Sunday, July 31, 2005

The Magical Realm of the Bible

Let me put it out there now in the simplest terms possible. Forget complex and unending discussions on the possibility of the existence of God. Step away from the arguments about the historical bases and origins of events in the Bible and even the Bible itself. Let's take the Bible on its own terms and let me hear the raucous sounds of supporting voices for it.

If you take the Biblical events as being historically true you should realize that it isn't just arguments about the "days" of Genesis, or the likelihood of a global flood, or even explaining the ridiculously long lives of ancient people. You should note that the Bible reads like a fantasy novel. Read the "Lord of the Rings" and you'll see the same types of actors stepping to play.

The Biblical world is a world full of actual mages and wizards and witches with supernatural powers, personified angels, giants, huge monsters like the behemoth, evil spirits like Lilith, talking animals, flying flaming horses and chariots, naked miracles like sticks turning into snakes, burning bushes, and people living inside of whales. If you read Judges, you even see the classic Hero character repeated again and again. Looking objectively, is Samson so different from Achilles?

Now, if you're an Orthodox Jew (or fundamentalist Christian) who believes the Bible's reports are accurate history then you must agree that all those wild and fantastic things truly occurred as written. But my question is then, how do you explain why the world today is nothing like that?

Are all the real witches hiding? Did God simply choose to stop doing miracles? Did all the giants die out? Doesn't it all seem odd that the entire way the world works is completely different in the legend and myth world of the Bible when compared with secular historical records and even our daily experiences of the modern world? It's as if the entire way of the world switched over from magical to rational at some unknown point in the past.

Sure, that could have been God's decision. The Rabbis say that the "Age of Prophecy" is over, but come on, doesn't that strike you as such a pat answer. Doesn't it make more sense to simply see the world as it is, see that it's much easier to claim miracles than to perform them, and place the Bible as literature and not history?

This way of seeing the world only works if you already see the world rationally, of course. If you're one of those people who believe miracles do happen all the time, then in you're view the world hasn't changed at all. That talking fish in New Square was legit and that statue of Jesus really did blink an eye. I can't respond to those kind of people except to go to the regular skeptic's abode and say, "Prove it, please." But for those people who do see the modern world rationally and eschew the claims of modern miracles (and I know you're out there!) I ask how you can explain the disparity between the world we live in and the magical realm of the Biblical past.

Friday, July 29, 2005

Shuttle Pains

"(CNN) -- A small piece of insulating foam that came off the space shuttle Discovery's external fuel tank may have struck the wing of its orbiter during liftoff. But NASA experts do not believe the foam caused any damage, a NASA official said late Thursday.

Camera footage of the launch showed a piece of foam about 7 inches long and 2 inches wide separate from the tank at an altitude of about 200,000 feet in an upward trajectory toward the wing, deputy program manager Wayne Hale said.

Hale said it was not clear from the videotape whether the foam struck the wing. Sensors on the leading edge of the wing did not detect any impact.

Even if the foam did strike the wing, Hale said NASA's calculations show the impact would have had about one-tenth of the energy necessary to cause damage.

A larger piece of foam also fell off the tank, but NASA officials don't believe it struck the orbiter.
Hale has said that piece measures from 24 to 33 inches long, 10 to 14 inches wide, and 2.5 to almost 8 inches thick -- only slightly smaller than the piece of foam that damaged Columbia's wing.

The space agency announced Wednesday that it would suspend future shuttle flights until engineers understand the falling foam problem.

Falling foam from the external fuel tank of Columbia during its 2003 launch was blamed for damaging the spacecraft, which led to the deaths of seven crew members upon their return to Earth."

So what exactly was NASA doing for the last two and a half years? Fixing everything but the obvious foam problem? And if they take another few years off to fix this problem it'll hardly be worth the effort because the shuttles are supposed to be retired in 2010 anyway. I love the shuttles, but maybe it's about time we move onto the next generation of American space vehicles.

And then back to the Moon, to Mars, and Beyond!

Jewish Destiny...

I wrote this in a post to a member of TFSG, Ionatan:

"And another thing: neither kashrut, nor shabbos, nor all the other "traditional holiday stuff" is an integral part of Jewish tradition. For my part, even though I am as good a Jew as they are, I have no sympathy for those things. Therefore I (like many others) represent an adequate counterexample that refutes idle speculations about the nature of Jewish tradition and its connection to Judaism. No, all this religious sediment is not an intrinsic part of the Jewish world, let alone the Western world. On the contrary, it is merely the world chosen by Mis-Nagid and other "skeptics." Make no mistake, there are other possible cultural alternatives, many ofwhich, as far as I am concerned, are far more appealing."

I just have to ask then, in what way do you consider yourself Jewish? You reject Judaism, you reject tradition, what is left but a nominal Jewish namesake, a vague interest in Jewish culture and history, (how do you feel about Israel?), and really you seem to prefer Jewishness being lost into a globally converged superculture.

Quote: "I have absolutely no desire to associate with this cultural isomorphism. On the contrary, I am completely devoted to the one and only cultural convergence that is happening before our very eyes..."

Maybe you are proud of this Jewish identity you hold, I don't know, but do you want to pass this on to your children? Do you even care if they are proud Jews? Basically, is Jewish identity something you hold of value or would you not care if tomorrow it was lost into the rising tides of history?


