‘Or’: New Jewish Journal


If you’ve spent a lot of time on a college campus recently, particularly one with a storied tradition of intellectual excellence, you may have felt, at some point, some subtle metaphysical blues: your friends are cool, your professors are interesting, but the fire you’d hoped would consume you—that flaming obsession with big ideas that have big consequences—just isn’t there.

Celeste Marcus felt it, too. She entered the University of Pennsylvania last year, and was soon, she said, happy to be introduced to diverse groups of people she’d never met before and challenged by divergent ways of looking at the world. “But I also wanted to be around people who were as passionate as I am about sharing ideas that really move them,” she said, “and that was much harder to find.”

It wasn’t that other students were shallow, she said, or hurried, or more interested in Kanye than in Kant. It’s just that people deeply committed to ideas are hard to find these days, even—one is tempted to say particularly—on the campuses on elite universities. Undeterred, Marcus sat down and did what serious and dedicated men and women had done when moved by the spirit for at least six hundred years: she wrote a manifesto. …

The result is Or.

Clara Collier (Yale) on Shylock: ‘It will go without saying that Shylock is a terrible role model. He is small-minded, embittered; his obsession for revenge is a hollow perversion of a healthy desire for justice. But his monomania bears unintentional traces of Judaism’s radical unromanticism. Our scriptures do not promise us radical moral transformation or teach us to focus on an eternal reward. Human perfectibility is a matter of theological speculation; the details of shechitah [kosher slaughter] are a subject of intense debate. …’

Celeste Marcus (U of Pennsylvania) on Deism and Torah: ‘What is the nafka mina, the practical difference, between a deist’s religion and a Jew’s? In either, one absorbs his own dependence on God’s goodness constantly. But for the Jew, this is an abstraction made concrete, and constantly put before him through the rituals in which he engages. …’

Avinoam Stillman (Columbia) on Emerson and Rav Kook: ‘Emerson and R. Kook envisioned an ideal future in which the light in all things will be perceptible in a way that is hidden today. But their utopian vision had practical applications in the cultural life of their societies, and stood as a bulwark against stultifying conformism or reactionary cowardice. Authenticity and insight mediate between national pride and tradition on the one hand, and universality and innovation on the other. …’

Read the rest and more at Or. They’re on WordPress, so you can follow them if you have an account.

Socialism and Philanthropy

The same arguments that hold against socialism in the commercial sphere, also apply with equal or greater force, I think, in the world of charity and philanthropy.

A competitive free “market” of benevolent organizations ensures that I remain in charge of my charitable giving. If I learn or suspect that the ABC Foundation is abusing its donors’ trust, with its executives living in luxury while its purported beneficiaries receive scant aid, I can choose to withhold my donations from ABC Foundation and give instead to the better-reputed XYZ Foundation.

Entrusting charitable functions to the Government risks shielding those functions from scrutiny, and deprives the “donor” – that is, the taxpayer – of any direct control over how his or her funds are to be used. This is not to say that the Government should never attempt to “do good”, but it is to say that this is a slippery slope.

Socialism appeals to idealists who harbor a sincere and laudable desire to “make the world a better place”. The correct path to this goal is through liberty, not tyranny.

The Hours, the Days, and the Years

The Matrix (1999)

The Hours (2002)

There are no computers and no kung fu fights in “The Hours”; and when people fall out of buildings, they don’t get up again.  And yet, like the denizens of the apocalyptic world of “The Matrix”, many of the characters seem to live in an invisible prison – one they cannot “smell or taste or touch”.  And some of them, like Neo and the other inhabitants of Zion, choose to confront the reality of their world – even if it is unpleasant and dangerous, even if it threatens their very sanity.  Virginia Woolf has no use for the comforting retreat of the suburbs, and precious little patience for the well-intentioned efforts of others to “take care” of her.  She, too, prefers “always to look life in the face, and to know it … to love it, for what it is.”  She is a red-pill person.

