Tag Archives: david novak

Marilynne Robinson and the Emergence of Ethical Man post 3 of 3

Marilynne Robinson claims in Absence of Mind that we overcome the materialist worldview of T.H. Huxley (exemplifying the new atheists) by appreciating the deeper sense within us. I started thinking that I have heard this before Yes indeed, it is the basic position of Rabbi Soloveitchik in the Emergence of Ethical Man. We need to overcome the materialism and selfishness of Huxley’s worldview by accepting the Divine command and emerge as moral beings.

Robinson is at the forefront of changing the popular image of Calvinism Calvinist defender Jonathan Edwards’s description of man as a “loathsome insect” held over the fire of Hell by God, such a task seems ripe and even overdue. In all of her works Robinson moves the emphasis to Calvin’s idea of a God given religious consciousness. We can sense where our life has gone astray and needs the word of God.

Such warring against historical miscomprehension, however, while effectively waged by Robinson, is not the main task of her essay. Instead, she seeks to describe the religious and spiritual experience of perception in Calvin’s theology, the experience by which seeing the world leads to loving it, and witnessing mankind brings about acknowledgment of man’s infinite beauty and potential. For Robinson, “wickedness is not the only inhabitant of man’s soul. There also reside stores and stores of grace, beauty, and holiness, stores that shine forth when we truly and lovingly look at our fellow man. Created in the image of God, mankind is filled with his divine presence; it is only in comparison with this potential for sanctity and goodness that Calvin so painfully denounces man’s wickedness.” – for more on her Calvinism-see here.

According to Robinson, we have to overcome a material bestial life and learn to appreciate our life stories filled with a wide ethical range of sin and beauty. In her novels, from what I have been told, we find ourselves confronted by God’s vision of human life.

Rabbi Soloveitchik starts with the same need to overcome the scientific materialism and amoral selfishness of Huxley, he also starts with the same Protestant pessimism about human nature in its natural state. So, his solution is the need to accept the divine command of being in the image of God and accept moral responsibility for our actions. Unlike Robinson for whom this is a natural faculty, Soloveitchik treats it as “a redemptive sacrificial act” or as a need to be “confronted by God’s revelation.” We need revelation of Genesis to give meaning to our lives. We rise from our nasty brutish existence to a life of morality and intellectual integrity. He presents this rise from materialism to ethical existence in several works including The Emergence of Ethical Man, Confrontation, Kol Dodi Dofek (in shortened form), and in Ubekashtem MeSham. We gain meaning to our suffering and cognitive gestures through revelation and then as Jews we have a double confrontation in that we also have a second confrontation with God in which we are transformed into the Jewish community of Torah.

Soloveitchik lacks a natural faculty but requires a revelation; this form of revelation is called a dialectic theory. All revelation is about how God communicates with humanity. A dialectic theory concerns itself with how we are redeemed from natural existence; it is not about receiving a corpus of doctrine. Nothing can be known in a dialectic approach without revelation so revelation is about one’s basic anthropology. (for more info google Karl Barth and revelation)

As a side point, much of the blog world not trained in theology is not used to distinguishing between revelation and Torah from Sinai. The former is where the divine breaks into the human condition and the latter is the Jewish concept of what occurred at Sinai. Rabbi Soloveitchik was always interested in the former – how we go from materialism to ethical and then to halakhic. He clearly writes that he was not interested in apologetics about the latter. The former was the more serious question.

Marilynne Robinson reminds us why revelation is the more important question. How do we understand human existence that helps us transcend skepticism, materialism, and man’s brutish nature? She answers with a God given sense of the sublime and Rabbi Soloveithcik answers with a double confrontation of man before the Divine.

As a useful contrast, David Novak in Azure set up the problem the same way but offers a different answer. Novak offer a single confrontation. Like Soloveitchik, we no longer use natural theology to know God as a first cause or His involvement in the natural order. We only know God as the commander who creates our moral standards. Novak answers the skeptics and materialists by saying, of course as modern we cannot compete with you and do natural theology that gives values to the natural order. Instead, we have to acknowledge the commander and know that he gives us a natural law to guide us. Whereas Soloveitchik has a double confrontation – our universal meaning in life and then our obedience in halakhah. Novak has a single confrontation and our universal moral sense of natural law should be used to generate a natural law halakhah.

