Archive for September, 2008

Fear and Repentance: 5769

September 30, 2008

For many Jews, the most meaningful element of High Holy Days synagogue services is the rabbi’s sermon.  Indeed, careers are won or lost here.  However talented our clergy, reliance on their performance for spiritual elevation reduces our commitment to God to paid entertainment or sound-bite movie reviews.   I hope the ancient liturgy and melodies make the uncomfortable topic of our t’shuvah (repentance) real.  Amid the lengthy Hebrew and English readings, may you find small nuggets that provoke or disturb you after the service heading to Yom Kippur.

With that said, I want to share parts of Rabbi Andy Bachman’s Rosh Hashanah sermon entitled “No Fear.”  Andy reflects on existential fear that, more than anything concrete, pervades the lives of his Brooklyn congregants.  Meaning, Purpose and Rootedness are the themes congregants always use to describe what they want.  Here, toward the end of the sermon, Andy suggests active Jewish life pushes back against fear and allows us to step into the unknown.

Learning, Spirituality and Acts of Lovingkindness. The Pillars of the Universe. Shimon Ha Tzadik said the world stands upon three things: Torah (study), Avodah (service), Gemilut Hasadim (generous acts). Meaning, Beyond the Self, and CommunityEach serve as a kind of antidote to fear that we encounter on a daily basis.



Novak and New Athiests

September 30, 2008

Jacques B in the Washington Post warmly reviews Michael Novak’s latest, No One Sees God: The Dark Night of Atheists and Believers.

First among the virtues of this book is its author’s commitment to civil, sober discourse. “My underlying thesis,” he writes, is “that unbelievers and believers need to learn a new habit of reasoned and mutually respectful conversation.”

…, No One Sees God calmly re-draws the “primitive fresco of Christianity” sketched by the New Atheists. Whereas they depict believers as simpletons and dupes, Novak offers a more complex portrait of the theist psyche. Believers routinely express dismay and anger toward their deity. They often feel betrayed by Him. And they sometimes even doubt that He exists. “The line of belief and unbelief,” he observes, “is not drawn between one person and another, normally, but rather down the inner souls of all of us.”

Novak then addresses the group bias issue familiar to students of Bernard Lonergan or Aaron Wildavsky.

The really compelling question asked by this book goes something like this: How can God’s existence, which is so abundantly obvious to believers, seem so incomprehensible to nonbelievers? To help frame the debate, he invokes the idea of a “blick,” a “way of viewing reality that is not usually overturned by one or more pieces of countervailing evidence.” Coined in about 1950 by the British philosopher R.M. Hare (who spelled it “blik”), the term refers to a mental filter through which people sift information, admitting some things as facts and rejecting others. To simplify somewhat, atheists and theists process information about the cosmos in radically different ways.


Factchecking the Debate

September 29, 2008

From via Newsweek.  Evaluate violations for yourself.

The first of three scheduled debates between Republican Sen. John McCain and Democratic Sen. Barack Obama took place Sept. 26 on the campus of the University of Mississippi at Oxford. It was sponsored by the Commission on Presidential Debates. It was carried live on national television networks and was moderated by Jim Lehrer, executive editor and anchor of the PBS “NewsHour” program.

McCain and Obama contradicted each other repeatedly during their first debate, and each volunteered some factual misstatements as well. Here’s how we sort them out:

  • Obama said McCain adviser Henry Kissinger backs talks with Iran “without preconditions,” but McCain disputed that. In fact, Kissinger did recently call for “high level” talks with Iran starting at the secretary of state level and said, “I do not believe that we can make conditions.” After the debate the McCain campaign issued a statement quoting Kissinger as saying he didn’t favor presidential talks with Iran.
  • Obama denied voting for a bill that called for increased taxes on “people” making as little as $42,000 a year, as McCain accused him of doing. McCain was right, though only for single taxpayers. A married couple would have had to make $83,000 to be affected by the vote, and anyway no such increase is in Obama’s tax plan.
  • McCain and Obama contradicted each other on what Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen said about troop withdrawals. Mullen said a time line for withdrawal could be “very dangerous” but was not talking specifically about “Obama’s plan,” as McCain maintained.


