Sunday, May 28, 2006

A New Theory on Judaism

I have been working for quite some time now trying to create a Judaism that encourages critical thinking and rational beliefs while at the same time retaining traditional practices to keep a continuous sense of itself. Movements like Humanistic Judaism express the former value far over the latter one, while Orthodoxy clearly retains the latter value far over the former. I believe that both systems are ultimately untenable in the face of modern scholarship and modern acculturation rates.

Orthodoxy refuses to acknowledge modern scholarship and puts the ultimate authority in the opinions of rabbinic scholars of past ages who’s views become more and more anachronistic with time. With the contemporary conservative nature of most strains of Orthodoxy, it will necessarily become more and more insular and isolated as it tries to keep its adherents from experiencing the subversive thoughts of the free world. This internally enforced ghetto-ization is, by and large, the future of Orthodoxy in America. I do not doubt that this strategy can work for a long period of time, but it is firstly offensive to the human spirit of freedom and free inquiry, as well as to the basic values of education and the pursuit of truth. It is also secondarily problematic because in this isolation, the Jewish future in America (and in the Diaspora in general) cannot grow. It will subsist on medieval mentality, always looking inward, and never contributing to history or the world in general. It is a philosophical and religious dead end.

Humanistic Judaism, on the other hand, freely and openly encourages freedom of thought, an appreciation for the latest scientific or philosophical breakthroughs, and its adherents are fully integrated into general society. However, I believe it suffers from being too independent. Judaism is not a necessary part of these peoples’ lives, it’s just a nice subplot. Their philosophy on life is first and foremost typical Humanism with an appreciation for Jewish culture tacked on. Not that I have anything against Humanism per se, but it just isn’t particularly Jewish. What is keeping these Humanistic Jews involved in Judaism? What’s keeping them Jews? Their Judaism is essentially nostalgic rather than active. It’s part of their past but not of their present and so their future is up for grabs. This form of Judaism is naturally diffusive and the Jewish content and Jewish identity will fade as the generations assimilate into secular society.

A Judaism that is freely investigative while being true to tradition is what is needed for the twenty first century. Yet not just true to tradition in a nostalgic sense, but one that meaningfully engages Jewish practice on a daily basis.

The first thing that I think this new form of Judaism needs to retain is a sense of God and that there is more to human existence than mere chance would offer. As far as we know there is only one universe and we are currently living in it. It has many remarkable properties, most of all being that it presents an ordered reality from which everything in the universe can exist. Its physical laws are likewise tuned to enable the genesis of stuff - complex stuff like planets and people. What brought it all into being? What keeps it going?

The idea of a superuniverse, as some offer as explanation, with the power to create unlimited other universes (multiverse hypothesis) all with variable properties is impossible to prove or disprove - at least at this time. It is believed, generally, not on the evidence, but by those who do not wish to see our existence as unique. This whole superorder of reality, while fun in a science fiction sense, strains serious credulousness.

One can also answer that perhaps the universe has always existed in some form or another. Maybe it cycles through Big Bangs and Big Crunches. Maybe it is always creating new Big Bangs, always adding new material to existence. Maybe our universe is just the recent extension of a few dimensions of some higher dimension of space-time. Maybe since "time" itself only began with the Big Bang, it can be said to have existed for all of "time." But still here we suffer from the question of where did the order come from? How is the universe so accommodating towards complexity?

It also suffers here by contradiction with the evidence before us. The age of the universe is dated and there is no sign of previous existence. The principle of rising entropy appears to making a cycling universe unlikely and ideas like many Big Bangs or extended dimensions are simple speculations with no true foundations. Defining time to produce a self-enclosed universe begs the question.

My idea is that existence itself is predicated on some fundamental principle and that this fundamentally existing principle is God. There must be some principle from which the universe has arisen and some fundamental substructure of the universe which keeps it on its course. God is the Source and the Sustainer of all that is. We cannot remove God’s presence from the universe anymore than we can remove, say, in an imperfect analogy, the electromagnetic force from a bicycle. There could be no bicycle without the fundamental laws of physics keeping it together. This idea is not new. As Maimonides once stated, "To believe in the existence of the Creator, may He be blessed, i.e., that there is an Existence that is perfect (and absolute) in all facets of existence. He is the cause of all that exists, the sustenance of all, and through Him all is maintained. There is no possibility that He does not exist because without Him, all existence would cease to be and nothing would remain."

God is not just the First Cause, He continues within the universe being part of every thing that happens and all that exists. Like the fundamental properties of the universe take part within each interaction, God works in the continued of existence of all things. God is the ultimate reality.

