Friday, June 27, 2008

From Luther to Rosenzweig

The Luther Bible is the common name for “Die gantze Heilige Schrift Deudsch,” first printed with both testaments in 1534. While he was sequestered in the Warburg Castle in 1521-22, Martin Luther began to translate the New Testament into German in order to make it more accessible to all the people of “the Holy Roman Empire of the German nation." Luther said that he strove to write so clearly and plainly that even a stable boy could understand the words.

Arguably the Luther translation has had a greater effect on its vernacular, High German, than even the King James Bible had on the English language.

So matters stood for centuries. But then a remarkable challenger appeared. In 1914 the Jewish scholars Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig began to collaborate on a new translation of the Hebrew Bible. After many interruptions this monumental task was finally completed by Buber alone in 1961. Buber called this version Verdeutschung ("Germanification"), since it does not always use literary German language but attempts to find innovative (often newly-invented) equivalent phrasing in order to respect the multivalent Hebrew original. The principle of literalism, sometimes called word-translation, is often castigated as amateurish. In this instance, though, it achieves remarkable results.

In a lecture of 1926 Buber recommended: [R]ead the Bible as though it were something entirely unfamiliar, as though it had not been set before you ready-made. . . . Let whatever may happen occur between yourself and it. You do not know which of its sayings and images will overwhelm and mold you.” The principle of defamiliarization (or estrangement; ostranenie) had been singled out by the Russian formalist critics. In this same period Bertolt Brecht sought a theatrical equivalent in his Verfremdungseffekt (estrangement effect).

Here is the beginning of the story of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11) in Luther’s version:

“Es hatte aber alle Welt einerley zungen und sprache./ Da sie nu zogen gen Morgen funden sie ein eben Land im lande Sinear und woneten daselbs./ Und sprachen untereinander: Wolauf lasst uns Ziegel streichen und brennen.”

And here is Buber-Rosenzweig:

“Ueber die Erde allhin war eine Mundart und einerlei Rede/ Da wars wie sie nach Osten wanderten: sie fanden ein Gesenk im Lande Schinar und setzten sich dort fest./ Sie sprachen ein Mann zum Genossen:/ Heran! backen wir Backsteine und brennen wir sie zu Brande!”

Here is an effort to achieve the same effect in English (Everett Fox):

“Now all the earth was of one language and one set-of-words. / And it was when they migrated to the east that they found a valley in the land of Shinar and settled there./ They said, each man to his neighbor:/ come-now! Let us bake bricks and let us burn them well-burnt!”

In Buber-Rosenstock the word choice differs constantly from Luther in order more closely to mirror the Hebrew words. In this mirroring some discretion is called for, as the word rendered “Mundart” is actually “lip” in the Hebrew (a literalism not followed by Fox either). Line three combines the plural and singular, a departure from the grammatical rules of German.

There have been at least two attempts to imitate the Buber-Rosenzweig translation in English. Everett Fox rendered the “Five Books of Moses” as the first volume of the Schocken Bible. Another version has been produced by the Berkeley literary critic Robert Alter. In my view, neither comes up to the level of the German-language model. In addition, Alter disfigures his work with a commentary that cavalierly sweeps aside the findings of modern scholarship.

Everyone is familiar with Martin Buber, at least with his “I-thou” distinction. But who was Franz Rosenzweig? Rosenzweig was born in Kassel in 1886 to a minimally observant Jewish family. He pursued a normal German academic career, studying history and philosophy at the universities of Gõttingen, Munich, and Freiburg.

In July of 1913 Rosenzweig came close to yielding to the entreaties of his close friend Eugen Rosenstock, a convert to Christianity, who viewed Judaism as no more than a historical fossil. Rosenzweig said that before converting he must first affirm his status as a Jew, and not as a pagan. In this way he would complete in his own life the historical trajectory from Christianity to Judaism. This did not happen, for attendance at a Yom Kippur service early in the following year convinced him to reverse course. Henceforth, Franz Rosenzweig would devote himself to Jewish scholarship. Yet, as shown in a new piece by David Wasserstein in the TLS for June 20, 2008, he continued to be preoccupied with Christian theology.

These interests permeate Rosenzweig's major work Stern der Erlõsung (Star of Redemption; 1921), in which he expounds his "new philosophy," a description of the relationships between God, humanity and world as they are linked by creation, revelation, and redemption. The genesis of the text is a remarkable instance of composition in adversity, since the author produced the draft in tiny segments written on postcards to his wife during his military service in Serbia in World War I. In its final form, the book reflects the dual crisis of the war and the postwar instability and inflation that ravaged Germany.

Rosenzweig's magnum opus is commonly regarded as a cornerstone of modern Jewish philosophy, and rightly so. In my view, though, the key word Erlõsung (“redemption”) can only be understood in relation to the common German expression “Christus der Erlõser” (Christ the Savior).

In the third and culminating part of his volume Rosenzweig weighs the capacities of Judaism and Christianity as vehicles for entering the eternal kingdom. In contrast to the other major religions described earlier in the book, Judaism and Christianity both anticipate eternity and are based on love of God and one’s neighbor. Yet through ritual and ceremony they manifest their differences. In addition, the Jew is born a Jew. In order to become more of a Jew he or she has to penetrate deeper into the self. The Christian, on the other hand, is born a pagan. In order to become a Christian he or she must be baptized, discarding the former self (the old Adam or the old Eve of the traditional baptismal liturgy).

Rosenzweig observes that Judaism is a religion of inwardness, while Christianity is a religion that sends believers out into the world to win converts to the faith. It is notable that he considers the two faiths as basically on the same plane, showing the continued effect of his hesitations in 1913-14.

In a final image Rosenzweig evokes the Star of David as a kind of diagram for the truths he is seeking to express. Judaism is the inner fire in the heart of the star. Christianity finds its locus in the rays that emanate from the star. Each religion supplies only a fragment of the complete star.

