Sunday, July 09, 2006


Weekly Parsha Blogging: Beating a Dead Red Heifer Edition

In vague connection to this past week's Torah and Prophetic readings, I will beat a few dead horses in this blog entry. But since this week's reading began with the ritual of the Red Heifer (btw -- all of those people trying to breed a heifer with hair as red as my own can stop now. The Hebrew of the Torah does not distinguish in names of color between the rusty orange red of us redheads and the brown side of auburn color of "red" clay or your typical cow -- the point is that the heifer not have any stray slat and/or pepper grey hairs as cows often do; anyway, I never got the fuss over the red heifer: it makes about as much or little sense as any other ritual done for the sake of providing a ritual order, discipline and reassurance in our lives: the particulars don't matter so long as they are fixed enough to be comforting and ordering of our lives and mysterious enough to instill a sense that the ritual involved is so whacky that no mere mortal could have thought of it but rather only the Creator of this mad, mad universe could have come up with such meshugas), I'll beat dead red heifers rather than dead horses.

The first dead horse, er, red heifer I'll beat is Sen. Obama's speech. This is one case where it seemed that the secularists and religious folk on the left were completely talking past each other in a verbal war the likes of which were not seen since Wieseltier's attack (justified from what I can tell and from my perspective -- except that Wieseltier's, inappropriate IMHO, unremarked conflation between materialism and scientism obscures the fact that many materialists are not scienticists and the most dangerous scienticists, the ID crowd which I am not sure Wieseltier has necessarily considered as being guilty of scientism, are not materialists; and his willful conflation between materialism in the everyday usage and materialism in the philosophical usage ignores that the latter would indeed criticize the former on the same grounds that Deutero-[or is it tritero?]-Isaiah would, which conflations are problematic because they essentially buy into the ID line that philosophical materialism leads inevitably to moral vanity, which conclusion is de facto scientism in its assuption that science is necessarily, if not sufficiently, the most influential source of morality -- is Wieseltier turning into a dragon due to fighting them? -- and which conclusion also goes against the grain, e.g., of Jewish teachings) on Dennett. The secularists found some very disagreeable parts of the speech, in which Sen. Obama decided it was far better to curse the darkness (and wage war against strawmen) than to light a candle. Many religious folks liked the speech and thought the secularists, in focusing on these details instead of appreciating the speech were the very examples of the "anti-religious left" that Obama was criticizing. Of course, assuming that Sen. Obama was not indicating his commitment to the global war against strawmen in criticizing those non-existent Democratic politicians who hate religious expression (and many on the religious left didn't even understand the anti-war against strawmen aspect of the secularists' criticisms and thus themselves went on a rampage against strawmen they didn't even realize were made of straw), Sen. Obama's speech may be yet another example (Howard Dean has given us so many already) of Democrats being good enough politicians but lousy meta-politicians. And in today's punditocracy, being a meta-politician, being able to play politics with your discussion of your political strategies, is even more important than being a good politician, considering that "everyone" believes politicians are up to no good anyway.

But that's all been discussed, even if no-one understand what anyone else is saying. The dead red heifer I am going to beat is the jealousy aspect of the secularists' response to Sen. Obama's speech. Many secularists, while agreeing with the political wisdom (and probably more important, considering the number of actual religious conservative folk in this supposedly religious nation vs. the importance given to religious conservatives by the MSM, the meta-political wisdom of convincing people that the left is an OK place for religious folks and that there is not only a religious right but also a religious left -- which is why Obama's emphasis on cursing the darkness and fighting strawmen was regrettable in that his speech ultimately, instead of attacking the myth of the anti-religious Democrat, gave it more credence) of getting religious are still fish-eyed about the political dynamics that exist in this nation. And not only secularists. Most everyone outside of the "Judeo-Christian" tradition (and what does that mean anyway? Coulter seems to believe that Muslims are not an Abrahamic faith ...OTOH, some Jewish sources consider such diverse faiths as Hinduism and Shinto to be Abrahamic) is asking why it is so important for politicians to indicate the (Christian) moral roots of their ideas and not the secular (or Buddhist or what have you) roots. If it's so important for politicians on the left to reach out to the religious, why is it not equally important for politicians on the right and left to reach out to the secular? Secularists get fisheyed when they hear a speech like Sen. Obama's and who can blame them? Everyone except for strawmen existing only in a few corners of left blogistan and in the heads of Joe Lieberman, Barak Obama and the Mainstream Media agrees that liberal politicians should reach out to religious folks, at least to religious liberals, but who is saying politicians need to be sure to make secular folks or Buddhist folks or Parsis feel included in the political discourse? The concerns people have would make sense if politicians did ignore religious folks, but they don't -- perhaps I notice this more being a member of a minority religion, but religiosity is all around us in this country and sometimes it does not feel like the secular nation our Founders intended it to be. Never does this nation feel like the godless nation some religious folks fear it is. And as to the treatment of minority religions in the political sphere: who can forget the hysteria surrounding Al Gore's ties to, gasp, Buddhist Temples, that may have been a bit outside the law but nothing outside of the kind of role churches have played in Republican campaigns -- this was vintage anti-Asian religious and cultural discrimination and everybody knows it, yet the media, which is so keen to not offend Christians, kept the hysteria going. And this is a political environment in which Christians do not receive enough respect and non-Christians too much deference?

