Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Orthodox Judaism, circa 2100

The Godol Hador (link to blog is on the right) wrote an interesting little piece about the differing opinions for the future of Jewish Orthodoxy.

Here's how it went:

Does Chareidi Judaism have a future ? Is Modern Orthodoxy on the way out ? I have heard a number of different opinions on this matter.

1. The UO viewpointThe MO's will ultimately die out. The move to the right is inevitable. The whole maykil thing was only a temporary aberration after the war. We are now almost back to how it was before the war. The MO's will eventually all become disillusioned as they move farther and farther left.

2. The MO viewpointThe UO's will ultimately die out. The move to the left is inevitable. The whole machmir thing was only a temporary aberration after the war. We are now almost back to how it was before the war. The UO's will eventually all become disillusioned as they realize the bunch of lies they have been fed.

3. The centrist viewpointThe MO's and the UO's will ultimately die out. The move to the center is inevitable. The whole machmir vs maykil thing was only a temporary aberration after the war. We are now almost back to how it was before the war. The RW UO's and LW MO's will eventually all become disillusioned, leaving the RW MO's and the LW UO's to combine to form a stable center.

4. The Atheist ViewpointOrthodox Judaism will ultimately die out. The move to atheism is inevitable. The whole religion thing was only a temporary aberration while man could not understand how the world worked. Biblical Criticism and Scientific Progress will eventually render orthodox religion (maybe all religion) extinct.

I don't know the answer. I'm not even sure which one I hope for, I guess 3. However two things I learnt recently, based on a lot of events, some public and some private, give me food for thought.

1. There is a lot more 'kefirah' in the MO camp than most people realize (not neccessarily a bad thing).

2. There is a lot more 'ugliness' in the UO camp than most people realize (definitely a bad thing).

Of course I use the words 'kefirah' and 'ugliness' slightly loosely. But only slightly.

I had written a rather long reply to this, so I figured I might as well post it here:

Actually, I don't think atheism will win out, especially not in the short run. People will generally be attracted to religion for the foreseeable future. And while I like the Modern Orthodox viewpoint better than the Ultra-Orthodox, I don't see Modern Orthodox as entirely stable. Its best feature will also be what dooms it.

Since the Modern Orthodox Jew is typically exposed to all sorts of science and ideas which go against traditional Jewish faith - they must make constant justifications and apologetics to bring together their two worlds. A rather unstable arrangement.

Some will try to escape the modern world's terrors and head into the UO camp where they will wear black hats and send their children to Touro (but only if they have to!).

Others will see the apologetic nonsense for what it is and begin to doubt the claims posed by Judaism. These will turn even more liberal and liberal until their beliefs are outside normative traditional beliefs in total.

I also don't think the UO lifestyle will be long-lived. Though, don't get me wrong, I see Ultra-Orthodox communities being around for a very long time. I just think that the numbers will shrink - though it will grow more before it shrinks. The UO life is hard, tribal, and small. There will always be people who will try and escape into the wider world. As the world becomes more invasive into daily life - which would be following the trend so far - more UO Jews will leave for a more secular lifestyle.

The centrist ideal, you'll have to help me out there, what is a centrist? What do they believe? How do they live? I can't begin to postulate what their future may be if I don't even know who they are.

If it is a slightly less UO theology and lifestyle than the UO are today, then that's probably where I think most Orthodox Jews will be in the future. Most will not be able to escape the arms of the bigger world into their lives, but still many will reject "goyishe" thoughts and philosophies and find comfort inside the relatively insular communities.

The far future though...that's anyone's guess.

Monday, February 21, 2005

The Biggest Sacrifice

I used to wonder about this idea on and off, back when I was religious.

Most people would agree that giving one's life for a good cause is a good deed. Right? You jump the path of a bullet to save someone's life, run into a burning building, etc. These are great heroic deeds. And I would suppose that religious people who believe in reward and punishment in the next life would agree that such people would be rewarded.

But, now, let's suppose a person makes an even bigger sacrifice than just one's own life. Huh?, you might ask. What could that possibly be? Well, what if a person sacrifices the lives of the people he loves, that might hurt him more than losing his own life. But this is no problem. The religious mind has no trouble with that scenario. A person has no right to sacrifice the lives of others and whatever good deed he does, it must be balanced by the terrible thing he did to others. And God (or whomever) ultimately decides where to put such a guy.

