Monday, August 29, 2005

Why Be Moral?

See here.

A short rundown of many popular reasons and a number of explanations for why they fail or are incomplete. This is a major concern for both theists and atheists, the theists just haven't realized it yet. Metaethics is hard.

My Story

"...I would contend that the evidence is not weak enough for you to have given it all up. The reason you did is most likely that you never perceived value in the religion in the first place, and hence got mired into skepticism to an irrational degree."

Simply not true. I could tell you my story. I was very religious as a child. I was the little kid who at 10 wanted to fast Tisha B'av and Yom Kippur - and who did it the full day. I was the one in camp when all the other kids were lazying in bed, I would go off to chinuch because I enjoyed it.

I was always a very curious child and would ask my parents all sorts of questions, but as time went on I got less and less satisfying answers. I went delving into the fundamentals of Judaism because, besides for my own curiosity, I wanted to be able to give my kids the best and fullest answers I could for anything they would ask me.

So I began my studies without fear that Judaism had anything to lose. Orthodoxy was obviously right so what had I to fear from seeing things from different sides? But as I studied the more it all fell apart in my hands. I kept looking for rational after rationale to keep it up but it just wasn't working out.

So one night, as I lay in bed, I thought, "Hey, wait, what if God isn't real, the Torah is man-made, and so on" that explains all the problems I've been finding in Judaism. All of them are explained thus.

I didn't really take that to heart for awhile though, I kept looking for ways to prove Judaism's validity, I saw the consequences and refused to have them, I spoke to dozens of religious people and rabbis but none of them had the goods. They all supplied the same tired arguments that I knew were useless.

So I was forced to come to the conclusions I've come to. I didn't want them, I didn't ask for them, but they came just the same.

And even now I don't want to walk away from Judaism. I can't. I'd like to reform it so that it isn't based on fairy tales. I'm proud to be a Jew, but not proud of much of what Orthodox Judaism believes and says. You don't know the endless heartache I go through because something I love is so wrong.

Don't put me in a box.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Odium Theologicum

"The most savage controversies are those about matters as to which there is no good evidence either way. Persecution is used in theology, not in arithmetic, because in arithmetic there is knowledge, but in theology there is only opinion." - Bertrand Russell

Are Values Irrational?

I've been thinking about morality and ethics lately and basically what I've found is that people will only act by a certain moral code if they find value to whatever the morals apply to.

If you value human life, then you will act to preserve it. If you value justice, you will pursue it. If you value liberty, you will fight for it.

But these fundamental values, are they rationally determined or not? How is it rational to value anything?

If you value your religious beliefs, you will act to preserve them. If you value money, you will do what you can to accrue wealth. If you value dominance, you will push others into submission. If you value power, you will fight to get it.

Does it all ultimately come down to people valuing what is good for them? And what if a person doesn't value himself? Or if they take one value out of proportion to others?

If they value amusement over all else, they will fall into a state of unbridled hedonism. If power or money over all else, it follows that the person may find it reasonable to murder those who threaten it.

Are values rational? If not, then how can one judge another's set of values? The power-hungry murderer may threaten our values, but just the same we threaten his. Who is right?

Monday, August 22, 2005

In Liberty We Trust

A common argument one hears about the quality of the United State's government and God is that the "In God We Trust" motto found on US currency only started being printed under the Eisenhower administration to make a statement against the godless communist atheists of the USSR during the cold war in the 50s.

While that does have a bit of truth in it, it was only first printed on paper money in 1957 and it has only been the national motto since 1956, but the fact is that the phrase "In God We Trust" has been used in US coins since 1864 due to issues raised by the Civil War and worries that future generations might think the US a heathen nation if she were to be destroyed and all that was left for future archeologists to discover was the godless coinage. See here.

And even if we were to ignore the blatant "In God We Trust" motto, why should we ignore the "Annuit Cœptis," latin for "He [God] has approved our beginnings" which is on reverse of The Great Seal of the United States, which has been on the one dollar bill since 1935 and which has been used as the seal of the United States since 1782. Not to mention the all seeing eye of Providence which appears above the unfinished pyramid right below that phrase.

The truth of the matter is that the 1950s was not a break in America's character at all, but actually a continuation of God being a part of the national character since basically its inception. There are those atheists who argue that such national expressions of God are actually religious declarations of religion and are therefore unconstitutional, but I think they'll have a hell of a difficult time proving that given the significant historical connection between the United States and God. Though, of course, no sign of what kind of God it is, but still it would appear that some kinds of theistic notions are implied.

Will the trusting in God by the government ever be deemed unconstitutional? Maybe. But why bother? It would be far better to secularize the idea and make the God of Providence and the one in whom "we trust" into the same sort of deity as the Goddess of Liberty found currently en large in the New York Harbor. Why reject what we can always incorporate?

