April 7, 2012

Posted by orrinj at 8:08 AM


Republican Committee Makes Big Turnaround on Fund-Raising (NICHOLAS CONFESSORE, April 5, 2012, NY Times)

Once teetering on the edge of bankruptcy and irrelevance, the Republican National Committee has raised more than $110 million over the past 15 months and retired more than half its debt, accumulating large cash reserves that could give Mitt Romney a critical boost later this spring as he intensifies his campaign against President Obama. [...]

Party officials said the Republican committee would report more than $30 million in cash on hand in filings due with the Federal Election Commission this month, including a $22 million "presidential trust" that would be available to Mr. Romney should he become the party's nominee.

Posted by orrinj at 7:42 AM


The Errors of Their Ways: Some 24,000 Canadians will die this year from medical mistakes. Even the most temperate doctors call this an epidemic. Why these mishaps persist despite, and even because of, medicine's growing sophistication (RACHEL GIESE, APRIL 2012, The Walrus)

THE AMERICAN medical industry has long known about the problem of adverse events, largely due to the rise in malpractice claims in the 1980s. When Hicks began his medical training, the received wisdom surrounding medical error was heavily influenced by malpractice litigation: someone had screwed up, and they would have to pay for it. Error was viewed as resulting from ignorance or negligence -- doctors or nurses gone rogue. Even the long-standing tradition of morbidity and mortality rounds (M&Ms, open discussions between physicians about their mistakes) contributes to this perspective. M&Ms often focus on content or skill -- on what a doctor didn't know, or didn't know how to do.

To determine whether litigation was improving or hindering care, the Harvard Medical Practice Study in 1991 quantified the scope and nature of medical mistakes. Its findings, chief among them significant rates of death and disability caused by medical mishaps, were startling. But the results didn't achieve traction outside the medical field until 2000, when the National Research Council published To Err Is Human: Building a Safer Health System, based on a report by the US Institute of Medicine. Among its most shocking statistics: "Preventable adverse events are a leading cause of death in the United States...at least 44,000 and perhaps as many as 98,000 Americans die in hospitals each year as a result of medical errors."

Shortly afterward, the British Medical Journal devoted an issue to the subject. "In the time it will take you to read this editorial, eight patients will be injured, and one will die, from preventable medical errors," the opening article announced. "When one considers that a typical airline handles customers' baggage at a far lower error rate than we handle the administration of drugs to patients, it is also an embarrassment."

It's so embarrassing, and the threat of litigation so unnerving, that physicians have long been reluctant to discuss mistakes. The BMJ editorial goes on to note that "we tend to view most errors as human errors and attribute them to laziness, inattention, or incompetence." Like Hicks, many doctors were taught that individual diligence alone should prevent medical errors, and that admitting their existence could lead to lawsuits, humiliation, or job loss. In Canada, Ross Baker -- now a professor of health policy at the University of Toronto and director of graduate studies at the university's Centre for Patient Safety -- followed these discussions with anticipation. He and his colleagues across the country involved in the then nascent health care safety movement hoped the alarming data would incite action here in Canada. Instead, To Err Is Human was viewed as proof that the American system was fundamentally flawed. So in 2004, Baker and Peter Norton, now a professor emeritus in family medicine at the University of Calgary, published a paper, The Canadian Adverse Events Study. "There was no conspiracy to hide this information," Baker says. "No one had looked carefully at the data before." The researchers erred on the conservative side in their estimate of preventable medical errors (by their count, up to 23,750 patients had died as a result of these mistakes in 2000), opting not to include incidents if they suspected any doubt or ambiguity about whether such occurrences constituted mistakes, which suggested that the problem is actually larger. (No formal follow-up has been done since.)

Paradoxically, the problem has been exacerbated as the field of medicine has grown more complex. In the 1960s, as scientific and technical wisdom developed, physicians began to specialize, which vastly improved medicine -- the more narrow the focus, the greater the expertise and skill -- but it meant that an individual patient's care was now shared among multiple practitioners. In the case of a child who suffers a head trauma, for example, her treatment may be handled by dozens of professionals: paramedics, emergency doctors and nurses, a neurologist, a neurosurgeon, an anesthesiologist, surgical and ICU nurses, pharmacists, pediatricians, residents and medical students, occupational therapists, and so on. As the patient is handed from one to the next, myriad opportunities arise for her medical history to be lost, for conflicting drugs and treatments to be prescribed, for lab results to be delayed, for symptoms to be overlooked, and for confusion in the transmission of vital information.