We could say that statements about God are not scientific hypotheses at all, since we are not speaking of God as a cause operating within the natural order, which is the sole order about which natural science can speak with any cogency. And, even when we do speak of God as the creator of the universe and all it contains, we are not speaking of a God whose existence has been inferred from human experience of orderly nature. Instead, we are speaking of a God who commands our community, through his historical revelation to our community, to acknowledge his creation of that natural order in which our historical relationship with him takes place.

A neo-Hasid sees God glory in all things, and does not worry about the science. None of the three thinkers, however, allows nature to prove anything because then the materialists and skeptics win. Today, only fundamentalists conflate religion and science. These are not the only three approaches but Marilynne Robinson has given us a angle to bring together several dialectic thinkers.

Copyright © 2010 Alan Brill • All Rights Reserved

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Robert George and David Novak

I was going to post this in December and never got around to it. I taught David Novak today so it was important. The question is how much the Tikvah fund, A Jewish version of the Witherspoon institute, under Novak will create Jewish cadre of natural law theorists? Will this effect Jewish denominational lines? Will it create conservative Jewish thinkers who accept intermarriage because it is biological? I ask again – How much are Jews reading Novak?

The Conservative-Christian Big Thinker (Here are some selections)
By DAVID D. KIRKPATRICK NYT Published: December 16, 2009
Robert P. George, a Princeton University professor of jurisprudence and a Roman Catholic who is this country’s most influential conservative Christian thinker.

George had drafted a 4,700-word manifesto that promised resistance to the point of civil disobedience against any legislation that might implicate their churches or charities in abortion, embryo-destructive research or same-sex marriage.

Two months later, at a Washington press conference to present the group’s “Manhattan Declaration,” These principles did not belong to the Christian faith alone, the cardinal declared; they rested on a foundation of universal reason. “They are principles that can be known and honored by men and women of good will even apart from divine revelation,” Rigali said. “They are principles of right reason and natural law.”
Even marriage between a man and a woman, Rigali continued, was grounded not just in religion and tradition but in logic. “The true great goods of marriage — the unitive and the procreative goods — are inextricably bound together such that the complementarity of husband and wife is of the very essence of marital communion,”

FOR 20 YEARS, George has operated largely out of public view at the intersection of academia, religion and politics. In the past 12 months, however, he has stepped into a more prominent role. With the death of the Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, a Lutheran minister turned Roman Catholic priest who helped bring evangelicals and Catholics together into a political movement, George has assumed his mantle as the reigning brain of the Christian right.

As the first systematic rebuttal to Mario Cuomo and other Catholic politicians who support abortion rights, the letter kicked off a now-familiar debate inside the church. “Whenever I venture out into the public square, I would almost invariably check it out with Robby first,” Myers, now the archbishop of Newark, told me. Many of the bishops, Myers says, rely on George as “a touchstone” and “the pre-eminent Catholic intellectual.”

Last spring, George was invited to address an audience that included many bishops at a conference in Washington. He told them with typical bluntness that they should stop talking so much about the many policy issues they have taken up in the name of social justice.
Conservatives, in contrast, speak from the high ground of nonsectarian public reason. George is the leading voice for a group of Catholic scholars known as the new natural lawyers. He argues for the enforcement of a moral code as strictly traditional as that of a religious fundamentalist. What makes his natural law “new” is that it disavows dependence on divine revelation or biblical Scripture — or even history and anthropology. Instead, George rests his ethics on a foundation of “practical reason”: “invoking no authority beyond the authority of reason itself,” as he put it in one essay.Aristotelians, like St. Thomas Aquinas, hold that there is an objective moral order. Human reason can see it. And we have the free will to follow or not. “

In practice, George and his allies have usually found the rules of sexuality quite absolute, while the church’s teachings about social justice come out more contingent. That may be why he is almost uniformly popular among evangelicals but controversial among many of his fellow Catholics, particularly those who prefer the church’s peace-and-justice liberalism to its conservative bioethics.
On the question of capital punishment, George says he is against it but he considers it a matter of interpretation about which Catholics can disagree. The intentional killing of innocent civilians in war is as grave a moral crime as abortion, George says, but what constitutes a “just war” is a more complicated judgment call.

