Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Are all religions equally kooky?

Rabbi Schmuley Boteach has written a piece, arguing that it's not fair to pick on Mormons as being weird, because all religions are weird, when you get right down to it. As per usual with Schmuley's writing, I find it a mix of interesting, thoughtful ideas and easily picked apart nonsense.

First, where we disagree: It's true that probably every religion makes claims which are, at least on some level, irrational (of course, he all but ignores non-literalist, highly rational approaches to religion, but that's a different complaint). But, are they all equally irrational?

This is an interesting question coming from my evangelical brothers and sisters whose belief that a man, born of a virgin, was the son of G-d, only to die on a cross, and then be resurrected, is, with all due respect, not exactly the most rational belief either. It is equally interesting coming from Orthodox Jews, like myself, who believe that the Red Sea split, a donkey talked to Balaam and the sun stood for Joshua.

Again, this doesn't apply to those of us who don't take our sacred text literally. But, even if I did, I'm still not sure that every literalist belief is equally rational or irrational. There is no way that I can disprove that God split the Red Sea. There is no way that I can disprove that Jesus was resurrected. I can disprove (even if not to the satisfaction of everyone) that dinosaurs never existed, or that they existed at the same time as human beings. And, I can disprove that ancient Israelites came to America.

Simply saying “we all believe crazy stuff” sounds very reasonable, and it might be a nice way to dispel tension at a cocktail party, if the conversation turns to religion. But, it really shouldn't be considered a serious analysis of religions!

Boteach also tries to claim that highly scientific people believe crazy things, for example by pointing to Richard Dawkins, a famous and vocal atheist, who believes that life could have been seeded on earth by aliens. Of course, Dawkins doesn't believe that. He actually proposed it as a thought experiment, showing how crazy he thought Intelligent Design actually was. He didn't believe it—he was using it to mock people who believe things like it. Oops…

So, what do I like from the article? Well, first of all, I agree that being kooky is not the worst thing. Even though I am always eager to jump in and defend rationality, ultimately, there might be better ways to judge a person, whether as a religious figure, or a political figure:

Nor should it matter. It is what a person does, rather than what they believe, that counts. It took four years for the Dalai Lama to be identified as the reincarnation of his predecessor in a process that to Western eyes can appear highly arbitrary. Yet, the Dalai Lama remains one of the most respected men alive because of his commitment to world peace and good works.

There are flaws with that approach, to be sure. I do think that “Are you rational?” is a relevant question to ask anyone who is assuming a leadership position, especially one as important as President. But, it also seems relatively clear to me that a person can be, at least partially, irrational and still be a good leader. So, I wouldn't think that these kinds of questions are out of bounds, in the political arena, but nor do I think that they are the end all, be all of campaigning.

But, where I think Schmuley has something most important to say is when he discusses Religious Fundamentalism. I often make the mistake of conflating Fundamentalism and Literalism, but they aren't exactly the same:

The religious fanatic is the man or woman who has ceased to serve G-d and has begun worshipping their religion, making their faith into yet another false idol. Religion is solely the means by which by which we come to have a relationship with our Creator. But when it becomes a substitute for G-d it becomes soulless and fanatical, seeing as there is no loving deity to temper it. It is in this light that we can understand why an Islamic fundamentalist is so deadly, seeing as he is even prepared to go against G-d's express commandment not to murder in order to strike a blow for the glory, not of the deity, but Islam.

Again, it's an incomplete analysis. I would argue that, depending on a number of factors, it's often an incredibly short leap from Literalism to Fundamentalism. After all, if God spoke the words of your religion, then following that religion, even to the extreme, is following God, right? But, it's hard to argue that you can't be a Literalist without being a Fundamentalist; there are many, many people who are exactly that. I clearly don't agree with their literalism, but it would be ridiculous to claim that they are exactly the same as the Taliban, Westborough Baptist Church or Baruch Goldstein. I've heard it said that a non-fundamentalist literalist is just a fundamentalist without conviction. I can see the logical argument behind that, but reality proves it wrong, I think.

Comments are always welcome, of course, but I'd be especially interested to hear people's thoughts about the relationship between rationality/irrationality and leadership potential!

