St John The Divine Residential Towers (View Looking Up From Morningside Avenue) (June 2015)


View from downstairs alongside Morninside Park looking up at the new residential construction being built along the north wall of St John the Divine. The top of the building looks like it was angled intentionally to follow and complement the movement of the cathedral dome. From this park angle, the new towers look not that bad. They could have built it much higher (or maybe not). In Morningside Heights, Christianity seems to be holding its own in the city, architecturally speaking.

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Judith Butler Parting Ways – A Jewish Philosophy Symposium

judith butler

This symposium on Parting Ways is just out in the print version of the journal Political Theology. It includes contributions by Sarah Hammerschlag, Larisa Reznik, Martin Kavka, Vincent Lloyd, and myself with a response by the author, Judith Butler.

There is something uncomfortable about the entire exchange. At points frustrated by the political polemics roused by her book, Butler would clearly have preferred to have focused the discussion around purely philosophical problems raised by Levinas, Benjamin, Arendt, Darwish, and her readings of them. But there seems to have been no way to get past the problem of Jewish identity, given the polemical contexts that stage her readings. It has been suggested to me by a dear friend that Butler did not seem to want to theorize Jewish identity, i.e. her own Jewish identity, which she takes as a given matter of biographical fact.

What I would suggest is that the entire discussion generated by Parting Ways is already theoretical even without direct reference to this or that precise reading of Levinas, Arendt, Benjamin, and Darwish. The conceptual topoi raised by the respondents tend to form around three basic points: [1] the universal task of Jewish philosophy and the local status of Jewish identity, [2] the problem of violence, especially historical violence and the violence of social norms, and [3] the tension between utopianism, poetics, and politics write large and in Butler’s work writ small.

One last point to make is to extend thanks to Larisa for organizing a panel discussion at the AJS a couple years back, and to Vincent for setting up a space for more formal and expanded presentations at the blogsite and now the paper version of Political Theology. Like the panel discussion organized by Ellen Armour at the AAR with the Theology and Continental Philosophy group, it’s good to see Jewish philosophy and thought brought out in the open by others outside the Jewish Studies ghetto, just as its good to see the AJS open itself up to new perspectives.

You can read the whole thing  here at: Parting Ways Symposium.

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Marriage Equality (Liberal Society & Religion) (OBERGEFELL v. HODGES)


With no special legal competence, I read with particular interest the Supreme Court ruling and dissents on OBERGEFELL v. HODGES, which you can read here. I’m posting below my mash-up of each opinion, which I reorganized according to these rubrics: [1] liberty, [2] marriage, society, & state,  [3] tradition & change [4] history & law [5] knowledge & rights, [6] democracy & scholarship, [7] individual protection & non-majority rule [8] logic, [9] religion and new “liberal orthodoxy.” Each segment consists of direct quotes cited in the order in which they appear in the opinion. I’m presenting them without editorial comment.

A couple of quick remarks about liberalism, epistemology, and religion:

–Against their critics, particularly on the left, I don’t see how marriage equality could have been secured legally, in our constitutional system, without a liberal discourse of rights and the discourse of governmentality. For all the problems identified with rights-discourse and liberal subjectivity, and for all that rights have been compromised in our “neo-liberal” economic order, these discourses remain powerful engines of social mores and social change. Liberal order is plastic; its human materials are synthetic and its structures are easily molded. In contrast to these, the minority based their opposition on biology, history, tradition, wisdom, restraint as these should guide the role of the courts and the practice of limited government.

–In the majority opinion, much was made of new knowledge in the ongoing formation of rights discourse and practice. The minority opinion mocked what they understood to be a pretension, but I think the point holds. Especially nowadays when the University as a system is under such pressure and even threat, one should note the nod given by Justice Kennedy to university research and scholarship.

–Regarding religion, the majority ruling said almost nothing of interest. The minority opinions were much more to the point about the changing face of social marginalization. While these things work in a circular way, it’s probably more the case that society determines religion, not vice-versa. This is a long story, but maybe one that Christianity has yet to tell about itself, given its majority status in western/American society. Religion has always trimmed its sails to society. This is especially true today when authority is determined and even compromised by the demos and hoi poloi. “Churches” that buck today an emergent social consensus may very well tomorrow turn into “cults.”


