Sunday, January 30, 2005

Overlooking the Omnipresent

"Perhaps He has, and you're overlooking Him? Or perhaps part of the way to find Him, is to look for Him. The journey as goal."

Let me tell you first off that I didn't just come to my conclusions about God one day after some bad dream and indigestion. It was a long process of looking and thinking and studying, etc. I've been on that journey and now I am here.

Secondly, if I've overlooked God there should have at least been one other person in all of history who was able to find him. It's too bad that in all those millennia no one has told of a way to conclusively prove the existence of God. Otherwise we wouldn't be having this discussion.

Shrinking Shadows of Ignorance

"Perfectly logical, I agree. But why therefore cant you see things the way I do? I am not asking you to change the way you see things, but simply to understand that others will have a different approach. As I said before to me what I see is plan and purpose in everything, to you it's only scientific. The truth is probably somewhere in between. I too have studued biology in college. I have studied some Geology and understand rock formations. And yes I did take statistics and understand probability factors. But after giving it all due credence I still see the hand of God in everything."

I understand that you see the hand of God in plan and purpose everywhere. That's fine. But that's also just speculation. And when it's tried to prove the existence of God by sources of ignorance, that doesn't convince folks like me. When people ask: How did this universe come about? I say: I don't know. Other may answer: Aha, must've been God!

And I think to myself, If God truly exists, why couldn't God make himself known in the light of knowledge and not forever in the shrinking shadows of ignorance?

What do you believe?

"What do YOU believe in? Anything?"

I believe that my senses aren't lying to me and that the universe is comprehensible. I will also trust peer reviewed assertions by like-minded individuals, i.e. science.

I also have a number of beliefs that have little to do with the fact-finding enterprise of science and have to do with things like morality, politics, economics, and such. But these are reasoned
approaches under admittedly limited information. That's why they are beliefs.

"Why do you believe these things?"

I believe in science because science has proven itself reliable by what it has done. Vaccines and computers and such. This is not to say that science is infallible, it isn't. But it is the best way humanity has devised of amassing knowledge of the universe to date.

"Is it perhaps because it would be quite uncomfortable to live in a universe where these things were NOT reliable? And if so, is it possible that your desire to avoid such discomfort colors your reasoning here?"

I think not. I don't "need" a reliable source for information. But here it is. If science did not exist, then I no doubt would be very religious. I wouldn't know any better.

"What's an example of these [beliefs that have little to do with the fact-finding enterprise of science]?"

Oh, things that I'm not sure are appropriate for this board (The Frum Skeptics Group). Things like my approval of charity. Or that there is nothing morally wrong with homosexuality. Things that do not rely on facts, but on opinion and chosen axioms.

I can tell you, using reason, why I think the death penalty is a good thing but you can disagree with me because your reason cares more about one thing over another. Suppose you value a human life over justice then you'd be against the death penalty, while with the opposite comparison you'd be for it. Values, such as human life or justice, don't hold simple factual foundations. We think these are_good_ things (I'm assuming you share this view) but "goodness"isn't an objective fact.

PS. Arguments for the death penalty may be much more complex than the ones presented. I was simplifying to demonstrate the point.

Kol B'seder

"So let me keep it simple: how many different types of beings are described as being created in Genesis? If you work with just those beings, what's in the wrong order? (i.e. list the beings in the order they appear in Genesis, and then list the beings in the order in which evolution dictates they appeared."

Ok, sure.

First day according to Bible: The earth was astonishingly empty with unlimited waters and God made light and separated it from darkness.
According to science: The Earth and water did not come before light and actually came billions of years after the start of the Universe. But in saying that light was the first thing created would fit with modern cosmology if you extend the word "light" to the Big Bang's explosion of all energy. But this energy did not flash or light up until some time later. According to science the Universe began with a blast, but not with a flash.

Second day: Fimament in the waters (which already existed from before the first day) to separate the waters below from the waters above.
Science: There are no "waters above" and there is no "fimament"otherwise our space program would have had significant technical difficulties.

Third day: God separated the waters below by land. And god made all plants, even fruit trees.
Science: If you take the story world view as written the Earth's land is surrounded on all sides by waters. Below, all sides, and even above - from which it is protected by the firmament. Clearly the world is not like that. Anyway, the Earth's rocky surface was formed way before any liquid water was on it. And terrestrial plants and fruit trees did not exist until billions of years after the Earth formed.

