Monday, May 30, 2005

Any Given Week

This is a picture from this week's traffic. It's a pretty typical week as far as I've been tracking it. I think the image speaks for itself.

You Jews are all great. ;-)

Sunday, May 29, 2005

Job 13

Behold, my eye has seen everything; my ear has heard and understood it. What you know, I know, as well; I am not inferior to you. However, I shall speak to the Almighty; I desire to argue with God. But you are concocters of falsehood; worthless healers, all of you! Who would grant that you fall utterly silent; that would be a wise thing for you!

Hear my argument, if you will, and harken to the contentions of my lips. Will you speak dishonestly on God's behalf? Will you speak deceitfully for His sake? Will you flatter Him? Will you contend on God's behalf? Will you be well when He scrutinizes you? Would you make jest of Him as you would make jest of man? He will surely admonish you! Will you venerate Him when you are in His private chamber? Surely His exaltedness will terrify you; His fear will fall upon you! Your remembrance will be likened to ashes; your stature to lumps of clay. So be silent with me, and I shall speak; let anything that comes pass over me! Why should I carry my flesh with my teeth, and put my life in my hand?

Were He to kill me, I would still yearn for Him, but I will justify my ways before Him. He will also be my salvation, but a hypocrite will not come before Him.

Hear well my words, and let my expression be in Your ears. Behold, I have arranged my argument; I know that I will be vindicated.

Saturday, May 28, 2005

Possibility of Believing in God

I say that one cannot truthfully claim to believe in God. Why? Because by the nature of what God must be is an inscrutable, unfathomable, incomprehensible "thing" which has no human-known equivalent and different in order and kind from anything known in the material universe.

As such one cannot understand at all what they mean when they say "God." It's a meaningless (or its meaning is incomprehensible, which amounts to the same thing) term and holds as much significance as saying that one believes in "Splang." What the hell is Splang?

How can one believe in something they cannot comprehend? That sounds pretty impossible to me.

If one claims that God _is_ comprehensible in some way then their conception of God must be inaccurate or naive in some way and one could say that the individual believes in something which is not God and must be committing idolatry.

So one who says they believe in God must either be lying (possibly unintentionally) or an idolater.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Religious Liberty in Israel?

Take a look here.

This is Hofesh. An Israeli organization founded to fight oppression and religious domination within the State of Israel. Unfortunately, there is no strong separation between synagogue and state as there is in America. And because of this there are a number of religious laws passed which bind the entire state and force the less religious and non-religious to follow them.

Examples of some these according to Hofesh are:

- It is illegal to grow pork in Israel, and many municipalities forbid selling pork.
- It is impossible to get married in Israel by a civil ceremony.
- There is nearly no public transportation in Israel on Saturday.
- It is illegal to open a business on Saturday.
- Hurting someone's religious feelings is a criminal offense.
- Orthodox religious women and many religious men are exempt from military service (which lasts for at least 3 years for men and nearly 2 years for women).
- Religion lessons are mandatory in all Israeli schools.
- You cannot buy non-Kosher goods in major food chains (with the recent exception of Tiv Taam).
- A class in a religious school has on the average 26 students. A secular class has close to 40.
- The State does not fund non-religious burial ceremonies.
- Some of the main streets in Jerusalem are blocked every Saturday, because the orthodox people want them to be.

I spoke to a friend of mine about this issue. He's a religious guy but still aware of and willing to accept some aspects of secular knowledge (though he claims to be a YEC I'm not entirely sure if that's what he "really" thinks, but I don't know) and while he said that he wanted a religious state in Israel he did recognize the validity of my view of the issue as he values civil rights, freedom of religion and the wisdom in separating church and state.

He saw the issue of the Haredi and Hiloni as trying to force each other to do what they want. But I explained to him that that only goes one way. The Haredi are the ones trying to force their views of religious obligations on the rest of the population but the Hiloni just want everyone to do what they want. Religious people can believe what they want and do what they want, just don't force others to do it too. This isn't an equal battle. It's a fight between those who wish to force their views on others vs those who wish to follow their own path and have no problem with others doing the same.

As far as I'm concerned, Israel should be a distinctly Jewish state because otherwise there's no point, but also a secular state. While religion is an important segment in our Jewish heritage it is far from alone. Most Jews are _not_ religious and even fewer are Ultra-Orthodox. There's a lot more to the Jewish people than religion and the path of our people should not be dictated by the religious demands of a small minority.

Monday, May 23, 2005


Saw this online and I laughed out loud:

All Jews, regardless of their belief or disbelief, pray the same prayer, only with a different dialect. The traditional Jew prays, "Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad." Not to be outdone, the atheist Jew prays, "Shema Yisrael, I deny Eloheinu, I deny Echad." And the agnostic Jew recites, "Shema Yisrael, I dunno Eloheino, I dunno Echad."

Sunday, May 22, 2005

The Artful Blogger

Recently both Mis-nagid and Godol Hador have thrown in the towel, quit their blogs and deleted all their posts. Why the abrupt bailing for each of them I'm not sure, but I do have a hypothesis for why they both acted similarly.

I don't think it was some conspiracy but rather a case of convergent activity. Both Mis-nagid's and Godol Hador's blogs were incredibly active. They would sometimes post several times a day and get dozens and hundreds of comments to their messages. For just one guy, that kind of constant full activity could just be too much. It's like coming home from work and then seeing another load right in front of them. At first it would be fun but after awhile (a few months each) it began getting tiresome.

I think that it was a case of burning the candle at both ends. Their blogs were great to read, no doubt much better than mine. And they really tried giving something to their readers on a very regular basis. But that's _hard_ to keep up for any length of time when a person has many other interests and responsibilities in life.

