Sunday, December 24, 2006

In Short, Why I am not an Atheist

As I see it, atheism pretends to be the 'default' hypothesis but really it is simply the null hypothesis. Rather, as opposed to that perspective, I believe that the universe, as we perceive it, screams out that something is afoot.

What that "something" is exactly I cannot say, but I feel free not to have my speculations painted into a philosophical corner based solely on our ignorance.

So what do I know? I know that the universe is awesome - literally. I know that humanity has a profound moral sense. I know that humanity has unique and truly incredible abilities found nowhere else in the known world.

Are these factors profoundly interrelated? I believe so. It is there where I find God.

[This post was originally a response to GH's post.]

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Megillat Chashmonaim

This is pretty fascinating stuff.

It's not the history that I know about Chanukah, but it is a peek into the historical comprehension as it existed back in the Middle Ages (although Sadyah Gaon apparently claimed it dates back all the way to the sons of Matityahu).

Relevant Jewish Encyclopedia article.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Too Improbable Not to be True

I was watching 48 Hours on CBS tonight and saw an interesting show "The Mystery of Christmas" which was basically a skeptic vs believer discussion on the reliability of the Gospel accounts and the literalness of the virgin birth and other associated aspects of the story.

One guy who was interviewed, Ben Witherington, is an evangelical scholar and had this to say about the story of the virgin birth:

"You're absolutely right that, you know, if Mary goes home to Mom and Dad and says, ‘Well, I've got good news and bad news. Here’s the good news. The good news I'm going to be the mother of the Messiah. The bad news is, I'm already pregnant. But, not to worry. I'm pregnant by means of the Holy Spirit.’ And, you know, if I'm a normal parent I'm going, ‘Uh-huh’. And where was Joseph when all this was happening?’” says Witherington. “You know, of course, there's a scandalous element to the story.”

And it’s precisely because the story was a public relations problem for the early Christians that he’s convinced the Gospel authors would never have made it up.

“You don't make up a story like this if we're dealing with an evangelistic religion that wants people to believe the story,” says Witherington. “The virginal conception is too improbable not to be true.” [Source]

So, "too improbable not to be true"? Sound at all familiar?

Monday, December 11, 2006

Freedom Contrived

I found this the other day. I know it's an old post, but it made me think.

Like a woman who has applied makeup before running to her first tryst, the world, when it rushes toward us at the moment of our birth, is already made-up, masked, reinterpreted. And the conformists won't be the only ones fooled; the rebel types, eager to stand up against everything and everyone, will not realize how obedient they themselves are; they will rebel only against what is interpreted (pre-interpreted) as worthy of rebellion.

This is a fascinating idea. That even those who rebel are themselves still within the system following along "approved" lines of rebellion. It reminds of the Matrix where Neo finds out that he is merely the sixth 'One' and that Zion has been destroyed several times before him. The rebelling humans may technically be outside the Matrix, but they are not really free. They are playing themselves out along the robots' plans, in just another level of control.

This is not unlike R' Kook's ideas about the place of atheists in God's plan for the world. They think they are rebelling but really they are merely playing the role set out for them in God's mastermind plan for humanity. This is an idea both frightening and comforting, in a way.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

On the Wings of Eagles

There is a common belief that is taken semi-seriously by people in the Orthodox world that when Moshiach comes the Jews still living in galus will literally be flown to Eretz Yisroel on the wings of eagles. Despite the obvious physical difficulties with such a scenario, Messianic times could be saturated with miracles and thus reality would be no object.

Here is an excert from one interesting dream sequence of such a phenomenon occurring that I found on the web:

"We saw hundreds of thousands (revavot) of Jews. A gigantic eagle that was 1/2 the size of Yerushalayim had his tail on the "landing" and Jews climbed aboard. There was no pushing or nervousness. Families stayed together. Members of families that were not on "speaking terms" prior to this, made peace without any effort. The Eagle boarded 20,000 Jews at a time and within seconds, he waved his wings and disappeared. The eagle returned in less than 5 minutes to pick up more Jews. We waited for about 10 minutes and were told to "board the Eagle". Within seconds, the eagle took off. It seemed there wouldn't be enough room for everyone to stand on the Eagle's back but the Eagle seemed to stretch even bigger and each person was comfortable. No one was scared of falling off. He waved his gigantic wings 3 times and we arrived in the holy land - Eretz Israel."

Others prefer to take Isaiah's metaphor found in 40:31 - "but those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint" as a specific prophecy where Jews will indeed fly to Israel (though Isaiah wasn't even referring to the ingathering of exiles here) but not on eagles per se, but on airplanes - on which Jews do indeed use to fly to Israel. I imagine that the founders of El Al considered naming themselves NesherAir for a little while.

Though there is also a relevant passage found in the Gemara (Sanhedrin 92b) where it does speak of Jews flying during the End Times - "And should you ask, in those years during which the Almighty will renew his world, as it is written, And the Lord alone shall be exalted in that day, what will the righteous do? — The Lord will make them wings like eagles', and they will fly above the water, as it is written, Therefore we will not fear when the earth be removed and the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea. And should you imagine that they will suffer pain — therefore Scripture saith, But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run and not be weary; and they shall walk and not faint."

Hence the Talmudic rabbis interpret the scenario as when the world is destroyed in the process of God's rebuilding for Olam Habah, the righteous folks will grow eagle's wings and fly around until the earth is re-established. Funky, eh? I bet they didn't teach you that in yeshivah.

Anyway, let's take a look at the first time we see this phrase and try to understand it contextually.

Ex. 19:4 - "'You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles' wings and brought you to myself."

Does this, in fact, happen anywhere in the text? Not literally. So why are Jews later on taking it literally? Let's see Rashi for this passage: "on eagles’ wings" - Like an eagle, which carries its young on its wings, for all other birds place their young between their feet since they fear another bird flying above them. The eagle, however, fears only man, lest he shoot an arrow at it, because no other bird flies above it. Therefore, it places them [its young] on its wings. It says, “Rather the arrow pierce me and not my children.” I [God] too did that: “Then the angel of God…moved, …And he came between the camp of Egypt, etc.” (Exod. 14:19, 20), and the Egyptians shot arrows and catapult stones, and the cloud absorbed them.

Furthermore, Deut. 32:10-12 explains the metaphor in full: "10 In a desert land he found him, in a barren and howling waste. He shielded him and cared for him; he guarded him as the apple of his eye, 11 like an eagle that stirs up its nest and hovers over its young, that spreads its wings to catch them and carries them on its pinions. 12 The LORD alone led him; no foreign god was with him."

So what do we get out of all of this simply? The metaphor "on the wings of eagles" means that God protects the Jews like an eagle protects its young - exactly as Rashi explains. Isaiah's later use of the metaphor to mean renewed stength in those who hope in God still is not close to the contemporary conception of Jews literally flying on eagles' wings.

So when and why did people start taking the metaphor literally? That literal interpretation has no contextual or even traditional reason behind it. It's a metaphor! Why does it seem like someone went out of their way to make Judaism more fantastical than it already was?

This post was inspired by Guest Poster Happywithhislot at Baal Habos.

Edit - Check this out.

Monday, December 04, 2006

The Mysterious Stones of Mount Sinai

There's an idea floating around the Orthodox world (and maybe even wider) that stones from Mount Sinai are unique and were branded by God with internal engravings of bush-like shapes in memory of the incident of the burning bush that allegedly took place there.

This site had (see update) explained the idea quite well:

"The Mysterious Rocks from Mount Sinai: No matter how you split a rock from Mount Sinai, you will see on all sides mysterious engravings of a bush. I've witnessed this personally and can testify that it's true. (this is a unique phenomena in the world) I once heard an explanation in the name of a Midrash: When G-d sent Moses to Egypt to report to the Jews about the redemption and then to come back to Mount Sinai, Moses asked G-d: 'how will I be sure which mountain to return to?' (since at first, G-d spoke to Moses only from Mount Sinai). G-d made a miracle and all the rocks from Mount Sinai became engraved with the 'burning bush'."

Then it follows with a series of images of broken stones that allegedly came from Mount Sinai, here are a couple if you're too lazy to go to the site yourself.

[Pictures removed from site.]

I don't know if that midrash is real or not, but it looks pretty impressive, eh?

Anyhow, I did some research and it turns out that that these types of mineral fomations are not uncommon at all. What happens is that usually some kind other mineral like iron oxide or manganese oxide sets into the cracks of the stones and gives this dendritic appearance.

"A crystal dendrite is a crystal that develops with a typical multi-branching tree-like form. Dendritic crystal growth is very common and illustrated by snowflake formation and frost patterns on a window. Dendritic crystallization forms a natural fractal pattern...

In paleontology, dendritic mineral crystal forms are often mistaken for fossils. These pseudofossils form as naturally occurring fissures in the rock are filled by percolating mineral solutions. They form when water rich inmanganese and iron flows along fractures and bedding planes between layers of limestone and other rock types, depositing dendritic crystals as the solution flows through."

