Saturday, October 27, 2007

Absolute or Relative Morality?

Religious fundamentalists (including Jews) claim moral superiority because their morality is absolute, from God, as opposed to secular and humanistic values, that shift over time. Herein lies the biggest flaw in their ideology.

Any serious student of Jewish history and halachah knows that Jewish law and morality has shifted over time. This is true for all religions. Even for the ultra-orthodox morality and law is not absolutist but evolved over time (albeit more slowly than general society), given societal pressures. Their morality is a function of the society with which they identify. Yes, it is anchored in an ancient tradition through a process, but it definitely shifts.

Think about attitudes about women, relations with non-Jews, slavery, economics, sacrifice, etc. To assert that Jewish ethics is absolute is completely ridiculous. A good book about this topic is "T'murot B'sadeh Hahalach", by Akiva Sternberg (in Hebrew).

As far as God being the source of morality, I would posit that most religious people observe their ethical norms because of the societal structure that they live in, not because of God, since clearly they have to determine what God wants of them through man's interpretation ("an eye for an eye", etc). Do not kill? It depends who is doing the killing and the being killed!!Would a Beit Din now burn a prostitute? This "intepretation" changes due to societal pressures and circumstances.

Just like American culture is a function of American history, laws, norms and societal pressure, Judaism started as the ethical and legal system of ancient Israel, and bears little resemblance to modern Judaism (even though many ultraorthodox like to believe that they are observing Judaism like they did during the Temple era).

IMHO, morality is a man-made construct to make society more livable, and is part of our emotional makeup. Religion then adds holiness to it and gives it metaphysical meaning. This perhaps strengthens it but also makes it resist the inevitable adaptation and change. Maybe for the better but who knows?

Saturday, October 13, 2007

To all readers!

Please Note: I have changed the settings to this blog to allow anonymous comments, so you don't need to log in or have an account.

I welcome all of your comments!


The teacher's strike in Israel is seriously disrupting hundreds of thousands of high school students and their families (including mine). Israel still has a very strong socialist vestige, and the labor laws and courts essentially block the possibility or breaking a strike. In the recent past, Israel has been afflicted by strikes at Ben Gurion airport, the sea ports, city services (including garbage collection), banks, universities, hospitals and postal services. There has been some form of teacher's strike almost every academic year. I would claim that at a societal level this is very dysfunctional and would qualify for a Darwin Award. Most of the strikes end with very marginal gains for the strikers, who then strike again after a short time. They are often political in nature, intended to advance the interest of a particular labor leader or organization. The electric company, which is a national monopoly and has the highest paid workers of any sector in the economy (including private), can also strike and bring the country to its knees but shutting down the power (although this hasn't happened in a long time, thankfully).

It's about time that Israel revises its labor law to ban strikes in the public sector (such a law exists in the US for federal workers) . In 2002 when Bibi Netanyahu was finance minister he initiated legislation to outlaw public worker strikes but backed down when the unions agreed to accepts wage cuts during a severe economic slowdown. These strike cause severe economic damage to Israel, not only in direct losses in productivity, but due to harm in its industry's ability to meet commitments to international partners, and thus result in lost/cancelled agreements, future deals and imposed penalties.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Peace Negotiations

One might almost begin to believe the news reports regarding negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. The fact is that these are destined to go nowhere for the forseeable future. Here's why:

1. Everybody--the Americans, the Israelis and the Palestinians--know that the bottom line positions of the two sides are mutually incompatible. Israel cannot give the Palestinians the state they seek and remain viable herself.
2. The extremists on the Palestinian side will veto any potential agreement using violence and terrorism. This can be counted on.
3. The Americans are stretched thin militarily and diplomatically and cannot do anything unilaterally. They need the support of the Europeans for dealing with Iran, Iraq, N Korea and Syria.
4. It follows from 1-3 above, that, to help get Europe on board, the best course for the Americans is to create the illusion of diplomatic activity and that they are trying to solve the Middle East's problems. Thus all of Condy's trips. the November conference, etc.
5. It follows from 4, above, that Israel must cooperate with this game, knowing full well that it will lead nowhere, and that it must tread carefully in order to avoid being pressured into making compromises that jeapordize its current or future security. Thus, the talks with Abu Mazen, who is powerless to cancel a parking ticket, and trial balloons in the press every day.
If the past is any indication, it would seem that at some point the negotiations will blow up (again) and lead to a new wave of violence.