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

A moment of mindfulness - and of living

A nice little piece from Leon Wieseltier in today's The New Republic e-mail talks about the importance of taking the time to do something, even if it might be done a bit more efficiently:

I am interested in more than outcomes. I am wary of finding myself in the middle of an existence too busy, too arrogantly busy, for elementary things. I inhabit a universe in which busyness is a measurement of importance, but really what is taking place is an exchange of one variety of importance for another. It is often a bad bargain. 

Living really should be about more than just getting things done. Sometimes, taking the time to do something carefully, even if it doesn't demand it, is a miraculous thing to do. Focus on the doing itself, not just on getting the task done.

In a little bit, I'm heading out to have lunch with a congregant. I'm looking forward to the lunch (and, especially, to the conversation). But, it also means that I'll have 20 or 30 minutes in my car to listen to a podcast, or some music. And, to just look around. I'm going to enjoy that, too.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Heterodox prayer

So, I just posted a blog entry about heterodox/heretical belief. Almost immediately, someone wrote back (on Facebook) asking whether I truly meant that I don't believe in prayer being literally answered. Because it's such an important question, and one which takes a longer answer than I could give there, I want to say a bit about it, here, instead.

First of all, I'll make it very clear: I don't believe in the literal efficacy of prayer. I don't believe that there is some Being listening in on my prayers, and that, if I pray well, I am more likely to receive something from that Being.

I don't believe that for at least two reasons. First of all, it doesn't seem to comport very well with the reality which I see. Lots of people pray for things; many don't get them. There is, as near as I can tell, no correlation between a person's sincerity/piety/worthiness and their likelihood of having their prayer “answered.” And, at the risk of offending some, I'm very unmoved by some of the standard responses to this such as, “God works in mysterious ways” or “sometimes God answers, but the answer is, 'no.'” if there is a God who is capable of, say, curing an infant of cancer, but that God chooses not to, for some “larger” reason… well, as I've said before, I need a new career, because I'm not working for that God.

I also don't believe in that kind of prayer because it doesn't make logical sense to me. If there is a God who is capable of listening to prayer, then that God is already aware of everything that I want and need. What possible purpose could there be of conditioning the fulfillment of those needs on the proper execution of a ritual? In other words, why would God wait for me to pray for something, especially through a formal act of prayer, before deciding whether to grant it?

My responder asked a very important follow-up question—if I don't believe in the literal efficacy of prayer, then what purpose does prayer have? Well, I may not believe that our prayers are “answered” in the way that a parent can decide to grant, or to not grant, a child's request. But, clearly, prayer can be effective in other ways.

I hate to again fall back on "it's too much to go into here," but I have to, at least for now. The purpose of prayer, if you don't believe in simple, literal efficacy, is an incredibly complex topic. In fact, it's really the impetus behind our new monthly session on personal prayer called “Making Prayer Real.” Those workshops are based around the book of the same name, and it says a great deal of what I think/believe.

In fact, one of the reasons for this blog post is that I wanted an excuse to share a paragraph from it:

It's very surprising for people to learn that very few rabbis, Jewish philosophers, or theologians really have a conventional view of prayer, namely, that we ask for something and God gives it to us, or doesn't. It's really striking. The Kabbalists [ed: Jewish mystics] have all kinds of ways in which prayer can have an effect, but not the standard “you speak and God listens” model. Likewise in the philosophical tradition, and even in the rabbinic tradition. In the last two thousand years, reflective Jewish religious thought actually does not give a lot of space to what 99 percent of us would immediately assume is the point of prayer.
Jay Michelson

I'm realizing that for myself, and for anyone who actually reads this blog regularly, I really do have to start explaining what I do believe about God, prayer and all that. And, I'm thinking about how, exactly, to approach that. So, I promise that, in the near future, you'll hear plenty about what I do believe, along with what I don't.

But, while respecting the fact that there are a great number of sincere, devout, intelligent people who do take a much more “standard” view of prayer than I do, I want to make sure that anyone who's reading this, who either questions or rejects that kind of prayer/God, knows that they aren't alone. There are many of us who value religion, but not religion the way most people mean.

Thank God, there's room for all of us.