While Judaism is the light, Christianity is that which is lighted. Judaism is the eternal life and Christianity the eternal way. It is difficult to escape the conclusion that while for Rosenzweig Judaism retains its autonomy--it is in no way a mere fossil--Christianity is in some significant sense its fulfillment, a view has little appeal in Jewish circles nowadays.

Were he alive today, it is extremely unlikely that Rosenzweig would be tempted to become a “Jew for Jesus”-- that is, to all intents and purposes a Christian. As we have seen, he turned away from that path early in 1914. Through the course of his life, though, he continued to grapple with Christian theology, then passing through one of its most fertile phases, with the incomparable Karl Barth at the head.

Unlike his colleague Martin Buber, Franz Rosenzweig was not a Zionist. And he was different in a number of other ways. In all probability, he would have rejected the exclusivism, tribalism, and triumphalism evident in some Jewish circles today. Knowing very little about Christianity, those of a conservative disposition feel free to ridicule and dismiss it. These Jewish individuals seem unaware--or in denial--about the tremendous contributions Christian belief has made to our art, music, and literature. Doubtless they have never read a page of Augustine or Pascal, of Barth or Bultmann. For their part, secular Jews join forces with other secularists, and some liberal Christians, to try to drive Christianity from the public square.

Nixon spoke of "satanic Jews." That view is preposterous, redolent of mental instability. And yet the situation remains problematic, for in the end the attitudes I have just limned will prove counterproductive: they will alienate the support of Christian evangelicals for the state of Israel, a bizarre trend that the country's leaders have cynically exploited.

Ronsenzweig died in 1929, when the world was very different. Yet his views still have a vital currency, as he exemplified in his own thinking his belief in a continuing dialogue between Judaism and Christianity. To be sure, there are Jews and Christians today who would follow him in this, yet their number seems to be diminishing. A Rosenzweigian dialogue cannot be pursued if one party seeks to suppress the discussion, denying any value to the expression "Judeo-Christian."


Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Did Jesus actually exist?

Contemporary biblical scholarship has established pretty conclusively that such worthies as Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; Moses, Aaron, and Joshua never lived. They belong exclusively to the realm of myth.

So much for the historicity--or more accurately, the nonhistoricity--of the Pentateuch. Gradually, it seems (as we read on and the years run by), the world of the Hebrew Bible becomes less mythical and more historical. But when does it do so? It is a startling fact that no real evidence has emerged for the existence of David and Solomon. To be sure, there is one doubtful inscription supposedly pertaining to the former, but the interpretation of the name David is disputed. Where are the commemorative steles and other monuments we would expect to find as evidence for a great Middle Eastern empire, as Solomon’s was reputed to be? What became of the polity’s archives? It is becoming increasingly evident that if David and Solomon ruled over anything it was a small chieftainship, too minor to merit notice in the annals of the great kingdoms of the Middle East.

As I pointed out in a previous posting, archaeology, that white knight which was expected to “prove the Bible right,” has had no such effect. Rather, the opposite is the case.

There is abundant room for doubt. Why though should the Hebrew Bible be the exclusive target of this well-merited skepticism?

The idea that Jesus never existed as a historical figure goes back more than 200 years. To the best of our knowledge, the first writer to argue this was the French savant Charles François Dupuis (1742-1809). Trained as a lawyer, Dupuis developed a passion for astronomy. This interest informs his magnum opus "Origine de tous les Cultes, ou la Réligion Universelle," which appeared in 12 volumes in 1795. In this vast work, the French scholar advocated the unity of the astronomical and religious myths of all nations, reflecting the Enlightenment’s confidence in the universality of human nature. Chapter nine is entitled “An explanation of the fable in which the Sun is worshipped under the name of Christ.”

Late in life, the American founder John Adams obtained a full set of Dupuis work, and was convinced of the nonhistoricity of Jesus by reading it (a fact not mentioned, I believe, in the recent television series on Adams). In this way, Adams was “one up” on his correspondent Thomas Jefferson, who still believed in the real existence of Jesus as a wise teacher of moral truths.

Dupuis’s rejection of the historicity of Jesus was spread by the more popular work of his contemporary Constantin François Volney (1757-1820), entitled "Les Ruines."

On a different basis, these doubts resurfaced in the work of the German theologian and philosopher Bruno Bauer (1809-1882). Starting in 1840, he began a series of controversial works arguing that Jesus was a myth, a second-century fusion of Jewish, Greek, and Roman theology. Bauer’s arguments were based on his deconstructive analysis of the text of Mark, generally recognized as the earliest of the gospels. In turn these arguments were taken up by the Dutch radical theologians, who denied the authenticity of the Pauline epistles. Most of these scholars retained the idea that there was an authentic core, however, exiguous, that could be retrieved about the historical Jesus. A few, such as Systra Hoekstra, Allard Pierson, and Samuel Adrian Naber went further, denying that the gospels contained any authentic information. In their view we possessed no reliable information that would affirm the actual existence of Jesus.

From time to time these questionings of the historicity of Jesus have surfaced again, most recently and notably in The Jesus Project, an outgrowth of the earlier Jesus Seminar. The following remarks, descriptive of the current project, rely on the account of R. Joseph Hoffmann, who is chair of the Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion

The Jesus Seminar, founded in 1985 by the late Robert Funk of the University of Montana, was a serious effort, caricatured for all the wrong reasons—its voting method (marbles), the grandstanding of some of its members, the public style of its meetings, even its openly defiant stance regarding the claims of miracles in the Gospels—including the resurrection of Jesus. Except for the use of the marbles, none of this was new. By contrast the deployment of additional sources, such as Gnostic and apocryphal gospels, to create a fuller picture of the Jesus-tradition and the focus on context as though it provided content were innovative. Yet the Jesus who emerged from these scholarly travails was very much diminished, so much so that few could muster any enthusiasm for the result.