Now, let's suppose the guy makes a bigger sacrifice than his own life, but doesn't hurt anyone else in the process. Wha?! What the hell could that be?

What if he sacrifices his SOUL. What if a person does lots of technical sins but in doing so helps out many people. He knows what he's doing, knows that he will be punished in the hereafter, but cares so little for his own well being that he does all he can for others. Every week, the person intentionally breaks shabbos to go work at a soup kitchen and feed the homeless. Instead of paying for excesses like what is needed for tefillin or mezzuzot and such he sends his money to worthy causes around the world. Instead of spending those long days each year begging for forgiveness each Yom Kippur, he is heading demonstrations for foreign governments to stop human rights violations on their own citizens.

Isn't such a person a better person because his sacrifice is so much greater? Sacrificing your life is one thing, but it is a finite sacrifice and having faith in the afterlife doesn't make that sacrifice so great comparatively. But to sacrifice one's soul is a sacrifice for eternity, or at the very least the extremely intense punishment of gehinnom (depending on what exactly the theist believes). Isn't that a greater sacrifice for others?

So, if the sacrifice is so great shouldn't the individual get rewarded? But how can he get rewarded if the reward is exactly what he has sacrificed? So, this is to you schar v'onesh believers, what happens to the individual?

Friday, February 18, 2005

Divine Acquiescence

I received this in an email from a friend of mine who I had trusted (perhaps foolishly) enough to reveal my secret. We had discussed the issue in great detail, but since she had never even thought critically about anything before, I easily trounced her arguments and she couldn’t help but feeling as if I was being contrary just because I like being that way. But anyway, take a look:

"i was sitting in my Rabbi’s class, and we were discusing proofs of god. so someone said the torah was revealed to many. i asked but how could you take it as fact that the torah was really given by a divine being- that isnt a proof. his answer was something new to me, he pointed out that the torah has many different things in it that were new to everyone. However, we dont find opposition to the bible. we dont find documents from that time period that openly disagree with the torah, as is found with many new books written by rabbis, like rambams works and other rabbis. the torah was universally accepted by the jews. therefore, it must be from someone divine, in order for it to be passed down wihtout opposition. ( no one wrote anything to disagree with the fact that it was insane, a bible with all these new concepts, all these stricked laws during the time period.. you do see this with philosophy and science that people during the era didnt accept the findings) this was something i never thought of, it is very interesting. i DO NOT waant to hear your arguments. i just wanted to share this with you."

The first thing that struck me was the "i DO NOT waant to hear your arguments" part. While I respected her wishes and didn’t argue with her, I still gave her a piece of my mind about how unfair that is and how that’s nothing more than preaching and extremely rude.

She didn’t understand, so I gave her a comparison of a Christian coming over to her and saying "I spoke to my Pastor today and he said that you can only get saved if you accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior. But I don’t want to hear your arguments, just sharing the good news."

She was noncommital and continued to contend that she would not have been insulted if that happened. I, however, severely doubt that, but her naivete is sometimes surprisingly pronounced and so I let her go at that. She says that since I am always being contrary for contrary’s sake, that I would be bound to find a "loophole" in the argument and strip her of it.

Of course, it’s always me finding a "loophole." Impossible to consider the possibility that the arguments are actually flawed, right?

But, anyway, now to rebut her (or her rabbi’s) argument. No loopholes necessary. She says that the laws and rules in the Torah were new to the people. But along with how I discussed the fall of the Kuzari argument in a past blog, many of the laws were not new. They had been practiced since time immemorial. The Torah gave reason behind them for which the people had forgotten or did not wish to know. Israelites didn’t want to know the pagan roots of the lulav shaking, so they found a new reason to do so.

This is also, by the way, exactly the type of reason for which precipitated the writing of Megilat Esther. See here:

"Gaster concludes that the story of Esther is not a historical fact and that the reason for associating it with the feast of Purim could have been that the details of the feast were conveniently explained. He points out that the original form of that feast had these components: the selection of a new queen, corresponding to the selection of Esther; the parade of a commoner qua king, corresponding to the parade of Mordecai in the streets of Shushan (Esther 6:11); a fast, corresponding to Esther's fast (4:15-16); the execution of a felon, corresponding to the hanging of Haman (Esther 7:10, 9:25); and the distribution of gifts (Esther 9:22). Furthermore, that festival must have taken place around the time of the vernal equinox, for it is then that Purim occurs.

