Sunday, February 28, 2010

Purim and Don't Ask Don't Tell

Today is Purim, the Jewish holiday which celebrates the events recounted in the Book of Esther in which Esther and Mordechai stop Haman's plans to destroy the Jews. The story of the Book of Esther is one of hidden identity and palace intrigue.

My twin has a piece up at the Huffington Post that looks at the story of Purim in the context of the Don't Ask Don't Tell. Aaron argues that the story of Esther, in which she hides her Jewish identity from the king until she is forced to reveal it to save her people, bears a similarity to the military’s current policy regarding gays. In particular, Esther hid her ethnic/religious identity and the king did not inquire about that identity until events required Esther to disclose the truth. Aaron argues that this ancient tale reflects a basic truth about policies like Don't Ask Don't Tell: they are inherently unstable.

I am not impressed by the piece. The claim that DADT is inherently unstable is not novel: I don't think that anyone, whether they are for or against gays in the military, thought that DADT had any long-term stability. Policies in which an identity is acceptable only as long as it is not blatant are by nature unstable since such policies generally arise when certain groups are discriminated against, but the discrimination is not universally accepted and therefore must be discreet. To continue to use Jews as an example, the quotas on Jewish student admissions to Ivy League schools prior to the 1960s worked in a fashion similar to DADT. Applicants who were obviously Jewish were covered by the quotas. But little effort was made to actively determine the identity of general applicants. (This is to some extent an oversimplification. Dan Oren's excellent book "Joining the Club" discusses this in more detail). This ambivalence was in part due to the fact that Jews were accepted enough that a serious backlash was feared from excessive enforcement of the anti-Jewish quotas. Similarly, DADT in the military came as a compromise when both gay rights groups and anti-gay groups had political power. Such a compromise is inherently unstable.

Aaron also does not address the fact it is not clear from the text why Esther kept her Jewish identity secret from the king. Aaron cites the traditional commentaries which weave elaborate stories of Esther keeping the various classical prohibitions of Judaism such as kashrut and Sabbath observance. Some of the classical commentaries say that Esther kept her Jewish identity hidden because of Persian attitudes towards the Jews. Others invoke other explanations. For example, according to some commentators, Esther kept her identity hidden because of her relation to the line of Saul, the first king of Israel. If it became known that she was of royal blood, her political position would have become much more complicated. Given the ahistorical nature of the story of Esther, it seems to me that the likely reason for her keeping her Jewish identity hidden is primarily to make an interesting story.

My twin correctly notes that there are good reasons to abolish DADT and allow gays to serve openly in the military. However, those reasons exist without any analogies to Biblical texts. We can make the correct decisions without recourse to ancient texts whether we see those texts as religious or literary in nature. DADT is bad policy. We don’t need the story of Esther and Mordechai to tell us that.

17 comments:

Aaron Zelinsky said...

I think that some supporters of keeping DADT do see it as a stable equilibrium. For instance, Senator Inhofe favors keeping DADT because "it’s been working." While others argue that this is "not the right time" (e.g. Sen. McCain), there is a decent contingent which things DADT is stable.

As for Esther's motives: I think that the situation could be defined as DADT regardless of her underlying reasons for closeting herself (by the way, to the degree the text provides a motive, I think the text says it's because Mordechai told her not to reveal herself). Moreover, the two reasons for Esther's you identify are linked to her status as a Jew. Of course it "makes an interesting story", but that's like saying that Hamlet's motivation for not taking action earlier is to keep make sure the play is Five Acts.

As for whether we can "make correct decisions without recourse to ancient texts"-- of course we can. However, there are times that these texts illuminate important truths, and there's nothing wrong with looking to their lessons.

-twin

Shalmo said...

All of iranian history recorded in secular sources shows the book of Esther is bogus. There never was a queen Esther in Iran. Not to mention both christians and Jews had staunch debates on whether to even make it canon.