-From Wikipedia

I found some pictures on the web and I wanted to post them here, but for whatever reason Blogger is giving me issues so I'll just link to them and let you check 'em out yourself.

Here, if you scroll down about a third of the way down the page you'll see three pictures with this caption written underneath: "[Dendritic (like tree branches): quartz with black manganese dioxide crystal inclusions, sandstone matrix with iron oxide dendritic crystals on surface, dendritic native copper crytals]."

Here too, if you scroll down to the bottom, you'll see another three pictures with this written underneath: "[Dendritic agates and a dendritic sandstone piece]."

And here's a good picture of a dendritic agate from North India.

Here's a good blog post written by a geologist on dendritic formations in general.

So, as they say on MythBusters, this myth is Busted!

Update: The webmaster of the above linked website has acknowledged the error (see comments) and has removed the page from his site.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Joshua vs General Lin

Oh boy, Dawkins is everywhere isn't he? Here I am going to talk about him again, but only briefly! Anyway, I was watching on youtube his book reading of 'The God Delusion" at Randolph-Macon Woman's College (you can see it here there's also an additional Q&A portion found here) and he mentioned an interesting study made by George Tamarin, an Israeli psychologist, back in the 60s and 70s. This is what he found (as reported from here):

The Israelites' campaign to carry out their god's commandment to commit genocide against the native inhabitants of Canaan-cum-Palestine took several generations. It began with Joshua's massacre at Jericho. Contrary to the Christian song "Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho," according to scripture there was no battle at all. It was a siege, at the end of which all of the city's inhabitants were killed except Rahab the prostitute (she and her family were spared in exchange for helping Joshua plan his strategy, Joshua 6:16-17, 19, 21, 24, RSV):

Joshua said to the people, "Shout; for the LORD has given you the city. And the city and all that is within it shall be devoted to the LORD for destruction . . . But all silver and gold, and vessels of bronze and iron, are sacred to the LORD; they shall go into the treasury of the LORD." . . . Then they utterly destroyed all in the city, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and asses, with the edge of the sword . . . And they burned the city with fire, and all within it; only the silver and gold, and the vessels of bronze and of iron, they put into the treasury of the house of the LORD.

The half-life and penetrance of such cultural legacies are often under-appreciated. Some 3,000 years after the fall of Jericho, Israeli psychologist George Tamarin (1966, 1973) measured the strength of residual in-group morality. He presented Joshua 6:20-21 to 1,066 school children, ages 8-14, in order to test "the effect of uncritical teaching of the Bible on the propensity for forming prejudices (particularly the notion of the 'chosen people,' the superiority of the monotheistic religion, and the study of acts of genocide by biblical heroes)." The children's answers to the question "Do you think Joshua and the Israelites acted rightly or not?," were categorized as follows: "'A' means total approval, 'B' means partial approval or disapproval, and 'C' means total disapproval." Across a broad spectrum of Israeli social and economic classes, 66% of responses were "A," 8% "B," and 26% "C." The "A" answers tended to be as straightforward as they were numerous (Tamarin, 1966):

-In my opinion Joshua and the Sons of Israel acted well, and here are the reasons: God promised them this land, and gave them permission to conquer. If they would not have acted in this manner or killed anyone, then there would be the danger that the Sons of Israel would have assimilated among the "Goyim."(6)

-In my opinion Joshua was right when he did it, one reason being that God commanded him to exterminate the people so that the tribes of Israel will not be able to assimilate amongst them and learn their bad ways.

-Joshua did good because the people who inhabited the land were of a different religion, and when Joshua killed them he wiped their religion from the earth.

Tamarin (1973) noted that:

"C" classification [total disapproval] was accorded to all answers formally rejecting genocide, either on ethical or utilitarian grounds. This does not mean that all "C" responses reveal non-discriminatory attitudes. For example, one girl criticized Joshua's act, stating that "the Sons of Israel learned many bad things from the Goyim." . . . Another extremely racist response is that of a 10 year old girl disapproving the act, stating, "I think it is not good, since the Arabs are impure and if one enters an impure land one will also become impure and share their curse."

Other misgivings included (1966):

-I think Joshua did not act well, as they could have spared the animals for themselves.

-I think Joshua did not act well, as he should have left the property of Jericho; if he had not destroyed the property it would have belonged to the Israelites.

In contrast to the established difference between boys and girls in propensity toward violence and approval of violence in general, with regard to biblically commanded genocide Tamarin found that "Contrary to our expectation, there was no difference, concerning this most cruel form of prejudice, between male and female examinees" (1973). Less surprising, but more alarming, nearly half of the children who gave "total approval" to Joshua's behavior also gave "A" responses to the hypothetical question: "Suppose that the Israeli Army conquers an Arab village in battle. Do you think it would be good or bad to act towards the inhabitants as Joshua did towards the people of Jericho?" Tamarin (1966) received such responses as these:

-In my opinion this behavior was necessary, as the Arabs are our enemies always, and the Jews did not have a country, and it was necessary to behave like that towards the Arabs.

-It would have been good to treat the Arabs as Joshua and his soldiers did, as they are Arabs; they hate and retaliate against us all the time, and if we exterminate them as Joshua did, they won't be able to show themselves as greater heroes than we.

-I think it was good because we want our enemies to be conquered, and to widen our frontiers, and we should kill the Arabs as Joshua and the Israelites did.

Some respondents disapproved of Joshua's campaign (answer "C"), but approved of similar acts if committed by Israeli soldiers. One girl disapproved of Joshua "because it is written in the Bible, 'don't kill'," but she approved of the conjectured Israeli Army action, stating "I think it would be good, as we want our enemies to fall into our hands, enlarge our frontiers, and kill the Arabs as Joshua did."

As a control group, Tamarin tested 168 children who were read Joshua 6:20-21 with "General Lin" substituted for Joshua and a "Chinese Kingdom 3000 years ago" substituted for Israel. General Lin got a 7% approval rating, with 18% giving partial approval or disapproval, and 75% disapproving totally.

The most revealing of the above is not so much some the horrible moralizations given by the schoolchildren, but that the whole issue is an instance of special pleading since the children were hardly as likely to see General Lin in as ethical a light.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Cutting into Sacred Territory

"Soon after I started my medical studies, I was standing before a long metal table with three other medical students one day when I faced my ultimate challenge.

On the table was a long black bag with a zipper running down the middle. In the air around us, assaulting our sinuses, was the sharp chemical smell of formaldehyde. Inside the bag was a dead person -- a cadaver.

It had been assigned to our group, and we were expected to dissect it, organ by organ, limb by limb, learning by touch, sight, and firsthand experience the contours, textures, colors, and inner realms of the human body.

I had known this was coming. We all did, and everyone felt some degree of discomfort about this part of our education. The cadaver stage of medical school has been chronicled profusely. Some students name their cadavers -- names like Louise, Jim or Butch. It is a tactic to relieve the discomfort of knowing that before us lies a person who lived life as we do, felt jealousy and fear, and perhaps made art, wrote poetry, raised children and sacrificed for them, decorated Christmas trees, wrapped birthday presents, had been in love and in lust, had had a broken heart.

But beyond all of this, I had to combat another level of discomfort; Navajos do not touch the dead. Ever.

It is one of the strongest rules in our culture. The dead hold ch'iindis, or evil spirits, that are simply not to be tampered with. When a person dies, the "good" part of the person leaves with the spirit, while the "evil" part stays with the physical body. That belief is so strong that before the advent of mortuaries, Navajos sought out Pueblo Indians, missionaries, white traders or other outsiders to bury their dead. When a person dies in a hogan, the hogan is destroyed. Sometimes Navajo people nowadays bring their dying relatives to the hospital simply to prevent them from dying in their home. In many other cases hospitals are avoided. Navajo people know that death lies inside hospital walls, and therefore hospitals are filled with ch'iindis."

- "The Scalpel and the Silver Bear: The First Navajo Woman Surgeon Combines Western Medicine and Traditional Healing" by Lori Arviso, M.D., and Elizabeth Cohen Van Pelt

Excerpt from an excerpt from here.

I haven't read this book at all and I'm not trying to promote it. I just saw this excerpt and I thought it was rather fascinating given that I was looking up the Halachic considerations regarding dissections of Jewish cadavers. Could make you think.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

The Minds of Our Youth

It gets to you after awhile. You spend time discussing these skeptical issues with folks on the jblogosphere and frumskeptics group and you start to think that there really are a lot of thoughtful Jews out there who know there are significant issues with Orthodoxy. Many of them aren't as skeptical as you are, sure, but they at least know there are problems and can rationally appraise the situation.

You can actually have a conversation with people and you can be speaking the same language.

So I decided to spend some time on a different kind of discussion board online and I've been there for about a month or so. This discussion board is made up predominantly of young (college age mostly) straight-up Orthodox Jews. There are a couple with some interesting histories, but I was nearly alone in my skeptical views amongst a sea of unqualified full believers.