"All of these aforementioned conditions are satisfied if one assumes that the festival of Purim dates back to an earlier pagan new year festival. Indeed, at new year it is customary in many parts of the world to appoint a new ruler in order to symbolize the renewal of communal life. Likewise, the installation of a commoner as temporary ruler between the end of one year and the commencement of another was quite commonplace. The Babylonian new year was also known to feature a type of scapegoat ritual whereby a condemned criminal was led through the streets in a processional. Finally, there indeed was a custom of distributing gifts at the new year, as there is today on Purim."

So, indeed, we would hardly expect people to speak out against many of the "new" laws in the Torah since they were already doing them.

Next she talks about how today we find no documents from that time period which were written against the Torah. First thing we must ask is, what time period is that? From the time of Moses in the 14th or 13th centuries BCE? If that’s the case then it has already been shown conclusively that the Torah could not have been written by Moses or at that time long ago. (Remember Ur of the Chaldeans? There are many more besides.) If it hadn’t been written, we could scarcely expect to find documents arguing against it.

So, we’re now going to go a few centuries forward, it doesn’t really matter when. Anytime between the 10th to 6th centuries BCE I guess. In that time period, religion wasn’t debated in the Near East the way it is today or even during the Middle Ages. Indeed, religion in the period was rather flexible. Take what we see in Tanach, large segments of the Israelite population and even kings of Israel and Judah were constantly serving other gods in the neighborhood. Baal, Molech, Dagan, etc. So the assertion that "the torah was universally accepted by the jews" is clearly false.

People at that time didn’t write scholarly objections to the religion, they didn’t even think about it all that much. If they saw something about another religion that they liked or thought might work to help them, many of them went out and tried it. It was only the few firm Henotheists/Monotheists who are represented as the Prophets in Tanach who tried in vain to reign in the wanderings of the gullible superstitious Israelite masses.

Now, suppose that there were some individuals who went against the grain of their culture and were actually critical thinkers and were skeptical in the true sense of the religion or Torah. Most of the people at the time were illiterate! So how could they write anything against the religion if writing was beyond them. It was mostly the priests who knew the art of writing - and they could scarcely gain by undermining the faith of the masses. Also, this illiteracy itself is another reason for why skepticism was virtually absent. If people cannot read things for themselves, they are at the mercy of what the priests tell them the scriptures say. Difficult to build skepticism under those conditions.

Now, let’s give the proposition even more juice. Suppose some tracts were actually written against the divine notion of the Torah. These texts would never be popular among the regular population and especially not so among the literate priestly classes. We have lost famous texts that were wildly popular from antiquity, how can we have even the slightest hope of recovering the few unpopular copies of these tracts across the centuries? We can’t even find documents or artifacts of any type to confirm the existence of King Solomon and his Temple. It is truly beyond any sort of reason to suppose we’ll find these hypothetical skeptical documents from so long ago.

I have deconstructed the argument given to me. As I have shown it makes a number of assumptions that are not supported by evidence or basic knowledge of history. I think its biggest problem is essentially that it confuses the world of today with the way it was millennia ago. People are quick to debunk all sorts of things today in our age of information, not so was it back then. People were hardly even capable of doing so so long ago. The world is a very different place.
How’s that for a loophole?

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Rabbi Dr. Tendler vs Evolution

Rabbi Tendler is a very highly respected individual in the religious Jewish sphere. He is an Orthodox rabbi and holds a PhD in biology from Columbia. Though I have never actually seen any of his scientific work (I couldn't even find the topic of his dissertation) I think he has some conceptual grasp of biology.

However, he has written an article against the theory of evolution. See it here. Read it before you read my response to it below.

He writes a sensible argument but I think he's talking in a wide arc to avoid talking about things which he wishes to avoid. In the context where he's coming from, I can at least appreciate that he doesn't lambast science itself and even supports the study of it. Now, onto the meat:

He says: "Is there any evidence that such has occurred in nature without the intervention of man? Until a mechanism can be proposed that will enable us to produce such 'races' under scientifically controlled conditions, the evolutionary theory remains but a theory, and one under severe attack from its former proponents."