The “rights” to education and health care are another matter, George told his seminar. “Who is supposed to provide education or health care to whom?” George asked. “Health care and education are things that you have to pay for. Resources are always finite,” he went on.
But the argument for banning abortion and embryo-destructive research is “straightforward,” George told me several times.
He admits the argument for marriage between a man and a woman can require “somewhat technical philosophical analysis.” It is a two-step case that starts with marriage and works its way back to sex. First, he contends that marriage is a uniquely “comprehensive” union, meaning that it is shared at several different levels at once — emotional, spiritual and bodily. “And the really interesting evidence that it is comprehensive is that it is anchored in bodily sharing,” he says. The second step is more complicated, and more graphic. George argues that only vaginal intercourse — “procreative-type” sex acts, as George puts it — can consummate this “multilevel” mind-body union.

It is safe to say that not many contemporary philosophers — whether secular or Catholic — agree with George’s marriage argument. Many balk at the mystical “unitive and procreative” qualities George ascribes to sexual intercourse. The idea of “one flesh” union seems far less obviously intelligible than other “basic goods” like friendship, knowledge or religion. Even fellow Catholic Thomists who oppose same-sex marriage question the esoteric quality of George’s argument.
George and his wife, Cindy, who is Jewish.

As a side show, over at the blog of predominately law professors, Mirror of Justice there were some blog posts about Novak and a letter from him and then a cat fight of posts betweeen Jan 29th and Feb3rd that were quickly taken down (I saved copies from cache). David Novak wrote a blurb for liberal pro-abortion theortist Martha Nussbaum. One of the bloggers questioned the hypocrisy and Robert George came to the defense of Novak, which lead to accusations of special pleading. By the time it was over, there was a new blog RelgiousLeftLAw.

Novak- Natural Law in Judiasm part 1

Natural Law in Judaism – David Novak (Cambridge UP). Here we go again with another volume.

This book, except for a few slips and snipes, is not directly against liberals. Rather it presents Novaks view of Judaism.

Chapter One – Jews were outside public sphere in middle ages and did not know how to enter. We need natural law based on God’s wisdom to engage public life.

Chapter Two – The Bible is filled with stories showing the pre-existence of morality. They prove natural law. Novak does not really entertain that they might be intuitionism like Saadyah Nahmanides, and Rav Kook, or virtues and phronesis like Maimonides, or cultivated conscience like R. Israel of Salant.

Chapter Three – Jewish ethics are based on natural law. Novak assumes that we are darshinan taama dekra (expose reasons for the scriptural law),  we work on reasons for the commandments, and that the Talmudic discussions on rational commandments were actually derived by reason. The Noahide law shows that natural law undergirds the Talmud. He also assumes that the Meiri’s category of “people of relgion” to be the Noahide laws and that the Meiri is the best explanation for the Talmudic law. He assumes the natural law, which preexists the halakhah, includes the principles of avoiding desecration of the name, human dignity, and misleading someone in business.

Chapter Four – Maimonides showed the rational structure to the law and its teleology in accordance with nature.

Chapter Five is the core argument of the book. Albo brought the term natural law into Judaism but it was always there.We receive norms from God on the right way to act. We avoid the two incorrect positions – it is incorrect to act from autonomy and it is is incorrect to think we have to wait for Divine commands. God gave us the basic principles as norms know through natural law. The Talmud is a record of the Jewish understanding of what natural law requires.

Novak rejects legal formalism and is happy  that his approach rejects the approach of the legal formalist Hans Kelsen. Unlike formalism- Novaks law corresponds to a divine reality, is given to humans to make the world a better place and shows the primacy of God’s wisdom in our world. Our major activity in maintaining the world through Torah is the development of the rational laws through philosophic activity. Jewish law, philosophy, and theology all merge in our quest to apply the natural law to the world’s problems.

He pushes Maimonides slightly on the side because he is too Platonic and based on an ideal nature. Now we are post Cassier and Habermas and knowledge is for human construction and to serve human interests.

Novak quotes Etienne Gilson on the need for revelation and to see divine wisdom in our world. Rav Lichtenstein quotes the same idea from Gilson But for Rav Lichtenstein, the Divine wisdom is the Talmud as know through the books in the Beit Midrash; the halakhah in is playing out by the hakhamim is Divine wisdom. For Novak, the divine wisdom is the Jewish natural law, the norms given by God and know as the basis of the Bible and as the principles on which the Talmud is based. The divine wisdom is in our rationally understanding these norms of natural law and philosophically applying them.