James Reason, a British psychologist specializing in human error, has dubbed this "the Swiss cheese model," in which small, individual weaknesses line up like holes in slices of cheese to create a full system failure. And in a modern hospital environment -- a busy, stressful setting with many competing priorities, where decisions are made under duress, with frequent shortages of nurses, beds, and operating rooms -- a patient's care slipping through the holes at some point is almost inevitable.

Failings in teamwork and communication compound these flaws, which according to patient safety research lie at the core of preventable adverse events. Baker likens the health care field to "a series of tribes who work together but don't really understand one another." To put it less diplomatically: egos, territorialism, and traditional hierarchies can create toxic environments in hospitals, where senior physicians disregard input from nurses and junior staff, who in turn become resentful and defensive.

The patient safety movement Baker helped initiate in the early 2000s profoundly changed the conversation about medical error. It was no longer a matter of assigning blame, but of improving bad systems. In Canada, the Halifax Series, an annual symposium about quality in health care, was launched in 2001; and a few years later, the Canadian Patient Safety Institute, an advocacy and research body, opened its offices in Edmonton and Ottawa. Hospitals across the country recruited safety experts to advise them, and to encourage physicians and other practitioners to talk more openly about adverse events.

The focus on flawed systems made addressing the problem an easier sell, especially as it became evident that the rampant problems in health care were errors of omission, not commission. While the old malpractice model routed out villains, the systems approach tackled the day-to-day snafus that frustrated everyone: long waits in the emergency department, under-stocked supply rooms, vague lines of communication, and so on.

To Kaveh Shojania, co-author of the 2004 book Internal Bleeding: The Truth Behind America's Terrifying Epidemic of Medical Mistakes, shocking statistics about medical error are useful mainly as headline grabbers, drawing attention to more quotidian concerns about quality improvement. Shojania, an internist at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto and director of the Centre for Patient Safety at U of T, says the root of the problem is the ad hoc way medicine was established over its long history. He compares it to a series of cottage industries that developed with no larger organizing vision. The medical industry has grown so vast and complicated that tackling inefficient systems is akin to untying a Gordian knot.

In his cluttered office on the sprawling Sunnybrook campus, Shojania, an Eeyore-ish fellow in a rumpled suit, navigates through stacks of files, books, and papers to show me an image on his computer. It's a drawing of a Rube Goldberg pencil sharpener, a ridiculously convoluted device that involves a kite, an iron, an opossum, a rope, a woodpecker, and moths. That's the current medical system, he tells me by way of analogy. "This isn't an issue of incompetent people making stupid mistakes," he says. "It's many average, decent people working in poorly designed systems. Most medical mistakes were accidents waiting to happen."

Posted by orrinj at 7:16 AM


Thomas Kinkade: 'Painter Of Light' Dies At 54 (ANKITA MEHTA, April 7, 2012, IB Times)

"There is no greater testament to Thom's mission that art be accessible for everyone to enjoy than the millions of Kinkade images that grace the walls of homes across America and around the world. Through a myriad of genres, Thom's ability to present his subject in an idyllic setting inspires the viewer to imagine the world full of beauty, intrigue, and adventure," according to Kinkade's website.

"My mission as an artist is to capture those special moments in life adorned with beauty and light. I work to create images that project a serene simplicity that can be appreciated and enjoyed by everyone. That's what I meant by sharing the light," Kinkade said.

"I'm a warrior for light. With whatever talent and resources I have, I'm trying to bring light to penetrate the darkness many people feel," Kinkade told the San Jose Mercury News in 2002, a reference to the medieval practice of using light to symbolize the divine.

His paintings, which are hanging in an estimated 10 million homes in America, were said to fetch some $100 million a year in sales.

A biography on Kinkade's website said the artist rejected "the intellectual isolation of the artist and instead, made each of his works an intimate statement that resonates in the personal lives of his viewers."

All great American artists are republican.  Mr. Kinkade was also a Republican.  Both are unforgivable to the Intellectuals.