That's as much an objection as "I've never seen a star form." These things take time. And speciation of long-lived species is difficult in fully controlled conditions. But even so, new strains of bacteria are constantly being made. And there are quite a few fruit-fly species that have been lab-produced.

"The light sensitive eye is advantageous to the organism, but not the colored spot on the arm of a starfish from which it is supposed to have evolved. Why would a starfish with a small red birthmark be selected for survival? "Why were these "sports" or misfits saved for survival? Or by whom?"

At the end of each arm of one class of starfish is a red pigment that serves as a simple eye. Eyes like ours, however, did not evolve from the starfish. We know this because starfish broke off very early and are not in our genealogical line.

Now, supposing the red mark eventually turned into useful eyes (in that order I mean), the red mark would probably be a neutral mutation and would not need special help to survive. Or perhaps they acted to attract predators to attack an arm instead of the center. Since starfish can regenerate lost limbs, it may have been beneficial to have these sightless spots which actually protected the main body of the ancient starfish. But here we're really talking about ancient events. The farther back you go the harder it is to piece together what happened. If Rabbi Tendler had asked about a phylum much more well known and studied, folks like me would probably have better answers. Why would he choose such a random out of the blue example to focus on?

"'Vestigial organs' most often reflect our ignorance rather than our investigative skills. The Thymus gland, now known to be a major component of our immune system, was listed as a vestigial organ. The appendix, the classic vestigial organ is now suspected of playing a role in immune mechanisms as well."

People do make mistakes and the thymus gland error was corrected, I think, around the turn of the last century. But the point about the appendix is, not whether it truly has zero purpose, it may have been co-opted for some minor role. But in species with large plant diets, the appendix is huge. For non-herbivores, the appendix is much smaller, if not absent. People can live quite well without an appendix. I think the connection is obvious that the appendix is derived from an older organ. It has no necessary purpose in the body. As a design, it's really not up there.

"Gradualism, the basic tenet of evolutionary theory was rejected on the basis of its former greatest proof- the fossil record....The principle feature of individual species within the fossil record is stasis, not change. The record, read without bias, reveals that species remained unchanged and then suddenly disappeared to be replaced by substantially different but related species. There are no transitional forms! All have been postulated to complete the record but they do not exist except in the imagination of the evolutionists."

This is a common creationist canard. In fact, gradualism is still in force but it is seen that it does not predict what it should for all species. It does still work for a good number. The evolution of the horse is well preserved in the fossil record and it is the classic example of gradualism. And as for the "no transitional forms" claim, I only need to point to the archeopteryx as the famous example. There are many others, too. Just look them up and see for yourselves.

Then he goes into a bit about arguments among scientists about how evolution happened as if to show that since there is no unanimity it all must be wrong. But I think the fallaciousness of that method is clear.

And later on he says "Neither the age of the earth, the fossil finds of strange creatures nor the evolution of man, posed any "threat" to Torah truth as understood by the Tifereth Yisroel."

This means that even if evolution happens to be true it still is not a problem to the factuality of the Torah and Judaism. He's trying to play to both sides, but that's clearly a contradiction. You can't both be trying to show how evolution is wrong and showing how evolution doesn't pose a problem to Judaism even if it is right. Why would he bother showing how bankrupt evolution is if it actually poses no problem?

"To sum up: In 1987 there is not one piece of scientific evidence for macroevolution or the development of one species from another. All our work in genetics, molecular biology, recombinant DNA explains variations within the species but does not offer any mechanism for the development of new species."

Well, that's simply not true. There are a number of proposed mechanisms and each has evidence to support them. Also, these mechanisms are not mutually exclusive and may all be correct. Look up allopatric speciation. It is speciation from being separated for some period of time and the two or more groups going through natural selection and finding themselves incompatible when the species reconverge. See actual examples of "ring species" where this is occurring as this is being written.

Sympatric speciation is where the species is split because of separated resources. Take the example of Rhagoletis (fruit flies) which need to lay their eggs on fruit as they become ripe. In America, R. pomonella would lay eggs on Hawthorns. Yet, when apple trees were introduced in the 1860s some began laying eggs on them. But the two fruits ripen at different times. So those that laid their eggs on one lost genetic contact with those which laid on the other. Two groups were formed. These do not interbreed much. Interbreeding is about 5%. But even in this short a time, 150 years, the two groups are genetically distinguishable. Races have been formed.