It's like talking to a wall. Not only do they not understand where you're coming from, they believe that your intent is sabotage and for the most part do not even attempt to defend their beliefs. And when they do try to defend themselves they don't even know how to think. You make an argument and they don't understand. You actually have to walk them through it one 'if-then' step at a time. They are so sure they are correct even though it is fully apparent that they are fully ignorant on so many key concepts. It's like they don't want to think - they don't care! They are dead-set in their ways at the ripe old age of 20 years old.

It's maddening.

They make piss-poor arguments that folks on the jblogosphere would tear apart in minutes, while there they all nod their dittoheads in solemn agreement. It is incredible seeing how these youth's minds are in such subservience to the thinking patterns forced onto them as yeshiva students. They don't think for themselves and they can't even conceive of thinking outside the box.

These people are the future of Orthodox Judaism. And these were the MO type no less!

As long as I could almost fool myself that Orthodoxy could be composed of all the thoughtful people we find on the jblogosphere I am comfortable with my place in life and the path I've chosen. Traditional is good when thought is free. But when I see the real company of the future and the type of thinking I am externally associating myself with I think to myself, "What am I doing here? These are people whom I want to be identified with?"


Thursday, October 26, 2006

Hope Springs Eternal

There's been a lot of existential issues going around the J-sphere lately, so I thought to introduce people to a most excellent poet: Alexander Pope, who like so many of us, struggled with these same issues.

Excert from "An Essay on Man: Epistle I"

"Hope humbly then; with trembling pinions soar;
Wait the great teacher death, and God adore.
What future bliss, he gives not thee to know,
But gives that hope to be thy blessing now.

Hope springs eternal in the human breast:
Man never is, but always to be blest:
The soul, uneasy and confin'd from home,
Rests and expatiates in a life to come


All are but parts of one stupendous whole,
Whose body nature is, and God the soul;
That, chang'd thro' all, and yet in all the same,
Great in the earth, as in th' aethereal frame,
Warms in the sun, refreshes in the breeze,
Glows in the stars, and blossoms in the trees,
Lives thro' all life, extends thro' all extent,
Spreads undivided, operates unspent;
Breathes in our soul, informs our mortal part,
As full, as perfect, in a hair as heart;
As full, as perfect, in vile man that mourns,
As the rapt seraph that adores and burns:
To him no high, no low, no great, no small;
He fills, he bounds, connects, and equals all.

Cease then, nor order imperfection name:
Our proper bliss depends on what we blame.
Know thy own point: this kind, this due degree
Of blindness, weakness, Heav'n bestows on thee.
Submit. In this, or any other sphere,
Secure to be as blest as thou canst bear:
Safe in the hand of one disposing pow'r,
Or in the natal, or the mortal hour.
All nature is but art, unknown to thee;
All chance, direction, which thou canst not see;
All discord, harmony not understood;
All partial evil, universal good.
And, spite of pride, in erring reason's spite,
One truth is clear, 'Whatever is, is right.'

-Alexander Pope

I posted this little bit on ex-Godol Hador, who has lately been completely wracked by existential issues, but I guess it need no comment there.

Monday, October 23, 2006


Looky what I found:


1. The state of being paradoxical (Webster's)

2. In theological terms, it is the act of believing in something you know to be completely untrue. eg. people who follow the norms of a religion, believing that it will make them more worthy in the eyes of a god(s) that they do not believe actually exists. Examples are most Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, and other less popular religions.

"My father was a believer of Jewish Orthodoxy. I, on the other hand, am a believer of Jewish Paradoxy. I don't believe in this stuff, I just wear the duds to get chicks."

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Throwing Truth to the Ground

I know this isn't my usual style, but I heard a really nice d'var Torah today that I'd like to share.

It starts off with with the consideration in this week's parsha where that famous line where God says "Let us make man in our image." So the question is, who is "us"? If God is all alone up there doing his creative work, who is he talking to? The most common answer given, as it is expounded in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 38b) is that God is conferring with the angels, his heavenly court, regarding the decision whether to create man.

So there is a midrash which relates that conversation. In the midrash, there are four angels conversing with God. The first, Chesed, says that man should be created because he does good deeds. The second, Emet, says that man should not be created because all he does is lie. The third, Tzedek, says that man should be created for he does act of righteousness. And the fourth, Shalom, says man should not be created for all he does is fight.

So the score is two votes for and two votes against. Seems deadlocked. So what does God do? He throws Emet to the ground. (We might call it a divine veto.) Now with the score two to one, God creates man. But another angel comes up to God and says, how can you throw your seal of Emet to the ground? So God responds, "Let the truth grow up from the ground."

As is common in many midrashim, the meaning behind this one is far from clear. Rabbi M. who gave the d'var Torah just kind of left it there with just the appellation that it was something to think deeply about.

Now I thought this was a neat midrash. Obviously you can't take it literally but there does seem to be a deeper message. To me it seems to speak even more than others because the connection between Judaism and truth is an especially interesting relationship to me. That God would throw truth to the ground for the sake of creating mankind is a very symbolic. But symbolic of what?

On one level we could see it as God making the building of truth man's work. Truth is not in heaven, it is on earth waiting for us to build it up. This would be appealing for a scientist because it basically describes how he'd go about doing his work. And really for any of us who pursue truth, this would be a meaningful interpretation.

But on a different level we can also appreciate the degrees of importance in God's (or the midrash writer's who was speaking for God) perspective on reality. Out of those four key elements, it is truth which God throws down. Presumably God wanted to create man and his reasons seemed to flow around the ability of man to do acts of compassion and righteousness so these are clearly important. But he chooses peace over truth to keep in its ideal position. So while I wouldn't say the Midrash is promoting the idea that truth unimportant, but that in comparison to peace and righteousness it comes out on the bottom. We may never know truth fully, and it would be presumptuous of any man to say that he knows the Truth (TM), but what is key to life are acts of kindness and peace. In the order of values, truth has been humbled.

In Pirkei Avot 3:12, it is written, "[Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa] used to say, 'He whose works exceed his wisdom, his wisdom endures; but he whose wisdom exceeds his works, his wisdom will not endure.'" A testament to the idea that the key to life is doing good deeds and not just the goal of becoming 'wise.'

But on a third level we might be able to understand this midrash as a description of the ethic of Judaism entirely. Us skeptics realize that large swaths of the traditional faith cannot be reconciled with what we have learned through modern scholarship. And if one studies the works of some famous rabbis, there are hints that they suspected as much themselves. Not so much in terms of modern scholarship, naturally, but that the basic thesis had a some problems. Hamayvin yavin.

Yet even though there are issues with questions of fact, the basic values that Judaism progresses in terms of tzedek, chesed and shalom are unmistakable. Truth, in Judaism, according to this midrash, is not something received from above, but grown from below. Like God, we, as a community, may need to sacrifice truth as we think we know it and rely on our basic values to bring Judaism foward. We ought to embrace the truth, whatever it may be, within the basic values of Judaism. That will be the true test and the real challenge for Judaism as we engage these modern times.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Celebrate Succos the Old-Timey Way

From Nehemiah, Chapter 8:

13 On the second day of the month, the heads of all the families, along with the priests and the Levites, gathered around Ezra the scribe to give attention to the words of the Law. 14 They found written in the Law, which the LORD had commanded through Moses, that the Israelites were to live in booths during the feast of the seventh month 15 and that they should proclaim this word and spread it throughout their towns and in Jerusalem: "Go out into the hill country and bring back branches from olive and wild olive trees, and from myrtles, palms and shade trees, to make booths"-as it is written.
16 So the people went out and brought back branches and built themselves booths on their own roofs, in their courtyards, in the courts of the house of God and in the square by the Water Gate and the one by the Gate of Ephraim. 17 The whole company that had returned from exile built booths and lived in them. From the days of Joshua son of Nun until that day, the Israelites had not celebrated it like this. And their joy was very great.
18 Day after day, from the first day to the last, Ezra read from the Book of the Law of God. They celebrated the feast for seven days, and on the eighth day, in accordance with the regulation, there was an assembly.

A few comments.

One, check out passage 15, specificially the supposedly quoted portion, i.e. "'Go out into the hill country and bring back branches from olive and wild olive trees, and from myrtles, palms and shade trees, to make booths' - as it is written."

Here it is in Hebrew:

צְאוּ הָהָר וְהָבִיאוּ עֲלֵי-זַיִת וַעֲלֵי-עֵץ שֶׁמֶן, וַעֲלֵי הֲדַס וַעֲלֵי תְמָרִים וַעֲלֵי עֵץ עָבֹת לַעֲשֹׂת סֻכֹּת, כַּכָּתוּב

Now, note how curiously they left out the whole 'pri etz hadar' section from Vayikra. The etrog has a pretty prominent place in modern observance of Succos, rather strange that they left it out, hmm? It seems to have been replaced here with olive branches. Could 'pri etz hadar' have meant olives in Nehemia's time? Think about it.

