Sunday, November 28, 2010

We have seen that when unaffiliateds coalesce into a sort of non-community community, a narrative emerges according to which fairness is divine and the ethics of community and divinity are retrograde values that necessarily compromise fairness. Since this narrative does not grow organically from the full range of moral instincts but rather from their suppression, it might be more precise to refer to it as an ideology than as a narrative. Rather than emerging as a by-product of a code, this ideology invents a matching code. Let’s consider what such a code might look like.

In Sefer Kedushah, the Rambam divides “holiness” into two main categories: those related to restrictions on sex (beeos assuros) and those related to restrictions on food (maachalos assuros). That’s a convenient framework in which to consider the code of the unaffiliated.

Restrictions on sexual conduct such as bestiality, adultery, incest and homosexuality are common across cultures. For unaffiliateds, such restrictions can only be justified if they can somehow be translated into terms of fairness and avoidance of harm to others. Here’s an experiment you can try. Ask somebody if they regard incest as immoral. Because human beings are hard-wired to regard incest as immoral, they will say yes. Then ask them why it’s immoral. If they belong to any moral community in the world from Williamsburg to Tuvalu, they might mention God or the moral community they belong to or their internal moral compass, but in the end they will simply be communicating to you that they just know it’s wrong the same way they know the sky is blue. But if they subscribe to the faith of the unaffiliated, they will need to find some way to locate the problem in some harm that incest causes to others. So spin a yarn where such harm is precluded: full consent of both sides is given, precautions against pregnancy and disease have been taken, nobody will ever know about it. Try it (the experiment); it’s fun. (If you can’t be bothered, you can just read about the results of precisely that experiment here.)

I want to emphasize that what we are discussing here is not whether the state should be involved in regulating sexual conduct. That is a separate question that I intend to discuss later. The point here is that among the unaffiliated, sex is amoralized. This is the result, first of all, of an unwillingness to recognize the types of morality that are community-dependent. But when this unwillingness hardens into an ideology, the amoralization of sex serves a secondary purpose: it corrodes family life that serves as the most effective vehicle for creating communal bonds. In short, the traditional family structure is the best guarantor of the continuity of mesorah; weakening it undermines mesorah.

Now let’s consider restrictions on food. Here’s where something quite astonishing happens. As Mary Eberstadt points out, the very people who are licentious about sex have become puritanical about food, an example of the phenomenon Steven Pinker refers to as the Law of Conservation of Moralization. The consumption of meat, industrial breeding, genetically-enhanced produce, the use of pesticides, supersized portions, trans-fats and the transport of food have all been moralized by the unaffiliated. When I say they’ve been moralized, I mean specifically that unaffiliateds regard it as wrong for anyone to transgress in this area, not merely that they prefer to abstain.

Of course, it is not difficult to translate all these transgressions into the language of fairness. It’s enough to include animals under the fairness umbrella and to regard unhealthy activities as unfair to those who will have to bear the financial burden of other people’s inevitable poor health. But these explanations are hard to credit given that crème brulee hardly evokes the same moral reaction as a large Slurpee and AIDS is regarded as an affliction while obesity is regarded as an addiction. Something else is going on here.

One thing that sexual licentiousness and culinary puritanism have in common is that both are attempts to return to a state of nature. Both restrictions on sex and industrial processing of food are seen as products of civilization. Civilization is the product of the efforts of moral communities. Lack of affiliation with any such community engenders resentment of civilization as a whole and a hankering for a return to some mythical utopia that preceded it. In this imagined Eden, sex of any sort was guilt-free and food was eaten right off the tree, unprocessed.

But that’s not all. Those who belong to a community seek immortality by participating in a process that will outlive them and that they believe will lead to redemption. Unaffiliateds, though, must strive for immortality via what Christopher Lasch describes as “an arduous schedule of physical exercise and dietary controls designed to keep death at bay – to maintain themselves in a state of permanent youthfulness, eternally attractive and remarriagable”. As Woody Allen put it, “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve immortality through not dying.”