By the end of their most visible period in 2000, the Seminar members had pared the sayings of Jesus down to 18 percent of those ascribed to him in the New Testament. From this minimalist kit they pictured him as a wandering teacher of “wisdom” who preached in riddles and parables about a God of love who preferred sinners to the wealthy, comfortable, and wise of the world. Gone, by and large, was the eschatological prophet who preached the end of the world and never expected to found a church—much less a seminar—in his name.

What the Seminar had tacitly affirmed without acknowledging the corollary is that over 80 percent of “Jesus” had been fictionalized by the Gospel writers. That is to say that, if we are to judge a man’s life by his sayings, the greater portion of the literary artifacts known as the Gospels is fictional. If we are to judge by actions, then what actions survived historical criticism? Not the virgin birth, or the Transfiguration, or the healing of the sick, or the purely magical feats such as Cana, or the multiplication of loaves and fishes. The Resurrection had quietly been sent to the attic by theologians in the nineteenth century. The deeds—except, perhaps, the attack on the Temple (Mark 11:15–19)—had preceded the words to the dustbin years before, yet some scholars continued to insisted that the historical figure remained untouched. Only faith could explain this invulnerability to harm.

In January 2007, at the University of California, Davis, the Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion (CSER) asked the question that had been looking for a serious answer for over two hundred years: Did Jesus exist? The CSER fellows, invited guests, present and former members of the Jesus Seminar, and a wide variety of interested and engaged attendees avidly attended to three days of lectures and discussions on the subject—appropriately—“Scripture and Skepticism.” The Jesus Project, as CSER has named the new effort, claims to be the first methodologically agnostic approach to the question of Jesus’ historical existence.

Seminar members think the history and culture of the times provide many significant clues about the character of figures similar to Jesus. They reject the mixing of theological motives and historical inquiry as impermissible. They hold that previous attempts to rule the question out of court constitute vestiges of a time when the Church controlled the boundaries of permissible inquiry into its sacred books. More directly, they regard the question of the historical Jesus as a testable hypothesis, and are committed to no prior conclusions about the outcome of our inquiry.

The Jesus Project will run for five years, with its first session scheduled for December 2007. It will meet twice a year, and, like its predecessor, the Jesus Seminar, it will hold open meetings. Unlike the Seminar, the Project members will not vote with marbles, and will not expand membership indefinitely: the Project will be limited to fifty scholars with credentials in biblical studies as well as in the crucial cognate disciplines of ancient history, mythography, archaeology, classical studies, anthropology, and social history.

At the end of its term, the Jesus Project will publish its findings. It is to be hoped that those findings will not be construed as sensational or alarming; like all good history, the project seeks a probable reconstruction of the events that explain the beginning of Christianity—a man named Jesus from the province of Galilee whose life served as the basis for the beginning of a movement, or (alternatively) a sequence of events that led to the Jesus story being propagated throughout the Mediterranean. Both conclusions deserve serious consideration, but as we live in the real world—of real causes and outcomes—only one can be true.

With the loss of over 80% of his body weight, the Jesus of the earlier endeavor, the Jesus Seminar, is a very thin man indeed--but he hasn’t yet blown away. One who thinks otherwise is Robert M. Price in his “The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man: How Reliable Is the Gospel Tradition?” (Prometheus Books, 2003). An alumnus of the Jesus Seminar, Mr. Price is now a member of the new Jesus Project.

The author has sought to collect and analyze all the relevant information about Jesus--his birth, childhood, baptism, miracles, sayings, and so forth--primarily using the New Testament as we have it, but also employing some Gnostic source material. Unlike some of his predecessors, who have not benefited from seminary training, Price’s analysis is thoroughly grounded in the texts, and for this “warp-and-woof” approach he is to be commended. He has analyzed this data to understand what we know for certain about Jesus. Price concludes that this amounts to very little, if anything.

The writer utilizes three main critical criteria. The first is “whenever we can compare a more and a less extravagant version of the same claim or story, the more modest has the greater claim to authenticity.” He gives the example of walking on water. In Mark only Jesus walks on water. In this the evangelist is followed by John. Yet Matthew adds Peter to the aqueous adventure. Since we know that Mark is the earliest of the surviving gospels, it seems likely that his version (followed by John’s) is correct; while Matthew’s is an embellishment. So far, so good. However, there may be other reasons for simplicity. Many medieval commentators thought that Mark was not the earliest gospel but the latest; that is, it was a kind of abridgment. On this account, for the reasons of brevity he may have preferred the short (Johannine) version to the Matthaean one.

Yet there is another reason for omissions which goes to the heart of the matter. In looking back over a past occurrence, such as the Stonewall Rebellion for example, some observers like to assert that “X was not there,” even though he almost certainly was. The reason is personal dislike, or a disapproval of the tendency that X belonged to. Thus someone who held that Peter was getting too much power in the nascent church organization may have wanted to “cut him down to size” in this manner. In this particular instance I am inclined to accept Price’s reconstruction. But the methodological principle he adduces is not necessarily one that is universally valid.

From his work in the Jesus Seminar Price takes over the criterion of dissimilarity. That is, if Jesus says or does something that is unique to him (as far as we can tell), then it is likely to be authentic. If not, not. Is it really plausible, though, that the “real Jesus” was constantly innovating 24/7? In the course of my graduate education I have heard a number of dazzlingly brilliant lectures. There was not one, however, who did not occasionally utter some platitude, such as “silence is golden” or “the last mile’s the hardest.” The reason for this is not simple laziness. If one wants to attract a following, as Jesus is represented as wishing, one has to begin by building on what people know--or think they know. Someone who was original all the time might be a forerunner of André Breton and the Surrealists--but he could not lay the foundations for the religion that is currently the most numerous on the planet.