Also note how the Israelites are using those four species, not to shake about in a bundle, but to construct their Succot. The whole shaking ritual of the lulav and etrog is actually absent from the entire Tanach. It is not mentioned in Vayikra or here in Nehemiah or anywhere else in the Bible. Curious, no?

In fact, using the four species as building materials is the traditional understanding of the Biblical instructions as far as the Karaites are concerned. To this day, observant Karaites will build their Succah roofs with olive branches, along with myrtle, willow, and palm fronds. Typically they also reject the 'four wall' ideal of Rabbinic Judaism and build them tent-like as well.

Lastly, I'd like to point out passage 17, about how they had never celebrated like this and in passage 14 how they apparently discovered this festival in Ezra's Torah. For a group with a supposedly perfect transmission of data from the moment at Sinai, they seem to be awfully forgetful. What does this say to the Kuzari argument?

Just a few things to think over. And, of course, have a happy Succos.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Dawkins and a Hasidic Rabbi

This is one section of a series of clips taken from Dawkin's documentary show titled "The Root of All Evil," where he goes around interviewing various religious believers about their beliefs. The primary thesis being that religious faith is irrational and oftentimes dangerous.

The segment with the Hasidic rabbi starts at around the six minute mark here. My only issue is that I think they cut it off before it really got interesting.

I don't agree with everything that Dawkins says, but him and I are more likeminded than I and Rabbi Gluck.

Secular Muslims, Say What?

Stereotyping Rankles Silent, Secular Majority of American Muslims

Khalid Pervaiz is an American Muslim, an investment banker in Los Angeles with two young daughters. On the door of his home is a Christmas wreath made by his 7- year-old, and in the living room is a Christmas tree with an angel on top. His daughters go to the mosque, or masjid, on Sundays for classes in the Koran, but Mr. Pervaiz himself goes once a year on the major Muslim holiday of Id al-Fitr.

"I had the privilege of being exposed to other religions from the very beginning, so I wasn't so fixed on the idea that Islam is the only way to live," Mr. Pervaiz said. "Every once in a blue moon I will go for my Friday prayers, but I still think I'm a good Muslim. If I don't go and pray five times a day, I don't think I'm less of a Muslim. I'm just not a practicing, going-to-the-masjid Muslim."

In behavior and belief, Mr. Pervaiz is among an overlooked silent majority of Muslims in America. They call themselves moderates, but another way to describe them is as cultural Muslims, akin to the assimilated cultural Jews who identify as Jewish, eat gefilte fish and celebrate Passover, but are for the most part not observant and not affiliated with a synagogue.

The cultural Muslims may attend prayers in mosques once a year on Id al-Fitr, not unlike Christians who make it to church only on Easter or Jews who attend services only on the High Holy Days. They may fast intermittently in the monthlong holiday of Ramadan, but they do not pray regularly. And yet they consider themselves good Muslims.


Generally, a Muslim is defined by faith in the religion of Islam; however, in the modern world there are religiously unobservant, agnostic or atheist individuals who still identify with the Muslim culture due to family background or personal experiences. This group is best described as cultural Muslims, since they are identified by association with a Muslim community rather than Islamic faith or rituals. Malise Ruthven discusses the term in Islam: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2000) as follows:

There is, however, a secondary meaning to 'Muslim' which may shade into the first. A Muslim is one born to a Muslim father who takes on his or her parents' confessional identity without necessarily subscribing to the beliefs and practices associated with the faith, just as a Jew may describe him- or herself as 'Jewish' without observing the Halacha. In non-Muslim societies, such Muslims may subscribe to, and be vested with, secular identities. The Muslims of Bosnia, descendants of Slavs who converted to Islam under Ottoman rule, are not always noted for attendance at prayer, abstention from alcohol, seclusion of women and other social practices associated with believing Muslims in other parts of the world. They were officially designated as Muslims to distinguish them from (Orthodox) Slavs and (Catholic) Croats under the former Yugoslavian communist regime. The label 'Muslim' indicates their ethnicity and group allegiance, but not necessarily their religious beliefs. In this limited context (which may apply to other Muslim minorities in Europe and Asia), there may be no contradiction between being Muslim and being atheist or agnostic, just as there are Jewish atheists and Jewish agnostics... It should be noted, however, that this secular definition of Muslim (sometimes the terms 'cultural Muslim' or 'nominal Muslim' are used) is very far from being uncontested.

Secular Muslims? Cultural Muslims? Skeptical Muslims? Atheist Muslims? Who knew?

Maybe we really are cousins.

I wonder, is there a Muslim Reconstructionist movement in the works?

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Pantheism vs Atheism

At Spinoza's blog there was a discussion regarding the pantheist position and the centuries-old criticism that pantheism is nothing but atheism in ill-fitting religious clothing. If you are equating the universe with God, why can't you just drop the God term entirely? Do we really need another synonym, especially one that carries such heavy connotations?

But I think that the pantheist position is a far cry from atheism. Granted, to the theist who insists on anthropomorphizing God they are equally heretical, but they are actually only superficially similar.

The major difference lies in the appreciation for existence. What is existence really? Is it some random backdrop in which we find ourselves or is it an integral part of who and what we are?

Pantheists are generally philosophical Monists, everything is 'one thing' and all comes from the same source. All things within the universe are interconnected.

Pantheists may also believe that there is value external to human judgement for things like morals and aesthetics. That these are not human constructions but that they are human fulfillments and recognitions of aspects of reality. The typical atheist position which undermines such things as epiphenomenal are actually integral (as are all things) to the pantheist position.

The Pantheist may understand a certain way that things ought to be, as opposed to the atheist which sees such ideas to be a matter of mere personal preference or irrelevant.

Atheists don't tend to make metaphysical assertions, they just harp on the failures of theism. If they follow scientific skepticism then their metaphysical views may be nothing but basic materialism.

The ultimate difference lies in what each side considers the basic substance of the universe to be like. The atheist conceives of nothing but subatomic particles whizzing about or random quantum fluctuations while the pantheist imagines a fundamental well-structured ground of being.

Personally, I don't know if I'd call myself a pantheist. Perhaps I'm more of a panentheist wherein physical existence is a manifestation of a higher existence, albeit a still integral one. The question is then what we mean when we use the term 'universe.' If it means just physical reality, then I'm a panentheist. If it means all things then I'd have to a pantheist.

Pantheism is a positive belief that the universe holds properties worthy of reverence for its own sake and that are truly integral for a meaningful existence. To refer to such ideas as simply the physical universe loses a lot of the intended meaning. The term 'God' as ultimate existence is not just a semantic ruse, it is truly a more apt expression of pantheistic beliefs.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Word of the Day: Hypokeimenon


"Hypokeimenon is a term in metaphysics which loosely means the "underlying thing" or the substratum. To search for the hypokeimenon is to search for that substance which persists in a thing going through change—its essential being. It is conceptually similar to Spinoza's "substance" and Kant's concept of the noumenon in The Critique of Pure Reason."

I believe few people would say such a thing does not exist. Yet, is this not God?

Is not God the hypokeimenon of the universe, however imprecisely it is defined?

Sunday, August 27, 2006

A Reading Meme

I was tagged by Ben Avuyah on his Meme a little Meme post.

A book that changed my life? Hmm. I think I had my own personal Copernican Revolution after reading through Kant's "Critique of Pure Reason." Now, you might have thought that I'd have chosen a book that lead me on my way from Orthodoxy but truth is that there was no such book. Much of what led me down there was from general information that I picked up from numerous sources and from conversations on internet forums. I've never even read most of those famous books that the deconverted talk about - like "The Selfish Gene" or "Who Wrote the Bible?", though I am familiar with what they contain.

For all of his flaws, it was Kant who helped me unhook myself from my bear hug with Positivism and my following existential crises (they were low key) and led me to a broader appreciation for Judaism.

I've read many books more than once. As a kid I was enthralled by the Goosebumps series by R.L. Stine, but I also loved Heinlein's "Have Space Suit - Will Travel" and "Interstellar Pig" by William Sleator. For as long as I can recall I have been a fan of science fiction. More recently I've reread "The Limits of Orthodox Theology" by Marc B. Shapiro.

I were stuck on a desert island I'd want to take an extremely detailed book on astronomy (Yes! Anthologies are cheating!). That way I could actually know what I'm looking at during those long nights under the wide open sky.

A book that made me laugh - "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" by Douglas Adams (the movie did not do it justice).

A book that made me cry - "In the Presence of Mine Enemies" by Harry Turtledove. I recommend it.

A book that I wish had been written - going with my sci-fi theme - "A Comprehensive Field Guide of the Galaxy's Extraterrestrial Civilizations."

A book I wish had never been written - I really could have done without Mein Kampf.

