Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Women's Suffrage Destroys Domestic Tranquility and Leads to a Deterioration of the Nation

Happy 80th Birthday Women's Suffrage!

On August 18, 1920, women were granted the right to vote in the USA when the 19th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified.

This was a time of great political upheaval, and the idea of women's suffrage was being discussed and soon being granted among most European countries. However, "no country in the Mediterranean Basin (Spain, France, Italy, Albania, Yugoslavia, Turkey, and Greece), Asia (except Russia), Africa or the Middle East recognized women’s suffrage."

The issue began being discussed in Palestine after the 1917 Balfour Declaration. Many turned to Rav Abraham Ha-Kohen Kook — the Chief Ashkenazic Rabbi of Jerusalem — for his decision. "To the shock of many", he announced his unequivocal opposition to women's suffrage. And this opposition was - he claimed - "the unanimous voice of all Jewish culture and halakhah." To Kook, the idea of suffrage was not only a betrayal of Jewish ideals, but also represented a trend towards accepting European culture which he claimed was defunct in both morality and purity of virtue. Kook supported a boycott by religious Jews in the 1920 elections unless women were barred from the electoral process.

Rav BenZion Meir Uziel - the Chief Sephardic Rabbi of Jaffa - composed a responsum in 1920, strongly supported for women’s suffrage for religious, moral and political grounds. "Out of respect for Rav Kook, he never identified his intellectual adversary, but it is clear that much of his teshuvah is a point-by-point rebuttal of arguments Rav Kook had raised in the two letters."

R. Kook's first letter can be summed up with this quote:
Regarding the law, I have nothing to add to the words of the rabbis who came before me. In the Torah, in the Prophets, and in the Writings, in the halakhah and in the aggadah, we hear a single voice: that the duty of fixed public service falls upon men, for “It is a man’s manner to dominate and not a woman’s manner to dominate” (Yevamot 65b), and that roles of office, of judgment, and of testimony are not for her, for “all her honor is within” (Ps. 45:14).
His second letter is even more of a blockbuster and I really have to excerpt a lengthy section of it.
We believe our outlook on the life of society is more delicate and pure than that of the other civilized nations in general. Our family is sacred to us in a much deeper way than it is to all the modern world, and this is the basis of the happiness and dignity of the Woman of Israel. In other nations, the family is not the foundation of the nation, nor is it as stable and deep as it is amidst us. For this reason, they are not so taken aback by the cracks in family life, and the consequences of those breaks will not cause such harm to their national life. The psychological basis for calling for public participation in elections by the name of “women’s rights” arises fundamentally from the unhappy position of the mass of women amidst these nations. If their family situation had been as peaceful and dignified as it is generally in Israel, the women themselves, as well as men of science, morality and high ideals, would not demand what they call “rights” of suffrage for women, in the common fashion, a step that might spoil domestic tranquility (shalom bayit) and ultimately lead to a great deterioration of political and national life in general.

But out of their desperation and bitterness, the result of male coarseness that spoils family life, the women of other nations thought to receive, through some public empowerment, help in ameliorating their wretched situation at home, without regard to the further breaches made thereby, since those breaches are so numerous. We have not descended, and shall not descend, to such a state, and will not want to see our sisters in such a low state. The home for us remains a dwelling place of holiness, and we dare not obliterate the splendor of our sisters’ lives, and embitter them through exposure to the din of opinions and disputation that are characteristic of electoral matters and political questions.

The Israelite woman bases her rights on the refined content of her unique spiritual value, not on measured and limited laws, formed in a mechanical cast, which are for her iron horns, which do not suit at all her psychic refinement and which she is generally, according to her natural character, not strong enough to utilize. They lack the power to repair and are more able to spoil the fundamentals of spiritual relations. These laws govern every arena of life.

The family is for us the foundation of the nation. The house of Jacob (beit Ya`aqov—an allusion to women—ed.) will build the people of Israel. We prepare the building of the nation in a manner consistent with the nature of our psyche. We are always prepared to declare the moral obligation of listening to women’s opinions throughout the house of Israel, including those with reference to general social and political questions. But the accepted opinion must come specifically from the home, from the family in its wholeness; and the one whose duty it is to bring it into the public domain is the man, the father of the family, on whom is placed the obligation of making known the family opinion.

When we demand of the woman that she go out into the political public domain, and become entangled in expressing her opinion on electoral and political questions in general, then one of two things will result: either she will learn through this flattery to flatter the man and to cast her vote according to his, not according to her conscience, thereby spoiling her morality and inner freedom; or raging differences of opinion will destroy domestic tranquility (shalom bayit), and the rifts in the family will fracture the nation. At the same time, we lower our collective dignity in the eyes of the nations by showing the world that we have no original political system stemming from the content of our own spirit, which is revealed through our teachings and holy traditions. These are for us not only symbolic matters, but embody real life values. Instead, we act, at the beginning of our first step toward political life, as lesser disciples of contemporary civilized people who themselves still stand very confused concerning their difficult life issues, especially with regard to their spiritual and moral values in general and with respect to this difficult problem of home and state in particular.
The complete content of R. Kook’s two letters and R. Uziel’s formal responsum are presented here, from which all quotes in this post were taken.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Is it rational to be an atheist?

