By popular (?) demand, I'm posting all the posts in the series in natural order (oldest first). Other than a random change here or there, these are the unedited original posts. I'm planning to now rewrite the whole thing as a coherent essay, which I hope to publish. I'd be very grateful for editorial comments.
Thursday, October 07, 2010
Before we ask if and how a Jewish state is good for the Jews, we need to figure out what it means for anything to be good for the Jews. For this we need to deal with very fundamental questions concerning Judaism, specifically with regard to halacha, belief, morality and nationhood. We'll also need to deal with basic economic and political questions concerning the proper role of the state in organizing human affairs. (Foreshadowing: I hate the way I used the word "proper" in the previous sentence. When we get there, I'll be very clear about what I actually mean.)
My neighbor will remind me that oceans of ink and rainforests of paper have been spent (wasted?) on such grandiose topics and I'm probably biting off orders of magnitude more than I can chew. I concede his point. But I'm up for a good fight. What's the worst that can happen?
In order to prevent this discussion from degenerating into platitudinous claims about what is or isn't ethical or moral grandstanding or partisan political posturing, I'm committing myself to some ground rules in advance.
First, I will avoid naked normative claims. Rather than saying that X is right or wrong, I'll say that X will lead to some consequence that I'll stipulate is desirable or undesirable. (I understand that this just shifts the stipulation down one step, but it has the merit of preventing is-ought confusion. I won't be sneaking moral claims past you without sending up a flare.)
Second, despite the fact that I'll be discussing political philosophy and religion, I won't use any of the standard labels, like 'religious', 'secular', 'left', 'right', 'liberal', 'conservative', etc. Like most labels, these are often useful shorthands for referring to groups of people who share a variety of views regarding public affairs. Unfortunately, however, they straitjacket discussions by bundling views across issues that are not inherently determinative of one another. When we contrast liberals with conservatives, for example, we bundle views on security and welfare that are indeed empirically correlated, but we pay a price: we become blind to the possibility of decoupling these issues. In short, such labels invite stereotypical thinking; I want to pop open these packages and consider new ways of bundling their contents that might better capture our situation. In fact, while I'm avoiding labels, I'll try to avoid fancy jargon as well. (Yes, one person's fancy jargon is another person's indispensable every-day term; I'll try to be reasonable.) I have a special allergy to Frenchie jargon (which has nothing to do with using French terms but rather with the propensity to make absurdly general and vague claims about capitalized big stuff like Art and Science).
Third, I'll avoid appeals to authority. If I'm talking about the limits of state power, for example, it would be dumb not to refer to, say, Mill or to Rawls, who are identified with views that are central to pretty much all contemporary discussion of the topic. But, to the extent that I refer to their views, I'll take them out of the package and be clear about exactly which specific views I mean and I won't make any presumptions about their correctness. And if I cite somebody as a tanna demesaya, it isn't for the purpose of adding weight to my side of the scale, but rather to give credit to someone who stated my own view better than I can.
Finally, I won't preach to the choir. My intention is not to let off steam, but rather to persuade people who don't already share my views.
Monday, October 11, 2010
If you’re reading this, you presumably understand English. So suppose I asked you to characterize the English language, that is, to give me some way of determining if some text is English or not. Okay, that’s hard. So suppose I just asked you how you’d go about characterizing English in principle, without actually investing the huge effort to work out the details.
You might say, well, it’s English if words have particular meanings, if certain rules of syntax are obeyed and so on. But if some bloke in a brilliant jumper asked you for a fag, you might at least want to concede that a characterization of English might involve a family of variations, in each of which words have particular meanings, certain rules of syntax are obeyed and so on.
But even that would not quite be the most fruitful approach. Consider this:
Whilom, as olde stories tellen us, Ther was a duc that highte Theseus; Of Atthenes he was lord and governour, And in his tyme swich a conquerour, That gretter was ther noon under the sonne.
That used to be called English. And if the English speakers who spoke that way had tried to characterize English then in terms of static meanings and syntax, it’s not very likely that this would have made the cut:
Ayo, my pen and paper cause a chain reaction to get your brain relaxing, a zany acting maniac in action, a brainiac in fact son, you mainly lack attraction.
And in fact, if we were to try to characterize English now in some static way, it’s unlikely that our characterization would cover English a generation from now. The point of all this is that the only plausible way to include Chaucer and Eminem in our characterization of English is to define English as a process rather than as something static. There is some community of people who speak a common language and the two co-evolve. Language slowly changes as the community of speakers collectively makes small changes. The linguistic community changes as people migrate in or out of it. Chaucer and Eminem are both in because a continuous evolutionary process includes them both.
Let’s think about this process a bit. (But before I lose you, let me tell you where I’m headed with this. Halacha is also a process, very much like a natural language such as English.)
Each of us individually hears English spoken or sees it written and infers certain rules about syntax and semantics of English. Sometimes we are even taught explicit rules, though this is relatively rare. Most of the time, we don’t even make the rules explicit in our own minds; we just manage to absorb them well enough to use them. Now, the fact that children can manage to learn to speak grammatical English based only on hearing people speak it is quite astonishing. They are able to do this only because the human brain is hard-wired to prefer certain kinds of grammars, so these are the ones that exist. This is not to say that there is a unique possible grammar, an obviously false proposition given the variety of spoken languages in the world. Rather, the range of possible grammars is highly constrained. We might sum this up by saying that people have a language instinct.
So where’s the process? Well, people are creative with language. We invent neologisms, borrow words from other languages, use old words in new ways, push the boundaries of syntax and generally take whatever linguistic liberties are necessary to express new ideas or capture particular nuances. Most of our inventions die out as easily as they were born. But some spread and become part of the language. Thirty-five years ago nobody heard of the word “meme”; then it became a meme; now it’s just a word.
The crucial point is that a loop is closed. Once some incremental change has been sufficiently absorbed into the language, it becomes part of the base to which speakers relate when they further expand the language. So there is an ongoing process that looks something like this:
1. Each individual English speaker absorbs current English and instinctively pushes the envelope (call this “expansion”)
2. When enough people push the envelope in the same direction, “current” English is re-defined (call this “aggregation”)
3. Back to 1
Of course, the steps don’t actually take place in neat sequential order. Both expansion and aggregation are happening all the time.
Now, with an eye towards our discussion of halacha, let’s make a few observations about this process.
First, changes to language are slow enough that, if you don’t take the long view, you can think of language as being static without the wrongness of that view confronting you too brutally. But, if Chaucer didn’t convince you, try reading Beowulf.
Second, aggregation works in two ways. One way is for many people to push the linguistic envelope in the same way without this change ever being noted in any formal way. It just happens. The other is for the change to be somehow made official by incorporation in some instrument of record. For example, twenty years ago I might have referred to memes only if I were talking to someone whom I had reason to believe hung out in the relevant neck of the woods. Now, anybody can look up its Wikipedia entry. To the extent that Wikipedia is official, “meme” has graduated to the lexical big leagues.
One of the consequences of all this is that English might evolve in different ways among different communities of English speakers. In the days before the Internet, geographically isolated communities were also linguistically isolated. They were somewhat immune to changes happening in the mainland and instead evolved on their own. They might even have developed “instruments of record” (dictionaries, grammar books, recognized experts, etc.) of their own, so that they began to think of mainland English as wrong, or at least odd. This sort of process can lead to two versions of English that are so different that we wouldn’t think of them as being the same language, just as we don’t think of, say, German and English as being the same language, despite their sharing a common ancestor.
Okay, I’ve spent an awful lot of time laying groundwork. Next time, we’ll talk about halacha. You can probably see the parallels already. The interesting part will be the differences.
Monday, October 18, 2010
If I were to ask you to define halacha, even in the most general terms, you’d face the same difficulties as you would in trying to characterize a language such as English. Halacha varies from period to period and community to community. Naïve attempts to define halacha as what’s written in some canonical book fail for many reasons. Halacha pre-dates those books and in fact there is no book that perfectly captures even what any specific community thinks of as canonical halacha. Books such as the Mishna Berurah are canonical only because many people in particular communities have accepted them as canonical; but this very claim regards communal acceptance as more fundamental than the content of the Mishna Berurah. (I couldn’t have said that community standards are decisive because the Mishna Berurah said so. You’d immediately see that had things backwards, wouldn’t you?)
But we can easily understand halacha in all its instantiations as a process. As in the case of language, halacha develops through the interaction of expansion and aggregation. People, armed with some base of halachic knowledge, make moral judgments all the time. Some consensus regarding some matter becomes apparent and is incorporated into the base. And so on.
Just as we use some language instinct to guide the way we sub-consciously infer patterns in the English we hear and read, we use some moral instinct to guide the way we sub-consciously infer patterns in the halacha we learn. Just as the language instinct constrains the ways in which we can expand language but doesn’t strictly determine a particular one, so our moral sense constrains the ways in which we can expand halacha without determining a unique possible expansion. And just as the process of expansion and aggregation of language is fundamentally a social phenomenon and not a solitary one, so too the expansion and aggregation of halacha is a social phenomenon.
Now, I can feel your nagging discomfort already. How can I claim that the expansion of halacha requires a moral instinct? First of all, perhaps halacha could simply be generalized according to formal principles of inference, such as Occam’s razor, without resort to mushy instinctive moral principles that are not already inherent in the system? Second, how could moral instincts play any role in resolving questions of arid ritual?
The second question is based on a typically modern misunderstanding of the moral instinct that I will address in my next post. The first question is rather naïve. Just as language would be wildly under-determined from a finite example set without the constraints imposed by the hard-wiring of our brains, so too halacha would be wildly under-determined without moral instincts. Every time the gemara reads a mishna, a rishon reads a gemara, or an acharon reads a rishon, the scope of some previously-unconditional halacha is defined (a device known as an ukimta). These ukimtot are not inherent in the given material; they result from the interaction of the received halacha and the conclusion that the interpreter instinctively knows must be right. This instinct is the moral instinct (broadly construed, as we'll see in my next post).
There is, however, one basic difference between language as process and halacha as process and this difference leads to many others. The principles of aggregation are exogenous to language but endogenous to halacha. In other words, the rules of grammar say nothing about how consensus is formed with regard to linguistic expansion. But halacha has a great deal to say about whose intuitions carry more weight and whose carry less in forming consensus. Consequently, aggregation of halachic judgments entails more formalization than does aggregation of linguistic intuitions. Similarly, halacha itself places great value on continuity within halacha, while language itself is indifferent to the continuity of language.
In short, the expansion and aggregation of halacha are both performed much more consciously than the analogous linguistic phenomena. In this light, let’s look at the interaction of the two stages a bit more carefully. Individual moral judgments are instinctive, but they might easily be tainted by self-interest of various sorts. I don’t mean simply that people might over-ride their moral judgments, behaving according to other considerations while acknowledging that they are doing so. I mean that moral judgment itself can be murky due to interference by other considerations. The process of aggregating these individual judgments serves multiple purposes. First, it winnows out the effects of self-interest since these will inevitably vary from individual to individual, while the authentic moral core will not. Second, it renders collective judgments explicit so they can be preserved for future generations. Third, it founds morality on the basis of reason by identifying (or aspiring to identify) the nearest approximations of collective instinctive judgments that can be justified. (Not that it matters, but this bears on a classic dispute between the Scottish philosophers who said all moral judgments are instinctive and the French philosophers who said they were based on reason. Individual judgments are indeed instinctive, but collective ones are founded on reason.) On the other hand, as a conscious process, formalization itself can be corrupted by the self-interest of individuals or groups that are over-represented in the aggregation. We’ll get to this eventually.
Now we get to the point. Once we are dealing with a dynamic system in which the dynamics (rules of aggregation and formalization) are determined by the system itself, we are faced with questions about equilibria. In very crude terms, we might think of it this way. Suppose that the established content of halacha at some given time is sufficiently coherent that most people instinctively expand it in similar ways. It is therefore likely that the aggregation methods used by halacha at that time will credit that consensus. Thus, consensus is reached regarding most issues and halacha evolves in accord with it, creating a further basis amenable to reaching of consensus, and so on in a virtuous cycle. Then halacha is in a healthy equilibrium. But suppose now that the content of halacha at some given time is incoherent, so that there is great variance in the ways individuals expand it. This would likely lead to aggregation methods that concentrate weight on a minority of participants, increasing the variance further. This vicious cycle leads either to schism or total disintegration.
What might the whole halachic system look like if it were far from a good equilibrium? In the next few posts, I’ll try to answer this question from several perspectives. I will argue that the halacha, like any moral system, requires a code that balances different kinds of moral instincts, a narrative that allows practitioners to find meaning in the system, and criteria for determining who is a member of the community. Each of these works when halacha is near a good equilibrium and fails when it is not.
