Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Convenient Conversions

Interesting question on The Frum Skeptics Group recently:

"If living one way and believing another is "par for the course" on this list, then no one here has any objection to Russian/Rumanian/Ethiopians who convert for convenience (i.e. for admission & facilitation of absorption into Israeli society), no?

*That* would be having double-standards: being lenient upon oneself while nit-picking about others."

In my mind, being Jewish is far more an identity issue than a issue of even either belief or practice. So I think it is likely that many of the Jews here feel strongly about being Jewish and identify strongly as Jewish even without any religious connotations. Because of that idea then having non-Jews convert to Judaism and calling themselves Jews without that deep-seated true identity as Jews, it makes a sham of our history and our heritage.

So I'd follow the general conceptual strictness in Orthodox conversions where a person has to prove real interest and real conviction and real understanding of what he's getting into if he wants to join our collective path and identity as one of us. It isn't a factor of "meaness" or double standard, we just cannot allow a dilution of our identities by those who would add nothing to it.

Monday, December 26, 2005

Philosophical Evolution

I've been considering lately the ideas advanced by Jewish scholars like Maimonides and Isaac Albalag regarding the twofold truths of Judaism. They argue, in various ways, that there are distinct aspects included within the design of Judaism. One aspect is directed to the simple and common folk which is the simple religion and simple faith, while the other aspect is the higher, more abstract, more intellectual version designed for the philosophers of every generation.

An appealing view for skeptics, I think.

As anyone familiar with the likes of Maimonides' philosophy would know, his ideas were far off the popular bent. God was an unspeakable thing which could not be given any direct characteristics inasmuch that they would be a false understanding of God and an anthropomorphization or corporealization of His Being. Providence only applies inasmuch as God supplies humanity with the ability to protect and support itself. Prophecy only exists inasmuch as those with highly attuned minds can "tap into" the Active Intellect which exists throughout all of space. Even the afterlife only consists of those individuals who have properly processed their minds in such a way that the Active Intellect is capable of meshing with their individual intellect. The Mitzvot in themselves have no intrinsic value, but only insofar as they help man order his thinking to properly understand God and orient himself with the Active Intellect.

This was Maimonides' conception of what I'd call "higher Judaism." He also supported and argued for the idea of what he called "necessary beliefs," which were those beliefs which the general Jewish population had to hold in order for the religion to hold together and to allow for society to progress normally. Yet these "necessary beliefs" were not necessarily true or necessarily believed by Maimonides himself. Indeed, there are numerous scholars who demonstrate that he contradicts his own famous Principles of Faith. I think that the gamut of "necessary beliefs" are the way in which "lower Judaism" operates.

Lower Judaism has its purpose like all good religions do. To supply men with meaning, have them act morally, etc. Not all men have the capacity to reach the levels of Higher Judaism, but Lower Judaism is still true enough for the masses to live good meaningful lives. Lower Judaism also acts as a type of boundary weltanschauung with which the more curious or adept minds attempt to "escape" from as it just doesn't seem quite right. (See Matrix reference here.)

Now, I'm not arguing for the view that Judaism was actually designed with these two conceptions from the beginning, but perhaps it could be constructed. What Judaism needs to survive and from falling into the depths of Medieval-type dogmatism is a Higher form which theoretically supports much of traditional Judaism (for a philosophy without coherent practice is short lived) but is significantly different from the poor theologies of Orthodoxy. Maimonides' conceptions could have been it, but they don't seem very realistic either for the skeptical minded, though they are still more appealing than the alternative.

So the question is now, who will help create Higher Judaism?

Monday, December 19, 2005

Heat Death

There was a time in the imaginable void of the distant past when there was nothing and there was everything. All was encompassed in the largest and the smallest as size had no meaning and everything was wholly one. This was not really time, nor was it really space, but it was. Some call it the singularity, some call it God, some have no words to express the idea of this incredible thing which existed for all time and for no time and which existed by itself and for itself. It was a unity beyond all comprehension.

And it thought. Not thought in the way of cognitive judgement of ideas, but thought in a consciousness that was not conscious and of ideas that could not be called ideas. It did this for eternity and it did this for just an instant, but finally and suddenly it decided. It decided to die.