Ionatan responded (slightly modified):

Have you ever pondered the fact that the ancestors of the French were the Gauls? That’s right, the ones with the rooster. Alas, this is an undisputed fact. Obviously, the present-day French are no Gauls. It is equally obvious that the French have absorbed their Gaelic legacy and carry it inside, along with other legacies – in a digested form, to be sure. What is more, no one is more Gaelic today than the French are. Nevertheless, anyone who made an earnest attempt to cultivate Gaelic traditions today would look ridiculous. In essence, he would be a true invalid, for his cultural self-identity is morbidly mired in the prehistoric past, in long vanished realities. All that is really, genuinely Gaelic is long gone – their tribal system, their cultures, their sacrifices, their belligerence towards neighbors. A sound cultural (as opposed to scholarly and academic) perception of the Gaelic is only possible through the French. Today, scholars are the only ones interested in the Gaelic realities. Post-Gaelic realities are a live component of French culture.

The question we must both answer sounds, when rendered into its French equivalent, like this:

What do we wish to be? French or Gaul? Do we consider Frenchness to be a betrayal of the Gaelic, or its natural evolution? Or, putting it in even simpler terms: do we realize that with time, culture transforms its carrier?

We are taking part in a very tough historical game – a Jewish one, of course. Thus let us, from the very outset, ask the main Jewish Cultural Question:

A propos Jewishness, when we decide to be Jewish, how do we go about it? The same way that the French are French, the English are English, and the Norwegians are Norwegian? Or, having gotten stuck in the past, do we want to be Jews the same way the French may want to be Gauls, the English Anglian or Saxon, and the Norwegians Norman? In other words, do we consider Jewishness to be a national culture, one among many – or are we Jews a unique people, one of a kind, having nothing functional in common with today’s nations?

For the hundredth time, let us call a spade a spade: to this day, the Jews are not a developed nation; theirs is a tribal culture, naturally with all the laughable and lamentable consequences that follow. Since we are all aware of this fact, the only issue is that of choice – a fully conscious choice.

According to the traditionalists, including many of the FS, our choice is simple: either to remain loyal to the tribal lifestyle, or to perish, losing everything Jewish.

In my opinion, this is a mistaken view. The true choice is that between the tribal lifestyle that is outside of history, fixated on tribal symbols and stigmas – and a daring venture into the flow of history. This is precisely the choice we ultimately have to make.

The traditionalists usually fail to realize that the danger of losing everything – the past, the history, the culture, the collective memory – is lurking for us on both paths, and it is actually the former, tribal path that is far more dangerous than the latter. The chances of preserving a reasonable measure of tribal culture while functionally mingling with developed nations that have overcome their tribal tendencies are nil. Essentially, the only realistic way to preserve this culture is to put it into evolutionary historical circulation.

You, Orthoprax, accuse me of rejecting Judaism and Jewish tradition. Even more interestingly, you believe that this rejection leaves me with “a vague interest in Jewish culture and history”. As if it cannot be anything other than “vague”!

Your argument can only make some sense if we assume that Jewish ethno-genesis is fundamentally different from all others, that historical and cultural-historical laws do not apply to us. Yet if this is what you really believe, then what kind of a skeptic are you?

In my opinion, almost everyone who comes from a genuinely traditional family is basically an invalid who is compelled, when freed into the skeptical realm, to slowly and painfully recreate the normal cultural norms of behavior. This is very, very hard. The tribal tattoo never comes off entirely. Nevertheless, I urge to consider at least the purely intellectual aspect of the matter. Let us leave aside the childhood emotions, sympathies and recollections. The only real question is simple and has already been asked: we must decide whether we are ordinary people or not.

I, for my part, consider the Jews to be an ordinary collective with an extraordinary history. It is an ordinary collective in the sense that it is subject to the same laws that apply to everyone else. Our extraordinary history, while it certainly poses distinct objectives before us, does not place us outside the framework of the ordinary historical game. Thus, the presence of extraordinary phenotypic traits does not usually mean the presence of an extraordinary genotype. In short, we are ordinary people stuck fast at the tribal stage of their social and cultural evolution, who must quickly create a fully-fledged national culture. If we don’t, we will vanish. For nearly two thousand years, the Jewish tribe managed to survive in the midst of other tribes or semi-tribes. In the last couple of centuries, the rules of the games have changed – and the results speak for themselves.

This thought brings us to your question about Israel. In all honesty, I do not understand why you would have wanted to raise this issue. I could have raised it myself, and would have done so in due time. For you, it only spells trouble.

The fact of the matter is that, unlike yourself, I actually live in Israel. This is a matter of deliberate choice, since I was born elsewhere and could have settled anywhere else. Essentially, I decided to take part in the real Jewish ethno-genesis, in the normalization process of Jewish existence. Or, what amounts to the same thing, I opted to participate in the formation of the Jewish, or rather (since Jewish is by definition religious or traditional) the post-Jewish, Israeli nation – essentially, a rescue mission to save that same Jewish culture that the traditionalists are unwittingly destroying.

The Gaelic customs, tendencies and norms were doomed from the outset. In fact, any cultural flesh is doomed. Its days are numbered. The only thing that can be salvaged is its memory, transplanted in new, evolved customs, tendencies and norms. That is why a culture must have a consistent collective carrier. In the Jewish instance, it is crystal clear: such a carrier can be engendered (alas, this is far from certain, since not every ethno-genesis proves a success) only by Israel, with all its virtues and shortcomings.

In my opinion, Israel had a chance – albeit only in the event that Israel manages to rid itself the same traditionalism that you advocate in America.

