Monthly Archives: February 26, 2015

Selma, Mordechai and Historical Truth

Should movies about history actually be about, you know, history? In other words, is it important for movies purporting to describe historical events to describe those events accurately?  Recent movies, such as Selma – which highlights Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement – have rekindled the debate.

Ava DuVernay, the director of Selma, chose to portray President Lyndon B. Johnson as a condescending enemy of civil rights, who scolds Martin Luther King and orders J. Edgar Hoover to disparage and discredit the iconic civil rights leader.  The problem, however, is that none of this is true; LBJ was very proud of his administrations civil rights achievements, and viewed King as a helpful partner in his efforts.  Why, then, does DuVernay depict LBJ as a villain? She explained: “I wasn’t interested in making a white-savior movie.  Black people should tell their own stories from their own perspectives.”  In other words, as Edward Rothstein writes, “[DuVernay] wanted a history in which African-Americans determined their own fates instead of seeming like passive recipients of Johnson’s good will.” (Edward Rothstein, Who’s History is it, Anyway?, Wall Street Journal, February 17, 2015)  The actual historical facts did not convey the message that DuVernay hoped to express in her film, so she simply altered the facts.  For DuVernay, and those in her camp, historical truth is a secondary value that may be trumped by other, more essential values.

Within the traditional Jewish community, the value placed upon historical truth has remained a simmering debate for decades.  “Rebbe Biographies,” which are actually hagiographies that significantly alter or ignore factual details of their subjects’ lives, have proliferated.  Rabbi Shimon Schwab justified this practice, with an argument similar to DuVernay’s: “What ethical purpose […]

By |February 26, 2015|

Ethical Muscle: Adulterers, Card Sharks and Moral Philosophy

Bertrand Russell, one of the brilliant minds of the 20th century, was notorious for his adulterous affairs.  While serving as a Professor of Ethics at Harvard, one of Russell’s affairs – with a student, no less – became public knowledge.  Though affairs of this nature are commonplace today, it caused quite a stir in early 20th century Harvard, eventually leading the university’s Board of Governors to censure Russell for his behavior.  Russell, however, maintained that his private affairs had nothing to do with his professorial duties. “But you are a Professor of Ethics!” one of the Board members protested.  To which Russell replied, “I was a Professor of Geometry at Cambridge, but the Board of Governors never asked me why I was not a triangle.”

The knowledge of ethical philosophy – of which Russell was a world-renowned expert – will apparently, on its own, have little impact upon a person’s behavior.  Even if Russell had tried to live in accordance with his ethical philosophy, there is little guarantee that he would find success.  As C.S. Lewis so aptly explains, “No justification of virtue will enable a man to be virtuous. Without the aid of trained emotions the intellect is powerless against the animal organism. I had sooner play cards against a man who was quite skeptical about ethics, but bred to believe that a ‘gentleman does not cheat,’ than against an irreproachable moral philosopher who had been brought up among sharpers.” (C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, 24)

The gulf between ethical knowledge and ethical behavior – or in other words, between mind and body – is a significant problem in the field of ethics, and one that Rabbi Dr. Eliezer Berkovits grappled with over the […]

By |February 19, 2015|

Doubting our Way to a Higher Faith

David Hume and Samuel Johnson were two of the greatest exemplars of 18th Century Enlightenment.  Hume, the preeminent thinker of the Scottish Enlightenment, altered the course of Western thought through his penetrating philosophical writings.  And Johnson, the subject of James Boswell’s legendary Life of Samuel Johnson, is often described as the “most distinguished man of letters in English history.”  Each man possessed a powerful and skeptical mind, regularly challenging the accepted wisdoms of their time.  And yet Johnson, far from considering Hume to be a kindred spirit, held a special loathing for the legendary philosopher:
“Hume, and other skeptical innovators, are vain men, and will gratify themselves at any expense. Truth will not afford sufficient food to their vanity; so they have betaken themselves to error. Truth, Sir, is a cow which will yield such people no more milk, and so they are gone to milk the bull.  If I could have allowed myself to gratify my vanity at the expense of truth, what fame might I have acquired. Everything which Hume has advanced against Christianity had passed through my mind long before he wrote.” (James Boswell, Life of Samuel Johnson)

Hume was a skeptic at heart; he considered no article of faith immune from his scrutiny.  He regularly leveled broadsides at religion, and reveled in the controversy – and notoriety – that followed.  Interestingly, Johnson struggled with many of the same religious doubts that preoccupied Hume.  But it was precisely the similarity of their religious struggles – and their radically different orientations towards that struggle – that created such enmity between these two men.  While Hume flaunted his disbelief, Johnson was tormented by doubt throughout his entire life.  “O! my friend, the approach of death […]

By |February 9, 2015|

Organized Religion: Bland Imitation, or a Recipe for Wonder?

William James, the great 20th century philosopher, is most famous for his classic analysis of the psychology of religion – The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature.  As the title suggests, James’ interests lie specifically in “the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude… standing in relation to whatever they may consider the divine.”  For James, the essential part of religious life is the personal and experiential.  And so James is particularly uninterested in the organized religions, theologies and philosophies that may eventually grow out of such individual religious experiences; these “growths,” James makes clear, are highly secondary:

“Personal religion will prove itself more fundamental than either theology or ecclesiasticism.  Churches, when once established, live at secondhand upon tradition; but the founders of every church owe their power originally to the fact of their direct personal communion with the divine.”  From a psychological perspective, James considers the study of organized religion to be a waste of time: “I speak not now of your ordinary religious believer, who follows the conventional observances of his country, whether it be Buddhist, Christian or Mohammedan.  His religion has been made for him by others, communicated to him by tradition, determined to fixed forms by imitation, and retained by habit.” (William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience)

Martin Buber, following in James’ footsteps, distinguishes between ‘religion’ and ‘religiosity.’  For Buber, religiosity derives from “man’s sense of wonder and adoration,” while religion is merely “the sum total of the customs and teachings articulated and formulated by the religiosity of a certain epoch in a people’s life.” (Martin Buber, “Jewish Religiosity,” in On Judaism, 80)  For Buber, traditional religion is “rigidly determined,” consisting of “prescriptions and dogmas” that […]

By |February 2, 2015|