Transformative speciation is an example where a species is simply very long lived. Like horses, for example, a line might not necessarily split into more species, but just slowly form into a new one.

Among plants, speciation is more common because they are not as vulnerable to negative mutations. Hybrids often form but instead of being sterile, like a mule, they will simply double their chromosomes in a function known as autopolyploidy or alloployploidy and each set will act as their haploid sets for reproduction. And even those that are sterile, they often persist anyway because they can simply grow asexually. A good example is Spartina alterniflora, a tough seaside grass. Hybridized with S. maritina, together they formed a sterile grass S. townsendii which doubled its chromosomes and formed S. anglion which is fertile.

Now, I understand where Rabbi Tendler is coming from. He writes a well written paper. And it would probably be very convincing to any regular Modern Orthodox Jew. I just disagree with him, as do most scientists. As do the facts.

Friday, February 11, 2005

Four Great Men

Last night I went to one of Aish's famous "Discovery" seminar. There was free food and a bunch of my friends were going, so why not? Pretty much typical kiruv type arguments. Half-truths, false dilemmas, and straw men were the common themes.

But anyway I thought it was interesting that the rabbi mentioned the book "The Jewish Mystique" where the author mentions the four most influential men of the last 200 years. So he mentions Einstein, Freud, Marx and Darwin. And lo and behold three of the four are Jewish and thus it is proven that Jews are the light unto the nations, the Torah is real and God is looking out for us.

But do you know what else these guys have in common?

Neither in my private life nor in my writings, have I ever made a secret of being an out-and-out unbeliever.
-- Sigmund Freud

Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.
-- Karl Marx

It was, of course, a lie what you read about my religious convictions, a lie which is being systematically repeated. I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it.
-- Albert Einstein

But I own that I cannot see ... evidence of design and beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created that a cat should play with mice.
-- Charles Darwin

They were all skeptical of religion. Freud and Marx were outright atheists. Einstein kinda wobbled in his pantheism and Darwin was really an agnostic. But none of these four great influences of the past 200 years were one of the faithful.

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.


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.


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.


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 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.


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.


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.

Sunday, February 06, 2005

Testing God

Malachi 3:10 - "Bring all the tithes into the storage house, and let it be a sustenance in My Temple. Test Me, if you will, with this, says Hashem Master of Legions, [see] if I do not open up for you the windows of the heavens and pour out upon you blessing without end."

"Rabbi Yochanan met Reish Lakish's young son [and asked him]: Tell me what verse you learned today.

The boy: "You shall surely tithe..." (Deuteronomy 14:22). ["Aser t'aser" - the word aser (tithe) is repeated for emphasis] The boy: Why aser t'aser (why the repetition)?

Rabbi Yochanan: Tithe so that you become rich [A play on the word t'aser which is similar to Tit'asher = become rich.]

The boy: How do you know?

Rabbi Yochanan: Go test it.

The boy: Is it right to test the Holy One Blessed Be He? It is written "Don't test Hashem..." (Deuteronomy 6:16).

Rabbi Yochanan: This is what Rabbi Hoshiah said: "Apart from this [tithing], as it is said, (Malachi 3:10): 'Bring the whole tithe to my treasury so that there is food in my house. And please test me in this says the Lord of Hosts if I will not open the windows of Heaven and pour out a blessing on you until there is more than enough.'"-Ta'anit 9a.

So here it looks like we've got a free (actually pricey) opportunity to test God. Does anyone know any poor tithers? Are all tithers rich? Do you give ten percent, are you rich?

Pink Monkeys

"Still rarer is the man who thinks habitually, who applies reason, rather than habit pattern, to all his activity. Unless he masques himself, his is a dangerous life; he is regarded as queer, untrustworthy, subversive of public morals; he is a pink monkey among brown monkeys -- a fatal mistake. Unless the pink monkey can dye himself brown before he is caught.

The brown monkey's instinct to kill is correct; such men aredangerous to all monkey customs."

-Kettle Belly Baldwin in Gulf from Assignment in Eternity (Robert Heinlein)

What Do We Want?