What is God - a semi-heretical, Christian approach

A few times recently (and, many times in the past), I've referenced the fact that I am an extreme non-literalist believer. I don't believe in the kind of God who literally listens to our prayers and then decides, based on some semi-known criteria, whether to respond positively, or not. For some reason, these past few times, I've had a number of people, some of whom know me quite well, ask what, exactly, I do believe.

I was a bit surprised by the question, because it often feels to me that I'm always talking about that these days. But, I've realized that that's only true with a small number of people - I've had some sporadic, and some ongoing, conversations with some people, but there's no way that many others would really know what I believe.

I've been meaning to write specifically about it, but it's hard - as much as I talk about it, trying to get it down into a cogent, relatively concise form is tricky. I'll do it, but I'm not sure exactly how or when. Maybe I'll make a series out of it, here on this blog.

But, interestingly, I came across an article a couple of days ago by Andrew Sullivan. Sullivan is a relatively well known writer, and it turns out that he's also a very devout, but very non-literal believer. He obviously views Jesus much differently than I do, but a great deal of what he says resonates strongly with me:

Nonbelievers need to let go of anthropocentric, grey-bearded beings in the sky for God itself, the highest consciousness of all, and the force that gives this staggering beauty, available to us all, love.

This kind of belief is criticized on several levels. The most common, although it comes in various forms, is that it's not valid in whatever religion we're talking about - it's heresy. It's a new, convenient way to think that has nothing to do with this ancient tradition. But, there are at least two very important responses to that. First of all, it's not new. People of (nearly?) all religions have been thinking this way for centuries:

Go read the Nicene Creed. Then try to understand it. You can do so with a nineteenth century literalism; or you can do so in manifold ways that have varied throughout the centuries. They are flawed human words trying to express the inexpressible; language to convey the ineffable.

But, maybe more importantly, we have the second response: so what? So what if it's heresy.

Look, I love Judaism, and I think that our tradition is an inexhaustible source of mening and inspiration. But, just because something is Jewish, or is old, doesn't make it true. My goal in a religious life is to uncover truth. If that truth comes from tradition, then that's wonderful - there are many advantages to finding truth in tradition. But, if that truth is novel, then so be it. Truth is truth.

Seeking God is seeking truth. That much, I believe, has always been true.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Abraham, Journeys and Conversion

A couple of weeks ago, one of our members, Jerry Nepon-Sixt, went to the mikvah to complete his conversion to Judaism. As I do with all new converts, I encouraged him to come to services soon to receive a Mi Sheberach—a prayer which asks for God's blessing on this happy occasion, and which also serves as a way for us to “announce” his conversion to the community. Jerry, being Jerry, said that he be happy to, but only if he could give the d'var torah that evening, too.

Well, that all happened this past Shabbat, and I thought that his d'var torah was absolutely wonderful. And so, with his permission, here it is, for your enjoyment:

Sometimes it feels like my life is a series of disconnected stories. The stories are pretty good - funny, dangerous, engaging and with enough resolution that they give a gift to the listener. The stories have been honed by years of telling into finely crafted works, every word carefully selected, the dramatic pauses timed perfectly, and the twists revealed in a way that draw a gasp or a laugh from the listener. I've probably told each of you a few of those stories, and I apologize if I’ve told you the same stories over and over again. The person in the stories is often a distant me, rougher, younger, more adventurous, and a lot more stupid. People have a hard time reconciling my current image with the somewhat crazy man described by the tales I tell.

I travel a lot on business. If you travel at all you know that most of your time is actually spent in line. I spend a couple hours in line in some way every trip. Sometimes my time in line exceeds the flight time. And standing in line is a great place to talk with strangers. With all my travel I am equipped with a geographic reference for any occasion. If you’re from New Jersey I can tell about living on Gropp’s lake outside Trenton when I was a boy, and how my mom learned how to make pasta fazul from Claire Quatromanni. If you're from the San Francisco bay area I can tell about sailing on the bay with the police chief of Berkeley, who grew opium poppies and smoked dope outside what he termed territorial waters – which he defined as having left the dock! If you're from Louisiana I can tell you that my mother once owned Tippitina's, that historic New Orleans nightclub where the Neville Brothers got their start. If you're from Natchez I can ask you about Pilgrimage and the concurrent Indian Pow-Wow at the fairgrounds south of town. If you’re from Boston…You get the picture. I've done or seen something in every state but Alaska.