But there are many kinds of prisons.  Mental illness – Virginia’s depression, Richard’s schizophrenia – can also be a prison.  Sometimes the only way to exercise your autonomy is to have some say (as Virginia says) in your “own prescription”, just as Neo must choose for himself which pill to take.  (Or like Richard, who simply takes too many pills.)  The choice is in your hands; but once the choice is made, you must live with the consequences.

I live alone, and spend a great deal of time in my own company.  Often, this blog is the only conversation I get during the day.  It’s a strange conversation, the one you and I are having:  we do not meet face to face, and with the exception of a few friends who read my blog, we are probably strangers to each other.  All you know about me is what you read here; and all I know of you is the anonymous statistics collected by SiteMeter.

Sometimes I have a certain feeling – as if something is wrong, it’s not fitting together somehow, and it’s not a problem that’s definable, and it’s not a problem that is fixable.  As if no matter where I go or what I do, I’ll always be surrounded by this invisible membrane that keeps me separated and locked away from the rest of the world, from humanity, from life.  I don’t even know what name to call it; I don’t know if it has a name.

I do know that I can make my own choices.  I do not want anyone making them for me.  I don’t want anyone telling me how to live, or what to read, or what to listen to, or how to think.  I don’t want anyone feeding me pre-digested answers like some kind of processed food.  And I do not want to be stuffed into some kind of mental coccoon and told that it’s for my own good.

We do not get a choice whether or not to die.  That decision is made for us, and in the end, without exception, it will always end the same way.  The choice we do get is whether to face each and every day.  Sometimes it is not an easy choice.  Even the most fortunate among us may inhabit prisons invisible to others.  Freedom from fear does not, alas, bring freedom from suffering.  To choose, consciously, to live each and every day that is given to us – to say, “Today is not the day” – this is the real test of our humanity.

We are at our most when we forget ourselves.  Clarissa is sustained through the difficult years – which seem to go on and on – by her duty to her old lover.  (“When I’m gone,” Richard mockingly reminds her, “you’ll have to think about yourself.”)  Neo can fulfill his mission only after the Oracle convinces him that he is not “the One”, the messiah of Zion.

When Virginia walks into the river, she makes a choice that many of us have contemplated at one time or another.  Perhaps, like many people who make the same choice, she is no longer the master of her own actions.  Do such people sin by this act?  Perhaps that is for the Righteous Judge to decide.  What we do know with a certainty is this:  That just as the actions and kindnesses of others have affected our own lives, so too do we affect the lives of others, even in ways that are hidden from us.  We have the choice to extend and accept such kindnesses – whether in the form of a fancy dinner or a simple cookie – at every moment we draw breath.  By choosing kindness and love, we also choose conflict and suffering; but we choose life.

Originally published 2005 May 6.

The Radical

I’ve recently had the pleasure of reading ‘My Year Inside Radical Islam‘ by Daveed Gartenstein-Ross. Daveed’s book interested me because his journey in some ways paralleled, and in some ways mirrored, my own. And I believe there are also important lessons to be learned about identity, will, and the spread of radical Islam today.

Daveed was born in 1976, into a liberal, secular Jewish family in Ashland, Oregon. They lived at what he describes as “the hippie end of a hippie town” and embraced a spiritual, multicultural ethos. In his activist college days, he became friends with al-Husein Madhany, who would provide Daveed’s introduction to Islam. Before long, Daveed embraced the Muslim faith and converted.

Al-Husein’s mystical, universalistic, Sufi-oriented brand of Islam appealed to Daveed. But as he became more deeply involved in Islam through the Al-Haramain Foundation, he quickly became exposed to a very different side of the faith – one bitterly opposed to the message of people like Al-Husein.

I recommend reading the book to find out how Daveed found his way out of radical Islam, and came to embrace another faith.

I found DGR’s book fascinating on a number of levels, some of them personal. Like Daveed, I’m a convert, but not to Islam or Christianity. Born in suburban New England about half a generation earlier than Daveed, I grew up in a home that, apart from my family’s lack of Jewish roots, sounds similar to Daveed’s in a lot of ways. My parents were nominally Unitarian Universalists, who had broken away from their conservative Christian upbringings and met in a Unitarian church. As a young adult I became interested in Judaism, learning Hebrew and attending Jewish services (first Reform and Conservative, later Orthodox) from my late teens to early twenties. At 25 I had an Orthodox Jewish conversion.

