Author: moshekoppel

The Fear of Heaven

Not everyone is quite like Shimen. So let’s consider the question of belief from a more typical perspective.

For our purposes here, I’ll regard canonical Jewish belief as consisting of the three principles I mentioned earlier: that the Torah was revealed to the Jewish People by God, that those who follow the Torah will be rewarded in this world or another one and that Jewish history is directed towards messianic redemption. How do these beliefs contribute to the viability of Judaism? Specifically, how does Jewish belief contribute to sustaining Jewish norms? And how can Jewish belief itself be sustained in the face of Heidi’s arguments against its plausibility?

It’s quite straightforward how belief strengthens commitment to action. Clearly, the belief that the Torah was revealed and so represents some transcendent truth implies that there is an objective moral order and a human capacity to live by it. It is this belief that instills in us the humility to respect tradition even in the face of our base inclinations and our grand moral theories. Moreover, it is this belief that renders coherent our moral intuitions regarding non-fairness flavors of morality: restraint (kedushah and taharah) and loyalty (kavod and yirah). As we saw in the first two parts of this series, respect for tradition and the broad scope of morality are the keys to Judaism’s viability.

Similarly, the belief that good deeds are rewarded and bad deeds are punished, even if only in another world, incentivizes good deeds and disincentivizes bad ones. What is most important is the sense that one is being watched, rather than the salience of the punishment. The conviction that infractions are seen is so crucial to deterrence that experiments have shown that even the mere exposure to an image of a watching eye sometimes deters moral infractions. The belief in punishment in another world is a meaningful deterrent simply because it suggests that there is an eye that sees and an ear that hears and that all of one’s actions are recorded.

Finally, the belief in eventual redemption gives a life lived in accord with the Torah direction and purpose. It orients the believer to a view in which the Jewish way is dynamic and not stagnant and in which a participant is advancing some larger historical process. In addition, a less appreciated point about formalized messianic belief is captured by the joke about the fellow who is offered to serve as sentinel entrusted with heralding the Messiah’s arrival: it doesn’t pay much, he’s told, but it’s very steady work. The anticipatory nature of redemption in Jewish belief paradoxically softens eschatological fervor and prevents the calamities associated with “hastening the end” that afflict cultures in which messianic longing is repressed.

Here we face the hard question: Jewish belief encourages and directs the Jewish way of life, but can such belief be sustained? To put it bluntly, how can we be enjoined to assent to claims that do not seem credible?

First, observe that the three principle beliefs mentioned above are all aspects of the single belief that Judaism is a directed process linking our past with our future. The aspects of this single claim are that (a) the process evolved organically from some non-arbitrary point (we call that “revelation”), (b) the process is headed toward some non-arbitrary point (we call that “redemption”), and (c) being part of the process self-reinforces (we call that “reward and punishment”). The rest is commentary.

Next, observe that the belief that the society we live in is a link in a directed process that connects our past with our future is a necessary belief, like the belief in the reality of free-will, scientific induction and morality. As we saw earlier, every society must believe that or face debilitating collapse. In short, the core of Jewish belief is the bare minimum that a society requires.

If we are sufficiently socialized, we can default to this belief without giving it much thought, just as Shimen does. The default belief is simply part of our emotional character; in such cases, we call it yiras shamayim (fear of heaven). Yiras shamayim is almost orthogonal to the issue of one’s opinions: you can formulate clever arguments in favor of Jewish belief and yet lack yiras shamayim and you can formulate clever arguments against Jewish belief but nevertheless have yiras shamayim. Think of David Hume formulating clever arguments against scientific induction, but fully expecting to see the sun set in the evening and rise in the morning.

It should be obvious that the benefits of belief for sustaining Jewish norms, as we enumerated above, accrue not from intellectual assent to claims but from yiras shamayim. Not for naught is all of classical Jewish literature prior to Saadia Gaon and the Rambam – biblical, tannaitic and amoraic literature – filled with exhortations and narratives extolling the importance of yiras shamayim and almost free of discussion regarding the importance of assent to claims about the world. (I overstate my case here a bit: it’s true that the Torah makes claims about how the world works and, by implication, we are meant to believe those claims. But the meta-discussion about the state of mind that the Torah wishes us to have is never about doctrine and always about yiras shamayim.)