The Truth that Dare Not Speak Its Name

September 27, 2008

Patrick Deneen and others at Culture 11, that lively, new conservative-ish blog I mentioned a few weeks ago, suggest what candidates should say in the debates. Deneen would have McCain transfer his cache of military virtue to address our own complicity in the economic and ” devote a McCain presidency to restoring virtues of frugality and self-governance.”  To address Obama’s Red State weakness, he should “call for an economy that rewards the lower and middle class, not the wealthiest, and an effort to paint these commitments as the most fundamental form of traditional values.”

Deneen declares Americans must be taught about limits and let go of the corrosive growth ideology shared by both parties. He knows, too, that none of this will happen.


Brothers-in-Arms? Secular Humanism and Religious Faith

September 26, 2008

I have a favorite recent First Things post. Edward Oakes explores a mostly unknown T.S. Eliot essay which he recently stumbled upon.  Eliot, writing in 1930 in an anthology on the modern condition, suggests secular humanism, even aggressive anti-Christian skepticism, challenges the religious person to clarify and refine their faith, thereby serving as an ally for truth.

[V]ery little knowledge of human nature is needed to convince us that hierarchy is liable to corruption, and certainly to stupidity; that religious belief, when unquestioned and uncriticised, is liable to degeneration into superstition; that the human mind is much lazier than the human body. . . . If we cannot rely, and it seems that we can never rely, upon adequate criticism from within, it is better that there should be criticism from without.

Eliot then demands more original secular critiques!

Oakes adds:

Even a passing glance at what I have earlier in these pages called “pop atheism” is enough to show how pathetically mediocre are the recent apologetes for atheism. Going from Nietzsche to Bertrand Russell to Richard Dawkins and ending with Sam Harris is quite a declension.


Do Human Rights Monitors Increase Violence?

September 25, 2008

From Richard Landes at Augean Stables:

B’tselem’s Cognitive Egocentrism Increases Palestinian Violence

The Elder of Ziyon blog has an insightful post up about B’tselem’s [A Jewish Israeli Human Rights monitor in the West Bank] decision to provide West Bank Palestinians with cameras so that they can document settler violence. B’tselem, through a shallow understanding of Arab culture, or through wanton desire to demonize Israeli soldiers and citizens, has likely caused an increase in violence through their move. Their cognitive egocentrism keeps them from understanding it, the cameras do not inhibit “Israeli aggression”. Instead, since they benefit from scenes of Israeli violence, Palestinians are actually encouraged to do whatever they can to cause Israelis to react so that they can be captured on film.

This is hard for me to fully integrate. Part of me is proud that a Jewish NGO seeks to reform abusive practices by Israeli soldiers in the territories. Aren’t such left-peaceniks simply holding Israel to its founding liberal, democratic and Jewish standards?  We should not become a monster to fight a monster.

However, there has been solid evidence of Hezbullah’s and Hamas’ manipulation of visual footage to garner  international support and create “martyrs” for the war against Israel.  Richard Landes covers this well at Second Draft and has coined the term “Pollywood” for this practice.  Still, I refuse to declare from now on all footage of Israeli army abuses are staged.


The Work of Repair (and Repentance)

September 25, 2008

The Jewschool group blog has a new contributor named HatamSoferet, or Torah scribe.  She is the first woman known to have completed writing a kosher Torah and the creator of T’fillen Barbie (see below). Reflecting on the busy month of Ellul which transitions us to the High Holy Days — esp. busy for Torah scrolls repairers —  she wisely notes:

I find repair work to be a lot more taxing than writing from scratch. I can write all day quite happily, but repairing all day leaves me wilting, exhausted, and consuming quite startling amounts of chocolate. It’s a physical strain and it’s a mental strain; more of the latter than the former.

When you write, you sit down and words flow, letter after letter, and fill the page slowly but surely. Sure, you have to concentrate, but you’re going with the stream. When you repair, you have to focus in on every single letter, one after the other, and examine it minutely for potential problems, since even one broken letter invalidates the sefer Torah – and there are 304805 of them. It’s intense, intense work.

Well, it occurs to me that this is a metaphor for Life. Merrily going along writing (or living, as it might be) is relatively simple, although you don’t necessarily know what it’s going to look like in twenty years’ time – but if your job is to go through from one end to the other, find every little thing which isn’t right, and repair it, well, that’s a whole lot harder.

