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October 24, 2014

[clickbait] Copyright is sodomy

A year ago, Harold Feld posted one of the most powerful ways of framing our excessive zeal for copyright that I have ever read. I was welling up even before he brought Aaron Swartz into the context.

Harold’s post is within a standard Jewish genre: the d’var Torah, an explanation of a point in the portion of the Torah being read that week. As is expected of the genre, he draws upon a long, self-reflective history of interpretation. I urge you to read it because of the light it sheds on our culture of copyright, but it’s also worth noticing the form of the discussion.

The content: In the Jewish tradition, Sodom’s sin wasn’t sexual but rather an excessive possessiveness leading to a fanatical unwillingness to share. Harold cites from a collection of traditional commentary, The Ethics of Our Fathers:

“There are four types of moral character. One who says: ‘what is mine is mine and what is yours is yours.’ This is an average person. Some say it is the Way of Sodom. The one who says: ‘what is mine is yours and what is yours is mine,’ is ignorant of the world. ‘What is mine is yours and what is yours is yours’ is the righteous. ‘What is mine is mine and what is yours is mine’ is the wicked.”

In a PowerPoint, it’d be a 2×2 chart. Harold’s point will be that the ‘what is mine is mine and what is yours is yours.’ of the average person becomes wicked when enforced without compassion or flexibility. Harold evokes the traditional Jewish examples of Sodom’s wickedness and compares them to what’s become our dominant “average” assumptions about how copyright ought to work.

I am purposefully not explaining any further. Read Harold’s piece.

The form: I find the space of explanation within which this d’var Torah — and most others that I’ve heard — operates to be fascinating. At the heart of Harold’s essay is a text accepted by believers as having been given by God, yet the explanation is accomplished by reference to a history of human interpretations that disagree with one another, with guidance by a set of values (e.g., sharing is good) that persevere in a community thanks to that community’s insistent adherence to its tradition. The result is that an agnostic atheist like me (I’m only pretty sure there is no God) can find truth and wisdom in the interpretation of a text I take as being ungrounded in a divine act.

But forget all that. Read Harold’s post, bubbelah.

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May 26, 2010

Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks and Prof. Michael Sandel

We went last night to hear a conversation between Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel and the Chief Rabbi of England, Jonathan Sacks. Very interesting, although it actually turned out to be Prof. Sandel interviewing Rabbi Sacks, rather than an actual conversation; I had been looking forward to the two of them digging into a topic — perhaps justice? — more mutually.

I didn’t take notes — it was not an open-laptop sort of event — but here are some highlights, filtered through my own interests and my faulty memory.

Rabbi Sacks began by saying that the theme of his new book, Future Tense, is that the current Jewish self-narrative is flawed. We see ourselves as history’s victims. We need instead, he said, to see Judaism as we did until relatively recently: not as a burden but as a privilege. He followed that up with a discussion of the theme of his book The Dignity of Difference (in the UK, he said, no one reads books, but they read book titles, so he tried to compress the message to four words), perhaps to forestall the assumption that that privilege is unique among all religions (which is the common understanding by non-Jews of what Jews mean by “chosenness.”)

Rabbi Sacks is an orthodox Jew with a highly pluralistic and urbane attitude. Indeed, pluralism was at the heart of his remarks last night. He referred several times to The Dignity of Difference and talked about universalism of the Enlightenment as an error: The differences among us should not be dissolved into a universal humanity, but should be maintained as a source of dignity and identity even while recognizing some universal imperatives. Across these lines we need to learn to talk with respect and with openness. (He thinks that America now is the home of engaged, passionate moral debate, whereas Europe and England are old and tired. Prof. Sandel urged him not to watch TV if he wants to preserve that illusion.)

Judaism, he said, is a religion of conversation. He said it is the only world religion for which all the sacred texts are anthologies of arguments: the Bible tells of conversations between Jews and G-d, and commentary is all arguments among the Rabbis.

Later he said that we should not be afraid to talk with those who radically oppose our ideas because we should have confidence that we will not be changed by them; that struck me as at odds with the idea of openness. Later still he said (quoting someone) that wisdom is the ability to learn something from everyone. Put these together and you get a realistic idea of openness: Openness to learning something, but no realistic expectation that the Jew will be convinced by the Nazi.

Faith for Jews, he said, is more or less the opposite of how the term is generally taken. It does not mean having confidence in one’s beliefs, but doubting them. [Many Christians would agree.] Jewish faith, he said, exists in the dissonance between seeing how the world is and how it should be. That is why, he later added, Jewish faith binds Jews to the Jewish law: The task is not to hold a set of beliefs but to heal the world. There is no Jewish faith without that.

I was therefore glad to hear that the Rabbi’s next book will be a response to what Prof. Sandel called the “fundamentalist atheism” of Dawkins and Hitchens. Sandel asked why their attacks on religion are of such broad appeal. Rabbi Sacks said that it’s because religion has been presenting its worst face to the world, that of intolerant fanaticism.

