Tuesday, February 08, 2005

A Rabbi and I Discuss Judaism

The following is a discussion I had about eight months ago with a rabbi who came under the recommendation of a friend of mine who I had told what I thought about Judaism but she still thought that she could "fix" me. The text is almost identical except I've replaced names and things to keep all the players here anonymous.

I apologize for the poor composition of the rabbi's letters, but this is how he really wrote to me.


dear orthoprax. GP told me that you are interested in a dialogue on the subject of judaism. i would be very happy to do so. believe it wopuld be motre ffruitful if we carried on the dialogue on the phone or face to face. however, if you wish to do so by e mail then thats fine. incidently i deo not know hiow to conduct a chat over the internet so that the dialogue would have to be conducted by e mail. in any case hello and shavu'u tiov.


Ah, hello Rabbi, good to hear from you. I'm not sure what GP told you, but I'm looking for a serious discussion involving some of the very foundations of Judaism. And unfortunately, many members of our local community disdain those who dare ask such questions. That's the reason why I'd much prefer to correspond by email as to preserve my anonymity.

Now, I have to tell you that I am not new to this topic and have explored it for some time. This is just the first time I've had the opportunity to discuss it with a person who's credentials and experience are (hopefully) up to par. Maybe you can set me to rights, eh?

Also, some ground rules should be emplaced. In the course of this discussion, I may assert or question things which may offend you. This isn't my intention, but from experience I know that it tends to go hand in hand with the subject matter. So, as a general rule, you must stay calm and not get angry. I'm not saying this because I think that you personally are easily angered, but that I know, from my experience, that people tend to get angry when discussing things of this nature. I'm not sure if this is the only rule to make. If you have anything to add to this aspect, by all means do so.

To start us off I might as well be direct and ask you a pretty basic question. One I hope that you've asked yourself and have come up with a satisfying answer.

Why do you believe in Judaism?


dear orthoprax. i do not miond answering your question. however, you must realize that there is something unfair asbout the dailogue that you propose. you know who i am. however, i do not know who i'm speaking. be that as it may i do no mind attempting to respond to any question that you may have. not that i use the word respond not answer. sometimes there are no answers at hand. as tio you question, yes i believe in the teachings of judaism. the next move is yours.


Dear Rabbi,

I'm not sure why you see the dialogue as unfair. I don't really know who you are. All I know is that you are a rabbi whom GP feels is knowledgeable enough to satisfactorily respond to my questions about Judaism. All that you know of me (or at least as much as you *should* know) is that I'm an acquaintance of GP's who has a number of issues regarding Judaism. I think we're more or less equally in the dark for the other's identity.

You said, "sometimes there are no answers at hand." I agree with that in the way it was stated, but I still think that answers do exist - and that sometimes you have to work hard to get them when they're not easily at hand.

You said, "yes i believe in the teachings of judaism." I figured that was safe to assume, but that isn't the answer to my question. I didn't ask you whether you believed, but *why* you believed.


dear orthoprax. sorry that i misread your question. you asked why i believe in judaism. thats a loaded question. However, i will try to answer. the basis for my belief or commitment to judasim is the fact that i was born a jew, grew up in a jewish home and identify with the jewish people and its heritiage. In other words my identity as a human being is tied to the people of israel and its heritage. the latter is similar though not exactly so to the answer given by the "chaver" to the king of the khazars. I might add that some people think that they have intellectual problems with judaism when in reality it is their jewish identity that they have problems with. stay well.


Dear Rabbi,

I can tell you right off the bat that my issues with Judaism are not rooted at all to any hypothetical problems in my Jewish identity. Regardless as to whether I ultimately find Judaism rational and justified or not, my Jewish identity is not something I can give up. Nor is it something I want to give up.

Anyway, as I see it, the reason you gave for why you believe in Judaism is essentially because you identify with the Jewish nationality and ethnicity.

My problem with such an answer is that you really don't address whether what you believe is correct or not. You don't give any real justification for why you believe Judaism to be reliable. You believe because you "grew up in a jewish home."

I have more or less the same history as you growing up. But I don't recognize an identification with an ethnicity or nationality as justification for faith in all the things Judaism teaches. They are separate things and one cannot logically be used to justify the other.

I mean, for example, why do you believe in God? Because you identify with the Jewish people? How does that follow?

Let me ask you a hypothetical question: Suppose Judaism taught of polytheism instead of monotheism. Would you have just as much of a reason to believe in polytheism because you identify with the Jewish people?


dear orthoprax.

thanks for your last reply.

You ask: "I mean, for example, why do you believe in God? Because you identify with the Jewish people? How does that follow?

Let me ask you a hypothetical question: Suppose Judaism taught of polytheism instead of monotheism. Would you have just as much of a reason to believe in polytheism because you identify with the Jewish people?"

Your question is excellent. However, note the following:

we open the amidah with elkei avraham...a boy is brought into the brit of avaraham... We pray elohenu ve-lohei avotenu...history is a very important component of Judaism. Unlike Abraham avinu we do not start out with a blank slate. As to your question: "Suppose Judaism taught of polytheism instead of monotheism. Would you have just as much of a reason to believe in polytheism because you identify with the Jewish people?" Maybe that is why the sages ordained that we daily say baruhkh... she-lo asni goy .

The question next arises given one's commitment to Judaism how does one relate to its doctrines . a good starting point is Rabbi Saadiah gaon. Saadiah says that we accept the bible (i would add that the same applies to talmudic texts) literally except in instances where it contradicts sense perception or logic i.e. it is self contradictory. Other medieval philosophers such as maimonides and Ibn Ezra has similar notions. Ibn Ezra taught that man's mind is the angel that mediates between man and God. Maimonides taught that once we accept the Torah as a given then we apply reason to understand its doctrines.

The point is that i accept the doctrines of Judaism and try to my utmost the understand them in light of history and reason.

There are others like Rabbi Nachman of Breslov who believe that we should except everything on faith and that it will all be become clear in the messianic era. However, i in all modesty try to follow the mid. Jewish philo.
Judaism teaches there is a God. Given this teaching i find a lot of evidence in the world to substantiate that belief. Others (David Hume, Kant) argue that these proofs are not fool proof. fine. Given Jewish tradition as a starting point i do not need foolproof evidence. Now if there was evidence proving that God did not exist then i would have to seriously question my
beliefs. However, this is not the case. The Torah teaches that God exists and for me " the heavens declare the glory of God etc.

Stay well and Shabbat shalom.



Dear Rabbi,

It seems to me that the essential reason you follow Judaism is because it is historically the religion of the Jewish people. And that since you are Jewish, you will follow it. You don’t actually question whether what you believe is true or not. You didn’t answer directly, but if Judaism did actually teach of many gods, you’d probably believe that too. You take Jewish teachings as a given and work outward from that point.

I, on the other hand, do not take the Torah as a given. In fact, I think it should have sufficient evidence to corroborate the claims it makes and the views it represents. I hold this level of criticism for everything I encounter. Why should I lower my standard for something so elemental?

You mention Rabbi Saadiah Gaon and his stance that one should accept the Bible literally except in instances where it contradicts sense perception or logic. By “sense perception” does that include observed and inferred physical phenomena? Would an escape from logic be included within the realms of the story of Noah and the global flood?

You also mention the view of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov who thinks everything should be taken on faith. Faith is not something I can do very well, nor is it something that I even see as a virtue. What is faith exactly? Faith is assuming something as true when you haven’t the evidence to support it or despite the evidence against it. Because if you had evidence for something, you wouldn’t need faith. So why is assuming something to be true a virtue? Anyone can do that - and from history we know that people are often wrong when they do that.