Novak does explicitly rejects Rabbi JD Bleich  who equates halakhah and ethics. Novak argues that ethical principles inform the law and one cannot decide the law without philosophic principles.

Novak avoids the presentation of Maimonides as done by David Hartman and Isadore Twersky where Maimonides combines halakhah with philosophic quest. In contract, Novak presents Maimonides as working for natural law philosophic principles to derive Jewish law.

Chapter Six – Noahide Laws The Noahide laws are not just something before Judaism or of a lower status but they are the basic principles of morality for Jews too. Moral by definition mean the Noahide laws. The image of God means that people can make more of themselves than they can from a natural state.

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Etienne Gilson

Novak- Social Contract Part II of III parts

Novak- Social Contract Part II of III parts

OK – I have learned that if I am out of town as a scholar in residence or at a conference, then I should put up a note. Well I am back from a combined Scholar-in residence gig and delivering a conference paper.

To continue with Novak-Social Contract from below.

11] Novak considers the Reform and Conservative movements as having applied Occam’s razor to Mendelssohn. Since Mendelssohn said that we need God and Torah to survive, they reduce  it down to the bare minimum needed. For Novak, Bible and Talmud as a cultural element is not enough. It has to be elective and mandate.

Novak says there are only four choices to Jewish identity in the modern era: conversion, secularism, antinomianism, or the natural law mandate.

He considers Conservative Judaism as antinomianism since it, according to Novak, it denies God, Torah and redemption. He states that since liberal Judaism forges- “no consistent connection to the historical Jewish traditions”- therefore they cannot make powerful claims on civil society. (But his treating shituf a social contract of trust, he considers as a strong connection to the Jewish tradition.)

For him, any connection to the land of Israel and the state of Israel only from a sense of the people chosen to bring the Noahide laws into the public sphere.
So any discussion of Israel without discussing the noahite laws is just tribalism

12] One of Nova k’s consistent themes is the need for a sense of Jewish election. A theological basis of election that is greater than the parochial interest in mizvot. Mendelssohn did not have a strong enough idea of election.
A similar idea to Novak’s was presented several decades ago by Arthur A Cohen, is his book Natural- Supernatural Jew, which was subjected to a critique by Walter Wurzburgerbecause one cannot have supernatural destiny without halakhah
But at least Arthur A Cohen left the idea of election as a positive metaphysical concept that said Jewish history is not just an aggregate of contingent events, there is a mystery that holds the Jewish people together. (In his later work, The Tremendum, it becomes a post-Holocaust negative identity.) But Novak makes it a zero-sum approach in which there has to be some special secret plan only done by the Jews and not those liberals.

13] Novak writes that our only friends on the social and political levels used to be the liberal Protestants so we did not support our natural theological allies, the conservative covenantal Christians. Jews have striking similarities to Christian political theology..

14] He wants Jewish identity to be their status as a chosen people, this should be considered before race, class, gender, democracy, liberalism, or politics. But he does not think this will lead to just provincialism and parochialism. He is against Rawls. We need to decide everything from within our Jewish condition

15] Novak considers that revelation is in the world but not of part of it. The revelation comes from the divine mandate.
In the case of the four dialectic thinkers discussed by Sagi, they each see a need to affirm the halakhah as the expression of faith and belief.
For Novak, the affirmed faith is the mandate for natural law and a sense of election.
But if it is natural law, then it is hard to claim that revelation is not part of the world. Let us see in his other book on Natural law if he resolves this.

16] Novak thinks that a Jew should be anti abortion as a value even if there are halakhic grounds to permit it. Meaning the halakhah is not what defines Judaism but the grundnorms on which it is bases. This seems to be Zechariah Frankel’s positive historical Judiasm but from a neo-con perspectives. There is an essence greater than the manifestation in the Oral Law.

17] Novak considers Judaism as a public language – not what does the tradition say but what does the Torah require us to do? It is not the texts but a an internalized sense that God wants you to change the public sphere. A mitzvah is the sense of God commanding what to do (cf. the ecstatic position his teacher Heschel who considers mizvot a connection to God; a prayer in the form of a deed, or the approach of Hirsch in which mizvot are uplifting in our own lives )
Novak wants to be able to speak in the first person about what Judaism requires and thinks that anyone who cannot speak for Judaism.in the first person has no business saying anything.