Of course, we aren’t all socialized quite as well as Shimen. We can’t default to the belief that the society we belong to is a link in a directed process that connects our past with our future without a very strong sense of which society we belong to. Gerrer chassidim, committed Jews, heimish Jews, all Jews, educated westerners, human beings, sentient beings, Met fans? Similarly, we don’t have the luxury of defaulting to beliefs that are explicitly challenged in some of the cultures with which we interact. In such cases, we might be inclined to make explicit and defend our beliefs.

At a sufficient level of abstraction, Jewish default beliefs are easily defensible. There is ample evidence that Judaism is indeed a uniquely viable process. Jewish tradition has proved itself to be viable over millennia; it is well-adapted to human moral intuitions, carefully balancing the universal and particularist flavors of morality; it strikes a balance between a living oral tradition and a written tradition of analysis and codification. As I have been arguing throughout the first two parts of this series, if I have to bet on the viability of one culture – and, by the way, I do – I’m putting my money with Shimen.

I know that my definition of Jewish belief “at a sufficient level of abstraction” doesn’t work for everybody. There is a tradeoff here between gripping the soul with the narrative power of concrete beliefs and gripping the intellect with the plausibility of abstract beliefs. Shimen doesn’t face this conflict, but many others do. For some, it may be enough to believe that Judaism has evolved helter-skelter from some special origins in the murky past, but others might need to feel certain that every detail of Judaism such as it is today can be traced directly to an original revelation in a specific place at a specific time. For some, it may be enough that the process is limping forward in some vaguely-understood positive direction, but others might need for the ultimate destination of the process to be specified in terms of concrete political events and miraculous interventions and for signs of the imminence and inevitability of such events to be already discernible. For some, the satisfaction of leading a life bound to Torah is its own reward, but others might need to be assured that the righteous reap rewards and the wicked suffer punishments in the most prosaic of ways, preferably instantly and in plain sight. Each person strikes the balance that works for them.

I’ll discuss the sociology of all this in the fourth part of the series. For now, the important take-away is that for Shimen – as well as for other committed Jews with more explicitly articulated traditional beliefs – Jewish belief is subordinate to action. Jewish belief motivates and frames commitment to Jewish norms and is meaningless in the absence of such commitment. If we define ideology as a commitment to specific beliefs about the world that logically and chronologically precedes and defines one’s normative commitments, then Shimen’s world is not an ideological one.

As we’ll see in the next post, this is not the case for Heidi’s world.


Leibele, Chaya Sara and God’s Benevolence

Shimen’s two children, Leibele and Chaya Sara, were taken from his hands and murdered. He witnessed countless friends who died al kiddush hashem with the words of shema or ani maamin on their lips. He devotes his life to teaching young people about the suffering and the nobility of righteous Jews in the camps and ghettoes.

I’ll go out on a limb and suggest that Shimen holds no naïve beliefs about God’s benevolence and the worldly rewards bestowed upon those who follow in His ways. What, then, does Shimen believe?

Shimen believes, as deeply and as viscerally as one can believe anything, that the Jewish way – Yiddishkeit – is the life force that animates the Jewish People. He believes that this Yiddishkeit is what sets apart the Jews, whom he watched die with nothing left but an inner dignity rooted in their devotion to each other and to their shared way of life. He believes that Yiddishkeit – not vague professions of high-minded virtue, but Yiddishkeit in all its gory detail – is so fundamentally right that it must be God’s will. He believes that devotion to the Jewish way is its own reward: he would not hesitate for a second to trade away the circumstances under which he lived, but he would not in a million years prefer to belong to any other People. And he believes that whatever is left of the Jews is so healthy at its core that it will regenerate and flourish.