I think the fundamental difference between you and I is that you take the Torah and the teachings of Judaism and say, “This is all true until I see it proven otherwise.” When I see everything I say, “This may or may not be true, but I will suspend judgement until I see the evidence for it.” And if the evidence isn’t there, I have no compelling reason to assume it is true.

Regards,


dear orthoprax.
regarding saadiah.; according to saadiah if something reported in the bible is impossible to accept then we take it allegorically. the question is whether the account iof the flood is impossible is contrary to sense perception. saadiah did not doubt that it was in keeping with sense perception. however, thosde rabbis who believe in evoloution do not take the first chaspters of scripture literally. i heard rabbi m. d. tendler of monsey make that point in a lecture at y.u.

let me ask you a number of questions :
have you read saadiah, yehudah ha-levi, rambam and ibn ezra.? yopu might also be interested in barth's the modern jew faces eternal problems and berkovitz's "god, amn and history, as well as a work entittled "must a jew believe anything," and the guide for the perplexed and the modern jew. All of the above wrestle with some of the same questions you are dealing with. it would be worthwhile to see how they struggled and what conclusion
they came up with.

i have to run to teach. stay well.



Dear Rabbi,

The big issue with taking certain things as allegorical the moment additional information presents them as highly unlikely or impossible to reconcile is that it begs the question of why should one assume the rest is accurate while we do not have much reliable information one way or the other? It reeks with the idea of simply picking and choosing what one wishes to believe and that is as much against the Torah as it is against personal integrity.

We have no verifiable source which accounts for the stories of the Patriarchs or even of such grand events like the Exodus. Yet we do seem to have hints which tend to put doubt into the stories. Chaldean tribes are recorded to only reach the city of Ur by around 1000 BCE, yet we have written that Abraham left Ur of the Chaldean’s centuries before then. We hold a record of Joseph’s rule of Egypt and his unprecedented economic decrees, yet there is no Egyptian record of same. And, even more remarkable, is the entire lack of records for the Exodus of millions of slaves. Especially since the entire population of ancient Egypt could only have been a few million at most.

From the above, and numerous other inconsistencies, should I conclude, based on Saadiah’s opinion, that I should consider a considerable amount of Torah as allegorical? That would put me in a rather precarious place.

To answer your questions, I have read Yehudah Ha-Levi and Maimonides, but not much of Ibn Ezra’s and Saadiah Gaon’s works. I’m always interested in reading more into this topic, so I’ll probably be looking into the books you mentioned. Usually, certain philosophies and arguments can be summed up in a few lines. If you know what kinds of things are discussed in the different texts you’ve mentioned, would you consider quickly summarizing them for me? Maybe that way I’d be better able to decide which to look up first.

Regards,


dear orthoprax. you are right. the allegorical approach seems to us a pick and choose approach. however, books that are thousands of years old had different styles of writing. they mixed allegories with facts. look at the talmud. there too we have have facts mixed with allegories. its is true that there are great jewish authoriteis that believe that the we should take reverything in scripture literally. however, there are equally great ones that believe that scripture mixed allegories, and visions with hisrotical narratives. thus Mainmonides believes that the stroy of the 3 men visting abraham took place in a prohetic vision, as did the accound of the talking ass. Nahmanides believes that they took place in the normal world.

as to the probloem of the historicity of the bible. I.E. notes Moshe often used the name that was prevealent in his days for the names of cities that hasd other names when the account which they describe took place. he and other commentaries (and this is very controversial to the point of being supreesed) believe that their are post mosiac glesses in the torah which
substituted contemporary names for those originally found in scripture. off hand see radak on1 Sam. 4:3). These glosses were made by prophets or anshe kenesset hagedollah. this may explain the use of the term us for a palce that may -we don't have all the records- a differwet name in the time of abarham.

as to egypt. there was a great egyptoligist by the nae of yehuda who showed that the parts of the torah that refer to israel's sojourn in egypt reflect egypotian culture i.e. moses, and pinchas are egyptian names, a kohen unlike an egyptian priest can not come into contact with the dead. he wrote at least two volumes shoeing that israel was in egypt. you might want to get hiold of thes books. furthermore the egyptians did not record their defeats.

i do not want to sound patronizing but you are an intelligent person. your questrion are on track. i would love to continue writing but i just received a call from my shul. there is an emergency there. i will pick up from where i leave off in the next e mail.

shavu'ah tov.



Dear Rabbi,
The difference between Torah scripture and the works of the rabbis is that in the Talmud you can tell right away if a story is allegorical. There are usually obvious clues which indicate if something is supposed to be taken literally or not. However, in Torah, meaning primarily Chumash, there are no identifying clues to indicate a story’s allegorical nature. Opinion’s like Rambam’s are rather unusual and seem to be met with disdain. If Ramban’s commentary are any measure of some rabbis’ thoughts on Rambam, quotes like “these words contradict scripture. It is forbidden to hear them, much less believe in them!” seem rather self-explanatory. Rambam’s relatively rationalistic approach to scripture was very unorthodox for his time period.

So how can we, many centuries after the fact, determine which set of rabbinic arguments are correct? Or even, for that matter, if any of them are correct? There is no unanimity and picking one rabbi’s opinions just because you like them better seems to be of the same nature as choosing which scriptural passages to take as literal.

You mention the hypothesis that Moshe may have used names of places familiar in his time for better identification of where the places were. Yet this seems like an apologetic answer. Sure, that could have happened, but what reason do we have to believe it did other than wishful thinking? Also, even in Moshe’s time it still would have been too early to call the city of Ur, Ur of the Chaldean’s.

The second theory you gave really surprised me. That it was people much later in time who changed the Torah’s words to fit to more modern geographical names. That I was not even aware that it even existed among respected rabbis’ commentary. Its suppression does not surprise me. And it raises many more disturbing questions than the ones it answers. That the Torah was changed, even minutely, goes against the very grain of what the Torah should be. That is an immutable testimony and guidebook for what God commands. To accept that it was once intentionally changed at times in the past, in apparently secretive ways, does not preclude the possibility that any other part of the text was changed. And if the text could have been changed in any number of ways - how can we know today if the text is reliable in any way whatsoever?

As for Israel being in Egypt in the past doesn’t seem too unlikely. It is certainly known that a great number of Asiatics visited the kingdom, sojourned in the land, met with the pharaohs, bartered in business, and yes, were even taken as slaves. The issue I have is not the possibility that some ancient Asiatics were in the land, but the whole magnitude of the story seems, well, mythological in nature. The traditional Jewish dating for the Exodus is about 1313 BCE. At that ancient time, the technology could not support more than a few million people in Egypt. Experts approximate the population at three million. Yet, in Shemot we have the story of 600,000 men of fighting age which is roughly equivalent to 2-3 million people leaving Egypt. That’s nearly the entire population of ancient Egypt. Something is not right here.

Related to this all of this is the facts that there is no archeological or historical evidence for a long 40 year wandering period in the desert of millions of people. A desert which was under constant observation and dominant control of the Egyptian empire for that matter. And then there is the logistical problems in feeding millions of people in the land of Canaan which, even more so than ancient Egypt was even less developed and would be able to support much fewer residents.

Added onto all this is that it seems like the work by Yehuda, as you mention, opens up a new can of worms. If evidence of a sojourn in Egypt is seen in the religious rites and doctrines of the ancient Israelites, then it poses the serious problem in which those rites and doctrines are supposed to come directly from God and from national revelation. They cannot serve as both. If the reason behind Israelite priests being the virtual opposite of Egyptian priests is because of the time spent in Egypt, then what does that mean to the Torah which explains to source of these rules to be from God?

