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Saturday, February 27, 2021


When I saw pictures of the gilded Trump statuette at CPAC my mind turned naturally to Exodus chapter 32 and I thought I would write a brief post about it, but unfortunately the Internet got there first and everybody has made the connection. It must be convenient to have so many Evangelicals in attendance you need them.

If we can beat back the frantic voter suppression laws being pushed by Republican state legislatures across the country, 2022 may turn out to be a good year for the Democrats.


Samuel Chase said...

OMG I did not know what this post was about, so I Googled it. Can all those religious people be that clueless? Hail Freedonia and the golden Trump!

Charles Pigden said...

Though any us with a modicum of Biblical knowledge would have been put in mind of the golden calf, less of us could name the exact chapter in Exodus in which it figures. I, at least, would have had to Google it.

Charles Pigden said...

Though many us with a modicum of Biblical knowledge would have been put in mind of the golden calf, less of us could name the exact chapter in Exodus in which it figures. I, at least, would have had to Google it.

On a related topic there are a couple of texts which are just taylor made to denounce Evangelical conservatives. I am surprised the they are not more widely used for this purpose:

14 Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye devour widows' houses, and for a pretence make long prayer: therefore ye shall receive the greater damnation.

15 Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye compass sea and land to make one proselyte, and when he is made, ye make him twofold more the child of hell than yourselves.

Mathew 23.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Charles Pigden, all of chapter 23 is marvelous. My favorite verse is 27, a little bit further down the page. I have long thought that one of the best proofs of the existence of God is the King James version of the Bible. Alas, I cannot read Hebrew, because when my parents floated the idea of a bar mitzvah I took the alternative – hundred dollars to buy myself some presence – and that was my last engagement with organized religion. A wasted youth.

Samuel Chase said...

Prof. Wolff,

I take it that you and Prof. Pigden use voice recognition software, which does not distinguish between homonyms.

Charles Pigden said...

Of course, if the original episode of golden-calf worshipping was anything like the orgy scene in 'The Ten Commandments' it was a lot more fun than the CPAC conference appears to have been.

Guy Mizrahi said...

It's interesting you write about the Old Testament today, Prof. Wolff. I'm currently sitting and taking the time to read it (cover to cover) for the first time in my life. I knew pieces from my bar-mitzvah, time living in Israel, and my great-grandfather (who was a Rabbi), but have never taken the time to appreciate all its nuances. It's almost blinding how beautiful it is (as a literary text at least, I'm an atheist though culturally Jewish and don't find myself interested in 'believing'). I wish I would have read it earlier than now (at age 20) as its lessons are so vast and applicable.

Two stories from it have seriously touched me so far, one of which you mention in your lectures on Marx: that of Jacob and the Angel. The way he wrestles with it, begging for some sort of blessing, is mirroring to so much in life and indeed an accurate parallel to philosophic reading. You can replace the angel with Kant, Hegel, Marx, Buber, or Kiekegaard--it doesn't matter--the truth stays the same. You must wrestle with it and never cease fighting until you are given the blessing you deserve!

The other was that of Moses bringing the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20 due to the fact I had just finished Kant's Groundwork the week before starting the Old Testament. It really does show how genius Kant was in that text to realize morality's failing if continent on religious truths. To prove there's a stronger, more stable, and entirely a priori version of the Golden Rule in 1785 is simply unbelievable. Kant really was an alien sent to us from somewhere far for the sole purpose of philosophical genius.

Danny said...

Completely normal people.

He's wearing a pair of American flag cargo pants. Is this where we point out that statue of Trump is in violation of the flag ordinance because of the shorts. He's holding a magic wand.

well trolled.

Danny said...

'To prove there's a stronger, more stable, and entirely a priori version of the Golden Rule in 1785 is simply unbelievable.'

a bit too true.

Charles Pigden said...

To Guy Mizrahi
I am sorry to disappoint, Guy, but in my view Kant's proof is definitely a dud. I am happy to send you the paper I am working on which to my mind proves the point. His key argument involves a quantifier-shift fallacy.

Here is my email address:

PS The paper contains an extended parody of the Book of Job (based on the King James version).

Samuel Chase said...

There are stories in the Old Testament (Tanakh) that I am confident a lot of people are not aware of. For example, just before the pandemic occurred I had occasion to attend a service at an Orthodox synagogue for the first time. The rabbi gave a sermon about Tamar, who had had sexual intercourse with her father-in-law. Unsure that I had heard right, I turned to the gentleman sitting next to me and asked, “Is that really in Genesis?” He nodded Yes.

And sure enough, it is: Genesis, 38.28. Her brother-in-law was Onan, who was punished for wasting his seed. The point of the story? Judge not lest ye be judged. Tamar had been betrothed to the son of Judah (one of Joseph’s brothers) who died immediately after the nuptials. As was the custom, she was then entitled to marry the next eldest son, who was Onan, who also passed away (because he had wasted his seed). Judah, concerned that Tamar was an omen of bad luck, sent her away, promising to recall her in a year to marry his third eldest son. This was a “right,” because marriage to a son of Judah was like marrying royalty, and denying Tamar that right was an insult. When Judah failed to keep his promise, Tamar dressed as a “harlot” when she knew Judah was going to be in the vicinity, and caught his attention. He had sexual intercourse with her, not recognizing who she was. In the course of the act, Tamar took his staff (the kind you walk with). When she became with child, as they say, Judah, realizing that she could not have become impregnated by any of his sons, declared she should be punished for having a child out of wedlock. At this point, Tamar showed him his staff and said that the father of the child was the owner of the staff. Realizing what he had done, Judah retracted the call for her to be punished, declaring, “She is more in the right than I, because I did not give her to my third eldest son.” Tamar bore twins.

Some may regard this and other stories in the Old Testament as crude and based on superstition. But we must remember the times about and during which they were written – times marked by extreme brutality, human sacrifice and tribal warfare. The stories were intended as prescriptions for a more humane existence. They do not always meet our contemporary sense of humane values (for example, the stories in Joshua depicting the conquest of the Canaanites), but there was little civilization during the times they depict.