So how do you keep a long-living blog (says the one with five months to his name)? By keeping things in moderation. I post messages only semi-regularly. Sometimes five in a week, sometimes none. But because of how irregularly I post, I feel little pressure to constantly put newer and newer material out there. And because of this little pressure I have no desire to put this blog out of commission. Even if I become uninterested for a few months I can leave it as it is and come back to it when I feel like it.

How Religious Are You?

Recently I was asked by someone "How religious are you?" It was off the cuff and was a rather unexpected thing to hear. Being in my situation as I am, I wasn't sure how to answer. I shrugged it off easily though with a joke response and the conversation soon went onto other topics.

A few days later I thought of the question and of course the answer that first came to me was "not very much at all." I don't believe in dogmas and faith is unattractive to me. But thinking again, the question wasn't "How much faith do you have?" but "How religious are you?" So I went to check up the definition of religious.

Going to the American Heritage Dictionary online I found:

1. Having or showing belief in and reverence for God or a deity.
2. Of, concerned with, or teaching religion: a religious text.
3. Extremely scrupulous or conscientious: religious devotion to duty.

Clearly number one doesn't fit me at all and number three is off scope, but what about number two? I am extremely concerned with religion. How many people spend hours of their valuable time each week turning over questions of faith and duty and history of religion? How many people create a blog and spread their thoughts about these issues for the world to see?

Not that many.

Most people simply accept their given religion and go with it. They don't think much of it at all and they just go through life simply assuming it to be true. These people aren't even very religious, they just aren't interested and they don't question.

Compared to those people then, I am incredibly religious as far as definition two is concerned.

Food for thought.

Friday, May 20, 2005

Cult Checklist

I found this "Cult Checklist" online and I'd like to see how it lines up with Jewish Orthodoxies.

1. The group is focused on a living leader to whom members seem to display excessively zealous, unquestioning commitment.
2. The group is preoccupied with bringing in new members.
3. The group is preoccupied with making money.
4. Questioning, doubt, and dissent are discouraged or even punished.
5. Mind-numbing techniques (such as meditation, chanting, speaking in tongues, denunciation sessions, debilitating work routines) are used to suppress doubts about the group and it's leader(s).
6. The leadership dictates- sometimes in great detail- how members should think, act, and feel (for example: members must get permission from leaders to date, change jobs, get married; leaders may prescribe what types of clothes to wear, where to live, how to discipline children, and so forth).
7. The group is elitist, claiming a special, exalted status for itself, its leaders and members.
8. The group has a polarized us-versus-them mentality, which causes conflict with wider society.
9. The group's leader is not accountable to any authorities, and the group teaches or implies that the supposedly exalted ends justifies the means.
10. The leadership induces feelings of guilt in order to control them.
11. Member's subservience to the group causes them to cut ties with family, friends, and personal group goals that were of interest to them before joining the group.
12. Member's are expected to devote inordinate amounts of time to the group.
13. Members are encouraged or required to live and/or socialize only with other group members.

So now, I'll go through it one at a time.

1. The group is focused on a living leader to whom members seem to display excessively zealous, unquestioning commitment.

Not so much in Modern Orthodoxy, but you do see this with the Ultra-Orthodox and their faith in the "Gedolai Hador." And of course this is eminently obvious with Lubavitch Jews.

2. The group is preoccupied with bringing in new members.

No, I wouldn't say this is a particularly strong element in any Jewish religious movement. Jews only tend to proselytize to other Jews. Messianic Judaism and Jews for Jesus do act like this, but they hardly count as a form of Judaism.

3. The group is preoccupied with making money.

No, this is also pretty much a negative. There isn't a "preoccupation" but some UO groups do tend to push a lot of doorbells and walk around asking for money alot.

4. Questioning, doubt, and dissent are discouraged or even punished.

Oh yeah. This is a big yes. UO groups are horrendous for this type of activity. Slifkin, anyone?MO is better, but even they pride conformity.

5. Mind-numbing techniques (such as meditation, chanting, speaking in tongues, denunciation sessions, debilitating work routines) are used to suppress doubts about the group and it's leader(s)

No, not that I'm aware of. In some yeshivahs, the rabbis might yell and publically embarrass a student who "steps out of bounds" but really nothing that I would put under this category.

6. The leadership dictates- sometimes in great detail- how members should think, act, and feel (for example: members must get permission from leaders to date, change jobs, get married; leaders may prescribe what types of clothes to wear, where to live, how to discipline children, and so forth).

100% yes! The Ultra-Orthodox have to ask a shaila about everything - and of course their rabbis are only too happy to give their scholarly advice. MO to a much lesser degree but still shows up every now and then.

7. The group is elitist, claiming a special, exalted status for itself, its leaders and members.

Again, absolutely! Many MO try to hide the Jewish supremacy but it's still very much there. UO don't even hide it. A goy is maybe just a step above an animal. And secular Jews are barely a step above them - if not worse. To the UO even the MO are semi-heretics. Just ask the Frum Teens Moderator.

8. The group has a polarized us-versus-them mentality, which causes conflict with wider society.

To a 'T.' "Esav soneh at Yaakov." The entire UO worldview is the constant battle between Jews and the vicious antisemitic hordes of goyim. Non-Jews cannot be trusted, socialized with and must be avoided as much as possible. Indeed, the entire hedonistic wider society of America is traifa medina.

9. The group's leader is not accountable to any authorities, and the group teaches or implies that the supposedly exalted ends justifies the means.

No, this is mostly a negative. Except for some UO's appeal to emunat chachamim that can excuse leaders for any wrongdoing, this is not a factor I would use to describe any Orthodox Judaism. It might be there, but it's not strongly expressed.

10. The leadership induces feelings of guilt in order to control them.

Eh, not so much. Maybe a little but nothing really to speak of.

11. Member's subservience to the group causes them to cut ties with family, friends, and personal group goals that were of interest to them before joining the group.

Well, a little but not to any strong degree. BTs may feel that they can't eat at their parents' homes but I don't think they cut ties as this check is saying.