You pride yourself on your knowledge of biblical Hebrew. While, I, you see, took it upon itself to make Hebrew my (as well as my children’s) living language – with all the infinite, multifaceted consequences that this entails. Among other things, I have learned to think in Hebrew. I hold anti-traditionalist conversations with my children, as strange as it sounds, in Hebrew. I have enabled them to go through religious schools (with one exception – my youngest daughter refused to attend one, and I decided that it was her God given right), not the least because I wanted them to hear the traditionalist arguments first-hand. I even passed the state rabbinical examinations (not all of them – I found it tedious, for instance, to learn and be tested for avelut), even though I hadn’t the slightest intention of working in this area (declining several jobs offers from abroad about fifteen years ago). I have been through a rather interesting period of military service, and my children too have been in the army, including the Israeli version of special forces. Two of them, by the way, are presently taking part in the evacuation of the Gaza Strip. This has a direct bearing on our topic.

Yet there is more at stake here than language, war, or the knowledge of Jewish literature. Israel is grinding its Jewish legacy, exactly as Hegel would have it, giving birth to its contemporary living culture through rejecting the old, a rejection that constitutes the true assimilation.

Even though I have no intention of observing Shabbat, I quite agree with to the idea of having a day of rest, one that is markedly different from the rest of the week, as well as to the suggestion to have this day fall on Saturday rather than Sunday. I am sympathetic to the Israeli obsession with local geography, while my own interest in archeology borders on nothing short of a mania. I am fascinated to watch members of different communities, who basically have very little in common, gradually finding a common language. Most importantly, I am hopefully watching the process of forming the Israeli nation, which may just succeed in transforming us form Gauls into Frenchmen.

At the same time, I try to be consistent. Since we are an ordinary, normal people, having no chosen status but merely a complicated past, a people without God but with a history, then we have no other choice but to observe the rules of civilized democratic society. That is why I support, firmly and without reservation, every kind of peace initiative, including the Geneva one; stand behind the principle of full equality for all minorities, above all for the Arabs, of course; and advocate the most dangerous and unpopular endeavor in the world – the quest to turn Israel into a state for all its citizens. Indeed, can a modern democratic state be anything else? In fact, it is only in such a state that we have a chance to successfully complete our ethno-genesis, to rid ourselves of the “Gaelic” tradition, and to finally unfold from a tribal chrysalis into a national butterfly.

You, the Jews living in the democratic and comfortable America, unfortunately do not have such a chance. Thus even American skeptics can only hide their heads, like the proverbial ostrich, in the humus of tradition. What, then, can we expect of all the others?


Then to which I responded:

The French of today are the descendants of Gauls, yes, but they are no longer Gauls at all. They've lost their previous identity and replaced it with another. Yes, I can envision success in the creation of an Israeli identity but with the loss of a Jewish one. But as a Jew, who feels and thinks like a Jew and unlike an Israeli, that plan doesn't really appeal to me.

It is a duck and run plan of cutting a few soft spots of our rich heritage which are retainable in such a national culture while losing the meat of the Jewish experience. It also turns any casual immigrant to the State of Israel into a "Jew" as much as I am. No, in fact perhaps more than I am being as I am not an Israeli citizen. The whole idea devalues being a Jew.

I once saw a short play in summer camp. I don't remember the name of it but it depicted the last Jew on earth. Here he was sitting, wrapped in a talit and fumbling with his tefillin but crying because he didn't know how to wear it and had no one to ask. The scene brought tears to my eyes and thinking about it now has done it again.

Is my loyalty to tradition meaningless because it is fundamentally an emotional reaction? Why? I could say that your Israeli nationalism is also emotional. As I see it, the Jewish people will no longer be Jewish if they remove all the vestiges of what being Jewish has meant for thousands of years. Your neo-culture is more like a pseudo-culture in my eyes. It may be real and perhaps even viable, but it is weak and disappointing.

Is the loss of tradition as inevitable as you make it seem? I sure hope not. We have the power to reinvigorate tradition, reform it and make it anew, but still keep its value. The tribe is not an inferior placeholder for the true Jewish culture, but is the fundamental unit of our Jewish heritage.

Being Jewish should not be a background factoid like other nations have it. Being Jewish is not about "being" but about "doing." Maybe my values are all out of whack from your perspective, but being Jewish involves participation in a Jewish community and Jewish culture. And that Israeli identity you propose to replace it is not enough.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Faith in the Jewish People?

There are some Jewish skeptics out there that go beyond my skeptical views in questioning the validity of the Jewish religion and go to questioning the validity of the concept of a Jewish people. See, I think they come to the issue as thinking of the assertion of there being a "Jewish people" as being a religious belief itself. If the concept of a "Jewish people" is founded in Judaism, then that concept should fall just like the rest of the religious assertions.

Compare Judaism to Mormonism (I know I'm not the first to do it). In Mormonism there is the idea that they are members of the tribes of Israel either through descent or adoption. It is their religious belief which is the foundation for their understanding of their own peoplehood. Is Judaism like this too? Or is Jewish Peoplehood a concept found outside of the Jewish religion?

If you're Jewish, take a look at your skin. Is it the dark olive color typical of Semitic groups or of people from around the Mediterranean? I doubt it. So in terms of direct descent most Jews today probably have an only minimal genetic connection to the original Israelite stock, if that. Yet from recent genetic tests and studies of Jewish groups around the world, there is still a measurable genetic connection and Jews from opposite sides of the Earth are often more closely related to each other than to the non-Jewish people they live among.

But is it genes that make a people? Genetics are very flexible in terms of who is in the group vs outside the group. We can hardly define human races genetically, so it would really be an exercise in futility to try and define genetic markers for Jewishness. The genes are useful though. They tell us that there is a measurable biological connection among Jews and establish a common source. But in what sense are Jews a people?

If we look back in history (yes, we can use Tanach reliably here) we see that the Israelites were hardly religiously uniform. There were idolaters and polytheists but they were still considered Israelites. They didn’t lose that birthright by not being devoted to YHVH. This consideration extended through the entire time of Jewish development. It is ingrained in the Oral Law that even heretics and apostates are Jews. The very name "Jews" is directed towards the people of Judah, not the belief system that those residents held. The Jews as a People are not religiously defined, but naturally.