As I mentioned in the very first post, when Shimen left the camps at the end of the war, the first thing he did was to gather orphaned Jewish children and bring them to Israel. The absence of such faith in the Jewish future would have crushed Shimen long ago, as it did many of his friends. This faith is exactly the necessary belief in the viability of one’s own culture that we discussed in the previous post.

Recall that Shimen’s approach to halacha is principally mimetic; he has internalized the ways of his parents and his community. The codes are just for fine-tuning. The same is true of his beliefs, which are thoroughly internalized. Codes of Jewish belief are just ways of expressing that internalized belief; he doesn’t really need them. But if we were forced to codify Shimen’s internalized belief as a set of assertions, what might the code look like?

Shimen’s belief that the Jewish way expresses God’s will could very well be codified as the claim that God revealed the Torah at some specific time and place. Shimen’s belief that, whatever the circumstances, it is profoundly more satisfying to be a God-fearing Jew than the opposite might be codified as the claim that good deeds are rewarded and bad deeds are punished. Shimen’s belief in the fundamental viability of the Jewish way of life could plausibly be codified as the claim that collective loyalty to this way of life would ultimately lead to its political triumph. In short, the codified version of Shimen’s ineffable beliefs would be more or less the set of claims that are commonly called Jewish belief.

The canonical Jewish narrative we laid out a few posts back consists of elaborations of these claims. The series of events leading to the Jews standing at Sinai give context to the revelation of God’s will. Miracles performed at various historical junctures demonstrate God’s ability to reward the righteous and punish the wicked. The rise and fall of the Davidic dynasty and of the First and Second Temples and the implied trajectory of subsequent Jewish history set the stage for future redemption.

Shimen’s belief is emotional not intellectual, though if you insist that he expound on his belief, he’ll trot out the standard story, the one he learned in cheder. But the truth is that he hasn’t the slightest interest in exploring the veracity of any of the historical claims on which his most basic commitments ostensibly rely.

To understand why this is so, we need to understand the relationship between his internalized belief and his assent to the claims surrounding it. Think of it this way. Shimen loves his children, Leibele and Chaya Sara. He remembers them as sweet and innocent and wise beyond their years, almost angelic. The specific representation of them that he holds in his memory allows him to focus his love on actual human beings. But were they actually as angelic as he chooses to remember them? Were they never cranky or ornery, foolish or immature? Perhaps Shimen should undertake archival research and interviews of surviving neighbors to replace his fond memories of Leibele and Chaya Sara with more accurate ones? I hope you see how utterly idiotic this is.

Shimen doesn’t love his children because they were angelic; he recalls them as angelic because he loves them. And recalling them this way only intensifies his love, and his longing, for them. Similarly, Jewish belief is only coherent and meaningful to those already committed to the Jewish way of life, who experience its vitality viscerally. For those who experience Jewish life as instinctively as Shimen, assent to codified Jewish belief might frame and intensify the experience, but is not the basis for that experience. And subjecting these claims to historical analysis makes as much sense to him as subjecting his memories of his children to historical analysis. Both his religious beliefs and his family memories are true for him not because of historical research but regardless of it. Conversely, since these claims are merely outer expressions of inner experience, for those who don’t share the experience of Jewish practice, the claims are empty shells. Attempting to prove the truth of the canonical Jewish historical narrative from outside Jewish practice is nothing but a fool’s errand.

But what of those who, like Yitzy the yeshiva bochur, are inside Jewish practice, but don’t live it quite as instinctively as Shimen? Is commanded belief in the canonical Jewish narrative, the way Yitzy understands it, viable? Tune in next week.

The Afterlife Conjecture

The beliefs we considered in the previous post – the reality of free will, scientific induction and morality – do not exhaust the list of necessary beliefs. Let’s consider one more such necessary belief, one that will take us one step closer towards understanding the meaning of canonical Jewish beliefs.

Suppose that as a result of some natural disaster, all human beings have become sterile. Once those alive today live out their lives, the human race will end. This scenario, first contemplated by the writer PD James in her novel “The Children of Men”, is the basis of a thought experiment considered by the philosopher Samuel Scheffler.