I'm currently reading "The Jewish State - The Struggle for Israel's Soul" by Yoram Hazony. I'm also in the middle of "Infinity Beach" by Jack McDevitt.

A book I've been meaning to read - one of these days I am going to read the Koran. It seems like an important text to be familiar with especially in today's political landscape.

What turned my onto fiction? Jeez, as far back as I can recall I was reading books. The best stuff was science fiction as they always had fascinating ideas and it felt like I was peeking into the future.

Ok, so now I tag in turn BrooklynWolf, ROJ, GH if he's still around, and just for fun, Anonym00kie and Michelle.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Halacha: Divine Commands or Valued Tradition?

A response from the previous post which prompted me to return an answer that felt like a post all its own:

"The bottom line is... Do you want to fulfill Judaism the way G-d wants you to fulfill it or the way YOU want to fulfill it, the way it makes YOU feel good. There is a mitzvah of talmud torah and davening with a minyan etc. for men and not for women. So when a woman wants to do these things, she is doing something that was not intended for her. If her goal is to fulfill Judaism the way it was meant to be fulfilled for her, then she is going about it the wrong way. The right way would be to ask what does G-d want of her. Stop trying to be a man and be "frum" like a woman. There are hundreds of thousands of frum women who ARE satisfied with their way of life... Maybe that's something to look into..."

Yeah, there you have it. You've hit the real crux of the issue. It doesn't matter how sexist the system is or the quality of any of the apologetics put for its defense - if you believe that God Himself commanded it to be this way then you have that choice to either submit before God's will or to rebel against it.

This is why Orthodox folks can never talk to the more liberal groups (and vice versa) on any serious topic of ritual observance. Even liberal groups that do want to be observant, they look at Halacha as inspiration for modern rituals and do things that are valuable in themselves. For liberal groups, it is the rule itself that must be supported by its own value. For Orthodoxy, all the rules are ultimately supported by virtue of the belief that God commanded them. They could make absolutely no sense and may even be morally problematic, but since they come from God they are exempt from any serious criticism.

I was reading in the Jewish Week recently how there is a revival of interest in mikvah and marital purity laws for women in the liberal branches of Judaism. Most are not thrilled with a two week abstention from physical contact, much less sexual relations, but they do like the idea of renewal and bringing a spiritual rhythym into their marriage.

Now, these women do not believe these rituals were declared by God. They are finding value in the acts themselves and and so they take them up. Many of them take on a liberal variant of the Orthodox Halachic version of the practice, where perhaps they only wait until the bleeding stops (and not the additional seven days) before going to a mikvah and resuming normal sexual relations.

So a letter to the editor the following week was written by an Orthodox woman saying how she was proudly following the rules as God intended them, waiting the full time, etc., and how she was not in favor of such new approaches which are simply not in accord with Halacha.

They are operating on totally different wavelengths.

The simple response to her is just that the liberal branches largely don't see Halacha as a series of divine commands and therefore a) they do not feel bound to them the same way and b) they have no theological difficulties modifying them to serve their needs.

And I make the same response to you.

You're whole manner of questioning has an explicit assumption which I just don't agree with. I don't think normative Orthodox Halacha is how God 'intended' Judaism to be practiced. And truthfully, I don't think God 'wants' anything from us at all.

"There are hundreds of thousands of frum women who ARE satisfied with their way of life... Maybe that's something to look into..."

And there are millions of Muslim women living in the Middle East who are perfectly satisfied as well. But they don't know what they're missing.

Even Black slaves in the American south were satisfied with their lives as long as they had a nice master.

People adjust to the status quo.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Orthodoxy and Women

Some time ago I got into a little discussion down by Michelle's blog. I may have gotten a little off topic but I had critized the way contemporary Orthodoxy treats women. Another blogger, Anonym00kie, took issue with that and sent me thjs email:

i often see your comments on michelle's blog
and i just wanted to tell you that ir eally disagree with your view of women and sexism, both in the frum community and even more in the secular world. i wish it was as peachy as everyone seems to describe it.. but unfortunately, as a woman, coming from the secular world, my view of feminism and its effect on society are completely different than glad to be out of there and in the frum world. and dont go judging me because im a bt, assuming i see it all thru rose colored glasses.. i really dont, i fight for every ounce of positivity and beauty that i find, u have no idea how cynical i am.. but in my experience, i can honestly say that what i have found in torah judaism, regarding women, is by far more "feminist" than wats offered out there in the world.
i realize there are issues in the frum world, big issues.. but those arent, in my opinion, part of the ideology, of the beleif system...

anyway, i dont know if u want to discuss it or not, and honestly i have to get to work, but if you wanna email, please do.


I opted to email back and did so thusly:


Can you please explain to me why girls aren't taught Gemara like boys are? Why is the subject matter deemed too much for the small minds of girls?

Why is there no such thing as a female rabbi or halachic decider? Are women incapable of being community leaders or understanding halacha well enough to be a poseket? Is a woman incapable of giving a d'var torah worth listening to?

How do you feel about the fact that a woman cannot be a witness in any sort of Halachic observance? What does that mean on a theoretical level? Women cannot be trusted to accurately recall events when called upon to do so?

You don't see it at all degrading to women when they have to walk through separate entrances to go into these super frum places? How about when these stores have certain hours for men and hours for women? How do you feel about the fact that in most frum shuls, the mechitzah is so positioned that women are way in the back - sometimes with as much as an entire physical wall blocking the view with only little windows to peak into the men's arena? What does that all say about women? That their bodies are such powerful sexual objects that men cannot think properly 'pure' thoughts when they are around?

Don't you see it as at all ironic how virtually every religious duty or activity (with a couple of exceptions) is lead by a man? And even those that can be done by women, if men are around, a man is assumed the responsibility of taking care of it. When's the last time you saw a woman lead a havdalah ceremony, for example? Have you ever seen a woman recite megillat esther for men? Women are stripped of the ability to be leaders. They even count less than a man as nine men and a thousand women still don't make a minyan. They are basically treated like children by Halacha. Now, there are certain benefits to being a 'child' - less responsibility is one of them, but it comes at the deep cost of not being considered a full adult.

Or did you just never notice any of this?


She first sent me a short email saying that she did notice all of those things, assured me she was intelligent and educated (which I did not question and have no reason to doubt) but that she still stuck to her original point of view.

Later on she sent me a (much) longer email defending her position (slightly edited) :

hey Orthoprax,

well I finally have a little time to reply to your email (actually I really don’t.. but hey, who needs sleep?!). I’ve been thinking about your questions and how I want to go about answering them and I hope you find my reply worth the wait. Originally, I was hoping Id have more time to get you some good solid answers but I realize that’s not going to happen. I know I wont get around to it, and the truth is I’ve come to a decision that Im not going to try and convince you that I’m right or that you should change your views. That’s not my job, and honestly im not in the mood to fight it out. Ive done my searching, ive lived in the frum community for many years and ive made peace with a lot of these things and that’s what ill present to you. I completely understand if you don’t agree and if you have your own set of sources and reasons, and I respect that. The thing I love the most about Judaism is free will – and that implies that as long we are intellectually and spiritually sincere, whatever decision we make, whatever conclusion we come to is in my eyes respectable. i hope you feel the same way.

Ok, so in terms of answering your questions, I think the bulk of my answer revolves around two main ideas. The first one is that I firmly believe that men and women are created with a different physical, mental, emotional and spiritual make up. The second is that when you want to understand the way a system works, you need to use the rules of that system. Applying rules and heuristics of the secular world to understand the frum world (or vice versa) isn’t intellectually honest, in my opinion.

I believe that the secular world operates according to standards which are advantageous to males, and discriminate against women. Success, the way we have been taught, is measured in terms of external power, and public recognition is highly rewarded and valued in secular society. Politicians, movie stars, famous athletes gain their fame and power through their ability to stand above the crowd and their public exposure. The torah, on the other hand teaches a different kind of power. In Judaism, strength is measured in terms of being able to shape and control one’s negative qualities. Honor is bestowed upon those who behave ethically and virtuously. Power is measured according to one’s ability to develop his/her character traits. This is important because it shapes the way we value and acknowledge achievement.

It is accepted in the torah perspective that women and men are created differently and therefore possess different strengths and weaknesses. The torah is a system that teaches a spiritual path for each individual and because men and women are perceived differently, they are provided with different tools to achieve their spiritual fulfilment.

The implication of this is that in the torah world, having a public role is not viewed as a necessary means to achieving power or admiration. It is accepted that there are different channels that can lead to greatness and respect. It is understood that both men and women have the ability and the potential to have power and to be valued for their respective achievements.

Everyone agrees that men and women are considerably different, in their physical, emotional and cognitive makeup. Applying the same rules and the same standards to both leads to discrimination to one of the two.