Now, what is the nature of God, of the ultimate reality? Is it intelligent? Does it have a will? Is it morally inclined? I don’t know. I don’t even think it is appropriate to use these very human terms on what is very different from humanity. It may make absolutely no sense to make the comparison. We have a very mysterious, yet still very real being that all of humanity is trying to apprehend in their own ways. The scientist uses the methodology of science to understand reality. The mystic tries to divine it through his own intuition. The philosopher uses reason to the best of his ability.

Yet it may very well be that this Being is beyond human comprehension. Our science falls short, our mysticism often proves impotent, and our reason is limited. One may then, arguably, take the stance of the positivist or rational skeptic. Since we have no direct evidence telling us what God is like - or even exists - then we ought to make no claim at all and remain rooted in rational skepticism. No leaps for us. But this stance is a limited one. Yes, positivism is useful in ensuring that you do not hold wrong opinions, but it also keeps you from accepting correct opinions that may nevertheless be correct even without direct evidence in its favor. It is more rational to take some stance on the matter then to ignore such a central aspect of our lives, even if the evidence to base the decision on is sorely lacking.

Once we have recognized that God does exist, the next step in our philosophy is to recognize that the ultimate purpose in human life is to try and apprehend what God is, what reality is, and how it relates to us as human beings. Anything else we do in life is either superficial or tangential to this primary objective. To ignore this goal is to devolve into simple hedonism or other short-sighted ambitions. Power, wealth, pleasure - all are insignificant in light of the search for understanding of ourselves, our world, and of how and why we are here today. If there is anything of human civilization that is truly of value, it is the pursuit of knowledge and its passing to us.

This then leads us to the purpose of Judaism, in general. Judaism is ultimately about retaining sacred knowledge and of ensuring its passage through the generations. Long ago it was the Jews who first conceived of a great single unified God of universal import who ruled the entire world and was equally God to all men. This was unheard of, yet it was the Jews who first conceived of it and who have successfully brought it down to modern day. And that message has spread around the world with ramifications on a global scale.

Yet more than that, Judaism maintains great truths about human nature and ethics. And Judaism embodies a concept of progress, that the future will be better than the past, which has strengthened men’s hearts and driven them to action. Social justice, tzedaka, genuineness, humility, honesty, reliability, gemilut chasadim, etc. are all hallmarks of Jewish life. A strong sense of the family unit and of the importance of history and of heritage and of education are requirements in a Jewish system of living. All of these things and more are part and parcel of the whole of Jewish civilization.

It is these parts of the Jewish tradition that need to be maintained as a heritage to our children. But in order to understand where these values come from the whole context of Jewish civilization and its progress over time needs to be taught as well. Familiarity with our basic texts: the Tanach, the Talmud, Midrash, etc. are a requirement. Further, I would say that an understanding of the various stages of Jewish philosophy is fundamental to seeing the advancement of Judaism. Knowing Jewish history is likewise important. An appreciation for our past and a love of our heritage should be invested in our children. Our Prophets and Sages and Rabbis of past ages were progressing the knowledge and understanding of humanity, the world, and of God in their own ways. We must now take up that mission and continue on for ourselves and for our children to do likewise.

Jewish work is far from complete. Our collective conceptions of the Ultimate is sorely lacking and the world still has so much injustice and suffering in it. Tikkun Olam, though it is often overused in other movements of Judaism, is still a fundamental principle of what we are all about. Yet while these goals are awfully nice, many of them are not specifically Jewish. To what end are all of the practices and holidays and so on that make up so much of traditional Jewish life?

For one, we must recognize that many of the holidays’ purposes are to engage us in our history, but also to teach us a lesson that stands true for all ages. We fast on Tisha B’av because of the great calamity that afflicted our people, but we also fast because of the divisiveness and baseless hatred that caused it. Divisiveness that is still a problem today. We celebrate on Pesach for our release from bondage in Egypt, but we also signify our value of freedom and our solidarity with every unjustly suffering and enslaved person on Earth and our wish to see them free. Holidays like Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashana exist as times to work especially on our personal development.

Many Jewish practices have obvious utility. We give tzedaka to keep the less fortunate from going hungry. We have a day of rest on Shabbos to recharge the batteries and reflect on life in a relaxed manner. But why should we keep kosher? What’s with davening?

