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As the American Mind Keeps Closing, Can the Bible Help to Keep It Open?

Revisiting the philosopher Allan Bloom’s seminal The Closing of the American Mind (first published in 1987) and its attacks on the stultifying intellectual climate of American universities, Jon D. Levenson both evaluates how well its strictures apply to today’s college campuses and raises questions about Bloom’s treatment of the Bible. To Levenson, there is little doubt that most of the trends highlighted by Bloom have only worsened, but Bloom’s diagnosis of the underlying problem as one of moral and cultural relativism now falls flat. Instead, a new absolutism appears as the greatest threat. As for the Bible, Levenson writes:

[I]f the biblical books are read in the modern educational context as Bloom recommended, “with the gravity of the potential believer,” they will not be presented as “their authors wished them to be read” [which is how Bloom argues all Great Books should be approached] at all: they will be read through the interpretive lenses of the ongoing traditions to which the believers are committed and, in some cases (certainly the Jewish), in tandem with other books with authoritative status in those same traditions. . . .

Bloom’s focus on “the potential believer” reflected the cognitivist or contemplative bent of his whole project. But in the case of the Bible . . . the objective is not belief alone but practice as well: observance, that is, of the norms that the scriptures disclose and the tradition interprets. One thinks of the famous talmudic dictum that study is greater than action—because study leads to action. If that is so, Bloom’s Bible reader, who approaches it “with the gravity of the potential believer,” fails, ironically, to take belief with the requisite gravity. To such a person, reading the scriptures has become an end in itself, and in that he is far from reading them “as their authors wished them to be read.” For this kind of literature presupposes not a solitary reader contemplating the great truths and living the “theoretical life,” but rather a community of readers whose common experience derives from specific, distinctive, and identity-conferring practices. The reading and the practice enrich each other; neither is complete by itself. . . .

[I]n an exceptionally moving passage in The Closing of the American Mind, Bloom attributed to the Bible—here unquestionably referring to the Jewish version—a capacity to transcend social and economic class and to generate a common culture [by drawing on the example of his own grandparents’ commitment to the holy book]. Yet . . . surely the spiritual richness of his grandparents’ home did not come from anything like Bloom’s depiction of the ideal encounter with the Great Books—one in which the student is “just reading them.” Rather, by his own account, it came more from practice than from study, from observing those commandments that he [reports to have] questioned continually, and from creating a mode of life and not just of thought. His grandparents’ highest pursuit was thus something very different from Bloom’s own ideal of the “theoretical life.”

Read more at Jewish Review of Books

More about: Allan Bloom, Bible, History & Ideas, Judaism, Philosophy, University

How Lebanon—and Hizballah—Conned and Humiliated Rex Tillerson

Feb. 21 2018

Last Thursday, the American secretary of state arrived in Beirut to express Washington’s continued support for the country’s government, which is now entirely aligned with Hizballah. His visit came shortly after Israel’s showdown with Hizballah’s Iranian protectors in Syria and amid repeated warnings from Jerusalem about the terrorist organization’s growing threat to Israeli security. To Tony Badran, Tillerson’s pronouncements regarding Lebanon have demonstrated the incoherence of the Trump administration’s policy:

[In Beirut], Tillerson was made to sit alone in a room with no American flag in sight and wait—as photographers took pictures and video—before Hizballah’s chief allies in Lebanon’s government, President Michel Aoun and his son-in-law the foreign minister, finally came out to greet him. Images of the U.S. secretary of state fidgeting in front of an empty chair were then broadcast across the Middle East to symbolize American impotence at a fateful moment for the region. . . .

Prior to heading to Beirut, Tillerson gave an interview to the American Arabic-language station al-Hurra, in which he emphasized that Hizballah was a terrorist organization, and that the United States expected cooperation from the “Lebanon government to deal very clearly and firmly with those activities undertaken by Lebanese Hizballah that are unacceptable to the rest of the world.” . . . But then, while in Jordan, Tillerson undermined any potential hints of firmness by reading from an entirely different script—one that encapsulates the confused nonsense that is U.S. Lebanon policy. Hizballah is “influenced by Iran,” Tillerson said. But, he added, “We also have to acknowledge the reality that they also are part of the political process in Lebanon”—which apparently makes being “influenced by Iran” and being a terrorist group OK. . . .

The reality on the ground in Lebanon, [however], is [that] Hizballah is not only a part of the Lebanese government, it controls it—along with all of the country’s illustrious “institutions,” including the Lebanese Armed Forces. . . .

[Meanwhile], Israel’s tactical Syria-focused approach to the growing threat on its borders has kept the peace so far, but it has come at a cost. For one thing, it does not address the broader strategic factor of Iran’s growing position in Syria, and it leaves Iran’s other regional headquarters in Lebanon untouched. Also, it sets a pace that is more suitable to Iran’s interests. The Iranians can absorb tactical strikes so long as they are able to consolidate their strategic position in Syria and Lebanon. Not only have the Iranians been able to fly a drone into Israel but also their allies and assets have made gains on the ground near the northern Golan and in Mount Hermon. As Iran’s position strengthens, and as Israel’s military and political hand weakens, the Israelis will soon be left with little choice other than to launch a devastating war.

To avoid that outcome, the United States needs to adjust its policy—and fast. Rather than leaving Israel to navigate around the Russians and go after Iran’s assets in Syria and Lebanon on its own, it should endorse Israel’s red lines regarding Iran in Syria, and amplify its campaign against Iranian assets. In addition, it should revise its Lebanon policy and end its investment in the Hizballah-controlled order there.

Read more at Tablet

More about: Hizballah, Israeli Security, Lebanon, Politics & Current Affairs, Rex Tillerson, U.S. Foreign policy