Monday, October 25, 2010
If you’re like most people you probably find each of the following morally offensive: i)assaulting an innocent person, ii)mopping the floor with the national flag, iii)cannibalism. These examples correspond to three different flavors of moral instinct. (Before we get into the three flavors, a comment about dividing stuff into flavors: these things are pretty arbitrary. There are various methodologies for deciding whether two flavors of morality should be regarded as variations of the same flavor or two distinct flavors: do they share a single evolutionary explanation, do the same people worry about them, etc. But in the end it’s really a matter of expository convenience. Some list four moral flavors, others list five. I find it most convenient to list three.)
Here’s a reasonable definition of three moral flavors corresponding to the three examples above (taken from Rozin et al.):
1. [The ethics of Autonomy] Individual freedom/rights violations. In these cases an action is wrong because it directly hurts another person, or infringes upon his/her rights or freedoms as an individual. To decide if an action is wrong, you think about things like harm, rights, justice, freedom, fairness, individualism, and the importance of individual choice and liberty.
2. [The ethics of Community] Community/hierarchy violations. In these cases an action is wrong because a person fails to carry out his or her duties within a community, or to the social hierarchy within the community. To decide if an action is wrong, you think about things like duty, role-obligation, respect for authority, loyalty, group honor, interdependence, and the preservation of the community.
3. [The ethics of Divinity] Divinity/purity violations. In these cases a person disrespects the sacredness of God, or causes impurity or degradation to himself/herself, or to others. To decide if an action is wrong, you think about things like sin, the natural order of things, sanctity, and the protection of the soul or the world from degradation and spiritual defilement.
Before we go any further, let’s note one important distinction between the first flavor of morality and the other two. Unlike the first flavor, the latter two depend rather overtly on membership in some community. What Rozin calls “the ethics of community” is plainly incoherent without a community. But even what he calls “the ethics of divinity” (what we might call “mitzvot bein adam lemakom”) are community-dependent. The idea of restrictions on what can be eaten where and when and with whom and where and when one can have sex crosses cultures. But the specifics of these restrictions are community-dependent. In some cultures, people don’t eat pig flesh; in others, they don’t eat cow flesh. In some cultures, people marry their nieces; in others, they regard that as incest.
This distinction between what I’ll call universal morality (the first flavor) and community-based morality (the other two) will be crucial to the thesis that I’ll be developing in future posts.
So our first order of business now is to undermine the distinction I just claimed is crucial. In fact, the three flavors of morality are deeply intertwined. Those who don’t respect the rights of others generally are ultimately unlikely to honor more profound obligations to those with whom they share a familial or communal bond. Those who don’t honor communal obligations are unlikely to honor rules of self-restraint (limitations on food and sex) that are specific to their community. And, to close the cycle, those who don’t develop habits of self-restraint are unlikely to respect the rights of others. In this sense, the three flavors of morality are empirically dependent.
In fact, though, the flavors of morality are not only empirically interdependent, they are logically interdependent. What does it mean to harm another person? Suppose your neighbor is offended at the idea that you own a television and this genuinely causes him aggravation. Have you infringed upon his right as an individual to live in a television-free neighborhood? If you glibly deny that he has such a right, suppose that your neighbor likes to throw the occasional kiddish right below your window at which human flesh is served and his whole gang of cannibal friends come over after shul to whoop it up. (Apologies to those offended even by the thought experiment.) Has he infringed upon your right to a cannibalism-free zone?
The point is that it’s not possible to define harm or rights without recourse to community-based morality. If you try to escape that proposition by insisting that harm is simply subjective – whatever causes your neighbor grief is harm – you’ll have to dump your TV. If you want to define harm in some very limited way that excludes fuzzy subjective stuff, you’d better adjust to cannibalism under your window. In fact, what our instincts are telling us is that the definition of harm in universal morality really depends on quite how offensive something is according to community-based morality.
In short, the distinction between universal morality and community-based morality is a bit of an optical illusion. (But we’ll soon see that this optical illusion lies at the foundation of most modern theories concerning the legitimate exercise of state power.)
Now let’s get back to the question of the signs of disequilibrium that I promised I’d get to at the end of my previous post.
Like any other moral system, Judaism includes both universal morality and community-based morality. And, while the flavors of morality are mutually reinforcing, as we’ve just seen, they are also in tension. To take but the most obvious example, my loyalty to my compatriot might compete with my respect for the rights of a stranger with whom he is in conflict. (There is nothing paradoxical about the fact that the flavors of morality are at once mutually reinforcing and in tension; just think of a multiplicity of cafes in a gentrifying neighborhood.)
Now let’s recall a few ideas from previous posts. First, because Judaism is a process, different dialects tend to develop among sub-communities. Second, unlike in the case of language, the means through which the moral instincts of individual are aggregated into some consensus are themselves part of the process. This can lead to instability.
Now, imagine that within some community there develop subtle differences in the balance between universal aspects of Judaism and community-dependent aspects, some people shifting slightly one way and others shifting slightly the other way. (Indeed, it is not hard to imagine this. But for now, we’re talking theory. Let’s save the facts of our current situation for a later post.) The next step might be that those who tend to the community-dependent side feel threatened by what they perceive as the assimilationist tendencies of the universalists and downshift the weight they assign to these assimilationists in determining the communal consensus. Concomitantly, the universal side might be frightened by what they perceive to be the obscurantist tendencies of the other side and tend to discount their views in determining communal consensus.
It is not hard to see that because of this non-linearity, the variance can grow very quickly, leading to schism. But that’s not all. It is very likely that neither of the “dialects” that emerge from this schism will be sustainable. After all, if you are armed with two kinds of moral instincts, universal and community-dependent, and if these are inter-dependent (as we have seen), you are likely to find each of the extreme dialects running counter to your instincts. And if enough people feel that way, one of two things must happen. Either the system will self-correct and return to some equilibrium or it will disintegrate.
Under what conditions will it return to some equilibrium and can we do anything to create those conditions? That’s what this blog is about.
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 without following the link?)
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.
Wednesday, November 10, 2010
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 are such that somebody who wasn't at the cutting edge of frum fashion wouldn't know about them. 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.
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.
Monday, November 22, 2010
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, December 27, 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, December 13, 2010
So we have met the unaffiliateds and mused about their narrative and code. My actual neighbor says, perhaps somewhat wistfully, that unaffiliateds make good neighbors. I wonder about that. It is certainly true that an unaffiliated neighbor is unlikely to blow up my house while shouting “Allahu Akhbar!”. He’s also unlikely to care if I’m a Zali or an Aroini or a mamlachti or an anti-mamlachti. He just wants fairness and justice. What could be bad?
The instinct for fairness is one of the three flavors of moral instinct that we considered earlier. Although it’s less community-dependent than the others, the fairness instinct is still a bit hard to pin down. We sense that it is connected to equality among people, but there are many versions of equality. Do we wish all goods to be distributed equally among individuals? Do we seek only equality of opportunity? Should only goods be equally distributed or perhaps also power? Brief reflection will lead to the conclusion that these possible interpretations of equality are not only incompatible but individually incoherent. If we insist on equal distribution of goods, we’d have to prevent commerce which would quickly lead to inequality. Moreover, assigning some people the power to ensure equal distribution of goods means that power is unequally distributed. Furthermore, the total amount of goods available is not fixed but rather dependent on production, which itself is a function of incentives that would be greatly diminished by guaranteed equality. Furthermore, the same goods have different utility for different people so equal distribution of goods does not imply equal distribution of utility. One can go on and on in this vein.
What concerns me about my hypothetical unaffiliated neighbor is what kind of equality he intends to strive for. Since I’m familiar with the narrative of his quasi-community of unaffiliateds, I have some notion of what sort of equality might appeal to him. My neighbor can’t fail to note that members of communities attempt to balance fairness with community-based ethics like loyalty. But since to him loyalty has little value and fairness has infinite value, he regards moral communities as little more than mafias committed to their own good at the expense of others. He is doubly offended that there is blatant inequality among communities; some communities are materially successful, while others are poor. But worse than this, some seem to achieve some equilibrium in which the flavors of morality are plausibly balanced, while others abandon any pretense of substantive commitment either to loyalty to insiders or to fairness to outsiders. And in fact the two kinds of success, material and moral, seem to be correlated. (The reason for this correlation is that societies with a high degree of social trust are best able to do commerce, but this needn’t concern us here.) Such a community’s success is offensive to my neighbor’s sensibilities because, apart from its unfair success, such a community presumes to be something it cannot be – both cohesive and fair.
The sort of fairness my neighbor will seek, then, is one that levels the playing field on which successful and unsuccessful communities compete. More precisely, he will seek to sabotage successful communities in the name of justice. The intermediate objectives will sound rather benign: redistribution and diversity. The rhetoric of redistribution will always emphasize the need to care for the sick and the elderly, but the logic of redistribution can’t be restricted to the level of individuals. Even if each individual community has mechanisms in place to deal with its own poor in a satisfactory way, the demand for equality will simply be shifted to the level of communities: persistent inequality among different communities will need to be addressed, even if it is disguised as welfare for individuals. Similarly, the insistence that diverse communities be equally represented in forums, such as universities, that might otherwise reward achievement is another way to address inequality among communities.
But both redistribution and diversity serve a purpose beyond inter-communal equality. They actually corrode communities. Redistribution is a means to deny the rewards of social capital that accrue to community members and so to diminish the incentives of such membership. Promotion of diversity is a means to undermine the cohesiveness of communities by denying them functional or geographic exclusiveness. Furthermore, by emphasizing the arbitrariness of differences between communities, diversity entrepreneurs implant in impressionable minds the arbitrariness of membership in any one community.
At this point, my unaffiliated neighbor still doesn’t sound like much of a bogeyman. He is, after all, unlikely to charge into my home to enforce redistribution or diversity. But, if he’s a politically active sort, he might agitate for policies that achieve that and those policies worry me a great deal for several reasons. First of all, the world view that seeks to equalize successful and failed communities inevitably aids and abets dangerous savages. Failed communities fail for a reason and a lack of institutions that engender social trust is typically the reason. The lack of such institutions is correlated with (the direction of the causality doesn’t matter) a community’s failure to balance internal cohesiveness (community-based ethics) with fairness towards others. In short, it is precisely those with the greatest contempt for the fairness that my neighbor so earnestly wishes to promote who will always be the recipients of his goodwill. And it is those most successful at striking a balance between cohesiveness and fairness that he will most seek to undermine. (You know who they are, but we haven’t yet reached the concrete political part of this series, so let’s talk in abstractions for now.)
You must wonder how an educated and truly decent fellow like my hypothetical unaffiliated neighbor who truly wants only justice to be done can find himself siding with some of the world’s most xenophobic savages. The answer is that the impetus to act on behalf of fairness must be fueled by righteous anger. There’s no shame in that; it’s how human beings are. Righteous anger is directed at the communities who need to be knocked down in the name of fairness. In order to be the objects of scorn, they must be regarded as capable of exercising free will and indeed they are so regarded. But those who are being helped in the name of fairness need to be the objects not of anger but of sympathy. Being the object of sympathy does not entail being assigned agency. On the contrary, those being helped in the name of fairness are, in my neighbor’s narrative, eternal children, always worthy of sympathy, never capable of responsibility.
In short, my benign neighbor’s genuine commitment to fairness scares the hell out of me. But this is only the half of it. Because more than I fear his objectives, I fear the means that he will use to achieve them. I was intending to get to that in this post as well, but I’ve rambled on for too long already, so I’ll discuss the unaffiliateds approach to solving social problems in my next post.
Sunday, December 19, 2010
In the previous post, we made the acquaintance of my hypothetical unaffiliated neighbor. He’s basically a decent fellow whose moral commitments are focused on the only kind of morality he understands – fairness. The kinds of morality that flow from community affiliation – loyalty to a specific tradition and the bearers of that tradition – appear to him (as an outsider to all such traditions) as manifestations of clannishness and xenophobia. In the name of fairness, he seeks to at least level the playing field on which successful and unsuccessful communities compete by undermining successful communities. I find this objective malign enough, but in this post I’ll explain why the malignancy is compounded by the methods that flow naturally from the logic of unaffiliation.
Recall how communities reach a collective decision regarding some issue. The starting point is the received wisdom regarding comparable issues. Multiple spontaneous individual decisions, as well as deliberate rulings by elders, ultimately coalesce into some sort of consensus that is incorporated into the received wisdom of the next generation. The process, like the community itself, is assumed to continue indefinitely. Now consider how the same issue might be resolved in the absence of a community. In such a case, received wisdom carries little weight. The role of elders is assumed by experts, whose job is not to interpret received wisdom but rather to design optimal solutions from scratch. And the relevant time horizon is short since decisions are not tentative steps in an open-ended process, but rather attempts to optimize something or other here and now.
This approach to decision-making should frighten you. Decisions made by experts more inclined to defy tradition than to respect it are much more likely to lead to catastrophe than decisions that evolve naturally from time-tested traditions. This is all the more true if the objective of such decisions is to maximize something in the short term rather than to achieve some good enough result for now and allow the process to continue to creep in the right general direction. There might not be any very good solution in the short term to what ails us and the insistence on finding one is likely to wreak havoc.