Scheffler’s “afterlife conjecture” is that this knowledge would suck all the life out of us already. Clearly, we’d no longer see any point in engaging in activities, like long-term research projects, infrastructure development, reform of public institutions or international diplomacy, that are only meant to pay off in the distant future. But, Scheffler asserts, we would actually lose our taste even for activities, like consumption of music, art, food and sex, that ostensibly give us pleasure in the here and now. This is because our pleasure from these activities depends on their embeddedness in our lives as wholes and more broadly on our lives’ embeddedness in ongoing human history. In short, the value we ascribe to everything we do assumes that we are each links in some ongoing chain of human life.

One doesn’t have to accept every detail of Scheffler’s claim to get the main point. In any event, Scheffler draws out some surprising implications of his conjecture. He notes that we are not similarly debilitated by the knowledge that we ourselves, as well as everyone else now alive, are going to die one day. So, it seems that “the coming into existence of people we do not know and love matters more to us than our own survival and the survival of the people we do know and love”.

To understand why this might be so, let’s entertain some variations on the thought experiment. Suppose that the event that precipitated this calamity spared an aboriginal tribe in the forests of New Guinea. In fact, suppose that most of the human population would be spared, but this would not include anyone that even remotely shares your culture. It’s safe to surmise that neither of these more limited calamities would significantly mitigate the problem; you’d still find that your life had lost its purpose and that even pistachio ice cream didn’t quite taste the same. If, for example, you were the last Jew on earth, you’d probably find shaking a lulav and esrog an empty experience, even on Succos. On the other hand, many people, like Shimen, face life knowing that they will not leave behind any living descendants and yet forge on and live meaningful and directed lives. What are we to make of this?

Apparently, for our lives to have meaning, the continuity of human life as a whole is not sufficient and the proliferation of our own flesh-and-blood descendants is not necessary. What, then, is both necessary and sufficient? This: each of us must believe in the viability of the culture of which we are a part. We are each engaged in some project that connects our past and our future and that gives context and direction to everything we do. What is debilitating for us is the loss of belief in the viability of that project, our culture, for the long-term. (I hasten to note that “long-term” doesn’t have to mean forever; unlike the young Alvy Singer, most of us can live with the thought that “the universe is expanding”.)

We saw above that we each necessarily harbor an implicit belief in the reality of free will, scientific law and morality because we couldn’t organize our lives any other way. We can now add to the list of necessary beliefs the belief that the culture within which we organize our lives is viable for the long-term future.

This necessary belief in the viability of our own culture is analogous to the necessary beliefs we considered earlier in several important ways. Just as our beliefs in the reality of free will, scientific law and morality are conceptually prior to our opinions and are experientially most similar to emotions, so too our belief in the viability of our own culture is emotional. We experience it as a living culture. As I’ll soon explain, this experience is the foundation of religious belief.

Furthermore, as with the other necessary beliefs, we are tempted, for better or worse, to flesh out and to rationalize our visceral belief in the viability of our culture with particular ancillary claims. These claims will inevitably vary from culture to culture both in their substance and in their persuasiveness. It is a mistake to confuse these supporting ancillary claims for religious belief itself, but they nevertheless serve as a useful, perhaps inevitable, starting point for understanding religious belief. They are what we talk about when we talk about religious belief.

That last sentence is precisely the reason I don’t want to talk about Jewish belief. And yet, that’s exactly what I’m about to do.

Beliefs and Opinions

To begin to address Heidi’s reasoned rejection of canonical Jewish beliefs, we need to first understand that beliefs are not opinions. Let’s clarify the difference.

There are many good arguments against people having free will. Experiments by neurologist Benjamin Libet showed that a subject’s choice in a particular lab setting is preceded by detectable brain activity that foretells the subsequent choice. Some have argued that there are analytic complications: if all physical processes, including human action, are either deterministic or random, there is no room for willed action that is neither of those. Others point to numerous experiments that show that we are all subject to systematic biases of which we are unaware, so that activity that we regard as freely chosen is in fact stereotypical and predictable.