The sexism found in the secular society is very subtle one and that’s why people (and especially men) get deceived into believing that it doesn’t exist. Women can “do” anything, they can be prime minister, they can be doctors, lawyers, wrestlers.. whatever they want. In an externally focused society they’ve achieved equality, they can be as publicly and externally powerful as any man (and if theyre lucky they may even get the same wages as a man). However, what this means is that women have been granted the opportunity to compete against men in their court, to be judged according to male standards, and to develop masculine strengths.

But how is that equality?

Using the same standards on different populations is considered discriminatory. Men and women don’t compete against eachother in sports for that exact reason. Men and women have a different physical makeup and we realize that it would be incredible unfair to women to compete against men. A child who is mentally challenged can only thrive in an environment that respects and accommodates his strengths and weaknesses, and a child who displays greater intelligence can only thrive and reach his potential in an environment that promotes his abilities. Sticking either child in a regular class is cruel.

The torah promotes this understanding and encourages both men and women to develop their respective strengths and work on their own weaknesses. In the secular world, the default system operates according to masculine strengths, weaknesses. Granting women real equality necessitates respecting and validating the strengths and weaknesses of women, it requires allowing women to develop and grow within their abilities And talents.

So what are women’s strengths?

Women are more naturally skilled in their ability to be nurturers, to be intuitive, to view situations in a more holistic way. These are all strengths which are internal. Women are considered more insightful (binah). They have a stronger ability to understand matters from the inside, the capacity to see a person and understand their needs, to relate to people according to their needs (btw, this is where it gets tricky, you being a male, I think, hinders you from fully appreciating what I, as a woman, feel are my strengths.)

Raising children and running a household are responsibilities and achievements which are in no way looked down upon in the Torah world (as they are in the secular world). If anything it’s the opposite. The husband gets up and sings the praises of his wife on Friday night. He acknowledges her worth and her beauty. Being a full time mom is not seen as a second class occupation, its value in the jewish community is respected and appreciated.

In a community minded value system, raising and forming and shaping the future generation is regarded as much more commendable than pursuing selfish self actualization.
A woman’s power comes in her ability to create the minds and affect the values and ethics of people. It may not lead to public recognition or to financial gain but in a system where these achievements are not highly valued, it becomes irrelevant. Women are responsible for the internal development of their family members. They create their society by raising and facilitating the development of the members of their society.

The strength of women is also to actualize pure potential. Of course the most obvious manifestation of this is in the physical relationship between a man and woman where the male is responsible for providing the raw material and the woman is responsible for the development of that seed. A baby cannot be created without the active participation of both parties.

In the story of creation we see that woman is created from the rib of man – from an inner bone – that is also representative of the woman’s strength, her inner strength. Being more low key, more private, more internally focused is a strength of the woman (which can obviously not be valued in an externally focused society).

Women, by nature, are not as competitive and aggressive as men tend to be. They are less focused on external achievement and stature. This isn’t to say that there aren’t exceptions, but naturally a woman’s tendency is much less geared towards public approval and public exposure. She is much more relationship-oriented, and it is in that setting that her worth and achievements can be appreciated.

Women are also known to have better social skills, to be more cooperative and to do better on verbal tasks. All these qualities create a gender which is more communicative and more relationship focused. As opposed to leading the masses, the strengths of women emerge in their one-on-one connections

Women also have a greater ability at being receptive and responsive. Women usually show more empathy and mercy and are more prone towards conflict resolution and consensus. This comes from their more holistic perception of the world. Whereas men think in a more compartmentalized manner, women are more skilled at seeing the bigger picture. This ability also allows women to multitask and this of course is incredibly valuable in raising children and running a household. To be less focused on the particular and more open to flexibility is a much-needed strength to function in a constantly changing environment. Of course in a male dominated world, where male qualities are valued, this ability to be more “light headed” to be able to focus less and to direct one’s attention on a variety of aspects is not recognized or respected. In order to appreciate these strengths, one needs to step out of that male mindset that secular society runs by, and to step into a different reality where both m en and women roles are valued and both men and women strengths are appreciated. In that reality it’s much easier to understand that what a woman has to offer and what she brings to the world is invaluable.

Comparing the role of women in a torah based society to that of a secular society is nonsensical as the measuring tools are completely different. In a world where power is not necessarily tied to a public role, not having women in those positions in no way diminishes their worth, it simply is not relevant to the development and appreciation of women. Unfortunately, having grown up in a society that focuses on externals and values externally directed achievements, we sometimes lose track of the fact that jewish women are living by a different set of rules and standards. In the secular, externally focused society, the achievements of jewish women cannot be measured or recognized.

Both men and women have equal needs, desires and capabilities in connecting to G-d, but each gender requires a different system that best suits their strengths and weaknesses. Because the torah teaches a spiritual path, the mitzvot and the roles of each gender are custom made to facilitate spiritual growth.

The majority of the commandments apply equally to both genders, but there is a small percentage of laws and customs which is geared specifically to one gender or the other. This is where people have trouble accepting that the torah promotes equality of the sexess As soon as people see a difference in treatment they consider it a weakness in the system, when in fact it is affording each group to develop its respective skills and reach self actualization.

For a woman raised in the secular world, this appreciation of her intuitive abilities is liberating. To finally be respected and appreciated for what comes naturally to us. To stop trying to compete in a man’s world, according to their terms. I cant express how much this helps in developing a woman’s self esteem. The Torah gives women the permission to be women – and not to feel guilty, or less valued, or less appreciated – for their strengths and their weaknesses.

The torah teaches us a spiritual path to fulfillment, both on a personal level and on a cosmic level. Once we internalize that, is it easy to see that G-d created a different system for men and women to work in, one which takes into consideration their respective roles, capacities and weaknesses, one where each gender has a valuable contribution to make.

I think you get the general idea of my answer to your questions, but ill try to address your questions separately now.

"Can you please explain to me why girls aren't taught Gemara like boys are? Why is the subject matter deemed too much for the small minds of girls?"

First of all its not an issur for women to study gemara, but once you realize that women do not have a torah obligation to study torah ,and once you appreciate the way a woman’s mind works, than learning gemara is not the best way for her to develop her relationship with hashem, its not the most conducive way to actualize herself.

Throughout history there have been women who have studied it, and who continue to, and even in very “black” circles, there are women who do today. But, this is done in a more discreet way because it is accepted that this type of behaviour is not viewed as one that cultivate a woman’s natural skills.

I’ve also heard that another reason why women aren’t encouraged to study gemara is that that the study of it can be very combative and aggressive and this is not a quality that we want women to focus on and develop considering their strength in consensus seeking and community building. Men on the other hand have a more natural tendency towards aggressively and competition and this is a positive growth oriented outlet for them.

"Why is there no such thing as a female rabbi or halachic decider? Are women incapable of being community leaders or understanding halacha well enough to be a poseket? Is a woman incapable of giving a d'var torah worth listening to?"

If women don’t spend as much time and as much of their energy on studying torah, (primarily because they have other obligations), then how many poseks do you expect will emerge? Even among men, not every rabbi is a posek, it requires a higher level of learning and most women focus their energies elsewhere. As for being community leaders, that question becomes moot when you step out of the westernized – male focused- system where public exposure and external achievement are more valued than internal power and private achievement.
Here again there are exceptions, and there are women who require more public exposure to develop but they try prefer to find ways which are more compatible with their more feminine and more private nature (in women’s groups, or in smaller settings)( there are of course important exceptions, today Rebbetzin Jungreis speaks to thousands of people, runs a high organization and is respected and valued in very frum circles)

"How do you feel about the fact that a woman cannot be a witness in any sort of Halachic observance? What does that mean on a theoretical level? Women cannot be trusted to accurately recall events when called upon to do so?"

I don’t think anyone believes that women are so simple minded that they cant recall events, but the fact is that due to their ability to think holistically, and to think more empathetically, than yes their ability to recall facts can be affected. In a court of law, facts are what are required, not an understanding of the greater picture.

As for being a witness to halachic observance, I think women do that on a daily basis whether it’s in matters of kashrut, or taharat hamishpacha or any other observance that is related to the home. The greatest, most strictest rabbi will trust his wife 100% when it comes to those things – so obviously the issue is not with her trustworthiness, but simply with the role and recognition we, as westerners would like her to have.

"You don't see it at all degrading to women when they have to walk through separate entrances to go into these super frum places? How about when these stores have certain hours for men and hours for women? How do you feel about the fact that in most frum shuls, the mechitzah is so positioned that women are way in the back - sometimes with as much as an entire physical wall blocking the view with only little windows to peak into the men's arena? What does that all say about women? That their bodies are such powerful sexual objects that men cannot think properly 'pure' thoughts when they are around?"

You see it as women having to walk through separate entrances; but why not see it as men walking through separate entrances? Or better yet, why not take our western male focused bias out of it and see it as men and women walking through separate entrances? Stores that have separate hours do it to separate the genders, but not as a sign of sexism. In the torah perspective men and women are much more sensitive to their differences – and compatibilities- and so the system promotes a separation of the genders so as to avoid certain behaviours that can lead to de-sensitization.

