Posts Tagged 'atheism'

The Evolution of Atheism

At a certain point in his book “The Great Cat Massacre,” American historian Robert Darnton surveys the diary of the policeman-investigator Joseph d’Hémery, who surveilled intellectuals in mid-18th century Paris in search of atheists. “D’Hémery did not separate impiety from politics. Although he had no interest in theological arguments, he believed that atheism undercut the authority of the crown.”

D’Hémery’s problem with atheism was not that it contradicted the tenets of his own belief. He found atheism dangerous because it undermined the foundations of society. Those who denied the authority of the heavenly king could just as easily deny the authority of the earthly king. Police officers, who were responsible for preserving public order, considered it their duty to root out atheism, and atheists – or at least those who were brave or foolish enough to declare themselves as such – were imprisoned, tortured and executed.

Maximilien RobespierreIt wasn’t just a problem of over-policing. In 1793, while crushing the world order and shaping a new society on the battlefield of the French Revolution, the leader of the revolutionaries, Robespierre, declared that atheism was dangerous and “aristocratic” (the ultimate insult from his viewpoint). The constitution of the American state of Tennessee, which was signed around the same time, recognized freedom of conscience but nevertheless forbade appointment to public office of any “person who denies the being of God, or a future state of rewards and punishments.” The framers of the document were willing to accept any belief, but not the absence of any belief. Even Abraham Lincoln could declare that were it not for the Bible and the New Testament, “we could not know right from wrong.” Without belief, chaos reigns.

It is difficult for us today to grasp not only how rare denial of God’s existence was, but how frightening it was for our forebears several centuries ago. Atheists to them were what pedophiles are for us: not only repulsive individuals, but in a fundamental way completely unfathomable. How could anyone deny God’s existence? How could anyone reject what was self-evident, what was necessary for life as we know it to be possible? Could an upright, worthy life be lived without God? Atheists threatened not only belief but the entire framework of society. The horror they aroused did not stem from fear for the future of religion, it welled up from anxiety about the moral virtues, about the social fabric itself.

For countless generations, atheism terrified Europeans. How, then, did we arrive at a situation in which atheism is perceived as a legitimate stance, one that according to many constitutes the only realistic, rational and respectable point of view?

In attempting to explain the acceptance of atheism it would be easy to whip out the familiar argument about the scientific revolution and its revelations. It would be simple to explain that after it became known that the Earth revolves around the sun and is not itself at the center of the universe; after it was established that the world is billions of years old and not 5,000; after we discovered that the Torah is comprised of various documents and was not written by Moses; and after we understood that humankind came into being in an evolutionary process and not “on the first Friday” – that after all this, a trans-European process of “disenchantment” occurred, at the end of which was abandoned and non-belief was adopted.

According to this explanation, the Age of Enlightenment effectively marks the the completion of humanity’s maturation, its liberation from the shackles of mythology and fairy tales, and its emergence into rationality. Immanuel Kant, in his essay “What Is Enlightenment?,” from 1784, called on humanity to “Dare to know!” – and, seemingly, humanity responded to the challenge and truly dared to know. People acquired knowledge, and that in turn enabled them to cast off the “yoke of immaturity” (in Kant’s words) that they had brought upon themselves, and thus transformed themselves into secular folk. The most knowledgeable among them became atheists, of course.

This story, which is no more than the genealogical myth of the Enlightenment (“We were slaves until science released us into freedom with strong rationality and outstretched empiricism”), cannot explain completely the secularization process, nor why the concept of the necessity of God for a life of reason and morality is fading. In fact, the notion that knowledge cancels out belief is superficial even according to its advocates’ points of departure – for those who propose it will be the first to admit that human beings are capable of believing any nonsense, irrespective of what they know or don’t know. If new pieces of information were sufficient to unravel our long-held beliefs, we would switch worldviews in rapid succession.

Nor will it help if we assume that only authoritative and definitive knowledge will alter our views about the world, for knowledge of that sort has been available to humanity since ancient times. The Aristotelian, kabbalist or Buddhist worldviews presented “authorized” knowledge about the world and all that is in it, but it goes without saying that not every person who encountered those approaches has been persuaded and adopted them. Something more is needed to alter our fixed assumptions about reality; a good reason is needed for us to part with old premises and adopt new ones, and that reason cannot emanate from the new premises themselves.

Submission to Tradition

Matthew TindalThe foundations of the Enlightenment lie in the denial of the authority of tradition and the empowerment of humanity to the point of its becoming the supreme authority in every matter. Even before people turned to other structures of meaning, the self-evident awe of the Church – the inherent submission of Westerners to tradition – had been called into question. At the end of the fourth century, Augustine, one of the Church fathers, asserted that he “would not believe in the Gospel myself if it were not for the authority of the Catholic Church.” And at the beginning of the 18th century, the deist Matthew Tindal stated that “Reason was given to bring them [i.e. humanity] to the knowledge of God’s will” – and that nothing more is needed.

These two important thinkers believed that God’s existence was clear and self-evident, and neither dreamed of becoming an atheist. However, each of them shaped their religious world on the basis of loyalty to a different source of authority. For Augustine, the tradition does not only imbue faith with form and content, but it also validates it. For Tindal, not only are the interpreters of the tradition irrelevant, the tradition itself is of no relevance. God’s will is determined only according to reason, which is viewed as innate and universal.

VoltaireThe preference for reason antedates the loss of faith. Deism – a framework that grounded religion in reason and swept through the educated elite of Europe and North America in the 18th century – severed itself from the tradition and authority of the Church but not from belief in God. “O mighty God, I believe!” Voltaire, the champion of the French Enlightenment cried out – but added, “As to Monsieur the Son and Madame his mother, that is another matter!”

When reason becomes a source of authority, tradition can be called into question, and after reason is adopted as a source of authority, God’s existence can also be called into question. However, it’s important to understand: This additional stage is not a “natural” progression, another step on the path along which all those loyal to reason will tread. After all, for deists like Tindal and Voltaire, reason actually pointed to God’s existence in no uncertain terms. “It is perfectly evident to my mind that there exists a necessary, eternal, supreme and intelligent being. This is no matter of faith, but of reason,” Voltaire wrote. Simple, isn’t it?

To shift from certainty of God’s existence to denial that God exists we need another step, in which reason is directed against God. The question is, what impels reason to deny that God exists. The answer to that question is found not in the factual realm but the normative one.