If the name of Moses is from a derivative of the common Egyptian name ending, eg Thutmoses, Ramoses, Ahmoses, meaning “child,” then what does that mean for the Torah’s explanation of the name from the Hebrew word “mishitihu”? That he was drawn out the water? Can one say that the Torah is incorrect? It seems very much like all these explanations only end up creating more problems than they solve.

And, yes, although the Egyptians do not record their defeats, something of this magnitude would have crippled the nation. Plague after plague. Livestock and crops were completely decimated. People were diseased and impoverished. The army was destroyed and the country defenseless. And the entire first born population was dead. Egypt should have folded under the immediate pressure and have been conquered by the rather unfriendly neighboring empires. Yet this is not seen at all. If anything, the kingdom of Seti I was more rich and impressive than most previous moments in recent Egyptian history. The kingdom only grows more powerful and imposing after the traditional date for the Exodus. And this just doesn’t seem to add up.

You said “i do not want to sound patronizing but you are an intelligent person. your questrion are on track. i would love to continue writing but i just received a call from my shul. there is an emergency there. i will pick up from where i leave off in the next e mail.”

I don’t think you sound patronizing and I do appreciate the compliment. I hope nothing too worrisome has happened in your shul. But anyway, there’s no need to hurry on my account. Respond at your convenience.

Regards,


dear orthoprax. your last mail contains a lot. before i ry to deal with some of the issues raised let me ask you a few qustions. are you observant? do you intend to remain observant? i kow that you told me in an earlier message that you have no problems with your jewish identity. but i woukld like to know whther this dialogue we are having is connected to you observance, or is with a ciomitted jew who is having problems with certain aspects of what the yeshivah world calls hashkafah. now to the issue at hand. it is true that ranbam said that one is not
permitted much less to heafr some of the things that rambam says. however, rambam is an authority in his own right. incidently one of ranban's grandchildren ralbag was a fervant follower of rambms methodology. i believe he explained kri'at yam suf as the result of tidal action and shemesh be-givon donm as a poetic expression. now to the really important point. for the religious jew there are a number of appraoches to the question of biblical historicity.

1. emunah shelemah in the sense of taking everthing literally. this was the approach of r. moshe taku in the middle ages. it is still the chassidic approach,. i had a friend many years who becaonme a physician who used to ask question very similar to yours...he become a pysician and i a raabi. i moved out of new york. the next time i saw my friend he was lubavitch and he is one till this day. i often wanted to tease him by telling him he made me
an epikorus with his qustion i ner did. you know al tonu ish et amito. his kida are lub. all the way.

the other apporach is say say that Torah has its own realm and science in all of its manifestagtions its own realm. i believe this was the appraoch of rabbi soleveitchik. i get this from the fact that he often said thast he was never bothered by the conflict between science and religion. the israeli philosopher s. lebowitz emphasized this approach. at first this seems to be evading the issue. but it is not necessarily so. in science we know that different laws of physics apply to particles than to atiomes. thus particles can be in two places at one time, or behave as waves or straight lines. the latter appear contradticary. incidently i may have gotten the exact physics wrong but generally speaiking there are different laws for the
opbservable world than there are for the subparticle world. what does the physicist do. does he reject the observable world because the subparticle has different rules. thus one can accept the torah as true from its point of view and science as relatively true from its point of view, after all science changes. some of it is really inexact. this is especially true of archeology...by the way there are ancient egyptian documents that soeak of plagues such as blood, beasts, darkness, paslgfue that befell egypt. velenovsky beklieves that the accepted chronology of egypot is wrong and that those documents relate to the period of the exodus.

There are various ways to construct reality. science is one way. it is probably not an exact construction (see kant). Torah is another copnstruct. if you are a religious jew then you accfept the torah's construct as divine and true. where science and torah mesh. o.k. if not then i can live woth the contradiction, for it only contradicts a human construction. let me giver you asn example. the torah says do not kill. suppose i live in a civilzation that says its fine to kill. i can offer a lot of reason why its o.k. to kill. maybe they quote nitzche to the effect that the superman makes his own rules. now what do i do. i say that current "ethicist say
its fine to kill but the torah syas its wrong. do i follow the human construct ot the divine construct.the above is not so far fethced as itseems. p. singer of yale believes it is moral to allow terminal peiople to die. the torah considers it murder. whiom do we listen to. p. singer or the torah. right now singer is in the minority. suppose his view bwecome the accpted one whop will we follow the torah or singer.

incidently i dealt wiotgh the question of later changes in the tiorah by prophets or anshe kenesset ha-gedoolah inm the introduction to my translations of ibn exra's commentary on devarim. stay well. sorry that i do not edit my e mail.



Dear Rabbi,

To answer your question, yes, I am observant. I’m not perfect, but I’m more or less on the level. As to my future plans of observance, yes I would like to remain so. But I feel rather concerned that I may not be able to do so in much the same way. I feel hypocritical sometimes when I pray. Is it right for me to present a masquerade to the world? I have very strong concerns. It would be so much easier were doubts not an issue. I would much prefer to find a nice Jewish girl, start a family, have simple unworried beliefs of the world, feel sure in what I tell my children... But my investigations, initially aimed at proving the Torah reliable to myself, have seemed to be concluded in the opposite direction. It horribly complicates my life and puts so much in jeopardy.

Yet on this same note I find that I cannot be dishonest with myself. I cannot just place all what I’ve seen aside and consider it like nothing. I need to be truthful with myself and regard the evidence as it is. It’s times like these where once totally misunderstood cliches like “ignorance is bliss” suddenly become fully comprehended. And why the once-thought silly ways of ultra-religious Jews who forbid television and the internet and secular books suddenly make amazing sense.

As to the issue of the philosophy of Rambam and Ralbag - how do they know that their interpretations are correct? How do we know that their interpretations are correct? Besides which, traditional Jewish belief is that those further back in time and closer to Sinai know better to interpret scripture. How can then rabbis of just seven and eight centuries ago have interpretations that are not seen before them? Also, the very storyline of the Torah seems to argue against not miraculous interpretations. The Torah writes that the water was like a wall to their right and left and that with them were pillars of fire and clouds protecting Israel and keeping back the Egyptians. The imagery seems as if it should be taken as miraculous. There’s no indication that this should’ve been taken as a lucky natural event.

Take the miraculous sun stopping event of Joshua, that you mention. Ralbag explains in as a turn of phrase. That the sun was just “stopping over” Gibeon, meaning that it was a short event and that ultimately meaning that the Israelites achieved victory quickly. Yet, it does seem like that idea is contradicted just a few lines later. That the sun stood in the middle of the sky and did not hasten to set for a whole day. “V’ya’amod hashemesh bchatsi hashamayim v’lo atz lavoe c’yom tamim.”That really does not sound like a turn of phrase.

You also mention the Ipuwer papyrus in passing. Although it does seem to mention a number of the plagues, it doesn’t sound, if you just read it, like it is supposed to be a historical document. It is written in rather poetic language and includes many other things which have no mention in the traditional story. And it has no mention of central figures like Moshe, the Exodus, and all the firstborn dying. And above all, it is dated to many centuries before the traditional date for the Exodus. What reasons does Velenovksy give for why he thinks the Ipuwer papyrus was written far after it is considered to have been?

You also mention the philosophy of Rav Soloveitchik, where he lives with the contradictions between science and Torah. And I’ll be honest with you, there was a time when I went through a stage like that. But I think the reason behind that was just because I didn’t have the internal fortitude to be honest with myself. It really doesn’t solve anything. It leaves the entire discussion in a form of limbo and is ultimately unsatisfying. The only time when one would be forced to leave two contradictory beliefs in limbo is when the evidence for either side is equal. It really shouldn’t be something one chooses to do. It’s really internally inconsistent and seems to just be a temptation to stop investigating the issue. I mean, if no conclusion is possible - or even desired - why look?

