Thursday, July 27, 2006

And now back to naarishkeit

A few quick things on the lighter side:

Yesterday's Miss Manners: important information about cleavage, ball caps, pregnancy, and a nice made-up story about a medieval abbess.

The philosophers over at Leiter Reports are gearing up for another round of discussion about why historians do better than philosophers at getting fellowships.

Some folks are confusing history and homiletics, as I point out in a fairly sharp comment at Hirhurim.

Our family entered a new era yesterday as the five-year-old daughter is now the proud owner of her first bike-- purple, with tassels hanging down from the handlebars. It's a 20" bike, which means she has to stretch those five-year-old arms to reach the handlebars, but she has long legs, so the 20" was the way to go, according to the folks at the bike shop. We decided to spend a little more and patronize one of our two local bike shops in Squirrel Hill (in the end, we went with the less expensive one) since some consumer websites convinced us that you want your kids bike assembled and adjusted by bike professionals and not someone in a big-box store. (I'm sure the websites were all shills for the all-powerful independent bike dealers industry but that's ok. We feel better.)

Finally, I just got an e-mail from the minyan coordinator at one of the two synagogues my family attends announcing that the new assistant rabbi (who I like quite a lot despite what I'm about to say) will be introducing some Shlomo Carlebach tunes at the morning service (Shaharit) this Shabbat. So I wrote back--only half-joking: "nothing says 'come late to shul' to me like 'Carlebach tunes at shaharit.' See you at musaf [the additional service, the second service of the morning]." Ha mayvin yavin.

Dilemmas of Just War in our Age

I haven't put anything on the blog yet about Lebanon, and when people have asked me what I think, I have generally demurred. The reason is that I am trying to grapple with the troubling issue: how can a state defend itself against attacks from an armed group that does not play by the rules of war? Specifically, how can a state (which has a duty to protects its citizens) respond to an enemy that--on purpose--intermingles with civilians? A reader at Talking Points Memo poses the problem and laments the lack of discussion on this issue. In yesterday's mail, I received this week's New Republic where Michael Walzer judiciously lays out the issues and some tentative conclusions. As Jonathan Chait points out in the on-line version of that journal, we may not have answers to these questions for some time. Thus, I think (contra Juan Cole)that assertions that the Israeli army has committed war crimes are pre-mature. I'm not ready to give Israel a free pass, but there is a big step from harming civilians (bad) or civilian infrastructure (bad but perhaps necessary) to war crimes (bad and criminal). On the other hand, it seems quite obivous that Hezbollah's mixing itself with a civilian population in Lebanon, using civilian residential buildings to store weapons, and indiscriminately targeting civilians in Israel are war crimes (Hezbollah does not even pretend to be going after military targets in Haifa or Nahariya.) For another judicious consideration with which I generally agree, see this discussion by Norman Geras at his Normblog.
There is also some interesting discussion in--of all places--these comments to a posting at History News Network.

I don't expect that this posting will be of any interest or use to people who:
a) believe that Israel can do no wrong and that any criticism of Israel is antisemitic or, if it comes from a Jew, treachery.
or b) believe that Israel's status as a sovereign state is illegitimate, and that Israeli civilians are fair game.
Comments that state these views or obviously proceed from these premises will be deleted.

Comments that offer serious reflection on the difficult issues involved are welcomed.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Do researchers for the Federal Reserve live on this planet?

Update: Friday's Post-Gazette had a report of another study on credit cards, one that seems more in line with real life.

According to today's Post-Gazette, the Federal Reserve has absolved credit card companies of responsibility for increasing personal bankruptcies. (See the article here.) But the report apparently contains this stunning sentence:

"Credit card issuers do not solicit customers or extend credit to them indiscriminately."

Huh? My five-year-old daughter and two-year-old son regularly receive unsolicited credit card offers. While I imagine that honest answers to the questions on the solicitations would lead to credit not being extended to them were they to reply, does anyone truly believe that credit card companies are not soliciting customers "indiscriminately"?

Friday, July 21, 2006

Conservative Judaism and Hebrew School

This week in the library, I came across the Summer/Fall 2005 issue of the periodical, Judaism, which contained a forum on "Conservative Judaism Today: Judaism and the Future of Religion in America." Other than noting the rather pompous title, I was particularly struck by the failure of any of the contributors (all youngish Conservative rabbis) to include the synagogue supplemental school in their conceptions of the future of the Conservative movement. When education came up in the contributions, day schools were praised and supplemental schools ignored, dismissed, or implicitly or explicitly denigrated. For a number of reasons, this makes me unhappy.

What is the history of statements about the history of nonsense?

Last night, I was reading Brian Leiter's introduction to his edited volume, The Future for Philosophy (Oxford, 2004). In his description of "Wittgensteinian quietism," he says that philosophers in this vein have turned to the "history of philosophy, which shows us how we came to think there were such things as philosophical problems and philosophical methods in the first place." (p.2) In the footnote to this statement, Leiter writes: "An influential, but little-published, Harvard philosopher, the late Burton Dreben, purportedly gave hyperbolic expression to this Wittgensteinian view in an oft-repeated line: 'Philosophy is garbage. But the history of garbage is scholarship.'" (n.7).

I stopped reading and wondered whether Professor Leiter had ever heard the story about Gershom Scholem lecturing in New York. The story goes that Saul Lieberman, a professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary and one of the leading Talmud scholars of the day, introduced Scholem's lecture by saying: "Nonsense is nonesense, but the history of nonsense is scholarship." I also wondered whether Burton Dreben had ever heard this story.

A quick Google search for "Dreben Scholem" led me here and an answer to my first question. One of the commentators to this post about Dreben on Leiter's blog (written after he had published this introduction) points out that Dreben had been married to the daughter of another professor at JTS, Shalom Spiegel.

This also probably answers my second question. It seems probable that Dreben heard the story and the pithy formulation from his father-in-law, admired the turn of phrase, and recycled it in relation to his own subject. It should also be noted that in his 1941 Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, Scholem thanks Shalom Spiegel, then of the Jewish Institute of Religion, "for his unfailing friendship and readiness to give of his time and help."

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Strauss's Acquittal on Appeal

See here for an interesting exchange about a letter Leo Strauss wrote in 1933 in which he seems to endorse fascism, or maybe where he (sort-of) expresses some sympathy for fascism because he thinks liberal democracy fails to live up to its human rights rhetoric, or maybe where he criticizes the Nazis for failing to live up to fascist ideals, or something, or maybe where he reveals his utterly reactionary politics.

Many of the learned commentators at that site quickly veer off topic into criticizing today's "Straussians" (which I'm all for but which seems rather pointless at this point). But if one reads carefully, there are some rewarding comments about Strauss and early 20th-century German (and German-Jewish) intellectual history.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Judezmo on the Brain?

I'm listening to the Orioles-Athletics game via the Internet and the announcer on WBAL just announced an upcoming "Latino Night" at Camden Yards. But I heard "Ladino night" at first and it took me a minute to realize that the Orioles are not in fact honoring the Judeo-Spanish vernacular of Ottoman Jewry.