Christopher J. Mulvaney, Ph.D. said...

Mr. Chase,
Regarding your comment that “...there was little civilization during the times they depict.” Consider the following from Walter Benjamin’s Theses on the Philosophy of History.

My wing is ready to fly
I would rather turn back
For had I stayed mortal time
I would have had little luck.
– Gerhard Scholem, “Angelic Greetings”

There is a painting by Klee called Angelus Novus. An angel is depicted there who looks as though he were about to distance himself from something which he is staring at. His eyes are opened wide, his mouth stands open and his wings are outstretched. The Angel of History must look just so. His face is turned towards the past. Where we see the appearance of a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe, which unceasingly piles rubble on top of rubble and hurls it before his feet. He would like to pause for a moment so fair [verweilen: a reference to Goethe’s Faust], to awaken the dead and to piece together what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise, it has caught itself up in his wings and is so strong that the Angel can no longer close them. The storm drives him irresistibly into the future, to which his back is turned, while the rubble-heap before him grows sky-high. That which we call progress, is this storm.

aaall said...

"But we must remember the times about and during which they were written – times marked by extreme brutality, human sacrifice and tribal warfare."

There was a marked reduction in y-chromosome lineages between the late Neolithic and Bronze ages in much of the world.

Samuel Chase said...

Christopher J. Mulvaney, Ph.D.,

I am not sure that I am getting your point. Are you asserting, in a rather circuitous manner, that my assertion that there was little civilization when the biblical tracts were written falsely suggests that we live in a more civilized society today? If that is your point (and if I am mistaken, please enlighten me), then surely mankind has made some progress, despite the fact that the Holocaust occurred in the 20th century, as well as the development of nuclear weapons and the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There is a vast difference, for example, between audiences watching with enjoyment gladiatorial combats to the death and audiences watching the contemporary equivalent of football players clashing together and causing concussions. Likewise, around 1200 B.C.E., unless your place in a society was at the apex of government, one lived in constant fear both from your own rulers, and the invading hordes of other rulers. While nation states still engage in warfare, nation states provide a higher degree of security to their populace then existed in 1200 B.C.E. through 1900 C.E. Therefore, while I would agree that there is surely room for improvement, I would maintain that it is not disputable that there has been significant progress.


I am also not sure of the point you are making. Only males carry the y-chromosome. Geneticists and anthropologists studying the lineage of the y-chromosome have determined that the world was populated by three separate migrations out of Africa. A reduction in the prevalence of the y-chromosome would suggest a reduction in the population of males in a society. So, are you asserting that the reduction you refer to confirms the existence of internecine brutality resulting in the deaths of males?

Samuel Chase said...


Grammatical error: "than existed"; not "then existed."

Eric said...

aaall is referring to the hypothesis that Y-chromosome genetic diversity declined as a result of warfare between clans that killed off so many men that subsequent generations were fathered by a much smaller pool of men. I don't know if it's been examined (I assume it has), but if a similar decline in mitochondrial DNA genetic diversity was not coincident, the interpretation would be that the cause of the Y-chromosome bottleneck was not events like infectious disease pandemics, which would generally be expected to have affected male lineages (Y chromosomes) and female lineages (mitochondrial DNA) to more or less the same degree.

henry said...

I wrote on this blog after Biden was inaugurated that it looks like he won't change the country substantively and that Biden's "Ambitious legislative agenda" will not be ambitious.

So far:
No minimum wage even though they have the clear ability to pass it if they wanted.
Bombed Syria right after announcement of minimum wage drop.
Stimulus pushed back to March, just like I said.
Redoubling down and re-igniting divisive identity politics.

Someone told me at my last positing 'come back in a month and gloat' if you want if Biden turns out to be the same old, same old. What they'll throw to the bottom 90% of wealth will be crumbs... just not enough., I'm here to gloat. Get ready folks for Neo-Hitler in 2024!

If the reply is something like "Legislation is complex and takes time"... then someone has to read Frank's Listen Liberal.

David Palmeter said...


The Democrats my "have the clear ability to pass it (minimum wage) if they wanted"--the Democrats have 50 members in the Senate, but they do not appear to have 50 votes for the $15 minimum wage.

I'm reminded of the time, early in Obama's first term, when the stimulus package was before Congress. Paul Krugman wrote a column critical of the package because it wasn't large enough. Rahm Emanuel, then Obama's chief of staff, was asked by a reporter to comment on Krugman's criticism. "I don't need Krugman to tell me that the stimulus should larger," he said. "I need him to tell me how to get 60 votes in the Senate for it."

Christopher J. Mulvaney, Ph.D. said...

Mr. Chase,

Lacking a model to use to make meaningful comparisons re: the levels of civilization that obtained at certain times in history. Broad based generalizations are typically not very useful. If we are talking about progress, there can be no ignoring nuclear weapons nor the Holocaust.

They are the two prime examples of barbarity in modern history. The ability to bomb the planet back to a Stone Age with a resultant nuclear winter represents new heights in as yet potential barbarity. No progress here except if you want to call an increase in the efficiency of death progress. Nuclear proliferation continues and the risks are higher now than during the Cold War. The Bulletin of Atomic Scientist’s Doomsday Clock is closer to zero than ever before (100 seconds). The imperative of capitalist expansion and exploitation of nature is leading to catastrophic climate change with commensurate impacts on humans. (BTW, the Gulf Stream current is weakening considerably. By itself, its collapse will lead to war and famine, and when the war is caused by an existential threat to the existence of the people of a country or region, its brutality is likely to be extreme).

The Holocaust was genocide on an industrial scale. To the best of my knowledge, prior to the early 20th century there was no concept of genocide, There were two major genocides in the 100yrs prior to the Holocaust. The deaths of 1.5 million or more Irish did not result from famine - food was exported to England while they refused, as a matter of governmental policy, to provide food aid. At least a million Armenians died at the hands of the Ottoman Empire. Americans still fail to understand the settling of North, Central and South American as genocide on a scale I don’t believe has ever been matched in the historical record, and many still think of it as destiny and progress.