You say that science is an imperfect human construct. I agree completely. But you also say categorically that the Torah is of divine authority and perfect. But how do we know that? We have the Torah itself. It writes as much. And we have the opinions of those who read Torah. Yet, these sources sound just as qualified as other non-Jewish scriptures. You could just as easily replace Torah with the Koran and show the same amount of reputability. So, one can just say that the Torah has divine authority and is perfect - but how can we know that?

Science works because it bases its theories on the known facts. Certainly, those facts may be incomplete and so it is an imperfect tool. But it’s also independently verifiable. Scientific ideas definitely can be wrong, but whatever the idea is - you know it is at least based on the known facts. Ideas from Torah? You’ve got to take those on faith. Which system would you see, objectively, as more reliable?

You also mention the concept of morality (the killing vs not killing scenario) as an example for science. But that’s not really a very good analogy. Science cannot deal with morality or whether something is “right” or not. That’s outside the realm of science. But in any case, we don’t know which morality is “right.” It could all be a human construct itself with all forms being incomplete and imperfect. But morality certainly has its place in human society so it is necessary for its continuation of use.

Also, how should we know if Torahic morality is valid? I don’t think modern morality, or even your personal morality, would be fine with some of the treatment of Israelite prisoners of war. Outright genocide is commanded. And things like slavery are given the ok. I don’t know. Would you feel comfortable doing those things? Would you feel right?

And, lastly, it’s perfectly alright if you don’t run a spellcheck. As long as I can understand then it’s fine.

Regards,


dear orthoprax.

first of all you are not a hypocrite. if you announced to all that you are a paragon of faith and you condemn those of lesser faith then that would be hypocritical. you are a jew who is doing his best and has religious questions. my father of bl;essed memory once told me that faith is like the ocean . in some cases it is very deep. in other cases it is only a foot or so deep. who except god knows how deep someone's faith is. i think if you took a survey of treligious jews you would find that not all obswerving jews have what some would call emunah shelemah. people have questions. rasbbi soloveitchik says that the end of religious life are the m still and beutiful medows of ther 23rd psalm. but till one gets there there is wrestling and spiritual pain. the jewish observer in its obit. for rabbi solvei.. criticized for writing this. they called him a conflicted person. but that is the style of some of our breterin. they deny reality. you might
want to read faith and doubt by rabbi norman lamm of y.u.

i often think that there are 2 types of jews. those that are born with a soul that is open to emunah shelemah. how else do you explain people who come from non observant homes and become fully observant and fully believing. on the otherr hand there are those who are naturally skeptical. if you fall into that category and want to be jewish then you observe and
accept yourself as you are. i9 believe that eventually things will sort themselves out. you might even have a number of religious experiences that will convince you that youir faithy is correct. i hasve had a number of them. but they are tototally subjective sothey do not say anything to you. but you might have them. by the way-do not take this is the wrong way-do you obsess over other issues. some people do. philosophers have a tendency to obsess over a variety of issues, some of which can never be solved. i once knew a person who had doubts. his doubts became most pronounced at the time of the high holidays. incidenly he was an observant jew. incidently ralbag did not believe that the splitting of the sea was a lucky act. he explained how the sea could have split from a scientific point of view.

i must run but in my next e mail io will if i remember discuss with you ibn tibbon's approach to biblical interpretationit may help you put things in perspective.

the point that i want to leave you with is accept yourself. accept yopuse;lf as a jew asnd its heritage. accept the fact that you like koheleth are a que4stioning jew and you probably will remian so. yopu are not a hypocrite. marry a religious girl. share your doubts with her . get close friendsthat you can share your doubts with. if they are honest some of them will have had similar squstions. raise religious kids. and i am sure that ultimately youwill be happy.and have


Dear orthoprax.
i want to continue where i left off. the troah was written thousands of years ago. it hand to make sense to that generation.we can not understand any text unless we put ourselves in the feet of the time place for who it was writtern. in the words of the jewish philosophers, dibberah torah ke-lashon beney adam. ibn gtibbon (i'm not sure if he is the one who trans.
the guide or his son) wrote a boo called yikkavu ha-mayyim where he writes that the torah waas formulated in such a way that it made sense to the people of moshe's time. later generations have to interpret it. i want to share a devar torah with with from prof. ross of bar illan. she does not say ecactly what i am saying but it is the same ball park. she is a good
thinker. my so thinks a lot of her. On Hearing the Voice of G-d

Dr. Tamar Ross

Dept. of Jewish Philosophy

The theophany at Mount Sinai is held to be the most central event in the collective memory of the Jewish people. Yet many also relate to the biblical description of that event as a sublime and mysterious experience that should not be approached too closely; any detailed examination of the mechanism of divine revelation they see as illegitimate in terms of faith. But since our tradition seeks to report to us an actual happening, others challenge how
one could possibly call those questions that seek to clarify the historical kernel of that description a violation of the holy-- how G-d spoke with human beings and how His voice was heard. For those who raise these questions, it seems that precisely the answers to them can bring them closer to belief and revitalize their attitude toward that momentous event.

Comparing divine revelation to the situation of "a scribe who is summoned and records all the annals, stories and commandments" (Maimonides, the eighth of his thirteen principle of the faith) is essential for transmitting the message that every word in the Torah has an equal measure of absolute sanctity. Therefore this imagery rightfully won such wide currency in Jewish tradition. Yet it is clear that literally receiving divine revelation demands an apparatus of communication far more complex than that required for taking simple human dictation, and indeed this understanding is part of every exegetical discussion of the subject. In these discussions we can perceive a lengthy process of attempting to distance the concept ofrevelation from being too closely associated with an image of G-d who has vocal cords, while acknowledging that those who heard the voice also have an essential role in shaping the nature of this message.

The desire to avoid the shortcoming of anthropomorphism inherent in the notion of a G-d who speaks led several medieval Jewish thinkers (Saadiah Gaon, Abraham Ibn Ezra, Judah Halevi) to suggest that the "voice of G-d" was not actually the voice of the Holy One, blessed be He, but a voice specially created by Him to go between Him and His prophet. In their opinion this voice should not be viewed as the external voice we hear in human speech.
Maimonides viewed prophecy as the highest attainable level of perfection of the intellect, by means of which human beings arrive at the necessary conclusions that stem from the existence of G-d. Whether Maimonides believed the concept of a "created voice" (which he also used, but called one of the "hidden elements in the Torah") was an external voice in the everyday sense, or whether he saw it as a spiritual experience (=active intellect) is a subject of controversy among commentators on his works.

Taking another approach, various midrashim relate to the divine message being tailored from the outset to the ability of the hearers to receive it. At least one source (Exodus Rabbah, ch. 16) hints at the possibility that under certain special circumstances the "word of G-d" can be understoood as retroactive confirmation of human statements independently formulated. This idea is supported by Talmudic traditions relating to the existence of sacred scrolls among the people prior to the theophany at Mount Sinai.

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Ha-Cohen Kook considered the possibility that external cultural and historical circumstances as well have an impact on the way in which the divine message is voiced by the prophet.

One of the hallmarks of modern thought is its heightened sensitivity to the decisive influence that a person's prior learning has on the way that person defines the significance of the stimuli he or she receives. Therefore the idea of revelation with which the contemporary person feels most comfortable might well be one which makes revelation dependent on the ability of the
prophet to discern that G-d is addressing him in words. Prophets are those individuals capable of hearing--beyond the physicality of their individual auditory apparatus--the voice of G-d, which transcends speech and transcends temporally dependent expressions. The prophetic ability to discern G-d as speaking is the most sublime notion of divine existence comprehensible by the human being.