I hope these stories are interesting to people. I find it interesting when people learn I'm from Florida and they tell me about a fishing trip or a wild weekend on Key West. If they tell me how miserable their July trip to Disney was I give them low marks - Disney in the summer is miserable. Any children under 5 make it doubly so. It's pretty unoriginal to complain about the heat and humidity and sweaty, cranky kids at the Magic Kingdom. I’m sure some of my stories are like that.

But it's also true that some people seem never to have done a whole lot in their lives. I find it so amazing when people tell me they've never left their own state, much less their county or even town. They've stayed in one place, married, raised children, worked, and will probably die in the same place, often within a few miles of their entire sedentary families. In our mobile society it's very easy to forget that this was the norm not so long ago. Yet, even those people have some great stories.

But to me, the best stories are about traveling...not just traveling, but journeying. There is a difference. This week I flew to Nashville and Columbus, OH. That was traveling. In two days I'll ride my bicycle from Tampa to Orlando for a conference...I hope that's a journey. What's the difference? Traveling is a temporary condition. One travels as a means to an end - get home for the holidays, meet with clients, even take a short vacation. In the end, you return home. It is often the case with me that I really have to try to remember where I was and what I did, even a week later.

A journey implies a transformative experience. It is a process. You are left profoundly changed at the end of a journey, even if in the end you return physically to where you began. Sometimes you begin a journey with the promise, the intent, or at least the hope that the experiences along the way will be meaningful. And sometimes a mere trip unexpectedly becomes the journey of a lifetime.

Think about all the classic adventure stories that had journeys at their core - "The Odyssey," "The Call of the Wild," "Huck Finn," "Moby Dick," "The Hobbit," "On the Road,"... "Thelma and Louise." Through the experience of different lands, or just the experiences of meeting new people and living through the adventures of the journey, the characters and the readers are changed forever. What is required is to remove oneself from one's normal existence and to be open to the experiences and the changes that a journey can deliver.

Somewhere around 2300 BCE a man from Ur of the Chaldeans began a journey that would take him thousands of miles, and transform not only him, but the world. God called to him with the words that give the Parsha for this week its name. "Lech L'cha." "Go forth from your native land and from your father's house to the land that I will show you."

This is the start of every great adventure story - a quest. In Abram 's case it was not a magic ring or a great whale, it was the promise God made to "make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, I will make your name great, and you shall be a blessing." And his name was great - Abram became Abraham of course. And we're his spiritual descendents - a great nation.

But why Abraham? There is no mention in Torah to this point of any particular qualities that Abraham possessed that would cause God to single him out as the founder of a people. At the end of Noach we read a lot of "begots" of the lineages of Noah’s sons - finally ending with Terah begetting Abram, Nahor, and Haran. And at the beginning of Lech L'cha the last of this lineage is repeated. In a single verse Abraham's journey with his family from Ur to Haran is recounted. Then suddenly, "The Lord said to Abram..."

What did we miss? I had to go back and read this a few times myself since I was sure I'd missed the something. Abraham has to be described as a righteous man, as having a special relationship to God already...but no. Of Noah it is said “Noah was a righteous man, he was perfect in his generations.” Of Abraham, "The days of Terah came to 205 years, and Terah died in Haran." Then, "The Lord said to Abram."

You may have heard some of the midrash that describe Abraham at this time. Abraham was hidden in a cave for three years to protect him from Nimrod the king. Abraham defied Nimrod and was thrown into a furnace from which he was released unharmed. There is the story of the young Abraham smashing the idols in his father’s idol shop and catching his father in a logical conundrum. There is the story of Abraham challenging an elderly buyer of idols on his beliefs. It is claimed in some commentaries that Abraham invented or received astronomy and other great advances. He was given access to secret books that contained God’s wisdom, and taught Hebrew so he could read them. Even Mohammed contributed to the explanations of this moment in Abraham's life in his writings. But the text of the Torah is silent at this critical moment on this critical question. Out of all the people, why Abraham? Why then? Why, "The Lord said to Abram…?"

One of the difficulties with Torah is that the motivations and qualities of the characters are often obscure. This is to be expected in a book that takes its influences from the oral traditions of many people in the region of the nascent Iron Age Hebrews. There is a lot in that tradition that was likely understood in the context of the times and the culture, and seemed unnecessary to include in the text. Torah is telegraphic in its style at the very times you wish it would tell you just a little bit more. Imagine the picture people would have of you knowing only a dozen or so stories from throughout your life.

