Tuesday, February 26, 2008

On proportionality, again

As more and more rockets come down on the Israeli town of Sderot, I was thinking about Israel’s response to the rockets a year and a half ago. I remember Israel being charged with having a disproportionate response to the shelling by Israel’s bombing in south Lebanon. I thought at the time that this was an absurd claim, and I still do. Today, Bret Stephens has a column on the proportionality calculus which essentially says that there is no proportional way for Israel to reasonably respond to the rocket attacks.

I agree. I think that there are two connected reasons why the demand for Israel's response to be "proportional" is absurd.

First, it took me about a year to realize the following irony about proportionality. Proportionality is not a value in either Jewish or Islamic notions of just war. So there is an attack by an Islamic group, a response by a Jewish group and these Christian “moral thinkers” telling the Jews that they are not adhering to Christian principles of just war in the engagement.

Does anyone else hear “cultural imperialism”?

Did I miss Augusine’s authorial hand in the Geneva Conventions?

Again, while the light of intuition might claim that some kind of proportionality ought to be a part of any theory of just war, there are more and less reasonable versions of what it can be. The ones claimed last summer were the ridiculous ones. But even so, there is no a priori version of what is to count as proportional and what is not.

Like I mentioned last summer, it is clear that sending a nuclear weapon to solve a minor trade dispute is disproportional. But on the other hand, Israel, for all its shelling, did not achieve the status quo ante, which is the goal of proportionality, to do just enough to rectify the situation. Israel did not get its soldiers back. Assuming that there is a chance that they can somehow accomplish this with enough military action, they have not yet even put up a “proportional” fight. Israel still has way more fighting to go till they hit “proportional”. So there is no clear line that makes it easy to understand what it would be to be proportional.

It seems like legalistic religions like Judaism and Islam don’t have to deal with these line-drawing problems. They have rules telling them how and when they fight. Christianity, which is more (for the lack of a better word) theologico-philosophical, and less legal, has to first answer these questions about what proportionality is before it can come to an understanding of who is in the right on the in bello issues. (And anyone who knows what the phrase “conceptual analysis” means knows that there is no way to figure out what “proportional” is.)

This kind of thinking then just encourages Christian thinkers to work their way backward - first decide who you don’t like. Then draw your line so that the side you are initially prejudiced against looses.

Which takes me to the second reason. What we really see from this is that despite the intuition that we need some sort of proportional response, proportionality is most likely incoherent. There are just too many real cases where a country has no feasible response if it is to act proportionally. Obviously you can't tell a country that it just has to let its citizens get shelled and killed because the country has no options that meet your moral standards.

It also seems obvious that asking some "Christian" European country (or collection thereof) to go in and solve this problem in some way that they deem proportional will not work. After all, it was their colonialist meddling incursions in the Middle East that started these problems in the first place.

So I take it that from a moral perspective, the problem is unsolvable given the Just War paradigm that thinkers who operate in a Christian tradition use. That means that their condemnatory rhetoric is merely that - rhetoric. Rhetoric that agitates against one side for not solving an intractable problem merely reflects a prejudice against that side. Moreover, I see this as an argument for political realism in this case.

Thursday, February 21, 2008


I hope you all caught the lunar eclipse last night. It was awesome!

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Review of Moshe Koppel's Meta-Halakhah

(Note: Normally after reading a book, I would just type out something as an afterthought and post it here. This time is no different, but this time it comes with an apology to the author. This book deserves more than some afterthoughts, I am just not in a position now to write any up right now.)

I think Jewish philosophy took some wrong turns over the years. Let me explain. A significant portion of Jewish philosophy has always been, parasitic, if you will, off all other philosophy. This is not a bad thing. To the contrary. Jewish philosophy, in its good days, took the latest tools from the mainstream philosophers, and applied them to problems of Jewish concern - sometimes integrating them with Jewish thought, or criticizing them from the perspective of Jewish thought, or criticizing Jewish thought thought from the perspective of the most modern pieces of secular philosophy. Some of the most prominent Jewish philosophers did that, and it is mainly because of their ability to do that so well, that we now see them as part of mainstream thinking. When we think of Philo, Maimonides, Gersonides, Mendelssohn, Albo, Krochmal, and many others, this should be readily apparent.

