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How our Universities Harm our Children

September 26, 2010 – 4:46 pm74 Comments

A film that has suicide bombers as its protagonists is arguably an example of moral inversion

By Geoff Bloch

We may be relics from the past but our children live in a post-modern, post-Zionist world in which traditional Jewish values are being progressively rejected as archaic and irrelevant. As our children leave the protective cocoon of our day schools to attend tertiary institutions or leave our homes to make their own way, they are encouraged to question previously held traditions and beliefs and to decide for themselves where they stand on a wide range of political, social and religious issues.

Our children’s mentors are likely to be inspirational and influential academics who have selflessly devoted their lives to educating others; who are inevitably intelligent and articulate and who seem to be genuinely open-minded, clear-thinking and compassionate. Why then is there any cause for concern?

I generalise, but academics, particularly in the social sciences, hold views which can fairly be described as secular, humanist and to the left of centre. With some notable exceptions, academics rarely defend Israel in these times of unprecedented hostility, instead blaming Israel for the ongoing conflict with her Palestinian neighbours, sometimes even calling for divestment and boycotts. Tragically, Jewish academics are in the vanguard.

This is largely due to an ideology which is both seductive and damaging as I will explain. Our children ’s prolonged exposure to it cannot be a good thing at a time in their lives when they are working out where they stand on so many issues, including their own Jewish identity.

Defining the ideology

Modern humanism espouses the laudable objectives of fraternity and benevolence contending that these can be achieved by the use of man’s inherent power of reason coupled with his supposed innate ability to act ethically and justly, but specifically rejecting religious doctrines as a basis of morality and behaviour.

Our children are encouraged to draw upon their own goodness and logical reasoning to form opinions on social, political and religious issues. The ideology appeals to their vanity by flattery, because it suggests they are innately able to be moral arbiters between the great social polarities of right and wrong.

A deeply flawed ideology

Ironically, secular, logical reasoning, rather than religious dogma, exposes the fundamental flaw of humanism. The secular argument is this: “In the absence of an absolute moral code, there IS no right and wrong. Everything becomes a matter of opinion and what is moral and ethical will simply move with the vagaries of the times and/or from society to society.”

This is easily proved by giving examples from the real world. (1) The Arab mother who joyously and proudly celebrates when her son blows himself to bits murdering innocent Jews hardly regards herself or her son as immoral or unethical. Nor does the society in which she lives. (2) The Nazi soldier who gassed innocent Jews did not regard himself as immoral or unethical. Nor did the society in which he lived. In both cases, if children grow up being taught that Jews are vermin and ought to be exterminated, then doing so is not only socially acceptable, it is a moral imperative.

These examples prove conclusively that (1) what man understands as ethical or moral is relative; (2) it is impossible for certain modes of behaviour to be universally rejected as unethical or immoral unless measured against a universal and absolute moral code; and (3) that code must be taught because ethical and moral behaviour is not innate.

Humanism and moral inversion go hand in hand

Because one of the core principles of humanism is the erroneous belief that all men have an innate ability to act ethically and justly, a humanist is faced with a paradox. How can this core principle be reconciled with the fact that the world is awash with what we traditionally understand as unethical and unjust behaviour (the homicide bombing of innocent Jews for example)?

Such behaviour can more readily be understood or reconciled by the humanist by attributing to the perpetrator a valid reason which justifies or apologises for it. In short, the victim is blamed for being victimised.

This moral inversion is a means by which the secular humanist can explain away real evil while preserving his core beliefs.

Humanism and moral equivalence go hand in hand

Because humanism espouses universal fraternity and benevolence, all peoples must be regarded as equal. No religion or culture may be regarded as superior or more generous than any other. The humanist is therefore faced with a second paradox. How can this core principle be reconciled with unprovoked violence and brutality by any one particular religious group? Indeed how can it be reconciled with the humanity and generosity of another group, such as Israel sending medical emergency teams to Haiti, Rwanda and Turkey?

In order to preserve this unsound core belief, violence and brutality are summarily dismissed and excused as part of a “cycle of violence”, a pernicious term which attributes equal blame and similar behaviour to the victim without any honest attempt to analyse and attribute blame where it is due or to investigate whether the behaviour of one group is truly reciprocated by the other. The expression “cycle of violence” is a good barometer indicating that moral equivalence is “in the air”. Moral equivalence is the inability to draw a distinction between (hence equating) an immoral or evil act and a moral or justified one. A good contemporary example is the clear distinction between the intentional unprovoked rocketing by Hamas of Israeli civilians and the tragic and unintentional deaths of Palestinian civilians brought about by defensive measures taken by the IDF.

But religions and cultures are not of equal value as can easily be proved by example. Suttee was a widespread religious funeral practice among some Hindu communities in which a perfectly healthy widow, either voluntarily or by coercion, was immolated on her husband’s funeral pyre. Colonial powers (Portuguese, Dutch, French, Danish and British) recognised the practice as barbaric and primitive compared with their own religion and culture and had the moral courage to ban it.

We are supposed to live in a more enlightened age, yet where is the outcry against other barbaric and primitive practices, such as female circumcision, honour killings or the subjugation of women in many Islamic communities, to give but three examples? The core humanist belief that no religion or culture is superior to any other helps explain the deafening silence.

“But I know deep within myself that I am a moral person”

This is humanism’s narcissistic mantra. But today’s humanist was raised by a generation which was steeped in Old Testament values hence his own subjective notions of right and wrong are likely to be consonant with traditional Jewish values. The same cannot be said of tomorrow’s humanist who will inhabit a different world in which those values are progressively disappearing. Tomorrow’s humanist will therefore be less likely to be able to discern actual right from actual wrong as those polarities are traditionally understood.

Which absolute moral code?

A secularist might argue: “We do not need a document thousands of years old to serve as a moral code in the modern world. Even if a code is needed, our existing laws can serve as that code.”

The law cannot satisfactorily serve that purpose because the law is no more than a reflection of society’s temporal social mores and customs. Laws are constantly amended or repealed and new laws enacted. Even the pernicious Nuremberg Laws were lawfully enacted. We need something far more enduring.

That is why some avowed, but intellectually honest, atheists have concluded that our religious moral code should be retained because, ironically, it safeguards the stability of modern secular society. For example, in Dr. Anthony Daniel’s words (aka Theodore Dalrymple) “it is impossible for us to live decently without the aid of religion…(t)hat is the ambiguity of the Enlightenment.”

Conclusion – What can be done?

As with most problems, one can look for a cure or take preventative measures. A cure is problematic because secular humanism at universities is so rife. Even were our community and generous benefactors to take steps to attenuate it, it cannot be completely overcome.

Education is the best answer. Our children should be provided with the intellectual tools they need to meet and resist the collision of ideologies which awaits them. Our schools, our youth movements and our homes all have important roles to play in such combination as best suits each individual child so that, as we all hope for, our children can face the future with pride in Israel and in their heritage.

Geoffrey Bloch is a Melbourne based barrister.

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  • philip mendes says:

    Geoff: As a left-leaning secular humanist social scientist, I have not doubt that you do generalize. Academics are a very diverse and pluralistic group. Yes most social scientists lean to the Left, and probably most are secular humanists. But not all secular humanists are post-modern cultural relativists (I don’t think I am the only exception here in holding a belief that a belief in freedom and equality including particularly gender equality are an integral part of a democratic society), and conversely many academics I know are both religious Christians and cultural relativists.

    As for Jewish academics being at the forefront of anti-Israel activity, that is simply not true. For every John Docker and Ned Curthoys who claim to be Jewish to block legitimate criticism of their racial stereotyping of Israelis, there are hundreds of Jewish academics who are generally supportive of Israel.

    But you need to remember that most academics are apolitical, and even amongst those who are political, only a small minority hold strong views on Israel either way, and even fewer will express their opinions publicly.

    As an aside, I was also very angry at the Jewish school I attended in the 1970s for not preparing me for the very different intellectual and political atmosphere I experienced as an undergrad student at Melb Uni in the early 1980s. But I drew the conclusion rather different from your own that Jewish schools needed to get more inclusive and more complex in what they taught about Israel because one-sided hasbara in secondary school does not give Jewish students the tools they need to combat anti-Zionist fundamentalism from some groups at university.

    Philip Mendes

  • Evan says:


    “one-sided hasbara in secondary school does not give Jewish students the tools they need to combat anti-Zionist fundamentalism from some groups at university.”

    Absolutely – in fact, it can be damaging: students brought up on the romantic Zionist narrative, upon discovering the not-so-romantic aspects of Israeli history, might even feel a sense of betrayal and buy, wholesale, into the Palestinian narrative. I can think of at least four cases of this happening among people I know.
    I favour a more “warts and all” approach to teaching about Israel.

  • Akiva says:

    I feel that this article marks a new low point in the development of Galus as a blog encouraging the intellectual ‘ghettoisation’ of the community. It is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to have a rational discussion about this topic if the parameters of the discussion do not have as a fundamental a desire for students to be taught some real, factual history, rather than propaganda. Nothing good comes from teaching your young propaganda instead of truth, no matter how uncomfortable. And I believe that would be better for the long-term survival if Israel then the current practice of hasbaran indoctrination. As a historian, I cannot stress enough that all histories, of all peoples that I am aware of, arrive at this point, eventually. Propaganda only leads to strife.

    And I am truly shocked by this article; shocked and horrified, and disappointed that of all the discussions an arena such as Galus affords us, it is this, ad nauseum in variation, which gets airplay over and over again. Is this really the only voice that the community has?

  • Michael says:

    ”But you need to remember that most academics are apolitical’’ says Phillip Mendes…..

    If only that were the case we would not have all the problems we are now discussing.

    Perhaps Phil should read one of the Jewish academics opinion pieces I suspect Mr. Bloch’s excellent opinion piece refers too.

    ”Why I Support the New Zionist Left” By Mark Baker hello ! Does this sound apolitical , sounds Political too me Phil.

    Philip is fully entitled to his opinion what would we expect him to say of course he would argue that Jewish academics are not part of the hive of anti – Zionism at Universities. I suggest it is a bit too close to home for Phillip to make a balanced judgment on his colleagues As they say Phil actions are louder than words, or look at the facts on the ground just look at what’s happening at Universities.
    To argue this is all imaginary and no body is to blame is pretty dam stupid.

    The fact is Universities are the front line for anti- Zionism and unfortunately Jewish Academics are in the fore front [I’m sure the Editor of this blog site would rather we not list all the Jewish academics and their anti -Zionist achievements.

    It is common knowledge that the majority of academics at Monash are in the forefront of the delegitimizing of Israel and Zionists we have all read so many examples of the work these academic do to support the Palestinian narrative and portray ISrael in a negative way, they don’t need to be repeated.

    It is a Chutzpah to argue these Academics with such strong political views don’t influence the students if anybody believes that they will believe anything.

    Geoff finishes his opinion piece with a good point what about the Benefactors of these left wing Jewish study departments, unless these benefactors are in sync with these academics which as it appears may be the case ?

  • frosh says:

    Hi Akiva,

    You wrote “I feel that this article marks a new low point in the development of Galus as a blog encouraging the intellectual ‘ghettoisation’ of the community.”

    Other than the fact that the number of negatives in this sentence makes it difficult to understand your intended meaning, your overall comment highlights the impossible challenge any critical publication faces in keeping readers happy.

    Recently, Galus published an article by Mark Baker titled “Why I Support the New Zionist Left,” as well as an article by Larry Stillman titled “Why the AJDS are right to support a limited boycott.” Now doubt there were some on the conservative side of politics who thought that the publication of these articles represented a new low for this publication.

    Why is that people are so afraid of the publication of articles that express opinions divergent with their own?

    There’s a comments section, and people are free to use it to respectfully disagree.

  • frosh says:

    Hi Michael,

    You wrote “It is common knowledge that the majority of academics at Monash are in the forefront of the delegitimizing of Israel and Zionists…”

    I’m sorry Michael, not only is this not “common knowledge”, I’d argue that it is patently untrue (and yes, I’m already assuming that you are not referring to the Department of Applied Mathematics etc).

    You also wrote “It is a Chutzpah to argue these Academics with such strong political views don’t influence the students if anybody believes that they will believe anything.”