12. Member's are expected to devote inordinate amounts of time to the group.

Oh, sure. Daven three times a day with a minyan. Long hours during the holidays and shabbos. Orthodox Judaism includes a huge time investment.

13. Members are encouraged or required to live and/or socialize only with other group members.

Oh, this is a definite yes. This was like one of the others mentioned before. There is this us-vs-them mindset in the UO velt (and the MO velt too to a large but lesser degree). Socialization with goyim is seriously frowned upon.

So, now, what's the score?

I have seven yeses here for Ultra-Orthodox Judaism. For Modern Orthodox, I count maybe two or three strong yeses and then another three or four weaker yeses. The Modern Orthodox have a wide spread of beliefs about the wider world and their own religion and so on the right wing side they would be much closer to UO and have more checks but on the left wing they would have fewer checks.

Seven out of thirteen points for Ultra-Orthodox Judaism. Seems like it's on the brink. It's not quite Heaven's Gate, but still pretty far out there.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

The History of Tefillin

It had occurred to me that I didn't know when Tefillin were first put into use within Judaism. The specifics of the tefillin are not found in the written text of the Torah and the typical Orthodox response to this is because this is an example of something which is only found in the Oral Law. And, they would say, that it actually strengthens the claim of the necessary existence of the Oral Law because how else could people know what to do?

In my eyes though, the absence of tefillin in the Torah merely suggests that tefillin was made into custom after the Torah was already written.

Anyway, here are a couple of sources I found useful. Though the story of tefillin remains unclear as sources have been lost and the origins are so long ago, there is a general understanding of what they probably were.

See here - History of Tefillin

Interesting things from the site:

Rabbi Judah ben Bathyra claimed that he had Tefillin dating back to the time of Ezekiel.3. This is probably an exaggeration, but the custom is clearly very old. Some of the earliest examples of Hebrew writing to survive are fragments from Tefillin. Tefillin were found in the Qumran caves dating from about the 1st cent. BCE. And the Nash Papyrus of the 2nd. cent. CE is another example. Josephus refers to them 4. as does the New Testament.5. The New Testament refers to them using the Greek word Phylacteries. This is not an accurate translation. Because a phylactery is an amulet, which usually means a protection from evil, while Tefillin are used for ritual connected with prayer and are not thought of as protective.
(3.) San. 92b. (4.) Antiquities 4, 8, 13. (5.) Matthiew 23, 5.

Originally, there were different practices as to which texts were included in Tefillin. The most important source passage was Deut. 6, 4-9. There it says These words which I command you this day...You shall bind them for a sign upon your hands, etc. The question was what does these words refer to? Many thought they referred to Deut 6, 4-5 which said Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and with all your might. For this has always been the key belief of Judaism. However many others pointed out that Deut. Chapter 5 which precedes the passage contains the Ten Commandments, and that These words refers to them. A number of the early Tefillin found therefore contain the Ten Commandments. There is evidence that originally the Ten Commandments used to be recited with the three paragraphs of the Sh'ma in the Temple. During the Talmudic period the practice ceased lest sectarians might say that only these Ten commandments had Divine authority and not the remaining 603 of them.7.

The Talmudic Rabbis recognised stages of development in the use of Tefillin. They stated that although the use of Tefillin was a biblical commandment, the precise details of exactly how to carry it out were the work of the later scribes.8. There is also evidence that Tefillin were worn all day.9.
(6.) Tam. 5, 1. (7.) Ber. 12a. (8.) San. 88b. (9.) Men. 36a.

Despite the long tradition of donning Tefillin, it is quite likely that the four proof texts contained in them were not intended to be taken literally. Exodus 13,9 says And it shall be for you as a sign upon your hand and as a reminder between your eyes in order that the Torah shall be in your mouth. It is clear that this did not mean that the written text of the Torah was to be put in the mouth. And if this was so, then equally the written text was not required to be put on our arms and foreheads. Rabbi Simeon ben Meir (Rashbam), the grandson of Rashi and brother of Rabbenu Tam, took this view. He said that the plain meaning is that it should be as a perpetual reminder as if it were written upon your hand.12.

This understood the passages to teach that putting these words between our eyes meant that we should think about the commandments. And that binding them on our hands meant that our deeds should be carrying out the commandments. Such an interpretation gives the verses a far more important meaning. Instead of being just a command to carry out rituals with little leather boxes when we say our morning prayers, they were now seen as commanding us to carry out God's teachings in every thing we do in life. As a result the literal interpretation has tended to trivialise some deeply religious verses.
(12.) Rashbam on Ex 13, 9.

And also here - Jewish Encyclopedia

In regard to their origin, however, the custom of wearing protecting coverings on the head and hands must be borne in mind. Saul's way of appearing in battle, with a crown on his head and wearing bracelets, is connected with this idea. The Proverbs reflect popular conceptions, for they originated in great part with the people, or were addressed to them. Prov. i. 9, iii. 3, vi. 21, and vii. 3 (comp. Jer. xvii. 1, xxxi. 32-33) clearly indicate the custom of wearing some object, with or without inscription, around the neck or near the heart; the actual custom appears in the figure of speech. In view of these facts it may be assumed that Ex. xiii. 9, 16, and Deut. vi. 8, xi. 18 must be interpreted not figuratively but literally; therefore it must be assumed that the custom of wearing strips inscribed with Biblical passages is commanded in the Torah. "Bind them as signs on thy hand, and they shall be as totafot between thy eyes" assumes that totafot were at the time known and in use, but that thenceforth the words of the Torah were to serve as totafot.

Epoch of Introduction.
It is not known whether this command was carried out in the earliest time, and if so, in what manner. But from the relatively large number of regulations referring to the phylacteries—some of them connected with the names of the first tannaim—and also from the fact that among the fifty-five "Sinaitic commands" ("halakah le-Mosheh mi-Sinai") eight refer to the tefillin alone and seven to the tefillin and the Torah together, it follows that they were used as early as the time of the Soferim—the fourth, or at least the third, century B.C. The earliest explicit reference to them that has been preserved—namely, in the Letter of Aristeas (verse 159; see Kautzsch, "Apokryphen," ii. 18)—speaks of them as an old institution.

