Thursday, May 30, 2013

Judaism and the Death of Feeling

This is my submission to the latest issue of Makom, the journal on Jewish studies that I'm the academic editor for. Read the full issue here.

Jewish belief used to be compatible with a scientific worldview. In the days when it was still possible to believe in physical resurrection, in man’s instantaneous creation, and in the historicity of the Exodus, it made sense to call Judaism a rationalist religion. Faith in the Bible needed no cognitive effort: no elaborate metaphors, no furious attempts to reduce it to merely “moral truth.” God really split the sea.

That is no longer true. If we take history seriously, we will conclude that the Exodus probably didn’t happen. If we take biology seriously, we will conclude that man came from pikaia and apes, not a special act of creation. The religion that can survive in the world must be able to survive the onslaught of empirical science taken to its logical conclusion.

For that reason, if Judaism is to live, it cannot maintain scientific dogma like it used to. Modern Jews can no longer believe that the Exodus really happened; nor can they believe that God interrupted history to tell his people not to eat pigs. Judaism must therefore be understood not as a set of dogmas that contradict science; but as a relationship between man and the world. A Jew can have a vivid experience of God without forcing himself to believe doctrines that he doesn’t hold.

But this raises two problems. First, if Judaism is a matter of inner devotion, of individual orientation in the world, where is there room for communal experience? How can I share my attitude to God with other people if dogma is eliminated? Second, if religion is purely transcendental—if there is no such thing as a miracle—where is there room for an experience of God? Man does not live by abstraction alone.

Aesthetic experiences can solve both problems. A congregation united in song does not necessarily subscribe to any common dogma. It does, though, adopt a common attitude to the sacred, transcendent God. The raising of the sefer torah in a synagogue doesn’t ask for any belief, but for common reverence.

The Catholics have understood this for millenia: the solemn mass is a sublime communal union in a devotional attitude to God. Perhaps, as the historians say, Christ never rose from the dead. Even so, the congregation shares tremendous joy in its salvation from sin and its love for God.

The Jews, though, do not understand it. Walk into an Orthodox synagogue today, and you will likely find a grim scene. Tired men sway mechanically, mumbling under their breath. The man leading prayers trips over his tongue in his rush to finish the service in under half an hour (it would be awful if any longer, anyway). The few women in the room, penned in on the side, bury their heads in their books, their silently moving lips the only activity on their expressionless faces.

The situation in most Reform and Conservative synagogues is little better—the aesthetic poverty is almost as acute, but this time it is accompanied by congregational indifference. Most liberal Jews I know attend services only on the “High Holidays”, and even then they find the service boring, puerile, and long.
Guess which religion has more adherents.

The synagogue where I grew up is an exception. The Sabbath service takes place in a vast, august sanctuary. Flickering candles ring the scarlet tebah, and a choir chants magnificently from the loft. The sanctuary is just that—a sanctuary from the world, where a Jew can feel peace in the presence of God. (None of this, by the way, is an innovation: the congregation was founded in the time of Oliver Cromwell, and it hews strictly to traditional observance.) If Judaism is to respond to the problem of modernity, it must embrace this this kind of experience.

How is this to be done? Here is what I propose:

  • We should regularly sing the psalms. We should revive the Spanish piyyutim. More than that—we should write new religious poetry. 
  • Synagogue sanctuaries should be silent, beautiful, and dimly lit. 
  • We should write sublime religious music—and failing that, we should set our texts to melodies from the Western, Islamic, and Russian classical traditions. Reform and Conservative congregations that use instruments on Shabbat should move beyond the guitar.
  • Optional: Rabbis should wear ceremonial clothing, like most Christian and Muslim clergy. Not optional: Rabbis should speak to our souls, not just our intellects.

At the end of Monday-morning prayer, the shaliach tzibbur murmurs the opening verses of the Aleinu, and the congregation follows suit by rote, quickly lapsing into silence. “Hu elokeinu ein od, emes malkeinu efes zulato,” the tired, bearded men mumble under their breath.