In an instant of endless compassion and boundless generosity it began to destroy itself in a brilliant explosion of energy and of space and of time. It released into itself an unimaginable wealth of energy which it had been storing in its being. Its unity and the highest order of its existence began to fall as it became fractured and particularized inside. This was painful, in a way.

These strange fractured and particularized parts interacted. They grew complex and they formed what we now call things like atoms and stars and solar systems. They grew galaxies and they lit up the expanding vacuum. They formed planets and oceans and they formed LIFE. But as they formed these complex structures and systems the pure energy of the unity of the universe was degraded. Forever it would hurt the universe in this endless tradeoff to have entropy always increasing for the sake of localized ordered existences. But this was the choice of the universe and it could not turn back now. It gives of itself and it sees its own inevitable entropic heat death so many eons in the future, but it does not weep and it does not regret.

We ordered conscious minds grow and we multiply and the universe rejoices for it is our kind which made its sacrifice worthwhile. We exist because the universe dies. We enjoy sustenance from the flow of blood from the death wound of the whole. Through its gift do we exist and through its death do we live.

Let us be thankful.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

35th World Zionist Congress; Vote!

Register to vote in the 35th World Zionist Congress here. Internet registration is available until February 15th and votes will be taken until February 28th.

Don't know who to vote for?: Current platforms.

To be eligible to register you must agree with the Jerusalem Program which's stated goals are:

-The unity of the Jewish people, its bond to its historic homeland Eretz Yisrael, and the centrality of the State of Israel and Jerusalem, its capital, in the life of the nation;
-Aliyah to Israel from all countries and the effective integration of all immigrants into Israeli Society.
-Strengthening Israel as a Jewish, Zionist and democratic state and shaping it as an exemplary society with a unique moral and spiritual character, marked by mutual respect for the multi-faceted Jewish people, rooted in the vision of the prophets, striving for peace and contributing to the betterment of the world.
-Ensuring the future and the distinctiveness of the Jewish people by furthering Jewish, Hebrew and Zionist education, fostering spiritual and cultural values and teaching Hebrew as the national language;
-Nurturing mutual Jewish responsibility, defending the rights of Jews as individuals and as a nation, representing the national Zionist interests of the Jewish people, and struggling against all manifestations of anti-Semitism;
-Settling the country as an expression of practical Zionism.

This has been a public service anouncement.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Absurdity of Absurdities!

Let me explain the biggest philosophical rut that I and the rest of the 21st century's forward thinking folks are stuck in. Most people, even highly intelligent and well-read ones, will ignore this issue, often, I suspect because it makes them uncomfortable as no great answers to it are forthcoming.

The problem is that we humans really have no sufficient basis for forming any lasting metaphysical philosophy because as we are living in a scientific age where any such philosophy must be based at least somewhat on the standard epistemological foundations. And yet as soon as we create one based on the scientific knowledge as we know it to be, a new fact is discovered which destroys this philosophy from the very beginning. There is too much change going on in modern times about our understanding of humanity and the universe for any philosophy made today to be long-lasting. Trying to make one is an effort in futility.

For example, it's silly to try and deduce functions of human psychology, which is popularly done in modern society, because few of those conclusions have evidential support. In order to truly be convincing people just want to see the scientific study and the data found. The conclusions from those fancy philosophical thoughts can easily be disproved based on experiments done by a graduate student at some community college. Perhaps that is a little exaggeration, but still there does not seem to be much value in thinking about the fundamental drives and reasons for human action without first considering input from guys like neurologists and psychologists.

And yet to live meaningfully in our short existences we must find a philosophy by which we can judge actions and goals and virtues in a way that does not seem forced or artificial. To do so we _must_ find our thinking going outside what is known and what perhaps what can be known. Perhaps we conceptualize things like gods, or geists, or the Good, but in any case we are escaping from scientific thinking and considering the irrational. And yet our rational, critical minds won't allow us to seriously consider such things.

We find that we must consider the irrational but at the same time we cannot consider the irrational. Absurdity of absurdities!