Prof. Sandel asked — to a murmer of approval from the crowd — whether Jews are too intolerant of differences among Jews. The Rabbi said yes, that we need to respect one another as Jews even across the wide spectrum of observance and belief. He also said that the incivility of Israeli politics is extremely dangerous. He said that the Jews have lost their homeland three times in their history, and in every case it was because we were squabbling among ourselves. He thinks the only hope for Israel’s future is to embrace plurality among Jews and among all who live in the area. We need to learn to live together. (He did not go into detail about what that would mean politically.)

Rabbi Sacks ended by, in response to an audience question, talking about the importance of Jews appreciating culture other than their own. He declared his love of Shakespeare and of Beethoven’s late string quartets [good choices! :)] Trying to describe their beauty, he was for the first time that evening at a loss for words.

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April 10, 2010

Natural disasters and the absence of G-d

I woke up this morning with an odd tweet in my head: Just about everything in the universe is bigger than we are.

I didn’t tweet it because it’s false: There’s an awful lot of dust in the universe. But I was pleasantly surprised to find (via Leiter Reports) an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, by Samuel Newlands, sort of on that topic. It’s about Haiti, Leibniz, and the problem of evil.

The problem of evil is the philosophical way of referring to the fact that an awful lot of bad sh*t happens to innocent people for a world supposedly watched over by a benevolent deity. Traditionally, there are a number of ways to resolve the problem. You can say that people get what they deserve, so that what looks unfair in fact is not. That’s a little hard to square with the death of babies, but people have certainly tried. Then there are the big three properties of G-d: All powerful, all knowing, all loving. Take away one of those three, and you can explain why bad things happen to good people: G-d is powerless to prevent it (Leibniz’s answer, in a clever form), G-d can’t predict it, or G-d just doesn’t care.

If I were to believe in a god, I think the only one I could muster up any loyalty to would be one who created us but not the universe. The Earth looked like a good place to plant us, so the Deity set us down carefully, gave us some useful texts to get us started, and then left us on our own.

Beyond that, it’s a mystery to me. But, then, it’s supposed to be a mystery. After all, most of the universe is bigger than we are.

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November 26, 2009

Thanksgiving without a Giver

I very much liked James Carroll’s reflections on how the sense of gratitude occurs in those who do not believe there is a Giver of the gifts we have received.

When it comes to atheism, I am agnostic: I’m not sure if I believe that there isn’t a Giver. But that’s about as close as I come to believing there is one. As a result, I have no One to thank. And even if I did believe, I don’t think I would be grateful for anything except what we all share: Lives on a planet we can make into a home. If I were to thank the Giver for the particularities of my health, my family, and the fact that I was born in a country that enjoys (and squanders) abundance, I’d also have to blame the Giver for withholding these gifts from most of my sisters, brothers, and other fellow creatures. How do you thank the Giver for your good fortune without either blaming the Giver for not granting it to all, or thinking that you are especially deserving of favors? Gratitude without a Giver doesn’t have that problem. We non-believers obviously can’t accomplish the social act of acknowledging the good qualities of the Giver, but does G-d really care about the thank-you note?

Gratitude for believers and the rest of us is, of course, more than a social act. It’s a way of dwelling on the fragile boon you’ve been granted. If there is no Giver to thank, then our gratitude — as an appreciation of the gifts we have — can embrace the shared and unshared boons without equivocation or hesitation, remembering how unearned and unfairly-shared they are. (Happiness is here, it’s just unevenly distributed.)

Happy Thanksgiving.

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November 26, 2008

Thanking whom?

Thanksgiving is far and away my favorite national holiday. Family, food, gratitude…what’s not to like?

Just as the meal is slightly more complicated for those of us who don’t eat meat, the holiday is a little more gnarly for those who don’t believe in G-d. We agnostics and atheists have all of the believers’ joy in what we have, as well as the simultaneous sad remembering of those who do not, but we don’t have anyone to thank. That’s a loss; religion as I’ve seen it practiced — my wife is an Orthodox Jew — sanctifies the everyday, which leads us to care ever more for the world we’ve been given and our companions in it.

I don’t have that sense of sanctity because I lack the sense of a Sanctifier. I am left believing that while the Renaissance distinction between Fortuna and Virtus is useful in some instances, in the final accounting when you’re stripped down to bare wood, even your virtues are accidents. If you hadn’t been born to those particular parents, in that particular time and place, with a body that can do this but not that, with the set of experiences that happened to form you, you wouldn’t have the virtues you claim as your own. It’s all Fortuna. I happened to have won the lottery: I have a healthy family, work I love, water, and a roof. I have no One to thank, but that does not make me less appreciative of what is spread on my table and aware that it could be overturned tomorrow.

I’m fine with that, especially since without Anyone to thank for singling me out for a happy life, I also don’t have Anyone to blame for leaving so many behind. That’s a more gnarly question than how to make a good vegetarian stuffing.

Happy Thanksgiving to us all.

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June 23, 2008

73% of American atheists don’t believe in God

Yes, that’s how devout Americans are. Even a bunch of our atheists believe in God.

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