Josephus ("Ant." iv. 8, § 13) also regards them as an ancient institution, and he curiously enough places the tefillin of the head first, as the Talmud generally does (comp. Justin, "Dial. cum Tryph." ed. Otto, ii. 154). The tefillin are mentioned in connection with Simeon b. Sheṭaḥ, brother-in-law ofAlexander Jannæus (Yer. Ḥag. 77d); and Shammai produces the tefillin of his mother's father (Mek., Bo, § 17 [ed. Friedmann, 21b]; the parallel passage Yer. 'Er. 26a reads "Hillel"). The date here given is the seventh decade of the first century B.C. Schorr (in "He-Ḥaluẓ," vol. iv.) assumes that they were introduced in the Maccabean period, and A. Krochmal regards the reference to Elisha's "wings" (Shab. 44a; Yer. Ber. 4c) as indicating that he was one of the first of the high priests to wear the tefillah ("'Iyyun Tefillah," pp. 27 et seq.). Johanan b. Zakkai never went four ells without tefillin; neither did his pupil Eliezer (Yer. Ber. 4c). Gamaliel II. (c. 100 C.E.) gives directions as to what shall be done with tefillin found on the Sabbath, making a distinction between old and new tefillin ('Er. x. 1), a fact that clearly indicates the extent to which they were used. Even the slaves of this patriarch wore tefillin (Yer. 'Er. 26a). Judah b. Bathyra refers, about 150 C.E., to the tefillin which he inherited from his grandfather; these were inscribed to the dead awakened by Ezekiel (xxxvii.; Sanh. 92b). In the following centuries they were used to an increasing extent, as appears from the numerous sentences and rules referring to them by the authorities of the Babylonian and Palestinian Talmuds.

Earliest Form.
Tefillin resembled amulets in their earliest form, strips of parchment in a leather case, which is called either "bag" or "little house." Tefillin and "ḳeme'ot" are, in fact, often mentioned side by side (Shab. vi. 2; Miḳ. vi. 4; Kelim xxiii. 9; et al.), and were liable to be mistaken one for the other ('Er. x. 1 et al.). As in the case of the Torah roll, the only permissible material was parchment, while the "mezuzah" was made of a different kind of parchment (Shab. viii. 3 et al.); for this reason a discarded tefillah could be made into a mezuzah, but not vice versa (Men. 32a). It was made square, not round (Meg. iv. 8). The head-tefillah consisted of four strips in four compartments, while the hand-tefillah consisted of one strip. The former could be made out of the latter, but not vice versa; and they were independent of each other (Kelim xviii. 8; Men. iii. 7, iv. 1, 34b; Yer. Ḥag. 77d et passim). The heretics had a way of covering the tefillah with gold, wearing it on the sleeve and on the forehead (Meg. iv. 8). The straps (Yad. iii. 3) were made of the same material as the boxes, but could be of any color except blood-red; they were sometimes blue or of a reddish purple (Men. 35a).

The most important tefillah was the head-tefillah (Kelim xviii. 8 et passim). It was put on according to rule (Sheb. iii. 8, 11; Men. 36a) and was worn from morning until night, with the exception of Sabbath and feast-days (Targ. to Ezek. xiii. 10; Men. 36b); some wore tefillin also in the evening, as did Akiba ('Er. 96a), Abbahu (Yer. 'Er. 26a), Rabba and Huna (Men. 36b) during the evening prayer, and Ashi (beginning of 5th cent.).

The head-tefillah was the principal one, because the tefillah worn on the arm was not visible (Men. 37b). A Jew was recognized by the former, which he wore proudly, because, according to Deut. xxviii. 10, all peoples knew thereby that the Name of the Eternal had been pronounced over him (Men. 35b; Targ. Esth. viii. 15; comp. Cant. viii. 1; Ezek. xxiv. 17, 23). Jerome says (on Galatians iv. 22) that the Jews feared to appear in the cities, because they attracted attention; probably they were recognized by the tefillah. It was not worn in times of danger ('Er. x. 1). The law in regard to tefillin, therefore, which did not demand obedience at the peril of life, had not taken such a deep hold upon the people as other laws (Shab. 130a; R. H. 17a; Yer. Ber. 4c; Pesiḳ. R., ed. Friedmann, p. 111b). However, it must not be inferred from this statement that the tefillah was not worn to any great extent (Rodkinson, "Ursprung und Entwickelung des Phylacterien-Ritus bei den Juden," p. 5), but merely that it was not generally worn.


So it would appear that the custom of tefillin is fairly ancient. Likely from before the 4th century BCE. However, as they originally formed is rather different from how they appear today. A small pouch with scraps of parchment perhaps rather than the blocky weights that we have today. Also the custom for how they were worn has also changed. Clearly, the prayers for Shacharit were written after the custom began so their place in prayer was a later addition.

Perhaps they served the same purpose as the yarmulkah does today, as some religious Jews see it. That at serves to show the world that the individual is a Jew and that means that he recognizes God as his ruler. This would be especially true as some wore it all day. Though their original purpose probably had more to do with luck and protection than anything else.

However, it is also suspect that since before the morning prayers were written, there was no set time for tefillin to be worn and so many people simply went without them. Since Shacharit was not composed until after the Exile, people would make up their own prayers and some perhaps would put on their tefillin to get into the proper mood and attire. But their popularity as a regular item that every Jewish boy must have probably didn't come into effect until after the Exile - perhaps even as late as the time of the Mishnah or Gemara.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Where Morality Steps In

" makes me feel good. Doesn't it make you feel good? I don't know for sure but I think a lot of other humans feel good when their fellow humans get what they want and don't suffer."