    Michael, while I do not know you personally, based on this statement of yours, I’m going to take a guess that you are not familiar with the body of social psychology literature that concerns itself with persuasion and attitude formation.

    A good start would be to familiarise yourself a phenomenon known as The Third Person Effect. This is a very robust finding in psychology that posits that one will over-estimate the extent that others will be influenced by sources that one perceives as dangerous or hostile. Your statement seems to be a classic manifestation of The Third Person Effect.

  • MichaelF says:

    I agree with most of the criticisms above, but also:

    1. Humanism is identified with relativism. From what I know (being a humanist of sorts), there is absolutely no relationship and the vast, vast majority of humanists I know of are not relativists.
    2. It is said that “logical reasoning, rather than religious dogma, exposes the fundamental flaw of humanism”. However, I’ve read that section at least 3 times and I don’t see the argument against relativism even attempted.
    3. It is rhetorically asked about where is the outcry against “barbaric and primitive practices, such as female circumcision, honour killings or the subjugation of women in many Islamic communities”. I see criticisms of these things all the time (much more than criticisms of Israel), certainly from humanists and certainly from the left (including the “academic left”). The assumption that people just don’t care about these things is revealing especially since I don’t see how it could be further from the truth.

  • Geoff Bloch says:

    Hi Philip,

    Your concession that “most social scientists lean to the Left, and probably most are secular humanists” is, I think, sufficient for the principal matter I had hoped would be debated, namely whether humanist ideology is fundamentally flawed for the reasons I explained and whether that ideology can logically lead to the moral inversion and moral equivalence I discussed, at least for those academics who apply the ideology to form opinions on political matters. I did not read your post as directly attacking my arguments and I am therefore unsure whether you agree, disagree or partly agree with me.

    I do not consider that your “belief in freedom and equality including particularly gender equality (as) an integral part of a democratic society” is an exclusive hallmark or indicator of humanist ideology. I, too, embrace that belief and I am certainly no humanist. I am therefore, again, unsure whether you have made that observation simply for the purpose of defining your own beliefs or whether you raise it as an argument against what I have written.

    It is clear from your post that you believe most academics are apolitical secular humanists. While it was not a matter with which I was primarily concerned, a nice question to ponder in relation to that “class” of academic is whether, notwithstanding that they may not express their political views to students, it is nevertheless likely that in the course of teaching, some (and perhaps most) of them would convey their ideology to their students and, if so, whether students who find the ideology attractive would then apply it in forming their own opinions on a wide range of subjects including political issues.

    By the way, I agree with your observation that few academics express their opinions publicly. But I would make two comments. (1) I am frankly more interested in what is said in the lecture theatre than what is said publicly as my focus is on their influence on our children. Anecdotally, my own children have reported to me all manner of political comment including anti-Israel comment made in the lecture theatre which is not repeated publicly by their professors. (2) Not expressing their opinions publicly is consistent with my observation that with some exceptions, most academics do not defend Israel in these times of unprecedented hostility.


  • frosh says:


    Regarding your point (3), your campus experience must have been vastly different from my own (and everyone I’ve ever spoken to!) if “honor killings” were getting as much attention as the Arab-Israeli conflict

  • I don’t mean this to sound rude, but I am completely thrown by what Frosh just said to Akiva.

    Akiva wrote:

    “I feel that this article marks a new low point in the development of Galus as a blog encouraging the intellectual ‘ghettoisation’ of the community.”

    Frosh wrote:

    “… the number of negatives in this sentence makes it difficult to understand your intended meaning.”

    Now, I now this isn’t the essence of Frosh’s reply, but he did include it in his reply so it’s fair game. Not everybody’s a linguist, sure, but if I can defend just one aspect of Akiva’s statement, there is not a single negative adverb in it. In fact, it boggles the imagination as to how anybody spotted more than one. I don’t agree with Akiva’s sentiments (I think that there is a range of opinions here, and if Akiva doesn’t agree then he might like to submit an article of his own), but I also don’t think that there was anything confusing about the way they were expressed.

  • rachsd says:

    Hi Geoff,

    Theoretically, a good academic should encourage debate and critical thinking regardless of their own beliefs. Whilst this does not always happen, in my experience at University, those who used their position as a platform for promoting their own political beliefs were in the minority rather than the majority. In the minority of cases where I encountered academics who did abuse their position in this way (and please note that the academics that I encountered using their position in this way were not in Jewish Studies), I found this to be both unprofessional and unethical and I think it is most unfortunate that academia does not seem to be very good at self-regulating against this type of behaviour. However, I have to differ with you in that I’m not sure that this is the majority trend amongst academics, and in addition, even amongst these problematic academics, the opinions that are promoted range from person to person.

    In addition, personally, I never felt attracted to the beliefs of academics who promoted dogmas in the classroom (to the contrary!) so I am also not sure that your thesis that “children” will be influenced by the opinions of their lecturers is true. Surely people in their early 20s have the ability to be a bit more critical than you believe.

    Furthermore, whilst I think that you would agree that ideally academics should not be using their positions to promote their own opinions, but rather to encourage rigorous research, you seem to believe that academics (or at least Jewish ones) should be political advocates. In my view, this is contrary to the role of an academic. Whilst academics, like other people, should of course be free to express their political opinions in the public sphere, the main role of an academic should be to promote well-informed opinion rather than to promote a particular opinion.

  • MichaelF says:

    Frosh, I was referring to my experiences with the concerns of the broader group of humanists, secularists and “left of centre” people, not to the specifics of on-campus life.

  • frosh says:

    Hi Simon,

    I’m appreciating the linguistic banter. Let me break Akiva’s sentence down for you:

    “…marks a new low (negative phrase 1)… in encouraging the intellectual ghettoisation (negative phrase 2)…”

    Now, if this article marks a new low in intellectual ghettoisation, then surely that must be a good thing in Akiva’s view, assuming Akiva considers intellectual ghettoisation a bad thing.

    In an effort not to take the comments off-course, I’m happy to leave it there :-)

  • Larry Stillman says:

    You know, I really don’t know what Geoff Block is going on about. It is a series of straw men/people arguments. This stuff about ‘narcissistic’ humanism that is devoid of a moral centre is well, just not correct.

    There is a huge amount of explicitly moral and humanistic literature, for example, Amartya Sen, who has won the Nobel prize for his work in economics has a highly developed moral argument that is influential internationally. Felix Adler who left the Reform Rabbinate in the 19th century to found Ethical Culture was a deeply moral person, as have been numerous other humanists.

    I don’t know anyone who is overtly ‘humanist’ (what Block really means is post-modernist) in approach, relativizing all sorts of nastiness.

    Academics are generally pretty constrained in what they say. What they do teach or research in is their speciality, and that tends to be expressed in the language and concepts of their field, and except for a few areas, ‘the big questions’ are in fact, regrettably absent, such is the instrumental nature of university teaching these days. And as Philip says, academics, by and large, they are a political, and too busy to engage in discussions outside of specialisations. And erroneously, to put Israel at the centre of the ‘university’ argument is completely and absolutely off the mark, where I must say, Bloch’s contentions about what is ‘true’ are subject to enormous differences of opinion.

    But what really really riles me is Bloch’s extraordinarily protective approach to ‘children’. Sorry, they are not children. They are young adults at university. Part of being educated is to be challenged and have new ideas.Part of living in a free society is having choice: a choice to be religious in various ways, and a choice to be otherwise. To deliberately constrain people from ‘mixing’ is well…some groups in the Jewish community of course do this…

    As for Michael’s remark –that the “majority of academics at Monash are in the forefront of the delegitimizing of Israel and Zionists” –sorry, is he off with the birds or what? It’s just rubbish.

  • Ittay says:

    Hi Geoff,
    I’d be interested to know what you suggest would be the appropriate alternative to secular humanist values that are held by most academics. Are you suggesting that every academic be compelled to subscribe to certain religious dogma before they are allowed to enter the campus. Furthermore, when you say “education is the best answer” can you describe what you think should be content of an education that will sufficiently inoculate our children against enlightenment values.

  • Mandi Katz says:

    Some strange stuff here – university students are not “children”. They are legally and in every other way, young adults. Does Geoff see universities primarily as centres of vocational training? What of the role of a liberal education in challenging and stretching people?

    Yes, many young Jews will struggle with their Jewish identities in an intellectual and considered way at university – that’s all par for the course. And those who have a “hasbara based identity” with Israel, and are critical thinkers, are most likely to veer sharp left, at least temporarily, when they first come to grips with the complexity and multiple narratives of this issue.

    Interesting also to describe the “protective cocoon of our day schools” as a good thing. To many, it’s the big downside of the Jewish day school system – against the huge pluses of Jewish content and a Jewish cultural and social environment.

  • Geoff Bloch says:

    Hi Ittay and Larry,

    May I respond to both of you in the same post?

    First, Ittay’s points.

    I never suggested that academics holding secular humanist values must be excluded from campus unless they subscribe to certain religious dogma. I am simply saying that, in my view, there is an inherent absurdity in the ideology and that unfortunately moral inversion and moral equivalence can logically follow from the ideology, for the reasons I have already explained at length and which do not need to be rehearsed in this post.

    As to my reference to “education is the best answer”, I am not an expert in education. I therefore can offer no expert opinion as to precisely how best to provide our youth with the intellectual tools necessary to meet the ideology and your question as to the precise curriculum is best directed elsewhere. What I can of course tell you is the approach my wife and I have taken with regard to our own 4 daughters (2 have graduated from medicine and law respectively, another is currently in medical school and one is still in high school). Over many years we have regularly discussed and debated with them, not only our own religious ideology but the various other ideologies and viewpoints they are likely to encounter in the wider community, especially as they relate to current affairs. I had thought that doing so was part of our obligation as parents. If you and Larry regard that as wrongful “inoculation” or being “overly protective”, then I am happy to plead guilty.

    Which brings me to Larry’s post (which overlaps to some extent with Ittay’s). What most “riles” Larry is his unfounded charge that I would deny children a right of choice (whether to be religious, for example) and deny them exposure to new ideas by deliberately constraining them from mixing. Nowhere in my article have I called for parents to constrain their children in this way. Larry, I agree with you that “(p)art of living in a free society is having choice”. That is one reason why my own children attend university and are indeed exposed to humanist views. But that does not mean that where we perceive that a clash of ideologies looms, especially with an ideology which some of us regard as illogical, unhelpful and even dangerous in some respects, we should leave our children to their own devices and have no input. Some of us feel strongly that doing that would not at all be in their best interests.

    What I have found disappointing in your (and other) posts is that while there is plenty of assertion that I am wrong, noone has yet really grappled with my reasoning in any meaningful way. As I mentioned in my answering post to Philip Mendes, I had hoped that there would be proper debate as to whether humanist ideology is fundamentally flawed and whether that ideology can logically lead to moral inversion and moral equivalence as I have argued in my article. I was looking forward to a robust attack rebuttal and deconstruction of my arguments. So far, I haven’t seen one.



  • Shira Wenig says:

    I am fairly sure that the mention of “children” in this article is simply a reference to biological children – given that the article is written from the perspective of a parent with children of university age (and older).
    I sincerely doubt that it is meant to imply that university students are not adults capable of making up their own minds.

    I am no longer at uni so will not pretend to be aware of what is happening in that scene now. However, extremely anecdotally, I remember being told that when the Howard government was re-elected for their final term, some of the Arts faculty at Monash (I have no idea who or how many) held an emergency conference to discuss “Where did we go wrong?” given that the electorate had once again chosen the Howard government. Regardless of one’s own politics, this suggested to me that there were some academics who saw it as their role to influence students’ opinions.

  • Michael says:

    Geoff, see my comment above (http://galusaustralis.com/2010/09/3562/how-our-universities-harm-our-children/#comment-15243) which I think raised exactly what you were getting at in terms of what you hoped the post to achieve — however as stated above I don’t see an argument over and above stating what you take the moral relativist position to be. If I’ve missed the argument please let me know and I’d be happy to get into it.

  • Geoff Bloch says:

    Hi Michael,

    As to your earlier post, I had read Frosh’s response to your point #3. I agree with what he said and have nothing of substance to add.

    Your point #1 seemed to me to be commentary only and did not call for a response.