Reason is God’s Image

The transition from traditional Christianity to deism stemmed from a moral reading: For the deists, rejection of the belief in miracles or in divine revelation was a matter of preserving human dignity. Let us return to Matthew Tindal (1657-1733). An English deist, Tindal was one of the most influential thinkers of the 18th century. In his 1730 book “Christianity as Old as the Creation,” which was accorded the status of a deist holy scripture, he dwells on the universal principles of religion and explains how “true” Christianity is perfectly rational.

For Tindal, human reason “for kind, though not for degree, is of the same nature with that of God’s; nay, it is our Reason which makes us the image of God himself.” Human beings are rational because they were created in the image of God. Otherwise, how could they even think? However, precisely because of this, the debasement of reason is an affront to human dignity: “Without this precedent Enquiry, our Belief… were to overthrow all the Laws of Nature, to Debase the Dignity of Mankind, and to efface the Image of God implanted in us.”

According to Tindal, to cling to reason is to cling to the image of God, and to stray from it is to debase it. It follows that to reject superstition (miracles, the virgin birth, and so on) is to preserve God’s image and therefore also to worship God. Thus, if in the past faithfulness to the image of God inculcated in humanity was achieved by refraining from sin and by obeying God, for Tindal faithfulness to God’s image is achieved by rejecting superstition, which from his perspective include what in the past were considered holy tenets of belief.

Tindal’s book generated a broad controversy in Europe, and more than a hundred essays were written in an attempt to refute his arguments. Of course the Church, which itself was viewed by Tindal as a debasement of rational faith, attacked him. However, notwithstanding his struggle against the Christian tradition, Tindal never for a moment denied that God existed. On the contrary, he thought that without God we would not be rational beings.

Deists as Cowards

Paul-Henri Thiry, Baron d'HolbachJust as Tindal sought to preserve human dignity, the first European thinkers who explicitly advocated atheism thought that belief should be rejected not because it was wrong but because it was an infringement of human dignity. A case in point is Paul-Henri Thiry d’Holbach, a leading figure of the French Enlightenment. He devoted his life to a struggle against religious belief and to the dissemination of atheistic thought. He financed the translation of essays, wrote more than 50 books, supported artists and young thinkers and established in his home a debating club for the Parisian intellectual elite, which became one of the important social institutions of the French Enlightenment.

D’Holbach was contemptuous of the deists and considered them cowards. From his point of view, they had gone only halfway and had not taken the use of reason as a criterion for examining religion to its logical conclusions. Although they sanctified reason, they did not cast off the final superstition – the source of all superstitions: the belief in the existence of God.

In the last lines of his most important book, “The System of Nature,” D’Holbach urges us to “inspire the intelligent being with courage; infuse energy into his system, that, at length, he may feel his own dignity.” D’Holbach wishes to augment reason and protect its dignity by rejecting all that is in opposition to it. As such, he seeks to preserve our dignity as human beings. Atheism, he maintains, is based on nature and on reason, no less and no more. It’s logical. We need only look at the facts unflinchingly. Regrettably, he notes, this minor condition is sufficient to prevent most people from becoming atheists, as they lack the courage to face the facts.

Unlike Tindal, for D’Holbach human dignity arrives not from protecting God’s image within, but from rejecting the very idea of the image of God and of God himself. Human dignity derives from sheer adherence to reason, from the decision not to surrender to comforting illusions and from mustering the courage necessary to those ends. A person’s reason shows them the truth and they are faithful to it and are not tempted by consoling beliefs. Sheer insistence on the truth imbues one with dignity.

God as a Threat

What leads to D’Holbach’s additional step beyond the deist position? It would be very easy to accept his account: The deists, all their education notwithstanding, lack sufficient courage, whereas he and atheists like him are not afraid to cope with either society’s vilifications (and, in their time, also the concrete danger to their well-being) or with the heartrending separation from the fictions to which they had become accustomed.

However, this answer, which remains popular to this day, misses an important element in the movement from belief to non-belief, an element that also constitutes a deep dimension in the development of the secularization process: the ethical element. This is a story at whose center stands our relationship with reason.

With the advent of the modern era, human reason ceases to be perceived as a reflection of the existing world/divine order (the logos, God’s laws, God’s wisdom) and becomes a private, procedural matter, a mode of thought. Descartes is a pioneering thinker in this transformation. For him and for his successors, to be rational means to think according to certain standards, and not to act according to the rationality that is ostensibly implanted in the universe. In plain words, reason moves exclusively to become located in the individual’s interiority.

However, as with Tindal, at this stage reason remains connected to and dependent on God: For Descartes and others, reason is God’s image in humanity. Only in the course of the 18th century is reason gradually severed from divinity and becomes exclusively a human capability. Reason changes together with the rise of individualism and becomes a human aptitude.

It is here that the significant transformation arrives: Humans’ self-perception as being disconnected from their surroundings and as autonomous, leads to this autonomy itself being morally charged. Reason is not only an efficient tool, but a value. The ability to think alone, precisely, clearly and impartially, is now a virtue to be preserved and cultivated. Our rational autonomy becomes an ideal. In plain words: Autonomous thinking is now a moral action.

Charles TaylorIn his book “Sources of the Self,” the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor explains that the next, critical, stage arrives when the connection with divinity is transformed from being a necessary condition for morality into an obstacle to morality. This happens when the dependence on divinity, or even its very existence as a higher authority, threatens human autonomy and humans’ ability to arrive at moral decisions. Not only is the inner imperative crucial, but one must not accept a reality in which that imperative can be overridden by an external authority. Think about it: If autonomy is a condition for morality, and is a value unto itself, everything that undercuts it constitutes a moral wrong and even subverts the basis of morality. This is the precise point at which God is transformed from being the necessary condition for every moral system into being the greatest danger to morality.

“Materialism as it appears in the 18th century… is no mere scientific or metaphysical dogma; it is, rather, a moral imperative,” the German-Jewish philosopher Ernst Cassirer (1874-1945) writes. The individuals forged by the Enlightenment saw themselves as moral subjects only on the condition that their decisions were autonomous and free. They were unwilling to accept a moral authority that threatened their autonomy, or that was above it. Their problem with a supreme authority wasn’t only that it would affront their pride, but also that it would affront their morality, their possibility to be ethical. Thus, from the loftiest motives, human beings reached a state in which it was no longer only possible, but now also morally essential, to reject God’s existence.

