Monday, January 28, 2008

Review of A Debate on Jewish Emancipation and Christian Theology in Old Berlin

I have been reading a lot more lately than I have been writing about, but I wanted to throw in a note about the collection By Richard Crouter and Julie Klassen that I just read.

As soon as Jews had some freedom in Germany during the Enlightenment, they started producing an abundance of scholars and men of letters. Each one staked out his own position on Jews and their relationship to the state. From Mendelssohn and on, they advocated for Jewish emancipation from the prejudicial and anti-Semitic laws of the German state. Mendelssohn argued (on philosophical grounds) for simple equality, and a sort of separation of Church and state. David Friedlander, after a long and what must have seemed like fruitless quest to try to improve the Jews and their situation in Germany, argued for mass fake conversion to Christianity.

What do I mean by "fake"? Well, he thought that Jews really didn't need the ceremonial laws, and he thought that no one would know if Jews didn't believe in Jesus when they converted to Christianity, so he asked the State, in an Open Letter, to accept the mass conversion of Jews who agree to stop outwardly practicing Judaism, and get baptized Protestant without actually believing in Jesus.

If you ask me, that misses the point from the perspective of both religions. And the important protestant theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher and Wilhelm Abraham Teller both agreed. Both wrote responses to Friedlander's letter. Naturally they agreed that keeping the Jewish rituals was unnecessary, but they thought that a fake conversion was no conversion at all, and moreover has the potential to harm Christianity. Of course, in accordance with Enlightenment values, neither thought that being Jewish should be a bar to getting rights though.

For Jews, especially those of Mendelssohn's ilk, keeping the mitzvot is Judaism (though they definitely argued in favor of the existence of God). For Christians Belief in the divinity of Christ is Christianity.

Crouter and Klassen collect their three documents as well as anonymous satirical polemic asking for rights for Jews. The translation reads well, and it is a valuable set of documents for those interested in this period.

I wish they would have included more of the responses to Friedlander. There were many written in pamphlets and in the popular press. I would love to have seen some of them. Also, I should mention that there is an essay at the end that feels totally out of place. It is mostly a discussion about the situation of the Turks and their problems with emancipation in contemporary Germany. While it is interesting, it just really doesn't belong here. I am not sure who at Hackett publishers agreed to it. It's point is unclear and except in the sense that Turks and Jews are both not considered German and they both have had problems there, I am pretty sure the essay is unrelated to the others.

(Also, there is one minor error, which I am not sure whether I ought to attribute to Teller or to the translators, but on p 135 they use the term "yom Ha'aretz", which literally means "earth day". The word they meant to use was "am ha'aretz" - literally: people of the earth.)

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

It is about time

It is good to hear that New York is finally evaluating teachers on their performance. The unions were and still are afraid of any standard that might show how incompetent NYC public school teachers could be. There are some great ones (whom I know personally), but judging from my college students who are graduates of the NYC public school system, most of them must be pretty crappy. Many of my NY students graduate borderline literate. Seriously.

No wonder
Randi Weingarten the union president, said she had grave reservations about the project, and would fight if the city tried to use the information for tenure or formal evaluations or even publicized it.
The union's job is to protect the teachers, not the children from the teachers' incompetence. So who protects the children? I bet Randi Weingarten doesn't care.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Happy T"U B'Shevat

Remember to eat your new fruits and stuff. Enjoy.

Monday, January 21, 2008

The Ghandis

Mahatma Gandhi once famously wrote of the Jews:
The calculated violence of Hitler may even result in a general massacre of the Jews by way of his first answer to the declaration of such hostilities. But if the Jewish mind could be prepared for voluntary suffering, even the massacre I have imagined could be turned into a day of thanksgiving and joy that Jehovah had wrought deliverance of the race even at the hands of the tyrant. For to the god fearing, death has no terror.
In other words, if Hitler is killing you, you are better off sitting there and letting yourself be killed rather than fighting because his retarded god would love that more.

His more enlightened grandson Arun Gandhi offers no such advice today to those who are in the position to be harmed by Jews. Rather, the scorn, which the Gandhi family once reserved for Jews who had the audacity to attempt to resist Hitler, is now given to . . . Jews who think that their state's "survival can only be ensured by weapons and bombs".

So a few members of the Gandhi family seem to have it in for the Jews.

