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.