The Ethos of Atheism

If for Tindal at the end of the 17th and start of the 18th centuries, our human dignity depends on our rejecting superstitions that debase our reason (which is the image of God), for D’Holbach, in the second half of the 18th century, human dignity is no longer the derivative of a divine gift. On the contrary: Dignity is preserved through the denial of all belief in a divine gift, through not bowing to the temptation of the beliefs, to the illusory consolation of religion.

D’Holbach presents a modern concept of self-respect that stems from the individual and is measured according to human criteria. Human dignity was not bestowed on us by God and does not depend on following God’s precepts. One’s dignity is actually dependent on the preservation of independence (conceptual, practical) and on remaining loyal to one’s principles. Man is not God’s image and is not divine or spiritual at all. However, self-respect can be preserved by acting in accordance with the precepts of morality and reason – which spring from within the individual.

Without a doubt, the increasing popularity, beginning in the 18th century, of the worldview represented here by D’Holbach owed not a little to the scientific revolution – to the proven ability of the scientific method to explain nature and to base technological developments on those explanations, and to the creation of a realm of knowledge that is not religion-dependent. However, those developments themselves, although creating the possibility, did not obligate D’Holbach (or anyone else) to deny the existence of God and to maintain that the source of our reason is natural and not divine. What obligated D’Holbach to do so was the moral imperative he formulated, which rested on the transference of the source of human morality and dignity from loyalty to God, to loyalty to oneself.

D’Holbach rejects God’s existence not because he has proof that God does not exist, but because for him belief in God’s existence is an affront to human dignity. Belief in God, or in any religious dogma, means sacrificing a crucial dimension of what makes us human, of what imbues us with human dignity and enables us to make moral decisions. According to D’Holbach, and according to increasing numbers of people from the intellectual elite of his era, believers have give up their reason and their free choice. More than any specific scientific discovery, it is this stance that undermined religious belief fundamentally.

Control of Control

The Enlightenment sought to facilitate and advance people’s self-control vis-a-vis themselves and their world. From self-control comes also control over knowledge and over consciousness. However, the next stage must be also control over the control. Enlightened individuals want to entrench and ensure their control, and therefore they are compelled in the final analysis to reject the existence of God – for nothing threatens that control more than an eternal father figure with infinite powers. “The first revolt,” asserts the anarchist thinker Mikhail Bakunin, “is against the supreme tyranny of theology, of the phantom of God. As long as we have a master in heaven, we will be slaves on earth.” To move from slavery to freedom, it is necessary to deny God’s existence. That is the Exodus from Egypt for modern people.

The thinkers cited above represent an illustration of a general cultural shift, in the framework of which Western humanity turned against the existence of God, and did so out of ethical motives. God’s image, which was internalized and became reason and free will, coalesced as an alternative moral source to God. Reason became an autonomous ethical framework, not dependent on God’s existence. Subsequently, reason, which already makes possible a rich normative system (autonomy, self-respect), must reject the existence of God, on the basis of an ethical stance: God’s existence is not moral, because God is injurious to morality; God sabotages the possibility of being autonomous and possessing self-respect.

Albert CamusThe rebel, Albert Camus writes in his book of the same title, “defies more than he denies” God. And Camus is indeed defiant. “The absurd man,” he writes in “The Myth of Sisyphus,” sees only “collapse and nothingness. He can then decide to accept such a universe and draw from it his strength, his refusal to hope, and the unyielding evidence of a life without consolation.” The defiance, the courage, the dignity and the transcendence that stem from an uncompromising coming to terms with nullity – it’s all here. A direct line leads from D’Holbach to Camus and from Camus to a contemporary atheist like Richard Dawkins, who writes, “The atheist view is… life-affirming and life-enhancing, while at the same time never being tainted with self-delusion” (from “The God Delusion”).

Their successors in Israel are columnists like Uri Misgav, from Haaretz, who thinks the problem is lack of knowledge, and thus wrote that “many Israelis believe there is a God, because no one ever offered them an alternative – that there is no God”; or Rogel Alpher, also from Haaretz, who praises directness and adherence to the truth as he writes that belief in God “is such an ignorant mistake, that it partakes of stupidity and mental disorder… It’s necessary to speak truth and stop trying to curry favor. There is no God and to believe in him is stupidity.”

Note well: Among atheists, too, there has been a decline over the generations. D’Holbach and Camus still laud the ethos of atheism, the need for self-transcendence and moral faithfulness, with a lucid vision and with self-respect. Their contemporary successors are so far from the point of conception of the atheistic tradition, that they make the mistake of thinking that the problem with believers is only lack of knowledge or absence of wisdom. They forgot the tenets of non-belief.

Moreover, there’s a limit to the effectiveness of calling religiously observant people ignorant or stupid. What the atheist of the vocal strain doesn’t get is that it’s not knowledge that those who believe in God lack, and that it’s not “mental disorder” that underlies religion. Placing God above humanity gives one direction and meaning – elements that humans need far more than information. Only when the conditions matured for extracting alternative direction and meaning, was atheism able to expand into wider circles. Only when that direction and that meaning required the rejection of God could atheism become synonymous with courage and self-respect. And only if direction and meaning will be provided today, will atheism be able to go on gaining adherents. Making atheism shallow to the point where it mocks the believers misses its essence and diminishes its formative revolution.

The acceptance of atheism, and in fact the entire secularization process, are deeply entwined with the process of the individuation of Western man. From being the source of reason, dignity and goodness, God becomes an external authority that does not enable an autonomous, moral, dignified life. After God’s image, as an idea, was internalized, God himself, this time as a moral source, was internalized. And if God is internalized, there is no longer room for him externally, in the objective field. The kingdom cannot be divided between two Gods. That’s how monotheism works. Faithfulness to the inner moral imperative requires the rejection of an external moral imperative. That’s how secularization works.

My new book: Man on God's Image

This article, published in Haaretz, is based on a chapter in my newly published book “Man in God’s Image: The making of the Modern World” (Hebrew).

Post-Humanism, Post-Theism – Religion and Ethics in the Trans-Human Project

I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live. Yet not I, but Christ liveth in me, and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:20)

It is the beginning of the sixties, the first sixties ever, and St. Paul is disclosing his own personal transcendence, which he understands as redemption from Original Sin. He is no longer himself, but another lives in him – or is it through him? His very self is transformed and altered – it is no longer “he” who lives. Something very dramatic has happened to his spirit or his soul. As for his bodily life, the life he lives “in the flesh,” it is also changed: It is now lived “by the faith of the Son of God,” sustained, perhaps even animated, by a higher power.