As for the mechitzas, once again it brings us back to what the focus is. If you go to shul to connect to g-d, to develop your relationship with hashem, than, if youre a woman, it really makes no difference where you are situated, your avodat hashem is much more private. If youre a man it is much more dependent on the communal setting and communal activities. A womans service to g-d is different than that of a man and so it makes perfect sense that men have a more central, public and communal position in the synagogue – after all these are the abilities they need to develop.

You say – "what does it say about a woman that her body is such a powerful sexual object that men cant think properly around her and I ask you, why is that such a difficult situation for you to accept?"

Once again, in a male focused mind frame, its more advantageous to a man to take away a woman’s sexual power, to subjugate this ability, to take away her edge. But women know. Women know the power they have, so the torah simply acknowledges and validates what we intuitively know. A woman is an extremely sexual being, and this is not a negative thing. What it means however is that for men, who are externally focused, it is much easier for them to get blinded by a woman’s sexual exterior and not take the time or put the energy to dig deeper and appreciate and value a woman for her real (internal) worth. The fact that men ant think prioperly around women is a reflection of a male characteristic (to be externally focused), not a reflection of a woman’s worth.

"Don't you see it as at all ironic how virtually every religious duty or activity (with a couple of exceptions) is lead by a man? And even those that can be done by women, if men are around, a man is assumed the responsibility of taking care of it. When's the last time you saw a woman lead a havdalah ceremony, for example? Have you ever seen a woman recite megillat esther for men? Women are stripped of the ability to be leaders. They even count less than a man as nine men and a thousand women still don't make a minyan. They are basically treated like children by Halacha. Now, there are certain benefits to being a 'child' - less responsibility is one of them, but it comes at the deep cost of not being considered a full adult."

The torah is a system of laws and rules that helps get above their nature and change themselves for the better. What this means is that the mitzvoth are tools which help us develop our strengths while diminishing our weaknesses. We have a natural tendency to be selfish and therefore the torah obligates us to give tzedaka, be kind, be generous. What this means is that depending on a gender’s characteristics, the mitzvoth that apply will be based on what ‘work’ needs to be done.

Women, by nature, are more internally focused, pray better and build a connection to g-d thru personal prayer. I grew up around women (secular) who were constantly speaking to g-d. This is how families are raised by the mothers I know. Women are relationship-focused and have much better skills at developing and maintaining relationships and so their communication with g-d is much less regimented than that of men. Women intuitively understand how to communicate with g-d (as well as with those around them).

Men on the other hand are team players, men need more guidance in building that relationship, in developing the communicative part of their connection to hashem and so it is more strictly controlled and they are required to pray in a minyan, three times a day, following a siddur. Men get together when they have a reason, women are more communicative, more communal and will congregate naturally. So women can go to shul, but praying in a minyan isnt particularly advantageous to women’s spiritual growth. Men on the other hand do need a reason and an obligation to pray in a minyan in order to help them develop that skill.

You compare women to children because of their reduced involvement and leadership roles in public communal activities, but by now I think its clear to see how the appeal and the value that these roles/ activities carry with them are based on a set of values that is foreign to the torah. The standards you consider as “adult like ” and “child like” don’t apply in a torah based system, they are based on a male oriented, hierarchical, externally focused system. If the whole point of the torah and the goal of a torah jew is to grow spiritually – on a personal and universal level- than these activities are just not necessary for a woman’s development. Those aren’t the strengths she needs or desires to develop. A woman is exempt from time bound mitzcvahs because her approach is one of constant readiness or adaptability to being able to continually respond to changing realities. Women have a more innate ability to create structures and so have less of a requirement for externally based frameworks.

Now one last thing, most of the questions you asked are not based on activities that are forbidden from women (they can read the megila, do havdala, study gemara…) but that they are not obligated to. In the torah perspective, where one’s focus is based on spiritual development, the torah is used as a priority setting guide. It is understood that if women don’t have an obligation to perform certain mitzvot, than there’s a good chance that they are not required for her development. Nonetheless because we are each created as individuals with individual strengths and weaknesses, there are members or each gender that will require or desire more participation in the other gender’s activities. This is acceptable as long as the frame of mind is correct. That means that if a person can say that they have exhausted their ability to fulfil the commandments and the path that have been set out for that gender and they now seek more, to tap other strengths or weaknesses, than that is more often than not acceptable. If however a woman is tempted by what is prescribed for men, purely to make a statement, to prove that she can do what men do, than that is not acceptable, and is deemed sexist Its sexist to place more emphasis on the abilities and the spiritual path of one gender over the other. Instead of appreciating and respecting her own role, her own spiritual path, she views man’s role as more valuable, and ends up devaluating her own prescribed path.

All that being said, I will say one more thing. I will not deny that there are sexist people, communities, rabbis… im not naïve and im not blind. However, the torah in itself, as a system of beliefs and values is not sexist. It is, in my eyes, the opposite of sexist; it provides each gender with a spiritual path that is best suited for it. It respects the contribution of both genders, and it values the natural abilities and tendencies of both genders.

So there’s my VERY long answer to your question. (ive decided im going to post this answer to my blog, do you mind if i include your questions?)

I don’t claim that these answers will convince you I’m right, but these are the answers I’ve come to, as a woman. It is not so obvious to verbalize to a man these ideas in a way that he will be able to relate but I am telling u things the way I see them. I hope you can respect my opinions and my conclusions and that even if you disagree or find that they don’t meet up to your orthoprax standards, that you will accept that in my mind and in my heart I’m happy with where I stand and what I believe in.

I would love to hear some feedback, but I realize this is REALLY long (i think ill have to shorten it before i post it, or else no one will read thru it :)
any feedback you give me will be appreciated.

take care,

Whew! Now if that ain't long enough for ya, I responded back to her defense with my own reply. It's hardly a conclusive list answering every single one of her arguments (that would be a real chore), but it hits on the most germane ideas:


I appreciate your long and detailed response. But I have just a couple of points to make about it.

First, I think you far overestimate the differences between men and women and how each's strengths can best be cultivated. Women would not benefit from participating in ordered and regular worship services because of their inherent intuitive personal relationship with God? Come on. Do you really accept that?

I would also like to point out that a far better system for realizing each individual's spiritual and general qualities would be done simply on an individual level. Some women, I am sure, would greatly appreciate being involved in many of the things that they are now excluded from (either by Halacha, society, or convention). And conversely, I'd bet that some men find their numerous obligations to hamper their best spiritual efforts. Why divide by gender when there are so many natural exceptions? Wouldn't it be far better to have a system that allows people to be engaged in whatever they feel most fulfilling as far as they are willing to go? This would allow for individually-planned religious lives that would best serve each person on an individual basis.

A 'Torah society' that focuses on internal development rather than external power is a beautiful thing, but creating this gender divide to force 'proper' gender development is backwards. You shouldn't be arguing for a "women's sector" of religious life that allows women to develop their own powers outside of a male-focused society, but a non-judgemental society that allows each individual to develop themselves to the best of their abilities with no attention paid towards the person's 'proper' gender role. Women shouldn't have to 'escape' the male-world and those so-called "male standards" that rule it, but should find their own standards equally represented on the public stage.

The only reason I can see then for encouraging the gender divide, is not for protecting individual spiritual development, but for keeping the social status quo and all that entails. This then leads me to my second point.

If you look back on history, or even any modern society where discrimination exists, there are always endless apologetics posited to justify that discrimination. In fact, taking your basic thesis that women have a different approach to spirituality than men, you can then justify _any_ restriction on women. You can fit virtually any offense towards women and make it seem that it's for their own good.

Whether it's burkahs on women or keeping women from driving cars or keeping them from voting or keeping them from entering the business world, all of these can be justified by an argument ensuring women that it's for their own good.

"I don’t think anyone believes that women are so simple minded that they cant recall events, but the fact is that due to their ability to think holistically, and to think more empathetically, than yes their ability to recall facts can be affected."

I really can't believe you said this. You really believe that men are better suited to recalling factual events than women? Seriously. How can I trust women with such an important power as the VOTE when their power to recall events are so much poorer than men? Would you ever accept such an argument to restrict your power to testify in secular court? I think not!

"If women don’t spend as much time and as much of their energy on studying torah, (primarily because they have other obligations), then how many poseks do you expect will emerge?"

That's really not the point. The point is that even if a women held the requisite skills to be a poseket, I contend that she would never be able to exercise those skills within the contemporary community standards. No one would see her opinion as authoritative and very few people would feel comfortable saying they act a certain way because they follow the ruling of Poseket XYZ.

"You see it as women having to walk through separate entrances; but why not see it as men walking through separate entrances?"

Because it was men who made these separate entrances in the first place. This kind of thing is rarely, if ever, initiated by women. In the 1950s when there were 'White' and 'Colored' drinking fountains, nobody looked at the whites as being the victims of discrimination.