But let’s get back to my neighbor. He knows two things. He wants to bring successful communities down a few notches and he trusts experts, not elders, to figure out how to get things done. In other words, he is inclined towards policies that affect very many people (communities) that are crafted by very few people (experts). Not to put too fine a point on it, my neighbor’s view of the world – a view that follows logically from his lack of affiliation with any moral community – is one in which the consequences of decisions flow from the top down. He trusts experts to compute just how to redistribute and to diversify in the very best possible way. Do I need to explain how this takes us down the road to serfdom?
When you have a hammer, the whole world is a nail. And when you trust experts to engineer societies, the world’s most pressing problems are bound to be the ones amenable to social engineering. Like Thomas Sowell’s “anointed”, my neighbor is well practiced at discovering crises that imperil cities, countries, preferably the cosmos itself, but to which the benighted masses are oblivious. The experts, however, know just what to do, namely, regulate the dangerous behavior of the masses.
So, for example, I’m an agnostic on global warming (or whatever they call it these days), at least as far as the science goes. But as far as second-order information goes – the evidence for deciding whom to trust – I can’t help but notice that global warming wins the unaffiliated trifecta. First, it involves a quixotic quest for eternal good health. Second, it sets up modern civilization as the villain. Third, it proposes a solution in which experts curtail the behavior of the masses. Without knowing a damn thing about the science, I’m simply not willing to take seriously any story that fits the genre quite that perfectly.
More generally, I’m frightened by people like my unaffiliated neighbor (hypothetical neighbor, I emphasize) for whom fairness always trumps other virtues, for whom feel-good crusades trump lives, and for whom expert theories trump common sense. I am particularly wary of those who shift the power to make decisions that affect the many up to the few anointed ones unsullied by community affiliation.
Of course, the mechanism most commonly used to concentrate power in the hands of these anointed is …(drumroll)… the state.
Thus ends the first half of this series of posts. From here on, I’ll be discussing which roles states can fulfill effectively and which they can’t. In particular, I’ll be discussing what a Jewish state is good for and what it’s not good for. And just to hint at the tie-in with all the stuff I’ve been discussing until now, consider this: who has an interest in a very powerful (vis-à-vis its citizens) Jewish state, those who are committed to the Jewish People as a community (or collection/hierarchy of communities) or those who do not identify with the Jewish People as a community?
Monday, December 27, 2010
We have seen that Judaism can best be thought of as a process in which a community carries forward and develops a moral code and a narrative. The moral code itself involves expressions of national and ethnic solidarity, so that it is impossible to separate moral and ethnic commitments. Since membership in the community is itself determined by identification with the code and narrative, there is an inherent circularity to the process that makes it susceptible to disequilibria.
In fact, from the mid-18th century to the mid-20th century, emancipation of the Jews and general secularization in parts of Europe combined with persecution of the Jews led to precisely the kind of disequilibrium I discussed in earlier posts. We find the bonds of tradition weakening for some, while for others tradition becomes more and more stringent and detailed. The restriction of outlets for Jewish creativity in political and economic spheres led to hyper-intellectualization of reality. At the apex of this process, Rav Chaim Brisker could find broad abstract structures in a haphazard mass of evolving traditions and the Sfas Emes could reduce the entire concrete world to an arbitrary and somewhat intrusive instantiation of the symbolic world. The need for the faithful to signal loyalty to ever narrower splinter group led to increasing emphasis on precisely those aspects of tradition that were obscure and unnatural and the lack of opportunity for constructive sacrifice led to socially costly signaling. As migration and emancipation in some places led to increasing encounters with others, the need for the faithful to affirm an articulated narrative became that much greater and the specificity of the narrative grew as well. Affirming belief in the genius of the sages, the powers of the righteous and the inevitable downfall of the wicked became a litmus test of loyalty in parallel with mass defection from traditional faith. Each was a reaction to the other and together they constituted a spiral driving further and further from equilibrium.
It is easy to understand how the founding of a Jewish state could address these problems. A state would provide constructive outlets for creativity. Jewish traditions could be applied to whole areas of activity that had been off limits for centuries. The ingathering of exiles would focus attention on the common, more foundational, elements of Jewish tradition, rather than on the random details manifest in the particular codes of each sub-sub-community. Jews could signal loyalty to the community and to tradition by making socially constructive sacrifices on behalf of the general welfare. And the main elements of the narrative, the rewarding of the Jews’ loyalty to tradition by their return to former glories, would be affirmed before the eyes of the whole world.
(To avoid giving the appearance of neglecting the obvious I should add that a Jewish state also held the crucial promise of increasing the security and prosperity of the Jews. But I regard this as subsumed in the above. Moreover, if the sole desiderata were security and prosperity and not the preservation of the process, assimilation might have been a better solution.)
Now there are two ways of understanding how the founding of a state could address the problems enumerated above. In the first understanding, the role of the state is simply to create conditions that catalyze a return of Judaism towards equilibrium. It is sufficient that the state provides Jews with liberty, with an environment that reflects the values of a preponderantly Jewish population and with opportunities to express Jewish tradition creatively in many areas of life. The healing process will then take place within the Jewish community itself, a community that retains an identity distinct from the state itself. This is my preferred understanding and one of my main objectives here is to flesh out its details.
Most of those who pressed for founding a Jewish state had, however, a very different vision of the relationship between the prospective Jewish state and the Jews as a community (or more precisely as a collection of nested sub-communities). The idea was that the state would replace Jewish communities. The state, not the community, would become the locus of Jewish identity; the laws of the state would replace the norms of the community; the state would become the central character in the Jewish narrative; citizenship in the state would play the role of membership in the community.
Conflating the concept of Jewish peoplehood with Jewish statehood encounters a number of obvious obstacles. Membership in each is determined in completely different ways. Citizenship in a state is determined primarily by geographic considerations, while membership in a moral community is determined primarily by voluntary identification with the social norms and narrative of the community. But you need to bear in mind that the original idea of founding a Jewish state was tied up with certain romantic notions of nationalism that were popular at the time in German philosophical circles. Nations (what I prefer to call communities) were believed to embody some essential Idea or Spirit which could also be embodied by a State. It isn’t important to actually understand what that means (when philosophers resort to capitalizing even in non-German, that's almost certain to be a hopeless task); it was simply a sleight of hand designed to paper over the obvious unbridgeable difference between peoplehood and statehood.
In fact, attempts to bridge this difference in the Jewish context actually came in two flavors. One flavor was favored by those who had given up on Judaism as a religion but retained feelings of ethnic identification. For them, conflating peoplehood with statehood was a means of narrowing the definition of peoplehood to the civil terms that could be accommodated by statehood. A different flavor was favored by those who wished to revive and strengthen Jewish religious life. For them, conflating peoplehood with statehood was a means of narrowing the definition of statehood to the ethnic-religious terms that could be accommodated by peoplehood. As I’ll discuss in future posts, both flavors of this approach were doomed from the start.
The key point for us now is that despite its apparent demise, this approach has bequeathed us certain statist ideas that have significantly impeded the state’s ability to catalyze Jewish communities’ return to equilibrium. In the next several posts, I’ll discuss the different roles a state can play and how these can redound to the benefit or detriment of communities.
Sunday, January 02, 2011
Garden variety discussions of what the state ought to do are inevitably frustrating and pointless. People assert, often with great passion, that the state is obligated to do such-and-such or that it has no right to do such-and-such. But these claims typically lack any content beyond a declaration of personal preference.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m prepared to defend the view that people do have moral intuitions and that these intuitions are no less real than other forms of cognition. So I’m not afraid of normative claims. But moral intuitions are adequate only within the context of a particular moral tradition. Given a substantive body of moral traditions, our intuitions can help guide us along at forks in the road. But normative discussions regarding the roles of states generally take place across moral communities that lack sufficient common ground. Making normative assertions in such a context are like shouting directions on the basis of compass readings without benefit of a map.
Now this hasn’t prevented libraries from filling up with tracts on political philosophy. In my next post, I hope to deal with some of the main ideas for regulating discourse across moral communities. But for now I want to discuss some ideas proposed by economists that actually have some analytic and empirical content. Economists ask which economic functions can be carried out more efficiently by the state than by free markets. (Of course, the word “efficiently” might very well be hiding some moral questions about which people might be disagree, but let’s elide that for the moment.) For this reason, I propose to begin this discussion from the economic point of view with an eye towards expanding out from there to broader moral questions.
There are a number of economic roles that even the most determined free-marketeers are prepared to concede to the state. (The second chapter of Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom is as good a starting point as any for such a discussion.)
First of all, for the market to work at all, property rights need to be protected. A police force, an army and a justice system are needed to ensure that property isn’t stolen or conquered and that contracts are honored.
Second, there are certain kinds of goods and transactions for which the market is likely to fail. For example, some goods like roads or streetlamps are non-excludable; once someone supplies them everyone can use them and there is no mechanism for collecting compensation for that use. In such cases, nobody will be willing to provide the goods. (Of course, nowadays there are technologies for efficiently collecting tolls on roads with restricted entry and exit and indeed such roads are increasingly being privatized.) Similarly, there are actions that impose costs on others (negative externalities) but for which it is impossible to compensate them. For example, my car pollutes the air you breathe, an imposition for which you and I could probably agree on some compensation. But, there is no practical mechanism through which I could execute that transaction with you and the indeterminate group of others similarly affected. The government, acting as a proxy for you, can at least charge me for my free ride by, for example, taxing gasoline.
Third, once we have conceded that the state needs to fulfill these roles, it must necessarily also establish the means and the mechanisms to do so. Broadly speaking, it needs to carry out some fiscal policy (setting taxation levels and spending levels and priorities), as well as some monetary policy (controlling money supply and setting interest rates).
So much for the roles of the state that are generally agreed upon. Now let’s consider two broad areas about which there has been endless debate with regard to the right level of state involvement.
The first concerns the extent to which the state should engage in benign paternalism. Should the state tax wealthier citizens for the purpose of supplementing the income of poorer citizens? Should the state use tax revenues to provide citizens with goods and services that the state regards as essential but that individual citizens may not wish to pay market prices for? Should the state regulate voluntary transactions among citizens for the protection of one or both of them?
The second concerns the extent to which the state should encourage or even enforce moral virtue. Should the state outlaw behavior which many people find morally offensive? Should the state sponsor religious institutions or services? Should the state regulate the education system to ensure inculcation of patriotic values or other virtues it regards as necessary for citizenship?
We’re going to spend plenty of time discussing these questions. For now, a few teasers.
First, if you’ve already conceded above that the state should compensate (partially) for negative externalities by, for example, penalizing air pollution, can you argue that the state should not similarly penalize offensive public acts? What’s the difference? (The question isn’t rhetorical; there are differences.)
Second, the first set of questions deal with state enforcement of fairness. The second set deals with state enforcement of community-based morality. So it’s probably not a coincidence that there is non-negligible negative correlation between support for the first type of state intervention and the second type of state intervention and that the best way to guess if someone supports only the former or only the latter is to know his degree of affiliation to some moral community.
Third, as I already suggested above, we can attack these questions from two different perspectives. One is the normative approach favored by many political philosophers that asserts that some interventions are right and others are wrong. The other is the prudential approach that asserts that some interventions lead to results that most people don’t want and others lead to results that most people do want.
In the next few posts, I’ll make two main points. First, normative arguments (typically supporting the first type of intervention and opposing the latter type) are generally not much more than political preferences disguised as high principle. Second, that many people in Israel, especially those who strongly identify as part of a Jewish community, unwittingly support the kinds of state intervention that lead to results that they do not want.
Sunday, January 09, 2011
We’ve been considering how Jewish statehood can advance Jewish peoplehood and, in particular, whether this would be advanced or hindered by state involvement in redistribution and regulation and/or state involvement in legislating morality. Since I want to give nuanced answers to these questions, I first want to dispose of the approach that argues that questions concerning the desirability or effectiveness of state actions are rendered irrelevant by normative claims regarding what the state is forbidden or obligated to do.
I’ll start the story with Jeremy Bentham, who argued that the state should act in such a way that would maximize the aggregate welfare of its citizens, roughly speaking, the sum of the utilities held by individual citizens. (For those who aren’t accustomed to the term, utility is an economics term that is not quite as objective as dollars (for example, your millionth dollar is of less marginal utility to you than your first dollar – the one that lets you buy a loaf of bread that you otherwise couldn’t afford), but is not quite as squishy as “happiness”.) It’s easy to see that this criterion, by itself, does not fit well with our moral intuitions. To take a notorious example, throwing gladiators into a ring to tear each other apart for the amusement of thousands of spectators might add to the sum of people’s happiness (thousands of people are entertained while only two suffer terribly), but still sounds like a bad idea. This example points up at least three problems with the utility maximization criterion. First, utilities are not really comparable: how does one compare the negative utility of being torn apart with the positive utility of being entertained. Second, in considering only aggregate utility, it fails to consider the distribution of that utility among individuals. Third, some things ought to be regarded as wrong, even if they do add to aggregate utility.