    As to your point #2, if you undertake the research, I think you are likely to accept that my definition of modern humanism is satisfactory. I look forward to your attack on my reasoning.



  • Ilana Leeds says:


    I do understand totally the dedication that some in the teaching profession have these days towards influencing the minds of their students towards what they feel is the correct political and social approach.

    I quote Shira Wenig;
    ‘I am no longer at uni so will not pretend to be aware of what is happening in that scene now. However, extremely anecdotally, I remember being told that when the Howard government was re-elected for their final term, some of the Arts faculty at Monash (I have no idea who or how many) held an emergency conference to discuss “Where did we go wrong?” given that the electorate had once again chosen the Howard government. Regardless of one’s own politics, this suggested to me that there were some academics who saw it as their role to influence students’ opinions.’
    When I did my teacher training as an English ESL Teacher and I did teach for seventeen years both in Australia (two states) and Israel, it was stressed again and again that one does not push one’s own political beliefs onto the students and one gives facts and various interpretations of events but not one driven solely by the personal political ideology of the teacher. I followed this approach and prided myself on my professionalism.
    However my approach and I am sure the approach of other teachers who do value professionalism was not appreciated in various schools in NSW. There is a distinct left wing( anti- right) bias in many staff rooms.
    I remember that infamous Wednesday morning when the events in New York were just being processed by a shocked world. We had an assembly at the school and the deputy principal stood and these are her exact words ‘We are going to have two minutes silence to commemorate the loss of life in America, BUT while we do so, we must not forget the acts of oppression and PARTICULARLY the oppression of the Palestinian people by the Israelis and the USA that have led to such desperate acts.’
    They all sat in the quadrangle like lambs and I felt like jumping up and screaming that NO act of oppression real or imagined, justifies such bloodshed, but I did not and such is my crime that I did not.
    We were also given the directive not to talk about it with the students and told that there was to be NO discussion at all about the events and if students did want to discuss the events, we were to firmly state, that is not on the learning agenda and to stick to lesson plans.
    I did not follow such orders because I believed that it was important for all students to know that violence on that scale or any scale is wrong. In my drama and English classes we did write and process the events and I believe a couple of HT’s were quite angry about that fact. I believe in the interests of peace, such things need to be worked through and in talking with migrants from Lebanon and Syrian background with Australians of European background, we understand that the way of violence and bloodshed is not the answer to solving problems. Violence is bullying and most bullies will not sit and debate or discuss because fear drives them and their life is about power and somehow justifying their methods of denigration of others in order to justify their erroneous ideas.
    I have been a victim of bullying and lost my teaching position because someone wanted to teach me a lesson about who is boss. Real leaders are not afraid of dissent because only with dissent do we learn and grow. If we all agreed with one another, what a strange world it would be.
    I don’t care what culture, colour, gender or sexuality you are, respect is paramount in dealing with others and a good sense of humour.

  • Larry Stillman says:

    Geoff, all ideologies have their flaws, including religious ideologies, but you don’t seem to recognise this at all in your black and white presentation.

    I’ve lived with humanist belief. most of my life. There are even humanist Jewish congregations, something you may disagree with. The people I have met involved in that stream are moral, law abiding citizens. Humanists have deep concern for ethical and moral behaviour, but free of any necessary connection to a divinity. For at least the past 150 years, there have been liberalizing trends in religion, but it is simplistic to call them ideologies. It is a term that is too easy to throw around. Belief systems are varied and complex, whether mainstream orthodox, messianic Chabad, or predispensationalist Christian. When they, however, throw up barriers and claim eternal truths, that is when, I think we can regard them as exclusionary ideologies.

    Thus Geoff, you have been asking for some serious critique, well take this statement of yours:

    “Ironically, secular, logical reasoning, rather than religious dogma, exposes the fundamental flaw of humanism. The secular argument is this: “In the absence of an absolute moral code, there IS no right and wrong. Everything becomes a matter of opinion and what is moral and ethical will simply move with the vagaries of the times and/or from society to society.”

    You have presented this as a kind of axiomatic conclusion or statement, but without any evidence that your underlying assumption–that humanism is relativist and without a moral centre. Your fundamental premise of what constitutes the basis of common culture is incorrect.

    But ‘absolute moral code’ is a relative thing as well: in the modern ear, biblically prescribed punishments are reinterpreted through secular legal codes: now, is that relativism? No, its the evolution of codes of morality and behaviour. We don’t stone people any more or garotte them.

    As for the series of comments about the reds under bed with respect to the Howard government and comments about 9/11, I really don’t know where to go on that one.

    We interpret what we hear in meetings in very, very different ways and I must say, I can’t quite believe what Shirah Wenig said she heard, though I can believe that people were deeply concerned when Honest John was elected to government.

  • The people I have met involved in that stream are moral, law abiding citizens. Humanists have deep concern for ethical and moral behaviour, but free of any necessary connection to a divinity.

    Moral? How does one define moral? You and I may have a completely different meaning of the word. And wouldn’t you agree that a person can be both law abiding yet immoral? IMHO morality cannot exist if it is disconnected from the Divine.

  • Geoff Bloch says:

    Hi Larry,

    I appreciate the time you have obviously taken to attack my arguments and I will endeavour to address each of yours in turn.

    1. Your accusation that I did not recognise (your asserted) flaws in religious ideologies is absolutely correct! I did not present Judaism as being flawless and, for the purpose of this debate, I do not need to. That is because my focus has nothing whatever to do with appraising religious ideology. My point is that, flawed or not, the Torah prescribes moral and ethical modes of behaviour which has served as an objective, timeless and immutable code in a way that humanism simply never could. Any “ism” which has “man” as its highest moral authority, necessarily cannot be objective because not all men share the same beliefs and because social values and mores change with the times and from society to society.

    2. I respect the fact that you find value in having “lived with humanist belief most of (your) life.” All I am saying is that your beliefs are not objective, timeless and immutable. They are likely to be beliefs you have subjectively arrived at having given due consideration to all sorts of variables. The fact that humanist Jewish congregations exist is not to the point as all that proves is that some Jews call themselves humanists (a fact I already recognised in my article).

    3. While of course I accept that “people (you) have met involved in that (humanist) stream are moral, law abiding citizens (who) have deep concern for ethical and moral behaviour, but free of any necessary connection to a divinity”, that does not constitute a valid argument against anything I have said. It WOULD be an argument if I were contending (which I’m not) that humanists CANNOT be moral, law abiding citizens. What I suspect, however, is that you are measuring morality in much the same way as I do, namely against what is expected of a citizen living in a Judeo-Christian liberal democracy founded on Old Testament values.

    4. Yes, I rely on a secular, logical argument to expose the fundamental flaw of humanism. But you are wrong in saying that I have presented humanism as having no “moral centre”. I am perfectly prepared to concede that it has a subjective moral centre, indeed I am prepared to concede that it is ALWAYS subjectively moral because each adherent no doubt strives, subjectively, to be moral. That’s the whole point! All humanists are subjectively moral. But they can only be regarded as objectively so if measured against an objective code.

    5. The fact that the Torah lends itself to some interpretation, does not mean it does not serve as such a code (in any event, there are rules limiting interpretation and the fact that “twilight” may be difficult to define, does not mean one cannot tell the difference between day and night).

    6. I have no doubt that Shira Wenig, my daughter, has accurately written what she has heard.



  • Ilana Leeds says:


    Larry I for one was overjoyed when Johnny got into government and for quite some time Australia had forward thinking, sound economic management. I was very concerned when the munch button earhole called Kev07 by his dingbat admirers got into government and predicted what would happen. His free giveaways did not help much did it?

  • Larry Stillman says:


    “Torah prescribes moral and ethical modes of behaviour which has served as an objective, timeless and immutable code in a way that humanism simply never could.”

    Sorry sport, when I see that Torah does not prevent immoral unethical and mutable behaviour amongst observant Jews I know that it is as flawed as any belief system and perhaps something is really array and that it is failing as an adequate system to help people to behave ethically.

    There is a fascinating article about this cultural problem which appears to be growing in the US (and certainly in Israel), with respect to serious crime amongst the Orthodox (including rabbanim) and contempt for civil society–eg the practices of the Spinka, Madoff, the Syrian Jewish community, Lev Leviev (blood diamonds), the Rubashkin family and kosher meat scandals, and numerous other criminal activities. See y Rabbi Mitch Wohlberg Money, Madoff, and the Jews in the Journal of Antisemitism Vol 1, 2, see http://www.jsantisemitism.org/journals.html.

    I don’t think you can keep calling on a perfect system of morals without reflecting that it doesn’t seem to stop some pretty nasty and damaging activities. I know that a number of orthodox in the US have apologized for their criminal behaviour , but the crimes continue to occur and their supporters continue to make all sorts of excuses.

    Isn’t it time for some secular values to be inculcated into these communities: that theft is evil?

    Or is the contrast between traditional morality, deliberate isolation from the modern world and modern business ethics just a bridge too far? Of course, I am not accusing all orthodox to be party to such behaviour, but my point is that pointing to perfect moral systems does nothing, of itself, to stop bad behaviour.

  • Geoff Bloch says:

    Hi Larry,

    First of all, my name is “Geoff” not “sport”.

    Secondly, I’m sorry but I can’t see how highlighting the criminal activities of a tiny number of Jews from Orthodox communities means that the ideology which they purport to follow is flawed. All you have succeeded in doing is proving the obvious fact that some men are flawed. Do you seriously put forward as an argument against my article that the “Torah does not prevent immoral and unethical behaviour” and therefore cannot serve as an absolute moral code?

    Thirdly, you say that it is a “secular value…that theft is evil”. However that may be, the Torah beat the secularists to it by approximately 3,500 years.

    Fourthly, you continue to argue, incorrectly, that my focus was on the Torah being a “perfect moral system”. However that may be, it was not my focus as I explained in my previous answers to you.

    Fifthly, I note that neither you nor anyone else has yet sought to debunk the reasons I advanced as to why moral inversion and moral equivalence can logically flow from humanism.


  • Galus Australis says:

    Hi All,

    Dyz’s comment and the resulting discussion has been removed. The comment was holocaust trivialisation, irrelevant to the topic of the author’s article, and characteristic of ‘trolling,’ in that it sought to derail the conversation by being inflammatory. It would be appreciated if people could keep to the topic that Geoff raised. We know that some of the responses to Dyz’s comment were well thought out and they were interesting – perhaps one of you could submit an article on this topic so that this discussion can continue without detracting from the present thread. If you would like to discuss this moderation policy, please do so in the General Feedback section, and not here.

  • Larry Stillman says:

    1. Geoff, I think I have offered some pretty good criticism of your position. You have completely confused humanism and morally devoid secularism and mass culture (things I also abhor), and you also seem unable to recognize that the heritage of the Bible (which I don’t deny) has been reinterpreted over the ages, and in other cultures eg India a similar situation prevails with the addition of western law.

    2. Many people would also object to mysogynistic and anti-gay statements in the Bible, but they are not area that I can really say much more about than that is the case.

    3. And in any case, the Torah itself is a product of historical conditions, well before the time that the Torah was composed & redacted in the last first millenium. The Torah borrowed a lot and added on a particular spin.

    4. There are collections of law–found in such documents as the code of Hammurapi– which more or less set up the precedent for the collections found in the Bible. Hammurapi’s norms probably date at least 1500+ years before the Torah was written and edited from various sources in the late first millenium. The fact that the Moses received the law on shows the influence of Mesopotamia on Jews during the exile in Babylon.

    Hammurapi’s Code has a moving prologue and epilogue which are moving pieces of religious literature that implore the reader to hold to Hammurapi’s injunctions as a moral standard etc etc –why shouldn’t I claim that they are as eternal and just as in the Torah and that Anu Enlil and Bel or Marduk are the true gods?

    5. Societies evolve and change and relgions come from a particular time and place. Of course I am not saying we have to believe in Anu, but what you are presenting is a belief in Torah Eternal, and I just cannot agree with that position because in my own way, I see holiness linked to nature and beauty.

    The world is more complex and we can draw morals and inspiration from many sources–that is certainly, I believe how human rights law and universalist persepctives have developed.