Fourth day: Luminaries, the Sun, Moon and stars set in firmament to serve as signs.
Science: The Sun was made way before the Earth as were the stars. And they are not "set" in any firmament. They travel freely in open space.

Fifth day: Sea life, and flying things are created.
Science: Life did begin in the sea, but they didn't all begin at the same time as the Bible projects. Many sea creatures today actually have ancestors who were land animals: e.g. whales, sea lions, etc. And as for flying things, which includes insects and birds and bats, insects were the earliest flyers and they did evolve from sea animals, from arthropods like lobsters, but birds and bats came millions of years later. Birds evolved from dinosaurs.

Sixth day: All land animals and humans created.
Science: Correct if you ignore the fact that birds should come after many land animals and that new animals are still evolving even after the advent of humanity to this day.

Seventh day: God finished and completed all his work.
Science: Stuff is still going on in the Universe. New species are evolving. New stars are being born. Complete, how?


"There are also billions of people who allegedly follow "logical" paths that take them to opposing positions. One person's "logic" is another person's "lunacy.""

Note how you put the words "logic" and "logical" in quotation marks. Quotes imply that the word is not what it really means in the sentence. You are talking about fake logic here or wrong logic. And I agree with you. But true logic with solid starts is a very good way to get to a solid conclusion. That's how we have satellites in orbit and open heart surgery.

If their, the rocket scientists and cardiac surgeons, logic was lunacy then we'd see big pieces of metal constantly falling out ofthe sky and lots of mutilated patients. You can tell by their fruit...

"And logic may be a good way of convincing yourself, but don'texpect to convince everyone else."

No, actually logic is an excellent way to convince other people. If not, why the hell do we have a legal system full of pointless judges and juries?

"And it is is faith that gives many purpose, hope and comfort. Would you trust a mathematician to give your dying father comfort in his last moments on this planet?"

If you want to know what is real, you follow logic. If you want to feel good, you follow faith. Oftentimes what is real doesn't give people comfort.

"It's not an all or nothing proposition. Reason and logic are compeling tools that bring us advancement and order. But faith also gives us something of value - or at least it gives MANY people something of value. So to dismiss it blithely is both arrogant and, perhaps, irrational."

It's irrational to dismiss the irrational? Interesting.

Suppose I have unfaltering faith that the coffee stain on my table is the one God and if I bring it sugar cookies every morning I can be certain of unlimited bliss after I die. This faith in the Coffee Stain God gives me so much pleasure and a goal in life. Am I one of the faithful you admire - or am I a nut

Infirm Firmament

"Isn't the word "firmament" a synonym for the skies/heavens?"

Only if you don't know Biblical Hebrew. Then anything can be synonyms with anything else. Funny how that works. Where are those waters above the firmament (1:7)? And notice, 1:17, how the firmament is merely a structure _in_ the heavens.

Granted that God calls to the firmament "Heaven" in 1:8, but that'sjust as meaningful as God calling light "day" and darkness "night."These titles seem to tell us when and where we can find these things. We'll find light during the day, darkness at night, and the firmament in Heaven.

Anyway, the prophets of old knew Biblical Hebrew than either of us and one, Yechezkel, uses the same word "Rakia" in his book. It is said to be the surface on which God's throne sits (1:26). I think that's meaningful.

Kaplan and Ramban

Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan has come up with a wonderful argument from which he attempts to derive the current scientific understanding that the Universe is old, billions of years old and that it began with Big Bang from classic Jewish medieval sources. Most people who tout the argument are amazed at it's famous source, but they never really analyze how Rabbi Kaplan composed his argument.

For one, Ramban's view of creation is not the same as is found in modern cosmology. Ramban's idea of creation is that God created a "prime matter" without any characteristics - this a Greek idea - from which all other matter of the universe came from. However, he also asserts the initial creation was actually of two prime matters: one of heaven and one of earth. There is no scientific basis for any of these ideas. This can turn into something close to the Big Bang model, but only if you re-interpret a few things in a different light.

The point where time plays in is that Ramban says that before the first day - time was not set. But he gives no indication for how much time has passed. His disciple R' Yitzchak of Acco is recorded by an Aryeh Kaplan that he goes into some mystical calculations bearing on the 7000 year cycles of the world, with there being 7 such cycles. And with each human day being equal to 1000 years we get a value of around 15 billion years assuming we're in the 7th cycle. BUT, R' Yitzchak does not say we are in the seventh cycle, only the second. And that greatly reduces the amount of time in his prehistory. Kaplan had gone to another source, the Livnat HaSapir, who says that we're in the sixth cycle. But this is already so much mixed sources and contrived conclusions.

