Saturday, March 26, 2011


Nearly every year for the past quarter of a century, I’ve thrown a party for the Jewish holiday of Purim. I was moved to do so by an experience back in 1981. Having recently graduated from college, I went to Israel for an extended visit and was living in one Orthodox yeshiva in Jerusalem and hanging out with some friends in a second such yeshiva. That Purim, I spent the evening of the holiday in my yeshiva and the next day at my friends’. In both cases, I had the privilege of watching some normally straight-and-narrow Orthodox Jews, including rabbis, get shit faced drunk. For a 20 year-old kid like me, the whole experience was mind blowing. Who knew Orthodox rabbis got drunk? I sure didn’t.

A half a decade later, while living in Northern Virginia, I decided that if rabbis could get plastered while celebrating Purim, so could a fledgling lawyer and his then-girlfriend in their mid-20s. Well that relationship didn’t last, but the annual tradition of Purim parties did. My friends and I don’t drink so much any more, fortunately for our longevity, but we drink enough alcohol that certain of my Muslim friends won’t even show up at the party -- in other words, we're not abusing the holiday by behaving like tee-totalers.

As part of the event, I started writing and delivering essays for the occasion. They usually have Jewish themes, though every now and then I’ve strayed from that constraint, as in the year when I spoke about Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. Anyway, this year’s talk is indeed about Judaism, though I’d like to think that the points I’m making are relevant to non-Jews as well.

So without any further hype, I’d like to encourage each of you to read this year's speech. (Scroll down and click on "Purim 2011".) I hope you enjoy it.

Saturday, March 19, 2011


Paola Teresa Grassi is an Italian philosopher whose talk about Spinoza and Goethe was one of the highlights of the Spinoza and Feminism conference in which I participated last month. She has been kind enough to translate into Italian my blog post regarding the conference. For all you Italian speakers, here's a link where you can find the translation:

After I wrote that blog post, Paola was inspired to write a piece of her own. I contributed a few thoughts, and now we have a finished product. So here it is. I hope you enjoy it.

Shakespeare, A Prophet in the Spinozistic Manner by Paola Teresa Grassi

With the passage of time, ideas have the capacity to germinate. It has been almost a month since the Spinoza Symposium at American University, and I am finding that some ideas from that Symposium are becoming clear for the first time, and others are becoming quite powerful. I find myself especially struck by two reflections. First, that an effective demonstration in philosophy is not merely a theoretical exercise; it is a practical one. Secondly, philosophy at its most practical asks such fundamental questions as "what is ethical"? But it does not stop with these questions. They are used as points of departure from which emerges a lively byplay, experienced at the very core of those who take up the challenge.

At a symposium on Spinoza, perhaps the most basic question is what is meant by the "Spinozist project"? For me, this project is a phenomenological resource for nothing less than a revolution, one that takes place in both the political and the theological domains. Indeed, just as Spinozism has this dual soul, so does philosophy as a whole. This is illustrated by the work of the recently deceased French scholar, Pierre Hadot. Hadot spent his life reformulating the history of his field as a never-ending process that furnishes evidence of a symbiosis between philosophical discourse and a rich, dialectically-stimulating existence. One of the main lessons taught to us by Hadot is that modern philosophy does not forget philosophizing in the manner of the ancients. Quite the contrary -- modern philosophy, at its best, grapples with many of the same issues and ideas that the ancients raised. The innovations accomplished by modern philosophers have the ancients to thank for providing the needed background.

You certainly can see this phenomenon operating in the work of Goethe, which owes so much to the teachings of Spinoza. Much has been said about the connection between those two thinkers. What has not, however, been widely revealed, are the many intersections between Spinoza and another literary great, Shakespeare. You don't often hear the name of the Bard invoked as a prophet among men, but I would argue that that is precisely what he was -- if the word "prophet" is used in the sense employed by Spinoza.

Readers of Spinoza's Theological-Political Treatise will note that Spinoza thought of prophets as people who were distinguished, not so much by their command of the truth, but by the power of their imaginations. Who can deny that as a master of the imagination -- and the psyche -- Shakespeare was at the very pinnacle of his species? Shakespearean stories are stories for the people deliciously invented by a man of the people whose main craft was acting. The characters crafted out of Shakespeare's imagination emerge as moral icons in the Spinozistic sense that, armed with a complex and increasingly self-aware inner life, they succeed in transforming the self. And all this happens on the wooden stages of the Elizabethan age, in front of those who are standing on the ground (the groundlings).

