Weekly Interview: Michael


I met Michael a while ago, before he had his own blog, via a comment he left on mine. A conversation followed, then emails. Here is someone who never runs out of ideas and references if you wish to dig into a subject. Thank you Michael for your contribution, and for being the youngest participant in this series.

Can you introduce yourself in a few words?

I grew up in Silver Spring, MD (the suburbs of the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area), and grew up as a committed but mostly non-observant Jew. When I was 16 years old (specifically, the summer of 2004), I began becoming more observant, culminating in my becoming Modern Orthodox. Since my high graduation in 2006, I’ve spent the past four years learning in yeshivot in Israel.

What is your religious background (if any)?

As I said, I grew up “committed but mostly non-observant.” My family would do things like a hold a seder on Pesah and have a Friday-night Shabbat meal, and go to religious services on Rosh ha-Shana and Yom Kippur, but other than that, we didn’t “do” very much. On the other hand, because my mother is a convert (she grew up as an Evangelical Christian and converted first Reform and then Conservative), she was ideologically very committed to whatever she did do or believe, and so I was raised with a very strong Jewish identity, even if it was represented very little in actual ritual practice. I was raised to believe very strongly in what Judaism is and what its purpose in the world is – “ethical monotheism” and tiqun `olam and such – and that I was Jewish and was supposed to marry Jewish.

When and why did you decide to make aliyah?

I remember sitting in computer science class in either seventh or eighth grade (2000/2001 or 2001/2002)– I forget which – and thinking to myself, “Well, G-d gave us the land of Israel, and He’s letting us return, so nu – what am I waiting for? I’m making `aliyah!” Of course, what I had to wait for was my high school graduation. By the way, keep in mind that this was some two to four years (depending on when during seventh to eighth grade you count) before I became observant (in the summer of 2004).

Where in Israel do you live and is there a special reason you live there?

I live wherever the educational institution I happen to be attending is located. I lived in Jerusalem for three years (attending Machon Meir), Petah Tiqwa for half a year (attending Yeshivat Hesder Petah Tiqwa), and I plan to be living in Ramat Gan soon (for Bar-Ilan University). As for my reason, I feel that it is where G-d intends us to live. The Torah repeatedly tells us to keep the mitzvot “when you enter the land into which I am bringing you,” and the Gemara says that anyone who lives outside of Israel is nearly guilty of worshiping idols; that’s enough to convince me!

When and why did you start blogging?

Let’s see…the timestamp on my first blog entry is 26 January 2009, so I guess that’s when I started blogging! I started because I kept posting long notes on Facebook, and someone told me to open a blog, so I did.

Have you been surprised by the way your blogging activity has evolved over the years?

Not particularly. When I started the blog, I’d just post whatever happened to be on my mind at the time (whereas I had previously posted onto Facebook whatever was on my mind at the time), and that’s pretty much what my blog still is. I have no themes, no agenda, nothing. I just post whatever is on the top of my head.

To what extent do you feel your blogging activity reflects on the global perception of Israel?

My blog affects the global perception of Israel extremely little, I’d imagine, and only slightly more than my blog affects the global perception of China or the ground beef industry. I get very few readers, and still fewer of those readers spend more than literally a few seconds on my blog (according to Google Analytics). Furthermore, I do extremely little (if any at all) hasbara (defense of Israel), because that’s just not my thing. I have strong opinions on the justice of Israel’s actions – at least as far as I believe it ought to concern the rest of the world – but I think Alan Dershowitz and the WZO and whoever else is out there can do a better job of doing PR for Israel than I can. (The Israeli government itself, on the other hand, seems to have hired sea slugs to do its PR, because monkeys were too expensive.) Most of my discussions are more “preaching to the choir,” involving issues of Modern Orthodoxy or Israeli politics for those “inside” the circle. In fact, the same way I don’t hasbara, I also don’t try to present Orthodox Judaism to non-observant Jews. I’m simply not a propagandist; I have neither the aptitude nor the stomach. I’m more like an academic who analyzes issues and subjects for those who are already relatively involved and knowledgeable in the cases at hand. Some people are good at arguing persuasively and putting glitter and rainbows all over their words, to convert the uninitiated, but I’m better at talking verbosely about minutiae with a preponderance of scholarly footnotes.

What post(s) are you most proud of?