Finally, Price offers parallels with other stories, especially those from classical antiquity. He cites Pythagoras, Plato, Alexander, and Apollonius of Tyana (among others) as individuals who are thought to have come into the world through some miraculous birth. The themes of the incarnation and nativity may indeed have been embellished by the Christian writers with such detail--but so what?

The Jeffersonian concept of Jesus as a wise, but fallible teacher--a rabbi in the sense common in his time--but not a supernatural being may still be maintained. Indeed this view, rather than the orthodox doctrine that the founder of Christianity was a member of some nonexistent “Holy Trinity” strikes me as the most plausible solution.

Continuing in the comparative vein, the story of Jesus counting 153 fishes and how this was part of the Pythagorean legend is a little known fact, and a good example of how Price uses this approach to deconstruct many of the New Testament's assertions regarding the life of Jesus. Still, there are times where Mr. Price seems to be stretching to find matching similarities. Indeed, there are limitations to this method. As a French scholar said in a different context: Comparaison n’est pas raison.

It is hard to suppress the suspicion that Price has adopted a kind of kitchen-sink approach, throwing in anything that occurs to him. Thus he says that Jesus cannot have entered any synagogue in Galilee, because archaeologists have not found them there in this period. There are indeed many spectacular finds in Middle Eastern synagogue architecture during the Roman period, but it is clear that the record remains incomplete. For example, not a single synagogue has been excavated in Mesopotamia (Iraq); yet we know from the Babylonian Talmud that this country was a particularly flourishing center of Jewish life and scholarship during the period. On these grounds, an argument from silence (no known synagogues), are we to conclude that the Babylonian Talmud is a falsification?

Some sources that Price throws into the pot are dubious at best. For example, he cites a British occultist, G. R. S. Mead, writing a hundred years ago, as a source for the improbable claim that Jesus actually lived around 100 B.C.

There is one final consideration, to my mind the most significant of all. By modern standards, few figures from Greco-Roman antiquity are well documented. For most ancient philosophers, for example, we have (to all intents and purposes) only the data recorded by Diogenes Laertius. Yet few doubt that Heraclitus or Democritus actually lived. In her book "Lives of the Greek Poets," Mary Lefkowitz points out that "virtually all the material in the lives is fiction."

Yet we do not say that most of the ancient Greek philosophers and poets never existed. The information we have on them is exiguous at best. That being so, why is the historicity of these figures not challenged? The reason is that there no motive for such doubt, even thought they are less well attested than Jesus.

Doubt is deployed as a weapon. An example demonstrates this rule. The Greek archaic poet Sappho has become an icon for modern feminists--a sort of Sappho Christa. Perhaps for this reason, some scholars have begun to doubt whether she existed.

The problem with sorting out the facts, however uncertain they may be, concerning the life of Jesus stems from the situation that we have too many sources, not too few. In addition to the four canonical gospels, the texts of at least 16 others are known. There is other data in the Acts of the Apostles and the Epistles, not to mention such early writers as Marcion, Clement of Alexandria, and Irenaeus of Lyon. The situation is closer to that of Socrates and Alexander, well attested but with numerous contradictions, than it is to that of Heraclitus and Anacreon. I am inclined to think that the position that Jesus did not exist is ideological. It is based on special pleading--a one-sided presentation of the evidence that highlights every contradiction and dubious assertion, refusing to countenance any other evidence.

It is useful to recall the legal principle of neutrality of result. For example, legislation barring excessively high rates of interest should not be crafted so that the prohibition applies to some banks but not to others. Of course, there are disputed cases. Some would argue, I think correctly, that marriage should not be construed so as only to apply to opposite-sex instances ("traditional marriage"), but should cover same-sex ones as well. Others may disagree.

Still, it is a good plan to follow the principle of neutrality of outcomes. However, that principle is being conspicuously ignored by the Jesus-didn't-exist party, because they decline to apply the principle to analogous cases. Take, for example, the case of Jesus' contemporary, Rabbi Hillel, after whom many Jewish student groups are named. He looks like a good candidate for erasure, because the evidence for his existence is considerably more skimpy than that for Jesus. But I know of no detailed argument for the nonhistoricity of Hillel. Nor is one needed.

When all is said and done, Jesus probably did actually exist--not the divine Jesus of the fictitious “Holy Trinity,” but the relatively modest teacher admired by Thomas Jefferson. One must remember than in this remote era probabilities are all that one can ever speek of.


Saturday, June 14, 2008

The failure of propedophile advocacy

In my salad days I began the studies that led to the trilogy by which I am best known: Homolexis; Homosexuality: A Research Guide; and the Encyclopedia of Homosexuality. The first is available in a completely revised version at; the other two may be found at Various internet sites offer paper copies for sale.

In order to bring these works to fruition I cast as wide a net as possible. I made comparative studies of different societies, and looked into the evidence for same-sex behavor in past cultures. I looked into manifestations of gay and lesbian sensibility in novels and poems, in paintings and sculptures, music and film. And of course I recognized the three great templates: age-asymmetrical, gender-variant, and egalitarian. All three are “homosexual,” yet they are experienced quite differently.

This posting addresses the age-asymmetrical variant. As an adult, I have never experienced any sexual attraction to adolescents--and even those somewhat older. For this reason, as a college professor I never feel tempted to “hit on” my students.

Because of this very lack of personal response, I concluded that I needed better to understand the problem of pederasty. (In my view, pederasty means attraction to male adolescents, and is not to be equated with pedophilia in the strict sense, which involves children. Some observers of course conflate the two, and for convenience in the discussion below I will follow the convention of using pedophilia as the umbrella term.) In order to improve my knowledge I spoke to many boy lovers (as they generally prefer to be called) and agreed to be an advisory editor of Paidika, a serious quarterly on the subject published in the Netherlands (it ceased in 1995). These enquiries have led to several minor troubles, including false and malicious ascriptions of pedophilia on the Internet. No matter--one sometimes need to take risks in the interests of science.