To be part of one group there must be something which sets your group apart from all others. The most obvious trait among the Jewish people through history is obviously religion. But if you reject the religion is that all the group has which holds it together? I don’t think so.

There is a Jewish culture, Jewish history, Jewish tradition, Jewish music, Jewish folk tales, Jewish texts, Jewish legends, Jewish foods, Jewish jokes, etc. There’s a lot of Jewish stuff out there besides religious faith and devotion. And I think one is fully justified to say that there is a Jewish people even while not believing that the Jewish religion is true.

In the super-skeptics view it is the Jewish religion which created the Jewish people. In my view it is the Jewish people who created the Jewish religion.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Rain Rain Go Away

Isaiah 55:10-11

"For just as the rain and snow descend from heaven and will not return there, rather it waters the earth and causes it to produce and sprout, and gives seed to the sower and food to the eater, so shall My word that emanates from My mouth, it will not return to Me unfulfilled unless it will have accomplished what I desired and brought success where I sent it."

I guess God never heard of the hydrologic cycle?

Application Frustration

Arrg! Do you know what a pain in the ass is? Applying to Medical School. Especially Columbia. They're one of the last schools to switch over to the AMCAS system and yet their secondary application still requires the same whole slew of information. How's that for a waste of time?

Anyway, if you aren't in the know then you probably have no idea what I'm talking about. That's fine. I'm just saying that I've been busy filling out applications and writing essays and I'm getting rather irritated by the whole business.


Got this email from Columbia just today:

Dear Applicant,

In response to concerns about the Course History Section within the P&S Secondary Application, this section has been removed from our application. If you were already in the process of filling out your application, you will no longer see this page. When you print out your copy of the completed application, you may see this section, but in a blank format. We apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused.


P&S Admissions Office

They just realized the incredible waste of time their redundant course section is and so they have removed it. That's great - but I already filled it all out making that effort now officially 100% wasted.

Friday, July 22, 2005

Elementary Understanding

Y'know what always bothered me, the fact that before we were sitting down to first learn Navi or Gemara, it was never explained to us what these things were.

What was Navi? In elementary school my understanding of it was basically lesser Torah stories. Holy books, but less holy than Chumash. That's why on my desk I had to stack them that way.

What was Gemara? Rabbis making Halacha. But when was the Gemara written, who wrote it, what else was going in the world at that time - all that I was in the dark on.

Having no conception of where Navi or Talmud fit into the Jewish construct of things or the wider world's left me extremely uninterested until much later.

That's why I always liked science. Science simply was "the way the world works." It's place in the world was eminently obvious and so my interest in it was so much more pronounced.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Permission to Misconceive

I actually wrote this awhile ago but I pulled it up for another reason. Fixed it up a little bit for this venue.

In "Permission to Believe" Rabbi Lawrence Keleman breaks it down into four basic arguments.

1. Arguing against the alternative: Atheism is irrational because it would necessarily imply that one knows all that exists. As long as you don't know everything, it is possible God exists.

2. Teleological: There must be a God because the Universe is way too complex for there not to be.

3. Moralistic: We all have morality, what can it be based on except for an almighty moral being who created us?

4. Historical: Jews have an amazing history and beat all the odds, thus God must exist because he must have helped them.

My problems against number one is that there is no reason to assume there is a God anymore than we should assume an invisible dragon is living on the Moon. Atheism is logical as long as you take in all the information obtained as of yet. It's true that we cannot rule out conclusively the existence of a transcendent superbeing, but that doesn't justify the belief that one does exist. Atheism is not necessarily saying that God definitely does not exist but that the individual is believing in accordance with the available evidence. We cannot speak about what we don't know. Maybe there really is an invisible dragon on the Moon.

Number two - Science has discovered more and more about nature and more and more has lost deification. We no longer assume the weather is controlled directly by supernatural beings, but that cascading competitive temperatures are the direct cause. The evidence for evolution is mountainous and now the realm which God touches directly is confined to what science has not yet been able to explain. It is a weak argument based on what we don't have information about. God of the gaps is a weak thesis indeed. Complexity in the universe is being explained more and more by science without positing God. When the French physicist Pierre Simon de Laplace explained his theory of the universe to Napoleon, Napoleon is said to have asked, "Where does God fit into your theory?" to which Laplace replied, "I have no need of that hypothesis."

Three - Morality is a curious thing, but I don't see why it necessitates a God. Fundamentally, morality is based on the Golden Rule. Something any society would understand as basic for civilized living. Indeed, any society which did not have a basic standard for living would be self-destructive. Why would people create anything if theft was acceptable? Who would feel safe walking around if they could be murdered freely? Societies encourage the formation of moralities for their collective well being.

Four - Jewish history is remarkable, true. But I don't think one needs a God to be involved to explain it. The Jewish ability to retain unity can be explained in terms of strong common faith, communal resistance to outside forces that try to force Jews apart (Jewish identity is strongest in the most antisemtitic places), strong extensive dictates on lifestyle (read: social controls from things like kashrut which prevent "intermingling") and "approved" reading material, etc. The restoration of a Jewish state is the reaction of a self-fulfilling prophecy. You can follow the origins of Zionism and history all the way to the culmination of the formation of the State of Israel. But nowhere in it do you need to posit divine intervention.

School is Taxing

This might surprise some people, but I am actually for the idea of giving compensation for those taxpayers who also send their children to private and parochial schools. At least in New York City.