Its just another typical Jewish polemical story about how everyone hates us, everyone is out to get us and the only ones we can rely on is ourselves. And often the "lessons" on self worship and gentile paranoia that such stories breed see their reprecussions in wider jewish thought, as can be seen with zionism's obession with maintaining a post-Holocaust culture of fear mongering among Jewry.

So I'm not sure how a connection to gay rights can be surmounted by such a story. The thesis of the story is purely nationalistic, encouraging assimilated Jews to remain loyal to Israel, but also to propagate the theology that everytime somebody messes with the Jewish people, Yahweh gets even with them.

Speaking of which are you familiar with Daniel Choi:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dan_Choi

He came on the Rachel Maddow Show to discuss his issues with DADT:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kthMCIqc72A

He is the founder of Knights Out, a group of out of the closet gays in the military who are against the DADT policy:

http://www.knightsout.org/

Joshua said...

Aaron,

That's a good point about McCain and Inhofe although I don't think that McCain's viewpoint constitutes an endorsement of stability. No disagreement with your other points.

Shalmo,

If you are going to try to give the evidence that Esther is non-historical then it might be a good idea to actually give the strong evidence. We don't have a very record of the queens, and if Esther was a high-ranking consort we would be unlikely to have a record of her. A better point to make is that we know when Suson was the capital of the Persian empire and it wasn't under Ahasuerus regardless of which name you associate that with. There are other serius issues which don't fit. There are also other serious problems with the underlying chronology. But trying to use the fact that we don't have a record of Esther herself is simply not that useful.

As to your later remarks, but I'll simply note that for a large fraction of history, people have persecuted the Jews. Jews have had to deal with people who want to kill them, and yet the Jews are still here and their historical enemies are not.

Aaron Zelinsky said...

Josh: Sorry to be unclear- I meant McCain is more of the "this is unstable but okay for now" while Inhofe is "this is stable."

Shalmo: The historical legitimacy of Esther is irrelevant (in fact, I call it a "traditional story" rather than historical fact). The point is the message of the story, regardless of whether it actually happened.

As for "polemical"-- I strongly disagree. There are enemies (Haman), heroes (Esther, Mordechai), but there are also helpful people who are not Jewish (for example, Charbona, who is not identified as a Jew, but who helps by pointing out Haman's gallows).

John said...

Aaron:

Inhofe says he supports DADT because he doesn't want to bother with the political mess that would be advocating a witch hunt and throwing all the suspected gays out of the military. I think he believes it to be the most politically expedient way to keep gays as second class citizens. If he thought he could push through legislation to supersede DADT requiring 'gay tests' or something at enlistment he would.

Shalmo said...

Joshua if you already acknowledge the story of Esther is bogus, why ask for evidence?

go here:

http://www.islamic-awareness.org/Quran/Contrad/External/haman.html

look under the title "THE HISTORICITY OF THE BOOK OF ESTHER AND ITS CHARACTERS"

and below that in the "THE CANONICITY OF THE BOOK OF ESTHER" section.

their points as summarized:

* The story of Esther is regarded as fictitious and should be rejected as a historical record. It contradicts well established known secular history.
* The book of Esther has a history of doubtful canonicity. It is a classic case of one man's "apocrypha" is another man's "inspired" scripture.
* The story appears to have been borrowed from a Persian novella, and its contents reflect the customs associated with the Persians. These Persian customs later became "Judaised". The book has a secular character with strong nationalistic overtones.

Joshua said...

Shalmo,

I didn't ask you for additional evidence that the Esther story is ahistorical. I said that if you are going to try to present any of the evidence, then it it would make sense to present actual evidence rather than unhelpful claims like that you gave.

Incidentally, you don't seem to have done a better job with your followup. You've pointed to an Islamic apologetic website rather than anything resembling a scholarly source. And at least one of the arguments you list (canonicity) is utterly orthogonal to historicity. Honestly, if I were frum and read what you've wrote in this thread I'd probably come away more believing in historicity of Esther simply in reaction. You need to learn that "claim Y might support X and I agree with X" does not mean "claim Y is good evidence of X".