These problems were addressed by many philosophers and economists over the years, none more thoroughly and influentially than the late Harvard philosopher, John Rawls. But before we get to Rawls, allow me to reminisce about some of the happier hours of my elementary school years.
During recess we would often play punchball on West 89th Street between Riverside Drive and West End Avenue. Home plate was a manhole (we called it a “sewer”) and second base was the next manhole east of it (it never crossed our minds that a ball could be punched from east to west). First base and third base were specified by agreement on opposite sides of the street about midway between home plate and second base. Asphalt was fair territory and the sidewalk was foul. The problem was that cars might be parked on either side of the street or both (depending in part on which alternate side parking regulations were in effect). Which cars were fair and which foul and various other ground rules were subject to negotiations between team captains or general shouting by everybody. Since some players were power hitters while others were weaker but more accurate hitters, rules could be cherry-picked to advantage one team or another. A plausible meta-rule for ensuring fair rules would be that captains would determine the rules without taking into account which team they were on. This would ensure that ground rules would not be biased towards one strategy or another (they’d be fair by being neutral). Likewise, it would ensure that runs and opportunities to score runs would initially be equally distributed, so that, for example, last licks were guaranteed if the team batting second was trailing. (In practice, the rebbe (pronounced ‘rebbie’) would end recess at his whim, so that the last licks rule amounted to wiping out the top of the last inning, if the game was cruelly terminated before the end of the bottom of the inning.)
After that pleasant detour, I’m back to Rawls. Rawls is concerned with how to define justice. His main argument is that in order to understand what justice is, we need to imagine a group of people who are together trying to establish from scratch (“the original position”) the rules that will govern them as a society. This setup is familiar from the idea of a social contract, discussed by many philosophers including Rousseau and Locke. Rawls’s added wrinkle is that in order that participants in this contract not try to leverage any prior advantages they may have, we should imagine further that the participants do not know anything about themselves (they are behind the “veil of ignorance”): they don’t know their age or gender, their natural abilities, their social and religious affiliations, their beliefs and preferences and so on. What arrangements would rational participants in such a game arrive at? Rawls argues that they would arrive at an arrangement in which each person would have the maximum degree of liberty consistent with others having the same and that of all possible distributions of utility across participants, the one that would be chosen would be the one in which the poorest member is best off (“maximin”). The point is that if you don’t know who you are, you will make sure that the poorest member of society doesn’t get screwed because he might be you. (This isn’t actually true unless you’re exceedingly risk averse, but never mind.)
Rawls spells out the conclusions that can be drawn from this experiment regarding what states should and should not do. States must remain neutral with regard to what constitutes virtue. They must not adopt any community’s definition of morality. This follows from the fact that participants in Rawls’s game do not know with which moral community they are affiliated. On the other hand, the state must not remain neutral with regard to distribution of primary goods, including economic goods and rights; it is obligated to redistribute for the benefit of those at greatest disadvantage. In short, legislating morality, no; welfare state, yes. The juxtaposition of these two positions is usually summarized by the statement that “the right is prior to the good”. In the terms I introduced in earlier posts, we can say that, according to Rawls, the ethics of autonomy is prior to the ethics of community and divinity. As Michael Sandel points out, the word “prior” here has two meanings. First, in the sense of superiority: in case of conflict the right to autonomy trumps community-based morality. Second, in the sense of being logically prior: it is possible to define what we mean by the right to autonomy without recourse to any theory of morality. Not coincidentally, this is precisely the position of the unaffiliateds we considered earlier.
Is Rawls’s argument convincing? Well, his conclusions depend crucially on the persuasiveness of his thought experiment in which participants in the game need to set ground rules without knowing, inter alia, to which communities they belong. This idea was perfectly persuasive as a guiding principle for setting ground rules in punchball on West 89th Street. I could easily imagine myself on a different team; in fact, yesterday I was on a different team and tomorrow I’ll be on yet another team. But in Rawls’s game, once I peel away everything that makes me me, who is doing the deciding? Once you strip away my very identity, is there some self left that wants something? The claim that there is some self independent of the affiliations that constitute its identity (Sandel calls it the “unencumbered self”) already begs the conclusion that autonomy is prior to community-based morality. The point is that the affiliations, loyalties and beliefs that constitute your identity are all secondary and contingent. But then what is left that is primary and essential?
In his later work, Rawls wished to defend his earlier conclusions without recourse to any claims about the nature of the self (since such a claim was precisely the sort of “metaphysical” claim to which he did not wish to commit himself). Instead he claimed that in engaging in public debate citizens must bracket their moral commitments, loyalties and beliefs and argue only in terms that are comprehensible across moral communities. But either this claim is simply practical advice regarding how to get things done, in which case I take no issue with it, or else it is a normative claim, in which case it is no more persuasive than his earlier argument.
Furthermore, as I argued earlier, it is not possible to define the right to autonomy without recourse to some theory of morality generally. It’s easy enough to implement the rule that your right to move your fist as you wish ends at my nose, but how do we implement the rule that your right to make a public display ends where my sensibilities begin without deciding which sensibilities are worthy of this protection and which are not?
To take this argument a bit further, the whole notion of neutrality turns out to be a chimera once you start thinking about concrete examples. In fact, as Steven Smith argues, seemingly benign words like ‘neutrality’, ‘equality’ and ‘reciprocity’ are often used as Trojan horses for smuggling in various strongly biased ideas that we wish to shield from scrutiny. Suppose, for example, that we are arguing about whether abortion should be legal or illegal. You say a fetus is a human being and aborting it is murder; I say a fetus is nothing but protoplasm and it should be the right of the mother to abort it. Here’s my argument on neutrality grounds: the state must remain neutral on a question of morality such as this and so must remain uninvolved by permitting abortion. I’ve bludgeoned you, but I’m guessing that I haven’t persuaded you.
(Rawls’s actual argument on the matter is a bit more sophisticated. “Neutrality” isn’t a slam dunk winner for me, but you need to leave your murder argument home when you argue your point. You can try to persuade me only “in terms of a reasonable balance of public values”. It so happens, though, that according to Rawls “any reasonable balance of… values will give a woman a duly qualified right to decide whether or not to end her pregnancy during the first trimester”. Presto. Presumably in response to this, Richard Posner writes: "I really do take the view that the sort of political discussion in which political philosophers, law professors, and other intellectuals engage is neither educative nor edifying; I also think it is largely inconsequential, and I am grateful for that fact. When a brilliant philosopher like Rawls gets down to the policy level and talks about abortion and campaign financing and the like, you recognize a perfectly conventional liberal and you begin to wonder whether his philosophy isn't just elaborate window dressing for standard left liberalism.")
One simply never knows when and how the neutrality card will be played in order to disqualify some argument. Should the state remain neutral on voluntarily contracted slavery? How about consensual incest? Blackmail? Drug dealing? Can you ever actually distinguish non-neutral moral commitments from “a reasonable balance of public values”?
Let’s move on. In Rawls’s thought experiment, people are asked to reach arrangements from that neutral position created by the veil of ignorance. In this respect, we punchball players were pretty decent Rawlsians; we set the ground rules behind the proverbial veil. But once the ground rules were established, we stopped being neutral and played to win. Imagine what kind of boring game it would have been if we actually played as if we didn’t know what team we were on. In the Rawlsian game, however, there is no distinction between setting the ground rules and playing the game. One is forever supposed to play for a tie. You want to argue about abortion? Fine, but we want a nice clean fight here so kindly leave your most deeply held beliefs at the door. Is it any wonder that public discourse these days is so vapid and unsatisfying?
Having said all that, I am not (yet) rejecting Rawls’s conclusions regarding the welfare state or legislating morality. I’m only rejecting normative arguments that insist on certain conclusions a priori. Indeed there are excellent prudential reasons for reaching conclusions that are in some respects not far from those of Rawls. I’ll get to these in my next two posts.
Sunday, January 16, 2011
Let’s think about what legislating morality is likely to achieve. What are the costs and benefits of, for example, outlawing public indecency or selling chametz on Pesach in Israel? What are the costs and benefits of government non-recognition of same-sex unions or heterodox marriage and divorce?
To repeat a point I’ve already made, I’m entirely unpersuaded by a priori normative arguments against (or for) such legislation. I don’t understand the difference between “public arguments” (good) and “comprehensive theories” (bad). Likewise, I don’t understand why arguments from religion are unacceptable, but arguments from other no-less-rigid ideologies (pick your favorite contemporary –ism) are fine. I don’t see why forbidding the sale of whale blubber on kashrus grounds is illegitimate but forbidding it on ecological grounds is praiseworthy. I also don’t understand how we might distinguish a priori between water pollution as a negative externality and indecency as a negative externality.
Of course, I don’t understand all those things because I belong to a community and community-based ethics and divinity-based ethics are meaningful to me. If I were unaffiliated and understood only autonomy-based ethics, all the above distinctions would be obvious to me.
None of which means that legislating morality is necessarily a good idea, even for those who are affiliated with a community. In this post, I’ll state the perfectly obvious idea that those who wish to strengthen Judaism as a community endeavor might find that the costs of such legislation outweigh the benefits. In the next post, I’ll explain why certain legislation will almost certainly weaken precisely the communities we wish to strengthen.
Suppose we (whoever “we” happens to be) have the power to pass some legislation designed to anchor some moral principle in law, say, forbidding the sale of pork. Of course, the underlying moral principle in this case is meaningful to me but probably completely inaccessible to many other people. What are the benefits to me of such a law? Well, I’m likely to get a public square more to my taste. If the sight and smell of pork makes me ill the same way polluted air makes some people ill, such a law might help me avoid it. If seeing people blithely flouting our common heritage offends my moral sensibilities the same way that the sale of cat or dog meat might offend their sensibilities, such a law might spare me such offense. If I genuinely fear for the souls of sinners, such a law might save them from the fires of hell. Indeed, such a law might even help to strengthen national solidarity by contributing to a core of shared values.
But what is the cost I incur from such a law? Well, obviously it can backfire. It might cause resentment among people who might otherwise have not had any particular interest in pork and result in more commerce in pork than there might otherwise have been. It might also increase divisiveness and weaken solidarity. But I think the main cost has to do with a very real “veil of ignorance”. We might have the power to pass some legislation today that pushes some moral principle that we believe in. But we are quite ignorant about how the chips of power might fall tomorrow or the day after. If we push through a ban on pork today, people with stricter sensibilities and sharper eyes might push through a ban on broccoli tomorrow and some tender souls might ban animal slaughter the day after that. It might be in our interest – indeed it might actually be in everyone’s interest – to call a truce on certain kinds of moral legislation simply to avoid mutual harassment.
Now to be sure, it might not be in our interest to call a truce. Each time we contemplate some such legislation, we need to consider all the following: How important is this legislation for us? How much better is it than the next best alternative? How broad is the support for it and how deep is the resentment? What are the odds that the people who resent it most will be in a position of power sometime soon? To what extent will passage of this law influence whether they might pass a law that we resent? (Of course, we shouldn’t ignore the possibility that our opponents might be non-cooperative types – for example, they might be convinced of their own “neutrality” – so that restraint on our part might be counterproductive. But since our game is essentially an iterated prisoner’s dilemma, too much suspiciousness of this sort could lead to a sub-optimal equilibrium.) In short, we need to estimate the expected benefit against the expected cost.
As a practical matter, legislation of morality is likely to be worthwhile only if the matter is extremely important to us or if no neutral position is possible or if there is a strong consensus on our side. Thus, to a limited extent, my practical conclusions are not all that different than those of the normative approach I reject.
Nevertheless, there are crucial differences.
First, my approach does not preclude the possibility of legislating on the basis of some particular moral theory in the event that the benefit to a sufficiently strong coalition outweighs the cost to them.
Second, it does not posit the superiority, or even the existence, of any neutral view. In fact, there are many issues about which there is no neutral position; abortion is either murder or it’s not. The possibility of a neutral position might, however, be an important consideration in determining how much better some law is than the next best alternative: when no neutral position exists the gap will necessarily be larger. When a neutral position does exist on a matter of considerable controversy, we might indeed be well-advised to seize it.
Third, no argument is disqualified from public discourse. It might in fact be good policy on my part to present arguments in behalf of my position in terms that are meaningful to others whose present or future cooperation might be important for me. But it is also surely counter-productive to debate inauthentically. If we are motivated by considerations particular to a moral system that is not shared by all citizens, everyone is best served if we put our true motivations on the table. In the end, if we fail to be persuasive, we will not carry the day.
Given that we incur the smallest cost in legislating morality when the moral principle being legislated is least controversial, the most judicious investment of effort on our part would be in creating consensus around our moral views. And the best way to do that is to strengthen moral communities generally – or at least the kinds of communities that share our moral views.
It will be my contention in the next post that the worst thing we can do if we wish to strengthen the right kinds of communities is to do precisely what most people in my little corner of the world advocate, namely, to cede community power to the state.