But I want to get back to DGR’s book. Reading ‘My Year Inside Radical Islam’, I was struck by the way the fanatical Salafi stream of Islam drove out the milder Sufi and Nashqibandi strains – and I was reminded of my friend Michael Totten’s book ‘Where the West Ends‘. Totten traveled throughout eastern Europe and western Asia, along the fault-lines of cultures. He witnessed many things, including the inexorable advance of radical Islam against the moderate forms of the religion. In my review of the book I wrote that

There is the image of the lonely liberal, surrounded by a sea of increasingly hostile and violent factions. There is the conflict between old traditionalism and new fundamentalism. …

The Serbian film writer Filip David is one of those lonely liberals; so is the half-Serbian, half-Bosnian Predag Delibasic, who takes pride in having declared himself variously a Jew, a Muslim, and a Yugoslav – and claims that nonexistent nationality to this day. Perhaps the loneliest, though, is Shpetim Mahmudi, an Albanian Sufi mystic who must watch the gradual encroachment of foreign-backed Arab islamists on the grounds of his religious compound. His story is tragic.

It also points to something important about religious conflict in the Muslim world: that the conflict is often not – as Westerners sometimes imagine – a case of Western modernity threatening to extinguish Islamic tradition. Rather, it is instead a direct attack on centuries-old, evolving religious traditions by well-armed, well-financed followers of a comparatively recent fundamentalist sect. It is ancient moderation versus newfangled fanaticism.

And I think that that’s the same thing Daveed Gartenstein-Ross witnessed in his time in the world of Islam.

My own relationship to religion is complicated and better suited to another post. But I do want to bring up Natan Sharansky’s central insight from his book ‘Defending Identity‘:

The enemy’s will is strong because his identity is strong. And we must match his strength of purpose with strong identities of our own.

The widely-accepted fallacy is that “conflicts arise because of religious dogma, so if we get rid of religious dogma we’ll reduce conflicts”. But the danger in having no fixed set of doctrines is that you can easily get drawn into all kinds of crazy stuff. And that’s as true today as it was when Daveed was in college.

Devotion to a good doctrine can give you the strength and the faith to reject bad ones. What you believe matters.

Middle East: 2015-08-07 Friday

Turkey’s deception.  Jonathan Spyer explains:

The strikes against Islamic State by the Turkish air force, and the decision to grant the US Air Force permission to use the Incirlik base near Adana constitute a feint.

Ankara’s stated intention of using its air power to create a 90-km. wide area of control between Jarabulus and Marea along the Syrian-Turkish border is directed against the ambitions of the Kurds, not those of Islamic State.

Why, then, has Erdogan decided to move against the Syrian Kurds?

Since January, Kurdish political stock has been steadily rising in the West. …

Read the rest at the link.  Here’s Michael Totten:

The Turkish government is finally allowing the United States to use Incirlik Air Base, just 70 miles from the Syrian border, to launch air strikes over ISIS-held territory—but only if American air power is not used to support Kurdish militias.

The United States, at this late date, is not really interested in helping anyone in Syria aside from the Kurds. All other factions fighting ISIS and the bankrupt Assad regime are Sunni Arab Islamists.

The Kurds are the only American option. But Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will only allow American planes taking off from Incirlik to provide air cover for the so-called Army of Conquest, an Islamist movement backed by the Turks and the Qataris. …

Go read the rest here.

Rudaw: Turkey’s aim is to divide.

While the details of the proposed zone have not been sorted out between Washington and Ankara, some analysts believe that Turkey’s motive for wanting such an enclave is to ensure that the three Kurdish cantons declared by the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) remain territorially separated from one another.

The Turkish aim is to eventually abort the emergence of another autonomous Kurdish entity, similar to the autonomous Kurdistan Region of Iraq.

“I think the Turkish objective is to make sure there is a wedge so that the Kurds do not control the whole border,” David Pollock, the Kaufman fellow at The Washington Institute, told Rudaw. “I think the United States does not really care about that aspect of it, but it’s willing to accept it as the price for more coordination from Turkey for Incirlik,” he added.

