Surviving Obamacare

Joseph Bottum (“Bad Medicine,” May 2010) is too sanguine in his thoughts about what happens next. The combination of more federal mandates, more promised subsidies, and tighter government controls will make health-care services more expensive, less responsive too the needs of individual patients, and harder to obtain. Moreover, the failures to restrict public funding of abortion and to obtain even a modicum of protection within the statute for conscience rights will result in thousands more abortions and will facilitate new assaults on the religious freedom of many individuals and institutions. What happens next will be a shock, but it should not be a surprise.

What is a mystery is how Catholics will react to the passage of Obamacare. For years, too many Catholic healthcare providers have been content to find a comfort zone within the prevailing framework of healthcare financing and delivery. Most of this contentment is no longer sustainable. Obamacare gives the federal government unprecedented powers to determine comprehensively the terms of health-care financing and delivery, and the obvious determination to deny conscience protections during congressional debate. The power that Obamacare provides the government to act on that hostility suggests that future threats will be more frequent and more effective.

Catholic institutions should be asking whether Catholic health care can survive in anything other than name alone and, if Obamacare is repealed, how Catholic health care can thrive again in a new world of health-care financing and delivery”for there is no going back.

John F. Brehany
Catholic Medical Association

The Throne of David

I agree with Michael Wyschogrod (“A King in Israel,” May 2010) when he speaks of Israel as a “Jewish state” that “has not succeeded in defining just what that means.” And I agree with him when he insists that any state, no matter how otherwise secular, requires a “founding constitution” whose power comes from “a higher form of sovereignty,” and that for Judaism that sovereignty is God’s, as revealed in the Torah. But I very much disagree with him that the way to bring about this political clarification for the state of Israel is to reestablish the monarchy, even if only by proxy, as he suggests.

Monarchy is not nearly as important to Judaism as Wyschogrod thinks. In fact, the main biblical discussion of monarchy, in the books of Kings, generally regards it to be a disaster. That is probably why the hope for the restoration of the Davidic monarchy becomes the hope for an apocalyptic Messiah whose supernatural rule will make an ordinary polity unnecessary (see Isa. 9:5“6). The Jewish state of Israel is a political necessity for the Jewish people, since having a state of our own best enables us to fulfill the divine commandment to settle the land of Israel (Num. 33:53).

But that political necessity should not be confused with messianic expectation, a theological desideratum. (On this point the late Israeli religious philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz was quite insightful.) Moreover, Jews haven’t had legitimate (i.e., Davidic) kings since the destruction of the First Temple in 586 b.c.e. , and it could be said that the absence of monarchy contributed to the positive development of Judaism.

Despite the monarchical sentiments of some great Jewish theologians, the most politically astute Jewish theologian, Isaac Abravanel (d. 1508), thought monarchy in Israel to be only optional, not required by the Torah. In fact, Abravanel’s personal experience, after having served in high government posts under the kings of Spain and Portugal, taught him that monarchy was far inferior to the republican form of government of Venice, where he served at the end of his life.

Thus Wyschogrod exaggerates when he says that “there is no question that Jewish tradition favors monarchy” and that it is (unquestionably) “obligatory.” Indeed, the people of Israel have to want a king; it requires their consent (see II Kings 11:17). Presumably, the people can withhold their consent.

Even assuming, for argument’s sake, that the reestablishment of Jewish monarchy is desirable on theological grounds, its reestablishment at this point in history would be premature and counterproductive, both theologically and politically. That is because two necessary prerequisites for it are now absent.

First, the king would have to have a Sanhedrin with the authority to check his power and approve his policies. (England’s Charles I, whose monarchy claimed biblical foundation, learned that point the hard way.) The recent attempt of the Israeli rabbi Adin Steinsaltz to reestablish the Sanhedrin without much popular support is regarded by most Jews to be a publicity stunt.

Second, and far more importantly, monarchy would require the full reiteration of the covenant between God and Israel, the covenant Wyschogrod rightly designates to be Judaism’s foundation. But that would require a universal Jewish consensus, both in Israel and the Diaspora, that is nowhere to be found here and now.

As Spinoza rightly thought when musing on what a reestablished Jewish state would be like, the Jewishness of that state would depend on the Jews reelecting, as it were, God as their Sovereign (as was the case in the days of the First Temple). Only then would the Torah be the constitution of a Jewish state where God is the true King and any earthly monarch an official subject to God’s law or constitution (Deut. 17:18“19), interpreted by a Sanhedrin acceptable to the vast majority of the people. And that Sanhedrin would be most unlike “a self-appointed body of Torah scholars””or even a body of rabbis working for a secular government”whom Wyschogrod, like most Jews, secular and religious, sees as having been imposed on them, and not by God.