The purpose of these acts is to take a part of regular life and invest it with deeper meaning. They weren’t necessarily commanded by God, but through the acts which have been sanctified through our history, we can apprehend God in our lives. As Jews we do particularly Jewish acts which orient our minds and our lives always towards the ultimate goals. God, as the ultimate reality, can be infinitely distant from us. We do these ritual acts to make God immanent in our lives and in our consciousnesses. The object is not to please God or to ask for favors but to make God a part of daily experience. I would say that as a Jew, we have a duty to do so.

God is universal, but we Jews have our own ways of approaching the Almighty. Meaningfulness in ritual cannot be alien to us. The object also to understand here is that the purpose of all the ritual is not to see what its utility is to us necessarily, but simply to offer this service to God. Its whole worth is bound up in it being singularly important - not to man - but to that which the service is directed. As a utilitarian effort its worth plummets to zero as a religious act. We may give tzedaka and here some look at it as a religious act, but since it really serves the poor or the community as a whole, the value in it as cognition of God is extremely low. But when we put on tzitzit, say, there is no side which provides value to ourselves or to society or whatever. It truly is a fully religious act.

Many sins in the Torah are said to be punished by karet, that is being cut off from your people. Yet while it may not have literal meaning, the simple truth is that as Jews become less observant of some of those key practices they fall prey to assimilation and lose their identities. They are effectively cut off from the Jewish future. This may not be a punishment, but it is simple cause and effect. If you do not remain involved and within the Jewish community - you will inevitably be lost from it forever. The mitzvot are not commandments, per se, they are choices. But still the consequences are clear.

Judaism is the function of the continuing Jewish civilization as we, Israel, struggle with God to find our place in the universe.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Responsibility to Tradition

"What's the big deal with having Jewish grandchildren? If there is no God, or if there is a Deistic God but no Yahweh, isn't Judaism simply a lifestyle choice? And shouldn't grandchildren (and children!) make their own lifestyle choices? If my grandchildren are relatively happy, I'll be happy."

Being part of a tradition involves passing on what has been received. We, as a People, have a responsibility to ensure that our own unique ideas, history, cultures, philosophies, our whole heritage really is preserved in the hearts and minds of our descendants. To fail to do so is to doom all that we have produced - and that which has produced us - to obscurity.

No other people is going to do it for us.

Of course we must respect the wishes of individuals, even if they are our direct descendants, but a proper education can invest in them a love and appreciation for their heritage that unaided independent study will hardly ever do.

Abortion, in General

On the Frum Skeptics Group, one of the members asked about our political views on abortion. This is what I answered:

I have mixed feelings. I believe that human life, even potential human life, has value and should not be treated disrespectfully or callously. So I am against the use of abortion as a shallow form of birth control.

On the other hand, a mere potential human life doesn't have the same rights as a full-fledged existing human life, i.e. the mother. As such, if the mother's interests are seriously impaired by a pregnancy then I think an abortion can be justified.

There is also the importance of what stage of the pregnancy can abortions still be permitted. Most people will agree that for life and death situations, the mother's life takes precedence of the fetus' and so even in the ninth month that kind of abortion would be permitted. Or up until the head exits the body, as the Gemara would put it.

In all other cases though the third trimester should essentially treat the fetus as a baby with a right to life. The first and second are more flexible with the earlier in the pregnancy being progressively more flexible (with given understanding of well-known significant points achieved during fetal development). Morally I think that one needs a better justification for the later in the pregnancy, but legally, personal choice should be the rule.

Now, whether I personally would ever perform an abortion on someone else, that is a separate issue. And I think that except for life and death situations for the mother, I would probably not want to perform elective abortions.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Pluralistic Services

One of the members of the Frum Skeptics Group was complaining about davening and how we should take large parts of it out of Jewish practice. He was saying,

"Endless hours of davening. You ever see the mincha factory on avenue L? Rabbis who insist on 3 hours davening on shabbos. Stupid superstition. Ah whats the use, it is what it is."

I responded:

There's no harm in davening mincha. For those who find meaning in it, good for them. I hardly ever daven mincha, but why take it away from those who do?

And for Shabbos morning, I don't usually come until the middle of Torah reading. That works for me, other people like to come in at 8am. That's fine too.