R. Tzadok ha-Cohen (an important hassidic thinker from the late 19th century) took this line of thought one step further. In his book, Resisei Lailah (sect. 13; cf. also Sihot Mal'akhei ha-Sharet 31b and Divrei Sofrim21a), he notes that in Tractate Sanhedrin the gemara teaches us that prophecy terminated at the end of the First Temple period. Likewise, Tractate Yoma says that the appeal of paganism vanished during the same period. R. Tzadok draws a connection between these two traditions as follows: every great deficiency has the potential for a parallel benefit (or as he put it: whatever has in it a great deficiency is also a vehicle for
far-reaching change, if one is worthy of it). Paganism, despite the gross anthropomorphism and its cruel and debased morality, enabled its followers to sense the divine presence with a certain immediacy. Precisely the pristine emotional fervor found in primitive religions, that is not bound up with sophisticated theological and moral ideas, made it easier to directly communicate with G-d.

As Greek and Roman culture made their mark on the ancient world, the supernatural elements of paganism waned and made way for more scientific and philosophical outlooks. This era saw the birth of the principle in Judaism that "the Sage is preferable to the prophet," based on the biblical saying that the Torah "is not in the heavens." Religious consciousness ultimately became clothed in ideological abstraction and the privilege of unmediated
access to the divine was taken from the prophets and given "to idiots and babes" alone (Bava Batra 12b).

There can be no doubt that our rationalistic approach makes it difficult for us to accept supernatural divine intervention in the form of verbal messages from heaven. But let us remember that on the literal (peshat) level, at least, the Torah reflects a more ancient culture than ours today. Such a worldview was able to receive the Torah from G-d by such direct means.

The Mishnah (Avot 6,2) says: "Each and every day a divine voice calls out from Mount Horeb..." Will we ever be able to listen and hear this voice anew? R. Tzadok would surely have said that it all depends on our ability to return to a measure of openness to the miraculous, such as existed in the past.

i hope you found the above worthwhile. i once cousleed a young man (charedi-he niow runs a yeshiva). he had a bad case of cold week before his wedding. i spent a lot of time talking to him. by the time the conversation reached 2 hours we were discussing whther God exists. This shows you that many people e wrestle with religious issues. for some its the existential
human condition . in fact there is a hasidic interpretation that amalek is numeriically equivalent to safek and we have to get rid of the amalek in us. only one who wrestles with doubt would come up with such an interpretation. any way have a happy shavuout. chazak ve0-ematz.



Dear Rabbi,

I apologize for not responding sooner but, like for you, life sometimes gets busy. You sent two emails in the past little while, I’ll respond to the both of them here.

For your first email, I do appreciate the sentiments, but it doesn’t change how I feel. When I pray I don’t experience any connection with another. I don’t feel like I’m praying “to” anything. I feel like I’m just saying words. And that is equivalent to insincere prayers. Which is one definition of hypocrisy. Just because I’m not showy about it or contemptuous of others doesn’t mean I don’t recognize it for what it is. When I present any sort of faith to the world which I do not possess, it is a form of hypocrisy. A self-serving one at that as well. Whether this is a “good” hypocrisy is another discussion, but it does exist.

You went into how there are two types of souls, the one’s with emunah shelaimah and the skeptical ones. And you say, “how else do you explain people who come from non observant homes and become fully observant and fully believing[?]”

To answer that I would only need to point out the millions of “born again” Christians. They, too, are essentially returnees to the faith and they come back with an iron faith that is nearly impossible to dissuade. I know that you must agree that such faith is fallacious. So, what, in your opinion, makes them believe as they do?

For me, I also see two types of people. But these aren’t sharply delineated and there is a significant grey area. There are gullible people and there are skeptical people. There are a number of reasons why religious beliefs are comforting. Heaven, eternal life, someone powerful is always looking out for your best interests, etc. It’s hard and it’s unpleasant when one confronts the possibility that these things may not be true. People generally want to believe these things and so it’s often not too difficult to convince them as much.

And then there is the disturbing trend where those with the fullest faith and the fewest doubts are also the most ignorant. I once met a Hasidic girl, an adult, who thought the sun went around the earth. And recently I had to debunk the arguments that the Moon landings were a hoax from a student from Touro who had heard them off the cuff from a classmate. I once worked briefly in a bais yaakov and the principal had said that it wasn’t his goal to teach the girls, but to shelter them. These things make me sad and also make me sick.

Next in the email you proposed that maybe I would have personal religious experiences to persuade me and that you have had several of your own. I’m not entirely sure what counts as one, since I don’t think I’ve ever experienced one. Unless you consider a few odd circumstances - but nothing miraculous. Of course, there is a common argument against such personal experiences. Let’s say that the personal experience is based on the “I saw a vision...” or “I had a dream...” or “I prayed and it happened” scenario. It is the human condition to remember patterns and forget non-patterns. In fact, this is a foundation to our intelligence. So you don’t remember the hundreds of other times you prayed for something and didn’t get it. That’s not memorable. But when it one time does happen - that is a seemingly remarkable event and our minds embellish the memory for future replay.

You ask whether I obsess over issues. Well, I can’t be very impartial here ;-) but I don’t think I do. Some issues are never too far from my mind, but I can focus on other tasks and it doesn’t really interfere with my work. I like to consider and let ideas ferment in my mind. Whether that counts as obsessing, I don’t know, but I don’t think so.

From your second email you say that the Torah was written for the people of Moshe’s time and that later generations have to interpret the message. Although such a view does make some sense, a few problems arise from it. God surely would have known that the world would change. Inflections of meaning and basic gradual changes in grammar could be lost or altered over time. This method of message transmission seems very risky and prone to misunderstanding. One would think that God could have presented a better method. The Torah was meant for eternity, as many people say, so why need it be so easily confused?

The d’var Torah you sent seems a bit odd. It seems to imply that it is the worldview of the people which decides how God can present himself. People of the ancient world who had no hang ups or doubts about miraculous events were able to perceive God in a miraculous way. But today where rationalistic perceptions are the norm, it is only through rationalistic means through which we can perceive God. I don’t think I even need to point out the implications in the assertion that human beliefs control the way in which God can or does present himself.

It almost sounds like the World-as-Myth concept from Heinlein. That it is our beliefs which cause reality. So if people believe in dragons then dragons will appear and raze the countryside. Flying saucers are real because people believe they are. And if people think of miracles as normal courses of events then God reveals himself with them.

Also, the d’var Torah says that Pagan groups and cults had and, I presume, continue to have an actually connection with God. That is a rather odd idea. As God seems to be giving credence to such beliefs even though he condemns it most strongly in the Torah. Why would God give of himself to indicate an actual truth within Paganism? Thus leading more people to feel the divine through Pagan religions. That seems completely at odds with normal Godly behavior as found in Tanach.

Regards and a happy Shavuous to you too,


dear orthoprax thought you might be interested in the following blog from out
of step jew.

again chag same'ach
Monday, October 20, 2003
On Being a Thinking Religious Jew

Are thinking people that are raised religious more apt to remain observant or more likely to "take off their kippah" ?

My oldest son told me the other day that two of his former teachers are convinced that he will not remain religious because he is a "thinking person". My soon to be 19 year old will be drafted into the army in six weeks and will lead a life that will be all but cut off from his home. He will have different responsibilities that he has had until now and will have to listen to different authority figures. He will have different role models and will be facing situations and challenges – physical, moral and intellectual that he has never faced before. My son is, by his own (and my own) definition a "thinking person". He himself is convinced that most people like him do not remain religious. I don't agree and in fact think that those thinking people who are no longer religious became that way because of intellectual laziness. Certainly, being an observant Jew who is willing to take on the world as it is; who is willing to confront modernity in all its gore and glory and in all it scientific wonder and heresy; who is willing to put himself in religiously and morally impossible situations - certainly, this is a most
difficult challenge.