Shalmo said...

Joshua I don't wish to go off topic, since the discussion is indeed about gays in the military but I should respond to this:

"As to your later remarks, but I'll simply note that for a large fraction of history, people have persecuted the Jews. Jews have had to deal with people who want to kill them, and yet the Jews are still here and their historical enemies are not."

This sounds awefully similar to jacob stein's number 1 proof text for judaism. everyone tried to kill us but we outlived them all. I was actually planning on writing a large essay refuting this and emailing it to Stein.

Look, nobody is denying Jews have been unjustly persecuted. Indeed the Holocaust, the russian pograms, and the crusades are the worst examples of this.....however you and I both know the abhorent attitude towards gentiles Judaism prescribes. We all have heard the pathetic apologetics that chosen people is a duty of greater responsibility, however those of us who have above average knowledge in the deeper recesses of jewish thought know that is just not the case. Saving the life of a gentile unless it benefits the image of Jewry is forbidden, giving gifts to gentiles is forbidden, it is impossible for a gentile to even be altruistic (read the first chapter of the Tanya, same goes in various chasid texts), heck even the neshama of the Jew is instrisicably different from the non-jew. Worse things have been said. How much do you think such teachings impact how a nation is treats the jewish people?

As for the Jews still being here and their historical enemies not, this is just fraudulent.

the original canaanite yahwistic sacrificial cult has absolutely no resemblance to modern judaism.

for that matter, neither does modern judaism even remotely resemble what the Torah based temple religion used to be.

the religion of the torah and the religion of the Talmud are two very significantly distinct religions, despite the latter basing authority on the former.

rabbinical judaism itself took centuries to develop from the pharisees and settled in its final form 200 to 300 years post Islam.

but to get more technical, what judaism is today is actually better described as Maimonidian Judaism, which is also significantly different than anything that existed before it. Maimonides did a lot of plagarizing from the likes of Ibn Rushd, hence where he developed the abstract god to replace the Zeus/Odin type Yahweh of the bible, he also took various muslim concepts on the afterlife apparently, and a whole lot more that I could write essays on. What is Maimonidian Judaism other than watered down classical Islam.

So have Jews outlived everyone who persecuted them?

Imagine if all christian sects were wiped out tomorrow and only mormonism remained, and then a mormon told his opponents; "my religion has outlasted its enemies for 2000 years". You would obviously counter that mormon by saying his religion is nothing like what predated it......Similarly claiming that Jews have outlasted all their enemies is just as nonsensical, because maimonidian judaism is very very very distinct from the temple based religion in the Tanakh.

And who said their enemies are no longer here?

The egyptians are still here. The babylonians have survived and compromise Iraq today. The Canaanites are descended in the Palestinians. The Greeks still exist. The Romans still exist. The Iranians still exist.

And what's rather hilarious (especially when the likes of Stein keep using this "proof text") is that all those civilizations whom you claim no longer exist frankly do not have the negative birth rates and high intermarriage rates that are finishing off Jewry today. Given the current rates all the historical enemies of Jewry aparrently are going to outlive them :)

Shalmo said...

Joshua I don't wish to go off topic, since the discussion is indeed about gays in the military but I should respond to this:

"As to your later remarks, but I'll simply note that for a large fraction of history, people have persecuted the Jews. Jews have had to deal with people who want to kill them, and yet the Jews are still here and their historical enemies are not."

This sounds awefully similar to jacob stein's number 1 proof text for judaism. everyone tried to kill us but we outlived them all. I was actually planning on writing a large essay refuting this and emailing it to Stein.