Looking ahead now, both the hankering for pre-civilization Edenic utopia and the quest for immortality through health obsession are plausible grounds for environmental alarmism in general. But there is a third plausible explanation for the unaffiliateds pre-occupation with the environment: environmentalism is an issue that requires global coordination. It thus necessarily shifts power away from individuals and communities. This shift will be the subject of my next post.

Monday, November 22, 2010

In the next few posts, I’ll try to outline the creole moral system that emerges when people unaffiliated with any established moral community begin to form their own community.

Since the type of moral principles that are inherently tied to a particular moral community are not accessible to the unaffiliateds, the delicate balance (described earlier) between fairness, the specifics of which are less tied to a particular culture, and ethics of community and divinity, the specifics of which are strongly tied to a particular culture, is resolved by granting primacy to the former in all cases.

This single decision forms the basis of we might think of as a pseudo-religion, one complete with code, narrative and aggregation rules. I’ll start from the narrative, the doctrinal basis for this emergent system, for reasons that I hope will become clear.

We saw earlier that when the Jewish narrative is made explicit, it consists of three main threads: a unique origin, reward for adherents, and an orientation towards redemption. Actually, most religious narratives can be made to neatly fit that paradigm and the emergent religion of the unaffiliated is no exception.

The first article of faith is that all instantiations of the ethics of community and divinity are arbitrary social constructs but that the ethics of fairness/justice/equality are objective, self-evident and real. Members of the unaffiliated faith are moral absolutists with regard to the obligation to respect others’ rights, but moral relativists with regard to good and evil, insofar as good and evil can’t be translated into the language of rights. Once you are committed by lack of affiliation to the relativism of the kind of morality that requires a community, whatever morality is left looms large. It is but a short leap of faith to the conclusion that “rights” are woven into the very fabric of the universe. (In fact, we will see that Kant, and subsequently Rawls, explicitly defend the primacy of rights over goodness based on a conception of human beings in which membership in a moral community is a secondary and contingent aspect of human identity. That’s all tied up with powers of the state, so I’ll leave that discussion for when we get to the problem of statehood.)

The second article of faith is that all narratives of moral communities are false and lead to ruin. (This narrative itself is exempted; the non-God of the unaffiliated is a jealous One.) In fact, there is a whole theology the sole object of which is to systematically demonstrate how every other narrative is designed for the sole purpose of subjugating victims to the whims of powerful insiders. It is instructive to compare this article of faith to that of traditional religions, which also regard other religions as false. It is often glibly said that the faith of the unaffiliated and the faith of the affiliated are very similar. The affiliated think that all moral communities but one are misguided and the unaffiliated only disagree about the one. This misses the point. I might regard the belief system of another community as bizarre, but I understand that I am viewing that belief system from the outside while a member of the other community is experiencing it from the inside. I understand this because I experience my own belief system from the inside. I might view the specifics of another community’s code as arbitrary, but I understand that the commitment of a member of that community to that code might nevertheless be authentic and not instrumental, because I experience my own authentic commitment to a code that I realize seems arbitrary to outsiders (and, in many cases, really is arbitrary). But to an unaffiliated who is blind to the experience of membership in a moral community, all belief and all commitment is necessarily inauthentic and manipulative. The fundamental tenet of critical theory – that all moral systems exist for the sole purpose of screwing somebody – is an a priori belief. All the rest is just a matter of figuring out who is screwing whom, and how.

The third article of faith is that we are on the path towards inevitable redemption in which the whole world will recognize that all moral systems are false and will accept the true faith of the unaffiliated.

Imagine there's no Heaven
It's easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today

Imagine there's no countries
It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace

You may say that I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope someday you'll join us
And the world will be as one

Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world

You may say that I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope someday you'll join us
And the world will live as one

In my next post, I’ll discuss the code of the unaffiliated and in the one after that, I’ll show how it might lead to tyranny.

Monday, November 15, 2010

If you’re anything like most people I know, you probably live in at least two different worlds. One of them is your religious community and the other is the company or institution where you work. And you probably relate to these in very different ways. Your religious is community is more central to your identity; it is one in which you are more emotionally invested and for which you are willing to make greater sacrifices. Your business relationships are essentially instrumental; they are characterized by self-interests that happen to intersect with those of others. When those interests don’t overlap, you’re unlikely to sacrifice your own for those of the company.