2014-06-07_192818There is nothing new, then, in humanity’s attempts to transcend itself. Quite the contrary: Religion and post-humanism have been intertwined, sometimes even synonymous, since what has been called “the Axial Age” – in other words, the era, around the middle of the first millennium B.C.E., when religion and philosophy became self-reflective, universally inclusive and emphasized self-cultivation through ethical rites and processes. Indeed, the Moksha of Upanishadic Hinduism and Jainism, the Nirvana of Buddhism, the Ataraxia of the ancient Greek philosophical schools, and the redemptive “putting on” of Christ for early Christians – these are nothing if not post-humanist and trans-humanist visions thorough which the individual transcends and transmutes his or her self.

The Ecstacy of St. Paul, Nicolas Poussin, Oil on Canvas 1643

Truth be told, for almost 2,000 years, the West has turned its back on post-humanist projects, and busied itself with the proper construction of man. Partly due to its Judaic heritage, partly inspired by the Hellenistic traditions (especially the Aristotelian and Platonic), the Christianized Roman Empire sought to establish its association with Truth not through rejection of man, but by placing him (and sometimes her) in a proper dialogical relationship with God, or The One.

Being the ultimate Other, the transcendent divine of Jewish, Christian and Muslim monotheism held within itself the Truth , and required any who wished to partake of it to look to “Him” for answers. This yearning “upward,” toward the transcendent, ceased in the first centuries of the Common Era to be actualized through mystical ascent and apotheosis for all but a very select elite, and for most believers meant instituting an inter-subjective and dialogical connection with the great Other, often through sacred texts and rituals.

Through a process that Hegel would later refer to as the master-slave dialectic, this double-ended relationship intensifies and empowers not only the master – in our case, the transcendent God – but also the slave – in our case, the religious human. The Western perception of the human being was configured as an autonomous individual in large part through its understanding of itself as a dialogical partner engaged in an intentional relationship with the divine Other.

Humanism thus owes many of its roots to the religious traditions of transcendent monotheism. It is against and toward the transcendent divine that Renaissance man, and later the Protestant reformers, laid down the first tracks of the humanist project, a project that even at its highest ideological point, arguably at the end of the 18th century with the American and French revolutions, relied on God for the origination and continual securing of (what was beginning to be called by then) human rights.

It is not hard to understand, then, why the decline and final fall of the transcendent, monotheistic God has presented the humanist vision with a fundamental challenge. The destruction of the transcendent idea, brought about by the consolidated processes of the rise of the naturalistic perception of the universe, the de-mystification of life caused by the scientific revolution and the augmentation of inner-worldly and subjective sources of morality and authority (such as rational-analytic thinking, or inner – “spontaneous” and “natural” – feelings and passions) made the idea of a transcendent God either unnecessary or unthinkable, and brought about wide-ranging unbelief, on the one hand, and a different kind of religion, on the other.

It is to that last kind of religion that I will turn now, as I would like to propose that it is the basis for both the modern spiritual search, as displayed in the contemporary spirituality milieu (sometimes referred to as “the New Age”), and to the different groups engaged in a trans-human soteriological quest, based on technological achievements and scientific, or quasi-scientific, assumptions.

Singularity and monotheism 

Now, when referring to the religious characteristics of the technological quest for the improvement and transcendence of man, I am not just addressing the obvious points of resemblance between ideas such as Ray Kurzweil’s “singularity” and monotheistic Messianism. As can be understood by the title of Kurzweil’s 2005 book “The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology,” there is not even an attempt to camouflage the clearly Messianic patterns of discourse.

I am also not speaking about groups such as the Raëlists, the Immortalists, the technopagans or the Luciferians, all of which have distinct religious themes and characteristics, and display clear and even conscious use of religious symbols and ideals.

I am referring rather to the structure of this religious quest, its form more than its content. For it is the form of religion that has fundamentally changed over the last few centuries in the West, leading to a process of secularization that is much more post-theism than a-theism. By post-theism, I mean a religion that is not centered around the grand old monotheistic transcendent king, but one that is concerned with what Foucault would call “the care of the self.” It is a religion that manifests itself less as a communal faith, based on collective rituals and rules of social conduct, and more as a personal spiritual quest, or in a word: an ethic.

It is not, then, only a matter of free choice and the private fashioning of the faith. The turn from traditional organized religion toward an individual voluntary one is also the turn from traditional ritual and law toward the individual’s concern with his or her own spiritual perfectibility. It is this change that we must note well, for it is this which ties the contemporary spiritual scene to the post- and trans-human projects at this time.

Now, to understand this religious metamorphosis, we must appreciate the dramatic consequences of the loss of the transcendental monotheistic god. Note that the assumption of a transcendental source of authority and truth is closely associated with a binary view of reality that presents clear dichotomies between presumed opposites such as this world and the next, nature and man, matter and spirit, body and soul, and man and woman. Moreover, in order to appropriately obey our God, we must fully embrace only one part of each binary couple, and seek divine truth by rejecting the latter and yearning, as it were, up and away from our earthly existence.

The elimination of the transcendent God has made this-worldly reality the focus of our religious life. It is in our present condition that we seek truth and redemption, through the phenomenal world as we see it, be it nature, our body, our mind or our feelings. A system of ethics, which regularly includes moral tenets and meditation practices, is supposed to bring us, by adherence to it, to full realization of religious redemption (whether spiritual liberation, emotional balance, or unification with nature).

In a way, this is a return to the transformative type of religiosity displayed by St. Paul, as mentioned above, and by Hellenistic Epicureanism and Stoicism, Upanishadic Hinduism and some strands of Buddhism. It is also the type of spiritual life we can sometimes find in the mystical traditions of the West, such as Sufism, Kabbalah, neo-Platonism and Hermeticism. What makes the current state of affairs in the West revolutionary in this respect is the magnitude and prevalence of this religious logic. From being the esoteric approach of a distinct elite, it has become the obvious and evident religiosity of the masses. Indeed, it is the dialogical “covenant” made with a transcendent God that has become a rarity in contemporary Western culture (though more in Europe than in the U.S. and Israel, of course).

I see trans-humanism, being the view that humans can and should (be permitted to) use technology to transform the human organism, as a specific creed within this major religious current. As with many New Age spiritual paths, it aimes to improve the individual condition in order to achieve superhuman goals, such as extended memory, bionic strength, full immunity to disease and even immortality. It thus offers a way towards private redemption, the difference from most of contemporary spirituality being that instead of a practical rule of ethics, it uses advanced technology for that purpose.