So, we might well conclude that the preponderance of evidence suggests that nobody has free will. And yet, you and I both believe that we have free will. If I were feeling ironic, I’d say that we don’t really have a choice in the matter. But I’m not feeling ironic, so I’ll say only that it is natural for us to believe that we have free will and it requires an act of will to think otherwise. There are two separate, but connected, reasons for this. First of all, we experience our free will viscerally. Secondly, we can only live coherent lives by living as if we have free will.

This example highlights the difference between beliefs and opinions. It might be my studied opinion that it’s implausible that we have free will, but it’s my belief that we do have free will. Our opinions are relevant to how we debate, but our beliefs are relevant to how we live our lives. Our beliefs are, in aggregate, like an operating system: they sit in the background and serve as a framework within which it is possible to organize our lives.

To push this point a bit further, let’s think about scientific induction, the method that allows us to conclude that the sun will come up tomorrow and the moon will wane and wax this month. At the core of this method is the assumption that discernible patterns in nature can be generalized into laws that will continue to hold in the future.

How do we know? Well, you might argue that scientific induction has worked until now, so we have reason to expect that it will continue to work, but the circularity of that argument ought to be obvious. To appreciate this point, imagine asking an anti-inductivist, who holds that whatever was is exactly what will not be, what basis he has for believing that. If he’s clever, he’ll respond “well, it never worked until now”. Furthermore, there is more than one way to generalize a discernible pattern. Maybe the law is that the sun comes up in the East every day only as long as the population of Tokyo doesn’t exceed 10 million, after which it comes up in the West on Jewish holidays.

And yet we all get up every day confidently expecting the floor to be there when we get out of bed and the sun to be inching its way up in the East. Clearly, we believe that whatever version of folk science we have in our heads is at least a crude guide to how the world works. In fact, I’m pretty certain that even the great Scottish philosopher David Hume, who first called attention to the difficulty of justifying scientific induction, didn’t put his hand on lit stoves just to see if fire still burns. As with free will, whatever our opinions regarding the justifiability of scientific induction, we believe that it works and live our lives accordingly. We could not do otherwise.

Finally, let’s consider the assertion that some moral claims are objectively true in the same way that, for example, the claim that the sky is blue is objectively true. It is not difficult to rehearse the arguments against this assertion. Moral views depend on culture, they vary widely even among individuals in the same culture, they are usually vague even for a given individual. Moral statements can be interpreted as merely emotive (hurrah for charity, boo on child abuse) or imperative (give charity, don’t beat children), rather than as claims about the world.

But, even the most radical philosophers don’t neglect their sick mothers or snip off children’s ears; they believe those actions are wrong. When we say that charity is good and child-beating is bad, we mean exactly that and we mean it sincerely. We believe these claims as viscerally as we believe that the sky is blue. And, as with free will and scientific induction, we could not lead coherent lives without believing that some actions are morally superior to others.

Free will, scientific induction and morality are three issues that have generated voluminous literature but scant solid progress. That’s because, however challenging the arguments for their inauthenticity, we necessarily believe that they are real. It is a myth that we seek truth for its own sake; we seek truth in order to live coherent lives. Whatever the truth about the reality of free will, scientific law and morals, we cannot imagine living coherent lives without believing in that reality. I can’t prove that I’m not a character in The Truman Show or The Matrix; I can either simply believe that neither of these is the case or I can waste my life paralyzed by suspicion and uncertainty. We will soon see that we hold many more such necessary beliefs.

Lest I be misunderstood, I want to clarify the relationship between necessary beliefs and truth. I’m not suggesting that necessary beliefs are false but that we ought to hold them anyway because it makes us feel good. I’m arguing that we can only begin to seek truth from within some framework that allows us to organize experience. In this sense, that basic framework is unfalsifiable.

