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.
Here’s a sentence from the first paragraph of a long email solicitation I received today:
Truth Unlocked: Keys to Reaching Your Muslim Neighbor (www.truthunlocked.org) is a project that we feel God inspired us to create to help Christians to reach out to, form relationships with and simply love, Muslims here in North America.
Cool, I thought! Christians reaching out to Muslims in acceptance and love.
It took me until the end to come to the full realization what this is about:
Reaching out to the lost needs to be at the very top of our priority list as Evangelical Christians and we know that we need good tools in place to be able to Evangelize well.
According to an article at St. Louis Today by Cynthia Billhartz Gregorian of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Steve Lawlor, a part-time rector at an Episcopal church took up elements of Islamic ritual for Lent.
On Wednesday, the first day of Lent, he began performing salah five times a day, by facing east, toward Mecca, and praying to Allah. He also started studying the Quran and following Islamic dietary restrictions by abstaining from alcohol, pork and fish. During Holy Week, he planned to fast from dawn to sunset as Muslims do during Ramadan.
He avoided rituals that would have conflicted with church doctrine; for example, he skipped the prayers declaring Mohammed to be G-d’s prophet.
Steve did this as a way of understanding Islam, especially in the light of the McCarthyitehearings being held by Rep. Peter King.
But, Bishop George Wayne Smith considered it to be a forsaking of his Christianity, and to be play-acting. The Bishop forbade Steve from continuing, saying:
“I believe what he’s trying to accomplish or says he’s trying to accomplish, which is to deepen his understanding of Islam, is admirable,” he continued. “But you dishonor another faith by pretending to take it on. You build bridges by building relationships with neighbors who are Muslim.”
Not an unreasonable statement, nor an islamophobic one (although we could have done without the “or says he’s trying to accomplish” statement of distrust). But, it’s a false disjunction. You can build bridges both ways. More important, what Steve was doing was not quite pretending. Rather, it was enacting the rituals and finding in them similarities of meaning. I can understand the Bishop’s discomfort with this. For example, as I understand it, Jews are forbidden from kneeling while praying, and thus could not perform the five daily prayers the Muslim way, for ritual has meaning. That’s why performing — enacting — another religion’s rituals can help in understanding that religion. Performing another religion’s rituals thus is subject to contradictory objections: (a) The performance of empty gestures is mere play-acting and thus disrespectful. Or, (b) the performance of ritual is never mere play-acting because ritual always carries inner meaning, so performing the rituals of another religion is transgressive of one’s own religion.
Yet, between these poles of negativity there can be respectful intent, the possibility of genuinely furthering one’s understanding, and make a statement of shared humanity in the face of the shameful fear-mongering of Rep. King and his followers.
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.
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.
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 â€” as an appreciation of the gifts we have â€” 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.)
In the early 1980s, I was teaching philosophy at Stockton State College. At one point, I said something like, “OK, guys, let’s get started â€” and I mean ‘guys’ in the generic sense.” Afterwards, a couple of the young women in the class came up to me and said, “You can’t get out of being sexist by saying you don’t mean what you said.”
“‘Guys’ stands for everyone,” I said, thinking that my embedded apology had been rather enlightened of me.
“Then next time try saying ‘OK, gals, let’s get started.'”
Justice Scalia says of a cross on public land* honoring U.S. war dead: “It’s erected as a war memorial. I assume it is erected in honor of all of the war dead … What would you have them erect?…Some conglomerate of a cross, a Star of David, and you know, a Muslim half moon and star?”
He’s right that it’s intended to honor all the war dead. The problem is the assumption that you honor all war dead by putting up the religious symbols honored by some.
Scalia should talk with the young women who set me straight 25 years ago.
NOTE: I posted this at Huffington Post where the comments are, um, interesting.
â€” *The case seems to be turning on whether the land was made private simply to skirt the problem with erecting religious symbols on public land.