But the effort to improve and transcend the human condition is mutual. As Patrick Hopkins writes in an article entitled “Transcending the Animal: How Transhumanism and Religion Are and Are Not Alike”:

I see transhumanism as a reaction to the perceived oppressive and disappointing limitations of given human nature. Like religion – but unlike accepting or coping secular humanism – transhumanists want strongly to transcend the animal and actively work toward doing so. Unlike merely hoping that transcendence can occur, transhumanists aggressively pursue the physical practices, the technologies, that could make transcendence a reality.

What I would add to Hopkins’ account is that this specific type of religion, in which active effort is made to transcend the human “animal” in this very life, was, as stated earlier, quite rare in the West during the last two millennia, and has only since the second half of the 20th century become a wide-ranging, mass phenomenon. I wish to note that trans-humanism is located as a specific stream within this mass phenomenon.

The strategic flaw in the trans-human endeavor

And yet, there is a fundamental difference between the varied trans-humanist projects and the various spiritual paths, and it is this difference that eventually directs these enterprises toward quite opposite routes. We must remember that for almost all the religious mystical paths, transcending the human body was closely tied with transcending the human self. As St. Paul proclaims in the opening quote: “Yet not I, but Christ liveth in me.”

For Epicureanism, Ataraxia was achieved by understanding that the self is no more than a conflation of material particles, and not an ethereal soul. For strands of Hinduism, Moksha was realized when the individual understood that the Atman was in fact not the personal self, but identical with the one universal Brahman. For Buddhism, the goal was to realize that there is no separate self at all, and for different Hasidic courts, the self was the Godhead itself. Indeed, one could define the mystical quest (and I heard this brilliant definition from Moshe Halbertal) as the very process of gradual or abrupt de-selfization and de-individuation. These patterns of purpose and intention are still maintained within contemporary spirituality circles today.

In contrast to this, the trans-humanist project seeks to maintain the very same human self that exists at the outset of its path. That self may be improved upon, made stronger or smarter, may even be immortalized, but it will not be essentially changed, and definitely not annulled. I see this as a principal distinction between these two projects of “care of the self,” and as a strategic flaw in the trans-human endeavor.

The reason I see this as a fundamental mistake on the part of the trans-humanists (judging from their point of view, at least so long as they want to forward human freedom), is because the self that is imagined to be improved upon and immortalized is no more than a particular human cultural construct, specifically being the rational analytical self of the Enlightenment, itself a secularized version of the Judeo-Christian soul. This view of the human self was presented explicitly first by Rene Descartes, and fully developed in the works of Emanuel Kant. Taking this self to be the true or real human self is erroneous, and disastrous for any work built on that assumption.

To give a quick example of this assumption I would like to take two recent movies: “Her,” directed by Spike Jonze, and Wally Pfister’s “Transcendence.” In both these films, a human or human-like intelligence is “uploaded” or created to or in a computer. This intelligence acts as a sentient being, or in simple words – a self. On the other hand, this trans-human self has no physical body, and “moves” through cyberspace at will.

I propose this view of matters, shared by many post- and trans-humanists, is totally false, and is built, as said, on the Enlightenment’s secularized Judeo-Christian soul. As with the Judeo-Christian soul, it does not take into account the unbreakable bond between our mind and our body. I am not arguing that only brain tissue – and not silicon chips – can produce consciousness. I’m not a substance chauvinist and certainly believe that, as the saying goes, “it ain’t the meat, it’s the motion.”

What I am saying is that our consciousness is dependent on our body to understand itself as well as to function. I cannot go into this in proper length, and will just stress that we are embodied creatures and only through the body can we make sense of ourselves and our world. That is why we use our hands while talking, even on the phone. That is why we think better while walking. That is why our languages are filled with metaphors of space and time in order to comprehend mind and spirit. Indeed, even words like “superhuman” and “trans-human” are spatial metaphors, and “post-human” a temporal one.

In the film “Her,” the protagonist, played by Joaquin Phoenix, makes love to his artificial intelligent partner, and she actually has an orgasm – without a body. I think the very fundamental ways in which our body affects our feelings, emotions and consciousness and in which these are dependent on it are mistakenly ignored in this post-human fantasy.

To understand how much we are indebted to the Judeo-Christian soul when we imagine an out-of-body consciousness, I would like to suggest we try to imagine a cow’s consciousness being uploaded to a supercomputer. At first glance, it must be considered easier to upload a cow’s consciousness to a computer than that of a human, a cow’s consciousness being that much simpler. But we are unsuccessful in imagining a cow’s “self” living a virtual life within cyberspace. I believe we are unsuccessful in this because we grant special status to the human mind, and that because our view of it is, as said, the Enlightenment’s secularized Judeo-Christian soul.

When the female protagonist in “Transcendence” (played by Rebecca Hall) talks about her partner (Johnny Depp) and claims that “his mind is a pattern of electrical signals … we can upload his consciousness,” she is simply using pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo to secularize the idea of a separate soul, able to disconnect from the body. When her partner accomplishes said uploading and claims “my mind has been set free,” he is plainly delivering the trans-human secularized version of the “hallelujah” shouted by the religious individual reborn in Christ.

The view of the self in much of trans-humanism, is, then, no other than a secularized version of the Judeo-Christian soul, thrust through the prism of the Enlightenment and “technologized,” as it were, to update it for the 21st century. It is a particular view of the human self, time and culturally bound, and quite oblivious – as its archetype, the soul, was – to the fundamental and unbreakable tie between the mind and the body.

Following this philosophical blunder – another. This view of the human self is static within the trans-human project, meaning it is not to be changed or transformed, even while the human body is changed or transformed “around” it. This is fundamentally different, as stated earlier, from the dynamic view of the self in different spiritual traditions, a self going through metamorphosis.

Here we come to another principal difference within these two currents of the contemporary endeavor for the transcendence of man. As C.S. Lewis put it as early as 1944 in his The Abolition of Man:

For the wise men of old, the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline and virtue. For magic and applied science alike, the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men: the solution is a technique.

Or, we would say today, technology. And it is those wishes of man, subduing reality, that also disclose the ethical bankruptcy of trans-humanism, for when those wishes are fulfilled they will set human life in one determinate direction. Thus, changing reality instead of ourselves, we will perpetuate the dictatorship of our self as it is today, reducing choices and options for alternative lifestyles and setting the standard for any human existence to come.