It is a challenge though that he and we can face up to only if we face it with intellectual courage. It seems to me that those who are willing to face these challenges but 'take off their kippah' are failing in those challenges. So too, those who are not willing to face those challenges mi'lichatchila (at the start) are admitting the weakness of their derech (way of life). I say this because we must face these challenges not in spite or our being
religious Jews, but because of it. A recent correspondent, a conservative Jew and a teacher of philosophy replied to one of my posts stating that "in many ways, it's easy for an active liberal Jew to embrace the mitzvot that he or she observes than it is for a self-critical modern orthodox Jew. We have much less baggage." That is a statement that made me do a double take. But he is right. For the Jew who believes in revelation and God, yet places free will at the center of his moral universe, keeping the masoret (the tradition) demands navigating an
intellectually rocky course. What keeps us honest is the knowledge that that is how it is supposed to be. We are supposed to have doubts, to face challenges to our faith, to be
"self-critical". We are supposed to take responsibility for our own actions yet recognize that God presents Himself in history. We are commanded both not to depend on miracles and to cry out "Yisrael bitach Ba'Hashem (Israel depends on God).

In one of our first posts, we quoted the famous footnote in R. Soloveitchik's "Halakhic Man". It is appropriate that we quote it again here. He wrote of religion that it "is not, at the outset, a refuge of grace and mercy for the despondent and desperate, an enchanted stream for crushed spirits, but a raging, clamorous torrent of man's consciousness with all its crises, pangs and torments". If you are willing to grant only the haredi world authenticity then you are selling yourselves short and creating a situation where the 'thinking young person' has only two choices – to accept the haredi derech or reject God.

It appears to me that it is a religious imperative to accept the challenges that he world places in front of us. If we are truly 'thinking people' we will work through these challenges intellectually, in the library, in the Beit Midrash and in our own heads. We will confront them in our day to day lives as teachers, students, businessmen, soldiers, doctors and lawyers.

More importantly, we will confront these challenges as parents. When my fifteen year old asks me how it is that "all" the rabbis think other than we do I don't answer "al-regel achat" (on one foot) – because it just isn't so simple. I see it as my job though to convince him that this way of life is right "mi'lichatchila" (as it ought to be done under any circumstances) and not only "b'dieved" (as it can be done under certain circumstances).



Dear Rabbi,

The problem with this essay is that it just shows an opinion. It’s interesting but it really just misses the issue. It assumes correct exactly what is at issue. If you look at the response to this very article on that site, you’ll see an individual (anonymous) who gives the exact opposite position. Opinions by themselves supported by nothing are not very convincing.

Regards,


After this email the rabbi made several excuses for not continuing. His computer was broken, he was very busy, etc. I might as well give him the benefit of the doubt.

22 comments:

Mis-nagid said...

His replies are almost painfully naive about skepticism, but damn, that was a good read. I'm going to have to read it again.

Anonymous said...

For whatever it's worth, the "velenovsky" and "Velenovksy" mentioned probably referred to Immanuel Velikovsky, of whom Google should provide plenty of pertinent reading material.

Orthoprax said...

Anonymous,

Yeah, thanks for that. At the time I didn't know who he was referring to, but soon afterwards I figured it out.

I'm familiar with Velikovsky's "interesting" ideas.

-Orthoprax

Anonymous said...

Does this rabbi realize you are publishing his emails here on the web? If not, shame on you.

Orthoprax said...

Anonymous,

I don't say who it is. His identity is not given at any point. How is he being hurt?

And even if his name was plastered all over the place, you think he would be embarrassed by his own words?

One doesn't have any rights to the things one says to others. I was being nice by leaving him anonymous.

-Orthoprax

Anonymous said...

I'm more from the Torah-as-midrash school of thought, but I don't see bhow that belief denies the possibility of divine revelation in Torah as a superset of the text (a classic Conservative movement view). I think it's entirely unclear that what our friend Ezra pieced together after the destruction of the temple is a complete document, so we may be missing some interesting parts. That would seem to explain many curious "jumps" in the text as well as offer alternative explanations to the concept of "hooks" for the oral tradition (e.g. kosher slaughter mentioned in written text but details missing and filled in by oral tradition).

I'm quite impressed with the Rabbi's kind and thoughtful responses. I haven't met many Orthodox rabbi's with such a fairly wide view of the diversity of religious thought over the past 2000 years. Even though I too am trying to reconcile my religious faith against my modern knowledge (let's hear it for the enlightenment, yippie), and I also have many questions, I felt good reading the rabbi's words of encouragement. He's much less dogmatic than some I've met.

If you don't mind what I hope is gentle criticism: perhaps you might ease up a bit when exchanging thoughts with someone about these issues. I get the impression there's a lot of anger and intense feelings in your writing, and there's really no reason that the guy on the other end of the email chain should be the target for such things. In fact, it might make it easier for them to write you off rather than continue the exchange of thoughts - which, it seems, is what occurred.

I wish you the best in your quest for "truth". In the meantime, pass the wine, let's enjoy the kiddish and try to be good people - after all, it can't hurt to put effort into tikkun olam, no matter how you view Torah.

Orthoprax said...

Anon,

"I'm more from the Torah-as-midrash school of thought, but I don't see bhow that belief denies the possibility of divine revelation in Torah as a superset of the text"

Well, to put it simply, it doesn't. The problem is that there is no reason to assume it is divine. We have all this evidence that shows that it most probably was not written by God, but by men and not written by Moses 3000 years ago but a variety of sources over a long period of time. We have all this evidence for how and when it was written and God doesn't seem to play any necessary role.

If you believe in a divine influence somewhere in its composition regardless of the evidence then it is nearly impossible to dissuade you. But you also must recognize that your source of faith is just as valid as a Christian's or a Muslim's or a Mormon's. In none of these cases can I prove that God could not have had influence in their compositions, but I must point out that there simply is no reason to assume he did.

"I'm quite impressed with the Rabbi's kind and thoughtful responses."

Yes, I agree. He's very good at stroking the emotional chords. The issue is however not about my emotional connections to Jewish life, I have that in heaps, but about the intellectual justifications for Judaism. That is what is lacking. And that is what he could not provide.

"If you don't mind what I hope is gentle criticism: perhaps you might ease up a bit when exchanging thoughts with someone about these issues. I get the impression there's a lot of anger and intense feelings in your writing, and there's really no reason that the guy on the other end of the email chain should be the target for such things."

Actually, I thought I was being pretty calm about the whole thing. I'm not angry, I'm upset that the bottom of Judaism fell through. I wasn't looking for a feel-good "don't worry about all that" discussion. Simply the facts.

"In fact, it might make it easier for them to write you off rather than continue the exchange of thoughts - which, it seems, is what occurred."

Actually that didn't happen as he still communicates with me, on and off, asking about my "progress."

-Orthoprax

Sarah said...

"The Torah writes that the water was like a wall to their right and left and that with them were pillars of fire and clouds protecting Israel and keeping back the Egyptians. The imagery seems as if it should be taken as miraculous. There’s no indication that this should’ve been taken as a lucky natural event."

But Torah has always been open to interpretation. It was never meant to be word-for-word, and we've never taken it to be that way (like Karaim...). So what difference would it really make if we interpret it as a lucky natural event? After all, I think they were much more into the whole God/supernatural thing back then...if so, it makes sense that they would interpret it as a miracle, and explain it in a grandiose way. We do not have to do the same.

"When I pray I don’t experience any connection with another. I don’t feel like I’m praying “to” anything. I feel like I’m just saying words. And that is equivalent to insincere prayers. Which is one definition of hypocrisy."