The distinction between these two types of groups lies at the foundation of 19th century sociology. Since the early sociologists who first developed these ideas, Ferdinand Tonnies and Emil (Dovid ben HaRav Moshe) Durkheim, wrote in German, the two types are commonly referred to as Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft, respectively. The communities I discussed in previous posts that are defined by a process characterized by an evolving code, narrative and aggregation mechanisms correspond to Gemeinschaft. To avoid pretentiousness, and also because the sound of German creeps me out, I’ll just use the terms communities and corporations.

Among the questions that most concerned Tonnies and Durkheim were what caused the shift in modern European societies from a prevalence of community relationships to a prevalence of corporate relationships and what were the consequences of this shift. As for the causes, the shift from an agrarian economy to an industrial economy resulted in urbanization and in division of labor, which necessitated some degree of business relationships among people from different communities. This readily explains the rise of corporate relationships. But the demise of communities requires a bit more explanation.

As we’ve seen, communities are defined by processes that sometimes spin out of good equilibria. For the case of Jewish communities, we’ve looked at these disequilibria from three different perspectives, but our treatment thus far has been theoretical. Let’s now see how, as a matter of historical fact, Jewish communities did in fact spin out of equilibrium.

When communities were ideologically and geographically tight-knit and opportunities for assimilation limited, the degree of trust among community members was high. A reasonable amount of signaling was thus adequate to maintain that trust. The weight that members assigned each other in attempting to anticipate consensus was thus fairly uniformly distributed, so that the moral consensus reflected the balance between universal morality and community-based morality that characterized the moral instincts of community members. The narrative settled in some sweet pot that balanced plausibility and compellingness according to the sensibilities of the community. (Ignore the fact that my little idyll describes a community that may never have existed.)

Even subtle social changes could be sufficient to upset this delicate equilibrium. When opportunities for integration into industrial economies arose but were accompanied by pressure to conform to non-Jewish social norms, social trust within the Jewish community dropped, even if initially the drop was slight. The need for costly signals rose and the incentive to stay in the community was thus diminished. The urge to emphasize universal morality at the expense of community-based morality increased and brought with it a corresponding emphasis on community-based morality among others. This increased distrust further and led to skewed assignment of weights in aggregation; among the cognoscenti, gedoilim became oracular and the instincts of the masses became irrelevant. This increased alienation among the masses, whose moral instincts were not given expression. In parallel, the narrative, having become the subject of debate, needed to be made explicit and once explicit appeared increasingly implausible (who could take seriously the inevitability of redemption in the face of increasing persecution and assimilation?) or increasingly diluted and uncompelling. Each step in this social disintegration led to diminished trust and so increased formalization and extremeness, which in turn accelerated disintegration.

The upshot of this story is that when communities disintegrate, many people are left without any community. Their relationships are exclusively of the corporate type. I’ll call such people unaffiliateds. What would life be like for you as an unaffiliated? If you don’t belong to a community, you cannot comprehend community-based morality. All morality would be reduced to not doing any harm to anyone else. You would not comprehend the meaning of respect for the traditions and authorities of a specific community the way members of that community do, or even the way members of other communities do. At best, you might wish to avoid giving offense to others whose traditions you find benign, even if pointless. You would not experience taboos on certain foods or sexual practices the way members of a community would; you’d experience them only as preferences for alternatives, devoid of any moral component. The specific taboos of any given community would strike you as arbitrary. As Edward Skidelsky puts it, gluttony and debauchery might strike you as unaesthetic or vulgar, but so long as someone engaging in them was doing no harm to anyone else, you’d regard such a person as acting “within his rights”. The only virtue that you wouldn't be embarrassed to discuss would be the virtue of justice, because you’d imagine justice to be somehow universal. (You’d be wrong, but never mind.) The compromises members of a community fashion between special loyalty to other members of their community and respect for the universal rights of all people would always strike you as insufficiently egalitarian.

The narrative of any community would strike you as utterly delusional because you’d mistake it for a set of claims about the world instead of the outward expression of the experience of being a member of a certain kind of community.