    Other Jewish believers have seen the ethical and moral lessons of the Torah as inspirational, but not binding (particular the bloody bits), Thus the classic Reform statement of 1885 says

    “In full accordance with the spirit of the Mosaic legislation, which strives to regulate the relations between rich and poor, we deem it our duty to participate in the great task of modern times, to solve, on the basis of justice and righteousness, the problems presented by the contrasts and evils of the present organization of society. ”

    And what do Reform Jews say today? From their website

    “The Torah is, therefore, still our ‘tree of life’. We read from it in synagogue every Shabbat, elevate it in front of the congregation and parade it round the shul. It brings us closer to God and God’s will for us. It provides us with a glimpse of eternity. From it we learn that human beings are able to go beyond considering our own individual needs. We are able to turn outward to recognise the needs of others, that is, to behave ethically. It is our link with the divine and the values of holiness. We are not forced, however, to believe that God wanted the Caananites exterminated, stubborn and rebellious children stoned, or slavery accepted. God is much more subtle and elusive. The Torah records the experience of God of fallible human beings like us. We find this view of Torah, as containing both timeless insights and time-bound conclusions, liberating.”

    And what do Reconstructionists say–one rabbi puts it @ http://www.rrc.edu/site/c.iqLPIWOEKrF/b.1466805/

    “Reconstructionist Jews see the Torah as the Jewish people’s response to God’s presence in the world (and not God’s gift to us). That is to say, the Jews wrote the Torah. But that is not to say that the Torah is merely a human creation. It is a response to the sacred. It is an attempt to convince an entire people to view everyday life in a sacred way.”

    Morality and ethics are hypostatized as divine creations according to this view, not the other way around. It’s the mysterium tremendum that we struggle with, what you call Yirat HaShem all in our different ways even if we are not believers.

    Finally, my point about crimes by those who call themselves orthodox was only to point out that you cannot claim that a religous set of norms are the end and be all, as appears to underly/lay your argument. Too many excuses are made to justify unconscionable behaviour in the name of , or justified by a divine or secular imperative that is put above scrutiny (remember, slavery was justified by reference to the Torah).

  • Larry Stillman says:

    And I put a rhetorical question to you Geoff, one that could be posed and is posed in various ways, based on your own language.

    “Because one of the core principles of Judaism is the belief that all people have an ability to act ethically and justly, Jews is faced with a paradox. How can this core principle be reconciled with the fact unethical and unjust behaviour (the killing of innocent Palestinian women and children for example) by the Israeli Army? Is that not an act of terror?”

    Shovrim Shtikah and argues that this kind of action is intentional and has been revealed as such as a deliberate military strategy, and in any case, if accidential, the high numbers of such ‘collateral damage’ are completely unacceptable from a human rights perspective in comparision to the small number of Israel deaths.

    SO how would you deal with such military strategies from a Jewish moral perspective?

  • Geoff Bloch says:

    Hi Larry,

    I am responding as a matter of courtesy to say that you can have the last word and I therefore will not respond to your last 2 posts.

    I have repeatedly tried to explain that my focus has not been to compare or appraise Judaism and humanism (or other ideologies) but you seem determined to debate the point. I really would like to resist being drawn into a debate which is simply not germane to the principal issues and arguments I initially raised.



  • Michael says:

    What I find amusing if not predictable on the response to Geoff who have denied the epidemic of anti- Zionism in academia particularly amongst Jewish Academics all of the respondents above are of left wing persuasion.

  • Marky says:

    Larry Stillman writes:
    “Isn’t it time for some secular values to be inculculated into these communities”

    Yeah, so they can catch up with secular society’s rates of murder, rape, bashings, drugs, alcohol abuse etc.

  • Ari says:


    I don’t understand your point. Larry was quite clear that the Jews do all of that and more in their colonies in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Jaffa, Haifa, Beer Sheba, Al-Quds. Maybe more secular culture will help them become more enlightened – like Fatah.

  • Foob says:

    Geoff, i cannot hope to compete with the learned and erudite analysis of Larry. I do, however, think that you are being terribly unjust when you accuse him of not engaging with you.

    You state that Humanist’s narcissistic mantra is, “But I know deep within myself that I am a moral person”. It is from here that clearly the slide into relativism can occur. After all, if all people believe that they are moral, their own compass can lead them to terrible places. Death camps, homicide, rape, as well as the lesser crimes of day to day life, such as excessive materialism. Personal Construct Theory in psychology would indeed support this. An interesting study on serial killer of children, Ian Brady, shows him to be following his own beliefs, and the murderer himself describes following his own beliefs. My guess is that this is an extreme (but far from unrealistic) example of what you fear.

    What Larry is pointing out, however, is that there is a multitude of thought, philosophy, writing and argument from a Humanist tradition, which teaches us and guides us. If people were inventing moral codes for themselves anew each generation, there may be a problem. Indeed the minority of Orthodox Jews who commit terrible crimes do seem to be inventing their own moral codes, regardless of their background. Is belief in Torah really protective against this behaviour?

    And as Larry points out, it is likely that the Torah itself is a humanist document. An ancient one, however not necessarily a divinely inspired one(unless you are an Orthodox Jew, and I understand that you are not arguing from this perspective). It is also open to criticism. This makes me wonder – if the Torah is a good enough guide, why not other critical and moral thinkers not good enough to guide us. We are not clever enough to choose our moral systems from deep within ourselves – that is indeed narcissism. We are, however, able to critically choose our guides in life, whether divinely inspired or not. That, I think, is what Humanism can be, particularly at a deep analytical level when taught at University. I beleive that it is critical thinking and reading that is protective against relativism in humanism.

  • Marky says:

    Ari writes
    “Maybe more secular culture will help them become more enlightened- like Fatah”

    ……and hamas and hezbolla and taliban and bin laden

  • Larry Stillman says:


    I am greatly puzzled.

    You first have made a mash of humanism with what might be called valueless secularism and second you have put Judaism above all other religions and won’t enter into a discussion.

    Thus you point to suttee etc as evidence of barbariac religious cultural practices; yet as you know, traditional Judaism in the eyes of many Jews who are more religious and much more learned than me and who belong to other traditions (reform, reconstructionist, conservative), and they consider certain Jewish practices, beliefs traditions and norms to be outmoded, particularly on issues of sexuality and gender rights; and then, there are current examples of rabbis in Israel justifying the most terrible crimes against Palestinians on theological grounds and who claim Torah as their justification.

    You can’t have an argument about your core ‘code’ without actually expecting your axioms to be examined, which is what I am doing, by looking at the contradictions in your argument, including examples from the real world that end up with people being hurt and killed in the name of that code.

    But your argument is that:

    (Jewish)academics are humanists > therefore they corrupt children (your words) in their way of thinking by encouraging relativism > society at large is corrupted (and you give examples of some things historically, but I will ignore that.

    Every premise you make can be challenged.

    The other part of your argument is

    Torah is morally eternal > “objective, timeless and immutable code in a way that humanism simply never could be”

    I have tried to challenge you on every front with a bit of humour and some extreme examples of challenging Jewish behaviour.

    You also claim “the core humanist belief that no religion or culture is superior to any other helps explain the deafening silence.”

    But you have no evidence for such a claim as well.

    You really don’t want an intellectual argument, but confirmation of an unprovable axiom.

    I really suggest you read a bit of Karl Popper about the ‘falsification principle’. If you can’t develop a means of challenging your argument, then you don’t have an argument and you can’t have arguments.

    I’m not even going to bother with the fatah secularism argument becaue nationalist secularism equally drove a number of left and right wing Zionist organizations to acts of terror in the past.

  • naava says:

    I think the deep concern for the youth of today and their ability to use their own moral compass is not a new fear for baby boomers.

    It is however relatively recent for members of Mizrachi to start focusing on our universities as the “problem” with today’s youth. The culture and principles of modern orthodox jewish life have always emphasised that there is nothing to fear of letting our kids into the big wide world well equipped with a sense of self. Other ‘blacker’ groups have often discouraged girls from doing anything except a health science lest they get too caught up in anything else that can’t be done part time, and IT and accounting were always considered safe for boys with not too many opportunities to discuss ideas.
    Modern orthodox kids were always encouraged to go to the top universities, go forth and excel.

    Geoff, I imagine you got through you university experience unscathed and probably have derived many years of benefit from your degree and what you learnt. I imagine you look at your own children’s experience in a similar light. I imagine you trusted that there were capable of making their own decisions about their lecturers’ opinions. They are in no different basket to the rest of Melbourne’s jewish youth.

    This sort of scary dark ages discussion about university education is being validated by Rabbi Sprung’s recent public suggestion that a major donor please step forward to begin a new era of Jewish university studies on balaclava rd. I imagine the idea behind this to have a student population to issue edicts to on the minutiae of their lives, not just a congregation (communal domination does get boring after a while!).

    I think it’s time to go back to the early writings of modern orthodoxy and see that perhaps there is a strong divergence from original principles happening here in our own little community.

  • Larry Stillman says:

    Thanks Naava,

    I’m pretty ignorant of the background to all of this, but do you mean that under the influence of the increasing traditionalist thrust in modern orthodoxy, that modernity is being increasingly seen as a completely negative challenge? I thought that Torah im Derekh Eretz was all about embracing the challenge of modernity in all fields of endeavour.

    I am quoting from Hirsch here : “Derech Eretz includes everything that results from the fact that man’s existence, mission and social life is conducted on Earth, using earthly means and conditions. Therefore this term especially describes ways of earning a livelihood and maintaining the social order. It also includes the customs and considerations of etiquette which the social order generates as well as everything concerning humanistic and civil education” (commentary on Avoth).

    {If anyone cares, I have some old editions of his, auf Deutch).

    In any case, this devil’s picture of university studies is pretty unrealistic. Of course student politics is a different matter and it has always been like that.

  • Mandi Katz says:

    hear hear Naava – and also contemporary Orthodox thinkers including Jonathan Sacks (whoops I may be a groupie) who writes so eloquently about this in Future Tense – which I don’t have with me at work so luckily for all, I cant quote.

    You have articulated beautifully what I referred to in my earlier post as the unfortunate tendency to see universities principally as centres of vocational training – medicine and law being two examples where university can be seen/used as a source of professional training rather than an enlightening education.

  • Geoff Bloch says:

    Hi Naava, Mandi and Larry,

    First Larry,

    I don’t think I can reasonably be accused of refusing to enter into a discussion with you. Excluding this post, I have answered you, specifically, 4 times (see above). I engaged with all your arguments, even though most were directed to a critical appraisal of Jewish religious values. On 3 of those occasions I told you that you were debating matters not directly relevant to my article and I explained clearly what the ambit of the debate should be. I made the very same point in my very first post in answer to Philip Mendes which I presume you read. Yet for some reason, you continued to importune me to debate, ignoring the central idea I had written about. For the last time – I did not write a piece analysing, appraising and/or defending Jewish values. I will leave that to others far more qualified than me and, in any event, undertaking such an analysis and defence is a topic in itself which a short post cannot possibly do justice to. My piece focused on the flaws inherent in humanism. At the foot of this post (marked Footnote) I have something to say about your reluctance (and indeed the general reluctance of participants) to engage with that topic.

    I will, however, engage you on one matter you have raised in your last post even though it is not directly relevant to my article because, as a father of 4 daughters who is passionately interested in gender equality, it really rankles with me. You have stated that “certain Jewish practices, beliefs traditions and norms (are) outmoded, particularly on issues of sexuality and gender rights”.

    I am always bemused when Judaism is criticised in this way. History proves conclusively that Judaism has done more for the elevation of women in society than any other movement, including modern affirmative action groups who so often ignore the plight of their sisters in the third world. Volumes can be written on this so I must be brief, knowing that by not developing my arguments fully, I leave myself open to attack and criticism. But it is such an important topic, I feel I cannot let your comment pass and will leave it to the reader to be intellectually honest enough to undertake the necessary research before mindlessly and automatically chiming in with assertions that I am wrong.

    In countries throughout the ancient world, from Greece to as far away as the orient and beyond, man generally lived in male dominated societies in which the rich had harems of young boys practising unlimited deviant debauchery and in which women were regarded as chattel and used for procreation and labour. The Torah was utterly revolutionary when it revealed to the ancient world that man must limit his eros to woman exclusively. That meant he had to build a loving relationship with woman. The other side of the same coin, of course, is the prohibition against homosexual relationships.