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Zoroastrianism and Judaism

"Zoroastrianism teaches many of the concepts found in the majorAbrahamic faiths, such as Heaven, Hell, Day of judgement, the concept of Satan, the prophecy and the coming of the Messiah and the extensive teaching of Angels and Evil spirits. According to the Gathas humans are free and responsible beings. Predestination is rejected in Zoroastrian teaching. Humans bear responsibility for all situations they are in and in the way they act to one another. Nothing in the Heavens and Earth has the power to force a being to do evil. Reward, punishment, happiness and grief all depend on how the individual lives his life. Good befalls the people that do righteous deeds. Those that do Evil have themselves to blame for their evil-doing. Humans possess a great power. They can improve their way of living and the living conditions of others. This power is called Charitas. After death, the person must walk through the Path to Judgement or Chinvat Peretum to bear responsibility for his actions when he was alive."

"Whether Zoroastrianism is older than Judaism is uncertain. Nevertheless, it has had an undeniable impact upon Western religious belief. Examples include a tangible, active force for evil (Angra Mainyu, or Satan); a judgment of souls after death; and afterlives in heaven and hell. None of these ideas are present in original Judaism. It is possible that the Jews heard them at the end of the Babylonian Exile, under the Persian emperor Cyrus (Zaehner, 20-21). Also, according to Nesta Ramazani, "Islamic institutions such as waqf (religious endowments) and madreseh (a theological school attached to a mosque) have their roots in Zoroastrian traditions" (Ramazani, 21)."

The influence of Zoroastrianism on the eschatological aspect of Judaism is also noticeable in the post-exilic scriptures. In the early Hebrew writing joy in the hereafter was at best vaguely expressed. For the first time in IInd Isaiah one sees expressions as follows:

"Your dead ones will live.. they will rise up. Awake and cry out joyfully....The earth will bring those long dead to birth again" (verse 26.19).

These expressions are clear overtones of the Zoroastrian revelations in this area. As concluded by Prof. Boyce, ".. it is difficult not to concede to Zoroastrianism both priority and influence; the more especially since elements cf Zoroaster's teaching can be traced far back in the ancient Indo-Iranian religious traditions, whereas those of Jewish apocalyptic first appear after the time of contact with the Persian faith".

Food for thought. Read up.

Friday, August 19, 2005

Latke Says...

The only thing that separates us from the animals is superstition and mindless rituals. --Latke (Andy Kaufman)

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Got God on the Tongue

There are so many phrases in our common language that involve God in them. The most common is probably the "God bless you" so often quoted after a person violently expires air from the nose and mouth. But there are other ones like before a great voyage or adventure people will say "Godspeed!" to the voyagers.

These phrases are very common. Oh my God, Goddamn, thank God, only God knows, God-awful, godforsaken, godsend, God's gift, God forbid, act of God. This is hardly an exhaustive list but they are what come to mind.

Anyway, I mention them to discuss the issue of how many atheists find such phrases somewhat offensive and refuse to use them. I have to admit that at first I had that reaction myself, but what's the real harm in simply using the word God? Those phrases don't actually mean anything about God, but mean other things altogether. When people say "thank God," they aren't actually thanking God, they are saying that they feel relieved. When they say "God forbid" they aren't actually invoking God to not allow something, they are expressing their distaste for some suggestion.

We have idioms like this of all sorts that are used and wherein the literal meaning is not believed in by the people who use them. When a person wakes up on the wrong side of the bed are you suggesting that malevolent spirits which dwell on the left side of the bed bothering the person? Does crossing your fingers mean that you think making the sign of the cross will protect you? When you are giving the third degree are you giving credence to the medieval natural philosophy involving the four elementary quality of bodies? When one kills in cold blood, are they acknowledging the validity of a relic of medical theory where excitement was thought to actually heat the blood. When you're unsure and in limbo, do you see yourself as literally being in purgatory?

Given all these examples, why then do atheists get so bent out of shape with the idioms regarding God? Sure, the literal object of the idiom may currently be taken seriously by some people, but that's no reason to care or be offended by their usage. The word God is not offensive, nor is the idea of a superior being even a threat to skepticism, nor does saying them imply any belief in the literal meaning of the phrase. So for God's sake, stop being so sensitive.

Unscientific Design

The Intelligent Design movement is not just an effort that raises issues about the theory of evolution. Anyone can do that. The staunchest evolutionists do it and so do the only intellectually interested.

ID pretends to be a scientific theory through selective critiques of professional scientific papers. Raising questions is good, evolution is no sacred cow, but then they jump ahead of the gun and call evolution's weaknesses their strengths. Whatever evolution cannot answer, they can.