Look, nobody is denying Jews have been unjustly persecuted. Indeed the Holocaust, the russian pograms, and the crusades are the worst examples of this.....however you and I both know the abhorent attitude towards gentiles Judaism prescribes. We all have heard the pathetic apologetics that chosen people is a duty of greater responsibility, however those of us who have above average knowledge in the deeper recesses of jewish thought know that is just not the case. Saving the life of a gentile unless it benefits the image of Jewry is forbidden, giving gifts to gentiles is forbidden, it is impossible for a gentile to even be altruistic (read the first chapter of the Tanya, same goes in various chasid texts), heck even the neshama of the Jew is instrisicably different from the non-jew. Worse things have been said. How much do you think such teachings impact how a nation is treats the jewish people?

As for the Jews still being here and their historical enemies not, this is just fraudulent.

the original canaanite yahwistic sacrificial cult has absolutely no resemblance to modern judaism.

for that matter, neither does modern judaism even remotely resemble what the Torah based temple religion used to be.

the religion of the torah and the religion of the Talmud are two very significantly distinct religions, despite the latter basing authority on the former.

rabbinical judaism itself took centuries to develop from the pharisees and settled in its final form 200 to 300 years post Islam.

but to get more technical, what judaism is today is actually better described as Maimonidian Judaism, which is also significantly different than anything that existed before it. Maimonides did a lot of plagarizing from the likes of Ibn Rushd, hence where he developed the abstract god to replace the Zeus/Odin type Yahweh of the bible, he also took various muslim concepts on the afterlife apparently, and a whole lot more that I could write essays on. What is Maimonidian Judaism other than watered down classical Islam.

So have Jews outlived everyone who persecuted them?

Imagine if all christian sects were wiped out tomorrow and only mormonism remained, and then a mormon told his opponents; "my religion has outlasted its enemies for 2000 years". You would obviously counter that mormon by saying his religion is nothing like what predated it......Similarly claiming that Jews have outlasted all their enemies is just as nonsensical, because maimonidian judaism is very very very distinct from the temple based religion in the Tanakh.

And who said their enemies are no longer here?

The egyptians are still here. The babylonians have survived and compromise Iraq today. The Canaanites are descended in the Palestinians. The Greeks still exist. The Romans still exist. The Iranians still exist.

And what's rather hilarious (especially when the likes of Stein keep using this "proof text") is that all those civilizations whom you claim no longer exist frankly do not have the negative birth rates and high intermarriage rates that are finishing off Jewry today. Given the current rates all the historical enemies of Jewry aparrently are going to outlive them :)

Shalmo said...

sorry my last post seems have been posted twice for some reason, feel free to delete it

and could you please actually read the sections I highlighted in the website.

the citations they provide from the Jewish Encyclopedia and other Jewish sources, are proof enough.

or perhaps you would prefer I just copy and paste the rather large chunks of secular citations they provide. That probably would have been more convincing!

Joshua said...

Shalmo,

The statement regarding the fact that Jews are around despite historical persecution isn't at all similar to Jacob Stein's nonsense. Note that there's no claim being made by me of the form "therefore Judaism is correct." With good reason, because that would be, you know, stupid.

I'm also not asserting that Jews haven't overtime developed some very nasty beliefs and attitudes about non-Jews. And yes, the Tanya is an excellent example of that. How that claim has much of anything to do with the story of Esther isn't clear to me. As Aaron pointed out above, the story of Purim isn't even a "Jews v. Gentiles" story but rather has people like Charbona. If the claim you are making is simply that it reflects a belief that persecutors would be punished, then I fail to see the relevance of the story to complaints about later texts and attitudes taking an anti-gentile stance.

I'm not going to spent the time arguing with you over the Maimonides claim. You've made it before. It was boringly wrong earlier and it is boringly wrong still. The monotheistic nature of the Jewish god was well-established well before Maimonides and although Maimonides was a) influenced by Muslim scholars of the time and b) did influence Judaism as a whole, the claim that this was anywhere near the sort of influence you think it is is simply wrong. And I'm not discussing it with you since it is clear that you believe the claim out of simple ideology.