    Although the world is and has always been far from perfect, that critical injunction has done far more for the elevation of women in society than any other. This, I admit, sounds bizarre to the modern “enlightened” ear but that is only because (1) few have undertaken the necessary research and, tellingly, (2) because it is a history which does not sit happily with modern secular (dare I say humanist) thought, that homosexuality is progressive and enlightened when the very opposite is the case – it is a throwback to a darker age.

    Lest I be called a bigot and various other similar epithets, may I hasten to add that I acknowledge the difficulty in maintaining a secular argument against homosexuality (although they do exist) and I don’t believe we should pry into people’s bedrooms (only two weeks ago we read hanistarot ladonai eloheinu – hidden sins are left to God, they are not our concern). I also readily concede that there is nothing unnatural about homosexuality – there would not be a clear biblical prohibition against it were it not perfectly natural (it only seems unnatural to heterosexuals who have been raised in societies which honour a rather different paradigm). Moreover, how can its universality otherwise be explained?

    But by the same token, I personally think it should be more than enough for the gay lobby that the mainstream be tolerant of their preference. Regrettably, the gay lobby wants society to affirm that homosexuality is as desirable a preference as heterosexuality on which the building block of society, namely the family, should be based.

    Hi Naava,

    Thanks for your post.

    I can’t speak for other members of Mizrachi but I can assure you that the subject matter of my article, in particular, my concern about the harm done to our youth by our universities, is anything but recent. I was concerned about it way back in the early 70s when I first attended university and encountered it myself although it appears to be far worse today. I might also add that until reading your post, I was ignorant of Rabbi Sprung’s suggestion. I daven in the hashkama minyan followed by a shiur with Rabbi Kennard and so rarely hear him.

    I do not agree with lumping all Melbourne’s Jewish youth into one “basket”. Every student is different. Some come from homes which may have inculcated a strong sense of self, others perhaps less so. Some may be more naturally critical of a new ideology, others more susceptible to its superficial but strongly seductive pull.

    Aside from that, most of which you have written resonates with me.

    Hi Mandi,

    I would like to respond to one of your earlier observations which you repeated in your post answering Naava. Neither I nor any of my daughters who has attended university regards universities as centres for vocational training only. My eldest daughter undertook a diploma of philosophy (no less) while doing a full medical course and my second daughter undertook an arts degree as well as a law degree. Plenty of room there for an apparently “enlightened” education wouldn’t you agree?. I don’t think my family can reasonably be characterised as not having engaged with modernity.


    None of the participants in the debate has so far deconstructed two of my main arguments. It has occurred to me that there is a reason for this and I thought it might be of some interest if I air my thoughts as to this apparent reluctance.

    I clearly identified 2 paradoxes confronting a humanist arising from 2 core beliefs. No one seriously challenged my definition of humanism and, in any event, I would hazard that any reasonable definition of humanism would throw up the very same 2 paradoxes (so debate as to my definition would be academic anyway).

    Each paradox could have been attacked in either of 2 ways. Either the paradox itself could have been disclaimed, or the conclusion I have drawn in each case could have been attacked. I will deal with each in turn.

    In order to disclaim either paradox, my notional humanist debating opponent would have had to disclaim what I said were core beliefs namely (1) humanism holds that man has the innate ability to act ethically and justly; and (2) all peoples and cultures must be regarded as being of equal value consistently with fraternity and benevolence being universal objectives.

    It would take a brave humanist to pour cold water on either of these core beliefs and indeed none did. That, I imagine, explains why neither paradox was attacked.

    That leaves potential attacks on my two conclusions, namely moral inversion and moral equivalence. No attack was made. Because of the difficulty in disclaiming the 2 core beliefs, this is where I anticipated an attack would come.

    While I stand by my conclusions (go to the main article to trace my reasoning), I do not presume that everyone agrees with my reasoning, which is why I have been somewhat surprised that no attack on my reasoning was made. May be one (or more) will be made now!

    Best wishes to all,


  • naava says:

    Hi Geoff,
    thanks for your response. Yes, believe it or not, Rabbi Sprung seems to believe that Grimwade House is on the market (!) and is ready for the installation of our own YU so that no one has to risk sending their kids to any of Melbourne’s established universities. He has asked in shule that someone donate $25 million to make it happen. No takers yet.

  • philip mendes says:

    Having presented at the Australian Political Studies Association Conference at Melb Uni this morning on a social science (not Middle East) topic, I now have time to respond to some of the earlier flawed arguments that Geoff Bloch and Michael Burd put.

    My main concern here is that substantive conclusions are being drawn from anecdotes, and empirical evidence is being ignored.

    It is hardly a secret that I teach in the Faculty of Medicine at one of our unis. And as with most unis, medicine, law and to some extent IT, economics and commerce are the biggest and best resourced faculties with the highest status. And you would struggle at most Australian unis to find more than a dozen people in these faculties combined who are involved in public political engagement, even less who identify as lefties, and at most one or two who have a strong opinion on the Middle East. There are by the way probably dozens of Jewish academics in medicine, and I doubt you would find one anti-Zionist among them.

    Where you encounter political radicalism is almost solely in Arts Faculties which in Australia tend to have the least resources and status. And even in those Faculties, for every person propagating moronic anti-Zionism from say the Centre for Peace Studies at the University of Sydney, you will find 50 academics who have little or no view on the subject. The exceptions are the exceptions, and they generally live in a small clique of their own which psychologists refer to as as group think.

    I can think of only two Jewish academics at Monash who would identify as anti-Zionists. One of them (who is a friendly acquaitance of mine) would not be known as Jewish to most, and the other has publicly espoused his Jewish anti-Zionism, but would be unknown to most in the Jewish community.

    This is not to deny that there is a problem of anti-Zionism in some Australian universities which the JCCV is currently considering, but the problem does not largely come from academics. There are well-organized and sometimes well-resourced Palestinian advocacy groups coordinated by Australians for Palestine which consist of some students, one or two academics, and lots of external people. They are the problem.

    The issue of expressing personal views in a lecture is not a black and white issue. Some of the best lecturers are those who are passionate about their area, and do have strong opinions. As long as they make clear that these are their opinions and also present contrary views, they are respecting academic traditions. We also need to acknowledge that not all specific criticisms of Israeli policies are necessarily anti-Zionist just as criticisms of Australian policies on asylum seekers or indigenous issues do not necessarily make the critic anti-Australian. But perhaps that subtle debate belongs to another day.


  • Larry Stillman says:

    Geoff, I think I have argument strongly against both your contentions which are such generalizing statements presented as paradoxes and or axioms based on your particular ontology (and that’s the word) and boundaries that they are almost impossible to deal with as anything to do with others’ world perceptions. There are a number of different ways of looking at the what you have posed, and that is why I have taken the course I have.

    I particularly haven’t taken the bait about relativising or not relativising other religions, because the same argument has been used to put down other religions including Judaism as unequal..I just don’t want to get into my religion is truer than yours stuff or all religions are equal when the core of different religions is disputed amongst its own adherents..I spend enough time debating real nasty ant-semites on this who see Judaism as a racist religion obsessed with its superiority..and others regard it as unfulfilled because of its rejection of Jesus…

    Plus I truly have limited time to spend on line. Some of this stuff would take a few days to work through in detail and it has nothing to do with not wanting to engage. I have to finish some research papers. So I will leave it at that.

    Naava, thanks for this anecdote on the fear of inquiry..

    I don’t know if to laugh or cry that some of the orthodox I believed were not under the black hat mantra feel so challenged by secular higher education want to set up a YU or even a Bar Ilan. However, given the low understanding of free inquiry within the community, such an institution runs the risk of course, of having having doctrinal pledges and a very long list of Index Librorum Prohibitorum (probably no books on Judaism outside of Artscroll/Menorah etc).

    I know that Bishop Pell in fact established a Catholic theological college counter the ‘liberal’ tendencies at other institutions, so perhaps there have been some behind the scenes discussions going on there.

    In any case, the real cost of establishing a real university as distinct from a seminary with credibility other than as a branch of some second-rate college on the West Bank or Oral Roberts University is probably in the realm of 100-200million. Perhaps it could have a department of creation science as well? (I am being completely sarcastic here, see http://www.talkreason.org/articles/Nussbaum.cfm).

    I have a good friend who is a professor of Bible at a leading Israeli university, and I know what he would think of such attempts to set up fundamentalist institutions…notwithstanding my strong political and religious differences with him. Faith, open and inquiring scholarship, and science are very different things. I also remember Rabbi Prof. Isadore Twersky of Boston, one of the most intellectually terrifying people I have ever met: his scholarship was impeccable, his religiosity well….but he knew the difference between matters of faith and matters of scholarship.

    I’m not sure that some people in this community do.

  • Mandi Katz says:

    Hi Geoff

    My point was not intended to be personal – I apologise if it came across that way . I was responding to the content of your article – the title of which refers to universities as damaging to Jewish “children” and the central thesis of which is that universities pose a moral danger to young Jewish people. This in particular: “Our children ’s prolonged exposure to it cannot be a good thing at a time in their lives when they are working out where they stand on so many issues, including their own Jewish identity.” If it follows from that, that you advocate university as a necessary evil for vocational training (as some people do), I stand by my concern. If not, then we have no argument on this issue . Other than a lengthy discussion with Shira on another topic which left me in no doubt as to her highly developed critical skills, I don’t know your family.

    If you’re willing to disclose why you see this issue as a considerable concern for the Jewish community, when it appears not to be an issue for your family, that would be interesting.

    I focussed on medicine and law because they are held up so often as worthy aspirations for Jewish school leavers and I was thinking of the many doctors I know, who regret not having the experience of a broader liberal arts education. Reflecting personally – I found studying law to be much less engaging and less useful in developing critical thinking than studying arts, although the former was interesting and intellectually challenging in its own way. With the exception of administrative and constitutional law the study of law was relatively bereft of exciting big ideas about the world. By comparison, literature and history as taught at university were really challenging and exposed me to new ways of thinking and seeing the world. I’m with Naava – there are far worse things than exposing young people to ideas of humanism in the course of that education.

    Which brings me to your challenge – I’m not a secular humanist so its not my thing to defend. While I agree that there is a risk that humanism can devolve into moral relativism (although in my experience, generally doesn’t),that proves only that it’s not a perfect ethical framework. What is?


  • Mandi Katz says:

    hi again – to clarify -exposure to lots of different ways of thinking is very valuable and 18 plus is a pretty good age for that – properly formed but still open to ideas and ideals.

  • Marky says:

    There are many types of ideas and ideals. Hopefully it’s positive. We can only hope.

  • Yaacov says:

    While I agree with you in terms of the absolute morality of religion (any religion will do for the sake of the theoretical argument) versus relative moral code of the secularists, there is a hole in the argument (although not the logic).

    The elephant in the room here is reality. There are secularists who have an incredible moral compass, and have built a moral code for themselves that is just as solid and moral as many of the world religions (such as Rav Hirsch’s views on Kant).

    On the other hand there are the religious people who choose to act like pigs. These people will remain religious but will find justifications for their evil personalities from within their own code.

    It is the person and not the system that is the problem. As an example – Justifications can be found within Christianity, secularism, and every other ism in the world (including Judaism) for being both Zionist and anti-Zionist.

    Some religious Jews have invented concepts such as the legitimacy of theft from non-Jews (absolutely false) to justify their own thefts.

  • Shira Wenig says:

    I agree with Yaacov’s comment above – the person and the system are two different things. However this is not, as Yaacov claims, a hole in my dad’s argument – it is the crux of the debate between my dad & Larry earlier on this page.

    People are not perfect. The behaviour of one individual (or a group of individuals) cannot serve as a basis for fundamentally questioning the moral code society assumes they follow, in the same way that the existence of Australian murderers and rapists does not call the Australian legal system into question. Just as there are citizens of this country who obey many of our laws but choose to disregard others for their own reasons, there are religious individuals who choose to blatantly disregard Torah principles for their own reasons, whether financial gain or personal pleasure or anything else. This is a reflection on the individuals themselves, but not on the Torah’s moral code.