That's convincing for those unfamiliar with science, but ID has no positive evidence of its own. It depends on our ignorance of the minutiae of evolution to bolster its claims. But even if the theory of evolution fell tomorrow, that still would not mean that ID was right or supported by the evidence.

ID is literally a deus ex machina explanation.

It is wrong to take any scientific theory as dogma. All theories are always only as far as we know and as far as the evidence supports it. Skepticism (right on MN) is built in.

Suppose that there were real merits behind the Dembski-style questions of probability (under the current understanding there isn't, but for the sake of argument...) then that would mean there is something about the theory that we haven't got right.

Most of the theory is correct through other evidence, but it would seem that for the theorized mechanism we're missing some information.

So, an intelligence coming in at choice moments to start up evolution is _one_ answer, but there could be any number of others. A lack of explanation for something in evolution does not mean it is evidence for Intelligent Design.

All it means is that we have an unanswered question for the current theory.

The current reigning cosmological theory, the Big Bang, has a number of unanswered questions: where is the missing mass? Why was the universe bumpy? Why was there more matter than antimatter? And so on.

But all these questions are evidence for is that they are questions for the theory. They don't imply any other theory in themselves. Now, you could also answer with a Godidit for those questions, but that's not science.

See Richard Dawkins say it in his own words. Hat tip Jewish Atheist.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

The Dishonorable Dov Hikind

Dov Hikind, our very own local representative in the New York State Assembly, apparently has no respect for Israeli law. He, along with several thousand anti-disengagement protestors, has snuck into Gaza after the Israeli government had cordoned it off as closed to non-residents. See here.

This isn't really surprising behavior given his regular activity of misusing public funding (yeah, our money) to organize (and sometimes pay for) trips to Israel - which he has gone jet-setting back and forth every other month or so this year so far. Isn't it great to see him spending his time going all over the world and representing New York State's interests in foreign countries and not, oh I don't know, spending his time in Albany and actually doing his job.

But what's also great to see is Hikind using again public funds for his staff to work on events in foreign politics for which he really should just not be sticking his public nose into. But that's classic Hikind. Big mouth, media whore, and not really doing much for his constituents in Brooklyn. What's the last thing he's done? Oh, yeah, getting the MetroCard machines to understand Yiddish. Wow.

Update: The Jerusalem Post article that I linked to above had originally been titled "Dov Hikind: International Scofflaw" but it seems that the title was too apt for the tastes of the JP and now the title reads a more mellow "NY assemblyman sneaks into Gaza." Very lame JP.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Stripping Gaza

My response to Hugh Fitzgerald (Jihad Watch Board Vice President) on the Gaza Withdrawal. His initial article can be found: here.

"(The Mandate's Preamble states that the Mandatory authority, Great Britain, had to "encourage close Jewish settlement on the land.")"

Yes, on the land. But not specifically anywhere and not specifically in Gaza. And if you're going to quote the Leage, I can show you the UN and how Gaza isn't part of Israel in the 1947 partition plan.

"And of course, if that were not enough, all the rules of warfare and postwar settlement -- the same rules that entitled Italy to keep the Algo Adige (quondam Sudtirol, with a population that was 97% ethnic German) after World War I, or allowed Poland to keep part of what was East Prussia, or Russia to keep Koenigsburg (now Kaliningrad), or the French to firmly incorporate, once and for all, Alsace-Lorraine, or for that matter have allowed the United States to become what it has become, including California and the rest -- these rules do not suddenly cease to apply when it comes to Israel's victory in the Six-Day War."

Fine, but none of those place also kept the land unannexed and militarily occupied indefinitely. Leaving the people living there as non-citizens in some limbo non-state is wrong. Had Israel had the ability to annex the land and incorporate the Palestinians into their country, today's situation would not exist. The fact that Israel cannot do this is right up there among the big problems.

"As for the argument about "demography," in what way does the destruction of what can be considered akin to the Roman "marches" ( i.e., the outlying areas that are part military encampment, and part civilian population, designed to protect from the hordes without) neutralize the ability of Arabs to overbreed, for deliberately political reasons, in order to swamp the Israelis?"

It cuts Gaza out of the equation. Were Israel to stay in Gaza and directly lord over the Palestinians there, it is as if Israel is undemocratically controlling people who had no say in their government. De facto second citizenship. Once Gaza is on its own and Israel isn't involved in it, the number of Palestinians in Gaza is no longer relevant in any future demographic struggle. Israel is giving up the land and giving up having to account for over a million Palestinians which it might need to naturalize if she were to annex the land.