Without a real Sanhedrin coming out of the reiteration of the covenant between God and Israel, the state of Israel would be ill-advised either to reinstitute monarchy or rebuild the Third Temple, which, by the way, is considered to be one of the first tasks of the recrowned Jewish king. That is bad politics and bad theology. So, without the reiteration of the covenant, let the Jewish people be advised to do the best we can do in our extraordinarily difficult political situation in the world today, a situation the reestablishment of the monarchy (even by proxy) would only worsen.

And Michael Wyschogrod, faithful Jew that he is, should be advised to continue to pray for the coming of the Messiah-King, as all faithful Jews do daily, an apocalyptic event that no amount of politics will bring any closer. To regard Jewish kingship as something more achievable than the coming of the Messiah-King is utopian and, as such, a wish with dubious political benefit and dubious theological grounding.

David Novak

Michael Wyschogrod replies:

Although David Novak mentions in passing that I advocate the revival of the Davidic monarchy “only by proxy,” he responds to my article “A King in Israel” as if I were advocating the selection of a Davidic monarch here and now and then proceeds to review the difficulties such a course would entail. It is precisely because of these difficulties (e.g., the absence of prophecy) that I do not advocate the immediate revival of the Davidic throne but, rather, the institution of a regent who would act as placeholder for the true Davidic ruler. A regent keeps alive the legitimate claim of the king who, for one reason or another, cannot occupy his throne.

The memory of the Davidic ruler whose claim to the throne God will never reject is deeply rooted in Jewish consciousness. In Psalm 89, God promises that “I will not be false to David. His line shall continue forever, his throne as the sun before me, as the moon established forever, an enduring witness in the sky.” In the weekday Amidah , the eighteen benedictions at the heart of rabbinic liturgy, we pray twice for the renewal of the throne of David; since the Amidah is recited three times a day, we pray for a Davidic restoration six times daily.

We are aware that only God can choose the Davidic ruler, as he did at the outset of the dynasty and will do again in his own good time, but I do not think Novak can afford to overlook the depth of the hope declared in such verses and represented by these prayers. Maimonides writes ( Kings and Wars 1:9), “The kings of the House of David will endure forever as it is written, ‘And thy throne shall be established forever.’” The spiritual power of such verses and related rabbinical texts makes the appointment of a Davidic regent a very modest step indeed.

The appointment of a nonroyal regent would not constitute messianic hubris but a modest reminder of God’s promise, on the basis of which we beseech God in the Amidah to “return in mercy to thy city Jerusalem and dwell in it as thou has promised; rebuild it soon in our days, as an everlasting structure, and speedily establish in it the throne of David. Blessed are you, O Lord, Builder of Jerusalem.”

Reviving Murray

George Weigel’s “Truths Still Held?” (May 2010) offers a sobering account of the coming of the crisis John Courtney Murray feared, a crisis triggered by the erosion of the public philosophy on which he believed the future and the very identity of the American experiment in self-government and ordered liberty depended. Those of us concerned about the future of the Murray project would do well to attend to Murray’s own account of the theological and religious reasons for the eclipse of the public philosophy.

The roots of Western liberty, Murray argues, are ultimately found in Christianity and, in particular, in the “Christian theorem” of “the freedom of the Church.” Rejecting Christian revelation, political modernity attempted to carry on the liberal tradition on a new, secular foundation. The moral values undergirding the liberal tradition”values that had initially been elaborated under the influence of Christian revelation”were now understood to have a purely human foundation and would be institutionalized through the mechanism of free political institutions.

Here, Murray suggests, we encounter the roots of the modern crisis: Modernity’s hope that the moral affirmations that are the charter of a free and humane society could be sustained by reason alone turns out to have been “a mirage projected by prideful human reason.” Indeed, modernity’s rejection of “the Christian mode of existence” has led inexorably to the emergence of “an explicitly non-Christian mode of existence . . . at the heart of human life.”

The crisis that confronts us is ultimately rooted not in an intellectual error and not in flawed philosophical reasoning but in a spiritual decision. Only a spiritual solution will suffice. As Murray himself insisted, the “new work of thought” that our circumstances demand presupposes a prior “renunciation” of the spirit of political modernity, a renunciation that “is not a political act” but “the work of the Holy Spirit, who ‘corrects the will of man from infidelity unto faith.’”