As C.S. Lewis says, these future men will be “weaker, not stronger: for though we may have put wonderful machines in their hands, we have pre-ordained how they are to use them.” Without changing our selves, “Each new power won by man is a power over man as well.”

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The article was presented as a lecture last month in a conference titled Oh Man Oh Machine: The Politics & Aesthetics of Posthumanism, Tel Aviv University. It was published yesterday in Haaretz.

The Ban on Circumcision and How Europe is Denying its Past

Earlier this month the Council of Europe (an international human rights organisation consisting of EU 47 countries whose decisions are of declarative force only) published an announcement regarding “children’s right to physical integrity”. In the announcement the Council came out against various form of intentional bodily harm to children, such as piercing, tattoos, plastic surgery, sex reassignment surgeries in inter-sexed children (something that deserves an article in itself), female genital mutilation (aka “female circumcision”), and male circumcision.

Of course, the last item on the list gave the signal for typical Jewish hysteria. Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, President of the Conference of European Rabbis, declared (Heb) that this is a “new antisemitism”; the Israeli Minister of the Interior, Gideon Saar, also thinks (Heb) it’s “antisemitism”; Dr. Eli Schussheim, Head of the Circumcision committee at the Chief Rabbinate and the Ministry of Health, cried out (Heb) that it is “a plot to spiritually annihilate the Jewish People,” while Foireign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor ruled (Heb) that this is “Horrid ignorance, at best, or libel and religious hatred at worst”. Great job.

The debate concerning circumcision is rich with meaning and constitutes a rare intersection of diverse world-views and value-maps. This is why I find it fascinating not only due to its pragmatical angle (will the Jews of Europe be able to circumcise their sons or not, etc,), but because it teaches us about far-reaching social, ethnic and ideological processes underway in Western society. I have written before (Heb) about the post-humanist aspect of banning circumcision. Now I’d like to touch upon its political and ideological aspects.

To start, a few clarifications: Does circumcision inflict permanent damage to the male sexual organ? I believe so. The spokesman for the Foreign Ministry, incidentally, says otherwise, and that there is “no scientific criteria” according to which damage can be proved. I don’t understand him. It is clear to me that removal of the foreskin changes the way the male has sex, and not for the better. On the other hand, is the damage significant? I believe not. I happen to be a circumcised male myself and can attest that everything, thank god, works perfectly fine. So: Does this negligible damage justify banning it? I believe not.

But the damage is not the story. The damage caused to the baby (or the man he will be) is not at the heart of the decision by the European Council. Proof of this can be found in the fact that all those people seeking to ban infant circumcision will stand, vehemently even, on the right of any adult to circumcise himself (or acquire a sex change operation, or plastic surgery, etc,). So the cutting of the genitalia and the damage to the body are not, in themselves, the problem. What is? The problem is that the circumcision is done without the consent and free choice of the baby.

And this is definitely a problem. On the other hand, circumcision is done without the consent of the baby just as many things are done without his or her consent: He or she receives certain food and no other, lives in a certain place and no other, learns a certain language but not another, is sent to a certain kindergarten and school and no other, where he receives a certain education and no other. In addition, parents raise their children to believe in the existence of God / his only begotten crucified son / his special chosen people / the holy virgin / dialectical materialism / the hidden hand / an endless, meaningless universe.

All of the above, done without the consent of the baby and child, shape his life more significantly than the foreskin present or missing from his penis. Even if one believes that the removal of the foreskin causes not slight but severe damage to the sex organ (and this really is unsupported by science), the damage of a bad education is greater. Education is irreversible, just as learning a language, or having a childhood in general. What our parents gave us will accompany us for the rest of our days. Therefore, there is no sense in legally banning circumcision, unless we intend to also ban raising children according to beliefs we don’t like.

Circumsision in ancient Egypt

Human Dignity

But let’s leave all that aside. Let’s say we have shown that focusing on circumcision and ignoring education, beliefs and so on is somewhat inconsistent, perhaps even dishonestly so. I wouldn’t want to defend circumcision just by showing its opponents to be hypocritical. I would like to positively explain why it is important to allow those interested to maintain the ceremony, through an ethical argument stemming from the matter itself. In order to do so I would like to more closely examine the matter of free choice. In other words, why is it a problem that the baby cannot choose to be circumcised? Why are consent and free choice so important to us? A worthy question, is it not?

So. why does free choice attain an almost sanctified position in our eyes, to the point where liberals and libertarians will insist on the rights of perfect strangers to do drugs or sell themselves as prostitutes as long as they truly chose to do so? I think it is so important to us because free choice, our autonomy, our use of will, our freedom to decide one way or the other – all these are essential things that define us, that ground our identity and our dignity, our self regard.

In other words, one of the sources of our own identity nowadays is our free will, and this is why it is considered almost sacred. So much so that we are willing to give up values we care about, and feel unpleasant, just so others can express their free will (up to a point, of course).

Now, here’s something interesting: for many people, even today, religious beliefs, religious traditions and the right to chose them and act upon them are also among the things that define them, their identity and their self-regard. One’s religious faith is among the essential parts of his or her inner life. Therefore, he or she greatly desires to be allowed to live by it and express it. This is also why he or she will sometimes be willing to die for it.

This is not new, but what is new is that in our era liberal democracy recognizes the importance of faith (or lack thereof) to the individual, and therefore insists on religious freedom within its boundaries, letting everyone express their belief – or disbelief – allowing no religious or ideological coercion. Because our religious – or agnostic, or atheistic – persuasions are such an important part of what defines us, what constitutes our identity and dignity, religious freedom is so important to us, and is protected by liberal democracy.

Back to circumcision. When we approach the matter, it wouldn’t be right to weigh freedom of choice against unjustified bodily harm. In such a case obviously we would uphold choice and forbid the bodily harm, even if negligible. But we need, for a moment, to enter the mind of the upholders of tradition. If we take their faith seriously, and we must, we see that there are highly important values on both sides: on the one hand, freedom of choice, denied to the baby; on the other, religious and communal identity, given to him by parents allowed to do so. This is part of the package his parents wish to bequeath unto him, to bring him up by. This is part of the elements of their identity, their self-respect. It’s an essential part of themselves, no less than their free choice. So if we see it thus, both sides of the debate carry values it is important to all of us to preserve.