"I want you to be happy. Really. That is what I want. That is what I have said, that I want people to act in accordance with their desires. I have said that I would like to do the same thing. If your desires include commiting acts that would cause suffering to someone else, that would be a problem, and then I'd want to stop you. But as long as you're not doing something that violates that, than no, I don't want you to what I want you to do, I want you to do what you want to do."

Those two are not necessarily the same. People often desire things which _do not_ make them happy. Drug addicts are a perfect example. Which is what you are after? Fulfilling desires or creating pleasure (happiness)?

But anyway, it appears to me that your will for the world is your own happiness. That is, after all, how you justified wanting people to act on their own desires. Because that made you happy. People's wills then, by your justification of why you desire the world to be, are constrained by what makes you unhappy.

But what if things that make others happy - makes you unhappy? By how you justified your desire of the world they should not do it! If it makes you unhappy then you must desire for them not to do it.

You go shopping and you're badly craving chocolate ice cream. You go into the supermarket and see that there's just one bucket left. You start walking over to get it and someone gets there before you and takes that ice cream. Obviously such an action would displease you since you are no longer getting that ice cream. So, according to your justification of what you desire, you must desire for him to bend to your will and give you the ice cream.

If you do not will your will to be dominant and you care for his happiness over yours then you are contradicting your very reason for why you will anything at all. It is obvious that there is something beyond your simple pleasure which drives you to desire an egalitarian society.

And *that* is morality.

1. Happiness drives your will.
2. You will all wills be equal.
3. It makes you happy if all wills are equal.
4. Not all wills will agree.
5. Your will will not always agree with others'.
6. Resolution of competing wills will mean that one will will remainundone.
7. A will remaining undone will lead to unhappiness.
8. Your will will sometimes remain undone.
9. This will lead to your unhappiness.
10. If your will for equal wills be carried out it will lead to yourbeing unhappy.
C1: Thus, since your will is decided by your happiness, you mustconclude that you do not will for all wills to be equal.
C2: If you continue to will equal wills then you must admit that youwill it for a reason other than your own happiness.

Even if you don't like it, you do desire your will to be more powerful than other's. Why should the other guy get the parking spot? Of course you want what you want. What you want will often be mutually exclusive of what others want. Since all wills are equal, you won't always get what you want. Not getting what you want will make you unhappy. And since it will make you unhappy this "equal wills" business _cannot_ be what you want.

This is why I said earlier that I did not believe you when you said that you really want others to be happy and not for your own power.By your own admission, you only want others to be happy so that you can be happy. But with equal wills - it must sometimes make you unhappy too. What you want then is "equal wills" for everyone else but your will to be above them all. That just makes you human. If you still want equality knowing that it will make you unhappy then you must becalling on a power besides your own happiness for why you want it.

And that's where morality steps in.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

Rambam - the First Reform Jew

Very interesting article, link here. By Dr. Gerhard Falk.

The greatest of Jewish scholars in the Middle Ages wrote thirteen principles that included the demand that Jews view G'd as one. His name was Moses ben Maimon (1135-1204) and he was born in Spain.

Seen from the perspective of 21st century secularism, Maimonides appears as yet another promoter of the faith based life. He is hardly known to the average citizen of the “first world” and is seldom given more than lip service by Jews, whose knowledge of their religious heritage is no greater than that of the vast majority of Christian adherents and their knowledge of Thomas of Acquino, Maimonides' most important successor.

Yet, the history of secularization and the ascent of man to a life of reason owes a great deal to Maimonides, who sought to reform Judaism in the 12th century and who challenged some of the most fundamental doctrines of his faith by the use of reason.

Judaism has no dogma. This means that there is no list of beliefs to which one must subscribe in order to be considered a Jew. Converts to Judaism are not confronted with such a list, as is true in some Christian denominations whose minimal beliefs are contained in the Nicean Creed.

Therefore the thirteen principles which Maimonides claimed every Jew must accept were in fact not accepted but only noted by the Jews of the twelfth and all subsequent centuries. Many Jews, then and now, view a list of beliefs as non Jewish and merely an imitation of Moslem and Christian attitudes. In any case, the thirteen principles are 1. That G'd exists. 2. That he is one in a unique and perfect sense. 3. That he is immaterial and not to be compared to anything else. 4. That he is eternal. 5. That prayer must be addressed only to him and not to any saints. 6. That G'd revealed himself to the prophets. 7. That the prophecy of Moses is unique and superior to all others. 8. That through Moses G'd gave the Jews the Torah. 9. That G'd will never change or revoke the Torah. 10. That god’s providence observes our actions and our inner motives. 11. That man is rewarded and punished according to his desserts. 12. That the Messiah will come and 13. that the dead will be resurrected.

This list of beliefs led to immediate controversy among Jews some of whom thought the list was too short, others who thought different principles should have been included and yet others who thought that such a list would induce Jewish believers to exclude as unimportant anything not on the list.

That controversy, however, was mild and negligible compared to the bitter arguments which arose after Maimonides published his Guide to the Perplexed when he was fifty five years old. The Guide to the Perplexed challenged the traditional belief in the literal interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures and altered their meaning. Maimonides, like Philo before him, introduced philosophy into religion. The word philosophy in its Greek meaning refers to the love of any wisdom, including that which is now called science. Therefore, the vast illiterate or near illiterate majority of Jews and Christians then and now will accept religious tales as literally true, a view which Maimonides rejected. Greek philosophy always viewed god as transcendent, as did the Rambam, i.e. Rabbi Moses ben Maimon. Judaism teaches that G'd is imminent. Transcendent is derived from trans, or over, and scandere, to climb. In theological terms this refers to the philosophical view that G'd is so great that he does not deal with us directly. Imminent means “to remain in”. Therefore the traditional Jewish view that G'd is imminent means that “And God spoke to Moses as follows: Say to the Children of Israel etc etc.” That verse appears innumerable times in the Five Books of Moses and together with the reputed contact G'd made with other prophets led to the belief that G'd is right there for each believer. Maimonides approached the Torah, the Jewish Scriptures, in a rational fashion and rejected all superstition. We cannot discern the difference between a superstition and a “true belief”. However, the advances Moses ben Maimon made on the road to reason were considerable.