Kennedy: [N]ew dimensions of freedom become apparent to new generations, often through perspectives that begin in pleas or protests and then are considered in the political sphere and the judicial process… Under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, no State shall “deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.”… The identification and protection of fundamental rights is an enduring part of the judicial duty to interpret the Constitution… History and tradition guide and discipline this inquiry but do not set its outer boundaries. That method respects our history and learns from it without allowing the past alone to rule the present… [T]he right to marry is a fundamental right inherent in the liberty of the person, and under the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment couples of the same-sex may not be deprived of that right and that liberty.

Scalia: The opinion in these cases is the furthest extension in fact— and the furthest extension one can even imagine—of the Court’s claimed power to create “liberties” that the Constitution and its Amendments neglect to mention. This practice of constitutional revision by an unelected committee of nine, always accompanied (as it is today) by extravagant praise of liberty, robs the People of the most important liberty they asserted in the Declaration of Independence and won in the Revolution of 1776: the freedom to govern themselves.

Thomas: The Court’s decision today is at odds not only with the Constitution, but with the principles upon which our Nation was built. Since well before 1787, liberty has been understood as freedom from government action, not entitlement to government benefits… As used in the Due Process Clauses, “liberty” most likely refers to “the power of loco-motion, of changing situation, or removing one’s person to whatsoever place one’s own inclination may direct; without imprisonment or restraint, unless by due course of law.”… If the Fifth Amendment uses “liberty” in this narrow sense, then the Fourteenth Amendment likely does as well.

Marriage, Society, & State

Kennedy [M]arriage [transforms] strangers into relatives, binding families and societies together… [J]ust as a couple vows to support each other, so does society pledge to support the couple, offering symbolic recognition and material benefits to protect and nourish the union. Indeed, while the States are in general free to vary the benefits they confer on all married couples, they have throughout our history made marriage the basis for an expanding list of governmental rights, benefits, and responsibilities… The States have contributed to the fundamental character of the marriage right by placing that institution at the center of so many facets of the legal and social order. There is no difference between same- and opposite-sex couples with respect to this principle… As the State itself makes marriage all the more precious by the significance it attaches to it, exclusion from that status has the effect of teaching that gays and lesbians are unequal in important respects.

Roberts: In his opinion, Roberts defines marriage historically and essentially in terms of procreation. Marriage is biologically rooted, “an understanding that necessarily implies a procreative component,” whose “core structure” is “the union between a man and a woman.”

Alito: This understanding of marriage, which focuses almost entirely on the happiness of persons who choose to marry, is shared by many people today, but it is not the traditional one. For millennia, marriage was inextricably linked to the one thing that only an opposite-sex couple can do: procreate

Tradition & Change

Kennedy: From their beginning to their most recent page, the annals of human history reveal the transcendent importance of marriage…Confucius taught that marriage lies at the foundation of government. 2 Li Chi: Book of Rites 266 (C. Chai & W. Chai eds., J. Legge transl. 1967). This wisdom was echoed centuries later and half a world away by Cicero, who wrote, “The first bond of society is marriage; next, children; and then the family.” See De Officiis 57 (W. Miller transl. 1913).  AND history does not define the law… The ancient origins of marriage confirm its centrality, but it has not stood in isolation from developments in law and society. The history of marriage is one of both continuity and change… [D]evelopments in the institution of marriage over the past centuries were not mere superficial changes. Rather, they worked deep transformations in its structure, affecting aspects of marriage long viewed by many as essential.