And now we must decide – which of the two tips the scale? Had the harm to baby been severe, or the social/ethical context been oppressive and degrading (degrading and oppressing what? The very same human dignity we’re trying to defend; the very same human dignity for which we also defend freedom of expression!), then I would think that banning it is justified, even at the cost of denying the parents their freedom of religion.

Is this the case? I think not. I don’t think infant circumcision is problem-free. Definitely not. But I think one can say that in the end the harm done is limited, and the context non-oppressive, and therefore I don’t think that freedom of choice justifies banning the action, which represents such an important element in the lives of those believing in its religious significance. Why? Because it assaults their dignity and the essential values of their lives no less, and I believe far more, than un-chosen circumcision harms the baby’s self-regard.

One more small thing: there’s no point in yelling that there is no god. We will not decide for others what to believe. We will in fact accord them the freedom to believe as they choose, and keep whatever tradition they see fit (within certain boundaries, of course, not to be discussed here). And we require that in the name of their faith or tradition our own freedom of choice would not be limited, nor harm done to our beliefs or the values at the basis of our world-views and self respect.

Isaacs Circumcision as depicted in the Regensburg Pentateuch, Germany 1300

Europe

So what’s up with these Europeans? First of all, I do not believe antisemitism is involved here (the enthusiasm with which it is thrown into every discussion is pathetic). The motive is something else entirely: What we have here is high moral sensitivity (which can be observed in the spread of vegetarianism and veganism – note that the opponents of circumcision also express a worthwhile moral principle and motivation), along with an anti-clerical, anti-theistic tendency, prevalent in current-day Europe, mixed with some confusion.

The spirit of the French revolution is returning, wishing to cleanse the land of religious manifestations. It focuses on acts and attire because that is much easier than banning beliefs. The Council of Europe also spoke about piercing and so on, but we should monitor whether the places that are advancing actual legislation to ban circumcision are also moving to bar parents from piercing their children’s ears or allow them to have tattoos. If not, this is a sign that what the legislator is annoyed at is not the damage to the body, but the impetus to the damage, in our case religious belief. This is, therefore, an attempt to harm the religious freedom of Europeans.

But wait, aren’t there things we’ll ban even though banning them would harm religious freedom? Of course there are. For instance, female genital mutilation. And why? Because by and large it entails much (much) greater damage to the genitalia, and even more importantly, because the context (as I mentioned before) is utterly different: in the case of male circumcision, it is about acceptance of the boy to the community, an enhancement to his dignity and to his social importance. Female circumcision is part of an array of means to suppress woman and control her body; it reduces her dignity and her social standing.

One of the articles on the matter in Hebrew noted that “many of the delegates supported amending the motion so that it won’t include a mention of the parents’ religious rights.” I believe this is the story. The attempt to erase the recognition of citizens’ religious rights. And I find this astonishing. It’s astonishing because by doing so Europe denies its roots. Not its religious roots, but its democratic ones, since the formation of European democracy was based among other things on recognition of the essential place held by religious beliefs in the individual’s life and with the intent of enabling individuals of differing religious beliefs to live together. Religious pluralism – stemming from deep recognition of the value of religion – was one of the building stones of European democracy (although less so than the American version, and not at all in revolutionary France). Therefore these testimonys (and one can add the French “Burqa Law” here) of denying this heritage mark an interesting process.

Jesus's circumsision, Master of Tucher Altarpiece, 15th century

Please note: All of the above is critique of a proposed law banning circumcision. I have nothing against people trying to persuade others not to perform the procedure, and therefore of course nothing against people, Jews included, who do not wish to perform it. I am speaking here only of the right of those who do want, out of traditional-religious considerations, to perform it.

Calderon’s Speech and the Meaning of Secularization

The two weeks that have passed since Knesset Member Ruth Calderon (Yesh Atid) gave her maiden speech from the Knesset dais may just be sufficient time to assess its cultural impact – which is indeed significant. The speech, which was viewed on Youtube alone by nearly two hundred thousand people, famously included a Talmudic story which Calderon used to interpret current events, and also praise for the discipline of studying the Talmud, which Calderon claims has changed her life. Reactions to the Talmudic speech tended to two extremes: Some were most receptive to the inclusion of religious and traditional elements, and some were repulsed. Those repulsed also came in two flavors – ultra-orthodox speakers from the right, who viewed Calderon’s actions as an expropriation and a secularization of that which should remain sanctified, and secular-atheists from the left, who saw the speech as an expropriation of the secular legislature for the sake of a religious sermon.

In this sense, Calderon’s speech is an excellent case study in the boundaries of religious discourse in the Israeli public sphere. Having been delivered from the Knesset dais it is perforce representative. Like a Shiatsu artist applying precise touch to the pressure points of the body politic, the result of this touch are groans and growls, and each limb has its own distress. Thus while Ofri Ilani of the well known blog “Land of the Emorite” finds (Heb) proof in the speech that “Yesh Atid” is a party of evangelists, and Uri Misgav sees it as yet another manifestation of the secular public’s “routine bowing of the knee” before Religious Zionism, the editorial board of ultra-orthodox website “Kikar Hashabat” fears that it represents “a new enlightenment” and “an existential threat” to the Haredi public, and Rabbi Eliyahu Zeyni is most accurate in seeing Calderon’s speech as a secularization of the Talmud, and as a move intended to put an end to the hegemony of the “strident” orthodoxy.

Ruth Calderon on the Knesset dies

In order to explain why the religious sensitivity of the observant speakers correctly identified that which the short secular fuse on the free side failed to recognize, we must discuss the essence of secularization. It is well known that one of the central characteristics of the modern age is the secularization process, part of which is the separation of Church and State. Secularization means the transfer of power and authority from religious sources to secular ones. We all live in a world in which the monopoly on knowledge, political authority and even moral authority are no longer in the hands of religious entities. Authority over these important fields of the human condition have been shifted to science, to the nation-state, and to the individual conscience, among others.

This process was conceived during the Protestant Reformation, and it reached its Bar Mitzvah, so to speak, with the enlightenment, at the end of the 18th century. In the 19th century, while the process was in its cock-sure adolescence, some European intellectuals erred in thinking that what they were experiencing was part of a linear, deterministic process, at the end of which all of humanity will divest itself – privately as well as publicly – of the burden of religious faith. This was to bring about the certain end of religion, and the death and burial of God without so much as a Kadish. Thus was born the confusing conflation of secularization and atheism, that is to say the belief that stripping religion of public power necessarily means obliterating it as a private human element.