The Israelis of Gaza have no future there. There is no foreseeable way that Israel could possibly annex that land. Can you think of one? Kill all the Palestinians or maybe force them all to leave? Right. Or Israel can take the land, but not give the Palestinians the vote making them de jure second class citizens. Or Israel can indeed make them citizens, but thus effectively destroying the state as a Jewish majority democracy. You either destroy the soul of Israel by making her do terrible acts (which I cannot conscience, how about you?) or remove Israel as effectively Jewish - thus making her pointless.

I understand the safety concerns and I agree they may be valid, but the current status quo is untenable and doomed to failure. What then is the reason to keep Israelis there? As some holding pawn to trade in some future negotiations? It's not worth the costs for such measly a pawn. The Palestinians know just as well as the Israelis that Israel cannot keep that land. And the costs are high! High in military costs to guard each of those villages and high in human costs because people die there.

Yes, look at what we are losing in pulling out and be sad for that, but look ahead for a bit and critically think about what it is exactly that we would gain by staying. The Israeli disengagement is inevitable. It is far better to do it sooner than later and far better to do it on our terms than on someone else's.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

New Tisha B'av Film

I had an idea for a film. Imagine a quality modern motion picture was made depicting the Great Jewish Revolt against Rome, or even one showing the Babylonian invasion. I'm not talking about one of those crappy movies with the bad music and sound, but a good movie on par with the cinematography of something like Troy.

They could focus on either famous personalities, or a common family, or maybe something else. But it would have to a down to earth, realistic with all the facts of the time accurate by employing the skills of scholars and historians. It could be done with such skill and emotional impact that it could be the next prize movie for Tisha B'av rivaling the long time favorite of Schindler's List.

Do you think Hollywood would go for it? I think they could market it well with all the interest shown in Biblical stories as proven by Mel Gibson.

They would be epic battle movies, which always draw viewers, but it would have a realistic sad emotional ending that so few movies are willing to go to nowadays. No, things don't always turn out alright.

I would definitely see it.

Friday, August 12, 2005

A Well Warranted Affliction

Why would a non-believer in Judaism mourn the fall of the Temple? It was merely the destruction of a building which's main purpose was to kill animals and serve the people's collective imagination.

While that is strictly true, I don't look at the 9th of Av or the days leading up to it as simply a time which commemorates the simple physical destruction of this one building, but I look to the wider scope of what went on and how the events affected Jewish history. The invasion of the Babylonians stole the last vestiges of independence from Judea, forced thousands of Jews into exile, and mercilessly killed thousands of Jews and looted the nation. A terrible tragedy worthy of remembrance even without the religious reasons.

The time of the destruction of the Second Temple was arguably worse. While the Jews didn't have independence at the time, so they couldn't lose it, the crushing Roman offensive killed hundreds of thousands of Jews, razed whole cities like Jerusalem, and removed Jews as a real political authority in the land until 1948. And not only that, but the Jewish Zealots were waging a civil war on the moderates and went about killing the Jewish leaders who were not as extreme as they were. The Zealots had burned the food stockpiled in Jerusalem in preparation for the Roman siege with the view that such resources were a security that would enable people to duck the fight. The Zealots intentionally starved the denizens of Jerusalem to force them to revolt against the Romans.

The Rabbis have said it was baseless hatred among Jews that caused the churban. In part, I would say. Although the Romans would have won even without the Zealots' war, a lot of death and suffering could have been avoided had they refrained.

We don't need to mourn the loss of a building or the supposed metaphysical disfavor the Jewish people have fallen under. There were real awful tragedies that occurred. Besides for the Holocaust, these events were the worst calamities ever to afflict the Jewish people.

So I don't listen to music, I don't shower with warm water, I don't eat meat or drink wine, I don't cut my hair or shave my beard, I keep a more somber attitude than I would usually because these terrible events were awful in their own rights without the religious projections added onto them. I mourn, not for the Temple, but for my ancestors' loss of life, liberty, and property. I commemorate what happened because they need to be and ought to be.

Too many Jews who will fast this coming Sunday will do it for a microcosm of the actual events. Even if you are religious, the Temple being destroyed is a minor event in the huge horror of what transpired. Widen your focus and you will find real reason to lament.

An Atheist's Absence

I was looking ahead on my calendar recently, seeing how the next few months will fall out. And I was sad to see that due to Succos I will have to be absent from four days of school in the middle of October. How's that for a pain?

And a couple of those days aren't just regular classes, but are days when my biochemistry labs are scheduled. I'm missing a four hour lab period, which is only given once a week, two weeks in a row. How I'm supposed to make that up, I have no idea. I'm sure I'll work out something, but really it's a big annoyance.

Fortunately however, Title I, Article 5, Section 224-a of the New York State Education Law provides that:

2. Any student in an institution of higher education who is unable, because of his or her religious beliefs, to attend classes on a particular day or days shall, because of such absence on the particular day or days, be excused from any examination or any study or work requirements.