Be that as it may, I am still mystified by some aspects of male-male intergenerational sex. That is only one part of the puzzle. As I will indicate below, I have come better to understand the reasons, whether valid or not, for the aversion of the general public to the phenomenon. What continues to perplex me, though, is the belief of articulate boy-love advocates that they can dispel opposition to the behavior by advancing rational arguments. These views are found at an increasing number of Internet sites.

The Internet sites themselves may promote shifts (distortions, if you will) in approach on the part of the subjects. For example, in August 2006, The New York Times published the results of a four-month investigation of online pedophile communications and activities. The newspaper described how “pedophiles view themselves as the vanguard of a nascent movement seeking legalization of child pornography and the loosening of age-of-consent laws.” And while "pedophiles often maintain that the discussion sites are little more than support groups,” the newspaper asserted that, “[r]epeatedly in these conversations, pedophiles said the discussions had helped them accept their attractions and had even allowed them to have sex with a child without guilt."

Twenty years ago the sociologist Mary de Young found that the pedophile organizations she studied used four main strategies to promote public acceptance of pedophilia or the legalization of adult-child sex:

1. In an effort to demonstrate the benefits of such relationships to children, the denial of injury strategy adduces anecdotal accounts obtained from children who appear to enjoy sex with adults. This material, highly selective, serves to displace culpability for any harm that occurs onto the reactions of others, such as the child's parents, and the criminal justice and mental health systems.

2. Then there is the strategy of condemning the condemners. Those who excoriate sex between adults and children are portrayed as engaging in even more victimizing or exploitative acts then those of which pedophiles are accused.

3. The advocates make an appeal to higher loyalties. They assert that they serve the interests of a higher principle: the liberation of children from the repressive bonds of society. Moreover, there is an attempt to align with other, less stigmatized trends for social change such as the woman's movement or the gay-rights movement.

4. Denial of victimization occurs through the conceptual transformation of children from victims of adult sexual behavior into willing partners. Here we touch, of course, on the contentious issue of consent. Going against popular opinion, the propedophile writers assert that the youngsters can indeed give informed consent--and in fact do so.

In addition to these four motifs identified by De Young, other strategies include:

* Value-neutral terminology is rcommended. According to Professor Gilbert Herdt, an anthropologist who has studied sex between adults and children in other cultures, pedophile advocates should replace "dull and reductionistic" terms like pedophilia and abuse when discussing sex between "a person who has not achieved adulthood and one who has." Moreover, words like "child" or "childhood", which have a psychologically developmental meaning, must be "resisted at all costs" This overall approach is sometimes termed framing, a procedure which places behaviors in a new context by shifting the terminology.

* A particular aspect of the previous admonition is the need to redefine or restrict the usage of the term "child sexual abuse," recommending a child's "willing encounter with positive reactions" be called "adult-child sex" instead of "abuse.” For example, Gerald Jones, an Affiliated Scholar at the Institute for the Study of Women and Men in Society at the University of Southern California, has suggested that "intergenerational intimacy" should not be equated with child sexual abuse. According to Jones, the "crucial difference has to do with mutuality and control." Jones holds that "[i]ntergenerational attraction on the part of some adults could constitute a lifestyle 'orientation,’ rather than a pathological maladjustment.”

* Children, it is held, can consent to sexual activity with adults. The reconceptualization of children as willing sexual participants along with the decriminalization of consensual sexual relations is perhaps the key change sought by pedophile advocates. In his book Paedophilia: The Radical Case, activist Tom O'Carroll claims "What there most definitely needs to be [in determining consent] is the child's willingness to take part in the activity in question; whatever social or legal rules are operated, they must not be such as to allow unwilling children to be subjected to sexual acts. But there is no need whatever for a child to know 'the consequences' of engaging in harmless sex play, simply because it is exactly that: harmless." Other pedophile activists, including David Riegel, Frans Gieles and Lindsay Ashford, argue that children are actually able to knowingly consent to sex.

* The assumption of harm is questioned. Numerous propedophile advocacy organizations have quoted the famous study by Bruce Rind et al. in support of their efforts to "lower or rescind age of consent laws," and defense attorneys have used the study to argue for minimizing harm in child sexual abuse cases. Some writers support their arguments by citing various studies that they argue have shown that the negative outcomes attributed to adult-child sexual relations can usually be better explained by other factors, such as a poor family environment or incest.

The following points extend these arguments:

* In 2000 David Riegel asserted: "The acts themselves harm no one, the emotional and psychological harm comes from the 'after the fact' interference, counseling, therapy, etc., that attempt to artificially create a 'victim' and a 'perpetrator' where neither exists."

* Similar arguments are made by SafeHaven Foundation, an organization for "responsible boylovers". On their website, they write, "The child abuse industry ... takes a boy who has enjoyed pleasurable and completely consensual sexual experiences with another boy or man, and traumatizes him in an attempt to convince him that what he did was 'wrong’.” In addition, SafeHaven argues that, "many of the supposed traumas elicited by psychotherapy turn out to be nothing more than the result of the False Memory Syndrome.”

* The proponents urge "objective" research. The Dutch pedophile advocate Edward Brongersma has argued that investigators of child sexual abuse have biased views[citation needed]. He has cited his countryman Theo Sandfort's research on boys' relationships with pedophiles, published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Sex Research, as an example of what he considers consider "objective" research. However, critics suggest that the study was "politically motivated to 'reform' legislation," and that the sample of 25 boys used by Brongersma was unrepresentative.

* The classification of pedophilia as mental illness must be abandoned. Activists sometimes refer positively to academics who argue that pedophilia should be removed from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). Such efforts seek to imitate the 1973 decision of the American Psychiatric Association to remove homosexuality from the list of mental illnesses. However, it is a fallacy to assume that other minority sexual practices must inevitably benefit from the same declassification.