    In reading several posts above, I find it interesting that the very people who fall into this trap – who hold up examples of immoral “orthodox” Jews as a way of fundamentally questioning the objectivity of Torah morality – are the same people who also champion the objectivity of humanist morality based on examples of individual humanists who have a very clear moral compass.

    It works both ways. The objectivity and immutability of the system is independent of the fallible human beings who claim to subscribe to it. A serious difficulty with humanism is that, being based inherently in human beings, it cannot be easily divorced from those who claim to follow this ideology. But insofar as we can divorce the theory from its followers, you can’t have your cake and eat it too. Moral humanists do not prove humanism any more than immoral “orthodox” Jews disprove Torah morality. (I put orthodox in quotation marks because I would not consider someone who puts on tefillin every day yet has no problem stealing and lying as any more orthodox than someone who does not keep Shabbat or kashrut – but that’s another discussion.)

    The distinction between person and system breaks down in the opposite case: Immoral humanists (however they are to be defined – that is precisely the point!) DO pose a serious difficulty for humanist morality, because according to this ideology they cannot exist, unless they are knowingly submitting to vice and acting against their better moral judgment.

    Underlying this entire argument is the principle that in order to define moral rules we have to first define, much as a utilitarian might, what is the most important value or goal from which all rules stem and by which all behaviour must be measured. Morality is then whatever behaviour maximises that goal. I am not quite sure what a humanist’s most important value might be – happiness of all human beings? equality of all human beings? – but I am sure that it is not the same as what religious Judaim’s most important value is, namely, doing the will of Hashem (and all that that entails).

    Given that the Torah’s basis of morality is so different from the humanist basis, it is impossible to argue about whether humanism is moral or not using Judeo-Christian values as a yardstick. This defeats the purpose. The constructive way to approach the argument is by considering humanist theory in its own right and discussing phenomena which may or may not logically flow from it. In this context, my dad’s request for a debate about issues like moral inversion and moral equivalence (as he has presented them above) is far more relevant than going round in circles trying to prove that humanism is fundamentally moral because lots of humanists are moral.

  • Ari says:

    I would like to add one more point in this debate from a pragmatic angle. One of the features of religion organised around a specific moral code is the ability for religious leaders to instruct their followers regarding the minutae of moral and immoral actions. This is impossible from a humanist view point and only occurs in practice in the framework of organised religion. In my mind this is one of the failings of the Humanist system. In Orthodoxy it is completely acceptable(in most committed Orthodox communities) for the Rabbi to encourage the congregation to not steal according the halachic definition of theft, to discourage speaking badly about others according to halachic parameters, to encourage care for the envrionment and many other issues. Now there may be secular leaders who encourage or discourage certain behaviour but this is usually on a more global level(for instance global poverty and oppression of minorities) and people are in any case not obliged to listen to them from a moral humanist perpsective. This is an unfortunate failure of just such an ideology.

  • Marky says:

    Problem is that Humanists(and others) seem to demand that the Orthodox be perfect. And whenever there’s a breach by an Orthodox person, they immediately take the opportunity to say “see how the religious are”. Well, we are not perfect, but generally commit a lot less crimes than others(murder, rape, drugs, etc.) In the Torah there are plenty of examples of our imperfections. There are no cover ups(A mere human would surely not tell about the bad). We have the same temptations as anyone else, and generally try our best not to do wrong, but we are human and not always do we succeed. Also there are a few who are only religious on the outside. We cop it for them also.

  • Grimalkin says:

    If Humanist morality is lacking because morals vary from culture to culture, then religious morality is lacking because morals vary from god to god. “But mine come from a _higher_ power, while the rest of the people who claim the same thing are just delusional” is not a particularly convincing argument.

    I would argue that coming up with a system or morality that serves today’s society best, and that is based on a critical examination of data to determing what best serves those needs is a far better way to make up our moral codes than to simply follow what some bronze age tribesmen made up to serve their society best thousands of years ago.

    But maybe I’m just a crazy Humanist…

  • Grimalkin says:

    @Ari – Your Rabbi could just as easily tell his audience to kill Muslims. That religions hold certain people as higher authorities than others, and believe that they cannot think critically about the claims of those people is not great benefit.

    But in any case, you are wrong. I’m not surprised, though. I doubt that you go to Humanist gatherings, so it would be very unlikely that you would hear a Humanist speak to a “congregation” except in a global context (just like I don’t hear Rabbis speak unless they are addressing wider audiences).

    But we are forming communities, we do discuss ethical issues together, we do provide communal support to each other. The difference is that we operate on a very grass-roots model, where each individual’s voice is heard and no one’s opinion is privileged above any other (on the merits of the speaker – opinions are certainly privileged based on their own merits). In my city, we have what’s called an “Unsermon” every other Sunday morning. A Sermon is when someone who claims to speak for God lectures at you; an Unsermon is when you sit in small groups and talk out ethical issues.

    My community’s experience has been that individuals often do have an innate sense of morality, and if they can be made to think about it and have their preconceptions challenged in a friendly environment, they will develope and grow that morality. I don’t need to be told not to steel, I just need to be given the opportunity to think about it. And the best part of this approach is that I am capable of applying my sense of morality to spontaneous and ambiguous situations that may not have been thought of or covered by a priest or rabbi.

  • Shira Wenig says:

    Regarding the criticism of the “protective” Jewish day school raised earlier –
    To quote Mandi Katz:
    “Interesting also to describe the “protective cocoon of our day schools” as a good thing. To many, it’s the big downside of the Jewish day school system”
    And Philip Mendes:
    “one-sided hasbara in secondary school does not give Jewish students the tools they need to combat anti-Zionist fundamentalism from some groups at university”

    Absolutely – one-sided teaching does not give students all the tools they need, but it doesn’t mean that secondary school teaching about Israel in Jewish day schools is inappropriate. It means that a “warts and all” approach (mentioned above by Evan) is more appropriate.

    I distinctly remember feeling very confronted the first time I heard about Deir Yassin. Luckily it was not in a hostile context, so I could take the time to read about it and sort out my thoughts about the issue.

    I doubt my dad was arguing for one-sided teaching in our day schools. High school students need to be taught factual Jewish & Israeli history, warts and all, to give them a well-informed knowledge of all the issues involved. The protective Jewish day school is a perfect place to accomplish this, given that the information will be presented by educators who are not hostile to the students’ own beliefs and can help them grapple with the more negative aspects of our history. Being “aware but confused” is no better preparation for uni life than being informed about only one side of the issues.

    When I was at school (Beth Rivkah) we were offered modern Israeli history as a Jewish studies elective in Year 12, but I see from my younger sisters that the school now offers Israel Studies as a compulsory subject for all students in year 11 instead, to prepare them for challenges they will face after leaving school. I think this is a really good step in the right direction.

    Re what Naava has mentioned about setting up a Jewish tertiary college here – I have no knowledge of such plans, but I don’t think it’s necessarily a negative thing. There could be any number of motivations for such a scheme, not just fear of the secular campus. Maybe the motivation is for students to receive a broad liberal arts education alongside a rigorous first-class Jewish education (which certainly is not completed with year 12). I can attest from personal experience that it is extremely difficult to pursue a high level of Jewish learning alongside a university course, something which was much easier for my friends at Stern College or Bar Ilan where that teaching was part of their university program.

    But even if motivated by reservations about the secular campus – this also does not necessarily mean that the modern orthodox community is shutting out secular society. Some students may feel more comfortable in a more protected environment for their tertiary education as well. Much like in secondary schools, this does not mean that certain concepts will be left out of the curriculum, but that they will be taught in a less confronting manner along with tools to grapple with them.

    A Yeshiva University model should not be lumped together with Charedi vocational colleges (which are important in their own right for people who otherwise would not get any sort of qualification, but are not part of this issue). YU is not afraid of secular society – the fact that you cannot get smicha there without also getting a BA (I assume that is still the case) testifies to the values of that institution. And there is a wonderful article by Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, from the same camp, on the value of secular studies, particularly liberal arts, in their own right, not just as a concession to learning a vocation.

    this is all getting off the main topic, but I just wanted to point out that “protective cocoon” does not mean “narrow minded” or “one sided”.

  • In calling this piece “How our Universities Harm our Children” there is a premise that universities are harming our children. An onus lies on the author to justify this premise.

    Several questions need to be asked of the author.

    Who is “our”?
    What is the harm?
    Which universities are perpetrating this harm?
    Are all “children” attending these universities suffering the alleged harm?

    Once we know the answers to these questions, we could ask a few more.

    Is the author speaking on behalf of the entire Jewish community?
    Is the author talking about every Australian University?
    Is the author speaking for every Jewish student attending university?

    My university experience was under the guardianship of The Sciences. I spent five years at university during which time I was immersed in the fascinating world of science. I studied Chemistry, Physics, Mathematics and Computer Science, a far cry from the world of Arts, Humanities, Law and to some extent Medicine.

    I learnt some valuable lessons in these disciplines. I learnt about the Scientific Method, Evidence, Proof and Logic. I learnt how to ask questions, not make assumptions, look for alternative explanations, test theories and so forth.

    I found these guiding principles invaluable as they empowered me with an array of powerful skills that have wide application in a variety of life situations. Some of these situations include challenging my personal religious beliefs that I was forced to acquire growing up.

    My parents brought me up with the notion that I must be proud to be Jewish. They strove to give me the best Jewish upbringing possible within their means but at the same time without making too many compromises. They sent me to Jewish schools. I attended Jewish Scouts. My social circle was extensively Jewish. I was brought up living and breathing ‘Jewish’.

    I was also taught by my family and many around me to believe that being Jewish is better. That Jews were better than goyim, because goyim ate unacceptable food and participated in unacceptable practices. In effect, “they” were substandard and “we” were superior. I was also taught that some forms of Judaism were not as good as others and that if you weren’t Orthodox, you weren’t really Jewish. That’s what I was taught. It’s not what I believe or know now.

    I started my high school years at a Jewish day school and finished them at a government school. I encountered a diverse range of attitudes from attending both types of schools. I should note that I made two good friends, one from each school. One is from the former Soviet Republic, with a Jewish background and as far as I am aware, no religious belief. The other is of Greek descent with a traditional Orthodox background but not practicing. Both remain personal roles models and friends to this day.

    My parents are deeply proud of my choice to have these people as my life-long friends and respect and admire them as much as I do.

    I left the relative safety of my family home some 15 years ago. I am in close contact with my family and maintain regular contact. Whatever values my parents gave me as I was growing up, and whilst I was living with them, I don’t for one minute believe they expected me to keep those values, unchanged, into my adult life. I believe they hoped I would learn to think for myself, form my own opinions, develop a range of world views and be an intelligent, thinking and questioning person.

    It is also my view that it is the role of universities to allow “our children” to open their minds to a range of views and perspectives, empower them with the skills to learn to challenge themselves, to challenge the values they were taught by their families, peers and communities and to challenge their deeply-held beliefs.

    I sincerely believe that if “our universities” have not done this then they have failed “our children” and in doing so, have in fact done them *more* harm than good. It isn’t the role of secular universities to change people’s beliefs or feed them with biased perspectives. Rather they must give them all the tools and educate them how to use them wisely.

    The author states “Education is the best answer”. I totally agree. However this education must not be confused with religious dogma and narrow-minded zealotry, for they are the real harm.

  • Ittay says:

    Hi Shira,
    Even though I disagree with you, I have found your posts on this discussion thus far incredibly engaging and insightful. In response to your question ” I am not quite sure what a humanist’s most important value might be.” The answer is quite simple. And I quote from the worlds most famous (and probably most hated) atheists in an interview with andrew denton:

    ANDREW DENTON: What’s your moral code?
    RICHARD DAWKINS: I suppose it’s a version of the Golden Rule, don’t do unto others what you wouldn’t wish them to do to you. I do feel intense vicarious sadness when I encounter sadness in others. It doesn’t have to be in my own species, I mean it could be of another species as well.

    This belief in the golden rule, is found in every single of the major world religions, and is one of the core tenets of secular humanism.

    see here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Golden_Rule

    When Hillel says in Masechet Shabbat 31a, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbour: that is the whole Torah; all the rest of it is commentary; go and learn,” I understand this to mean that any interpretation of the torah that is not in the spirit of the golden rule is not a correct interpretation.