American Scenes: a review of Thomas Hart Benton: A Life by Justin Wolff  (James Panero | April 4, 2012, American Conservative)

For over half a century, art history has tried to wrestle Benton to the ground. He was "the favorite target of leftist critics and proponents of abstract art." A goading antagonist, he often asked to be taken down. He went after the "coteries of high-brows, of critics, college art professors and museum boys." After fleeing New York for Kansas City in 1935, he ranted that Midwestern artists

lisp the same tiresome, meaningless aesthetic jargon. In their society are to be found the same fairies, the same Marxist fellow travelers, the same 'educated' ladies purring linguistic affectations. The same damned bores that you find in the penthouses and studios of Greenwich Village hang onto the skirts of art in the Middle West.

"His poor judgment, profanity, and belligerent baiting of any artist walking a different stylistic or ideological path scandalized New Yorkers, New Englanders, and Missourians equally," writes Wolff. "Over the years he opposed abstract art, curators, homosexuals, intellectuals, Harvard, New York City, Kansas City, women, and old friends like [Alfred] Stieglitz and [Louis] Mumford, to name a few." For a biographer who himself once dismissed Benton as a "conservative crank," Wolff has now written a keen critical recuperation, if not a defibrillation, of this unique American artist.

"We were all in revolt against the unhappy effects which the Armory show of 1913 has had on American painting," Benton once said of the seminal exhibition that first brought European modernism to New York. Benton represented the American reaction to this influence, an anti-avant-garde, but he came of age at the center of the vanguard of new art. He studied at the Art Institute of Chicago and the Academie Julien in Paris before settling into the progressive art circles of New York in the 1920s. Stanton MacDonald-Wright, the abstract painter, became a close friend. For 15 years he experimented with cubism, pointillism, and synchromism--or rather "wallowed in every cockeyed ism that came along," as he later admitted.

Benton the artist once said that Senator Benton--his famous namesake, known as "Old Bullion," who championed Western expansion--gave him "a kind of compulsion for greatness." In 1924, he visited his home state of Missouri to attend to his ailing father, Maecenas, who had tried to persuade him to pursue law. Following the trip he determined to seek out his own American path in art. Benton soon got over his "French hangover," according to the writer Tom Craven, and shed the "worn-out rags and fripperies of French culture" to "find himself as an American."

Thomas Kinkade Dies: Scholars Look at His Impact (Tom Jacobs, 4/07/12, Miller-McCune)

Interpretation can't stray too far from the homespun canon; Kinkade provides too many signposts, Rager says. "There is a direct tie between different symbols and their meaning in his work. An eagle means freedom. Clouds are thoughts of lost loved ones. The light, which is ubiquitous in his work, is supposed to be the light of God. This is very carefully spelled out in a lot of the literature" his dealers distribute. (Kinkade's representatives did not respond to a request for an interview.)

"Evoking spirituality without necessarily being programmatic is very appealing to people," adds Boylan. "Christians who look at Kinkade might see specifically Christian iconography. ... But a lot of non-Christians look at his images and see a generalized spirituality." "Generalized," of course, is a dirty word to many art critics and scholars, who argue that vagueness (like sentimentality) is anathema to real art. [...]

Which differentiates his work from that of Norman Rockwell, an artist he deeply admires and one who has received highbrow respect. "I feel [Kinkade] would hope for a similar kind of critical reassessment," says Rager, who doubts it will happen.

While the company that creates his prints and products has faced financial and legal difficulties in recent years, darkness doesn't appear in his paintings, ever. "That's the essential divide between people who respond to his work and people who don't," Boylan says. "It all comes down to: What part of yourself do you want to see reflected when you look at a work of art?"

Or, what vision of the world? "Kinkade's work participates in this vision that there was a world that was Edenic and perfect, and if we could only get back to that, things would be perfect again," Rager says. The world Kinkade -- who refers to himself as born-again -- portrays "is not in any way real. It's a pastiche of concepts from that Edenic past."

Boylan doesn't find that approach reflexively off-putting. "We can't have it both ways. We can't be in a country in which we say, 'Artists have to fight in the marketplace,' and then when an artist fights in the marketplace and finds success, dismiss them by saying, 'They're not my romantic ideal of a starving artist.'"

