to positions that have a moral force?
Miller’s basic answer is that there must always be a fundamental intuitionism as the core of any religious position. One must have a fundamental acceptance of “Do not kill” and “do not steal” as an intuition or natural starting point. What Saadiah called the rational laws (mizvot sikhliot). If one accepts do not steal as an axiom then no amount of casuistry can overturn it. What Rav Kook called natural morality. Or as Rav Aharon has said repeatedly: “Gezel hagoy (stealing from gentles) should not come down to two opinions in tosfot.” There needs to be a fundamental universal of “Do not steal” as a norm within the system. It takes Miller until chapter three to get to this point. So hold off questions. I am only presenting here the first chapter and parts of the second.
The seven chapters of the book deal with why that fundamental intuition is necessary and sufficient. And in the last four chapters he explains why we do not need all the big guns and many premises and expectations of Rawls, Rorty, Macintyre, Habermas, Taylor and Waltzer.
This will take about three posts to finish, so be patient.
Chapter One – Indignation
The first chapter expresses the problem of multicultural relativism as a culture of excuse and apology. This approach to culture will not defeat the evil or offer moral standards . (Michael Waltzer) There is a need for feeling of indignation when injustice occurs.
If we value human dignity and respect, if we want a society of justice and equality then how do we affirm it against multicultural pluralism?
Miller’s first point is that we have to take extreme statements seriously. They become part of our culture and poison the atmosphere. If Bin Laden and his followers are in favor of murder then we have to take it seriously. What we should not do is say that Bin Laden is not really Islamic, so we don’t have to take it seriously. We should not create false liberal images of Islam or Judaism and then tell people to disregard the extremes, the unethical, and immoral. People follow these extreme positions even if they are not the best textual reading.
On the other hand, we should also not create a firewall between faith and ethics. We should not say whatever religion says is good and that universal ethics like stealing and killing have no place in the discussion. We cannot tell someone to listen faithfully to the shaariah or halakhah and ignore the moral imperatives.
We should not say that stealing and embezzlement is OK because a specific posak said it was OK.
We can acknowledge that Islam and Judaism have civil, economic, and political aspects and we should follow the arbitration and judgment of those systems but when is a position just plain aggressive or immoral?
Miller feels that we are stuck between the rock and hard place of offering a favorable judgment on demand to every religious group based on multicultural tolerance and the liberal ethnocentrism of not allowing religion into the discussion.
Miller ends the chapter by asking: What does it mean to respect others and to offer a universal baseline ethic? We need both the acceptance of religious systems and offering them the benefit of the doubt as well as a baseline ethic.
Chapter 2 – Contextualization
In the second chapter Miller is bothered by how contextualizion is used to justify any moral wrong found in a system. If one goes back to any religious text, one can offer legal, historical, economic, and social explanations for what that immoral sentence was written but it is still on the books. You can justify killing heretics or stealing from gentiles based on a variety of contextualizations but if you then bring up the immoral law with a justification for it in conversation it is relativist or if you justify it for other people it is relativist.
(1) The first form of contextualization that Miller finds fault with is the use of historical arguments based on legal and doctrinal precedents to reject the immoral opinion.
For example, a historical approach to the law can claim that Bin laden is not Islamic based on prior sources. He made up new fatwa and makes assumptions not found in earlier sources. So he is not Islamic. Or you can declare the immoral approaches to halakhah as not really Jewish and not really halakhic.
But Miller cries out in his exasperation that telling me that Bin laden is a misuse of Muslim tradition does not deal with moral indignation and resentment of those who suffered an injustice.
Yes we now know from this act of contextualization that extremists have a narrow view of the tradition and ignore the richness of the tradition. But it makes the extremists guilty of reductionism of tradition rather than a moral crime.
Miller puts his finger directly on the problem. When Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein’s Responded to the Letter Banning Sale of Homes to Gentiles, he writes
This pain stems from the shortcomings that the document manifests in precisely those areas that should have been its strong point. The document speaks in the name Halakha, and its signatories see themselves as its envoys and propagators.
But therein lies the problem; the prohibition of selling homes to gentiles is presented as the exclusive halakhic position in the manner at hand, and the voice that bursts forth from the throats of the signatories is made to sound like the single unequivocal word of God, that is, halakha. Here one asks, is that indeed so? Without a doubt, the position expressed in the letter is based on rabbinic sources and a long halakhic tradition. Yet taken as a whole, the document leaves one with the impression that its conclusions are based on presumptions that characterize a particular—but not exclusive—halakhic approach.
Miller thinks that Rav Aharon should not turn this into a problem of reductionism of tradition but he should directly invoke the ethical principles. There needs to indignation not just regret. Rav Aharon ended his letter “I conclude with what should be self-evident. At stake are key questions that involve meta-halakhic considerations.” Miller thinks the self-evident should be front and center. (Dont take as a critique of Rav Aharon in any way, rather take this as an example of Miller knowing how these protests sound and wanting the rhetoric to be more direct.)
Why does Miller think this?
First, because laments of reductionism of tradition are not indignation.
Second, it does not place the rejected opinion as off limits. It is not strict and does not offer sufficient limits.
Third, it is much too vague about the moral judgment at core.
2] The second form of misplaced contextualization are economic arguments in which the offending opinion is considered as due to economics and material concerns. They are only doing it out of desperation or need, or social hopelessness, or it was the way they acted in the old country, or they don’t recognize America is a different country.
Miller does not like placing economics over faith especially when they themselves are claiming that their decisions are direct due to religion. Miller also finds that many amoral religious do not have any social or economic desperation. Many of the criminal Jews are already wealthy. Economic accounts do not take them at their word.
To be continued in at least two more parts. Help me think this one through. Is he setting up the problem correctly? I will edit this first part as I gain clarity. Could Rav Aharon have directly and head-on dealt with the ethical and meta-halakhic issues? How is this multicultural relativism moving to occupy a default position within Orthodoxy?
After the three parts, we can go back to the classic essays like “Is there an Ethic Outside of Halakha? to see if we have gained any clarity against 21st century multiculturalism.