3. It shall be the responsibility of the faculty and the administrative officials of each institution of higher education to make available to each student who is absent from school, because of his or her religious beliefs, an equivalent opportunity to make up any examinations, study or work requirements which he or she may have missed because of such absence on any particular day or days. No fees of any kind shall be charged by the institution for making available to the said student such equivalent opportunity.

So my professors are legally bound not to hold my absenteeism against me. Doesn't mean they won't, but I've had a good track record so far in past times that I'd have to miss class. But what sticks in my craw and makes me uncomfortable about the whole thing is that the law clearly indicates that it applies only when the student is absent "because of his or her religious beliefs."

I'm not going to be absent because of my beliefs per se, but because of reasons dealing with my family, my local society and the life I choose to live. So technically am I protected under this law? And suppose if on the unlikely situation that my professor does not honor it, can I honestly appeal? Imagine if it would go to court and I'm sitting on the stand being grilled about my religious beliefs.

I'm not really worried on a practical level, but I wonder about what I am agreeing to through implicitly invoking this law.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Without Theism

In one of the recent comments section of Godol Hador's blog, he is bewildered over the concept of the "weak atheist" and does not understand the qualitative difference that it has from the term "agnostic."

Weak atheism is the idea that one does not know if there isn't a god but that one doesn't reject the idea either. The weak atheist is simply unpersuaded by theistic arguments. The weak atheist can also go by the term "agnostic atheist" which means basically the same thing.

This idea is different from simple agnosticism in that an agnostic is just making a statement of knowledge, not belief. An agnostic, while saying that they don't know (or cannot know), may also believe in gods or not.

In common use, the term agnostic has taken the "middle ground" between belief in gods vs rejection of that belief. But, in truth, no such middle ground exists. Look at the word "atheism." 'A' means 'without,' 'theism' means 'belief in an intervening deity or deities.'

One is either of a belief in theism or without it. You can waver back and forth between the two, but you cannot both hold a belief and not hold that belief at the same time.

Suppose someone offers you ice cream, you can either accept the offer, reject it, or stop and think about it. If you accept it then you have ice cream (i.e. theism). If you reject it then you are without ice cream (i.e. atheism). If you stop to think about whether you want ice cream or not, you are still without ice cream (i.e. _still_ atheism). The guy isn't going to give you your scoops unless you say yes. One cannot somehow have ice cream and not have it at the same time. Either you accepted the offer, or you did not. Not accepting is not the same as rejecting, but it still puts you in the same category of those without ice cream.

The atheist doesn't need to explicitly reject the idea of god, the atheist is still an atheist if he just doesn't accept the idea.

Sunday, August 07, 2005

Punishing Gods

Numbers 33:4 - "And the Egyptians were burying those among them whom God has struck, every firstborn; and on their gods God had inflicted punishments."

God needs to punish what are non-existant? More evidence of the henotheistic writer; they exist, but Hashem is the strongest.

Nishtaneh Haguf

Not just among religion do we find orthodoxies afraid of truth...

Following the Hippocratic method of learning through experience, a great mind arose in the second century CE by the name of Galen. While the school of Hippocrates focused on examining and keeping track the progress of disease and became highly skilled in diagnosis, Galen took medicine into the mostly previously unknown area of internal anatomy. Through his experience in dissection and vivisection of many animals (dissecting the human body being considered desecration in those times) he became a forefront expert of animal anatomy of his time and proved a great many things. Among them being that the arteries held blood, the kidneys produce urine, the diaphragm and thoracic muscles controlled inspiration, and that the brain controlled the body.

Galen’s work had been the medical orthodoxy for 1400 years. His work was so expansive (Galen was very prolific with about 400 books to his name, quite a lot to have from any time, not to mention from antiquity) and he wrote in such an assertive absolute style that it would take a person of great personal self-confidence to challenge him, especially as his authoritative stature only grew as the centuries passed. And although Galen himself touted reliance on people’s own senses and not on authorities, his work was considered the peak of medical knowledge and it was thought that further investigation was pointless since everything was already known. For centuries, medical professors would intonate Galen’s work from atop an elevated platform, while a semi-educated barber-surgeon would dissect a dead body down below for the sole purpose of showing students Galen’s correctness.

However, Galen was also very limited through his lack of access to actual human remains and many of his observations, though he claimed them accurate for human anatomy, were simply wrong. It was not until the 16th century that Andreas Vesalius, a Belgian, showed Galen’s many errors. Through his own iconoclastic investigative dissections of actual human remains, he found that Galen’s assertion of there being holes in the septum of the heart which made it possible for the blood to pass around the body (this was far before circulation of the blood was discovered in the 17th century by William Harvey) was completely wrong; there were no such holes. The rete mirable, a network of blood vessels in the neck, which Galen said was there to purify the blood was actually not even part of human anatomy, but is found in other animals, like sheep. All in all, over two hundred errors on Galen’s part were found by Vesalius and recorded in his revolutionary text: "De Humani Corporis Fabrica Libri Septem."