Oy, I’ve written so many, and I don’t know where to begin! Well, off the top of my head, I’m proud of what I’ve written recently about libertarianism, and of my posts on that subject, the most developed I’ve written have probably been Religious Coercion, or On John Locke and the Kehilla’s Right to Assess Tzedaqa and Judaism, Democracy, and Health-Care Reform: A Reply to Dr. Jonathan Tobin.

I’m also proud of an article I wrote and had published elsewhere, A New Hearing on Kol Ishah. I can mention that article because when it was published, I made a brief mention of it on my blog. 😉

Would you care to share a blog or two you enjoy.

The Cake Wrecks blog is simply spectacular for morning laughs.
Shimshonit’s blog is written by a good friend I know personally in Israel, but I met her initially via her excellent blog.

Last week’s interview

10 thoughts on “Weekly Interview: Michael

  1. Michael, thanks for doing this interview. It sounds like you write to work out your own ideas, which is a great reason to write. “A few readers” is worth gold. I sometimes read your comments on Larry L.’s FB.

    I’d like to hear more about the libertarian stuff… it always seems like good ideas, but in real life there seem to be too many complications. I also have a suspicion that if the whole world were made up of MIT graduates and other smart, cerebral types libertarianism might work, but of course, it’s not.

    • Perhaps the easiest way to tell you about libertarianism is for us to simply have a dialogue, right now even!

      The essential idea of libertarianism – in my personal understanding, at least, which conflates it (perhaps erroneously) with classical liberalism (think John Locke) – is that of social-contract. According to social-contract theory, the civil government is formed by the freely granted consent of the governed. Government is formed by citizens , and it has authority only because they have granted it their consent.

      This is part of the larger concept of federalism (which comes from the Latin word foedus, “covenant”), in which all of human life and society is viewed as a series of interrelated social relationships, such as the family, the church, the town, etc. Each unit is independent and sovereign within its own sphere, and it forms mutual contracts (or covenants, or compacts) with other units. Each covenant entails a constitution (either explicit or implicit) delineating the respective rights and responsibilities of each party. For example, families will contract together to form a town, and each family will usually retain the right to decide what they will have for dinner, and so they will retain their natural sovereignty. Under federalism, all relationships are mutual and consentual, and all parties to the contract are equal within their own spheres. All power is horizontal, not vertical, and rather than one party being superior to another, instead, all parties are equal, and the difference lies in their different spheres. For example, the national government for the United States would be equal in power to the state, but its sphere would be different, including, for example, the power to raise a military and coin money, but not including the power to regulate intra-state commerce.

      According to all this, the government has only the powers which members of society choose to grant it. Everything else must be left to private enterprises. In fact, the government itself is a sort of private enterprise. The government is simply one member of society among many others. To quote The Covenant Origins of American Polity by Professor Steven Alan Samson:

      Furthermore, decentralized political institutions required the existence of healthy social institutions, which included voluntary associations. … It is this combination of ingredients that lends a peculiarly libertarian quality to American social institutions. The civil government was regarded as a constituent rather than a constitutive element of society. … One of the great practical advantages of the covenant design is the possibility of reconciling a number of self-governing entities within a larger union or commonwealth, such as family, church, and state.

      The government has only the powers granted by the citizens because all men retain their own natural powers until and unless they delegate them to another. For example, all men have the right to defend themselves against attackers, and so they can delegate this power to the government. (Actually, because all men have the right and even the duty to defend their neighbors against attack, the government does not require the consent of its citizens to enforce basic rules of justice.) To quote Cato’s Letters:

      he two great laws of human society, from whence all the rest derive their course and obligation, are those of equity and self-preservation: By the first all men are bound alike not to hurt one another; by the second all men have a right alike to defend themselves.

      Government therefore can have no power, but such as men can give…no man can give to another what is none of his own…

      Nor has any man in the state of nature power…to take away the life of another, unless to defend his own, or what is as much his own, namely, his property. This power therefore, which no man has, no man can transfer to another.

      Nor could any man in the state of nature have a right to violate the property of another…as long as he himself was not injured by that industry and those enjoyments. No man therefore could transfer to the magistrate that right which he had not himself.

      No man in his senses was ever so wild as to give an unlimited power to another to take away his life, or the means of living… But if any man restrained himself from any part of his pleasures, or parted with any portion of his acquisitions, he did it with the honest purpose of enjoying the rest with greater security, and always in subservience to his own happiness, which no man will or can willingly and intentionally give away to any other whatsoever.