You’d be something like a person raised without language who communicates by pointing and grunting, while insisting that people who shared a language were odd and even clannish.

This is not a pretty picture and I apologize for framing it in second-person. Durkheim described such a state as anomie and regarded it as a kind of pathology that arose as Gemeinschaft gave way to Gesellschaft (to use his terminology). Following Durkheim, Jonatha Haidt points out that “the historical and cross-cultural prevalence of Gemeinschaft suggests that this form of association is in some sense the human default – it is the form of social structure in which human evolution took place, and the context in which intuitive ethics became a part of the human mind.” In fact, if the anomic character I described above sounds even vaguely familiar, it’s only because we live in a modern Western society. No such character ever existed in pre-modern times and, as Haidt points out, no such character exists outside a very narrow segment of modern Western society.

Actually, I’m going to argue that the caricature into whose shoes I put you doesn’t really exist anywhere, at least not for long. The language instinct is so strong that groups of people without language will develop a language. If you drop a bunch of people with no common language on a tropical island, they will develop a simplified language, usually called pidgin, with very primitive grammatical rules. Children raised on that pidgin will develop it into a full-blown language, usually called creole, with sophisticated grammar. (According to the linguist Derek Bickerton, this actually happened on Hawaiian sugar plantations in the early 20th century.)

The moral instinct is no less strong. Unaffiliateds develop a creole morality, which I will describe in the next few posts. It might look familiar.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Let's start with a quick review. We have seen that Judaism is a process which evolves through the interaction of the moral instincts of individuals with established communal moral codes. Since such established codes are themselves the product of individuals' choices, the dynamics are non-linear and can be thrown out of equilibrium. We have seen how this can happen from two different perspectives. The code might lose the necessary balance between community-specific morality and universal morality, with different sub-communities pulling further and further in different directions. More recently we considered the case where a community's belief system – perhaps it would be better to think of it as the narrative a community tells about itself – fails to find a balance between compellingness and plausibility.

Today I want to attack this from a third perspective, namely, the test of community membership. I've talked about individual moral decisions being aggregated into some communal code. That neatly elides a whole lot of funny business about how such codes are really established. Let's try to consider what happens in somewhat higher resolution.

Imagine I've broken my leg and my parents have gotten me a Gramatron electric wheelchair to use on Shabbes. Some doubts have been raised about its permissibility on Shabbes, so I need to make a decision about whether to use it. There are various considerations tied to the specific circumstances of the case (respect for my parents, the extent to which I can manage without the chair) and other more general considerations (established principles of grama on Shabbes, etc.). After analyzing the matter, my instincts might nudge me in one direction or the other. But one extremely central consideration will be my estimate of what the, as yet undetermined, consensus of my community will be on the matter. (Ignore for the moment the question of whether my concern about the emerging consensus is itself a moral consideration or mere cravenness or something in between; we'll get to that.)

How do I go about estimating such a consensus? Some of my friends and neighbors might have thought about the problem and I can canvas them. But I will surely not give them equal weight. Some are more likely than others to be reliable representatives of the emerging consensus. Some are more learned, some are more tuned in, some are more sincere, and some are simply more influential. I'll give these more weight than the others.

Note the circularity here. I'm trying to estimate the consensus based on a sample of people who themselves are trying to estimate the consensus and miraculously a consensus actually emerges from this Keynesian beauty contest. Despite this circularity, I still have a fighting chance to correctly predict the consensus if I assign weights properly. For example, I can assign a great deal of weight to a prominent rov. There are several reasons why the rov's decision has a reasonable chance of predicting the consensus. The most generous explanation is as follows: there is a right answer out there and the consensus is likely to reach it (in accordance with Condorcet's Jury Theorem); similarly, the rov is knowledgeable and unbiased by personal considerations and he too is likely to reach the right answer. A considerably less generous explanation is that the Rov is simply very salient in the community (he is a Schelling point), so that most people are likely to follow his opinion and he will thus determine the (possibly arbitrary) consensus, even if he is just the pin-headed grandson of some obscure Romanian rebbele.