But at the end of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the choir exclaims:

Ihr stürzt nieder, Millionen?
Ahnest du den Schöpfer, Welt?
Such’ ihn über’m Sternenzelt!
Über Sternen muß er wohnen.

                                                 Bow down, ye millions!
                                                 Do you sense your creator, O world?
                                                 Search for him above the starry vault:
                                                 Over the stars he must dwell.
Then a man can believe.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Why Was Wagner Evil? A Lesson in Beauty and Morality

Yesterday was Richard Wagner’s two hundredth birthday, which prompted a mandatory debate in my dorm over whether the “man can be separated from the music.” (Wagner was a festering anti-Semite, and he himself claimed that his music was inseparable from the anti-Jewish principles undergirding it.) Can he? I’m going to completely ignore that question, because, in the end, we can do whatever we want. Wagner’s music is only inherently anti-Semitic if we want it to be.

But the fact that so many people take the question seriously is telling: to a lot of people, it’s upsetting that Wagner’s music is so beautiful. (Allegedly. I think it’s tuneless and boring.) It seems like we need some way of reconciling the transcendent beauty of the music with the evil of Wagner’s philosophy.

But we don’t, not at all. Goodness in music and goodness in morality are utterly different things. We are flawed human beings, and liable to associate the two. But we are also moral human beings, and that means that we're capable of distinguishing them.

The Greeks were seduced: they believed that beauty was inseparable from virtue, piety, and wisdom. Apollo’s godly beauty bubbled from the same source as his godly righteousness. It wasn't just the Greeks, though: as human beings, we're incredibly tempted to glorify beauty and call it virtue—especially transcendent beauty. At times, I confess, I have a hard time understanding how anyone who listened to Mozart could commit evil. Evil is vile, and Mozart is purer than anything!

 But I think we would do well to reject that worldview. Beauty is full of delight, and it can even “elevate the soul”—but it has nothing to do with goodness or justice. We’re obliged to recognize justice even if it’s not resplendent. Likewise, we must call out evil when it disguises itself in fine clothing, which it does often. And no marvel, for Satan himself is transformed into an angel of light.

Music indeed elevates the soul—but it can elevate it in any direction that it wants. Wagner used it to instill deep affection for pagan, German virtues. The Aztecs beat their drums to turn mass murder into a thrilling, sublime work of art. The sirens sang lovingly to lure their prey to destruction.

Odysseus had the same problem as us.
Now, because music is so stirring, it's to our tremendous advantage if we use it well. I'm all for putting beautiful music into the service of moral goodness. That’s why I think that religions should learn from the Catholics and hold services with ethereal chanting, flickering candles, and soaring choral music.  (Hint: if atheists want to attract more human beings, they should do something similar.) The Civil Rights Movement did very well with its stirring music. But the Nazis sang moving songs too, and anyone who thinks that Nazi music is inherently ugly and grandiose is pretending. And in Casablanca, the French soldiers aren't justified just because they sing with more feeling than the Germans. So it’s fine to be deeply moved by We Shall Overcome, but we shouldn’t think for a moment that the justice of the Civil Rights Movement had anything to do with our tingling spines.

With that, here's some good music.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Dumb Things that I've Said: Some Sheepish Retractions

It's a good idea to clear out your closet once in a while and throw out the moth-eaten shirts. Here are some of the ridiculous things I've said over the last year.

1) "Legalize Animal Cruelty." In pointing out an inconsistency in the way our laws treat animals, I showed my own moral obtuseness. In this post, I argued that it's wrong for us to permit animal slaughter but prohibit animal cruelty, even though both inflict similar amounts of suffering. But why should we be narrow-mindedly consistent when we distinguish between good and evil? I happen to concur in my society's judgment that it's more acceptable to slaughter a cow than to beat a dog. That's not a judgment that follows from a neutral, general rule—but no one ever said that judgments have to be.