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Posted by Orrin Judd at 6:59 AM


You don't need to believe in God to learn from religion: The common messages of Christianity, Judaism and Islam are too valuable to be ignored (Jonathan Freedland, The Guardian)
So the same ideas recur: freedom, redemption, justice. Jews dream of reaching the promised land, Christians hanker for the kingdom of heaven, Muslims yearn for paradise. Does this mean these three great faiths should all get along - that they should discover the vast common ground between them, throw down their swords and rush to embrace each other? Of course not. Only the naive believe that shared origins make for peaceful relations. The rest know that there is no war as bitter as a civil war, no argument more enduring than a family row and no dispute more inflammable than one between neighbours. Islam, Christianity and Judaism fight because of, not despite, their shared lineage, forefathers and neighbourhood.

No, the shared ideals of the children of Abraham are not likely to prompt a sudden, hugging reunion between the three traditions. But the fact that they have so much in common should at least arouse the curiosity of those who stand outside these three faiths and, indeed, outside faith itself. For this much collective and enduring wisdom is surely too valuable to be ignored: if so many people over so many centuries are speaking of the same ideas, they can't all be wrong.

Some secular Britons simply can't open their ears to this kind of talk. The very fact that it comes from a religious source, or sources, is enough to render it irrelevant or worse. Since faith is founded on superstitious nonsense - fairies at the bottom of the garden - nothing it says can be of any value. But this is an odd prejudice. We don't believe in magic any more, but that doesn't stop us marvelling at The Tempest. We don't believe in witches or ghosts, either, but we can still see the human wisdom in Macbeth and Hamlet.

Even the most secular should retune to hear what these traditions are saying to us now. Of course there is bellicose bigotry contained in sacred texts; selective quotation could make any holy work look like a racist's, or terrorist's, handbook. And of course there are hypocrisies: countless examples where religions' practitioners do not live up to their own teachings. But there is great sanity there, too. Environmentalist Jews have reinterpreted Passover as a time for stocktaking: besides bread, what else can I do without? What do I really need to eat, buy or own? Green Christians have done the same with Lent, while progressive Muslims can point to the legal requirement known as Zakat, which demands believers give away 2.5% of their wealth in order to purify the rest.

There is a yearning, particularly in the west, for a life beyond the material: people want their lives to be about something more than just jobs, houses and cars. The phenomenon may even have a political dimension. Labour minister Douglas Alexander, who has written on the need for politics to connect more deeply, says voters are not fired up by the mere provision of services aimed at their material needs: "What gets them out of bed in the morning are non-material values: how they raise their kids, whether they live in a genuine community."

People, in other words, are hungry for sustenance of the spirit.

The primary insights of the Abrahamic faiths are even more fundamental than those above. The first is that Man is made in God's image. The second that Man is Fallen. Combined, the two tell us that though we can't attain godhood, we are unique in all Creation and can (must) strive to transcend our flawed nature. Materialism, when it denies these truths, destroys our aspirations and turns our focus in upon ourselves, where we're unlikely to like what we find. Treating ourselves and each other like mere material we end up creating a society that we recognize as despicable, even if we've forgotten why we find it so.

Robert Kraynak put this particularly well:
Modern culture has cut out the highest part of the human soul, the part that longs for eternity and for spiritual transcendence of the here and now, the part that seeks the presence of the Incarnate God in worship and daily life and even hopes for a dim reflection of the city of God in social and political institutions. Instead of focusing on eternal life, we have become absorbed in one-dimensional materialism, trivialized life and death, and learned to avoid thinking or talking about life after death.
[Originally posted: May 11, 2003]
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Posted by Orrin Judd at 5:26 AM


The Passover Story, Illuminated (GABRIELLE BIRKNER, April 18, 2008, NY Sun)

At the ritual Passover meal, or seder, many Jewish families will be reading an abbreviated story of the Jews' exodus from Egypt from wine-stained, center-stapled Haggadahs. A more select group will be reading the same slavery-to-freedom story from a leather-bound volume that features 48 brilliant-hued reproductions from an illuminated manuscript by Arthur Szyk -- the Lodz-born art ist who became one of America's most influential political cartoonists during World War II.

Irvin Ungar, a rabbi turned antiquarian, is publishing 300 numbered reproductions of the Szyk Haggadah, available in two editions, priced at $8,500 and $15,000, respectively. This rerelease comes more than seven decades after the Haggadah was rejected by Eastern European publishers, apparently for its incorporation of Nazi caricatures: In Szyk's original, snakes had swastikas painted on their backs, and the "wicked son" of the Passover story wore Hitler's iconic mustache. "For Szyk, the story of Passover was taking place in his own day; it was something unfolding before his eyes," Mr. Ungar said. "He saw Hitler as Pharaoh, and the Nazis as the new Egyptians who had come to enslave, and ultimately annihilate, the Jewish people."