What word does one use to characterize fact that as many as half of the 500,000 covid deaths in the U.S. that were caused by deliberate indifference by the government responsible for protecting the general welfare? Certainly not progress. Barbarism works for me. What word to describe a society whose massive accumulation of wealth could eliminate poverty, hunger, education and health disparities, etc. and a more just society created, but prefers to tolerate these inequities and justifies them as natural, a result of market forces, a fundamental character flaw, etc? To do nothing when much could be done is barbarous.

The idea of contrasting what a society is against what can be given its capacities I think should be credited to that flaming radical, Herbert Marcuse. As he states it: “All the material and intellectual forces which could be put to work for the realization of a free society are at hand. That they are not used for that purpose is to be attributed to the total mobilization of society against it’s own potential for liberation.” Herbert Marcuse, “The End of Utopia,” in Five Lectures, 1970.

As I look at it, this is not about progress. Rather, it is about the choice between the reasoned, moral choices, or barbarism. The advances made in the production of vaccines through the mRNA technique are astounding, that is progress, and they were made due to the massive investment of social resources (tax dollars) to finance the basic research, which was more costly than even big pharma could handle. But while scientific progress has been made, it must be balanced against what progress was un-made when hundreds of thousands died due to a callous disregard of human life. I see this as barbarity reasserting itself, hoping not to be recognized as such.

From Bemjamin’s perspective, the bodies continue to pile up at the feet of the Angel regardless of how much progress the living think they have brought about.

jeffrey g kessen said...

Chris, Ph.D. I see god-awful prose, "as barbarity reasserting itself, hoping not to be recognized as such."

Christopher J. Mulvaney, Ph.D. said...

Jeffrey g lessen -
I’ll plead guilty to the charge of god-awful prose. Perhaps a god-awful reality demands god awful prose.

Samuel Chase said...

I don’t know about that, Christopher Mulvaney, Ph.D. T.S. Elliott wrote about a pretty horrible world in the Wasteland, yet he did not use god-awful poetry to do it. Obscure and rather incomprehensible poetry, perhaps, but not god-awful. And then there are these superb lines about a horrible world:

“Ah love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept by confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.”

L.F. Cooper said...

I recognized the poem but couldn't place the author, had to search on the last line to discover who it was. So much for my cultural literacy!

Btw no one expects great prose in a blog comment thread -- at least, I don't.

Adam said...

Describing Judaism as an "organized religion" puts me in mind of Will Rogers... (with admiration to the hardworking professionals in synagogues, Jewish schools, camps, etc.)

Eric said...

Samuel Chase: "... there was little civilization during the times they depict."
"one lived in constant fear both from your own rulers, and the invading hordes of other rulers"

Human society is far more complex today than in 1200 BCE, but are we really more civilized in a moral sense? That is debatable.

Many today live in constant fear of their own rulers (thus the Back Lives Matter movement). Many today live in fear of the invading hordes—or drone strikes—of other rulers.

And Christopher J. Mulvaney is right. The Holocaust and atomic bombings of Japan cannot be so easily dismissed as aberrations. The ethnic cleansing of Native Americans. The enslavement of Africans and state-sanctioned apartheid after the end of de jure slavery in the US. "Eugenic" forced sterilization. My Lai. Rwanda. Hundreds of thousands—perhaps millions—of civilian deaths in Iraq. Millions of children being starved with the help of your tax dollars right now in Yemen.

"We tortured some folks," and half of the US population is ok with that as I write this.

The Islamic State can hardly be said to be uncivilized, if by your definition being civilized is largely a function of having complex social structures. (Incidentally, the Shang Chinese had a pretty technologically advanced society in 1200 BCE, with huge walls to keep out invaders.)

Eric said...

"Some may regard this and other stories in the Old Testament as crude and based on superstition. But we must remember the times about and during which they were written – times marked by extreme brutality, human sacrifice and tribal warfare. The stories were intended as prescriptions for a more humane existence."

Like the story where God tells Abraham to kill his son Isaac and Abraham gets ready to do it. Yeah, lots of great moral prescriptions for more humane existence in those old stories.

Anonymous said...

The poem Samuel Chase quotes from is Dover Beach, by Matthew Arnold; not Eliot's Wasteland. And Eliot's last name is spelled Eliot. --Fritz Poebel

Eric said...

A lot of the arguments and discussions in the comments pages here (and elsewhere) proceed with an implied assumption that most agree on certain basic values and that the main disagreements are on merely how best to realize those values. I think this is a very flawed assumption.

I don't think there is agreement at all on what the underlying values are. Most in Westernized societies such as the US say, for instance, that they highly value the principle of "equality." But what do people mean by that?

Is organizing humanity in a way that prioritizes equality one of the very highest goals of the people who contribute frequently to the discussions on this blog? And if so, again, what do we mean by "equality"?

Here are a few questions to try to explore this:

In your view
(1) Should how civilized a society is be judged primarily in terms of the degree of equality within it?

(2) Should the degree of civilization of a society be judged in terms of how richly the most privileged can live in the society or in terms of how richly the least well-off can live in it?

(3) If forced to choose between a very complex society with very high levels of inequality and a very simple society with very low levels of inequality, which should we prefer?

(By "very complex society" I mean, of course, the US today, where we have nauseatingly complex systems of laws and occupational specialization and we can do things like cure cancers, split atoms, send robots to Mars, videochat with people on the other side of the planet [or in space], clone animals or even create new organisms through genetic engineering.)

Eric said...

One other bit of food for thought:

The way that [the collapse of society] been framed [in popular culture] is it's always been this kind of desolate, barren landscape which is now just littered with little bits and fragments of technology, and people have to both fend for themselves and feed off the scraps of the previous society. I think [a problem with this view] is the notion that once we are left without the apparatus of the state, everyone ... would descend into a war of all against all—as Thomas Hobbes would say—it's kind of anarchy, where everyone is in a perpetual state of violence.