Nevertheless, it is certainly the case that when we flesh out this framework, we might find particular details unsustainable. For example, if I extend my basic belief in scientific induction to some specific theory about how to generalize from examples to laws, I might find that my theory is refuted by experience. Similarly, if I extend my basic belief in free will to specific claims regarding the absence of any constraints on human decision-making, I might find my claims refuted by experiments establishing the existence of such constraints. But, while the failure of my favored specific version of morality, scientific induction or free will might be debilitating and angst-provoking, it can’t uproot my basic belief in the reality of each of these; those basic beliefs are for me prior to the very notion of truth.

In the next few posts we’ll see how all this groundwork will help us to understand the kind of beliefs we have not yet discussed – religious beliefs.

Heidi the Skeptic

Heidi is a rational person; she believes only what follows from evidence and reason. In her view, this criterion is not met by any of the traditional Jewish beliefs we enumerated earlier. She notes with no small amount of disdain that Shimen and those like him seem never to have critically contemplated any of their beliefs in the light of readily available scientific and historical facts.

Heidi is objective; she believes only what an unbiased person would believe. In her view, such a person would not place Jews at the center of the cosmos. Many tribes imagine that the world revolves around their own petty comings and goings and they are all obviously wrong. The Jews are just another such tribe. From an objective point of view, their myths about their own chosenness are delusional, if not dangerous.

If she bothers engaging with specific canonical Jewish beliefs at all, she doesn’t find much of value. It isn’t so much that these beliefs are demonstrably false as that they are farfetched and there is no particular reason to believe them.

As far as Heidi can tell, modern cosmology, geology and astronomy yield immeasurably more insight into the formation of heaven and earth than the biblical narrative, as does evolution about the origins of plant and animal life. She’s not quite sure what it means for God to have created these things – and she’s pretty sure Shimen doesn’t either – but she’s reasonably confident that it doesn’t add much to the picture that scientists have painted.

The prior probability that Heidi assigns to any book having been written by God is vanishingly low and there isn’t much in the Torah’s inconsistent patchwork of dubious legends and rituals that screams out to Heidi that she needs to revise her priors.

Reports of miracles, in the Torah and elsewhere, are more plausibly explained as the products of imagination or deception than as actual breaches of the laws of nature. All the modern tales of miracles with which Heidi is familiar are either wishful thinking by religious enthusiasts or misinterpretations of randomness. Somebody has to win the lottery, but to the lucky winner it always looks like a miracle.

Heidi is also not persuaded by claims that rabbis, ancient or modern, are divinely inspired. Some of them are indeed unusually clever but she finds it hard to fathom how men in direct contact with the Holy Spirit could be so wrong about so many things. The rabbis seem to live in a parallel universe in which insects are spontaneously generated from inorganic material, human and animal anatomy do not resemble any recognizable anatomy, the earth is flat, the sun circles back behind an opaque sky at night and provable theorems of geometry and trigonometry are false.

Nothing in Heidi’s experience suggests that the good are rewarded and the wicked are punished; more often than not, the opposite seems to be the case. The invention of an invisible world where things even out is an embarrassingly artificial rationalization that only highlights the salience of the problem.

Claims of chosenness and the belief that the entire course of human history is directed towards Jewish political redemption strike Heidi as nothing less than a form of national narcissism. As for resurrection, she has no clue what to make of it. If she were to be resurrected (in what form? at what age? with which memories and emotions preserved?), she could scarcely imagine what connection her resurrected self would have with her present self and why she should care.

In short, the whole package of canonical Jewish beliefs does not have the slightest credibility or appeal to Heidi.

Heidi’s attacks are substantial and present us with a formidable challenge. I won’t make the slightest attempt to refute them directly. Rather, in the following posts, I’ll consider whether it is possible for Heidi, or anyone else, to believe “only what follows from evidence and reason” or “only what an unbiased person would believe”. We’ll see that Heidi’s odd presumptions on this score are rooted in a misunderstanding of the nature of belief. This misunderstanding further leads to confusion regarding the substance of the adult Shimen’s beliefs, as well as – more tellingly – the substance of Heidi’s own beliefs.

Jewish Belief: Round 1

For the past 25 posts, I have been harping on the differences between Shimen’s and Heidi’s respective values and traditions. One frequent objection I’ve gotten is that I should be talking about their beliefs, not their lifestyles. After all, aren’t the disagreements between Shimen and Heidi about how to live merely second-order differences that follow inevitably from their irreconcilable beliefs about nature, history and theology?