Every now and then people who, in the grand scheme of things, look and sound more or less like me state opinions that leave me pinching myself to see if I haven’t been sucked through the rabbit hole. Often these have to do with freedoms they would like to sacrifice to government bureaucrats. One neighbor of mine told me that when friends abroad mention charity they donated to the poor, he responds that he gives much more charity than them because he pays income tax to the Israeli government. I suppose that if he finds subsidizing corrupt labor unions, paying Azmi Bishara’s pension and hiring foreign corporations to build decorative bridges from nowhere to nowhere as fulfilling as feeding widows and orphans, he’s absolutely right. Another time, in discussions about a constitutional proposal I was working on, someone insisted that I include that the government only appoint dayanim who are yirei shamayim. When I suggested that this kind of language was likely to prove ineffective in a constitutional context and that perhaps it would be better if dayanim weren’t appointed by the government at all, he looked at me like I was odd and asked, in all sincerity, who would pay for them, if not the government.
In this post, I will try to explain the crucial idea that my interlocutors seem to have missed. (Why they missed it is also an interesting question and I hope to get to that in my next post.)
As we have seen, a person can find identity and meaning through voluntary participation in a community of people that share a moral code and narrative. A state is not such a community. As the British philosopher Roger Scruton puts it: “Citizenship is precisely not a form of brotherhood, of the kind that follows from a shared act of heartfelt submission: it is a relation among strangers, a collective apartness, in which fulfillment and meaning are confined to the private sphere.” In the terms of Durkheim we considered earlier, the state is a kind of gesellschaft, not a gemeinschaft.
The dynamics of moral communities are such that they always tend towards a certain degree of homogeneity. Individuals who don’t fit in are encouraged to leave and are generally happy to do so. When communities become too diverse, they split into sub-communities that are each more homogeneous. Citizenship, on the other hand, is based on territory and is often involuntary, so that the citizenry of a state tends to be heterogeneous. As we saw in my previous post, when there is little agreement within a state regarding moral matters, it is generally in everybody’s interest that the state be as neutral as possible on such matters. As a result, states are hardly likely to provide enough of a moral core for citizenship to constitute a “form of brotherhood”.
Typically, therefore, communities and states co-exist, each providing some human needs. The point that is often under-appreciated is that states and communities are in competition. They compete for our allegiance. As a member of my community, I have special loyalty to fellow community members. The state requires, however, that, within those areas that are regulated by the state, I treat all citizens equally. As a member of my community, I have very specific ideas about what is right and what is wrong. The state requires that, within those areas subject to legislation, I obey the laws of the state, whether or not they coincide with my ideas of right and wrong.
One of the ways that the state and communities compete for our allegiance is through the supply of services. Support for the poor can be provided through community-based charity or state allowances and welfare. Education can be provided either by communities in accord with the values and standards of the community or by the state in accord with the values of the bureaucrats who establish curricula and standards. Rabbis, dayanim and mashgichim can be chosen by communities in accordance with local needs or be appointed by the state in accordance with its preferences and political pressures. Needless to say, when these services are provided by the state, they are subject to state regulation.
We have seen earlier that those who are unaffiliated with any community have good reason to prefer that no area be immune to state regulation. It stands to reason, however, that those who are affiliated with some community would value above all their community’s independence and, in particular, its ability to resist state interference. Nevertheless, the temptations of the welfare state sometimes prove hard to resist.
Consider the example of state sponsorship of religious functionaries and services. There are at least four reasons (as always, the division is somewhat arbitrary) that this is bad for communities. First, a rabbi who is imposed on a community in top-down manner by bureaucrats far away from the community he will serve is unlikely to be chosen according to the particular needs of that community; he is more likely to either be the recipient of patronage or simply be bland enough not to threaten anyone on the committee. Second, even in the event that a competent rabbi is chosen, as a civil servant he will not need to maintain the respect of his community to keep his job and hence is unlikely to work any harder than absolutely necessary. Third, even in the event that a state-appointed rabbi is full of enthusiasm and positive energy, he can always be intimidated by state officials. An independent religious leader can lead resistance against overreaches of power by the state (think of Martin Luther King, for example), but is unlikely to do so if taking unpopular positions can get him fired. Finally, even if despite everything a rabbi makes courageous decisions, these decisions are subject to second-guessing by the courts.
When the state usurps the roles of communities, it not only does a poor job in performing those roles, it also weakens the communities that have been usurped and strengthens the influence of unaffiliateds. As communities weaken, two things happen. First, citizens’ lives are animated less and less by communal narratives that provide meaning, direction and motivation for virtuous acts. Second, the state, unchecked by the mediating influence of moral communities, expands its power and regulatory reach. The resulting dystopia is characterized by the "soft despotism" of the state captured so perfectly by Tocqueville:
I see an innumerable multitude of men, alike and equal, who turn about without repose in order to procure for themselves petty and vulgar pleasures with which they fill their souls. Each of them, withdrawn apart, is a virtual stranger, unaware of the fate of the others: his children and his particular friends form for him the entirety of the human race; as for his fellow citizens, he is beside them but he sees them not; he touches them and senses them not; he exists only in himself and for himself alone, and, if he still has a family, one could say at least that he no longer has a fatherland.
Over these is elevated an immense, tutelary power, which takes sole charge of assuring their enjoyment and of watching over their fate. It is absolute, attentive to detail, regular, provident, and gentle. It would resemble the paternal power if, like that power, it had as its object to prepare men for manhood, but it seeks, to the contrary, to keep them irrevocably fixed in childhood…
After having taken each individual in this fashion by turns into its powerful hands, and after having kneaded him in accord with its desires, the sovereign extends its arms about the society as a whole; it covers its surface with a network of petty regulations - complicated, minute, and uniform - through which even the most original minds and the most vigorous souls know not how to make their way past the crowd and emerge into the light of day. It does not break wills; it softens them, bends them, and directs them; rarely does it force one to act, but it constantly opposes itself to one's acting on one's own; it does not destroy; it prevents things from being born; it does not tyrannize, it gets in the way, it curtails, it enervates, it extinguishes, it stupefies, and finally it reduces each nation to nothing more than a herd of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.
Tuesday, February 01, 2011
One of the main questions I set out to answer when I embarked on this series is how exactly the existence of a Jewish state advances the interests of the Jewish people. Most of the various tangents I’ve indulged were intended to make possible a coherent answer to that question. Let’s review a bit.
I defined Judaism as a moral system in which a community maintains and develops a code and a narrative and rules for deciding membership. For the system to survive, the code must correspond sufficiently to members’ moral instincts to encourage continued commitment to the received code as well as the application of those instincts to the code’s continued development. Similar constraints exist along the dimensions of narrative and membership. When the system works well, we say that it is in equilibrium. When I refer to the interests of the Jewish people, I mean the maintenance or restoration of equilibrium of the Jewish moral system. (Yes, not getting killed is also an interest of Jews, but – absent a specific interest in Jewish continuity – it need not be a collective interest of the Jews.) We have seen that the system is out of equilibrium when sub-communities drive the code in opposite directions, some emphasizing the universal and others emphasizing the community-specific. Similarly, sub-communities drive the narrative to opposite extremes, some thickening it to increase intensity, others watering it down to increase plausibility. Finally, signaling wars in which members of sub-communities do increasingly wasteful things to signal loyalty drive sub-communities further and further apart and make membership in any of them increasingly costly.
If we think about what catalyzes these bad dynamics, we might begin to appreciate how a state might set us on the opposite course. The key factor undermining equilibrium is the inability to live by the community’s moral code in an instinctive manner. In terms of the analogy between morality and language drawn earlier, we might say that the problem is that the moral code is spoken self-consciously like a second language rather than instinctively and fluently like a first language. While we can instinctively chart a middle course between universality and particularism, reflection on the matter can leave us confused and tentative so that small social pressures can push us towards one extreme or the other. The interaction of many slightly off-center community members can lead to the emergence of distinct sub-communities drawing further and further apart. Such self-consciousness has the same bad effect on the narrative. As I pointed out earlier, the narrative functions best when it is experienced directly and instinctively, not when it is consciously articulated. In the latter case, we are drawn off-center on the substantiveness-plausibility continuum and similar bad dynamics ensue. Finally, when affiliation with the community is self-conscious rather than instinctive, members’ mutual recognition is not immediate and they are forced to resort to escalating signaling games to convince each of their loyalty.
The connection between statehood and naturalness is not hard to see. A moral system both creates and responds to a moral environment. When a good part of that environment is immune to the effects of the moral system, members of the moral community are forced into self-consciousness. Jews in galut were dependent on others and vulnerable to ill-will by others. The public square in which they participated was largely shaped by the moral sensibilities (and depredations) of others. Even in ostensibly congenial countries, Jews who wished to get ahead were under pressure to acculturate and assimilate. (On this, don’t miss Barry Rubin’s terrific, and under-appreciated, book.) Finally, whole areas of life, from agriculture to defense, were often off-limits to Jews or at least, owing to circumstance, not of natural interest to them. All these conditions were such that Jews were forever running up against the limitations – if not the outright weirdness – of their own moral system. It made adherence to that system a consciously chosen and consciously idiosyncratic commitment, rather than a natural and fluent way of life.
The promise of a Jewish state is that self-sufficiency, the ability to create a public square based on Jewish sensibility, the lack of pressure to conform to others’ expectations and the opportunity – in fact, the necessity – to participate in all aspects of economy and governance would lead to a more natural and instinctive participation in the Jewish moral system. The key point to note is that it is neither possible nor necessary for the State to instantly establish equilibrium out of disequilibrium. The point is only to reorient the dynamics sufficiently that the Jews would be moving towards equilibrium, however slowly and fitfully.
You might be thinking that no such progress is evident. Let me explain why it looks that way and why that impression is misleading. There have traditionally been in Israel three main views of the impact that the existence of a Jewish state could and would have on the Jewish people as a moral community. None of them coincided with the commonsense view I sketched in the previous paragraph. It’s as if only three sons showed up at the seder. First, there are those who believed that the Jewish State would supersede the Jewish community. They had little use for religion and did not seek to revive the Jewish moral system so much as to bury it. Second, there are those who believed that the State would become the new embodiment of the Jewish community. They did seek to revive the Jewish moral system but naively thought that statism was the way to do so. Finally, there are those who believed that the State would either contribute nothing to reviving Judaism or would have a negative effect. They did not understand that the Jewish moral system suffered from a problem that needed to be solved.
In my next post, I’ll consider each of these views in some detail. I’ll show that each of them suffers from a fatal internal contradiction. The apparent decay that we witness every day in the religion and state battleground is simply the slow but inevitable death of each of these immature views. And while we are distracted by the drama of their death throes, the first signs of a slow crawl towards equilibrium are emerging.
Sunday, February 27, 2011
As had happened many times before in Jewish history, many European Jews in the late 19th century found themselves in a quandary. They no longer identified fully with the code and narrative of Judaism, some because the communities they belonged to were too provincial and others because the communities they belonged to were too acculturated. But, they felt themselves part of the Jewish nation and, in the spirit of the time, they had national aspirations that they sought to realize through the establishment of a Jewish state. For others, who did initially identify with Judaism as a moral system, nationalist yearnings drew them away from certain traditionalist attitudes. A nationalist awakening entailed overcoming traditions of quietism and passive forbearance. Inevitably, it replaced the authority of elders and sages with that of the young and vital who could tame the Land that they wished to redeem. They sought a new kind of power, political and physical, different than that which Jews had cultivated for almost two millennia. Nothing short of a rebellion would do.
It wasn't only the code that had to change. The narrative had to change as well. Indeed, the young nationalists carried with them many elements of the classic Jewish narrative. They "recalled" a glorious Jewish past and they viewed the return to the Land to which they aspired in millennial terms. But the past glories which they wished to revive were defined in political terms, not moral terms. As a result, a critical link in the narrative was missing: the past glories and the anticipated future ones were not mediated by a continuous tradition, as they were in the traditionalist narrative. In the nationalist narrative, nothing short of revolutionary means could overcome thousands of years of history that were, by this account, essentially wasted.
Some, following the ex-chassidic writer Micha Yosef Berdichevsky, saw Judaism as it had evolved in Europe as irredeemably desiccated. Ma tzarim oholecha Yaakov, mishkenotecha Yisrael, Berdichevsky railed. How narrow are your tents Jacob, your dwellings Israel. Others, following the ex-chassidic writer Ahad HaAm (Asher Ginsberg), held that the nationalist movement needed to maintain cultural continuity with contemporary Judaism, but needed to strip that culture of its specifically religious elements.
The obvious question is whether a form of Judaism truncated to serve the, wholly or partially, revolutionary specifications of non-religious nationalism is sustainable in the long term. The best way to form an optimistic view on the matter is to read a writer like Berdichevsky. His masterful Hebrew, his command of rabbinic sources and ability to use them to undercut their own intended message testify to the astonishing creativity unleashed by the nationalist revolution. Unfortunately, while the creativity is genuine, the effect is like being whacked over the head by an optical illusion. This creativity is not a product of the culture created by the revolution but rather it is a product of the culture replaced by the revolution. To live in a world of tradition with few outlets for creativity is to be like a rubber band twisted tighter and tighter; to abandon that world is to convert all that potential energy into kinetic energy. The kinetic energy is dazzling, but it's non-transferable. Those who come after the revolution haven't stored enough potential energy to be very interesting.