And that doesn't really hold up that well, insofar as in most previous collapses, when people dispersed from city centers or simply just left areas, they usually end up just going back into simpler lifestyles, and that doesn't necessarily mean a drastically larger amount of violence. In the case of many ancient societies, it was actually a better life.

I'd take being a hunter-gatherer over being a Babylonian citizen any day.

A conversation with Luke Kemp PhD on the collapse of civilization (& how to avoid it) (Youtube)

Samuel Chase said...

Fritz Poebel,

It was obvious I was not claiming to be quoting from The Wasteland, since I stated "and then there are these superb line ..." the word "then" indicating a reference to a different poem.

Samuel Chase said...


I find it absolutely astounding that you do not understand that the story about the binding of Isaac is intended as a parable condemning human sacrifice, since Abraham’s hand is stayed.

Regarding whether civilization has made progress since 1200 B.C.E., despite its shortcomings, I believe that you and J.C. Mulvaney minimize the constant reign of terror in which the masses lived, with the confiscation of their property, the rape of their wives and daughters, the pillage of villages and the rampant and arbitrary taking of human life a constant threat. The threat of persecution and bigotry which is a deplorable aspect of the lives of African Americans does not compare to the state of constant oppression and brutality in which individuals living in Sumeria, Babylonia, Assyria, Egypt, … existed. It was as if the entire known world was one large Syria dominated by a despot who engaged in human slaughter at will. At least today there exist nation states which are not like Syria.

David Palmeter said...

I think that civilization definitely has progressed since 1200 B.C.E to the degree that there is some support today for things like human rights and even laws of war. Generally, when a war is over today, the victor doesn't kill all of the men and enslave the women and children of the losers. What makes our situation so bad is that despite some increase in what we call civilization, the technology of killing has increased even more. Atilla and the others didn't have nuclear weapons. Had they possessed them, I'm sure they would have used then--and wouldn't have felt at all guilty about it.

L. F. Cooper said...

Clearly Chase wasn't quoting from The Wasteland: first, he said he wasn't, in effect; second, the quotation doesn't sound anything like Eliot. (And my self-deprecating comment @5:26 about having to Google Dover Beach only makes sense, of course, in that context.)

Christopher J. Mulvaney, Ph.D. said...

@Cooper and Chase
That sounds like a law firm! I know the V.P for Academic Affairs at the UNM Health Sciences Center. I have had a close look at how the University and Health Sciences Center prepared for and dealt with Covid-19. It was an immensely complicated exercise to revamp ER operations, devise policies that kept medical, nursing, etc. students safe, and actually creating new wards to handle the caseload surges. At one point the UNM hospital was at 120+ capacity for weeks. Almost every physician doing out-patient treatment was drafted to cover the surge patients in the new wards while doing out-patient duty via zoom. Docs and nurses from UNM Hospital were sent to a field hospital that was set up to deal with the surge on the Navaho reservation. Amazing science was done quickly to provide antibody cocktails, to test remdisavir to prove efficacy and safety, DNA analysis, PCR tests, etc .

It was not rocket science to know what the government needed to do, and it did almost nothing except dissemble, outright lie, and encourage folks not to do what they needed to do to avoid infection. A little hypothetical if I may. Khufu, King of Egypt circa 2500 BCE. He is building temples and pyramids, has a large army ready to defend the realm from the Hittites (or whoever), but the realm is experiencing crop failures and famine. Nobody knows why the crops failed or what to do about it. The King has huge stores of grains at his disposal, yet he refuses to distribute the surplus to the peasants and tens of thousand of Egyptians die. Maintaining government and the army seems to Khufu to be a necessity, He is afraid other regional potentates with similar problems may want to use force to acquire his grain. He’s the first person to say “let them eat cake.”

How do we evaluate the King and Trump and rank them on a scale that ranges from very civilized to very barbaric. King Khufu decided to save the ruling class, priests, and army and let a significant number of peasants die. Trump, it seems to me, behaved as barbarously as our Egyptian friend, perhaps more so, because while the Khufu didn’t know what was killing the crops and how to combat the disease, Tump had answers to the questions of “what and how.” Trump’s government had an immense governmental capacity and legal authority to take all the necessary steps to limit transmission of covid. Like Khufu, he didn’t act.

So, who is more civilized, why and what is civilization anyway.

Eric said...

Samuel Chase:

God said, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.”

Then, at the last minute, God spoke to Abraham again through an angel:
“Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from Me your son, your only son.” ...

The angel of the Lord called to Abraham from heaven a second time and said, “I swear by myself, declares the Lord, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed Me.”

Genesis 22

This is not teaching about the evil of human sacrifice. They already weren't practicing human sacrifices. That's why Isaac was surprised and asked his father, when they got up to the mountain with the wood but no ram, where the ram was for the sacrifice.

This story, all of the story of Abraham, is about OBEDIENCE. God could have told Abraham to just perform a human sacrifice. Any human. Abraham could have chosen a criminal. Instead, God specifically told him to kill his own son as an act of obedience. And when Abraham showed he was fully willing to comply, God told him that he would reward him lavishly specifically for having shown such impressive obedience.

(And imo if the story was to teach about the horror of human sacrifice, it failed, because hundreds of millions of continue to perform ritual human blood sacrifice—in circumcision and/or transubstantiation—today.)

Eric said...

Well said, again, Christopher J. Mulvaney.

In fact, it may be even worse than that Trump just didn't act. According to a member of Jared Kushner's COVID-19 response team, the team had developed a detailed plan to fight the pandemic but the plan was scrapped because it was thought that the states who were being most hurt by the pandemic were governed by Democrats so the fallout from less aggressive federal action on the pandemic would favor Republicans during the election. Some comments Kushner himself made also seem to support this interpretation.

(Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York is currently embroiled in his own scandal resulting from his having made decisions on the basis of political calculations that may have led to an unnecessarily larger number of COVID-19 deaths than might otherwise have been the case.)

Samuel Chase said...