Now just as I want to assign weights to my cohorts in a way that reflects their respective reliabilities, each of my neighbors wants to be assigned high weight by his cohorts. More generally, my neighbor (and I) wish to have status within the community; we want our opinions to matter. But for my opinions to matter, I need to demonstrate at least two things. The first is that I am hooked in to the action in our community; if you give weight to my decisions, you probably won't be left hung out to dry. The second is that I am a reasonably sincere cooperative type, who wants to do the right thing. (My actual real-life neighbor, not the hypothetical one I'm discussing outside these parentheses, thinks only the first of these matters at all; I'm being optimistic.) The problem is that in this transaction between my neighbor and me, there is asymmetric information. I know if I'm hooked in and a reasonably sincere cooperator, but he can only estimate how hooked in I am and he might have a very hard time determining my true commitments; likewise, he knows his own commitments, but I don't.

Such types of asymmetric information are, of course, very common. When you buy a car, the seller knows if it's a lemon, but you don't. When you buy life insurance, you might know that you're a ticking time bomb, but the insurance company doesn't. When you apply for a job, you know that you're brilliant and diligent and not planning to leave for the Amazon as soon as you've finished being trained at your employer's expense, but he doesn't.

In cases of asymmetric information, if you're the person with the informational advantage, you can try to overcome the other guy's suspicions, by signaling that you're a good type. For example, you can spend ten years in college and graduate school. In many fields, your education is pretty irrelevant to your ability to do a good job for your employer, but the fact that you were willing to invest the money and effort to complete the course and were able to do so successfully is a strong signal to a potential employer that you're minimally intelligent and diligent and that, at least when you undertook your course of education, you were sufficiently committed to the field to justify that level of investment.

This kind of signaling is ubiquitous. In the animal kingdom, males signal virility and females signal fertility and each species has evolved so that the relevant signals are instinctively broadcast and instinctively responded to. (The peacock's plumes are a nice example, but big cars and high heels might hit a little closer to home.) What these signals have in common is that they are conspicuous and they are costly, either in terms of money or effort. If education was too easy, it wouldn't be a convincing signal of commitment; if sports cars were cheap, girls wouldn't be impressed.

Let's get back to the shtetl. My status in the community – and, in particular, the weight that others in the community will assign to my decisions in making their own decisions – depends, at least in part, on me signaling that I'm hooked in and want to do the right thing. I need to do arbitrary and costly acts that either would not be worth my while unless I were committed to playing by the rules for the long haul or that somebody who wasn't at the cutting edge of frum fashion wouldn't know about. Conveniently, and not coincidentally, halacha is chock full of opportunities for performing arbitrary and costly acts. Wearing the right clothes, eating the right foods, and performing the right rituals at the right time are all costly and conspicuous. That's a good thing because, precisely because of their conspicuous costliness and arbitrariness, they tell us whom we can trust about issues that might not be arbitrary at all.

If only life were that simple. The effectiveness of signals can vary over time and circumstance. Perhaps once the refusal to eat treif meat or Hostess Twinkies was sufficiently onerous, due to the lack of alternatives, that it could serve as an effective signal. But then the easy availability of kosher meat and snacks rendered such signals ineffective, because they were insufficiently costly. What do you imagine would happen? Well, you don't need to guess because you've seen it happen. The old signals get replaced by new ones that are sufficiently onerous to serve as signals. Kosher is replaced by glatt, which is replaced by chassidishe shechitah, and on up the ladder. The easier each of these becomes, the less useful it becomes.

(When the cost of frumkeit signaling is primarily financial, the signals can be confusing because they are ambiguous. Somehow, I'm never sure if a guy who shvitzes about the leydig-geyer sons and eidims he's supporting in kollel is trying to signal that he's frummer than me or richer than me or both. Is this about religion or is it just garden variety status signaling, in the sense of Veblen? Is there a difference?)