In any event, your general comparison to largescale ethnic groups is simply missing the point. Yes, Judaism does not resemble Judaism of the first Temple period. Indeed, it under went a lot of change and is still undergoing change. However, you are making comparisons using manifestly the wrong categories. Yes, descendants of Romans exist. But the Roman empire is gone. Yes, descendants of the Seluicids exist but, the empire is gone. Etc. etc. In most of these cases the religion, culture and ideology are gone or completely transformed.

I'm not going to address issues about negative birth rate because the claim made was a statement of historical fact having nothing to do with the present. (I suppose I should note that if I have a function with negative derivative f at time t, it says very little about the derivative or value of the function at any time prior to t).

I don't know why you are asking me to read your cited apologetics. The sourcing has little relevance, since as I explained, the arguments are irrelevant. Their truth value isn't what matters since they don't address the historicity. (Incidentally the JE is public domain and can easily be found online. So instead of citing nth hand sources you could if you think a section is relevant, cite it directly with minimal effort).

cipher said...

Shalmo, I wish people wouldn't engage Stein; he craves attention, and it only encourages him. He's dangerously deranged; I have first-hand knowledge of one incident in which he stalked a young woman on whose blog he left a series of unwelcome comments, to the point of calling her at home. Her parents had to get the police involved. (Her father also contacted Stein's rabbi, but, typically, the rabbi promised to act then apparently did nothing.)

Frankly I wish the entire J-blogosphere would close ranks against him; I'll no longer participate on blogs that tolerate his presence.

Khagan Din said...

Josh, could I get a link to your earlier argument with Shlomo about the extent of Maimonidean/Islamic influence on Jewish civilization? Might be a useful primer for me; I don't know much about that and it seems important.

Shalmo said...

Joshua:

don't refute straw-mans.

I never said Judaism got monotheism from Ibn Rushd. My argument was Jewish monotheism was heavily influenced by the muslim scholars the Rambam took from. There is a difference between the two.

In particular was the issue of Yahweh being anthropormorphic vs abstract which is what Judaism today holds. But also was the tawheed influence (absolute monotheism) which conflicts with a certain view that there are two Yahwehs in the Tanakh. Christians intrepret this to imply the older Yahweh is the Father, and the younger Yahweh is Jesus. Though modern rabbinical judaism claims the two are just younger/older versions of the same one God.

Stanford has good sources on the Ramabam and Islam:

http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/maimonides-islamic/

Thus your claim that I adhere to this from some ideological perspective is fallacious and ad hominem. You simply have not done the reading to know any better.

Finally the Esther issue, originally was about you asking me to provide citations for why its ahisotircal. I linked to a website that does just that, you obsessed over the ideology of the site, rather than taking the citation from JEWISH sources on it for what they are.

Cipher:

I am aware of Stein and his fight with Tova. I agree he went overboard, but Tova is no saint either. But that's off topic!

Shalmo said...

Cipher:

JP simply wanted to talk to Tova's mother because both Tova and her father are OTDs. I don't believe him simply wishing to talk to her (considering Tova's family called JP's house as well) implies any form of sexual harassment and I don't believe the cops should have been involved. JP is a nut, but Tova is not innocent in the whole fiasco.

JP (assuming you believe him) also said that Tova goes around wearing a t-shirt in her university which says in arabic, she hates arabs. I am not arab btw, but clearly she is trying to undermine the anti-Israel crowd doing that. And if the above is true, then I don't think I can very sympathetic to her in her problems with Stein.

cipher said...

JP (assuming you believe him) also said that Tova goes around wearing a t-shirt in her university which says in arabic, she hates arabs. I am not arab btw, but clearly she is trying to undermine the anti-Israel crowd doing that. And if the above is true, then I don't think I can very sympathetic to her in her problems with Stein.

You cannot possibly believe that. I'm willing to bet hard cash it's a piece of narrishkeit that exists only in Stein's warped imagination.

Also - I don't know at which point you became aware of this, but Stein was leaving pornographic statements on her blog. That isn't an exaggeration; he was saying things to her that I won't repeat on the blog of someone I don't know. She's since removed them, but I did actually see them; this isn't second-hand knowledge. And this is by no means the first time he's pulled this sort of thing.

