Saturday, March 10, 2007

The Banner Mentality

The BAR Four - the latest sensation to roil the JBlog world - reveals the Banner (those who would ban) Mentality.

What is the Banner Mentality? It's a desire to hunt heretics, combined with an intellectual dishonesty and a lack of reading comprehension. Implicit in this, is the requirement to be dan lechaf gnai, to presume the other party guilty.

How does this manifest in this issue? The rush to label Dr. Lawrence Schiffman, the only observant Jew in the group, and the only Jew to maintain his faith in the face of secular scholarship.

The passages in question:

Dever: Living in the Holy Land, I became extremely cynical about religion. I began to think, more or less, maybe like all of you, that I had no talent for religion, that faith might be a matter of temperament as well as training. I never had a pious bone in my body. And I realized I was never really a believer, but it just took me 40 years to figure out that it was no longer meaningful. That’s when I converted to Judaism. [Laughs] I did it precisely because you don’t have to be religious to be a Jew. And I’m perfectly comfortable where I am.

Shanks: How do you respond to that, Larry? “You don’t have to be religious to be a Jew”?

Dever: That’s true of most Israelis.

Schiffman: Yes, that’s a fact. A Jew remains part of the Jewish people whatever he or she believes or practices. But in order to be a Jew, you have to have some concept that you believe in Judaism. You have a received tradition from other people—at least they believed they received the revelation.

Dever: Absolutely.

Schiffman: You’ve got to decide: Do I believe there is a God? Do I believe that God communicated some kind of way of life to someone that became Judaism?

Dever: I think Judaism is about practices rather than a correct theology.

...Schiffman: In one of Bill’s books, he discusses the historicity of the Exodus, and he throws up his hands. From the Jewish viewpoint everyone says it happened; it’s part of our past, part of our history. Somehow or other, it happened. I happen to believe there was some kind of Exodus. But the point I’m making is that the framing of the question, from the Jewish point of view, is very different.

Dever: Which is why I feel comfortable in Judaism. That’s where I’ve arrived—by a long and tortuous path.

The banner-types take Schiffman's statements about "some kind of exodus", and "you have to have some concept to believe in Judaism", and take them to mean that Schiffman doesn't believe in a literal Exodus, that he doesn't believe in the Revelation at Sinai, that he doesn't believe in the authenticity of Torah, and on that basis scream that he's Conservative, that he has lost his faith, etc.

But look at the context. Who is he speaking to? In part, he's speaking to Dever. Dever was a Protestant minister, who lost his belief in a literalist faith, converted Reform to marry his wife, and doesn't claim to be much of that either. This is in the category of da ma shetashiv, how to speak to a Reform Jew to try to encourage him to take on a little more. He's countering Dever's "you don't need any belief to be Jewish" with something Dever might be able to accept. Countering it with full-on Orthodox belief would just not be accepted.

Also, as one commenter noted, he has to keep some things under wraps if he wants to continue to be taken seriously in academia, which frowns on being actively religious. It can easily affect one's academic detachment.

The banner mentality ignores all this, and takes the statements as claims of personal belief, rather than statements which will be accepted in their proper context, in the conversation as recorded. On that basis, the banner writes off the writer. But just as bloggers may maintain a persona which is not identical to their real selves, academics may maintain such a persona.

This is exactly how R' Slifkin got into trouble: people took his words out of context, ignoring that they came from books aimed at those who were having trouble remaining in the fold, took them as statements of personal belief, and used their influence with big-name rabbis to prounounce a ban on his writings. As a result, he the person has become non grata in his own yeshivish world.

As prose in the mind of the banner
Who misquotes or distorts it at will
Don't let them slander the good guys
Heed thy common sense, heed not the banner.

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