So asks Gideon Slifkin. In doing so, he attempts to make an equivalence between string theory and the existence of God:
"The universe we live in is one great mystery. Until that mystery is solved, theorizing God, Strings or refusing to Theorize at all is all about the same. Either way, you are stuck in an absurd mystery, and there's not a lot you can do about it. Except Theorize. Or not. "
One hundred years ago, one might have made a similar statement regarding relativity. But the effects of relativity were soon experimentally verified. Indeed, before Arthur Eddington tested Einstein's theory of general relativity via the bending of star light during a solar eclipse, the latter was asked what he would think if Eddington's measurements failed to support his theory, Einstein replied "Then I would have felt sorry for the dear Lord. The theory is correct."

During subsequent decades one might have made a similar statement regarding quantum mechanics. Yet we can observe many quantum phenomena, such as quantum strangeness (Feynman included the double slit experiment as one example), entanglement (action at a distance), etc.

Relativity and quantum mechanics are still mysterious and non-intuitive, and perhaps will always be. Yet we take for granted practical applications that utilize both of these ideas, such as GPS units and devices that rely on electron tunneling (VLSI chips, microscopes, etc.)

Using string theory is a red herring, since it is a theory in its infancy, is currently untestable, and may in fact have no predictive value!

Gideon's error is that God is simply not a scientific postulate. It is not predictive, nor is it falsifiable. Even the argument "Does God exist?" is framed as an evidence-based argument, for when we use the term "exist" we generally mean something along the lines of "is it testable via scientific means". God is a faith-based idea, and thus a pure materialist has no basis for believing in God.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Brain of Fundamentalists, The Brain of Skeptics

The Pew Forum's biannual conference on religion had a fascinating conference a couple of years back on neuroscience and belief. One intriguing point made by Andrew Newberg:
...There have been some studies that have looked at political perspectives, trying to understand what happens in the brain of people who are Republicans and the brains of people who are Democrats. We talked about some of this, and I'd just highlight a couple of interesting studies. One was an fMRI study, which is a magnetic resonance imaging that looks at blood flow and activity in the brain, and it showed that people who scored higher on liberalism tended to be associated with stronger what they called conflict-related anterior cingulate activity. Now, what that means is, you have a part of your brain called the anterior cingulate, which helps you mediate when things are in conflict with the way you already believe.

The researchers then interpreted this, and we can go into all the questions about how should we interpret these studies. People who had greater liberalism seemed to do better or were more sensitive to altering some habitual response pattern, implying that they were more open to change, more open to other ideas, more open to conflict, than people who scored lower on liberalism. Does that mean something about people who consider themselves to be liberals versus conservatives, Republicans versus Democrats?

Of course all people, regardless of what their particular perspectives are, when they're viewing their own candidate, that has a different effect in their brain than when they are viewing a candidate from the opposite party. When you're looking at somebody from the opposite party, or thinking about them, it tends to activate the amygdala, the limbic areas, again, that tend to trigger more of an emotional response, whereas when you're looking at people who are concordant with your views and beliefs, that tends to activate some of the areas of the frontal lobe and also that anterior cingulate that helps you mediate your conflict-resolution powers.
Can one extrapolate from this study to make implications regarding the brains of skeptics versus the brains of religious fundamentalists?

I think it is a fair assumption to suggest that there is a much higher rate of skepticism in the scientific community versus the religious community (bear with me, I realize that this is an oversimplified dichotomy.) Yes, there are exceptions on both sides: folks who reluctantly leave a secular lifestyle for a religious one based on what they believe to be legitimate arguments ("proofs"), as well as "fundamentalist skeptics" (including some fundamentalist atheists) who refuse to consider arguments against their beliefs.

But the advancement of science requires intellectual conflict and challenge; those who resist such conflict are at best relegated to a footnote in science history books. The same can not be said for religious orthodoxy (by definition); in this world, the great leaders always operate within a very constrained a priori belief system. For example, in Judaism it is verboten to challenge the notion of a God given Torah (TMS). Otherwise one is marginalized and branded a heretic.

Interestingly, many OTD ("off the derech", although I prefer OAD - "on another derech") people may have more in common with baalei teshuvah than they would like to admit - both have altered some habitual response pattern possibly because of stronger conflict-related anterior cingulate activity!

Supporting evidence for my hypothesis is the well-known correlation of conservative politics with the more fundamentalist factions of both Christianity and Judaism.