The London press that agreed to publish his book in 1940 did so on the condition that Szyk paint over much of the Nazi imagery. [...]

A lecturer at University of California, Los Angeles who is writing a book about political art in America, Paul Von Blum, said the Szyk Haggadah provides a more activistic message than do other seder-table texts -- and that is a good thing. "You can make tremendously contemporary applications of the story of escaping from tyranny and slavery, and that should apply to all oppressed people," he said, noting that Szyk was also an advocate for the civil rights of black Americans. "The Haggadah service should be political."

A few years ago, as we read, the Mother-In-Law commented: "This sounds like a speech by George Bush!?"

Anti-Nazi Haggadah is the legacy of an activist artist (rafael medoff, 4/07/06, Jewish Weekly News))
The classic Szyk haggadah becomes a modern masterpiece of the digital age: The Art of the Seder (Tom Tugend, 4/18/08, Jewish Journal)

[originally posted: 4/20/08]

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Posted by Orrin Judd at 12:59 AM


A Nation Like Ours: Why Americans stand with Israel (David Gelernter, 5/02, Jewish World Review)
[I]f no Jew had ever set foot in America, the United States and Israel would tend to understand each other nonetheless--because they are two of a kind.

Both are pick-up nations created out of ideas, with populations drawn from all over the globe; they are self-made nations in a world where most nations had
nationhood handed to them on a silver platter. A Frenchman or Japanese is so far removed from nation-building that he no longer has any moral stake in it; the energy and struggle that created France or Japan are none of his business. He washes his hands of them. Americans and Israelis still remember that nations do not create themselves.

Proto-Americans arrived here and proto-Israelis over there uninvited, from Europe, and set about making homes for themselves in the large empty spaces between indigenous settlements. They were small minorities at first, far from home and (in many cases) in strikingly unworldly frames of mind. Europeans can't conceive of creating a nation in such a manner.

The indigenous Indians and Palestinians confronted America and Israel with roughly similar moral problems from the start. But American and Israeli settlers had to leave Europe; they felt the pressure at their backs. And once they arrived in their new lands, everywhere they looked they saw empty space, and so they naively assumed that there would be room for everybody. In the years immediately after the First World War, Martin Gilbert writes, "less than 10 percent of the land area of Palestine was under cultivation. The rest, whether stony or fertile, was uncultivated. No Arab cultivator need be dispossessed for the Zionists to make substantial land purchases. The potential of the land, on which fewer than a million people were living on both sides of the Jordan, was regarded as enormous."

WHY DOES THE United States belong to Americans? Because we built it. We conceived the idea and put it into practice bit by bit. Why does Israel belong to Israelis? True, Jews have lived there in unbroken succession since the Romans destroyed the Second Temple in the year 70. True, Jews were hounded out of their homes in Europe and the Arab Middle East, had nowhere else to go, and demanded the right to live. But ultimately, the land of Israel belongs to Israelis for the same reason America belongs to Americans: Because Israelis conceived and built it--and what you create is yours.

Excellent essay by Mr. Gelernter, whose memoir of being blown up by the Unabomber we highly recommend. I'd merely point out that much of what he says applied to Afrikaaner South Africa too, but demographics eventually caught up to them. Israel's long term prospects are similarly grim. [originally posted: 5/13/02]
Posted by Orrin Judd at 12:50 AM


The Reason of Revelation; a review of Jewish Philosophy and the Crisis of Modernity Essays and Lectures in Modern Jewish Thought by Leo Strauss, Edited by Kenneth Hart Green (Peter Berkowitz, May 25, 1998, Weekly Standard)

As Strauss understood it, the principle of liberal democracy in the natural freedom and equality of all human beings, and the bond of liberal society is a universal morality that links human beings regardless of religion. Liberalism understands religion to be a primary source of divisiveness in society, but it also regards liberty of religious worship to be a fundamental expression of the autonomy of the individual. To safeguard religion and to safeguard society from conflicts over religion, liberalism pushes religion to the private sphere where it is protected by law. The liberal state also strictly prohibits public laws that discriminate on the basis of religion. What the liberal state cannot do without ceasing to be liberal is to use the law to root out and entirely eliminate discrimination, religious and otherwise, on the part of private individuals and groups.