"So please explain to me what it is that you all want? So you realized that there is no God and the reasonings you were told are now what? You are in lost. You don't believe but yet you need to follow and comply because there is no way out. I just want to understand what it is that you want!?....Do you really want to live your life a sham? Lying to everyone while secretly doing what you please? Does that turn you on? I just do not get it. What is the difference if you just dont do any work on Shabbos if you are not going public. PLEASE explain to me what is the lifestyle you want!!!"

What do we want? Ultimately what we want is for Judaism to be true. Or maybe I should speak for myself when I say that. The problem is that it is not or at least as far as anyone can prove or even argue successfully.

But we also don't want to be goyim (again, speaking for myself). Not that goyim are in any way inferior, but that we are Jews and that is our heritage and that doesn't change if the metaphysics or theology is faulty. Some people stay because of family ties or because they like the community. Also reasons which I share.

So we are obviously conflicted. Which life do we want? I'm not sure.That's a judgement call that each person in our situation must make for himself. But you fail to understand the basics here because you think our desire for a preferential "lifestyle" is what drives us to doubt. But more often it is doubt that drives people to adopt a different lifestyle.

Hammurabi and the Torah

Here are anumber of examples showing the similarity of Biblical laws to the Code of Hammurabi which was written centuries before Moses ever was thought to write.

Exodus 21:2 : "If thou buy a Hebrew servant, six years he shall serve: and in the seventh he shall go out free for nothing."Similarly, Code of Hammurabi, section 117: "If a man become involved in debt, and give his wife, his son or his daughter for silver or for labor, they shall serve three years in the house of their purchaser or bondmaster: in the fourth year they shall regain their freedom."

Exodus 21:15 : "And he that smiteth his father, or his mother, shall be surely put to death." Compare Code of Hammurabi, section 195: "If a son strike his father, his hand shall be cut off."

Exodus 21:18 f.: "And if men contend, and one smite the other with astone, or with his fist, and he die not, but keep his bed; if he rise again, and walk abroad upon his staff, then shall he that smote him be quit: only he shall pay for the loss of his time, and shall cause him to be thoroughly healed." Compare Code of Hammurabi, section 206: "If a man strike another man in a noisy dispute and wound him, that man shall swear, 'I did not strike him knowingly'; and he shall pay for the physician."

Exodus 21:22 : "If men strive together, and hurt a woman with child, so that her fruit depart, and yet no harm follow; he shall surely be fined, according as the woman's husband shall lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges determine." Compare Code of Hammurabi, section 209: "If a man strike a free woman and cause her fruit to depart, he shall pay ten shekels of silver for her fruit."

Exodus 21:24 : "Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot." Compare Code of Hammurabi, section 196: "If a man destroy the eye of a free man, his eye shall be destroyed." section 197: "Ifhe break the bone of a free man, his bone shall be broken." section 200: "If a man knock out the teeth of a man of the same rank, his teeth shall be knocked out."

Exodus 21:28-32 : "If an ox gore a man or a woman to death, the ox shall be surely stoned, and its flesh shall not be eaten; but the owner of the ox shall be quit. But if the ox was wont to gore in time past, and it hath been testified to its owner, and he hath not kept it in, but it hath killed a man or a woman; the ox shall be stoned, and its owner also shall be put to death. .... If the oxgore a man-servant or a maid-servant, there shall be given unto their master 30 shekels of silver, and the ox shall be stoned."Compare Code of Hammurabi, sections 250 ff.: "If an ox, while going along the street, gore a man and cause his death, no claims of any kind can be made. If a man's ox be addicted to goring and have manifested to him his failing, that it is addicted to goring, and, nevertheless, he have neither blunted his horns, nor fastened up his ox; then if his ox gore a free man and cause his death, he shall give 30 shekels of silver. If it be a man's slave, he shall give 20 shekels of silver."

Some are more similar than others but I think the resemblance is obvious. These laws of the Torah don't seem so unique anymore. Indeed, many of them seem quite derivative from older sources. I don't think they were copied from Hammurabi, but they do share a common source.

For more information see here.

Dating Tanach

In the book of Ecclesiastes (Kohelet) there are used two very interesting words. "Pardes" in 2:5 and "Pitgam" in 8:11. "Pardes" is also seen in the book of Song Of Songs (Shir HaShirim) 4:13. Why are these words interesting? Because they are words borrowed from the Persian language.