18] Novak criticizes Rabbi JD Bleich’s position on Noahite laws as halakhah to be decided by rabbis as irrational and undemocratic.Why would non-Jews want to come under Jewish scrutiny and Jewish moral authority as second class citizens?Novak finds the Orthodox version of social theory and bioethics- politically ineffectual and philosophic inadequate. No one is waiting to be declared a ger toshav- resident alien.
He also rejects Nathan Lewin’s sectarianism in always fighting only for particularistic self-interest.
He characterizes Orthodox provincialism and parochialism as the following (In sharp contrast to his own p & p) “People living in a democratic polity in such bad faith prevents them from exercising true moral influence on it, and thus makes them far more subject to the moral agendas of the enemies of Judaism.”
Any Jewish understanding of the Noahite laws has to come from our commitment to natural law. The Noahide laws are universal normative categories based on God given rationalism.

David Novak- The Jewish Social Contract- Part I

I will be working through several of David Novak’s volumes. I will return to Fishbane afterwards.

David Novak- The Jewish Social Contract, Princeton UP 2005

The book asks the good question:
“How can a traditional Jew actively and intelligently participate in my democratic polities?”

I will divide his position into units. For the full answer to his good question, wait until the next post on Novak.

1] To provide a Jewish social theory he will use “Theological retrieval, philosophic imagination, and political prudence.” Theological retrieval “searches the classical Jewish literary sources for guidance, and in which historical description is always part of the essential normative thrust.” Anytime Jews need to act beyond the four cubits of halakhah “philosophical imagination must be employed since here speech and action need to be justified to more universal criteria.” We need to find enough democracy in the Jewish tradition and not just a form of superficial apologetics for some current ethnic agenda.”

2] Novak’s imagination envisions that the definition of human nature, human rights, and human society are not natural but God given. We enter social contract not as isolated but from community. We accept the Biblical covenants – the Noahite covenant and the Sinai covnant – both are unconditional and interminable.

3] Novak uses “the law of the kingdom is law” “dina demalkhuta dina” to say we need to crate a civil society, as a social contract.

The very creation of a secular realm was a chance for many cultures to participate. (In this he seems to use Charles Taylor, who is only briefly cited later) Religious liberty was not for tolerance and to keep it out of the public sphere, but to allow us to have our individual covenants. (He explains the establishment cause based on Hutchenson not Jefferson, and freedom of religion as a Baptist not as Locke and Hobbes)We accept civil society and civil society in order to respect our covenantal community.
Novak is against Rawls, we do not approach things based on fairness and rationality.
(He blames the naked public sphere entirely on the Spinoza tradition, rather than the private religion of Jonathan Edwards and the Protestant America.). Novak claims that civil society is made up of many religious groups and the founding fathers of America planned it that way. (not empirically or historically true for the US). Civil religion is from Rousseau and is against traditional faiths and their authority, Novak cites Richard Neuhaus as his source.

He thinks that religious people can argue better in a democracy for cultural autonomy than liberals.
He thinks that religious people will show more respect for other faiths than liberals since every religion knows it is in its best interest to not abuse its self-interested or totalizing demands.

4] Novak does not think he is creating a synthesis of social theory and Torah, there is no confrontation. Social theory is Torah with philosophic imagination.
Jews were multicultural in antiquity since they had to get along with Assyrians and others.
And from the Bible to today Jews are multicultural. Even Haredim choose to be a minority in a multicultural Israel because they know that if they claim hegemony over the secular it will destroy the social contact of Israel !!!

5] All of humanity is in the “Image of God”– defined as “a relational capacity for what pertains between God and all humans.” He bases this on Hermann Cohen and Psalms.
Judaism is a universal religion. Multiculturalism of Judaism is based on interreligious respect, and the respect for everyone’s image of God. As a contrast, Jonathan Sacks places the emphasis on Babel-there are no universals, all knowledge is limited. God chose one family, the Jews, to show that we need to celebrate diversity of families and religions. For Novak, we have a universal to follow and to argue for within the public sphere. For Sacks, absolute religions are the enemy of religion and public life. For Novak, liberalism that does not start with an absolute divine covenant does not allow a public sphere. For Novak, Jewish secularists are poor advocates of Jewish national claims on world!!! We need those with a covenantal certainty. It seems Novak has never heard of secular Zionism or any of many public advocates of Judaism.