In any event, the generation that came of age in 1948 found its identity not in a truncated Judaism but rather in the newly-established state. The moral system to which they gave their sole allegiance was that of the laws of the state; the community membership they valued was citizenship. Citizenship in Israel is no trifling matter; it has always entailed significant commitment and sacrifice. But to simply be a citizen of Israel is not enough; citizenship is orthogonal to membership in a Jewish moral community, or in fact in any moral community. Recall that moral systems evolve and moral communities retain their homogeneity through shifting membership; those who don't identify with the code and narrative as understood by a given community, cease to have influence within the community. That is the nature of voluntary communities. Citizenship doesn't work that way. It imposes rights and obligations (approximately) equally on all those within its geographic scope, so that membership lacks the necessary elasticity to sustain homogeneity.
The unhappy result is that secular nationalism undermines itself in short order. Ultimately an identity rooted in nothing more than citizenship is like having no affiliation with any sustainable moral system, so that many of those who identify as Israelis but not as Jews eventually assume the characteristics of the unaffiliateds we discussed earlier. In particular, as we have seen earlier, the logic of unaffiliatedness – in particular, the quest for equality at ever greater scale – leads to internationalism. Thus, nationalism leads to statism and statism leads to internationalism.
In communities of unaffiliateds in Europe or on American campuses, one of the signaling methods members use to identify themselves as loyal is the espousal of what I like to call "silly politics". In such communities, the normal obligations of growing up – earning a living, defending the territory, raising children – are deferred indefinitely. To signal that one doesn't intend to defect, one can declare oneself to be not merely temporarily shirking such duties but implacably opposed to them in principle: by advocating unlimited entitlements, by opposing all military activities of one's own country as unprovoked aggression and by insisting on the equal legitimacy of every romantic permutation. The point is not for the espoused view to make sense; the point is for it to be public enough and silly enough to work as a bridge-burning signal.
Every aspect of silly politics makes its way to Israel's unaffiliateds. But while opposing military activities in Europe or the United States is a luxury Europeans and American students can afford, mainly because the rest of America has their backs, silly politics is a luxury Israelis cannot afford. It isn't the few flaming anarchists that are the problem. The problem is the mainstream politicians and other machers who are too dim and/or lacking in character to resist sliding into a European mindset in which savages are forgiven everything and the virtuous are forgiven nothing.
The soft anti-nationalism of the gormless is the legacy of anti-religious nationalism. It was a nationalism that asked for too much. It didn't seek to catalyze change in religion, it sought to replace religion. Its proponents were very possibly right in assessing that, under the conditions of the times, there was no alternative. But, tragically, undercutting religion also undercut the basis for a sustainable moral system that could command ongoing loyalty. Note, though, that this is not the end of the story. Unlike in galus, the inheritors of the secular nationalist legacy have not assimilated and have adequate tools to seek a broader and more sustainable basis for identity. There is a loud and influential minority that is doubling down on a bad bet and getting more than its fair share of attention. But it's the silent majority that is doing some interesting things who are the real story and we'll get to it.
In case you're thinking that this post is just a partisan potshot, I'll get to religious nationalism and religious anti-nationalism in my next two posts and they will make this one seem sympathetic by comparison.
Tuesday, March 08, 2011
As we saw in my previous post, the secular Jewish nationalist movement of the late 19th century was revolutionary by its very nature. It sought to replace a Jewish identity rooted in religion with one rooted initially in ethnicity and ultimately in citizenship. While there were many who failed to appreciate the depth of this inherent conflict, there were others, especially among the rabbinic leadership, who did – and rejected the nationalist movement for precisely that reason.
The growing visibility and popularity of secular nationalism could not leave traditional Judaism indifferent. Even if, as we have seen, secular nationalists rejected crucial elements of the traditional narrative, the fact was that the very return to Eretz Yisrael on a mass level did seem to be a manifestation of at least one crucial facet of the traditional narrative. But, ideological religious opponents of secular nationalism chose to attack exactly at the point of maximal resistance. Secular nationalism was rejected not only for undercutting the continuity of Jewish tradition, but also – indeed primarily – for undercutting the very aspect of the traditional narrative that it appeared to be upholding, namely, that of redemption from the diaspora and the return to Eretz Yisrael. The argument, easily grounded in traditional sources, was that attempts to force premature redemption would interfere with the authentic ultimate redemption and lead to nothing but catastrophe.
Ideology notwithstanding, the history of the 20th century was such that the return of Jews – secular nationalists, religious anti-nationalists and others of various stripes – to Eretz Yisrael became an incontrovertible fact. Under these circumstances, religious objections to secular nationalism took on a more concrete and specific character. There were three aspects of traditional Judaism as it had been practiced in the diaspora that were under direct threat in a state run by Jews.
First, in galuti Judaism, the life of the spirit had been paramount. Jews had redefined power in terms of cultural autonomy, the power to live their lives according to their own traditions and to pass on their cultural and intellectual legacy to their children. The power to move armies was not among their aspirations. Working the land or soldiering were regarded as unfortunate burdens and not acts of personal redemption. Second, the diaspora version of Judaism was wary of any political authority, if not downright subversive. This was both a matter of principle and a matter of bitter political experience. Third, halakhah in the diaspora had adapted itself to a lack of political, economic and judicial autonomy. It functioned reasonably well at the level of individuals or communities, but it had not been tested at the level of the state – and certainly not at the level of a modern state conceived in secular terms.
For better or worse, all three of these crucial aspects of traditional Judaism were now being directly challenged. The response of traditionalist ant-nationalists, who wished to preserve the old model of Judaism despite the manifest change in circumstances, was to try to maintain maximal autonomy from the state. Either for lack of choice or for lack of imagination, they attempted to achieve this by subscribing to the myth that living in a state in Eretz Yisrael run by secular Jews was no different than living in a state in Europe run by goyim. But just as the central myth of secular nationalism – that a community based on citizenship alone is sustainable as a moral community – ultimately crashed against reality, so too the central myth of what I'll call "religious separatism" crashed against reality. As a result, religious separatists have failed completely at achieving their central goal, namely, autonomy. Seldom has a community been so dependent on a state for survival as religious separatists are on the state of Israel.
Let's see how this happened.
The two main mechanisms of social integration in Israel are state education and universal conscription. Thus, separatists established autonomous schools and negotiated means of avoiding conscription. The lack of education and army experience had the secondary effect of rendering separatists less employable than others who had been better integrated into society. This technical limitation was, however, largely surmountable: there are plenty of jobs for which the less-than-perfectly integrated Israeli is perfectly competent. Many separatists chose, however, to postpone working in favor of learning in kollel for a few years as a principled preference, not necessarily as a way of making a virtue of necessity.
So far so good. What happened next is that avoidance of general education, conscription and employment took on a secondary function, namely , that of signaling loyalty to the separatist community. As I previously discussed at some length, all communities – not only separatists – have a variety of signaling mechanisms through which members can signal their loyalty. These signals are effective if the signals are costly to the sender and only worthwhile if the sender intends to remain in the community for the long haul. In separatist communities, the most effective type of signal is bridge-burning: one acts in such a manner that one's options for achieving success outside the community are greatly diminished. Think nose-rings and tattoos. Or, for that matter, think not getting a general education, not serving in the army in a country with universal conscription and not getting a job.
The effectiveness of such signals depends crucially on their costliness to the sender. If not serving in the army is simply a low-cost convenience, then draft evasion, in and of itself, will not be adequate to persuade other community members of my long-term commitment. I might just be lazy or cowardly. Similarly sitting in kollel for a year or two after marriage is an effective signal only if it entails genuine financial hardship. Given that, what happens when the state decides to provide stipends to kollelim? As Eli Berman points out in a very perceptive paper, by ameliorating the financial hardship of learning in kollel, such subsidies undercut the effectiveness of learning in kollel as a signal. The result is that those who might have learned for a few years now must remain considerably longer to achieve the same signaling effect.
Like escalating mishloach manos competitions, it costs everybody more just to keep up and neither the participants nor the subsidizers are happy about it. And the oddest consequence of all is that the competition to prove separatist bona fides leads to total dependence of the separatists on state subsidies. Moreover, it pulls the rug out from under the very myth the separatists wish to preserve. Unless the Polish government was surreptitiously funneling money to the Gerrer beis midrash, Israeli state support for Torah learning – begrudging or otherwise – makes plain what should be obvious for a million other reasons: for Jews, Israel is not like any other state and we ignore that fact at our peril.
Wednesday, March 16, 2011
Quick catch-up: I've been arguing that a Jewish state can serve as a catalyst for Jewish renewal, but that all of the dominant ideologies in Israel miss this point. We have seen that secular nationalists thought that the state could replace the Jewish community with a civil community and that religious anti-nationalist imagined that a Jewish state would have no effect – or negative effect – on Judaism. Now let's consider the case of religious nationalists.
Religious nationalists had to contend above all with a proposition regarding which secular nationalists and religious anti-nationalists were in full agreement: that religion and nationalism were incompatible. In particular, as we have seen, the founding of a viable modern state would necessarily entail fundamental changes in the traditional Jewish ethos. Jews would need to assume more positive attitudes towards political authority and towards military culture and the scope of halakhah would need to expand to incorporate (at least some) national affairs.
Early religious nationalists, such as Rav Yaakov Reines took a pragmatic approach to the opportunities and dangers: they considered the trade-offs and decided that, given the Jews' precarious political situation, the package was worthwhile. For most religious Jews who embraced the nationalist movement, however, the millennial significance of a return to Jewish sovereignty in Eretz Yisrael was too momentous an event to frame in terms of pragmatic trade-offs. To them, it seemed more appropriate to reinterpret the challenges presented by secular nationalism as essential components of a Grand Plan.
Thus, the new definition of national power was embraced. The necessary tools of state-building – agriculture, military, industrial – were not simply necessary burdens but sacred endeavors worthy of the kind of veneration earlier reserved for matters of the spirit. Army uniforms were the new priestly garments. Furthermore, political subversiveness was replaced by its polar opposite, mamlachtiut: the doctrine that whatever apparent flaws the products of this redemptive process – the state and its institutions – might suffer from, they and their proximate agents should be regarded as endowed with a divine imprimatur. Finally, the state was designated as the appropriate authority for deciding and regulating religious matters. The state would appoint rabbanim, enforce religious legislation and fund religious services. Voluntary religious community organizations would be upgraded to state institutions. Secular officials, by virtue of being agents of the state and hence the bearers of profound religious longings of which they might be unaware, could be trusted to manage religious affairs.
In this view, the anticipated Jewish state would not replace religion, as secular nationalists anticipated, but rather would upgrade and subsume it. This optimistic view envisioned a mythical state different than the one anticipated by the bulk of Israel's founders and, indeed, different than the one that actually exists. The actual state of Israel is a civil democracy in which political rights are grounded in citizenship, which is influenced by, but not determined by, ethnicity or religious commitment and in which laws are influenced by, but not determined by, Jewish tradition. To imagine that it could have been otherwise, that it is otherwise or that it will be otherwise in the foreseeable future is to live in a fantasy world.
The inability or unwillingness to acknowledge the yawning gap between the mythical state envisioned by religious nationalists – the one that is yesod kisei hashem ba-olam – and the actual civil state – many of the institutions of which are structurally anti-religious – prevents religious nationalists from comprehending political events and, hence, from reacting to them in a rational manner. In the mythical state, the millennial narrative unfolds slowly but inevitably, guided along by the government and its representatives. As God's chosen agents on earth, the Labor party commanded both the loyalty and the fawning admiration of religious nationalists from before the founding of the state until God elected the Likud in 1977. The courts, the army, the rabbanut and other state agencies were all playing their roles in the entirely deterministic unfolding of redemption and as such they too commanded the loyalty of religious nationalists. To criticize them was to rebel against God's representatives on earth.
Among the silly policies this mindset encourages are two that we considered earlier. The first is nanny state socialism. In the religious nationalist view, Jewish Government is good, so Big Jewish Government is even better. If the state was meant to assume all the roles of pre-state communities, then, in particular, it ought to gather under its benevolent wing all communal righteousness. Never mind that welfare and assorted social benefits mostly serve as a mechanism for massive subsidization of Arabs by Jews, encourage the dissolution of families and discourage actual charity. Actual consequences in the actual state are of less importance to religious nationalists than that the state, as a symbol, be seen to be righteous.
Similarly, in this view, one of the state's main purposes is to subsidize, and hence regulate, religion. In the actual state, as opposed to the mythic one, state subsidization of religion results in market distortions that produce unmotivated state-appointed rabbanim. And regulation invites state agencies, especially courts, that are indifferent – if not hostile – to religion, to weigh in on religious matters. Religious nationalists often seem completely blind to the damage such intervention causes. In fact, when the rabbanut ruled against the views of many religious nationalists regarding conversions and shemittah, religious nationalists themselves turned to the secular courts to force the rabbanut to recant.