But Vesalius’ discoveries were not accepted so gracefully by all. His former friend and teacher, Jacobus Sylvius was so scornful of Vesalius’ assertions that he held nothing back in his malicious rhetoric against Vesalius. He wrote in his work that it was produced to expose "the error-ridden filth" of "that insolent and ignorant slanderer who has treasonably attacked his teachers with violent mendacity." Most of the medical authorities at the time were unwilling to accept Vesalius’ discoveries and remained loyal and faithful Galenists their whole lives. Medical dogma for nearly 1500 years is hard to lose so quickly.

The reason for the title of this post though is that Sylvius in one of his more imaginative apologetic responses was that Galen wasn’t wrong, but that human anatomy had changed since his time. Sound familiar?

Friday, August 05, 2005


"Wandering in a vast forest at night, I have only a faint light to guide me. A stranger appears and says to me: 'My friend, you should blow out your candle in order to find your way more clearly.' This stranger is a theologian."

Denis Diderot

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Raising the Kids Skeptish

This is a good time to step in something that I've been thinking about for awhile. Is it such a bad thing to raise your children to be believers in Judaism, without all the "Voodoo Judaism" as my father calls it. You know what I'm talking about...

You don't know what kind of mind your child is going to have until many years after the basic blocks of information have already been set in his/her mind. Are they going to be a critical thinker or not? Maybe you can guide them to be thinkers, but that's difficult if they're not so inclined and you have no guarantee no matter what the circumstances are.

Given that, if your child is not going to examine things meticulously as you do, maybe he just doesn't care about the details, does it matter what background story you paint for his life to ride in? Ok, so you tell him the idea of God is a crock and so on. He never examines that idea, he's an atheist just because you told him you were. Is that unexamined story any more valuable than the unexamined traditional Jewish story?

Skepticism is a _way_ of thinking, not a specific set of things that a person must think.

If you engender skeptical thought in your child, it won't matter what meta-story you tell them because they will examine it themselves on their own accord. If they're not going to be skeptical, I think I'd rather have a faithful Jew as a child than a faithful atheist.

So I propose that it is best to do both. Give your child the full Jewish education so they understand, or have the basic rudimentary knowledge to understand, their people's religious contribution to the world. But also encourage their mind to think about _why_ they believe what they believe and not so much the _what_ of their beliefs.

Offer the Jewish answers to the natural philosophical questions, but don't claim that they are the only answers.

Maybe they will accept Judaism as adults, maybe not, but at least you've given them a real self-determining choice.

And then there's always the possibility they'll be skeptics with a warm fondness for Judaism just like you.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Religion and Politics

While I was at work one day the story about the new anti-terrorist strategy of searching MTA users in New York City came up. So this acquaintance of mine says that liberal concerns about the state searching bags is stupid and that the state should be able to do whatever it wants in the fight against terrorism. He's about my age and pretty religious.

So I pipe up and ask him whether the Constitution counts for anything and I mention that little thing called the Fourth Amendment. Y'know, the one that says something about unreasonable searches and seizures. He doesn't directly respond to that and says that it doesn't really matter in times like these and that the state should be able to search whomever, wherever and whenever they want.

I'm a little stunned that a person would actually argue for something like that and I say (in severe understatement) that "I think you're giving the state a little too much power there, eh?"

He says, "Yeah, well the state should have all the power."

And I say simply, "I prefer having the power being in the hands of the citizens."

He doesn't answer that and then the conversation goes elsewhere. A little while later he says how the American space effort is a total waste and that global warming is bull. But I won't go into those details here.

Anyway, my point in relating this story was to suggest a correlation I have found in my various unscientific conversations with all sorts of different people. The more religious people are, the more likely they are to be on the political right. The more skeptical, the more likely you'll find them on the left. Taking a more expressive but still simple four corner political graph, as found on the World's Smallest Political Quiz, I believe that if there were a full scale scientific study done on people a correlation would be found as follows:

I'd bet that Orthodox Jews would be found in the Conservative corner of the graph, Reform in the Liberal corner and Conservatives on the left side but more conservative than Reform (conservative Conservatives, whooda thunk it?).

I would also expect to find Reconstructionists and the Frum Skeptics near the Libertarian corner.

Secular Jews would likely be more of a mix, but I would still expect to find more of them in the Liberal and Libertarian corners.

You might be able to guess where I stand and so I might have some bias here, but if there are people out there who read this blog, take that quiz and report your results. How religious are you and where do you stand politically?