Roberts: Proper reliance on history and tradition of course requires looking beyond the individual law being challenged, so that every restriction on liberty does not supply its own constitutional justification. The Court is right about that. Ante, at 18. But given the few “guideposts for responsible decision making in this unchartered area,” Collins, 503 U. S., at 125, “an approach grounded in history imposes limits on the judiciary that are more meaningful than any based on [an] abstract formula,” Moore, 431 U. S., at 504, n. 12 (plurality opinion). Expanding a right suddenly and dramatically is likely to require tearing it up from its roots… The only way to ensure restraint in this delicate enterprise is “continual insistence upon respect for the teachings of history, solid recognition of the basic values that underlie our society, and wise appreciation of the great roles [of] the doctrines of federalism and separation of powers.”… The majority’s understanding of due process lays out a tantalizing vision of the future for Members of this Court: If an unvarying social institution enduring over all of recorded history cannot inhibit judicial policymaking, what can? But this approach is dangerous for the rule of law. The purpose of insisting that implied fundamental rights have roots in the history and tradition of our people is to ensure that when unelected judges strike down democratically enacted laws, they do so based on something more than their own beliefs. The Court today not only overlooks our country’s entire history and tradition but actively repudiates it, preferring to live only in the heady days of the here and now. I agree with the majority that the “nature of injustice is that we may not always see it in our own times.” Ante, at 11. As petitioners put it, “times can blind.” Tr. of Oral Arg. on Question 1, at 9, 10. But to blind yourself to history is both prideful and unwise. “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” W. Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun 92 (1951). In the face of all this, a much different view of the Court’s role is possible. That view is more modest and restrained. It is more skeptical that the legal abilities of judges also reflect insight into moral and philosophical issues. It is more sensitive to the fact that judges are unelected and unaccountable, and that the legitimacy of their power depends on confining it to the exercise of legal judgment. It is more attuned to the lessons of history, and what it has meant for the country and Court when Justices have exceeded their proper bounds. And it is less pretentious than to suppose that while people around the world have viewed an institution in a particular way for thousands of years, the present generation and the present Court are the ones chosen to burst the bonds of that history and tradition.

History & Law

Kennedy in his ruling points to [1] history of marriage, particularly in relation to the emergent status of women in western society, [2] LGBT history in this country, [3] recent U.S. legal history on, inter alia, LGBT rulings and the general right to marry. Appendix A includes a complete list of lower court rulings on same-sex marriage.

Knowledge & Rights

Kennedy: The nature of injustice is that we may not always see it in our own times. The generations that wrote and ratified the Bill of Rights and the Fourteenth Amendment did not presume to know the extent of freedom in all of its dimensions, and so they entrusted to future generations a charter protecting the right of all persons to enjoy liberty as we learn its meaning… The limitation of marriage to opposite-sex couples may long have seemed natural and just, but its inconsistency with the central meaning of the fundamental right to marry is now manifest… [R]ights come not from ancient sources alone. They rise, too, from a better informed understanding of how constitutional imperatives define a liberty that remains urgent in our own era.

Roberts: Allowing unelected federal judges to select which unenumerated rights rank as “fundamental”—and to strike down state laws on the basis of that determination—raises obvious concerns about the judicial role. Our precedents have accordingly insisted that judges “exercise the utmost care” in identifying implied fundamental rights, “lest the liberty protected by the Due Process Clause be subtly transformed into the policy preferences of the Members of this Court.”.. To be fair, the majority does not suggest that its individual autonomy right is entirely unconstrained. The constraints it sets are precisely those that accord with its own “reasoned judgment,” informed by its “new insight” into the “nature of injustice,” which was invisible to all who came before but has become clear “as we learn [the] meaning” of liberty. Ante, at 10, 11. The truth is that today’s decision rests on nothing more than the majority’s own conviction that same-sex couples should be allowed to marry because they want to, and that “it would disparage their choices and diminish their personhood to deny them this right.”… It is high time for the Court to decide the meaning of marriage, based on five lawyers’ “better informed understanding” of “a liberty that remains urgent in our own era.”

Scalia: These Justices know that limiting marriage to one man and one woman is contrary to reason; they know that an institution as old as government itself, and accepted by every nation in history until 15 years ago,21 cannot possibly be supported by anything other than ignorance or bigotry. And they are willing to say that any citizen who does not agree with that, who adheres to what was, until 15 years ago, the unanimous judgment of all generations and all societies, stands against the Constitution

Democracy & Scholarship

The respondents warn there has been insufficient democratic discourse before deciding an issue so basic as the definition of marriage. In its ruling on the cases now before this Court, the majority opinion for the Court of Appeals made a cogent argument that it would be appropriate for the respondents’ States to await further public discussion and political measures before licensing same-sex marriages. See DeBoer, 772 F. 3d, at 409. Yet there has been far more deliberation than this argument acknowledges. There have been referenda, legislative debates, and grassroots campaigns, as well as countless studies, papers, books, and other popular and scholarly writings… As more than 100 amici make clear in their filings, many of the central institutions in American life—state and local governments, the military, large and small businesses, labor unions, religious organizations, law enforcement, civic groups, professional organizations, and universities— have devoted substantial attention to the question. This has led to an enhanced understanding of the issue—an understanding reflected in the arguments now presented for resolution as a matter of constitutional law.