* Promoting understanding of "relationships" must be undertaken. Brongersma, in "Boy-Lovers and Their Influence on Boys," reported the result of interviews with participants in adult–child relationships, concluding that "within a relationship, sex is usually only a secondary element."

* Reference is made to experiences of situations where adult-child sex interactions are not illegal, both historical and anthropological. Edward Brongersma referred to ancient Greece, and nineteenth-century French Polynesia, where such conditions existed. And of course many other historical parallels can be adduced, including medieval Islam and the Samurai culture of premodern Japan. Yet this argument is a double-edged sword, for it acknowledges that for pedophilia and pederasty to flourish certain sociocultural conditions must exist. These appear to be lacking in Western industrialized societies.

* An attempt is made to assert continuity between pedophile and other minority activists. Some activists argue that pedophile activism, feminism, gay activism, and anti-racism all reflect the experiences of suppressed and misunderstood groups. This “solidarity argument” has been made by Harris Mirkin. Other writers, such as Camille Paglia, have asserted that gay rights (from which much of pedophile activism diverged) should never have rejected the pederastic themes which some activists claim were the tradeoffs required to make adult-adult homosexual behavior acceptable.

* Then there is the ploy of pointing to juvenile sexual activity in the animal kingdom and invoking evolutionary arguments. Other species are sometimes adduced as examples of beneficial or normalized sexual contact between grown animals and infants or adolescents. One popular case is that of a close relative to humans, the Bonobo, where sexual touching (described by activists as infant-initiated) is part of everyday life, and intercourse is sometimes initiated by the young. Setting aside the Bonobo, who are a special case, the problem with these comparisons is that most such activity is an assertion of dominance and humiliation--the very things that pedophile advocates seek to dispel in their idealization of human intergenerational arrangements.

* It is held that inequality does not necessarily mean abuse. Tom O'Carroll writes: "The disparity in size and power between parent and child creates a potential for abuse. But, on the basis that parent–child relationships are generally positive we accept that inequality is simply in the nature of the thing. I would like to see pedophilic relationships looked at in a similar light."

A controversial meta-analysis of studies using college students by Bruce Rind, Philip Tromovitch and Robert Bauserman published by the American Psychological Association in 1998 found a weak correlation between sex abuse in childhood and the later instability of the child's adult psyche. It noted that a significant percentage reported their reactions to sex abuse as positive in the short term and concludes that for research purposes some cases of child sex abuse would be better labeled "adult-child sex". The article stated in the addendum that "CSA does not cause intense harm on a pervasive basis regardless of gender in the college population"[citation needed] , but warns "The current findings are relevant to moral and legal positions only to the extent that these positions are based on the presumption of psychological harm.”

Respondents alleged many design defects in the study, including sample bias, non-standardization of variables, statistical errors, and researchers' personal bias. The article's authors have published replies to these claims.

In addition to academic criticism, in 1999 Congress unanimously passed a bill stating that "sexual relations between children and adults are abusive, exploitive, and reprehensible, and should never be considered or labeled as harmless or acceptable." It condemned the study specifically on the grounds that "pedophiles and organizations, such as the North American Man-Boy Love Association, that advocate laws to permit sex between adults and children are exploiting the study to promote and justify child sexual abuse."

Several pro-pedophile advocacy organizations have cited the Rind et al. study to buttress their efforts to "lower or rescind age of consent laws", and defense attorneys have used the study to argue for minimizing harm in child sexual abuse cases.

All in all, one cannot help but be impressed by the profusion and ingeniousness of the propedophile arguments. So far, though, these arguments have made scarcely a dent in the general disapprobation of intergenerational sex. It seems unlikely that this resistance is due solely to prejudice and hysteria. In fact a series of social realities decisively undergird the public’s resistance. In order for attitudes to change these realities would have to undergo fundamental alteration--and that does not seem to be in the offing.

The point has often been made that teenagers are not children. Fair enough, but our society has prolonged the period of adult supervision through the teenage years and beyond. Some young people continue to live with their parents through their college years and even afterwards. For a midldle-class couple to have a child is now to contemplate an enormous investment. Most parents do not wish to have this investment tainted (as they see it) by having their offspring lured into an inappropriate and possibly damaging relationship (again, as they see it). Even advocates of intergenerational sex agree that the harm can ensue because of society’s attitudes. Of course one can imagine an entirely different situation. If it came to the norm that young people, including middle-class ones, would become emancipated at the age of, say, thirteen--voting, driving, consuming alcohol, and maintaining separate residences--matters might be different. But modern-day economics and custom combine to make such an outcome unfeasible.

Several decades of feminist thinking and advocacy have had mixed results. One thing, though, that is generally agreed is that the more powerful partner in a relationship--generally the man--should not use force or coercion to achieve dominance. Rightly or wrongly, this model has been imposed on man-boy relationships. As long as these are seen as coercively uneqalitarian, they will seem suspect--even odious.

A central issue in the dispute between the pedophile activists and their antipedophile opponents is whether adolescents can give informed consent. One group says that they can; the other that they cannot. To be sure, our law makes a bright-line distinction between consensual and nonconsensual acts. Not so everyday life, which recognizes a range of intermediate situations in which an impressionable individual may be swayed by the intervention of a determined outsider to engage in behavior that he would not otherwise perform. We all know that teenagers have difficulty establishing and maintaining autonomy, as when they yield to peer pressure. Consequently, it is unrealistic to argue that adolescents can give full consent to sexual acts in the same way that adults do. Such at any rate is the conventional wisdom on this matter, one of several high hurdles that the propedophile writers do not seem equipped to surmount. Indeed, they shown an almost insouciant disregard for these basic issues and objections.


Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Rabbinical exegesis: purloining from Christianity

My program in these religion pieces is to examine, without fear or favor, the reality of the Abrahamic traditions. Regrettably, the story is often a tawdry one. I will shortly shift my main attention from Judaism to Christianity, which deserves at least equally close scrutiny.

By way of transition, though, I address yet another one of the ways in which medieval and modern Judaism have silently purloined from Christianity. This borrowing has to do with hermeneutics, the principles that govern interpreting the sacred texts.

In today’s Jewish exegesis, the Pardes typology describes four different approaches to Biblical interpretation. The term, sometimes also rendered PaRDeS, is an acronym formed from the name initials of these four approaches, which are:

Peshat (פְּשָׁט) — "plain" ("simple"), or the straightforward meaning of a verse or passage;
Remez (רֶמֶז) — "hints," or the deep meaning beyond the literal sense;
Derash (דְּרַשׁ) — from Hebrew darash - "to inquire" or "to seek,” the comparative meaning; unraveling the midrashic meaning by comparing words and forms in a passage to similar occurrences elsewhere;
Sod (סוֹד) — "secret" ("mystery") meaning of passage, as given through inspiration or revelation.

Levels two, three, and four of the Pardes method examine the extended meaning of a text. As a general rule, the extended meaning never contradicts the base or literal meaning. In summary, Peshat means the literal interpretation. Remez is the allegorical meaning. Derash includes the metaphorical meaning, while Sod represents the hidden meaning. There is often considerable overlap, for example when legal understandings of a verse are influenced by mystical interpretations, or when a "hint" is elicited by comparing a word with other instances of the same word. [Needless to say, my own preference is for the Sod method.]

The Hebrew noun "Pardes" is cognate with our word “paradise,” both terms stemming from Persian.

Similarities with the earlier Christian fourfold system are too numerous to be a coincidence. In fact, the Christian Middle Ages recognized four types of allegorical interpretation, a method which had originated with the Bible commentators of the early Christian era. As in the later Jewish system, the first level is simply the literal interpretation of the events of the story for historical purposes with no underlying meaning. The second level, the typological links the events of the Old Testament to the New Testament, for example, by drawing allegorical connections between the events of Christ's life with the stories of the Old Testament. The third level is the moral (or tropological), focusing on how one should act in the present--pointing up, as it were, the "moral of the story.” The fourth level is anagogical, dealing with the spiritual or mystical dimension as it relates to future events of Christian history, heaven, hell, the last judgment; it deals with prophecies.

Thus the four types of allegory treat past events (literal), the connection of past events with the later ones (typology), present realities (moral), and the future (anagogical).

A well known exposition of the four levels of interpretation stems from Dante Alighieri, in his epistle to Can Grande della Scala (early 14th century). However, as Henri de Lubac has shown in great detail, the method goes back to early Christian times.

The first influential model of multiple levels in the interpretation of Scripture stems from the prolific patristic writer Origen of Caesarea of the third century. Origen maintained that the Bible discloses three levels of meaning, corresponding to the threefold Pauline (and Platonic) division of a person into body, soul and spirit. The bodily level of Scripture, the bare letter, is helpful as it stands to meet the needs of the more simple. Great care must be taken before even considering whether to discard it. However, the other two levels are essential. The psychic level, corresponding to the soul, assists progress in perfection. Finally, the spiritual interpretation deals with “ineffable mysteries” so as to make humanity a “partaker of all the doctrines of the Spirit's counsel.”

Later exegetes improved on Origin’s typology in two ways. First, they held that the literal interpretation may not be set aside; instead, one must assume a harmony with the others. In addition, they expanded the number of levels from three to four, as noted above.

Imitation, they say, is the sincerest form of flattery. If so, the Pardes system represents a clear homage to the developed fourfold system of modern Christian exegesis. Let us look at the parallels in more detail. Both systems agree in placing the literal sense first. Christian Typology, examining correspondences linking different parts of the canon of Scripture, broadly corresponds to Derash. Less close, perhaps, is the simllarity of the moral level to Remez. The mystical or anagogical level is similar to Sod. Since the rabbis do not recognize the authority of the New Testament, some modification was required. But purloining and adaptation unmistakably took place.

It is not known exactly when this derivation took place. However, a version of the Pardes typology appears in the Tolaat Yaakov, a kabbalistic text stemming from the early sixteenth century. This would situate the borrowing in the later middle ages, the very period in which Christian fourfold exegesis was at its height.

This is but one of the many ways in which evolving Judaism has borrowed from Christianity, usually without acknowledgment, as in this case. A hundred and fifty years ago, the Christian allegorical method, with its four levels, withered under the impact of the Higher Criticism. Few Christian pastors or exegetes would resort to the outdated method nowadays. Dwelling in the past tense, it belongs to the arcana of intellectual history. The situation is different in the eclectic world of Neo-Judaism, where this creaky mechanism is alive and well. What Christianity has wisely shed, Judaism has kept.


Monday, June 09, 2008

Rich man, poor man

A friend of mine, a person of considerable means, keeps urging on me the “plight” of a mutual friend, also a person of wealth. Individual number two has recently lost a fair amount of money, owing to a poor business model maintained by a major corporation in which he has invested. However, this man has other sources of income, which together add up to a tidy sum. In all probability he is a multimillionaire. His three children are fully grown and able to earn their own living, which they are doing. The person who has suffered this ostensibly grievous loss has homes in Manhattan, Oxford, and Berlin. He has never stinted on visits to the opera, the ballet, and expensive French restaurants.

Having retired a number of years ago, individual number two now has some serious medical problems, but his excellent coverage is taking care of the expenses. Unfortunately, the grim reaper comes for all of us. I trust that friend number two will be able to stave off this eventuality as long as possible. At all events, he will have no money worries, despite the hand wringing of friend number one.

