What a Talking Donkey Teaches about the Limits of Reason Alone

This week’s Torah reading of Balak (Numbers 22:2-25:9) tells the story of the Gentile prophet Balaam, who—although he knows God wills it otherwise—seeks to curse the Israelites in exchange for wealth and honor. His jenny attempts to stop him and then, thanks to a miracle, scolds him for beating her. Although the talking ass is the best-remembered part of Balaam’s story, David Wolpe notes that it serves little narrative purpose. Why, then, did God make a donkey talk and, moreover, able to see an angel that is at first invisible to her master?

We may understand the purpose of the tale better if we invoke another donkey, known to the history of philosophy. It was named after the 14th-century philosopher Jean Buridan, [who imagined] a donkey equidistant between two bales of hay. The donkey, being hungry, has to decide which bale of hay to eat. But since he is exactly between the two, there is no rational basis for deciding he should move toward one bale or the other. As this is a donkey driven entirely by reason, he constantly argues with himself between two equally balanced propositions. In the course of his endless, fruitless deliberations, the donkey dies of starvation.

The point of the parable is that there must be a value or principle that overrides logic alone. Without a value—even if that value sometimes is expressed in simple impulse—there is no rationale that can drive our lives. The miracle in the Torah expresses the essential valuelessness of Balaam. He does not care for himself if he curses Israel or blesses Israel. He does not care if he treats his faithful donkey well or badly. He cannot see the angel because without a value system one is unable to see. He knows that he cannot do what God forbids, but that is a conclusion of sober calculation, not reverence.

To move through life with a devotion to reason alone is to be blind. Balaam thought himself enlightened because of the great prophetic powers with which he was endowed. Many gifted rationalists believe the same; how better to upend such a settled view than an absurdist marvel like a talking donkey.

Read more at Jerusalem Post

More about: Hebrew Bible, Judaism, Numbers


An American Withdrawal from Iraq Would Hand Another Victory to Iran

Since October 7, the powerful network of Iran-backed militias in Iraq have carried out 120 attacks on U.S. forces stationed in the country. In the previous year, there were dozens of such attacks. The recent escalation has led some in the U.S. to press for the withdrawal of these forces, whose stated purpose in the country is to stamp out the remnants of Islamic State and to prevent the group’s resurgence. William Roberts explains why doing so would be a mistake:

American withdrawal from Iraq would cement Iran’s influence and jeopardize our substantial investment into the stabilization of Iraq and the wider region, threatening U.S. national security. Critics of the U.S. military presence argue that [it] risks a regional escalation in the ongoing conflict between Israel and Iran. However, in the long term, the U.S. military has provided critical assistance to Iraq’s security forces while preventing the escalation of other regional conflicts, such as clashes between Turkey and Kurdish groups in northern Iraq and Syria.

Ultimately, the only path forward to preserve a democratic, pluralistic, and sovereign Iraq is through engagement with the international community, especially the United States. Resisting Iran’s takeover will require the U.S. to draw international attention to the democratic backsliding in the country and to be present and engage continuously with Iraqi civil society in military and non-military matters. Surrendering Iraq to Iran’s agents would not only squander our substantial investment in Iraq’s stability; it would greatly increase Iran’s capability to threaten American interests in the Levant through its influence in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon.

Read more at Providence

More about: Iran, Iraq, U.S. Foreign policy