Even as a member of one of the religious groups being kissed up to (albeit the first one to get tossed overboard whenever things go badly) and who comes to my political beliefs based on my religious ones, I am a little uncomfortable with this "liberal politicians should explicate the moral roots of their beliefs" as it sounds to me awfully close to a de facto religious test for public office. While I am all in favor of politicians who are actually religious wearing it a little bit more on their sleeve (although people who expect political miracles from that should remember the political career of Jimmy Carter), what about politicians who are not actually religious or whose religious beliefs are completely outside of the Judeo-Christian radar? For secular Democrats to talk up fake religious beliefs for political purposes is not only futile (no Democrat to my knowledge has been able to pull off fake religiosity in the political sphere, although many Republicans, from Lincoln to Reagan have) pandering that will convince religious voters of our lack of moral principles not that we have them, but it is essentially imposing a religious test on Democratic office seekers: we will not let Democrats be prominent in our discourse unless they are religious or can fake it.

While we've had a de facto religious test in our country for some time (though not always: we may have yet to have a President who was definitively from a religious tradition outside of Christianity, but we've had Deist, Unitarian, Quaker, etc. Presidents as recently as 1974 -- but Reagan's success at faking religion was so strong that it'll be a while before someone who does not at least pretend to accept the Nicean conception of the Trinity is president: and that may very well include you, Sen. Obama, with the Hebrew first name that sounds almost Arabic and member of a denomination some of whose ministers are proudly non-Nicean, so be careful what you ask for), it is against the letter of the constitution to have a de jure test and against it's spirit to have a de facto test. So why are so many Democrats fighting strawmen to keep this de facto test alive? What does that say to the public about our dedication to Constitutional liberties? At the very least, it's bad politics as our "selling point" is that we, unlike the Republicans, care about the Constitution!

On the other hand, there is nothing stopping religious folk from bringing their religious beliefs to the table in secularized guise as religiously inspired secular political programs (as long as the program is not religious per se, it isn't an affront to our secular tradition if people thought of it based on their religious beliefs, nu?). I would also argue that sometimes one may reasonably reject a candidate based on religious beliefs. For instance, for all the trouble they gave Kerry about his political heterodoxy (in a way which reminded me of Homer Simpson's views on homosexuals: the Protestant right likes "their Catholics to be papists" ... and for that matter their Jews to be Joe Lieberman "Synagogue Men's Club President" types -- no offense to presidents of Synagogue Men's Clubs, but you know what type I'm trying to describe), there were many troubling aspects of Bush's religious beliefs that really got ignored by the media which was otherwise happy to trumpet Bush's "old time religion". For instance, is it a good idea to have as leader of a nation with the capability to destroy the entire planet a fellow whose religious beliefs tell him that the world is soon going to end anyway? For that matter, it would be fair to have asked a fellow claiming Jesus was his favorite philosopher "Jesus said 'turn the other cheek': can we count on you to vigorously defend our country if we're attacked, or will you follow what Jesus said? If you don't think what Jesus said applies in this case, why not?" You can bet if a Jew were running for President, she would get asked "how would you respond to a crisis happening on the Sabbath?" even if Israel's military prowess should have demonstrated long ago the feasibility of having a Jewish head of state and armed forces.

So maybe I'm in favor of a religious test after all. Indeed, if it were not such a dangerous road on which to travel, I would say why not have a religious "test" in the sense of a test in school. Candidate X claims to be Jewish? Test her on Talmud. Candidate Y claims to be a Catholic? Test him on Church doctrine -- not just abortion, but also the death penalty and just war theory!

So what's the connection to the Torah portion, besides beating a dead red heifer? There was one based on a few lines about Balak not being introduced as a king, but I forgot the exact connection I wanted to make.

There is a connection between the next dead red heifer and the weekly readings, however. The reading from the Prophets was from Micah. This reading reiterates the commandment to destroy the sacral objects of the Canaanites. On the subject of the original commandment (which is somewhere toward the beginning of Moses' second discourse in Deuteronomy), the Eitz Chaim Chumash indicates the problem with the religion of the Canaanites -- which was so horrendous to the Deuteronomist it was important, potentially post-facto, to issue a command to stamp it out -- was that, in worshiping nature, it sought to derive morality from nature. While nature can teach us moral lessons and moral laws that render the following of natural laws to be immoral are hardly any real morality, nature per se is not the source of moral law. And those who would bend science to ensure that it provides the morality they expect to learn from nature rather than from the religious teachings they claim to follow are worse than the secular followers of scientism as at least the latter are intellectually honest (and more fun with which to have a beer, cf. the 2004 election). Yes, the particular dead red heifer I felt Micah commanded me to beat this past Sabbath was Intelligent Design. And people who are so keen to reject science that doesn't square with their version of morality should remember that we who follow the Deuteronomic tradition are to reject the idea that science must give us morality in the first place. Pace "render unto Caesar", learn from science what is science (and learn to appreciate the awesomeness of creation thusly) and learn from religion what is religion.

BTW -- eventually, as is the nature of science, evolutionary theory will be severely modified. While my grandfather always asked us regarding hypothetical situations, "if donkeys had square assholes, would they shit bricks?" (see! donkeys! this point relates to this week's Torah portion!), I love them so much it's amazing I don't read more science fiction or try to write some myself. So what happens in the future if, say, they uncover some evidence that Lamarkian mechanisms are actually prevalent in evolution? Will there be crowds of conservative religious folks wanting their market morality to be derived from science pushing Darwinian evolution under some new name like "Intelligent Un-Design" or "Un-Intelligent Design"? It wouldn't surprise me ...

Interestingly, Micah sums up religious morality in the Prophetic tradition of seeking justice, doing acts of goodness and walking humbly with God. We all fall short of this mark (I am hardly humble in dismissing the puzzlement of the greatest theological minds about the Red Heifer), but even our striving is part and parcel of justice, goodness and walking humbly with God. The neuroses of the fundamentalists have no part in authentic religion, but the moral urgings of even secularists do.

Have I beaten enough dead, red heifers? Including the phraseology I'm using? ...

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