The range and profundity of Shakespeare's characters are mind-boggling. You have the stoic, if not ascetic, skepticism of Hamlet. Then there are such counter-cultural lovers as the bitter Beatrice, who strives to love in a reasonable manner, or Ophelia, who unconsciously finds profit in the negative. And finally we have fighters, like Henry V. These characters evoke different portions of the human soul, each one conjuring up memories upon memories in those who observe the fictional lives of these characters. (Can they really be fictional? They do not appear that way by the story's end.) The depth of these characters is such that they become models to strive for, each in his or her own way. In the effort to reproduce these models so that they can come alive on the stage, the Bard creates a way of being in the world, one that is entrancing, thought-provoking, and ultimately challenging to the observer's system of ethics.

What Shakespeare has forged on many levels is nothing less than a way of being in the world -- an accomplishment that Spinoza reproduced, in his own way, a century later. And insofar as they have opened our eyes to a new way of living, they are both aptly termed not only philosophers, but practical philosophers. In other words, they are philosophers for the people, and not merely for academicians. Both men, using very different media, came to the conclusion that wisdom lies in a life led by questioning the world so as to grasp the nature of every movement of the human soul. Spinoza explored this via pure reason. Shakespeare, via drama.

For Spinoza, prophets are not merely lions of the imagination; they are also the people who carry the nature of the world in a language that is particularly accessible, and stirring, to the commons. Shakespeare is surely a prototype of such a prophet. Spinoza characterized the knowledge learned from prophesy as "knowledge of the first kind" -- by which he meant the lowest form of knowledge (beneath that of reason and intuition). Yet an encounter with Spinoza's ideas reveals Shakespeare as a "philosopher of the first kind," and I mean that in the highest sense of the words. For what Shakespeare's plays communicate to the acute observer is the true nature of the human mind; he has as much to say on that topic as does any protégé of Plato or Aristotle.

As Spinoza the theologian was well aware, the Biblical figures beautifully translated reality into images and events to produce the most indelible convictions in the minds of the faithful. Shakespeare's plays do the same, and can accomplish this feat without even a pretense that the events ever happened. What's more, Shakespeare defined the real language of the people -- the vulgar language -- not only during his own time but even today, half a millennium later, when his beloved English has become the closest thing we have to a universal tongue. When Shakespeare depicted an image, that image would become publicly available then ... and now. And so, when the "theatre of the passions" was played out in Spinoza's century -- as it is played out in every century -- it had already received some of its flesh and blood on the London stages that had been graced by the works of the Bard. Spinoza knew those passions well, as you might expect given that he was banished from his own community at the tender age of 23. And so, armed with the knowledge of these passions, which Shakespeare has made so real for so many, Spinoza set out to forge his own creation -- the "geometrical" deductions of his own masterwork, the Ethics.

This historical overview takes me back to where I started: the idea of philosophy as a practice. Attending a Shakespeare play is definitively an exercise in philosophical practice -- an exercise for which Hadot may have used the term "spiritual." It is intriguing for those who love Spinoza to consider that this brilliant philosopher from Stratford wrote so soon before the century of Spinoza. Was Spinoza influenced by Shakespeare? Were the psychological ruminations that many view to be the heart of the Ethics deepened by those of the Bard? Historians may well know the answer to these questions. But for me, as a lover of philosophy -- practical philosophy -- I'm just grateful that we can enjoy both of these luminaries as our teachers.

Sunday, March 13, 2011


The best argument for the proposition that America is a center-right country is that, whereas states like Utah and Mississippi can be counted on to support conservative measures, even the so-called “bluest” states aren’t reliably blue. That point was driven home yet again this week in my own home state of Maryland.

Currently, there are five states that legalize gay marriage. After a bill that would do the same in Maryland passed the State Senate, the Old Line State seemed destined to be the sixth. The Governor indicated he would sign the legislation, and the House was known to be more liberal than the Senate. So it’s a done deal, right? That certainly was the conventional wisdom.

Unfortunately, those of us who had counted our chickens before they hatched had failed to take into account the power of right-wing religious ideas even among supposedly progressive communities. And when push came to shove, the bill was done in by the “liberals” from the African-American and Catholic communities. They’ll reliably vote Democrat, but that doesn’t mean they condone “sodomy.”