Despite the fact that he has offered some sort of apology for what he said, he curiously failed to apologize for the thing that actually offended people. He originally said that Jews were following in the footsteps of the Nazis. Clearly one can see how this might offend Jews. He apologized for saying that all Jews were following in the footsteps of the Nazis, when what he meant was that it was only Israel who was following in the footsteps of the Nazis.

If I may return the insult, Arun Gandhi is following in the footsteps of his grandfather, and I assure the Indian people (who now posses a nuclear arsenal) that I would never accuse them of such a miserable thing.

Update: I just discovered that this article says pretty much the same thing.

Another argument against gun control

So this guy Ivaylo Ivanov, who lives right across the street from me, stockpiled six or seven pipe bombs, a pistol, a rifle, a shotgun, two pellet rifles, a crossbow with arrows, silencers, ammunition, a bulletproof vest and a machete. We then find out that he confessed to the anti-Semitic graffiting of the synagogues in Brooklyn Heights in September. I wonder what he was plotting.

Also, call me cynical, and maybe I'm looking too deeply in to this, but while I can understand someone not being aware that their roommate is amassing a small arsenal, you cannot hide your really strong attitudes for too long no matter how infrequently you interact over a period of six years. That being said, it is no surprise that the roommate is a researcher affiliated with . . . Columbia University.

Update (/22): This just keeps getting stranger. Apparently this guy is Jewish and out on bail.

Update (1/23): Even more weirdness. First, while I might ignore the Rabbi's overemphasis on matrilineal descent (or the rather Christian concept of having a congregation pray for the spiritual wellbeing of someone?), I too am skeptical about this man's Jewishness. Second, who would believe that someone trained by the Mossad would clean their weapon with a round in the chamber, or be that mentally unstable in general. And finally, Ivanov seems to have taken a page right out of the Three Kings playbook. Seriously, explosive footballs? How unoriginal.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

An amateurish attempt at Hume scholarship

I'd like to say at the outset that I have not done much research or thinking about the following and it is based mostly on my own common-sense view of what the answer to this problem is. Perhaps more real scholarship should be done on this, but the question really does seem too trivial for anything more than a blog post.

In part 14 of David Hume's Natural History of Religion we find the following sentence
The least part of the Sadder, as well as of the Pentateuch, consists in precepts of morality; and we may also be assured, that that part was always the least observed and regarded.
The context is unimportant to us for the moment. The question I want to ask is what is this Sadder that Hume refers to?

Beyond the fact that it is likely a book, Hume himself gives us no clues. But the two editions of the text I have each have footnotes to this word. They both assume that it refers to a Jewish book. It is clear that it refers to a religious book of some sort, and we have no reason other than the two editors I cite below that it is a Jewish one.

But let us assume that it is a Jewish book. Which Jewish book is it?

One footnote (I am not sure which editor inserted this, it is a footnote in an anthology by Christopher Hitchens, who is a bit careless with sources. Could it be C.H. himself?) says the following:
Sadder refers to the Seder Eliyyahu, a Jewish book of homilies written between the third and thenth (sic) centuries C. E. The Pentateuch is the first five books of the Old Testament.
Another editor, J. C. A Gaskin, who is well known as a scholar in Early Modern Philosophy, writes (in his 1992 edition) the following as a note on the same word:
almost certainly Hume's spelling for the Seder or Siddur, the Jewish book of prayer or worship.

So which is it, the Seder Eliyyahu or the Siddur?

Are these our only options? I think not. There are likely four options I think we must consider. (1) The Seder Olam, (2) The Passover Seder, (3) The Seder Eliyyahu, and (4) The Siddur. There are many more books that have the word "Seder" in the title, but it is hard to imagine one that is as significant as the above four.

Our approach is as follows: What Jewish books would Hume likely have heard of, and given those, to which did he actually intend to refer? Let us examine the four options one at a time.

The first three options might seem plausible on lexicgraphical evidence. Hume spells the word he is refering to as "Sadder", which is plausibly pronounced (in Hume's time) "say-der" as opposed to "sih-dur". The double "dd" however, does make it plausible that Hume was thinking of a word that sounds like "sah-der". More likely Hume copied this spelling from some other source which is unknown to me (us). So spelling-evidence is so far, unhelpful.

(1) Could Hume have heard of the Seder Olam? The Seder Olam is a (actually two) purported chronology(ies) of the world from creation to the rise of Alexander the Great.