I have had reservations in the past of giving taxpayer money to religious institutions, like parochial schools, but on the other hand it really is not right to have parents pay double. One might argue that going to a private school is a luxury burden that parents put on themselves, they could easily just take advantage of the free public school system and stop bellyaching.

But can they really?

Schools in New York City are packed. They barely have room (not even, they don't have room!) for the number of students that are there today. Suppose that tomorrow all of the Jewish schools and Catholic schools and all the private schools decided to enroll their kids in the public school system. They would have nowhere to go! The fact of the matter is that the public school option is closed.

Given that there are all these children who cannot get an education within the system why are their parents being taxed to support it?

Some might argue that to take away such tax dollars from the public school system would put it in a worse place than it is today. It's already screwed up and underfunded. It needs that money.

Well, my first answer is that the objection is fallacious. Yes, the system may need the money, but why should such money be continuously received through what is essentially governmentally approved theft of the taxpayers. Taxpayers are not all wealthy. They need their money too.

Secondly, the system wouldn't be so screwed up if it wasn't wracked with stupidity and corruption. There are so many wasted dollars throughout the public school system in everything it does. If they would streamline it efficiently they would have enough funding to do well by every student.

However, my approval of compensation has a caveat. Such backfunding can only be given to those institutions that actually educate their students in a manner in accordance to a quality standard. What I envision is not giving tax credits or tax deductions or vouchers directly to parents (since such plans almost always favor the wealthy) but to take care of it through the institution side of things. An institution reports to the city or state how many students it has and receives a monetary package from them. That way the schools can then lower their tuitions and parents feel indirect tax relief.

But as I was getting to, such schools would only get that monetary package if their curriculum included a standard level of education for the various important subjects. Giving money to parents to send their kids to a non-educational institution is counter-productive. The students would have to learn English and Science and History, etc. The little corner Hasidic yeshivah where kids come out without even knowing English would never get such funding. Every school would have a standard education that would be paid by the state, but if they want extras like classes in Gemara or Hebrew or Gospel studies (thinking of those Catholics of course) that bill they'll need to foot themselves.

So, in this grand plan, not only are parents being duly compensated, but the levels of education for many students would have to increase.

Saturday, July 16, 2005

Holding Up the Earth

What holds the Earth up?

That might sound like a stupid question to our modern sounding ears, but in the past when gravity was considered universally one-way and a flat Earth was the only accepted conception of the universe, it was a big issue as to what was responsible for holding the Earth up. There were some, like the myth-minded Greeks, who supposed it was a god supporting the world like Atlas. Others, like the Egyptians, considered there to be pillars doing the supporting. Some peoples were truly unique, like the Hindus, who thought it was an elephant on a turtle's back swimming in a universal sea which held the Earth up. But let us not dismiss the early Babylonian and Hebrew conceptions which was a flat Earth floating on a cosmic sea.

But in any case, the fact remains that with our modern understanding of the universe the answer to this question which plagued mankind for millennia is: Nothing! Nothing holds the Earth "up" because there's actually nothing pulling it "down." In fact, the answer "nothing" is incorrect because it is answering a question with an incorrect assumption. The answer should truly be "mu." The Earth is _not_ being "held up" at all.

Now given that such a question actually makes no sense, perhaps there are other deep questions that are asked today but also have no real answers because the question is also nonsense.

Consider: What/Who created the Universe? What was the First Cause/Prime Mover? Do these questions even make sense - or are we perhaps making assumptions about the character of our universe which are simply incorrect?

Thursday, July 14, 2005

A Recent Theodicy

This came up in the midst of a recent discussion of The Problem of Evil. A subject which is actually seen quite regularly on my blog.

"You know if there's no suffering and evil in the world, there'd be no pleasure or good either."

That's bull. I don't need to stub my toe in order to enjoy a good piece of pie. If evil did not exist, we wouldn't necessarily have concepts of "good" or "evil" since it would always be good but I can enjoy good without ever experiencing evil. Just like I can enjoy nice cool weather without ever going through a heat wave.

God of Tradition vs God of Reality

"I'm talking about the "Whatever" that existed BEFORE the big bang, as understood by modern science."

Well, technically speaking one cannot refer to a time "before" the creation of the universe since time itself was created within the universe. It's like referring to a point more north than the northpole.

I think it is faulty human categorization to apply common concepts like time and even causation for such a fundamentally foriegn event. How can we even attempt to assign responsibility for an eventthat we cannot even properly conceptualize?

Not that I don't wonder along the same lines as you do, mind you.

"I'd be eager to hear from anyone else out there who's got serious doubts whether the God of our tradition is in any way an accurate representation of God as God really IS."

Ok, that's me. God may exist, today he stands as the big Mystery forall the unanswered (or unanswerable) questions. There is some answer for all those questions - maybe we can call that God. But that this incredible, subtle and sublime "Force" which rules a universe (at least) and is also incredibly interested in my sex life and eating habits and only lets me know of this through the defective transmission of information that is human communication over generations - that I find entirely fantastic.

Move Over Copernicus

Talmud Babli, Tractate Hagigah, Daf 12a

It is taught: R. Jose says: Alas for people that they see but know not what they see, they stand but know not on what they stand. What does the earth rest on? On the pillars, for it is said: Who shaketh the earth out of her place, and the pillars thereof tremble. The pillars upon the waters, for it is said: To Him that spread forth the earth above the waters. The waters upon the mountains, for it is said: The waters stood above the mountains. The mountains on the wind, for it is said: For, lo, He that formeth the mountains, and createth the wind. The wind upon the storm, for it is said: The wind, the storm maketh its substance. Storm is suspended on the arm of the Holy One, blessed be He, for it is said: And underneath are the everlasting arms. But the Sages say: [The world] rests on twelve pillars, for it is said: He set the borders to the peoples according to the number [of the tribes] of the children of Israel. And some say seven pillars, for it is said: She hath hewn out her seven piliars. R. Eleazar b. Shammua’ says: [It rests] on one pillar, and its name is ‘Righteous’, for it is said: But ‘Righteous’ is the foundation of the world.