USA / Iran:  Schumer opposes Iran deal; anti-Israel Democrats respond.  Senior Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer (NY) stated that he will oppose Obama’s deal with Iran.

Israel / Iran:  Israel could resume eliminating Iranian nuclear experts.  Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon said Israel ‘bears no responsibility’ for safety of Iranian nuclear scientists.

Woody Allen and the Non-Threatening Jewish Man

Woody Allen admits, at least in theory, that he (and the media upon whom he bases his opinions) might be wrong.

Unintentionally, he makes an important point about the left-wing media in the USA and the West generally: the people whom they admire, and who admire them, are precisely those who are the least equipped to deal with the rough realities of a brutal world. They are the artists, the intellectuals, the liberals – those who have no tools in their toolkit other than their creative talents and their immense self-regard.

The woody allens of the world aspire to being the Non-Threatening Jewish Man who’s adored by the sophisticates. But Benjamin Netanyahu – בנימין נתניהו isn’t playing that game.

Turkey, the Kurds, and Islamic State

Business Insider: Turkey – IS links called ‘undeniable’.

A US-led raid on the compound housing the Islamic State’s “chief financial officer” produced evidence that Turkish officials directly dealt with ranking ISIS members, Martin Chulov of the Guardian reported recently.

The officer killed in the raid, Islamic State official Abu Sayyaf, was responsible for directing the terror army’s oil and gas operations in Syria. The Islamic State (aka ISIS, ISIL, or Daesh) earns up to $10 million a month selling oil on black markets.

Documents and flash drives seized during the Sayyaf raid reportedly revealed links “so clear” and “undeniable” between Turkey and ISIS “that they could end up having profound policy implications for the relationship between us and Ankara,” senior Western official familiar with the captured intelligence told the Guardian.

Radio Free Liberty / Radio Europe: Turkey seeks to stop Kurdish autonomy.

Plans by Turkey and the United States to create an “Islamic State-free zone” in northern Syria along the Turkish border will serve Ankara’s aims of stopping Kurdish militias from advancing in the area, analysts and Kurdish political leaders say.

The plan follows significant gains by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units militia (YPG) against the IS militant group in northern Syria. …

The YPG’s gains against IS have caused consternation bordering on hysteria in Ankara, which fears Kurdish autonomy.

Rudaw: Kurds angered at Turkish attacks on PKK, accuse Obama of betrayal.

Kurds took to social media to express their frustrations at Turkish air strikes on its Kurdish opposition, with many accusing Washington of giving Ankara the green light for attacks in return for use of a strategic air base.

In online postings, Kurds accused US President Barack Obama of allow Turkey to bomb the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in return for use of the Incirlik airbase in Diyarbakir for the war against the Islamic State (ISIS) group.

Rudaw posted a question on its Facebook page on Tuesday, asking if there is a connection between the PKK bombardment that Turkey has carried out since Friday, and permission to the US to use Incirlik. The question generated nearly 200 responses from Kurds and Americans who believe Obama betrayed the Kurds, while the Americans apologized on behalf of their country to the Kurds.

Richard Fernandez at the Belmont Club has more.

Interestingly, the Turks did not appear bent on annihilating ISIS with their planned strikes, simply hurting them enough to keep them on their best behavior. The Institute for the Study of War continued its description on how the planning proceeded.

The successful conclusion of these negotiations following months of talks likely came as a product of the intensifying security concerns facing the Turkish government. Turkey had previously avoided overt confrontation with ISIS and other militant groups transiting through its territory in order to apply indirect pressure to both the Syrian regime and the Syrian Kurdish YPG, which the Turkish government views as an offshoot of the PKK. This stance also enabled Turkey to limit the potential for violent terrorist attacks within its borders by providing an incentive for ISIS and other extremist groups to avoid jeopardizing their supply routes through Turkey by disrupting the status quo.

What really alarmed the Turks was that the Kurds were holding their own against ISIS.  This, plus the decline of Assad, may have pushed them into getting directly involved.

Read the whole thing at the link.