A desire to beat a dog for pleasure is vicious and vile. Our society should by all means pass judgment against such depravity. Meanwhile, to slaughter a cow for food or leather is not nearly as reprehensible, and should be permitted.

2) "Why Morality Doesn't Exist." I still agree with the point I was trying to make here, but I went way too far with my rhetoric. Indeed, morality is not a matter of crystalline logic, and still less is it an empirical question. Moral judgments are not derivable from a view of the world that all "rational beings" share. But should I really say that "there is no such thing as a true or false moral statement?" Interpreted the wrong way, that's an attitude that opens the door to evil. When I make a moral judgment, I'm doing more than grunting my aesthetic approval or disapproval. I'm claiming that something is good or bad for everyone, and intrinsically bad or good.

3) "Morality and Facts in Public Debate." In this post, I set up a preposterous distinction between moral and empirical debates. Empirical debate, I argued, ought to be solved with hard data and rigorous logical thinking. And moral debates, being essentially a matter of non-rational judgment, are better off not happening.

But the two kinds of debate can't be separated except dishonestly. The decision, for example, to focus on some points of empirical dispute and not others is itself a moral choice. Moreover, there's nothing wrong with using language to convince someone else of a moral point. I can appeal to someone's reason as well as his emotion to bring him over to my side. I can, for instance, exploit my opponent's desire for consistency when I want him to adopt a new moral view.


4) "The Ethics of Proselytizing." Here, I tried to argue that Christians who believe that nonbelievers are going to Hell have—given their information—a moral obligation to say so. That's an argument that treats religious beliefs are a matter of scientific information: A knows fact φ, and therefore has duty δ. But that's not what our religious beliefs are like at all. If they were, we would see a lot more disputes on the question of Hell that referred to empirical evidence. Instead, it works like this: a believer lives his life afraid of a Hell which he assumes exists; and the skeptic, rather than refute him, holds him in contempt.

I thus don't strictly disagree with a Christian who thinks I will burn forever, because our criteria for truth are utterly different. The kind of proof I could offer—scientific evidence—would be rejected as a temptation of the Devil. The kind of proof I would be offered—the misinterpreted testimony of the New Testament—would be equally uncompelling to me.

I can therefore understand fully why a Christian would want to save my soul on the subway. But I can still call Hell a false and wicked doctrine—and act on that conviction—without arguing against him, and without bringing science or theology to bear.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

How to Stop Reading and Enjoy Your Life

If you ever hear anyone speak worshipfully about the warrior Achilles, there's a good chance he's a scholar: a lifelong academic with good language skills, a coffee addiction, and three degrees.

But people like this live less like Achilles than anyone else. Achilles loved his friend to the point of slaughter and death, burned with energetic youth, and laughed at cowardice. He never touched a book. He never painstakingly learned an ancient language. He never sat still for two hours in a hot room, teaching a flock of restless nineteen-year-olds.

Not a conjugation in sight.
Students of history and literature face a fundamental problem. Cloistered in comfortable universities, they face few of the problems and passions of the outside world. And this isolation makes them lose sight of the point of their studies: to understand those very problems and passions. So instead of drinking parties devoted to plumbing the mysteries of love, we get dry "symposia" on sexuality in 13th-century Thuringia. Instead of the ROTC, we get 350-man lectures on "War and the Nation State." Instead of open nudists, we get tie-wearing history majors presenting their discovery that modesty is only a Victorian neurosis.

I don't mean to suggest that there's no value in reading for its own sake. I'm the one, after all, who advocates a heavily classicist curriculum. It's fun, interesting and useful to read old books in old languages. But there are more things in life than reading, and in any case, to really take the classics seriously, we must live lives outside the library. The best reader has felt the rage of Achilles, the madness of Saul, and the longing of Orpheus.