Right [hits forehead with palm], pillars! I should have known! I mean, they have the proof texts and everything.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Dschinghis Khan

Anybody familiar with Jewish music? Do you enjoy the song "Yidden"? You should see this:

"Yidden" comes from the composer Mordechai ben David who has gone to Jewish schools to talk about the evils of non-Jewish music. If he really believed that then it's a real wonder that he somehow got the music of Dschinghis Khan, a German pop group from 1979.

Monday, July 11, 2005

Dancing Enthusiasm

I went to a wedding last night, it was a real black hat affair. Separate seating, rabbis saying blessings to "eloheini," the whole deal. Now given all that, I'd just like to point out something that I'm sure we've all noticed but perhaps haven't really cognitized. I've been to a few weddings fairly spread along the Orthodox spectrum. But what really stands out is the unique experience one gets at a hareidi affair. The guests are so enthusiastic and they'll really dance until exhaustion.

Why is it that at a Modern Orthodox wedding, you'll see more people standing on the outside of the circle clapping politely than at a Yeshivish or UO wedding there'll be a lot more people in the fray? There's this sense of enthusiasm that's missing. Sure the guests are happy for the couple and will say as much but where is all the energy?

I'm not sure if there's any deep significance to this observation (it may not even be accurate since I have a limited sample group) but it's worth pointing out.

Friday, July 08, 2005

Lucky Day!

Talmud Bavli, Masechet Shabbat, 156a

It was recorded in R. Joshua b. Levi's notebook: He who [is born] on the first day of the week [Sunday] shall be a man without one [thing] in him — What does 'without one [thing] in him' mean? Shall we say, without one virtue? Surely R. Ashi said: I was born on the first day of the week! Hence it must surely mean, one vice. But Surely R. Ashi said: I and Dimi b. Kakuzta were born on the first day of the week: I am a king and he is the captain of thieves! — Rather it means either completely virtuous or completely wicked. What is the reason? Because light and darkness were created on that day.

He who is born on the second day of the week will be bad-tempered — What is the reason? Because the waters were divided thereon. (Division or disunity is caused by bad temper. — Rashi: so will he be estranged from other people (through his temper).

He who is born on the third day of the week will be wealthy and unchaste. What is the reason? Because herbs were created thereon. (Herbs multiply very rapidly and also continually intermingle with other herbs.)

He who is born on the fourth day of the week will be wise and of a retentive memory('Aruk. Rashi: bright, lustrous. ). What is the reason? Because the luminaries were suspended [thereon]

He who is born on the fifth day of the week will practise benevolence. What is the reason? Because the fishes and birds were created thereon. (Which are fed by God's lovingkindness.)

He who is born on the eve of the Sabbath will be a seeker. R. Nahman b. Isaac commented: A seeker after good deeds. (Just as on the eve of the Sabbath one seeks to complete the details necessary for the proper observance of the Sabbath.)

He who is born on the Sabbath will die on the Sabbath, because the great day of the Sabbath was desecrated on his account. Raba son of R. Shila observed: And he shall be called a great and holy man.

I thought this was a curious thing to see in the Gemara and I'm sure there are many examples where this simplistic breakdown of personality determination breaks down, but I'd also like to point out that I was born on a Wednesday. ;-)

Where do you match up? If you don't know offhand, see here and look it up.

Also, who thinks that this is the meta-meaning for the days of Genesis which Slifkin spoke about? ;-)

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Amblyopia? No, Evil Eye.

For those of us who are familiar with the sight of seeing a bunch of Jewish ladies admiring a new child, one giving a compliment then naturally finishing off the thought with "K'nayna Harah," have you ever wondered what it was all about? Sure, it's to protect us from the Evil Eye, but what the hell is that? Some sort of boogeyman, a personified Eye, which randomly stalks neighborhoods and striking suffering upon those without a red bendel? Or perhaps it is a giant spirit of ill will which exists everywhere and nowhere like some sort of transcendent Satan.

Frankly, I don't even think people who declare "Keyn Ayin Harah" on a regular basis even know what they're talking about since they mispronounce it so regularly. I have even seen those who use the term "K'nayna Harah" as some sort of traditional baby talk. As if it means, "Isn't he cute!" So here's some info about what the Evil Eye is really all about:

The evil eye is a widely distributed element of folklore or superstition: a belief that some people, often women seen as witches, can bestow a curse on victims by the malevolent gaze of their magical eye. The effects on victims vary; some have them afflicted with bad luck of various sorts. Others believe the evil eye has even more baleful powers, that it can cause disease, wasting away, and even death.

Some cultures hold that the evil eye is an involuntary jinx that is cast unintentionally by people unlucky to be cursed with the power to bestow it by their gaze. Others hold that while it is not strictly voluntary, the power is called forth by the sin of envy. It may be that the term covet (to eye enviously) in the tenth Commandment refers to casting the evil eye, rather than to simple desire or envy.

Belief in the evil eye is strongest in the Middle East and Europe, especially the Mediterranean region; it has also spread to other areas like the Americas. In some more southern areas where light-colored eyes are relatively rare, people with blue eyes are feared to possess the power to bestow the curse, intentionally or unintentionally.