Nonetheless, the message of the season is precisely that – check things over, find the bits which are broken, and repair them.

Check out her website for all you wanted to know about scribing Torah.

The Company We Keep

September 25, 2008

Permit me a praise of First Things, once marketed as “the intellectual center of the conservative movement.” I’m impressed, especially today, by numerous writers who creatively explore the deeper issues of public life.  I don’t always agree. I almost always feel challenged.  That’s the kind of company I enjoy.

In Sin and Cinema Tim Perry notes notes that some of Hollywood’s most popular villains — Voldemort, The Joker, Magneto, Michael Corleone, Sauron — communicate “the traditional, rich, and incisive language that Christian cultures once used to describe the human condition.”  We must not become monsters to fight monsters.

R.R. Reno offers layman’s logic why it’s “fair” taxpayers will bailout Wall Street. “The net worth of all Americans who have [housing and] stock and bond-based assets was supported by exactly the economic dynamics that have produced the mess that we—statistically the very same people—are now going to pay to unwind in what I hope is an orderly fashion. My friends, most of us did profit from the sub-prime [or lax lending] debacle.”

Junior Fellow Stefan follows the culture war skirmish between Citadel cadet’s fists and Princeton Marching Band’s sass.

Editor Father Richard John Neuhaus reflects on trajectory “faith in public life.”  While extreme separationists worry about the Coming Theocracy, they “tolerate, or may even assiduously protect, the public expression of marginal religious opinion, of opinion that is not likely to influence our common life. But they take alarm at the voice of the majority.”

RJN continues, “In the Constitution, the majority imposes upon itself a self-denying ordinance; it promises not to do what it otherwise could do, namely, ride roughshod over the dissenting minorities.” Why would a majority do this to itself?  RJN concludes by unearthing the religious values that inspired this system.


The Anti-terrorism Agenda

September 23, 2008

Hearing much about terrorism from the campaigns?  Just 6 years ago this fall DC was inundated by nuclear threats against US cities and Anthrax.  These twin crises, according to intelligence sources outside of government (such as George Friedman of STRATFOR), served as the final impetus for our leader’s foray into Iraq. (By the way, STRAFOR is a fantastic site for news analysis. I’m adding it to my blogroll).

Peter Berkowitz summarizes the five key areas of agreement emerging from the 8th annual World Summit on Counterterrorism, attended by several hundred practitioners and academics from more than 50 nations. This year’s conference was sponsored by the International Institute for Counterterrorism (ICT) at the Interdisciplinary Center at Herzliya, Israel’s leading private institution of higher education. Berkowtiz noted that Israel’s experience with assessing and fighting a range of threats while balancing liberal and democratic principles.


Berkowitz adds:

These conclusions suggest that terrorism ought to be a topic of intense concern to the world’s sole superpower as it hits the home stretch of a critical presidential election. Yet neither candidate has candidly discussed the threats to the homeland. Nor has the press, preoccupied with defending the nation against a Palin vice presidency, sought to hold the candidates accountable.

Perhaps next year’s World Summit on Counterterrorism could devote a session or two to the need to educate politicians, the press, and the public about the impressive work that is already being done, and the urgent and enormous challenge that remains, in the battle against transnational terrorism.

To my readers who might be offended that I link to a conservative magazine, please agree with me that terrorism prevention is not the owned by any political program or ideology.  Below are these factors spelled out a bit more.


Resentment vs. Condescension Pt 1: Redeeming Conservative Populism?

September 23, 2008

Resentment vs. Condescension: does this summarize the Culture Wars?  Dr. Pat notices that although economic events may have pushed Palin-mania off the lead:

Sarah’s brief spot in the bright white glare and the bump in the polls that she induced did show that the path to Republican victory largely remains where it has been since the days of Nixon (read Pearlstein’s Nixonland for some insight here): stoking resentments of lower- and middle-class white voters in the heartland against the eggheads in the big cities. Frankly, the eggheads walked clumsily and willingly right into the trap that McCain had set for them by naming Palin, showing that the strategy had legs. Deriding small town losers who believe in God and shoot guns is not the best strategy when you’re trying to win a few counties in western Pennsylvania and southern Ohio. However, it’s clear that other than stoking resentment, the Republican well is empty and the Democratic well is at least half full…