First, Maimonides studied philosophy. He then tried to bring Jewish tradition into conformity with philosophy. This was at once rejected by traditionalists who hold that faith alone is needed to comprehend scriptural teachings and that any attempt to insert philosophy into religion implies that religious beliefs can be challenged and may therefore not be valid. In short, Maimonides denounced literalism, i.e. the literal acceptance of the Scriptures as written. Like Aristotle, the Rambam sought to prove the existence of G'd, not by merely accepting the word of the Torah, but from the circular motion of the globe and the planets. Again, like Aristotle, he sought to show that G'd is not corporeal, looking on disbelievers of this view as heretics. He found no grounds for looking at god as corporeal, i.e. having a body, speaking, showing anger, etc. Yet, the Bible clearly teaches the opposite. Maimonides also thought that only qualified persons should study the “secrets of the law”, referring to prophecy, providence and free will.

Maimonides taught that G'd is separate from the universe and is not in contact with it whatever. This was utterly unacceptable to the orthodox, who could not conceive of a transcendental G'd. To them, G'd knows what occurs on earth and therefore metes out punishments and rewards. This is all denied by Maimonides.

Maimonides not only devoted himself to a description of the nature of G'd, he also sought to explain the origin of the universe. Now, anyone who has read the first two lines of the first book of Moses will find these sentences: “Bereshit Elohim, boro et Hashomayim v’et Haaeretz. V’haaretz hoyta tohoo vovohoo etc.” This literally means “In the beginning the gods created the heavens and the earth. And the earth was unformed and void etc.” Please note that the word “elohim” is plural and means “gods”. Theologians explain that this allusion to more than one god should be seen as an effort to enhance the greatness of the one G'd in the same sense as the Queen of England refers to herself as “we”.

Maimonides created a great deal of controversy when he claimed to accept the view that G'd created the world from nothing while also saying that he would have happily accepted the view of Aristotle that the world has existed since eternity if Aristotle had been able to prove this. In short, Maimonides was not an enthusiastic supporter of the Jewish tradition of creation.

As an Aristotelian, Maimonides denied miracles and held that nature cannot be altered, not even by G'd. Maimonides caused a good deal of resentment among the orthodox when he taught that divine protection is enjoyed by the philosophical among men as providence is dependent on “a person's intellectual association with active reason.” This directly contradicts orthodox teaching which holds that the good, the humble and the pious deserve the highest reward.

Because Maimonides was a philosopher he was also a rationalist. Every philosopher is a rationalist. Therefore, Maimonides taught that Scripture must not be taken literally. The Torah, to Maimonides, was ordinary legislation and is not necessarily divine. He stressed the function of Torah as an instrument of social justice and rejected the concept that the Torah is a mystic bond between G'd and Israel. This made Maimonides the first Reform Jew.

Maimonides also reinterpreted the revelation at Mt. Sinai at the giving of the ten commandments. He argued that the people of Israel did not hear the articulate commands heard by Moses. He also thought that “prophecy” is a natural faculty which is developed in some people and not dependent on the arbitrary selection by G'd. Maimonides also sought to minimize wonder workings and other forms of miracles attributed to prophets.

The Rambam goes on to deny that angels are corporeal beings and labels them dreams and visions. Therefore, the appearance of angels to Abraham, Jacob and Balaam were called into question by Maimonides, thus challenging biblical history.

Furthermore, Moses ben Maimon also challenged the traditional view of the human soul. According to tradition, every human has a soul which returns to G'd at the time of death. Maimonides said the soul vanishes at death. Instead, it is the intellect which survives and becomes one with the active intellect of the universe. Siddartha Gauthama, the Buddah, also taught this doctrine.

Now the Torah, i.e. the Five Books of Moses, contains 613 precepts. Many of these precepts have to do with Temple worship and were no longer applicable during the lifetime of Maimonides as the Romans had destroyed the Temple in 70. Those not associated with procedures concerning the Temple were accepted by orthodox Jews as the will of G'd whether a reason for their existence could be found or not. Maimonides, however, analyzed each of the commandments to find a reason for them. He claimed that the food laws of the Jews were given to protect Jews from disease.

He also taught that permanent life in the world to come would be spiritual and not physical and that this “after life” would open to anyone and is not particularly Jewish.

Maimonides wrote a book called “The Repetiton of the Torah” in which he questioned “the awakening of the dead” despite the fact that he had inserted it in his creed.

He also held that the Midrash, or interpretation of the Torah as included in the Talmud or Instructions, should not be taken literally. The midrashim include folk wisdom, proverbs, stories, anecdotes etc.

Maimonides also denounced astrology, denied the existence of demons and witches although the Torah specifically says “you shall not permit a witch to live” (Exodus 23:17). This denial of demons and witches did not depart from the views of Jewish theologians in the 12th century although masses of people continued to believe in witchcraft as some still do in the 21st century.

In 1170, Maimonides published his greatest work, Mishna Tora or Repetition of the Law. This is a codification in fourteen volumes of all Biblical and rabbinic law. This was a stupendous achievement but led to yet more controversy. Many feared that the Mishna Tora would supersede the Talmud. Scholars were angered by the failure of Maimonides to give the names of the Talmudic scholars whose opinions he had cited. Maimonides never cited any dissenting opinion and he was accused of aspiring to make his work a substitute for the Talmud.