Here is the etymology of the word "pardes": it is derived from the Old Persian "pairidaeza" which can be broken down in Farsi into pairi (around) and daeza (wall). It describes an enclosed garden. The word has even been found in the ancient scripture Avesta of the Zoroastrian faith. It is the source of the English word "paradise."

How could Solomon have known of and used Persian words if Persia had never come in contact with Israel during the proposed time of Solomon's lifetime? The use of these foreign words in these books necessarily pushes the writing of the texts several centuries after Solomon's death until at least when Israel comes under Persian rule.

So did Solomon write these books? It seems doubtful.

Henotheism: No Other Gods Before Me

Henotheism is the idea that people believe that all sorts of gods are real and have power, but that they only recognize one of those gods as their God to whom they worship. The following are a number of questions for the regular Bible-believing montheist to try and explain the apparent henotheistic origins of Israelite beliefs as recorded in Tanach:

Doesn't it seem awfully strange that the Israelites are equating theroles of God to them and Chemosh to the Moabites as to what each god's power would allow them to possess land? (Judges 11:24)

Why does David say that he is being told to worship other gods by having to take refuge out of Israel but in Philistine territory? (1Samuel 26:19)

Why did the forces of Israel turn back from defeating Moab in Moabite territory after the Moabite king offered his own son up to Chemosh? (2 Kings 3:27)

Why did Na'aman need two mule loads of dirt from Israel to serve God in Syria? (2 Kings 5:17) Because if God only has power over the land of Israel then the only way for Na'aman to worship him was to have some of that same dirt.

Why does Jeremiah say that the exiled Israelites will have to serve other gods? (Jeremiah 16:13)

Elishah ben Abuyah

According to the Talmud there was a very knowledgeable Torah scholar named Elishah ben Abuyah who turned heretical. Some scholars say he was a Gnostic, others say Sadducee, and still others see him as an Epicurean. His turnover was so unpalatable for the rabbis of the Talmud didn't call him by name but they called him "Acher," the other one.

I like to think of him as a man who used reason over faith (I'm not the only one) and so could not bring himself to fall in place within rabbinic norms. This intellectual primacy was what caused the rabbis to defame his name and create legends about his birth and reasons for heresy.

For more information see here.

The Meaning Behind the Yarmulkah

It's weird, that six inches of circular material on my head means so much. People from every side of society have their own ideas about what it implies.

To the religious Jew on a weekday afternoon it means I'm available to fill a minyan for mincha. I get asked every few weeks. To another guy I know from school, it means I'm a religious zionist (kippa seruga) but really my mom just likes crocheting them. To some other people it means they can tell me racist jokes, those shfartsa's y'know. To this guy in the museum is means that I can't know or believe anything about evolution.

All it means to me is that I'm Jewish and proud of it.

Visit to the American Museum of Natural History

I went to the American Museum of Natural History on January 6th. A wonderful establishment and I recommend it to everyone.

I went with a friend of mine. He's religious, wears a black hat on shabbos, goes to shir a few nights a week. He's also a math major in college and appreciates and knows science to some degree. A full on Modern Orthodox Jew.

So we're going through the 4th floor which has halls depicting the evolution of vertebrates. Starts at the jawless fishes goes throughlungfishes and dinosaurs and whatnot, ends with modern mammals. And as we go through I'm explaining to him some of the more interesting facts and tidbits from what I know. Interrelationships, points ofdivergence, stuff like that. We're looking at one of the skeletons and one of the "Fossil Explainers" comes by. Those are the guys in red aprons with big buttons on their chests. Volunteers.

So he asks if we have any questions. I figure I can pretty much cover anything my friend asks so I ask the guy, in a joking way, what my friend asked me a second before about this long-necked skeleton. "How many vertebrae does it have?" He's a little surprised and says, "Oh, you can count them."

But that was a bad move. Instead of just saying "No thanks" we get into this whole conversation between the three of us. He starts talking about how he "knows" we don't accept all this (evolution) and gives us a sheet that explains cladograms. My friend pipes up with a usual Modern Orthodox approach, "Well, with this you jus thave to compartmentalize between the two worldviews." And the guy responds with a quote from Thomas Aquinas that two truths cannot contradict. And my friend responds (quite well actually) that it's similar to the division between Quantum Theory and Relativity. Both are right, but we don't know exactly how to combine them. The guy gives up and says that physics is out of his league.