Today, as secularization stands before us as a ripe adult, we can easily see that this formulation is not correct. In the 1970’s it was already obvious that the rumors of the death of religion were somewhat premature. The secularization process is indeed underway at a brisk pace, but secularization does not in fact mean atheization, and religion is not obliterated. Instead, as a flexible and sophisticated organism, it adjusts to the new conditions. Proper understanding of the process of secularization was reinforced in the early 21st century, when terror acts by fundamentalist Muslim groups on the one hand emphasized that modern society is not at liberty to dismiss religion, and concurrently important and disparate western thinkers (Slavoj Zizek, Terry Eagleton, Charles Taylor, Jurgen Habermas) began to question the wisdom of ignoring traditional culture troves while attempting to create a healthy society.

To return to Calderon’s speech, it seems that some of the secular watchers on the wall are still interpreting traditional-religious words as “religion” in its all-encompassing and authoritarian sense. On the other hand, it is obvious to the religious-traditional side that “religion” (in its old sense) is a matter of authority, obedience and commitment. Therefore they understood full-well that Calderon’s free use of those words is not intended to force them on the Knesset and make it “religious” but, quite to the contrary, to remove those words from their religious context and render them into a tool in the hands of the secular Knesset.

Who’s authority?

The error of Calderon’s detractor is therefore ironic: Her speech serves, first and foremost, those who wish to separate Church and State. That is to say, in the Israeli case, between Jewish Orthodoxy and the State of Israel. It stems from a failure to distinguish religious words from religious discourse. The words Calderon used were indeed religious, but the discourse in which she spoke was secular. Calderon translated the Talmud into a civic-political language. She did not come in the name of Halakha, but in her own name and that of her own values, while maintaining the authority over the text’s meaning. Thus she not only secularized the Talmud, but also retook a cultural treasure that for too long has lain in the rhetorical arsenal of one side only. This did also not go unnoticed by her religious detractors. This also worries them quite a bit.

Once again, it is important to note: Secularization of the Talmud does not mean that there is no religious link between Calderon and the text. There may very well be (Calderon described her own family in that speech as “religious”, using the non-Hebrew word to imply a spiritual intensity). Secularization, as I have mentioned above, means withdrawing authority over the religious text (as well as the religious sentiment, religious history, religious aspirations and so on) from a hierarchical religious establishment to the life and free choice of the individual. One can, once again, wonder why such a shift is not warmly welcomed by members of the secular left.

Civilization Without Culture

And perhaps it is not that perplexing. Is it possible that what bothers the detractors of Calderon’s speech is that they do actually deeply understand the thrust of her act, meaning that they understand that Calderon signifies a renewed interest among a rather large part of the public in what is known as “The Jewish Book-Case”? Is it possible that they believe that Israeli culture must be built solely from humanist-liberal building blocks devoid of all long-time cultural heritage (a heritage which has contributed greatly to the emergence of humanism and liberalism)?

It is odd, for in the circles of those condemning Calderon’s use of religion we can find men and women who are (justly) horrified by the actions of China in Tibet, to wit, the destruction of Tibetan culture and its supplanting with the unique communo-capitalist amalgam of the current Chinese regime. That seems to them to be a disaster, yet they view erasing all Jewish culture and exchanging it for a liberal (and economically neo-liberal) public sphere devoid of any cultural or religious characteristics as a wise move. These are the same people who will (rightly) click their tongues upon visiting India and witnessing the hyper-globalization underway across the sub-continent, trampling its uniqueness along the way and turning t into another “free market”, whose pantheon is inhabited solely by shopping and profits. This they view as cultural devastation, but turning Israel into another McDonald’s franchise seems to them like a goal worth fighting for. These are the people who will (rightly) mourn the loss of the primitive Australian Aboriginal culture, the disintegration of the Native American nations, the wiping out of hunter-gatherer cultures in the Amazon. They will stridently insist on the right of each of these to maintain a distinct cultural identity and the preservation of their spiritual and intellectual treasures. But at the creation of a Jewish identity and preservation of this culture – which is, after all, quite ancient – they will evince distaste.

This is not only a strange case of discrimination, but also a blindness to the human and so simple need for a “home-grown” identity and culture (yes, the same need felt by the Aborigines – have not others the right to feel that way?). And this need is not only psychological, but also, mostly, social and communal. For without a traditional source of values we shall soon be left only with the instrumental utilitarianism of the free market. Without an ethical array that gives the things around us value, soon they will be left only with the price-tag. Yes, we have humanism and liberalism, and we are lucky to have them; truly; But unfortunately I don’t think that these alone provide a juicy enough ideological framework and a sufficiently coalesced identity to enable the existence of a thriving society in our times. Have you checked recently what happened to the dream of a secular-rational-liberal-universal society? Well, let me put it this way: There’s an app for that.

I have no patience for religious one-upmanship, and the notion that Judaism is some unique religion, higher or more true than other religions is despicable in my view. On the other hand, the notion that we should (or can) cast aside cultural treasures built over millennia is in my eyes no less despicable. Jewish tradition holds much wisdom, as well as much idiocy. Both its wisdom and its idiocy are voices I would like to hear, examine and make a decision regarding them. As long as there is no coercion, the enrichment of public discourse can only be a blessing.

The separation of Church and State must be fought for resolutely, and the struggle is beginning to bear fruit, but this struggle does not end with the erasure of any and all religious expressions from the public sphere. Should it end thus, the public sphere would remain poor and vapid, useful only as a portal to another branch of a global coffee chain, its kitchen staffed by labor migrants and its door guarded by a temp worker making minimum wage. Tradition’s voice must be another voice heard, another voice we can choose to follow. This is precisely why it would be disastrous for this voice to remain heard only from the mouths of rabbis, and doubly so from rabbis such as Ovadiah Yosef, Dov Lior or Shmuel Eliyahu. In her speech, Calderon has contributed to the creation of a new traditional-modern voice, a secular-feminine counterweight to those who until recently held the monopoly on the Talmud. Calderon has made a fine contribution to the breaking of the old molds, and surely did not imagine that she of all people would be pressured so quickly back into them.

First published on Avi Chai site, 27.2.13. Translated by Rechavia Berman


Tomer Persico

“The blog of one of the conference participants, Tomer Persico, has made him one of the most consistently interesting observers of Israeli religious life.”

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