Kenneth L. Grasso

The Peaceable Kingdom

As I read Gilbert Meilaender (“A Dedicated Life,” May 2010) admonishing Stanley Hauerwas to “take patriotism and the bond between fellow citizens more seriously,” I couldn’t help but recall one of Wendell Berry’s essays: “War always encourages a patriotism that means not love of country, but unquestioning obedience to power.” Meilaender may have a more nuanced understanding of patriotism, but obedience to power has much to do with it, given that the chief sign of Hauerwas’ deficient concern for his fellow citizens seems to be his obdurate unwillingness as a believer to endorse the violence of the nation-state.

Nine years after the editors of First Things declared the ethics of Christian nonviolence “fraudulent” and a “utopian fantasy,” and on the seventh-year anniversary of the invasion of Iraq (which passed in your May issue without notice), we know beyond cavil that it was not Hauerwas who succumbed, in the days after September 11, to the tug of millenarian dreams. It is tragic that Meilaender did not see the occasion of Hauerwas’ autobiography as an opportunity to offer some notes of introspection on the role of Christian intellectuals in selling a morally as well as strategically disastrous war that Hauerwas had the wherewithal to resist.

Perhaps, someday, First Things will say what still needs forthrightly to be said: that the Christian community and the country needed Stanley’s dissenting voice alongside the voices of honest just-war theorists in the days after September 11. The conversation in these pages has been impoverished by his absence, which in a real sense was this journal’s stated wish when it proclaimed the pacifist voice something the Church and America would be better off without.

Ronald Osborn

Gilbert Meilaender replies:

If Ronald Osborn read me as “admonishing” Stanley Hauerwas, I suggest he try reading the pertinent paragraphs again. I think the tone is closer to serious, but friendly, engagement of differences.

The point at issue is not Hauerwas’ “unwillingness as a believer to endorse the violence of the nation-state” but whether a Christian ought to “disdain” all natural ties. And I am quite confident that, in retrospect, Stanley Hauerwas himself might acknowledge that “disdain” cannot be the right word or attitude for Christians. Osborn can find out quite easily. He need only, the next time an epistolary urge overtakes him, direct that question to Hauerwas himself.

Jewish Science?

Since I share most of David Goldman’s views on Israel, I am perplexed by his view (“Quantum Leaps,” May 2010) that The Israel Test is a feverish tract that misses major factors in the country’s ascent, such as the Russian immigration. For example, I repeatedly state that the Russian immigration was absolutely crucial to the advance of Israeli technology” wreaking an “overwhelming transformation of the human capital of Israel . . . . The reaction was economically incandescent . . . and the impact reverberated through the social and political order as well.”

However, I disagree that this phenomenon was chiefly a side effect of the fall of the Soviet Union. The suppression of the Russian Jews was a major factor in the downfall of the Soviet regime, as similar pogroms previously caused the collapse of Budapest, Vienna, and Berlin after they evicted their Jews. At the same time, I argue that the acceptance of Jews by the United States was crucial to American success both in World War II and in the Cold War, which brought down the Soviet Union. If Goldman disagrees, he might explain why.

Having been a student of the subject since 1990, when I wrote Microcosm: The Quantum Era in Science and Technology , I reject Goldman’s strange idea that Werner Heisenberg, whose cumbersome matrix version of quantum theory was eclipsed by Schrödinger’s wave equation and by Von Neumann’s more abstract formulation, was “the creator of quantum mechanics.” Heisenberg had neither priority nor durability, and his uncertainty principle is a mere mathematical truism, a restatement of Fourier’s transformation at the quantum level.

I believe that the true test of scientific theories comes in the technology that embodies them. I demonstrated the role of Jews in both the origins and the applications of quantum science not in a silly effort to show that quantum theory is exclusively Jewish, but to show that the world benefits hugely by meeting the Israel Test and freeing Jews from oppression.

My major point was and is that the United States benefits as much from Israel as Israel benefits from the United States. This is a hard truth for “realists” and materialists, infatuated by the power of oil, to grasp. Jewish genius utterly dwarfs the significance of any fungible natural commodity and for whatever complex reasons currently excels by far the genius of any other people.

Moreover, I was making a case not only for exciting technological successes in the past but also for future contributions from Israel. That the two new companies I stressed in the book have experienced massive stock-market appreciation since its publication (one, a tenfold gain) perhaps helps confirm the book’s theme that Silicon Valley, now in the stultifying clutches of climate cranks, is being bailed out by Israel under the great Benjamin Netanyahu.