And the ambiguity of the Hebrew itself can lead us down confusing paths in our understanding. Even the title of the Parsha this week, Lech L'cha, can have several readings. Two words, but the meaning of God's commandment to Abraham can change based on our interpretations of those words.

Commentators have looked at these words in different ways. Some have interpreted them as "Go by yourself." Abraham, Sarah, Lot and their households had to go on this mission alone, because only then could they start fresh. As in the adventure stories I mentioned earlier, the heroes were required to venture alone in new lands to affect great change in their lives.

Some have read Lech l'cha as “Go for yourself.” “Go for yourself" implies that God is going to improve Abraham 's lot through his obedience. Dude, I'm gonna give you a whole land, make you rich, and give you lots of children..." God lays out a fantastic career move for Abraham at the very least.

But it can also be interpreted as "Go TO yourself." "Go to YOURSELF." God is not just calling on Abraham to pick up and go. God is giving Abraham a clue as to the nature of the journey ahead. It will be personally transformative for Abraham himself, and Abraham better understand that his role in the enterprise would require self-understanding and inner strength. Abraham would have to know himself in order to fulfill the mission that God was giving him, and face the challenges ahead.

Now, we don't know if Abraham was that introspective. He doesn't argue with God about this or the other trials in his life. Instead he seemingly says, "OK, let's go!" Later in the Parsha God commands Abraham to circumcise himself and all the male members (no pun intended) of his household. We learn earlier in the Parsha [in the story of the War of the Four Kings against the Five Kings] that Abraham was able to muster 318 men to help him free Lot, so that must of been a particularly, er, vivid scene! But Abraham just does it.. No questions. Later when God commands him to sacrifice his son Isaac, Abraham again just picks up and takes Isaac to the place of sacrifice.

Maybe the quality most required at that moment was someone who would simply do what he was told? It would be odd, given the number of times that leading characters in the Torah argue with, cajole, and bargain with God, but perhaps that was what was needed at that time.
The text is so sparse that we can't make a judgment about what Abraham felt at those moments when God presented him with his trials. But, "Lech L'cha..." whether it's go by yourself, go for yourself or go TO yourself, or just go! that moment Abraham could have no illusions that a great responsibility was falling to him if he was to follow this command. And he must have known there was a great adventure ahead.

About 30 years ago I began a journey in my life when Janice and I formed our family. It started suddenly at midnight on a New Year's eve and has taken me through many adventures that I've shared with my family, and some I've had to face alone. One of the most remarkable things about that journey is that it's led me to stand before the congregation today for the first time as a Jew. To a lot of people my motivations to convert now, after so many years, must be as opaque as those of Abraham are to us. That’s natural – we can only really understand each other so well. I can try to explain, but really, it's only telling more stories and stories, while powerful, can only explain so much. Besides, Abraham was 75, so I’m 21 years early!

You should know that I am taking this step on my journey in all the ways that lech L'cha can be interpreted. Lech L'cha - I am going by myself, of my own will and desire. Lech L'cha - I am going for myself. The pleasures and rewards have already been great. Lech L'cha - I am going to myself, with introspection, study, self-awareness and the knowledge that it is the right thing for me. I am fully cognizant of the responsibilities - and the privileges - of the choice I have made.

It doesn't stop didn't for Abraham. But today I really do feel that I am joined to his great nation, that I am truly Yirmiyahu.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Believers, Atheists, Agnostics and Penn Jillette

I'm going to break a rule of thumb to which I generally subscribe: don't comment on, and definitely don't criticize, a book you haven't read. But, I did read a review of a book, and I just need to say something about it…

The book is God, no!: Signs You Might Already be an Atheist and Other Magical Tales by Penn Jillette, and I saw it reviewed by Steve Wiggins. If anything I say is unfair to Jillette, then I'll just blame Wiggins (and, even if Jillette didn't say the things attributed to him, many others have, so just apply this towards them!). For what it's worth, I hope to read the book. Jillette is hysterical, very intelligent, and often very insightful. And, based on the review, much of the book sounds wonderful. Despite its premise.