      Because the government, according to this, is a collection of voluntarily consenting individuals, the citizens can always withdraw their consent to be governed, stripping the government of its authority over them. Therefore, it behooves the government to limit itself to merely enforcing strict justice and any universally and axiomatically held principles (such as enforcing Puritanism among citizens in a thoroughly Puritanistic society, for example), because otherwise, citizens will simply withdraw their consent. If the government continues to assert its authority even after citizens have withdrawn their consent, then the government is simply a thief who may be punished as all thieves may be.

      Thus, the government has only powers which the citizens have granted, or which are considered axiomatically authoritative simply because they enshrine Truth with a capital “T.” For example, men may defend themselves against thieves, and so the government may do so too. In Puritan societies (the Reformed/Calvinist tradition invented federalism and social contract theory, by the way), Puritanism was taken for granted as authoritative and true, and anyone who disagreed was considered to be simply wrong, and was expected to leave town and find somewhere else to live.

      To quote Professor Samson again (in turn quoting Edward S. Corwin), The attribution of supremacy to the Constitution on the ground solely of its rootage in popular will represents, however, a comparatively late outgrowth of American constitutional theory. Earlier the supremacy accorded to constitutions was ascribed less to their putative source than to their supposed content, to their embodiment of an essential and unchanging justice…. There are, it is predicated, certain principles of right and justice which are entitled to prevail of their own intrinsic excellence, all together regardless of the attitude of those who wield the physical resources of the community.

      In other words, the Constitution as held to be authoritative not because it was approved by the majority, but rather, simply because it was true, period. You cannot argue with Truth, with a capital “T.” Now, then, of course, men lack an empirical way to establish the absolute truth without any admixture of error or bias. But the best we can do is consider whatever is nearly unanimous to be the truth. Under social contract theory, the government can engage in those things only which enjoy nearly universal assent. If it can be characterized as partisan, then it is ipso facto illegal for the government to engage in it.

      The central idea is this: the government is your proxy, your שליח. Anyone’s proxy has only those powers which he has granted him. The government is meant to be everyone‘s proxy, and therefore, it can do only those things which everyone agrees to. (Or at least, which nearly everyone agrees to. In Puritan society, for example, a non-Puritan was simply considered to be outside the bounds of ordinary people and society. Likewise, in Biblical Israel, anyone who violated Shabbat was simply a criminal, violating what was considered a fundamental norm for society binding all people and accepted by all reasonable people.)

      Fundamentally, what libertarianism enshrines is humility. It accepts that no man has the right to coerce his neighbor. If your party occupies 51% of the legislature and your opposition occupies 49%, the libertarian accepts that he has no moral right to coerce the minority. He accepts that any act of coercion by one person over another or one group of people over another group is simply an act of tyranny and violence and evil. There is no difference between one man bullying another, and a whole group bullying another. To quote Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Politics:

      Every man’s nature is a sufficient advertisement to him of the character of his fellows. My right and my wrong, is their right and their wrong. Whilst I do what is fit for me, and abstain from what is unfit, my neighbour and I shall often agree in our means, and work together for a time to one end. But whenever I find my dominion over myself not sufficient for me, and undertake the direction of him also, I overstep the truth, and come into false relations to him. I may have so much more skill or strength than he, that he cannot express adequately his sense of wrong, but it is a lie, and hurts like a lie both him and me. Love and nature cannot maintain the assumption: it must be executed by a practical lie, namely, by force. This undertaking for another, is the blunder which stands in colossal ugliness in the governments of the world. It is the same thing in numbers, as in a pair, only not quite so intelligible. I can see well enough a great difference between my setting myself down to a self-control, and my going to make somebody else act after my views: but when a quarter of the human race assume to tell me what I must do, I may be too much disturbed by the circumstances to see so clearly the absurdity of their command. Therefore, all public ends look vague and quixotic beside private ones. For, any laws but those which men make for themselves, are laughable. If I put myself in the place of my child, and we stand in one thought, and see that things are thus or thus, that perception is law for him and me. We are both there, both act. But if, without carrying him into the thought, I look over into his plot, and, guessing how it is with him, ordain this or that, he will never obey me. This is the history of governments, – one man does something which is to bind another. A man who cannot be acquainted with me, taxes me; looking from afar at me, ordains that a part of my labour shall go to this or that whimsical end, not as I, but as he happens to fancy. Behold the consequence. Of all debts, men are least willing to pay the taxes. What a satire is this on government! Everywhere they think they get their money’s worth, except for these.