In any case, Goldman missed what I was doing in the book. Nowhere did I accept a genetic view of Jewish genius. I don’t think it can be proven one way or the other. I suggested that religious monotheism, a first thing manifested as much by Einstein and Von Neumann as by liturgically practicing Jews, contributed to the faith in a coherent and meaningful universe apprehensible by the human mind. It is this synoptic faith, shared by scientists, priests, rabbis, and mathematicians alike, that makes human intellect possible.

David Goldman finds this observation “condescending.” I thought I was celebrating the role of Judaism in science and capitalism”in the saga of human creativity in the image of the Creator”but I am a Christian, so I focus on the many commonalities between Judaism and its Christian descendants as we jointly face the jihad. I like Joseph Soloveitchik’s observation that “the white light of divinity is always refracted through reality’s dome of many colored glass.”

George Gilder

David P. Goldman replies:

All Heisenberg did was to apply a Fourier transformation to electron orbits? In that sense, all Copernicus did was suggest that planetary orbits were easier to calculate if we assume the earth revolves around the sun. The triumph of the BohrHeisenberg “Copenhagen interpretation” in the 1927 Solvay Conference transformed mathematical physics. From Kepler to Einstein, modern physics sought a deterministic, intuitive depiction of reality. After Heisenberg’s Indeterminacy Principle, physicists reckoned the probability of events at the quantum level.

True, Schrödinger and others refined Heisenberg’s work, but it was Heisenberg who put determinism to the torch. Einstein spent his last four decades on the fringes of physics in a vain quest to prove that “God does not play dice with the universe.” George Gilder is rather lonely in his claim that Heisenberg did not matter.

Was the Indeterminacy revolution for better or worse? Rav Joseph Soloveitchik, the preeminent Orthodox Jewish thinker of the past century, saw deep theological importance in Heisenberg’s principle. “Every metaphysical quest for reality is driven by the urge for finality and totality which neither scientific microscope nor telescope can reveal,” he wrote in The Halakhic Mind . “As long as general philosophy explored a quantitatively constructed universe, the philosophy of religion could not progress.”

Soloveitchik added, “What is perhaps most striking . . . is that the physicist himself, in expounding ‘peculiar’ epistemological theories concerning the physical world, has helped deliver the philosopher from his bondage to the mathematical sciences.” And he singled out Bohr for “exploiting Heisenberg’s Indeterminacy Principle to [undertake] the refutation of the time-hallowed myth of the insularity of the physical world.”

What shall we make of a Jewish authority drawing theological lessons from the head of Hitler’s atomic-bomb program? One might ask the same question about the 1929 Davos disputation between the future Nazi Martin Heidegger and the Jewish neo-Kantian philosopher Ernst Casirer. Franz Rosenzweig took Heidegger’s side”and so should we, for the estimable Casirer has become a footnote in philosophical history, while the despicable Heidegger still demands study.

The notion of a coherent but insular physical order is not Jewish, as George Gilder wrongly maintains, but rather Greek. Aristotle also was a monotheist”that is why we speak of “the God of the philosophers””and Plato had “faith in a coherent universe.” Greek science revealed harmonies of the universe long before the first great Jewish scientist (Carl Jacobi, I should think) sat down to write. What distinguishes the Jews is not faith that the universe is coherent but that it is the work of a Creator who loves his creatures.

There is no “Jewish science.” To the extent that there is a Jewish attitude toward science, it is Soloveitchik’s, emphasizing the limits of man’s capacity to see into the mind of God and the enduring mystery of creation.

But why quibble about such things, Gilder asks in so many words, when what we really want to do is rally support for Israel? My answer is that Jews have to fear nothing so much as our own self-admiration, which our prophets used to call “idolatry.” The complacent majority of American Jews teems with brilliant scientists whose children (if any) will not be Jewish. Except for the Orthodox, America’s Jewish population is shrinking.

Meanwhile, the secular majority in Israel, basking in its achievements, forgets that Israel first of all is a kingdom of priests. The residual notion of priestly vocation continues to shower attention on Jewish children and yield an extraordinary number of high achievers. If we forget that vocation, we will sink into deserved mediocrity and disappear like other nations. We are not short on cleverness. But we need more holiness. Guile and gunpowder may avail the state of Israel in the short run, but we have not survived four thousand years of tribulation on short-run thinking.

Gilder otherwise is correct to note that he gave more attention to the immigration issue than I indicated, but the subject remains incidental to his overall thesis.

Correction: Due to an editing error, a letter by William and Laurey Boyd published last month was erroneously attributed to Gil Crosby.