I'm standing there the whole time, not saying anything because my friend doesn't really know what I think about all this. We've spoken about evolution before and I've told him what I think about it, in great detail, but also strategically without bringing the subject of God into it. I really don't know what he thinks I think but I prefer not giving him fodder.

I just wonder what the Fossil Explainer would have said if I told him what I wanted to tell him. I'm an atheist and a biology major! Don't judge people from what they look like. Sometimes I wonder when I see guys in full Muslim wear...what are they thinking? I also saw a couple of Chassidic guys with full beards and in full costume walking down the Big Bang ramp. As you walk down you follow the history of the universe from the Big Bang billions of years ago to the present. They were in deep conversation. I really would've loved to hear what they were saying.

Games to Play

Not too long ago I used to play a fun little game with some of my friends. It's really simple. I used to say, "I am God." And they'd say, "Stop fooling around." So I'd respond, "Prove me wrong."

And of course they couldn't.

Maybe they'd ask me to show them a miracle, I'd say that I would never lower myself to please them. After all, I'm God.

Maybe they'd ask me a question that I couldn't know the answer to, so I could say of course I know, but how dare you test the Lord?

How can you be in human form? Can't I, the omnipotent, do anything?

I would say to them, stop being so stiff-necked. Ignore all those apparent inconsistencies, either you have faith or you don't. If you don't though, I might just have to send you to hell. You're choice though.

In my way I backhandedly was showing them the fallacy of ad hoc assertions. If someone is going to make excuses upon excuses for all the apparent inconsistencies, then you'll never be able to convince them otherwise. How, indeed, can you prove anyone's conceptions of God wrong if they're willing to take such ad hoc suggestions for every point you make?

PS. I'm God. Prove me wrong.

Reductionist Approach

This was an article sent to me via a friend of mine and her rabbi:

One Soul's Adventure: Spiritual Growth Through Halacha

Read it before reading my comments about it.

I thought this article was unique because the first part of his life is rather similar to my own, minus the Catholicism and fighting about Church. Though even that is a significant difference because as a child I was very religious.

He has a few flaws in his reasoning. He sees that science can be thwarted by the bias of scientists and thus comes to see it as nothing more than a belief system as valid as any other. But how can that be true? You don't see other belief systems making vaccines and sending people to the Moon.

And the fact that Chromsky revealed Skinner's bias is part and parcel of the correcting nature of science. Any one scientist or group of scientists can have inherent bias, they're only human after all. But everything they write must go through peer review and is going to be criticized for every fault and bias in them. And eventually, like Skinner, their bias will be revealed.

He also writes: "If a single bioelectrical impulse traveling along aneuron in a petri dish is not a moral action, then the same must betrue of human thought and behavior -- merely a complex system of such impulses. From this perspective, "right" and "wrong" are meaningless, and God is denied."

But the flaw in logic here is that he says the complex system of the human brain and mind is nothing more than the sum of its parts. But that's wrong. Systems like the brain have emergent properties that individual neurons can't have. Having "merely a complex system of such impulses" makes a new entity different from its constituents.

As the brain allows us a sense of identity and of pain, morality comes down to the simple avoidance of suffering. Because if we all care for the other's suffering, we won't suffer ourselves. A rising tide lifts up all ships. This hardly makes morality meaningless, it just makes it not need the handiwork of God.

"There were too many instances in which reason clearly indicated acourse of action, but I acted in another way, the "right" way. If morals were the outcome of reason, how could reason and morals demand a contradictory course of action?"

Because that feeling of what is right or wrong is just as reliable as an emotion. One may feel sad for a person being executed, but if he's a rabid murderer that emotion is out of place. People "feel"differently about different things. Some people think cannibalism is morally acceptable, some verily do not. How about homosexuality? How do people "feel" about that?

Sometimes feelings of morality can go against reason, not because they're coming from a higher reason, but because they are the stuff of emotions.

"Liberated from the confines of rationalism..."

This is my favorite quote. That's like being liberated from the confines of those silly fences on top of really tall buildings. Where are you escaping to? Of course critical thinking and rationalism confines and directs one's considerations, that's its greatest strength.