My guess is that Hume might have heard of this book. Remember, that although Hume today is known as an important philosopher, in his time, and in his own mind, he was a historian. He quotes heavily from the classical historians, and was well familiar with historical scholarship. It certainly seems plausible that he would have heard of the Seder Olam. What is less plausible is that he read it. It has not (to my knowledge) been translated to English, Latin, Greek, or French - the languages I believe Hume know well. It is also unlikely that Hume would tell us that the content of a history book contains something about precepts of morality, unless he had some reason for knowing that it was the case. The Seder Olam, to the best of my recollection, does not contain much morality. On that basis, I reject option (1) as a possibility.

(2) Could Hume have been talking about the Seder shel Pesach, or more likely the book about the Passover Seder, namely the Haggadah? The argument in favor of this is that the Haggadah is probably the most widely printed of all Jewish books, and it would not be surprising if Hume had come across one in all his time spent in scholarly pursuits. I do not know if Hume would have had access to an English, French, Latin, or Greek one, but it is certainly possible and I would bet that it existed in one of those languages in Hume's time, or at the very least, someone he read may have referred to it.

But again, why would Hume think it is full of morality precepts? Well, in some sense it is. There are plenty of morality references in the Haggadah. References to the good and wicked sons come to mind. But the references to them are not extensive. It is a collection of prayers, and it is the tale of the exodus, more than a morality play. Moreover, while it can plausibly be called the "seder" it is well known as the "Haggadah" or the "recitation". Also, though it is a prominent Jewish book, in the scheme of the Jewish year, it is read once (or twice) at night as part of the Passover feast, it is not a central document of faith on par with the Pentateuch that Hume cites.

(3) Could it be the Seder Eliyyahu? I seriously doubt it. While the book is not totally obscure, one would have to be fairly well steeped in Jewish midrashic (homiletical) texts to get to know this book. It was available in Hebrew by Hume's time, but not in any other language, and it was probably not a common book to have around. I would doubt Hume encountered it. Moreover, Seder Eliyyahu is actually two works: Seder Eliyyahu Rabbah and Seder Eliyyahu zuta which collectively are known as Tanna Devei Eliyahu. It is not important enough to be known solely as "The Seder". While the book does deal with morality, it is a much more sohisticated book. It is a midrash, and a sort of mystical-cosmography. It would be odd for Hume to have assumed that Jews give this work much credence, even if he had known of its existence. Jews take the book seriously, but only to an extent. To the extent Hume would have known about this book, he would know about the nature of midrashic exegesis. The only reason one would have to think this might be the book Hume meant is that it was names by this unknown editor. I do not know what evidence this editor came up with to get this book.

So that leaves us with (4) Siddur. The "Siddur" does get it's name from the word "seder". Hume would definitely have had access to a siddur. In 1738 someone, probably Abraham Meers, under the Pseudnym Gamaliel Ben Pedahzur wrote a translation of the Jewish prayer book and a lot of commentary, which apparently was directed at introducing the Jewish rituals to Christians. (See here here and here.) It is a work that the Jewish historian Cecil Roth described as a book that gives "exaggerated importance to the least attractive minutia of observance and by an undue insistence upon anything of a scrofulous nature". This sounds like the place Hume could have picked up some cynicism about Jewish Prayer. The sentence prior to the one we quoted with the word "Sadder" in it reads as follows: "It is certain, that, in every religion, however sublime the verbal definition which it gives of its divinity, many of the votaries, perhaps the greatest number, will still seek the divine favour, not by virtue and good morals, which alone can be acceptable to a perfect being, but either by frivolous observances, by intemperate zeal, by rapturous extasies, or by the belief of mysterious and absurd opinions." It would be useful if I had a copy of the Siddur in question to see if he spells it "Sadder" as that would clinch the argument that Hume was referring to the Siddur, and this one in particular. But sadly, I do not have access to a copy.

I think I will throw my hat in with Gaskin's footnote that Hume was referring to the Siddur. The Siddur is a book that Hume would have heard of. The first English edition we just mentioned was published in 1738, when Hume was about 27 years old. It was published in London, where Hume would have soon thereafter had access to it. It is likely that Hume came across this book in his studies on religion. It is a major Jewish text. It is the prayer book Jews use daily. It frequently mentions morality, as part of the prayers, and given the edition that Hume was likely familiar with, it seems it was tailored to reinforce the view that Hume already had of religion.