Roberts: Yes, the majority concedes, on one side are thousands of years of human history in every society known to have populated the planet. But on the other side, there has been “extensive litigation,” “many thoughtful District Court decisions,” “countless studies, papers, books, and other popular and scholarly writings,” and “more than 100” amicus briefs in these cases alone. Ante, at 9, 10, 23. What would be the point of allowing the democratic process to go on?…Those who founded our country would not recognize the majority’s conception of the judicial role. They after all risked their lives and fortunes for the precious right to govern themselves. They would never have imagined yielding that right on a question of social policy to unaccountable and unelected judges. And they certainly would not have been satisfied by a system empowering judges to override policy judgments so long as they do so after “a quite extensive discussion.”

Individual Protection & Non-Majority Rule

The dynamic of our constitutional system is that individuals need not await legislative action before asserting a fundamental right. The Nation’s courts are open to injured individuals who come to them to vindicate their own direct, personal stake in our basic charter. An individual can invoke a right to constitutional protection when he or she is harmed, even if the broader public disagrees and even if the legislature refuses to act. The idea of the Constitution “was to withdraw certain subjects from the vicissitudes of political controversy, to place them beyond the reach of majorities and officials and to establish them as legal principles to be applied by the courts.” West Virginia Bd. of Ed. v. Barnette, 319 U. S. 624, 638 (1943). This is why “fundamental rights may not be submitted to a vote; they depend on the outcome of no elections.” Ibid.

Roberts: Indeed, the compelling personal accounts of petitioners and others like them are likely a primary reason why many Americans have changed their minds about whether same-sex couples should be allowed to marry. As a matter of constitutional law, however, the sincerity of petitioners’ wishes is not relevant.


The respondents also argue allowing same-sex couples to wed will harm marriage as an institution by leading to fewer opposite-sex marriages. This may occur, the respondents contend, because licensing same-sex marriage severs the connection between natural procreation and marriage. That argument, however, rests on a counterintuitive view of opposite-sex couple’s decision making processes regarding marriage and parenthood. Decisions about whether to marry and raise children are based on many personal, romantic, and practical considerations; and it is unrealistic to conclude that an opposite-sex couple would choose not to marry simply because same-sex couples may do so. See Kitchen v. Herbert, 755 F. 3d 1193, 1223 (CA10 2014) (“[I]t is wholly illogical to believe that state recognition of the love and commitment between same-sex couples will alter the most intimate and personal decisions of opposite-sex couples”). The respondents have not shown a foundation for the conclusion that allowing same-sex marriage will cause the harmful outcomes they describe. Indeed, with respect to this asserted basis for excluding same-sex couples from the right to marry, it is appropriate to observe these cases involve only the rights of two consenting adults whose marriages would pose no risk of harm to themselves or third parties.

Roberts: It is striking how much of the majority’s reasoning would apply with equal force to the claim of a fundamental right to plural marriage. If “[t]here is dignity in the bond between two men or two women who seek to marry and in their autonomy to make such profound choices,” ante, at 13, why would there be any less dignity in the bond between three people who, in exercising their autonomy, seek to make the profound choice to marry?… When asked about a plural marital union at oral argument, petitioners asserted that a State “doesn’t have such an institution.” Tr. of Oral Arg. on Question 2, p. 6. But that is exactly the point: the States at issue here do not have an institution of same-sex marriage, either.

Religion & The New Orthodoxy

Thomas: Today’s decision might change the former, but it cannot change the latter. It appears all but inevitable that the two will come into conflict, particularly as individuals and churches are confronted with demands to participate in and endorse civil marriages between same-sex couples.

Alito: Perhaps recognizing how its reasoning may be used, the majority attempts, toward the end of its opinion, to reassure those who oppose same-sex marriage that their rights of conscience will be protected. Ante, at 26–27. We will soon see whether this proves to be true. I assume that those who cling to old beliefs will be able to whisper their thoughts in the recesses of their homes, but if they repeat those views in public, they will risk being labeled as bigots and treated as such by governments, employers, and schools… By imposing its own views on the entire country, the majority facilitates the marginalization of the many Americans who have traditional ideas.

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Car Wash Chelsea


Iconic looking car wash, iconic looking tourists down in Chelsea, at the corner of 10th Avenue and 24th Street.

