What a Talking Donkey Teaches about the Limits of Reason Alone

June 25 2021

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

How Israel Can Break the Cycle of Wars in Gaza

Last month saw yet another round of fighting between the Jewish state and Gaza-based terrorist groups. This time, it was Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) that began the conflict; in other cases, it was Hamas, which rules the territory. Such outbreaks have been numerous in the years since 2009, and although the details have varied somewhat, Israel has not yet found a way to stop them, or to save the residents of the southwestern part of the country from the constant threat of rocket fire. Yossi Kuperwasser argues that a combination of military, economic, and diplomatic pressure might present an alternative solution:

In Gaza, Jerusalem plays a key role in developing the rules that determine what the parties can and cannot do. Such rules are designed to give the Israelis the ability to deter attacks, defend territory, maintain intelligence dominance, and win decisively. These rules assure Hamas that its rule over Gaza will not be challenged and that, in between the rounds of escalation, it will be allowed to continue its military buildup, as the Israelis seldom strike first, and the government’s responses to Hamas’s limited attacks are always measured and proportionate.

The flaws in such an approach are clear: it grants Hamas the ability to develop its offensive capabilities, increase its political power, and condemn Israelis—especially those living within range of the Gaza Strip—to persistent threats from Hamas terrorists.

A far more effective [goal] would be to rid Israel of Hamas’s threat by disarming it, prohibiting its rearmament, and demonstrating conclusively that threatening Israel is indisputably against its interests. Achieving this goal will not be easy, but with proper preparation, it may be feasible at the appropriate time.

Revisiting the rule according to which Jerusalem remains tacitly committed to not ending Hamas rule in Gaza is key for changing the dynamics of this conflict. So long as Hamas knows that the Israelis will not attempt to uproot it from Gaza, it can continue arming itself and conducting periodic attacks knowing the price it will pay may be heavy—especially if Jerusalem changes the other rules mentioned—but not existential.

Read more at Middle East Quarterly

More about: Gaza Strip, Hamas, Israeli Security, Palestinian Islamic Jihad