Modern Anglo philosophy broke with European philosophy with the works of Frege and Russell. As the story goes, Russell broke off with Hegelian idealism, and two streams of thought started - one caught on in English-speaking countries, and the other on the
continent. That is not to say that there is not a lot of overlap in the questions they ask, the methodology they employ, or the answers they give. But there are considerable differences between them, and for better or worse, philosophers in the "continental tradition" and philosophers in the Anglo "analytic tradition" do not read each other's works much. The Anglo philosophers tend to see their philosophy through the light of formal logic, whereas the philosophers on the continent tend to see their philosophy through the light of sociology. These are different takes on philosophy.

More modern European Jewish philosophers like Franz Rosenzweig wrote within the tradition of Hegel and the Europeans. The tradition continues with Levinas doing Jewish-like philosophy within a very Franco-European tradition. (Sometimes manifested in works of people like Marc-Alain Ouaknin.)

All of this is not about being territorial. Rather it still about the "wrong turns" I mentioned. J. B. Soloveitchik, perhaps the most important Jewish philosopher in the English-speaking world alive in my lifetime, also took inspiration from much of the
European existentialism in which he was educated. Naturally, an industry grew up studying Soloveitchik. What has failed to happen in Jewish thought was any attempt at analytic Jewish philosophy - that is Jewish philosophy that has emerged using the tools of modern 20th and 21st century Anglo thought. (There are some works that might be classified as exceptions.)

I think that for all I don't like about it, Moshe Koppel's Meta-halakhah might have been the first book that competently employs the tools of modern logic and analysis to Jewish thought. Koppel tackles some of the hardest and trickiest problems that Halakhah (Jewish Law) faces. These are not questions about any particular law, or legal problem, but rather he asks the questions about the foundational issues about the law. Jewish law is notoriously complicated. There are disputes, reconciliations, open questions, and principles of derivation. Some of the toughest moments come when we ask questions like: can all of Jewish Law be derived mechanically from the original Law (at Sinai)? What is the nature of an "interpretation" of Jewish law? How could Moses not have understood the laws being taught in his name by Rabbi Akiba? What does it mean for the Torah to be a "living" document and also be divine? If God has the law up in Heaven that is perfect, why do we consider it a foundations of Jewish Law that the Torah is "not in Heaven"? Why was it so bad to write down the law? Isn't it better, if the law is perfect, to have it down so it does not get changed?

Koppel deals with all these questions, and more using the notions of computability, model, derivability, verifyability, provability, etc. He gives a spirited defense of an understanding of Jewish law that has a two-fold nature. That is there is a level of Jewish law that is intuitive, and a level on which it is logical. He claims that prophets only have intuitions about what the law is, and interpreters of the law are only able to put them in to formal models. Each has its advantages, but both are necessary for the complete functioning and understanding of Jewish Law.

Like I said, because of this book's uniqueness in treating issues of Jewish Law in a sophisticated way it deserves more careful consideration than I am giving it here. I will just say that while I think Koppel's treatment must be on the right track, I am not convinced that it is right. He claims outright that he did not write a scholarly book, and that is correct. He should have. There is some literature that would be useful, and the topic deserves a more extensive treatment. Nonetheless this is a valuable contribution, and the lack of critical reception over the past 10 years since the book came out speaks more of the sorry state of contemporary Orthodox Jewish thought than it does of the book itself.

It should be read by all who want to start understanding the hard questions about Jewish Law.

(PS I'm not sure what the deal with the approbation is. I didn't really understand it. It looked weird.)