Finally Maimonides was justifiably accused of seeking to insert Aristotleianism into Judaism ,an effort which failed. Aristotleianism rests on the assimilation of natural science and logic into a philosophical system. This was rejected by Jews and other religious groups. Platonism served the religious community far better but Aristotleianism was viewed as a heresy. Yet, medieval scholasticism absorbed the views of Aristotle. Today, scholasticism is in disrepute among the scientific community of the 21st century.

The immediate consequences of the writings of Maimonides may be described as “The Maimonidean War”. Because the son, grandson and great grandson of Maimonides all succeeded to the leadership of the Egyptian Jewish community and continued the traditions of the founder of the dynasty, Aristotleianism became fashionable among some Jews. Allegories were used to seek to fit the Bible in the Aristotleian scheme and the historical accuracy of the Bible was questioned. It was claimed by the Hellenized Jews that the story of Abraham and Sarah was only a legend representing Aristotle’s matter and form and that Jewish ritual had only symbolic purposes. Some rabbis in southern France pronounced anathema or a curse upon Maimonides and his followers and his works.

Universe for the Taking

In Hallel there is a passage stating: "Hashamayim shamayim lAdonay v'ha'aretz natan livney adam" meaning "The Heavens are for God and the Earth was given to man." (Pslam 115:16)

My problem with such a statement is that I think that whatever man can get his hands on in space is his. Humanity should not be limited to just our one planet (wonderful though it may be) but to gather resources from throughout our solar system and perhaps settle on other worlds as it becomes technologically feasible.

And even when man is plentiful in the solar system, I expect to see him flying out to other stars and to explore and to mine and to settle and colonize there too. The Heavens are not for God, what use has he with any of it? There are practically unlimited sources of power and materials untapped by humanity. Is this psalm saying that we cannot go out and get it? Space is our future and it belongs to all of us. (Has anyone read the Manifold series? Just call me Malenfant.)

This passage bothers me in the same vein as does one passage in Kiddush Levanah. Although I haven't said Kiddush Levanah myself more than a half a dozen times in my life, I do see a group of Jews praying to the Moon every now and then.

It says: "Just as I leap toward you [the Moon] but cannot touch you, so may all my enemies be unable to touch me harmfully."

While that may be a nice sentiment, the fact of the matter is that the Moon is perfectly reachable and touchable. I've heard crazy ways some people get around this obvious need to change the liturgy from saying that the Moon landings were faked (of course) or that since the astronauts were wearing gloves the whole time on the Moon, they never actually touched the surface. But really, come on! The absurdity of it all gets to me sometimes.

Shalom Aleichem! Shalom Aleichem! Shalom Aleichem!

Late Passover Post

I know I said that I was going to write about the evolution of the Hagaddah, but actually what I was really interested in was the origins of the Seder itself. But before I get into the origins of the Seder, I will include some information about how our current Hagaddah came to be.

The basic form was set down in Mishnaic times, that is by about 200 CE, and much was added during or after Talmudic times which is where all those Rabbis got into the book. The aspect of the Ma Nishtanah, the Four Questions, is rather old but it has changed over time. The order of questions is different as are some of the questions themselves.

Originally there was a question saying "On all other nights we eat meat roasted, stewed or boiled, but on this night, roast only." (See Pesachim 116a). The dipping question was moved up and the sitting/reclining question filled in.

Also, at the end, the songs of Chasal Siddur Pesach, Dayeinu, and Chad Gadya were added around the turn of the last millenium. Rav Amram Gaon, who headed the Babylonian Yeshiva of Sura between 856-876 CE ended the Hagaddah after the fourth cup, Rav Saadia Gaon (882 CE - 942 CE) did not have Dayeinu or Chad Gadya in his version but Rashi (1040-1105) did have Dayeinu. In fact, Chad Gadyah didn't appear in the Hagaddah until 1590 in Prague.

It is really strange thus knowing that Chad Gadyah came so late into the text that later and contemporary Rabbis try so hard to come up with a "deep" explanation of it. The truth of the matter is that that song came from a late medieval German folk song ("Der Herr der schickt den Jokel aus") which, in turn, was based on an old French nursery song.

Now, given the variable and mutable nature of the Hagaddah for its entire history, it does seem strange that Orthodoxy today is so against any modern changes to it - even though they continue regardless.

Anyway, the origins of the Seder itself are actually that of the Greek symposium. Since the whole Seder was set up after the fall of the Temple and sacrifices were no longer brought, it sensibly took the form of an already formed system. Among the practices described by the Greek sources were: a ritual wine libation and washing of the hands; the eating of various hors d'oeuvres before the main meal, including lettuce and various fruit and nut salads resembling charoset, sometimes in the form of sandwiches (reminiscent of Hillel's famous custom); the singing of hymns to an assortment of gods, whose praises might make up the central topic of discussion; and the posing of a set of questions to set off the conversation. They would also commonly lay on their left sides as that was the method of dining at the time. Carpas is clearly a Greek word as is afikoman. (Although the Greek idea of an "epikomion" was rather different from the stale piece of matzah Jews would be familiar with.)

And here yet again we see famous Rabbis trying to give special retroactive meanings to these clearly borrowed practices. Like that charoset is to symbolize the mortar, etc. Not that there is anything necessarily wrong with it, but in doing so they hide the actual origins. Indeed, some perhaps for that very purpose.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Stepping Stones

"College, at this point, has largely become just a stepping stone to graduate programs because it's almost impossible to find a good job in most fields without it."

This is a major pet peeve of mine towards the educational system in the US. Everyone needs a college degree nowadays because it is perceived that high school is not enough of a general education. But why can't it be?

In other countries, like in Europe and Russia, students are learning calculus and other college level courses by the age high school students are here. Students are fully capable of studying such things. So much time in elementary school is also wasted as most schools only actually learn every other year. Schools in the US are geared towards the lowest common denominator and the quality of education has crumbled as a result.