There are some interesting aspects of this kind of signaling escalation that are worth looking at in greater detail. One aspect concerns the splitting off of sub-communities. Different economic and social pressures might result in generally similar communities developing different signaling mechanisms. A shtreimel might be the perfect signal in Romania or Poland, where it is costly but not too costly because interaction with Gentiles is limited, but too onerous in Hamburg, where such interaction is common. So Yekkes and Chassidishe might each inhabit their own separate signaling planets. But then the Poilishers and Romanians develop their own more fine-tuned signals: the Poilishers wear hoiche shtreimels. And they split into Gerrers and Alexanders and Sochaczovers and Amshinovers. And so on. Each of these splits results in a whole new set of increasingly costly signals until the plethora of signals at so many levels of the hierarchy completely drowns out the more basic stuff that still has some connection to moral instincts.

One more point. Most signals are costly only to the signaler. But clearly the signaler regards the cost incurred as justified by the benefit received or he wouldn't bother. For example, wearing a shtreimel is harmless to the rest of the world (except, as my commenters point out, to the sables) and apparently worthwhile to the wearer, so it's a win-win proposition. But there are other signals that negatively impact third parties (an economist would say that there are negative externalities). Think about one particular type of signal called a bridge-burning signal. A familiar example is elaborate body piercing by teenagers. The way this works is that a conspicuously pierced teenager has few options in the adult world because s/he is liable to be shunned by respectable types and hence signals that s/he is a reliable cooperator in the rebellious teenager sub-community. In our context, draft evasion in Israel or failing to get an education in the U.S. are conspicuous examples of bridge-burning signals. Each of these is very costly to the signaler because it cuts off many options for advance outside one's sub-community and hence signals long-term cooperation within the community. But, unlike wearing a shtreimel, it is also socially costly, because it imposes a greater burden on those outside the community, who need to pick up the slack.

Now, imagine escalating signal wars as various sub-sub-communities distinguish themselves in which the ever-more-costly signals also happen to be bridge-burning signals with significant negative externalities. Now that is a recipe for disequilibrium.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

It would never occur to us to ask someone to explain why he is an English speaker. It is evident that English serves a useful purpose for an English speaker. Nor does it seem incongruous for someone to speak more than one language. Each serves a purpose.

Judaism is a process like English. Yet it seems evident that being a “speaker” of Jewish requires explanation and that being a member of one moral community precludes being a member of others. Why should this be so? The easy answer is that moral systems make claims about the world that we call “beliefs”, that these beliefs require defense, and that different moral systems have conflicting beliefs. The easy answer is way too easy; it’s not clear why any of the propositions in the previous sentence are true. Let’s try to do better.

Just as one can speak a language fluently, one can “speak” a moral system fluently. Sometimes, when one speaks a moral system fluently, one can achieve a sense of transcendence, of being part of something larger than oneself, something directed, enduring and deeply meaningful. It is this fleeting sense that constitutes true belief.

Precisely because this sense is so fleeting, we often feel the need to articulate it. Sometimes, we articulate it (or at least try to) in order to persuade others to stick with the system even in the absence of that sense of transcendence. Sometimes, we try to articulate it for ourselves, to keep that sense of transcendence in our pockets even when can’t actually experience it. But this attempt to articulate a sense inevitably cheapens that sense. Here’s how one wise man expressed it:

The need to think about the whole God idea is just a comedown that’s necessary for people as a sort of cure. Denying it is an unfortunate prerequisite for the ultimate “high” in which there won’t be any need to think about the God idea because life itself will be “God’s Light”.

(Can you guess who wrote that? The answer will be in the comments.)

Let’s try to get a bit more specific about how such belief might be articulated in terms of specific claims. Think of it this way. If speaking Judaism fluently can (sometimes) give us the feeling that we are part of something uniquely directed, we want to concretize the claim that, as a process, Judaism is itself uniquely directed. Minimally, we’d capture this in the claims that the process evolved organically from some non-arbitrary point (let’s call that revelation at Sinai), that it is headed towards some non-arbitrary point (let’s call that the Messianic era) and that being part of it is uniquely rewarding (let’s call that sekhar ve-onesh).

So you’re probably thinking that that’s too clever by half, that there is something cynical about determining proper beliefs according to the purpose they serve rather than according to the evidence for their truth. There is nothing cynical about it at all. Let’s digress a bit.