As usual, Eric, you do not know what the hell you are talking about. First, human sacrifice prevailed in many societies well into the 5th century C.D.E. – it was routinely practiced by the Spartans, who engaged in infanticide, killing those they deemed weak. And into the 9th century C.D.E. It was routinely practiced by the Aztecs. Regarding your misreading of the story of the binding of Isaac, below is the explanation espoused in Jewish theology:

“In The Binding of Isaac, Religious Murders & Kabbalah, Lippman Bodoff argues that Abraham never intended to actually sacrifice his son, and that he had faith that God had no intention that he do so. Rabbi Ari Kahn (on the Orthodox Union website) elaborates this view as follows: Isaac's death was never a possibility — not as far as Abraham was concerned, and not as far as God was concerned. God's commandment to Abraham was very specific, and Abraham understood it very precisely: Isaac was to be "raised up as an offering", and God would use the opportunity to teach humankind, once and for all, that human sacrifice, child sacrifice, is not acceptable. This is precisely how the sages of the Talmud (Taanit 4a) understood the Akedah. Citing the Prophet Jeremiah's exhortation against child sacrifice (Chapter 19), they state unequivocally that such behavior "never crossed God’s mind", referring specifically to the sacrificial slaughter of Isaac. Though readers of this parashah throughout the generations have been disturbed, even horrified, by the Akedah, there was no miscommunication between God and Abraham. The thought of actually killing Isaac never crossed their minds.

The Jewish Publication Society suggests Abraham's apparent complicity with the sacrifice was actually his way of testing God. Abraham had previously argued with God to save lives in Sodom and Gomorrah. By silently complying with God's instructions to kill Isaac, Abraham was putting pressure on God to act in a moral way to preserve life. More evidence that Abraham thought that he would not actually sacrifice Isaac comes from Genesis 22:5, where Abraham said to his servants, "You stay here with the ass. The boy and I will go up there; we will worship and we will return to you." By saying we (as opposed to I), he meant that both he and Isaac would return. Thus, he did not believe that Isaac would be sacrificed in the end.”

Your comparison of the ritual of circumcision to human sacrifice exposes your anti-Semitism.

L.F. Cooper said...

@ Christopher Mulvaney

I haven't expressed a view here on the issue of "civilization" and "progress" (partly b/c I really don't have time right now). The distinction betw "material" and "moral" progress is relevant and has already been suggested in the comments. I tend to think the whole debate is kind of futile, because it's hard to agree on definitions of the relevant terms. Indeed it's sometimes difficult enough to figure out the question even for considerably shorter time periods (the comparison of 1200 BCE to the present wd require me to know more about 1200 BCE than I am confident I do). And w that, shutting off computer for the evening.

Samuel Chase said...

In my comment above, should be “5th century B.C.E.” and “9th Century C.E.”

Samuel Chase said...


The name of the law firm is "Chase and Cooper."

s. wallerstein said...


You're back disqualifying people who disagree with you again. Eric is not an anti-semite.

The Old Testament is a compilation of old tribal legends that were put together in one book many centuries later. It is quite possible that the story of Abraham and Isaac dates from a time when human sacrifice was practiced by what we can call "the pre-Hebrews" and then was made more palatable when rewritten in the priestly period of by then Jewish history. In any case, I don't see why the rabbinical sources which you cite should be seriously considered as experts on what ancient Hebrews (who were not even really monotheistic and certainly not Jewish in the doctrinal sense we use today) believed and practiced. I studied a semester on the Old Testament in Columbia University and while I don't recall all the details I learned back then, I retain a general idea.

Before we learned general ideas of surgical hygiene, circumcision must have left many infant deaths through infection. I think that it can be considered a cruel practice, especially before modern antiseptic techniques became available.

No doubt that you will accuse me of being a "self-hating Jew". However, I use my paternal last name to comment here, a last name which is recognibly Jewish. My maternal last name is Kohn, as Jewish as a last name can be. If you are so proud of being Jewish, I wonder why you use goyish aliases to comment here such as Samuel Chase
and Julius La Rosa.

Samuel Chase said...

s. wallerstein,

It never ceases to amaze me how far you are willing to go to take issue with me, even to the extent of defending a person who made a patently anti-Semitic remark, asserting he is not anti-Semitic, as if you know him personally. Your point that the circumcision of male newborns over the centuries must have “left many infant deaths through infection” (even assuming this were true, for which you have no evidence) does not equate to Eric’s statement, to wit: “[H]undreds of millions … continue to perform ritual human blood sacrifice—in circumcision and/or transubstantiation—today.” Stating that circumcision TODAY is a form of “ritual blood sacrifice” – EVEN IN THE ABSENCE OF INFECTION – is an anti-Semitic remark, I don’t care how ingeniously you attempt to cut it. (Pun intended.)

Moreover, your general recollection of what you learned during your one semester course at Columbia some 50 years ago has quite evidently faded. As I indicated in a previous comment, the general consensus among contemporary biblical scholars – both Jewish and non-Jewish – is that the Torah was written by Hebrew scribes during the Babylonian captivity, from approximately 586 B.C.E. (when the First Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians) to 539 B.C.E., when King Cyrus of Persia freed the Hebrews and allowed them to return to Judea, where the built the Second Temple in Jerusalem. The stories the scribes recorded in the Torah were intended to inspire and give hope to the exiled Hebrews that they would one day return to the home of their ancestors. The priestly period you refer to occurred after the Babylonian captivity and after the Second Temple was built.

And no, I will not call you a “self-hating Jew.” I will call you a benighted Jew who often claims to know a lot more than he actually does. As for my surname, you would be surprised how many non-Jews actually have Jewish heritage, without knowing it. Watch Henry Louis Gates’ “Finding Your Roots,” if it is available in Chile.

s. wallerstein said...

The Priestly source (P) is considered one of the most important sources for the Old Testament, including the books of the Torah.

Samuel Chase said...

s. wallerstein,

An excerpt from the article you cited.