The first part of the premise is this: atheism is more common than we would think. That, actually, doesn't seem very controversial to me. There are probably a lot of nonbelievers who, either because they can't admit it to themselves, or because it's not socially acceptable in their world, don't “come out” as atheists. It's where he defines atheism, and agnosticism, that he loses me:
 “If god (however you perceive him/her/it) told you to kill your child—would you do it? If your answer is no, in my booklet you’re an atheist.” He later qualifies this a bit, asserting that anyone who can’t answer a solid “Yes” to “Does god exist?” is an atheist. Religious specialists, however, tend to be sticklers for precise definitions. Those who don’t know about the existence of god are agnostics. Toward the end Jillette has a few choice words about those who refuse to give a clear answer. Either you believe, or you don’t. Agnosticism is for cowards.
I've read a fair bit of atheist writing these past few years, and I plan to read some more. I find a great deal of what some of them say to be true and compelling. I think I've mentioned before that Letter To A Christian Nation by Sam Harris should be required reading for just about everyone. It states, clearly and cogently, if not always politely, what is wrong with literalist belief.

But, that's exactly the problem—when many of these writers, and it seems that Jillette is included, talk about belief, they're talking about literal belief. About belief in a God who has a personality, is an active agent in our world, responds (or doesn't respond) directly to prayer, talks to people, has moods, and so on. Not believing in that kind of a God does not, automatically, make you an atheist. Or, more to the point, it doesn't make me an atheist, because I most certainly don't believe in that kind of a God, and I am most definitely not an atheist!

For thousands of years, religious thinkers have struggled with God, Struggled to understand what "God" means, who God is, how we know, and so on. Struggled to understand the Bible, even in light of the progress of science. Struggled to articulate a sense of higher meaning which doesn't rely on a Bronze-age image of divinity. From ancient mystics to the great thinkers of the 20th and 21st centuries (Buber, Heschel, Kushner and more), the word "God" has been used in so many different ways that one could complain that the word has lost all meaning! What Kushner, for example, believes is radically different from what a Rabbi living 2000 years ago might have believed. But, he still believes.

There are a lot of people in this world who believe in the kind of God which Jillette rejects. But, there are also more than a few who believe in God very differently. There's a lot of space in between literal belief and atheism. A lot.

‘Personhood’ Agenda is Theocracy

A quick hit, because an article just articulated something I've been thinking, and trying to say, for a while.
Whenever any "right to life" discussions come up, remember, as Carlton Veazy (a Baptist Minister) says, that these are, inherently, religious arguments. And, choosing one religion's definition of life is to be enshrined as law is, also inherently, a theocratic act:
We should also be aware that this amendment would enact in law a specific religious view about “personhood” that is in conflict with views held by most religious denominations and many people of faith—a clear intrusion by government into decisions of conscience.
I, as a religious Jew, don't believe that life begins at conception. Therefore, I don't believe that abortion is murder. Any law which codifies life as beginning at conception establishes that view as legally valid, and all others as invalid. I'm fairly sure that the Bill of Rights forbids that.

In the end, it might be more important to remember that this personhood movement would:
effectively [end] access to reproductive health care in Mississippi—including banning all abortions, with no exceptions for rape or incest or the life of the woman; some forms of contraception; and in vitro fertilization. Not to mention the frightening possibility that doctors would not be able to provide life-saving medical treatment to a pregnant woman, for example, in the case of an ectopic pregnancy.
But, let's not also forget that it's unconstitutional, and very, very un-American.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Are Jews Smarter? And, more importantly, am I allowed to ask that?

I recently came across an article which explores the question of high IQs among Jews. It's well known that Jews are vastly overrepresented among Nobel Laureates, and substaniallly, if not quite as drastically so, in higher education, and many fields, such as law and medicine. The article mainly tries to look at the question of "why?" Can we say why Jews are more accomplished in these intellectual fields? Are we actually smarter? And, if so, is that a result of nature or nurture?

What I find most interesting is a meta-question: are we even allowed to ask this question?

Every now and then, someone comes out with some study which says that one group is better or worse at some activity. There was "Intelligence is partially determined by race. And, guess who's the smartest!" There was "Women aren't as good at math or science." There are many, many more, of course. Needless to say, after every such "discovery," there is a chorus of condemnation. People claim that the reports are wrong, and that they are driven by explicit or implicit prejudices.