6] The Bible shows us that we can only talk to covenantal partners who fear God. We can work with Malkizedek and not the king of Sodom. We can only make work with those who have the moral prerequisites. Therefore, Shimon and Levi could kill the men of Shechem since they are not moral, so we cannot enter into covenant with them. Does Novak notice what he is saying when he justifies killing them because we deem them immoral?

Covenant is n affirmation of creation for humans to make world inhabitable.. He cites as his proof Nahmanides’ introduction to the Torah – berit = bara – make the world inhabitable. But the original of Nahmanides was a praise of the mystery of God’s miraculous powers of creation. Novak transfers these powers man. Hermann Cohen’s universalism and man’s powers presented as Nahmanides.

7] Novak boldly states “Jewish and Christian ideas of human nature and community, which are most often identical” He thinks this is true even in medieval Europe.
Novak states that Jews lived in medieval Europe with integrity by knowing they shared values with the Christians. They had a social contract with medieval Christians based on trust His proof:
Tosafot states that a Jew can accept an oath from a Christian even though, the latter associates (shituf ) something else mentions with God. For Novak, this shows, that Jews share with Christians trust and social contract. They are not idolatrous, rather they are answerable to the same God so it is a social contract. Novak pictures the tosafot as conceiving the relationship as follows: “I have good reason to believe you will not change your word to me, I can trust you because of your Christian faithfulness. And Christians believe in God’s faithful covenant. I trust you because of your belief in God. This is unlike modern atheists and secularists whom we cannot truly trust.

I am not sure what to make of this. It is not halakhic – juridical reasoning from Shulkhan Arukh. It is not historic reasoning even though he cites Jacob Katz. (Katz saw the medieval situation as without trust and commonality, only exclusivism. These tosafot statements were only ad-hoc leniencies without theological power.)
This is Novak’s “theological imagination” using the tradition, having fidelity to halakhah but not to halakhic reasoning.

8] The bible is covenantal and rabbinical thought is all contractual. Rabbinic law is justified by Scripture and debated by scripture. – (All texts for Novak seem sibah ledavar velo siman ladavar). Rabbinic statements are mainly left as stalemate, continuous arguments. It is all open interpretation. (cf new book by Boyarin- I will get to later this season)Rabbinic law is contractual since it gives reasons (Novak assumes darshinan taama dekra) and since law can be repealed by a greater beth din

9] Babylonians were secular and not idolatrous> hence we respect their civil society. Novak uses “the law of the kingdom is law” “dina demalkhuta dina”  to say we need to crate a civil society, as a social contract.Rashba and Ran – right of kings to create secular law but since  we are not really into kings – today it means social contract.          [he damns with slight praise Lorberbaum on Ran, and his edited with Waltzer The Jewish Political Tradition. For Lorberbaum , Halbertal, Waltzer – these medieval texts show an opening to create a secular realm,  without the interference of Judaism and rabbis. A realm consisting of  kings, prime ministers, laity, populous] For Novak, these texts point to natural law and covenant Abarbanel’s critique of kingship is taken as the Jewish norm, cf rambam

10] Moses Mendelssohn  taught that religion is private and to be keep out of the social contract. There should be tolerance for religion. The secular state should tolerate religion because one’s transcendental warrant for one’s religion comes prior to the liberal state. One’s religion is one’s public persona. The secular state is a place to encourage multiple religions. The state is multicultural recognition of diverse religions.  Our Covenantal duties are stronger than Mendelssohn’s duties of conscience. Novak concludes that Mendelsohnn was wrong. We do not start as individuals and follow reason and conscience but we start as a covenantal community, which knows that the Noahite Laws are the natural law for society.  Mendelsohn not enough to bring religion into public sphere.

Novak does not seem to get that Mendelssohn had a very real fear of herem, seruv, beis din control of society and economics, rabbinical pronouncements on society, heresy trials, and an autonomous kehilah. Novak assumes that Mendelssohn’s rabbinical establishment would write op-eds and First Things articles, rather than put each other in herem.

To be continued and edited tomorrow night.
Galleys of my Book One are due tomorrow.