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Freaky Frumteens

Once in awhile I am drawn to look at the discussions being had at the Frumteens website, either on my own or directed by other bloggers for especially egregious statements, and I find that I need to surf the site in absolute amazement like a person who can't walk away from watching a horrible car accident on the street.

I see people making statements without apologetics regarding the "background" level which goyim hold, the same as animals and plants, in the eschatology of their belief system. I see them being so sure about their beliefs based on obviously piss-poor arguments. The Kuzari would be proud... The weird secret Moderator promotes a scary life of anti-intellectualism and where man cannot judge morality for himself.

Their entire world is crazily shifted at 57 degrees from rationality. Reading through some of those discussions makes my head swirl. They live in a wonderland that I find impossible to relate to and I seriously cannot understand how I could have ever been even remotely associated with a such a worldview.

But then I think about their discussions from a different perspective. I see their foundational beliefs and later arguments as being so off the mark that they might as well be from bizarro world. Even in terms of logical structure and understanding they fail time and time again. Yet, now, suppose God exists and looks into the debates of atheists and serious skeptics...might it be that He is thinking the same thing? Just a thought.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Bleeding Hearts Love Murderers

Have you heard this stuff about saving Tookie Williams, four time murderer and founder of the Crips Gang from the death penalty? LINK

These kinds of things are absurd in my view. This guy is a murderer. He has been living on borrowed time for the last 25 years that he spent in prison. Have pity on the family he killed, not this piece of crap.

Some people really don't know what a needy cause is...

Subjugation of Women: the Shidduch Way

Michelle over at her In My Humble Jewish Opinion blog writes a post about her concerns regarding the "Shidduch Crisis" where the average age for married girls has been falling to around the 18 year mark. See here.

My response was:

The "crisis" is part and parcel of the whole effort to keep girls from engaging in serious business and academic pursuits. If the girl's goal in life is to get married, then she won't even think about getting any advanced degrees and there's definitely no time to do anything substantial if there's a baby on the way the following year.

Getting girls married when they're still young and dependent is a perfect method for subjugating women. It's that simple.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Kollel Check

"One, however, who makes up his mind to study Torah and not to work but live on charity, profanes the name of God, brings the Torah into contempt, extinguishes the light of religion, brings evil upon himself, and deprives himself of the world to come, for it is forbidden to derive any temporal advantage from the words of the Torah. The sages said: "Whoever makes selfish use of the teachings of the Torah takes his own life." They further told us: "Do not make of them a crown wherewith to magnify yourself, nor a spade wherewith to dig." They urged us strongly moreover: "Love work, and hate arrogance. All Torah study with is not combined with some work must at length fail and occasion sin" (Pirkai Avot). The end of such a person will be that he will rob his fellow man." (Mishnah Torah, Hilchot Talmud Torah. 3:10)

"Whoever does not teach his son a trade, it is as though he taught him to commit robbery." (Kiddushin 29a)

This is just a comment on the modern kollel movement where married men are lead not to go to college or to work, but to be largely dependent on their communities, families, and on their wives. Now, I'm not totally lambasting the kollel practice. I do think it is important to have a learned class of Jews who are deeply familiar with a good chunk of our cultural texts and the historical sources for Halacha. But at the same time such efforts should not be used as an excuse not to begin one's real life or to be wasted on fakers who don't really care to learn.

I think Jews of all stripes can appreciate that.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Scary Stuff

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has openly called for Israel to be wiped off the map. "The establishment of the Zionist regime was a move by the world oppressor against the Islamic world," the president told a conference in Tehran on Wednesday, entitled The World without Zionism. "

The skirmishes in the occupied land are part of a war of destiny. The outcome of hundreds of years of war will be defined in Palestinian land," he said.

"As the Imam said, Israel must be wiped off the map," said Ahmadinejad, referring to Iran's revolutionary leader Ayat Allah Khomeini.

The Palestinians are worry anough, but is Iran going to really start giving trouble now too? I know it is nothing new, but Iran's newest leader seems more eager to see war than previous ones. And then they've got the nuclear potential to boot.

: Wary of the future... :

Thursday, December 08, 2005

The Universe: Accident or Intentional?

So a forum poster and I are having a little debate on the origins of the universe over at The Frum Skeptics Group. I think the set-up is pretty obvious here. This is already a few posts in.