To finish off, I'd like you to recognize how in human society it is basically a universal maxim that those in power like to stay in power. Men have ruled Jewish society for nearly as long as Judaism has existed. Do you believe it was by some coincidence that the male Rabbinate gave us a society with such male superiority?

The point about women's liberation was that women had the choice to do what they willed without being held back because of their gender. They could fulfill their 'female development' to the best of their abilities or they could enter the wider world and engage in pursuits formerly restricted only to men. The point is the choice.

Do you believe that the very existence of this option harms women? Women who are moved to do so, can now engage the world entire without being restricted just to the women's sphere. That you personally find deep spiritual fulfillment by living a traditional woman's life in the kitchen (while barefoot and pregnant, I might add) is your own business and I wish you good fortune, but you shouldn't be using such fulfillment as reasons to hold other women back.

Contemporary Orthodoxy does not let women control their own destiny or the direction of the Jewish people on a communal level. The issue is power. It's great and all to say that you don't care about power but about personal development, but why should you be holding back those women who have different interests than you or who feel more personally developed by going outside of traditional gender roles?

Thursday, August 03, 2006

The Ninth of Av

If you've ever seen those frequently repeated lists (like these) of historical tragedies against the Jews that happened exactly on the ninth of Av and were ever skeptical of that repeated historical coincidental wonder, this is a blog you must see.

Yutopia investigations shows that most of the events probably didn't happen on the dates they are claimed to have happened. Even for the destruction of the First Temple, sources in Tanach gives two dates, (the seventh and the tenth) neither of which match the ninth. In fact, nowhere in Tanach is the ninth day of the fifth month selected as the day to fast or on which anything bad explicitly happened. It is true that Jews following the destruction of the First Temple fasted and afflicted themselves each year to remember the events, but it is far from clear whether they had a specific day (or a unanimously selected day) on which this occurred.

The point is, however, that it doesn't really matter as far as the purpose of Tisha b'Av goes. Nobody would dare say that the Jews have not suffered a great deal in history and whether or not the Jews suffered specifically on the ninth of Av is immaterial. It is now today the universally identified date on which Jews commemorate the many tragedies that have afflicted us no matter what time of year they took place.

One should not look at Tisha b'Av as a magically unlucky time when metaphysical disfavor showers on the Jews and then search out the history books and current events for additional tragedies to fill up that date. Tisha b'Av should be seen as a day taken out of the year by tradition for Jews to look upon the past, remember the suffering of our ancestors, to identify in some way with their pain and to always move on bravely into the future with the optimism befitting one confident of better times ahead.

May they come bimheira b'yamainu, amen.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Evolution on the Jewish Press

I had written the following and sent it to the Jewish Press as a letter to the editor in response to the discussion on evolution initiated by the article written by Rabbi Maryles from June 21st. They didn't print it though, I suppose because they wanted to move onto newer (or less redundant) issues.

In the July 12th issue of the Jewish Press, a series of letters to the editor regarding the theory of evolution was printed with the introduction: "Evolution: The Never-Ending Debate." This title is at one time as curious as it is apt.

Why is it that this ‘debate’ never ends? What about it is so intractable that the two sides are forever opposed with no means of understanding the other? Please, allow me to explain. It is all a matter of methodology.

For those on the Creationist side of the debate, the point of origin is that the Torah is the word of God and hence unimpeachable. They believe that the Torah says, and numerous Rabbinic commentators have agreed, that the whole universe and each species was specially created in six days just a few thousand years ago. This truth comes from on high and is bedrock truth no matter what the minds of men can conjure up in the forms of alternative explanations for our origins.

For those on the side for evolution, it is the physical evidence and rational methodology of science that have proven themselves reliable (since we benefit from them every day) and to which they have no choice but to accept if they wish to have a rational understanding of the world and our origins. These people accept the theory of evolution based on the merits of the science and the evidence at hand. They do not believe that man was placed on Earth with a large brain and rational mind in order to disallow their use.

When a Creationist comes upon the same evidence which so convinced the Evolutionist he has no choice but to try and tear it apart. By virtue of his preconceived bias, the evidence simply cannot be valid since it conflicts with what he believes is God’s own narrative of creation. No matter how convincing the evidence may be from an objective perspective, he ‘knows’ it is false because he believes God said otherwise. This is why the Evolutionist and Creationist can only talk past each other.

The Evolutionist posits evidence as his currency for knowledge. He speaks in terms of fossils and genetics; strata and homology. He builds up his understanding of nature from the ground up. The evidence is X which means that the theory is Y. Yet this is all worthless for the Creationst to whom the truth comes from God above. He favors a top-down approach to knowledge. Truth lies in what only can be derived from the verses of the Torah. The Torah says X, period. With such wildly different methodologies for ascertaining truth, is it any surprise that they cannot find common ground?

My only hope is that those holders of emunah peshutah realize that simple faith is for simpletons. A literal understanding of Bereishit is hardly a comprehensive understanding of our origins. While we do have the Torah, we also another text, the open book of nature with which we need to contend.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Rambam and the Need for Natural Science

I found a great quote the other day from the Rambam that just fits so well to throw in the face of those anti-science, anti-intellectual dogmaticists who exist in the Orthodox community. It's found in his introduction to the Guide for the Perplexed.

"Do you not see the following fact, that God, may His mention be exalted, wished us to be perfected and the state of our societies to be improved by His laws regarding actions. Now this can come about only after the adoption of intellectual beliefs, the first of which being His apprehension, may He be exalted, according to our capacity. This, in its turn, cannot come about except through metaphysics (his term: maaseh merkavah), and this metaphysics cannot become actual except after a study of natural science (maaseh bereishit)."

[And for those who doubt the correctness of using the terms 'natural science' and 'metaphysics' in place of Rambam's specific terms, I refer you to see just a couple of pages before where the quote above was given. There he says that the terms used that way specifically are correct and he refers the reader to pages in his Mishneh Torah (Mishneh torah, I. ii. 12, and iv. 10) where he explains it.]

It may be ironic that the Rambam, arguably the founder of a series of dogmas (his 13 ikkarim) is apparently the one here stating that scientific knowledge of the world (which's accurate understanding we now understand cannot proceed via dogmatism) is foundational before correct religious beliefs. Naturally, this apparent irony can be made sense of once we understand that the Aristotelian theories on the natural world (on which the Rambam's whole major philosophy depends) were not based on current scientific methodologies, but on simple empiricism and 'proofs' with often unfounded axioms. It was the logical and dialectical method of Aristotle that made the Rambam believe that when Aristotle's logic was sound, it was absolutely true and was the way the world works.

Hence, since Aristotle's theories were based on logic and sound deductive arguments there was no way for it to be overturned. Reason stands eternal and natural science is therefore on as solid a philosophical ground as metaphysics and the Rambam's own understanding of God and Judaism. To the Rambam, it was all logic, and all logic, if sound, is equally correct.

The only problem with Aristotle, as mentioned above, was that his chosen axioms for a given argument were not always based on good empirical facts. For example, in regards to the speeds of falling objects, he said that heavier things fall faster. Clearly, if you drop a brick and a paper in your living room, the brick will fall much faster. But of course we now know that to be a misleading experiment. It's not the weight of the objects that are being well tested, it is the difference in air resistance. Aristotle's method was poor on experimental empiricism - which is why the modern scientific method and its fruits has replaced nearly all of Aristotle's favored reasonings. The experiments don't lie.

Would the logophilic Rambam find favor in the modern scientific method? That is impossible to know. It's problematic because no truth in modern science is conclusive. We have no means to be sure that our scientific reasonings is the way it really is. All we can do is see that no evidence contradicts our theories and ensure parsimony and things of that nature. This is a far cry from the logical, certain world of Maimonides.

Without that sureness, it makes it devilish to try to build a philosophy or theology based on our knowledge of natural science. Nothing is certain and so the ground is always shifting. It makes our constructions far too liable to topple. We live in a transitional age with progress in our understanding coming in spurts and stops. It is paradoxical, but while progress in our knowledge is surely a good thing, the unstable nature of the process through which we get there often leads to depressing existentialism. If we cannot be certain about the nature of our external world, either in terms of physical science or metaphysics, we find that we can only rely on the knowledge of our own existence and how we individually perceive our reality for our philosophical well being. Our expanding knowledge of particulars makes our constructed understanding of the general impossible to maintain.

In the end, we find that we cannot disagree with the basic argument offered by the Rambam. We need to understand natural science before we can rightly begin speculation on metaphysics. Yet we find that life is short and we cannot wait until we get the all clear from those in the science camp. We must resign ourselves to the fact that, in all likelihood, we will not know the secrets of the universe in our lifetimes. So we must proceed even on such shaky terrain!

Although our science is limited, even with all of its limitations, it is far better to engage it than to pretend it does not exist. It is true that it is probably wrong in many places, but it is doubtlessly more correct that it contains more truth than the deep ignorance promoted by those still following wholly irrational ways of thinking. To reiterate: we must proceed!