What always fascinates me is that it seems that these kinds of condemnations are, at some level, unfair. Mind you, I'm not saying that I accept the findings of these studies. I'm saying that, if we're going to reject them, we should do so because they are wrong, not because they are impolite.

I have no idea if Jews are actually smarter, on average, than other people. And, if we are (or, if we're actually less intelligent), I have no idea why that's so - if it's nature or nurture, or some combination. But, it seems to me that those are facts, and that those facts, by definition, are independent of my feelings about those facts. In other words, it might be true that Jews are smarter (on averge) than non-Jews. But, whether that idea offends me doesn't have any impact on the correctness of that idea.

I know that biases can affect research - it's possible that someone will come to false conclusions, at least in part because those conclusions support a prejudice that the researcher holds. That's pretty obvious. But, even in those cases, it still seems more effective to attack the research, and the evidence, rather than the researcher.

At the risk of drawing too straight of a line, religion used to do this all of the time - if someone made a scientific claim which undermined religion (think, for example, of Galileo. Or Darwin. Or...), the religious institutions would respond not with "Wrong!" but with "Heresy!" It seems to me that claims of "racist!" are just an updated version of that: assaulting the morality and motives of an argument, rather than the content.

The author of the article is, of course, aware of this danger, which is why he ends with:
Political correctness and accusations of racism will restrict the academic discourse, but, as is often the case with Jewish history, this case study will tell us much about broader topics: What intelligence really is, how it is fostered, what factors promote intellectual achievement—and whether we as a society are mature enough to debate these questions honestly.
It would be nice to think that we can debate these questions honestly. We should never be afraid of the truth.

Israel is NOT an Apartheid State

One of the recurring themes of this blog, as in many other places, is that Israel is not perfect, but Israel is far from evil. And, refusing to see any nuance, or proportionality, with regards to Israel is one of the more effective ways that Israel's enemies slander her, and try to undermine Israeli legitimacy. 

One of the more common, and more disgusting, examples of this is the oft repeated "Israel is an Apartheid regime*." Well, that canard is taken on in yesterday's New York Times by none other than Richard Goldstone. The same Goldstone responsible for the Goldstone Report, a report that criticized Israel harshly for its actions in Operation Cast Lead. A report that was so distorted by Palestinian propaganda that it was later repudiated by Goldstone himself

* It does, however, come a distant second to the disgusting "Israel is a Nazi regime."

So, it's pretty well established that Goldstone has no problem with criticizing Israel, harshly and publicly, when he feels it's warranted. Yet, still, he outright rejects the "Israel/Apartheid" claim. Goldstone says what many have said before: Israel may do some things wrong, but it is utterly and completely wrong to call it an Apartheid state:

In Israel, there is no apartheid. Nothing there comes close to the definition of apartheid under the 1998 Rome Statute: “Inhumane acts ... committed in the context of an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group or groups and committed with the intention of maintaining that regime.” Israeli Arabs — 20 percent of Israel’s population — vote, have political parties and representatives in the Knesset and occupy positions of acclaim, including on its Supreme Court. Arab patients lie alongside Jewish patients in Israeli hospitals, receiving identical treatment.

Those seeking to promote the myth of Israeli apartheid often point to clashes between heavily armed Israeli soldiers and stone-throwing Palestinians in the West Bank, or the building of what they call an “apartheid wall” and disparate treatment on West Bank roads. While such images may appear to invite a superficial comparison, it is disingenuous to use them to distort the reality. The security barrier was built to stop unrelenting terrorist attacks; while it has inflicted great hardship in places, the Israeli Supreme Court has ordered the state in many cases to reroute it to minimize unreasonable hardship. Road restrictions get more intrusive after violent attacks and are ameliorated when the threat is reduced.

Not only is it wrong, but it's counterproductive:

The mutual recognition and protection of the human dignity of all people is indispensable to bringing an end to hatred and anger. The charge that Israel is an apartheid state is a false and malicious one that precludes, rather than promotes, peace and harmony.

Israel is not an Apartheid state. Anyone who tells you differently either has no idea what they are talking about, or is out to slander Israel.