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

Israel’s Retaliation against the Houthis Sends a Message to the U.S., and to Its Arab Allies

The drone that struck a Tel Aviv high-rise on Thursday night is believed to have traveled over 2,000 kilometers, flying from Yemen over Egypt and then above the Mediterranean before veering eastward toward the Israeli coast. Since October, the Houthis have launched over 200 drones at Israel. Nor is this the first attempt to strike Tel Aviv, only the first successful one. Noah Rothman observes that the Houthis’ persistent attacks on Israel and on international shipping are largely the result of the U.S.-led coalition’s anemic response:

Had the Biden administration taken a more proactive and vigorous approach to neutralizing the Houthis’ capabilities, Israel would not be obliged to expand to Yemen the theater of operations in the war Hamas inaugurated on October 7. The prospects of a regional war grow larger by the day, not because Israel cannot “take the win,” as President Biden reportedly told Benjamin Netanyahu following a full-scale direct Iranian attack on the Jewish state, but because hostile foreign actors are killing its citizens. Jerusalem is obliged to defend them and the sovereignty of Israel’s borders.

Biden’s hesitancy was fueled by his apprehension over the prospect of a “wider war” in the Middle East. But his hesitancy is what is going to give him the war he so cravenly sought to avoid.

In this context, the nature of the Israeli response is significant: rather than follow the American strategy of striking isolated weapons depots and the like, IDF jets struck the port city of Hodeida—the sort of major target the U.S. has shied away from. The mission was likely the furthest-ever carried out by the Israel Air Force, hitting a site 200 kilometers further from Israel than Tehran. Yoel Guzansky and Ilan Zalayat comment:

The message that Israel sent was intended to reach the moderate Arab countries, the West, and especially the United States. . . . The message to the coalition countries is that “the containment” had failed and the Houthis must be hit harder. The Hodeida port is the lifeline of the Houthi economy and continued damage to it will make it extremely difficult for this economy, which is also facing significant American sanctions.

Read more at National Review

More about: Houthis, Israeli Security, U.S. Foreign policy