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(Jewish) Marriage Equality (Huppa)


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Bronx Little Italy (Church and Community)


Which comes first, the chicken or egg? I never heard of the Little Italy up and around Arthur Avenue, the commercial heart of the Belmont neighborhood in the Bronx, just south from Forhdam University. In this ethnic-religious enclave, everything about it, down to the signage, feels like a throwback to sometime in the 1970s. The bond between church, street, community, and tradition is thick and intimate. We were up just a couple of days before a festival for St. Anthony.

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The God and The Gods Of Ancient Canaanite Israel (The Early History of God) (Mark S. Smith)


Reading Mark Smith’s eminent study, throws light on the way that The Early History of God, indeed the early history of God itself, is a history of the image in which that figure has been cast and recast over time. The major takeaway of the book that might be of interest to Jewish philosophy is that so-called idolatry is not the litmus test against which ancient Israelite religion stands as its other. At its most inward root, Israelite religion is Canaanite religion. Like metals thrown into a furnace, YHWH fused into the figure of El while assuming attributes associated with Baal, Ashera, and Anat. The history of monotheism is the story of ancient Israel breaking with its own Canaanite origins. A bearded and enthroned anthropos before His council, the blessing of breasts and womb, the theophanic appearance of the deity in a storm, the chariot rider, His shining face –these are Canaanite images that figure the God of Israel and which, by the way, continue to figure Jewish liturgical expression.

The divergence that makes the break from Canaanite origins is relatively late, starting with the second half of the monarchy. There is every reason to suppose that “the Canaanite” as this figure appears in the Bible is retrospective, reflecting as memory lingering parts of ancient Israelite belief and practice. The break from this past includes the polemic against Baal, the rejection of asherim, the satiric ridicule of idols, the turn away from anthropomorphism, as well as the rejection of cultic worship at high places, rites for the dead, and child sacrifice. Smith’s assumption is that these were all acceptable and widely practiced in early ancient Israel.

In The Early History of God (1990, 2002) we are only given a hint here and there how international imperial politics might be seen as having shaped a more strict form of monotheism. We’ll see this angle developed more fully later in Smith’s Gods in Translation: Deities in Cross-Cultural Discourse in the Biblical World (2008), about which I’ll say more when I finish reading the book. For now, in this study, YHWH appears only too briefly in this study as the god protecting Israel “against powerful peoples and deities” (p.181). A brief note will be made of the anti-monarchical and anti-foreign strain in deuteronomonistic-prophetic religion (pp.189, 190).

My own sense, which Smith will have already confirmed in Gods in Translation, is that the deep aversion to death and stubborn allegiance to Israel are politically situated as the historical collision between Israel with Assyrian and then Babylonian empire in the 8th century BCE and after. In other words, the aversion to death is not psychologically phobic per se. It’s catastrophic.

Smith brings the reader’s attention back to a pre-catastrophic historical point prior to those disasters in 8th and 6th century Israel. I’m guessing that these earlier historical contexts were more fluid, with political power more evenly distributed among local regional political actors than was the case under Assyrian and Babylonian imperial domination. Less international in scope, the mood that marks out The Early History of God is the pre-monarchic and early monarchic periods evoked in the book of Judges and I Kings. Free from the shattering experience of violent disaster, the religious conceptions that define this period in Israelite history are more easily and equally integrated into the larger and surrounding social, political, and spiritual nexus. The images are rough and tumble, less given over to abstraction. The scene is local and ad hoc, not international and determined. Its relation to the world is a more friendly, or if not friendly than intimate.

So what factors internal to the religious conceptualizations of ancient Israelite YHWH religion might explain this turn away from Canaanite origins? That question is left relatively unanswered here in The Early History of God, but the postscript (Portraits of Yahweh) give two possible clues. What is it that distinguishes the YHWH as the God of Israel from El, Ashera, Baal, and Anat? First there’s a negative register. Like them, YHWH might ride, storm, shake, and shine; but unlike them, the God of Israel doesn’t feast, carouse, fuck, or die. Smith observes how YHWH as a sexless god has been removed by the deuteronomistic and priestly writers as far away as possible from agents of impurity and death (pp.203-5). On the positive register, the God of Israel is powerful to both punish and protect. What seems to matter much more is that unlike El and Ashera, Baal and Anat, YHWH loves a people. YHWH answered Israel, consoled Israel, and loved Israel is how Smith evokes emergent Israelite monotheism in the final and perhaps confessional words that conclude The Early History of God (p.207).

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