I'm pretty interested to see what I get.

Monday, August 01, 2005

Why I Am a Jew, by Edmond Fleg

Why I Am a Jew

by Edmond Fleg, 1927

(Translated from French. Excerpts from original as reprinted in The Zionist Idea; a Historical Analysis and Reader edited by Arthur Hertzberg)

People ask me why I am a Jew. It is to you that I want to answer, little unborn grandson. When will you be old enough to listen to me? My elder son is nineteen, the younger fourteen. When will you be born? Perhaps in ten years' time, perhaps in fifteen. When will you read what I am writing? In 1950 or thereabouts? In 1960? Will anybody be reading in 1960? What will the world look like then? Will the machine have killed the soul? Will the mind have created for itself a new universe? Will the problems that trouble me today mean anything to you? Will there still be Jews? I believe there will. They have survived the Pharaohs, Nebuchadnezzar, Constantine, Mohammed, the Inquisition, and assimilation; they will know how to survive the motorcar.

But you - will you feel yourself a Jew, my child? People say to me, "You are a Jew because you were born a Jew; you neither willed it nor can change it." Will this explanation satisfy you if, though born a Jew, you no longer feel one? When I was twenty I too had no lot, nor part in Israel; I was persuaded that Israel would disappear, and that in twenty years' time people would no longer speak of her. Twenty years have passed, and another twelve, and I have become a Jew again-so obviously, that I am asked, "Why are you a Jew?"

What has happened to me can happen to you, my child. If you believe that the flame of Israel is extinguished in you, watch and wait; one day, it will burn again. This is a very old story, repeated in every generation: A thousand times Israel it has seemed, must die, and a thousand times she has lived again. I want to tell you how she died and lived again in me, so that, if she dies in you, you in your turn can feel her born in you once more.

So I shall have brought Israel to you, and you shall bring her to others, if you will and can. And both of us, in our own way, will have preserved and handed on the divine commandment:
"Therefore shall ye lay up these my words in your heart and in your soul; and ye shall bind them for a sign upon your hand, and they shall be for frontlets between your eyes. And ye shall teach them to your children."

Since the beginning of the Dreyfus affair the Jewish question had seemed to me a reality; now it appeared tragic: "What is Judaism? - A danger, they say, for the society to which you belong. What danger?... But first, am I still a Jew?... I have abandoned the Jewish religion.... You are a Jew all the same.... How?... Why?... What ought I to do?... Must I kill myself because I am a Jew?"

At moments I envied the strong and narrow faith of my ancestors. Penned in their ghettos by contempt and hatred, they at least knew why. But I knew nothing. How could I learn?

Of Israel I was entirely ignorant. And I regretted all the years I had spent in the study of philosophy, of Germanic philogy, and of comparative literature. I ought to have learned Hebrew, to have studied my race, its origins, its beliefs, its role in history, its place among the human groups of today; I ought to have attached myself, through my race, to something that would be myself and more than myself, and to have continued, through her, something that others had begun and that others after me would continue.

And I told myself that if I made some other use of my life, if I devoted myself to some other study, if later I founded a family without being able to bequeath to my children some ancestral ideal, I should always experience an obscure remorse, the vague feeling of having failed in a duty. And I remembered my dead father, I reproached myself with not having understood that Jewish wisdom of which he talked to me and which lived in him - and with no longer finding, by my own fa ult, anything in common between Israel's past and my own empty soul.

It was then that, for the first time, I heard of Zionism. You cannot imagine what a light that was, my child! Remember that, at the period of which I am writing, this word Zionism had never yet been spoken in my presence. The anti-Semites accused the Jews of forming a nation within nations; but the Jews, or at any rate those whom I came across, denied it. And now here were the Jews declaring: "We are a people like other peoples; we have a country just as others have. Give us back our country."

I made inquiries: The Zionist idea, it appeared, had its origins far back in the days of the ancient prophets; the Bible promised the Jews of the dispersion that they should return to the Holy Land; during the whole of the Middle Ages only their faith in this promise kept them alive; in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, such great spirits as Maurice de Saxe, the Prince de Ligne, and Napoleon had caught a glimpse of the philanthropic, political, economic, religious, and moral advantages which a resettlement of the Jews in Palestine might offer; since 1873 colonies had been founded there and were developing; and now a new apostle, Theodor Herzl, was calling upon the Jews of the whole world to found the Jewish state. Was this the solution for which I was looking? It explained so many things. If the Jews really formed but a single nation, one began to understand why they were considered Jews even when they ceased to practice their religion, and it became credible, too, that a nation which had welcomed them should be able to accuse them of not always being devoted to its national interests. Then the Zionist idea moved me by its sublimity; I admired in these Jews, and would have wished to be able to admire in myself, this fidelity to the ancestral soil which still lived after two thousand years, and I trembled with emotion as I pictured the universal exodus which would bring them home, from their many exiles, to the unity that they had reconquered.