The divergence of religious nationalists' mythical state and the actual state of Israel has become so great that the myth is becoming unsustainable. The Labor party and the Supreme Court long ago adopted the agenda of the unaffiliateds, the rabbanut has been infiltrated by anti-nationalists and even the army played a leading role in the "disengagement". In short, the main actors in this drama seem to have lost the script. What is one to do? The die-hard mamlachtim quibble among themselves about which inconvenient events are mere plot twists, which are produced by rogue actors and who are the rogue actors. It is a sad spectacle.
But quietly, young religious nationalists are rejecting the worst ideological excesses of religious nationalism.
Wednesday, March 30, 2011
We have seen that anti-religious nationalists, religious ant-nationalists and religious nationalists have all had their favored myths crash against the reality of the state of Israel. I don't lament this collective disillusionment but rather regard it as grounds for optimism. This is because this disillusionment acts principally as a centripetal force: those forced to abandon moribund ideologies shift mostly towards, rather than away from, each other.
The descendants of anti-religious nationalists are, in large numbers, seeking ways to re-affiliate with Judaism. Religious anti-nationalists are seeking ways to integrate themselves into the state. Religious nationalists are seeking ways to maintain their commitments to both religion and the state without either commitment distorting the other.
Of course, as members of each camp abandon its orthodoxies in the direction of the center, the remaining diehards are driven further away from the center. The diehard descendants of anti-religious nationalists follow the logic of unaffiliatedness to its logical conclusion and are now increasingly internationalist in orientation, despite the manifest dangers of such an ideology for Israel's survival. Diehard religious anti-nationalists are more aggressively hostile to Israel's politics and culture. Diehard religious nationalists are more earnestly devoted to evermore bizarre manifestations of mamlachti ideology. But the eye-catching nature of these phenomena should not divert our attention from the more significant phenomenon to which they are merely responses: a (very) slow migration towards a proper appreciation of the extent and limit of Israel's possible contribution to Jewish identity.
To understand why I think this slight shift to common ground is so important, let's recall the notion of equilibrium in a moral system. Moral systems evolve through the interaction of members' moral instincts with an existing code, which itself reflects (possibly imperfectly) some prior consensus of members' moral instincts. Because of its cyclical nature, this process can either spiral towards some favorable equilibrium or it can spin out of control. Even slightly increasing differences between sub-groups within the system can trigger a bad spiral. As ideological differences between them grow more acute, such sub-groups engage in signaling wars that drive them even further apart. Each develops its own distinct code that is so skewed along critical dimensions (for example, particularity/universalism) that the moral instincts of those committed to such a code simply fail to function. Similarly, even slight decreases in variance can trigger a virtuous cycle in which increasing trust among groups leads to broader consensus and increasing willingness to rely on moral instincts. The consensus that slowly emerges from such reliance on moral instincts (as constrained by prior consensus) then itself serves as a more congenial basis for the exercise of moral instincts.
By forcing collective action, the state of Israel has catalyzed a process of convergence. (Yes, the growing rifts among the diehards are more conspicuous, but think less about what you see in the press and more about what you see in your own everyday interactions.)
Let me be a bit more specific about the kind of common ground we can expect to see specifically with regard to halacha. What I think I see developing in Israel (and I have no statistics to back me up, only my own lying eyes) is a tendency towards "normalcy" in halacha. In galus, many aspects of real life – defense, agriculture, art, music, literature, etc. – were not separable from a general culture which Jews wished to resist. Hence, halacha served to some extent to separate Jews from such real life concerns and, in some cases, to create a virtual world into which Jews could escape. Halacha was most effective at achieving that objective – and, no less important, at signaling loyalty to that objective – precisely when it was most "weird". Under those circumstances, attempts to smooth the rough edges of halacha, to make it more "normal", were correctly perceived as steps towards acculturation and, ultimately, assimilation.
The desire for "normalcy" in halacha that I see in Israel are of a different type altogether. It encompasses attempts to develop an authentic Jewish aesthetic that grows organically from Jewish tradition and is not derivative or imitative. It includes revival of neglected commandments, such as techeiles, in a manner that restores not only the technical aspects of the mitzvah but also its underlying historical purpose and symbolism. It includes a desire to restore Shabbos as a communal, not merely individual, day of rest that captures its original communal purposes. It includes a desire to revive agricultural commandments tied to the Land of Israel in a manner that makes them meaningful. Perhaps most significantly, it includes a desire for Jewish sensibilities to transcend the boundaries of a particular sub-group called "dati-im" and to inform Israeli culture more generally. (Please don't confuse this with its polar opposite, state enforcement of religion.)
I emphasize that all the above are merely inchoate desires, certainly not achievements. To the extent that they are even reasonably well-defined, some are poorly conceived and most remain far from being realized. What is important about them is simply that they are authentic desires being expressed by increasing numbers of people across the traditional social divisions in Israel. In fact, while the achievements thus far are very modest, it is not hard to diagnose where success is most marked and where it least marked. In areas where change can easily grow organically from the bottom-up – art, music, dress, etc. – interesting developments are most evident. Where communal coordination is required – communal Shabbos, for example – achievements are more modest but still measurable. Where national coordination is necessary – meaningful shemitta or a rational conversion policy, for example – there is no evident movement at all. This is as it should be. For changes to be meaningful and lasting, they must evolve organically from below – that is, via the slow development of some consensus rooted in the instinctive sensibilities of those committed to Judaism as an organic moral system. The more high-level the necessary mechanism of coordination, the longer it takes for those sensibilities to percolate up. Sometimes, well-intentioned thinkers imagine that halachic solutions that can be imposed by the state or its rabbinic representatives could be most quickly, easily and effectively implemented, but in fact the truth is precisely the reverse.
Does the fact that there is some commonality of interest regarding the future of halacha necessarily imply that we are at the beginning of a virtuous cycle directed towards some favorable equilibrium? That will depend on a number of things.
First, like any moral or legal system, halacha has codification mechanisms – books, poskim, institutions and askanim – that serve as a check on drift or degradation that sometimes characterizes the moral sensibilities of the masses. Sometimes, especially in times of persecution and widespread ignorance or malfeasance, such mechanisms are essential, even if only as eis laasos lashem hefeiru torosecha. A virtuous cycle occurs only when both the masses and the codifiers properly calibrate the degree to which the emerging Oral Law needs to be written or otherwise frozen.
Second, diminishing gaps between groups can increase fear, and hence signaling mechanisms, precisely because the greater closeness can evoke legitimate fears of bastardization. The more similar some competing group is to mine, the greater my fear that they will have deleterious influence on my group. When does greater similarity increase trust and when does it increase fear? Briefly (way too briefly), the answer is that few people feel threatened by others who take liberties with halacha, so long as those others are prepared to concede that they are indeed taking liberties. It is not leniency or even deviance that is threatening, so much as the insistence that every deviance be couched in some grandiose theory that justifies it. Better hypocrisy than tedious self-justification. Indeed, if hypocrisy is the homage vice pays to virtue, tolerance is the homage truth pays to hypocrisy. Similarly, we are prepared to tolerate those who love chumros, so long as they are prepared to acknowledge that they are indeed engaging in chumros.
Will we one day be able to agree on what halacha is, even if it is not exactly what we do?
Tuesday, April 12, 2011
I'll divide the discussion into three parts. The first involves diminishing the power and influence of unaffiliateds, the outsized influence of whom on Israeli policy has outlasted its actual support. The second involves defining the boundary between effective social policy and excessive nanny state intervention. The third involves the boundary between useful state involvement in religion and harmful interference in matters better handled by communities.
Let's begin with entrenched powers. As we have seen, for secular nationalists, who constituted the bulk of the early Jewish pioneers in Israel, Israeli identity replaced Jewish identity. But statism is fundamentally different than commitment to a moral system. It leads inevitably to the faux moral system of unaffiliateds, which undermines patriotism and – in the name of universal fairness – seeks to push power upward to more global bodies.
For some, the striving for universal equality assumes a millennial urgency: they are convinced that equality, and the universal peace that surely must attend it, are within reach. Their faith leads them to judge Israel's manifold enemies too favorably. The inevitable frustration of unaffiliateds' faith leads them to judge those heretics who don't share their naïve views too harshly.
More moderate unaffiliateds don't necessarily harbor millennial faith. But, lacking sufficient alternative commitments that might provide them with an outside perch from which to judge the unaffiliated faith more realistically, they are suckers for the global unaffiliated narrative. This narrative demonizes those who make a credible attempt to balance fairness and virtue (most conspicuously, Israel and the U.S), idealizes "noble" savages while subtly belittling them as lacking free will, and aggrandizes international bodies that promote this narrative.
Fewer and fewer Israelis actually still identify with these views; from election to election, the number of elected representatives espousing the unaffiliateds' narrative diminishes. Nevertheless, the influence of their views on policy is unabated. What mechanisms account for this "stickiness" of power?
There are three influential bodies in Israel that see themselves as having interests opposed to those of Israel's elected representatives. These are the courts, the law enforcement agencies and the press. Individually and collectively, these bodies view themselves as "watchdogs" charged with protecting society from predators, prominent among whom are – in their view – politicians. Moreover, due to various inter-dependencies, these bodies are mutually reinforcing. The press whips up public sentiment that dictate law enforcement's targets and law enforcement agencies use leaks as leverage over the press. The courts educate the press in enlightened thought and the press provides ideological cover for the courts. Law enforcement provides indictments that allow the court to act and the courts reward congenial prosecutors with appointments to the bench.
Politicians and other public servants have good reason to be intimidated by the collective power of these three bodies. Collectively, they have persuaded the public that most politicians are corrupt and are in need of adult supervision. Of the last eight Justice Ministers, four (Ne'eman, Hanegbi, Sheetrit and Ramon) were either indicted or threatened with indictment while in that office. Daniel Friedmann was made the object of incessant ridicule and deemed guilty by association with presumably corrupt politicians. Only benign friends of the court – Beilin, Lapid and Livni – got a pass. If the threat of a public trial were not enough to keep public officials in line, ministers are hamstrung by legal advisors whom they did not appoint, whom they can't fire, who are answerable to the Attorney General and who can delay, essentially indefinitely, the implementation of any decision the minister makes.
But is there any inherent reason that judges, attorneys general and media makhers identify with the unaffiliateds' narrative? To a limited extent, the answer is yes. Unelected elites are naturally prone to an affinity for a narrative that includes a belief in the superiority of unelected elites over elected officials who presumably tend to populism. (In Israel, there is an additional factor: hundreds of millions of dollars spread around, through domestic proxies, by foreign governments and international agencies that promote the unaffiliateds' narrative.) But there are many countries where the courts and law enforcement agencies and the press are not monopolized by unaffiliateds, so we need a better explanation for unaffiliateds' sticking power.
What distinguishes Israel is less an inherent affinity for the unaffiliateds' narrative than a network of mechanisms by which unelected elites guarantee the perpetuation of whatever ideology they happen to subscribe to. In Israel, unlike in every other country in the world, sitting Supreme Court Justices are the dominant force in the committee for judicial appointments. This not only ensures that appointees are ideological clones of their predecessors, it ensures that anybody with judicial ambitions (including attorneys general, prosecutors and lower court judges who want to move up) will carefully toe the line set by those Justices. Furthermore, the Attorney General himself, who ostensibly serves the government, is actually selected by a panel headed by a retired Justice who is himself appointed by the Chief Justice. (Incredibly, the Supreme Court has even managed to get itself involved in appointments to the state-sponsored press. In 1999, when the relevant minister appointed a public council, charged with oversight of one of the public broadcast authorities, that did not reflect the Court's ideological preference, the Court invalidated the appointment on transparently absurd pretenses.)
In recent months alone, four senior appointments have been torpedoed through the combined efforts of the press, the attorney general and the courts, without any of the appointees ever actually standing trial. The public, having been fed a steady diet of horror stories about the corruption of public officials, is becoming convinced that these witch hunts serve its interests.
The outsized power and influence of unaffiliateds in Israeli society comes at the expense of communities committed to a Jewish moral system. Many of those who are influential within these communities are, consciously or unconsciously, guided by their justified belief that their professional ambitions might be thwarted if they don't promote the unaffiliateds' agenda within their own communities. (Oh, how I ache to name names, but I'd hate to lose friends.) If we wish for communities to regenerate and for the Jewish code and narrative to grow more organically, it will be necessary for the malign influence of the unaffiliateds among us to be reduced to its natural proportions. (There is no need for unaffiliateds to be under-represented; it would be a dramatic improvement if they were simply not over-represented.)
I don't want to get too deep into politics here, so I'll suffice with a brief laundry list of methods to restore some balance to our political system:
· Diminish the influence of sitting Justices on judicial appointments.
· Allow the government to choose the Attorney General without judicial oversight and allow ministers to freely choose legal advisors for their ministries (and to ignore their advice if they so choose).
· Change the electoral system just enough so that politicians are more frightened of the public than of the justice system. (First-past-the-post regional elections are overkill likely to cause more harm than good, but some small fixes that put individual candidates to the test might help.)
