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.

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Read more at Jerusalem Post

More about: Hebrew Bible, Judaism, Numbers

Salman Rushdie and the Western Apologists for Those Who Wish Him Dead

Aug. 17 2022

Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder and supreme leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, issued a fatwa (religious ruling) in 1989 calling for believers to murder the novelist Salman Rushdie due to the content of his novel, The Satanic Verses. Over the years, two of the book’s translators have been stabbed—one fatally—and numerous others have been injured or killed in attempts to follow the ayatollah’s writ. Last week, an American Shiite Muslim came closer than his many predecessors to killing Rushdie, stabbing him multiple times and leaving him in critical condition. Graeme Wood comments on those intellectuals in the West who have exuded sympathy for the stabbers:

In 1989, the reaction to the fatwa was split three ways: some supported it; some opposed it; and some opposed it, to be sure, but still wanted everyone to know how bad Rushdie and his novel were. This last faction, Team To Be Sure, took the West to task for elevating this troublesome man and his insulting book, whose devilry could have been averted had others been more attuned to the sensibilities of the offended.

The fumes are still rising off of this last group. The former president Jimmy Carter was, at the time of the original fatwa, the most prominent American to suggest that the crime of murder should be balanced against Rushdie’s crime of blasphemy. The ayatollah’s death sentence “caused writers and public officials in Western nations to become almost exclusively preoccupied with the author’s rights,” Carter wrote in an op-ed for the New York Times. Well, yes. Carter did not only say that many Muslims were offended and wished violence on Rushdie; that was simply a matter of fact, reported frequently in the news pages. He took to the op-ed page to add his view that these fanatics had a point. “While Rushdie’s First Amendment freedoms are important,” he wrote, “we have tended to promote him and his book with little acknowledgment that it is a direct insult to those millions of Moslems whose sacred beliefs have been violated.” Never mind that millions of Muslims take no offense at all, and are insulted by the implication that they should.

Over the past two decades, our culture has been Carterized. We have conceded moral authority to howling mobs, and the louder the howls, the more we have agreed that the howls were worth heeding. The novelist Hanif Kureishi has said that “nobody would have the [courage]” to write The Satanic Verses today. More precisely, nobody would publish it, because sensitivity readers would notice the theological delicacy of the book’s title and plot. The ayatollahs have trained them well, and social-media disasters of recent years have reinforced the lesson: don’t publish books that get you criticized, either by semiliterate fanatics on the other side of the world or by semiliterate fanatics on this one.

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Read more at Atlantic

More about: Ayatollah Khomeini, Freedom of Speech, Iran, Islamism, Jimmy Carter