“While most scholars consider P to be one of the latest strata of the Pentateuch, post-dating both J and D,[35] since the 1970s a number of Jewish scholars have challenged this assumption, arguing for an early dating of the Priestly material. Avi Hurvitz, for example, has forcefully argued on linguistic grounds that P represents an earlier form of the Hebrew language than what is found in both Ezekiel and Deuteronomy, and therefore pre-dates both of them. These scholars often claim that the late-dating of P is due in large part to a Protestant bias in biblical studies which assumes that "priestly" and "ritualistic" material must represent a late degeneration of an earlier, "purer" faith. These arguments have not convinced the majority of scholars, however.”

Once again, you claim to know more than you actually do.

s. wallerstein said...

Once again, Mr. Sam Trump, you can't participate in a simple dialogue about the dating of the Torah without disqualifying someone.

Samuel Chase said...

s. wallerstein,

You're a putz. IT'S FROM THE ARTICLE YOU CITED. (Yes, I know, my penchant for ad hominem is emerging again - but you certainly bring it out in me.)

s. wallerstein said...

As always, you act in bad faith. I think that you are aware that my irritation was not due to the quote from the article (which leaves open both sides of the question, yours and mine), but your concluding comment not my not knowing as much as I claim to.

When one speaks to you, one has to waste hours explaining your intentional misinterpretation of whatever one says.

aaall said...

"I'd take being a hunter-gatherer over being a Babylonian citizen any day."

Which was sort of my point. When the patriarchal "adjustments" were made the world's human population was in the low seven figures at best. As the temper of the above discussion demonstrates, we are still burdened by that genetic adjustment.

Folks like Cyrus and Ashoka figured there must be a better way.

Eric said...

@s. wallerstein,
Thanks. Much appreciated.

@Samuel Chase,
I'd rather discuss the questions I posed on March 2, 7:25pm.
What are you answers to those questions?

s. wallerstein said...

Anti-semitism is hating, discriminating against or persecuting Jewish people. It has to nothing to do with legitimate criticism of the Jewish religion, which is as ridiculous as
all religions are.

In any case, I doubt that anyone who regularly participates in a blog run by a Jewish philosopher professor and at times expresses admiration for his ideas is an anti-Semite.

Samuel Chase said...

Well now you have earned the label self-hating Jew. You are insufferable.

L.F. Cooper said...

Thoughts prompted by Eric's questions on March 2 @7:25 p.m.

Of course, philosophers, political theorists and others have spilled gallons of ink over a long time on what "equality" means.

There are various distinctions and concepts that one might suggest. Unlike a number of readers and commenters here, I happen to think that Rawls is still a fairly good guide to thinking about distributive questions and the meaning of equality, but this blog has probably had enough discussions of Rawls.

So I'm going to reference instead Samuel Moyn's distinction, in his fairly recent book Not Enough, between sufficiency and equality. Those concerned about sufficiency want to ensure that everyone has some minimum level of adequate provision of, say, income (or health care or education or housing or whatever) but don't worry about disparities between the worst and the best off, as long as the worst off are above some agreed-on minimum. Advocates of equality, in Moyn's perspective, are concerned about the relative distance between classes and/or individuals, about how the overall pie is divided.

Moyn tends to present these as opposing perspectives, but they don't have to be. One can combine them, looking both to sufficiency, i.e., the establishment of minimum levels of provision, and to equality, i.e., the narrowing of gaps between the richest and the poorest (and those in between). It's common to observe that most western and northern European countries do better on both counts than the U.S. -- i.e., their versions of capitalism are more egalitarian (or less inegalitarian) than the U.S. version, and also ensure that people's basic needs (for minimum levels of adequate health care and education etc.) are met more effectively than in the U.S. These differences stem from politics, culture, and history, and have proved resistant to change in the sense that the U.S. remains something of an outlier among so-called advanced capitalist countries in the way it approaches these matters.

I don't think it's very useful to drag the word "civilized" in here because it's somewhat vague and carries a lot of baggage. But I do think that the degree of inequality tolerated in the U.S., and the way it has increased in the last 45 years or so, is at odds with the soaring declarations of national purpose and much of the rhetoric that permeates political campaigns. There are some politicians who are serious about addressing inequality in one way or another; Warren, for example, is introducing legislation to enact a wealth tax, i.e., on fortunes over $50 million, of the sort she advocated when running for President.

On the question of whether a very complex society with high levels of inequality is preferable to a "very simple society" with low levels of inequality, I don't think that choice is going to present itself in the contemporary world very often. There aren't that many "very simple societies" left and to the extent they exist, they are not usually national societies but are rather represented by groups who tend to live in isolated areas -- e.g., rain forests or, in the case of the !Kung, deserts -- and have managed to preserve ways of life that have existed for a very long time. On a purely philosophical level I suppose it could be an interesting question, and one can go back, for example, to Rousseau's Discourse on Inequality for an instance of a thinker who seems torn between admiring the simplicity of the most "primitive" existence conceivable and the (often rather submerged in the text) feeling that an existence featuring an endless round of sameness might not be all that appealing. Well, I've rambled on enough.

David Palmeter said...

L.F. Cooper,

Many years ago, I read T.M. Scanlon's "What We Owe Each Other." Unfortunately for me, I don't recall a substantive thing about the book, but the title has stayed with me. I think it asks what is the central social question. Please keep up your rambles. I look forward to them.

L.F. Cooper said...

Thanks, David P. (I haven't read the Scanlon book but am aware of its existence.)

Was going to go into the department of personal anecdote, but am a little reluctant to do so, esp. now that I'm commenting here under a fuller name rather than just my initials. But the very short version is that in the first semester of my freshman year in college I took a seminar on "equality in modern society" and, more than four decades later, I'm still in touch with the instructor (who was then a young assistant professor and is now at another institution).

jeffrey g kessen said...

Great line, Cooper: "...the department of personal anecdote..". Wildly informative and entertaining that you attended a seminar way back when and that you're still in touch with the instructor. Touching, rather, to be sure. Here's an anecdote more fetching: In the first semester of my freshman year in college, I "attended" a course in philosophy but was thrown out abruptly for being a fucking ass-hole. Too much aptitude for the subject.