Think about how science is done. We observe, say, that the sun has risen in the East many times and that there are no records of it ever having failed to do so, and so we propose that it is a law that the sun rises daily in the East, past, present and future. Our underlying assumption is that we are able to generalize from observations to laws. But how can we justify this assumption? It would be circular to justify it on grounds that we have observed that it works. While heroic attempts have been made to rescue this argument from circularity by translating it into a kind of bootstrapping argument, in the end none of this works. Rather the justification for our most basic methodological assumptions concerning science is entirely pragmatic. If we hope to render our lives coherent, we need to make these assumptions.

Well, if we wish to render our moral lives coherent, we also need to make some assumptions. And that’s exactly what we do. There is no more shame in it than in the methodological assumptions scientists use every day. Here’s how William James puts it:

[Pragmatism’s] only test of probable truth is what works best in the way of leading us, what fits every part of life best and combines with the collectivity of experience's demands, nothing being omitted. If theological ideas should do this, if the notion of God, in particular, should prove to do it, how could pragmatism possibly deny God's existence? She could see no meaning in treating as 'not true' a notion that was pragmatically so successful. What other kind of truth could there be, for her, than all this agreement with concrete reality?...

The notion of God, … however inferior it may be in clearness to those mathematical notions so current in mechanical philosophy, has at least this practical superiority over them, that it guarantees an ideal order that shall be permanently preserved. A world with a God in it to say the last word, may indeed burn up or freeze, but we then think of him as still mindful of the old ideals and sure to bring them elsewhere to fruition; so that, where he is, tragedy is only provisional and partial, and shipwreck and dissolution not the absolutely final things. This need of an eternal moral order is one of the deepest needs of our breast. And those poets, like Dante and Wordsworth, who live on the conviction of such an order, owe to that fact the extraordinary tonic and consoling power of their verse. Here then, in these different emotional and practical appeals, in these adjustments of our concrete attitudes of hope and expectation, and all the delicate consequences which their differences entail, lie the real meanings of materialism and spiritualism--not in hair-splitting abstractions about matter's inner essence, or about the metaphysical attributes of God. Materialism means simply the denial that the moral order is eternal, and the cutting off of ultimate hopes; spiritualism means the affirmation of an eternal moral order and the letting loose of hope.

The problem actually lies elsewhere. We need to be sparing with our pragmatic assumptions. They need to be sufficiently unobjectionable that they don’t run up against everything else we know. But, in the absence of direct experience of transcendence in performance of mitzvot, people need to translate rather abstract beliefs about the directedness of Judaism into considerably more concrete and specific beliefs that may be difficult to reconcile with other beliefs about the world. For some, it may be enough that Judaism evolved helter-skelter from some special origins in the murky past; others might need to feel certain that every detail of Judaism such as it is now can be traced directly back to an original revelation in a specific place at a specific time. For some, it may be enough that the process is limping forward in some vaguely understood positive direction, while others need for the ultimate destination of the process to be specified in terms of concrete political events and/or miraculous interventions and for signs of the imminence and inevitability of such events to be already discernible. For some it is enough that the satisfaction of leading a life bound to Torah is its own reward, while others need to be assured that the righteous reap rewards and the wicked suffer punishments in the most concrete and prosaic ways, preferably instantly and in plain sight.

There really are two conflicting pressures here. Belief must be substantive enough to grip the soul and abstract enough to grip the intellect. The direct experience of Judaism can reconcile these two. But when belief migrates from the realm of experience to articulated belief, there is risk of disequilibrium.

Beliefs themselves are part of the moral system. The affirmation of some proposition might itself be regarded as obligatory. It might therefore happen that those who seek to make beliefs as concrete and specific as possible, to tighten their grip on the soul, will see others, who seek to abstract beliefs in order to tighten their grip on the intellect, as apikorsim, whose diluted beliefs do not count in establishing communal standards regarding obligatory belief. Concomitantly, the others will view the concrete believers as child-like primitives whose beliefs do not count in establishing communal standards regarding obligatory belief.

When this happens, sub-communities are driven further and further apart, each insisting upon a set of beliefs that is either too concrete to be believed or too abstract to engage the soul.