Well, if you insist, we can talk about these irreconcilable differences of belief. But, I’ve got to tell you right up front that the answer to your semi-rhetorical question is (spoiler alert!) no. Young Shimen didn’t contemplate nature and history and conclude, like our forefather Abraham, that there must be a “ruler of the castle”. He was raised to honor particular values and traditions long before he had the most rudimentary ability to contemplate the stuff of belief. And among the traditions that he honors is the affirmation of certain claims about the world.

Simply put, the direction of the causality implicit in the question above is exactly backwards: in fact, values and traditions are primary and beliefs are derivative. This raises lots of obvious questions (how can we choose to believe something?) all of which we’ll get to soon enough. For now, I want to briefly outline, in a perfectly naïve way, traditional Jewish beliefs about the world. In subsequent posts, we’ll take a deeper dive and reconsider both the content and nature of traditional Jewish belief, but at this stage let’s all just get on the same page – the page that Shimen was on as a cheder boy in Poland long before The War.

God created the universe, including the laws of nature. These laws hold most of the time but can be broken when God sees fit to intercede in the course of events by performing miracles. God revealed himself to the forefathers of the Jewish people, promising them that their descendants would be plentiful and would face special challenges and reap special rewards.

Our ancestors, the chosen descendants of these forefathers, were enslaved in Egypt and redeemed by God’s Hand amidst many miracles. The proto-nation redeemed from Egypt received the Torah in the desert at Sinai, through the agency of Moses, the greatest of all prophets. The received Torah consisted of the Written Torah, in precisely the words of the Five Books of Moses that we have today, along with an accompanying Oral Law that served as the basis of its interpretation. With God’s direct help, the nascent nation conquered the Land of Israel, as had been promised to their forefathers, established the Davidic line of kings and built the Temple in Jerusalem. However, in retribution for various sins, the First Temple, and eventually the Second Temple, were destroyed and the Jews were banished to the four corners of the earth.

The Written Torah and the Oral Law, as faithfully transmitted from Sinai and further interpreted by rabbis over all subsequent generations, are binding on all Jews. The law unfolds over generations through a guided process that accurately reveals its original intent: leading rabbis of each generation are divinely inspired and the Jews as a nation possess the collective intuition of the “children of prophets”, though in diminishing degrees with the passage of time.

The Jews are rewarded and punished, collectively and individually, in accordance with their observance of God’s laws. Those who, for some reason, do not get their just desserts in this world are compensated or called to task in another world, not visible to us. One day, when they merit it, the Jews will be redeemed by God through the hand of Mashiach and returned to the land of Israel, where they will rebuild the Temple and live harmoniously according to God’s law. They will be ruled once again by kings from the line of David and the renewed Sanhedrin and will be free of the yoke of foreign nations. Ultimately, the dead will be resurrected and will share in this idyllic existence.

That, in a nutshell, is what Shimen – and every other cheder student in the past millennium – received as the basic truths of Judaism. Some of those cheder students happily went through life believing exactly that in a perfectly literal way. But others found it more congenial, as their intellectual lives matured, to distinguish the essence of these beliefs from secondary elements or to interpret some aspects of this narrative in a more abstract form than they had received them.

If you are of the first type, I beseech you to skip this part of the series; it will only do you harm. (I’m dead serious.) For those of you who continue along, in the next post we’ll hear all about Heidi’s objections to the cheder version of Jewish belief.

Just Plain Soup

Heidi lacks a community that provides social welfare and moral guidance in the substantive and detailed way that Shimen’s community provides these things for him. Instead, she demands that the state provide social welfare and that morality not subsumed under welfare be left to individuals’ discretion. In this way, she expects to advance equality (through state welfare) and freedom (through respect for individual discretion in moral matters).

Her approach will bring neither equality nor freedom. Nor will it sustain the very state on which it depends. Let’s see why.