"... According to the master Kabbalist, Rabbi Isaac of Acco, when counting the years of these cycles, one must not use an ordinary physical year, but rather, a divine year (Otzar Chaim 86b). The Midrash says that each divine day is a thousand years, basing this on the verse, "A thousand years in Your sight are as but yesterday", Psalm 90:4 (Bereshit Rabbah 8:2, Zohar 2: 145b, Sanhedrin 97a). Since each year contains 365.25 days, a divine year would be 365,250 years long. According to this, each cycle of seven thousand divine years would consist of 2,556,750,000 earthly years. This figure of 2.5 billion years is very close to the scientific estimate as to the length of time that life has existed on earth. If we assume that the seventh cycle began with the Biblical account of creation, then this would have occurred when the universe was 15,340,500,000 years old. This is very close to the scientific estimate that the expansion of the universe began some 15 billion years ago."

-- Taken from Sefer Yetzirah, commentary by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, published by Weiser -- 1997, page 186.

Notice how he says "If we assume that the seventh cycle..."

Also, 365.25 days is not the length of a Jewish year. Nor is 2.5 billion years close to the amount of time life is thought to be on Earth - that's closer to 3.5 - 3.8 billion years. Big difference. The numbers are wrong, the math itself is practically arbitrary, and the assumptions are without reason. The 15 billion number wasn't calculated by Yitzchak of Acco, but by Aryeh Kaplan. I'm sure that if scientists had found the Universe to be 100 million years old or 2 billion years or 10 billion years or 12 or 20 - Kaplan would have found that same number amazingly in the texts of Rav Yitzchak ofAcco.

There is no classical Jewish source who gives the age of the universe as even close to what we think today. Rabbi Kaplan messed with math and mixed sources until he found a combination that he liked. Whatever happened to intellectual integrity?

It ain't all bad

I know there are plenty of people in much worse situations than me. People who doubt but are stuck in the deep dark depths of thought-controlled cultish communities like New Square or Boro Park. These people are being controlled right down to every minutiae of their lives. I sympathize with these people because one slip up for them might bring shame to their whole families’ and oust them from their lives. Their future lies only in the cult and I can feel their frustration. It’s palpable.

Thankfully, for me I have more options open to me. I’m going to explain my position and what I envision will be my type of life in the Jewish community. I don't plan on being a black-hatter, nor one who needs to say a dvar torah at every shabbos and holiday meal. Nor will I be a person who every afternoon needs to rush to a shul to say mincha or maariv. I can't see myself regularly davening with a minyan more than shacharis shabbos and holidays. I won't be crazy about saying brachot over everything or of benching after most meals.

As of today, some of my better friends already know I'm highly skeptical. Some of those I've spoken on the matter in great detail. I can't imagine not telling my (future) wife. I couldn't lie to her every day like that.

I have no problem living at the fringes of the Jewish community. Having my personal beliefs set in ambiguity. Most people simply ignorant of them. Because the fringes of the Jewish community are also the fringes of the secular world. And I think I'd feel most comfortable living in-between like that. Being comfortable in both.

I don't want to stand out so much that people will think I'm strange coming to a Shabbos meal. Or when I send my kids to yeshivah. Or why the hell I'm buying so much matzah. Nor do I want the secular world so shocked that I want the kosher meal and that I won't work on the holidays. In between. I don't think this is so unusual after all.

Sunday, January 23, 2005

But why?

People might ask, "Why don't you believe in Judaism?" That's the obvious question for the uninitiated. The answer is really simple. Lack of supporting evidence and inconsistencies internal and with the world as we know it.

The obvious examples for this are the stories from the well known book of Genesis. There is very strong and conclusive evidence that shows the world is far older than 6000 years old. People don't live hundreds of years. Animals don't talk. Animals evolved. The whole thing stinks of myth.