The irony of African-American opposition to the gay marriage bill became quite the subject of debate among Maryland legislators. Some African-Americans pointed out the obvious: that it wasn’t long ago when conservatives thought that blacks and whites shouldn’t be able to marry each other, so how in good conscience can African-Americans support a law that prohibits other pairs of consenting adults from joining in holy matrimony? But merely to ask the question is to answer it. To a large swath of religious people, homosexuality can never be holy. It says so right there in the Lord’s book. Marriage is a sacred rite. And homosexuality is a sin. Never the twain shall meet. Those, apparently, are the views of a substantial percentage of Maryland’s progressive community.

Candidly, other than representatives of orthodox religious communities, I haven’t met a single Democrat who admits to opposing gay marriage. They’re hard to find in Reform or Reconstructionist Jewish congregations, that’s for sure. Among progressive Jews, gay marriage is a civil right. In fact, it’s more than just a right – the marriage ceremony is a sacred rite, bringing together two consenting adults who pledge their undying love to each other. Whether it involves two men, two women or one of each seems irrelevant to us. Whether the two can have children, want to have children, or will have children also seems irrelevant. We all know plenty of heterosexual couples who haven’t tried to have children, and none of us question whether their marriage is authentic.

It’s difficult enough for me to contemplate why progressives would attempt to take away the opportunity for two consenting adults to enjoy an undying love together. But what boggles my mind is how this right can be stripped … in the name of God? I’m sorry, but I can’t help believing that in 500 years, people will look back at those who once opposed gay marriage the same way that we today look at those who once opposed interracial marriage. Granted, the one kind of opposition might be grounded in Scripture, whereas the other isn’t, but Scripture also commands killing adulterers and women who aren’t virgins on their wedding night. Do we really want all religious people to dip into our respective Scriptures and advocate prohibitions of non-violent conduct among consenting adults? Do we really want the words of our Scriptures to determine whether our Government gets into the business of whether we should fall in love with a man or a woman? Or are we saying simply that, according to God, some people have the right to get married and others don’t? Whatever message is being sent here, it is neither modern nor spiritual.

Sunday, March 06, 2011


I’m sorry that I didn’t have a chance to author a substantial blog post this weekend. A brief note will have to suffice.

I find myself reflecting sometimes on just how small and petty the concerns of Washington can be. I’m thinking about the old saw that the only thing that matters in American politics is the economy – if it’s doing well, the incumbents will be rewarded; otherwise, they won’t. Supposedly, the political equation is just that simple. When we get a campaign team that really knows what they’re doing, like the one that impelled a young Bill Clinton to the Presidency in 1992, they come with slogans like, “It’s the economy, stupid.” And perhaps they’re right – if all a statesman cares about is getting re-elected, perhaps that is where he should be devoting virtually all of his time and energy. Of course, when you actually think about how a statesman on the federal level can truly serve her nation, becoming expert on a particular area of foreign policy comes immediately to mind.

As I read the newspapers and consider all that is going on today in the Middle East – in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Bahrain, Libya, Israel, Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan … (I could keep going, but you get the point) – it almost seems ridiculous to speak about our own economic needs in the same breath as the international issues. What is going on now in these countries could dramatically affect the future of our species. Am I exaggerating? Not when you consider the increasing potency of our weapons of mass destruction and the difficulty of keeping all the possible Middle Eastern genies inside their respective bottles. Clearly, what we need is a formula to usher in peace and prosperity in that region, and I’m not measuring prosperity by the wealth of the ruling class, but rather by the wealth of the middle and working classes. It is their poverty and lack of education that fuels all the violence … that, and the stubborn, ruthless leadership that the Middle Eastern people have so commonly faced over the years.

It would be glib to say that I know how the present events will unfold. Like everyone else, I haven’t a clue. All that I can do is pray for the best and hope that the toppling of tyrants will at least not make the situation worse. But with respect to the one Middle Eastern hotspot in which I have the broadest knowledge base and the longest history of activism – the Israel/Palestinian conflict – there I am hoping for something very specific. I desperately would like to see Netanyahu and Abbas figure out a way to go back to the bargaining table, where they would encounter an Obama and a Clinton who would propose a peace deal and fight like hell to see it implemented.

We absolutely must not squander this opportunity to reach such an agreement. At least let’s give it a try. It’s madness not to.