o .comment-link {margin-left:.6em;}

Lamrot Hakol (Despite Everything)

Musings and kvetchings and Torah thoughts from an unconventional Orthodox Jew.

My Photo

"I blog, therefore I am". Clearly not true, or I wouldn't exist except every now and then.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Events in American History

Today, my daughter came home from her first day as a fifth grader with a homework assignment for me and my partner. Her history teacher wants us to write down the three most important events in American history, in our opinions. And it got me thinking about America, and the various changes it's gone through. See, I fear and hate Barack Obama. I have done since Jeri Ryan (nee Zimmerman, btw) ended her husband's race for the Senate in Illinois and Obama replaced him. Kind of funny to think that if Jack Ryan hadn't brought Jeri to strip clubs, Obama wouldn't be President today. For want of a nail...

But thinking about this assignment has gotten me to put things in perspective. Obama is bad, no doubt, but he isn't this big watershed in American history. He's not the first President to lie about himself. Not even the first President to fight rumors of his religious affiliation (Lincoln was accused of being a Catholic). He isn't the first President to jack the national debt sky high, and he won't be the last. He isn't the first President to vastly increase the power of the government at the expense of individuals, and he won't be the last. He isn't the first President to bail out big corporations on the taxpayers' backs, and it's virtually certain that he won't be the last.

So what are the big watershed events in American history? Well, it depends where you start it from. Let's start it from the Revolutionary War, because up until that point, there was no America as a nation. It was just British colonies. So:

1. The Signing of the Declaration of Independence (1776).
This is a no-brainer. This was the document that turned a bunch of rebellious colonists into a nation in their own right. It was not only a watershed event for America; it was a watershed event for the world. The creation of a nation in which the people were sovereign was novel and extraordinary, and an awful lot of people were convinced it wouldn't last.

2. The Ratification of the United States Constitution (1789).
Since the Constitution, in theory, is the defining document of the United States, specifying how the government of the United States is to be constituted (that being where the word "constitution" comes from, after all), the ratification of this document can be said to have created the United States.

3. The Whiskey Rebellion (1791-1794).
This was the first major violation of the Constitution by the United States government. In response to non-payment of a whiskey tax that was itself in violation of the Constitution (since it stemmed from Alexander Hamilton's decision to nationalize the debts incurred by the various states during the Revolutionary War), George Washington led 13,000 troops against farmers in southwestern Pennsylvania.

4. Marbury v. Madison (1803).
This was the second major violation of the Constitution. Chief Justice John Marshall (a first cousin of Thomas Jefferson) invented the idea of "judicial review", claiming that the Supreme Court was the ultimate decisor of Constitutionality, a power not granted it by the Constitution. This was an enormous usurpation of power.

5. The War of Southern Independence (1861-1865).
Commonly called by the misnomer "The Civil War" (a civil war is an internal struggle between factions in a state for control of that state, which was never at issue during this war), this war was the point at which the struggle between advocates of individual rights, as Thomas Jefferson had advocated, finally lost to advocates of a strong, imperial government, as Alexander Hamilton had advocated. From this point on, there were no serious checks on the power of the Federal government.

6. Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad (1886).
In this case dealing with railroad property taxes, the court reporter stated in the headnote of the case that the Supreme Court considers corporations to have the rights granted to persons within United States jurisdiction by the Fourteenth Amendment. This view does not appear in the court's opinion, but has been considered to be law ever since then. Since corporations are effectively immortal, and since corporate boards are required -- by law -- to act for the benefit of shareholders, first and foremost, they can't be said to have a conscience. The granting of the rights of persons to what are to all intents and purposes uncontrollable Frankenstein monsters was an enormous watershed in history.

7. The Creation of the Federal Reserve System (1913).
For the first time, the government of the United States delegated its right to create money to a private banking cartel. This was contrary to the Constitution, but as a check on government power, the Constitution had effectively been set aside by this point. Since then, the Federal Reserve Board, which can be appointed and unappointed by the government, but which cannot be audited by the government, and answers only to itself, has been in charge of the wealth of Americans.

After all of these erosions of Constitutional limitations on the government, Barack Obama's actions are only extraordinary in degree; not kind.

Labels: , , ,

Friday, August 06, 2010

The Intellectual Implosion in Haredism

Caveat: this may come across as Haredi-bashing. All I can say is that it's intended as constructive criticism. If even one Haredi Jew reads this and starts to realize that there's a problem, I'll consider this post a success.

I live in a house that was previously owned by a Lubavitch family. They had a lot of kids, and it was pretty clear that they have no intention of those kids ever going to college. This, despite the fact that both parents were college educated, one at an Ivy League institution. And that bothers me.

The Sages say, "If someone tells you there's wisdom among the nations, believe them. If someone tells you there's Torah among the nations, don't believe them." We know there's wisdom in the world that can't be gotten from the Torah alone. The Vilna Gaon was a mathematician. Rambam was a physician, and studied Aristotelian philosophy. Ignorance is not a value in Judaism.

Some of this has come about because of the toxic atmosphere in so many universities. Let me tell you about that. A girl who was a year behind me in high school went to the same college I went to. She was raised frum, and I most emphatically was not. She came out non-religious, at least to some degree, while I came out frum. Go figure. There are always anecdotes, but even if every university were toxic, the solution isn't to remain ignorant. The solution isn't to learn Torah all day, every day, and leave it to wives to bring in the money. That's never been a Jewish ideal. Never.

Here's another college related story. When I was living in New York, I got invited for a Rosh Hashana meal to the home of the daughter of the rabbi of the shul I davened at. It was a Young Israel shul, but it was very much on the Agudah side of Young Israel. Lot's of black hats and long beards. "Not that there's anything wrong with that", as they say, but I'm trying to give you a general impression of the place. Still and all, they weren't really Haredi. The rabbi's daughter had gone to Stern College, just as an example.

Now... Stern is a women's only, religious college. Though the Haredim generally wouldn't waste their spit on it. After all, girls can learn Gemara there.

Anyway, at lunch, she asked me some stuff about what I did. And I mentioned some of my studies in the field of ancient history. She seemed a little taken aback, so I tried to explain to her why it was important for frum Jews to address the issues that come up in the study of the ancient near east. I thought I'd give her a simple example. I told her to consider Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan's translation of the Torah, The Living Torah. In this book, Kaplan includes many notes on history and botany. When plants are mentioned, he tells us what the plant is, giving the Latin name and some stuff about it. When a Pharaoh is mentioned, he tells us which Pharaoh it is. Here's the catch: he's wrong.

Okay, say it's a matter of opinion. The bottom line is, Aryeh Kaplan was not an Egyptologist. He was a talmid chacham with a degree in physics. When he wrote that thus and such a Pharaoh was Amenemhet II, he was simply basing himself on accepted reference books. He didn't use ruach hakodesh to determine that the reference books were correct; he did what any non-specialist does in such a case.

When I said that, my hostess' eyes got wide with shock, and she said, "You can't say that." And trying desperately to figure out what on earth she'd learned at Stern, I tried to explain to her what I explained above. But it didn't work. Her husband chimed in at that point, and tried to explain to her that I was right. That got her to stop arguing (because you don't argue with the husband ), but it was clear that she wasn't convinced.

I hate this. I hate the way huge sections of the Orthodox Jewish world are devolving into anti-intellectual piety, using one chumra after another to feel safe in a world they're receding from faster and faster.

I know that everyone sees themselves as being centrist, but I watch the Haredi world entering a dark age on one side, while the YCT/Edah/JOFA left left left wing Orthodox is eroding everything Jewish about Judaism. And I think of the famous line from Yeats: "Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold." Is that always how it has to be?