There are also numerous timing discrepancies. One of my favorites has to do with Ur, Land of the Chaldeans:

Abraham, according to tradition, lived from 1948 since Creation (1812 BCE) until 2123 (1637 BCE).
Moses, according to tradition, the writer of the Torah, lived from 2368 since Creation (1392 BCE) until 2488 (1272 BCE).
The Chaldeans, a semi-nomadic people are first mentioned in history in the documents of Assyrian kings dated to 884-859 BCE.In 721 BCE, Chaldeans conquered the Assyrian Empire and held a greater one in it’s place until 539 BCE.
In Genesis 11:31 it says that Abraham "went out from the Ur of the Chaldeans [Ur Kasdim]."A generous estimate for the time that the Chaldeans could have first been established in Ur would be around the year 1000 BCE. Yet Moses died over two hundred years before this time and Abraham more than six hundred years. How then could Abraham have left "Ur of the Chaldeans" if simple chronology is to be accepted?

But these examples are of small consequence given the question of faith. What is faith? Faith is the believing something to be true without evidence or despite evidence to the contrary. How is this a good thing? People can believe the Earth is flat, that the Sun orbits the Earth, that tomatoes are poisonous or that when you die you'll go to heaven and have 72 virgins to do your bidding. People have the capacity to believe just about anything. So how is faith a virtue? Without evidence, what you believe could be dead wrong and you wouldn't be able to tell the difference. And what is consistently found in all supernatural religions? Faith. That leap of faith, be it surge over a chasm or a hop over a crack, is always present.

Is there a better way to finding out what is true about the world? Evidence. Evidence is what counts. The best and most productive method for finding evidence and using it to understand the world is, you guessed it, the scientific method. Granted, science can, does and will make mistakes. But even errors made in the process are fixed later on. Mistakes made by one scientist are often soon brought to light by peer review and subsequent criticisms of his or her fellow scientists. Science is self-correcting in this way. Science is not perfect. As there are only humans doing the work and humans have many frailties and shortcomings, there is no doubt that science is an imperfect system. But it is still our best one.

Comparing faith and science demonstrates this point. If you were feeling sick and went to the doctor, would you prefer that he hand you some pills without even seeing you and tell you to take them on faith or would you like it if he did several tests by which he could rule out all the diseases except for the one you have and give you the medicine that he knows you need. I think most people would rather the tests be done - even if they aren't always perfect. Because you never know what you're going to get from Dr. Faith and his bag of tricks.

It is only through science that we have taken rockets to the moon, that we have antibiotics to cure disease, that we can fertilize crops to feed a world, that we even have this internet by which you are seeing these words. Faith never did anything like this. Faith cannot do anything like this.
As far as I can see, faith is a bankrupt method of gaining knowledge of the world and must therefore be dismissed and I cannot find myself believing things based on it. That's why I don't believe in Judaism.

Saturday, January 22, 2005


The name of my blog is Orthoprax. A natural question to ask is why? What does that mean? There's the "ortho-" from Greek loanwords meaning "straight," "right," or "correct." You might recognize it from the word orthodox which essentially means "right or correct beliefs." Prax is a shortened form from "praxis" another Greek word which means "practice" or "action." So putting it all together, orthoprax means "right or correct practice."

Now why is this meaningful? Well, in many religions there is a side that is concerned with faith, be it believing Jesus is your Lord and Savior in Christianity or that Mohammed is the greatest of all prophets in Islam or that God spoke to the Israelites at Sinai in grand revelation in Judaism or any other religions and their various beliefs.

There is another aspect of many religions that is concerned with the actions, be they moral or ritual, of the adherents. This is true for a religion like, say Catholicism, where people go to mass and eat some crackers. But I'm more concerned with Judaism and its numerous ritual procedures - which I follow.

You see, from the outside I look and act like a normal Modern Orthodox Jew. Though perhaps a bit of a lax one. But as far as my beliefs about the world lie, they are as far from regular Jewish faith as one might get. I don't think the oral law is divine nor is the written law. Miracles do not happen and Tanach is significantly composed from myth. I don't even believe in God in any meaningful sense of the word.

So what am I? I'm the orthopractic Jew. I live the life of the orthodox. I keep shabbos, I wear tzitzis, I only eat kosher. But I don't believe the metaphysical foundations for these actions. Why do I do it then? For one, because I am Jewish. Even if the metaphysics are not true, I still retain my ethnic and cultural heritage as a Jew. And I can express this by living traditionally. Second, my family is all orthodox and I know that my "coming out" would severely stress my very good relationship with them. And that relationship is important to me.

It's not always easy and it is often taxing to live with this secret, but I do it. I am Orthoprax.