Belief in the evil eye features in Islamic mythology; it is not a part of Islamic doctrine, however, and is more a feature of Islamic folk religion. The evil eye is also significant in Jewish folklore; it is called the "ayin harah" in Hebrew. Ashkenazi Jews traditionally exclaim "Keyn aynhoreh!" meaning "No evil eye!" in Yiddish to ward off a jinx after something or someone has been rashly praised or good news spoken aloud. Some Jews also spit in order to ward off the effects of an evil gaze.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Letters to the Editor

"What is the atheist point of view on the witnessess at har sinai? There were 600,000 (or 2 million- depending who you ask) witnesses to the event and the revelation of God. I would like to know what the athiest argument is on this."

Well, I don't think there exists anything that you could call _the_ atheist belief or point of view about anything except specifically the view of God, and even then it's iffy. The most popular view though would likely be that the event at Sinai simply did not happen. Or if it did happen, it happened very much differently than how it was recorded.

Maybe there is a nugget of truth in the story. Maybe Moses made a speech from a mountain and from there he gained a following, or a further understanding of who they were. Maybe it was a recording of a volcanic eruption or a wild thunderstorm. Or it could also be that the whole event was just made up.

There is no one view, especially as it's all speculation because we have no independent evidence one way or the other. Note that we do not have millions of independent texts giving credence to miraculous happenings. There are not actual witness statements. We have one text claiming for there to have been so many millions of people who saw it. I could claim that a billion people saw me fly yesterday, but that's not the same as having an actual billion witnesses.

What it comes down to is that the event, as written, did not occur. The argument for such a conclusion is that the story is fantastic (meaning; like fantasy) and we have no independent evidence for it. Why should a person assume that such an incredible tale is true?


"We have one text claiming for there to have been so many millions of people who saw it. I could claim that a billion people saw me fly yesterday, but that's not the same as having an actual billion witnesses."

Exactly where I was going with this. If you came to someone and said: "a billion people saw me fly", the people you are telling will say: uh, where are the witnesses? and the idea that a billion people saw you fly would go out the window.

Now, take the guy who `made up` the sinai story. He goes and tries to spread his relgion saying millions of people saw the events at saini. The people would have the same reaction as those above to you flying. How does someone even start a lie like that? Claiming to have millions of witnessess? You would be laughed out of here and the story would end there.

No other relgion has claim that a gigantic mass of people witnessed something.

That's the classic Kuzari argument but it fails because it is creating a false picture of how legends and myths come into being. It isn't one sneaky guy pushing a lie, it is a national or regional story which is told and retold over generations and _becomes_ authoritative over time. And have you ever played telephone? One person hears a story and repeats it to someone else, but with a little bit of emphasis in a different place or adds a few details to make the story more interesting or even changes the whole story around in a fundamental way because he misunderstood it. These things happen and myths grow.

So suppose in 1400 BCE, Moses went atop a mountain and spoke to a thousand people. That would be a pretty big crowd in those times. That group, invigorated by the speech follows Moses in his new conception of divinity and follows him. These people tell their children about this amazing speech. And those children tell their children and so on. But along the way, one person tells the other that his face was radiant as he spoke, not meaning literally, but as an descriptive to show importance. The listener misunderstands and actually thinks his face glowed. Maybe over time the one thousand people in the story were added to by the storytellers after reach iteration. One says 1000, the next "thousands" the next 45,000.... Perhaps one person, five generations down, creates an embellished version of the event and says that God himself was there. People like that version better, maybe they don't believe it literally - but their children do because they don't know any better. That's the story they were told. This kind of storytelling went on for centuries.

We know stuff like this happened all the time in the ancient world. Take the story of Greece's war on Troy. It likely is a historical event, but is it anything like what you read in Homer? With gods, demigods and superheroes leading the way? It was centuries before the story of Troy was first penned. It has a nugget of truth, but the story by Homer is hardly an accurate representation of the event. It was embellished over time through an oral tradition.

That event, by the way, also records the eyewitness of hundreds of thousands of people as well. Lots of soldiers were said to have fought, right? And the books detail the powers of gods and demigods that thousands of people had witnessed. So can we now use the Kuzari argument to maintain the assertion that the gods of ancient Greece are real?

There are a number of examples of fantastic myths which many witnesses are said to have seen. Thousands of ancestors of the Irish are said to have seen the island disappear through magic in their Book of Invasions. And, hell, in the New Testament, thousands of witnesses are said to have seen the wonders of Jesus.

What it comes does to is that the Kuzari argument fails because it is setting up a strawman in the form of a "prankster" instead of a true evaluation of how myths form.

Justified Conclusions

This is a question for those true rational believers out there. I understand that you believe the skeptics are dead wrong but my question is whether you see their views as justified.

Is it a justified conclusion for a person to view the Torah plainly, see the literary anachronisms, see the immoral commands, see the mythic nature of the stories and come to the conclusion that it was not penned, either directly or indirectly, by God?

Is it justified for a person to come to the Talmud, see the many mistakes those great rabbis made, see the logic used as contrived and faulty and come to the conclusion that the opinions and rulings in those many pages are without authority?

I'm not asking if you see the skeptics as being _right_ but of being justified in their views. Justified means that both you and the skeptic recognize that these issues do exist but that as opposed to you they come to different conclusions. These conclusions are not wild and crazy but indeed rationally constructed with the evidence at hand.

As an example, sure, you may not buy the Documentary Hypothesis, but is it a wild conclusion based on nothing but a madman's imagination? Or do you see how one can come to that conclusion even if you disagree with it?

So is skepticism justified? Or is faith the only justified path?

Saturday, July 02, 2005

Migdol/Magdil - a Tower of Error

As any observant Jew is aware, there is a sentence towards the end of benching (grace after meals) which is said differently depending on what kind of day it is. On regular days it is said "magdil y'shuot malko" and on Shabbos, Rosh Chodesh, or other holidays it is said "migdol y'shuot malko."