      Under federalism, all associations are contractual and mutual. Therefore, there is no tyranny and no unjust coercion, because every association has been freely and voluntarily entered into, with stipulated terms. The government is accepted as a contractual union of willing individuals, horizontal and parallel with other bodies of society, not vertically superior, exercising only those powers which citizens have granted it, making it their approved proxy.

    • I forgot to note that because federalism was created by the Reformed/Calvinist Christians, it was assumed by them that all human contracts and constitutions must agree with the highest constitution of all, the Bible. Any law which violated the Bible or natural law (which was considered identical to the Bible except that it was written on men’s hearts and consciences rather than on paper) was ipso facto illegal.

      In fact, federalism was modeled on Reformed Christians’ studies of covenant (ברית) in the Bible, and originally, their entire conception of government was based on its duty to enforce the Bible and punish sin. The rights that we are familiar with, especially in the Bill of Rights, originally grew out of the Protestants’ grievances against the Catholics. For example, they demanded protection of their right to freely practice Protestantism, which developed into general rights of freedom of speech and association.

      Similarly, Reformed Christians demanded democratic-republican government and separation of powers and checks and balances and explicitly written constitutions, all to protect against government tyranny, which they considered dangerous because of the Christian belief in the sinfulness of man. Groups that rejected this Christian belief – such as the Arminian Christians and the French Enlightenment thinkers – and thinkers that gave power to the government to legislate based on reason rather than on the Bible – such as Richard Hooker and Anglicanism – tended to devolve into absolutist government, if not outright tyranny and despotism.

    • Libertarianism often results in a concern for localized rule. The reason is that if government requires consensus, then all action must be limited to the smallest geographic region where that consensus is achievable, which is usually relatively small in size. For example, Chief Justice Joseph Story (appointed by James Madison and presided 1811 to 1845) explains, in his magisterial Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States, that the First Amendment prohibits favoring or establishment of religion by the national government not because involvement in religion is ipso facto illegal – indeed, he emphatically notes that government involvement in religion is quite a good and laudable thing – but rather, he says, because there was no consensus on the national level, and so government involvement in religious matters had to be left to the states, where consensus could either be formed, or where power could be further handed down to a more local level of the federal relationship, such as counties or towns.

      Story also considers that any punishment of heretics or dissidents to be inherently wrong. That is, while he favors the government’s establishment or favoring of religion, he opposes punishing nonconformists.

      Story also believes that while government involvement in religion is quite good, nevertheless, it is a fact that because of man’s sinful nature, the government is liable to often abuse this power. Rather than argue as an atheist would, that government involvement in religion is ipso facto unjust, Story instead argues that this power is completely legitimate and just and laudable, only that it is liable to be perverted and misused, and that therefore, what would otherwise be a good power for the government to have, must be limited if not denied.

      For a good excerpt of Story’s views on the First Amendment, showing all his, see here.

  2. Thank you for this, both Michael and Ilana Davita.

    Michael, I reckon we could have some fantastic conversations in real life – alas I don’t get as much time as I would like to read all your blog posts – and nor do I get time to write as much as I would like on my blog!

    I especially enjoyed reading about your background and journey to your MO life. Good luck wih your studies and your continued writing!

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  4. Thanks for this interview, Ilana-Davita and Michael. I enjoy talking to Michael in person, both because he’s so well informed on so many things, and because it’s usually on Shabbat and I have the time to hear what he has to say!

    And thank you for the kind words about my blog. It’s been a pleasure getting to know you.

    • Shimshonit, it’s a pleasure knowing you as well, but it seems to me that you do more teaching me than I do you!

      (I remember one Shabbat, you and the Cap’n each independently – in absence of the other’s presence – told me the exact same “cargo cult” theory of the world’s anti-Israel attitude. I wonder which one of you two came up with it first.)

      Plus, it seems to me that I seem so well-informed on things only because I’m good at steering conversations towards the topics I already know. If you can steer the conversation in a direction you want to, you can be a complete ignoramus but no one will ever know! 😛

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