A college degree was once held in very high regard. Nowadays, since the whole quality of education has sunk from the elementary school level up, a college degree is needed for jobs for which just high school would have been needed 60 years ago. College, in a way, has turned into high school. And since everyone needs a college degree, the schools have again focused on the lowest common denominators to keep with demand. A college degree is hardly worth the paper it's printed on anymore. You get a society filled with people who think they're educated, but really have just wasted four years of their life learning what they should have covered in high school.

So, to replace the prestige of the college degree, every scholar must now get additional graduate schooling. But as places like school-by-mail institutions increase, they are again devaluing the meaning of a graduate degree. When will it end?

The whole situation bothers me. The attitude of college as a stepping stone is prevalent throughout the country, but some institutions openly cater to it. It should be fought, not normalized.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

On the way to Monsey

So I'm driving in the car with my mother, going up to Monsey, naturally, for Pesach. We get into a rather deep discussion, which is unusual for my mom and I because we don't often sit together by ourselves for that long. We have a good relationship, which is great, we just don't have many "deep" talks. It was completely calm and good-natured the whole time, but that was probably because she doesn't know what I really think.

Anyway, we're talking and it starts getting interesting when she brings up homosexuality. I don't recall why it came up but she says that homosexuality must surely be caused by unresolved psychological issues from childhood. Similar to the causes for all the sorts of phobias that people have.

I say that I don't find that as likely since homosexuality crosses all social boundaries. Rich, poor, "broken" families, happy families, white, black, yellow, religious, secular, etc. They all have their homosexual individuals. I also relate some studies that have been done comparing homosexuality rates among twins and how they match more than not. And responding to her claims of "unnaturalness" I give her a few examples of homosexuality seen among animals. And species like bonobos which all appear to be bisexual. I say that I believe homosexuality to be a congenital condition, caused by factors in utero, not some sort of psychological ruining in early or later life.

Eventually, it comes down to her saying that if homosexuality is congenital, then how can they be held guilty under the rules of Halachah? How can God create such a person? The answer I want to say is that if God doesn't exist or if God doesn't actually care if a person is homosexual then there is no issue. But I can't say that, so I say that an individual is just as faultless if the causes are from early childhood and a person is simply victim of their psychology.

We enter into the meaning of morality. I bring up classic Socrates and Kant and she says that morality has no meaning except from what God gives it. Something is only good or bad because God says it is. And she says that she can conceive of a universe where such things like murder and child molestation are moral. Homosexuality, she says, is on the same side of morality as murder. Morality, in Torah, is given by God as a guide for how to live in this universe. Were it another universe, the guide could be completely different.

I don't tell her that such a conception make the terms "right" and "wrong" arbitrary, with only local meaning. But I do recognize that it is a workable scenario, even though I disagree. An immoral act to me can only be defined as an act which hurts another person. And that would be true in this universe or any other. But I don't say so.

She then relates how she says Rabbi Blumenkrantz (or Blumenfeld..something like that anyway) proves the existence of God. It's the typical watchmaker argument and I tell her that Rabbi Blumenkrantz didn't make it up, William Paley did so hundreds of years beforehand. I give her a couple of the weaker objections to the argument, e.g. we know of watchmakers, but not of worldmakers and so the analogy is flawed. But I leave out evolution and cosmology (which largely explain our world without divine molding) since I know that that would upset her. I also mention how if the world is so perfect, why is there evil? An imperfect world suggests that no perfect creator made it.

Our conversation deepens to the question of theodicy. She says that any "bad" is really for a good purpose. If not for the Holocaust, we wouldn't have Israel. I say that if God is omnipotent, I would think he'd be able to get us Israel even without the Holocaust. Any bad in this universe is here either because God put it here or because he just couldn't make a better universe.

Eventually she ends up going to the place where theologians always seem to end up: the mystery of God. She says that there are things which we simply cannot understand. Just as a cat cannot understand the issues of men, so like a man cannot understand the ways of God. Why is there evil in this world? God only knows.

You can't argue with incomprehensibility, so I don't really respond. God is incomprehensible so how can we make sense of anything?

She asks me, are you asking serious questions or are you just saying all this for the sake of argument. Inside I'm crying out to say, Yes! These are serious issues! But, I give a third answer, that "I'm just discussing." And she seems to take that to mean the latter option.

She says that the fact that I still have my faith says something in it of itself to the strength of the reality of God. And I'm laughing and crying inside thinking, Oh! If only she knew!...if only she knew...but I say nothing.

She relates a story of my grandfather, her father who died when I was a child. How he used to play devil's argument on all sorts of issues like these. And I wonder if maybe he was like me. And I wonder if maybe in those "devil's arguments" he was actually showing a little bit of his real self. But I doubt it.

My grandfather, my zaide, was a good man. Came to America from Poland a few years old and struggled in his life to support his family, not having much of an opportunity for advanced education, but as a quick learner he was able to become very valued at his work where he did jobs far beyond what his title might suggest. I don't know what he thought of life. Having died when I was only a child, I never had the opportunity to discuss with him any of the "big" questions, of politics, of religion. I don't know if he would have enjoyed it or become impatient with me. I do remember him fondly though. Taught me how to play chess which we played every Friday night after dinner while everyone else went to their beds to read or to sleep.

Anyway, my mother enjoyed our conversation. I did too, though I felt unfulfilled. So much more to say, left unsaid.

Monday, May 02, 2005

I've Been Away

I've been away for Pesach and away from an available computer for the last week and a half or so. But I'd also like to write a few posts that I had been thinking about during that time...but not now, later. I only got home an hour or so ago and I've got class early tomorrow. Sometime this week I'll start putting it in print.

But to remember what I want to write about, I'll make a list here:

- A conversation with my mother as we drove up to Medinah Kedusha (Monsey).
- The history of change of the Haggadah.
- A specific line of Hallel (also a Pslam from Tanach) which I found disagreeable and the future of humankind.

So stay tuned for new programming. As a plus, no commercials!