Would you take that all out of Judaism just because you don't consider it meaningful to you? Judaism is for all the Jews, not just for the skeptical ones. I'd prefer to see a pluralistic Judaism rather than one that serves just one segment.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

A Little Bit of Documentary Hypothesis

Gen 21:22-31

22 At that time Abimelech and Phicol the commander of his forces said to Abraham, "God is with you in everything you do. 23 Now swear to me here before God that you will not deal falsely with me or my children or my descendants. Show to me and the country where you are living as an alien the same kindness I have shown to you."
24 Abraham said, "I swear it."
25 Then Abraham complained to Abimelech about a well of water that Abimelech's servants had seized. 26 But Abimelech said, "I don't know who has done this. You did not tell me, and I heard about it only today."
27 So Abraham brought sheep and cattle and gave them to Abimelech, and the two men made a treaty. 28 Abraham set apart seven ewe lambs from the flock, 29 and Abimelech asked Abraham, "What is the meaning of these seven ewe lambs you have set apart by themselves?"
30 He replied, "Accept these seven lambs from my hand as a witness that I dug this well."

31 So that place was called Beersheba, because the two men swore an oath there.


Gen. 26:26-33

26 Meanwhile, Abimelech had come to him from Gerar, with Ahuzzath his personal adviser and Phicol the commander of his forces. 27 Isaac asked them, "Why have you come to me, since you were hostile to me and sent me away?"
28 They answered, "We saw clearly that the LORD was with you; so we said, 'There ought to be a sworn agreement between us'-between us and you. Let us make a treaty with you 29 that you will do us no harm, just as we did not molest you but always treated you well and sent you away in peace. And now you are blessed by the LORD."
30 Isaac then made a feast for them, and they ate and drank. 31 Early the next morning the men swore an oath to each other. Then Isaac sent them on their way, and they left him in peace. 32 That day Isaac's servants came and told him about the well they had dug. They said, "We've found water!"

33 He called it Shibah, and to this day the name of the town has been Beersheba.

Two very similar stories happening to two different patriarchs ending with two different reasons for the origins of Beersheba's name.

Curious, don't you think?

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Modern Orthodoxy's Dependence

Why MO is dependent on the UO:

How many Modern Orthodox Jews know how to make tefilin? And I don't mean intellectually, I mean knowing the ins and outs of their actual manufacture.

How many Modern Orthodox Jews are skilled enough sofrim to write a whole kosher Torah (or any other ritual scrolls for that matter)?

And besides for just knowledge, how many MO would be willing to invest a large portion of their lives towards becoming skilled in all those ritual items that they get UO rabbis in Israel to make for them?

What percentage of mohels or shochets are Modern Orthodox?

Now, maybe it could be that if there were no Haredim around, the MO would fill the vacancies in those necessary positions on their own. But as things stand today it is the Haredim who hold almost all the knowledge and all the experience in how to produce these things that MO Jews take for granted. I, for one, hardly even know how to braid my own tzitzit.

Worldly, cosmopolitian and successful Modern Orthodox Jews may look down their noses at the Ultra-Orthodox for their backward ways of thinking, voluntary ghettoization, and their weird, sometimes scary, religious zeal, but without the UO from where would your average MO parent getting ready for their son's bar mitzvah pick up a pair of tefillin?

The Skeptic's Insecurity

R' Yehuda Halevi in the Kuzari 3:37 writes:

"The sage said: This relates to what I told you about engaging in intellectual speculation and arbitrary judgment. Those who engage in intellectual speculation about worship pertaining to the work of heaven (Jer. 7:18, 44:17) exert themselves [far] more than someone who does the work of YHWH (Jer. 48:10) that he is commanded [to do]. For the latter have found rest in their acceptance of tradition on faith, and their souls are tranquil, like someone who goes about freely within the city, without having to be on the alert for any challenge, while the former are like someone who goes about on foot in the desert, who doesn't know what he will meet up with. Therefore, he is armed, alert for battle, schooled in combat, [and] accustomed to it. So don't be surprised by what you see of their resoluteness, and don't be caught off guard by whatever laxity you see on the part of those subject to tradition, I mean, [of course] the Rabbinites. The former sought out a fortress in which they might be secure, while the latter are asleep lying quietly on their bedding, in an ancient, [well]-fortified city."

The king of the Kuzari is confused about the Karaites' apparent religious fervor and intense devotion which apparently contradicts the rabbi's earlier argument that the rabbinic tradition is indispensable to revelation. In the above way Halevi offers a way to understand the Karaites' zeal in relation to the Rabbinates' complacency. Those who are certain they are correct feel no need to be so defensively religious. Only those who rely on frail human rationalities are victim to uncertainties and doubts which lead them to compensate with excess religious zeal.

Now, there is obvious truth here. Who are more versed in the logic and argumentation and evidence and all that goes with being skeptical of traditional Orthodoxy, the skeptics or the Orthodox laity? The skeptics - duh. Who are more comfortable in their place and who care not to question things? The believers. Being tranquil comes with being of unquestioned faith.