Why does prayer have to be "to" something. Anybody who thinks would have to conclude that we don't pray "to" God, b/c even if he does exist, how could we be praying to change the "all-knowing"'s mind? Prayer is so much more satisfying when its for yourself, when you see it as bringing you in tune to what your people have been doing for centuries and for the tradition that you continue to uphold.

Orthoprax said...

Sarah,

"So what difference would it really make if we interpret it as a lucky natural event?"

Because that completely undermines the entire concept of the Torah being the word of God. I went over this with the Rabbi in the post. We can decide which is real and which is metaphor to our heart's content, but at the end of the day, you have lost the value of the text as authoritative by methaphorizing it to death.

What justification do you have to consider any of the supernatural events mentioned in the Torah or Tanach or Talmud as real? Maybe you've just metaphorized God out of the Torah. Now what do you do?

"Why does prayer have to be "to" something. Anybody who thinks would have to conclude that we don't pray "to" God, b/c even if he does exist, how could we be praying to change the "all-knowing"'s mind?"

See, you can say that, but you're just contradicting what prayer has meant to people for millennia. You pray to God to give you strength, to help you out, to save a life, to thank him, to praise him. It is the act of praying which moves God to act, not his knowledge of the situaton.

"Prayer is so much more satisfying when its for yourself, when you see it as bringing you in tune to what your people have been doing for centuries and for the tradition that you continue to uphold."

Perhaps. That's what I feel, in part. But it would really be great if I had that connection with God that people say they get during prayer.

Sarah said...

Well, it would also depend on what you interpret the "word of God" to be. I mean, yeah, you could interpret that literally, but you could also interpret it a thousand different other ways -- isn't that what the commentators have done for centuries? The whole Talmud is based on commentary. Even if a Jewish person believes in God, I don't see that they have to interpret the Torah as literally being divine, and therefore there's no need to interpret ant of the events literally either. I don't think the importance of the text is whether it really happened, but what lessons it teaches us.

As for prayer, I wouldn't feel so bad if I were you. I don't think a lot of people really feel a "connection" to God. Most of it is about catharsis. I mean, if you're praying for things, you're all too likely to be disappointed in the end when things (most often) don't work out. I also think a lot of Rabbanim would agree - yeah, the lay people mostly pray to get things, but a lot of the Rabbis I've spoken to will say that prayer is more to make us act than to make God act, b/c to make God act or change his mind is impossible. People do a lot of stupid things in religion - imposing ridiculous chumras is one of them. praying for things is another.

Orthoprax said...

Sarah,

The many commentators of the Torah have interpreted many lines differently. But no respected commentary by the Orthodox considered supernatural events in the Torah as just mythological. Because to deny that, as I said, undermines Orthodoxy itself.

"Even if a Jewish person believes in God, I don't see that they have to interpret the Torah as literally being divine, and therefore there's no need to interpret ant of the events literally either. I don't think the importance of the text is whether it really happened, but what lessons it teaches us."

Whoa! So it doesn't matter if the revelation at Sinai ever happened? What metaphysical basis is there for Halacha then?

"I don't think a lot of people really feel a "connection" to God."

Me neither, but I think they do.

"but a lot of the Rabbis I've spoken to will say that prayer is more to make us act than to make God act"

Could be, but I really don't think that's how most people see it. But in any case, even if the purpose of prayer is supposed to be one thing or the other, whatever the individual believes they probably think they're praying to something real.

Sarah said...

"So it doesn't matter if the revelation at Sinai ever happened? What metaphysical basis is there for Halacha then?"

I don't think events need to be interpreted literally. We like to think that Halacha is based on Torah sheBichtav, but in reality, most of it isn't. The whole asmachta thing proves it -- halacha often hangs on something Torah says; it doesn't really need to be found there. Whether or not revelation at Sinai actually happened really makes no difference in my oh so humble opinion as long as the system of Halacha is accepted. In essence, I see no need to categorize Torah as min hashamayim. As for Halacha, that one's harder. I'd like to think that some aspect of it is divine, even if it has been perverted throughout the years. Maybe its just wishful thinking. Either way, I've accepted Halacha as an important part of Jewish life regardless of its divinity.


"But in any case, even if the purpose of prayer is supposed to be one thing or the other, whatever the individual believes they probably think they're praying to something real.

But your problem seemed to be that you felt like you were "faking it." So yeah, people may be praying for the wrong reasons, but just because you aren't doesn't mean that you're faking it. It means you understand more than they do. I just don't see what could be wrong with that when they're the ones who completely misread what prayer is supposed to be.

Sarah said...

"So it doesn't matter if the revelation at Sinai ever happened? What metaphysical basis is there for Halacha then?"

I don't think events need to be interpreted literally. We like to think that Halacha is based on Torah sheBichtav, but in reality, most of it isn't. The whole asmachta thing proves it -- halacha often hangs on something Torah says; it doesn't really need to be found there. Whether or not revelation at Sinai actually happened really makes no difference in my oh so humble opinion as long as the system of Halacha is accepted. In essence, I see no need to categorize Torah as min hashamayim. As for Halacha, that one's harder. I'd like to think that some aspect of it is divine, even if it has been perverted throughout the years. Maybe its just wishful thinking. Either way, I've accepted Halacha as an important part of Jewish life regardless of its divinity.


"But in any case, even if the purpose of prayer is supposed to be one thing or the other, whatever the individual believes they probably think they're praying to something real.

But your problem seemed to be that you felt like you were "faking it." So yeah, people may be praying for the wrong reasons, but just because you aren't doesn't mean that you're faking it. It means you understand more than they do. I just don't see what could be wrong with that when they're the ones who completely misread what prayer is supposed to be.

Sarah said...

"So it doesn't matter if the revelation at Sinai ever happened? What metaphysical basis is there for Halacha then?"

I don't think events need to be interpreted literally. We like to think that Halacha is based on Torah sheBichtav, but in reality, most of it isn't. The whole asmachta thing proves it -- halacha often hangs on something Torah says; it doesn't really need to be found there. Whether or not revelation at Sinai actually happened really makes no difference in my oh so humble opinion as long as the system of Halacha is accepted. In essence, I see no need to categorize Torah as min hashamayim. As for Halacha, that one's harder. I'd like to think that some aspect of it is divine, even if it has been perverted throughout the years. Maybe its just wishful thinking. Either way, I've accepted Halacha as an important part of Jewish life regardless of its divinity.


"But in any case, even if the purpose of prayer is supposed to be one thing or the other, whatever the individual believes they probably think they're praying to something real.

But your problem seemed to be that you felt like you were "faking it." So yeah, people may be praying for the wrong reasons, but just because you aren't doesn't mean that you're faking it. It means you understand more than they do. I just don't see what could be wrong with that when they're the ones who completely misread what prayer is supposed to be.

Sarah said...

"So it doesn't matter if the revelation at Sinai ever happened? What metaphysical basis is there for Halacha then?"

I don't think events need to be interpreted literally. We like to think that Halacha is based on Torah sheBichtav, but in reality, most of it isn't. The whole asmachta thing proves it -- halacha often hangs on something Torah says; it doesn't really need to be found there. Whether or not revelation at Sinai actually happened really makes no difference in my oh so humble opinion as long as the system of Halacha is accepted. In essence, I see no need to categorize Torah as min hashamayim. As for Halacha, that one's harder. I'd like to think that some aspect of it is divine, even if it has been perverted throughout the years. Maybe its just wishful thinking. Either way, I've accepted Halacha as an important part of Jewish life regardless of its divinity.


"But in any case, even if the purpose of prayer is supposed to be one thing or the other, whatever the individual believes they probably think they're praying to something real.

