Rabbi Avi Weinstein

Archive for August, 2010|Monthly archive page

Who is a Jew, Who is a Muslim, and According to Whom?

In Uncategorized on August 26, 2010 at 8:46 am

Jonathan Mark, in a recent Jewish week column, wrote a gratuitously nasty screed regarding President Obama’s alleged allegiances and its possible connection to his Muslim roots. Because of the surly tone, one might have missed the interesting issue that he raises.  According to Islam, just like according to halachic Judaism, it is the religion that defines who one is,  not the individual’s commitment, or lack thereof.  It’s kind of like the Hotel California, “you can check out anytime you want, but you can never leave.” The Muslims certainly would see Obama as a Muslim, an apostate, but nevertheless, a Muslim.  He is certainly not a practicing Muslim, and, by all accounts, is a practicing Christian.

Liberals seem to be suspect of organized structures that would define a person unequivocally, irrespective of what or how one chooses to define oneself.  Not only should a person’s commitment and proclivity count, but the rules of the religion should have nothing to say in the matter. What happens when one’s heresy is not enough to allow a person to disassociate completely from his parental legacy? Both Christianity and Islam have a claim on Obama even though he has chosen the Christian path. Even (Reform) Rabbi Alexander Shindler gave power to the other when lobbying against the “Who is a Jew” bill back in the day. With passion and rhetorical flourish, he said, “If a Jewish father made one Jewish enough for Hitler, it should be good enough for us!”  According to this reasoning, Jewish law should take a backseat to Nazi ideology when it comes to defining membership.  In Israel, the irony was that in order to enact the commonly referred to “Who is a Jew” law, the Knesset had to rely on its Arab parties for the required majority.

The murkiness of how one claims  membership in a group is generally a matter for that group to decide.  The status of that membership will generally be reflected in one’s allegiance and commitment.  Obama is an apostate to Islam, but he is nevertheless connected through his non-practicing Muslim father.  The correct statement of who Obama is should be: He was born a Muslim to a non-religious family, and he chose to be a practicing Christian, and thus defines himself.

The bigotry that puts Obama under scrutiny should be upsetting to anyone. Is anyone holding Bobby Jindal under a microscope.  Didn’t he see the “light”, in what seemed to be an expedient move, rather late in life? If Hindus produced suicide bombers, would we be viewing him differently?

Rules, standards and structures are not applied in a vacuum, but personal commitment doesn’t operate in a vacuum either. This lack of nuance in the discussion is troubling because this inaccuracy serves the paranoid fantasies of those who seem to always control the discussion. If 18% of Americans think Obama is a Muslim, some of them may just be saying that according to Islam, he would still be considered a Muslim, albeit a bad one. We will never know if that’s the case because the very question doesn’t allow one to qualify one’s opinion.

The fact that the question is asked at all should be profoundly disturbing to all minority cultures, including and especially, ours.

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The Tragedy of Talmudic Compartmentalization

In Uncategorized on August 24, 2010 at 5:47 am

David Brooks, in today’s New York Times complains about what a singularly unreflective society we have become. Where once the mental toughness of self examination was expected as part of what was commonly called ‘character’, nowadays such reflection is condemned as being weak.  Nuance is a code word for lack of conviction. When President Obama makes a general statement about freedom of religion and its place in this country and then qualifies it by saying that he was not telling New York where the mosque should be (for other reasons then freedom of religion), he is ‘backtracking’.  There is no room for qualifying statements.  Everything must pass through the crucible of ideological purity. Here’s Brooks.

In this atmosphere, we’re all less conscious of our severe mental shortcomings and less inclined to be skeptical of our own opinions. Occasionally you surf around the Web and find someone who takes mental limitations seriously. For example, Charlie Munger of Berkshire Hathaway once gave a speech called “The Psychology of Human Misjudgment.” He and others list our natural weaknesses: We have confirmation bias; we pick out evidence that supports our views. We are cognitive misers; we try to think as little as possible. We are herd thinkers and conform our perceptions to fit in with the group.

But, in general, the culture places less emphasis on the need to struggle against one’s own mental feebleness. Today’s culture is better in most ways, but in this way it is worse.

The Talmudic tradition is one where reflection and nuance are compulsory.  The craft of refining an argument, only to find a flaw, and then refine it again is the essential stuff of Jewish learning.  The most adept practitioners of this discipline, are often among the least integrated of thinkers when the tome is closed and is then replaced by the pressing issues of the day.  That same intellectual, and dare I say, spiritual thinking, is replaced by group-think that is as nuanced as the wasteland of cable TV news.  The discourse, the process of learning is replaced by the convenience of the “code” that only teaches one what to do, and does not bother to engage him in the process of how we come to know.

This is why the Shulchan Arukh was eschewed by some thinkers at the time.  Better communal practices be a little chaotic than possibly having the hordes mindlessly practicing in lockstep.   The Maharal imagined that people may stop learning, but that’s not what happened.  People continue to learn, but learning is a theoretical enterprise, a mitzvah, that has no applicability to the world. The following popular Talmudic passage requires more scrutiny than it is often given.

Rabbi Abba said that Shmuel said: Three years the Beit Shammai disagreed with the Beit Hillel. One group said: The Law is the way we see it.

The other group said: The Law is the way we see it.

A came forth and said: These and these are the words of the living God! And the Law is the way the Beit Hillel sees it!

Since “These and these are the words of the living God”, why did the Beit Hillel deserve to have the Law go as they saw it? Because they were gracious and humble, and would teach their opinion and the opinion of Beit Shammai, not only that, but they would always teach Beit Shammai’s version first before they taught their version. (Eruvin 13b)

It is not, as often understood, that Beit Hillel‘s position was preferred because they were nicer guys.  The consequence of that understanding would undermine the intellectual rigor of the process.  Instead, it was the humility and graciousness of Hillel that allowed them to engage, consider, and reflect upon the opinion of Beit Shammai.  Beit Hillel understood that considering the other opinion, responding to its challenges and possibly modifying their position, authenticated their quest for truth.  Quoting Shammai first was not only a token of respect, it was a reminder that Beit Shammai’s point of view was taken into account when they formulated their opinion.  It wasn’t that they were merely warmer and fuzzier, it was that humility and graciousness also can, and should make one more nuanced, more thoughtful, and truer to the essential nature of the Talmudic process.

It would seem that true rabbinic leadership would model this training in its approach to the political and halachic challenges of our time. Well, don’t hold your breath.