According to Strauss, in Germany in the 1920s, liberalism secured a privacy that protected the autonomy of the individual. But that privacy provided at the same time shelter to the determination on the part of the non-Jewish German majority to view Jews as an inferior people and consign them to second- class status. In response, "a small minority of the German Jews, but a considerable minority of the German Jewish youth studying at the universities" were impelled to turn to Zionism. One of that considerable minority was Strauss.

Strauss declines to report the details of his personal involvement in the Zionist movement. Rather, he analyzes the instability in the strictly political Zionism to which he was drawn as a young man, and he shows how, when its premises are clarified and its aspirations are fully thought through, Zionism reveals the need for a return to Jewish faith. Political Zionism, the Zionism of Herzl, proposed a political solution to what it perceived to be a fundamentally political problem: The failure of the liberal state to secure equality for Jews. Political Zionism's solution was to create a modern nation state -- liberal, democratic, and secular -- for the Jewish people.

Strauss was unstinting in his admiration for political Zionism, both because of its devotion to restoring Jewish self-sufficiency and because of its decisive role in the creation of the state of Israel, which in Strauss's eyes "procured a blessing for all Jews everywhere regardless of whether they admit it or not." But political Zionism, in his judgment, was insufficient because it neglected the moral and spiritual life of the Jews it was seeking to save.

Strauss agreed with the cultural Zionists -- those inspired by Ahad Ha'am -- that the Jewish people could not be defined primarily in political terms on the basis of a common history of exclusion and degradation. Neither could they be rescued by a purely political solution. But when the cultural Zionists contended that the Jewish people were constituted by a common heritage or community of mind, Strauss considered their analysis true but incomplete -- and misleading insofar as it implied that a recovery of Jewish culture, of Jewish art and dance and literature, could solve the Jewish problem.

Cultural Zionism suffered from a failure to reflect on the meaning of its central insight. To understand the heritage of the Jewish people solely in terms of culture is to misunderstand it, because "the foundation, the authoritative layer, of the Jewish heritage presents itself, not as a product of the human mind, but as a divine gift, as divine revelation." The clarification of its core insight transforms cultural Zionism into religious Zionism, a Zionism that takes his bearings from the Torah and Talmud.

But is a return to Jewish faith and devotion to fulfilling God's law even possible for modern, enlightened, and liberal people? Strauss reminds his readers that, according to Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig, the leading Jewish thinkers in Weimar Germany, a return to Jewish faith was both necessary and possible.

It was made necessary by the realization that liberalism alone could not, even at his best, satisfy man's religious hunger. And it was possible despite the presumption, routinely embraced by intellectuals now as well as then, that modern science and scholarship had once and for all refuted religious faith. Buber and Rosenzweig contended that the trouble with all alleged scientific refutations of faith was not that they inappropriately appealed to empirical evidence but that they were not empirical enough -- blind to religious experience.

The atheist challenge was on its own terms based neither on a direct, unmediated perception of the essential character of the world nor on a comprehensive philosophical system that answered all questions and solved all mysteries. Rather, even more than the theism it rejected, atheism could not honestly deny that it too was an interpretation and hence uncertain and questionable.

The question becomes how to choose between an uncertain and questionable religious interpretation of the human condition and an uncertain and questionable atheistic interpretation. Strauss turned to Nietzsche, the greatest skeptic of his age, and came away with a surprising answer. Nietzsche, on Strauss's reading, "made clear that the denial of the biblical God demands the denial of biblical morality, however secularized, which, so far from being self-evident or rational, has no other support than the biblical God; mercy, compassion, egalitarianism, brotherly love, or altruism must give way to cruelty and its kin." But the logic that Nietzsche saw -- that the renunciation of the biblical God demands a renunciation of biblical morality -- is obligatory only if there is a demand placed upon us to confront our condition with intellectual probity. And that demand, Strauss points out, comes to us -- as Nietzsche himself proclaims -- only from the morality taught in the Bible. Strauss's startling suggestion, in other words, is that Nietzsche cannot escape the biblical God because he cannot escape biblical morality -- even his critique of the Bible deriving from the Bible.