The Third Zionist Congress was about to open at Basel. I decided to attend it. My knowledge of German enabled me to follow the debates pretty closely.

I listened to it all; but, with even greater interest, I looked about me. What Jewish contrasts! A pale-faced Pole with high cheekbones, a German in spectacles, a Russian looking like an angel, a bearded Persian, a clean shaven American, an Egyptian in a fez, and, over there, that black phantom, towering up in his immense caftan, with his fur cap and pale curls falling from his temples. And in the presence of all these strange faces, the inevitable happened; I felt myself a Jew, very much a Jew,...

...What then, for me, was Zionism? It could enthrall me, it enthralls me still, this great miracle of Israel which concerns the whole of Israel: three million Jews will speak Hebrew, will live Hebrew on Hebrew soil! But, for the twelve million Jews who remain scattered throughout the world, for them and for me, the tragic question remained: What is Judaism? What ought a Jew to do? How be a Jew? Why be a Jew?

I am a Jew because, born of Israel and having lost her,

I have felt her live again in me, more living than myself.

I am a Jew because, born of Israel and having regained her,

I wish her to live after me, more living than in myself.

I am a Jew because the faith of Israel demands of me no abdication of the mind.

I am a Jew because the faith of Israel requires of me all the devotion of my heart.

I am a Jew because in every place where suffering weeps, the Jew weeps.

I am a Jew because at every time when despair cries out, the Jew hopes.

I am a Jew because the word of Israel is the oldest and the newest.

I am a Jew because the promise of Israel if the universal promise.

I am a Jew because, for Israel, the world is not yet completed; men are completing it.

I am a Jew because, above the nations and Israel, Israel places man and his Unity.

I am a Jew because above man, image of the divine Unity, Israel places the divine Unity, and its divinity.

Sometimes, my child, when I wander through a museum, and stand before all the pictures and statues and furniture and armor, the faience, the crystals, the mosaics, the garments and the finery, the coins and the jewels, gathered there, from every place and every age, to hang on the walls, to stand on the plinths, to line up behind the balustrades, to be classified, numbered, and ticketed in the glass cases, I think that one or other of my ancestors may have seen, touched, handled, or admired one or other of these things, in the very place where it was made, and at the very time when it was made, for the use, the labor, the pain, or the joy of men.

This door with the gray nails, between two poplars, in a gilded frame, this is the Geneva synagogue where my father went in to pray. And see this bridge of boats on the Rhone: my grandfather crossed the Rhine, at Huninger. And his grandfather, where did he live? Perhaps as he dreamily calculated the mystical numbers of the cabbala he saw, through his quiet window, this sledge slide over the snow of Germany or Poland? And the grandfather of his grandfather's grandfather? Perhaps he was this money-changer, in this Amsterdam ghetto, painted by Rembrandt...

...One of them drove this plow, tempered in the fire, through the plains of Sharon; one of them went up to them Temple to offer, in these plaited baskets, his tithe of figs...

...and this Sumerian idol, with spherical eyes and angular jaws, is perhaps the very one that Abraham broke when he left his Chaldean home to follow the call of his invisible G-d.

And I say to myself: From this remote father right up to my own father, all these fathers have handed on to me a truth which flowed in their blood, which flows in mine; and shall I not hand it on, with my blood, to those of my blood?

Will you take if from me, my child? Will you hand it on? Perhaps you will wish to abandon it. If so, let it be for a greater truth, if there is one. I shall not blame you. It will be my fault; I shall have failed to hand it on as I have received it.

But, whether you abandon it or whether you follow it, Israel will journey on to the end of days.

The Middle Path of the Jewish Skeptic

We must debunk the mythic perfections of our ancestors and leader, but at the same time value and cherish our ancestors as they truly were.

We must shed the apologetics shielding the great Jewish works like the Bible and Talmud of their clear ethical primitivity, but still give them the respect and stature they deserve as great social catalysts and still the great pillars of Jewish and Western literature.

We must explain that the Jews are not objectively superior in any way for the world, but still subjectively of great importance to us.

We must universalize each Jew as being a member of the wider humanity, but while retaining the significance of being distinctly Jewish.

We must tear down that wall of fear and fundamentalism that keeps Jews from exploring their own history and religion in earnest, but must still retain a respect for tradition and a responsibility for their heritage.

We must have no fear of taking the good things from the wider society while being cognizant of the dangers of assimilation.

We are skeptical of unproven claims but mustn’t be cynical of claims just because they are draped in terms of Judaism.