Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The General, the Rabbi, and the Roman

I just came across something interesting.

In his “War of the Jews,” Josephus describes how he attempted to defend the town of Jotapata. Convinced that the town would fall to the Romans, he suggested that he should sneak out and raise an army to lift the siege, but the townspeople refused to let him go. When the town fell, Josephus was captured. When he met Vespasian, the general in command of the Romans, he predicted that Vespasian would become Emperor. When this happened two years later, Josephus was released and granted full Roman citizenship, land, and new wife.

This reminded me of something I had learned in school.

The gemara (Gittin 56a-b) tells the story of how when Yerushalayim was besieged by the Romans, R’ Yochanan ben Zakai suggested surrendering. He was overruled, and so had his students sneak him out in a coffin. Once outside the city walls he went to Vespasian’s tent, where he predicted that the general would become Emperor. When this happened, R’ Yochanan was granted favors by the new Emperor, including the right to establish a yeshiva in Yavneh and transfer the Sanhedrin there.

 The two stories are strikingly similar. It’s hard to swallow either as historically accurate, but Josephus’s story was written by the man himself, only decades after the event. The gemara was written centuries later. Which seems more likely:
  1.  Nearly identical stories happened to Josephus and to R’ Yochanan ben Zakkia – and in both cases Vespasian was surprised by the prediction, apparently having forgotten whichever came first.
  2.  Josephus attributed R’ Yochanan ben Zakkei’s story to himself.
  3. Josephus’s story, having been written down, was in circulation in the Roman world, and particularly in the Jewish Roman world. Passed around orally by the mostly illiterate public, at some point, the story was misattributed to R’ Yochanan ben Zakkai, and this version was canonized by the gemara.

I’m voting for #3.

Everyone’s A Slave…

“You’re either a slave to Hashem or you’re a slave to your taivos.” How many times have we heard that? It's one of the standard kiruv sound bites, and is a particularly grating one. It sounds profound, is meant to suggest that no one can be free, and that, as long as we’re all slaves, being a slave to God is better than being a slave to our desires. I think it’s time to put this banal assertion to rest.

Before I get to deconstructing the logic of the claim, here’s something funny. I wanted to find out where the idea comes from, so I typed “a slave to god or a slave to your desires” into Google. The first result is a passage from the New Testament, Romans 6:16-18:

Do you not know that to whom you present yourselves slaves to obey, you are that one’s slaves whom you obey, whether of sin leading to death, or of obedience leading to righteousness? But God be thanked that though you were slaves of sin, yet you obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine to which you were delivered. And having been set free from sin, you became slaves of righteousness.”

I went through a few pages of results and tried variations of the search phrase, and it really seems that this idea comes from the New Testament. How funny that Rebbonim and Roshei Yeshiva are giving mussar shmusen based on something written by the apostle Paul!

The claim itself is a false dichotomy. It suggests that there are only two choices. Either one does as Hashem commands, or one is a slave to his “taivos,”  which literally mean “desires” but in this context means “base desires:” pleasure, money, power, etc. As someone recently pointed out, even if it’s true that everyone is a slave to something, why would it have to be base desires? Someone could be a slave to his compassion, or his sense of justice, to caring for his family or to improving his community.

Hidden in the claim is another sound bite, the often-heard canard that without God, there is no morality, so of course if one doesn't enslave himself to God he will be overwhelmed by his base desires.  It’s not true that without God there’s no morality, but, more importantly, the notion that if someone isn't a slave to God he’ll be only concerned with fulfilling his base desires is demonstrably false. It’s just not true that non-religious people’s lives are non-stop orgies.

The corollary is also not true. Religious people are not free of their desires by virtue of being religious. There are religious people who are overwhelmed by their base drives. The idea is that you must be a slave to something; being a slave to your base desires is bad; so be a slave to God, which will prevent you from being enslaved by your desires. Yet one can be a slave to God AND a slave to his desires, so what is gained by being a slave to God?

In addition to being a false dichotomy, it also uses an equivocation fallacy. Being a slave to an intelligent Being and being a “slave” to your desires is not the same thing. Webster defines “slave” as:

1 : a person held in servitude as the chattel of another
2 : one that is completely subservient to a dominating influence

Neither is a  good situation to be in, but the first one is worse. Someone who is a slave to his desires may have serious problems, may even destroy his life, but he can, in theory, overcome his difficulties and regain control. Someone who is chattel is no longer someone in control of his own fate. He is property, just a thing to be used as his master sees fit.

I’m thinking about going through all the kiruv sound bites like this, and then create an index. Here's a short list:

  • You’re either a slave to Hashem or you’re a slave to your taivos.
  • Without Hashem, everything is hefker (there’s no morality without God).
  • There are no questions, only answers.
  • Our grandparents died for their beliefs.

And maybe some of the proofs?:

  • There’s an unbroken mesorah.
  • Our sifrie Torah are exactly the same as ones that are hundreds of years old / the same as what was handed to Moshe on Har Sinia,
  • The Kuzari.
  • The four-animal proof.

Any more?