Strauss's study of Spinoza was the first step in his reconsideration of biblical religion, because Spinoza had taken religion most seriously and rejected it most emphatically. But after extended engagement with the arguments, Strauss concludes that Spinoza's critique of religion, was, even at its most forceful, inconclusive. It did not prove but rather presupposed the impossibility of miracles. And Spinoza's ethics did not demonstrate the truth of his new account of man and the moral life, but rather proceeded from hypotheses about human nature that were left unconfirmed by the system and so remained open to doubt.

In subsequent books, Strauss determined that the critique of religion developed by Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Locke was no more conclusive than that of Spinoza. In short, Strauss concluded, modern rationalism is incapable of deciding between belief and unbelief.

The presupposition that Reason is possible is unsupported by reason.

Posted by Orrin Judd at 12:30 AM


The Passover Song (NATHAN ENGLANDER, 4/08/09, NY Times)

Beyond the famed medieval manuscripts -- the illuminated Sarajevo Haggadah, and the German Bird's Head Haggadah -- there are versions geared toward seders of every stripe. There are feminist editions, a vegetarian take for "the Liberated Lamb," "The Anonymous Haggadah" for 12-steppers, one for the United States Armed Forces, the Santa Cruz liturgy, which is both "gender-neutral and God-name-Free," and a Facebook Haggadah that ends by threatening a twitter version for next year (Google it yourself).

The Haggadah advises us to venture-off and learn but when it comes to choosing a liturgy, I don't venture far. I came to discover that there's no one more fiercely traditional than a fallen Jew, and found myself recoiling in horror when an ancient Hebrew word-puzzle was absent from the text I'm using as a guide (don't worry, I put it back).

In the middle of all the figuring and arguing, the pondering of biblical prose, I often find myself remembering, a sweet side effect I didn't expect. I remember the ritual search for hametz the night before the holiday: a little boy standing in a darkened basement at my father's side, a lighted candle aloft, a feather in hand, ready to sweep up any crumbs missed along the way.

I remember the seasons when Easter and Passover crossed; walking to our suburban Long Island synagogue in a yarmulke and tiny suit, and waving up at the Easter Bunny perched atop one of the town's fire trucks, the volunteer-fireman Bunny waving back on his rounds. I remember us laughing, my sister and father and I, the firemen too.

It was not lost, the sweetness of it: Passover suit or bunny suit, the firemen in their uniforms and me in mine, an acknowledgment of the different rituals and ceremonies that make up a town.

And the rituals in our home were many.

[originally posted: 4/08/09]

Posted by Orrin Judd at 12:18 AM


A Passover ritual for all enslaved peoples (Rabbi Joseph Polak, April 19, 2011, Boston Globe)

[T]here I stood in the equatorial sun, sheltered by a huge mango tree, addressing 160 freed slaves seated on the ground, who, at first, just glared at me in suspicious silence. They spoke only Dinka. Men and women chose to sit separately; many dressed beautifully, others in deplorable tatters, drinking a little wine with me, eating a piece of matzo and a boiled egg. Slowly I prevailed on them to sing with me as a form of celebration familiar to both our peoples; slowly it became clear that we were eating together for the same reason.

I am here, I told them through translators, because my people too were liberated from slavery; like you, we were remembered by God, and there is no greater experience in life than being remembered.

I also told them that more recently my people had again been enslaved; this time we worked 12 to 14 hour days, for Daimler and BMW, for I.G. Farber and Siemens -- for no pay, no medicine, no sleep, with a slice of bread per person per day. Millions of us died of typhoid, of malnutrition, and exhaustion; unlike the first time, no one came for us.

Fortunately, the former slaves I met had been delivered to freedom. Say a blessing, I pleaded with them, acknowledge the greatness of this day. If all God had done had been to remember your plight, dayenu, that would have been enough. If all that had happened after that is that you were brought back to your people, dayenu, that would have been enough. But you were also brought back to a land that in July will be fully yours for the first time in history; dayenu -- that surely is also enough.

Someone arose and asked four questions meant to provoke them into the key task of the seder -- the telling of the story. Five former slaves told their tales of horror and humiliation. The youngest was a 17-year-old blind boy called Kir, who had managed to lose a cow from his herd. The master hung him by the feet, lit a fire underneath him, and rubbed his eyes with hot peppers.