First let’s note that Shimen and Heidi agree that it is risky to get the state involved in moral matters. Neither one does so from behind the veil of ignorance; they each simply fear the power of the state being brought to bear on somebody else’s side of some moral issue. For Shimen, the moral slack is taken up by his community, but for Heidi, not so much.

The problem is that moral instincts cannot be repressed for long. We are instinctively revolted by sinful behavior. How does Heidi deal with these annoyingly insistent instincts? She expands the scope of welfare sufficiently to give cover to policies designed to address her instinctive contempt for certain moral transgressions. Heidi doesn’t care much that laws regarding recycling, smoking, trans-fats, super-sized sodas, rent control, discrimination, and the like, don’t actually advance social welfare. It is enough for her that contamination, greed, gluttony and disrespect be punished.

Restrictions on the sale of alcohol are sometimes attributed to the unwitting cooperation of bootleggers and Baptists. This shorthand neatly captures the broader principle that some regulation passes because it simultaneously serves the interests of “bootleggers” who expect to profit from it and “Baptists” whose moral indignation it gratifies. Nowadays, Heidi is much more likely to be the Baptist than is Shimen.

Recall that Heidi resents the influence that rabbis have in Jewish communities like Shimen’s or that of her parents. But to put some perspective on the matter, we might compare the most influential posek in New York (whoever he is) with, say, the New York City Commissioner of Health, of whose regulatory powers Heidi approves. The commissioner can ban the sale of artificial trans fats if she decides they’re bad for you; the rabbi can only ban them if he can provide a persuasive halachic basis for doing so. The commissioner can only be fired by the mayor; the rabbi can simply be abandoned by his followers. The commissioner can have you fined or imprisoned if you violate the ban; the rabbi can stop eating in your house.

In short, loosening the grip of communal norms merely tightens the grip of state regulation; it is more likely to diminish liberty than to promote it.

Heidi’s approach to the relative powers of communities and states also undermines its own commitment to fairness. The way Heidi sees the world, Shimen and others in communities like Shimen’s are beholden to “comprehensive doctrines”, while Heidi’s views on public affairs are simply neutral. This notion of a “neutral” culture makes as much sense as the notion of speaking language without speaking a language. Or, as the philosopher Sidney Morgenbesser put it when asked by a waiter if he wanted potato soup, vegetable soup or chicken soup, “none of those, just plain soup”.

This cosmopolitan tribalism might be dismissed as mildly amusing presumptuousness if not for the fact that Heidi insists that, as a shared neutral space, the public square must reflect her neutral views. In particular, public education and publicly-funded culture must be free of even the most benign expressions of religion and patriotism or the encouragement of virtues like courage, fortitude, gratitude or prudence associated with such dangerous doctrines.

Heidi places great burdens on the state, yet she favors a culture that doesn’t develop the qualities of character needed to keep a republic. Instead, this culture produces people like – here she comes – Amber. Amber’s views on states and communities highlight the subtle cracks in Heidi’s presumptions of freedom and fairness orchestrated by the state and demonstrate why Heidi’s approach is not tenable.

If Heidi indulges her righteous indignation by supporting overly aggressive regulation, Amber is downright puritanical. She wishes to criminalize and prosecute lust and boorishness, including sexual advances once regarded as benign and any behavior that threatens her self-esteem.

If, in the name of inclusiveness, Heidi wishes to keep religious expression out of the public square, Amber wishes to criminalize it. Religious institutions that don’t accommodate gay marriages must be shut down; doctors who don’t perform abortions must be delicensed; anyone who suggests that human nature isn’t infinitely malleable must be silenced.

If Heidi wishes to centralize power by shifting the functions of religious communities to the state, Amber wishes to centralize power even more by shifting the functions of states to transnational organizations like the EU and the UN.

The abandonment of cohesive religious communities like Shimen’s are leading us not to a secular paradise of freedom and equality but rather to a dystopic world in which transnational secular elites prosecute sin and persecute religion.


This ends the second part of this series of posts. In the next set of posts, I’ll take up the question of belief.