It's a rather interesting kind of argument. Those who are most ignorant and less adept argumentatively are considered by Halevi as evidence to the correctness of their beliefs. Since they feel so secure, they don't need to know all that stuff. Therefore, who's opinions are suspect? Those who feel the need to justify their opinions.

I think the whole thing is bogus, of course, since in our modern scientific world we shouldn't care about people's opinions rather only insofar as they can back up their opinions with facts. Nevertheless, it is still an interesting critique on those who are so ready to get into an argument and prove themselves correct on subjects of faith and truth. How sure are they of themselves, really? All they have is their own rationality and intellectual acuity behind them, while the faithful have thousands of years of tradition and the opinions of hundreds (thousands?) of highly respected and intelligent rabbis.

I suppose that the skeptic would feel more sure of himself each time one of the faithful falls below his mighty, unrelenting rationalism. That the believers have no effective way to deal with the skeptic is additional fuel to the skeptic's assertion that the believers are wrong. So he searches out believers to debate and is always ready for argumentative confrontation. He constantly hones his logical skills and familiarizes himself with the relevant information, always ready to best his opponent in the next match. He is armed, alert for battle, schooled in combat, and accustomed to it.

Is being so argumentative a sign of insecurity? Perhaps so.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Genocide is Bad

I went this past Sunday to the Darfur anti-genocide rally in Washington. It wasn't something I wanted to do. I had zero desire to spend ten hours on a bus going to DC and back again. I had no desire to stand out in the hot sun for hours while wading through a mass of people. This is not my idea of fun.

But I don't want to seem like some pompous superior moralizing pundit. To be honest, the situation in Darfur never had a very high profile for issues that I think about. I mean, I was familiar with some of the basics that were going on, and of course I am against the killing of innocents, but it was happening so far away, to a people who I was unfamiliar with, for a reason that I had never looked up. It may be my failing for not giving the issue enough priority in my mind, but the reason I went was not because I felt bad or sympathetic for the people being raped and slaughtered. That doesn't mean that I didn't feel bad or sympathetic, but that simply was not among my true reasons for going to the rally.

I don't know much about African politics and history. Maybe this is why the goings-on in Darfur bleep low on my radar. Maybe I don't identify with the people of Sudan as I do the my fellow Jews around the world or my fellow Americans or even my fellow citizens living in the free world. There are times when I fight back tears when I read about a terrorist action in Israel, but even today I only sense the genocide in Darfur intellectually. Of course it is terrible and of course the torture and murder of innocents is horrible, but for whatever reason, I don't *feel* their pain as I do when I think about the victims of atrocites like the Holocaust.

Perhaps this is due to the fact that the images of these other atrocities have been seared into my memory while the like-conceptions for the Darfur genocide are absent. I cry for the Holocaust because I can imagine myself there walking through a concentration camp or being berated or beaten by a Nazi thug. I can imagine myself on a bus in Jerusalem the second before the suicide bomber pushes his button. I can imagine myself as a passenger on a plane hijacked by suicidal terrorists. The tears come, not because I fear death or because I am sad for the loss, but because I can vividly sense the anguish of the victims. I am sad, of course, for the loss of life. I am sad for many things. But they are not why I cry.

I do not see myself living in an African village and being suddenly felled upon by a genocidal force. I try to imagine what it would be like, but it doesn't seem real to me. It's like I'm making up most of the details - which I am - because I am too unfamiliar with the tactics and methods of the perpetrators or what the scene would look, sound, and smell like. Again, this may be my failure for not becoming familiar with the details.

I went to Washington, not because I felt bad for the people of Darfur, but because I felt morally obligated to be there and be counted as one who stands against genocide. As a Jew I feel a unique responsibility to stand up for issues like these where human rights are violated and where human life is being taken on such a grand scale without accountability. We have a unique position, our people, being the survivors of an utterly inhuman attempt to destroy us all. In our collective memories we know all too well what it is like to be targeted for extermination. To bring good out of that evil would be to use it as inspiration to ensure that it never happens again.

We ask the world, "Where were you? Why didn't you stop them when you had the power to do so? Why didn't you make a fuss? How could the slaughter of millions go unremarked and unchecked for so long?" It is well known that the Allies were familiar with the Death Camps. They had flown over them and over the railroad lines that transported people to their deaths. Yet they did nothing. They flew right over them.

How can we feel outraged when we are ourselves are so complacent to the genocide going on in Sudan? I can imagine the question being posed to me, "What did you do when genocide was going on in Darfur?" At least now I'll have an answer.