Now why is that? What's so special about the difference of "increases the salvations..." to "tower of salvations..." Ok, well the difference between the words is that they come from different places in Tanach where the same verse is repeated in different contexts. In Psalms 18:51 it uses the word magdil, and in 2 Samuel 22:51 the word migdol is used.

So why do we switch and say the one from 2 Samuel on holidays? Well, we have a couple of answers. First is the apologetic answer:

The Rogatchover Gaon uses a line of reasoning from Gemara Shabbat 115-116b that says that one cannot learn from the Ketuvim (Writings) section of Tanach on Shabbos but one can learn from the Neviim (Prophets) section. So to honor this idea, we switch from the regular "magdil" is Pslams (in Writings) to "migdol" in 2 Samuel (in Prophets).

Wow, what a great answer - except - 1) saying bircat hamazon is hardly learning, 2) there are a number of other quotes from Writings in benching that are not switched and 3) that still doesn't explain why we say "migdol" on other holidays other than Shabbos for which the Gemara talks about.

So what's the real answer?

Rav Baruch Epstein (the Torah Temimah) says that this whole thing is just based on a mistake. Back in the day of original printing, the printer saw that it said magdil, but was knowledgeable enough to know that the whole verse was repeated in 2 Samuel and wrote "migdol" on the side in parenthesis, with the Hebrew letters bet-shin-bet next to it to indicate that the "migdol" form is found in Shmuel Bet, i.e. B'Shmuel Bet.

Later printers working off this copy misunderstood what the bet-shin-bet stood for, thought it may have dropped a Tuf, and thought it meant "B'Shabbat," i.e. "on Shabbat." Meaning that "migdol" was to be said on Shabbos. And if you say something on Shabbos it is likely that you should be saying it for other holidays as well.

So the whole reason for this custom is a silly printing misunderstanding and only stayed around because Judaism is that conservative.

Though, if we go even deeper than this, we could question why in 2 Samuel it is written "migdol" if it is quoting from Psalms in the first place. It should say "magdil" there too. Methinks that was also a copying error...

Update: See in the comments section how Gil Student shows why the Torah Temimah's answer cannot be correct.

Friday, July 01, 2005

Tammuz; The Pagan God

Next week Thursday and Friday are Rosh Chodesh for the month of Tammuz. Now, it is well known that the names of the months of the English calendar that we use have origins from ancient Rome. Some have the names of famous emperors, like July which is named after Julius Caesar and August which is named after Augustus. Some months are named after gods. Like January which comes from Janus, the two-faced sky god and March which comes from Mars, the god of war.

So it should not strike any learned Jew as surprising that a number of months in the Jewish calendar are likewise taken from Pagan sources as well, especially as it is obvious that we no longer use any of the names of months found in Tanach. Most of the modern Jewish months are borrowed from the Babylonian names, some of which follow the names of gods (and some of which are derived from even older sources). But here I'm going to focus on just one month, Tammuz.

I like Wikipedia, so here's what it has to say about the issue:

"In Babylonia, the month Tammuz was established in honor of the eponymous god Tammuz, who originated as an Akkadian shepherd-god, Dumuzid or Dumuzi, the consort of Ishtar and the parallel of the Syrian Adonis who was drawn into the Greek pantheon. The name "Tammuz" seems to have been derived from the Akkadian form Tammuzi, based on early Sumerian Damu-zid. The later standard Sumerian form, Dumu-zid, in turn became Dumuzi in Akkadian. Beginning with the summer solstice came a time of mourning in the Ancient Near East as in the Aegean: the Babylonians marked the decline in daylight hours and the onset of killing summer heat and drought with a six-day "funeral" for the god that was observed even at the very door of the Temple in Jerusalem, to the horror of the reformer Ezekiel:

"Then he brought me to the door of the gate of the Lord's house which was toward the north; and, behold, there sat women weeping for Tammuz. Then said he unto to me, 'Hast thou seen this, O son of man? turn thee yet again, and thou shalt see greater abominations than these." — Ezekiel 8.14-15"

That was some good information about the history of the name, but let's go to to get more information about the myth itself and why such a god would be so honored with a month of its own:

TAMMUZ: Akkadian God of Vegetation and Agriculture who regulates the seasons and symbolises Death and Rebirth in nature. Somewhat reluctantly, it appears.

Every summer, when his powers are strongest, when the flowers are blooming and the harvests are looking great, he collapses from heat exhaustion and dies. His soul flees to the Underworld where it's nice and cool, leaving the world's vegetation to fend for itself.

The resulting desolation causes much misery as plants decay and winter sets in. So his mourning wife Ishtar nips down to the nether regions to rescue him. Which is such a complicated and arduous task that it always takes six months and by the time they reappear, spring is right on schedule.

So as we see even in Tanach, people mourned his death each year since it was signified the end of spring. Alrighty then. While some Jews might have issue with such Jewish borrowing and might even deny it entirely (I saw one place where they claimed that Tammuz is Aramaic for "heating up." Patently false though, Dumuzi is Akkadian for "rightful son") Tanach itself speaks against them because in the only time it uses the term Tammuz is in reference to a pagan deity.

A last point I'd like to acknowledge is the matter of the mourning. Isn't it curious that a month of mourning which was popular throughout the ancient Near East (from Sumer and Babylon to the Aegean) is the same month used by Judaism for mourning in Judaism? Sure, there may be good historical reasons why we fast on the 17th of Tammuz and then go into the time of the Three Weeks, but would it have been as big an annual commemoration had there not already been such a precedent of mourning during that time period?