"I find both possibilities equally reasonable - or rather - equallyunreasonable. Given how little we know about how universes are created(nothing, actually) - I find the very claim that either possibility ismore likely - unreasonable."

That's only on a very strict empirical sense. It's true we don't have any experience of how universes are created but it isn't necessarily the worst idea to base our beliefs about how the universe came to be on our experience of how things come to be within the universe.
It's true you can, in a purely logical standpoint, reject the analogy - but it is also true that we have nothing else to go on.

Furthermore, I never said anything about "likelihood," I asked solely about the reasonableness of the assumption.

Suppose you have to choose - accidental or intentional - why would you choose accidental when everything in your experience says otherwise. It's true that your experience could be a poor sample group, but again, THAT'S ALL YOU'VE GOT. I say it is a bigger jump to assume it is an accident then to match it with intent.

"You keep insisting that this universe is 'complex and impressive'. I will keep pointing out that you have no basis in making this claim."

Since I can only compare it to other things in my experience, it is the biggest, most complex and impressive structure that I know of. I keep repeating myself when I say I know it is not logically foolproof, it certainly _could_ be objectively pitiful and boring, but I don't have the luxury of that viewpoint nor the opportunity to ever get it. I can only make a decision on the knowledge I do have - even as limited as it may be.

At least with an assumption of intent I can justify my view with my experience, even while admitting its poorness in quality. But to assume the universe an accident means that you reject even your experience and lay your hat merely upon proving that you do not find the logical necessity of my view compelling.

What is your justification for assuming the universe is an accident? You have not proven that intentional creation is wrong, you have merely shown that it is not logically necessarily correct - which is fine. The same could be done to any scientific theory. Induction has that weakness.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Outreach Agenda

I went to a Shabbaton this past Friday night at the Hillel in my college. The food was fairly standard, though I was upset that there was no soup. Ah, what can you do? The group there was fairly homogeneous. Just about all kids with yeshivah educations as far as I could tell.

Anyway, after the meal it became very apparent that there was an agenda behind this shabbaton. The Rabbi gets up and asks if "we feel a responsibility to our fellow Jews." Say what? What's this all about? Responsibility in what sense?

Later on this was clarified as we get into circle time and basically discuss outreach. So this is "responsibility" in a religious way. Aha. The questions discussed are whether we should do outreach, what kind of outreach we mean, and how it should be done. The basic general consensus that I found there was that "outreach" meant turning non-religious Jews into religious Jews. And I swear, some of the things people were saying made me think I was at a Southern Baptist convention where they were working out strategies to help those poor souls who "don't even know they need helping."

Some of the people there clearly only understood proper outreach as making Jews into fundamentalist members of Orthodoxy and one individual even said that the only "right" form of Judaism was defined as one where adherents believe that the Torah was given to Moses, to Joshua, to the Elders, etc. Yikes! It's really rather scary having that type of thing thrown at you and obviously being taken so seriously when it's generally latent among most of Orthodoxy. I mean, yes, they believe it, but they'll more often state their beliefs in more generic ways. It's usually part of the background beliefs and not present in the forebrain, if you know what I mean. Having fundamentalism so fronted without apologetics is stunning.

The whole discussion was a little unsettling for me and I had to play a little privacy game of how much to express and how much to keep hidden. You see, while I do not want to see Jews losing the whole of their identity, I also don't want to see them being taken in by a cultish organization not based on truth. I mean, it was scary, the people in the group were even discussing getting to people who felt lost and were at a crossroads in their life and for them to offer Orthodoxy as a path. That's exactly the type of sneaky methodology that cults try.

My way of "outreach" would be to get Jews interested in their history and their heritage as a people and to get them interested in the philosophical, theological, and moral contributions which Jews and Judaism have produced. I'd want them to establish a strong identity as Jews rather than for them to follow a strict set of rules and believe in a strict set of dogmas. I believe in a plurality of Jewish expressions that will lead to Jewish survivability. The Orthodox Jews at the Shabbaton may only consider Orthodoxy as "real" Judaism, but people like me can see in Judaism a richer wellspring of variable legitimate Jewish expression.