Even if this weren't the case, I can't understand why you think it's acceptable for him to have called her at home for any reason. It's completely inappropriate. (And, for the record, I don't think her father is OTD; I don't really even think Tova is as OTD as frum people generally mean when they employ the term).

I agree that it's off-topic, and I won't pursue it, but you're taking this way too lightly. Stein isn't simply misguided; he's seriously deranged, and to disregard that does a disservice to the entire Jewish blogging community.

Really, Shalmo, if you think you can reason with JP - I just throw up my hands, I really do. I can't see how anyone who has had any dealings with him could come away with that understanding.

Joshua said...

Khagan,

Shalmo and I discussed that among other things in

this comment thread:

http://religionsetspolitics.blogspot.com/2009/08/skepticism-is-not-excuse-for-sloppiness.html

I think we discussed it elsewhere on another blog also but I can't seem to find it (Shalmo do you remember where that conversation occurred?)

Shalmo,

I'm not refuting a strawman.

You wrote:

but to get more technical, what judaism is today is actually better described as Maimonidian Judaism, which is also significantly different than anything that existed before it. Maimonides did a lot of plagarizing from the likes of Ibn Rushd, hence where he developed the abstract god to replace the Zeus/Odin type Yahweh of the bible, he also took various muslim concepts on the afterlife apparently, and a whole lot more that I could write essays on. What is Maimonidian Judaism other than watered down classical Islam.


And the last time we discussed this (in the thread linked to above) you wrote:

and the influece didn't stop there. The Rambam (Maimonides) clearly felt the tribal anthropormorphic Zeus/Odin type god of the midrash and Torah was kefirah. Hence due to teachers such as Ibn Rushd, he replaced the Jewish god with the God of Muhammed; an abstract, without parts, without partners, universal reality. He also plagarized countless sufi concepts to give the legalistic religion of Judaism a much needed spirituality.

I may have spoken imprecisely when I said "monotheistic nature" and it might be better to say "monotheistic, non-anthropomorphic nature of God." The two paragraphs above are simply wrong, and we've been over before why they are wrong, and I'm not inclined to continue arguing about them. The essay you link to is an excellent one summarizing the Islamic influence on Maimonides but it simply doesn't support the extreme claims you've made. Also not that it isn't an ad hominem attack to explain why I'm not inclined (I didn't say you are being an ideologue therefore your argument is wrong. That would be a fallacious ad hominem. I said that I didn't want to argue with you because it seems clear to me that the reason you think this is out of ideology. If you want, when I have both a lot of time and patient (i.e. not right now) we can discuss this in much more detail. But I'm not inclined to do so right now).

Regarding your citations, I didn't ask for citations, I said "If you are going to try to give the evidence that Esther is non-historical then it might be a good idea to actually give the strong evidence." Where you get from that that I'm asking you in this particular case to provide such isn't completely clear, although I see how one might misinterpret it as a request. And yes, giving tertiary sources when you can give better ones directly is poor practice (especially when you know that the tertiary source might have reason to take something out of context. They haven't in this case but the only reason I know that is that I went back to the original JE sources and checked). Moreover, giving weak or irrelevant points such as the dispute over Esther's canonical status, are not helpful. To be very clear on this: The historical validity of a work has close to nothing to do with whether or not a given religion accepted that work as canon and a fortiori has very little to do with how they decided to accept it as canon. You really do need to get a better grasp on what constitutes strong evidence for a claim.

Regarding Jacob Stein,

The man clearly has serious issues. However Shalmo I'm a bit appalled by your attempt to defend Stein's actions in regard to Tova. Having read some of the comments before they were removed, they were utterly appalling. And the comments that were left were still appalling. And yes, when a 50 year old man who has left sexually suggestive remarks and has shown signs of mental instability calls your house, you damn well get the cops involved.