It is a sad fact about the rich that no matter how much money they have they want more. That hankering is called greed, a very human failing, and can be excused. What I do not accept, though, is the demand that we must feel compassion for their relatively minor monetary setbacks.

Always a commodity in short supply, compassion has worthier objects. Another friend, also retired, must live in a Southern city on an income of about $500 a month. This impecunious man has found himself in this situation because he devoted most of his adult life volunteering in the service of a foundation that has little money. Thanks in large measure to my Southern friend’s efforts, that foundation has real accomplishments to show, accomplishments that have benefited all of us. Now all the man has as a reward for decades of work is his house and his Social Security income. I feel great concern for this man’s financial plight--and none at all for the bon vivant with homes in New York, Oxford, and Berlin.

Republicans and Libertarians keep telling us that we must tolerate economic inequality in this country. It is the price of progress under capitalism. Maybe so, but those who dwell in the lap of privilege should not gloat over their good fortune. This insensitivity is one of the factors that led to the French Revolution.

In the face of this outrageousness, sometimes I allow myself the thought that my old friends of the radical persuasion were right. We need a revolution in which those who have too long fed at the trough are lined up and shot.

We haven’t come that far yet. But I refuse to mourn for the minor financial setbacks of those who have never had anything serious in life to complain of. Plenty of others have grave problems. These are the ones who deserve out pity and concern--and if possible our assistance.


Friday, June 06, 2008

Woe is us (NOT)

There is much hand wringing about the high cost of gasoline these days. I’m sure that the effects are painful for those who have to fill up the tank each day for a long commute. Still, why did Americans buy so many SUVs, instead of the smaller, fuel-efficient cars Europeans drive? After all, gas was bound to go up in response to world demand.

Hardly anyone points out that gas spiked once before--as a result of the 1973 oil embargo imposed by the Arabs. In a remarkably short time gasoline went from 29 cents a gallon to over a dollar. In 2008 dollars that is not much different from what gas costs now at $4 a gallon. In real terms the price of gas gradually declined since the mid seventies. Now it has gone up again.

For those who may be incredulous about the ravages of the steady march of inflation, please recall the following benchmarks. At the end of the sixties a ride on the subway in NYC cost 15 cents; a regular slice of pizza was the same. Now they cost $2.00 and $2.50 respectively.

There is also much hand wringing about the supposedly disastrous fall of the dollar. Well, I have curtailed my purchases of French and German books. There are more of those lurking around the apartment than I could possibly read. Good stuff to drink? There are plenty of fine wines from California, Argentina, Chile and other non-Euro locales.

The Euro has climbed to new heights, but not so most other currencies. For Mexico and most other third-world countries the exchange rates remain stable. China is our principal trading partner, not Europe. The Yuan has been revalued, but not by very much, as the Chinese are wary of disturbing the market conditions that have been so profitable for them.

Moreover, these matters need to be considered in a larger time frame. A short history of the modern British pound will be instructive.

In 1940 an agreement with the USA pegged the pound sterling to the American dollar at a rate of £1 = $4.03. This rate was maintained through World War II and became part of the Bretton Woods system, which governed post-war exchange rates. Under continuing economic pressure, and despite months of denials that it would do so, in 1948 British government the devalued the pound by 30.5% to $2.80. The move prompted several other currencies to be devalued against the dollar. This rate, $2,80, was what we got during my Fulbright years in London in the early sixties. We were happy to get it.

In the mid-1960s, the pound came under renewed pressure since the exchange rate against the dollar was considered too high. In the summer of 1966, with the value of the pound falling in the currency markets, exchange controls were tightened by Harold Wilson’s government. Among the measures adopted, British tourists were barred from taking more than £50 out of the country, until the restriction was lifted in 1979. Eventually, the pound was devalued by 14.3% to $2.40 in November 1967.

With the breakdown of Bretton Woods--not least because mainly British currency dealers had created a substantial Eurodollar market which made the U.S. dollar's gold standard harder for its government to maintain--the pound was allowed to float in the early 1970s and so became subject to a market appreciation. The Sterling Area effectively ended at this time when the majority of its members also chose to float freely against the pound and the dollar.

A further crisis followed in 1976, when it was apparently leaked that the IMF thought that the pound should be set at $1.50, and as a result the pound fell to $1.57, and the British government decided it had to borrow £2.3 billion from the IMF. In the early 1980s the pound moved above the $2 level as interest rates rose in response to the monetarist policy of targeting money supply. A high exchange rate was widely blamed for the deep recession of 1981. In the mid-eighties the Pound fell again, before regaining the US$2 level in the early 1990s. This is where it stands today.

The long-term picture is that British pound has lost half its value relative to the dollar since 1940. Half its value. In their current prosperity, the British public does not concern itself about the matter. Nor should they.

In this country, however, the media have found that they can churn these stories of economic distress over and over again. They rarely discuss the countless items, from electronics to cutlery, that have become cheaper.

Others find the contemplation of apocalyptic change exciting. Yet the apocalypse is not in the offing.

Currency fluctuations are part of the overall pattern of Josef Schumpeter’s Creative Destruction--the Kali principle that is central to capitalism. Adjustments will occur periodically. In this context alarmist complaints about loss of value are otiose. Such things happen, and a good thing too.

PS I note a NY Times story of June 9, 2008. In the middle of a typically alarmist account of high gas prices, the following words are embedded: "Economists say that despite widespread concern about gasoline prices, the nationwide impact of the oil crisis has so far been gentler than during the oil crises of the 1970s and 1980s, when shortages caused long lines at the pump, set off inflation, and drove the economy into recession."

Moreover, "Americans on average spend about 4 percent of their after-tax income on fuels . . , That compares with 4.5 percent in early 1981, the highest point since World War II. At its lowest point, in 1998, that share dropped to 1.9 percent."