    If only more people of faith followed the golden rule rather than mouth platitudes towards it, I think religion would have a much better reputation in the world. (Here is one project trying to achieve just this purpose – http://charterforcompassion.org/)

    The assertion that secular humanism is the same as relativism is ridiculous. A secular humanist evaluates whether an idea is right or wrong based on reason and scientific evidence. Ideas which are not logical are rejected constantly as our knowledge of the world grows with time. The humanist manifesto is from a relativist document.


  • Ittay says:

    I just came across this whilst looking through the American humanist website. It relates to Geoff’s assertion that all secular humanists are unsympathetic to the policies of the Israeli government.

    Turns out that one of the strongest defends of Israel in America, is also a proud Secular Humanists and defends the Jewish state out his own rational examination of the facts rather than due to any religious conviction.

    You can hear an interview with Dershowitz where he articulates why “secular” has become a dirty word and explains why secular law is necessary to ensure human rights for believers and non-believers alike here.

    This piece by Pilar Rahola, a Spanish politician, journalist and activist and member of the far left may also be of interest.

  • Yaacov says:


    There are a few points here that require clarification.

    First, religion is a choice. True if I choose Judaism (or any other religion) I have to accept the whole package (in theory), whereas if I were to choose Kant’s moral framework it would be up to me how far I took the system and which parts I want to ignore.
    However an absolute system (as I said above) is only as solid as its adherents. So it comes down to the education of the people involved rather then the system itself. The question then becomes entirely different and broader, how to educate the future lecturers and how to set boundaries for those who wish to be secular similar (but obviously not exactly the same) to those set by religion.

    Second is there seems to be a confusion here between secular ethics (as was taught by Spinoza, Kant etc) and post modern thought that Geoff seems to be talking about.

    I’m sure there are more points of confusion (rather then points of difference), but that is what I have noticed for the moment.

  • Shira Wenig says:

    Thanks Ittay for your clarification.
    I have the following question for you (or anyone else who would like to suggest an answer):
    (and given that it is very easy to misinterpret someone’s tone in discussions in writing, let me first assure you that I mean this respectfully, as a genuine question, not critically or rhetorically.)

    If the most important value of humanism is the Golden Rule, it’s very clear to me how that is applied to one’s own behaviour; but how does it guide a humanist’s attitude to other people’s behaviour?
    If Person A (a humanist) observes Person B treating Person C in a way Person A would not like to be treated himself, it appears to me there are several ways a humanist could consider this:
    1. Person A could condemn Person B’s behaviour as it does not fit with his own concept of moral behaviour.
    2. Person A could refrain from commenting on Person B’s behaviour because he does not know how Person B would himself like to be treated, and therefore does not know what moral guidelines Person B should follow.
    3. Person A could refrain from commenting on Person B’s behaviour because, regardless of the way Person B would like to be treated himself, one can only establish moral guidelines for oneself.
    Which of the above (or any other suggestion) would humanism consider the most correct reaction?

    A further question: If Person A knows for a fact that Person B would not like to be treated in the way he is treating Person C, but he also knows that Person B is not a humanist so is probably governed by different moral rules, does that change Person A’s attitude?

    I ask these questions out of genuine interest, but also because I think they bring us back to some of the critical issues raised in my dad’s article – whether humanism inevitably/possibly/never leads to moral inversion and/or moral equivalence.

    I have no issue with someone practising a humanist morality for themselves – the world would be a much nicer place if everyone abided by the Golden Rule you mention. The tricky issue seems to be what a humanist’s attitude should be to the moral implications of the behaviour of others, and whether according to humanist doctrine he is even entitled to hold such an attitude in the first place.

    It seems to me that one of the main bones of contention in this discussion is the distinction between humanism and relativism. My dad has contended that humanism inevitably leads to relativism, and his logic is explained in the main article above. Many commenters have contended that humanism and relativism are two separate things, but I have not yet seen anyone present the logic behind this assertion. I would be interested to see someone present this case, and perhaps my two questions above can serve as a starting point.

  • Ittay says:

    Hi Shira,
    It’s a pleasure to chat with a fellow philosopher. Given that humanism does not have a shulchan aruch, I will attempt to answer personally as a student of philosophy rather than on behalf of an entire belief system.
    The question you raise deals with the subjective nature of the goldren rule. Like yourself, Immanuel Kant famously criticized the golden rule for not being sensitive to differences of situation, noting that a prisoner duly convicted of a crime could appeal to the golden rule while asking the judge to release him, pointing out that the judge would not want anyone else to send him to prison, so he should not do so to others.

    Perhaps a more sophisticated expression of ethics than the golden rule for a humanist, would be this “Ethical values are derived from human need and interest as tested by experience. Humanists ground values in human welfare shaped by human circumstances, interests, and concerns and extended to the global ecosystem and beyond. We are committed to treating each person as having inherent worth and dignity, and to making informed choices in a context of freedom consonant with responsibility.” – Humanist Manifesto (2003)

    Fitting this in with the analogy you give where you say that “Person A (a humanist) observes Person B treating Person C in a way Person A would not like to be treated himself,” I would reject all three options.

    Based on my understanding of humanism, when “Person A (a humanist) observes Person B treating Person C in a way Person A would not like to be treated himself,” than it is the duty of Person A to identify the needs of both person B and C, examine the history of how the previous mistreatment of person C has impacted upon him, and then consider how the actions of persons A B and C impact on the greater well-being of society.

    This is very different from the ‘live and let live’ approach of relativism. A serious humanist will always consider the scientific evidence, the interests of both sides, before deciding whether an action is right or wrong. (For a more detailed explanation see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Secular_ethics)

    Some examples of humanists who have spoken out against injustice using exactly this formula are: Albert Einstein, who spoke out against nuclear weapons in 1955, Peter Singer – against animal cruelty, Tim Flannery – in favour of climate action, Fred Hollows – for aboriginal access to eye surgery, and Pilar Rola (and Alan Dershowitz) on the right of Israel to defend herself.

  • Geoff Bloch says:

    Hi Ittay and Shira,

    I don’t mean to interrupt the flow of your fascinating dialogue, but I’d like to chime in with one comment which may “add to the mixture”. Ittay, you gave Peter Singer as an example of a humanist. I’d be careful before putting him forward to make a case for humanism. Did you know that he formulated the philosophy known as preference utilitarianism which, very broadly speaking, holds that the moral worth of an action is determined solely by its utility in providing the greatest good to the greatest number. From what I recollect reading, Singer once stated that, given the right circumstances, you would sacrifice a sick newborn child to save a healthy pig, because a pig is sentient and a newborn child is not and a pig has an inherent worth in a number of respects while a terminally ill child has none. I suspect most of us would recoil in horror at this logic, but I will readily concede that it is a philosophy which is capable of clear expression and application…. indeed it has its own subjective “morality” too! That’s the whole point!

    That philosophy can and is applied, for example, to the Israeli – Palestinian conflict. There are 1.3+ billion Muslims and a paltry 16 million Jews. Of course the State of Israel should be sacrificed if that benefits the Moslem world. It doesn’t matter that Israel can make a case for her existence. Right and wrong as we understand those polarities don’t enter the equation. You can do the maths… the greatest good for the greatest number.

    Over to you guys.


  • Geoff Bloch says:

    This is a belated response to Michael Barnett’s post a few days ago (3 days yomtov intervened).

    Several of your questions have already been addressed in some of my earlier posts so I will only address ones I don’t believe have been answered (and point out those already addressed).

    First, I have two comments in relation to your assertion that I have an onus to justify the premise that universities are harming our children in the manner I have explained in the article. (1) I have no intention whatever of publicising the actual cases I know of. That would be highly improper as it would be hurtful to the individuals and families concerned and a gross invasion of their privacy. (2) The premise is axiomatic in any event. I know that many people share my concerns from my discussions with many friends and acquaintances. I’m afraid readers will either have to accept the premise and then debate the real issues or move on and read something else if they are unconvinced a problem exists. I suspect that what I am saying resonates strongly with the vast majority of parents who have children who have been to university. I have some support for this proposition from the fact that you I think are the first person to raise the point.

    Secondly, you have asked what the harm is. The harm is exposure to an ideology which I consider absurd and dangerous as explained in my article.

    Thirdly, no, of course not all our youth are affected. I have actually answered this point in a previous post but it bears repetition. Every young adult is an individual. Some may have a natural inclination to be skeptical or critical of new ideologies while others may be less so. Some may have been given a sound intellectual grounding to prepare them for the collision of ideologies while others may not have been given those tools. Every case is different.

    Fourthly, you say you were “taught by (your) family …. to believe that being Jewish is better. That Jews were better than goyim, because goyim ate unacceptable food and participated in unacceptable practices. In effect, “they” were substandard and “we” were superior.”. All I can offer is that I strongly take issue with that sort of “education”. May I suggest that you read the piece on “Chosenness” elsewhere on this website which canvasses these very issues. I and several others have specifically disclaimed the views you were taught for various reasons which do not need to be rehearsed here.

    Fifthly, I share your belief that our children should learn to think for themselves and form their own opinions. I have addressed this at length in my previous posts on this page.


  • Ittay says:

    Hi Geoff,
    I am quite familiar with the views of Peter Singer. I met him when he recently spoke at a synagogue in Melbourne about the moral requirement for middle class Australians to give more money to international aid organisations such as oxfam based on the philosophy of utilitarianism. An initiative which I applaud
    see http://www.thelifeyoucansave.com/
    In regards to the question of euthanasia of severely disabled, this something I don’t agree with.
    When deciding what is right and wrong, sometimes i look to Jewish ethics, sometimes I look to utilitarianism, sometimes i look to the categorical imperative and sometimes i operate on ethical egoism.

    No one philosophical system is appropriate for all situations. This does not make me a relativist. I means that I have critically examined the merits of different ethical systems and decided that all are not universally appropriate for every situation. I think that most people, whether religious or not, operate like this.

  • Shira Wenig says:

    Hi Ittay,
    Thanks for your reply to my questions. Thanks also for addressing these fundamental issues & presenting a good case.

    Based on your quote from the Humanist Manifesto III, essentially you have said that humanism is not about each individual deciding for themselves what is right and wrong, based on their inherent morality; instead it is about all humanists applying a particular set of values, derived from the human experience and consonant with the inherent worth of each human being, to guide their moral behaviour.

    I have never heard it phrased quite that way, so I would like to ask: is this the generally accepted view of humanism?
    If so, who decides which values are to be adopted by humanists?

    I note that the principles listed in the manifesto are, for humanists, “not what we must believe but a consensus of what we do believe”. So when I ask who decides which values are to be adopted, I do not mean this in a prescriptive sense; I mean, who decides which values have been arrived at by consensus? Where/when was this consensus achieved?

    Regarding the manifesto: Given the fact that many issues are complex and involve competing interests of different groups of people, with the welfare of one group inversely related to the welfare of another, who decides which “human circumstances, interests and concerns” inform ethical values and how they are to be weighted?

    Regarding your answer to my question about Persons A, B & C: Your answer sounds like a wonderfully fair and rational way to approach conflict. However it also includes many subjective elements: in many cases, there may be more than one way of looking at the needs of persons B & C; the history of any previous mistreatment varies depending how far back in history you look and how widely you look (eg. did Person C ever mistreat Person B?) even if the issue of revisionism doesn’t enter the equation; and one’s assessment of how someone’s actions impact on society’s wellbeing is based on one’s subjective view of what in fact would be good for society. So I would ask the same question: Who adjudicates these issues for humanists?

    By the way, I think your answer – while a good one – is really a variation of option #1 that I gave in my original question. Essentially you’re saying that if Person A considers all these issues based on humanist values (his own concept of moral behaviour) and determines that Person B’s treatment of Person C is objectionable, he condemns Person B’s behaviour.

    If humanist morality comprises a particular set of values by which all humanists are bound, then I guess in terms of application to everyday life it functions much in the same way as a religious moral system, in which values are also established by an entity separate from the individual (except for the important distinction that they can change over time and from place to place if different value-setters are accepted, whereas a religious system is eternal).

    This turns humanism into a subjective morality, where a humanist is free to evaluate the actions of others using his own principles. (This sits well with me, as it succeeds in avoiding the moral black hole of relativism or equivalence.)
    Is this the way humanists understand their ideology?