L.F. Cooper said...

jeffrey g. kessen, I also "attended" a philosophy course in my freshman year (spring semester). Wasn't thrown out but didn't like it much. So much for whatever thoughts I had of being a philosophy major.

I won't ask you to elaborate on your somewhat cryptic comment and the remark about "too much aptitude," since presumably if you'd wanted to go into the details of that incident, you would have.

Eric said...

L.F. Cooper,
Thanks for those comments. I don't see what you wrote as rambling at all.

As a still relative newcomer to this blog, I think I have missed nearly all of the past discussions on Rawls. I apologize if in asking how contributors feel about equality I have asked about a subject that has already been discussed ad nauseam here.

My framing of civilization in moral terms was in response to that having been the implicit framing in the statement "[W]e must remember the times about and during which [stories in the Old Testament] were written – times marked by extreme brutality, human sacrifice and tribal warfare.... They do not always meet our contemporary sense of humane values ... but there was little civilization [my emphasis] during the times they depict."

Of course, it is possible to discuss philosophical ideas in an abstract way, as an academic exercise—examining the strengths and weaknesses of arguments in terms of, say, internal consistency; or studying relationships between the ideas and the work of various philosophers in history; etc.—without saying anything about one's personal feelings about the ideas and how one sees the ideas applying in one's own life. So my questions were intended to directly interrogate how folks here feel about equality and which values should be regarded as being of highest importance in judging how human communities (clans, tribes, nation-states, the global human community) should be structured.

Eric said...

I was not previously aware of Samuel Moyn's "Not Enough: Human rights in an Unequal World." He seems to be getting at some of the issues that I am interested in.

This passage is from an interview published by Harvard University Press discussing the book:

Question: One way of describing "Not Enough" is that it’s a world history of how people have thought about the fair distribution of the good things in life—who should get what—and you track the shifting global focus from equality (a concern for the share of those good things enjoyed by the least fortunate with respect to the share going to the world’s most well off) to sufficiency (a concern for the share going to the least fortunate only with respect to some minimum level of provision). The philosopher Harry Frankfurt, among others, has argued that inequality shouldn’t concern us as long as sufficiency is satisfied, and Steven Pinker has of course just published another bestseller arguing that humankind has never been better off, in large part because of the steady improvements in absolute quality of life for many in the developing world. Make the case for equality.

Samuel Moyn: Equality might matter as a moral principle in its own right, as many philosophers other than Frankfurt have contended. From the Jacobins in the French Revolution to John Rawls, some modicum of equality always has had a certain number of proponents, though they have debated what precisely requires equalization and how far to justify departures from perfect equality, as most did.... [O]ne of my goals in "Not Enough" is to locate the first thinker who contended that sufficient provision is all that morality requires of our institutions—I claim it was Thomas Paine.

I also track how early socialists slowly took on board distributional equality as a norm.... By the end, the goal is to show how unusual it is to have advocates of sufficiency alone as prominent as Frankfurt or Pinker, in the absence of egalitarian movements and politics, which were rife across modern history. It would have appalled many of our ancestors to see how many people today agree that it is morally acceptable how far the rich are allowed to tower over the rest as long as the poor are at least somewhat better off. [my emphasis]

Eric said...

My sense is that many of the blog commenters here agree outright with Harry Frankfurt's view that inequality shouldn't concern us so long as sufficiency is satisfied.

Some probably believe, further, that if sufficient provision is made to ensure some minimal level of security for the those at the bottom, the absence of any real upper limit on wealth accumulation is actually a social good because it encourages innovation and economic prosperity, which benefit all, including those least well-off. In the US today, all Republicans and most Democratic elected officials seem to believe this. The leaders of the Democratic Party, including the Clintons, Obama, Biden, Pelosi, and Schumer, certainly seem to believe this, if we are to judge by their actions as opposed to their rhetoric.

Eric said...

One of my younger brothers is devoutly Catholic. (As a youngster, he had planned to go to seminary. He signs off many of his letters to other Christians with "In Christ.")

I know that he is deeply concerned about the welfare of the poor. (Or, at least, of poor children.)

He supports many Democrats and abhors Trump. During the Democratic primary race in 2019-20, I tried to convince him that Sanders (or even Warren) would be better than Buttigieg, but he told me flat out that he opposed the wealth tax that Sanders and Warren supported because he is against the idea of wealth redistribution, no matter what those such as Zucman and Saez might say.

I am still trying to reconcile this.

Eric said...

L. F. Cooper: On the question of whether a very complex society with high levels of inequality is preferable to a "very simple society" with low levels of inequality, I don't think that choice is going to present itself in the contemporary world very often.

I was trying to frame the discussion rhetorically using ideal, extreme situations in order to bring the underlying values into full focus.

As a practical matter, decisions are before us on how best to respond to the climate crisis. Some argue that one way to reduce carbon expenditures is to slash energy needs by reducing the rate of population expansion and by choosing simpler lifestyles. Perhaps our current Western ideas of what constitutes a good life, when we tend to view as indispensable many material goods that our ancestors likely would have regarded as lifestyle luxuries, need a reassessment.

L. F. Cooper said...

I'm only seeing your recent comments just now; they didn't show up in a timely way on my computer for some reason (that's not your fault), and now it's late here and I'm on my phone and I can't read them properly and respond right now. Will read them at some point over the weekend. (Whether I have responses will depend partly on what you said and partly on time constraints.)

L. F. Cooper said...

Actually I have read your comments quickly now. I think you are perhaps underestimating the number of commenters here who are concerned about 'equality' in Moyn's sense of the word. Have to leave it at that for the moment.

s. wallerstein said...

I don't know the work of the philosophers whom you discuss above, but I'm certainly as egalitarian as Sanders is. Almost everyone who comments regularly in this blog supported Sanders in 2016 and 2020.

Some days I believe that we can advance towards socialism, a classless society and other days I'm more skeptical. Watching the behavior of my fellow human beings during this pandemic has not increased my faith in humanity or in their ability to achieve socialism, since socialism, if it's not to be some form of Leninist imposed from above, seems to require a certain amount of cooperation and common effort on the part of the citizens.