But your problem seemed to be that you felt like you were "faking it." So yeah, people may be praying for the wrong reasons, but just because you aren't doesn't mean that you're faking it. It means you understand more than they do. I just don't see what could be wrong with that when they're the ones who completely misread what prayer is supposed to be.

Orthoprax said...

Sarah,

"Whether or not revelation at Sinai actually happened really makes no difference in my oh so humble opinion as long as the system of Halacha is accepted."

Um...so what is it you do believe? Have you read Yeshayahu Leibowitz?

"Either way, I've accepted Halacha as an important part of Jewish life regardless of its divinity."

Be that as it may, it certainly seems like you have skipped far off the Orthodox train.

"I just don't see what could be wrong with that when they're the ones who completely misread what prayer is supposed to be."

Because I really don't buy the "prayer is for yourself" idea. Some of the most logical theologians attempt to reform what they believe and what they do with what makes sense in their world view. But the fact of the matter is that prayer has meant an appeal to the power(s) that be since time immemorial.

Maybe that doesn't make sense within the construct of an omnipotent God, but logic and reason were not usually powerful forces within religious thought. Such thought may make you feel better and it may make more sense within your larger views (though I'm not sure what they may be) but I just see it as contrived reasoning developed to make thinkers feel better.

I don't think the masses are confused about what prayer is "supposd to be." I think partial skeptics are trying to change the meaning of the word.

Sarah said...

I believe that Halacha is of extreme importance if the Jewish nation is to survive. The problem I see with this is where Halacha comes from and how we develop it. Like I said, I'd like to think that at least some part of Halacha is divine, but in my everyday life, it really doesn't change much for me. I will admit that this may be my own subconscious unwillingness to confront a difficult issue, but at this point, I honestly have no problem accepting Halacha even if it is not divine. Whether or not I've "skipped off the Orthodox train" depends on how you difine Orthodoxy. We already have a bazillion definitions, but I would still consider myself, as a Halachic Jew, Orthodox. (Truth be told, I'm a bit more happy with the theoretical idea of RW Conservatism, but that's a whole other story.)

I have read a lot of Leibowitz - I'm a pretty big fan. He actually says my whole prayer thing at one point if I'm not mistaken. Why do you ask?

"Some of the most logical theologians attempt to reform what they believe and what they do with what makes sense in their world view. But the fact of the matter is that prayer has meant an appeal to the power(s) that be since time immemorial."

I don't see this reform as a problem, even within Judaism. Before the Rambam, there was a huge Jewish belief in anthropomophism and he trounced all over it. Now, our widespread belief is that God has no form. It wasn't always this way. It was the reform of a logical theologian. Why do you feel the need to adopt this strict view of prayer when there is an alternate that makes so much more sense. Were it to become the widespread belief, would you feel any better about it?

Orthoprax said...

Sarah,

"We already have a bazillion definitions, but I would still consider myself, as a Halachic Jew, Orthodox."

I could call myself a Halachic Jew too. But "orthodox" is defined by what you believe. It's believing in the traditional beliefs. I don't think you can claim that about yourself under that understanding.

I've recognized the difference here between practice and beliefs, that's why my pseudonym is orthoprax.

"I have read a lot of Leibowitz - I'm a pretty big fan."

I'm not surprised. I asked because a lot of what you have been saying was reminiscent of what I've read of Leibowitz.

"Why do you feel the need to adopt this strict view of prayer when there is an alternate that makes so much more sense."

Because it's not genuine Judaism. I'm a bit of a purist like that. Traditional Jewish belief is one thing. It has its many variations but there are limits to be found. One can say they either believe it or not.

But to change the very meanings of words to make the names align with what you believe is cheating, in my view.

Maybe "God" is just the universe itself. Ok, one can say that and one can believe that. But you cannot call that traditional Judaism.

"Were it to become the widespread belief, would you feel any better about it?"

Popularity has no bearing on my feelings toward non-traditional beliefs. Lots of Jews believe in a Hell but really they're inadvertently being influenced by Christian mythology.

Maybe after something has been slowly moved into Judaism and widely accepted after long periods of time, I'd see things differently. For example, even though Messianic belief is ultimately non-traditional if you go back far enough, it has been part of Judaism for so long that it has become unremovable.

Sarah said...

So I just noticed that somehow that thing got posted 4 times or so - sorry if that was my unintentional doing...

"I could call myself a Halachic Jew too. But "orthodox" is defined by what you believe. It's believing in the traditional beliefs. I don't think you can claim that about yourself under that understanding."

Of course people tend to see Orthodoxy in terms of belief (although I would argue that much more of it is focused on Halacha - the distinctions between the different groups tend to focus on how much of the law its adherants will follow/change.), but there are so many different beliefs even within Orthodoxy that the paramount distinction must be in terms of Halacha. After all, the Chassidim and Misnagdim had vastly different beliefs, but would both be considered Orthodox. Sure, what you practice may not be traditional judaism, and you may have a unique term, but its still a unique term which I think would still fall within the parameters of Orthodox Judaism. My primary example would be Leibowitz in fact: they called him a "heretic who followed the mitzvot." I'd still consider him Orthodox even if his beliefs were different or "heretical."

As for the prayer thing, I don't think it really leaves the box of traditional Judaism. Leibowitz actually makes this argument, and brings relevant sources and all. Making the distinction between what the people do (aka Jews) and what the ideal is (aka Judaism) is of paramount importance. Yeah, most people like to think that prayer is praying "to" God and asking for things, but as Leibowitz says, that's a form of therapy, not religion. I don't see that this interpretation of prayer goes against any traditional Judaism, just against traditional Jews.

As for ascribing new meanings being cheating, its sort of been done for ages already. Every time there's a new idea or definition, the writer of that idea is called a heretic, and put into cherem. And then people come around, see the logic, begin to consider, and the ideas start to enter the mainstream. One of my rebbeim used to tell me that every great was put into cherem at one point, and that it was probably a good sign. Meaning, Judaism is defined by how we choose to define it. If an idea has some real validity, I don't really see a reason for it not to find a place within Judaism.

Orthoprax said...

Sarah,

"So I just noticed that somehow that thing got posted 4 times or so - sorry if that was my unintentional doing..."

Eh, no worries. I've done worse. Blogspot isn't the greatest program.

"Of course people tend to see Orthodoxy in terms of belief"

That's what the word means. If people are going to converse successfully, we should all try to keep to common definitions. It get's really confusing when people constantly redefine things. "Homophobia" is "fear of sameness."

"After all, the Chassidim and Misnagdim had vastly different beliefs, but would both be considered Orthodox."

That's because they still have basic beliefs in common. Messianic Jews are also often followers of Halachah, and yet they are rejected in terms of what they believe. They've gone outside the minimum requirements for Orthodoxy.

"I'd still consider him Orthodox even if his beliefs were different or "heretical.""

As a rule, Judaism tends to be much more concerned about following traditional practices than dogmatic hashkafah. That's how you can get away with saying something like that which, on the face of it, makes no sense.

"Meaning, Judaism is defined by how we choose to define it. If an idea has some real validity, I don't really see a reason for it not to find a place within Judaism."

Hey, I agree. Judaism should serve the people, not the other way around. And since I don't actually think that Judaism has a transcendent source, the direction it goes and what defines it is made by the people of the time.

My issue is with changing things all around with all sorts of new ideas and still calling it Orthodox. Which, by definition, it can't be.

Lisa said...

Im kol hakavod to the rabbi you debated, he didn't do such a hot job. I could do better, and I'm not hobbled by anonymity. Consider the gauntlet flung, if you're interested. E-mail or blog postings. It makes no never mind to me.

Orthoprax said...

Lisa,

Go for it. My issues are all there on this post to see. Where he answered poorly you can fill in your own answers if you're inclined.

I'll be here.