· Eliminate state-sponsored media and remove barriers to entry for privately-held media.
· Use full-disclosure regulations to limit foreign government influence on Israeli politics.
· Use legislative methods (including overrides, standing rules and statutory guidelines regarding judicial interpretation) that might limit judicial adventurism. (I doubt any of these will work, but it can't hurt to try.)
To be honest, I'm not convinced that these political tweaks really matter. Politics might not matter at all to the regeneration of communities. And even if it does, the consequences of political changes are hard to predict. Maybe the reality is that the more nakedly hostile the elites are to communities, the more attractive communities become. Ka'asher ya'anu otam, ken yirbeh ve-chen yifrotz.
Thursday, May 05, 2011
A good starting point for our discussion might be a comparison of community-based charity and state-sponsored welfare.
State-sponsored welfare has the obvious advantage of being distributed according to transparent and objective criteria, not according to the whim of askanim. Furthermore, states have tools at their disposal to coordinate and track disbursements to avoid duplication and waste. They also have enforcement mechanisms to punish and deter fraud.
On the other hand, private charity, while subject to no small amount of arbitrariness and duplication, offers certain profound advantages. Those responsible for distributing community charities are familiar with their donors and their recipients. They can establish criteria for selecting recipients that don't encourage those who could be self-reliant to become dependent on charity and that motivate donors to wish to donate more. Charity within a community is often regarded by both donors and recipients as a form of good fellowship that, in other circumstances, might flow in the opposite direction. It strengthens communal bonds and increases aggregate social capital.
State-sponsored welfare has mostly the opposite effect. States are too large and too committed to "neutral" policies to distribute entitlements according to criteria that might encourage self-reliance. On the contrary, the objective and static rules states must employ to distribute entitlements are easily gamed. They thus reward precisely those least loyal to the state and hence with the least compunctions about gaming the system. By rewarding the unemployed, such entitlements encourage unemployment; by rewarding those without families, they encourage the dissolution of families; by rewarding manipulators, they encourage manipulation. Furthermore, just as citizens learn to game the system of entitlements, politicians learn to exploit it to increase power. The result is a spiral of increasing tutelary power held by the state and diminishing social capital within communities.
Israel's welfare policies seem particularly ill-suited to its demographic objectives. For example, child allowance payments in Israel are highly correlated with astronomic birth rates among Bedouin. Moreover, special entitlements granted to single mothers reward illegal polygamy, common among Muslims.
Such counter-productiveness is even more conspicuous in Israel's policies with regard to those religious anti-nationalists committed to separatism. Consider the example of kollel stipends. Stipends for kollel students certainly make no less sense than stipends for students of literature or philosophy. They have the added important advantage of increasing the number of students studying Torah. But they have some unintended consequences as well. Obviously, they create dependency on the state. They also encourage administrators who wish to maximize their share of the available funds to use all manner of deceit to game the system. Finally, as we saw earlier, by lowering the cost of learning in kollel, they diminish the signaling value of learning in kollel. As a result, those who would actually prefer to leave and support their families are forced to remain in kollel longer to send a signal of equal value. Thus, the policy of subsidizing kollel study mainly harms those whom it is ostensibly helping.
It is important to note that taking into account the dynamics of signaling in separatist communities does not always indicate the preferability of state non-intervention. Let's consider two examples where a small amount of state intervention actually serves the interests of all parties.
One of the crucial ways a community preserves its independence is by controlling the content of its educational curriculum. States are often tempted to advance social policies by mandating curricula that they believe serve those policies. In Israel, unaffiliateds are particularly heavy-handed when it comes to determining the contents of mandated high-school civics courses. Thus, we should be extremely cautious about state intervention in matters of education. Nevertheless, the government's refusal to enforce even a minimal core curriculum in separatist schools betrays an inability to read lips saying "twist my arm".
Back in the old country, I went to a yeshiva elementary school named after a great tzaddik and gaon that was run by his grandson – I'll call him Rabbi Einikel – who was neither. The vast majority of parents wanted their kids to get some reasonable secular education (for practical reasons, not principle). Running counter to that interest was the mutual interest of both Rabbi Einikel and a fair percentage of the parents to signal that their school was the frummest school in the neighborhood. Left to their own devices, this could have easily lead to an escalating war in which the end result would be very limited secular studies, a result that would actually have left almost everybody (secretly) unhappy. Fortunately for all concerned, state educational requirements allowed everyone to maintain their principled positions while still getting their preferred result. (Sidebar: Rabbi Einikel preferred for the “goyish” teachers to at least look goyish. Once a substitute named Markowitz showed up in chassidish levush and RE's son, Ur Einikel – who, as of seventh grade hadn't mastered the pasach genuva, but is probably a Rashkabahag somewhere today – reported that his father was outraged and would never let that happen again.)
In short, when people beg you to twist their arms so they can shout that you're a bigger anti-semite than Hitler, it's sometimes a good idea to fargin them.
Another example involves enforcement of internal standards within a community. Certainly, communities must establish membership criteria. If you don't toe the line, communities can use all manner of social pressure to get you to quit the club. On the other hand, the state can't allow community enforcers to police your behavior. But the difference between banishing non-cooperators and enforcing cooperation is not always obvious, especially when a community regards residence in a particular geographic area as a form of implicit membership. When the mishmeres hatzniyus shames someone into leaving Geulah or when the Eida Charedis adjudicates domestic disputes involving possible criminal behavior, it is not clear whether they are enforcing membership standards or engaging in criminal behavior themselves and so it is not clear if state intervention is preferable to non-intervention. There is a rich history of this sort of thing – in Europe, it was known as charivari – outside the Jewish world. The problem with charivari, including the mishmeres hatzniyus version, is that the enforcers have their own, possibly shifting, signaling interests and hence the system too easily devolves into gang wars among groups with competing interests. The pattern in Europe in the 19th century suggests that almost everybody prefers the stability and (mostly) disinterested nature of state law enforcement to the volatility of charivari.
To summarize, Jewish communities in Israel are likely to be strengthened vis-à-vis the state if welfare is privatized (to the extent that coordination requirements allow) and if the state takes relatively benign steps to prevent intra-community signaling wars from spiraling out of control.
All this runs counter to the oft-proclaimed, even if insincere, preferences of religious separatists. Now let's turn to some oft-proclaimed preferences of religious nationalists that are no less destructive.
When does state sponsorship, regulation and enforcement of Judaism strengthen Jewish communities and when does it weaken them? Let's start with a few examples where the kind of state involvement long advocated by religious nationalists is mostly harmful.
By law, the only organization that is allowed to issue a teudat hechsher is the state rabbinate. This official monopoly is easily circumvented, however, since any organization can issue a certificate serving the same purpose as a teudat hechsher without using the term. (Typically, such alternative certificates are called teudot hashgacha.)
Let's compare this system with the free market system of kashrus supervision used, for example, in the United States. In the free market system, an organization that provides supervision depends on its reputation to stay in business; if it is not respected by consumers, food manufacturers will have no incentive to pay for their services and they'll go out of business. Different organizations might serve different markets and for each some level of stringency is optimal. The system has proved to be quite efficient.
Under the Israeli quasi-monopolistic system, the situation is quite different. First of all, the standards of supervision are extremely low. Inspectors are paid directly by the establishments they supervise, so they have strong incentives to overlook problems. (In the US, clients pay the supervising organization, which pays a fixed salary to the supervisors.) Inspections are extremely infrequent. Under normal market conditions, such poor service would not earn the respect of restaurant patrons and would be punished by the market, namely, the restaurants who pay for the supervision. But state-funded kashrus supervision is immune to punishment by clients. Furthermore, even if it were motivated to establish high kashrus standards, the state rabbinate is not at liberty to do so. The courts have on several occasions ordered the rabbinate to provide certification to establishments that did not meet the rabbinate's own standards. (The argument is that the rabbinate's legal authority is limited to enforcing the fraud-in-kashrus law and hence it can't invoke any standards that do not relate to the kashrus of the food in the narrowest sense.)
Finally, the rabbinate's formal monopoly also sometimes results in too much stringency. For example, when the rabbinate decided to allow local official rabbinates not to authorize use of the heter mechirah for shemittah (a decision ruled illegal by the Supreme Court – see above), it was not legally possible for private organizations to fill the market demand for supervision that did authorize the heter mechirah. In a free market system, the courts could not have dictated standards to the rabbinate (scandal number one) and the market demand for more lenient supervision would not have been frustrated by a legal monopoly (scandal number two).
Another example of state involvement in religion that serves little constructive purpose is the official rabbinate's monopoly on recognized marriage in Israel. Currently, a marriage involving at least one Jew that takes place in Israel is only recognized by the state if it is officiated by a rabbi authorized by the state rabbinate. I don't think the civil rights arguments against this arrangement are any more compelling than a hypothetical argument against laws restricting the performance of surgery to surgeons authorized by the official medical establishment. I just find this arrangement counter-productive.
There are three ostensible arguments in favor of this monopoly. The first is that it compels Jews to meet a rabbi at a crucial point in their lives and hence has educational value. The second is that it reduces instances of mamzerut. The third is that it prevents single-sex marriages and inter-religious marriages.
The first argument is unconvincing (to say the least) because Jews who meet a rabbi out of legal compulsion are unlikely to come away from the experience with a warm and fuzzy feeling. This is especially true if limitations on competition under-incentivize rabbis to provide the best possible service. Second, compelling people who are not especially committed to the sanctity of marriage to marry according to halacha actually increases mamzerut. What actually reduces mamzerut is the rabbinic monopoly on divorce. The third argument is more or less correct, though, to be precise, the rabbinic monopoly does not prevent single-sex marriage or inter-marriage, it just causes them to be performed abroad (after which they are recognized in Israel).
A far more productive arrangement would have the state recognize all marriages between a man and a woman, including regulated civil unions that are explicitly stipulated to not be kiddushin. Bigamy laws would require that no previously married person could remarry unless their marriage was dissolved by a get administered by the rabbinate but would stipulate that regulated civil union could be dissolved through a civil procedure. In exchange for the rabbinate's relinquishing of its monopoly on marriage, the law would stipulate that single-sex marriages would not be recognized by the state.
Such a limitation on state involvement in religion would reduce mamzerut, reduce anti-religious resentment and ultimately increase rabbinic influence.
There are, on the other hand, many instances in which legal recognition or enforcement of specifically Jewish preferences is actually productive. For example, Israel's official state symbols (flag and anthem), its official calendar and its official language all should reflect its Jewish character. With regard to such matters, no neutrality is possible. (As it happens, Israel's symbols and calendar do already reflect its Jewish character. With regard to language, Hebrew and Arabic are both official languages dating back to the British mandate.) Similarly, naturalization laws that give preference to repatriation of Jews, legally mandated and funded connections between Israel and Jews in the diaspora and state funding for the preservation of Jewish culture are all sufficiently consensual as to present mostly upside.
With regard to the character of the public square, the tradeoffs need to be weighed carefully. First, I should reiterate that selective normative arguments against the imposition of the values of a particular community on the public square are not compelling. Restrictions on selling pork as offensive to Jewish tradition are no more objectionable than restrictions on selling dog meat as offensive to European tradition; restrictions on selling whale blubber for environmental reasons are no more objectionable than those same restrictions on kashrus grounds. The question is only which forms of state intervention weaken the Jewish community – by usurping its role, bastardizing its values and diminishing its influence – and which forms of state intervention strengthen communities – by extending its reach and magnifying its message.
The precise calibration of tradeoffs with regard to all the issues considered in this post – welfare and subsidies, state involvement in the distribution of public goods, state sponsorship of clerics, legislation of ethnic and religious preferences, etc. – is a non-trivial challenge. The principle that we must always bear in mind is that, in most cases, limiting the state's reach is likely to ultimately strengthen communities and weaken the power of elites entrenched in the state's bureaucracy. Even vastly disparate communities are likely to share respect for community-based moral instincts of the type rejected by unaffiliateds. These moral instincts – respect for authority and community traditions, willingness to make personal sacrifices for communal benefit, and so on – are precisely the ones that ultimately strengthen states in the right way – not by extending their reach but by increasing their viability and their ability to exercise legitimate authority.
Let's bear in mind, though, that these political tweaks are just small steps we can take to nudge us in the right direction. The objective is to slowly revive a Jewish code that reflects and encourages moral instincts rooted in Jewish tradition and is given meaning and direction by a narrative that is natural, not doctrinal.
I am optimistic that Israeli statehood, properly conceived and constrained, is catalyzing precisely such a process. We are returning to a more stable and consensual balance of universal and particular moral instincts. In much of the rest of the world, the disconnect between the universal and particular grows ever greater. Unaffiliateds, who lack any sense of the particular, and savages, who lack any sense of the universal, are growing both more dependent on each other and more hostile to each other. Their shared hatred for us is a saving grace; it has forced us to become more independent and self-reliant. They will destroy each other and, be-ezrat Hashem, we will live.