This suffering may finally be ending. After 23 years of war, the Bush administration brokered a peace settlement in 2005. In a referendum in January, the south voted successfully for partition, and is expected to declare its independence in July.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at 12:02 AM


The Search: We Leave Egypt Tonight (Paul Greenberg, March 26, 2002, TownHall.com)
It is not history that gives Passover its warrant. Quite the opposite: What makes tonight so full of promise and burden, like freedom itself, is that it breaks through history. It disrupts the everydayness. Why is this night different from all other nights? Not because we are set free, but because we may realize we are set free.

Nor is it the celebration of freedom that fills this night with awe but what follows: the plunge into the Wilderness. That is, the search. And tonight it begins anew.

Larry Johnson, former head of Counterterrorism at the State Department, was on NPR the other day talking about how Islamic terrorists groups in the Middle East are apparently cooperating with white separatists in America and Marxist terror groups in Europe. What could create this improbable shadow axis of evil? : simple, hatred of Jews. He said he was in Argentina recently and had separate middle-class Argentines tell him that the Protocols of the Elders of Zion reveal the Jewish plan for world domination.

It seems that for the first time since WWII, we now have a revival of virulent, exterminationist anti-Semitism and this time it's a global phenomenon. Meanwhile, people who should know better now turn their eyes toward the Middle East and wonder if all our lives wouldn't be easier if only Israel would give in, even if it means signing its own death warrant. This is, therefore, a particularly dangerous moment for Judaism and for those who care to see it, and the Jewish people, survive.

As we head into the Passover holiday it seems like an especially opportune moment to reflect on the debt that we all owe to Judaism. Happily, there's a book that does a great job of exploring the unique contributions of Judaism to Western Civilization : The Gifts of the Jews : How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels (1998) (Thomas Cahill) (Grade: A-). Among the points he makes is one similar to that which Mr. Greenberg makes, that it was Jews who broke us free from the cyclical view of history, the fatalism that held that life ever repeated itself, and thereby set us off on the journey of discovery and progress that has brought us to this point in history. Both Mr. Greenberg's column and Mr. Cahill's book are highly recommended.

[originally posted: March 26, 2002]
Posted by Orrin Judd at 12:01 AM


Letter to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport (George Washington, August, 1790)

While I received with much satisfaction your address replete with expressions of esteem, I rejoice in the opportunity of assuring you that I shall always retain grateful remembrance of the cordial welcome I experienced on my visit to Newport from all classes of citizens.

The reflection on the days of difficulty and danger which are past is rendered the more sweet from a consciousness that they are succeeded by days of uncommon prosperity and security.

If we have wisdom to make the best use of the advantages with which we are now favored, we cannot fail, under the just administration of a good government, to become a great and happy people.

The citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy—a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship.

It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that
they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.

It would be inconsistent with the frankness of my character not to avow that I am pleased with your favorable opinion of my administration and fervent wishes for my felicity.

May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants—while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.

May the father of all mercies scatter light, and not darkness, upon our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in His own due time and way everlastingly happy.

David discusses his thoughts about Jerusalem below, the Seder including the phrase: "Next year in Jerusalem". The influential philosopher Leo Strauss stressed the idea that Western Civilization is a product of the tension between Jerusalem and Athens. As Jeffrey Hart puts it:
As used in this way those two nouns refer simultaneously to two cities and to two goals of the human mind. Athens and Jerusalem are at once actual and symbolic. In their symbolic meaning, "Athens" represents a philosophic-scientific approach to actuality, with the goal being cognition, while "Jerusalem" represents a scriptural tradition of disciplined insight and the aspiration to holiness. Together they propose the question: Is all of actuality more like a mathematical equation or is it more like a complicated and surprising poem, reflecting, as Robert Penn Warren once put it, the world's tangled and hieroglyphic beauty. Over many centuries Western civilization has answered this question not either-or but both-and, both Athens and Jerusalem. The interaction between Athens and Jerusalem has been a dynamic one, characterized by tension, attempted synthesis, and outright conflict. It has been this dynamic relation that is distinctive in Western civilization, and has created its restlessness as well as energized its greatest achievements, both material and spiritual, both Athens and Jerusalem.
Oddly enough, while there are none who would do away with Athens, there are those who think that we do not need Jerusalem, who believe reason sufficient unto itself. But what will it behoove us to comprehend actuality if we do not also aspire to holiness, to goodness?
[Originally posted: April 16, 2003]