  • Ittay says:

    Hi Shira,
    It’s hard for me to answer on what is a “generally accepted view of humanism” because unlike most religions, humanists don’t have dogma to which one must subscribe in order to be humanist, but I’ll do my best.
    In terms of decisions made by consensus, there is no one person who initiates this.
    I’ll give you a contemporary example. 99% of the world’s scientists who have submitted research in peer reviewed journals have concluded that climate change is real and is caused by human activity. 1% of scientists disagree with this hypothesis. Given the vast majority of scientist have found that climate change is looming threat to our way of life, many humanists would see it as a duty to defend the scientific community when attacked by climate deniers and would act to reduce carbon emissions in their own lives and lobby their governments to do so.
    Hypothetically, if in 100 years new research came to light by the scientific community about our climate that was different to what we know, I think most humanists would change their position based on the new scientific evidence.

    In regards to the question of how to weight various competing interests, there are various conflict resolution models which would guide humanists. Here’s an example of one

    Finally, you write “If humanist morality comprises a particular set of values by which all humanists are bound, then I guess in terms of application to everyday life it functions much in the same way as a religious moral system, in which values are also established by an entity separate from the individual (except for the important distinction that they can change over time and from place to place if different value-setters are accepted, whereas a religious system is eternal).”

    The way I understand most streams of Judaism (perhaps with the exception of the followers of the chatam sofer who said “chadash asur min hatorah”) both humanism and Judaism evolve their beliefs over time, and perhaps have more in common than you state. The main difference is that in humanism change this is guided by science and academic research, whereas in Judaism this is guided by halacha(to go forward). For example, If you were to read the writings of the Rambam, you would assume that he would be staunchly against women studying gemara or praying in women’s tfilla groups, whereas today, there are many halachic authorities who approve this from Mizrahi to Lubavtich.

    Finally, In response to your final question, the answer is yes, provided the humanist’s principles can be verified through scintific evidence or reason.

  • Geoff Bloch says:

    I have been asked by a reader to clarify a comment I made in a previous post that although the mainstream should be tolerant of gays’ sexual preference, it was regrettable that the gay lobby wants society to affirm that homosexuality is as desirable a preference as heterosexuality on which the family should be based.

    I affirm that comment because, amongst other things, it is my opinion that children are entitled to a mother and a father as an ideal paradigm. I should not, however, be taken to imply that a mother and a father would necessarily do a better job raising a child than would a same sex couple in all cases. Stating such a general principle would be absurd.

  • Akiva says:


    I’ve been meaning to reply to your earlier comment for some time, but another thread on this site finally spurred me into action. The publication of such articles as ‘Why I support the new zionist left’ and Larry’s ‘boycott’ piece do not make Galus a balanced discussion group. Firstly, the titles of these pieces are far more extreme than their actual content, which is soft centrist at best, while the great majority of the other ‘political’ pieces are much more hard-right. Also, the ‘right’ pieces present lines of argument which are deeply shocking to the non-religious community – the idea that tertiary education is somehow dangerous or corrupting to jewish youth, for example, or the practice of kapporot. Boycotts and a mild questioning of the current regime completely pale in comparison.

    and that’s before we even get to the question of the comments threads, which have been totally hijacked by those such as shoshanna, so that all the pieces end up essentially being the same conversation over and over again.

    And I thought this article was the lowest point so far. Then I found the scary one written by the Gush Etzion resident. You surely cannot pretend moderation after that.

  • Shira Wenig says:

    Ittay – thanks for your explanation. I can undertand the methodology by which a humanist would arrive at a conclusion, however it seem to me that this is much easier done in the scientific field than in the moral sphere. One could collect all the articles published on climate change and assess what the consensus opinion is. But it is much more difficult to assess consensus on moral issues as these views are not only found in journals and such publications.

    Also, if consensus is determined by sheer numbers – ie. a humanist’s scientific principles would be those principles supported by the majority of scientists – then it seems to me that consensus could be skewed simply by who makes up the majority.

    This is particularly pertinent in the moral sphere. Theoretically, if a humanist could collect all the views of everyone in the world on a particular moral issue, then the consensus would probably be based on the moral views of the group with the largest population (given that on many issues, people in some racial or religious groups would probably hold the same fundamental beliefs). Given the difference in birth rate between different cultures, consensus might change within a couple of generations to simply reflect the views of those with the highest birth rate.

    Akiva – I won’t make a judgment about the proportion of contributions to this site which are “right” or “left” or “moderate” or “extremist”. Can I suggest though that to someone generally on the left, right wing pieces may appear more extreme while left wing pieces appear more centrist, and vice versa for someone generally on the right. I assume you are familiar with a wide range of views, in which case you probably know that this article is not particularly extreme.

    This article does not claim, as you say it does, that “tertiary education is somehow dangerous or corrupting to jewish youth”. It is clear from the article, as well as from many of my dad’s comments following it, that the writer’s personal view is that tertiary education in and of itself is invaluable; in this article he is railing against the educational methodology of a small percentage of lecturers in specific faculties, and the solution he suggests does not in any way propose a ban on tertiary education – rather it takes into account that tertiary education for jewish youth will and should continue.

  • Ittay says:

    Hi Shira,
    The reason I gave a scientific example (climate change) rather than a moral one is because “Secular Humanism is not so much a specific morality as it is a method for the explanation and discovery of rational moral principles. Secular Humanism is opposed to absolutist morality, yet it maintains that objective standards emerge, and ethical values and principles may be discovered, in the course of ethical deliberation. Philosophers as diverse as Plato, Immanuel Kant, John Stuart Mill, George Edward Moore, and John Rawls have demonstrated that it is possible to have a universal morality without God.” (Council for Secular Humanism)

    In regards to political questions such as the Israeli Palestinian conflict, I don’t think secular humanists are always guided by the majority view, or to support the group with the largest population. My guess is that secular humanists would probably be guided by these questions when determining which side is more moral.

    Are you Israeli? Are you Palestinian?

    Do you have Israeli/Palestinians friends or family members?

    Have you seen compelling evidence from Israelis or Palestinians that their cause is more worthy?

    What has been the outcome of similar conflicts? Were they resolved through military force or by negotiation? (ie: is this conflict akin to the Allies V Hitler, or to the IRA V the British)

    What is the most utilitarian outcome given the current leadership of both nations?

  • Shira Wenig says:

    Thanks Ittay for your comments. With all due respect, it sounds like secular humanism gets tied up in knots trying to explain itself.

    On one hand, as you quote, “Secular Humanism is not so much a specific morality as it is a method for the explanation and discovery of rational moral principles” – fine, even if it doesn’t dictate specific principles, it gives a methodology by which individuals can arrive at moral principles.
    (By the way, this is exactly what my dad meant by humanism appealing to individuals’ vanity by implying that we each have the inherent ability to arbitrate between right and wrong.)

    On the other hand, continuing your quote, “Secular Humanism is opposed to absolutist morality, yet it maintains that objective standards emerge, and ethical values and principles may be discovered, in the course of ethical deliberation” – this statement is contradictory in itself. If nothing is morally absolute, how do objective standards emerge?

    As you mentioned in an earlier comment, secular humanism holds up “consensus” as the gold standard for deciding on principles. If you discover objective standards in the course of ethical deliberation according to humanism’s methodology, why are these morals not absolute?
    If those standards are based on consensus, then standards should not differ from person to person, as we all live in the same world. If they do differ, that implies that something other than consensus is at play – personal values external to humanism? education and upbringing? bias? something else? – even if these extraneous factors serve only to help the individual adjudicate which opinions he will consider in determining consensus. This defeats the purpose of the humanist enterprise.

    (And if standards are based on consensus and therefore DON’T differ from person to person, you arrive at the problem I mentioned in an earlier post, that consensus can change with varying populations and birth rates.)

    So the following question stands: “What can account for the difference in conclusions arrived at by different individuals applying the same humanist methodology of ethical deliberation?”
    As I said earlier, something other than consensus.

    I imagine your answer would be something along the lines of the list of questions you posed which might help an individual develop a view on political issues(which, incidentally, I never mentioned).
    Your questions sound an awful lot like the questions MOST people would pose to themselves, whether they subscribe to humanism or religion or any other ideology, in deciding their view on political issues.

    The first 3, if not all of those questions, are also extremely subjective, and not at all related to consensus or global principles. I fail to see how one’s own status as Israeli or Palestinian, or the existence of one’s Israeli or Palestinian friends or family members, have any bearing whatsoever on determining which side is more moral – and certainly not in the course of ethical deliberation as propounded by the methodology of humanism.

    This suggests to me that while the principles of humanism may sound rational and fair, when an individual needs to actually apply them he is left with nothing more than personal preferences and attachments, and the subliminal values of other ideologies which may have crept into his subconscious through education, upbringing, or the society in which he lives.

  • Ittay says:

    Hi Shira,
    You write “Your questions sound an awful lot like the questions MOST people would pose to themselves, whether they subscribe to humanism or religion or any other ideology, in deciding their view on political issues.” That is exactly the point I wish to make.

    The reason I started the list with subjective questions, is because our personal experience (whether that be humanist or religious) has a huge impact upon how we see the world. Why do most Israelis support ending the settlement freeze? Because they don’t think they are an impediment to peace, or they do, but don’t think peace is not possible at this time.

    Why do most Palestinians want to see the settlement freeze extended? Because from their perspective, they see this as a sign that Israel intends to keep as much of the WB as possible, which they claim to be wholly theirs.

    In that sense, your dad is right that “humanism appeals to individuals’ vanity by implying that we each have the inherent ability to arbitrate between right and wrong.”

    But so does Judaism. Look at the famous midrash of tanuro shel achnai which ends with the words lo bashamayim hi (it is not in heaven), meaning it is up to the rabbis to interpret the torah based on a consensus of learned opinion within the framework of halacha.

    My point is, that all moral decision making (humanist and religious) begins with personal experience and/or bias that is collected from our socialization. The main difference really is the last question, where the humanists applies a secular ethical principle (such as utilitarianism in my example) whilst a religious person may refer to a rabbinic ruling or personal halachik interpretation of choice.

  • Shira Wenig says:

    Ittay, I suspect that this description of humanism has strayed from its accepted definition. If the humanist’s starting point for deliberation on any issue is personal experience & bias – which most likely stem from other value systems with which the humanist was raised or educated – then humanism is essentially rendered useless. His decision is not coming from some inherent knowledge of right and wrong based on rational examination of human experience; it is based on another moral code, be it the Judeo-Christian tradition or anything else.

    Also, I don’t agree that Judaism appeals to the individual’s vanity by stating “lo bashamayim hi”. This concept does not give blanket permission to just any individual, from the teenage beginner to the learned scholar, to arbitrate issues on the basis that they have the tools to arrive at the right conclusion by dint of just being themselves. You are right that it has the potential to appeal to the vanity of learned rabbis who ARE qualified to arbitrate such issues; but one would hope that the learning required to achieve this status, and the spiritual development which accompanies this, would go some way towards tempering this vanity.

    The concept of “shiv’im panim latorah” is similar. While one might read this in a similar vein to they way you read “lo bashamayim hi”, it doesn’t imply that anyone’s conclusion goes. There might be 70 legitimate faces to a given issue, but a random unqualified individual’s conclusion may well be the 71st.

  • Michael Susman says:

    Ilana Leeds on Galus:
    “I have been a victim of bullying and lost my teaching position because someone wanted to teach me a lesson about who is boss. Real leaders are not afraid of dissent because only with dissent do we learn and grow. If we all agreed with one another, what a strange world it would be.
    I don’t care what culture, colour, gender or SEXUALITY you are, respect is paramount in dealing with others and a good sense of humour.” (my emphasis added)

    Ilana Leeds a different day on Galus:
    “…if they want marriage and all the other things that go with it,(Like the adoption of children) they need to give up their deviant practices and return to a heterosexual lifestyle and put themselves in order.”
    “…those poor sick individuals who have to follow their unnatural desires and indulge in sexual practices that are not normal.”
    “No I feel discriminated against, because I am not allowed to hold the view that homosexuality is deviant sexual behaviour, which it is.”

    I think the quotes speak for themselves

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