When I observe the quantity of people without masks, who do not observe a meter of distance from others, who block the sidewalk smoking, who just don't seem to care about others, I doubt that we can achieve socialism in the near future. There's nothing like seeing a young person without a mask with a tee shirt with a revolutionary slogan or Che Guevara on it to make one skeptical of revolutionary change.

In any case, socialism remains an ethical ideal for me at least just as, say, respect for others is an ethical ideal. I try to be respectful and it would be great if everyone were respectful of others, but that's not the case.

Eric said...

Christopher J. Mulvaney: "To the best of my knowledge, prior to the early 20th century there was no concept of genocide, There were two major genocides in the 100yrs prior to the Holocaust."

I would be surprised if the concept of genocide doesn't go back much farther than that.
Have a gander at chapter 15 of the first Book of Samuel:

Samuel said to Saul, “The Lord sent me to anoint you king over his people Israel; now therefore listen to the words of the Lord. 2 Thus says the Lord of hosts, ‘I will punish the Amalekites for what they did in opposing the Israelites when they came up out of Egypt. 3 Now go and attack Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have; do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.’

4 So Saul summoned the people, and numbered them in Telaim, two hundred thousand foot soldiers, and ten thousand soldiers of Judah. 5 Saul came to the city of the Amalekites and lay in wait in the valley. 6 Saul said to the Kenites, “Go! Leave! Withdraw from among the Amalekites, or I will destroy you with them; for you showed kindness to all the people of Israel when they came up out of Egypt.” So the Kenites withdrew from the Amalekites. 7 Saul defeated the Amalekites, from Havilah as far as Shur, which is east of Egypt. 8 He took King Agag of the Amalekites alive, but utterly destroyed all the people with the edge of the sword. 9 Saul and the people spared Agag, and the best of the sheep and of the cattle and of the fatlings, and the lambs, and all that was valuable, and would not utterly destroy them; all that was despised and worthless they utterly destroyed.


Notice that it wasn't just a matter of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The Kenites who were in the area were not the target; they were allowed to live. Also, it was the Amalekite people who were the primary target—"the best of the sheep and cattle" were spared (or were taken as property?).

Eric said...

Thinking about the subject of the long list of atrocities that have been committed within recent memory, despite our level of civilization, I was reminded of how gutwrenching it was to discover recently that one of my favorite authors of my childhood, L. Frank Baum, wrote the following when he was a newspaper publisher in the 1890s:

With his fall the nobility of the Redskin is extinguished, and what few are left are a pack of whining curs who lick the hand that smites them. The Whites, by law of conquest, by justice of civilization, are masters of the American continent, and the best safety of the frontier settlements will be secured by the total annihilation of the few remaining Indians. Why not annihilation? Their glory has fled, their spirit broken, their manhood effaced; better that they die than live the miserable wretches that they are.


The Pioneer [name of the newspaper] has before declared that our only safety depends upon the total extirmination of the Indians. Having wronged them for centuries we had better, in order to protect our civilization, follow it up by one more wrong and wipe these untamed and untamable creatures from the face of the earth.

For most of my adult life I had viewed Baum as something of a hero. He chose as a protagonist in his stories of the land of Oz a fearless young girl. His most well-known work told the story of a savior who helped free an enslaved people. And yet now we know that he was also a supporter of genocide.

(Those who choose to look at the glass as being half-full will no doubt point to the fact that Baum's descendants have apologized for his racism as a sign of progress.)

L.F. Cooper said...

Comments on two different things:

Re 'simplicity' and climate change (Eric @9:34 above): noted. There's also the "de-growth" (or maybe it's degrowth without the hyphen) movement. Not expressing an opinion on it now, just noting.

On genocide: Raphael Lemkin coined the word genocide in 1943 or '44. In that sense the concept is fairly recent, and I think that's what C. Mulvaney was referring to. But acts constituting what would now be called genocide go back probably much further, as you suggest.

Christopher J. Mulvaney, Ph.D. said...

To: Eric and L.F. Cooper,
Thanks to L.F.Cooper for pointing out in response to Eric’s note that it is the ‘concept’ of genocide that is new, not genocide itself. Sartre, in On Genocide, notes that Lemkin coined the term “between the two world wars,” but there is no citation.

Eric said...

L.F. Cooper,

Yes, the degrowth movement is a good example of some of what I have been thinking about in terms of simpler societies/lifestyles. Last year Michael Moore, as executive producer, and two collaborators released a film ("Planet of the Humans") that they hoped would stimulate a lot of discussion about the limitations of the current predominant models of green energy production and use and would refocus attention toward the possibility of degrowth as one of the primary strategies for confronting climate change. The film was unsparing in its criticism of the corporate ties of high-profile figures in the environmental movement like Bill McKibben, Al Gore, Van Jones, and Michael Bloomberg, accusing them of greenwashing.

The response to the film from the likes of Josh Fox, Naomi Klein, George Monbiot, climatologist Michael E. Mann, and the Sunrise Movement (in other words, the institutional left green movement) was almost universally negative. They called the film outdated and misleading, and some of them tried to get it removed from circulation. There was no discussion of the points the film raised about degrowth as a part of the solution to our climate woes, other than to accuse the filmmakers of promoting coercive neo-Malthusianism.

During the recent Democratic primary campaigns, there was a bit of discussion of climate change and there were calls for a Green New Deal. What discussion was there about degrowth, apart from calls for increasing the use of electric vehicles and improving the energy efficiency of buildings? Can you recall any time that degrowth came up during a town hall event, or a campaign debate, or in an interview with any of the candidates on a major news platform? (The NYT and WaPo ran pieces on the candidates' positions on fossil fuels and nuclear energy, but were there any questions about degrowth?)

It's not on the policymakers' radar. I think for most of them (the politicians and the media), climate change is, as Secretary of State and former Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson put it, just "an engineering problem" to be managed with technological advances rather than social changes.